On Strike for Christmas

Sheila Roberts

St. Martin's Griffin

Chapter 1
 

Glen Fredericks slapped the back of his last departing Thanksgiving dinner guest. “Good to see ya. Thanks for coming.”

“Hey man, great time,” said the mooch. “Thanks for having me.”

“No problem. We’ll do it all again at Christmas,” Glen promised.

Behind him, Glen’s wife, Laura, suddenly envisioned herself going after her husband with the electric carving knife he’d used earlier on the turkey. “In your dreams,” she growled. She stepped around Glen and shoved the front door shut. Having made contact with a hefty male hind end, it didn’t shut easily, especially for a woman who was five feet two and a hundred and nineteen pounds, but she managed.

“Hey,” Glen protested. “What was that all about?”

“You need to ask?” Laura gave her overchewed gum an angry snap. He did this to her every year, and every year he promised that next year things would be different. But they never were.

“Mama, Tyler’s in the frigerator,” called five-year-old Amy.

Laura marched toward the kitchen, Glen trotting after her. “Today might have been your idea of fun, but it sure wasn’t mine.”

No woman in her right mind would volunteer to have her house turned into the city dump by the invasion of family, friends, and Thanksgiving freeloaders her husband had invited into their home. Before the invasion, this room had looked great, decorated with little gourds, cute ceramic pumpkins, and her two prettiest vases filled with mums. Now everywhere she looked she saw a mess. CDs lay scattered on the floor in front of the entertainment center. Her new leather couch was littered with a plastic football, Glen’s socks, magazines, and an open can of nuts (half-spilled). Glasses and bottles were strewn every which way across her coffee table. The little hand-painted, wooden Pilgrim couple that she’d set out on the sofa table now lay on their sides as if taking a nap, not that you could really see them anyway in the litter of napkins and appetizer plates and other party leftovers. And it was hard to ignore the towel on the carpet, evidence of an earlier wine spill mop-up.

People said you shouldn’t have cream-colored carpet when you had little kids. Well, people were wrong. She managed to keep the carpet clean just fine with two kids. It was Glen’s moocher co-worker who was the problem. And, of course, Glen had been too busy yucking it up to tell her about the spill. She discovered it only when she stepped on it in her stockinged feet.

“Come on, babe,” he protested. “It’s the holidays, and it only comes once a year.”

“It’s a good thing because it takes me a whole year to recover. In case you didn’t notice, Glen, we’ve got two children, a big house that I clean, and I work thirty hours a week.” Before Glen could reply they heard the distinctive crash of a dish breaking followed by a startled cry. “Oh, great. Now what?” Laura muttered, and picked up speed.

She found Amy hovering near the doorway, a golden-haired cherub. “I told him not to,” Amy said, already the bossy older sister.

Behind her, by the fridge, stood two-and-a-half-year-old Tyler—nickname, Tyler the Terrible—whimpering.

At his feet lay a fluffy pile of whipped cream fruit salad, broken shards of ceramic bowl sticking up through it like mountain peaks through the clouds.

Laura walked over to where her son stood and surveyed the damage. “Mess, Mama,” Tyler told her.

She had been going nonstop since six in the morning and it was now eight at night. She sat down on the floor behind her son and began to cry. That set Tyler off, and he started wailing. She pulled him to her and they both went at it.

“It’s okay, baby,” Glen said and knelt beside her. He was a big, kindhearted, teddy bear of a man. Most days. Today, he was just a big pain in the butt.

He reached out to put a beefy arm around her and she gave him a shove. “Bite me. Do you have any idea what this day has been like for me, Glen? Do you even have a clue?”

“You made a great dinner,” he tried.

“Yes, I made the dinner. No one brought anything except your mother, and all she brought was soggy pumpkin pies. I stuffed and baked the turkey, I made the fruit salad, the candied yams, the smelly rutabagas your lazy cousin loves, the green bean casserole, the mashed potatoes and gravy, and the dinner rolls from your mother’s recipe. Why can’t she make her own damn rolls?”

From the other side of the kitchen, Amy gasped. “Mama said damn.”

“Mamas can do that on Thanksgiving,” Glen said, thinking quickly.

Yeah, he had a comeback for a five-year-old, but he couldn’t think of anything to say to his wife. What could he say, the big turkey? “I cleaned and decorated the house, set the table, and made the whole effing dinner. And, while you and your family and those freeloaders that you call friends all sat around afterward like beached whales and watched the football game, your mother and I got to clean up the big, effing mess you left. I don’t care how much football you played in high school and college. You could miss fifteen minutes of one game to help.”

He frowned. “Hey, I was watching the kids.”

“Yeah, right. When, during the beer commercials? Tyler ate almost an entire candy bowl of M&M’s. It’s a wonder he hasn’t thrown up yet. And if he does, guess who’s dealing with it.”

Glen held up a hand to cut her off. “I will, don’t worry. But you know it’s not entirely fair to say I did nothing. I helped.”

She glared at him. “Oh, yeah, you put the extra leaf in the table and brought up the folding chairs. Real big of you.” She got up and steamed out of the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “I’m taking a bath. After that, I’m going to bed with my mystery novel. I don’t want to see you or anyone for the rest of the evening.”

Glen’s voice followed her. “That’s a good idea, babe. Take a break. You deserve it.”

That was an understatement, Laura decided, looking at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. The makeup that hadn’t worn off was now smudged and runny from her crying jag, and her hair was a mess. She looked like blond roadkill. She felt like it, too. The labors of Thanksgiving had almost crushed her.

And in just four weeks her husband expected her to do this all again. Four weeks? Who was she kidding? It would all start this weekend with cleaning up the mess Hurricane Glen had left in his wake. (Naturally, he’d help . . . for about two minutes until he got distracted horsing around with the kids or finding a football game to watch.) Then they’d start hauling out the Christmas decorations and begin the Christmas shopping. The day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year—she couldn’t face it. Maybe she’d just stay in the tub until she turned into the world’s largest prune. Or until Glen got a clue.

Except Glen was terminally clueless, so she’d never leave the tub again. If only his brain size matched the size of his heart. Maybe he needed glasses. He obviously couldn’t see how much extra work he dumped on her this time of year.

She dropped her gum in the garbage and turned on the bathwater, running it as hot as she could and pouring in an extra packet of bubbles. Sighing, she slipped into the steaming bath.

Okay, that was better. The scented water began to soothe away her anger. She really shouldn’t have lost it with Glen. After all, it wasn’t entirely his fault. She’d agreed to this insanity. But only after he’d promised to help her.

Her mind drifted back to the days when she enjoyed parties as much as Glen. Boy, that felt like ancient history. In those days she didn’t have kids and a large house to keep up and a job, and a lot of the partying happened at restaurants and clubs and other people’s places. Those days had sure vanished. Somewhere along the way her house had become Party Central, and she had become everyone’s maid. Someone had tipped the scales, leaving her to do all the work while Glen did all the playing.

She’d tried to explain to him how hard he made it for her when he invited the world over. He always promised he’d do more to help, but then company would show up and he’d be useless. Or one of his buddies would call him to come play some flag football and the honey-do list would get completely forgotten. He loved people, and he loved the holidays. No matter what, Glen always managed to have a merry Christmas. In fact, his Christmases were getting merrier every year, while hers were getting more and more stressful. And she was sure she was getting TMJ. She’d quit smoking years ago and taken up chewing gum in its place, but lately it seemed she didn’t so much chew as grind her molars in anger and frustration.

She frowned at the frothy pile of bubbles around her, poked one with her finger and watched it pop. There was definitely something wrong with the Frederickses’ holiday picture these days, but if she was going to keep her sanity, she’d have to find a way to fix it. Before Christmas came.
 
 
 

Joy Robertson could feel it even before she turned and saw the long-suffering expression on her husband’s face. They’d been at her brother’s house for nearly three hours and he’d had enough. It was time to leave.

Sometimes she wished she didn’t have that mental connection forged over twenty-four years of marriage. Then she could just stay and party on until she dropped.

She set the second piece of pumpkin pie she’d been enjoying on the counter and said to her sister-in-law, “I guess we should get going.”

Lonnie shot a look to where Bob stood in the kitchen doorway. He was a nice-looking middle-aged man. So far Father Time had been good to Bob, leaving him with a full head of sandy-colored hair, barely sprinkled with gray. He had a disgustingly great metabolism and was still as slim as the day they married.

“It won’t kill Bob to wait while you finish your pie,” Lonnie said with a grin.

Bob tried to look like he didn’t mind if Joy lingered over her pie, but he was a very bad actor. The pleading was plain to see in those brown eyes of his.

“I don’t know,” Joy said, eyeing him. “It might.”

“You can have another piece, too, while you’re waiting,” Lonnie told Bob. “Heck, as skinny as you are, have two.” Good, old Lonnie; she was twelve years older than Joy and Bob, with a big heart and waistline to match, more a mother figure than a sister, and she was very much used to being in charge.

“No, thanks. I’ve had enough,” Bob replied.

Obviously. When Bob was ready to leave, his adult body channeled an unhappy seven-year-old who followed Joy around and psychically whined, “Can we go now?” When the psychic whine didn’t work he resorted to head nods in the direction of the door. And rather than argue, she always acquiesced.

Why should she always have to give in and make him happy? Bob knew how much holiday gatherings meant to her, especially these times with her family. Lucky for him she hadn’t realized back when they were young and crazy in love that he was the world’s biggest party pooper.

She sighed mentally. Oh, well. Something was better than nothing. “I don’t need the extra calories anyway,” she told Lonnie. Thanks to shifting middle-age hormones she was now carrying thirty more pounds than she wanted, pounds that kept sneaking up on her when she wasn’t looking and attaching themselves to her hips.

Still, a woman only got to eat pumpkin pie once a year. And now that she was Menopause Mama, coping with hot flashes and mood swings, she ought to be allowed a few small pleasures. Anyway, she didn’t look all that bad naked. So that meant it had to be the clothes that were making her look fat. Note to self: Find some nonbulky winter sweaters.

She picked up the plate again. “One more bite for the road,” she decided and forked up another mouthful.

“Why not?” Lonnie agreed. “You’ve got a designated driver.”

The designated driver gave his wife another pleading look.

Joy took one last quick bite. Rushing through pumpkin pie—it was a crime. She set down her plate, then brushed past Bob and went downstairs to the split-level’s lower floor, dubbed the party room.

The two long tables that had held their Thanksgiving feast had been removed, and now her nephews and several of their children were busy with the annual Thanksgiving leg-wrestling contest. The spectators were coupled up, women standing with their husband’s arm draped over their shoulders, all laughing, enjoying themselves. They looked like they could be posing for Norman Rockwell.

Joy felt a wistful tug on her heart. Over the years Bob had edged closer and closer to the outside of the extended family circle. Now, although they came to the celebration in the same car, they weren’t really a couple. They were two people engaged in a holiday tug-of-war, each one pulling from opposite ends of a crowded house.

Their daughter, Melia, was holding eight-month-old Sarah, Joy’s first grandchild, and standing at the edge of the circle next to her husband, Cam.

“We’re leaving,” Joy announced.

Melia’s eyebrows shot up. “Already?”

“It’s been almost three hours.” That was Bob’s limit.

Melia checked her watch. “It’s only been two. What’s Daddy’s problem?”

“Too much of a good thing.” Joy kissed her grandbaby, hugged her daughter and her son-in-law, and then started to make the rounds.

“Sorry you have to rush off,” said her other sister-in-law, Susan.

Lonnie was with them now. “Well, Suki, if you weren’t still holding that whipped-cream can maybe poor Bob could bring himself to stay. But he’s been looking nervous ever since you started chasing people with it.”

“Wait a minute. Let’s set the record straight,” said Susan. “It was Joy who started chasing people with the whipped cream.”

Joy held up empty hands. “Do you see any whipped cream on me anywhere?”

Susan grinned. “No. It looks like you got it all out of your hair.” She looked across the room and said, “Anyway, I’d never hurt Bob. He ought to know that after all these years.”

Joy looked to see that Bob had changed doorways. Now he was hovering at the party room entrance like the Grim Reaper.

“Well, here,” said Susan, holding up the can. “Open up and I’ll give you a shot for the road.”

Joy obliged and Susan gave her a whipped cream fill-up. She wished she had the rest of that piece of pie to go with it. She ought to have finished it. It wouldn’t have done her steadily widening hips any good, but it might have made her feel better about leaving before she was ready.

She hugged her mother and Lonnie’s mother, and all the little great-nieces and nephews, waved good-bye to the wrestlers, and, finally, hugged her big brother, Al, who was getting ready to referee a new wrestling match.

Now the gray-haired patriarch of the family, Al had been hosting the festivities ever since he and Lonnie married, and no one ever considered going anywhere else. Who would want to? Their house was always decorated to the hilt and filled with laughter. It was the quintessential holiday house.

“Glad you came, kiddo,” Al said, and kissed the top of Joy’s head. Kiddo. She was a middle-aged, overweight woman whose brown hair color now had to come from a bottle and her brother still called her kiddo. She loved it.

“Me, too,” she said, and thought, and sorry I’m leaving. The last to arrive, the first to leave. What else was new?

If only she could take some DNA from her neighbor Laura’s husband and inject it into Bob. Knowing Bob he’d only morph into a two-hundred-pound hermit.

They retrieved their coats from the pile on the bed in the guest bedroom in silence, Bob’s relieved, hers slightly miffed. Lonnie met them at the front door with Joy’s bowls and platters, now empty and clean. “Thanks for bringing all the goodies,” she said. “It pays to have a caterer in the family.” Lonnie hugged her, then Bob. “Good to see you Bob,” she said. “See you at Christmas.”

“I’m afraid so,” Bob muttered as he and Joy went down the front walk toward their car.

Joy pretended not to have heard. Oh, well, she told herself, you did have a wonderful time; be thankful for that. Pollyanna, playing the glad game, sneered the Joy who was miffed.

They got into the car. The good Joy ignored the miffed Joy and attempted to get Bob to join her in the game. “That was fun,” she announced, forcing good humor into her voice.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth she realized this was as much a holiday tradition as anything that happened at her brother’s house. Every year she tried to convince her husband that he really loved these holiday traditions. And every year he said something rude, like . . .

“Well, it was typical, I’ll say that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” As if she didn’t know.

Sure enough. “It’s the same every year: same people, same jokes, same pranks. Someone always sticks their finger in the whipped cream on someone else’s pumpkin pie; someone always gets in a fight with the whipped cream cans. Boring and juvenile.”

“My family is not boring.”

Where did Bob get off, anyway? Her husband, the brilliant mystery writer, superior to the rest of the world—bah, humbug. Her family could hold their own against anyone, even a writer. It ran the gamut from car mechanics to law students, with interests ranging from sports to travel. Surely somewhere in that mix of people her husband could find something or someone to interest him. She knew what the deal was. He was secretly jealous because her family was close, caring, and exciting—while his was distant and dull. They didn’t even want to live near one another. Now, that said a lot.

“It’s like a bad movie that gets replayed every year,” Bob continued as they drove down the street. “And every year it gets bigger.”

“Well, what do you expect? The family is growing.”

“Like mold. I can only imagine what it will be like in another five years.”

That did it. “If my family’s holiday celebration is so unsatisfactory, why don’t you ever do something to make it interesting? All you do at the holidays is complain.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t complain if you didn’t have to turn these gatherings into a marathon. Geez, Joy, considering how much I hate them, I’d think you’d be glad I at least show up.”

He showed up all right. And grumbled all the way there. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, now that the kids were grown he even complained in front of them, poisoning the well of family solidarity.

But he didn’t stop with complaining about being with her family. He grumped his way through all the season’s activities. The annual neighborhood Christmas party, New Year’s Eve—whatever it was, if it involved a group of people and a good time Bob approached it like a man headed for the electric chair.

“Show up?” she retorted. “You’re a ghost. You may as well not be there.”

“So does that mean I don’t have to go back at Christmas?” he cracked.

“Very funny.” Joy frowned and looked out the window as they made their way through downtown Holly back to their house on the other side of town. It was dark now, and icy rain sliced through the streetlight beams, falling into puddles on the asphalt. The downtown stores were closed and, in spite of their holiday decorations, wore a deserted, sad look.

Joy sighed. Would Bob even have a life if he hadn’t married her? What would his Christmases have looked like without her and the kids? You’ve really had a wonderful life, Bob. But he didn’t realize it, and that was his problem.

“You should thank me,” she informed him. “If it wasn’t for me hauling you out to things like this your life would be so dull.” He’d be as mummified as his parents, who were spending their retirement in solitary in Yuma.

Bob smiled. “Sounds good to me. All that chaos and noise, who needs it?”

“Everyone. People need to feel connected, feel like they matter. The holidays make life special. They lift people out of their humdrum, everyday existence and remind them that it’s good to be alive.”

“Well, maybe people need to improve their humdrum, everyday existence. Then they’d be glad to be alive and we could avoid all this.”

Joy frowned and shook her head at him. “You are so lucky I don’t have a whipped-cream can in my hand.”

What had happened to the man who, when they were first married, helped her trim the tree and sat next to her on the couch in her brother’s living room and sang Christmas carols? He’d disappeared like the Ghost of Christmas Past. And, somewhere along the way, this soured version of Bob had moved in and taken over.

When had Bob’s Christmas disconnect started? Maybe it was when the kids stopped believing in Santa. Maybe Bob had decided if they could stop pretending, so could he. And now Joy was the only one left pretending. But Winter Wonderland was meant to be shared. Bob’s attitude made her feel like he had let go of her hand and was leaving her to walk on alone.

Now that they were empty nesters, was he figuring to pull farther back until he edged himself completely out of the picture? If he did, what would Christmas Future look like?

Joy remembered Mrs. Anderson, the mother of her best friend in grade school and junior high. Mrs. Anderson and her husband pretty much lived separate lives. Mrs. Anderson had come alone to everything from school concerts to parties while Mr. Anderson stayed home in his easy chair and watched TV. The Andersons had sometimes seemed more an oddity than a couple. Would that be Joy and Bob in a few more years?

She got a sudden vision of herself and her husband drifting slowly apart until they could only experience life’s important moments from opposite sides of a great chasm. What a terrible thought! She couldn’t let that happen.

He shot her an apologetic look. “Come on, hon, you know it’s not that I don’t like your family. It’s just that, well, they go overboard on these occasions. Things don’t always have to be done the way the Johnsons do them.”

“My family knows how to make the holidays great,” Joy retorted. “And, in case you haven’t noticed, I do a lot of the same things they do, things you’d miss if I didn’t do them.”

“Wait a minute,” Bob said. “Now we’ve moved from your family to you. Not a good idea.”

“I am my family,” Joy said. “And, unlike some people, who should be glad they married me—”

“They? Do you have more husbands hidden somewhere I don’t know about?” interrupted the smart-mouth sitting behind the wheel.

She frowned at him. “Are you trying to tick me off?”

He reached a hand over and patted her leg. “I am glad I married you. Very glad.”

“Are you?” she asked, arching an eyebrow. “Sometimes I wonder.”

He looked shocked. “Of course I am. I couldn’t imagine my life without you.”

“Same here,” Joy said, softening.

Her husband was a good man, loyal and dependable. He still had a great smile and a great sense of humor to match.

But sometimes the extreme differences in their personalities really bothered her. Her idea of a great life was good times with lots of people. Bob, on the other hand, was shy and hated big, noisy gatherings, and over the years she’d shrunk her social style to fit his. Except this time of year. Some things had to remain sacred. And she didn’t think participating in a few celebrations at Christmas was too much to ask considering how much she denied herself the rest of the year. She thought of those camping trips Bob dragged her on every summer—sleeping in the middle of nowhere in a tent with only mosquitoes for company. Ugh. And then there were the mini book tours and writers’ conferences. Although she enjoyed attending those with him, she often sacrificed catering jobs and missed important social events. Last year they’d been gone on her mother’s birthday.

“But just because we love each other, it doesn’t mean I have to like everything you do, does it?” Bob said, hauling out one of his favorite arguments.

It was the opening salvo for a fresh verbal battle and they started in again. Finally Joy said in a huff, “You don’t have a clue how to celebrate Christmas.” Although God knew she’d tried hard enough to teach him over the years.

“There’s no secret to celebrating Christmas. Any idiot can put up a tree and play some Christmas carols.”

“Listen to you, Mr. Merry Christmas,” Joy scoffed. “You don’t realize that all the things you complain about are really what make the holidays memorable.”

He shook his head. “Memorable by whose definition? If we’re using yours, I’d as soon experience some memory loss.”

“Oh, you don’t mean that,” Joy chided. “This is supposed to be a season of joy—the food, the decorations, the being together—”

“Is all a big pain in the neck. Ever hear of ‘Silent Night’?”

“Ever hear of ‘Joy to the World’?”

Bob gave a shrug. “We all experience that in different ways. And just once I wish the Grinch would steal Christmas.”

Joy crossed her arms over her chest and fumed. Bob Robertson, direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge. It was a good thing he wasn’t in charge of Christmas.

Wait a minute. What if he was? She studied him. Bob could plan the perfect murder, but could he solve the mystery of what made a happy holiday? What would he learn if he was given a George Bailey-like Christmas? What if he had to sample life as if he’d never been married, if he was given a taste of the holidays without all the traditions and festivities he enjoyed complaining about?

He couldn’t read her mind, but he’d grown pretty good at reading her moods. They stopped for a red light and he turned to look suspiciously at her. “What?”

“I was just thinking.”

Now he looked wary. “Uh-oh.”

Uh-oh was right, because a plan was forming in Joy’s mind. She grinned, feeling incredibly wicked. This could prove very interesting.
 
 
Copyright © 2007 by Sheila Rabe. All rights reserved.