Present

            “Hello, Diane, it’s Mom. Just wanted to say hello. It’s been a long time, sweetie. You’ve been on my mind lately. I was re-living the time we were playing in the creek by the cabin. Remember? You must have been about four. We were hunting for crawdads, but one found your big toe first! You were crying so hard, more scared than hurt, but Momma made it better, didn’t she? I remember hugging you and kissing your toe, and finally talking you into putting your feet back into that bubbling water again. And you did, when you calmed down. After that, we had the greatest time in the sunshine together, playing and splashing in that creek. I don’t know why that memory popped into my head the other day, but it did. I wanted you to know. I hope everyone is doing well. I saw the pictures of Megan and Cutter that you posted on Facebook. Wow, they’re so big! I just wanted to say that I love you guys. I know you’re so busy now. It’s such a hectic time, but if you have a few minutes to spare I’d like to talk if that’s okay. I miss your voice. If not, I understand. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas, Baby Girl— Merry Christmas.”

            Candice Pepperdine ended the call on her iPhone and proceeded to pour half of a bottle of Shiraz into a jumbo wine glass. She held the crystal stem and raised her glass high as if to make a toast. “Here’s to a merry Christmas down undah, mate!” she said, clinking the half-empty bottle of Yellow Tail with her glass before taking her first wonderful sip. “Ah yes, that’s it…that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.” As the second sip warmed her insides, she clicked the power button on the remote.

            After a few moments of black screen, the TV came to life.  She enjoyed the sound of the TV playing in the background these days. It was comforting, and made her feel less alone. The Hallmark Channel was her favorite this time of year. Even though every program retold the same sappy narrative—the only difference being whatever grownup, child sit-com actor was in the starring role—she secretly loved them all. They were almost like family to her now.

            Candice had decided this year, for the first time, not to put up her mini-tree. It was just something else that she would have to stuff back into its box when everything was over. The avoidance of that melancholy event far outweighed the few fleeting moments of joy she’d feel in putting it up. Besides, all those twinkling lights would be a reminder of where she wasn’t… and why she wasn’t.

            Her third sip was more of a gulp, and all through the night―glass after glass― she would chase the sensation of that first taste of Christmas cheer. Until finally, as midnight’s hush fell over the crisp and snowy winter-scape outside her door, still dressed in her wrinkled work clothes, Candice settled herself down for a long winter’s nap.

••••

            After listening to the voicemail again, Eric handed the phone back to his wife. “I know you have your reasons, Di, and I know they’re good ones, but it’s Christmas Eve. Maybe you should give her a call.” Diane grimaced at the prospect of having to talk to her mother again after all these years.

            That time without contact had finally provided Diane the emotional protection she needed to move forward with her life, and she had indeed come far. She was now a mother—a good mother, at that. Her relationship with her own mom had been complicated even before the more troubling years. But she had a few cherished memories, including playing in the creek by the cabin, from back before Daddy left. Come to think of it, just about all her happy memories were from those trips to the cabin. She always felt safe there.

            “Maybe I’ll call her in the morning after the kids open their presents from Santa,” responded Diane, putting her arm around Eric’s waist as they watched their children boisterously playing a board game at the kitchen table.

            “Aren’t they just amazing?” asked Diane.

            Eric squeezed her shoulder in response and murmured, “Yes, yes they are.”

     2.

                                                                   Therapy

             “It was almost a perfect childhood until I was about eight.”

            The therapist eyed her thoughtfully and asked,

            “What’s your earliest bad memory?”

            Diane rubbed her arm in her typical nervous fashion and sighed. “The first day of second grade. My mom forgot to pick me up from school. I wasn’t scared really, just confused. She had always remembered before. The school secretary offered to drive me home. Mrs. Baumgartner was her name. She was genuinely nice and so pretty. Anyway, we stopped in front of my house.

            My mom was behind the wheel of our station wagon in the driveway with the engine running. Her head was slumped over to one side, and I thought she was dead. I screamed and Mrs. Baumgartner got out and ran over to help her. She reached into the car, I assume, to check her pulse. Mom’s head jerked up, and she started flailing like some crazy woman at poor Mrs. Baumgartner. She got out of the car swinging punches at her and yelling, ‘You fucking bitch, I’m going to kill you!’” Diane began to sob but continued to speak.

            “Our neighbor Mr. Robinson finally came out and separated the two, allowing Mrs. Baumgartner to retreat back to her car and drive off, but not before giving me a look that said, You’re on your own, kid! And you know what? In that moment, I truly was on my own. I didn’t know it until later, but that was the same day that Daddy left us.” Diane took the tissue her therapist offered.

            “Things pretty much went downhill from there. Some time passed before life became unbearable, though. I think out of sheer spite my mom pursued a lucrative job that brought in a lot of money, so we were able to keep the house. I guess you could say she became a functional drunk after that. We maintained a semblance of normality, at least from the outside, but our lives weren’t normal behind closed doors.”

            Diane stopped crying, blew her nose, and sighed.

            “Mom never truly recovered from their divorce. She had put so much of herself into the marriage, I think, that when it was suddenly taken away from her, she had nothing. Her tank was empty. The fact that she was also such a private person didn’t help, either. Her pride kept her from ever asking anyone for what she might need. ‘It’s nobody’s damn business,’ she’d say. She could handle it all by herself―not true.”

Diane stopped speaking and went silent for a moment, and then started her story again.

            “Over the years, Mom had a difficult time finding the right coping skills. Just in trying to survive on her own terms, she groped at anything and everything she could to stay afloat. She started with alcohol. Next, came all those men, some of them not so nice. She took a lot of pills for a while, and then even attempted church for a year or two. But in the end, nothing truly numbed her pain as well as her first love. Back in the day it was straight vodka, but in her later years, at least by the time I left, she’d mellowed a bit to only drinking wine.”

            “Did you ever feel the need to reach out to your father?” asked the therapist.

            “No, not after the way he left us. Not after the way he hurt Mom. I pretty much just wrote him off, I guess. I think deep inside, I always felt like we weren’t, like I wasn’t good enough for him to love, and witnessing what my mom had become reinforced that idea. We were damaged goods. He saw his chance to get out, just like I later did.” Diane smiled weakly.

            “When I was about thirteen, we pretty much had switched roles:  I was the parent, she the kid, or more like a bratty teenager, to be honest. Sometimes, I had to make sure that she woke up on time for work. Not every day, though. She went through periods of sobriety, but her abstinence never lasted long.

            “I feel as though—I raised myself. I made my own meals, went to school, and even did the housework at home. I did the best I could to do the right thing for both of us. On some level, I think she appreciated me for that, but on another, she hated me for it. I reminded her of how shitty a parent she’d become. It was sufficient, she thought, that she brought home enough money for us to live. We were always okay financially, but that was the full extent of her support in those days.” Diane grimaced.

            “One night when she was completely smashed, she threatened to tie me up, stuff me in the back of the station wagon, and drive us both into the river. She never did it, of course. She probably doesn’t even remember saying it. But I will never forget it. I would have kicked her ass if she tried.”

            The therapist scribbled some notes on her yellow pad. “When did your mother finally seek treatment?”

            “She never did on her own.  My school made her do it the first time. I had some attendance problems, and our situation wasn’t exactly private at that point. The school authorities got involved and threatened to expel me from school and call Family Services unless she sought treatment. In some ways, her having to go for help was a miracle, and in other ways it wasn’t.

            “She went for treatment and did all that she was asked to do. She even quit drinking for a while, but in the end, like with church, it all just pissed her off. The therapist wanted her to acknowledge that alcohol was running the show, but she wouldn’t believe it. She never admitted that she had any kind of problem. Denial was the only semblance of pride that she had left, in her mind anyway.  She swore ‘You won’t fix me! I’m broken beyond repair’ as though that were some twisted badge of honor. You know, I tried to help her. I really did. I will always love her but, at the same time, hate her too.” Diane stared at the rug.

            “If the person you love refuses to admit she has a problem, what’s the point in trying to help? I couldn’t handle it any longer. I had to make a choice― her or me. After her third DUI, she faced some jail time in the county lockup. When she was finally released, I was long gone. I pulled out the garbage bag of her clinking bottles from the wastepail and planted it the middle of the kitchen floor.  I walked out the door and never looked back.”

            Straightening in her chair, the therapist inquired, “And how do you feel about that?”

            “I experienced a lot of guilt over it,” admitted Diane. “But you know what? Today, I just feel pride for freeing myself from a horribly toxic situation and making a life that’s real and beautiful. I’m getting married next month.”

                                                                              3

                                                                         Rehab

             “So who’s it going to be?” asked the counselor, looking around the circle. “Who’s going to be the brave one to start this meeting? You all will be sharing before we’re through here, so you might as well get it over with. Candice, you’ve been quiet for a while, why don’t you begin? When was the first time you knew you had a problem?”

        A long uncomfortable pause ensued before Candice spoke. “It was a Monday, about 10:00 in the morning. I remember because Regis & Kathie Lee was just ending. I had dropped my kid at school earlier that morning and stopped by the grocery store on the way home. I just sat down on the couch in front of the TV with a basket of clean laundry to fold when the phone rang in the kitchen. I was busy, so I thought I would let the answering machine get it, right? Probably a sales call anyway. I’m sitting there on the couch building a tower with my husband’s tighty-whities when I heard that damned machine.

        “My husband, Ray, who was too much of a pussy to tell me to my face, was calling to let me know he was leaving me. He said leaving without a lot of talk was best this way, mumbling some bullshit about ripping off a Band-Aid. Then, he said he had met someone he knew was his soulmate. ‘It’s not your fault, Candi. It’s nothing you did, nothing you didn’t do, Candi. It’s me.’ Blah, blah, blah!”

        “He even said that I could use this tape in divorce court. Can you believe that? I was in too much shock to even move. I could only sit there and listen. He just droned on and on about how I could keep everything, but he still wanted to be in our kid’s life. He had it all figured out. His farewell message was all nice and tied up with a beautiful bow. His sayonara was already a done deal, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about the situation to change it.  How do ya like that?

        Some young bitch had already stolen my husband from me…stole my life from me! He was still talking when I got the bottle from the cabinet, sat down at our kitchen table, and filled a purple Barney the Dinosaur cup to the rim with vodka. I drained it in two swigs and then I poured another to the top. The next thing I know, I’m sitting in my car in the driveway getting poked in the neck by some strange woman, and I just flipped out.” Candice laughed.

        “This had to be her, the one who stole my life away. I don’t even know what happened after that. It’s is all kind of a blur. I guess I blacked out. I just remember her kind, pretty eyes… just before I slapped the shit out of her face. Somewhere deep inside me I knew―knew how that bitch did it. It was her eyes! That was her trick. That’s when I knew that I could never have him back again. I was now alone in the universe while Ray was off in lala land with his kind-eyed soulmate, and I was powerless to stop it.” Candice’s eyes went out of focus as if she were dwelling in the past.  

        “I was devastated because I truly thought we had a solid marriage. I mean, sure we had our problems, but why? Why? Why? Afterward, all I actually cared about―from breath to breath, from moment to moment―was how to make him feel what I was feeling. I fantasized about how to make him hurt like I hurt. Shit, it’s been years, and I still feel that way.” Candice sniffed in her rage and her hurt.  

        “One thing that I can tell you all is that Ray will never see his daughter! Not while I’m still alive. I swore to God that would never happen! The last time I saw him at the courthouse, I told him, ‘Diane hates your guts for what you did to us, for what you did to me. She wants nothing to do with you. She despises you!’ Saying that felt so good. The words even made him flinch a little. I could tell I drew blood when he started that blinking nervous tick that he got when he was agitated. I have to say that was a satisfying moment. To his credit though, the bastard sent me checks of guilt money every month until Diane turned 18. At least he was good for something.” Candice smiled.

            “So you asked me about my problems? I got a shitload of problems. My husband left me, my daughter won’t speak to me, and my fucking cat ran away! I am an unlovable bitch, and I know it. I know life hasn’t been easy for Diane.” Candice’s eyes started to tear and her chest began to tighten a little. “But I did the best I could. I’m very proud of her. How strong she is. But I never let her know that often enough, on purpose, I think, because I felt so weak and ashamed of myself. I do love her. And hate her too, I suppose. But she’s gone now. Our split wasn’t her fault. Our problem was nothing she did, or didn’t do—it was me.” She sat and shook her head, her mind far away from this room.

            “You people don’t want to hear this, but I’m ‘bout to get real with ya’ll. The only thing that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning, the only thing that makes me feel strong enough to face my day-to-day shit, the only thing that helps me deal with my problems, the only thing that helps me to celebrate a good day is booze. I’ve been free of it enough to know this about myself.

            “Without it, I’m nothing but an empty shell. Booze is the only thing in my life that fills me up. It’s the only thing in my life that warms me from the cold reality that is me. Even though it might have helped push away the person I love the most, it’s who I am. None of you in this circle can truly understand me. None of you can fix me. None of you can know the pain I feel every day. None of you, can take away the only thing that makes me feel… normal.”

4

Present

            The next morning was chilly and bright. Diane and Eric awoke to both their kids jumping up and down on the bed squealing, “Santa came, Santa came! Get up! Get up! Get up!” After Diane and Eric poured two giant mugs of coffee and turning on some background Christmas music, they all gathered around the tree. 

            “Okay, one at a time, kids. We have to make this last. It went by way too fast last year! Cutter, you go first,” said Diane, settling on the couch beside her husband and enjoying the warm smell of peppermint rising from her mug.

            The morning was magical, and the kids got exactly what they wanted. As Megan tried on her new outfits and Cutter made explosion noises while playing with his new Transformer, Diane cleaned up the debris of paper and bows left in the aftermath of their Christmas morning. Eric leaned in close and whispered, “I’m going to the kitchen to make us a wonderful breakfast, and you’re going to call your mother to wish her a Merry Christmas.”

            “You’re a nice man,” replied Diane, following up her comment with a loud, wet smooch on the lips. Diane reached in her pocket of her robe, pulled out her phone, finger-swiped the recent list, and tapped the top number.

            The phone rang several times before going to voice mail, “Hello, this is Candice.  I’m so sorry I missed your call.  Please leave a message at the beep, and I will return your call as soon as I can. Have a blessed day!”

            “Hi, Mom, it’s Diane. I’m returning your call from last night. It was so good to hear your voice again. I’m very happy that you reached out to me. Call me. We all wish you a Merry Christmas, Mom. It’s been way too long. Please call me back as soon as you get this! I love you—bye.”

            Diane slid her iPhone back into the pocket of her robe, her obligation completed, and joined her family in the day’s festivities. Still in their jammies, they ate breakfast, after which, with the kids on the floor with pillows and Eric and Diane snuggling on the couch, they watched The Polar Express again, the original Grinch cartoon, and the Grinch movie with Jim Carrey. Later in the afternoon, as Diane was putting the traditional seafood casserole into the oven for their Christmas dinner, her pocket began to vibrate. She pulled out her phone and saw her mother’s number on the screen. “Merry Christmas, Mom!” said Diane.

            “Hello, Diane, I’m so sorry. This is Nate Robinson, your mother’s next-door neighbor. I saw that this was the last number called on your mother’s phone. I thought it was the fastest way to get hold of you. I’m so sorry to let you know this, Diane, but your mother passed away last night. My wife brought over a fruitcake this morning, and, well, the back door was unlocked, so she went in and found your mother. It looked like she passed away in her sleep. I’m so sorry, Diane. You best get here as soon as you can.”

••••

            Diane slid into the driver’s seat and clicked her seatbelt before turning the ignition key. It was a late summer morning, breezy and pleasant with a blue sky overhead, truly a beautiful day for a drive. She drove on the interstate for a while until a green sign directed her onto the proper exit. After stopping at a Sunoco to use the restroom and get some gas, she pulled back onto the county road and headed east.

            Diane’s car wound its way up and around the many curves that began to reveal beautiful mountain vistas as she rose in elevation. She peaked the top of Pine Mountain and started down the other side for a mile before turning off onto a dirt road that twisted its way back through the darkened woods. She crossed over a small wooden bridge of loose boards and stopped in front of an old house.

            The cabin still looked the same to her. She slowly let out the breath that she had been unconsciously holding and pulled the door lever at her side. The ding, ding, ding of the opened car door reminded her to take the keys from the ignition before stepping out. She stood for a long moment looking around and breathing in the scent of balsam from the pine trees that surrounded the open area of the yard.

            Christmas. The smell reminded her of Christmas. She smiled, then turned and walked around the back of the car and down the grassy slope. When she reached the edge, she sat, took off her shoes and socks, and rolled up the bottoms of her jeans. Standing again, she dipped her big toe into the chilly water. She gingerly stepped out to the middle of the creek and gently poured out the contents of the plastic bag. As the light-gray ashes momentarily clouded the stream, she stood and observed them in silent memorial, not moving a muscle until the bubbling water ran clear.

••••

            The project had been a much larger one than Diane had ever anticipated. The work of going through all of her mother’s things, and deciding what was important, what could be thrown out or given away was simply overwhelming. Diane and Eric had been driving down on weekends to get the house in a condition to sell, and they were finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel.

            Upstairs in the attic, Diane was going through some things when she ran across a box with the words Legal Documents written in Sharpie on its dusty top. This looks important, thought Diane, so she picked it up, lugged it down the stairs, and placed it on the kitchen table. She opened it up revealing a musty smelling stack of stapled documents. As she sifted through them, something slid down into the shadows of the inside wall of the box. She reached in and pulled out an old Maxell cassette tape. “Eric?” she called, as he walked into the kitchen. “This looks interesting. You don’t happen to have a cassette player handy, do you?”

            “Umm no, not on me,” he replied, patting his pockets. “But I bet Nate next door has one!”

            With a plastic click, Eric placed the cassette tape into the borrowed tape recorder. “Do you have any idea what this is?” asked Eric.

            “Not a clue, I’m kind of scared,” replied Diane. Eric’s finger depressed the play button, and they listened. Diane heard what sounded like a sales call from a voice mail…and then a very familiar voice.

            “Oh my God, that’s my Dad!” she said, covering her mouth with a shaking hand. “Hi, Candi, it’s me. I’ve been seriously thinking about this for a long time now. It’s extremely difficult for me to talk with you face to face. So for better or worse, I think this is the best way to do this. Quick, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Candi, I’ve met someone. I’ve met someone who I know is my soulmate. I’m so sorry, Candi. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you’ve done or didn’t do. It’s me. It’s just the way things are. I know this will take some time to process, but in my heart, I know you will be fine.

            “You can use this tape as evidence in the divorce if you like. That’s fine. I’ll gladly pay any alimony. I want to financially take care of the both of you. It’s the least I can do. You can have everything. All I want is to still be a part of Diane’s life. That’s it. That’s all. I also have to let you know that it’s real love, honey. I wouldn’t do this to you for any other reason, but love; his name is Thomas, and he’s the light of my life. I can’t be a fraud to myself anymore… and I can’t be a fraud to you. The only thing that truly kills me is that I’ve hurt you and Diane in the process. I never wanted to do that. It will scar my heart forever, but for the first time in my entire life, I’m doing something for me.” Eric reached over and squeezed his wife’s hand.

            “I wish things could be different for the sake of our little family, but they’re not. I’m so sorry. I wish I had the balls to say this in person, but knowing your fiery temper as I do, I don’t think I would have gotten three sentences out before the dishes were flying. You know that’s right! You are a beautiful woman, Candi, a brilliant woman. I know that you’ll find love one day. A real love that is true. Goodbye, Candice.”

            Next came the sound of an old phone hanging up, and that was it. Eric pressed the stop button, gently rubbing Diane’s back in slow circles as she sobbed at her mother’s kitchen table, the quiet of the room broken only by the faint ticking of the kitchen clock and the rhythmic, soft quivering intakes of her breath and sniffles.

••••

            “Hello Daddy, It’s me…” said Diane, before her voice cracked with emotion.

            “Dia…Diane? This is Diane? Oh, sweetie! Oh my God! Is it really you?” exclaimed Raymond Pepperdine in a joyous tone. “Thomas, it’s my girl! It’s my baby girl!”

Stephen Moore: After losing three close family members at a very impressionable age, Stephen Stratton Moore tributes this experience as greatly influencing him as a writer in the way that he looks at things. It gave him a richer appreciation for our connectedness as human beings and stoked an inner passion to revel in the bittersweet nuances of those bonds. Stephen is a published writer, musician, and graphic designer.Since January 2020, Stephen’s stories have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine and Hedge Apple, The Literary Magazine.

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