The Deleterious Nature of Holly

by Susann Maccia

Cary knew in marrying Ronnie she was also marrying his family. What she did not anticipate was the extent to which some cliches apply. But then does anyone at twenty know enough about life to predict such things? From my advantageous position and lengthy term in dealing with humans " the answer is, sadly, no. Flummoxed, humankind exists incessantly wondering. When it most needs crucial insight, Good Lord they're flying blind! head first into youth and, if unlucky, a life sentence filled with regret and protracted bitterness.

Cary was somewhat of a surprise in that respect. She'd recognized sooner than most what we spirits have known for centuries: life is cruel -- a hoax perpetrated on the unsuspecting. At thirty she once proffered: life should be lived backwards, that way we'd be born with the wisdom we die with accrued over time. An estute observation but in her case eight years too late. And wouldn't it make sense if over time humans became more oblivious instead of less so. Maybe getting older then wouldn't be such a bitch, she concluded, again too late in life's game to matter much. Few of my fellow spirits admit this, but from this ethereal plain we take a certain sadistic pleasure in watching poor mortals fumble blindly about. Maudlin tales of misers saved from damnation are pure literary claptrap, some English gentleman's wishful Yuletide thinking. The Maker is well aware of what actually goes on; prayers disregarded, he or she or whatever in charge does little to prevent it. So much for prayers. Actually it presents a good tight case against religion, I say, but softly and only to you so as to protect my rather cushy position.

"I knew it. I should have seen this coming." The image in the mirror shook its head and stared accusingly back at Cary. Was there a point to this self castigation? Second guessing decisions made at twenty at age twenty six and two children later is a completely pointless exercise. The tearful image lowered its gaze; lines of watered mascara ran rushing zig zag toward the drain. Cary reached for a tissue and quickly wiped them away. "If he could get a papal dispensation I swear he'd marry one of his damned cousins," she said, the depressive melancholy of seconds before morphing into harsh unforgiving judgment. Sadness had quickly turned to anger, with Ronnie, with herself for bawling like an infant over something that by rights should have had her calmly and seriously considering divorce. After all, this was not the first time he'd confirmed her position within the family as an outsider; it most assuredly would not be the last. Why in the hell she'd gone to the reunion would remain an eternal mystery.

We spirits are particularly fond of these emotionally-charged events as they are superior vantage points from which to observe humans in their most fiercely tribal state. We watch, chortling, rubbing our hands together like avaricious flies. Spirits tracking other follies gladly tear themselves away and join me. This one would be particularly instructional if not amusing, I promise.

Cary always balked at family reunions but in the end gave in to better if not wiser instincts. We agree this counts toward humanitarian credits. The children were excited to go, reason enough for Cary to bite the proverbial bullet, misgivings aside. Once there, as always, she'd found herself the uninitiated stranger, observing from afar secret rituals of a select, supercilious and overtly exclusive club. For a day or two things actually went fairly well. She'd kept her place, never venturing into the internal workings or disputes where a hundred interpersonal idiosyncratic landmines lay waiting. One slight slip and...boom! as happened on the renunion's final day.

The daughter of Ronnie's cousin, awfully despondent over her sister's leaving to live in Europe, stood crying inconsolably on the beach.

What am I watching, spirit?

It's a woman, Cary, in need of comfort. And did you comfort her? I asked.

I did, spirit, but to no avail.

"Oh now," Cary soothed, placing her arm around the sobbing girl. "She'll be back before you know it. And you can go visit." No sooner had she said this than a voice beside her barked its immediate exception.

"She's going to miss her sister, for God's sakes!" The look on Ronnie's face intimated a hurtful you aren't family so don't pretend to understand. The young woman continued to cry inconsolably. Stunned by Ronnie's adverse reaction, Cary slowly slid her arm away and stood mortified, shocked into frozen silence, silence exacerbated by an occasional sob and the dissonant screeching of gulls above delighted to join in the mockery. The sound Cary had always associated with the joyful play of delicate creatures from that day forward conjured only memories of an incident deeply disturbing and impossible to forget -- the eerie dual tone of German police sirens before and after the Holocaust, or so I've been told. After that she and Ronnie never went to the beach except on those rare occasions when the children begged and pleaded, when petty arguments ensued and inevitably ruined the day.

"Why did you get so angry when I tried to calm Hallie down?" she asked him on the ride home. Ronnie, as was his custom and pretty much the way he dealt with all things potentially incendiary, curtly dismissed her question as an irrelevant figment of an overly-critical imagination when it came to his family. At this he was somewhat of an expert.

"What are you talking about?" he said curtly, slamming the brakes to avoid a car stopped unexpectedly in front of them. What is the line? The best defense is a good offense? But then again the two rarely discussed any subject of significance. Had they done so on that day perhaps she might have at least had an inkling of what exactly was considered appropriate behavior within this impenetrable band of brothers--that and its unnatural hold on her husband's life and loyalties.

"You seemed mad at me, Ronnie. I was only trying to make her feel better. That's all. You seemed mad that I did it."

"Here we go again," he slapped the wheel, cursing beneath his breath at the unending line of lights stretched in a ribbon of red for miles before them. "Damned traffic; it's always the same in the summer. Tell the kids to be quiet, will ya. I have to concentrate" " a euphemism, she understood, for "and you too; can't you see I don't want to talk about it. And so the subject got dropped, on this occasion in favor of ersatz traffic safety.

"Yeah, it's a bitch," she grumbled and turned on command. "Be quiet; your father's driving," she ordered over her shoulder. Verbal sparring from the back seat ceased immediately. Her resentment however would not be denied. For now, just for now it got buried with others in that deep dangerous hole next to marital harmony. Unattended the two gnawed viciously at the other, regurgitating periodically their venom in the form of fierce and unexpected argumentative outbreaks -- a distinctly human and perpetually vicious cycle.

What am I watching, spirit?

Yourself, my girl, and the one you swore to love forever, I reminded her.

I wanted to, spirit, but one can not treasure ghosts bound to other loyalties.

In round figures the family numbered seventy: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, gumads, gumbads, friends, plus an eclectic array of hangers-on, the latter anchored to the mother ship by business links or service to its revered leader, cousin Paulie. In all aspects the group maintained an organizational structure similar to that of a labor union. As such, attendance at Paulie's Christmas Eve gatherings were tantamount to mandatory tithe- dues so to speak. In-laws married to clan members wishing to see their own families were well advised to make Christmas Day arrangements, or else; the "or else" social ostracization equivalent to cement overshoes.

The extravagances of the Eve celebration arrived ostentatiously with elaborate displays of traditional ethnic dishes. The recipes had been inherited by Paulie via the passing of family patriarch, Uncle Gerry. These days they included beyond the traditional fish and pasta fare such pricey delicacies as filet mignon"necessary to affirm Paulie's affluence and subsequent royal influence within the family ranks. As if anyone could forget it. Money bequeathed Gerry's favorite nephew had largely funded his business, coming with a posthumous lineal declaration of his rightful place as family patriarch. Three homes -- one with movie theater and private bowling alley " confirmed this status. Money, as generally conceded, was power; power meant respect from those beholding to Paulie which in fact amounted to nearly everyone. So many young family members depended upon Paulie for their livelihoods; their parents sought his imprimatur regarding all that transpired inside and outside of the impenetrable filial circle.

The men arrived early to prepare the Christmas Eve feast. The women, exiled from the kitchen, chased hordes of squealing urchins about Paulie's ostentatious macmansion, gently guiding the squealing Lilliputian herd away from an enormous tree decked in designer mode with silver balls, red velvet bows, gifts piled high at its feet. The herd covetously eyed the gifts, guessing and chattering in little whispers as to which packages might be there own.

"Rose," Paulie called out from the kitchen. A matronly looking cousin turned from her conversation with the Ecuadorian family of the "help." Always invited to family functions the group were nevertheless expected to work. They spoke little English and Rose had no Spanish, except for a few command words: platos/plates; limpio/clean; ahora/now. But she did like them and always did her best to make them feel at home.

"We need more pasta. Go to the store, will ya" Paulie ordered, continuing to stir a pot of linguini bubbling furiously before him like a mass of tangled white worms. Rose excused herself from the Ecuadorians, grabbed her purse and looking somewhat vexed waded her way through an eclectic mob which by this juncture had taken on a mestizo character of comic proportions.

"Who's that?," Cary asked Ronnie. His response was automatic and predictable.

"I don't know. One of Paulie's business associates, I guess."

The sounds and smells elicited for Cary memories bitter-sweet of the couple's courting days, and their first Christmas Eve together: the midnight blue velvet suit she'd worn; the matching muff she carried; the coat of winter white purchased specifically for the occasion. Not that anyone noticed amid the crush of guests jammed like Spanish sardines into Uncle Gerry's small city apartment. Back in the day the old patriarch hosted the event. Cary sat sandwiched between Ronnie and Uncle Chas"a bothersome prick if there ever was one"and sixty other guests jammed tightly around the huge rectangular table rented from the local funeral home. The large table accommodated the adults. A shorter version off to the side held numerous giggling, jostling younger family members. Aside from housing the urchins, the "kids table," as it was known, also provided a never-ending source of material for jokes and endless ribbing amongst the adults. At what age did one technically graduate to the adult table? Opinions differed. So predictable was this discussion started on cue that she'd wondered if there wasn't someone standing in the wing holding up a prompt card: It's time for the table discussion. Thoughts and opinions depended less upon age criteria than space availability and other factors taken for granted.

Take for instance the curious case of Cousin Rose. Nearly thirty, her fate seemed to always be seated with the children, a custom everyone found highly amusing. How Rose felt about it Cary could never quite tell. She once or twice thought she read in her expression a hint of resigned sadness and embarrassment mingled with annoyance. Once Cary had even done the unthinkable...

Rose. Do you want to sit here? I'll sit over there. I don't mine." A table of eyes turned toward her -- bemused, annoyed, judgmental eyes. Ronnie's foot tapped her leg while the rest of him stared down at a plate of zapolas.

"No, that's ok," Rose smiled sweetly. "I'm fine." The spotlight dimmed and the chattering din resumed. Ronnie spoke quietly from the corner of his mouth. "She's fine there. Don't be doing that again," he said, shoving the last bite of anchovy-stuffed pastry into his mouth. Next to her Uncle Chas grunted his approval, or disapproval; it was hard to tell. Disruption of tradition was furbotten after all"a mortal infraction. Cary now knew what everyone had known forever. Apparently she attempted good deed had done more to embarrass Rose than help her, and she felt sorry for that. Over at the "kid's table," ignored by the children dwarfed by her imposing presence, Rose dutifully assumed her seat and role as an integral part of the evening's entertainment. Being part of the group came with expectations.

"Are you Italian?" Cary answered Chas in the partial affirmative""half."

"Well half's better than nothing," said the official ethnic inquisitor. Chas asked the same question of anyone coming new to the table. Medigans, as we call non-Italians, were carefully scrutinized for participation in plates of pickled eel, calamari, and the small, evil-looking odorous delicacy, fried schmeltz, which when eaten inevitably left the diner with a mouth full of bones. Delicacy, indeed!

"Try the eel," Chas shoved a plate of fish under Cary's nose. Demurring at first, she accepted a piece; chewing the turgid sour nugget she tried hard not to picture it in its natural state"snake. Chas squinted and assessed her reaction. "How do you like it?" he grinned, showing teeth like corn kernels and of similar color. Cary did not respond. Instead sheSlowly reached for a napkin and deposited in it the noxious wad. For lack of more convenient repository she dropped the entire package on the floor beside her chair.

"I'll put it in the trash later." She wrinkled her nose and whispered. Chas frowned and kept on eating. A rebel had infiltrated the ranks; cause down the road for certain concern. Within her a hardening steely resolve was forming against this family's fascist dictates.

On the drive home she'd related the incident to Ronnie and they'd shared a good laugh.

"Yup, Uncle Chas. He's a piece of work, alright" he laughed, but in such a way as to suggest he actually considered the old geezer's obnoxious behavior part of his charm. No matter how intimate his relationship with family, his uncle's behavior toward her was not merely quirky but downright rude. "You looked very pretty tonight," he glanced over, squeezed her knee and thus ended the conversation. They were young then, in passionate throws of new love blind to all except immediately physical needs and attractions. It's when the urgency of sex recedes that trouble begins and opinions regarding revered family icons and such arise. Former lovers of an unanticipated morning awaken to a glaring reality: the one with whom you share an existence finds irrelevant and unacceptable what you most treasure. Thus begins the downward spiral toward conjugal oblivion.

With each succeeding Christmas the group grew larger, noisier and more imposing. Children sprung to adulthood, graduated to the "big" table; their children assumed their former places at the other. Swearing to make her excuses but in the last reneging, Cary would go, always arriving late with their children now grown. One-hundred sets of eyes turned to greet them. Alas, the bohemians are here, with her sister-in-law Katherine always at the head of the reception line.

"Hi honey. So good to see you."

"Good to see you too," Cary would respond; liars both.

Conversations with Katherine's were always somewhat odd. Within minutes a critique of some family member " something they'd done or said or failed to do " got injected into the discussion, leaving Cary in the most awkward position of a nodding disinterested listener --that or the attorney of the accused. After all, people being dragged in abstentia through the mud were entitled to some defense, even a flimsy one, were they not?

"Well maybe she thought this?" or maybe he thought that?" Cary would sporatically pleaded their case. In truth, aside from acting as defense she was also wisely avoiding another potential trap: the trap of feeding into an attack and later being discussed as a gossip monger and family troublemaker. Perhaps Katherine had been sent as informant to test the loyalty of the alien camp. Hard to determine the true face of the two-faced beast, or why she chose Cary to share the gossipy tidbits. No. Neutrality held the key; Switzerland surrounded by a sea of bickering nations. And so she never shared her opinions about much of anything. It simply wasn't safe, an issue of pure common sense. If her sister-in-law spoke ill about other family members she must certainly be doing the same in Cary's absence. No paranoia here, just a simple logical conclusion: do not trust this woman " ever.

Christmas Present Forever Past

"He's a control freak," Cary charged, continuing to apply her makeup. Eyeliner that in youth used to go on smooth as silk now bumped and skidded in jagged confusion across older less turgid eyelids; light powder base discovered and infiltrated subtle lines around eyes and mouth, causing her to think at times she'd be better off without it. Ronnie's anger at the "control freak" comment exploded in a series of slammed dresser drawers. No. He would not tolerate critiques of his family, especially of Paulie, the most munificent of men.

"He's just generous," he shot back, slamming another drawer and opening the next. "That's all. You don't understand."

"Oh I understand, alright" she nodded smugly. "Your cousin's boy could have had a great career in engineering if Paulie hadn't sucked him into the business." Cary stopped and seemed to be reflecting. "What the hell is a person with an advanced engineering degree doing selling hedge funds anyway?" Failing an answer Ronnie continued rifling through piles of neatly stacked shirts in search of...

"Where the hell is my red V-neck?" he muttered, picked up an errant shirt then tossed it back. Cary carried on without him.

"You know what I think? I think your cousin couldn't stand the thought of John being more important than him. I think that kid got pressured by Paulie and everyone into going into the business."

"Here it is," Ronnie lifted the elusive V-Neck in triumph.

"And what a shame. That boy had so many options. They should all be shot for doing that you know," she concluded, turning about to finish the job she'd started on her makeup. In the mirror she could see that Ronnie's face had turned suddenly crimson.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he hissed and moved threateningly toward her. Without realizing he found himself leaning over her, trapping her, hands resting palms down on the arms of the chair. Fury hot as Hades simmered in his gut, inches from morphing to violence. Thinking better of it he had never hit her. No matter what the circumstance their preferred form of ferocity had always remained a subdued passive aggressiveness one might call textbook. Only once he'd come close, and that when he'd thought she had called him stupid. Pushing himself back he defused the situation with a dismissive wave, walked over to the television and flipped on Sportsline. It was the end of it"for now. He had no intention of fanning the flames of discontent on this, the big night--Christmas Eve. No, everything must go smoothly. His son would be coming with them this year; their son, Alexander, to be greeted as prince with ersatz protestations that the Eve was never quite the same without all the Girardis. How proud would he be to observe this reception; how indubitably honored to accept affirmation by those who counted of his son's, his own blood's royal lineage.

Odd that out of the blue Cary chose to bring up his nephew. One minute found them getting dressed for the Eve; the next arguing family relationships that had nothing to do with them. But then again Ronnie had not been part of that morning's conversation. Had he been, he would not now be wondering why he and his wife were embroiled in yet another argument of seemingly undetermined genesis.

"He called me a couple of months ago at school, Mom. What was I supposed to do, say no?" No doubt the proposal represented an important step in Alexander's life; one might say irrevocable in light of the family's "no returns" policy. For once incorporate, one did not choose to be otherwise. Once a part of Paulie's business, always a part of Paulie's business.

"Alexander. Do not get involved with these people," she'd warned. Her head spun wildly at the mere thought of his life forever conjoined with Paulie's. Apparently, without a word to either she or Ronnie his cousin had secretly contacted Alexander, the only facet of the affair not surprising given the family tendency to poke its beak into every aspect of every member's life. Boundries? There were none--physical or otherwise. Delineations? Yours, mine, ours -- invisible. Enter without knocking; remain without invitation; pressure without respite " original and firm provisions of an unwritten familial constitution.

"Whether I decide to do it or not, it's pretty nice of him. Don't you think?"

"Nice? Nice?" she repeated as if he hadn't heard her the first time. "Nice has nothing to with it my dear." How petty her protestation must sound to a naÃve young man. What reason for him to assume anything but good intentions on Paulie's part? As a child he would not have sensed the magnetic force that for years pulled relentlessly at her life. For him it did not exist. However, in accepting Paulie's offer that was all bound to change, forever. Like a piece of errant metal, he'd be pulled toward the featureless sphere, that bundesgruppe which described itself as family. Trapped forever he would be in its inescapable asphyxiating web of expectations, perverted loyalties and exclusionary politics.

"Don't you have goals of your own, Alexander?" Her plea belied a madding frustration hidden in the clenched fist rigid at her side.

"Hey, Mom. If somebody offers you a package career deal--no muss, no fuss, no bother-- I'd be a fool not to at least consider it. Right?" A far too loaded question to answer yes or no. Even if there were time, say a year or two, to explain the irrevocable cause and effect of such decision to her son at this premature developmental stage, at twenty, it would prove pointless, and she knew it. Innocence prevented its intellectual absorption. "And what do you have against Paulie anyway? What did he ever do to you? I thought you'd be pleased." At that Cary actually found herself smiling"ironically, but smiling none the less. Pleased? Please. My darling son, if you only knew.

But he didn't, Cary.

We've already discussed this and yet you continued....

"Alexander...I'm just trying to tell you. Be your own man. There's so much world out there for you to experience. Don't box yourself in," or you'll never get out, she thought that but did not say it.

"I will, Mom, I will. Don't worry." Sons at twenty abhor unsolicited advice. "Hey," he bent his neck a bit and looked directly into her eyes. "Are you crying? What the hell is up with you, Mom. You're freaking me out, you know!"

"Sorry," she whispered, her voice barely audible above the internal clamor"a breaking heart. Twenty years of hopes and dreams were circling the drain, and there wasn't one damned thing to be done. "Alexander," she sighed. "Remember I said this." She looked at him squarely to eliminate any doubt that what she was about to say was anything but unequivocal. "I do not want you to take the job with Paulie. Do you hear me?....I don't."

"Jeez Mom," Alexander stepped back as if expecting a physical punctuation to the statement. A small self-conscious laugh attempted but failed to break the tension. "You're really getting all too wound up about all this." With that he turned to leave. She did not try to stop him. She watched as he walk away, shoulders high, hands in pockets, whistling some tune or other as if he owned the world. He did in fact, but not for long, she feared.

"Remember what I said," she called after him. "I don't want you to do it." Without turning, he waved back that he'd heard. A sense of futility, finality gripped her soul like the hand of death; Christmas future beckoned with boney fingers, a hooded cloak disguised its perfidious face.

Silence Thick as Grief

...accompanied the ride to Paulie's. The unending stream of carols floated cheerfully from the car radio did nothing to ameliorate the tension. Cary sang along in a self-conscious falsetto, her mind and thoughts a million miles away. Alexander had wisely taken his own car. An adult and independent, the brave little soldier of the past did not have to suffer the unspoken conflict that throughout his childhood churned like fetid water between his parents, tainting with its sniping comments every family event. Also, his girlfriend Jennifer had accompanied him tonight. It was her first introduction to the family and he did not wish the evening to start on a sour note.

"Why didn't we ride with your parents?" she'd questioned, worrying as always whether Cary liked her or thought her good enough for Alexander.

"Nah. It's better for us to have our own car case we want to leave early," he said. (In case all hell broke loose.) He seemed nervous, not his usual confident self.

"Is there something wrong?" she asked." Perhaps he worried she would not like his family. Perhaps they wouldn't like her. Curious the ease with which congenital discontent spreads its cancerous tentacles.

(start) "No, no. I'm fine. Why?" he smiled, and for the remainder of the ride to Paulie's the two chatted cheerfully. "You looked very pretty tonight," he glanced over, squeezed her knee...They were young...

By the time Cary and Ronnie arrived Alexander was already deep in conversation with Paulie. Jennifer, kidnapped by younger female cousins, stood anxiously eyeing Alexander, uncomfortable, no doubt, at having been abandoned to people she did not really know. You better get used to it, honey, Cary smirked. Looking around her gaze came to rest on Paulie and Alexander. Older male cousins whose souls Paulie already owned stood close about the two men chatting. Paulie suddenly spotted the new arrivals and walked quickly over to greet them.

"Heeyy couz." He caught Ronnie in a warm embrace. "Great to see ya. Never the same without the Girardis." Cary's greeting amounted to a tepid one-arm circling of the shoulders. "And how you doin' Car?"

"Fine. I'm fine, Paulie. Merry Christmas." Her attention drifted past Paulie toward Alexander; a weak smile seemed to be seeking her assurance that all that had earlier transpired between them had been put to rest. Quickly Paulie took Ronnie by the elbow and ushered him toward the group, leaving Cary standing alone, but not for long. The tag team entered and picked up the slack.

"Hey Cary. Glad you came," Ronnie's sister Katherine handed her a glass of wine. "Come on over and talk with the girls," she motioned toward the group of chattering females. Jennifer was one of them; the relief on her face was almost comical and blatantly obvious.

Uncle Chaz, now ninety, desiccated and wrinkled as the platter of dry cod he carried, rushed by, dropped the platter then rushed back into the kitchen. A momentary lapse of civility pictured Chaz face down in the fish, a victim of her foot casually placed in his path. These people certainly had a way of bringing out the worst in her. Nervously eyeing Paulie and Alexander, Cary took a huge gulp of wine.

"So sister-in-law," Katherine leaned in to speak in confidence. "What do you think about Alexander and Paulie?" she asked, her nose wrinkling in the way of young girls excited to share a secret.

"I don't know. What do you mean?" she answered bluntly, leaving Katherine looking puzzled and for the moment lost for words. Cary enjoyed watching busybodies squirm.

"You mean you don't know?" Had she spilled the beans, said something perhaps she wasn't supposed to? If so, Paulie would not be pleased. "Ooops," she giggled, placing her fingertips over her mouth to prevent the inadvertent escape of any further possibly confidential information. Just in time Cousin Rose arrived breathless from her command pasta run.

"Hey Cary." She kissed her lightly on the cheek. Truth was she liked Cary a lot despite family suspicions and undercutting rhetoric to the contrary Unlike the rest she saw Cary's independent spirit as an admirable coveted trait she herself had not the will or courage to express. "I have to bring the pasta to Paulie but I'll be right back." In minutes she reappeared holding a glass of wine, the single drink she would imbibe that evening since surely other menial requests from Paulie would be forthcoming before night's end. "I see the guys are gabbing over there like old ladies. Alexander's going to fit right in with that bunch," she laughed and taking a small sip of wine motioned toward the group from which now emitted loud manly guffaws. Katherine shot Rose a warning glance. It missed its mark."What?" she frowned. Katherine looked away and began prattling on about something or other unrelated.

In the interim something had definitely happened across the room"something definitive, something game-changing and Cary knew it. Paulie slapped Ronnie's back and shook him roughly by the shoulders. Ronnie had become emotional; she could see it, knew it after all these years of watching him at funerals swipe his hand hard over his mouth to steady a twitching chin. Emotions over whatever happened had gotten the best of him. But what was it? Paulie gathered Alexander and Ronnie in an affectionate bear hug; the group pressed in about them, smiling, glasses raised in tribute, but to what? A deal had been struck; she knew it, felt it in her gut churning in anger, humiliation and defeat. Contrary to Alexander's promise he had thought about it all right, thought about it and decided to ignore her wishes in favor of Paulie's "generous" offer. Katherine was still blathering on idiotically as brushing passed her Cary nearly knocked the glass of wine from her hand.

"So, what's up gentlemen?" Sans invitation she barged headlong into the pack. Paulie looked slightly annoyed and shot Ronnie a "do something about your wife" look well within his familial juristician. The group in unison looked first at Paulie, then at Ronnie, who for the moment stared deeply into his drink as if his fortune lay at the bottom of the glass. "Come on man. Tell her," Paulie elbowed his cousin, jogging him from his spirituous meditation.

"Alexander is going to work in Paulie's business," he announced flatly, as if spoken without emotion the fact might quell any temptation on her part to resist. A smile of triumph danced at the corners of Paulie's mouth, Ronnie's as well. "He wants to. It's all been discussed and..." fixing his gaze on Cary he punctuated the announcement with "that's what he wants to do. Right bud?" Alexander took a cautious sip of the double malt scotch toast forced upon him and made a face. He did not answer.

"Double malt partner" Paulie chortled and slapped Alexander's shoulder. "Get used it. Nothing but the best for this crew," he proclaimed.

"Oh really," Cary's tone dripped with irony. "Well, we'll talk about it." With that she forced a smile, turned and walked back to Katherine and Rose. Both women still looked a bit in shock at her audacity in joining the men's celebration uninvited. But that was Cary, her unprecedented actions presenting the motive for more than one incident of eye-rolling throughout the years.

Ronnie avoided Cary for the remainder of the evening. It was not difficult given the crush of people determined to chat at least for a minute or two with everyone before night's end. At nine o'clock families with young children began their goodbyes. Santa would be coming soon and "we must be asleep or he'll pass by us"one parent winked and helped a youngster tussling furiously with her coat. When it came their time to go Paulie walked Cary and Ronnie to the door. His demeanor was relaxed, mollified no doubt by a pretend air of humility common un victors.

"So guys...we look forward to having Alexander on board with us. Hope you're as please as I am. He's such a great..." Cary cut off the comment at its knees."

"It's not a done deal, Paulie. It's nice of you but we have to talk this over as a family. He'll let you know," Cary said, standing firm in the doorway. Paulie's eyes widened and immediately fixed on Ronnie's.

"But I thought..."

"He'll let you know," she reiterated. "Thanks again," and turning quickly she away walked away toward the car. Ronnie stood a few minutes speaking in animated gestures with Paulie. When Ronnie finally reached the car his face was flushed, his lips colorless, pressed into a familiar thin angry line she'd come to recognize as one of his tools of intimidation. They were nearly to the Turnpike before he spoke.

"I can't believe you were that rude to my family tonight. I can't believe it," Ronnie slapped the wheel then slapped it again.

"I don't know what you mean," she said blithely, fishing the waters of his anger, angling for trouble. "Why, because I exercised my parental rights? I'm not entitled to do that?"

"YOU have no right to stop Alexander from doing what he wants," he shouted.

"And YOUR family has no business intimidating my son into joining their god damned bund," she retaliated, choosing specifically a word of negative implications she knew he would not understand.

"Doing what?" He was furious. His attention momentarily drifted from the road and the car swerved violently into the next lane. The driver of a car he very nearly sideswiped flipped them the bird, then quickly sped up to pass them.

"Look out!" She reached over and grabbed the wheel. "Pay attention to what you're doing!"

"Don't tell me what to do." He roughly yanked her hand away.

"And YOU don't tell me or my son what to do," she swatted back, swatting again and again and again. "No more, Ronnie. You hear me? No more." Years of suppressed anger and humiliation exploded in a hail of abusive vitriol.

"They were driving really crazy," The motorist stood gazing down at the smoking wreck lying, wheels still spinning, an upturned helpless bug in the roadside ditch. "They almost hit me," he said; the officer jotting notes shook his head and sighed.

"Yeah, well you know, the holidays bring out the worst in people," he said. "This is the third one tonight."

I glanced and she was no longer beside me...off, I'm guessing, to a despondent land of regret where redemption does not exist.

The End

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