“What old people?” I said to Macy, speaking to her through the rearview mirror that hung over the dashboard.
“I don’t know. Those old people. They had a big car. It looked old, too.”
“Macy, you didn’t see anything like that,” Joseph snapped.
“I did, too,” she said. “Who were they, Daddy?”
I didn’t know where to take this. Joseph hadn’t seen them. And if they were there, they hadn’t been there for very long. As best I could tell, they’d disappeared nearly as quickly as they’d arrived.
“They’re people I know,” I said to Macy, uttering the words carefully. “Did you see where they went?”
“They drove away,” she said. “Didn’t you sthee them drive away?”
“Macy, stop making things up,” Joseph said. The edge in his voice fell somewhere between frustration and something that seemed almost a little like fear.
“I’m not making it up. I sthaw them. Daddy, did you sthee them?”
“I saw them,” I said to Macy, and I gave Joseph a loaded glance aimed at getting him to let it be. “I saw them.”
“I waved to the lady,” Macy said. “She waved back.”
“Actually, they were at our house last night. During the party.”
I saw Macy’s eyes widen from inside the mirror.
“Dad,” Joseph said.
“Yep. They were. They sat on the couch. I got them some food.”
“Did they have fun, Daddy?”
“I think they did. But then they left.”
“They sure leave fastht.”
“They sure do,” I said. “They definitely do.”
I could sense Joseph glaring at me. I knew he was wondering why I’d be filling Macy’s head with such nonsense. But how was that any worse than the annual tall tales of St. Nick? Especially since this one found at least some credence in a cold, hard truth.
Even if no one else saw them, I did. Macy did, too.
Before I knew it, we were home. The boys helped me disconnect the tree from the car.
We carried it inside. They propped it against the wall next to the fake one we’d had for years. I gestured with my chin to the dining room. They knew what to do. After unplugging the lights from the sockets on the wall next to the base of the “B” tree, they gingerly lifted it, moving it slowly and somehow keeping most of the ornaments in place. A couple fell, but Macy scooped them up and held them in her arms as she followed her brothers.
I smiled at the sight of it, especially since it had happened without a single order or any actual guidance from me. In a weird sort of way, it showed they’d be OK without me, without parents, with nothing other than their own motivations and aspirations and above all else each other. I felt at once relieved and fulfilled and entirely irrelevant.
I resisted as best as I could any urge to micromanage. They knew what they were doing. I let them do it. The farther they moved away from me with that tree, the more I sensed that these three humans Linda and I had brought into the world would be just fine, no matter what. That everything else was simply details. I both loved and hated whatever it was that I was feeling.
Eventually, the boys returned. Joseph asked about my plans for the tree with the bulb, the expression on his face suggesting that we should have chosen something that both was destined to die and would be easier to position in our TV room. I told him I needed to get a steel tub for the new tree, that it was no big deal because I also needed to get lights and ornaments and whatever else we’d use to decorate the thing that Linda specifically said she wanted for Christmas.
The boys seemed to have no interest in the next leg of the journey, but Macy was ready to do whatever needed to be done to finish the real tree—even if it meant trudging through a blizzard to the North Pole and back again. Buster also wanted to join us. Then again, Buster was always ready to take a ride in the car, right up until the point where he realized he’d be ending up inside the building next to the place where we’d just bought a Christmas tree.
Linda’s SUV wasn’t in the garage when we’d returned. I didn’t know where she’d gone. I knew there was a good chance she’d get back before Macy and I returned with everything we needed to finish the tree. I wanted to surprise her, but Linda already knew we were getting a tree. If she happened to see it propped against the wall with no lights or ornaments and a giant clot of roots and dirt below the branches, so be it.
Still, the sooner we went, the sooner we’d return with the finishing touches for our real, live tree. I wanted to hear more from Macy about what she’d seen in the seconds before and after I’d thrown up all over the parking lot. I also had a strange, gnawing sense that, wherever we ended up, we’d see them again. It gave me a little comfort to know I’d be accompanied by someone who apparently was capable of seeing them, too.
Macy reacted with unrestrained euphoria at the news she’d be the only one of the three siblings to join me for the next leg of our day-before-Christmas-Eve adventure. She bolted for the garage and the backseat of the Subaru before her brothers could change their minds. But they were already back downstairs playing whatever video game they’d constantly been playing, with flimsy headsets strapped to their scalps as they said whatever it was they said while doing whatever it was they did.
Every generation experiences that disconnect, in some way. Something the kids thoroughly understand and their parents utterly do not. Joseph, Mark, and Macy would experience the same thing in their own time. I wondered whether I’d be around to nod knowingly as they expressed their own sense of bewilderment regarding whatever it was that their kids had become mysteriously obsessed with.
I held off Buster’s desire to tag along, tail wagging and limbs flailing at the possibility of scrambling into the garage and hopping into the car. Pulling the door shut while fending off the dog (and avoiding another shot to the crotch), I yelled to the boys that we’d be back soon, knowing they either wouldn’t hear me or wouldn’t listen.
I saw the cat when I turned. He was on the shelf, tilting his head in that familiar way. Silently regarding me as a poor bastard who lacked the freedom to find a comfortable spot to hunker down and do nothing at all for the rest of the day.
I didn’t mind. I had a purpose, a direction, a mission. The hardest part was done. Or at least I thought it was.
I climbed into the Subaru. Macy sat there, rocking in the back seat with glee.
“Where are we going, Daddy?”
“To get everything we need for our new tree,” I said. She squealed with raw delight. It was a sound I’d never forget for as long as I’d live, and hopefully beyond.
Off we went, heading toward the center of all local commercial activity in our town, the rows of big boxes that sold anything and everything that any family in the area would ever need for whatever it was they hoped to do, from filling kitchens and pantries to, for us on that specific trip, finding anything and everything we needed to transform the overgrown weed with a misshapen clump of stuff in a burlap sack into the one specific thing that Linda had said she wanted on this one specific Christmas.
As I backed the Subaru out of the driveway, I realized I’d lost track of time. The clock on the dashboard told me that it was twenty-two minutes past three. We’d have all of it by dinnertime, ideally, and we’d spend the night trimming our new tree.
“We got a great Christhmasth tree, Daddy,” Macy said to me. “Mommy will love it.”
“It’s not ready yet. But it will be.”
She ignored those details.
“It’sth a great Christhtmasth tree,” she said. “I want everyone to sthee it. It will be stho beautiful. Can we get those lightsth that are all different colors?”
“Mommy likes white lights.”
“The other tree has white lightsth,” she said. “Those are boring. I want all the other colors. She will like them. I sthwear, she will.”
I smiled at that. I nodded.
“OK,” I said. “We’ll get all the other colors.”
“Yesth!” she said, and she let out another one of those squeals that hopefully would carry me through whatever the rest of this Christmas and everything after it may hold.
We began making our way to the rows of stores. I turned on the radio and turned up the volume, allowing Christmas music to fill our ears.
“It will be a good Christmas,” I said to her.
“Every Christhmasth is a good Christhtmasth,” she said.
It would be the forty-sixth one for me. I found myself wondering how many more I’d have. But the only one that mattered was this one. That sense hardened into a firm resolve as we drove, listening to Vic Damone singing Silver Bells.
“Can we invite them for Christhmasth?” Macy said.
“Those old people,” she said. “They stheem lonely.”
“Which old people?” I said, knowing the answer to the question as I asked it.
“Those old people we sthaw when we got the tree, Daddy. Can we invite them?”
“I don’t know who they are, Honey.”
“But they know usth,” she said. “I can tell that they do. Can you call them?”
“I don’t know their phone number.”
“Maybe we’ll sthee them. If we sthee them, we can invite them. Right, Daddy?”
I told her we would. I didn’t know whether we’d see them again, but it seemed like, no matter where I went, they’d be there.
So, yes, we’d invite them. And maybe the rest of the family would finally see them, too. It was nice that Macy had seen them. It would be even nicer if Linda or the boys would see them.
Whoever they were.
(On Our Way Home continues on Saturday, December 10, with Chapter Eighteen, and maybe Chapter Nineteen. It’s all being posted free of charge, with all chapters here. If you feel like paying for something, buy a copy of Playmakers instead. Through December 11, you’ll get a free, personalized bookplate.)