A Perfect Stranger

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In Roxana Robinson's lucid and elegant prose, her characters' inner worlds open up to us, revealing private emotional cores that are familiar in their needs, their secrets, and their longings. These people tell us the truth-not only about themselves, their relationships, and their lives, but about ourselves as well.

In "Family Christmas," a young girl takes a holiday trip to...
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Overview

In Roxana Robinson's lucid and elegant prose, her characters' inner worlds open up to us, revealing private emotional cores that are familiar in their needs, their secrets, and their longings. These people tell us the truth-not only about themselves, their relationships, and their lives, but about ourselves as well.

In "Family Christmas," a young girl takes a holiday trip to her grandparents', where the formal atmosphere is shattered by a mysterious and chaotic event that she knows she's too young to understand but struggles to comprehend.

In "Blind Man," a college professor copes with the onslaught of grief after his daughter's death. In "The Face Lift," two college friends renew their bond across a great cultural divide. The sad and hilarious "Assistance" flawlessly details the tragicomic aspects of ageing-seen through the eyes of a daughter-turned-caretaker. The terrors of illness are explored in "The Treatment," and in "Assez," a trip to Provence reveals the true volatility of love-and reminds us that we often don't realize that what we have is enough until it's gone.

A Perfect Stranger powerfully and affectingly examines the complex, intricate network of experiences that binds us to one another. These stories are tender, raw, lovely, and fine-and they reaffirm Roxana Robinson's place at the forefront of modern literature.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Robinson's third collection proves her a master of the short story (she has also written three novels, including 2003's Sweetwater). Her finely tuned realism, as well as her settings and characters New York, its bedroom communities, the Eastern seaboard and the comfortable upper-middle-class living there recall Cheever and Updike. (The Football Game is such pitch-perfect Cheever as to be slightly suspect as a gentle parody.) Robinson approaches the huge misunderstandings of family life from many angles and anything but timidly. In Family Christmas, a child confronted with adult mysteries says, I knew that this language I was trying to learn could not be learned directly, that it was something that had to be absorbed blindly and obliquely.... We would have to learn it through signs, inflections, looks and sighs and tones of voice. Robinson is unusually good with the strange foreign tongue of the elderly: the aristocratic grandparents of Family Christmas; the dogged, long-married battlers of Assistance; the malevolent Santa Fe misanthrope of Shame; the befuddled British visitor of the title story. Even the younger couples in the only linked stories, Choosing Sides and Assez, are grandparents, and what they say about grandparenthood is arresting. But the collection's most affecting stories touch on the chasm between parents and children, husbands and wives. Robinson's ear is wonderful, her graceful prose a real pleasure. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This collection of stories is most notable for its variety and diverse points of view. In "Family Christmas," readers are privy to the confused thoughts and emotions of a girl as she recounts the tensions and unhappiness of the adults around her, trying to make sense of the charged atmosphere. Readers understand the complex issues and ache for the child observer. The other first-person narratives are equally compelling: "Face-lift" is about two girls who meet in boarding school and continue their friendship into adulthood. The story is told from the perspective of the one who observes and envies the exciting life of the other. Envy is also the theme of "The Football Game." Here, it is the apparently "normal," carefree McArdles and their way of life that is dramatically revealed to be "-more dangerous and beautiful-and immanent with love and sorrow" than the narrator ever imagined. In other tales, the author recounts the desperation and despair of a housewife and the complex conversations at a dinner party in which the guest of honor is as reluctant as the host; in "Shame," the narrator comes to terms with her selfhood, defiantly affirming her lesbianism. The descriptive language presents a vivid sense of place that subtly illuminates and complements the strong characterizations in each of the narratives. Readers looking for good stories and examples of good writing will be more than satisfied.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Thirteen splendid stories in an elegant third collection from Robinson (Sweetwater, 2003, etc.) range widely to give us a peek into the obsessions and troubles of the well-versed and well-off. The title story inserts a British opera expert into the suburban guestroom of a volunteer for a local music festival. The hostess is so eager to please the festival head that she doesn't bother to ask her husband if he would mind a "perfect stranger" as a houseguest for the weekend. By the end of this deft tale, Robinson has captured all three characters beautifully, along with the shifting nuances of marriage. "The Treatment" begins bluntly ("Here is what I do each morning") and proceeds to describe in suspenseful detail the horrors and hopes of a woman who takes a "chilled golden globe" from the refrigerator each morning, warming up a powerful antibiotic she must feed into a plastic tube inserted into her bloodstream, in hopes it will cure her of a long-term disease. The narrator of "The Football Game" compares her own artist father and progressive mother unfavorably to her boarding school roommate's family ("Their family seemed to unwind, like a spool, into a perfectly woven fabric . . . "). By the end of the Yale-Bowdoin game, where the two girls keep her parents waiting while they dally with two Yalies, she has learned that the world outside her family was much larger than she had imagined, and more complicated-"more dangerous and beautiful." "The Face Lift" follows the years-long trajectory of a friendship between former classmates, one a Pennsylvania country girl, the other a wealthy, seemingly carefree Salvadoran. The narrator, divorced and childless, seems to envy Cristina's wealth, hermarriage, her children, until she learns of a violent incident in San Salvador that almost cost Cristina her life. Stories that tick away with the precision of perfectly wrought timepieces.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375509186
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/26/2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.62 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

ROXANA ROBINSON is the author of two novels, Sweetwater and This Is My Daughter; a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe; and two previous short-story collections, A Glimpse of Scarlet and Asking for Love. Four of her works have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Robinson’s fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Daedalus, and Vogue. She lives in New York City and Westchester County, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Family Christmas

At Christmas, we went to my grandparents’.

My grandparents lived outside New York in a private park, a strange nineteenth-century hybrid between a club and a housing development. The Park was enclosed by a thick stone wall, and at the entrance was a pair of stone gateposts, and a gatehouse. As we approached the gate, a man appeared in the doorway of the gatehouse, sternly watching our car. Our father, who knew the gatekeeper, would roll down his window and say hello, or sometimes he would just smile and wave, cocking his hand casually backward and forward. The gatekeeper would recognize my father then and nod, dropping his chin slowly, deeply, in confirmation of an unspoken agreement, and we would drive through the gates into the Park.

One year there was a gatekeeper who did not know my father. The new man stepped out of the gatehouse as we approached and waved heavily at the ground, motioning for us to stop. He was frowning in an official way.

“He’s new,” said my father, slowing down. “Never seen him before.”

My mother laughed. “He probably won’t let us in,” she said.

My father pulled up to the gatehouse and rolled down his window. “We’re here to see my family, the Weldons,” he said politely. “I’m Robert Weldon.” My father looked like his father: he had the same blue eyes, the long straight nose, and the high domed forehead. The gatekeeper glanced noncommittally at the car, and then he nodded. He was still frowning, but now in a private, interior way that no longer seemed to have anything to do with us. He gave us a slow wave through thegates, then he went ponderously back into the little house.

The four of us children sat motionless in the back. After our mother spoke we had fallen silent. Our faces had turned solemn, and we had aligned our legs neatly on the seats. Our knees matched. Our docile hands lay in our laps. We were alarmed.

We did not know why some cars might be turned away from the Park gates. We had never seen it happen, but we knew that it must happen: Why else would the gatekeeper appear, with his narrowed eyes and official frown? We knew that our car did not look like our grandparents’ car, nor any of the other cars that slid easily in between the big stone gateposts without even slowing up. Those cars were dark and sleek. They looked fluid, liquid, full of curves, as though they had been shaped by speed, though they always seemed to move slowly. Those cars were polished, the chrome gleamed, the smooth swelling fenders shone, and the windows were lucid and unsmudged. Those cars were driven sedately by men in flat black hats and black jackets. It was the driver who nodded to the gatekeeper. The passenger, who was in the back seat, never next to the driver in the front, did not even look up as they drove through the gates.

Our car, on the other hand, was a rackety wooden-sided station wagon, angular, high-axled, flat-topped. The black roof was patched, and the varnished wooden sides were dull and battered. Our car was driven by our father, who did not wear a black jacket, and next to him in the front seat was our mother. The two slippery brown back seats were chaotic with suitcases, bags of presents, the four of us children, and our collie, Huge. We felt as though we were another species when we arrived at this gate, and it seemed entirely possible that we would be turned away. The rules of entry and exclusion from the Park were mysterious to us; they were part of the larger unknowable world which our parents moved through but which we did not understand. It was like the struggle to learn a language, listening hard for words and idioms and phrases, being constantly mystified and uncomprehending, knowing that all around us, in smooth and fluent use by the rest of the world, was a vast and intricate system we could not yet grasp.

After we were through the gates, my mother turned to us.

“Well, we made it,” she said humorously. “They let us in this time.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows, waiting for us to answer. My mother was small and lively, with thick light brown hair parted on one side and held with a barrette. She wore her clothes casually; sweaters, and long full skirts.

We said nothing to her. We disapproved of my mother’s levity, all of us: Sam and Jonathan, my two older brothers; Abby, my older sister; and me, Joanna. I was the youngest, and the most disapproving.

Inside the gates, the road meandered sedately through the Park, which was on the slopes of a small steep mountain. Up on the top, along the ridge, the land was still wild and untouched. Deer moved delicately through the thickets, and we had heard there were bobcats, though we had never seen one. Down along the narrow paved roads all was mannerly, a landscape of wide lawns, great towering shade trees and luxuriant shrubberies. Unmarked driveways slid discreetly into the road’s docile curves. Set far back, even from this narrow private interior road, were the houses. Tall, ornate, gabled and turreted, half-hidden by brick walls, stonework, and the giant old trees that surrounded them, they stood comfortable and secure within their grounds.

Our grandparents’ house was called Weldonmere, and it stood below the road, at the bottom of a wide sloping oval of lawn. The driveway traced a long semicircle, starting from one corner of the front lawn, swooping down to the house at midpoint, then back up to the road again. Along the road stood a screen of trees: dogwoods, cherries, and an exotic Japanese maple, with small fine-toothed leaves, astonishingly purple in season. Down the hill, protecting the house with its benevolent presence, stood a great copper beech, dark and radiant. Its dense branches, like a vast layered skirt, swept down to the lawn, and beneath them were deep roomy eaves, where we played in the summer. Now all these trees were bare, and mantled with snow.

Weldonmere was white, with pointed Victorian gables and round neoclassical columns. At the front door was a big porte cochere, and above it the house rose up three stories to the scalloped blue-black slates of the roof.

My father stopped the car under the porte cochere, and we cascaded out. Huge darted alertly into the bushes, his long nose alive to a new universe. We children, following our parents through the brief shock of cold air, lurched stiffly into the big square front hall. We stood among the suitcases on the Turkey carpet, blinking in the light of the chandelier. Our parents called out to the household in a general and celebratory way.

“Well, hello! You’re here!” Grandpère appeared in the doorway to the living room. Grandpère was tall and dignified, with a neat thick silver mustache. He held himself very straight, like an officer, which he had been, or a rider, which he still was. There was about him an air of order, he was always in charge. Grandpère carried his gold watch on a chain in his pocket, and he wore a waistcoat, which was pronounced “weskit.” He was a formal man, courtly, but kind. Underneath the mustache was always the beginning of a smile.

“Hello, Robert! Sarah, children.” His voice was deep, his manner ceremonial. He included us all in his smile, and he opened his arms in a broad welcoming gesture.

Grandmère appeared behind him. Grandmère was narrow and elegant. She wore a long dark dress, and her white hair was parted on the side. It was straight at first, then turned to dense mannerly curls, pressed flat against her head. Her mouth was eternally pursed in a gentle smile. Grandmère was from Charleston, South Carolina, but her mother’s family had been from Baton Rouge, where they spoke French. She had been brought up to think English was common, which was why we called our grandparents “Grandpère” and “Grandmère.”

“Here you all are,” Grandmère said faintly. She sounded pleased but exhausted, as though we were already too much for her. She stood gracefully in the corner of the arched doorway, leaning her hand against it and smiling at us. We milled around, taking off our coats and being kissed.

Huge had come inside, and now held his plumy tail tensely up in the air, his head high and wary. Tweenie, Grandmère’s horrible black-and-white mongrel, snake-snouted, sleek-sided, plump and disagreeable, appeared in the doorway behind her. The two dogs approached each other, stiff-legged, slit-eyed, flat-eared. They began to rumble, deep in their throats.

“Now, Tweenie,” Grandmère said, not moving.

“Oh, gosh,” said my father from the other side of the room. “Get Huge, will you, Sam?”

Sam was the closest, but we all took responsibility for our beloved Huge. We all began shouting, and pummeling his solid lovely back, sliding our hands proprietarily into his deep feathery coat. “Huge!” we cried, sternly reminding him of the rules, and demonstrating to the grown-ups our own commitment to them. Of course this was hypocritical. We believed that Huge could do no wrong and was above all rules, and that Tweenie was to blame for any animosity, in fact for anything at all. We thought that Huge was entirely justified in entering her house and attacking her, if he chose to do so, in her own front hall, like some pre-Christian raider. Huge ignored our calls to order, shaking his broad brown head, his eyes never leaving Tweenie’s cold stare. I laid my head against Huge’s velvet ear.

“Huge,” I said, holding him tightly around the neck, “no growling.”

We did not touch Tweenie: she bit us without hesitation.

“Now,” Grandpère said firmly, “Tweenie, come here.”

The authority in his voice quieted us all. Tweenie paid no attention, but Grandpère strode across the rug and took her powerfully by her wide leather collar. Tweenie’s growls rose suddenly in her constricted throat, and she twisted her head to keep Huge in sight as she was dragged away.

“Oh, dear,” said Grandmère gently. “Tweenie gets so upset by other dogs.”

Huge, unfettered and unrepentant, trotted triumphantly in small swift circles on the rug, his thick plumy tail high.

“Huge,” I said sternly and banged on his back. I looked at my father for praise, but he was making his way toward us through the luggage. When he reached us, he grabbed Huge’s collar.

“Now, hush,” my father said sharply to Huge. Huge, who had never been trained in any way, ignored my father completely. My father pulled him in the other direction from Tweenie, and Huge whined, twisting his great shaggy body to get a last view of Tweenie’s smooth repellent rump. Tweenie was being slid unwillingly, her feet braced, past the front stairs and past the little closet where the telephone was, through the small door behind the staircase that led into the kitchen quarters.

Grandpère opened the door. “Molly,” he called, “take the dog, will you?” Without waiting for a reply, he closed the door behind Tweenie’s reluctant rump and returned to us, brisk and unruffled.

“She gets upset,” Grandmère murmured again, smiling at us in a general way.

“We’ll take Huge up with us,” my father said and turned to us. “Let’s get settled now, let’s get our things upstairs.”

We set off. The staircase was wide and curving, with heavy mahogany banisters and a carved newel post. The steps were broad and shallow, and the red-patterned carpeting was held in place by brass rods. Lugging our suitcases behind us, we went up in slow motion, step by step. On the second-floor landing there was a door which was always closed.

One afternoon I had climbed the stairs by myself. When I reached that landing, instead of going on to the upstairs hall, I stopped at the small closed door on the right and opened it, though I knew I should not. I looked in: a narrow hallway, with closed doors on either side. I stepped inside. It was hushed and dim; everything seemed different there. The ceiling was lower and the floor was uncarpeted linoleum. I walked silently, on my toes, down the hall. I pushed open one of the doors and peered into a small bedroom. It held a narrow wooden bed, a small bureau, and a chair. Everything was perfectly neat. The window looked out the back of the house to the garage. The curtains at the window were limp, and the air seemed muted and dark. A clock ticked in the stillness. I stood without moving, looking at everything, staring into a world I didn’t know. My heart began to pound, and when I heard someone coming up the back stairs from the kitchen, I fled back to the front hall.

Later I asked my mother what was behind that closed door on the landing. She said it was the servants’ wing, and that we must never go in there, as it would disturb them. That was where they lived, she said. I didn’t understand this, for how could you live in a place like that? How could you compress a whole life into that one small room with nothing in it, in someone else’s house?

There were no servants in our own house. My father had been a lawyer in New York, like Grandpère, but he had given that up. He had left the law and the city, and moved to Ithaca in upstate New York, where we now lived. My father worked for the university, helping poor people in the community. I’d heard him tell people about making this change, and from the way he said it I knew it was something unusual, and that we were proud of it.

We lived outside town, in an old white clapboard farmhouse. There was only one bathroom, and the house was heated by a big wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room. In the winter, after supper, we sat around the stove and my mother read out loud, and my father peeled oranges for us. While we listened, my father pulled the oranges apart, separating the succulent crescents and passing them to us: fragile and treasured. Then he unlatched the heavy iron hatch on the stove and threw inside the thin bruised-looking orange peels. We heard the faint hiss as they gave themselves up to the red heart of the stove. We closed our eyes for a moment, listening, and feasting on the sweet fragrance the peels gave up.

At Weldonmere we slept on the third floor. Abby and I were in one room, the boys in another. Our room overlooked the porte cochere, and it had been our father’s when he was little. It had low twin beds, foot to foot, and a velvety engraving of a Raphael Madonna and Child. The boys’ room overlooked the back lawn, and beyond it the small pond that gave the house its name. Our parents slept on the second floor, with Grandmère and Grandpère. We children were alone on the third floor, and we liked this. On Christmas Eve we felt boisterous and wild, and we didn’t want the presence of our parents to constrict us. In the morning, we were not allowed to go down the front stairs for our stockings until it was light, and on some Christmases the four of us had sat, lined silently up on the landing, shivering, waiting for the first gray pallor of day to lighten the darkened rooms below.

This Christmas we had arrived late. The drive was a long one, and by the time we got there, it was dark, and Grandmère and Grandpère had already had dinner. Our parents were to have trays in front of the fire in the living room, and we chil- dren were sent into the kitchen, where Molly would give us our supper.

Molly was Irish and fierce, with pale blue eyes and a cloud of fine white hair. She had slim arms and slim legs and a thick middle. Her hands and feet were small, and she moved fast. She wore a white uniform, a white apron, and brown lace-up shoes with thick low heels. She ruled the kitchen absolutely. We never did anything to make Molly mad. She would have our heads. That’s what she told us, shaking her own wild white head fiercely, and we believed her.

Molly had a husband named Bud, but he was a mysterious figure, like the bobcats; we had never seen him. We did know Molly’s son, Richard, who was my grandparents’ chauffeur. He was fat, and moved slowly. We children had a poor opinion of him. We called him Ree-ard, which we thought was funny. When he wasn’t driving my grandparents’ long black car, Ree-ard sat on a chair in the kitchen, near the back stairs. He took off his black coat and sat in his shirtsleeves, his white shirt vast and billowy. He looked like a lump, and sometimes Molly told him that, whirling suddenly from the big stove and rounding on him, laying into him without mercy. Molly might do that to anyone, at any moment—erupt into a high foamy rage, and say things with her fierce, thin Irish lips that you never wanted to hear.

But Molly was nice to us, and we liked her. That evening we pushed through the swinging door into the pantry and filed into the kitchen. Molly turned at once from the stove.

“Ah, here they all are, then,” she said, her Irish accent thick. Molly’s mouth didn’t smile easily, but her eyes did. “Come over here and let me have a look at you.” We presented ourselves expectantly, waiting to see what she would find. “You’re growing,” she said warningly to Sam, as though this was something he should look out for, and to me she said accusingly, “Where’s that tooth gone?” I had no answer, but I knew she was not angry. She put her hands on our heads approvingly, as though we belonged to her, then she moved briskly back to the stove. “I’m going to take this out to your parents first, so you all sit down at the table and don’t make any trouble.” We didn’t need to be told that. Making trouble in Molly’s kitchen was the last thing in the world we would consider doing.

We sat and waited for her to come back. Tweenie lay on a towel next to her bowl, which had milk in it. She eyed us disagreeably.

“I hate Tweenie,” I said and made a face at her.

Jonathan always disagreed with me. “She’s just a dog,” he said scornfully. “Why would you hate a dog?”

“She looks like a snake,” Abby said. “Look at her.”

We looked at her. Tweenie looked back at us, ready to bite.

“Where’s Huge?” Jonathan asked.

“In with the grown-ups,” Sam said. “We can’t bring him in here because he’ll upset Tweenie.”

“Oh, Tweenie,” I said with loathing, rolling my eyes.

Molly pushed through from the pantry, her low bosom and portly middle preceding her. Her neat lace-up shoes pointed outward when she walked. “Now, then,” she said energetically, “come get your plates and I’ll put some food on them.” We lined up, and Molly loaded our plates. We sat down again at the table. Molly was at the stove, her back to us.

“Where’s Richard?” Sam asked her politely, his mouth full.

Sam was the oldest, and could ask these questions of grown-ups. I would never have dared: Ree-ard was a comical figure to us, and I could not have discussed him with a grown-up. There were things that we talked about only among ourselves, and that was our true world—where we said the things we meant, and where we spoke freely and directly. Then there were the things we said to adults, and those were often false, or constrained and mannered. You had to be careful in talking to grown-ups, it was like talking to foreigners. They expected to hear certain things; they didn’t always understand you.

I myself had little practice in talking to grown-ups. I was the youngest, and was seldom asked my opinion. I did not understand how to blend the two ways of talking, or how to bridge the gap that lay between them. I knew that if I asked about Ree-ard I would be scolded for being fresh. But Sam could do it with impunity, his face and voice ingenuous. He asked as though it were a serious question, as though we thought Richard were a serious person.

“Oh, Richard,” Molly said, hissing the word, sounding bad-tempered at once. “Where is Richard,” she repeated rhetorically, and shook her head. She set the lid on a pot and wiped her hands on her apron, and we said no more about Richard.

Besides Richard, Molly had a daughter named Margaret. We seldom saw Margaret, she didn’t live at Weldonmere. She didn’t even live in the Park. She lived somewhere else, in an apartment, and she worked in an office, for a married man. My father worked in an office, and he was a married man, but somehow these things set Margaret in a mysterious region, exotic and sinister.

In the car, my father had spoken to my mother in a voice slightly lower, more private, than the one he used for the whole car. It made me alert at once, and I leaned forward, listening. My father said to my mother, “Margaret’s going to be there.”

My mother looked at him and said, “And—?”

My father, not looking at her, said, “I suppose so.”

My mother turned away and said, “Poor thing.”

I was listening to them as I always listened to my parents, in order to understand the world, though what they said often made things more confusing. The tone of voice my parents used about Margaret meant, I knew, that they would not answer my questions about her. If I asked my mother what she had meant by “Poor thing,” or why it was so serious and important that the man Margaret worked for was married, she would smile at me and make her voice louder and more public and say, “Oh, it’s just a conversation I’m having with your father, that’s all.” She would tell me nothing. I knew that this language I was trying to learn could not be learned directly, that it was something that had to be absorbed blindly and obliquely. I knew that we were to have no help with it. We would have to learn it through signs, inflections, looks and sighs and tones of voice.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I watched Abby eating. If I didn’t eat fast enough, or if I didn’t eat the vegetables, she might tell on me, if she were in a spiteful mood. Now she was pretending to ignore me, but I watched her anyway, as I ate. I ate the soft pillowy lima beans one by one, watching Abby’s fork across the table. I looked at her face when I was halfway through and saw that she was watching something behind me. She picked up her milk glass and drank, still watching, her eyes intent. I turned around.

At the far end of the kitchen was the back staircase that led up to the servants’ wing. I had never been up it. Now, sitting on the upper steps and looking at us, was a little girl, my age. She was pretty, with dark blue eyes and brown hair thick around her face. She was wearing a long pale blue nightgown, tucked down over her feet. Her hands were hidden in her lap, and she was watching us. I had never seen her before, this girl my age. She was with us here in the house, sitting on the back stairs, looking at us.

The four of us watched her as we ate, not speaking. The girl did not move. She was watching us through the wooden banisters. Once she raised her hand to tuck back her hair, which had fallen across her face. Her skin was very pale. She put her hand back into her lap and then leaned her face against the banisters, looking through them as though they were bars.

She was living here in the house. I wondered if she would be there in the morning, opening presents under the tree. Would she have a stocking? I felt a kind of private outrage rise up in me: how could there be a girl like me here, my age, my size, in our family’s house?

Molly, hearing our silence, turned from the stove and saw our stares. She looked at the staircase and erupted.

“You get out of here,” she said to the little girl, and started over toward her. “Get back up those stairs. You’re not to come down here, and you know that. I told you that, go on, get up there.”

Before Molly could reach her, the little girl stood and ran back upstairs. She didn’t look at us; she fled. We saw her feet, which were bare, and the bottom of her pale blue nightgown, and then she was gone. Molly turned without looking at us and went back to the stove in a temper, banging the pots. We looked at each other in silence and went on eating.

When we were finished, we were sent through the pantry into the dining room and then the living room beyond, where the grown-ups were. They were sitting in front of the fireplace, on big sofas and chairs covered in blurry flowers. Huge lay on the rug, and he raised his head when we appeared, his tail thumping.

Coming into the living room, we passed the Christmas tree, tall and glittering. We stopped, staring at the packages beneath it, eyeing them for size, trying to decipher names on the tags.

“I have more than you do,” Jonathan said to me under his breath.

“You don’t,” I said, tilting my head sideways to look for my name.

“Come over and say hello,” my father said. Sam was nudging a package with his toe, trying to shift it so the tag was visible. “And leave the presents alone. Don’t start pushing them around.”

“I wasn’t,” Abby said virtuously and went over to sit on the sofa between Grandmère and Grandpère.

“Sam,” my father said, and Sam left the packages and went over, giving an athletic kick in the air on the way, to show that he had really been practicing soccer, not nudging presents. I went over by the fire, and I felt the heat on my face. Outside there was snow on the long lawn that sloped down to the pond and the creek beyond. I could see the Christmas tree in the corner, rising in shimmering tiers, fragrant, brilliant, intricate. This was the reason we were here—stockings, presents, the boundless glitter of anticipation—but it was all before us still. There was nothing to do now but wait. The night ahead was endless, and I felt myself tingling with impatience and excitement, but our parents and grandparents seemed content here, sitting by the fire and talking, indifferent to the time moving so slowly.

I climbed onto the flowered sofa next to Grandmère. I loved the way she smelled, powdery and soft, and I loved her silvery curled hair. She smiled at me and patted my hand. “Sit here with me, Joanna,” she said, though I already was. Grown-ups were like this, awkward in their speech, saying things you already knew, or things you couldn’t understand. I smiled back at her and put my hands in my lap. She put her arm around me, and I leaned against her and gazed into the fire, and waited for it to be Christmas morning.

My father was talking about his work. I don’t know when exactly I began to hear the noise from the kitchen. I looked across at Sam, who was leaning against my father’s chair. He looked back at me, and we both listened. No one else seemed to hear it, they were all listening to my father’s story.

“It’s hard to get people from below the poverty level involved with community projects,” he was saying. “We try to encourage anyone who’s willing. We try to make it easy for them, and whatever they want to do, we try to help. Well, there’s a single mother, with two children, pretty far below the poverty level. She had volunteered once or twice at school, and then she told the counselors she wanted to set up a kids’ summer program.”

In the kitchen, something was happening. I could hear muffled noises, bumps and crashing sounds, and then voices, but they were indistinct. It was hard to imagine anything boisterous going on in Molly’s kitchen. Unless—it was too much to hope for—Tweenie had attacked someone?

“We told her we’d advise her, and we helped her set it up, but she was a dynamo, and she really did it all herself. And she paid for everything, supplies, and refreshments, whatever her costs were. She took eight children, five days a week for two months, and she charged nothing.” My father paused and took a sip from his coffee cup. He was sitting in an armchair across from Grandpère. “Well, I knew she couldn’t afford it, and I heard afterward she’d done a very good job. In the fall I wrote a report on the program and applied to the state for a small grant. Just a few hundred dollars, to cover her costs for the season and start her off for the next, if she wanted to go on.”

I heard a real crash, now, in the kitchen. Sam and I looked at each other.

“Tell about going to see her,” my mother said. She was holding her cup and saucer in her lap and watching my father.

“She lives way outside town, and doesn’t have a telephone, so I couldn’t let her know I was coming,” my father said. “I got directions and drove out there. She has a trailer by the road, at the edge of a big field. I knocked on the door, and after a minute she opened it. She’s in her thirties, overweight, with a pretty face. She seemed a bit wary, but she invited me in and offered me some coffee. The trailer was pretty crowded. There were plants everywhere, in jars and coffee cans, standing under the windows, lined up on the floor.”

There was more noise from the kitchen, a sort of subdued shout. I looked again at my mother, but she was smiling at my father.

“I thanked her for setting up the program and congratulated her on how well she’d done it. She looked at me for a moment, and then she thanked me, but she didn’t smile. Then I told her about the grant; I was very pleased about it. I watched her face, waiting for it to change, but it didn’t. When I finished, she didn’t say anything, she just sat there. I thought she hadn’t understood me, so I explained it again. She had small, very bright blue eyes, very steady. She sat with her hands tucked tightly between her legs. When I finished the second time, she still didn’t answer for a moment. Finally she said, ‘I don’t want the money.’ ”

Something, again, in the kitchen. I looked at Sam. His face was solemn.

“She said, ‘I started this program, and it feels like it’s mine. But if I take money from the state, it will be the state’s program. I’ll start worrying if I’m doing it right, or if I should ask someone how to do it, and I’ll worry that someone will come in and start telling me how to run it. So I don’t want the money. I’d rather do it on my own.’ ”

Grandpère was watching my father. He was sitting in a high-backed wing chair facing the fire, and I could see the firelight on his face. “And what did you say to her?” he asked. His face looked warm, as though he were about to smile, and it made me feel safe, watching my grandfather look that way at my father.

My father shook his head, rueful, smiling slightly. “There was nothing to say. It was her program. I wanted her to have the money, but I couldn’t make her take it. And I admired her for refusing it. When I was thanking her and congratulating her she hadn’t said anything, she’d just looked at me. It had made me uncomfortable at the time, and afterward I’d wondered if I hadn’t been doing, myself, just what she was talking about, trying to intrude onto something that belonged to her and the children she’d helped, instead of being helpful.” My father shrugged his shoulders. “There was really nothing I could do. I told her I understood her position, and that if she wanted help we’d give it to her in any way we could. I thanked her for the coffee and left. She was a very impressive woman.”

“My goodness,” said Grandmère, smiling. She shook her head. “A lady of principle.” She looked at me and patted my hand. I smiled back at her.

Now the noise seemed too loud and too persistent to ignore. My father said to Grandpère, “Do you hear something in the kitchen?”

Grandpère’s face had changed; he looked serious. He set his glass down on the little table next to the sofa. “I wonder what’s going on in there,” he said. “Sometimes Bud outdoes himself at Christmas revelry.” He stood up.

I looked at Sam: Bud! The fabled Bud!

“I’ll come with you,” my father said and stood up. Sam stood up too, but my mother shook her head.

“I think you children should stay in here with us,” she said.

The two men walked through the big arch into the dining room, toward the long portrait of Grandpère in his “pink” hunting coat. They pushed open the pantry door, and as it swung wide we could hear a voice, suddenly loud; then as it swung shut the voice was muffled again.

Grandmère and my mother looked at each other. Grandmère looked worried; her mouth had lost its smile. “I hope Bud isn’t making trouble again,” she said, “it’s so hard on Molly when he does that.” She didn’t move. The living room was quiet. The fire hissed and murmured, and its light flickered on the silver ashtrays. On the mantel was a round clock with a white face, with a black sphinx lying on either side of it. In the silence we could hear its steady ticks. The Christmas tree towered, glittering, in the corner. My arm was getting hot from the fire, and I moved closer to Grandmère. She patted my shoulder, pulling me toward her.

There was a roar from the kitchen. “You think I don’t know that?” It was a man, shouting, wild. Sam and I looked at each other. We heard Molly’s voice.

“Bud, don’t, for God’s sake. For God’s sake.”

Sam and I stared at each other. We would never have wanted to hear that tone of voice from Molly, pleading, imploring.

Copyright © 2005 by Roxana Robinson
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Table of Contents

Family Christmas 3
The face-lift 25
Assistance 41
Choosing sides 57
At the beach 75
Blind man 88
The treatment 107
Assez 122
Intersection 142
Shame 150
The football game 171
Pilgrimage 194
A perfect stranger 206
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