"Lights?" Fritz said to James, when Ellen mentioned it at the table one evening. "Is this where your money goes, Jimmy? Lights! "
"It's my money too," Ellen said. "I work too," but Fritz ignored her.
"Gals, they are quick with our wallets, " he said, and he thumped the table next to James, laughing. Ellen looked at her plate because she was afraid that, if she looked up, she would see James laughing too. Then she got up and began to clear the table, lifting the fried potatoes away just as Fritz reached out to take some more. He stared at her. His eyes were bright and small. Pigs' eyes. You expect me to be afraid of you? she thought. The potato dish burned in her Palms.
When she'd first seen the scars on James's back, she hadn't known what they were. She traced one with her finger as he sat on the bed. It was several days after their wedding, and the first time she had seen his upper body in the light. She took her finger away when she realized he could not feel it.
"Pa was good with his belt," James said, and it was several years before Ellen saw him without his T?shirt again.
Now she stood in front of Fritz, hating him as James would not. Weak old man, she thought, dizzy with contempt.
James wiped his mouth on his napkin. "Pa's not finished, he said quietly.
"We're on a budget, remember?" Ellen said, and she put the potatoes on the counter.
You know I'm right. Fight him. Don't fight me.
But James got up and brought the potatoes back to the table, back to his father. Then he sat down and all of them, even the children, continued the meal without her.
Later, as they got into bed, James said, "We never had Christmas lights."
"What do you mean?" Ellen said. "We had lights last year, and the year before that, in the crab apple tree outside the
Then she realized the we was them.
"I am your family" she said.
She could feel the weight of his body in the bed, and she wanted to stretch out her leg, kick that weight far away. "I am your family," she said again, so angry she did not know what else to say She snapped off the lights and rolled to the far edge of the bed, imagining long dialogues that left James overwhelmed by her devastating arguments, her cool distance, her glib responses to his apologies. She woke to the alarm in the morning feeling as though she hadn't slept. Still, she knew that she had; James was pressed against her, an arm flung over her stomach. She tried to get up but the arm tightened, and they cuddled up then the way they had on weekend mornings in Illinois dozing and waking, discussing the week's small misunderstandings, laughing over meaningless things If we just had some time to ourselves, she thinks, we could talk to each other the way we used to. Maybe about nothing in particular at first, but even that would be a start.
Turning on to Main Street, she wants so much to have a good Christmas, a Christmas that will be the way they remember themselves, she and James, when they look back and remember the children as children, and themselves as young; when they sit in a lighted window at night with only the backs of their gray heads showing while strangers pass by and wonder who they are and who they were. So far, there have been few memories they can actually share. When Amy was born, James was in Ann Arbor. When Bert was born, he was north of La Crosse. Christmases and Easters, birthdays and anniversaries, James is usually on the road. Ellen never used to mind. He'd call from motel rooms, from gas stations and restaurants. What's new? he would say, and she'd bring him up to date. But lately she's realized that he doesn't listen, or if he does, he quickly forgets. It is a lonely thing, remembering for someone else, and she's grown to envy her sisters, whose husbands come home every night for supper and sit down in the same places, their own places, at their tables to eat.
Copyright 1998 by A. Manette Ansay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Avon Books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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