It's fitting that Christmas should degenerate to this, its barest bones. The family has begun to seem to Therese like a pack of thespians anyway; everyone arrives, performs for one another, catches early flights out, to Logan or O'Hare. Probably it's appropriate that a party game should literally appear and insert itself in the guise of a holiday tradition (which it isn't). Usually, no one in Therese's family expresses much genuine feeling anyway; everyone aims instead--though gamely!--for enactments.
Each year now, the stage is a new one--their aging parents, in their restless old age, buying and selling town houses, moving steadily southward from Maine. The real estate is Therese's mother's idea. Since he's retired, Therese's father has focused more on bird feeders; he is learning how to build them. "Who knows what he'll do next?" Her mother sighs. "He'll probably start carving designs into the side of the house."
This year, they are in Bethesda, Maryland, near where Andrew, Therese's brother, lives. Andrew works as an electrical engineer and is married to a sweet, pretty, part-time private detective named Pam. Pam is pixie-haired and smiley. Who would ever suspect her of discreetly gathering confidences and facts for one's adversaries? She freezes hams. She makes Jell-O salad days in advance. She and Andrew are the parents of a one-and-a-half-year-old named Winnie, who already reads.
Reads the reading videos on TV, but reads.
Everyone has divided into teams, four and four, and written the names of famous people, songs, films, plays, books on scraps of wrapping paper torn off the gifts hours earlier. It is another few hours until Therese and her husband Ray's flight, at 4:30, from National Airport. "Yes," says Therese, "I guess we'll have to forgo the 'Averell Harriman: Statesman for All Seasons' exhibit."
"I don't know why you couldn't catch a later flight," says Therese's sister, Ann. She is scowling. Ann is the youngest, and ten years younger than Therese, who is the oldest, but lately Ann's voice has taken up a prissy and matronly scolding that startles Therese. "Four-thirty," says Ann, pursing her lips and propping her feet up on the chair next to her. "That's a little ridiculous. You're missing dinner." Her shoes are pointy and Victorian-looking. They are green suede--a cross between a courtesan's and Peter Pan's.
The teams are divided in such a way that Therese and Ray and her parents are on one team, Andrew and Pam, Ann and Tad, Ann's fiancé, on the other. Tad is slender and red-haired, a marketing rep for Neutrogena. He and Ann have just become engaged. After nearly a decade of casting about in love and work, Ann is now going to law school and planning her summer wedding. Since Therese worked for years as a public defender and is currently, through a fluky political appointment, a county circuit court judge, she has assumed that Ann's decision to be a lawyer is a kind of sorrowful affirmation, that it will somehow mean the two of them will have new things in common, that Ann will have questions for her, observations, forensic things to say. But this seems not to be so. Ann appears instead to be preoccupied with trying to hire bands and caterers, and to rent a large room in a restaurant. "Ugh," said Therese sympathetically. "Doesn't it make you want to elope?" Therese and Ray were married at the courthouse, with the file clerks as witnesses.
Ann shrugged. "I'm trying to figure out how to get everybody from the church to the restaurant in a way that won't wrinkle their outfits and spoil the pictures."
"Really?" asked Therese. "You are?"
The titles are put in two big salad bowls, each team receiving the other's bowl of titles. Therese's father goes first. "All right! Everyone ready!" He has always been witty, competitive, tense; games have usually brought out the best and worst in him. These days, however, he seems anxious and elderly. There is a pain in his eyes, something sad and unfocused that sometimes stabs at them--the fear of a misspent life, or an uncertainty as to where he's left the keys. He signals that his assigned name is a famous person. No one could remember how to signal that and so the family has invented one: a quick pompous posture, hands on hips, chin in air. Mustering up a sense of drama, Therese's father does this well.
Use of this excerpt from Birds of America may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1998 by Lorrie Moore. All rights reserved.
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