‘John, for Christmas’ by Ethan Rutherford


From Ploughshares:

On the radio, they were calling it “snow-mageddon.” Joan had seen it on the news, as well, in a Doppler radar swirl that looked like a green hurricane, pulsing like a sick heart over the Cascade Mountains. The worst of it was supposed to hit tomorrow, midday, but already the snow had begun to fall in little eider-down flakes, salting the bushes, promising cover. Her husband, Thomas, was upstairs. Earlier this morning he called weather prediction an inexact science. It comes, it goes, one never knows, he said. A little song. But this particular storm couldn’t arrive early. John—their son, the actor, the writer, the maniacally depressed, self-proclaimed failure—was coming home for Christmas, driving up from Oregon with his girlfriend, and the thought of them stuck somewhere, the car they’d bought for him anchored in a snowdrift like a blunt splinter … It’d be on the evening news: the one person to freeze by the side of the road while everyone else got home safely, an accusation frosted on his features. Just like everything else, it would’ve been their fault.

She picked up the telephone, thought better of it, and put it back in its cradle. He’d call if he was stuck. And then, most likely, ask for Thomas. He wasn’t interested, these days, in talking to her. She unloaded half of the plates in the dishwasher before realizing they were dirty, then she loaded them back in, squeezed a dollop of gummy soap into the door, and started the cycle. The gift cards they’d bought for John were under the tree, along with the requisite sweater and a pair of pajamas she knew he’d never wear. The house had to be prepared, but she’d already done most of the cleaning. Thomas had to deal with the sick alpaca, which he’d been putting off. Dinner would have to be orchestrated. And she’d promised Sarah, the medical student who rented the garret apartment above their garage and who was not going home for the holiday (a catastrophic divorce, she’d told Joan, had made family more of an idea than anything else) that, if there was time, they’d move some wood over so she’d have enough to get through the weekend. Thomas would do it when he got back. He would, she thought, in passing, do anything for that girl. She was, in her own awkward and plump and helpless way, appealing to men like him.

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