Before I can turn off the ignition, Steve appears in my window. He wears a green ski jacket, blue plaid flannel pajama bottoms, and tan suede shearling slippers. Steve needs a shave. I am ready to tell him that as I lower the window.
“Hey old man.”
Steve calls me old man because of the sweater that I am wearing. It is thick and red and wooly with three white reindeers across the chest. I wear it every Christmas since the girls gave it to me. It’s the only sweater that I own.
“We weren’t expecting you until dinner, old man.”
I fiddle with the keychain dangling from the ignition, a brass horseshoe that the girls gave me last year. “For good luck,” it said on the gift tag, written in Evie’s curly handwriting. I try to recall speaking to Evie on the phone yesterday about today. The horseshoe is hot in my hand from the heater blowing straight from the vent. I let go of the keychain and my right hand falls between my legs. I press my legs together to keep the hand from shaking.
“Well, you might as well come in.” Steve steps away from the car so I can get out. He gives me a hug and a small kiss on my cheek. He smells like unbrushed teeth and cappuccinos. As I pull away from his face, I notice some of my own smell clinging to a small spot on his stubbly cheek— a little of last night’s gin, and after-shave, the expensive kind that the girls gave me last year for Christmas.
“Merry Christmas, old man.” I walk with Steve along the winding brick path to the house. I admire how well Steve has shoveled the path, how it is wet yet snowless, and how the front yard is a smooth white blanket without drifts, holes, animal tracks or footprints. Steve has done a good job on the house—little white lights outline each window. From the car each one looked like a perfectly wrapped gift.
I enter the hallway and hear music. It’s not jazz music, which was always part of the problem. It’s folk music, that singer-songwriter stuff, and Evie stands at the stove and sings along. She wears a long tight red velvet dress that almost hits the floor. She stirs something thick in a pot with a long wooden spoon. It hits me hard, like a shot of cold air from a cracked window, like the heat from the vent in my car that I am too drunk to figure out how to close. How old is Evie? She wears her hair in two long braids that fall in front of her, skimming each breast. We were the same age when we met.
Evie turns to me and stops singing long enough to smile and say “Oh no old man. Not that damn sweater again.” The girls appear out of nowhere, pressing their small heads into my belly, saying “hi daddy” and “Merry Christmas.” They seem happy to see me, which always surprises me. I grab each of the girls’ soft faces and hold them in my hands. I hate to say it, but neither of them is as pretty as their mother, and I know that they will never be.
Steve races upstairs to change and shave. I sit down at the table with the girls as Evie drops heavy spoonfuls of oatmeal into our bowls. It is twenty minutes before Steve comes back down dressed in a white button-down shirt and fancy blue jeans. He pulls two tiny tumblers covered in Christmas trees from the cabinet and fills them with eggnog. It is strong and sweet, and the creamy foam sits too long on my tongue. I wish that he would forget the foam and fill those tumblers with the whiskey, maybe a little ice, but I know that would not be good for the girls to see this early in the morning. They make smiling faces in their oatmeal with dried currants and cranberries.
Steve talks about people we know, some guys we used to work with at the firm. I drink the eggnog fast and change the subject to jazz.
I tell them about the records that I bought at the fair in New Haven, and the ones that I found on-line. I tell them about what I listened to last night, the parts that I remember, the smoothest sounding trumpet bopping heavy and dressed down in blue. Steve pours me another eggnog as Evie gathers the breakfast bowls. Another folk song plays—a whiny female voice and a maudlin violin. Under the table I tap my foot to a beat that I found in my head, the lost sound of a snare drum. I take a long sip of eggnog and it all comes back, folding in together, a hand smacking the wide neck of an upright bass, fingers plunking thick strings. The heat from the whiskey goes straight to my face, burning my cheeks and eyes, stinging the back of my throat just sharp enough to make me smile. Evie sings along with the whiny female and the marriage of their voices cannot break the beat in my head. I tap hard—my knee slams up against the top of the kitchen table.
Steve gets up and goes to Evie at the sink. He places three fingers into the small of her back. It seems like a good place to touch her, and she gently pushes her pelvis against him. I do not remember what that part of her back looks like, but all I can see is a soft white space spread out like the front yard. I am happy that he touches her there.
Evie turns around and that feeling hits me again—her braids rock gently across her chest. How old is Evie? There is a break in the maudlin song then it changes. Now it is upbeat, with a fiddle and three harmonized voices. Evie sings along, her smooth white face staring straight at me. I tap my foot wildly under the table.
She is too young for me.
She is too young for Steve, who stands back and lets his wife sing boldly and badly in the middle of the kitchen that I bought, the kitchen that he gutted and re-designed. I tap harder and faster, and I feel the flask attached to my leg loosen and slip down to my ankle. It is sterling silver and filled with warm gin. Evie had my initials engraved across the front. She and the girls gave it to me that Christmas when things really fell apart. “I’m taking the girls and we’re leaving,” she said, but she never went anywhere. Steve came by that night and I packed some things in oversized garbage bags. He helped me stuff the bags in my trunk filled with empties that I was hiding from Evie. I drove drunk to my mother’s house and never left.
She’s too young for two unpretty daughters, who sit straight up in their chairs and laugh out loud at her off-key singing.
Evie is too young for everyone. She is too young for silver flasks, brass key chains, glass empties and a cool shaky hand.
She is too young for jazz.