Tree sap popped inside the fireplace. Head slumped in a sagging recliner as old and rumpled as himself, Nathan Fletcher’s mind fixed on another Christmas. “Evening in Paris,” he muttered.
“What, Grandpa?” Bailey’s thumbs skipped atop a pink Game Boy. Her mother, Aletha, and Aunt Ann corralled leftovers, gossipy laughter spilling from the kitchen. William, Nathan’s only offspring, snored on the couch in carb overload, unaware of the green bow Bailey had fastened to his forehead.
Glistening holiday bulbs scalloped the eaves of Lum’s Dance Hall, melting the snow otherwise dusting sidewalks and De Soto Coupés. A huddle of shivering young men puffed on Chesterfields. The door opened and a cheery refrain of “Let It Snow” floated out. Inside, Lum’s was full to capacity; yuletide merrymakers in box-pleated fitted frocks outnumbering Sunday suits two to one. Gin and ginger margaritas lifted between spins of Autry, Sinatra, Tubbs and Crosby. Nathan took a last draw from his cigarette before crushing it underfoot, shook off the winter frosting, and stepped into a world far-removed from the farm.
Sophia smelled of roses and face powder the day he first saw her. Flaxen hair curved into a Betty Grable french-roll held secure with marcasite combs. Nathan noted a crinkly swoosh of organdie petticoat, arched eyebrows, ruby lips. Hell fire, he was a goner right then and there — a love-struck Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.
They’d stumbled into the acquaintance at a perfume counter, Nathan greener than wheat sprouts concerning female frills. Sophia dabbed some of this and that onto her wrists for comparison, then on her neck. He leaned in for a whiff, savoring catching a shadow of cleavage below dainty pearls.
“For your girlfriend?”
“Uh, no.” His back straightened. This lie still hot on his tongue, he sullied the commandment again. “My mother.”
“That’s sweet. Here — ” She found an indigo bottle among the display samples and spritzed. “ — try this, it’s my favorite.”
Sophia wrapped Nathan’s choice in silver foil and red ribbon. Amid hustle and bustle — sleigh bell chimes announcing shoppers entering and leaving — introductions were made and a serendipitous invite for Nathan to join her at Lum’s on Christmas Eve.
Neck burrowed into collar, he braced against the chill walking home, the gift box resting in his coat pocket. His fingers pressed the slick paper. All his life was connected to crops and critters. One family same as the next marrying into the next, making a passel of babies aimed at the same future. Easy to figure girls became farm wives. Some were fair to middling; the majority uninspiring. Stella Barrow was pretty enough, her knees didn’t knock and her teeth were straight. But her uninspired features faded into gray clouds and all Nathan could think was how Sophia reminded him of peppermint candy.
Good Christians, a dance hall was least approved by his folks, especially on the eve of the Good Lord’s birth. Nathan sidestepped particulars, saying he was off in pursuit of eggnog and caroling, his departure so swift the screen door fairly flew off its hinges. Anticipation kept the cold at bay, aided by two smokes to steady his nerves — he’d sweated a pond at the drugstore yesterday and wanted to be standing on dry ground tonight. Freshly polished loafers left prints soon buried under a crystal blanket.
Lum’s door opened to warmth and clamor. Nathan stomped snow from his shoes and scanned a lively crowd. Couples swung circles under soft light to “Here Comes Santa Claus”. Then Sophia was at his side. “You made it.” Her aqua sateen dress brushed against his pant leg. “Let’s get a drink.”
Skin prickled under coat, jacket, button down, and t-shirt and he knew he wasn’t in the company of fair to middling anymore. “Lead the way,” he said. Seated across from one another, Nathan pretended drinking was old hat while Sophia nursed a martini. “This is the first time I’ve been here.” He fingered mercury glass ornaments dangling from a candlestick centerpiece. “I’ve passed by. Just never stopped in.”
“I’ve been here once. With my girlfriends.” Their eyes met in candle glow as the music slowed with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Sophia fidgeted with the stem of her glass. “What do you do? When you’re not buying perfume for your mother, I mean.”
She seemed pure and worldly at once. Perfect qualities for a salesgirl. He’d buy air from her at any price. “I work on the family farm.” A long gulp finished his drink, stinging shot to the stars. “But I’ve got prospects. I’m interviewing at Fidelity Bank next month.” He wasn’t for certain if it was the gin or the tonic, only knew he wasn’t nervous anymore, wanted to tell Sophia everything crammed inside his head. “Farm life isn’t for me,” he said, smoothing his tie.
“It’s good to know what you want.” Sophia straightened her pearl strand. “Isn’t the music dreamy.”
“Do you want to…” Nathan rose, took her hand. He was the luckiest son-of-a-gun in the world.
Christmas morning he lay awake wishing the night was a liquor-dulled dream he’d wake from, but instead every recalled minute was agony. From the singe of gin in his throat to holding Sophia in his arms swaying to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to her perfume scent to the taste of her lips. To the blinding headlights, squealing tires… her blood-soaked dress.
“Bailey, gather your things,” Aletha said.
“You don’t say.” She nudged William awake. “Time to leave.”
“Dad, Grandpa’s talking in his sleep.” Bailey giggled. “About a red dress.”
William sat up with a sigh, plucked the bow off his forehead, and stuck it on Bailey’s nose. “You must’ve heard wrong, girl. Grandma Stella never owned a red dress in her life.”
Aletha nodded. “Stella always said such frivolity was for dance hall harlots.”
Wanda Morrow-Clevenger lives in Hettick, Illinois. A graduate of Long Ridge Writers Group and a previous contributor to Every Day Fiction, twenty-six pieces of her work embracing the human condition appear in: the Storyteller; Nuthouse; The Nocturnal Lyric; Up the Staircase; Flash Fiction Offensive; Leaf Garden; TheRightEyedDeer; Matter Daily; Short Story Library; Clockwise Cat; The Short Humour Site; Long Story Short; The Ultimate Writer; Conceit Magazine; Staccato; Golden Apple; and Daily Flash 2011: 365 Days of Flash Fiction. Forthcoming in Boston Literary Magazine and Falling Star Magazine.