Macy set to carting the decorations up from the basement. Phil had been late home from work, but he’d done a quick change and headed off to buy the tree. After 25 years it was the same thing every Christmas. The only difference this year was the gas fireplace. Macy flipped the switch to warm up the room while she was getting the boxes. The fire didn’t have the crackle and smoke of the wood one, but it did the job, and without the mess of kindling and newspaper.
With the boxes spread out on the carpet, the sofa, the end tables, even the mantelpiece, she settled into her favorite armchair. If she’d labeled the cartons she’d have known which held which of the many ornaments the family had collected over the years. But then she’d have missed the best part, the surprise of discovering over and over again the half-forgotten treasures of Christmases past.
She pried up the cardboard flaps of the nearest box with the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. Under a layer of crumpled tissue she found two large red balls, survivors of the dozen she’d bought for their first Christmas together. Next she surfaced a jangling trove of bells, relics of the unbreakable ornaments she’d gone for when the kids were little. In a wad of bubble wrap she found the silver-flocked hockey ornament someone had given Craig when he was in pee-wee hockey. She put it back and opened a shoebox lined with yellowed newspaper. A tin star, a souvenir they’d brought home from Guanajuato years ago, shone through a tangle of blue beads. Nudging them aside she fingered the red and orange glass that filled the star’s crescent and triangular shaped cutouts. She remembered when they’d bought it, Phil saying the colours were bright and deep, like their love.
She heard him tromping up the wooden stairs. Time to help with the tree.
“Not many left, but I got a good one,” he said.
They went through the familiar routine; him crouching under the bottom boughs, trying to fit the tree into the stand, her steadying the trunk with one hand, biting her tongue while he swore. Then he tested the Christmas lights, replaced the burnt bulbs and started weaving the strings through the branches.
When the children were younger they’d helped Macy with the ornaments. Now, as if obliged to pick up the slack, Phil usually took a stab at hanging one or two himself before leaving the rest to her. When she was done, with the empty boxes still scattered around, she’d call him and, side by side, they’d breathe in the scent of pitch and evergreen, admire the festive tree and invariably declare it “the best ever.”
Phil tweaked the last of the light holders onto a branch and plugged the lights in. Macy eyed the tree. If the lights weren’t evenly distributed she’d adjust them before she started decorating.
“Looks good,” she said and bent to select the first ornament. She held the tin star up, twisted it this way and that to catch the light of the flames.
“Remember this one?” she asked.
“Where shall we put it?”
Phil didn’t respond. He was sticking a hook into an old-fashioned plaque enameled with a snow scene, icicle-festooned window and all. Heavier than it looked, it bent the branch he hung it on.
“It’ll fall off, it’d go better there,” Macy said.
“It’s okay the way it is. Put the star there,” he said, a bit testily.
“Here, you do it,” Macy replied, handing him the star. “I wish they wouldn’t shear the trees like this. There’s hardly anywhere to put anything.” She knelt down and came up with a red ball the size of an apple from the bottom of a box.
“Maybe we should have waited for the kids to put the tree up,” Phil said.
“I don’t think so. They only get a few days off and they’ll want to be out with their friends. Besides, the tree’ll make it seem more like Christmas when they get here.”
“What do you mean, more like Christmas? It is Christmas, Macy, for God’s sake. How can it seem more like Christmas?”
“Just for once, can’t you at least pretend to be in the spirit?”
Phil bent to retrieve another hook, turning his back to Macy.
“You’re right. Let’s try to get along. It could be our last Christmas. Let’s not spoil it.”
“What do you mean, last Christmas?” Macy asked. He wasn’t sick or something, was he? something he hadn’t told her?
Phil straightened up and half-turned towards her. “Ahh, Mace, I didn’t mean that. It just came out. It’s nothing. Forget it.”
“Forget what? What’s wrong?” Macy’s fingers tightened on the shiny red ball in the palm of her hand. Was it his heart, like his brother?
“Nothing, nothing, really.” He looked past her, toward the window behind the tree. “Well. I have to tell you sometime. Just, please don’t be upset. Don’t let it spoil things for the kids.”
“What? Tell me what?”
She reached for his forearm, but he took a step away.
“I saw a lawyer today. That’s why I was late.”
Macy’s stomach turned over, her breath stalled in her throat.
Phil was facing her now. His voice became deliberate, almost rote, as if he were saying lines he had rehearsed a thousand times: “About a divorce. That’s why I saw him, a divorce.”
Macy’s pulse stopped, the roof of her mouth felt freeze-dried; the red ball shattered in her fist. She didn’t feel its thin shards slicing into her hand.
Joyce Statton‘s poetry has appeared in Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine and Room of One’s Own, and she has been both a winner and runner-up in the Surrey International Writers’ Conference poetry contest. She has a novel tucked in a drawer and another in the works.