The drive home from Depauw was much shorter than Mary would have liked. Even with the snow that slowed traffic to a crawl, and her brief detour into downtown Orland Park, it was barely past two when she pulled into the driveway at her parents' house.
She had planned to get there after everyone else — if Elsie and Saul's bickering wasn't enough to keep her mom and dad's attention, Jack and Lucy and Lucy's enormous belly were more than up to the task. Hell, even whatever was going on with Peter. He never had to actually be there to dominate the conversation.
But, no. The Impala was in the garage, dwarfed by Ox's big extended-cab truck. Saul's car was missing from his drive next door. Jack's truck was nowhere to be found.
She was on her own. If she lasted five minutes without blurting out everything, it would be a real Christmas miracle.
Mary took a deep breath, then another. She closed her eyes. "You can do this," she told herself, and cut the engine.
Ox was waiting inside the front door when Mary let herself in. He hovered near a potted poinsettia, petting its leaves as if he had known it existed prior to his needing the excuse.
"There's my girl!"
He wrapped her up in a bear hug before Mary managed to do any more than tug the stocking cap off her head. She threw her arms around him, too, breathing in the powdery laundry detergent scent that lingered in his shirt. There was cigar smoke there, too, that dark peanut buttery smell that always clung after one of his walks around the block with Saul.
"Hi, Daddy," she said into his chest.
"What?" he said, wrapping his arms tighter. She squeaked against his shirt. "I can't hear you. Speak up!"
When she did, he lifted her up, like he used to when she was little. He tried, anyway, lifting her a little with a huff of breath that gave away what a strain it was. Mary helped by standing on her toes. The giggling forced out of her when he jiggled her from side to side was exactly the same, though.
"Put her down, Ox!"
"I can't hear you either, Midgey!"
Mary tapped her hands on his back to make him let her go. Just little taps, nothing like the time she'd landed on his back full-force while playing Macho Man to his Hulk Hogan.
"All right, all right," he grumbled. "Don't you bruise my kidneys again. Gonna need those suckers a few more years still. Good drive?"
She waggled her hand in one of his favorite gestures, and he winked back. "Damn Hoosiers still don't know how to drive in snow. The highway was a parking lot so I hopped over to 41."
"You took 41? Ugh, what a nightmare!" Midge grabbed her into a hug nearly as tight as Ox's. "And don't say damn. That curve outside Morocco? In this weather!"
"It wasn't so bad," Mary reassured her. "Not in the Buick."
"What'd I tell you? That's a good car. It's no Caddy, but it's dependable. Can't go wrong with a good American car, girly. You fill up the tires before you left?"
Before either could grill Mary any further, her parents started bickering over what was proper conversation "before the girl even gets her damn shoes off," to quote Midge's most common homecoming refrain.
Mary left them to it, hauling her suitcase upstairs to her room—still decorated with all the touches that made it feel both like her room and a stranger's: posters of wild-haired bands and no-nonsense actresses still tacked to the wall; her mother's half-finished and abandoned knitting tangled on the floor by the closet; an enormous pile of folded quilts piled up on the foot of the bed.
"Don't get too comfy up there, college girl," Ox yelled up the stairs. "Down in the shop, I gotta whole pile of chores with your name on 'em."
Mary rolled her eyes, but she couldn't wipe the grin off her face. It was so nice to be home, to be swallowed up in the same ridiculous, raucous energy that she'd found so tiresome as a teenager.
Even if that little ball of dread was still spinning in her stomach.
* * *
"You bring me anything nice?" he asked when he let her go. "Maybe a little of that fudge you brought home last summer?"
"I thought you weren't supposed to eat sugar anymore."
"Ahh, what the doctor doesn't know won't hurt her. Besides, I brought your grandma. Surely that gets me some kind of a treat."
It was impossible to say no to him, but Mary tried anyway. "I'm more worried about the fudge hurting you, regardless of the doctor."
"Nah," he scoffed. "Fudge is a miracle food, don't you know that? What are they teaching you up at that school?"
"Down!" came the imperious correction.
Saul mumbled to Mary, "What is she, a cartographer now?"
Aloud, he said, "Down at that school."
"Never mind all that," Elsie called, already bored with whatever impulse had made her correct him in the first place. "Stop hogging my granddaughter! She didn't come all this way to entertain an old man."
"You're five years older than me!"
"I'm three years younger, thank you very much!"
"On what planet?"
The rest of their argument was lost in hugs and demands to know everything she'd seen and done since she was home at Thanksgiving—a recitation that lasted barely long enough to walk from the living room to the kitchen. Elsie kept a firm grip on Mary's arm the whole way. Her balance was terrible, had been getting more so for years, but she refused to give up her heeled shoes.
"I've never thought myself short," she would say whenever anyone tried to reason with her. "And I'm hardly likely to start now."
Midge was pulling potatoes out of the oven with her bare hands, dropping them onto the stovetop with little hisses. Mary deposited Elsie at the breakfast nook, then chased her mother around with a pair of oven mitts.
"It's fine! I've been doing this since before you were born. A little hot potato's not going to kill me."
"If it doesn't, I might!" Mary threatened, snapping into the rhythm of the old argument as if she hadn't been away at all.
Midge flapped a hand at her. Mary slipped one of the mitts on it, then used the other to tap her mother's face.
The soft grip of Midge's hand on her chin was expected. The loud, wet raspberry against her cheek, too. The sudden sting of tears in her eyes, not so much.
"You're a pain in my ass," Midge complained, with another, louder raspberry. She followed it with a soft kiss. "It's good to have you home, baby."
"It's good to be home." Mary pulled her mom's hand away from her face and slipped the other mitt on it. "And don't say ass."
* * *
"Jack doesn't really use any of this in his stuff, does he?"
"How should I know? Your dad gives him buckets of this crap. Who knows what he does with it."
He settled onto a stool with a loud sigh and pulled a cigar from somewhere. The end was dark with saliva and chewed up like a dog toy. He made quick work of trimming it with the cutter he kept in his pocket, and resumed chewing on it.
"You don't have to keep me company," Mary told him. "I know my way around."
"I don't know. Been a while since you were here. Might've changed some things around."
"I was here a month ago!" She brandished a handful of two-penny nails at him. "Someone stole the last of the dark meat right off my plate."
"Must've been somebody else. You know I can't eat dark meat." He looked thoughtful for a moment, that familiar smirk pulling at the side of his mouth. "Probably Lucy. Big as a house these days."
Eye-rolling never had much of an effect—except to give her parents a reason to ground her when they didn't have anything else—but Mary deployed a big one anyway. Saul's smirk grew to full-strength.
"So what really took you so long getting home today? Classes have been out for days already and they don't tend to keep the dorms open for kids who have homes to go to."
Of course Saul would know the term schedule at Depauw. The dorm regulations, too. Why wouldn't he? Forty years in the administration building at Northwestern, the guy picked up a thing or two million.
"I never said I was still in the dorm." Some distant corner of her brain was shrieking that she was getting too close to the things she didn't want to talk about, but this was Saul. There was nothing he kept better than a secret. Just look at Lucy. "If maybe someone were to assume—"
"Ahh," he said, laying a finger aside his nose. "All right, that's a conversation for somebody else."
He went back to chewing his cigar and staring into space. Mary slowed her movements so that each plink of a nail in its pile followed the little whistle of breath between Saul's teeth.
"I stopped in Orland Park," she said after a few minutes.
He squinted, and pulled the cigar out so he could ask, "What the hell for?"
"To talk to Lou." Mary dropped the last handful of finishing nails into a jar and screwed the lid closed.
"Your dad know?" Saul waved his hand. "Never mind, stupid question. So, how'd it go with Lou? You don't have to give me details, unless you want."
Mary could feel the smile struggling back onto her face, fighting against her withering desire to keep her cards close.
"It went pretty good," she said, aiming for somewhere halfway between playing it cool and jumping up and down shrieking about her plans. "I think, anyway. I said what I went there to say, and Lou listened."
Saul looked like he'd swallowed something painful, but he nodded and smiled at her. "Good. Good." It took a few seconds for him to replace the cigar in his mouth. A few seconds more for him to chew and look sour, then remember where he was and try not to look sour, ending in another pained look and the cigar coming back out yet again.
"No, no," he said. "I'm gonna need details."
Mary was only too happy to oblige.
* * *
"C'mon already, Midgey!" he was shouting toward the kitchen. "I'm starving!"
"In a minute!"
Mary walked up behind him and pinched his ear. "You could get your own food, Daddy."
Ox grinned and swatted at her legs. "Yeah, but your mom's so good at it."
This time it was Saul who did the eye rolling, but he sat down near Ox and unfolded his own napkin into his lap. The cigar had disappeared.
Mary went into the kitchen and found it almost exactly as she'd left it. The potatoes were still sitting on the top of the stove; the bowl they were supposed to be in still in the drying rack next to the sink. The butter and a tub of sour cream sweated on the counter.
Midge and Elsie sat at the breakfast nook, cards strewn across the table between them and tally pages at their elbows. Mary peered at both and found neither one had a score that matched what the other had written through any of the rounds they'd already played.
"Pull up a chair!" Elsie twinkled up at her. "We'll deal you right in, my dear."
"Into your imaginary game? No, thanks."
"It's not imaginary; it's Hand and Foot! I taught it to you myself."
She had, that was true. One long summer when Mary had a broken foot, while Midge was still working and the boys were already out of the house, she had spent every day with Elsie as her rather irresponsible babysitter. They'd absconded with the car to the wilds of Wisconsin; ridden the El from one end of the city to the other; and Elsie spent multiple hot and muggy afternoons confusing the stuffing out of Mary with the rules of a game that contradicted itself every other hand. Mary still wasn't sure it wasn't entirely made up, with points that didn't matter and strategies that were pure fiction.
As she watched, Midge laid down a pair of diamonds, which Elsie immediately countered with a two of clubs. They made disappointed noises at each other, each scribbling on her score sheet, then Elsie swept the cards into her hand.
"I'm coming!" Midge bellowed back. She pushed to her feet with an exaggerated groan. "My God, you'd think he hasn't eaten in days. Ma, put me down for a quad. I'll make it up next hand."
"Whatever you say, dear."
"Mary, help your grandma into the dining room. I gotta do something with these potatoes."
Before she could entirely lose her nerve, Mary squared her shoulders and said, "Why don't you let them cool some more? I'd like to talk to you. You and Dad."
Elsie patted her arm and gave her a big thumbs up and wide smile. The topic never mattered, not as long as she could be her granddaughter's cheerleader.
"I'd like to talk to all of you, actually," Mary amended.
* * *
Midge was the first to say anything. "All this time we've been calling her your roommate and she's your girlfriend? Mary, baby...."
"I didn't know how to tell you. I thought you'd be upset?"
"Upset?" Ox hooted, and shook his head. "Upset, she says."
"Be quiet!" Midge took Mary's hand. "Oh, honey, you never have to be scared to tell us anything."
"Yeah, but, I thought... I mean, me and Carla, it's only been a couple of weeks... And you're not exactly— Ow! Ma, quit squeezing!"
"Oh, here we go," Saul said, none too quietly.
"You thought—" Midge sputtered. "You thought we'd—"
Midge's face flushed while she fumbled for words, but she didn't let go of Mary's hand. If anything, she squeezed harder.
"Hey!" Mary protested.
The front door opened, and Jack and Lucy came in, shedding snow and hats and coats in the hallway. They took one look at the scene in the living room, grimaced in unison, and detoured down the hall to the kitchen..
"Just gonna check on this dinner!" Jack called.
"Smells great in here, Ma," Lucy said. "So happy you're home, Mary!"
"Don't you eat any of those potatoes!" Midge bellowed.
Saul groaned to his feet. "I'll keep an eye on 'em." He winked at Mary, but abandoned her all the same.
"Mary Margaret Callaghan,I can't believe you," Midge said, finally letting up on the death grip to shake her daughter's arm in mid-air instead. "I walked those boys to school every morning and then helped with the hotline over at the Mattachine! I did Pearl Hart's billing for twenty years!"
"She doesn't know who Pearl Hart is!" Ox grumbled.
"Well, maybe it's about time she finds out who Pearl Hart is!"
"She's a baby!"
Mary squawked. "I'm not a baby!" She pulled her hand free and crossed her arms. Uncrossed them a second later when she realized how it would look when combined with the ferocious scowl she couldn't wipe off her face.
"She's twenty years old, Ox, grow up." Midge crossed her own arms. "Her own grandma got arrested in Towertown, for God's sake! Before they kicked all the good places out. Three times!"
"Gram got arrested? What for?" Mary looked to Elsie, hoping for a rambling change of conversation that would take some of the pressure off of her.
Ox hooted again. "What didn't she get arrested for?"
"Hey, you're the one who brought it up."
Elsie looked as affronted as if someone had just offered to drive her to confession. "I only got arrested twice in Towertown, Margaret Ann, as you very well know. The third time was at that rally for nuclear disarmament in Skokie!"
"All right, Ma."
"Three times in Towertown. I was only in that burlesque for six months!"
Ox sighed and rubbed the top of his head. "Who cares who got arrested where! Let's back up to the other thing, girly. You stopped to talk to Lou?"
Mary cringed a little, inside. Outside, too, she realized when she felt the doorframe digging into her back. She pulled herself up straight. Even managed to stick her arms all the way out of her oversized sleeves instead of balling up her hands inside where they'd been most of the conversation.
At length, she nodded.
"What did that snake in the grass want?"
"For God's sake, don't talk about your brother like that," Midge scolded. "Only brother you're ever gonna have."
"Thank God," Ox muttered, not quite under his breath enough to escape Midge's smack to his shoulder.
"He didn't want anything," Mary said. "I wanted something."
Ox pointed right at her. "Nothing you can get in that shop I can't find for you. At half the price or better!"
"It wasn't something in the shop!" Mary's hands were balling up again, so she took a deep breath and counted to ten, then twenty. When she felt a little calmer, she tried again.
"It wasn't anything in the shop, Daddy. I took this marketing class last term—"
He didn't snort or scoff or roll his eyes at her, but Mary could tell it was a near thing. Ox had about as much use for marketing as he did Diet Coke.
She kept trying to find the right combination of words—had been for weeks, in fact. All of her practicing, all the perfect sentences to express to her parents how much she'd learned, how her priorities had shifted. They were all useless now, with both of them watching her. Elsie looked on encouragingly, but she'd no doubt stopped listening after her burlesque revelation. Mary was acutely aware that Saul, Jack, and Lucy would all be crowded behind the kitchen door, straining to hear the conversation without giving away how badly they wanted to hear.
Mary had expected this to be a hard conversation; not so much about Clara. Although she'd had some doubts about how open-minded they would actually be, she knew her parents wanted her to be happy and healthy above all. But right underneath those thresholds were their desire for her to be a hotshot lawyer or a doctor, something that lined up with all that potential they saw in her.
They'd be happy, and proud of her, if she chose something else, sure, but after Peter and Jack both ran pell-mell from them, Mary felt an absurd drive to get closer. Not necessarily to take over the business, but something like it. The idea of spending the rest of her life chasing down estate furniture wasn't so awful, but it wasn't what she wanted.
"I want to try selling stuff out of Lou's shop on the web," she blurted out, finally, elegant phrasing be damned.
Elsie clapped, beaming approval. "That sounds wonderful, Mary! You're a natural."
She likely didn't understand what any of that meant, but Mary's chest swelled with the encouragement.
"Thanks, Gram," Mary said, before more words tumbled out, about listings and pictures and real-time bidding. She moved forward without realizing it, until she was close enough to slip into a chair next to her mother.
Ox interrupted before she could wander down into a complex explanation of her shipping costs.
"What the hell's this web?" he asked. "Is that like the e-mail? Your mom got me set up on the e-mail, so now I never miss one of them notices from the county."
Midge, with a lot of support over the phone from Mary.
"It's kinda like that," she told her dad. "It's an auction site on the web. Like a computer version of going down to Lansky's with your paddle."
"I think I read about that in the paper," Midge added. "Ebert or Ebola or something like that? You remember, Ma, the thing about the Michael Jordan memorabilia."
"Oh, the Ebola!" Elsie cried. "It sounded like a wonderful service."
"Yeah, eBay, that's the name of it. It's kind of like a regular auction house, but it's all blind bids and people ship the stuff to you."
"Oh." Ox screwed up his face, looking up to the ceiling like maybe there was a better explanation up there. After a minute he turned back to Mary, a newly suspicious look on his face. "You're not dropping out of that school to do this, are you?"
"Do they still do the sport memorabilia on the Ebola?" Elsie asked.
"Yes, Gram," Mary told her. To Ox, she said, "Of course I'm not dropping out. I can do all the listings and stuff from there. I just need somebody to take the pictures and put them online for me."
Ox grumbled again. "I don't know if you should trust Lou to take care of that."
"Well, it's him or me, and I'd rather not drive back every weekend to do it. But I will, if I have to."
"Don't be ridiculous," Midge told her. "You're almost done. You need to concentrate on your school work. You teach us how to do it, me and Ma'll whip Lou into shape."
"And me!" Ox said, indignant. "You can't wave an opportunity like that right in front of me. How often do I get the chance to be a pain in his ass instead of the other way around?"
Elsie said, absently, "I bet I could get good money for that Michael Jordan baseball card. It's not like there'll be any others now. Mary, you could list that for me on the Ebola!"
"It's eBay!" Saul shouted from the kitchen.
"Mind your beeswax!" Elsie yelled back in a surprisingly robust voice. Shifting back to her usual sweet voice, she told Mary, "And you'd best call that girlfriend of yours and get her over here for Christmas dinner, if you know what's good for you. Stringing the poor girl along without introducing her to your parents! Honestly, between you and your brothers, I wonder how anyone in either of your generations ever gets laid without help from family."
Ox and Midge blinked at her. Mary stifled her laughter with her oversized sleeves, too carried away with excitement and relief to stop it.