“The noble Duke of York
He had ten thousand men
One day he marched them up the hill
And marched them down again.”
Shawn’s sister Beverly sat on the couch, doing the squat-down, stand-up song with her three-month-old, Audrey Nichole. Shawn had never noticed what a pleasant voice his sister had. But he had never heard her sing to her daughter.
“And when you’re up, you’re up
And when you’re down, you’re down
And when you’re only halfway up
You’re neither up nor down.”
Tacoma squeezed his hand and whispered, “Adorable.”
“Take your pick.”
Shawn sipped from his egg nog, then plucked some needles from the Christmas tree and offered them to Tacoma.
“Mmm. Blue Spruce. Can I rub this all over your body?”
“Please! My parents are somewhere within this zip code.”
“Oh, sure. Wouldn’t want them to think we’re having sex.” Her smile quickly fell. “Do you think they like me?”
“They adore you. I’m more worried about me.”
“I skipped town! Flew the coop.”
“No. I saw that look in your mother’s eye. She was overjoyed to see you. And your dad’s a pushover. You should read this story, ‘The Prodigal Son.’”
“Hah! Any excuse to proselytize.”
“Heathen. Pagan. Egg-nog-stic.”
“Bible thumper. Jesus freak. Press-byterian.”
They were interrupted by Madison Turk, who leaned his head through the kitchen door. “Shawn! Up for some horseshoes?”
“You shit!” Tacoma whispered. “Weren’t even gonna tell me.”
Madison took a step inside and laughed. “Got more horseshoe pits than septic tanks in Ellensburg.”
“Dad, you’re gonna be real sorry.”
“Because! She’s gonna whoop your butt!”
“Well, bring it on!” said Madison, ducking back outside.
Shawn helped Tacoma to her feet. “See? Adoration.”
They started in cold sunlight. By the time Madison eked out a four-of-seven victory, a storm front marched over the mountains like the Duke of York and began peppering them with snowflakes. They spent the remainder of Christmas Eve eating oven-warm chocolate chip cookies and watching curtains of snow drifting through the backyard lights. Tacoma kept using the word “perfect” in a sentence.
The next morning, the family managed to put off the gift exchange till ten o’clock. Tacoma was fixated on the view out the window, a foot-deep blanket of white stretching for miles.
“Perfect. It’s just like Pittsburgh, only... less crowded and noisy and dirty.”
“Be quiet and open your present,” said Shawn. He handed her a small box wrapped in a green tartan.
“Let love and friendship reign.” She cradled the twin claddaghs in her palm. “How...”
“Lovely.” She reached up to kiss him.
“Watch out,” said brother-in-law John. “You keep that up, you’ll wind up with one of these.” He held up Audrey, a fresh trail of spit-up at the corner of her mouth.
Beverly, Tacoma and Shawn gathered in the rumpus room, decorated with posters of Nirvana and Soundgarden from Shawn’s youth. The wood paneling was rung about with rickety aluminum shelves, piled high with board games no one played anymore. Shawn noticed they were using the “Stud” brand playing cards he had given to Tacoma. He hoped she had removed the joker, a smug-looking horse to which he had attached a dialogue balloon full of sexual innuendo.
Tacoma grinned and slammed her cars to the table.
Beverly looked confused. “Um... are we still playing gin?”
“Hard to explain,” said Shawn, laughing. “Hi Mom. Time for dinner?”
Helen Turk stood at the door, sucking on a pencil. She took it out and tapped it on the back of her neck.
“No. Um... Tacoma? There’s a phone call for you, dear. You can take it in the master bedroom, if you’d like some privacy.”
“Oh, yes. Thank you. Probably my mom, making her Christmas call.”
A half-hour later, Shawn was setting out the silverware when he heard Tacoma calling his name. She met him halfway down the hall, tears in her eyes, and held him a long time before she could speak.
“Grandma’s dying,” she said.
The stump sat on the property line between the Turks’ and the Fishers’. It was broad enough for two, sheltered by a hedge for privacy, and smoothed out by years of makeout sessions. Shawn had often thought he should make it official and lay down some varnish.
He watched the lights of a semi curling down the 82 pass. The other side offered barren scrublands, rolling up from the farm towns of Union Gap and Yakima. They probably looked good right now, clean and sharp with snow.
Wendy came down the driveway, hands in pockets, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Hi pal. Wanna neck?”
“Better not,” said Shawn. “Your daddy’s a bible-thumper.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No. Tell me about it.”
She joined him on the stump. A pickup rumbled past. Reading the twosome as a tryst, the driver rolled down his window and let out a raucous “Woo-hoo!”
“Shore do miss the white trash of Ellensburg,” Wendy drawled. She rubbed a finger along her naked ear. “I took out all the paraphernalia, which seemed to help. Can’t hide the blue hair, though. Caught Mom staring at it several times.”
“Still. I give the Rev and his wife some credit. I think they realize I’m back on a probationary basis. Hope they don’t bite their poor tongues off. How’s Tacoma?”
Shawn kicked the backs of his feet against the stump.
“Saw her off an hour ago, pumped up on coffee. She’s got a flight tomorrow at SeaTac. Thanks for giving me a ride.”
“Sure. Thursday morning okay?”
“Can you hold out that long?”
“Cool. I am enjoying hangin’ with the folks. Makes me wonder why I left.”
“I believe that was me.”
“Nah. Dad was right. I was looking for an excuse.”
Shawn turned his gaze to the northwest, where I-90 rose into the mountains, foothills glowing white under a low-riding moon. He pictured Tacoma driving up the pass, tired, anxious, looking for stations on the radio. Wendy could see the worry in his face, and felt a twin pang of jealousy and affection.
“Yeah,” said Shawn, snapping to.
“You really love her, don’t you?”
Almost subconsciously, he put a hand over his heart.
“Terribly,” he said.
Photo by MJV