It was chilly. Bill could feel it through the screen door. He shifted his weight a tiny bit, so that the ladder he was holding wasn’t digging into his side. He looked outside. Lilah sat on the misty grey porch. She was bent over forward, doing something he couldn’t see. Beyond her, he saw billows of snow laying on the crunchy grass like mismatched pillows.
“Bill, can I get by?” Jean, his wife, walked past him, sucking herself in so that she could pass him without brushing him. She walked onto the porch.
“Honey, please. What did mommy tell you about the lights?” Jean carried boxes of Christmas lights in her arms and passed her daughter and set the boxes down at the edge of the porch.
Bill sighed and pushed open the screen door.
“Jean, can you help me with this?” He stepped out onto the porch, holding the ladder. Jean bustled over to him, grabbed the end of the ladder, and they were able to carry it past the porch and onto the lawn.
“Let’s put the icicle ones in the front.” Jean said, setting her side of the ladder down below the gutters.
“Sure.” Bill said as he set the ladder down and breathed heavily against the chilly grey air.
“Then we can put the colored ones on that tree over there and the bush by the porch.” She turned from her Bill, and Bill saw her walk to the porch, and start to open boxes of lights. He watched her for a second as she pulled the green cords out and started to detangle them, pulling them straight with a bit more force than necessary.
“Mommy, these are my lights. Sally likes them. They make her dress pretty.” Lilah held a small doll with lights wrapped tightly around her for Jean to see, a look of indignation on her face.
“Yes honey that’s nice.” He heard Jean utter, lifting her eyes for a second to see the doll, and then turning back to pulling lights. Lilah pulls her doll back to her chest and holds it for a couple of seconds before setting it down disappointedly. Bill hears her get up and patter into the house. She continued pulling the dark green cords apart from each other. The cords were stiff from the cold, but Jean persisted until all the lights were in neat rows on the sidewalk. She looked up to see Bill watching her. He turned back to the gutters. He didn’t like to admit to himself that he was disappointed in her. He tried not to watch her anymore.
Only minutes later he heard her call for him.
“Bill, the lights are ready.” Jean’s voice was slightly muffled in the dense winter air. He trudges toward her in the snow, his hands in his pockets. He sees the rows of lights and leans down to grab the first string of lights. As he grabs them, he looks up to see Jean looking at him with a strange look on her face. Her dark blue eyes brimmed with tears. Her lips full and red, a slight cut was visible on her bottom lip, a bad habit of hers. He turns away from her, sickened by her appearance. He grabs the lights and heads over to the ladder, climbs up, and starts to clip each light onto the gutter.
As he stood on the ladder, clipping lights, he stopped and to wring his hands together, warming them. Bill’s hands were covered with thick gloves, but his hands were cold. He usually enjoys the cold, relishing the fact he can always bundle up and make himself warm. But no matter what he put on this morning, he still felt cold. As he moved along the house, clipping the lights, thoughts of yesterday flitted in and out of his mind and he tried to push them away, but they wouldn’t give. He held the lights in his hand, warming them with the small lights, wishing they would somehow fill him with some sort of joy. To neighbors passing by, he was simply a man on a ladder, putting up Christmas lights. But somehow he felt less than that, like he didn’t deserve to be putting up lights.
“Bill?” A small voice came from behind him. Jean was standing there, holding two mugs.
“Are you thirsty?”
“No. Thanks though.” He didn’t look at her, but kept working.
“Please. It’s cold. I made it for you.” Her voice quivered slightly, but persisted.
“I’m sure Lilah would like it. Really, I’m fine.” He said and there was a moment of silence before he heard her footsteps retreating. He hated himself in that moment. He knew he was hurting her. Why did he blame her? He didn’t, really. He just couldn’t look at her right now. Distance was the only thing that could help. The only thing.
She came back a couple minutes later. She hesitantly stood next to the ladder and looked up at him.
“Bill, I’m sorry.”
“You know what. I feel like it’s my fault.”
“Jean, it’s not your fault.”
“They may be wrong. Bill we could still try.”
“Let’s not talk about it right now.” He turned back to the lights. Jean went back inside the house, admitting defeat.
It wasn’t her fault. He knew this. But he couldn’t talk about it right now. Why does she always have to bring it up? Bitter thoughts weaved through him like the lights he was holding.
About an hour later, an excited pattering came from the porch. Bill turned to see Lilah come out of the house, running with her hands full of toys. He turned back to his work as Lilah stopped just short of the grass, and with a loud thunk, dumped the toys onto the frozen dirt. She plopped down and started to arrange them. After the elephant was next to the tiger, and the train was next to Sally the doll, she stood up and ran to get a new string of lights next to her Dad’s ladder. She grabbed the lights and pulled. As she ran, the lights trailed behind her, and the pile next to the ladder started to get smaller and smaller. The lights in Bill’s hand gave a startled twitch, then suddenly leapt out of his hands. The force from Lilah’s pull, and the tension from Bill’s hold took its toll. The lights clipped to the house waved like a snake, and the air was filled with the sound of thousands of popping glass bulbs. Then there was the slightest pause, before…
“LILAH..!” Bill’s voice pierced the air as the remains of the bulbs and green wire fell and littered the white ground. A neighbor stopped on his walk and looked up, startled. Jean stopped on the front step to the house, holding a plate of sandwiches. The snow even seemed to stop falling. Everything had stopped to see what would happen next. Everything was holding its breath.
Lilah stood about a foot away from her toys, still holding the limp strand of lights in her hand. She looked down and seemed to be surprised she was still holding them. She let them fall was a muffled thump. She looked at her dad, her eyes frosting over, the grey irises glazing with tears. Then gently, one by one, the tears fell. Her face twisted, contorted, and flushed with a sudden rush of red. She turned and ran to her mother and clung to her leg. The plate of sandwiches Jean was holding swayed dangerously as she tried to keep it steady in one arm and absorb the shock of Lilah running into her with the other. She looked up at Bill.
Bill was expressionless. With a calm air, he climbed down the ladder, his snow pants swooshing with each step. He didn’t look at his wife or his little crying daughter. He slowly walked past them on the porch, opened the screen door, and walked into the warm house.
* * *
Several hours passed before Bill finally emerged from his room. His head was pounding. Earlier, he had collapsed onto his bed, and had woken up with the biggest headache. He walked into the kitchen, and saw a scene he was quite used to. Jean was standing at the large granite stove top, a big metal pan in front of her full of steaming spaghetti sauce. There was a strong smell of garlic coming from the oven, and an empty bread basket next to the stove. She stirred with great care, holding the ladle for dear life. At the kitchen table, Lilah was drawing something. Crayons were scattered over the paisley table cloth. Her blonde hair was falling over the page she was coloring, her face so close to the paper, as though she were scared it would slip from under her. Bill started making his way to her, but stopped just behind his wife. He raised a hesitant hand and touched her shoulder. She twitched slightly, then turned her head around and gave him an impassionate nod. He took this as an “O.K.” and went and sat next to his daughter, folding his hands gently on the table. She looked up, and for the first time in a long time, he saw himself in her bright eyes. They carried heaviness within them, a weight that was never supposed to be there. But they were full of forgiveness. Knowing what he was going to say, she said nothing, but handed him the paper she had under her nose.
It was a picture of them. They were eating pizza together; just two little sticks with circles on the end, holding little red triangles. He remembered. It was when Jean was at a conference. He tried making Lilah maceronie, but it burned. So, they ordered pizza, and ate it on the couch while watching Beauty and the Beast. Under the picture there she had written (with the help of her mom):
I’m sorry I broke the lights.
Bill felt the tears stinging his eyes. He looked up at her, and saw her looking down at her hands. He grabbed her little hand and held it tightly in his. She looked back up at him, a hesitant smile on her face.
“I am so sorry for yelling at you. Will you forgive daddy?” Bill spoke softly.
Lilah merely smiled, jumped from her stool and ran off. Bill sat there patiently, and soon enough she returned to him, holding a brand new box of Christmas lights. They must have gone to the store while he was in his room. She held the box proudly in her two arms, presenting them to Bill with a wide grin on her face. Jean had now moved from the stove to stand by the table, holding the ladle, and watching them with a genuine smile on her face. Bill took the box from Lilah’s outstretched arms and looked down at them for a moment, before lifting his face to look back into her eyes.
“Will you help daddy put lights on our house?”
“Yes please.” She grabbed the box from him and started running toward the door.
* * *
The sky was a mixture of pinks and purples, a lake of swirled paint. Against the canvas of color, a small tan house was highlighted. Small lights lined the top of the house, frosted the bushes, and draped the trees. Small splashes of red, green and yellow lights tickled the landscape, creating a halo of light around the house. Snow gently drifted in the air, crisscrossing each other, creating a harmony of flakes that danced up and down then gently fell asleep on the great blanket left on the ground.
Lilah danced around the yard with Sally held high in the air. She wore a puffy pink coat and purple mittens. She would occasionally dip Sally down into the snow, soaking the doll in newly fallen snowfall. Then she would pop her head back and open her mouth wide, catching snowflakes on her tongue. Bill stood at the edge of the yard, admiring his work. His hands were deep in his pockets. Spirals of white expelled from his nose with every deep breath he took. His eyes stopped scanning the house and Lilah dancing in the yard, as he saw Jean approaching him from the porch. A warm yellow glow illuminated her figure as she walked slowly toward him. Her auburn hair falling gently on her shoulders, and her arms were folded from the cold. Her face became clearer the closer she got, like he was looking at her through an adjusting lens. She was finally only a foot away, and he could finally see the face he had fallen in love with. The small patch of freckles under her ocean eyes, the small, penetrating lips. Before she could say anything, he pulled her into him.
“I’m sorry.” He said, garnishing regret.
“I know.” She closed her eyes, “We’ll get through this.”
He let go her, but held onto her hand. They turned to watch Lilah. She was a gift he knew he didn’t deserve, but by some mercy he was allowed to have. As he held onto Jean, they both listened to her laughter, little bells chiming in with the gentle swoosh of snow drifting down.