With my last post before Christmas, I thought I’d write about my favorite Christmas books. Then I realized I didn’t have any.
Instead, I decided to post an excerpt from one of my works-in-progress, a scene that takes place Christmas morning. “The Seesaw Effect” is about Erin Murphy, a Democrat an important job, a loving husband and two kids. She ends up on the wrong end of the seesaw when she loses that job and her husband Jack becomes a famous talk show host on a right-wing TV network. This is their first Christmas since Jack became famous, and in addition to their kids Jessica and Michael, Jack has invited his entire large Catholic family to celebrate.
I hope you enjoy it! Merry Christmas!
With everyone scheduled to arrive at eight, that meant getting up at seven. Michael, of course, had been up since five, bouncing off the walls and begging to go downstairs. But we had already agreed to hold off on opening any presents until the entire family got here, a decision I regretted as soon as Jack announced it. I really didn’t want everyone looking at what we got each other. Especially since Jack liked to buy me sexy lingerie that embarrassed the hell out of the kids.
I had to drag Jessica out of bed, which was a big surprise. Last year she and Michael were both up at five, which is when we opened gifts. Then we went back to bed until ten. Last year was a very good year.
But I got everyone downstairs and ready right at the stroke of eight. Charles and Mary Margaret had been the first ones down, and they looked as excited as Michael.
We waited for the rest of Jack’s family to arrive.
Peggy and company were the first to get here, pulling in at eight fifteen and looking confused that they were the first ones here. They had boxes and boxes of presents loaded up in expensive shopping bags. Michael nudged Jessica and nodded excitedly at the packages. I couldn’t help but notice, though, as Peggy spread them around the tree, that each gift was marked for someone in her immediate family, save two small packages for her parents.
Peter and Melissa showed up at eight thirty. They had presents for their four kids – Tommy, Brianne, Stephanie, and Patricia – but nothing I could see for anyone else.
Then Elizabeth and Tony showed up a half hour later. They weren’t carrying any gifts, and I heard their daughter Meg tell Stephanie that they had opened everything in the hotel before coming over.
I could tell by the looks on their faces that Jessica and Michael were starting to realize that all these extra people were not going to translate into extra gifts for them, after all. They were polite enough to keep their mouths shut about it, but I felt their disappointment as well.
I was starting to get a little worried about the time. Not only was everyone starving, but my parents and sisters were coming over around eleven in order to get started on dinner. It would be embarrassing if we were still opening our gifts and eating donuts. Assuming the donuts would ever get here.
Finally, Chuck and his brood arrived around 10:30. Their arms were filled with presents and donuts. His wife, Allison, apologized for being so late.
“The kids were starving last night,” she explained. “Somehow we ended up eating all the donuts before bed. And then we had to drive around all morning trying to find a store that was open.”
Surprisingly, the kids attacked the donuts before heading to the presents under the tree. I only managed to snare half a cake donut before they were all gone.
Jack made a big deal of playing Santa Claus, doling out gifts one by one and insisting that only one person open a present at a time. The gifts were all the usual things – clothes for the women, sports memorabilia for the men, gift certificates for the kids. Jack’s family was too polite to say anything about the books I bought for them, but I could see that Jack was inwardly seething. But Jessica was truly excited about the new riding gear I’d gotten her, and Michael was impressed that I’d managed to track down some obscure European soccer merchandise.
“Santa has taken the initiative to save the best for last,” Jack announced. He still hadn’t given his parents, the kids, or me his presents, so I guess that was his definition of “the best.”
He pulled an envelope out from under the tree and handed it to his mother. She immediately tried to pass it off to his dad.
“You open it.”
“He gave it to you, M.”
“I guess we’ll just have to open it together.”
Gingerly, the two lifted the envelope flap and unfolded the piece of paper inside.
“Oh, Jackie,” Mary Margaret breathed.
“Son, this is too much,” Charles said. “We can’t accept this.”
I peered over my mother-in-law’s shoulder. Jack had given them a two-week European cruise.
“After everything you’ve done for this family, nothing is too much,” Jack proclaimed. “You deserve a little better than the Jersey Shore.”
“The Shore’s fine,” Mary Margaret said.
“I think Barcelona’s going to be a little better,” I said. I put on a big fake smile, but inwardly I was seething. I’d never been to Europe. I’d always wanted to go. But with work and the kids’ activities, we’d never had the time – or the money.
Chuck and Peter exchanged annoyed looks. Their amazing gift of a home theatre system – which wasn’t nearly as good as ours – was seeming even stingier by comparison.
“Oh, wait,” Jack said, reaching under the tree again. “It looks like there are more envelopes down here.” He pulled out another one and handed it to Jessica.
“If that’s another European cruise, there better be one under the tree for me, too,” I said. I was only half-joking. Okay, maybe I wasn’t joking at all.
Jessica tore open her envelope. Inside was a picture of a horse. Not a picture from a magazine, just a picture off a home printer.
“Dad,” she asked in a shaky, low voice, “why are you giving me a picture of Banjo?”
“Who’s Banjo?” Michael asked.
“Your sister’s favorite horse at the barn. According to her riding instructors, anyway. Well, no one’s going to be riding him except for you, kiddo.”
“You bought me a horse! You bought me Banjo!” Jessica shrieked in that high-pitched tone that only teenage girls could achieve.
“She’s all yours, honey.”
Jessica threw herself into Jack’s arms, and just like that, the last six weeks were completely forgotten and totally forgiven.
“Wow, a horse,” Amanda said with thinly veiled sarcasm. “I got a riding lesson once.”
“Yeah, Dad, thanks for the jeans,” Stephanie added.
“You can ride on him whenever you’d like,” Jessica said. “I’ll teach you.”
“Whatever,” Amanda said.
Jack’s entire family was furious, and he didn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed. He’d made his brothers and sisters look bad to their kids. Who does that? I wanted to pull him aside and give him a piece of my mind, but it was Christmas. The lecture could wait till tomorrow.
The doorbell rang. My mother must have been early, for once. I sprung up and answered the door. Instead of one of my blood relations, though, it was Bruce, our next door neighbor. He was carrying a large, wrapped box.
“Santa dropped this one off at our house by mistake,” he winked. “Michael better open it in a hurry.”
I carried the heavy, wiggling box into the house and placed in front of my wide-eyed son. I had a bad feeling I knew exactly what was inside.
“Hurry up and open it, son,” Jack instructed.
Michael tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Gingerly, he picked up its contents – a tiny English bulldog puppy. The dog immediately began licking Michael’s face. Michael giggled in delight.
“If I get one kid a pony, I have to get the other one a dog,” Jack said. “I think that’s the law or something.”
The dog peed all over Michael’s pants.
“Gross!” Patricia exclaimed.
“Glad I’m not the one who has to clean that up,” her mother chimed in.
“It’s just a little bit,” Michael said defensively. “He’s just a baby. What do you expect?”
“Jack, is that a pure bred?” Melissa asked. “Did you get him from a breeder?”
“Yep,” he replied. “I wanted the temperament, the English bulldog look. Got him from a great guy. Farm in Virginia. Only has ten dogs, only breeds the females once a year. ”
Melissa whistled. “That’s not cheap.”
Michael put the dog down, and he skidded all over the floor, going from person to person. The kids laughed. The moms all shot me sympathetic looks.
“Well, I thought I was done with potty training,” I said. “I guess not.”
“And middle of the night feedings,” Melissa said. “He’s a baby. He’ll be up crying all night long.”
“Oh, this is Michael’s dog,” Jack said. “Michael will take care of it. Teach him some responsibility.”
“When he’s not at school, or soccer, or doing his homework,” I said.
“I can be responsible,” Michael argued.
The dog peed on the floor.
“You can start that responsibility right now,” I said. “Grab some paper towels and some Pledge, and clean up the floor. Then you can change your clothes.”
“Okay.” Michael ran off to get the cleaning supplies. He seemed eager to prove himself. I wondered how long that would last.
“Did you get a crate?” I asked Jack.
“Crate? For the dog? That’s inhumane!”
“There’s nothing inhumane about it,” Melissa said. “Dogs like confined spaces. And crates are the best way to train.”
“We’re not putting the dog in a cage,” Jack declared.
I wanted to put him in a cage.
Michael cleaned the floor and changed his clothes. I put some old newspapers in the box the dog came in, setting up a makeshift crate. Too bad it didn’t have air holes.
“Dad,” Michael said, “what did you get Mom?”
“Yeah,” Jessica chimed in. “I thought you had a big box for her.”
“That I do,” he said. “Thanks for reminding me.”
He opened the hall closet. The wrapped box he dragged out was absolutely huge, and, judging from the way Jack handled it, pretty heavy. He dropped it at my feet with a flourish.
I tried not to get my hopes up too much.
“Open it, Mom,” Jessica urged. “That looks enormous!”
Eagerly, I tore off the professionally wrapped Christmas paper. The box was from Nordstrom’s. An entire new wardrobe could have fit into it.
“Come on!” Michael said.
I pulled off the top. And then I just stood there, because my brain literally couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me.
My husband had bought me a full-length mink coat.
“Oh, my Lord,” Mary Margaret breathed. “Is that what I think it is?”
“It sure is,” Jack boasted. “One hundred percent pure mink. The real thing.”
“It’s gorgeous,” Peggy said.
“Take it out,” Jack urged. “Model it for us.”
I was so numb, I did what I was told. The mink certainly felt nice – incredibly smooth and warm. And the coat fit like it was made for me.
Jessica watched me, her eyes filling with tears. “You don’t actually like that thing, do you, Mom?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Jack demanded.
“It’s murder!” Jessica shrieked. “Do you know how many minks they had to kill to make that coat?”
“They would have died anyway!” Jack said.
“No, they wouldn’t have,” I said. “They are specially bred on mink farms for the sole purpose of being made into coats.”
“Then their lives had meaning after all. I don’t know what you’re getting so worked up about. Minks are just bigger rats with nicer fur.”
“Mom can’t ever wear that coat,” Jessica said. “People will throw blood on her!”
Jack laughed. “Jessica, we love her and all, but your mother’s not exactly famous. And only famous people get blood thrown on them.”
“You’re famous. Doesn’t that make her famous, too?”
“She’s the wife of a Republican. And Republican women can wear fur. And eat meat. And drink ginormous cups of soda. It’s good to be a Republican.”
“It’s Christmas,” Mary Margaret said. “Jack has given us all some wonderful, wonderful things. Let’s not argue.”
“I’ll second that,” I said. “There’s plenty of time to argue later.”
“And I need someone to help me come up with a name for the dog,” Michael added.
I pulled Jessica into a one-armed hug. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “As soon as the holidays are over, I’m returning that thing.”
She smiled and wiped her tears away. And a small, petty, evil part of me was glad that Jack was the bad guy in her eyes once again.
Tune in next week, when Jack and Erin celebrate New Year’s!