The Surprise

THE SURPRISE
By Leonard Layne

Harvard University Extension School
Introduction to Fiction Writing / Bill Holinger

May 30, 2016 repaired version

When he arrived home from the office, Glen noticed that Nora was fit to be tied. She had been baking all week and cooking all day. It was Christmas Eve, finally. The house was all lit up with lights. The tree was glowing. The smells emanating from the kitchen were intoxicating, heavenly, fit for a newborn King–at least when he is grown, he thought. As he continued on his Christmas season reverie he thought, there certainly would be room in this inn. As he poured a glass of eggnog with a splash of rum, he reflected that, for the first time, he and Nora were empty nesters for Christmas Eve. The kids wouldn’t be home for their annual Christmas Eve festivities. They had each called earlier that month from their respective schools and said, despite considerable protest from their mother, that they would visit with friends.

“Friends?” Nora had asked her daughter

“Yes, friends, Ma,” Celia replied, with a tone that announced, “I’m grown and can make these decisions now.” Celia continued, “I’m flying out Christmas Eve and will be back home in a few days. It’s about this guy I’ve been seeing. No, nothing bad is going on. He just wants a guest for Christmas at his folks’ house.”

“Does his mother know you’re coming?”

Celia didn’t answer that question.

“Ma, you’ll be alright without me this one time. Besides, you’ll have Uncle Pete and Auntie Jenny and my cousins. Let’s see, that makes one, two thr… I think that would be ten plus the Brescias which makes sixteen.”

“Fifteen,” Nora interrupted, “oh, and a couple of friends, altogether twenty. By the way, your brother isn’t coming either. He mentioned something about visiting with friends and then skiing. Friends, may be okay for Spring break or something, but this is Christmas, a holy day. You should be with your famiglia.”

“Ma, I know all about the Christmas story, and don’t worry, I know it’s not just a story. And I will be home to be with the family in a few days.” Celia heard a faint suppressed tearful sniffle at the other end of the phone.

“Oh, Celia, did I ever tell you about the time my family was invaded by the Perichettis? My brother Marty’s girlfriend’s family invaded our house one weekend uninvited. Yea, my mother was fit to be tied. It was supposed to be dinner for two more, Maria and her brother Joey. But Mrs. Persichetti wanted to make an impression and showed up with virtually the whole Persichetti clan. Three more people showed up on our doorstep that night, uninvited. Let’s see, it was Mrs. Persichetti, Maria, Joey, and her daughters. To make matters worse she had the nerve to bring her own sauce! I remember my mother saying very quietly to Mrs. Persichetti, ‘You’re here, OK, but don’t touch my stove.’ in pretend broken English and wagging her pointer finger.”

Celia gasped, “That was quite a surprise.”

Nora replied, “I sure don’t want that kind of surprise. Oh, oh, wait, no, I have to go. Someone’s on the phone. I love you. Be careful and safe, Celia. Someone is trying to reach me on the other line. It must be about tonight. Oh I hope there are no surprises. I have to go. Ciao.”

“I love you too, Ma. Ciao.”

Glen tenderly embraced Nora.

“How’s my lady? Ready for tonight?” Nora retorted,

“All heck’s breaking loose! We have cancellations. Before you came in, I was on the phone with the O’neil’s. They can’t make it due to the storm. What storm? I don’t see much happening out there. Yeah, it’s snowing but..”

“Nora,” Glen interrupted, “I heard the news on the way home. It’s pretty bad on the other side of the state.”

Just then, the phone rang. Nora answered.
“It’s Marty Brescia,” she quickly whispered to Glen.

“Hi Marty, You guys still coming? Oh, I see. Yeah. Oh no. Well…It really is OK Marty. The others will eat my food that I prepared all week and slaved all day- Only kidding! OK, best to Edna and the kids. Ciao. Hey Glen, did you hear that about the Brescias?”

“Yeah, That’s too bad,” he replied, sighing.

This was serious business. This meal was expensive. She had bought the best fish, salted cod, shrimp, clams, squid, octopus, lobster and scallops for a real Italian Christmas eve feast, the Vigilia di Natale,(the Vigil or watch) for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. They weren’t Catholics, but the old traditions were strong in the family. Her father was from Southern Italy. They always celebrated The Seven Fish Feast. It’s what you’re supposed to serve on Christmas eve along with lots of macaroni and desserts like panettone and ricotta pie.

She was looking forward to the food but also to the guests, “the company.” She wanted them to feel special and to enjoy the feast. Nora wanted to have everyone together; the usual Christmas Eve crew, especially since her mother died in the late summer. She was old, but they felt she had a few years to go. It was unexpected.

The Brescias usually brought special wine and cannolis every year. What would she do? Well, Nora had wine and she had panettone for dessert, but Marty and Edna Brescia, her sister, were the life of any social event. This was real letdown for Nora, because her brother-in-law, Pete was the exact opposite of the Brescias. Introverted, dull and retiring, he always fell asleep at the diner table. Well she had her in-laws, whom she really did love. They were still coming. Glen was thankful for that, for her sake. He could see that she was in a fragile state, something he always watched in her.

He thought to himself, “How does this otherwise robust, independent, confident woman become so stressed out at the times like this?”

“Oh well, at least my brother and his kids are coming.” Glen yawned. “It’ll be a nice evening. They said that would come to the church for the service and then come back to the house as usual.” They always enjoyed the spectacular Christmas Eve service with the bell ringers, the combined choirs and the brass instruments. “They shouldn’t have any problem, since they live across town a few miles. Say Nora, it’s really nice outside. We haven’t had a white Christmas in years. The snow is changing from the sandy grainy powdery snow to wetter, rose petal-size flakes that make the world around us feel like we are in a Norman Rockwell postcard. It’s snowing white rose petals.” Glen was in the Christmas spirit, even though Nora was awash with disappointment.

Just then, the phone interrupted Glen’s dreamy description of the snow, which was perched precipitously on the edge of the counter where Nora was stirring the white sauce to pour over the scallops.

“I’ll get it this time.” he said fearing the likelihood of another cancellation. “HI, Pete, nice of you to call. You guys getting ready?” He moved away from the kitchen as he heard Pete pause and then very haltingly parsed the words,

“Er, I don’t think we’re going to be able to make it tonight. Little Sammy has a fever and Jenny doesn’t want to leave him with a sitter or even our older kids. Even they are complaining about going since their cousins won’t be there.”

“Why don’t just you and Jenny come? Martha’s 20 and can look after her baby brother?”

“Yes, Glen. You know that. I know that. But, Jenny is worried about his fever which has spiked over night.”

“Have you been to the pediatrician?”
“Yes, and he’s not worried.”
“OK, Pete, but Nora is going to have kittens. Everybody has cancelled. She will be very upset. Of course it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s the weather this year. All that fish and food! It won’t go bad, we can put it in the freezer and have leftovers for days…”

“But Nora may go into an emotional freezer, if you know what I mean, eh, Glen?” Pete poked back at his brother. “Sorry we can’t make it”

“Well, Merry Christmas, Pete. Maybe we can visit over the next few days, or at New Year’s eve at your place.”

“Sure. Say hi to Nora for us.”

Glen slipped his arm around Nora’s slim waist and drew her to him “Ah, Er, Nora, that was my brother Pete. He, ah…”

“Don’t tell me they called to cancel also.” She sighed. “What’s going on here? Will someone…Will you…Will, I, er, I’m really getting angry right now. This is unfair. A little snow, a little sniffle and my party…our party…” Glen bit his tongue. He wanted to say something, but it didn’t seem like the right time.

“Glen!” She fumed.

“Alright, alright.” He touched her arm. More intimacy would be an unwelcome at that moment.

Glen knew that everything had to be just so, no surprises for Nora. Everything had to be perfect for her guests. The surprises that hit that night called for some readjustment in their holiday plans and the typical attitudes surrounding the annual Christmas celebration at the Rubinellis, “Are the guests here yet? Look out the window and see if the guests have arrived. Don’t sit in the living room. Don’t disturb anything. I have guests coming for dinner… Keep the bathroom clean for the guests.” So, there was extra room in the inn” (their house had long been a stopping place for friends), for both sets of relatives whom she had invited long before even Thanksgiving so there would be no surprises.

Glen and Nora Rubinetti had been married for a while. There were a lot of family meals, cookouts, and entertainment, and yes, Christmas Eve festivities. She was cook and social planner. In fact, they entertained a lot. Glen knew that Nora’s flaw fatale was that she hated surprises, especially when it came to her meals and cooking and the table. The house would not be filled. The food would have to be put away. He felt terrible for his wife. Crazy New England weather!

Glen looked at Nora with deep, compassionate eyes.

“What’s really wrong, Nora? I know no one is coming. That’s a big letdown, but is there something else?” He wasn’t sure if the steam in the kitchen was due to the pots on the stove boiling water for the macaroni or the steam that was apparently percolating inside his wife.
“Glen, no one’s coming!” she bellowed. “Not your family nor our family nor our friends who live just across town, and don’t tell me that that they can’t make it across town. There’s only an inch of snow on the ground at least around here. And they are driving that big SUV, a Land Crossing or Land Driver or some impressive and expensive beast of a vehicle, which could certainly drive through the darkest jungle or across the desert with the camels, or an inch… I know Sammy’s not feeling well, but–” Nora stopped prattling long enough to hear the phone ringing somewhere in the house.

“I’ll get it,” he promised. “Merry Christmas!” he beamed to the caller. He spent a welcome moment chortling with his buddy about the season. “Yes. Of course we’ll would be there tonight at the church,” Glen said as he ended the call.

“Nora,” he called out. “Nora! Where are you? Nora! What are you doing out in the cold air?” He found her on the porch.

“I’m getting a breath of sweet, New England snowy air.”

“Ok,” he said. “Nora, that was Wes on the phone. They plan to see us at church tonight, but are not sure about coming over afterwards.”

“Say no more,” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear any more excuses about the storm.” “Glen, what am I going to do with all this food? It’s enough to feed an army. Well, maybe a brigade.”

He could see that she still had her sense of humor (more like sarcasm) but she was clearly distraught. Tears welled up in her hazel-blue eyes. The table was set. She even set out her best china, her Royalton fine bone china, the kind brides often get on their wedding day, but never use. Twenty place settings were handsomely arranged with her best linen, and silver, and crystal. She bought burgundy and expensive cheese. This was to be a night to remember. Now the evening was ruined. It made sense, he thought. Baseball games are rained out. Thousands go home or don’t come in. It’s a weather related exigency; snow. It happens. But it’s also Christmas Eve at the Rubinelis.

Although the clock was ticking and they had to drive through the winter wonderland to Saint John’s Church for Christmas Eve lessons and carols, he got out his directory and started calling friends, who might not have plans at such a late hour. Three o’clock on Christmas Eve?

“I must be crazy to think that anyone wants to come to dinner at such short notice!” Glen posited to himself. He was right. Everyone he knew appeared to be spoken for. That and the weather made for slim chances that his intent to backfill with new guests will be a success.

Nora sat in the car, more silent than the silent petals of large snowflakes that sauntered to the ground on that windless night. The glowing yellow streetlights appeared like hallows amid the white falling snow lining the narrow streets on the way to the church. Glenn wistfully and romantically reached for Nora’s hand.

“You know that I love you,” he whispered.

“Yes, Glen. I know,” she nodded as they reached the parking lot, which was filled with cars despite the snow. He kissed her tenderly.

As they entered the sanctuary, Glen observed that the church was filled. They took their seats. Glen felt her eyes follow him as he left her. He walked up to the minister and engaged him in a lively conversation. Glen and Pastor Brock nodded their heads approvingly. The pastor pointed across the congregation to what appeared to be a new family of six sitting in a row. Glen took off across the nave and following the pastor’s pointer finger and found six unknown faces, seated on a rear pew. He introduced himself and asked them what they had plans after the service. As he did, he remembered an old parable about a king whose servants asked strangers to dinner after the invited guests didn’t show. They saved the day for the king. Maybe he could save the day for Nora.

The music for the service started and Glen was mischievously back in the pew next to Nora.

“Nora,” he whispered with a twinkling gleam in his eye, “Remember you asked, ‘what are we going to do with all this food?’”

“Yes.”

“Well, I spoke to Pastor Brock about the food you cooked and the storm-based cancellations. I asked him if at this late hour if he knew if anyone didn’t have a place to go tonight.”

“Glen!” she whispered as loudly as a whisper can grow, “I don’t know about strangers coming to the house. I know what you’re trying to do, but..”

“Darling, they’re new to America and new to our church and tonight they have no food, something about their stove being broken.”
“No food?” she said, her mouth agape. “Where are they?”

“Over there,” Glen pointed his finger to the new family. “This family has just recently come from the Italy and would love to be shown some hospitality. It’s a family of six. He is a research scientist and she is an interior decorator. The kids are our kids’ age and his mother lives with them. They live in the neighborhood near the church in a new house. The problem is their gas stove has a leak and they cannot cook on it. They have been going out to dinner at restaurants for the past couple of days. I’m sure a home cooked meal on Christmas Eve would be a real blessing to them.”

“Say no more!” Nora seemed to vanish from before his very eyes. Even though the service was about to begin and the lights were dimming, he spied Nora clasping the hands of the mother of the new family in both of her hands with smiles and nodding.

Glen was overjoyed. The house would be filled, the food would be eaten, and Nora would be comforted.

The meal was delightful. Nora and Glenn thoroughly enjoyed the new family. It was a new experience, and a welcome one. They talked, they laughed. They spoke about their country. The new family with their three kids and mother promised to be new family friends. Both families couldn’t wait till Celia and Gregory returned in a few days. Additional plans were made for Christmas day and the day after. Mrs. Manicotti was invited to use Nora’s stove. After all, there was so much food and the Manicottis had no place to cook for a few days. They were sent home with microwaveable bins filled with Haddock and squid and Lobster and shrimp and other fruite-de-mare.

The new friends gone, and another glass of wine poured, Glen and Nora snuggled under a warm comforter before a glowing, crackling fire. Nora, recognizing the need to express her appreciation, said, “Thanks, Glen.”

The wind had picked up outside and the snow was accumulating and they nestled in the joy of an evening well spent. Glen listened to Nora’s contented breathing on his shoulder and the whistling and swirling winds outside the house. Just then, they heard footsteps intruding into their cozy Christmas morning space.

“Hi Ma, Dad, Merry Christmas!” It was Celia.

“Celia! I thought you were flying off somewhere.” Nora yawned sweetly.

“Yeah, but the flight was cancelled due to the storm. So, I thought I would surprise you.”

 

Biblical study, Reformed Theology

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