He held the Ikea Allen key in his hand, and looked down upon an array of particleboard pieces and cheaply cast hardware that lay on the floor. The dim, festive candlelight made it all look sinister. In his other hand he held the assembly instructions for the mysteriously named Ikea product, överraskning paket. His wife stood at the Christmas tree, rearranging decorations. There were still presents for her to wrap.
“You couldn’t have bought her a Barbie doll?” he said.
“Tabatha needs a dresser,” said his wife. “Besides, I don’t like Barbie. And Tabatha has more dolls than any little girl in history.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve. We should be sipping rum drinks by the fire and laying out cookies for Santa, not assembling crappy pieces of fused sawdust. It was probably manufactured in a forced labour camp.”
The natural gas fireplace played silent, glowing witness, nary a piece of honest wood to snap or sizzle.
“That was in East Germany,” she said. “East Germany doesn’t exist anymore. Neither do Ikea forced labour camps.”
“Made in China, though.”
She’d noticed that there were too many angels near the bottom of the tree. That was their daughter’s contribution to tree decorating. She began to redistribute them higher up.
“She’s five,” he said. “Do you think she even cares? Besides, how can we impress upon her the mystery of the virgin birth and jolly old St Nicholas with the gift of Ikea furniture? Let’s put it away until next week. I promise I’ll put it together then.”
“Then she’ll only be getting a teddy bear, her stocking and some clothes.”
“It’s a $400 handmade collector’s teddy bear! And there’re enough clothes and toys under the tree to fill her closet twice over.”
“That’s why we need the dresser. Please just put the damn thing together. We’ll have some Appleton’s and eggnog after you’re done.”
“It’ll be 4:00 a.m. by then.”
“At this rate,” she said.
He threw up his hands in defeat. One of them still holding the Allen key – the iconic hexagonal twist of cut-rate steel. There must be billions of them by now, he imagined, since the dawning of Planet Ikea. In the backs of drawers or lost in the dust under the trashy furniture they helped to construct.
The Allen key was probably the only thing Ikea manufactured that had any permanence in the world, ceaselessly expelled from the hexagonal aperture of a master extruder somewhere in the cosmic centre of the Ikean universe. Allen key after Allen key, spat out, bent and dropped down a yawning hole that bottomed out in people’s living rooms on Christmas Eve. There might be an essay in that. He filed it in the dusty backend of his brain.
Now Nat King Cole sang Silent Night. One of only a hundred actual Christmas songs, he reckoned. Rehashed and re-sung over and over until no adequate therapeutic intervention was possible. They began in October, and only time could heal the spiritual and emotional damage they provoked.
He picked up the Ikea instructions. It was a transcendent pictorial of arrows, dotted lines and pieces joining serenely together, tongues fitting effortlessly into grooves and screw threads tranquilly meshing. Then he examined the hardware inventory. There were eighteen different kinds of socket screws, sleeves, Phillip’s screws, dowels and nails. And a lonely, transparent, alien-looking plastic envelope of white glue.
“You know,” he said. “We could have gone to a proper furniture store. We could have bought something already assembled by actual artisans.”
“Too expensive for our own child?”
“She’s five. In a week there’ll be sticky fingerprints and Hello Kitty stickers all over it.”
“My parents thought like that, too,” he said.
“Not now, William.”
“Why not now?” he said, awkwardly holding a thin, trembling plastic panel with no apparent utility. “I don’t want to make the same mistakes with Tabatha that my parents made with me.”
“You’re too hard on them. They’re both dead, anyway.”
“They held back too much, supposedly in the interest of making my sister and I better people. They said they didn’t want to spoil us, ha! We grew up with almost nothing, while my father played the markets like a debauched gambler and my mother drank herself to death. He was a corporate lawyer. He married into money, for God sake.”
“…and there was no inheritance,” she said.
“Don’t make fun, Blanche.”
“I’ve heard it before, William,” she said. “You had my sympathy the first hundred times you ranted about it. But now it’s just noise.”
“He squandered a fortune.”
“It was his fortune to squander,” she said, repositioning the angels. “He put you through university. You made your choices.”
“Meaning what?” he said, testing a hole with a dowel. It wouldn’t fit.
“Meaning you could have just as easily taken a business or law degree as an English degree. But you didn’t. So, now you’re a high school English teacher who can only afford to shop at Ikea.”
“Oh, this is new,” he said. “I haven’t heard this before. Are you feeling a little discontented, suddenly, married to a mere high school English teacher?”
“No, mostly I’m very content. Until moments like this.”
“You mean moments when I risk revealing myself,” he said, “sharing my disappointments and regrets.”
“Surely, you must have other regrets,” she said. “Other than your upbringing. Something newer, fresher, easier to listen to. A girlfriend who got away, perhaps. A car you want to buy, but can’t afford. A time you could have gone off with the boys, but missed out because you have a family and responsibilities.”
He was using the Allen key now, for the first time. The socket screw threads were grinding into a corner of the dresser top, slightly off angle. There were tiny metal shavings falling onto the floor.
“What the hell…?” he said. He withdrew the Allen key from the socket screw. “It’s Christmas Eve. Why are we talking like this?”
“Perhaps it’s your obsession with the minute and inconsequential, and how it is that, no matter what activity you’re engaged in, it all comes back to money and how your parents screwed you up.”
“I’ll mix you a drink,” she said, heading for the kitchen. “And no more talk of lost fortunes — money in general — for the rest of the night.”
Now he had the sides attached to the laminate top and bottom of the dresser. The instructions suggested that he commence assembling the drawers while the glue dried. He compared the drawer part he held in his hands to the instructions. There was a vexatious disconnect.
“You and mommy are yelling,” said a little girl, standing at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes were sleepy, and her hair awry. She walked into the living room.
It was Tabatha. She’d come down from her bedroom, and was now climbing onto the couch with her current best teddy bear, named Walter White. Her pajamas were pink, and she wore tiny bunny slippers.
“Hello, my dear,” William said. “And just so you know, mommy and I weren’t yelling. We were just being emphatic. Can you say emphatic?”
“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said.
He paused to adore his daughter on the couch. She was rubbing sleep from her eyes. His heart melted whenever he saw her, and then began fretting over her future in an indifferent world.
“Where’s Santa?” Tabatha said.
“He’s somewhere over Aruba right now, baby. You should be in bed, or he won’t come to our house.”
“What’s that?” She looked down at the Ikea mess, and made a face.
“A horrible accident,” William said. “I’ll have it cleaned up before morning.”
Tabatha wrapped her arms around Walter White, and hugged him tightly. Then she said, “What’s regrets?”
William hesitated before he answered, sorry that he and his wife had spoken too loudly.
“You mean what are regrets,” William said. “Remember, sweetheart, how we discussed subject-verb agreement the other day?”
“My God, William.” Blanche had arrived back from the kitchen, holding a cup of eggnog in each hand. “She’s still in kindergarten. Can’t you turn off the English teacher when you’re at home?”
Another faux pas. He was batting a thousand tonight. He sat down next to Tabatha and Walter White.
“But what’s regrets?” Tabatha said again, being emphatic now without realising.
“A regret,” William said, “is feeling sorry or sad about something you’ve done.”
“Do you feel sad, daddy?”
“Sometimes,” he said, wondering if it was really only sometimes. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes,” said Tabatha. “Does that mean I have regrets?”
“No, you’re too little for regrets.”
“I’m not little.”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
“I hope I never have regrets,” Tabatha said, wiggling closer to her daddy and snuggling against him. “They sound stupid.”
“They are stupid,” Blanche said. She’d taken an overstuffed chair by the coffee table, surrounded by rolls of wrapping paper.
“I want some eggnog,” said Tabatha.
“I’ll get it, little lady,” William said. “But you finish it fast, and then off to bed. You should be dreaming of sugar cookies right now.”
“I was dreaming about puppies before you and mommy woke me up.”
William rose and disappeared into the kitchen.
Tabatha slipped off of the couch and went over to the Christmas tree.
“Mommy,” she said, “where are my angels?”
“I moved them around, honey. You had them all in one spot.”
“But they’re supposed to be here, to keep each other company.” She pointed at the lower branches of the tree.
“Balance is important, dear. We can’t have all of one kind of ornament in one place.”
“But that’s where they wanted to be, so I could talk to them.”
“You talk to the angels on the tree, darling?”
Tabatha wondered for a moment, and then said, “Yes,” again.
“Well, then I’ll move one or two of them down later on. They’ll be there in the morning for you to chat with.”
“Can you now?”
Blanche got up, chose two angels and placed them on the bottom bows of the tree.
“How’s that?” she said.
“Not that one,” Tabatha said, pointing to a plastic angel in a red gown. “That one’s mean.”
“Okay.” Blanche replaced it with an angel made of crystal. She remembered it from her own childhood, the rainbow colours of the refracted light that passed through it.
“Thank you,” Tabatha said. “That one’s better. He sings Sponge-Bob songs.”
“What do you and the angels talk about?” said Blanche.
“Ah, do angels have regrets?”
“No, but people do. So, the angels are sad.”
“Even at Christmas?”
“You’re very wise for someone so young,” Blanche said, and hugged her little girl.
William returned from the kitchen with a cookie and a small cup of eggnog.
“I put some rum in it, sweetheart,” he said, smiling and handing the cup to his daughter.
“No you didn’t, daddy.” She giggled and drank. Then took a bite of her cookie.
“Now she’ll have to brush her teeth again,” Blanche said.
“Don’t be silly,” said William.
“Why doesn’t Santa just send presents by UPS?” Tabatha said, cookie crumbs on her mouth and chin. “Aunt Molly sent us presents by UPS.”
“Too damn expensive,” William said.
Blanche gave him a cautioning look. “Because the sleigh and reindeer are way more fun,” she said.
“Will that be a dollhouse when it’s finished?” Tabatha said, again looking at the heap of disparate Ikea parts. “I asked the angels for a dollhouse. They said maybe.”
“A dollhouse?” Blanche said, trying to hide her surprise. She shot William a terse look of panic. “You didn’t tell us you wanted a dollhouse.”
“I told the angels,” Tabatha said. She sipped her eggnog.
“Well I hope they can pull it off,” said William. “Sometimes you have to tell me and mommy, too.”
He looked back at Blanche now, as if he had an idea, and held two unassigned pieces of Ikea particleboard together like a peaked roof that might nicely crown a little girl’s oversized dollhouse. Blanche looked at the progress he’d made so far, the outline of a small piece of half finished furniture, and saw the possibilities. William raised a cocky eyebrow.
“It’s crazy!” Blanche said, having finally given up on the idea of a dresser. “Do you think you can pull it off?”
“It’ll be the damndest looking thing ever,” he said. “But I think I can.”
He picked the dresser assembly instructions up off of the floor, and balled them up for the recycling bin. There were no instructions for what he was now about build.
“Okay, cookie face,” Blanche said to Tabatha. “Back to bed. Your daddy’s got to consult with the angels.”