making stew

mirepoix goes clang
like breaking news
and the meat has been murdered
by killing floor hitmen

someone suggests parsnips
and the room goes hush
while the children conspire
against turnips

the pan is deglazed
with Christmas Merlot
and the arrogant garlic
is empire

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Finny’s warehouse

Hunter Myer heard a slight hiss through his iPhone earbuds, then a voice.

“Hunter?” the voice said. “It’s Angelo. You still there?”

“Of course,” Hunter Myer said through the mic. He was using a penlight to examine an alarm system’s secondary circuit board. The inputs and outputs were a mess, maybe on purpose. He was considering calling the whole thing off.

“There’s a Crown Vic coming your way,” Angelo said.

Angelo was in a Chevy at the end of the alley and around the corner, on lookout.

“Pigs?”

“Can’t tell, it’s unmarked.”

Hunter Myer clicked off the penlight, and turned so his back was flat against a moist and mossy brick wall. He was two stories up, suspended by a climber line and harness. There were two weedy ceramic flowerboxes on either side of him. He checked his watch. It was 2:37 a.m.

“Can you see it?” said Angelo.

“Yeah, it’s just below me.”

A dark full sized automobile slowed as it approached in the alley below.

Myer bit his lip. He might have to scramble. The only way was up, and then across an unfamiliar terrain of uneven rooftops and catastrophic fall potential. He took a deep breath and tried not to sway on the line. Then he noticed that the end of his rope was loosely coiled on the pavement below. It lead right back to him, for anyone who cared to look.

The car came to a stop below him.

“They stopped,” he said.

“Wadda we do?”

“We wait and see what’s going on,” Hunter Myer said. “And shut the hell up, unless you got something relevant to say.”

The faint hiss in Hunter Myer’s earbuds resumed.

Beneath him, the front doors of the Crown Victoria opened and two large men in expensive overcoats got out. One of them smoothing his tie over his belly, the other hiking up his pants. Hunter Myer could only see their shoulders and the tops of their balding heads in the dim backdoor light.

Cops didn’t wear expensive dark overcoats and ties at 2:30 a.m. in this neighbourhood. These were either mob boys or conventioneers. He guessed the former over the latter. He’d seen their kind round town before, kibitzing and talking hockey scores one minute, pulling someone’s nose off with a pair of pliers the next. But always dressed nicely for the occasion.

“You sure about this?” said the man on the driver side.

The passenger side man pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket, and said, “Backdoor of Monahan Block, 800 Clark Drive. Ba da boom, here we are.”

Driver side man lit a cigarette and said, “Where the fuck are they, then?”

“They’re late, we’re early,” said passenger side man. “It all works out.”

“You know,” said driver side man. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.”

“’Bout what?”

“About that Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah attitude of yours. You’re bustin’ my balls with it. How’s a Mary Poppins mother fucker like you get into this business, anyway?”

“When I was young,” said passenger side man, “someone saw potential in me. Now I’m living the dream.”

“Well, tone down the Dr Seuss shit. It’s depressing the hell outta me.”

Passenger side man lit his own cigarette, and both men smoked, each occasionally tracing mysterious outlines on the wet pavement with the toes of their well shined shoes.

Hunter Myer looked up. No moon to guide him topside. It had set twenty minutes ago. He listened. Only the faint sound of water dripping. The two men below would hear him if he started to climb. He was dangling like a fool. He needed to smoke a cigarette and take a piss. A second rate goldsmith heist wasn’t worth this kind of pain.

Then there was another set of headlights, coming from the opposite direction. Hunter Myer tried to get flatter against the wall, he tried to look like moist, mossy brick.

This time the car was a silver Continental. It stopped next to the two men in the alley. Nothing and nobody moved. Then the door opened and a man stepped out. His was a splendid fawn overcoat, a nice blend of wool and cashmere that hung well off of his slender, elderly body.

There was a beep and a click, and the Continental’s trunk popped open. The man in the fawn overcoat gave a nod, and driver side man and passenger side man went to retrieve the trunk’s contents.

“Pull the bum outta there,” he said.

”Yes, Mr Santo.”

So the fawn overcoat was named Santo, probably Francis Santo. A real east end bottom feeder.

The bum in the trunk emerged dazed and disheveled, his hands held behind him with thumb cuffs. Hunter Myer recognised him.

“Holy shit,” he whispered. “It’s Finny Finlinson.”

“Who?” said Angelo.

“Finny, the fence. The guy we sell our bootie to.”

“So? Hey man, I can’t see from here. What’s going on?”

“Looks bad, whatever it is,” Hunter Myer whispered. “Shut up for a minute.”

“It’s in here, right?” Francis Santo said. “This is where you keep your shit.”

“It’s where we keep our inventory,” said Finny. “But I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Driver side man punched Finny in the stomach. He doubled over and fell to his knees.

“The painting,” Santo said. “The one that was stolen from me a month ago. You got in there, and I want you to open the door and let me take it home.”

“You think I bought that missing Vermeer of yours?” Finny said. He chuckled quietly and shook his head. “No one bought the Vermeer. It’s all over town that the painting’s yours. No one’s stupid enough to buy it.”

“Open the door,” Santo said, pointing to the 8X12 foot metal shutter.

“I can’t,” said Finny.

“Holy fuck,” whispered Hunter Myer. “That’s Finny’s warehouse down there.”

The location of Finny’s warehouse was the best kept secret in town. At any given time, it was filled with nearly every item heisted, burgled or snitched in the city within the past 48 hours. Before Finny and his boys turned it over at a profit.

“No way,” said Angelo. “Why are we breaking into a shitty little goldsmith shop when Finny’s warehouse is just downstairs?”

“Because we’re idiots.”

“Why can’t you open it?” said passenger side man to Finny.

“I don’t have the code,” said Finny.

“Use a key.”

“There is no key.”

“Why don’t you know the code?” said Santo. “It’s your warehouse.” He sounded incredulous.

“It’s not my warehouse. It belongs to me and my partners.”

“Which one has the code?”

“I don’t know.”

Now driver side man pulled a weighted leather blackjack out of his coat pocket, and struck Finny across the mouth. Blood and several of Finny’s teeth showered the wet pavement. He fell over onto his side.

Passenger side man crouched down and spoke into Finny’s ear: “The code.”

Finny chuckled again. “I don’t have it,” he repeated. His words were wet and slurred.

“Then who does?”

“I don’t know. I’m not supposed to know. That’s the point. The code is passed on and changed every 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours, randomly between me and my business partners. There’re seven of us. The one who’s got it, and is ready to pass it on, contacts one of us who doesn’t. Randomly, like I said. When he does, he tells whoever it is how long he’s had it – 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours. Then he walks away, and the guy who’s got it now changes the code right away. Then that guy’s the only one who knows it for however long he has it. The chances of you snagging the right guy are one in seven. I haven’t had the code for over a week. It’s how we keep creeps like you from getting in.”

“That’s a good system,” said Santo.

“Thanks,” said Finny. He struggled to get back up onto his knees and failed.

“You believe him, Mr Santo?” said driver side man.

“So why do you think I have the damn painting?” Finny said. “You should be talking to Sylvester Leonardo.”

“We did,” said driver side man.

“And…?”

“He said he didn’t have it.”

“Ha!” Finny laughed. “Did you slap him one with a blackjack?”

“Nah. He’s family.”

“He’s a fucking scumbag,” said Finny. “And you know it. And he deals in hot art. You’re the only ones in town who don’t know he’s got it.”

Santo glared at his two goons. They looked sheepish.

“Why’s a mook like you even got a Vermeer?” Finny said to Santo. “You suddenly got culture? A slob like you?”

Santo stepped up and kicked Finny in the gut. “It’s an investment,” he said.

“Wadda we do boss?”

“We visit Leonardo. And we do it right this time.”

“What about him?” Passenger side man pointed at the heap of bleeding humanity on the ground.

“Waste him,” Santo sneered. “Take him down to the inlet, and put a bullet in his head.”

“Holy shit,” whispered Hunter Myer. “They’re gonna cap Finny.”

“What’s that got to do with us?” said Angelo. “Just let it go. They’ll be gone soon. Try to stay quiet.”

“No way, man,” whispered Hunter Myer. “These wise guys are dicks and Finny’s always done alright by me.”

“Then what…?” Angelo said.

“I don’t know yet.”

Now passenger side man grabbed Finny by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Driver side man went over to the Crown Vic to open the trunk.

“Don’t you bleed on my car,” he said to Finny. Then something caught his eye. It was a length of rope that coiled on the pavement, and led up the side of the Monahan Block. He looked up and saw Hunter Myer hanging there.

“Mother fucker,” diver side man said.

“Start the car,” said Hunter Myer to Angelo. “Leave the headlights off, and get ready to drive.”

“Where?” said Angelo.

“Hey, Vinny,” driver side man said to passenger side man. “Come over here and look at this.”

“What?” said passenger side man. He dragged Finny along with him, walking over to the Crown Vic.

Driver side man pointed up, and Santo came over too.

Now Hunter Myer looked to either side of him. There were the weedy ceramic flower boxes, one on each side.

“Start driving, Angelo,” he said. “Straight down the alley. If I get this right, then there’ll be a really surprised looking old guy wearing a brown overcoat standing by himself in the alley. Run the fucker over, hard.

“I don’t get it,” said Angelo.

“Just fucking do it!” Hunter Myer shouted into the iPhone mic.

Now he took one of the heavy ceramic flower boxes, aimed and dropped it. It was a direct hit, on top of the head of driver side man. He dropped to the ground, surrounded by shards and didn’t move.

Angelo was accelerating down the alley now. He saw three men standing half a block away. A heavy object fell from above. And then there were only two. One of them, a runty beat up looking guy disappeared behind the Crown Vic and left only a surprised looking old guy in a brown overcoat standing there. Angelo floored it and hit the bastard square on. Santo flew into the air and fell several yards away in a busted up hump of cashmere and broken bones.

* * * * *

The Vermeer arrived in Hong Kong three weeks later, rolled up and hidden in a shipment of copper pipe. Payment was transferred to a numbered account. Sylvester Leonardo moved to Sicily.

guacamole

I remember believing in God
how He made the city translucent
the wrecking yards glow in the evening
rust in the shape of gang turf
the white face of Heaven
pockmarked from the fall &
Jesus with a nickel
looking for a phone booth
His well finned Cadillac
soaring like a bullet
in search of gravity, of
what is Holy like guacamole
or a nice spicy enchilada

snow angels

you don’t know these people

Christmas 1968

Glen walks across the centre of his backyard, using his footprints to mark a boundary in the fresh snow. On one side of the line, we can build snowmen and throw snow balls. But the other side is a no-man’s land. Glen has an inimitable aesthetic sense, even at seven years old.

“Just look at it,” he says, observing the elegant rolling shades of white he’s persevered. He stares for long minutes at a time. And I stare at him staring, wondering what the hell he sees. Then he says, “It’s beautiful.”

It’s a lesson in beauty, simplicity and fragility that I wrongly presume my friend is too young to teach and I am too young to learn. We’re kids living in a dodgy neighbourhood, where it snows only occasionally. Where beauty is uncommon.

Christmas, 1981 

I was sharing a house in east Vancouver with a couple of dealers and whoever else happened along. I’d tried dealing drugs for a living, myself, but the police were far too annoying. They never went so far as to arrest me. Maybe I was smarter than them or maybe I was too much of a lightweight. Whatever the case, the cops instead contented themselves with butting-in on me in the strangest places and at the strangest times to ask how I was doing, how business was and what the hot sellers were. It scared away the clientele. I got sick of it eventually, and got a real job.

I landed a job as a cook at the Amorous Oyster Restaurant on Burrard Street. The Oyster may have deserved its reputation, but I couldn’t see why. Seafood is easy to cook. Many of the side dishes, condiments and add-ons were more difficult. But the only real tricks to seafood are freshness and timing. And my timing was pretty good.

In other à la Carte restaurants I’d worked in, I’d been surrounded by other cooks, a chef and floor managers, all of whom lived to make my life a misery. But I was a solo act at The Oyster. It was not only a source of income, but also a source of praise from the grateful owners. My ego swelled. And when I walked out at the end of my shift that Christmas Eve, I left with the gift of two bottles of wine and an envelope filled with crispy tens and twenties as a bonus for all of my “marvellous work”.

Out on the street, I looked in the envelope and sniffed. I was too full of myself to appreciate what that amount of money meant to the owners of a restaurant verging on both greatness and oblivion. So, I stood cool and indifferent out front of the darkened premises and waited for my ride.

My ride was Gabriel. We’d been dating for about six months. She was a sadder smarter sort of girl, smarter than me. She wrote poetry and painted, had a growing collection of tattoos and read hefty books. She was also prone to long difficult silences. It was all in her eyes, I knew, and sometimes what I saw in her eyes frightened me.

She arrived that night, navigating the snowy street like a pro, in her ’78 Mustang Cobra. It was an outrageously overpowered vehicle with its huge V8 engine, four on the floor and various racing accoutrements. When we first met, I asked whatever inspired her to buy such a car. “It’s cute,” she’d said. “Ah,” I replied, as though her response to my question answered all the other questions I might have to ask her in the future.

Now she was driving me home for a Christmas Eve together, hopefully without the chemically addicted rabble we normally found there. They bored the hell out of me and they resented me for it, but I had the house’s huge master bedroom to myself where I could escape the inane and the insane.

Soon we were driving down the back alley where the house stood. It was built behind a row of storefronts on East Hastings, which made it barely visible from the main street. I’d hoped, when first renting the place, that this would keep me off of the cop radar. It didn’t. But for me the police were becoming less and less of a problem as I cultivated a new image as fully employed citizen at large. In spite of that, though, to a significant degree, the police still considered me connected to the drug scene.

“What the hell’s all that,” Gabriel said pointing at the house, now a half block away. There were half a dozen police cars in the lane.

“Shit,” I said. “Keep driving past them.”

But she didn’t. Instead she backed up into an empty driveway and turned out in the opposite direction. “They know my car,” she said. “They would have stopped us. Where do we go now?”

“Toby’s,” I said. “But park a block away.”

Toby was a burned-out vegetarian 12 stepper. This made him a serious bummer, but he knew what was going on in the neighbourhood. And he did one important thing that I never did, he listened to a police scanner. It was a habit from his criminal youth that had developed into a hobby. Now he actually belonged to a police scanner club. Life is strange.

We left the car in an abandoned garage and walked through the deepening snow to Toby’s basement suite. We knocked and Toby greeted us at the door. Agnes, his off and on common law, sat at a table in the kitchen cutting thick slabs of Christmas cake then dividing each slab into smaller pieces.

“Come in, man,” Toby said. “It’s freezing out there. Sorry to hear about Sammy, man. I know he was your best friend, and all. There’s some bad shit happening tonight. Happy Christmas, by the way. You want some Christmas cake?”

“What bad shit?” I said, accepting a piece of cake. “What happened to Sammy?”

“I can’t eat it,” Toby said of the cake. “The wife puts rum in it.”

It did smell of rum, the alcohol long baked off. It was damn fine Christmas cake.

Toby thought a moment and then he said, “The news is that the cops shot Sammy in your house tonight, dude. Radio says he came at them with a knife. Sammy’s a big boy. If he came at me with a knife, maybe I’d shoot him too.”

“Better not to have a gun, at all,” Agnes said as she cut the Christmas cake. Gabriel was helping her now. I found out later that it was going to homeless shelters the next day.

“I ain’t got no gun, my love,” Toby hummed. It was how he spoke to Agnes, almost like a song.  “Just saying ‘if’.”

“Is he alive?” I said. Sammy was a best friend and roommate. But he’d been doing some weird shit lately, all chemicals cooked up in a basement somewhere by amateurs. He’d become someone I didn’t recognise.

“At first the radio said he was alive,” Toby said. ”But then it said he wasn’t. Said he was DOA. Either way, it’s fucked up for you, man. They’re going through your stuff right now, you bet.”

I wasn’t betting on anything. Gabriel looked at me from the table where they were preparing the Christmas cake. They were wrapping it now and tying ribbons around each piece.

I caught her gaze. Maybe there was a poem in this for her. It was clear that she understood how profoundly my life had just changed. Whether I ever returned to the house or not, they’d get me. There were caches of drugs and money stashed all through the place. None of it was mine, but the cops didn’t care. They’d harass my family, friends and anybody I’d ever said hello to until they got their mitts on me.

Gabriel said, “Let’s go for a ride. There’s something I want to show you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Toby said. “Cops will be here looking for you pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry for this,” I said, knowing the police would grill him.

“Ain’t your fault, man. It’s a wicked fucking world. Besides, let the cops come. Sometimes it’s better not to be just a spectator.”

I took a couple more pieces of cake and headed for the door. Agnes and Gabriel hugged, and Gabriel followed me out. When the door closed behind us, I felt the disconnection. Among other things in that moment, I had a feeling that this would be it for me and Gabriel. She wouldn’t stay with me after tonight. Guns and knife play weren’t the domain of 18 year old poets, or were they?

By the time we got to the car, I’d begun wondering about what she had up her sleeve, how it could help me deal with the situation at hand.

“Get in the car,” she said.

We drove north on incognito streets, past dark blank working class homes. Some were hung with Christmas lights. I wasn’t paying attention. Eventually Gabriel pulled over, next to a vast field of perfect snow.

“It’s stopped,” she said, looking through the windshield. Then she said, “Recognise this place?”

I didn’t. But I continued to look out of the car at the perfectly flat, white and unblemished landscape. It reminded me of something from a long time ago.

“I know,” she said. “It looks different in the snow. C’mon, let’s get out.”

We got out of the car, and stood surrounded by acres of the undisturbed snow. It was illuminated by blue mercury vapour light. It was the east Vancouver reservoir. The snow was lying on a flat expanse concrete beneath. I looked around me. For a minute I stopped thinking of Sammy, dead and cold on Christmas Eve. And I realised that a childhood friend of mine would have truly appreciated this vision.

“Look,” I heard Gabriel shout. She was lying in the snow now, moving her arms and legs, creating a snow angel. Then she stood and jumped up and down twice, knocking the dry snow off of her clothes. She lay back down again and created a second angel. Then she stood up a second time and jumped once more.

“See,” she said. “Angels. Snow Angels, two of them. One for you and one for me. I left other Christmas gifts for you back at your place, but I guess they’re gone for good now.” She looked at her watch, “And it’s a quarter past midnight. Merry Christmas!”

I looked at the snow angels and smiled. Did tears well up in my eyes? Did I feel small and ashamed, glorious and happy beyond belief? Did I see in my mind’s eye a band of honest-to-goodness angels descending to collect Sammy and take him home, now that he was free of all his confusion and prowling rage?

Yes to all of the above.

And did I see Gabriel, in a future that awaited her, strong and determined, hopeful, brilliant and gentle?

Yes.

And was I there with her? Ha! I knew better than that.

We sat on the edge of the Mustang’s hood, and I opened one of the bottles of wine from the Oyster. We had no glasses, so I took a drink from the bottle and offered it to Gabriel. She took a drink but not a second. Instead, she poured a swallow onto the ground for Sammy. It was dark and red like a bullet wound in the snow.

The snow began to fall again, and Gabriel’s snow angels vanished. They were frail things, destined to disappear. But I knew that beneath the perfect layer of white before us, there could have been millions of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the killer

3am
the killer wept at the wheel
she wanted to navigate by the moon
but the highway followed a river
dividing mountains
an American highway
fast food like faith and Bible billboards
drive-thru in remembrance of me

she was a last item on many lists
changing by the minute
except for her
she cursed the rental
for the absence of an ashtray
while above her was
a warehouse of planets
each foolish for its own vector
if a planet can’t be wise
then who can

late night radio was conspiracy and
evangelical anxiety
a second amendment confused and
sulking
cocking its weapon in shapeless temper
a nation eating hotdogs and
standing its ground
no one leaving the lobby alive
as long as there’s something to prove

the killer left bodies behind
she sees their eyes and
tunes the radio
how they changed the
surprise in their weird hush

she shifts in her seat
there were rest stops and roadhouses
exits to recession
patriots and poverty
in the houses of the zodiac

överraskning paket

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.”

“Please.”

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.”

“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.”

“Inconsequential?”

“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.”

“Whatever.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

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.

“About regrets.”

“Ah, do angels have regrets?”

“No, but people do. So, the angels are sad.”

“Even at Christmas?”

“Maybe more.”

“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.”