Every year about this time I post a Christmas scene from one of my novels. My newest novel The Best Place takes place in the summer of 2005 so there are no Christmas scenes, so instead, I’m posting the Christmas in July scene from the novel. The book is told from the viewpoint of Lyla Hopewell and in this scene she spends time with her best friend Bel, who lives in Snowberry Heights with her. Enjoy!
The Fourth of July weekend—Monday being the Fourth—St. Peter’s Cathedral decides to have a bake sale, even though a lot of people will be out of town because of the holiday. Somehow I got on the church bake sale calling list so, of course, I agree to bake, and while Bel is only one of those Christmas and Easter Catholics, she says she’ll help me. We decide to bake on Friday afternoon so the cookies and bars will be fresh for Saturday.
I’m thinking we’ll make some oatmeal cookies and some date bars, but Bel surprises me when she shows up with a bag full of frosting and sugar and a bag of candy to stick in the frosting.
“Lyla, you know better. It’s July now.”
I know better than to trust the tone in her voice as she says it, and my fears are confirmed when she pulls out a plastic bag full of cookie cutters with shapes like angels, candy canes, and Santa Claus heads.
“It’s Christmas in July!” she exclaims.
“Oh, come on, Bel,” I says.
“Oh, don’t be a sourpuss, Lyla,” Bel says. “The kids will love it.”
Ever since we saw that Christmas in July movie with Dick Powell when we were in the orphanage, Bel has never gotten it out of her head. “It’s good luck to celebrate Christmas in July,” she always says, “and maybe we’ll win the Maxwell House Sweepstakes too.”
“It was Maxford,” I tell her, referring to the stupid contest in that movie, but she doesn’t listen.
Back in the old days, I would have thought Bel was nuts and I would have refused to do anything that would make me look crazy at church, but by now, everyone knows Bel is crazy, so what the hell? I’ll help her make her Christmas cookies today, and I can just make my date bars on Saturday morning.
I’d have been okay with the cookies, but it’s a boiling hot day and she’s also shown up with a video of White Christmas to get us in the mood while we bake, even though we’ve both seen that movie a zillion times. And even though I’ve told her that every time we watch it, I get ticked off at Rosemary Clooney all over again—I mean, that woman had it all, but then she went and let herself get fat—if I’d had her looks, I’d have done better than end my career doing Coronet paper towel commercials—gee whiz. Some people just don’t appreciate the chances they get in life—she was the same age as me too, and here she’s been dead for a few years now. I bet less people remember her now than know who that oily looking nephew of hers is. But at least watching White Christmas beats having to watch Meet Me in St. Louis again. Bel’s crazy about that one, but I can’t bear to watch it—especially not when Judy Garland starts singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Not that it ain’t a pretty song, and Lord knows Judy could sing, but it’s that line, “soon again we all will be together” that gets to me. It’s something I used to think about in the orphanage—that that kind of Christmas magic was possible, but it ain’t. I never could have Mama and Papa back, or Jessie either, I guess—though I keep hoping, but not doing anything about it when it comes to her. I did get back Papa, so I guess like what Bing Crosby sings to Rosemary, I should count my blessings before I sleep. But they sure don’t count their blessings in that Meet Me in St. Louis film; the whole family’s got this giant house and a maid and the biggest problem they’ve got that they all whine about is moving to New York where their dad’s going to make a lot more money. Silly. I bet Judy knew it was silly too—probably part of what drove her to drink and do all those drugs—she realized like I did long ago that life ain’t ever going to be like one of those MGM musicals.
So anyways, Bel puts in the movie while I start mixing up the cookie dough. She never is much help. She puts newspaper and wax paper all over the kitchen table, and she finds my giant cutting board and rolling pin, but I do all the rolling because every time Bing opens his mouth, she gets glued back to the television set. I never did figure out what the big deal was about him—he wasn’t much to look at. I’d have picked Danny Kaye over him.
Finally, when I have the dough all rolled out and I’m ready for her to start cutting out the cookies, she decides she has to go to the bathroom so she pauses the movie. And by the time she comes back, she’s started down Christmas movie memory lane.
“Lyla,” she says, forgetting to turn back on the movie as she sits down and picks up a cookie cutter, “do you remember that Christmas when we went to see Meet Me in St. Louis at the Delft Theater?”
It’s like I brought this conversation on myself by thinking about that movie. I swear, she practically knows how to read my mind after all these years.
“Yeah,” I says.
“That was like sixty years ago,” Bel starts rambling. “It must be because I remember it came out the last Christmas of the war. I remember how I bawled when Judy Garland sang to Margaret O’Brien. It still chokes me up. I like White Christmas, but I think I like Meet Me in St. Louis best. I wish I’d grown up in a family like that, with sisters and a handsome brother.”
“Yeah, me too,” I says. I wish I’d had their troubles too, including a father going to move us all to New York. Instead, my father was going to move us to Karelia and he went without us—those rich St. Louis people had nothing to worry about by comparison. The maid was the only character in that movie I really liked; she was a bit ornery, and I didn’t blame her when she had to put up with all those happy-go-lucky young people while she was trying to make dinner and deal with the pigheaded father for a boss.
“We saw it during the war,” Bel goes on, “the Christmas when you first moved in and the boys had gone away.”
I don’t need to ask who she means by the boys. One is obviously Charlie, and the other was his friend, Lon.
“Yeah,” I mutter.
“Lon was so sweet on you, Lyla. Remember those sweet letters he used to write to you,” she says.
“Yeah,” I says. For the first few weeks I lived with them, Bel and Charlie kept trying to fix me up with Lon, but I was never interested in him. I only saw him twice before he went off to war, but for whatever reason, he decided to write to me. I don’t know why. He didn’t even know me. He hadn’t even been in the orphanage with us. But Bel kept scheming to get him to marry me. He must have written me about a dozen letters—I think he thought he’d wear me down by flooding me with letters. I wrote him back the first time to be polite, but when the letters kept coming, I quit writing. I felt bad for him having to go fight in the war, but I wasn’t going to encourage him and have him come home thinking we’d get married. And then next I hear, he’s dead, killed some place I’d never heard of out in the Pacific, and I have to admit I felt a bit relieved because Bel just about had my and Lon’s wedding all planned for when he got home.
And boy did she get mad after she asked me whether I was going to wear mourning for him and I said, “No, it’s not like we were engaged or even dating.”
“You was in your hearts,” she said.
“Bel, I wouldn’t have married him if you paid me,” I said. “He had buck teeth.”
“Like you’re such a catch,” she had the nerve to say to me.
“Like Charlie’s such a catch,” I said back, and then she started crying and went in the bathroom and slammed the door. I knew she was worried about Charlie getting killed, so I shouldn’t have said that, but I thought, “What the hell do I want to get married for? I don’t want any babies, and I don’t want some man telling me what to do—I’ve had enough of people making decisions for me.”
Anyways, I haven’t thought of Lon in years, but now, suddenly Bel has him in her head again because of these damn Christmas movies.
“I still think about Lon, you know,” says Bel. “I often wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t died. I know you told me never to mention him again, Lyla, but that was sixty years ago, and I know you really liked him—it just hurt you too much to talk about it after he died. I often think he would have been the one for you, Lyla. Just think, if he’d lived and you’d married, you’d probably be a grandmother now.”
Where does she come up with these stupid ideas? I’m about to snap back, “Yeah, and if Charlie hadn’t been a drunk, maybe you’d be a grandmother too,” but I hold my tongue. She does still know how to push my buttons, but believe it or not, I have gotten better at holding my tongue over the years, so I just ignore her and keep frosting a snowman.
“Lyla,” she keeps at it, “sometimes I wonder if that’s why you never married—because Lon was always your one true love.”
“Jesus Christ!” I says, but then I catch myself and add, “I forgot to take the cookies out of the oven” and jump up from the table. I didn’t forget—but I did almost lose it after that comment. For God’s sake, I never once had a true love. Never really wanted one. Never saw a reason to after the way most of the men have behaved whom I’ve known over the years, beginning with her own husband.