Chapter 1: November 1 1 NOVEMBER 1
I am already saying I’m sorry when I fling open the door of Uncle Jack’s truck.
I’m sorry for making him wait, sorry my Santa alarm didn’t go off, sorry that even though I knew he was doing me a special favor by picking me up at the pre-crack of dawn on his way home from All Saints’ Day Mass so I wouldn’t have to ride the freezing-cold bus to Hollydale High School, I was not waiting on my front porch for him as promised. Instead I had awakened fewer than five minutes earlier, when the distant rumble of his truck turning onto Santa Claus Lane penetrated the rather excellent dream I was having about road tripping in Uncle Jack’s pristine, vintage Miata with a teenage, pre-Wakanda Michael B. Jordan.
From the moment I woke up, I am about to assure him, I had not dallied but had been a blur of very responsible motion, launching myself from my bed, throwing on the first-impression outfit that—thanks to the wisdom of my best friend, Alice Kim, whose smart-girl miniskirt I had borrowed as part of the ensemble—was hanging at the ready in my closet, and snagging my pre-packed backpack on the way out the door, all without whining, cursing, or turning on a single light.
It is that last bit, that dressing-in-the-dark bit, that freezes me mid-sorry, because there, in the dim cab light of Uncle Jack’s pickup truck, I have suddenly come face-to-skirt with a mystery greater than the heavenly ascension of souls Uncle Jack has spent the last hour at Mass pondering.
For reasons that I cannot understand, I am not wearing Alice’s smart-girl, first-impression miniskirt. What I am wearing is a puzzle. A riddle. A conundrum. It is also an insult to the spirit, a spike to the soul, and a 100% certain death blow to any hope of first-impressioning I might have planned.
What I am wearing is a knee-length, pea-green polyester skater skirt trimmed with glittering, snow-white faux fur and covered in eye-searing, electric-red candy canes.
When I say electric red, I mean electric red.
When you grow up in a family like mine, there are things you know better than most people. Which adhesive works best on a yak-hair beard, for example. Where to get a size XXXL four-inch-wide patent leather belt. How to say “Merry Christmas” in sixteen different languages. You also learn pretty quickly that though you use the word all the time, there is no such thing as red. There are only reds, my Grampa Chris used to say. Reds that calm and reds that alarm. Reds that make a person feel cozy and safe. Reds that stay in your vision minutes after you’ve closed your eyes. Crimson and vermilion and garnet and poppy and flame. Pomegranate. Merlot. Candy apple. Rose. Christmas red and Valentine red and red that looks lonely without white and blue beside it. Brick. Scarlet. Current. Blood. Plus all the reds between those colors, reds we might not even recognize as red and haven’t yet been named.
So, when I say electric red, I mean electric red. The color of the candy canes on this ridiculous skirt in which I am inexplicably clad is electric and eye-searing and the exact opposite of the subtly sophisticated first impression I intended to make today.
Things like this do not happen to girls whose parents are accountants.
I fight my impulse to whine and curse and turn instead to beg Uncle Jack to wait just one more minute while I run inside to change. But then I notice his reaction to my outfit. A reaction that is decidedly different from mine.
Uncle Jack is crying. And not with laughter. He is legit crying. “Oh, Francie,” he says, wiping his eyes. “What a beautiful gesture.”
What? Am I still dreaming?
I am about to look around for Michael B. when I notice the church bulletin on the seat next to Uncle Jack, and just like that, I understand what he means. My dear, sweet Uncle Jack has interpreted this confounding wardrobe atrocity as a deliberate All Saints’ Day remembrance of his father, my Grampa Chris.
I could correct him, of course, but it seems more generous to let him persist in his belief that his niece is a kind and thoughtful soul. Plus, okay, I only have about three hundred dollars in my bank account right now, and the more good feelings Uncle Jack has about me, the lower the down payment he’ll probably ask when I approach him about the possibility of buying his Miata when I get my driver’s license this summer. Which, if I’m perfectly honest, is already likely to be a lot lower than true market value. Uncle Jack is a softy. The oldest of his siblings and the most emotional, he tears up at hymns, coffee commercials, parades, and school plays. This is why he is a terrible Santa. As soon as a rosy-cheeked kid sits on his knee and says, “I love you,” Uncle Jack starts weeping. It frightens the children.
Dad took over the Santa duties when Grampa Chris died. Other than getting totally wigged-out-nervous doing our local cable show An Evening with Santa, he’s pretty good at it. Not as good as Grampa Chris, of course, but nobody is as good as that. In Hollydale, Christopher Wood was Santa Claus.
And then there’s my Aunt Carole, for whom the only explanation is a switched-at-birth hospital mix-up. Somewhere, I am certain, there is a devious Grinch family shaking their green-tinted heads over how disappointing their sweet-tempered daughter turned out to be.
“I miss him, too,” I tell Uncle Jack. And it is the truth. So much the truth that I find I’m tearing up a little as well. Still, I can’t go to school like this. I decide to make up some kind of story about how I wanted him to see this skirt but school is school and I’m going to run back inside and change and—
Uncle Jack takes a handkerchief from his pocket and blows his nose. “Thank you, honey,” he says. Then something about his face changes. “Francie.” There is a solemnity to his voice. “I understand we’re running late already, but I want you to listen carefully to what I have to say and react calmly. Can you do that?”
Oh, holy night.
I suppose it was inevitable. Uncle Jack is going to tell me that despite my skirt, he is disappointed in me. That it is not okay that I was late and that I need to be more responsible. He will remind me that the Christmas season is stressful for my family and that Aunt Carole, in particular, is paying attention to my actions and that my dad is under enough pressure with the store finances and I need to tame my impulsive nature and do better. And he’s right.
Go ahead, Uncle Jack. I’m ready.
“Francie.” Uncle Jack takes a deep breath. “It’s Lemon Square Day.”
Lemon Square Day. The overhead light in the cab has dimmed, but I can still make out Uncle Jack’s grin.
“Lemon… Square… Day?” I clutch my chest with one hand, grab the door handle with the other. “It’s LEMON SQUARE DAY?” I pretend to swoon. Truly? You know nothing of life until you’ve had a lemon square from Fletcher’s Bakery and Café. The sweet, tart lemon curd. The moist, cakey base. The ginger crumble topping. State secrets have been turned for such lemon squares. Marriages ruined. The confessionals at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church and School have lines out the door the week of Lemon Square Day, so many selfish acts have been performed in their pursuit. And yet…
I am wearing a pea green skirt with electric-red candy canes on it. On the first day of a new class, first-impression day.
“What do you say?” asks Uncle Jack.
What do I say?
Impulse or impression?
Confection or costume change?
Dessert or dignity?