Christmas, Present
taking charge. Laura said nothing. Suzanne then resolutely, over Laura’s objections, roused Laura’s ten-year-old nephew, Aaron, who told Laura he had done his proj- ect on Paris and pasted in the photos she had sent him of the churches. At Suzie’s prompting, he sang one line of the French carol he had learned.
    This, more than anything, nearly did Laura in.
    At last, Suzanne took the phone back from Aaron. “Well,” she said gruffly, with a pause that let Laura know she’d lit a cigarette (Suzanne believed that none of them knew she smoked), “you are the best of us, the

    most beautiful, the most patient, the kindest . . .” “Suzie, you are far more attractive than I ever was.
    Men fought to date you. I only ever had Elliott, and
    Greg in high school,” Laura said. At forty-six, divorced for nine years, Suzie was still stunning, slender as a champagne flute, ankles like a thoroughbred. “And what have I done with my life? A couple of pamphlets for county fairs and motorcycle rallies? Made Hal- loween costumes?”
    “You’ve . . . lived an honest life. I’m Mother, of course. I know you all think that. Cold and remote. But Laura, don’t think . . . don’t think . . .” She detected no wobble in her sister’s voice, but Laura knew Suzanne was crying. “Stephen will be absolutely lost,” Suzie said, her own analysis of their chronically single, helplessly charming brother, who often said he wished he were gay so he could find someone as neu- rotic as himself. “And Angela . . .”
    “She has Cobb. So you’ll come, then?”
    “Of course, I was already coming today. Our flight is in three hours. Do you think . . . ? That we . . . ?”
    “I don’t know. It could be. But Suzie, listen. I have

    to ask you . . . there is one thing that I want you to do. You know my desk? My little desk in the bedroom, not the computer room?”
    “Grandma MacDermott’s.”
    “Well, I want you to have that, because I know you love it, but Grandma thought I was going to be a writer, a real writer, I mean, that was why she left it to me . . .”
    “You wrote all those poems . . . when we were little.” “Yes, about dead dogs and virgins jumping into the volcano. I wish I could get hold of them , too. Mother probably has them. But what I really want is, there’s a locked compartment in it. To the left of the opening for your knees. I have the key taped under the big lid.
    Where I keep my stationery? That you gave me?” “What did Grandma have in there?”
    “A Valentine. That’s all. Not signed. I was so excited when I found it. It’s so old, it has real lace.”
    “What do you have in there.”
    “That Valentine. And also a little charcoal sketch. Of me. A nude sketch. Rolled up. From . . . a long time ago. Will you take that out for me, and . . . decide

    what to do with it? One of the girls, when she’s as old as I am now, maybe she’ll want it, if one of them shows signs of wanting to draw or something. They don’t show signs of that now.”
    “I’ll do that. And if I can’t, I’ll destroy it.”
    “Okay,” Laura said, a burden lifted. “Suzie? I didn’t have an affair.”
    “It wouldn’t matter, but I believe you, Laurie. Of anyone on earth, you are the last person I would sus- pect of having an affair.” Laura didn’t know whether to feel grateful or slighted. “I’m going to get Aaron and me to the airport now . We’ll get the earliest flight. They let you bump in for things that are urgent.”
    There was a long pause. Then Suzanne said, “Lau- rie? Baby?”
    “What, Suzie?” Laura asked.
    Suzanne said softly, “Sleep tight.” And she put down the phone without saying good-bye.

    * * *

    E

    lliott watched Laura, in her tiny, flawless,
    Catholic-school script, taught her by nuns who were allowed to write home only twice a year, as she filled all the space on all the cards, licked and labeled them: Anna, Aurora, Amelia. She saved Angela’s grad- uation card for last and left it

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