Anita had tried to mother Elizabeth, but she’d gone about it all wrong. They’d been oil and water from the beginning.
Elizabeth had hoped that time and distance would sand away the rough edges of their relationship, but that wasn’t how it worked between them. They’d remained at odds for all these years. For Edward’s sake, they’d learned at last to be polite. When things got too personal, one of them always changed the subject. It was Elizabeth’s turn. "I hear you and Daddy are going to Costa Rica this spring."
"I’m a fool, that’s for sure. I could choose a beach somewhere, with margaritas and pool boys, but noooo. I agree to visit a country that’s famous for snakes and spiders."
"A lot of women dream of exotic vacations with husbands who love them."
"That’s because most women can’t remember why they fell in love with their husbands. Without that . . ." Anita let her voice trail off. "You have to work to remember the good things sometimes."
Elizabeth wasn’t sure whether this conversation was idle chitchat or not. It didn’t matter. Anita’s comments were getting too close to the truth. It was bad enough that Elizabeth’s marriage had gone stale. She wasn’t about to add insult to injury by talking to her stepmother about it. "Did you notice the snow? The backyard looks beautiful," she said, scouting through the obviously empty box, looking for a not-there ornament.
"Ah, the weather. Always a good topic for us. Yes, Birdie, I saw the snow. Edward thought we’d all go down to the pond tonight."
The doorbell interrupted her. She glanced back at Anita. "Are you expecting anyone?"
Anita shrugged. "Benny, maybe? Sometimes when he has a hot date, he does his deliveries at the crack of dawn."
"Who in the sweet bejesus is that?" came Daddy’s voice from upstairs.
Elizabeth went to the front door, opened it.
Jack stood there, looking rumpled and tired. His hair was an adolescent mess. Tiny pink lines crisscrossed his cheeks like an old road map. His blue eyes were narrowed by puffy skin. "Hey, baby," he said, giving her a lopsided grin. "I woke up the news director at midnight and gave him the tape. Then I flew all night. Forgive me?"
Elizabeth smiled up at him. "Just when I think I’m going to trade you in for a newer model, you do something like this."
She let him pull her into his arms, and when he leaned down to kiss her, she kissed him back.
The frozen pond looked like a pane of mirrored glass tucked into a mound of cotton batting. At the silvery edge, a tractor was parked; its engine was running. Two bright headlights shone toward the ice. A boom box played Elvis’s "Blue Christmas."
For as long as Elizabeth could recall, ice-skating on this pond had been a Christmas day tradition. In the attic, there were dozens of pairs of skates, some dating back a hundred years.
They always did it the same way: first, a lazy morning of gift opening, then a late afternoon holiday dinner of turkey with all the trimmings, then a pot of hot, mulled wine made in the huge fireplace in the living room. Once they’d transferred the wine to thermoses, they climbed onto the slat-sided, tractor-drawn wagon and rolled through the snow-blanketed pasture toward the wood whose Native American name had been long forgotten. Daddy always attached a string of bells to the back of the wagon.
This pond was magical. Here, when Elizabeth was four years old, her mother had taught her to skate. It was one of her favorite memories. One single day, barely more than an afternoon, but never forgotten. Her Mama had been underdressed and freezing; when she reached down for Elizabeth’s hand, her touch had been icy cold. You just hang on to Mama, darlin’. I won’t let you fall.
Elizabeth had often remembered that promise in the empty years that followed, especially when Anita moved into Sweetwater.
Now she sat on top of the picnic table, wrapped tightly in a multicolored woolen blanket. On the ground beside her, a bonfire crackled and snapped and sent gray ash into the slowly darkening sky.
Out on the ice, Jamie was teaching Jack to skate backward. His ungainly movements and uncharacteristic lack of coordination kept his daughters laughing. When he fell hard, Jamie rushed toward him, made sure he was okay, then immediately broke into a fit of the giggles.
Anita skated toward Jack and helped him up. They skated off together, Adonis and Dolly Parton on ice.
A minute later, Daddy skidded to a stop in front of Elizabeth. "You quit awful early," he said, huffing and puffing. White clouds of breath accompanied his every word.
"I was watching."
"You do too danged much o’ that, sugar beet. Now, come on out here and skate with your old man."
She unwrapped the blanket and eased herself off the picnic table. Steady on the blades, she walked to the ice and put her gloved hand in his.
As they’d done a thousand times before, they glided across the ice. Moonlight glittered on the frosted surface. In the background, "Frosty the Snow Man" was playing. For a single, perfect moment, she was a little girl in pigtails again, skating in a puffy pink ski suit that was two sizes too big, while her mama and daddy stood watching from the shore. . . .
"You always were a good skater," Daddy said, sweeping left at the end of the pond. "You were good at a lot of things."
It depressed her, that observation, made her feel old. She thought of the conversation she’d had with Meg: Let’s be martini-honest, here, Birdie. You used to be a lot of things–talented, independent, artistic, intellectual. . . . We all thought you’d be the next Georgia O’Keeffe.
"Life is short, Elizabeth Anne. When was the last time you traveled someplace exotic? Or scared yourself silly? Or took up some crazy thing, like hang gliding or skydiving?"
They’d had this discussion a dozen times in the past few years. It stung more each time. "I prefer to scare myself in ordinary ways, Daddy. Like letting my children cross the country for college. Why bungee jump when you can put a kindergartner on a school bus? Now, that’s real terror." She laughed, as if it were a joke.
Daddy twisted Elizabeth around until she was skating backward in front of him. "I’m only gonna say this once, Birdie; then we can pretend I kept quiet if you want." He lowered his voice. "You’re missin’ out on your own life. It’s passin’ you by."
The words were a sucker punch that left her breathless. "How do you know that?"
"Just ’cause my glasses are thick as Coke bottles doesn’t mean I can’t still see my little girl’s heart. I hear the way you talk to Jack . . . and the way you don’t talk to him. I know an unhappy marriage when I see one."
"Come on, Daddy, you’ve been married two times, and wildly in love with both of your wives. You can’t know about . . ." She shrugged, uncertain of how to proceed. "Whatever it is I’m going through."
"You think I never had my heart broken? Think again, missy. Your mama about killed me."
"Her death broke all our hearts, Daddy. That’s not the same thing."
He started to say something, then stopped.
She sensed that he’d been about to reveal something. "Daddy?"
He smiled, and she knew it had flown past them, whatever opportunity had almost existed. As usual, he wouldn’t say anything about Mama. "Show me one of those pretty turns Anita taught you." He spun her around and gave her a gentle push.
She pirouetted until she was dizzy. Then, breathing hard, she slowed down. In a lazy, swirling arc, she glided across the ice.
Jack came up beside her, half skating, half walking clumsily. His breath shot out in broken, cloudy white gusts. He grabbed her hand, squeezing hard. "Is this archaic southern ritual almost over? Any more quality traditional time and I’ll probably fracture my hip."
Elizabeth couldn’t help smiling. There were so few things Jack couldn’t do well. Frankly, it was nice to be the accomplished one. "You could stand by the fire."
He glanced in that direction. Edward and Anita were there, cozying up to one another. "And talk to your father? No thanks. Last night he practically called me an alcoholic–while he was sucking down his fourth bourbon-and-soda."
"He doesn’t understand what you do for a living, that’s all."
"That’s not true. He thinks I do nothing. He thought playing football was useless; talking about football is even worse."
Jack almost fell; Elizabeth steadied him. "It’s what we think that matters."
"I can’t wait for you to see the interview I did. What happened was . . . no, wait. Let me start at the beginning. About a week ago . . ."
You’re missin’ out on your own life.
She wanted to listen to her husband, but her mind kept drifting back to her father’s words. It was just another of Jack’s look-at-me stories, anyway. She’d heard enough of them to last a lifetime.
Life is short, her dad had said.
She knew it was true. Every motherless child knew that.
But just now, with her husband’s voice droning on and on, she couldn’t quite grasp hold of that.
Because there was something else, equally true. When you were forty-five years old and missing out, it felt as if life were very long indeed.
In an ordinary year, the week after Christmas was quiet, even dull. A time for boxing up ornaments and taking down decorations, for eating leftover turkey sandwiches and watching old movies on television.
Elizabeth hadn’t been back in Echo Beach more than twenty-four hours when she realized that this was not going to be an ordinary year. They’d been in the Nashville airport on December 27 when Jack received the first phone call. She hadn’t thought much about it at the time, hadn’t understood yet that their life had altered in the past week. While she’d been relaxing with her family in Tennessee, things in Oregon had undergone a subtle shift.
Jack was a hero again.
The Drew Grayland story had broken on the day after Christmas. The next day he’d been arrested, charged with rape. The story immediately went national. The National Enquirer ran it as a cover piece.
All across the country, people sat in bars, arguing over the case. What was date rape? When does no mean no? Can a woman "ask for it"? Do ordinary rules apply to extraordinary athletes? These questions and others were suddenly on the menus in diners all across America. Radio hosts asked their listeners for opinions; op-ed pieces popped up in newspapers from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine.
From the second Jack and Elizabeth got home, the phone never stopped ringing. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to interview Jack. He’d become a story himself. After all these years in partial obscurity, he was famous again. Not like he’d been in the past, certainly, not a household name, but somebody.
It wasn’t as if just anybody had broken the Drew Grayland story.
Oh, no. The story had been brought to America by a man who’d once been a god, then stumbled and lost his way. His reemergence into the heat of fame was a story all by itself. Aging, overweight, unhappy men from California to New York saw Jackson Shore’s return and thought: Maybe it could happen to me . . . maybe life could turn around in an instant.
That was the baton Jack now held: Never give up. He’d become the poster boy for redemption.
This new life of his was evident in everything he did. He walked taller, smiled brighter, slept better.
Unfortunately, as he grew, Elizabeth seemed to diminish. She couldn’t quite make herself be happy for him, and that shamed her.