"Yes, Mom, just come to the neighbors'. You know, the ones with the cute dog," Holton explained as he juggled the phone while he cut vegetables.
"But why are we having the party there instead of your house?"
She was seventy-five, and Holton found he had to explain things to her multiple times. He tried to be patient, he really did, and he kept telling himself it wasn't her fault. She was getting old and forgetful--although he was beginning to suspect it was more than that. The doctors hadn't diagnosed Alzheimer's yet, but he figured that was coming anytime.
"They have a pool and a shaded deck, Mom. They volunteered to let me have the party in their backyard. It'll be nice for you and Dad to sit in the shade, and the kids can have fun in the pool. Are you and Dad about ready to leave?" Holton asked, trying to keep her on track. She could only do one thing at a time anymore, and if she got off track, it took her a while to get caught up again.
"Yes, I have my coat on, and your father is yelling at me to get a move on," she told him. "I'll be there in a minute, you old goat!" she yelled at her husband before returning her voice to a normal tone. "I'll hang up now and get in the car."
The line went quiet, and Holton waited to see if she'd hung up or was just being quiet, but the phone disconnected, so Holton set it on the counter, going back to work. He still had food to prepare and take over to the neighbors' for his father's seventieth birthday party.
The doorbell rang as he was finishing up the vegetable tray. "Come on in, it's open," he called, and he heard the front door open.
"Hey, Brian, I'm in the kitchen," Holton said as he started what he hoped was his last task.
"Is there anything you'd like me to bring over? Heather has the tables out and set."
"You guys didn't have to do all that," Holton said, warmed by his friend's helpfulness. His Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania neighbors were some of the nicest people he'd ever met.
"You know Heather--she loves playing hostess," Brian said, and Holton opened the refrigerator, setting some of the food on the counter. Brian picked up two bowls and began walking toward the door. "Leave the others on the counter, and I'll make another trip," Brian said, his voice carrying through the house.
Holton finished up the cold-cut tray he'd been making before picking up two bowls of his own to carry over to the party. Leaving the house, he walked through his yard and around to the neighbors' gate. Brian met him there, taking the bowls from him, and Holton returned to his house to get more. By the time he'd made three trips, he was sweating profusely, and once he'd taken over the last of the food, Holton went to his bedroom to change his sweat-soaked clothes.
Fifteen minutes later, feeling fresh and clean again, Holton walked next door, entering the fenced-in backyard. Tables with bright tablecloths decorated with flowers had been set up on the deck. "I took the dishes inside. I figured in this heat it would be easier to keep things cool if we served the food in the kitchen," Heather explained as she surveyed her handiwork for a second before giving Holton a hug.
"Thank you for doing this."
"Oh, you're welcome. You do so much for us all the time. We're just happy to help, and it's going to be so hot today that everyone is going to be happy we have the pool. Did you bring your suit?" Holton nodded, but doubted he'd go into the water until late in the afternoon or he'd burn in two seconds. The sound of a car horn out front drew their attention, and Brian stuck his head out the door.
"I think your parents are here," Brian told him before pushing the door open, and Holton followed him through the house, meeting his mom and dad on the sidewalk.
"There you are," his mother said when she saw him, looking thinner than she had the weekend before. "I couldn't remember where we were supposed to go."
"Susan, I told you it was this one," his father explained to her, pointing to Holton's house.
"We're good, Dad. Heather and Brian are hosting the party at their house." He led them inside and through the house as his mother talked the entire time.
"This is lovely. I didn't know your house looked like this. Oh, right, we're at the neighbors with the cute dog. Where is he? I don't see a dog." The litany went on and on and only stopped once Holton got her seated in the shade on the deck with a cool drink. She sipped it and put the glass on the table next to her before looking around. Holton knew she'd probably fall asleep soon. She always seemed to do that now.
"Dad, I'm going to help get things ready. I'll be right back. There are drinks in the coolers, and the other guests should start arriving soon. Okay?"
"Sure," he answered. "I'll keep an eye on your mother." Holton saw his dad head for the cooler, fishing out a diet soda before sitting in the chair next to his mother. So maybe they yelled at one another occasionally, but they also looked out for each other without even thinking about it. Holton made sure they were okay before joining Brian and Heather in the house.
"Holton, honey," Heather said when he got inside, "I've got this." The doorbell rang. "Why don't you make sure your guests make it to the backyard? We're almost done here, and then we can get this party started."
Holton spent the next little while directing aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and assorted former colleagues of his father's to the backyard. Once he was sure all the guests had arrived, Holton joined the party himself.
"You look just like your father," Holton's Aunt Clare told him as soon as he emerged onto the deck, just before giving him a gentle hug. "Doesn't he look like his father?" she asked everyone gathered around, and Holton tried to keep himself from rolling his eyes. Gleeful squeals and yells floated up from the pool where the youngsters were already splashing away, having a very happy time. "This is so cool," one of the kids yelled, just before diving from the side of the pool.
Holton smiled, very pleased that everyone was having a good time. Stepping to the food table, Holton filled a plate with munchies before sitting in an empty chair to talk for a few minutes with some of the relatives, reminding himself to look for Heather and Brian if they didn't join the party soon. Holton didn't want them doing all the work, even though he knew Heather was in her element. They joined the party a few minutes later, and Holton relaxed, mouthing another thank-you to the couple, who smiled. Holton made introductions, explaining how all the myriad relatives were related to one another. Most everyone knew each another, anyway, and the level of conversation ratcheted up. Holton didn't mind at all. He sat on the deck, near the edge of most conversations, listening to snippets, but not generally taking part.
"My son just graduated from Dickinson Law with...."
"She mustn't have been very good at it. They caught her with the money, and she got twenty years...."
"He really looks like his father. But Holton is so quiet," one of his older relatives said. Holton couldn't determine quite who it was, but he knew they were talking about him. Holton heard parts of many conversations, especially his father, once he got going. George Hillman loved to tell jokes.
"Did you hear the one about the toothbrush salesman?" his father would ask someone he'd just met before launching into one of his classic jokes, complete with funny voices. He'd pull everyone around him into the story, spellbound, until the punch line. "This stuff tastes like crap--what is it? It is crap. Wanna buy a toothbrush!" Everyone laughed, and Holton found himself laughing along. He'd heard the joke so many times, but he still laughed, mainly because it made his dad happy.
"The food is ready!" Heather called from the doorway, and everyone lined up, circling the island in the big kitchen, filling plates while the conversation continued to flow along with the guests, outside, inside, and back outside. Holton helped his mother with her plate, getting her settled at one of the tables next to friends she'd known for years before filling a plate for himself. Taking an empty chair off to the side in the shade, he ate and watched the kids playing in the pool. They were having too much fun to even bother with food.
After cleaning his plate, Holton got a refill, resuming his place in the shade as he finished eating. Throwing away the trash, Holton made his way through the house and out the front door, hurrying to his house, where he pulled a professional-looking chocolate cake, his father's favorite, from the refrigerator, placing candles on the top before carrying it to the neighbors'. Holton climbed onto the deck, presenting his creation for everyone to admire. His baking was one of the things he was most proud of.
Heather lit the candles, and everyone gathered around, even the kids, taking a break from the pool, to sing happy birthday. Once the off-key but happy singing was done, Holton set the cake on the table near the plates and began to cut, handing out pieces to everyone, with a small slice to his diabetic father. Holton's dad loved cake, but he couldn't eat much without it wreaking havoc with his blood sugar, so Holton was very careful how much he got.
After the entire cake had been divided and devoured, people continued sitting and chatting until the sun began to go down. Then, one by one, couples said their good-byes with hugs and handshakes. Holton helped his parents to their car, watching as they pulled away, before returning to the house to help with the cleanup. It was just Brian, Heather, and himself when he returned. They sat on the deck talking softly for a while, relaxing. "Your dad is a real hoot," Heather told him as Brian refilled her wine glass. "He tells the best stories, and you really do look a lot like him."
"He always did tell a great story," Holton said softly. "When I was a kid, we used to belong to a camping club. Mom worked nights for a while, and I can remember Dad sitting around the fire, telling stories. One time Mom had to work, so Dad kissed her good-bye and told her he loved her. It was really sweet. He even waved to her as the car pulled out of the campground. Then he rubbed his hands together with unabashed glee and said, 'Now for the Sue stories.' Dad's storytelling subject was Mom. Every one of her foibles got broadcast to everyone." Holton took a gulp from his glass before reaching for the wine bottle. "I always wondered what stories he told about me when I wasn't around." Holton sat silently, trying to keep a lid on his resentment. He loved the man, but he'd hated being the butt of his jokes. Draining his glass again, Holton stood up and began throwing away the trash to have something to do. He'd let a little more of himself out than he'd intended, and he needed something to cover his discomfort.
Brian and Heather began to clean up as well, all of them working quietly. Holton gathered his things before helping with the rest of the cleanup. After thanking Brian and Heather once again, Holton carried his dishes home. Placing them in his kitchen sink, Holton decided to leave them until morning, and walked down the hallway to his bedroom.
After spending all day outside, Holton decided to shower before bed. Pulling off his clothes, he threw them in the hamper before going into the bathroom. Closing the bathroom door, he turned on the water, shutting the shower door again. He turned around and stopped dead in his tracks. In the mirror that had been behind the bathroom door since he'd bought the house, Holton got a good look at himself. Reaching into the shower, he turned off the water and stared. He did look like his father. Almost exactly like his father. Same face, eyes, and damned near the same body. He had nearly the same body as his seventy-year-old, diabetic father. Standing in his bathroom, Holton blinked as he stared at himself, wondering what had happened. He was over forty years old, alone, with no prospects. Hell, he hadn't been on a date in... God, he couldn't remember the last time he'd been out with anyone. Turning away from the mirror, he started the water again and got under the spray, washing quickly before getting out of the shower and drying himself off, making a point not to look in the mirror.
Pulling on light clothes, Holton wandered into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, scanning the contents before closing the door. Opening the freezer, he pulled out a half gallon of mint chocolate chip. Pulling up the top of the container, Holton grabbed a spoon from the drawer and scooped out a good-sized dollop of his favorite flavor.
The spoon stopped halfway to his mouth, and Holton held it there, wondering just what he was doing. All his life he'd turned to food whenever he was unhappy or upset, and today was no exception. Ice cream, cake, chocolate, you name it. Dropping the spoon into the sink, Holton closed the ice cream container and put it back into the freezer before walking back down the hall to his bedroom. Stripping down, Holton climbed into bed and went to sleep, trying not to think of the image that had stared back at him from his own mirror.
Holton woke the next morning, Sunday, thankful he had one more day before having to go to work... although he had no idea what he was going to do with it. Getting up, Holton wandered through the house, settling in the living room and turning on the television. After half watching whatever was on, Holton got up to get cleaned up. In the bathroom, he tried to avoid the offending mirror, but he couldn't turn away. He knew he was looking at himself, but he kept seeing his father. Brushing his teeth and shaving, Holton decided enough was enough. Leaving the room, he hurried into the kitchen, grabbing the phone book. Thumbing through the yellow pages, Holton found a listing that fit what he was looking for and dialed the number.