On Monday, two things happened which made me very happy. At breakfast, Sid gave me permission to decorate the house for Christmas.
“Waste of time and money,” said the professor.
“Shut up, Lipplinger,” said Sid.
He only drew the line on outside lights and with good reason. We would be the only house with them and we did not need to be conspicuous.
Then shortly after noon, I got the results of a project I had started in the middle of November.
“Is Sid around?” Henry James asked on the phone.
I checked. “Nope, the coast is clear.”
“Alright, here’s the information you wanted. She’s in Coral Gables, Florida.”
“Shoot, that’s near where all my family’s from.”
“You want the address and phone?”
“You got that?” I copied them down. “Thanks.”
“We aim to please,” continued Henry. “How’s it goin’ between you and Sid?”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Thanks for the info, Henry. You’re a doll.”
“Well, good luck, kid. I’ve got a feeling you’ll need it.”
But his warning couldn’t dampen my spirits. I slipped into the library and shut the door. It took me three tries to get through, but finally, the other phone rang and an elderly female voice answered.
“Is this Stella Hackbirn?” I asked.
“Yes, ’tis.” The voice had a rather light drawl for that part of the country.
“My name is Lisa Wycherly. I’m calling on behalf of someone you haven’t talked to in a while.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, Ms. Hackbirn. I work for your nephew.”
“I haven’t got a nephew.”
“Haven’t you got a nephew named Sid?”
“I had a nephew. But he decided that my politics weren’t good enough for him, so we no longer speak.”
“But haven’t you wondered at all about him?”
“No, I haven’t. It sounds to me like you’re trying to effect a reconciliation.”
“I’m not asking much. Just send him a card or something. Here’s the address.”
I gave it to her so quickly I don’t know if she got it down.
“You got that?”
“I don’t want it.”
“I haven’t spoken to Sid for fifteen years because I do not wish to speak to Sid and that’s final.”
The line went dead, and then the dial tone. I just sat there, utterly amazed.
“I could have told you she wouldn’t.” Sid shut the library door behind him.
“I had a feeling you’d try. So when I saw you sneaking in here, I listened in.”
“You weren’t supposed to know.”
“Just in case she said no, so it wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”
I nodded, my happy mood dashed.
“Stella is a very stubborn woman. She won’t change her mind. But I appreciate your trying.”
“I’m just sorry you found out.”
“Okay. So it hurts a little. Rejection always does. But when she ran me out, it wasn’t the first time she’d rejected me.”
“I’m sorry, Sid.”
“Don’t be. She’s obviously an old, embittered woman. That is her problem, and I propose we don’t make it ours.”
“There you are, Hackbirn.” Lipplinger’s voice shattered the moment. “We’ve got some talking to do.” He stopped when he saw me. “A little nookie behind the shelves, eh? I tell you, Hackbirn, you ought to let me have her. I’ll lay her and have it done with.”
“That is not why she’s in this house.”
“So what. Listen, Hackbirn, we’ve got to discuss this setup. I need space, room to work. This room would suit me just fine.”
When I thought of that old grouch taking over one of my favorite retreats, I got angry.
“Something else will have to do,” I said firmly. “This is a common recreational area.”
“She’s right,” said Sid. “You have your room. If there’s a problem, I’ll have the decorator in tomorrow.”
“Well, if that’s the best I’m going to get.” He shuffled off, muttering.
“That’s darned good, Lipplinger,” I shouted after him. I looked at Sid, who was chuckling. “There’s something about that man that brings out the worst in me.”
“I suspect you’re not the only one.”
“You’re not going to inflict him on that nice Mary Smith, are you?”
“You don’t know Mary like I do.”
“Obviously. I’m not a man.”
Sid chuckled again. “Don’t worry, Lisa. Mary’ll make mincemeat out of him.”
Whether or not she would have we never found out. When Sid called her, she told him she couldn’t come until the beginning of the following week. By Friday, Sid had had enough of Lipplinger. I was quite happy to come home from Mae’s on Monday morning and find him gone.
“You didn’t throttle him without telling me did you?” I asked Sid.
“Shoot him and not let me get any shots in?”
“Nope. I found another house for him.”
“People you’re not very fond of, I hope.”
“Don’t know them at all.”
“That’s good. Well, Praise the Lord, he’s gone!”
The days passed quickly. Christmas was well on its way, which put me in a very good mood, although I was busier than a one-armed paper hanger, what with all the various projects I had going for different people. Even though he wouldn’t say so, I could tell Sid was looking forward to spending Christmas day at Mae’s. Right after Lipplinger left, he questioned me extensively on presents for the family and insisted on taking me with him to buy them. After much debate, we settled on perfume for Mae, a classical record for Neil, a very nice souvenir book on Mercedes-Benz for Darby (I said it was too expensive, but Sid insisted), a copy of “The Wizard of Oz” for Janey, a picture dictionary for Ellen, and toy cars for the twins.
It was then, too, that we had the Great Present Fight, which has become a tradition around my birthday and any other holidays where presents are given. [One I could do without – SEH] I just didn’t want Sid to give me a present.
“Listen,” I told him. “You paid my back rent at my old apartment when I first started working here. That’s enough.”
“That was part of the initial employment agreement.”
“No, it wasn’t. So let’s just call that my Christmas present and leave it at that.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
“But you’re not letting me pay you back.”
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t want to be a kept woman.”
“For crying out loud, do we have to go through that again? I’m not asking for favors.”
“I never said you were. I just want to be independent.”
“And my buying you a Christmas present makes you dependent.”
“Sid, you don’t understand.”
“You’re right. I don’t, and I don’t think I’m going to anytime soon. So let’s make a deal. I won’t buy you anything if you won’t buy me anything.”
I paused. “Sid, it’s too late.”
“I thought so. Well, I’m not going to make any promises, then.” [Of course, it was too late for me, too. What else could I do? – SEH]
That closed the issue, of course. I would have made the deal, but I’d already finished the sweater and after all that work, I couldn’t bear not to give it to him.
If I had been happy to see Professor Lipplinger leave, you can imagine how I felt when, a week and a half before Christmas, I answered the door and found him on the doorstep, suitcases in hand.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He walked in and set down his suitcases. “I’m moving in.”
“Oh, no you’re not,” I said picking up his cases and putting them on the porch.
“I’m afraid he is,” said Sid, coming into the hallway. “I just got the call. His other house kicked him out.”
“I believe it.”
Lipplinger, with an air of triumph, picked his cases up and walked past me with a smug grin on his face.
“Always did like your place, Hackbirn. No noise, decent scenery, even if you can’t touch her.”
“You’re staying here on one condition,” warned Sid. “You stay in your room. I will not have you harassing my secretary or my housekeeper, nor do I want to listen to your tripe. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly. All I require is privacy and three hot meals a day.”
“You will get what you want, provided you stay out of our way. This is my house, remember.”
“Of course. Don’t bother showing me. I know the way, Hackbirn.” He shuffled off.
I shut the door and looked at Sid.
“Couldn’t we just ship him to the Soviets with a note that says ‘Here he is, you can have him if you can stand him’?”
“Nice idea,” Sid replied. “There’s just one problem.”
“They’d ship him right back and we’d be stuck with him again.”
We both laughed.
It was one week before Christmas.
“Sid!” I ran into the house bellowing that Friday. “Hurry up! Come here! Sid!”
He came out of the library with a worried frown on his face.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I got it! Hurry up and see!”
I grabbed his hand and started towards the front of the house.
“What are you talking about?”
“What you loaned me the car for. The Christmas tree. I got it. It’s out front. Come on. It’s a real beauty, too. I can’t believe I did it again.”
“Did you make that drop?”
“Of course I did. It went smooth as silk. I told you it would work. I was a little late. The guy was already at the lost and found counter asking for it. I just handed it over. No sweat.”
I pulled him outside. “There it is. What do you think?”
“I think there’s a tree tied to my car. I just had it waxed, too.”
“Quit fussing. I put a blanket down first. Help me get it inside. It’s just perfect. Another year and I did it again.”
I had to run inside first and get some scissors to cut the twine. After we got the tree off the car, I ran ahead to open the double front door all the way.
“Bring it in bottom first,” I called.
“I’ll bring it in whichever way I can get it!”
With much grunting and groaning, he got it into the hallway.
“Where do you want it?” he asked, sighing.
“I told you. In the living room, right in front of the bay window. It’s going to be so gorgeous! I can’t believe I did it again.”
“If I remember correctly, there is a very nice Queen Anne bench in front of that window.”
“Not anymore. Don’t panic, Conchetta and I did some rearranging this morning.”
“Miss Wycherly.” Sid heaved the tree along to the living room. “You have already dug deep inside me and turned me around, must you also rearrange my house?”
“Sure. But, relax, it’s only temporary, just through the holidays.”
We stood the tree up on its pine cross bars. The top branches scraped “snow” off the acoustical ceiling.
“Lisa, that tree is at least five inches too tall for this room.”
“And it’s not even in the stand.” I looked it up and down. “Yep. I did it again.”
We finally got it up and decorated, after first going out again to buy a stand, a saw (I couldn’t believe he didn’t have one) lights and the decorations. I guess Sid got caught up in the excitement in spite of himself, because I knew he’d planned on going out that night, but he stayed home to help me with the tree.
It was beautiful, too. Even Lipplinger admired it when we let him out of his room for the occasion.
“It’s decent,” he said. “Just the sort of thing you need a woman for, Hackbirn.”
“Hey, I helped too,” Sid replied, laughing.
Lipplinger snorted. “It only confirms my opinion of you. Nice piece like that and you’re not laying her. What a waste. Of course, I’ve always thought that about your kind.”
“Are you suggesting I’m gay?” Sid’s voice was calm, but it had that edge to it.
I tried to suppress a laugh. I could see where one could accuse him of it. He wasn’t swishy or had that kind of high-pitched voice (although I know a lot of gays don’t). But he was terribly clothes conscious and there was a gentleness about him that could be labeled effeminate.
Lipplinger just shuffled off, muttering.
“What are you laughing at?” Sid grumbled, picking up his cup of eggnog. Conchetta had made it before she left.
“It’s not funny.” There was something strange about his discomfort.
“You haven’t…tried it, have you?” I was actually kind of curious.
“No. that would make me bi-sexual, and I’m not that, either.” He looked at me, trying to figure something out. “I don’t know how you feel about the whole gay thing, but I know gays and lesbians and it’s no big deal. I just don’t like it when a straight calls me gay because then he’s being as insulting as he can be.”
“Oh. That makes sense.”
I smiled and stacked the ornament boxes up so I could put them in the hall closet. Sid watched me for a moment, then chuckled softly.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“You. You won’t spend twenty dollars on a blouse you need, and yet you spent a bundle today, and for what? A tree.”
I walked over to the tree, smiling at the softly twinkling lights.
“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,” I sang softly. “Wie treu sind deine Blaetter.”
“I don’t speak German.”
“The message of the evergreen, Sid. Its leaves are always green. They don’t change with the weather. The evergreen is unchanging, just like God’s love.” I looked at him. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to preach.”
He just shrugged. “I seem to remember reading somewhere that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol of fertility.”
I laughed and picked up my eggnog.
“Well, then, a toast.” I raised my cup and so did Sid. “To fertility.”
“Fertility?” he laughed.
“A fertile mind, for new ideas and a fertile heart, for love.”
“To fertility, then, because I’m not and you probably are.”