The bottle of Jameson shattered into fine green needles and sprayed across the Connellys’ white kitchen floor. Conversations went so quiet that Thomas’s whispered “shit” could be heard across the room. Outside the wide bay window, snow poured onto pine trees, covering the glistening patio and the ghostly mounds of porch furniture already hidden under New England January.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Thomas said to Mrs. Connelly. She stood at the kitchen threshold, holding a crystal glass filled with ice and the same golden liquid that spread across the tile squares she’d had set diagonally at extra cost. Whiskey seeped into her white grout.
My heels clicked across the floor as I hurried to Thomas’s side. Standing on my toes, I said into his ear, “It was an accident.”
He stared at the mess, shaking his head. His fingers curled as if still holding the dropped bottle. “What should we do?”
Mr. Connelly produced another green bottle and then one more. He planted them on the holly-print tablecloth shrouding the kitchen table; it served as one of the two makeshift bars he’d set up for his youngest daughter’s wake.
In the living room the Christmas tree stood tall and bright.
Men in coat and tie and women in black stepped over and around sharp chunks of glass and spilled whiskey. At the kitchen-table bar, ice clinked, and low murmurs grew loud as guests crunched another carrot stick or scooped the walnut-crusted cheese ball with thick and sturdy Triscuits.
Someone, surely, would handle the mess. From a drunken teenage party more than ten years ago, I remembered cleaning supplies in Deidre’s mudroom. I turned sideways to break through bodies clustered at the margins of the Connelly kitchen.
Thomas grasped my hand. “Where are you going?”
I gestured to the spill. “I’ll be right back.”
Rounding the corner, I collided with Deidre’s oldest sister, Colleen, pale, red-eyed, her hands full with a rusty, gray dustpan, a blue bottle of Windex, and unraveling paper towels.
“I can’t find the mop,” she said. “It used to be in here, in the closet, hanging on the back of the door. But it’s gone. It’s goddamned gone.”
In the kitchen Colleen got down on all fours in her black skirt and tall boots. The fringe of her scarf dipped into the Irish whiskey that spread across Mrs. Connelly’s floor. The spill reached under cabinets and flowed into floor grates. With a frayed straw broom, I swept glass into the dustpan. Colleen sopped up pale liquid with paper towels.
“Colleen’s on her goddamned hands and knees,” Anne, the other Connelly sister, said from the dining room.
“Where’s the mop?” Colleen muttered again, her hands wet, the paper towels soaked. “I couldn’t find the mop.”
I dumped the first glass pile into the trash bin. Anne held her arms out to block the rush of nieces and nephews converging on the kitchen.
“Keep the kids out of here!” she said as they strained around her, asking what happened, what broke.
“Oh, Jesus, get the dog.” Mrs. Connelly snapped out of her frozen silence and collared the border collie, Gizmo, lapping whiskey off her floor.
Mr. Connelly twisted open both new bottles and said, “Colleen, for Christ’s sake, get off the floor. It’s your sister’s wake.” He took his oldest daughter by the arm and hoisted her up.
“Where’s the mop, Dad?” Colleen shook liquor from her hands.
“I haven’t the slightest.” He turned to his wife. “Mary, a mop?”
I turned to her too, but Mary—Mrs. Connelly—had escaped out the back door, into the pouring snow with Gizmo.
“Somebody should check on her.” I glared at Thomas.
Thomas kept his eyes on the floor, shuffling alongside me as I swept and spilled another glass-filled dustpan into the trash.
Mrs. Connelly had failed to close the door behind her. From the kitchen all could see Deidre’s mother, in her black silk dress and patent-leather heels, wade into the snow. We could hear her scream into the storm; she cursed Deidre, she cursed anyone, everyone, and especially the God who had abandoned them.
Mr. Connelly and Deidre’s two sisters rushed across the slick kitchen floor and out the back door. They pulled it closed behind them.
The departure of Deidre’s parents, her two sisters and dog, punctuated by the slam of the back door, left an uncomfortable quiet in their home. But in families like this, silence was short-lived, and relatives stepped in when needed. Mrs. Connelly’s sister, Mrs. O’Brien, took hold of the broom in my hand. She shook it a bit and cleared her throat. I let go. She swept. I crouched down with the dustpan, conscious of my short black skirt, pressing my knees together, and wished I’d worn a longer one.
“Can I get you another drink?” Thomas hovered over me.
“Young man, you can get me a drink.” Mrs. O’Brien stood tall and grasped Thomas’s forearm. “Didn’t you take Deidre to the prom? What was it? Ten years ago?”
He coughed into his wrist. “Yes. Yes, I did. I’m Thomas—”
“I know who you are. I may have lived two towns over, but I’ve always been the favorite aunt. Don’t tell my sisters or sister-in-law.” She winked at Thomas, then glanced around her sister’s crowded kitchen. “I couldn’t find my drink if my life depended on it. Are we out of glasses? Mary would be horrified—”
I offered to wash glasses.
Thomas moved to the kitchen-table bar and said, “I’ll help.” His strong pour filled the last clean glass for Deidre’s favorite aunt. Her drink delivered, Thomas and I embarked on our recovery mission in search of empty, abandoned cups. We found them on end tables, the mantel, in bookshelves, and several in the bathroom. We left half-full glasses alone. Our hands and crooks of elbows burdened with deserted crystal, we murmured “excuse me” until we reached the sink.
I nodded at the back door. “They’re still out there.”
Thomas looked away.
I pushed my sweater’s sleeves above my elbows, prepared to handwash Mrs. Connelly’s cut glass. I didn’t know if it was the good crystal, though my mother once showed me where to look on the bottom of a glass to see if it was Waterford, Baccarat, or Tiffany. Instead of searching for tiny script on a crystal glass, I leaned away from the sink and squinted toward the back door. Outside the red-faced Connelly family, framed by the half window, gestured wildly at one another. A layer of snow covered their dark hair and shoulders.
“Should we do something?” I turned on the faucet and didn’t wait for Thomas to not answer. “We should have done something.”
Thomas and I hadn’t known where to begin when Deidre splintered into a slow spill she could neither contain nor quit. Someone, surely, would help her, we’d thought, perhaps one of her sisters or a favorite aunt.
I ran unbearably hot water and snatched the new yellow sponge from the corner of the white sink. I bent down to open the cabinet below; Mrs. Connelly would never leave a half-empty bottle of Dawn on the counter for all to see. Finding it, I squirted too much blue liquid onto the sunny yellow rectangle. I scrubbed crystal tumblers—or double old-fashioned glasses—or whatever our mothers called them. I soaped them inside and out, around and around. I rinsed them with scalding water until my hands burned red and I couldn’t take any more. Then, one by one, I handed them to Thomas. He dried each glass carefully with a tea towel that bore, in faded green script, the first few lines of “Silent Night.”
Heather Rutherford has been published in Life in 10 Minutes Online Magazine and Stirring: A Literary Collection. She has attended numerous writing workshops, including Teaching Writing in the Community; classes at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum Studio School; and “Life in 10 Minutes,” a Richmond writing school, online magazine, and press. Heather grew up in upstate New York and escaped the cold by attending the University of Richmond to earn an English literature bachelor’s degree. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her family where she taught yoga and meditation for fourteen years and writes and edits the yoga center newsletter. She has raised two kids and several Labrador Retrievers, including two yellows named Hucklerry Finn and Scout Finch.