Gregory Fraser

A Gathering to Spark the Season

There was talk, of course, of the golden age of Flemish art,
and quibbles over the novel, English or French, praise
for the great composers, who also wrote, someone noted,
beautiful, scandalous letters in the most graceful of hands,
which induced another guest to smile broadly and begin
to gush about a warbler at the feeder earlier that day,
how its silver trill was a music whose grace could run
even the hardest heart through, and slowly, without ordeal,
as if to an unseen script, the more distinguished of the group
took to the sofas, while the bubbly younger ones, eager
to be noticed and to please, made themselves of use
refilling glasses, replenishing bowls of fruit, plates
of cheese, and someone asked about favorite foreign films,
about actors in and out of the big production houses,
then came chatter of summers abroad—the elevations
of Umbria versus Tuscany’s vine-studded fields. Yetit wasn’t until our conversation turned to the best recipe
for Bloody Marys that things really got off the ground.
The wallflowers peeled themselves from the shadows,
with a long overdue pluck that bordered on defiance,

which stirred the men trapped in speculations about stocks
and weekend sport, and all at once the whole place
whirred with adoration for pickled okra, asparagus stalks
as garnish, for the well-strained juice of lemon and lime,

pepper, coarse and black. There were homilies to Poland
and Mother Russia, panegyrics to the duchess of Tabasco,
and a jeremiad, of all things, condemning Misters Lea
and Perrins—mere pharmacists by trade, it turns out.

Suddenly arose the clink of ice, the pop of cans pried open,
bottles knocked shoulders in the liquor cabinet. A bright
hooray went up, and a silver pitcher made the rounds,
with everyone taking sips, smacking lips, extolling this virtue,

raising this fuss, and only one refrained—she was pregnant—​​
which sent up cries for a virgin, a Virgin Mary!, and a glass
appeared directly in the woman’s hand. The pitcher refilled
miraculously, additives changed to suit this palate, that allergy,

this whim, and the crowd grew giddy when the third batch
was pronounced The Best Bloody Mary on Earth. Truly,
it was all so lovely, and it appeared the glee would never
dwindle or die. When, at last, it did, an hour or so later,

there stood alone at the window the woman who wasn’t
drinking, the one with child, staring steadily out of the glass.
To no one in particular, almost as a casual aside, she recalled
her girlhood on the dry plains strafed by wind, and late

November skies the gray of weathered barns. The hostess
waltzed to her side, placed an arm around her waist,
and that was that. People began to grab their coats, wrap
scarves, sing goodbyes. It was frigid when I stepped out,

drunk, onto the stoop. I pulled up my collar, looked out
over the hills, and was struck, oddly, by the thought of home—​​
how similar the dusk appeared after the first few chills set in,
how the factories and mills and light changed shifts precisely

at five p.m. at the end of autumn, once the clocks fell back.
I thought about colored bulbs strung along the rooflines,
and how the lawns would sprout those manger scenes
my mother loved nearly as much as she did the word

crèche (she said it every time we passed one in the car).
I wondered if the woman still inside felt scared, and whether
she expected a boy or girl. Something told me it would be a girl.
On the walk home, I thought I heard a clatter of shoes behind me,

but when I turned, the block was clear. Parked cars huddled
in rows against the curbs, as if for warmth, as if sensing
it would snow. The streetlamps arched overhead like a phalanx
of long-necked birds, menacing and prehistoric and voiceless.