The phone rang; my wife picked it up. I could hear her voice from the other room.
She appeared in the doorway, holding the receiver against her shoulder. “They want to know if we want to joint them for dinner at the pub. Are you up for it?”
I had been sitting on the sofa in the dark, mesmerized by our Christmas tree all lit up in the corner.
“If you want to go, we’ll go,” I said.
“We’ll swing by the apartment on our way down,” my wife said into the phone. Slowly, I rose from the sofa and reached for my coat and cap.
A thick fog blanketed the wet streets as we walked beneath the streetlights. I pulled up the collar of my coat and jammed my fingers into my gloves. The cold dampness cut through my trousers as we walked down the street beneath the yellow cones of light in silence.
We knocked at the door of the first floor flat. My son-in-law let us in. He and his father had been working in the new old house most of the day, tearing plasterboard off the walls in the upstairs bathroom. His mother had finished sanding the walls in the master bedroom, getting them ready for the first coat of primer. Both of his parents had worked all day without eating. They looked spent.
They pulled on their coats and we stepped back outside into the fog. It was a short walk to the pub at the end of the street.
The dining room was vacant; a few regular patrons lounged at the bar; a sentinel Christmas tree stood silently in the corner.
We shed our coats and slid into a booth. A waitress appeared to take our order. “Where are all your customers?” I asked. “It’s New Year’s Eve.”
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “Somewhere else, I guess. We’re thinking of closing early.”
“Is the kitchen still open?”
We ordered a round of drinks and studied the menus.
Later, my daughter and son-in-law arrived with my son and his girlfriend. They sat down at the table next to our booth.
“This place is dead,” my son said.
“It’s quiet and warm and clean,” I said. “What more do you want?”
“A party,” he said. “You going to watch the ball drop on TV?”
“I’m going to drop long before that — into bed,” I said.
“Ian posted a letter he wrote me when he was away at college.” He handed me his smartphone. I scrolled down to read the text written 15 years before. Work on your grades, his older brother had written. You don’t have to get A’s to get into college, but you have to graduate from high school. Otherwise you’ll be pumping gas at the Getty station or bagging groceries when you’re 30.
I laughed. He was 31 now with an undergraduate degree, working for the government, going back to school in the spring.
“When we tore out the wallboard, there was knob-and-tube wiring underneath,” my son-in-law’s father said. “You’ve got to be careful when you do demolition in these old houses. No telling what you might run into. I cracked my head on a beam in the basement.” He dropped his chin to show us the red crease on his scalp.
I thought about the work I had done on our home shortly after we purchased it 26 years ago: stripping paper, priming walls and ceilings, replacing the subflooring in the bathroom, repairing a leak in the roof.
“I told them to concentrate on one room at a time. That way they can see some accomplishment. It gives you a little incentive to move ahead. Somehow, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.”
We finished up and stopped by the table to say good-bye to the kids, who were now starting out on their own, just like we did three decades ago.
Outside the fog lay in the street. But overhead the stars were out. A clear crescent moon hung in the sky.
The next morning dawned faultless blue above the village. Outside the back window, high up in one of the maples, a woodpecker pummeled the bark of a broken limb, a remnant of last October’s storm.