top of page

Milk & Cookies

Derek Dubois is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in East by Northeast, North Dakota Quarterly, Allegory Ridge, Senses of Cinema, Sonder Midwest, and others. He resides in northern Rhode Island.




He sprints to the checkout counter, out of breath. “I called earlier. About the thing.”


Beyond the caramel glow of the store’s front window, twilight settles over the town. The girl behind the counter has eyes grey and vacant as sponged blackboard. “Good timing,” she says. A red velvet Santa hat rests atop her bleached blonde hair run through with pink and purple streaks.


A Spy Kit Elite. The only item on Ritchie’s wish list, which he scrawled in green crayon on the back of a CVS receipt. She hands over a cardboard box brimming with cheap plastic assembled in some faraway third world, advertised on all the sugary cereal boxes. Disguises, a pair of walkie-talkies, and those thick black glasses with a built-in video camera. He and Laura had searched high and low since Thanksgiving. Now he held the key to his son’s heart, the box thrumming in his hands.


  “I’ve had three more calls for this thing in the last twenty minutes,” she adds. “Some schmuck even offered me two-hundred and fifty bucks.”


“You didn’t take it?”


She shrugs. “Against policy.”


“Shame on me for waiting till the last minute.” He inserts his credit card into the reader. “And sorry you’re stuck here tonight.”


 “What else is there?”


Robert smiles politely, nods, but reasons there must be a CVS receipt-sized list of places attractive young women should want to be on Christmas Eve. He watches as she bags it up. The tip of her tongue darts over raspberry lips. Slender fingers fix a stray strand of Kool-Aid hair. The avian curve of her clavicle peeks out from her Toy Barn polo. His stomach churns, sickened by lust. He’s become everything he’s ever hated. He’s become his father.


“Anything else?” she asks.


“No,” he says but then pauses, conspiring for a way to spend another minute in her presence. “Actually, can you gift wrap it?”


***


He can smell freshly baked cookies. The tree stands aglow in the living room window, wrapped in red and silver tinsel, while the family cat dozes beneath the plastic branches. The TV screeches, but no one is watching. He knows Laura struggles with the remote controls. On-screen, George Bailey tears through Bedford Falls’ snowy streets, rapturous, clamoring about the meaning of it all. Robert flicks it off. The living room settles in silence. That old movie is too maudlin anyway.


“Robert, honey, that you?” Laura calls down. Ritchie’s splashing in the bathtub echoes from upstairs.


“Yeah.”


He peels his book bag from his shoulder and crams it in the back of the coat closet. Only five more weeks until the Spring term and, with it, a whole new batch of students. By then, the days will be lengthening. A sheet tray of Snickerdoodles cools on the counter. Robert eats one ravenously over the kitchen sink and immediately chases it with another.


“Don’t do that!” She springs on him so quietly that he leaps. “Those are for Santa,” she whispers.


Laura waddles when she walks, a side-effect of the third trimester. She dries hands wet with bathwater on the sleeves of the same mauve cashmere sweater she wears just about every day now. It’s all that fits. Her swollen feet are plugged into flip-flops. Robert chortles at the contradiction, spraying a mouthful of cookie crumbs.


“Don’t laugh at me,” she quips, feigning insult.


Bruised half-moons hang beneath her eyes. Laura isn’t sleeping well and has resorted to propping herself up on the cat-shredded couch at night for more of an incline. She says it’s purely due to heartburn, but Robert senses there might be more to it. He’s never cheated on Laura, unlike his father’s affairs. But he finds that he thinks of women often, like all the time. Maybe she can smell my thoughts, he often wonders. But that is ridiculous. Here she stands with her arms wrapped around him.


Laura inches back and places a tender hand on his softening abdomen. “Your metabolism isn’t what it used to be.”


He returns the gesture, placing one hand on either side of her large, round belly. “I could say the same about you.”


She kisses him on the cheek. He catches the scent of maple, ham, and brie. Then her eyes clock the gift-wrapped package on the counter. “You got it?” She channels her excitement into a compressed whisper. Ritchie can hear a cake baking two towns over.


“Did you ever doubt me?”


“Must be the last one in the state,” she says.


“I don’t know if I’d use the word hero, but…”

           

She snags another snickerdoodle from the sheet tray and hands it to him. “Here, you deserve it. Now let me get the little prince out of his royal bath.”

           

As she trudges back upstairs, Robert hears Ritchie singing Love Me Do off-key, echoing off the bathroom tile. He is proud to have a son who prefers Revolver to Kidz Bop. That boy is the small moon orbiting his planet. This Christmas, the stars have aligned.


***

“Daddy!”


Ritchie leaps into his arms, his hair and skin kissed with bubble-gum soap. “I wrote a letter for Santa!”


“You did?” Robert musses the boy’s damp hair.


Ritchie bounds through the living room in painted-on Spiderman pajamas, arms and legs flailing. Each week, the kid seems to need another size up. He shoves a crumpled paper into Robert’s hands.


DEER SANTA, PLEZ TAYK THE COOKEES AND MILK AND LEVE PREZINTS UNDER TREE.


“You wrote this? All by yourself?” Robert asks.


Ritchie nods, a devious smile spreading like a stain.


“You’re so smart!” he exclaims to his son. And he means every word of it. He certainly can’t remember writing out full letters at the age of five. But, truth be told, there isn’t much he remembers from childhood. Maybe when life is so uneventful, it fails to impart any real memories to the brain? Like a cold iron to an iron-on patch.


The boy frowns. “Mommy helped me,” he confesses.


“Only a little bit,” Laura interjects, joining them back in the living room. Upstairs, the bathroom belches and gurgles as tepid tub water drains. “Ritchie sounded out most of the words himself.”


“You’ve been a good boy this year,” Robert says. He glances at Laura, who nods with approval. “So, your mom and I wanted to give you one gift from us before Santa comes.”


Robert grabs the wrapped box from the Toy Barn and places it on the floor before his son. Ritchie tears the paper to shreds, dog on a bone, and explodes with glee. Now he’s wheezing and squealing simultaneously once he has revealed the Spy Kit Elite.


“Oh my god!” the boy screams.


Ritchie’s happiness is a sugar rush for Robert. He cradles his arm around his wife and pulls her in close. Together they watch their boy strew the box’s contents across the floor.


“I’m gonna be just like James Bond,” Ritchie says.


Laura turns and whispers into Robert’s ear. “How does a five-year-old know about James Bond?”


“Must be from school.”


“Hey, Ritchie,” Laura calls. The boy’s attention momentarily shifts away from the toy. “Where’d you learn about James Bond?”


“Daddy and I watched Goldfinger the other day.”


“You did!?” Laura digs her knuckles into the soft flesh of Robert’s side. He winces.


“Don’t worry,” Robert whispers. “It was playing on TV. The bad bits were edited out.”


Ritchie slings the glasses over his eyes, clips the walkie-talkie to the elastic waistband of his pajamas, and grabs Laura’s hand with his own little carrot stick fingers.


C’mon! We’re on a special mission to catch Santa!”


***


Robert hears the familiar creak of his son’s twin bed as Laura and Ritchie settle in for storytime. That’s the cue. Robert scrambles now, gathering the wrapped presents from the garage loft and placing them under the tree. He eats the remaining cookies and pours the watery skim milk down the drain of the sink. All that refined sugar gives him a piercing headache, and he collapses on the couch.


The image of the Toy Barn shopgirl materializes. Robert and Laura’s routine has stagnated as of late. Maybe an occasional hand job on a Saturday morning, if lucky, when the room is fogged with morning breath and both nearly blind with glassy, filmed-over eyes. They never talk about sex. It feels too late to start now. Often, he takes care of business himself.


Robert unbuckles his belt and peels open his fly. He can hear Laura, one flight up, launching into The Night Before Christmas. His eyes close like leaden curtains. His hand finds a slow rhythm. Pink and purple waves of hair bob up and down on his lap. The shopgirl’s eyes meet his. He groans. One minute, two. And then Robert spurts so intensely that a rope of ejaculate hits the wall behind him. His breathing settles. His cock softens. He cleans up with a crumpled wad of tissues, cackling, thinking of how he’d just made a new load-bearing wall in his house. His headache has receded.


On his way to bed, Robert passes Laura on the stairs. She’s headed back to the living room. They meet halfway. “Is Ritchie excited?” he asks.


“Of course,” she says. “Wasn’t Christmas the greatest when you were five? He passed out before I finished reading. Everything set?”


“Yep. Stockings hung by the chimney with care.”


She yawns and grabs the railing for support. “I’m so tired.”


“Wait till next Christmas when there’s two of ‘em.”


“Oh, God. Can’t think about that now.”


He kisses her. They go their separate ways, he to the expanse of the king bed, she to the ass-shaped indent in the living room couch. When the baby comes, will she even bother returning to bed with him?


***


Robert carries the last shreds of gift wrap, tissue paper, and ribbon in trash bags to the outside bins. A blast of cold winter air is immediate. Back inside, Ritchie bounces around, overstimulated. Robert sighs, inhales deeply, and heads back in.

The warmth of the oven radiates through the house. The sofrito for his Puerto Rican pork roast had come together in a whirring mass of onion, red pepper, tomato, cilantro, and olive oil. Robert enjoys trying new recipes for the family. He got this one from the back of his wife’s Cosmo magazine. Often, he finds himself reading it cover to cover on the toilet, constantly feeling a little worse for wear when failing the latest sex quiz. But making new and ever more complicated recipes makes him feel sophisticated and sets him apart from a father whose idea of vegetables runs a very short continuum from lumpy mashed potatoes to French fries.


“Sure you’re ready?” Laura asks him. They stand parted by the kitchen island.


“That’s why I cook. Let’s me hang back in the kitchen.”


“That’s rude,” she teases. “Don’t hide from the family on purpose. On Christmas. You know everyone loves you.”


“Are you kidding? Both of my parents insist I threw away all hope of effectively providing for a family when I left corporate to teach. My father carries a deep river of shame that I can’t name more than two players for the Red Sox. And don’t get me started on your parents. After stealing you away? Forget it. When they’re here, I’m not the master of the house. I’m a bug under glass.”


There is the chime of the doorbell. Dread sets in. Ritchie bounds up to the window while Laura opens the front door. Crowded on the stoop are four aging baby boomers perched like scarecrows. They’ve arrived all at once with great sacks of presents in a miasma of Ben-Gay and Jean Nate body spray. Tucked behind Robert’s father is a geriatric woman with dyed-red permanent and eyes ghosted with cataracts. His grandmother Trudy.


“I didn’t know grandma was coming,” Robert says. Then, regretting his tone adds, “How great to see you!”


“Let us in. It’s winter out here,” grumbles Mitch, his father-in-law. Mitch is five-foot-three at most, completely bald, but Robert still feels small beside him.


They push their way into the house. It is a miracle the walls aren’t bulging outward. The grandparents descend on Ritchie in a swarm of doughy flesh and polyester. Laura wrangles coats while grandmothers deposit another shipping container’s worth of gifts beneath the tree.


An atonal symphony of voices bounces in from all directions.

-          “Make sure your damn cat doesn’t get into our coats again this year. I’m still sneezing from last Christmas.”

-          “Traffic was a bitch. Why’d you have to move so far away?”

-          “How come we didn’t see you at mass last night?”


Laura’s mother, decked out in an ivory pantsuit starched to the texture of plywood, places her bony hands on either side of her daughter’s pregnant belly. “Gosh! You’re as big as a house!”


“But still beautiful,” Robert adds, locking eyes with Laura, already perched to cry.


Robert offloads the bundle of coats and hats from Laura. He carries them upstairs to their bedroom and drops everything on the bed. Then, he lays beside them. The pale winter light hits the textured ceiling and casts abstract shapes like cumulus clouds. Inhale, one, two, three. Hold, one, two, three. Exhale, one, two, three.


Before they’d arrived, Robert put on a Laura Marling record. In fact, he’d curated an entire playlist of vinyl for the day. Music with quiet arrangements and melodious voices. Nothing dour or inappropriate, but still within his sphere of comfort. From upstairs, he can hear his father complaining.


“What the hell is this shit? It’s Christmas. Can’t we get some real music?”


“Whaddya wanna listen to, Dad?” Laura asks her father-in-law, exasperated.


Grandma Trudy chimes in with a creaky voice. “Do you have the Ray Coniff singers?”


“Let me check,” Robert intercepts, returning downstairs to the world of the living. But he brushes right past the record player—turning up the volume, withdrawing into the kitchen, snagging a can of Coke, and gulping it down. Only six more hours, he tells himself. Six goddamn hours and it’ll all be over.


The party spills into the kitchen, seemingly following him. Reedy-voiced phlegm machines rifle through cabinets, peek into the oven, and ask about gluten-free options. Robert’s father corners him by the stove. His thinning hair is moused straight back.


“Here,” says his father, holding up a small white card in his hand. Robert grabs it. It’s a business card.  Some guy named John. Apparently, John is senior director of IT Infrastructure at Compass Systems.


“What’s this?”


“Nothing,” says his father. “Jerry’s son works with him. He’d like it if you call him. Maybe he has something for you?”


“Why would I call him?” Robert asks, incredulous.


“Good benefits, I hear.”


“But I have a job.” Robert says, shoving the card back into his father’s hand.


Ritchie darts between legs, relishing every opportunity to show off for an adoring audience.


“Did Santa bring you lots of presents, Ritchie?” Robert’s mother asks the boy. She pinches his cheeks so hard they turn the color of ripe raspberries.


“Yeshhh,” the young boy manages through crumpled flesh. “I got a Lite Bright, some coloring books, some new crayons, and a spy kit. That last one was from Mom and Dad.”


“You’re a pretty special kid,” she says. “Let’s see it.”


This triggers something in Ritchie, who bolts to attention. “Oh man! I forgot all about my secret mission. Come with me!”


Ritchie corrals the family back to the living room. Thank god for that little boy, Robert thinks. Laura flags Robert’s attention.


“You coming?”


“Can’t. Gotta start the risotto. Whatever it is, I’ll see it later.”


The needle is lifted off his favorite record. The television turns on, its volume already booming. From his place at the stove, Robert doesn’t have eyes on the living room, but he hears bits and pieces, a staccato in-and-out, like tuning a faraway AM station.


“Okay,” Ritchie says, “I think I connect this here. And play!”


“Wow,” Robert’s father says. “You figured out this gizmo all by yourself?”


“What is it, Ritchie?” Laura asks him.


The spy kit came with special glasses. They have a video camera in them. So, before I went to bed, I hid them here on the shelf to catch Santa!”


“That’s one clever boy,” Robert’s father says, cackling.


There is panic in Laura’s voice. “Honey, I don’t think you should—"


The risotto comes to a gentle simmer. Now it’s at the delicate stage where it requires non-stop stirring. Otherwise, it will harden and cake. Robert can’t face having even one little element of the family meal be anything less than perfect. Not again.


Over the din of the vent hood, Robert hears Ritchie yelp. “Wait, why is Dad putting out the gifts? Where’s Santa!?” The boy’s voice is quickly reaching that histrionic register signaling an imminent tantrum.


Uh-oh. “What’s going on in there?” he calls into the living room.  


“Robert, I need you!” his wife calls.


Suddenly, Ritchie is galloping up the stairs, sobbing. The boy’s door slams shut. A very pregnant Laura trails behind.


Laura can handle it, whatever it was. The risotto is perfect, His spoon leaves a slight trail in the pan. But then the groans start—sharp squeals of disgust undulating from the landmass of grandparents stranded in the living room.


“Oh my god!” he hears his mother bellow.


“Laura!” shouts his mother-in-law. Then his wife is thudding down the stairs. Enough is enough. He’ll need to head into the living room to see for himself. Robert still carrying the spoon leaves the kitchen, his heart in his throat.


Then, he sees it. The horror is instantaneous. Elderly parents ride couches like ancient bull riders, contorted in disgust, holding up arthritic hands as if some unholy demon threatens them. Grandma Trudy, glazed eyes in shock and awe, grips the crucifix around her neck like a southern belle to a string of pearls. His wife aims the wrong remote at the television, fingers slamming every button to no avail. A wire runs from Ritchie’s new Spy Kit glasses into the TV set. On-screen, a mirror image of their living room. The twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, the empty milk glass, and Robert with dick in hand, moaning.


            Robert feels each individual cell in his body catching fire, igniting, burning away. The on-screen atrocity snaps him. It needs to stop. Now. The only thing he can do is kick the plasma television. He gives it everything he has. The center of the screen goes black, a star imploding, followed by a rippling blackhole that soon engulfs the entire image. The set rocks on flimsy plastic legs, topples over, and after a small electrical spurt, dies. No one says a word, just stares. Robert pivots on his heels, takes off running to his basement office, slams the door behind him, and collapses.


***


When he awakens, he looks out the basement window. The sky is now indigo. The whole day has gone. What does he remember? Everything. He pees in an empty water bottle. The house quiet now. Laura and Ritchie must be up there. Unless she packed her back and left him over this. Marriages have dissolved for less. How can he face his wife again?


As if psychically attuned to his wavelengths, Laura’s knuckles rap on the basement office door. She pushes it open and peeks inside. Even from across the room, Robert can see compassion in her eyes. They’re somehow even more bright and beautiful when she’s pregnant.

“You’re not playing with yourself, are you?” She taunts.


Off her look, he smiles. The storm cloud of shame still hangs over his head, but the look in her eyes is an errant ray of sunshine breaking through. “I want to die,” he groans. “I’m so sorry.”


“Get over yourself.”


“Everyone go home?” he asks.


“Yeah, when Grandma Trudy regained consciousness,” Laura jokes. She pushed the door open a bit more and padded over to Robert. “My dad said he wants your Puerto Rican pork roast recipe. He was picking at it all afternoon.”


“I ruined everything.”


“Why do you suffer from this need to impress them?”


“I don’t know. To make up for failing you and Ritchie, I guess.”


“Don’t talk like that,” she says. “You’ve never failed at anything. And every kid adores Christmas. They remember the gifts and the laughter, and they wallpaper over the bullshit. Ritchie too.”


“But my dad-”


“-Your dad is an emotionally abusive asshole. I have no idea why your mother didn’t leave him years ago.”


“Do you wish I worked in IT infrastructure at Compass Systems?”


Laura places a hand on his side, her fingers run the curve of his ribs. “You know,” she continues. “You might not want to believe me, but you’ve made a good life for us. And you did it pursuing something you love. I think that’s the best lesson for Ritchie.”


“How is he? Do we have to send him to a shrink now? He's so young learning Santa is really his parents.”


“Kids are resilient. He fell asleep on the couch. Want to help me carry him to bed?”


Robert lets his wife caress him for a few seconds more. Then he follows her upstairs. Ritchie feels hollow-boned—birdlike—and barely stirs when Robert scoops him up off the couch. Only a small groan when Robert bangs the boy’s scrawny legs on the banister. Up the stairs, down the hall. Robert deposits him in bed, pulls the Spiderman blankets up to the boy’s neck, and kisses him softly on the forehead.


Robert joins Laura in their bedroom. She has plugged the Spy Kit Elite glasses into the TV on their dresser.


“Please tell me you erased it?” Robert asks. His mouth and throat like wool.


“Come here.”


Robert listens to his wife and gently climbs into his side of the bed. She is propped up with four pillows in an upright position, thick legs sticking out. She fiddles with the toy in her lap. A long cable snakes down along the floor and into the port on the side of the television. “Ah-ha.” She presses a button, and the video starts on-screen again, right where it had left off. On-screen, Robert cleans his jizz off the wall.


“I never knew that was a load-bearing wall,” she quips, elbowing him in the ribs.


“You’ll never fucking believe me, but I made that same joke in my head last night!”


They crack up together, voices in harmony.


“I really don’t want to watch this,” he urges, reaching for the toy glasses. But Laura pulls his hands away.


“No, it’ll make you feel better, I promise.”


The video continues. The timestamp in the corner rolls on, and for a minute, very little happens. Occasionally, Robert darts in and out of frame as he cleans up and gives a final adjustment to the gifts beneath the tree. Then, though he can no longer see himself on-screen, Robert can hear his conversation with Laura on the stairs. A moment later, Laura enters frame and settles onto the couch. She props a pillow behind her back, gets it just right, and clumsily manipulates the girth of her belly. Seeing her on screen, a moment so unguarded, when she doesn’t know she is being watched, gives him a tingle.


“Here, right here,” Laura says. “This is what I want to show you.”


On-screen, Laura’s hand slinks under the fleece throw and starts moving in slow, sweeping arcs. Her head tips back, eyes close, and she moans softly. Her voice is honey studded with gravel. Sonorous. A sound he hasn’t heard for years. It makes him want to weep.


Robert glances from the Laura on television to the Laura right beside him. His mouth falls open.


“You too?” he whispers.


She nods, cheeks red, slightly embarrassed. A Cheshire cat grin sweeps across her face. She pauses the tape in her moment of ecstasy. In the glow of the television, she’s never looked sexier.


“I don’t like that we never talk about this stuff,” she says. Her tone isn’t patronizing. It’s calm, inviting. “Let’s agree, right here, right now, to stop measuring our marriage against artificial yardsticks. We’re not some sitcom couple. We sure as hell ain’t your parents.”


“No, definitely not.” Robert agrees.


Robert knows. They aren’t kids anymore, though most of the time, he still feels like he is waiting for life to begin. Waiting for the screenplay in his desk drawer to suddenly catch fire. Waiting for a publisher—any publisher—to get back to him on his manuscript proposal from years ago. He meets Laura’s gaze. Her eyes are the open mouths of baby birds.


“I fucking love you,” he chokes out, his voice catching. God, it sounds so corny, but it’s true. Why does this frighten him so much?


“So, let’s talk.” She grabs his hand in her own. “And, while we do, I want you to touch me. Okay?”


Maybe this is all some band-aid solution. Maybe things will return to their non-existent normal when the baby comes. Maybe one day, they’ll realize they’ve fallen out of love. But, for now, it seems worth it to try. He owes that to Laura. To himself. To everything they’ve built together.


There, in the old rickety bed, Robert reaches his arm under the sheets, over the rise of Laura’s swollen belly, and heads lower.

0 comments

Related Posts

See All

Movie

Comments


bottom of page