Contest #22 winner 🏆

Pagliacci on the Q Train

Submitted by Emily Hemmings to Contest #22 in response to: Write a short story about someone who does not spend December 31st celebrating New Year's Eve.... view prompt

It is 4:06 PM on December 31st, and my mother is sobbing at the kitchen table. She is wearing a peculiar type of party hat, one with a hidden button underneath the brim. When this button is activated, a string of lights declares the year, 1993, above her head in a semi-circle. While my mother cries, the sprigs of tinsel on the hat bob comically. I do not laugh, although I want to, just a little bit. Instead, I watch her, studying her ruddy cheeks with a detached fascination and chewing on my cuticles. I am not even sure if she is completely aware that I am there. 

A few minutes later, and my mother has now stopped sobbing. She has moved into a rhythmic sniffling. The impetus for this crying jag was that her friend Rhonda was not going to be coming to the famous New Year’s party that my mother has always been responsible for throwing. Even at my age, I am aware of the emblematic power of Rhonda not coming to the party. Some of my mother’s close friends have stopped coming over in the last couple of months, being replaced piece by piece with more a more obscure pantheon of acquaintances - work friends, old contacts from college, and the Avon Lady, Iris - but Rhonda, a friend from her childhood, was always there. Not attending Liz Gerard's world-famous New Year’s party was step one in what would become Rhonda’s year-long self-amputation from my mother’s life. 

My father has been gone for six months, more or less. He is not dead, nor missing, and in fact, lives across the river in a bachelor apartment with a kitchenette and a mattress pushed into the corner. This mattress is covered with a small constellation of cigarette burns although he tells me that he hasn’t started smoking again. Those holes were there to begin with. I do not believe him. I watch my mother wipe snot on her sleeve, and I realise there is a high probability that my father is on this mattress right now, possibly smoking, looking up at the ceiling and feeling liberated from my mother. I envy this version of my father very much, even though I am only eight years old at the time and nothing about his lifestyle appeals to me.

At the time, I was rather appalled with the wide difference in how my mother reacted to the twin abandonment by my father and by her best friend Rhonda. Later on, as I got to know my father on a more personal level and with a more refined metric for how shitty people could actually be, I understood my mother’s reaction in the sad kind of way you can only experience while realising that your parents are just regular, fallible people. My father was a mediocre human parasite whose interest in other people stretched as far as they would treat him like the starring lead in their own lives. Rhonda was a brassy redhead who drank Long Island iced teas in the middle of the day and was the starring lead of other people’s lives. Rhonda was larger than life itself, and certainly larger than my mother’s life. I have extrapolated, over the course of my life, the exact moment and reason for Rhonda’s departure from my mother’s life, starting with a drunken conversation my mother and Rhonda at our kitchen table, a few months before New Years Eve. 

“Well, you could stop calling him,” Rhonda said. Her voice sounded mushy and imprecise. I was in the hallway, hiding behind a cabinet, monitoring their conversation. 

“Who else am I going to talk to about her,” my mother said, “It’s not like she has another father. Someone needs to have some input. I can’t do this all by myself.”

She is me. I feel guilty that I am being mentioned, that I am a subject at all. I shudder behind the cabinet, the cool skin of my knees pressed into my cheeks. 

“God damn it, Liz, it takes a village, right? To hell with that guy. You weren’t happy. You said it was like having air for the first time when he left, right? Wasn’t it? Leave it be.”

“You don’t understand,” is the last thing that I heard my mother say. She rose from her chair and I dashed into my room and hid under my blankets, feigning a nap.

Still, on New Years, my mother is blindsided by Rhonda’s phone call, which was brief and, from what I could ascertain, quite terse. Rhonda has booked a last minute flight to Nevada with a man she met at a bingo night. She said that she “wanted to have a little fun”, the implication of course being that she wouldn’t be able to have fun at my mother’s party. My mother blames Rhonda’s not being at that party for the reason that Rhonda would fall away from her life and eventually, move to New Jersey with the man she met at bingo. My mother explained to me, quite oddly and without prompting in the middle of July the next summer, that whatever you are doing on New Years Eve, is a blueprint for the following year. I call bullshit, but I am haunted by this proposition.

On my first “real” New Years, it is 2002 and I am seventeen years old, gawky and anxious. This is the first year that I am not subject to the alienating experience of being a child at Liz Gerard's world-famous New Years Eve party and I am both thrilled and terrified. My friend Kathy lends me a tight skirt and a tube top, which makes me look coltish but nothing like myself, which I regard as a wash. The underwear I am wearing has a small rip in the groin because the underwear is from a bulk pack from Walmart and my mother has zero interest in helping me invest in cute underthings. I am convinced that other people can somehow, telepathically perhaps, see through my skirt and can detect what a fraud I am. However, I drink half a bottle of wine to myself (another gift from Kathy), and I consider myself absolutely trashed by a quarter to midnight. I watch the TV with my squinted eyes while other teenagers around me kiss at the stroke of midnight and Dick Clark wishes us all a happy and healthy 2003. I am sad. I leave the party shortly afterwards. Over the next year, Kathy and I grow apart for no reason at all. She graduates and moves to Connecticut with her boyfriend, and I take up smoking and start working in a grocery store. We will not speak again until many years later when Facebook becomes a thing and we are forced to engage in petty small talk over the internet to justify our curious contact with one another’s profiles. 

It is 2008. My father chooses the morning of New Year’s Eve to die unceremoniously of a fatty liver. I didn’t even know that he drank.

“Oh, it wasn’t anything like that, honey,” my mother says over the phone, “I think it was his weight. I know you haven’t seen him in a while, but he’s gotten quite large. That’s what you get for living alone, I guess.”

I allow this comment to pass. My mother has become a master of the double entendre. This comment was a jab at me and my apparent singleness, which she had become preoccupied with ever since she began dating her own mailman. 

“Should I…” I begin.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she says. “You two were never close, no point in coming all the way home now.”

Seven months after the death of my father, my boyfriend Kyle leaves me. Unlike my father, he has the decency to tell me that he is leaving. I note the poetic irony in the fact that he is leaving me for a slightly older woman named Rhonda, and I am a little disappointed to find out that she is not the Rhonda. This is the strongest feeling I have during our final exchange and I understand my mother just a little bit more when he closes the door to our once-shared apartment. There is more air all of a sudden. 

It is 11:28 PM, December 31st, 2019. I am on a train. We have been stalled inside the tunnel for eighteen minutes, an incomprehensible amount of time in New York City. My mother is roughly five hundred miles away in Maine, her world-famous party in full swing. She is drunk. I know this because I spoke to her on the phone earlier in the afternoon and she was already half in her cups. She wanted to know if I had gotten the package she sent. I did.

It was a small care package of random tchotchkes, inadvisable adorable knick knacks that only someone born and raised in Maine would have ever found cute. Among her offerings included a pair of oven mitts shaped like lobsters, a novelty license plate with the my name printed on it, and a bizarre party hat. In a semicircle, the number 2020 lit up when a small button at the base of the hat is pressed. The tinsel is a little more understated than my mother’s hat, the one she wore in 1993. I am wearing it right now. I feel that my enthusiasm for the evening and my decision to wear this hat is now tragically comical, Pagliacci on the Q Train. I left a party in Manhattan an hour early so that I could go home because I was sad. I hate how sad this day makes me. I hate how powerful the spectre of pressure is on this day, and I hate my mother for instilling this superstition in me. I hate the couple across from me on the train, who are darting their tongues into each other’s mouths with such an adolescent impreciseness that I am melting with envy. It is not yet midnight and they don’t care. They are a single creature, devoid of shame and drunk on young love. I am the same age as my mother on the day that she realised that Rhonda was going to leave her life forever. I have never found my Rhonda, and so I am safe but also quite hollow.

A man at the end of the car barks in frustration. He must be confined to the same superstitious prison as me, or he wouldn’t be this upset, and I am pleased that I am taking in the moment with slightly more poise. I am, in fact, feeling rather superior because I have someone here is who is behaving how I would like to behave. Inside, I am reeling. On the outside, I am a sad woman in a stupid hat who is calmly taking in the fact that she will spend New Years trapped in a metal tube with strangers. If I am calm, it will inoculate me against pain for one year. If I am sad, if I am upset, if I bark or tap the doors, fate will punish me. 

In the next car over, someone is counting down the seconds until midnight. The couple across from me is still kissing, obscenely. Miles away, my mother is holding a bottle of champagne aloft and shouting and people she barely knows are gathered around her in rapt fascination as she ushers them into a new year, the shepherd of optimism. The car next to us, resigned to their fate, rattles our car when the clock strikes midnight. I leave my hat on.



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46 likes 23 comments

20:29 Jan 09, 2020

Wow, what a profile of a person. I loved the parallels and differences between the daughter and the mother. It made their persons stronger by the contrast and similarities.

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20:18 Jan 09, 2020

Wonderful job. Congratulations on the win. I would have written those two sentences with exclamation points normally, but your story commands a certain beautiful flatness and exclamation points feel like a betrayal.

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06:46 Jan 11, 2020

that was exquisite! i got more than what i expected. the story kept getting better with each word i read. a much deserved win for pure talent.

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18:44 Jan 10, 2020

Your strong characterizations and illuminating glimpses into individual lives immersed me in your story. This is especially impressive, because of the word count limitations. You have a gift for conveying details in fewer words. Congratulations!

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09:40 Jan 14, 2020

I love this story. It is evident that you are a Real Writer. If I were competent at navigating this website I would look up your profile and see what books you have written.

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18:02 Jan 14, 2020

Hi, Helen! First of all, thank you for the kind words. If it helps, I am not sure how to navigate this website either, but I do in fact do other writing and I am looking into having some of my stories put into an ebook format. :) Thanks for reading.

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15:40 Jan 16, 2020

Hi Helen and Emily! If you have the time, it would be great to hear your feedback on how we could make this site more easy for you to navigate. You can send over any issues or feedback to prompts@reedsy.com — we're always looking for ways to improve! :)

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21:59 Jan 13, 2020

Congratulations 🎊🎉

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21:16 Jan 12, 2020

Poignant and well written. Congratulations

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15:56 Jan 11, 2020

Truly well done. Congratulations!

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12:28 Jan 11, 2020

Wonderful story. Congratulations

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23:39 Jan 10, 2020

Superb story, congratulations!

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22:32 Jan 10, 2020

Well done, captured me at the beginning. Well deserved and congrats!👏🏻

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21:45 Jan 10, 2020

Great characterizations and imagery to set the scene. I could feel like I was there!

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21:27 Jan 10, 2020

Great characterisation and nice story!

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20:28 Jan 10, 2020

Congratulations!! Nicely done :)

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20:25 Jan 10, 2020

Well, I loved it. A great portrait of a broken mother and daughter. So refreshing and honest and void of pretension. Hands down one of the top 5 pieces I've read on this platform. Well done and Congrats on the win!!

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18:45 Jan 10, 2020

This story definitely deserved the prize, it was excellently written. Every single paragraph left me in awe looking forward to what would happen next. Congratulations.

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13:08 Jan 10, 2020

Very insightful writing, and paints such a vivid picture, well done on your win.

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06:08 Jan 10, 2020

Cute, sad story. Great job on your win.😁

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23:58 Jan 16, 2020

A very moving and realistic rendering of how holidays affect us our whole lives. I have some of your feelings about New Year's Eve and I gave up trying to have a "Happy New Year" kind of night a long time ago. Now I will remember your story every New Year. Excellent writing.

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15:42 Jan 16, 2020

It's always a treat to read a story where you feel like you really get to know and understand a character — and this is especially impressive when it comes to short stories! Yours is an example of that, and we're delighted you submitted it to our contest!

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