Against the Wind

On a craggy island in the Mediterranean with shaggy grass and poor soil there was a tree that defied odds. Rooted in soil too acidic for other plants, its back grew curved from the harsh wind, but its trunk was thick and strong. The tree now belonged to Gabriel Ness, who had it vivisected and lathed into a table to furnish the southeast corner of his apartment. It was a dark corner and the table saw little use, but it gave Gabriel a sense of satisfaction to glimpse it whenever he passed through the room. He visited the Madison apartment only once every three years. Even with the expensive furnishings, he could never escape the unpleasant feeling that he was in Wisconsin.

Madrid was Gabriel’s city, Los Angeles a close second. His hometown of Madison was unfortunately still part of his life and he swallowed the obligatory winter visits like medicine. Family get-togethers, catching up with little brother — and little-little brother, a sibling who still seemed absurd, as if Gabriel’s retired parents had taken the task upon themselves when no grandchildren came about. It was a wonder they could find time for a pregnancy between luxury cruises.

The closet contained three coats and a red and green wool hat, which Gabriel begrudgingly wore. The street from his window was completely white and he trudged into sheets of it. A blue Jeep Cherokee idled at the corner with his younger brother David at the wheel. He was wearing a blue collared shirt with the logo of his engineering firm.

“Happy holidays, Gabe! Good to see ya!”

“You’re working? On Christmas eve?” Gabriel asked.

“Just stopped by the office. Last minute stuff. Hey, good to see you getting into the spirit!”

Gabriel pulled his hat off. “Focus on the road, shall we?”

The Ness family home was flat, like everything else in Wisconsin. It was peach with white window frames. Silver garland sagged between the second story windows and a path had been furrowed between the driveway and front door through three feet of snow. Little Philip was the favorite, but the family still lit up when David stepped in. Gabriel had the triennial novelty; he was the second to receive the unctuous welcome. The house was choked with the smell of turkey in the oven and at last a dozen cranberry scented candles.

Phillip was seven years old, far too big to be bounced on his mother’s hip. Gabriel did not know how to react to seeing the boy. Philip had ballooned out as if he’d been fed on butter. He was no longer shy or nervous the way he’d been three years ago. He’d lost the cunning that Gabriel used to see in him, the only thing he had in common with Gabriel and David. Philip had fat cheeks and hair that was too light for a Ness. In Gabriel’s arms he was giggly and sticky. When set down, he returned to watching television on the couch.

Mom emerged from the kitchen and planted kisses on her sons. David went to the refrigerator and handed Gabriel a beer on his way to the couch. Young Philip was fixated on the screen and his mouth hung open like a gulping fish. David pushed onto the couch and Philip hardly noticed.

Gabriel could not seem to move out of the doorway. He balled up his hat in his fist.

“Glad to see you, Gabe,” Mom said. “Come inside. Any news?”

“Yes,” Gabriel heard himself saying, “Grandkids.”

Mom was thunderstruck. “Gabriel! Oh my god!”

David jumped up. “What? Are you serious?”

Dad came down the stairs pulling his bad leg. He had a look like he’d heard gunshots.

“I met someone last year,” Gabriel said. He licked his lips as the lies spilled out. “Her name is Vanessa. I didn’t want to say anything right after the engagement, but — ”

“Gabriel! This is so exciting!” Mom said. She leaned on Dad and the momentum carried from there — Gabriel leapt nimbly from excuse to excuse. He had pictures of Melissa on his phone, a fellow antiquarian who operated out of Germany. She had no sense of humor and Gabriel worried that this might somehow make it back to her.

Adoption was a convenient lie that nicely explained a new member of the family — and the process would leave “Vanessa” too occupied to visit. Gabriel pretended he was exhausted from his flight to fend off the deluge of questions.

The family convened every year, but the last time big brother Gabriel had visited three years ago, Philip could not get enough of him. This year the boy kept his distance. He went upstairs when the aunts and cousins arrived and Mom kept checking on him because he’d gone so quiet.

Philip was no longer the wunderkind and perhaps he already realized this. Gabriel had plenty of ways out of his lie, but Philip was living in a new house now. He would not be spoiled like he was used to. He would learn the lessons about brotherly competition that had turned Gabriel and David into shrewd negotiators and smart businessmen.

It takes a clever man to find success and Gabriel was giving Philip his chance.