It is dark, dark seven P.M. on Christmas Eve Eve.
The city gathers its black-skirted taxis around the ankles of Rittenhouse Square. A vendor rolls his cart into the park. Pinwheels hem and sigh in flowerpots stuffed with foam. Every audience in every theater on Broad Street leans forward into the hyphen of silence between the overture and Act One. A couple necks in the backseat of a Honda parked at Thirteenth and Spruce.
Ted Stempel leaves for his shift at the store. His battered pit bull puppy, Malcolm, gazes at him. "On second thought," he says to his wife, "I'll take him with me."
Once in a while a gust of evergreen settles over the man selling Christmas trees on Walnut. It really is nice, he thinks, that smell. In Olde City a girl follows her breath down the street, drifting away from her friends. "Look." She claps her mittened hands. "Look!"
Madeleine is sleeping.
On her building's rooftop, Mrs. Santiago unclips a shirt and yanks the laundry line toward her, unclips a bra then yanks, and so forth, until the line has been yanked empty, its contents folded into a wicker basket. She watches the Market-Frankford El slice across the horizon. She's never been on a plane. She wants to take a trip, but she has to fold the laundry. Find the dog. Freeze the gravy. Take care of the child who lately has seemed troubled and distracted.
Mrs. Santiago once cooked for three days in preparation for Christmas, then spent the entire meal running back to the kitchen for a cheese grater, a certain pepper, a record someone mentioned. Borne back ceaselessly into the kitchen.
A faraway ambulance screams through the city.
Mrs. Santiago prays: Little Flower, show your power at this hour.
In Georgina McGlynn's kitchen, Sarina uses wooden tongs to refresh a salad. She was the first guest to arrive and now suffers through the aneurysm of the doorbell, heralding another guest, Bella and Claudia and Michael, so far. So far, things are not going well. Her presence has caused glances of confusion (Bella), raised eyebrows (Michael), and one pointed "Who are you, though?" (Claudia). This has made Sarina nervous, resulting in several earnest exclamations regarding the salad. Breathtaking, she called it. More confused glances caused her to call the baked potatoes badass.
The necking couple at Thirteenth and Spruce has fogged up most of the Honda's windows. The man presses his lips against the woman's neck, her earlobe. Her eyes are closed, but she leans forward as if straining to see something through the misted window, Ben Allen perhaps, who is several yards away coaxing the last drag from his cigarette. Ben had been about to leap the stairs to Georgie's house when he caught sight of the pawing couple. He watches until nostalgia forms in his lower gut — he once made slow work of someone's neck, but whose? Certainly not Annie's — but not long enough to be a cad. He takes Georgie's steps in two leaps, as usual the last to arrive. His sanctified role in this group is showing up unforgivably late but armed with a story of what kept him that is so compelling he is at once forgiven. He shakes himself out of his coat in Georgie's entryway. "You will not believe what is happening on your very street, Georgie." He waits until she pauses in her work lighting candles and Bella and Claudia turn, to announce, "A couple is making out in a car."
"Where?" Bella runs to the window. "I want to see."
"There," he points.
"Gross." Georgie waves out a match.
"Not gross, Georgie. Inspiring." He surveys the room — the smell of cinnamon, the sputtering candles, the friends he's had since forever — through the eyes of strangers making out in a Honda. "Doesn't it make you happy to be in the world?"
Copyright 2014 by Marie-Helene Bertino. Excerpted from 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas, published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. Reprinted with permission.