This tale begins, as do many Nantucket tails, with a dog. A Norwich terrier, the runt of the litter—which made him very small indeed—a stubby, sturdy, tan, pint-sized pup with a face like a fox’s, ears like a panda’s, and the dark passionate eyes of Antonio Banderas.
His name was Snix.
Back in his chubby days, he was adopted by the Collins family visiting from Rhode Island. His plump bum- bling made Cota, their teenage daughter, squeal that he was so cute. Cota named him Snix because she knew no other dog in the world had ever been named Snix. Cota was at the age when she wanted to be noticed for being the kind of special girl who would have a dog named Snix.
At the beginning of the family’s summer vacation, Cota doted on Snix, letting him sleep in her bed, brush- ing his coarse coat, tickling his fat belly, and taking him for lots of walks up and down Main Street on Nantucket, with Snix tripping fetchingly over his rhinestone leash.
Three months later, Cota was fourteen instead of thir- teen. Her hair was two inches longer, her legs were three inches longer, her bosom was three inches fuller, and she didn’t need a pet of any kind to get noticed. Meanwhile, Snix had lost his puppy fat and his roly-poly ways. He now wore a mournful and slightly baffled expression, hav- ing gone from adored to ignored in three short months.
At the end of the summer, the Collins family did what many vacationers do when they return home from their holiday—they left their adopted pet behind. They drove their black SUV out to the moors in the middle of the island, where dirt roads ranged over low hills and past small ponds, where rabbits, moles, and deer hid in the bushes. They removed Snix’s collar, name tag, and leash before Cota opened the door, leaned out, and set the pup on the dry, end-of-summer grass.
“Bye, Snix,” the teenager chirped hastily, slamming the door shut.
The family’s large black SUV roared off, leaving a cloud of sandy dust floating in the air.
Snix sat with his head cocked, watching. Waiting. Ex- pectant. Then, not so expectant, more hopeful. Then, sad. Snix lay down with his head on his paws, his eyes fixed steadily on the dirt road where his family’s car had last been—he could still smell the gas fumes, and Cota’s light fragrance.
No other cars passed. It was just after Labor Day. Ev- eryone had left the island. Well, not everyone, of course— twelve thousand people still lived and worked on the island, but none were strolling that hot day on a secluded sandy track through the moors.
September was much like August on the island of Nantucket. The sun beat down on the crackling brown grass and on Snix. Overhead, small planes zipped back and forth, taking people from the island back to the mainland. From time to time a sparrow would tweet and flutter from one tree to another. Snix watched a spider creep across the dirt road and disappear in the bayberry bushes. That was about it for action that afternoon.
Snix was by no means a stupid dog, but he was natu- rally loyal and he was young and naive. He didn’t have the experience even to consider the possibility that the sweet-smelling long-haired girl who hugged him and cud- dled him and chucked him under his chinny-chin-chin was never coming back for him.
So he waited. His stomach growled. He got very thirsty. He smelled water, fresh water, nearby, but he didn’t want to leave this spot in case the Collins family came back for him. So he lay there, a little brown puppy more gangling than chubby, more dog than baby, more awkward than adorable. He lay there with his head on his paws until the sun set and the world around him turned black and he saw no lights anywhere. He’d never been in a world without lights, and that made him shiver, and that made him whimper, and then he let out such a dis- consolate howl that he frightened himself and a few other critters nearby.
He began running very fast down the road, toward the scent of human civilization.
On Nantucket, the Christmas season is different.
The island, fifty-two square miles of flat sandy land, lies in windswept isolation almost thirty miles away from the continent and all its institutions and entertainments. In the summer, the sun shines down on golden beaches and a serene blue sea. In the winter, gale force winds lash and howl over the ocean, cutting its residents off from family, friends, and often fresh bread and milk as Nan- tucket Sound freezes over and no planes fly, no boats sail, to or from the island. When the sun sets early and rises late, deep black water surrounds the land in infinite dark- ness.
Then Nantucket comes truly alive. Islanders have the leisure to savor the Charles Dickens charm gleaming from the glistening cobblestone streets and historic brick buildings. They relish the coziness of the small town where they know everyone, and everyone’s dog. After a hectic summer, they enjoy the tranquil pace. They take time to stop, look, listen, pat the dog, tickle a baby’s chin, chat, and laugh. They attend Christmas pageants, holi- day fairs, and all manner of cabarets. The town lines the central streets of the village with dozens of small ever- greens twinkling with multicolored lights and weather- proof decorations. The islanders pause to gaze up at the forty-foot spruce blazing at the top of Main Street, and they nod in appreciation and gratitude.
They celebrate light, life, and laughter as the winter dark wildness descends.
The Christmas Stroll began as an occasion for mer- chants to welcome islanders into their shops for hot but- tered rum, spiced apple cider, warm gossip, and good cheer. Store windows were artistically decorated with mermaids and Santas, seahorses and fairy-tale scenes. Mr. and Mrs. Santa arrived on a Coast Guard boat and were delivered to the Jared Coffin House by horse and buggy. The aroma of fresh fish chowder and island-brewed beer wafted enticingly from the restaurants. The town crier strode through the streets in tall hat and cape, and Victo- rian carolers enchanted the salt air with song.
Not surprisingly, and oddly around the same time the one-hour fast ferries started their rounds, news of Nan- tucket’s Christmas Stroll spread to off-island friends and relatives of the townspeople. One sparkling winter day, a Boston television station sent a reporter and cameraman. After that, the annual event was famous.
For children, it was magic. For adults, it was a chance to be childlike.
For Nicole Somerset, the Nantucket Christmas Stroll
was close to miraculous.
Four years ago, Nicole was a widow. Her friend Jilly in- sisted that Nicole travel down from Boston for the week- end to enjoy the Stroll. Nicole came, and fell in love with the charming small town, its festively bedecked windows, its fresh salt air and chiming church bells. She fell in love with a man, as well.
She met Sebastian Somerset at a party. They liked each other a lot, rather quickly, if not immediately, but being older, and possibly wiser, they took time getting to know each other. Nicole was widowed and childless. Se- bastian was divorced, with a grown daughter.
Nicole was a nurse. She had just retired at fifty-five, but she missed her patients and colleagues. She missed her work, too. She liked to keep busy. Sebastian, sixty- two, had worked for a Boston law firm. He had also just retired, realizing he’d spent too much of his life working. He wanted to enjoy life.
Slowly, cautiously, they began to date, discovering that together they enjoyed life a great deal. Sebastian owned a house on the island, and as the days, weeks, and then months went by, he introduced Nicole to the plea- sures the island offered—swimming, sailing, and tennis. In turn, Nicole introduced Sebastian to the delights his first wife had disdained: homemade pie, eaten while watching large-screen television; walking rather than biking through the island moors; stopping to notice the birds and wildflowers rather than jogging to keep his heart rate up; or watching the sun set on the beach rather than attending a cocktail party.
Sebastian’s first wife, Katya, was a perfectionist who had kept him on a tight leash and a rigid routine. After a few months of relaxed satisfaction with Nicole, Sebastian worried he would gain weight and develop heart trouble. To his surprise, he gained no weight, and his blood pres- sure actually dropped. When he asked his doctor about this at his annual check-up, Maury Molson leaned back in his chair and shrewdly raised his hairy eyebrows.
“Sebastian, you’ve been going through life as if every- thing is a competition. During this past year, you’ve stopped to smell the roses, and it’s been the best thing you could do for your health.”
Sebastian chortled in surprise. “I’m shocked.”
“Me, too,” Maury told him. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you laugh like that before. And it’s true, happiness is the best medicine.”
When Sebastian told Nicole about this, she beamed and responded, “You make me happy, too. Although I haven’t had my blood pressure checked.”
“I wish we could live together for the rest of our lives,” Sebastian allowed, looking worried.
“Darling, why can’t we?”
Sebastian had furrowed his brow. “I think you should meet my daughter before we go any further.”
Sebastian and Katya had a daughter, Kennedy, who was, Sebastian uneasily confessed, emotionally compli- cated. A carbon copy of her blond, beautiful mother, Kennedy tried to emulate Katya, meaning that she tried to be perfect, still not understanding, after all the years of living with her, that it was so much easier for a woman to be perfect when she focused only on herself.
Because Katya had been a kind but cool mother, Se- bastian had, he admitted, cossetted, pampered, and per- haps even spoiled Kennedy a bit. Okay, perhaps a lot. Now married to a perpetually flustered stockbroker named James, Kennedy found herself overwhelmed herself by the responsibilities of grocery shopping, cooking, clean- ing, and caring for their son Maddox.
Kennedy was further dismayed by her parents’ divorce.
Katya had been thoughtful enough to wait until Kennedy’s wedding five years ago to leave Sebastian for her tennis coach, Alonzo. Kennedy couldn’t understand why her father, who could always do anything and everything, couldn’t win Katya back. When Sebastian had admitted to Kennedy that he didn’t want Katya back, that he was more contented without her, Kennedy had dissolved into a weeping fit and said she never wanted to see her father again.
Kennedy changed her mind when her baby boy was born. She didn’t want her son to grow up without his grandparents, even if they were no longer married. For the past four years, Sebastian’s relationship with his daughter had been close and comfortable. Kennedy had even accepted Alonzo’s presence in her mother’s life, al- though she told her father it broke her heart every time she saw Katya with that other man.
So naturally, Sebastian worried about telling Kennedy about Nicole.
Sebastian paced the living room of Nicole’s Boston apartment as he strategized the first meeting. “I’ve told Kennedy I’ve been seeing someone. I’m going to tell her I want to bring you to dinner, to meet her. That should indicate that I’m serious about you.”
Nicole had no advice to give. She had not been able to have children. All her nurturing instincts had gone into her nursing profession. She thought Kennedy sounded like a difficult personality, but how bad could she be?
“Tell Kennedy I’d like to bring dessert,” Nicole of- fered.
“Why would you do that?” Sebastian looked genuinely puzzled.
“It’s a nice thing to do,” Nicole explained gently. She’d begun to see that in Sebastian’s former social-climbing world, niceness had no place. His life with Katya had been all about ambition. “It will save her from cooking some- thing.”
Sebastian thought this over. “I see.”
When she stepped into Kennedy’s home, it was Nicole who saw, and her heart plummeted for the man she’d come to love and for his daughter. Clearly Kennedy had copied her mother’s style of décor, best described as “Gla- cial Chic.” Walls, furniture, floors, even wall art, were white. The living room coffee table was glass with sharp edges. The dining room chairs and tablecloth were black; the plates white. It was a hot summer evening when she first entered Kennedy’s home, and Nicole wished she’d brought a pashmina to ward off the chill.
Kennedy, blond and wire-hanger thin, wore a white sleeveless dress. Her husband, James, wore a starched white button-down shirt with khakis. Only little Mad- dox, chubby in his navy blue and white sailor outfit, pro- vided a dash of color.
Everyone shook hands politely, and then Nicole sank to her knees in front of Maddox.
“Hi, Maddox. I’ve brought you a present.” She held out a brightly colored gift bag. She’d spent hours consid- ering what to bring for the child, knowing as she did all the restrictions his mother placed on his life. Maddox was two then, much too young, Kennedy insisted, to watch any television. Also, he could not have any candy or any- thing sweet. Also, he was not to have anything “techno- logical”—no remote-controlled cars or dump trucks, no handheld video games.
Wanting to get him something special, Nicole had bought him a silly-faced, shaggy-haired white goat which, when a button was pushed, burst into “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd” and continued singing through the en- tire song, wagging its head and batting its long black eye- lashes.
Maddox clapped his hands and giggled when he saw it. Kennedy opened her mouth to object, but after a mo- ment could think of no objection, and managed to say, “Tell Nicole thank you, Maddox.”
“Thank you,” Maddox said.
Nicole beamed as she rose to her feet. She had passed the first test. Proudly, she wrapped her arm through Sebastian’s arm, giving it a quick smug hug.
“Love-dovey—ick!” Maddox giggled.
Nicole started to pull her arm away.
But Sebastian laughed and with his other arm reached out and pulled his daughter next to him. “Maddox, I like hugs from my women.”
Nicole watched emotions flicker over Kennedy’s lovely face: surprise at her father’s unusual spontaneity; joy at being hugged by her father; consternation at being hugged when her father was with Nicole.
Dinner was a complicated casserole with a French name and a salad of puzzling gourmet lettuce called frisée that felt like sharp bitter hair in Nicole’s mouth. Still, she appreciated the trouble Kennedy had gone to.
“This meat is so tender,” Nicole complimented Ken- nedy.
Kennedy actually blushed. “Thank you. It’s daub au poivre. The meat is marinated with wine and all sorts of herbs. I had to find lard for the recipe. Lard. Who uses lard anymore? But I wanted to make it authentic . . .”
She’s nervous, Nicole realized, as Kennedy babbled on. Not nervous about Nicole, but about the excellence of her cooking. Kennedy’s eyes flitted to her father as she spoke, waiting for him to praise her. Nicole kicked Sebas- tian in the ankle until he spoke up.
“It’s delicious, Kennedy. Never tasted anything better.”
Nicole could see Kennedy’s shoulders actually relax, dropping a few inches away from her ears. A tender spot
blossomed in her heart for the young woman.
But when time came for dessert, Kennedy refused to taste Nicole’s deep-dish apple pie.
Putting her hand on her waistline, Kennedy said, “I don’t eat desserts. We all know that sugar is bad for us. And I have to watch my weight, like mother does. I don’t want to get”—she glanced at Nicole’s rounder figure— “pudgy.”
Sebastian chuckled around a mouth of delicious pie. “We all gain weight as we grow older, darling.”
“Mother hasn’t,” Kennedy reminded him. “She’s got a gorgeous shape and a flat tummy.”
She probably doesn’t eat lard, Nicole wanted to say, but kept her mouth shut.
And that, as far as Nicole was concerned, summed up her relationship with Kennedy. One step forward, one step back.
Nicole and Sebastian married. The January ceremony was attended by only a few intimate friends since they assumed Kennedy would refuse to attend. Katya was bliss- fully redecorating her Boston townhouse and continuing to see Alonzo. Kennedy’s husband, James, was doing well with his work, and Maddox was growing out of the tod- dler stage, becoming more manageable. A delicate har- mony existed in Sebastian’s inner circle; Nicole and Sebastian did not want to disrupt the peace.
Nicole sold her small apartment and moved to Sebas- tian’s Nantucket house to live year-round. She made friends, loved the small town, and began to anticipate the holiday season.
This year Katya and Alonzo were going to a tennis and cleansing spa. That meant that Kennedy, James, and Maddox were coming to the island for Christmas week.
The entire seven-day-long Christmas week.
Why did his parents need another baby? Maddox won- dered about this constantly. It was going to be a boy, too, his mommy had told him. Wasn’t Maddox a good enough boy for his parents?
He tried to be a good boy. He ate his vegetables, even though they sometimes made him gag. He strained des- perately to comprehend the funny squiggles on the page every day when his mommy tried to teach him to read, and he had already mastered the art of using the potty. Most of the time.
But Maddox had seen babies. They couldn’t use the potty at all. So why did his parents want one?
“You’ll have someone to play with,” his mommy prom- ised. But a kid couldn’t play with a baby. Babies couldn’t throw a ball. They couldn’t even lift their heads.
It was a puzzle.
He’d suggested many times that instead the family could get a dog. With all his heart, Maddox wanted a dog. He could throw a stick for a dog and play ball with a dog and cuddle in bed with a dog . . . although maybe not. Mommy said they would bring dirt and germs into the house.
Nicole had given Maddox had a stuffed goat and even though Mommy said Nicole was a hag, he loved the ani- mal, which sang—until Mommy removed the battery. Maddox named him Yodel and held him when he went to bed at night, rubbing Yodel’s silky tongue between his thumb and finger. It helped him fall asleep.
He knew, of course, that a real goat wouldn’t have a satin tongue, and he wouldn’t be able to rub the tongue, anyway, that would get drool all over the bed. Anyway, he didn’t want a real goat, which was too big. He wanted a small dog, so he could put his arm around it and feel its furry warmth against his body. He would like that.
When he was little, his mommy had held him in her arms a lot. Now that she was all stuffed with the baby, holding Maddox was too hard for her. She didn’t have a lap to sit on anymore, and Maddox was always, she said, poking him with his elbows or knees. He tried to be care- ful, but now Mommy said she was getting breathless since the baby’s bum was pushing against her lungs.
“I love you, Maddox, but you’re too much for Mommy.” That’s what she said yesterday. He was too much when he made a zoom zoom noise with his cars. He was too much
when he wouldn’t eat asparagus.
Ugh, asparagus was so gaggy, like a long package of strings that caught in his throat. Maddox shuddered,remembering.
He hoped when they went to Granddad and Nicole’s house for Christmas he would get to eat other stuff. Maybe cake or pie. Nicole was nice to Maddox, even if she wasn’t a real grandmother. She had sent Maddox his very own Christmas card, and it had a cute puppy on it, sticking out of a Christmas stocking.
"That woman is just trying to make trouble,” Mad- dox’s mommy said with a frown when she saw Nicole’s card. Maddox didn’t understand how a card could cause trouble. He hid it under his mattress so his mommy wouldn’t throw it away.
As they drove home from the firm’s Christmas party, Ken- nedy didn’t speak but allowed her frustration to steam out of her body as if she were an overheated pressure cooker, which she was.
“Kennedy,” her husband James pleaded. “Talk to me. Did you honestly have such a bad time?”
“I had a terrible time. I’m fat, my face is covered with blotches, I can’t breathe, and all the secretaries oozed around you with their four-inch heels and cute skimpy dresses, smirking and flaunting their cleavage.”
James sighed loudly. “Kennedy, hon. You’re almost eight months pregnant. Your hormones are making you crazy. No one flirted with me. Plus, I saw several secretaries and quite a few lawyers stop by to talk to you.”
James was right, but that didn’t make Kennedy feel any better. “I feel so ugly,” she wailed.
“You know you’re beautiful,” James assured her in a bored tone. He’d been having to say this a lot recently.
Kennedy closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the seat. Why couldn’t she be like her mother, who was always perfect?
The last time they had visited her mother, Katya had taken out her photograph albums to show Kennedy what she had looked like during her pregnancy, and of course Katya was glorious and glowing, seeming energetic and fit enough for another set of tennis.
Kennedy looked like Shrek.
Her obstetrician assured Kennedy the expected baby boy was of normal size, but she felt as if she were carrying a full-grown linebacker rigged with shoulderpads and hel- met.
“You’ll feel better when we’re on Nantucket,” James said soothingly. “Your father and Nicole will pamper you.”
“But I don’t like that woman,” Kennedy protested.
“You scarcely know Nicole,” James reminded her.
Kennedy whimpered. “I want my parents to be together.”
James exhaled, losing patience. “That’s not going to happen. We’ve been over this before.”
Fine. Then Kennedy wanted to be with her mother. But Katya was much too busy playing tennis with her lover, Alonzo, and furnishing her new Boston condo. The fact that her mother didn’t want Kennedy around made Kennedy hate her father’s new wife even more. She knew, somehow, this wasn’t logical, but who ever said emotions were logical, especially during pregnancy?
Kennedy glanced over at her husband, seeing his strong profile as the streetlights flashed past. She could tell by the way his jaw was clenched that he was exasper- ated with her. She couldn’t blame him. She might be a pain in his neck, but she had pain everywhere! He wanted this second child as much as she did, but she had to do all the heavy lifting. Literally.
James didn’t understand the stress of parenting. Choosing the right preschool; keeping her child away from the evils of sugar, fat, and pesticide-spiked protein. Trying to keep the world safe by not buying plastic, while at the same time trying to give her child fun toys to play with. Keeping her four-year-old away from the damages televi- sion could inflict on an innocent mind, protecting her son from the sight of monsters, swords, and cannons . . . The list was endless. It was all up to her, because James was so busy supporting the family.
And now it was the Christmas season! Maddox was begging for a puppy, but Kennedy was going to have a baby. How could she cope with puppy poop as well as a new baby?
Sometimes she just wanted to cry and cry.
“Buck up, Kennedy.” James clicked the remote that opened their garage door and guided his BMW into its berth. “We’re home. You can go to bed.”
Right. There was another issue: bed. Bed with James. They hadn’t made love in forever. Why wouldn’t James want to have an affair with one of those sleek young secretaries in those tight-fitting dresses?
Kennedy burst into tears.