Visual art by Brent Terry.
A man in the throes of middle age sat at his study going over his bank reports. Every note told him the same story: too much output, not enough input. There was enough to last ten years if the man dug himself a very big hole, maybe fifteen. The man picked up a fountain pen and bled the ink onto the yellow paper he had used to tabulate his financial ruin.
“I can’t believe he’s missed another dinner!” Greg explodes in a whisper to his wife, Cheri, in their kitchen. The family has just gotten back from dinner in town.
“I know, but.”
“But what? What’s his excuse?”
“But what did you expect? Did you really think he was coming this time?” Cheri asks, setting ten birthday candles on a cake too big for eight people who were filled with expensive pasta. There will be leftover cake, and Cheri reminds Greg, “It’s been nearly a year. If he was going to show he would have months ago.”
Greg roughly plants four wine glasses on the old serving tray he hates. The tray has a nineteen fifties style Coca-Cola Ad painted onto the metal. Cheri loves it. She picks up the tray while Greg grabs the red and white from the fridge. They don’t need two bottles of wine for four people. Wine doesn’t pair with children’s birthday cake, but they don’t drink beer. Greg trails behind his wife into the living room with his dripping bottles and a corkscrew, a birthday present from his mom right before she died at sixty-four. Cheri sets her metal tray on her Pottery Barn coffee table and asks everyone what they want.
“Don’t forget you have to drive me home,” Cheri’s mother, Delilah, laughingly warns her husband, Mike. She glances at Cheri and stops jabbing, “I’ll have the red tonight dear.” Mike asks for the same but, after a surreptitious look from his wife, changes his order to the milder white wine.
Two years ago Mike was driving home from an outdoor music show Delilah dragged him to, and he fell asleep at the wheel for what he swore “could not have been more than five seconds.” Delilah threw a fit that effectively startled Mike’s eyes open. Now Delilah strictly monitors how he drinks in her company.
Greg and Caroline, Delilah’s other daughter, are poured red. Cheri doesn’t have any. She only drinks white, and she refuses to drink the “hippy wine” her sister brought.
Cheri asks her son, Jason, with a large smile, “Okay, cake or presents first?” It’s hard to tell if Cheri is faking the large smile. She doesn’t blink enough, but there aren’t any children around to notice, besides Jason and his younger cousin, Lulu.
Jason laughs as he chases after Lulu. He yells, “Cake!” over his shoulder as the cousins playfully run into the largely lived-in family room.
The kids have to put up with these unfailingly frequent family dinners and have learned to mostly ignore them. Jason’s real birthday party will be with his friends playing laser tag, and at least they have each other for escaping their parents’ purple teeth parties (a name Lulu gave these sorts of events after a secretly viewed rerun of Cougar Town).
Cheri disappears into the kitchen as Greg dims the dining room lights. This is their signal for cake time. Caroline pulls her video camera out of an over-sized red purse that is propped up against the couch, while everyone moves into the dining room. Cheri calls out from the kitchen, “Is everyone ready?” And Delilah yells for Jason and Lulu to come get to the dining room.
When everyone is settled, with Jason at the head of the solid mahogany table, Cheri walks through swinging doors holding the lit up cake. Jason cringes when he sees the candles. He is getting sick of trying to blow out novelty candles that have to be thrown in his water glass to be extinguished. Jason is a little insulted that his parents thought he wouldn’t recognize the candles after years of dirtied water.
Cheri and Greg worry a lot. It happens with only children. Carcinogens in plastics, violent video games, not being socialized enough, too much socialization, brain development: Should he play with toys marked in his age range? Toys above? Will that shatter his confidence?, his school teachers – qualifications and temperaments, healthy cafeteria lunches, the right friends, family time, pesticides. Their most recent worry is Richard, Jason’s grandfather. When Richard stopped calling and stopping by after his wife died Cheri and Greg worried. They worried how this would affect Jason’s emotional development: the sudden loss of two grandparents. Greg worried about what Jason would do when it came time to build that family tree in school. Cheri worried how Greg’s reaction would affect Jason.
Jason doesn’t like how much his parents worry. Sometimes it’s okay, not too big a deal, like the constant quiet hum of classical music that runs through the house and their insistence that Jason wears his bike helmet, a problem simply solved by taking his helmet off once out of his parents’ sight. Other things make Jason feel smothered, make his skin itch, like the time he couldn’t go to the school’s end-of-the-year party because there was a trampoline and “Your third cousin twice removed broke his elbow on one of those.”
Between mouthfuls of coffee and hash browns the next morning Greg makes an announcement, “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m gonna go see him.”
Cheri, who had given him one of her knowing looks right around “thinking about this for a while”, doesn’t like this idea. “Why all of this right now? Where is this even coming from?”
“Where is this coming from? He just missed his own grandson’s tenth birthday! I just kept thinking about him and thinking and thinking. I was just sitting around here for almost half a year now acting like this helpless, pathetic victim.”
“You didn’t do anything because it won’t be good for you, or any of us. He stopped coming by. He made it clear he didn’t want to be bothered when he stopped answering your calls and, hello, changed his number.” Cheri hates how Greg can’t let things or people go and how, as soon as an idea comes to him, he has to jump and see it all the way through.
Greg grabs his coat off its wooden hook and leaves Cheri in the kitchen as she warns him, “You’re picking a scab!”
Cheri huffs when she hears the garage door slam. Jason is sleeping in, enjoying his first Sunday as a ten-year-old. Cheri goes into his room to wake him up for breakfast.
Greg boils on the way to his family home. He actually doesn’t know if his father still lives there, but the thought never occurs to Greg that he might not. To Greg, the house that is now a fifteen minute drive away is the only place in the world for his father.
“It’s open,” Richard calls in response to the obtrusive doorknocker’s obnoxious sound. Richard hates the noise the doorknocker made. It is made of iron and in the shape of a lion’s head with serious teeth. His late wife, Clarice, picked it out.
Richard is sitting in an over-stuffed chair in his sunlit family room when Greg storms in like Dr. H. H. Holmes’ tax collector. Richard sets his newspaper on a nearby side table as Greg begins, “Look, I know that you don’t want me here, you’ve made that clear enough, and maybe, for you, it’s just fine to seclude yourself and ignore your family. And maybe you are too good for us; I can’t walk into any restaurant in town and just say, Put it on my tab, and I can’t take Jason on the kinds of trips you took us on. But I couldn’t live with myself anymore knowing I never stood up to you. See, first, I thought that it was just because Mom died, and you wanted some time to grieve. After about two months and zero contact I should’ve gotten the hint, but yesterday I realized that I’d been lying to myself.” Greg pauses to take a breath and lets out a mouthful of air. Seeing how close he is to Richard now, Greg backs away. “I bet you don’t even know what yesterday was.”
“It was Jason’s birthday dinner, seeing as his birthday was last Wednesday,” Richard calmly replies in his familiar voice.
Greg is thrown off for a moment, but he quickly moves on and continues, “If you know, why didn’t you come?”
Richard opens his mouth to respond, attempting to push himself up in the chair to sit up straighter.
“No, I don’t care. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I am here, so I can talk. It’s been too long for that. What I really want to say,” and then he repeats, “what I really want to say.” Greg’s mouth hangs open until he snaps it shut.
“If there’s something you really want to say, you should say it,” Richard nudges in a way that reminds Greg of the time when he was eight and Richard bought the wrong detergent and Greg broke out in hives.
“You’ve lost touch. All that talk when I was younger about how important family is, and when you’re dealing with Mom’s death you don’t bother coming to us? You just decide that doesn’t apply to you anymore and you hide? I lost my mother just like you lost your wife. Did you think I wouldn’t understand? Well, I don’t understand now, and I’m not here for an explanation. I’m just here so that you know that what you did has consequences and repercussions and.” Greg’s palms have begun to sweat, and he wipes them off on his pants.
“And?” Richard rests his temple against his fist.
“And I won’t bother you ever again. I just hope that one day, when you’re sitting in your big house reading your newspaper or lighting cigars with money or whatever it is that you do, that one day everything will hit you, and you’ll know that it’ll be too late. You’ll know that your family isn’t there for you anymore,” Greg finishes, red in the face and out of breath. He feels a wave of relief wash over him and crisply walks out of the house he grew up in.
“Good-bye,” Richard says to his son, who didn’t notice his father’s complexion or how thin he’d gotten. With shaky hands full of protruding veins, Richard returns to his daily saver but can’t stop staring at the food stamps hiding underneath it.