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A Family Dinner
(Kendra Eilers)

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Short Story: A Family Dinner

by Kendra Eilers

     Six seats surrounded the table with five place settings. A handful of covered platters were gathered around the candlelit centerpiece. The wine glasses were full and cast sparkling crimson cascades across the white linen napkins each time a flame flickered.
     Father was at the head of the table. He always took the best chair, the one with the most stuffing left after three generations. He claimed it was the only chair that didn’t make his back ache. Mother sat opposite him, her hands folded neatly on the napkin draped delicately across her thighs. As always, her table was immaculately set, and everyone’s favorite dishes were prepared to perfection. Her dangling silver earrings danced when she tilted her head to make sure that her hair was still in place and that nothing was forgotten.
     To Father’s right sat Danny, to Mother’s left sat David; once identical faces turned strange with the passing of the years. Danny wore spectacles that had seen better days and a threadbare brown suit. Though his collar was starched, it wouldn’t remain upright, to Mother’s dismay. David wore simple black slacks and a tan sweatervest, his hair containing more products than one would imagine to make it swirl just so. His long fingers played with the stem of his wine glass. Delilah sat across from David. Her dress was neatly pressed, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her face looking slightly pinched as she cast frequent glares across the table. On her lap her restless hands fiddled with the embroidery on the tablecloth's hem.
     They sat in silence, waiting for Father to start the procession by taking the first serving. Mother was content; it was so nice having the whole family back at the dinner table after all this time. Danny was nervous and tired; he couldn’t wait for this to be over, he longed to return to his writing desk in the center of his simple apartment. David was avoiding It at all costs, not even thinking about It, they would never approve of It, why even bother bringing It up? If It was not discussed, then they would still be proud of him. . . it’ll be better to leave It alone. Delilah, restraining her forceful limbs from kicking David under the table, was waiting for what she knew was coming, for Mother to casually ask about her new job, her new man, how come she hasn’t caught a good one yet, why can’t she settle down and raise a family like a normal person; she was waiting for Mother to give her that Look, and she could almost feel the Look sliding from her face to David’s when he finally told them about It. Tonight she wouldn’t be the disappointment, the scourge of the family. Tonight the blame would rest on him, He Who Can Do No Wrong, Little Mr. Momma’s Boy. Tonight they’d be too busy denying It to think about her.
     They finally began to serve the food, and the plates were passed around the table in practiced precision and efficiency. When everyone had a little something on their plates, the small talk commenced -- terse, tentative and timid. It had been years since they had all been under the same roof, and there should have been so much to catch up on, but nobody quite knew what to say. They discussed the weather, the food, how much the town had changed, and then drifted into a painful silence broken only by the clicking and tinkling of the china.
     Mother finally broke the silence. “Delilah, how are you doing? Are you still seeing that nice young man you told me about? He sounded like a perfect gentleman, you should hold onto him.”
     Here we go. “No, Mother, we’re not seeing each other anymore.”
     “Why ever not? You seemed to like him so much.”
     “It just didn’t work out, Mother, you know how it is.”
     Mother sighed heavily and lifted her napkin to her eyes that were brimming with false tears. “Just once I’d like to see you keep a man’s interest longer than a few months. Nothing personal dear, but we both know you don’t have much time left to catch yourself a husband, and only a few years to have any children before you get to be too old. You don’t want to become an old maid, do you? Of course not. He may not have been perfect, but he was decent enough, you should have tried harder to keep him.”
     Delilah fumed silently in her seat and forced herself to lay her fork back down on the table before she stabbed Mother in the eye. She thought quickly of something to say to ease Mother’s wrath.
     “He wasn’t right for me mother. Besides, he didn’t even make as much money as I do, and if I was to quit working to raise a family, he wouldn’t have been able to provide for us. I know how important that is in a marriage.” You’ve told me enough times.
“I suppose. And how is that job of yours? Have you been promoted yet? You sounded so close the last time we talked.”
     Damn. “No,” she said reluctantly. “They passed me up this time. But next time looks promising. . . .”
     “Next time, next time, always next time,” Father mumbled. “when are you going to learn you need to be aggressive? Take some initiative, girl! You can’t just wait for opportunities to drop into your lap, you have to make them happen!”
     “So, Danny, what’s new with you?” Delilah deflected her parents’ attention upon her older brother.
     Mother turned toward the young men. “Yes, Danny, are you still writing stories for that magazine? You always were imaginative, you made up so many tales as a child.”
     “No, Mother, I’m working on a novel now. I’ve stopped writing stories, they seemed so juvenile. . . .”
     “Juvenile? Well, those juvenile stories were paying for your meals, weren’t they? You should never refuse a steady paycheck, dear.”
     “But Mother, a novel is worth so much more than a hackneyed story I churn out
     once a week. I can finally write about what I feel instead of what will sell.”
     “I don’t know where a grown man gets the idea that sitting around all day and telling tales is a decent living,” Father snorted through a mouthful of food. “Do an honest day’s work and you’ll appreciate the rewards.”
     Mother sat primly in her chair with a knowing look twisting her perfectly painted lips. “Well, a novel. Good for you, dear.” She paused. “If you ever need a little something to tide you over, you know your father and I are here to help.” She took a dainty sip of wine. Danny returned to glaring glumly at his meal.
     “Now your brother, he knows the value of an honest living,” Father gesticulated with his wine glass in hand. “Running that company practically by himself; giving to charities, helping out that friend of his, What's-his-name; by God he even socializes with the senator! You should learn from him, Danny. You could do great things if you just put your mind to it.”
     “Dad,” David blushed and looked guiltily at his plate.
     “I’m just saying. . . .” and he resumed eating.
     “So, David,” Mother glowed at her second son, “how is that friend of yours? Jonathan, was it? Did he ever find a place after that dreadful insect incident? I swear, a landlord should at least plan to get rid of an insect problem before he rents the rooms. Imagine, being driven out of your home because roaches have gotten into everything, your food, your clothes; it’s enough to make you faint. . . .” She sat back in her chair, slightly pale.
     David shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Oh, he’s fine Mother. He’s back on his feet, doing fine now. . . .”
     “But has he moved out yet, David?” asked Delilah. This was her chance, go for the jugular. “He isn’t still living with you is he? It’s been, what, six months? Sounds like a freeloader to me.”
     “Delilah!” Mother was aghast at her daughter’s coarseness. “Come now! You
     should trust your brother’s judgment better than that.” She turned to David. “He has moved out, hasn’t he?”
     David wished he could have taken the carving knife that lay next to the roast and sliced off his sister’s tongue. He wasn’t ready yet, they weren’t ready yet, not for It, It was too much for them to handle, he had to wait for the right time. . . .
     “Well, David?” his sister leaned forward expectantly in her seat, nearly salivating at the thought that finally, even if just this once, the negative attention would be taken off of her and placed onto Mr. Perfect.
     David’s ill will radiated toward Delilah with all the brutal force he could muster. His eyes never left her face when he spoke next. “No, Mother, he still lives with me.”
     Father paused in mid-chew, his fork poised in the air. Mother blinked twice.
     “Now, Son, I know you wanted to help this boy, but enough’s enough.” He set down his fork with a clatter and rested his forearms on the table’s edge.
     “Dear, you can’t let people treat you like a doormat. Six months is more than enough time to find a new place. You need to be firm; give him an ultimatum, tell him that if he does not leave--”
     “No, Mother, it’s not. . . .” David faltered, his hands trembled slightly, partly with the blinding hatred he felt toward his sister, partly with the crippling fear of what he knew was coming.
     “He’s living with me. He’s moved in permanently.”
     Mother shifted in her seat. “Like a roommate?” she spat. “Why on earth would you need a roommate? I thought you were doing well, dear. Are you in some kind of financial trouble? Your father and I would be more than happy to--”
     “No, I mean, he’s living with me. . . .” David’s gaze finally dropped from his sister’s face to rest upon his plate.
     A silence crashed to the table. Mother sat speechless (The first time in her life, Delilah thought). Father’s face hardened like drying cement and turned nearly as gray. Danny rested his elbow on the table and his chin on his fist, an expression of deep interest playing on his features. Delilah, hands folded neatly in her lap, relaxed in her seat, barely noticing the hard wood of the straight backed chair digging in to her shoulders. A contented smile struggled to let itself be worn on her lips.

• • •

     The curtains billowed softly in the warm breeze from the open window. Shadows danced along the wallpaper patterns and antique furniture in David’s boyhood bedroom.
     David lay awake atop the covers of his old bed. The house was still silent, had remained silent since dinner -- well, except for that bout of incoherent shouting that seemed to last an eternity and then some. He listened for the familiar sound of his parents speaking in their bedroom just down the hall, but still there was only silence.
     It had been said. They knew now, knew what he was, knew what he would never be. The reacted just the way he had predicted. Unforgiving, narrow-minded socialites, that’s all they are. They can’t be loving parents who accept their children for what they are, oh no, that’s the act reserved exclusively for the Club and the Dinner Party and the Opera with Mr. and Mrs. Fat Cat. I shouldn’t have been surprised, they’ve always been this way. Why should it be any different now that we’re grown and moved out -- moved out as far away as possible from those cold lumps of fake grins and Gucci designs that were supposed to be our parents. . . .
     He turned to lay on his side and saw, in a flash of moonlight, the top of his dresser. There used to be something there. My diploma. . . and my model planes, where are my model planes?
     David sat up in bed. He surveyed his old room, looking for any sign that he had actually lived here. No toys, no clothes, nothing of mine is left. . . they took it all out the day I moved out. . . like I never existed.
He stood up and crossed to his desk. A guest room. . . that’s all I am to them now, a guest room. . . they couldn’t even wait until I actually screwed something up, they had to get rid of any trace of me the minute I left. He paced the length of the room. I worked hard, I’m successful, dammit, I own a fucking company, I did everything right, they had no right to erase me!
     He stopped at his third story window, tenderly pulled aside the flimsy curtain and stared into the night. Am I so horrible, so detestable that my own family can’t stand the thought of me? He continued to stare unseeing out of the window, past the panes of glass, past the ancient oak whose branches swung and leaves fluttered in the breeze, past the lawn that led down to the river. His thoughts chased each other, weaving in and out of his life that was replaying before his eyes; every joyous memory was tainted by his thoughts of his parent’s disapproval.

• • •

     Delilah was sitting at the vanity, twisting her hair into yet another bun (God forbid her hair was even slightly unkempt, Mother would pop an artery) when she heard the scream. She dropped her comb as she dashed for the doorway. She heard the chair she had been sitting in clatter to the floor as she ran down the hall. She reached the head of the stairs and nearly ran into Danny as he emerged from his bedroom. They heard another scream; it sounded like Mother, and it was coming from the dining room. Delilah followed Danny as he sprinted down the winding staircase. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she entered the dining room, her view obstructed by Danny’s shoulders.

• • •

     Danny was sleeping fitfully after a night of tormenting dreams and astounding inspiration; the evening’s confessionary turn had given him too much to think about, but had worked its way into his new novel in one form or another, and he had spent half of the night at his old desk furiously jotting down haphazard ideas. He awoke at what sounded like a muffled scream, which jolted his sleep-laiden brain into action. He stumbled out of bed and was pulling on his robe when he reached the staircase, where he was nearly run over by his sister. Another scream (Mother) sounded from the dining room and Danny plunged headlong down the stairs with Delilah nearly tripping over his heels. He grew sick and lightheaded at what he saw in the dining room.

• • •

     Father had gone out to get the morning paper from the tin box attached to the brick next to the front door. He paused, his neatly pressed slacks fluttering against his calves in the slight breeze. The sweet scent of jasmine drifted from the porch rafters as tiny petals frolicked to the ground. He was enjoying this brief moment of tranquility before the children awoke and he would have to deal with It and Them and this whole Mess. He turned to head back into the house when he heard a shrill shriek. Startled, he dropped the newspaper and stumbled into the entryway. It sounded like. . . . He dashed (with dignity, always with dignity) towards where he thought he heard the scream come from, the dining room. As he turned the corner into the room he thought he saw movement on the staircase in the corner of his eye. He approached his wife, then what he saw paralyzed him.

• • •

     Mother had woken early to fix breakfast. Part of her was still fuming after what had happened last night, while the rest of her was denying that there even was a last night to be fuming about. She would make breakfast, she would call down the children, they would eat again as a family, and they would go their separate ways; nothing had changed. She only wished her children could stay longer; the couples at the Club would want to hear all about her children, and she would like to have a little more to talk about this time. Well, I could always tell them about It. . . . no, no that wouldn’t do at all. Scandal was for the Drunks and the Poor, not for My Family.
     She had nearly finished cooking everything, so she pulled some fresh linens out of the cabinet and entered the dining room to set the table. David was sitting in
     Father’s chair, his head resting on one arm crooked across the table.
     “David?” Mother approached him and laid a hand on his shoulder to gently shake him awake. “Dear, wake up. What are you doing down--”
     She pulled her hand back as if she was being burned. She saw the dark, red, wet stain on the bleached white tablecloth under his head. She stepped back and nearly slipped. Looking down she saw a knife lying in a pool of drying blood that crept across the floor, still dripping from underneath his other arm that was dangling, limp, from his shoulder. She dropped the linens, which immediately began to turn crimson from the blood. Her hands flew to her face. Her heart was pounding too loudly in her ears for her to hear herself screaming. She dropped to her son’s side and held his cold, lifeless hand, unable to stop herself from staring at the ugly gash tracing his wrist. She was still crumpled against her son, sobbing, when her husband and remaining children joined her in the dining room.

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