The Dinner - Jim Krehbiel

            Irene refers to “that day” as the day her entire life changed. It turned on a dime, from carefree and untethered, to one of restrictions and timetables. Barb remembers an unencumbered, freeness to her mother’s voice. Now, though, she listens to her mother calling her father down for dinner and hears the strain and urgency peppered through it. Anyone who didn’t know would have thought it had been Irene’s, not Lee’s, diagnosis.
            Barb’s father takes his injection before dinner in the bathroom. The one in the morning, always at the kitchen table. His routine still has a familiarity. The hunting for a spot soft enough to take the needle. Sometimes in one of his thighs or his stomach. When Barb was younger, she thought she’d never get used to it. She used to watch her father out of the corner of her eye pretending it was normal, but always looked away at the last second, just before the needle pierced his skin. She remembers it feeling like everyone’s life had been turned upside down. Everyone’s except Lee’s.
            Four perfectly browned pork chops, one minus the fat which Irene has trimmed off, sit on the kitchen counter next to a small glass bowl of mashed potatoes and an empty cut glass serving dish. Irene stands in front of the open refrigerator door.
            Barb walks into the kitchen and over to the sink to wash her hands. “What are you looking for?”
            She sees her mother’s slumped shoulders, hears an audible sigh. “I … I’m not sure.” She closes the door and mumbles something under her breath Barb can’t make out.
            “You’ll remember once we sit down. Isn’t that always the way?” Barb walks over to her mother and rubs her back. “Is there anything I can do?”
            “No … no, I think everything is ready. I wish your brother would hurry up and get here.” Irene glances over at the timer with the little yellow smiling face on the front. “Check the table and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything,” she says brushing a lock of hair from Barb’s forehead.
            “Sure.”
            The dining room table looks as it had for every family dinner. The freshly-pressed white linen table cloth with a border of blue forget-me-nots that Irene had embroidered years ago, matching napkins, and the same Noritake dinner dishes, gold trimmed. A little metal scale sits next her father’s plate. Barb picks up one of the two spoons sitting next to her plate and slips it into her pants pocket.
            Irene pops her head into the dining room. “Your brother isn’t here yet. Should we call?” She looks over her shoulder at the timer as if it were a time bomb about to go off.
            “He knows,” Barb says. “He’ll be here.” It had been drummed into them immediately afterwards. From that day, the day her mother insisted her life had changed, dinner would be promptly at 6:30. Not a minute earlier or later. There’d been no longer any choice.
            Robert’s Gremlin rattles into the driveway, and Irene scurries to the front door. Barb seizes the moment to put the extra spoon back. She grabs a knife and places it on the dining room table next to her spoon.
            “You’re almost late.” Irene holds the screen door open.
            “I still have a couple of minutes.” Robert glances at his watch. “Don’t I get a hug?”
            Irene leans in for a quick pat on the back. “Now call your father. It’s time.” She bee-lines back into the kitchen.
            “No need to call! I’m here.” Lee walks into the foyer still dressed from work in navy blue pin-striped dress pants, a crisply starched white shirt and a burgundy tie.
            Inwardly, Barb chuckles. Things never change. She knows her mother still carefully choses her husband’s attire each day. If left up to him, he’d walk out the door in madras pants, a striped shirt and a plaid sports coat.
            “Now everyone sit!” Irene calls from the kitchen, the urgency heightened. “It’s time.” Her announcement is accompanied by a cheerful little ding coming from the yellow smiling face.
            Everyone takes their assigned seats, Lee at the head of the table, Irene at the other end, facing him. Robert and Barb sit on each side. They pass platters of bland pork chops, potatoes and green beans around. There are no sauces anymore. Nothing is seasoned.
            Lee cuts a third of one of the pork chops off and returns it to the platter. He places the remainder on his little scale and everyone watches the metal needle rise until it stops at precisely three ounces. Lee smiles and Irene nods. From down the hall, a corrosive yowl erupts from the guest bathroom.
            Robert jerks his head towards the hallway. “Don’t tell me. She’s back again?”
            “It’s only for a week this time,” Irene says. “Marsha returns on … is it next Wednesday or Thursday?”
            “Thursday,” Lee says.
            As everyone digs in, Lee cuts. Each piece of pork the same size, every green bean exactly in half. Barb remembers them, over the years, laughing at his “preparation.” By the time he’d start, everyone else was half finished.
            “I hate that cat,” Robert says, scooping up a blob of mashed potatoes with a green bean. He sucks it into his mouth like an over-cooked piece of pasta. “She’s evil.”
            Barb is pretty sure her mother hates Lin-Soo, too. A few years ago, Irene tried to pet their neighbor’s cat but Lin-Soo turned abruptly and sunk her teeth in Irene’s hand. Six stitches and Irene couldn’t pick anything up for a week.
            There’s another cry of anguish and then claws, frantic on the bathroom door.
            “I’ll go let her out. Poor thing isn’t happy at all,” Lee gets up from the table to free Lin-Soo from her prison.
            “How’d she get in there?” Barb asks.
            “I put her there,” Irene says. “She makes me nervous. I don’t trust Siamese.”
            Lee returns with Lin-Soo trotting behind him. He sits, and she stops to rub her lips against the coffee table, end tables and sofa. Irene winces.
            “Why can’t Mrs. Adelman just leave the cat at home and have someone stop in to feed it?” Robert smothers his pork chop in salt.
            “You know Mrs. Adelman,” Lee says. “She loves Lin-Soo. Besides, it’s fine she stays with us for the week. Isn’t that right, honey?” She half-nods. “Really, she’s no trouble at all.”
            Lin-Soo wanders over to within a few feet of the dining room table, puffs out her tail, arches her back and hisses. No one reacts. They simply pause for a second and go back to their dinners.
            Lee clears his throat. “So now,” he says. “Where should go for vacation this summer? It’ll probably be our last as a family with Barb taking that job in Mexico. What exactly is it again?”
            “It’s in Teotihuacan … southern Mexico, remember? It’s one of the most famous digs in the country.” Barb sighs. “But I’ve told you about this. Doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?”
            “We try not to,” Robert says with that same half-grin, half-sneer Barb should be used to.
            “I wasn’t asking you Mr. Community College.”
            He looks at Barb’s Harvard sweatshirt. “Whatever, Miss Wanna-be.”
            She doesn’t give her little brother the satisfaction of knowing he’s struck a nerve and goes back to her meal. Besides, she was at least wait-listed at Radcliffe. That counts for something.
            Lin-Soo wanders into the dining room. Everyone except Lee pulls their legs in closer giving her a wide berth. She weaves her way around the table’s legs and rubs up again Lee’s shins. “So how about Barbados?” Lee asks. “We always wanted to go there. Didn’t we, honey?”
            Irene’s eyes pinch as if struggling to see into the past. “Did we?” She nudges a green bean with her fork.
            “Sure we did,” Lee says. “We’ve always wanted to go. Remember?”
            Barb tries to signal her father with her foot but instead accidently kicks Lin-Soo. Lin-Soo emits a phlegm-laden Satanic hiss.
            “You okay?” Lee reaches down and strokes Lin-Soo’s back. “Poor little thing.”
            “I thought we’d decided on Primmerhoff in Germany,” Barb says.
            “Yes, yes … that would be nice.” Irene’s eyes light up. She suddenly sits up straighter, like she used to. “We could visit my family.”
            “I thought we’d do that the following year.” Lee leans down and pets Lin-Soo again, then adjusts his tie. “Besides I’m sure the kids would rather do Barbados. You and I can do Germany alone, together … another time.”
            “I wouldn’t mind meeting our relatives,” Barb says.
            “I’d rather lie on the beach,” Robert mumbles, as he makes a little mashed potato well and dumps a pad of butter into it.
            “No, I think we owe this trip to mother.” Barb hears the insistence in her voice. “I don’t think we should wait.”
            “Yeah, by then she might not remem …”
            The clanking of knives and forks halt. Barb glares at her brother. Her mind whirls trying to come up with something to fill the silence. Lee looks down at the cat, then his plate. Robert is suddenly consumed with spelling out the word, evil, with his green beans.
            Irene lifts her head to Barb. “What did he say?”
            “Nothing, he was just babbling to himself.” Barb places her hand on her mother’s arm and glances over the table. “Everything is delicious.”
            Robert and Lee chime in together. “Yes, yes … very good.” To Barb, their compliment rings hollow, like it’s offered more out of obligation than anything else.
            Lin-Soo jumps up on Lee’s lap. He slides his chair back.
            “Do you have to let her up?” Barb asks. “I mean, we’re trying to eat here.”
            “She’s not hurting anything.” Lee turns her around so she’s facing the table and strokes her back. “Now, what about Barbados? Is everyone in?” He massages the side of Lin-Soo’s head, scratches the back of her neck.
            “I don’t know why you’re so bent on Barbados.” Barb finishes the last of her meal and slides her plate away.
            “I know why,” Irene says, not looking up from her dinner. “It’s her house there, right?” She looks across the table at Lee.
            Robert pulls his head from his plate. “What house?”
            “Marsha’s,” Irene says.
            “Nobody told me she had a house there.”
            “Mrs. Alderman doesn’t talk about it much,” Lee says. “You know, people asking for favors. Besides she’s not the kind of person to flaunt that type of thing. She’s really very …”
            Everyone’s eyes are on Lee. Barb notices the flush creeping up from her father’s Windsor knot. She sees the puckering in his cheek. He tugs the neck of his shirt, then cinches his tie tighter. Lin-Soo has drifted off to sleep on her father’s lap.
            “How did you know about the house?” Lee asks.
            ” I’m not deaf,” is all Irene says. She takes her napkin from her lap, folds it in thirds and places it on the table. “Well?”
            Barb knows her father’s tendencies well. The squint, the way he chews on the inside of his cheek when cornered. He clears his throat again, like all the other times.
            “Marsha must have mentioned it to you in passing,” he says cupping Lin-Soo’s chin. She stretches her front paws out and purrs. “She plans on selling it next year … says we can use it if we want, free. This might be our last chance.”
            “Last chance,” Irene murmurs apparently to herself. Barb isn’t sure if it’s a commentary or simply her mother mindlessly repeating little phrases.
            “If everyone’s done, I’ll clear the dishes.” Irene starts to get up.
            “No, let me do that. You stay put.” Barb collects and stacks the dishes. Lin-Soo lifts her head at the clatter, then pushes up against Lee’s stomach and falls back asleep.

            Barb stands at the kitchen counter looking at them. They look essentially the same. Both have perfectly browned crusts, the juice from the apples bubbling up. Lee’s is much smaller, though. A single serving pie. Over the years, her mother had perfected it. First it was sodium cyclamate, later aspartame. In those first few months, her mother was in the kitchen at all hours, experimenting, baking little pies and cookies, comparing them with the real thing, trying to duplicate the taste. Barb remembers her mother handing her a cookie or piece of cake. “Does it taste real? Can you tell the difference?”
            All through dessert, Lee utters the usual compliments. “Mm … mm, this sure is good.” He’s said it from the day Irene discovered the right combinations of artificial sweeteners. And as if scripted, he finishes, stands up and gives Irene a cursory little peck on the top of her head, then disappears upstairs. By the time the table is cleared, Robert is out in the driveway, lying on his back half-way under his car in search of what’s rattling. Barb follows her mother into the kitchen to help with the dishes.
            The dish towel in Barb’s hand is another one of Irene’s creations. Barb remembers it from her childhood. A pale blue terry-cloth material with the words Embrace All of Life’s Treasures embroidered on it. Barb can’t believe it’s the same towel. She remembers telling her mother when she was a teenager that it looked too nice to dry dishes with. After a while the blue would fade, the stitching would come loose. Irene said it was like anything else in life. Everything has a timeline, then gets discarded.
            With her yellow latex gloves pulled up to her elbows, Irene turns the faucet on to scalding. She seems mesmerized by the dish detergent bubbles as the sink fills up.
            Through the kitchen window, Barb looks at her brother’s feet sticking out from under his car. “Is this the same rattle from a few months ago?”
            “He’s already taken it to a mechanic, and they can’t find what’s causing it.” Irene carefully slips each plate into the water. They disappear beneath the suds. “He’s just prolonging the inevitable.”
            “He should get new one.”
            ”New isn’t always the answer,” Irene says. The street lights flicker, then burst on. Irene tilts her head towards Lee’s footsteps growing louder as he comes down stairs. “He’s off to check on her house.” She pulls a plate from the suds and swooshes the bristly side of the sponge over it.
            From the foyer, “Okay, I’m going to make sure everything is okay at Marsha’s.”
            “Why bother?” Barb calls back. “We can see her house from here.”
            “Need to turn some lights on, close the blinds,” he says. “You know, make it look like someone is home. Right, honey?” Irene does not respond. “Okay, I’ll be back in ….” The front door shuts before he’s finished his sentence.
            He stops at Robert’s feet, now dressed in plaid polyester pants, but wearing the same white starched work shirt. Through the cracked open kitchen window, Barb hears him talking to her brother, asking if he’s found the problem. Lee glances at Irene standing at the sink, lifts his hand to her like he hasn’t forgotten about her and then turns to cross the street.
            “Do you ever dream of a different life?” Barb asks. Her question surprises her – the forwardness of it. The implication.
            Her mother hands Barb a plate to dry. “No. Why would I?”
            “I don’t know,” Barb says. When she was a little girl, her mother used to reminisce about her college days, and then later about her job on Wall Street. She remembers her mother’s tone, the optimism and joy in just starting out, being single, the freedom to make your own decisions and follow your passions. Barb hasn’t heard that tone in years. “No regrets?”
            “I have two beautiful children. Why would I have regrets?”
            “But what if …”
            “Life is full of ‘what ifs,’” Irene interrupts. She appears to be watching Lee as he fumbles with the key to Marsha’s front door. “They’re not always what people end up wanting … or, I should say, needing.” She pauses. “Everyone has to pay in some way or another.” Irene stops washing for a second, wipes a few drops of water from the countertop, then turns and looks out the window again. In a voice softened, as if meant for herself, Irene adds, “Besides, there comes a point when things that were, aren’t, any longer.”
            The front hall light in Marsha’s house comes on. Lee appears in the picture window of the study. He walks over to the mini bar, pours himself a drink, then sits down in her brown leather recliner and kicks off his loafers off.
            Barb isn’t sure if her mother notices or not. If she knows. If she’s known.
            He picks up the powder blue slim-line phone next to the recliner and starts to dial, but then stops, gets up and twists the blinds closed until there are only slivers of light peeking through.
            “Here’s the last one,” Irene says as she hands the gold-trimmed plate to Barb. “Oh … and thank you for not saying anything.”
            “Saying anything?” Barb dries and then places the plate in the cupboard.
            “About the spoon.”
            Barb follows her mother over to the dining room slider where Lin-Soo has been scratching for the last few minutes. Irene starts to open it.
            “I thought she was an indoor cat,” Barb says.
            “What if? What if there’s something wonderful out there to be discovered?” Irene opens the slider, and Lin-Soo steps cautiously over the threshold, her body slinking along the ground. “Okay, there you go, now. Be free!”

James Krehbiel, a professional musician (violinist), was a member of the Syracuse Symphony, served on the faculty of the School of Music at Syracuse University, received his Bachelors of Music degree and his Performers Certificate from the Eastman School of Music. Nearing retirement, he has discovered writing as another creative outlet and has had work accepted for publication by Through the Gaps, The Writer’s Zine, Down in the Dirt, Fabula Argentea, Scrutiny and others. He is an advocate of the creative arts, enjoys biking, golf and being swept up in a great tale.  He also enjoys spending time bonding with his bloodhound-beagle mix.