S&R Fiction

Scholars & Rogues Fiction: “Just Dinner,” by Mark Sumioka

Just Dinner

I was sitting on the couch trying to squeeze as much light as possible out of the darkening dusk.  My eyes were straining.  I knew this because of that lurking discomfort behind my eyes.  But it was still far off and there was the lamp right next to me when I’d quit being such a tight ass.  I wasn’t any exception to the rule; this recession was affecting us all.

The pages in the book I read weren’t even cream anymore.  They took on a steely hue.  Still I wouldn’t go to the lamp.  I sat there and reread sentences until eventually my mind’s distraction crumbled away and focus returned.  Then I’d had enough and put the bookmark in the book and set it carefully on the coffee table.  Books were treated like gold in my household.  There were no markings with pens, no dog-ears, and for Christ’s sake no setting the open book on a flat surface so that pages would be forever indented.  Don’t believe me?  Just go and get one of those books you did that to, hold it waist high and drop it.  It’ll hit the floor and flop open to the exact pages where you laid it flat.

Through the open blinds I could see that everyone on my street now had their lights on, doing whatever normal people did at the start of nightfall.  I could hear them even though the windows were shut.  I could hear cackling from somewhere, which reminded me of people drinking cocktails, then the clinking of eating utensils against the dish that reminded me how much I wasn’t eating lately, and I could hear the dogs and their sporadic barks segregated and fading.  They reminded me of nothing special, just loneliness or nervous fear.

I switched on the lamp and a wondrous golden light filled the room.  I loved gold.  It made everything inside yellowed like I was in a cave with a chest of treasure lighting up the room.  It was glorious.  But that was my imagination.

My phone rang and I knew it was my brother Teddy regarding dinner.

“What is it?” I answered.

“Hank?”

“You called me.”

“You…didn’t even say, ‘Hello.’  How’d you know it was me?”

“Oh, for shit’s sake.  Who else would be calling me now?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Teddy said then sighed, “I can see you still haven’t left yet.  So what’s the holdup this time?”

I wanted to reach my arm through the phone and strangle him just a little.  Just because he was a few minutes older than me didn’t mean squat.  As far as I was concerned, he was one dumb son of a bitch for letting his two oldest daughters move back into his house.  They weren’t paying any goddamn rent or even offering to help out with the mortgage.  Teddy had gotten hit hard by the stock fall and was treading water like a puppy.  That’s where pride got you nowhere but higher atop the shit pile.

“Is Sam going to be there?” I asked with interest.

“Samantha’s already here, Hank.  And she said don’t worry about the booze because she’s brought a ton of it.”

In the background I could hear Samantha gripe that she hadn’t said that.  It gave me a flare of concern but I didn’t pay any mind.  I was a bit jittery, but it was still easily controllable at that point.  I’d done my thing in the morning, slept all afternoon and now my reward would come at dinnertime.

When I got to Teddy’s the door was ajar.  They were all in there waiting for me.  I surveyed the area thinking how it was a hell of a lot hotter around these parts compared to the beach where I lived.

Teddy waited there at the door, his eyes examining me.

“Not a lot of air circulation,” I said for greeting.

He stepped back from the door to let me pass.  I took two steps in, kicked off my flip-flops, and felt the smooth tile in the foyer.  Samantha set a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and we embraced.

Hi, Uncle Hank,” Elizabeth said from upstairs, in that whiny voice, as though she was tired from whatever she was so used to wasting her time on.

“Hi, Squeaky.”

She hated that.  But I didn’t give a rat’s ass.

“Uncle Hank.  What a surprise,” Alexandra said from the kitchen with that throaty I-smoke-too-much voice of hers.  As usual she put up the act, like she hadn’t known I was coming.  Why women were in the habit of doing that I’ll never know.

“Hi,” I said.

But something was wrong.  I saw it in Samantha’s face – remorse and concern.

“I hope you’re hungry because Alexandra has made quite the feast!” Teddy said and walked ahead of me to the dining room where I saw tumbler glasses filled with water and iced tea.

“Not so much,” I said.  “I grabbed a bite at the gas station.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Alexandra moaned and went back to her cooking.  She saw right through my song and dance.

“Where are the tykes?” I said.

“Oh!” Elizabeth said excitably.  She called through the door to the kitchen, “I told you we shouldn’t have sent them to the movies, Alexandra!  Uncle Hank wants to see the kids.”

Alexandra pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen.

“You let your tykes go on their own?” I said.

“They’re in safe hands, Hank.  Don’t you worry,” Alexandra said with a tone.

I wasn’t worried.  I was only being polite.  It was good for family to believe you were looking out for their best interest.  You could be a horse’s ass like I was much of the time and if you’d throw in one concern, one bit of unconditional loveliness, they’d forget all about it so they could become self-absorbed once again with their kids and their ten credit cards.

“Everyone take a seat at the table,” Alexandra said, “I’ll start bringing out the food.”

“Can I help?” Elizabeth asked.

Alexandra waved her away.  She was quite the control freak.  Since Teddy’s wife May passed many years ago there had been an unspoken changing of the guard, the eldest daughter gliding in.  If you asked me, Teddy was getting the raw end of the deal.  Sure she cooked for him and cleaned the house, but he wasn’t getting his pole polished and Alexandra sure as hell wasn’t the lovely conversation piece that May had been all those years.

So we all went to the table like cats to trashcans with the lids off.  We smelled the air and took in what the control freak had constructed.  As usual it looked overdone, cluttered and busier than a junkyard.  There were too many pieces of silverware, too many dishes, fake ivy vines snaking everywhere, and candlesticks unlit in metallic rose petal holders.  I sighed at the sight of it.

“Could somebody please give me a drink?” I said planting my butt.

There was silence.  I looked around.  Everyone was watching me, even Alexandra at the kitchen door.

“What the hell’s the matter?  I got a hanger?” I said checking my nose.

There was more silence, the suspended kind, like people were holding their breath.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Hank…” Samantha started to say and Teddy shushed her.

Now I knew I was waist deep in shit.

“Hank, we all thought it’d be nice if for once we had a family dinner without…”

And I didn’t hear a word Teddy said after that.  I got up from the table.

“For Christ’s sake, Hank!”

“Uncle Hank, please!”

“Hank…” Samantha said regretfully.

I turned in order to give her a chance, but I just couldn’t look at those eyes.

“You goddamn traitors sabotaged me,” I grumbled and went for the door.

Please…” Elizabeth pleaded.

Teddy rushed over and grabbed my forearm.

“Listen, Hank, even I’m not touching the stuff tonight.”  His face was urgent.  “And neither is Samantha.”

My eyes found Samantha and her face was so very sorry that I forgave her that instant.  I could tell she had been pressured.

“You think doing that will make it any better?  Is this your bit so you assholes can give yourselves the big pat on the back?  I’m no dummy.  I’ve seen it on TV!  This is one of those shows where they corner you in a room and make you go to rehab so you’ll quit.”

“No, Hank.  It’s not a TV show.”

“You got cameras in here?  I haven’t signed any contract.  You can’t put me on television unless I sign something.”

“Jesus, he’s got to be drunk,” Alexandra scoffed.  There was that goddamn cigarette in her mouth.  “It’s not a TV show, you knucklehead.”

“What the hell is that?” I said regarding the cancer stick.  “She can fill her lungs with tar and nicotine but I can’t have a drink?”

“Put it out,” Teddy said to her.  “I said, put it out.”

Alexandra did so, though reluctantly.  There was hardly a day when she wasn’t moaning about her cigarettes.

“Just dinner,” Samantha said to me with a hand on my shoulder.

“For shit’s sake,” I said.

We walked back to the dinner table amid grinning faces and jubilation.

And we sat and ate.  Alexandra had tried to be the good chef.  She had made a feast and it was just my luck that all of it made me want to spit into a napkin.  This family seemed to love salt more than the meat itself.  The problem was it was making me more and more thirsty, and all they had to drink was either San Diego’s finest tap water or Elizabeth’s homemade iced tea.  I opted for the latter, which generally left me speechless with regret whenever I took a swallow.

“Can I have a coaster for my iced tea?” I said acting like it mattered, like I cared about the IKEA table.

Teddy handed me one.  It was smooth rock like fancy kitchen counters.

“What the hell is this?” I said and flipped it over.

“No, Uncle Hank.  You put the drink on the smooth side,” Elizabeth said.

“That’s not granite!  It’s fake,” I said and put the glass on the cork bottom instead.

“Hank,” Teddy warned.  “Turn it over.  Elizabeth spent a lot on those coasters.”

I couldn’t believe he was buying into all that designer bullshit.  I glanced over at Squeaky and sure as shit she was looking wary like I was going to pick on her.

“The point of a coaster is to absorb the moisture,” I pointed out.  “It’s not happening here.  Look.  See those beads of sweat on the glass?  Watch them trickle down onto the fake granite part and slide right off.  And then who’s got sand in their vagina?  Just wait a little while and this table will be soaked.”

“Uncle Hank, we don’t have all day to wait for more beads to form on your drink,” Alexandra said.

“Of course you don’t.”  I was good and mannered.  “You don’t have time for it.  Your time is precious.”  It made me think of Samantha and we locked eyes.  What a peach.  I went back at them, “I’m sorry everybody for wasting your goddamn time.  I can see you’re all rocks and this recession is just a blip in your circuits.  Thanks to your gods we’ve all survived.  Thanks to them your tykes can still have their Mac and cheese and video games, and you don’t have a worry in the world.”  It came off like I was being a sour puss, but like I said before, throw in a compliment of love and it would all find its way in my favor.  I added, “I love you all.  And Alexandra, this food is wonderful.”  She nodded with the face of a woman who hadn’t been laid in years.  What a tart.

They watched me with vigilance like I was going to throw a grenade into the kitchen.  But I was good and quiet, smiling pleasantly.  That made them turn to one another for conversation.  Seldom would anyone with real merit attack a person who was calm and receptive.  At least that had been my own experience.

And it worked like a charm.  Like I had suddenly taken a backseat, they started their bull crap on one another.

“Well, Alexandra got bit by the recession bug when they didn’t approve her loan to get her own place,” Teddy said.

Alexandra glared at him, and then at me, waiting for what I had to chime in.  She’d had a home and when her lawyer husband left her of course he found a way to get that too.  Of all the deadbeat husbands who left their wives, this one had to be a bright lawyer who’d get almost everything.  I stayed quiet and drank that piss for iced tea.

“It’s no biggie, Dad.  Give it another couple of months after the recession has bottomed and it will all work out,” she said and gave that superior smile like she had it all under control.

“It’s already bottomed,” I said.

Now every face was on me.

Has it now?” Alexandra said with a tone.  “Well I for one have heard otherwise.”

“Then you should get your face out of Cosmopolitan and start reading the Times or the Journal or something with validity.”

“Oh really, Uncle Hank.  And how often do you read the papers?”

She didn’t know me at all, my own goddamn niece giving me the attitude.  All they knew about me or wanted to know was that I drank, that I did it too much for their liking.  Now I was that uncle, the problem, the one seen by two dimensions – the man and the drink.

Truthfully, I didn’t want to be involved in a serious conversation with Alexandra, or even Squeaky or Teddy.  If Samantha and I could just slip out the back and take a plug off the pint of booze in her handbag, because her eyes told me it was there.  There was a new calm on her face, and her soft hands were protective of the handbag in her lap.

“Actually,” I said, “You’ve got me pegged, Alexandra.  It’s all a lie.  I confess.  It wasn’t the papers I was reading.  I’ve actually had my face buried in Honcho and Hot Balls magazine.”

“Oh, stop it,” Elizabeth said and locked eyes with Alexandra and I could see them mentally slap hands for a changeover.  “You’re just a grouch.  You can say whatever you want to push our buttons but it won’t work.”

“So.  Squeaky,” I said with a burst of energy.  “Burning up those mattresses lately?”  It was a low blow, but I didn’t care.  It was more for comic relief because the table sure as hell needed it.

“Pardon?” she said.

“Now, Hank…” Teddy cautioned.  He seemed to be the only person who knew what I was aiming for, and of course, he didn’t like it one bit.

“Squeak-squeak-squeak,” I said and did my terrible impression of a bouncing mattress.

After a long awkward silence, Elizabeth wiped her mouth with her napkin, her eyes down at her lap.  She was working through it in her mind, and when her eyes finally lifted there was that bruised expression that made me feel instantaneous sorrow.

“I don’t understand why you can’t let it go, Uncle Hank.  It was a mistake, a long time ago…” her voice trailed off.  She began to sniffle.

Now I felt like an ass.  My conscience was killing me.  It had been years now and Elizabeth still hadn’t gotten over the incident when I caught her having gymnastic-like sex with her late husband in my spare bedroom.

“Well go on, Hank!” Alexandra burst, and when she realized I wouldn’t pursue it any further, “What’s the matter?  Gotten shy all of a sudden?”

Next to me, Samantha was jabbing my thigh with her knuckle.  I looked down and saw the neck of the bottle, poking out for me to see.

“Never mind,” I said to them.

“No, we’re not going to ‘never mind,’ because you’re not done being a dick,” Alexandra said.

“Take it easy,” Teddy said to her.  Then he glared at me like the hall monitor saying go back to your dorm room.

My eyes drew back with respect.

“So let me ask Hank a question,” Alexandra said urgently.

I looked over at Teddy.  We met eyes again.  I gave a slight nod indicating that I would be good.

“Go ahead,” I said to her.

“Why do you say the recession has bottomed?”

“The numbers.  The Dow.  The housing market.”

“I’ll have you know that foreclosures went up last month.”

“Not much.”

“Unemployment is still way up.”

“Yes, it is.”

But her mind was already locked against mine.  I could agree with any point and she still wasn’t having any of it.  If anything, it seemed to rile her more.  Then she blew air out of her mouth like cigarette smoke.

“You’re being ridiculous,” she said, “People aren’t spending.  Spending means more than anything else.  Where’s the consumer?  Hmm?  Where’s the consumer?”

Jesus I’d had enough of her crabbiness, but she was right to an extent.  Consumers did make up two-thirds of the nation’s economic activity.  And if she’d done any homework she’d have seen that spending had increased over recent months.  What she’d picked up in her sewing circle was only a dollop of the crap that made the pile.

My tone changed.  This wasn’t grab-ass we were playing so I left the sarcasm under my hat.

I said, “Look, it’s bottomed.  Trust me.  But the way things go it’ll toil down there for a while where you won’t see the necessary spike.  Just because you’ve bottomed doesn’t mean there won’t be the pain still going.  A bottoming doesn’t necessarily signify immediate economic strength thereafter.  What I’m saying is it’s got nowhere to go but up.”  And then I got personal.  “Look, the shit caused by all this could take months, even years before you’re really seeing results.  It could be years before you’re not feeling the pain anymore, the pain from money problems, the pain from your husband leaving you with a kid to raise.  And Squeaky here’s got it no better.  She’s got her two kids.  The problem is, Dan-the-man isn’t alive anymore so she’s got that to deal with.”

I suppose I’d done it.  I had intended to lay low and let the others go at it, but instead I watched the captain steer the ship from afar, and then slipped in and conked him on the head and took over the reigns quicker than a can of soup boils.  I’d done it because that was who I was, and while I wasn’t proud of it, they shouldn’t have been the least surprised.  The first tears came from Elizabeth and when that woman cried it was a river.  Alexandra gave me a vexed look and went to console her.

Alexandra steered the blubbering Elizabeth and they made their way to the kitchen, where they moved through the swinging door and out of sight.  I realized that mentioning Squeaky’s late husband had been a mistake.  I’d been as earnest as possible, but again, they’d taken it like I’d shat in their hands.

“You should apologize,” Teddy said, half-standing and half-sitting like he didn’t know whose side to take.

“Sit down, Teddy.”  I took a sip of iced tea and nearly spat.  “How come she has to make it so damn sweet?”

“Because it’s sweet tea,” Samantha said.

Oh, well welcome back.  I didn’t see you come in,” I said sarcastically.

She smiled and I was grateful she was there at my side.  Even through her uncharacteristic silence it was a good thing.  She was my cut-man.

“You feeling alright, precious?” I said to her.

“I’m great,” Samantha said.

This made Teddy upset.

“You should both go and apologize.”

“Why do I have to apologize?” she said.

“I know how you two are.  You probably put him up to it after we made you lie about bringing the liquor.”

“I should have,” she said.

Alexandra returned quietly and sat.  I could smell the reek of cigarette smoke on her from a mile away.  She got her cloth napkin, wiped the corners of her mouth, set it in her lap, and began eating, like a scene in reverse.  I could tell she was flustered.

“You all right?” I said as an offering.

“I’m fine, Hank.  I’m always fine,” she said with a tone.

“Is Squeaky all right?”

Then she snapped, “Is that really necessary?  Damn you!  Can’t we just have a nice fucking dinner without you being an asshole because your life sucks?”

“Easy,” Samantha said.  “He’s just joking.”

“No.  I don’t think he is.”

“But I am.”

“No.  I don’t think you are.”

We had hit bottom, no pun intended.  And it stayed there toiling at the bottom with tiny spikes of us trying to get along, and then dips where Elizabeth would leave the room again to fight back the tears.  And Teddy shook his head and gave me that tired look.  And Alexandra laid into me some more.  But I wouldn’t leave.  I stayed and didn’t touch a drop of the booze that was in Samantha’s handbag, though I wanted it badly.

By dinner’s end, after they’d had the pie, I got up to leave.  I said thank you to Alexandra for the dinner and I said buck up darling I love you to Elizabeth so that she smiled and scurried to me with an urgent hug.  Teddy and I gave each other the one time nod, and Samantha walked me to the door.

For a few minutes, the pleasant thoughts of reading a book fluttered my mind as I drove home.  I saw my sofa and me sitting comfortably on it, the book on a pillow atop my lap.  I saw the golden sheen of the walls from the golden lamp that filled my apartment with peace.  I saw it and believed it was forthcoming, even though the biting urgency was already upon me.  And like the guillotine that comes down with ferocity and lops off the head, so did my golden spectacle tumble into the basket.

When I got home everything was different.  The air was strange and dank.  The lights stayed off and it was only the television flickering irregularly.  I twisted and snapped open the plastic cap and then raised the bottle of vodka to my lips.

Ever since I’d turned fifty years ago there had been a turning of the tide, my ebbs and flows had matched up better so that the moisture could find its way to land and make its impression.  For so long beforehand it had been only the ebb receding leaving my face dry and brittle like stone.  Now it was a different story.  And it could be anything to set me off.  This time it was a movie about a poor Italian man who got his bike stolen and he needed the damn thing so he could work and make a living to support his desperate family.  He and his charming son looked all over town for it.  When the movie got down to it, it was the simplest ending in the world, something to make every man feel it in his guts.  And I got wild with blubbering tears.  I sniveled and hiccupped until streams ran single file down my cheeks.  Then I closed my eyes and it was like a foot in a puddle and a rush of them flowed downward.  It felt beyond the means of comprehension or explanation.  So I just sat there and allowed it to take me.

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