Family Dinner
Sherrie Flick

I'm the squash soup. Chopped up and muddled, glowing orange here on the sofa. The soup itself bubbles for real on the stove. But I'm angry, so its simmering seems like a gaping mouth. The soup froths. Me, on the stove.

You need to relax, I tell myself. I can feel my blood pressure rising as the chestnuts soak, drowning over there in the bucket, their little wrists slashed this morning before the plunge. The frosted cake poses on its classy stand, apart from us, smug, like the dog atop the couch curled into a tiny dachsund ball, sleeping like the world is fine. The cake is the dog. The dog is in the cake stand. The dog snorts as if to confirm the unreliability of me as a narrator. He makes a quick circle and re-positions himself into the same spot: snoring.

The rolls are tiny breasts, many breasts, too many probably, on the cooling rack. Perky like my breasts maybe were once, but that was a long time ago, and it isn't time for nostalgia right this second as I fume on the couch and the fire rages in the wood-burning stove. The fire is the concept of this story, the backdrop. It will be the constant until I have to get up and stubbornly poke it to keep it incensed.

I've never liked phones. Or my sister Katie, who called this morning to quietly and without much remorse cancel our Thanksgiving plans.

"Isn't working," she said.

"What isn't working," I said. "The car? Your souffle?"

"I never said I was bringing a souffle," Katie said.

"It's just a figure of speech," I said. "Souffles not working."

Katie exhaled deeply, like she was smoking a cigarette, and maybe she was. What do I know? "The entire idea of the meal isn't working, Martha," she said. "Dad is gone, you know. I just want to start my own traditions."

"Like today?" I said. "Because it's a little late, don't you think, Kate? I mean I've produced some serious food here, and mom is planning to come over, and she's been weepy anyway and now, today you're deciding you'd like to diverge from this already strange situation and create your own creepy ritual?"

"Look," Katie said with that nasal twang she gets when she's uppity. "I clearly don't have to explain this to you. Isn't working. I said that. I'm going to go and figure some stuff out. Going now. Bye." And with that she hung up.

The soup simmers. The fire rages. The cake snorts. The chocolate tart is not yet made. The wine on the counter, the good wine, is patient. The dinner will be lonely. Mom and me. A widow and a stubborn single woman with a tiny dachsund. I can't bear to tell my mom that Katie doesn't like her.

Fuck family. Fuck love.

So I don't. I won't. I make the tart, and it looks luscious, nearly velvety and so close to lust I think I might French kiss it. I change clothes, put on something nice, nicer than I ever put on for family things—a silk shirt with earrings. Mom arrives, and she's smiling, really trying hard. I give her a big bear hug, a sloppy kiss. The dog barks joyously. She has brought stuffing and gravy, a dog treat and little homemade nametags that she cross-stitched for each place setting.

I've set the table for three, because I am both a coward and a loser. She props each precious nametag at each place setting. We open the wine, and it forgives us for taking so long.

Before I serve, an idea comes to me. It descends like honey spreading across the counter; it's that sweet. I pull out some albums from the living room shelves, take out 2 photographs, do some cutting. I tape a photo of my sister to one chairback, a photo of my dad on the other. We're now an awkward table of four with only one missing nametag, like it should be. I add a place setting.

Mom sits down, a little confused at first, expecting Katie to walk in carrying some weird vegetarian food in tones of gray or brown. But when she sees the photo, she nods and says, "I always liked that dress on Kate. It brings out the green in her eyes, don't you think?"

Mom and I toast to everyone, including the dog. We wait for the dénouement of the story. We breathe deep all the food aromas. Too much food for us, we know. But still. We eat it all.

Sherrie Flick's most recent book is RECONSIDERING HAPPINESS, a novel (University of Nebraska Press). She lives in Pittsburgh.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Katie Inglis.

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