Excerpt from Pick-up Sticks
They sat down to dinner at nine-fifteen. Cathy served the salad and then the main course. She had hoped to salvage the frozen chicken dish with a wild-rice-and-grape accompaniment but re-heating had removed the flavor’s edge.
“Interesting recipe,” said Sev. “But your grapes collapsed.”
“Gee, strange. They’ve only been warmed over three times,” she replied.
He ignored the barb. “So, Carey. How was your day?”
“It was ok,” he said, picking at the flaccid green discs on his plate.
“Did you and your friends go to your tree house again, I suppose?”
“Uh, yeah. We did.”
Sev put down the flatware and picked up his wine glass.
“You have to be careful playing in the woods sometimes, eh? Bees and snakes and things, right?”
“I used to love to play around construction sites when a new house was going up in my neighborhood back in Louisiana,” said Sev, sipping his wine. “My parents never knew. We’d collect all sorts of things after the workers went home. Back then, they just left their tools and supplies right there in the open when they finished for the day. My best friend and I put together a stockpile of nails and lumber and carpenter’s things that you wouldn’t believe if you saw it. Well, my daddy couldn’t believe it when he saw it, either. We hid the stuff deep inside his tool shed, under an old tarpaulin, but of course he found it all. Sacks of nails, measuring tapes, levels, screwdrivers, you name it. He put out the word in the neighborhood and it didn’t take long for the foreman to appear at our door: his workers couldn’t figure out why their tools kept disappearing here and there!”
They all laughed.
“Of course it was forbidden for us to go around housing sites again and I never stepped foot on one after that.”
Cathy reached for the serving fork. “Anyone for more chicken?” she said, gesturing toward Sev.
“Thank you; I’ll finish what I have first. No, I kept away from those sort of places, including the oil refineries at the end of town. Much more dangerous there. Chemicals and all that, you know?” he said, looking at Carey.
It drew quiet at the table. From the living room hi-fi drifted the bright tinkle of Natalie Wood belting out Gypsy’s If Momma Was Married, one of Sev’s favorite musicals. It floated so often in the background Carey knew the lyrics by default: the house as private can be, the ducks, the monkeys, the father “and me”.
Cathy pushed back her chair to stand up. “Well, who’d like some dessert? It’ll have to be ice cream. Or some pears.”
“I don’t see that everyone has finished eating their entree, Cathy. I haven’t. And neither has Carey.” She sat down again.
Sev turned to the boy again. “Jeans, hmm? You catching a cold, Carey, or something?”
“But you never wear jeans in summertime. Must be hot.”
“Not really. I guess, um, a little.”
“Could there perhaps be another reason why you might be wearing those hot blue jeans today, Carey?”
Carey and his mother stole a glance at each other.
Sev looked up at the chandelier, inspecting its glass tears. “Next time, you should choose a better hiding place to dispose the evidence, Carey. Did you forget who does the yard on Saturdays?”
Carey’s pulse slowed. He gazed across the table, beyond his mother’s shoulder to the Limoges soup tureen on the credenza.
“I said: did you forget who does the yard on Saturdays?”
“Who does the yard on Saturdays then, Carey?”
“Sev, please,” intervened Cathy.
Sev trained his eyes on her. “I would like to hear who does the yard, from him.” He took a sip of wine.
Cathy turned to her son, voice faltering slightly. “Carey, please. Just answer the question. Let’s not drag this on, ok? Please?”
Echoing voice, shunting to faint oscillation, gelling to tiny words, squirming at the back of brain, just audible.
Table, candelabra, china, chairs, mother’s shoulder, Sev’s flaring face. All a flat arc wrapping the room.
White linen tablecloth stretching over lonely plain of silver columns. Silent towers.
Body sliding between the flickering coronas, hurtling slowly in molecular space toward the tureen, its gilt edging writ large across a porcelain horizon.
Glass tinkles to left.
Limbs reach the green rim, beckoning.
Fingertips, toes curling over the lip, sliding down the smooth pellucid slope. Down to safety in the tureen’s footed shadow.
“Carey?!” his mother cried.
“It-was-Lamar,” came the low response.
“What was that? I couldn’t hear you,” said Sev, cocking his good ear toward the boy.
Sev eyed him for some time. “We will finish our dinner now, I suppose?”
He splashed some more wine from the decanter into his goblet and smiled at Cathy.
“By the way, you didn’t have anything to do with aiding and abetting our little fugitive, did you?”
His wife was a fatally bad liar; far too much apprehension showed in the eye. She opened her mouth to respond.
“That’s what I thought,” he said, draining his glass. Carey looked at his mother, her eyebrows dovetailed in tension.
“You’re not eating much, Carey?” he said in a desultory tone.
“No sir. I’m not very hungry.”