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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Family · #2295546
A family gathering of loss and expectations.
I was late. I found a metal folding chair tucked behind the pantry door and tried to find a spot at the dining room table. No one invited me to sit. Father had managed to escape to the lounge, bourbon in hand. We were too much alike, both waiting for the other person to speak, hoping they’d break the silence as much as keep it. Better to save us the awkwardness - even after twenty-two years - and make myself useful. I’d be called into the dining room eventually anyways, told to do some task they didn’t want to. So, I pulled up my metal chair to a corner of the rectangular table, all other seats filled, and sat down. Aunts and uncles had gathered for the memorial, congregating around the table to fill up on sweets and gossip. I watched from under the line of my bangs. Their hands and arms fidgeted on either side of the table, leaning forward to press into the conversation, chairs groaning with each shift. Mother’s brassy voice sounded from the other end, leading a round of speculation that ping-ponged across the empty dessert plates.

“He never talked about her, even after Mother passed. You’d think he’d be free to talk about the first wife once the second was no longer around.” Mother’s manicured hand clenched atop the finished wood.

“Every time we’d try to ask about her, he’d just toss back another beer.”

“And say –”

“Nothing to tell,” the table chorused.

Mother pushed her glasses up from where they slid to the tip of her long nose, and briefly pinched the bridge between berry-colored nails. An appropriate color for fall. “Well, he’s dead now.”

Mother sat at the head of the table, not by virtue of being the oldest, but because it was her dining room. Hers was the only chair of the set that had arm rests. I numbered all the chairs, starting with her and going clockwise around the rectangular table, skipping my out-of-place chair in the corner between Five and Six. There were eight of them seated and enmeshed, but not saddened, by the talk of Grandfather passing. Enmeshed. I learned the meaning of that word reading a book on toxic parents. Number Nine, the oldest uncle, couldn’t make it. No one commented on it, but I wondered if it was more about not wanting to come. He would be old enough to have a few memories of Grandfather’s first wife - their biological mother. There wouldn’t have been room at the eight-chaired table, though, and he wouldn’t have been invited to sit.

“You think the chest has anything about her death?” Number Six’s chair scraped forward from my left. Meaty forearms tapered into hands with fat bulges below each knuckle, eclipsing the dainty rings on each finger.

Four clicked their tongue from across the table. “Like what? A confession?”

“Maybe an old journal of hers?” Seven picked at their fingernails.

“You think he killed her,” Eight replied.

“Or she killed herself?” Three shrugged, playing along.

“It’s just odd that we don’t know anything about her,” Mother summed up.

No one asked my opinion, which was a relief because I didn’t have one. She wasn’t my unknown biological mother; my life was complicated enough with just one demanding mother. The constant barrage of right clothes, right hair, right degree. It should be a relief having all my choices taken care of. And since the family gathering was at our house, my appearance wasn't a choice, twice removed from the topic of conversation or not. It was only right.

“Let’s find out already.” Number Two’s voice projected across the table, silencing the other seats. Neat, square fingers drummed the tabletop. Mother’s left hand came to rest on Number Two’s, patting the thin skin as if to console. It meant shush.

“Go get the chest from the car.” Mother’s words fell on the table like dice, rolling to see whose number would be called. No hands moved and the chairs remained silent for the infinite stretch between three seconds.

An elbow from my right was the first acknowledgement of my presence. “Go on, Girl.” Number Five commanded with a gesture that tinkled the tennis bracelets crisscrossing a bony wrist.

I stood up on tired legs, heels heavy. The game of what-if continued as I turned away, dismissed from the table.

“What if she just died of pneumonia?”

“She probably died in childbirth.”

“What if there’s an inheritance we’re missing out on?”

I could still hear Mother as I entered the garage from the connecting utility room. “We’re each more well off than he ever was – our children will be set once we die.”

What if I didn’t want any of it? No inheritance or family gatherings. Like this one discussing possible secrets kept by their father about their biological mother. They insisted on having dinner first, bringing everyone together before opening the chest. But not before unlocking it. They never bothered with noticing the passage of time. I could look inside the chest and have a nap before anyone came to get it on their own, forgetting I was even sent to fetch it. I’d been attending university for years now and hadn’t been home for some time, just for holidays, as expected. Even so, Mother would often call me to ask where something was, like the scissors, as if I still lived in the house, had just used them, and forgotten to put them back where they belong.

I shook my head, the lines of my short hair tickling my jaw. Reaching up to push my hair behind my ears, I caught a glimpse of gold on my pinky finger. I didn’t ask for it, wasn’t sure why I was even wearing it. Grandfather had given it to me when we last visited, Mother distracted by cornering his live-in nurse about his health and lack of will. His liver-spotted hand beckoned and I followed to stand at his bedside. He reached in the breast pocket of his flannel pajama top and placed the ring in the palm of my hand. My bangs hid most expressions, so I looked up in my confusion. His eyes were closed, weighed down further by the folds of skin surrounding them. But he was smiling, small and content. Mother’s voice had interrupted from the doorway, and then we left. No words had passed between Grandfather’s lips, nor between Mother and I, and the ring went unnoticed. Gifts were to be accepted graciously. It was too small to fit anywhere else except my pinky, and I hoped one day to look down and it’d be gone.

Back in the garage, I pressed the pad of my thumb into that gold line as I pulled open the rear hatch of the SUV with the other hand. The chest sat alone in a sea of grey carpet. Chest wasn’t really the right word for it; it was smaller, more like a security lockbox, but vintage. Maybe it had seemed bigger when The Nine had been younger. It was ridiculously small for all the big talk. Big talk I didn’t care to listen to. I lifted the unlocked lid and pushed passed the protest of rusty hinges. Inside were three items. A small, black velvet box; I knew inside would have an empty slot for a thin gold band. An old picture with nine sepia-toned, barely clothed children, the youngest held by a smiling woman who stood in front of a shack. And finally, a piece of paper that read Death Certificate. The year on the back of the picture was the same as that listed on the certificate. Cause of death: sepsis; incomplete abortion. I tried to swallow past my dry throat. I also knew that term could be misleading, could mean a medical abortion or a miscarriage. She must have been pregnant with their tenth child.

My mind and stomach churned. Would The Nine take 'incomplete abortion' at face value? They’d hate her immediately. Children were to be born. They wouldn’t try to see it from her perspective. How could they? None of them had more than three children, much less ten. They’d have another reason to resent her. Should I hide the death certificate? Maybe even put the ring back in the box? Or I could just explain that incomplete abortion could mean something else. My own discharge papers come to mind. Would my mother hate me?

I pinched the bridge of my nose. I could smell the faint traces of nail polish remover. I had rushed to remove the chipped black and white polish after Mother called to announce a family gathering same day. I didn’t want to hear the suggestions of more appropriate colors. But I liked having my nails painted, appropriate color be damned. I shoved the ring box in my hoodie pocket, then put the picture and death certificate back in the lockbox. I shut the rear door of the SUV and went back inside with the lockbox under my arm.

I stepped back into the dining room, unnoticed. Mother’s seat was empty, the dessert plates removed from the table. I walked to her place and sat the lockbox down. I could feel the cushioned seat brushing the backs of my knees, smell the lingering sweetness of apple pie. “Mother,” I called. A dish clattered in the sink. Seven faces turned toward me. The chairs were curiously silent. When footsteps stopped next to me, I sat down on that cushioned chair and opened the box, placing the picture and death certificate on the table. I finally looked at each of their faces around the table, pairs of brown, blue and hazel staring back, until I had to turn to look my mother in the eye, up, up, over the long nose and into startled brown. “I’ll see you next weekend. I have a research paper to finish up today.” Her nostrils flared. She hadn’t made plans with me for next weekend, but I was coming to talk anyways. I wondered if she’d decide to berate me now or later for leaving a family function soon.

Me and the seated seven all stood at once - me to step away, and them to bend over the contents of the table. They were looking at the death certificate as I walked out, gasps and exclamations falling behind me.

Mother's voice rose above the others. "We are not done here, young lady.” Guess she wanted to berate me now instead of later. Too bad. I left the dining room.

“Next weekend,” I called back.

I took the gold band from my pinky and placed it between the first two knuckles on my middle finger. I liked the look of knuckle rings, and it wouldn’t fall off there. Now I had time to stop for a coffee before heading back to my paper. I exhaled long and low as I left earlier than expected.
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