Setting the Table
By Benjamin J. Gohs
Libby worked the blade into the dirty skin slowly and without thought. The mindless task soothed her. Thin metallic chirp as she whisked away the peels into a musty pile on a dank bed of yesterday’s news. Baptized the newborn spud in a bowl of rinse water, eyed its brilliant white pulp, and pronounced it clean before tossing it into the kettle.
“You peeling them potatoes or makin love to em?” Mom hoisted the twenty-two-pound bird into the sink and clipped away its plastic netting. “Hello? Earth to daughter.”
“Almost done.” Libby watched the husky woman work along, humming a Christmas tune, as if everything were normal.
“Shit.” Mom rinsed her hands and wiped them on her jeans and lifted the receiver off the wall and fought with the spiral cord for some slack. “Hello? Oh, I’ll bet. How’s he seem? Well, that’s to be expected. They said it was gonna let up but—yeah, OK. Drive careful. Yup. See ya in a bit.”
“Who was that?” Libby washed the last potato and hauled the cast iron pot to the stove.
“Daddy. Who else?” Mom handed Libby a cutting board loaded with ingredients and a bowl of peeled boiled eggs. “Do these up for me.”
“Does he have to come?”
“Yes. He does. Besides, it’s too late now.”
Libby muttered something rude but indecipherable.
“Look, I’m trying.” Mom wiped her cheeks. “Never mind.”
“We need to talk.” Libby sliced eggs in half while she waited for a response. Mom’s back shook and there was the faintest whimper. Libby pretended not to notice while she whipped yolks with mustard, mayo, black pepper and salt, and spooned the paste into the smelly little ovals.
“Think this family would’ve had enough talk. I don’t know how much more I—”
“Not about dad. It’s David.”
“He didn’t do something to my car.”
“No. I caught him looking at—”
“God’s sake Libby. I don’t have enough shit to deal with? Who cares?”
“OK. Thought you might wanna know your kid was a pervert. But whatever.”
“You never looked when you was his age?”
Libby’s eyes bugged and her head shook as she spoke. “Not that freakin kind.”
“He’s a teenage boy. That’s what they do.”
“Not my monkey.”
“What does that even mean?” Mom put up angry jazz hands as she disappeared into the pantry. “I don’t wanna hear any more about it.”
“Fine.” Libby popped a deviled egg in her mouth. “Are you guys gonna get a divorce?”
“Your brother and I?” Mom emerged with an armload of canned beans, cranberry, mushroom soup.
Old woman laughed so hard she blew a snot down her lip.
She dropped the cans on the countertop and wiped her face and kept laughing.
“D’you still love him?”
“Kind a stupid question is that?” She trailed off whispering something.
Libby thought about her father and his own mother’s big secret. They were Polish. Family tree pale as birchbark. So why was dad always so dark? Nobody else in the family looked like that. No one talked about it but everyone seemed to know the story.
Libby couldn’t blame grandma, what with grandpa being away during the war. Woman gets lonely. What was dad’s excuse? What had mom ever done?
Was it hereditary? Libby wondered. Would she end up cheating when she was married?
“What’re you thinkin about?”
Libby looked up from the egg platter. Took a second to register. “He’s not getting my room.”
“What?” Mom moved the top rack to the bottom of the oven and slid the turkey in and set a timer. “What’re you talkin about?”
“If he comes here. You know, to live. He’s not getting my room.”
“Well, good god. Who said anything about that?”
“I don’t know. Til a few weeks ago, we didn’t even know he existed. So, you know.”
“Please. I’ve enough shit goin on right now. I don’t need you freakin out.”
“Me? Me? Your family’s falling apart and all you care about is making stupid dinner. No wonder we’re all so fat.”
“Don’t be dramatic. It’s so unattractive.”
“I’m not dramatic. I’m depressed. But all anyone cares about is some little bastard.”
“Watch it. There’ll be none a that.” Mom shook a hand towel at her daughter. “And you’re not depressed. You’re just selfish.”
Libby glared. Her mouth hung with indignance.
Old woman’s lips pinched by incredulity. Her eyebrows lifted in disbelief.
The stare-off lasted until Libby threw a mustardy tablespoon at the sink.
“Well don’t act surprised when I kill myself, then.”
“Shouldn’t cry wolf.” Mom sighed with her whole body and looked over her to-do list. After a few seconds, she wagged a finger. “Nobody likes a rusty hinge.”
“Oh and what’s that supposed to mean?”
“You complain. A lot.” Mom turned from her work, hands on hips, and leaned back until her back popped. “Ain’t gonna get nowhere if you go around feelin sorry for yourself alla time.”
“Eggs are done.” Libby felt feverish. “Have to study for exams.”
“Tell your brother he needs to shovel the drive before daddy gets home.”
“Why not tell your new son to do it?”
“That’s it!” Mom chucked her towel into the sink with a clunk and came up howling and holding her right hand.
Libby blurted a laugh and clapped both hands over her mouth.
Old woman marched over and stood trembling belly to belly with her younger taller clone. “I didn’t raise no selfish brats. And I’ve had just about enough—”
Libby hardly believed it herself when she sang, just above a whisper, “One little, two little, three little Indians.”
Mom brought her good hand around in what great-grandma called a “slobber-knocker” and caught the girl square on the ear with a meaty thunk.
Libby ran shrieking upstairs and fell into bed, hot tears of rage dripping into her ears.
Hours seething. Clenched teeth so hard her head ached. Whispered over and over, “Everything is bad.” The one holiday she looked forward to had been ruined. Thanksgiving always filled Libby with the joyous anticipation that something wonderful was about to happen. Now it was gone. Gone with the father who lied. A bastard taking holiday delivery of a bastard. Now more than ever she wished to be far away—disappeared in plain sight like the mother she knew, instead of the pod person in the kitchen who didn’t seem to mind that her husband had scraped his family off the bottom of his shoe.
Dad’s truck rumbled up the drive. Libby pictured the family around the table—Indians one side, Pilgrims the other. She mouthed the words “fuck you” … to her father, to herself, to the half-brother she’d never even met.
Knock at the door.
“Leave me alone.”
“I’m sorry.” Mom sat the bed, brushed the girl’s hair from her face.
Libby stared at the ceiling, the old woman’s heavy rose petal perfume coaxing her to cough.
“I know it’s hard right now but, please, try to be nice.” Mom squeezed Libby’s hand. “Come help your brothers set the table.”
Libby hugged the old woman and shook with sobs.
“It’s gonna be OK.”
Libby composed herself and followed her mother to the stairwell and said, “Fine. But he’s not getting my seat.”