(Retrieved from “Short Sketches” collection, circa 2011)
My father is there, at the table. It’s a chrome table with a gray Formica surface patterned like fractured ice that’s refrozen to leave an idea of lines. The padded chairs are upholstered with plastic to match the tabletop. Where the piping has worn through or pulled away, Mom’s applied duct tape and where the duct tape has curled up along some edges the adhesive residue is dark as fingernail dirt. I imagine Walter Cronkite is offering the six o’clock news in the background. We can’t see the blond television set from the table, but once Daddy comes in the front door from the fields the t.v.’s turned on. After dinner, boots off, his 5’11” height will stretch long on the Montgomery Ward brown plastic-that-looks-like-leather sleeper sofa.
When Mom said, “Supper’s ready, Bill,” he came to the table. And when Mom clears away the serving bowls and dinner plates, all except his, he lingers with his iced tea and cigarette. Even when Mom brings an ashtray and places it next to his used dinner plate, Daddy still uses the plate for an ashtray. “No use in dirtying that, Opal,” he says. “This’ll do fine.” Sometimes he doesn’t say, “This’ll do,” and only gives her a look with the words.
It’s a kind look. His eyes are a clear blue and the sort of shape that is open and unsuspecting, plus they carry dark lashes and brows which seem to communicate a tender heart. His voice is, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, gentle, patient, coaxing.
Mom’s returned look is more often than not, vexed. She could grab his plate up and insist he use the ashtray. I’m fourteen and can’t recall she ever has. She’s not the insisting type. Nor is he.
By the time Daddy leaves the table, there might be three butts stubbed out in the creases of gravy left on his plate. It’s not pretty.
I’m in the kitchen washing dishes by then unless my homework load is heavy. Mom always asks. I’m always honest. When it is, I’ve claimed an end of the table the moment the dishes are cleared. The light’s the best there for homework and the fractured-ice surface is smooth which helps my handwritten papers in the area of legibility.
I get good grades. I make the Honor Roll every quarter and semester. I’m a cheerleader at Jurupa Junior High School. I jointly hold the freshman class office of Activities. I am 5’8” and long-limbed like Daddy. I love to dance, like Mom.
Mom and I play at swing-dancing in the kitchen when I take a break from study and she takes a break from toweling dry and putting away dishes. Sometimes I teach her the moves my best friend, Bonnie, and I have practiced after watching American Bandstand. We do The Stroll to Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orelans; we do the Peppermint Twist. There are dances at the Y and there are school dances—but the boys are all still growing boys and who among them wants to ask a string bean like me? Not many, for sure. And not often. So it’s kitchen-time dancing between cups and saucers finding their shelves and algebraic equations puzzling the gray fractures of a smooth tabletop while Daddy, finally removed from the chrome dining chair, changes the channel to Ward Bond and Wagon Train, props his head on his arm and stacks his stocking feet on the sofa end. After a little while, I hear him snore. And after a little while longer, the pink cinderblock house on Etiwanda closes its lights and nods off.