Bill and Opal – Supper Time

(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.


Dia de los Muertos: Conversations

There are the marigolds bunched to earth with flounces of amarillo, castanets on their sepals, dust narnaja on the garden fingers where little bones baille on headstones and sugar teeth are azul.  There are the sombreros negra laced with silver, pumpkin seed pearls bleached blanca, cinnamon and manzanas rojas.  There are the little bones turned of dust, noon or sunset, la noche y la mañana, little bones turned of dust.  They become the trickle that feeds stones and sheep with song.  When they laugh, the wind sighs and silences, sighs and silences like bells hung on a new moon when la bruja’s skirts flash past.
        The Lady of the Dead is dust and whispers to dust, telling them who sits with marigolds blossoming from their chests.  She loves the sighs and silences between fists and bowls of grain, how the grain plays armónica, y el perro thumps la pandereta, and all the little bones dance. 
        When did marigolds learn flamenco?  When did they don castanets?  When did I hear the little bones singing on their way to dust?  The child girl with ears as long as a truck has climbed up the ribs of the woman to hear what she heard at one.  And a smaller child, who nests inside, has climbed up the ladder of neck to hear the bells toll on.   
        I will hear them talking, one speck of bone to the next, and the next, and then they will turn to me, me with my azul teeth, me with my marigold skirts y camisas rojas, me with blossoms amarillos floating over this cabeza del azúcar where loco thoughts once curled, and we will dance, the way little bones dance, until we are singing water, dew on the bells of the moon.