Dinner is Better When We Eat Together

And then go hunting in the garage. Based on a true story.

20912-WD Annual Comp 2018-Winner Seal-AW

I’m pleased and proud to let you guys know that this story won an honorable mention in the 87th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I won’t lie, it feels pretty good! I’m proud of it, and so happy to hear a ‘yes’. If you’re interested, it’s down below.

   

‘All of this happened, more or less’, as Vonnegut says. It’s a true story, although names have been changed to protect the innocent. Dialogue has been altered. Basically, it’s the movie version of a family legend.

“Stop tugging, you look great,” Cheryl says. Caught, Gil lets go of the edge of his shirt and lifts his chin a little. “Yeah. Sorry. Do you need help with the food?” In front of them looms a house. Small, white-stuccoed, surrounded by a low brick wall. Cheryl is standing by the open gate, waiting. Lush green bushes crouch around the perimeter of the house, sneaking out tendrils, waiting to smack him flat with tropical scents. For one flash of a second he wishes for pine. For sharp mountain wind. For dry yellow grass just waiting for death by snowfall. Cheryl smiles, full of sympathy. “It’s fine. It’s not heavy. Are you ready?” He steps through the gate. They walk together up the red paved path. “Go for it,” he says. She rings the doorbell. The door opens before another heartbeat can pass. They’re both standing there, beaming smiles at him. The smiles have a lot to do with the shiny gold sitting on Cheryl’s finger. Not so much with the new job waiting for her–for them–three hundred miles away at the end of a desert road. “Come on in! How was the drive down? Much traffic?” Fern asks. Her dress is neat, perfect. As usual. The bouffant mound of light brown hair owes everything to a dye-bottle and nothing to its roots, but her smile is natural. “Move out of the doorway, Fern, and they can fit through the door,” Jim answer-snaps. His smile has a touch of mean that no one acknowledges. “Hi, dad,” Cheryl says. She gives him a brief hug, blocked by the casserole pan. Gil stands awkwardly behind her, hands dangling useless at the end of his long arms. Before he can lift a hand to usher Cheryl valiantly inside she is already gone. She never does wait long enough for him to open a door. Fern is waiting, still smiling. His future mother-in-law does not hug him, which is nice. His mustache twitches as he slides by her and into that small stucco house. Inside the carpet is shaggy brown, the couches are puffy orange, and the walls are mirrored. It is very fashionable. A tiny hallway leads back to the dining room and they congregate there. Cheryl is taking biology and chemistry, in preparation for a degree in home economics. The science that went into the casserole is mostly lost on Gil, but he knows it will taste fabulous. Her meals always do, unless they are camping. She can’t cook over a campfire to save her life, but that’s okay. He can. Jim offers him a Coors Light, which he accepts. They stand there sipping as the women fuss over the dishes on the plastic covered table. “Goddanm that traffic down the Fifteen, am I right?” Jim asks. Actually, the traffic was fine. Rush hour was over before they made it into the LA basin. But Gil would rather snort a line of his beer than argue with his father-in-law. “Yeah. It’s always stuffed with cars. I hate that freeway.” That part is true. “Well come on, sit down. Tell me about this new job,” Jim invites. He takes a seat at the head of the table and grins up at Gil. With his long, long nose and bushy black eyebrows he always looks like a gremlin to Gil. Some sort of gnome, the kind that would pull you chair out before you sat down and then help you up off the floor, laughing. Gil smiles back and sits. “Oh, well, it’s Cheryl’s job really. She can tell you more about it. But she says the high school is pretty small. A couple hundred students.” “I’ve been up that way, hunting.” Jim nods. His beer is finished, so he reaches for another one. Fern and Cheryl, placing warm dishes on the table, don’t seem to see the can. Their eyes slide right by it and the two empty brethren next to it. He’s got a little bit of a drinking problem, Cheryl said before they came. But he’s getting it under control. “Beautiful country. Beautiful,” Jim says. “I’ll be able to sub, at the school,” Gil assures him. “They need substitutes right now. But I’ll keep trying at the local office too–” Jim snorts. “Those little assholes, they’ll run you ragged. I don’t know how you have the patience to teach, either of you.” Gil thinks back to his own school days; the coordinated book drops at eight o’clock precisely, the gum wads, spitballs, locker-shoves, the mysterious dick-shaped art on unguarded chalkboards that popped up like crop-circles (if the aliens had a crap sense of humor). Jim is probably right. “Come wash up,” Fern interrupts, and slants a sideways look at Jim. Behave! Her eyebrows telegraph. He only grunts a little, and swallows some more warm Coors Light. The food is delicious. None of it is something Gil’s mother would have made, but he enjoys all of it. The water tastes like chlorinated elephant piss. So Gil sticks to his beer. Cheryl drinks a glass of water and then asks for some of the cranberry juice he didn’t know was in the fridge. Under the table, she squeezes his knee. Her warm, sideways smile tells him he’s doing great. They are leaning back in their chairs, all smiles and well-fed content, to get ready for some of the after dinner coffee that is tinting the air, when a small, muffled thump comes from the other side of the door. That door leads to the attached one-car garage, which is closed and locked up for the night. Jim shoots up so fast that his chair skids back and hits the wall. “It’s him! It’s him!” he hisses. “Come on, Gil!” He’s already across the kitchen, leaning forward, braced to throw the door open. “Dad–” Cheryl starts. “Come on!” he repeats. Gil stands up and edges over. Jim reaches to the side and comes up with a heavy, solid, Lou Gehrig baseball bat. It is old, dented and scarred, the veteran of many games. He shoves it at Gil, who takes it without thinking. Cheryl rests her forehead on her palm. “You ready?” Jim looks almost terrifyingly alive, dark eyes sparkling, hand trembling on the doorknob. Gil nods. Jim opens the door, rushes through it, and flicks on the light, all in a few quick movements. He heads straight to the other wall and grabs down a fishing pole. It is long and extended, ready to reach for some of those bass under the pier that pushes out into the Pacific Ocean near the house. He turns, brandishes it like a lance. In startled reflex, Gil lowers his bat to the ready position. Is he . . . going to duel me? Instead of striking Gil, Jim stalks around the edge of the garage. Gil takes a few, hesitant steps inside. The door shuts behind him with a small, quiet click. There is no car parked. The space is empty. Jim uses this emptiness, staring up at the rafters as he paces around one slow step at a time. “Jim, what–” “Shhh!” Jim whispers. “Get ready!” Gil shuts up. He can’t help the confused furrow his eyebrows are digging across his forehead, but he holds the bat up at an obedient angle. “Gotcha! You little bastard!” Jim shouts triumphantly. Gil jumps. Jim raises the fishing rod in front of him with both hands. He thrusts it at the rafters above his head, an avenging gremlin whose judgment cometh and that right early. Before Gil’s stunned eyes a gray and white blur thumps onto the cement floor. It scrambles in a high-speed, whirring blur for his feet and to him it looks bigger than a good sized cat, as big as a lynx. He leaps back, lowers the bat to swing out at it defensively. It veers at the last second and misses a collision with him by centimeters. A long, ratty tail brushes the edge of his jeans. “Get it, Gil!” Jim shouts, and runs over with his fishing pole. Before he can bring the fishing rod stinging down the blur has headed for the opposite corner. The thin whip of metal almost hits Gil’s shoulder. “I got it!” he shouts back. They are after it in a fraction of a second. In the corner, it turns and hisses at them, and Gil sees that it is some rodent, of unusual size. A possum? They didn’t have those where he grew up, but they might have them here. That’s what it looks like, anyway. The bat and the pole smack down on either side of it, simultaneously. The possum thuds against the side of his left leg as it makes for the other end of the garage. It is trying to streak up the wooden shelves when the tip of Jim’s fishing pole catches it a good, solid whack on the rump. It falls backwards, from three feet up, and twists in mid-air, like a cat. In the light from the bare bulb above them its eyes flash. “Get after it!” Jim roars. “It’s over there! There!” Gil shouts. His heart is thundering, and his grip on the bat is tight, strangling. Claws scraping, legs scrabbling, the possum makes a break for freedom. Whacking furiously, Jim and Gil run behind it. The door to the kitchen opens, framing a fat rectangle of bright light as two grown men race across a bare floor, beating in alternating strokes. The crashing sounds, in that small space, are so deafening that Gil can’t hear if Cheryl or Fern are saying anything. The possum hits the closed garage door with a hollow, metal, boyoying noise. Gil stops so fast he skids into the door himself. The bat he’s holding rebounds off of it and taps him lightly in the head. He blinks as Jim’s deadly rod tears apart the air in front of his nose. Along the edge of the garage door the possum races, with the men in pursuit. At the right corner, the possum slithers through an impossibly tiny hole. Just a small, egg-shaped slice of dark punched through the metal. Jim raises his pole high with both hands. By the time he has brought it down, with all his wrath behind it, the possum’s tail is snaking into that disappearing darkness. The tip of the pole shatters off, and ricochets into the corner. They stand there, breathing heavily, staring at the hole the possum squeezed through. Nothing as big as a very small tiger should be able to fit through that hole. The possum must have been a little smaller than it looked to Gil, falling through the air above his head. Jim shakes his head. “Goddam possum.” Gil says nothing. His chest, under the button-up shirt, his neck, and his face are all starting to feel a little hot. The mustache is starting to itch. He would rather not look over at the open kitchen door. “I told you that possum was getting in through that hole, Jim. Didn’t I tell you that?” Fern asks. Jim turns around, examining the broken tip of his fishing rod. “No, you didn’t,” he disagrees automatically. “You said it was getting in through the side, under the shelves.” “I did not. Through that hole, I said.” “The shelves,” Jim insists. “I remember. We were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast and you said ‘Jim, I think it dug a hole through the side of the house under the shelves’.” She puts her hands on her hips. “Oh for goodness sake, how could it dig through stucco? I said it was that hole right there in the garage door.” Cheryl walks in, to stand next to Gil. He hands her the bat without looking at her. “Are you ready to go?” she murmurs. “Yeah. It’s getting late,” he says. Jim and Fern are standing by the hole, gesturing to it, still arguing. Gil takes a deep breath, and walks over to his in-laws. “Thank you for the wonderful meal,” he tells Fern. She nods and smiles at him. “Of course. We were so glad to have you.” Jim is still insisting she meant the shelves. Gil turns to him. His smile must be a little lopsided. “I’ll come over tomorrow and help you patch that hole, if you want.” Jim closes his mouth and considers. “Sure,” he says eventually. “Welcome to the family, Gil.”

THE END

      Featured image from Stocksnap.io & Josh Byers

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