I'm at Marvelyn's, at her dining room table. Except that's not really
right. There isn't a dining room, just one room for everything. So I guess
that means we're sitting at the table, just plain table.
I've come here to eat because I've been invited. My son Charles, who is
forty-nine, sits to my left. He's visiting from California. But that's not
quite right either. He flew here from Texas where he spent last week working
with a woman whose name he says is Dorothy. For eighty dollars more than it
would cost if he went directly from Texas to California, he has come here
for two nights. He sleeps in my apartment on the foldaway, but we eat the
big meals at Marvelyn's. I don't cook any more and I just don't have enough
room for all of us. So we sit at Marvelyn's table. I named her Marvelyn. But
everyone here calls her Mave. She's forty-seven. On her birthday she reminds
me of her age. I don't like it. But I laugh a little and say, "Well, you know how old that makes me." She seems all right sitting here in her white shirt and slacks green as grass. But sometimes I wonder. At night in my apartment I think about her, how she used to sit on my lap, small, her white hair glossy and smooth. Now, when she turns her head this way, I see little creases curving from her eyes to her cheeks, threads of gray at her temples. Two college degrees, and a volunteer for every decent cause in town, she pours herself out for everybody else--director of this, coordinator of that.
Today she has made a picnic--potato salad, relishes, chips, brown beans she's
cooked all day long, and jello--lime--the way I used to make it with cottage
cheese and pineapple. Except she adds nuts. Strange to eat nuts in jello, to
feel my teeth bite into something when I don't expect it.
And Walter, twenty-four years he's been in this family and I still think he's
one of the biggest men I've ever seen. He wears an outlandish red shirt printed
with huge blue and purple iris. I feel almost sweaty just looking at him. Like
always, he has cooked enormous hamburgers on the grill. I could barely eat all
of mine. But I wanted to be polite, so I kept eating until I finished.
Across from me is Kate, the one in college, and at the end of the table, my
little Tod, graduating from high school in two weeks. Everyone is talking as
if I'm not here. So I keep eating, trying not to spill anything into the paper
napkin on my lap. I've been eating and eating until I hurt. We're now on dessert--chocolate
cake and chocolate frosting. The cake is dry and the frosting too thick and
sweet. Finally, I put down my fork and try to turn just a little in my chair,
away from the table so I can see out the windows. I keep adjusting myself until
I sit with my left elbow on the back of the chair, my fingers just touching
my chin, like I'm thinking while I look. Dirty windows. They always are. Enormous
windows, six feet across, floor to ceiling, and they have yet to be really clean.
Big dirty windows to that backyard of Walter's. He has such a mess out there,
lanky bushes along the fence, weeds under the trees, tool handles leaning on
the porch rail, garden hose strung half the length of the yard, a six-foot stump
of the willow tree cast aside near the asparagus. But I see the bird feeders,
three long plastic cylinders filled with dark seed dangling from some awful
pipe affair a few feet from the birches. That's so like Walter--rusty wire,
rope and twine hangers--leftover anything, to make do, not what looks right.
Well, my goodness, finches, at this hour. Three of them, no four, the color
of daffodils. They're on the dowels at the feeders, pecking, their heads nodding
forward and backward. Now who would have thought of finches in Walter's garden.
Why, Frederik and I never had finches. And Walter's are beautiful, bright rich
yellow, like egg yolks before they're whipped.
I turn my head back to the table so I can signal to Marvelyn about the finches.
I smile at her and nod over my left shoulder to tell her about the birds eating.
She smiles at me, that I-know-Mother smile, nods, and keeps smiling and talking
to Charles. I don't know what they're saying, Marvelyn, Charles, or the children.
And Walter always mumbles. I never know if I'm the one he's talking to. He doesn't
look at me directly or call me anything. He just starts mumbling and I don't
know what he says.
I move my eyes over to Charles and hear Marvelyn's voice. "Charles, you have new glasses. Gold rims."
I hadn't noticed. They look just like the kind he's always worn. But if she
says so, well then okay. Charles seems the same as he did last year when he
flew in from Canada--or was it New York?--that lopey walk, his stomach getting
bigger, that same chin tucked in and slight. But as I keep looking at him I
think his hair is getting grayer; there's lots less of it this year. Charles
is getting old. What? Something about Tod and college.
Tod's mouth is laughing. He's tilted back in his chair, his fingers like they're
playing the piano on the table. My little Tod. The winter he passed his driver's
test he picked me up for church every Sunday. "Hi, Grandma," he'd call when he opened the car door. Then at church I would hold his arm and walk that way, grabbing on, trying to keep up with his long steps.
"Where might Tod be going to college next year?"
And Walter says, "Kansas, in Lawrence."
I've never heard of Kansas College in Lawrence. I frown toward Walter.
"Where's Kansas College?" I ask.
Marvelyn talks about a short trip, a few hours drive. I don't hear all of what
she says. I see lips move. I look to Charles. I hear him say something about
graduation from Kansas. Oh, yes, now I remember. Mary, Charles' Mary, graduated
"They walk down the hill from the bell tower with wine bottles in their hands."
Wine bottles? "Now that's not nice," I say, looking at Charles' eyes behind the gold rims.
"Hey, Mom," he says. "It's their party."
I lower my chin and turn away from the table so I can see the finches through
Walter's dirty windows. I see only two now, not bright yellow but dull, mossy
looking, almost like mildew.
"Pine siskins, Grandma." That must be Kate talking.
I look past the swinging feeders, over to the fence. Columbine, a nice clump,
lean out from under the bushes. The bright pink flowers fade to something lighter
at the tips. Frederik had columbine once, at the old house, by the rose bushes
near the porch.
It's Kate. Such a hard sounding name for a child. But that's what she calls
herself and so does everyone else. With Frederik gone, nobody calls her Kathryn.
"Yes," I say smiling, turning my head away from the pine siskins. I use my hands to lift myself a little bit off the chair so I can turn to get square again with my plate. Kate fills my cup and I look on the table for a teaspoon.
No cream today. Milk from the pitcher. Skim milk. Better than nothing. I
reach down the table for the pitcher and help myself. The milk plops into the
cup. Marvelyn must be watching all this, remembering I need a spoon, because
she pushes one right near the saucer so I can pick it up to stir.
Kate continues pouring, for her mother, Walter, and Charles. Each time she starts
to pour she picks up the cup, but not the saucer. At least she holds the cup
by the handle, not by spreading her fingers all around the rim.
She comes back to the table and sits across from me, elbows on either side of
her plate, chin in her hands. She smiles a sweet smile but I can't hear what
she's saying. There's just too much talking.
When she was little her hair was a beautiful yellow, curling in little loops
around her face and all around the back, touching the top of her dress. She was
the sweetest thing sitting in the borrowed high chair at our house, patting the
tray until Frederik brought her crackers. A long time ago, I think, her hair
I take a sip of coffee and look at her quickly before I follow the cup with my
eyes to the saucer. Hair. In her eyes, on her shoulders. Hair. Too much hair.
And not what it used to be.
She is home for a week. But then, they tell me, she is going back to college
to help students get acquainted with the campus before they start classes in
the fall. The dormitory isn't open so she'll live in a house. That's what I understand.
I clear my throat, looking at the cup, preparing myself to talk.
"Kate, dear," I try, "what about this house you are living in? Does it have a housemother?"
It is Charles. I turn my head to the path of the voice and see him looking at
me like I'm some old fool.
"Housemother?" he asks again. "These are college kids, Mom."
"I know about college kids," I say and lift the coffee cup for another swallow.
I push with my hand against the table to turn myself back to the window so I
can look at finches and pine siskins. Let me pretend I'm thinking.
Five rooms, each with a separate lock; the house, two locks on the front door
and one lock on the back. I hear this but I'm looking out through the windows,
my finger massaging my chin. I don't know what else to do.
The finches and pine siskins are gone. Nothing clings to the feeders. They
hang there, full and waiting, moving the barest of movements in the air. On the
porch rail two gray birds--they look like sparrows--pick at each other's beaks.
Wings flutter. The one that looks bigger and darker is on the back of the one
that's smaller and lighter in color. They stay like that and then separate. They
come back picking at each other beak to beak; then they fly off.
"More coffee, Grandma?"
It's Kate smiling again from across the table. I look at her big blue eyes,
like Frederik's, like Marvelyn's, like Tod's, and raise my eyebrows.
"Please, just a little," I say.
She lifts her head from her chin and shakes out her curls as she leans into the
table to unwind out of her chair. She twirls around, the back of her t-shirt
wrinkled, her short skirt just above the bend of her knee as she twists into
the kitchen to get the pot and pour.
"Happy Mother's Day."
I hear him. And I see him. Walter stands beside me with the fullest plant I've
ever seen--rich dark green leaves, yellow buds and blossoms, gold foil, rose
pink ribbon. He grins from ear to ear holding the plant in front of the buttons
of his wild red shirt.
"Why, Walter," I say, looking into his face. You would think I were a queen the way he smiles, stands at attention offering this gift.
"It's an hibiscus." He keeps smiling, nodding for me to look closely as he holds the plant perfectly, right where I can see it.
"It really is from Walter, Mother." It's Marvelyn. "It was his idea. He was shopping, saw it, and thought of you."
"It's for you, from me." Walter is talking. "I had an idea you'd like the flowers."
He stands so straight and tall. "Walter," I say, finding his eyes again, "I've never seen a plant with so many beautiful flowers. How lovely of you."
Walter sets the hibiscus on the table. Charles and Marvelyn nod to each other
and smile at me. Tod has stopped playing the piano at the end of the table. Kate
holds the coffee pot in one hand and reaches for my cup with the other. But I
put my fingers up to ask her to wait. And then with both hands I take the plant
and draw it nearer so I can examine the closest blossom. It shimmers yellow in
front of me. I blink to clear my eyes and turn the plant a quarter turn to look
at the next blossom and the next and the next.
As printed in South Dakota Review Volume 29, Number 9, 1991 and reprinted in Winter 1993, Volume 31, Number 4, South Dakota Review, Fiction 1963-93, the twenty-five best short stories in thirty years of SDR.