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 from Kansas.

"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.

"Coffee, Grandma?"

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 became dark.

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?"

"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.





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