We Expect and Feel

Christopher Merkner

Family comes on Sunday night. It's standard. Our forks point to heaven. We wait. It's very traditional American. At last my wife approaches the dinner table. She desires something. She clears her throat and announces she would like, before any of us eat "a thing," she would like our son to stick a straight edge into her chest. "Up here," she says, pointing to her sternum. "Anywhere in this region."

She leans down and asks a child near her for her straight edge. The child has no idea what a straight edge is. "The box cutter," my wife clarifies. The child produces the tool from her belt buckle. She hands it to my wife. "OK," my wife says. "Ball game."

My son rolls his eyes. We're all sitting there, forks up, and he rolls the eyes. He makes a dramatic sigh and puts his hands on the table. He takes an enormous long drink from his tiny cup of tea. There's no way he is still drinking, but he's just suckling that thing for minutes while we sit there watching until he places the cup down beside his plate again. He scratches his hair. He rubs his face. "You see what it's like," he says to his wife. He makes large eyes at her. He says to her that he knew they should not come to this house. He says to her that she needs to stop making him do things with his own family he knows he should not be doing.  He says, "It's a matter of intimidation."

He wipes his eyes. "Clean and dry, top and bottom, I just need you to stop bullying me."  And then that's all he says. He puckers his lips. He wipes his eyes again. We're just watching this. He raises his finger at his wife, but he says no more. He stands there with a finger in his wife's face.  Then he pushes back from the table and stands.

This child, we love him without condition, of course. He has always been a force of dramatic pageantry. In what he believes is his adulthood, he has no time for anything. I have never met anyone in my long life with less time. He is always working. Yet, we have no idea what he does for a living. When he is not working he is in the middle of something abstract: washing something, feeding someone, trying to unclog something. And he is pointlessly short with us.  He will not answer his phone. He will not call us. The circumstances surrounding his life when he does call and share them are usually so lamentable the first thing you want to say to him is, "Well, that'll do."

Bored, the table falls into din. Such is family. My wife tells everyone to quiet down, but they've already moved on. She looks at my son standing there, drawing back (once again!) on his tea dregs.  She sighs. This is hard on her, I know.  Love takes a discernible toll on any of us, but with children like this—

"Pilate," she says. She taps her watch. "I have pork loins searing."

He laughs as he comes around the table, one of those filthy laughs he always had at the front of his teeth when he was a teenager, and he goes over and takes the straight edge from his mother's hand. She pulls up her blouse.

Someone asks the children to leave. There is some disagreement on the point: the children should be included; the children should not be victimized; a family with secrets is a family in hell. It goes back and forth, my wife's sixty-two-year-old bosom air-borne and bare to the world.

Well of course the children want to know what the secret is all about, a fair concern, I'll grant them, and they are told the facts: their grandmother, my wife, is to be stabbed in the chest by her son, their father or uncle. The older children are visibly sickened and depart; the younger children want answers: "Why would a person do this sort of thing to grandma?"

They are told their questions are tedious, and they are made to leave with the others.  Our son approaches and sticks my wife in one swift underhand blow below the left breast. She steps back a step, winces. She pulls it out. "No," she says, "try my gut."

He does it again, sweeps in with his underhand, stabs it right into her thigh. She puffs. She takes her son's hand off the blade and pulls the blade out herself.  She looks at our son, mystified. "Have you  no sense?  My gut is right here, right?"

She makes a flailing gesture, her hand a moth fluttering suddenly from her body, and her eyes go to the ceiling. She is placed on the sofa. We serve ourselves from the kitchen. Our son rejoins us, returns to his seat beside his wife. We discuss exterior painting and the contractors we have hired, liked and fired. It's a lively chat over relatively overdone pork.

The entire time, however, our arrogant son keeps touching the hand of his wife. She is so determined to work this out. She is lovely, and I later hand her a nice big check at the hospital, in the waiting room. It's the right thing to do. I say we are sorry about all of this. But we are not. Because she has not yet listened to our son's apologies for years and years, and therefore knows not the fullness of his failings, she doubts our sincerity. She doubts us. It's stunning. It's sad. She draws their newborn close to her and says something so simple I want to frame it.