Martina takes the earthenware platter down from atop the china cabinet. It is beige with dark brown scallops whorled around the edge in gentle repetition. Fetching the platter involves getting up on a chair and steadying herself with one foot on the banquette while she removes the stack of ugly purple rose covered teacups that rest on top of the platter, the only thing left to her by her grandmother.
The top of the cabinet is sunk in deeper than its dark wood edges. It is filled with dust, scraped into mice-shaped balls with the taking down and replacing of the platter over the years. As she does every year, Martina vows to clean the top of this cabinet the day after Thanksgiving. I will definitely dust this tomorrow.
She never does.
Martina’s white-socked foot slips off the banquette and she falls, her fingers gripped around the cold edges of the platter so tightly she feels she could break it. Frank catches her and laughs. She can’t help but smile. “I could have killed myself, or you.”
“Look at you, all domestic.”
Marriage for Martina is a universe-altering phenomenon. Last summer, she and Frank passed from their regular lives into Bizarro World, where every little thing has more symbolic significance, and yet the reality of what they started with feels farther away.
Frank lowers her to the floor as she starts running through the meal in her head. Turkey. Wild-rice stuffing with sausage. Pie: pecan, apple, vinegar and pumpkin. Sweet potatoes. And Aunt Irene will bring her goddamned creamed pearl onions. The Passion of the Pearled Onions is played out every year, although its production value changes. And sometimes the secondary cast members.
“I could use some help you know.” She moves past him to the dining table where she is laying out the dishes on the white linen tablecloth. Eight dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, pie plates. Eight forks, salad forks, pie forks, teaspoons, knives. It looks like a display at Macy’s.
Frank moves behind her and puts his arms around her, kissing her neck. “When’d we get so much stuff?”
She tries to pull away, but he pulls her closer. “Rrrgh! Unhand me, we have relatives to cook for.”
“When’d we get so many relatives?”
“They came with the crap. I could use some help you know.”
“I’ll do the bird on the barbecue.” He says this as if genius has struck.
She doesn\’t know if that’s a good idea. “Are you sure?”
“350, four hours, how hard could it be?”
Frank’s parents, Bob and Cindy. Martina’s mom, Stella and her sister (the creamed onion-bearing Aunt Irene). Frank’s Great-Uncle-by-Marriage, Uncle Dick . A smallish crowd by most standards, but, their house being petite, the place feels like an asylum once everyone arrives.
The turkey is still raw. It took forever for the charcoal to light and the temperature outside plunged inexplicably at 10am from a balmy fifty to thirty-five degrees. Martina turns the oven up to five hundred and looks at the bird despairingly. She pours herself an enormous glass of Merlot.
Frank steps in front of her, proffering a knife leveled on his forearm like an honorary sword.
“Are you sure?” It seems like such sacrilege, carving the turkey, raw.
“I don\’t know what I am except fucking starving. Annihilate it. We’ll broil it.”
The half-cooked bird doesn’t yield to the knife in the same way as a finished one would. The outside has browned, but the interior, near the joint of the leg and the thigh won’t give. It remembers living too well. Martina doesn’t do well with raw fowl.
Frank takes the knife from her, “I’ve got this one.” Martina takes a swig of wine from her glass and heads into the living room through the pantry. Frank sees this. “Go get ’em Tiger.” She flashes him a grin as she goes.
Martina cringes when she sees that the part of the villain in the Passion of the Creamed Pearl Onions will be played by Dick Combs this year. Uncle Dick is the Great-Uncle by marriage (Martina\’s still not sure of marriage to whom) they acquired for holidays several years ago when his wife died. He is unmanageably tall, mostly deaf and largely lecherous. He’s only in his late sixties, but he has been playing eighty for at least ten years. He plays eighty every time he accidentally corners Martina and manages to feel her up with a stray elbow, or backside, or hand. He seems to feel an “Oh, I beg your pardon,” is a cure-all. These encounters don\’t threaten Martina as much as they just make her sad.
Uncle Dick makes a face when he puts the first forkful of onions in his mouth. Aunt Irene doesn\’t really have a recipe, or cook, but she insists on making this dish every year, which usually consists of onions and milk cooked to a slimy consistency.
“What?” Aunt Irene\’s hackles are up and Uncle Dick not responding makes it worse. The second time is more urgent. “What?”
Martina thinks Uncle Dick plays up the deafness to his advantage. She sees her mother roll her eyes. Five years older than her sister, Stella looks ten years younger, with her close-clipped, colored red hair, silk blouse and jeans.
“You don\’t like my onions?” Martina sees Aunt Irene bristling in her mingy, bobbed salt-and-pepper hair and her Peter Pan collar. Pearls of course. To match the onions?
“I don’t like your onions?” He yells this, as if he doesn’t understand what he’s saying. He’s really just preserving his opinion, but clouding it in an air of old man confusion.
“You don’t like my onions.” She holds her hand to her chest, mortified.
“I don’t like your onions?” He yells again. Martina can see the twinkle in Uncle Dick’s eye.
Frank, of course, tries to change the subject. “Uncle Dick, how’s your shell collection coming?”
Aunt Irene wells up with tears. Martina can see her lip quiver. Here we go.
Frank’s mom Cindy, ever the WASP, bites, “Oh, I didn’t know you collected shells, Dick. How charming.\”
He barks, “Shrapnel!”
Cindy isn’t grasping it, “I beg your pardon?”
“First piece I took out of my leg forty years ago!” His leg goes up on the table with a clunk, rattling the china around it.
Aunt Irene gets to her feet, grabs Martina\’s spoon out of the onions and throws it to the table dramatically, it hits the earthenware platter, still half-full of burnt, dried out turkey, with a clank. She takes her onions and heads for the door. Martina looks to her mother who shakes her head, Let her go.
“I have two hundred and sixty pieces of shrapnel and five whole shells now. Vintage!” Cindy is trying her best to look interested and to keep her eyes off the scarred hairy leg in front of her.
Martina leans in to her mother, gently touching her arm. “Is she going to be okay? I feel so sorry for her.”
Stella squeezes her hand. “That\’s exactly what she was after.”
Martina looks down the table toward Frank who raises his glass to her and his eyebrow. They smile and drink.
Martina takes the earthenware platter down from atop the china cabinet. It is chipped at one end, a victim to Aunt Irene\’s spoon-involved creamed onion outburst five years ago. But it is still serviceable.
Her stockinged foot, balanced on the banquette slips and she teeters. She puts her weight on the foot balanced on the chair and brings her banquette foot quickly in to meet it. She gets down from the chair, heart pounding. Julius looks at her, wide eyed, drooling from his playpen. His eight-month-old eyes are shining in admiration for his mother. She wants to pick him up, but there is too much to do.
Why does she have to do everything?
She took a leave of absence from her job at the bank when Julius was born, but Frank was earning so much, there was no reason to go back. He never really asked her to quit, but when she told him she was thinking about not going back, he simply said, “Good.” It bothered her, but she doesn’t like arguments.
The turkey has been roasting two hours already. The side dishes are almost done, excepting the sweet potatoes, which have been baked, but not dressed.
He doesn’t hear her. He’s been in the garage working on his Harley. Martina is beginning to think the Harley is just a euphemism for wanting to be alone.
“Frank?” She bellows it from her diaphragm, like she’d been taught in college theater. A little help please?
A muffled “Coming!” issues from the garage. She knows that there will be ten more minutes before he actually does come, but she is trying her best not to become a nag at age thirty-two.
There is still the table to set, the silver to polish, the chairs to get out, the flowers to arrange.
“Frank!” She shrieks it now. There’s too much to do.
“Whoa.” He’s behind her. This startles her. “I can hear you. Where’s the fire?”
She tries really hard not to sound strained. “Honey, could you do me a huge favor and get the chairs down from the attic?”
With no apparent memory of the three other times she asked him to do this, he gives her a cheerful, “Sure thing!” He pecks her on the cheek and her body stiffens. She knows he feels this. His hands loosen their grip on her shoulders and fall to his sides, but he doesn’t leave. He stands there, behind her, taking up too much space.
Martina turns around, but doesn’t look into his eyes. She’s worried that she will find that puzzled, lost expression that’s been there lately whenever they try to talk about anything serious. It’s that bewildered look, like she is an unfathomable alien from some planet that doesn’t speak Frank.
The moment gets uncomfortably long and Martina knows she will have to look up or say something. Frank sighs like a misunderstood teenager and turns to go. She turns to look at Julius and hears Frank’s frustrated, weary gait on the stairs.
“Oh, look, you made creamed pearl onions!” Martina has Julius balanced on her hip and takes the dish from Aunt Irene, trying not to make a face as she realizes it’s cold. Not refrigerator cold, just cold. The lid rattles and Martina smells raw onions slowly turning milk sour; Aunt Irene didn’t bother to cook them this year. Martina turns to hand the dish to Frank, but he has disappeared. She kisses her mother, and whispers, “I’ve got it covered, don\’t worry about it.” There are some proper creamed onions in the oven. She’ll switch the dishes out before dinner.
Stella takes her grandson off Martina’s hands, clucking her tongue at him. She looks at Martina, “You okay, honey? You look stressed out.”
Martina smiles, grateful for the acknowledgement, but anxious not to upset her mother. “I’m fine.”
Uncle Dick has brought his girlfriend Peggy this year. She is in her seventies, sweet and a little too warm and forthcoming. A buster brown bob, enormous round tortoise shell glasses and a cream-colored twin set, she holds Martina’s hand in greeting, patting it and says, “I am so pleased to meet you. From what I hear you are an incredible, incredible cook! And a wife. And a mother.” She says those words as if they are sacred, but to Martina, they just sound…off. Uncle Dick follows her, winking at Martina and bumps her hip with his as he carries a covered dish past her. She\’d had a stern talk with him after he goosed her last year in the pantry as she was getting a bag of flour down from the top shelf. The hip bump is his way of testing boundaries. Peggy and Uncle Dick don\’t match at all.
Bob and Cindy, who ordinarily do match, come in like they’ve just had a fight. Cindy has a pinched look around her eyes and her jaw is set, Bob has a thundercloud of a shadow somewhere over his forehead and his face is puffy; he looks like he has been drinking for several months straight. Cindy hands Martina her coat and Bob says, “Frank working bar yet?”
“Go find him, I’m sure he’ll have whatever you need.”
It’s only noon.
Martina can tell that Cindy has been trying not to cry. The table hasn’t been set.
But the side dishes are ready.
Peggy won’t stop talking about her daughter: wife, mother, cookie baker extraordinaire.
Uncle Dick tries to snake his arm around Peggy’s shoulder, but she gently shrugs it off. Once before, Martina saw her give his hand a gentle slap somewhere around the region of her waist. Martina gets worried when she sees Uncle Dick shift in his seat and look around the table, agitated with a mounting energy. Then he starts. She knew it was coming. “It was nineteen and sixty-eight. I was twenty-seven years old. Got sick of the usual bullshit working my father\’s business, so I signed up.”
Peggy looks over at him with a smile on her face, her head cocked in an attentive listening position. Martina smiles as Peggy’s smile fades. Hard not to admire the pleasure Uncle Dick takes in stirring things up. He’s not getting any action, he might as well have some fun.
“Mike was the first to die that day. Land mine. I was looking at the back of his head and suddenly there was brain matter jiggling on my hand and blood all over my face. Mike was nowhere to be seen. That\’s when I started my shell collection.” Leg up on the table. Clatter of china. It worked: Peggy’s mouth is stuck open, her head not moving from its cocked position. She puts her lips together and starts working them as if they were going through fifty expressions trying to settle on the right one; shock, disbelief, disapproval.
Cindy stands up, something quavering in her chest.
“Then the gunfire started. My leg was hurt pretty bad, but I threw myself into the bushes. Gooks came outta nowhere, took out six…”
Cindy interrupts him, “Will. You. Just. Stop!” The last word is shrill, squawked.
Oddly enough, he does. Martina is mildly irritated. She really wanted to hear the rest of the story and see Peggy’s reaction. But it is Cindy\’s show now.
“You men. You men are awful.” The tears start dripping out of Cindy’s eyes, Martina doesn\’t believe that she’s ever seen tears turn on so violently before. Noiselessly they run down her face and drip onto the tablecloth. Bob is glowering at Cindy; but she is a force he cannot stop. “All you can think of is war and violence and sex.” She says the last word with such contempt, Martina wonders if Cindy hates sex itself or if Bob somehow misused it. The red rising to Bob\’s face tells her it is something to do with the latter.
Martina is surprised to see Frank looking at his mother like a stricken child. Cindy sinks to her seat again, wipes tears from her eyes with her linen napkin and pretends to eat as if nothing has happened.
“These aren\’t my onions.” Aunt Irene mutters this; her voice sounding fluttery after Cindy’s outburst. “I never use pepper. Never.”
Peggy, scrambling for some foothold in what has become a tenuous room pipes up, “Oh, I think they’re delicious. In fact, I will say these are the best creamed onions I’ve ever eaten.”
Martina raises her glass in toast to Frank, he raises his glass back, but presses his lips together, grim. He slugs his wine, and stares out the window at the gray drizzle, maybe measuring the weight of his father’s affair. They used to be able to laugh about their crazy families. But that was back when it was Martina and Frank against the world.
Martina hopes it doesn’t freeze, that might prevent somebody from leaving. She looks over to see her mother watching her with concern.
Aunt Irene pushes her onions around on her plate muttering, “Someone else made these onions.” The meds have taken all of the fight out of Aunt Irene.
Martina wishes she had that kind of excuse.
Martina takes the earthenware platter down from atop the china cabinet. She has gotten out a stepladder for the job. She places the platter carefully on the table. She reaches for a roll of paper towels and some Murphy’s Oil Soap. She starts to work on the dust.
Twenty minutes later, she smells pie burning. She gets down from the ladder, leaving the fifteen crumpled dust-filled paper towels on the banquette and runs to the kitchen to find that some of the apple pie has spilled out of the crust and is dripping onto the floor of the double oven in the six-burner range that Frank bought her last year. For Christmas. Merry Christmas. Here’s an oven. So you can cook for me. Twice as much.
The turkey is roasting in the other oven. Half an hour before the guests arrive and this year she is fully prepared. Everything is in order. Julius is with his father in the garage. Six years old and in first grade, he has given his mother more breathing room in her life. To get things done.
Frank wanted a second child. But one year of fertility treatments was enough. Martina could tolerate the shots and the disappointment for the first two months, but by the month three it just seemed pointless. By month four, Frank stopped joking around with her when he administered the shots. By month five, he stopped joking around with her at all. By month six, she started giving the shots to herself. At month twelve, she didn\’t ask him if he wanted to stop treatments, but he didn’t bring the subject up. When the time came around to order more shots, she just didn’t. That was a year ago. Just another thing they don’t talk about.
Frank comes in from the garage only when the company arrives. Martina got the chairs arranged and the table set last night so everything would be taken care of. Ever since her resolution last year to get things organized, she’s felt a little better about everything.
Cindy and Bob arrive first, glowing, finishing each other’s sentences, laughing, and Bob gives Cindy a whack on her beige wool-slacked behind as she passes him. She yelps, “Bob!” and giggles. Martina hates their perkiness.
Cindy is not in the least bit embarrassed “Can I help you in the kitchen, honey?”
Everything is ready, but it is clear Cindy wants to help. Martina can at least let her help put things in dishes.
The kitchen is spotless. Martina got tired of looking at the crumbs around the edge of the stove, the splatter on the wall behind it, and fingerprints on the fridge. She got these under control and now it shines, a happy little well-ordered environment. There are china serving dishes lined up on the table, dishes warming on the stove and in the oven. The platter awaits the turkey.
Cindy looks around, alarmed, as if Martina has painted the kitchen purple or has written obscenities on the walls. “My! How clean the kitchen looks.”
Martina doesn’t know why she\’s embarrassed. “Julius is older now. I have time.”
“Honey, is everything okay with you and Frank?”
That’s a big, abstract sort of question that makes Martina’s heart contract into a piece of dried, cracked playdough. It makes it hard to talk. She mutters, “Of course.” Maybe Cindy will stop now. Maybe that’ll be enough.
“Because I’ve heard that infertility can be as hard on a marriage as losing a child or an…” she blushes as she murmurs, “an affair.”
Martina doesn’t know how to respond. Frank was destroyed over his dad’s affair; so deeply Martina didn’t know how to comfort him. He still isn’t over it, but Cindy is.
Fortunately, Cindy continues, “Whatever it is, honey, you two can work past it. I thought we couldn’t, but look at us,” she blushes, “like newlyweds.”
Cindy smiles, shaking her head, and gives Martina a knowing look. She hugs her tightly, so tightly she might squeeze tears out of her. Martina is relieved when she breaks the hug, “You just come to me if you ever need to talk.”
How did this all come of a tidy kitchen?
Aunt Irene has not brought her creamed onions, so Martina leaves the backup batch she made in the oven. The meal doesn’t really need them. Aunt Irene is on heavier meds now and has moved in with Stella. She has been brightly made up and her hair is washed and dyed. Martina thinks this is Stella\’s handiwork. Aunt Irene ordinarily wouldn’t be caught dead in a hot pink silk jacket and bright blue beads.
Stella leans over to Martina, “Doesn’t Irene look great?” Martina gives her a reassuring smile, but is doubtful.
Aunt Irene stares despondently into space as the steaming dishes are passed around. Stella looks nervous. Martina can’t worry about her mom now, there’s too much to keep track of. Uncle Dick has just spilled some cranberry sauce on the white lace tablecloth. She’ll have to use Oxy, bleach will only make a hole.
Uncle Dick is quieter this time. He didn’t bring company. He’s drinking too much. He pours himself a third glass of wine and people haven\’t even finished filling their plates for the first time.
Frank is talking mostly with Julius; they are making fart jokes. Martina would ordinarily be upset by this, but Frank is laughing and that is a good thing. He hasn’t laughed much lately.
Bob and Cindy are oozing, solicitous in their affection for each other.
“Could you please pass the gravy dear?”
“Absolutely, my love.”
With a kiss or a touch at every interaction. Whatever Martina and Frank have going on, at least it’s not that.
But nothing’s going on. They’re fine.
Julius has dripped gravy on the floor in trying to pass it. It’s okay. She’s doing the floors tomorrow. In fact, it might just be time for a thorough spring cleaning. Fall cleaning. She can clean, strip and wax them. It’s been forever and the floors are starting to get gray where the floorboards meet the walls.
“Fucking lonely!” Uncle Dick erupts, mid-chew, a bit of turkey coming out with the statement. He has been eating quietly for some time now. Martina hasn’t had time to worry about him yet. Without a date, the pressure was off and with Cindy otherwise occupied and Aunt Irene basically catatonic, Uncle Dick could be Uncle Dick with no worries. Martina waits for the leg to go up on the table.
She thinks of something light to say to take the edge off, but Frank tends to Uncle Dick this time, “Uncle Dick ?”
“It’s fucking lonely. I live alone. Can’t keep a girl. Nobody talks to me anymore. Teenagers at the grocery store wear their iPods, no time for a ‘hello’ or a story. Fucking horrible.”
Cindy’s fixing everyone today, “Well, Uncle Dick, why don\’t you go to the retired folks center? They have plenty of activities, ping-pong, even golf and they take field trips.”
This riles Martina. Not everything has a pat answer, not everything can be fixed. Some things are too complicated or too deep or too hard to say. She wonders if Cindy could recommend a housewife center where she could go on field trips.
Uncle Dick bellows at Cindy, “You think I want to spend the rest of my time on this planet with old farts playing shuffleboard?”
Cindy is taken aback, and does that classic taken aback look, with her hand to her chest.
Martina looks at Uncle Dick’s face, his jaw tightening beneath his white stubble-bristled jowls. The piece of tissue stuck to a shaving cut. His liver spotted forehead, his watery eyes and the creases that look as if they’ve been drawn on with a knife. It is only when he clears his throat gruffly and takes another bite of turkey, his fork clanking against his dentures that Martina begins to cry.
The tears start slowly welling up in her throat, but the next thing she knows they flow freely and she is sobbing quietly. She can’t breathe.
Frank looks over at her with a disapproving look, shaking his head. Like it’s all her fault. He makes large pantomime about distracting Julius. This does not cheer her up.
She hates him. It’s that simple. She just hates him.
Stella is watching this. She gets out of her seat, walks over to Martina and murmurs, “Honey, I think you’ve forgotten the creamed onions.” They both walk to the kitchen.
Stella sits Martina in a kitchen chair. Her sobs get louder. She can’t stop crying and she doesn’t know why. There is a dribble of gravy that has spattered on the beige tile above the stove. It is congealing into a drip that hangs precariously, frozen in time.
Stella hands Martina a dishtowel and goes to the sink and draws a glass of water.
The conversation resumes in the other room, the clanking of silverware on china. It goes on. As it always has.
Martina stops crying. She’s still heaving, like children do after a really hard cry. A sharp intake of breath, almost like a hiccup. She gets up and goes to the sink for a sponge. She starts rinsing it in warm water and goes to the spot of gravy, but just as she lifts her sponge toward the wall, her mother’s hand grabs her wrist. It is strong and corrective, parental. Stella pulls Martina’s wrist down and turns her daughter to face her.
“You have to talk to him.”
“Uncle Dick? What do I say?” How can she take away this loneliness that is consuming him? How can she make better something she feels infiltrating her own life?
Oh. “We’re fine.”
Her mother holds her gaze. Caught in a lie, Martina lowers her eyes. She doesn’t want to talk again.
Stella lets her go. “I didn’t want to leave your father.”
This hits Martina in the chest. She\’d always thought of her parent\’s divorce as a natural development. “What?”
“I didn\’t want to leave him.”
“But he had an affair.”
“Oh, only after years of,” she motions with her hands as if gesturing about something that lives in the air, “this.”
That hurts. Martina extracts her wrist. She gets the gravy off the wall.
“I never told him how I was feeling. I just tried to keep things…smooth. I worked so hard at it that somewhere along the way I stopped…being. We lost each other in the shuffle.”
“You\’re not making any sense.” But she is, Martina just can\’t think about it right now. Martina clears her throat. “Go back in. I’ll touch up my makeup and I’ll be in after you.”
Stella’s not going. Martina turns to her, it takes all of her strength to look determined. “I’m fine.”
Stella, resigned, goes back through the swinging door.
Martina is cleaning up. The guests have gone. Frank is putting Julius to bed.
He walks through the kitchen when Martina is putting the turkey into some Tupperware. She feels her body tighten as Frank passes through. He pauses for a moment, but she turns away from him, carrying the earthenware platter to the sink.
She can hear him sigh as he opens the back door. There is the familiar squeak of the storm door as he heads back out to the garage. But it stops. Cold air is blowing in. Martina wants to scream at him to close it before they lose all of the heat, but she knows any interaction will bring further interaction and she doesn\’t have the energy right now. She just wants the kitchen put to rights and then she wants to go to bed. She can feel that he’s looking at her but she doesn’t want to turn around.
It gets colder. A wind blows in that catches the back of her neck, sending a chill through her entire body. He’s not moving. She wishes he would close the fucking door so she can just clean in peace.
As she wheels around toward him she can feel the cold air on her face. There is a burning in her chest and her throat and behind her eyes. She hoists the platter toward him with an effort she doesn’t realize until the weight leaves her hands. When she sees the giant chipped, grease-covered projectile lumbering through the air, she thinks that it is a silly, unsatisfying thing to throw. Frank looks startled, angry, then just baffled.
The platter doesn’t gain any height, but rather, after one flip, it drops to the floor, the earth reclaiming it with a hollow clank. Martina wonders if she was hoping for a crash or a clatter. Instead she looks down to see the platter lying there, face down, sadly broken into only three pieces, dripping turkey grease onto the floor which had been mopped clean only yesterday.
She looks up at Frank, who is looking at the platter. He looks up at her, astonished. Looking back at the platter, he closes the back door. He sinks down to the floor against the wall. He is smiling, “I always hated that ugly-ass platter.”
Martina sits down opposite him, by the sink and laughs. Frank is laughing now. His laugh. Complete with snort.
Martina begins to cry.
Kate Maruyama is a part-time teacher and co-founder of Annotationnation.com. She’s working on her MFA in Fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in Glendale, where she is trying to raise her children to be the fine book and movie geeks their parents have become. It seems to be working.
© 2009, Kate Maruyama