Other than the new TV cabinet – if something purchased second-hand in 1997 could still be considered new – and the recently-painted canary yellow front door, the house was almost the same as it was at Eleanor’s high school graduation. Elementary school photos of her and her two brothers hung in rows along the walls of the hallway, her middle brother’s 3rd grade frame about a half of an inch lower than the others: an uncorrected miscalculation. Her bedroom – though emptied of her pictures and books and some of the furniture when she married Steve and moved to San Francisco – was still dressed in dusty pink curtains and a round shag rug. In the living room the couch and two recliners sat in the same spot as always, their camel-toned leather now faded into a tired shade of beige. And the office, which began doubling as a storage unit sometime in the late 90s, featured a clunky, desktop computer wrapped like a coiled snake in its own rusty power cord, and bookcases of photo albums and slide carousels coated with an opaque layer of dust.
The house felt even more static without her mother shuffling around, putting pens and pencils and magazines and shoes back in their cabinets and drawers. The grocery list from the week she left the house for the last time lay flat on the kitchen counter, untouched, the calendar on the wall still open to last December. At some point the clock above the fireplace, a family relic that had been planted on the mantle for as long as she could remember, had slowed to a halt, and though Eleanor knew it just needed to be wound a part of her liked indulging in the metaphor.
She’d seen the grocery list and the calendar when they arrived yesterday, but left both alone. Her mother was in the bedroom getting dressed for the day and would join her in the kitchen at any moment. Or maybe she was out getting her weekly perm or a manicure or a new pack of undershirts for Eleanor’s father; she’d change the calendar when she got home.
Eleanor knew her mother was gone. She had spoken at the service and watched as her brothers and husband lowered the casket into the ground. The days preceding the funeral had brought several inches of rain – unusual for Los Angeles, even in winter – and though it stopped just a couple of hours before the guests began to gather at the church, the rain left the cemetery grounds muddled and moist. She hadn’t thought to pack the girls’ rain boots for the trip down and as they traipsed through the wet grass the mud clung to their new dress shoes and stained the edges of their skirts. Steve told her not to worry about the stains and the mud, they could replace the shoes. But at the time it seemed another tragedy: Eleanor’s mother was dead, and her daughters’ new shoes were ruined.
A few weeks later Eleanor sat on the floor of her parents’ bedroom surrounded by blouses and dresses and cardigans and shoes and other things she hadn’t seen her mother wear in at least 15 years. She sifted through the clothes, tossing most of them in a pile destined for the Goodwill a few blocks away, but keeping a few things that felt significant for no reason at all. Wrinkled tee shirts from family visits to The San Diego Zoo and the La Brea Tar Pits, the images like the memories, hazy and distant. The blush cashmere sweater Eleanor always wanted to borrow but worried too much about spilling on it to ask. A pale blue nightgown her mother wore on Saturday mornings, the lace at the décolletage yellowed with 30 years of standing over a stove making pancakes and eggs for a family of five.
On the dresser, Eleanor set aside pieces of her mother’s jewelry. Her mother’s wedding band. A cameo necklace she never wore but kept because it was her grandmother’s. Bulky emerald and sapphire rings that seemed to weigh her hands down, threatening to break her frail, thin fingers even as her hands rested by her side in the hospital bed.
And now Eleanor sat at the dining room table over a bowl of stale cereal, the last of the Cheerios. Sunlight peeked through gaps in the blinds and landed on the edge of the dining room table, dust suspended in the beams, flickering like lightning bugs. She watched the dust drift in and out of the beams of light, trying to follow a single particle as long as she could before it fell invisible in the shadows. Outside, just on the other side of the sliding patio doors, blades of grass had pushed their way through the cracks in the concrete, taking back land that was rightfully theirs. Soon the concrete would give way, and she imagined the spry green troops crossing the threshold of the door and entering the living room. They would sprout up in the corners of the house, where the carpet had worn and pulled away from the walls, and eventually through the carpet seams beneath the couches and beds. A quiet, but steady coup.
In the back of the house one of the other occupants began to stir, the creaks and groans of the weary floor boards echoing through the halls and interrupting the tranquility of a morning so far undisturbed. Her oldest brother, Richard, stepped into the kitchen, squinting and grimacing in the bright sunlight that poured in through the windows.
“Morning,” he said in an exhale, the words muffled, muttered out of a sense of obligation and ritual rather than interest.
Richard’s stocky frame carried a few more pounds than it was designed to carry; most of them hung on his belly, but some found their way to the edges of his face, rounding out a jawline that in his adolescence qualified him, by at least half of the Valley View High senior girls, as a “stud.” A few months after he dropped out of college he married Susan Whitaker in a small ceremony that was neither encouraged nor prohibited by their parents. And a few months after that he was driving around late at night after Susan told him she was leaving him for one of his best friends and he was so distracted he didn’t notice the headlights careening toward him until the driver’s side door made contact with his left side and shattered his hip bone. By the time Susan brought him the papers to sign he was able to walk the length of the hallway and back with crutches before needing to rest. Still sometimes he walked with a limp, particularly in the mornings and after hours of sitting in front of the television. This morning he hobbled to the freezer for three sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits. He pulled them out of their plastic packages and set them on a plate in the microwave, and Eleanor wanted to say, “Guess you’ve stopped listening to your doctor, again,” but instead she said, “There are a few bananas on the counter, if you want one.”
“I don’t,” he replied.
“Can you grab the roasting pan from the garage?” she asked Steve. “It’s in that box above the fridge.”
Steve replied with a mechanical sure thing. It was always a sure thing or a yep or sometimes a love to but only when he really wouldn’t love to. Eleanor needed the roasting pan before her Uncle Mike came over with the turkey. He was due any minute now, and Steve was the only one in the house who could reach the top of the fridge without a step stool. A few summers ago she and Steve and her youngest brother, Bill, went through the garage and got rid of their father’s old tools and fixer-upper furniture that had been sitting there for the better part of a decade. They threw out boxes of moth-eaten and outdated holiday decorations their mother had since replaced with new figurines and garlands, and carved a path, through whatever remained, to the old fridge. Her parents used it for extra liters of soda or frozen leftovers. Now it was almost empty, housing a barely-opened bottle of bourbon their mother had stored for a delicate swig every now and then while their father thought she was out doing yard work.
Uncle Mike came by with the turkey and a loose recipe Eleanor scribbled down dutifully, and illegibly.
30 minutes at 450. A couple of hours at 325. Rest.
They hugged with a “so good to see you” and Steve walked him to the door, leaving Eleanor in the kitchen with the raw bird sitting on the counter, neither of them ready for the evening’s festivities. She poked her finger into the brine-filled plastic bag, pressing into the pale, pink flesh, unable to ignore the way it felt like pressing into her own skin.
Eleanor called to the girls through the window in the laundry room to watch out for thorns. They were in the yard picking roses off of the bushes along the back fence. “Five each,” Eleanor told them. “Those are grandpa’s roses.” She knew they would sneak a few more, and she also knew her father wouldn’t notice if they did.
Growing up she and Richard and Bill would run around in the backyard and collect sticks and rocks and bugs and crawl under the rose bushes and pretend they had stumbled upon an unexplored wilderness in the outskirts of Los Angeles while their mother ironed in the laundry room. She remembered seeing the back of her mother’s head through the small windows as she bent forward over the ironing board for what seemed like hours but was probably only thirty or forty minutes. Her mother’s hair was light brown, naturally straight, except for a few wisps at the back of her neck that appeared when her hair was pulled up. Wavy, when she started to get perms, but never curly, like she wanted it to be. Eleanor was always envious of her smooth, dark hair, since her own was straw-colored and riddled with unruly kinks and curls.
Her father, being a man at a time when men did not do such things as iron or cook or tidy, would have been inside reading or trying to fix some piece of furniture he’d found on a neighbor’s front lawn. He didn’t care for sports and only watched the news every now and then when something important was going on like an election or a high-speed car chase. Eleanor couldn’t remember him ever watching television shows, not until after she had moved out of the house and the girls were a few years old. When they came back to visit he and her mother would sit in front of the television for hours every evening, him watching crime shows and Andy Griffith reruns, her working on the crossword puzzle from the newspaper or folding the laundry or dozing off in her chair.
Eleanor could hear the television from the laundry room as she ironed the table linens and napkins, the hospital beeps and hurried conversations of a medical drama seeping in through the space beneath the laundry room door. Since Richard moved back home a couple of years ago he spent most afternoons on the couch flipping through channels or catching up on shows he recorded earlier in the week, their father in the recliner next to him and their mother’s recliner now deliberately unoccupied.
The tablecloth she was ironing wasn’t the one her mother usually put out for Thanksgiving; Eleanor couldn’t find that one in any of the cabinets or drawers or in the linen closet. She found the napkins, though, and paired them with another tablecloth she thought might coordinate well, but wasn’t sure. Her mother knew how to set a table, how to decorate for the holidays with tapered candles and little pumpkins and all sorts of dried leaves and berries so that it looked festive without being overwhelming. It seemed an innate part of her, a skill that came without practice or attention, and with a delicate ease that Eleanor had never felt toward entertaining or cooking or decorating or other things she was supposed to understand. So she’d settled on recreating a picture she found from last year’s Thanksgiving, with a few ceramic harvest vegetables at either end of the table and amber-colored candles running along the center and napkin rings with clusters of red and gold beads that sparkled in the reflected candle light and made a jingling kind of noise when they were set on the table.
Usually Eleanor tried to be busy when the guests arrived for dinner, ironing napkins, polishing silver. The busy ones didn’t have to stand in the impromptu receiving line by the front door or chuckle at unfunny small talk or take coats and bags to the guest bedroom. She took after her father who preferred to stay in his chair in the den and ease into conversations as guests trickled through the house one or two at a time. But the doorbell rang and her mother wasn’t there to answer it, so Eleanor hurried to let the guests in and chuckle at unfunny small talk and take coats and bags to the guest bedroom.
Soon the small house was buzzing with indistinct conversations. Most of the men were huddled around the television in the den, prophesying about the outcome of the afternoon’s game. A few sat on the porch outside while the kids ran around in the grass and got scuff marks on their pants and dresses and shoes. Her mother’s sisters kept busy in the kitchen, rifling through the drawers and cabinets like looters to find the right serving spoon, sticking their fingers into the green bean casserole and stuffing to see if the dishes needed a warm up in the oven.
Eleanor stood on the other side of the kitchen counter, watching her aunts maneuver around the cramped space with a light-footedness not often ascribed to wrinkled, arthritic women holding warm pans of mashed potatoes. Her mother moved with that sort of agility; or she used to until she was sick and then too soon she became breathless and fatigued and hauntingly thin, her already slim figure lost in the nightgowns and blouses that hung like heavy drapes on her bony shoulders. Eleanor hadn’t realized how weak her mother looked until she found the picture from last year’s dinner: her mother standing at the table just behind the roasted turkey, her face pale and hollow and unfamiliar.
Eleanor had taken the turkey out just after everyone had arrived and Aunt Marge said it looked “as handsome as a groom on his wedding day.” She had a feeling her aunt was just being nice since the left side of the bird was a few shades darker than the right, but still she smiled and said, “Thanks.” As the other aunts shuffled their dishes to the dining room table, Aunt Marge and Aunt Ellen worked to pry the jello out of its mold in one piece. It was a pistachio jello Ellen made every year, a pale lime green with flecks of red and brown and white that made it look strange and unappetizing. Ellen pressed and squeezed the mold to loosen it until the jello slid out onto the platter, forming a ring around the acorn etched into the center of the plate. A few larger chunks were missing from the sides. Marge spooned out the stubborn pieces, muttering something that sounded like son of a bitch, and pressed them into the sides of the ring.
She carried the dish into the dining room and placed it near the center of the table next to the cornbread, leaving just enough space for the turkey. Though up close the surface of the jello was uneven, covered in small craters where pieces had clung to the inside of the mold, on the table, surrounded by other dishes and candles and ceramic squash figurines, it looked deceivingly whole.
Outside one of the boys had fallen on the concrete and scraped his knee. One of the older girls was crouched down next to him, patting him on the back as his tears stopped and the bleeding slowed and his mother, Eleanor’s younger cousin, pressed a damp paper towel into the crosshatched cuts. From the den came a collective groan as the men surrounding the television watched a fumble or a missed touchdown, her aunts still milling about the kitchen and the dining room, unfazed by the apparent misery. As Eleanor scanned the table she noticed the tablecloth hung lower on one side than the other by maybe an inch or two, making the floral pattern stitched onto the ivory fabric sit slightly off-center. She couldn’t correct it without making a mess of the table, so instead she grabbed the lighter that was sitting on the edge of the buffet and lit the candles, starting with the tall ones in the center and working out to the tea lights at either end. The lighter was old and almost out of fluid, and Eleanor’s fingers trembled as she tried to keep the buttons pressed long enough for the small, waning flame to light the wicks. Several times it went out and she’d struggle to get another flame, the lighter button making a clicking sound with each futile attempt before finally it would light, and she’d watch as the white cotton wick withered and turned black and the first bead of melted wax slid down the side of the candle toward the table’s surface.
Annamarie Fernandez holds an MFA in filmmaking from Columbia University. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband and their dog, Ginger.
© 2020, Annamarie Fernandez