THE Buick’s bright headlights split the descending dusk. Muriel turns off the ignition before leaning into the backseat to grab a jacket. She hops from the car before crushing a cigarette on the gravel driveway with the sole of her shoe. Her black dress plunges low at the neck and sits snug on the hips. From the open screen door I watch Muriel dip her head into the Buick’s trunk. She rolls a walker toward her husband, Edward. She moves stiffly, as though more than just her body gives her pain. It doesn’t occur to me to leave my post at the door and assist. If I weren’t so pissed off at my parents, I might have noticed the sun slipping like a vat of molten glass down the horizon.

“I’ll be there, you old coot,” Muriel says to Edward, who stays put on the passenger seat. He plants a hand on the dashboard.

“Well,” he huffs, “h-h-h-urry on u-u-up.”

Once they’re inside, Father throws his arms up and welcomes Edward, then Muriel, with a big hug. Muriel sniffs the air and says, “Beef. My favourite.”

One thing I never liked was Father’s predilection for bringing home people he’d made friends with while working at the jail near Guelph. Edward has been a guard there since the sale of his butcher shop three years ago. Father is a junior chef in the kitchen. Both despise their jobs yet speak of nothing else. Muriel runs a health food store near the jail.

Father had invited them over without first checking with Mother. “It’s important to celebrate Edward’s recovery from hip surgery,” Father had said. “Don’t worry. I’ll cook. Just make sure the house is ship-shape.” Mother was the sort who began to fuss the week leading up to guests’ arrival. This particular Saturday I was trapped at home, grounded for uttering screw you when I caught Father cheating at cards the previous night.

To placate Father, I’d offered to help with the evening’s preparation. He and I had set up two collapsible card tables in the living room before encircling the arrangement with four mismatched wooden chairs. Our galley kitchen was too narrow to seat guests and the house didn’t have a dining room. A red linen cloth concealed the shoddiness of the card tables. A vase of dried hydrangeas sat in the middle of the table. There was no chair set for me. I’d sit on a rocker near the hallway leading to the bedrooms.

Mother had run a vacuum over the floors and shone the taps while Father prepared the meal. An entire day devoted to washing, peeling, chopping, stuffing, slicing, sautéing, and roasting. Strips of pummeled red meat fisted bundles of pickles, onions, bacon, and salt. A cup of butter folded into flour formed a roux for the gravy. Cold, fresh whipped cream infused the layers of a Black Forest torte, its glossy surface sprinkled with curls of chocolate. Nothing but the best for Edward.

After washing her hands, Muriel sits on the chair across from Edward. “The rouladen, they’re not as good as I expected,” Father says. His cheeks flush radish red.

Father spoons meat and gravy onto the plates. When Edward has to saw into the meat, Father frowns. “See. You should be able to cut rouladen with the edge of a fork. Wait until I get my hands on that damn butcher.”

Twenty-four twice-baked potatoes line a pan Father’s scrounged from the jail. Specks of diced ham, melted cheddar cheese, and fresh chives dot the potatoes’ piped stuffing. Nutmeg fills the air. There’s enough food to feed eight Edwards.

At these events, guests aren’t offered wine. Father doesn’t drink it and expects others don’t either. The alcohol choices are lager or Canadian Club on ice. Muriel requests herbal tea because she’s driving.

Edward’s large nose protrudes from his pocked face. Red and blue spider lines creep along his cheeks. He wears horn-rimmed glasses with thick lenses that make his close-set eyes appear cloudy. A vinegary smell flows from his skin. When he lifts his tumbler to take a sip, ice clinks against his teeth. The sound sets my own teeth on edge.

Muriel seldom scores an opportunity to speak but when she does, her British accent is gentle and soothing. The conversation between Father and Edward falters so she outlines the success of lady’s slippers she planted in a new garden. Edward waves his hands and sputters, “Wh-wh-who really c-c-c-cares, Muriel?” Then he starts into another of his stories, the words tripping and colliding, soon turning a two-minute story into ten.

Mother closes her eyes and chews deliberately on the rouladen. Her upper dentures slip as the meat swishes in her mouth. I want to leap from my chair and choke her, the grinding noise is so irritating. Instead I detect the voice of my middle school counsellor whispering advice. Breathe. Don’t get so riled. Take deep, deep breaths.

Muriel sighs audibly when Edward butts in again with another tale, something about a prisoner, a bottle, and someone’s anus.

“Edward, we’re eating now,” she says. She tilts her head to her shoulder. “That story can surely wait.” Her voice is now barely above a whisper, the sound of a teacher consoling an irate five-year-old.

Edward leans back in his chair and sneers. He mouths the word fuck. I wonder how they’ve been able to remain married so long. He with his goddamned stuttering and she with the righteous head tilt and pursed lips. I imagine her at home, stomping from room to room, trying to avoid the stammering. Shredded beet salad sits in the corners of Edward’s lips, dots his pristine white shirt. When Mother sends a bowl around for seconds, no one thinks to ask if I’ve had enough.

By this time, Edward has sloshed back three whiskeys. He tilts his chair the way the boys in my class do—a giant praying mantis tipping onto its back legs. It seems his hip has turned supple with the steady infusion of booze. His lids turn heavy and his head tilts to one side.

Mother tops up Muriel’s cup. She plops in so many cubes the drink becomes three parts sugar, one part tea. Muriel taps the cup with her spoon over and over, oblivious to how maddening the sound is. With the brim to her lips, I can hear her blowing the liquid. The muscles in my back tighten. I check the clock on the wall. My breath chuffs over my teeth as I wonder how much longer until they finally leave.

Father slides two more potato skins onto Edward’s plate before pushing from the table. “Time for dessert.” Father rubs his palms together. “The highlight of the evening, I’m certain you’ll agree.” He starts to clear the dishes. His heels pound the floor, his hands somehow managing to juggle the greasy pile without anything slithering to the floor. From the ensuing clatter in the kitchen, it’s apparent he’s decided to abandon us and has commenced clean up before doling out the cake. Mother invites Muriel downstairs to view the renovations to the recreation room and to check out my display of African animal sketches.

Edward remains at the table. He sniffs his nose a few times before inclining a thumb into a nostril. His lids droop before he begins humming.

“Jesus Christ,” I mutter.

“You s-s-s-seem awfully n-n-n-nervous,” Edward says, his eyes still shut.

I don’t answer. I chase bits of food around my plate with the tines of my fork. The red beet salad has bled across the surface and mingled with the potato skins, leaving a river of rouge. My pockets are stuffed with rejected chunks of rouladen. I consider heading to the bathroom to flush the mauled meat. Then maybe I’ll offer to do dishes—an olive branch of sorts.

An unexpected pocket of body heat warms the air next to my arm. It’s Edward. He’s managed to abandon his nose-picking long enough to push off his chair and come within inches of mine. He boosts himself from the walker and inches even closer, so that he has squeezed between me and the bathroom. I stand up, the plate clutched in my hand, not knowing where to go, how to get there, what to say.

“I know-I know-just wh-wh-what you need.” Edward yawns and when his jaw clicks, it sounds like a toilet flushing. “Ci-Ci-Ci-Cindy, you’re l-l-looking g-g-g-good, you know.”

The last time I was home when Edward and Muriel visited was last summer. I’m a lot taller now and my flat chest has sprouted breasts the size of walnuts. I’m wearing a grey T-shirt with a picture of Pink Floyd on it. It has faded and shrunk over time. A strip of bare skin pokes from above my jeans. I tug at the base of my shirt, willing it to stay down.

Before I realize what’s happening, Edward clamps a hand on my arm. His glasses fog up and I can smell whiskey and onions mixing on his breath. I tip my face away. When I try to wiggle from his grip, his fat fingers tighten around my thin forearm. The seat of the rocker catches the back of my knees, causing my balance to falter. His lips moisten as his tongue darts in and out. The sweat pools in my armpits. And I begin to wonder where Mother and Muriel could still be.

Edward’s breath quickens before his chest thumps against me. His hand now clutches the back of my head while his other encircles my chin. A ring snags my hair. His sloppy lips fold over mine. They fasten on and don’t let go. For a broken man, he’s strong and determined. His tongue is the texture of beef liver. He layers it between my teeth so I can no longer breathe.

I have to get away, so I nudge my shoulder against his barrel chest but he cements his grip. His lips continue to hoover mine. The enormous mouth manages to vacuum my nostrils, too. I can’t speak or breathe. So I tip the plate still clutched in my right hand and smear it against his white cotton shirt.

“F-f-f-fucking bitch,” he says, pushing my chest so hard I collapse into the rocker. He shuffles back to the table, wagging his head with each footstep.

I look up. There’s Father. His eyes mingle with mine. The glass platter sporting the Black Forest torte slips from his fingers. The cake slumps off the platter onto the red linen tablecloth. Flecks of chocolate and cherry splatter Edward’s shirt. “I’ll get something to clean you up, Edward.” Then Father calmly pivots and goes back into the kitchen. Nervous laughter floats out to us, a sound akin to wind chimes jingling in the breeze.

It’s unclear if Father has absorbed what just occurred. If I were ever to bring it up again, he’d say Edward’s just not that sort. The sort who delights in forcing a tongue into the mouth of a twelve-year-old. The sort who fantasizes about a pubescent’s legs locked around his waist. The kiss shall remain hushed, something closeted between Edward and me. An ache grips my stomach while my socked feet remain stuck to the floor like a piece of dried gum.


© 2015 Cindy Matthews. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, June 2015.


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