“Everyone, thank you for joining us this evening in honor of Gerald. Let’s sit, sit, sit! Dinner is served!” My mother is standing behind a chair at the head of the table. Her eyes are brimming with tears, but she’s spread her mouth into a big toothy smile. Loss makes everyone look like the horror movie versions of themselves. “Your names are at your places. And thank you to Alice for the beautiful name card maker she so thoughtfully gave us for Christmas!”
“So what’s the deal?” I whisper to Kevin, fake smiling my hardest as we sit down. “You’re lying to everyone about being my boyfriend?”
He squeezes my thigh under the table, and fake smiles back. “Don’t get excited. They’re all worried about you being alone through this, and I figured you didn’t want them breathing down your neck. Was I wrong?” My chest tightens up and I can’t do anything but look at him and blink. I try to look appreciative, but my face won’t. Kevin just kisses me on the cheek and then lingers long enough to whisper, “You reek of tequila, sugar. Have some water.”
Jimmy remains standing at the end of the table opposite my mother. He raises his wine glass to get our attention. “Tonight,” he pauses to clear his throat, “Tonight is an occasion for remembrance and reflection.” I look over at Mom, who has her head bowed to her chest. Alice is rubbing her back gently and nodding encouragingly at Jimmy, who clear his throat again before continuing. “Yesterday this family suffered an unspeakable loss. While I can’t boast ever having been close to Gerald myself, I think of him often. In all the years I have had the joy of being married to Elizabeth, and of knowing her beautiful daughter, Mackie, I have always thanked Gerald Adams for allowing these women to be a part of my life. Without him, Elizabeth may never have come to Seattle or taken that jazz dance class. Without him, Mackie would never have been born. So, I would like to be the first to raise a glass to the memory of a man who so generously gave us so much.”
“Oh amen and hallelujah to that!” Alice shouts, raising her glass and sloshing wine on her plate. We all follow suit, raising our glasses as Jimmy takes his seat.
Dinner is surprisingly quiet at first. We all just sort of munch along in strained silence. Lana is the one to say that thing that people always say when this happens at a dinner party: “The food must be delicious. Everyone got so quiet! A compliment to the chef!” And then we all laugh the obligatory laugh before going back to eating and ignoring each other.
Within the first fifteen minutes, Mom has to excuse herself several times to go to the bathroom, and even from the dining room with the door closed we can all hear her crying. Each time she comes back to the table she squeezes my shoulders and kisses the top of my head. It’s amazing to me that she feels this much pain over losing Gerald and then I worry that she’s crying for me. I want to tell her not to worry, that really I’ll be okay. But I don’t know if I even believe that. So I just let her go.
I can only get down a few bites of meat, but mostly I just push my food around my plate, disinterested. I feel a little sick from having so much straight booze on top of jasmine ginger tea and greek salad. The more people feel pressured to talk, the more I just want this dinner to be over. For the sake of all of us. Walter keeps muttering “tragic, tragic,” to no one. Every once in a while I notice that Lana is whispering to Nathan about something to which he is consistently shaking his head “no” and I wonder if she’s asking whether or not they can leave. I feel bad for what I said to her and worse that I don’t feel bad enough to apologize.
Finally Alice breaks the ice and begins to talk at long length about how she’s noticed that they’ve changed the color of the egg cartons at the Enumclaw Egg booth at the farmer’s market. She says she thinks the new dye is rubbing off on the eggs. “I haven’t read any conclusive studies,” she says, her mouth rimmed with barbecue sauce, “but I’m almost positive that there are food dyes that have caused cancer in lab mice.” She swallows another enormous bite of food. “Just something to think about.” This sparks a whole conversation about how everything is giving everyone cancer these days, and can you even believe how many people get diagnosed with terminal cancer in a day? Walter says he read a scientific essay about how even grilled vegetables can give you cancer because of the charring that happens on the grill. Mom says she hates to think of all those people getting sick and dying, and Lana agrees that she hates to think of anyone dying. And then everyone gets quiet again and we all remember what it is we’re doing here.
By the fifth time Mom gets up to cry in the bathroom, I hardly even notice her go, except that this time Alice follows her. That’s a relief, I assure myself. Alice will know the right thing to say.
There’s a lull in the conversation, as everyone strains to hear whether any progress is being made with Mom. But we can’t hear anything because Alice’s southern belle upbringing taught her that delicate situations like these require hushed tones.
So then Walt says he brought cigars back from his most recent business trip to Venezuela and would anyone care to join him. I’ve never been entirely clear about what it is that Walt does for a living, and I’m always a little nervous to ask. Whatever it is, it means that he’s always traveling to unusual places and that he regularly carries a stash of hundred dollar bills. Jimmy agrees to a cigar and they go out onto the back porch. Then there are four.
Kevin has been so extra-polite all evening that just sitting next to him it’s like he’s radiating his nice all over me. Somewhere in me I acknowledge that this was precisely the thing about Kevin. You never knew when he was going to turn out to be exactly who you needed.
I’m transfixed by the smiley face pattern I’m making with two peas and the rib bone left lying on my plate. Nathan has started to tell the story of how he and Lana first met, in an online gaming community where she was a damsel in distress and he was a warlock.
“Was it love at first sight?” Kevin wants to know.
“I don’t know about Natey, but I knew right away,” Lana says, smiling giddily. “Natey was the most gentlemanly warlock I’d ever met in the village square. Plus, he gave me a purse full of gold pieces and a basket of eggs, which ended up helping me to defeat the overlord. When I saw him again in the enchanted forest, I suggested that we should meet in person.”
I flip the rib bone on my plate upside down to make a frowning face instead, and Kevin smacks my leg under the table, trying not to laugh.
It’s not until that moment that I look up for long enough to notice the picture of me on Gerald’s shoulders at age three that’s parked in front of me on the table. It’s one of those great disposable camera pictures you never see now because everything’s digital. The exposure is all speckled with sunshine and just a little blurry in a way that makes us look like we’re still moving all these years later. How had I never seen this picture before? Gerald is wearing a white tee shirt with a funny yellow Caribbean island design on the front. He has on these fat aviator sunglasses, and a terrific beard. I’m wearing those little saltwater sandals, and these teal, floral-print overalls. We look totally inseparable, like a father and daughter set you would want to order from a catalog. I don’t even notice that I’ve picked it up or that I’m crying until I feel Kevin’s hand on my back.
“Hey, you all right?”
I laugh a pathetic, crying laugh, “Look at us!” I hold the picture out, so he can see. My hands are shaking, and I glimpse Lana’s bug face getting panicky on the other side of the table.
“It’s a great picture,” Kevin says sweetly, taking the picture from me and squeezing my shoulder. “You just don’t see pictures like this anymore.”
“I know, right?” I lean my head on his shoulder and close my eyes tightly, trying to squeeze the tears onto my fingers to keep my make up from running down my face. I feel him put his face into my hair, and take a deep breath. I wish he weren’t going back to San Francisco, that he were really staying to be with me. That he were really with me.
Then I think of Mel, and I sit up, and put my face in my hands. Goddamnit.
“Well” Kevin says at length, his hand still lingering on my spine, “it’s getting late.”
“I was just saying that to Natey,” Lana agrees, even though I’m sure she’s been saying that for over an hour now. Kevin turns, his hand now firmly on my low back.
“You wanna find your mom and say good night before I take you home?”
He goes onto the back porch to say goodbye to Jimmy and Walt while I go in search of Mom.
The bathroom door is locked and so I have to knock and then wait for someone to let me in. I hear Alice shuffling around inside and explaining to my mom that she is going to get the door. She opens the door a crack, but then hurries me inside once she sees that it’s me.
“You’re just the girl we were hoping to see, Lil Ms. Mack,” says Alice. “Isn’t that right, ‘Lizbeth?”
“Oh, my sweetie!” Mom howls through a sob. She throws her arms around me and I fall into her lap on the toilet. Alice stands over us, beaming. “Oh, my sweet, sweet little girl,” she wails as I hold her head to my chest.
It’s maybe five minutes before her crying subsides, and when I think the coast is clear I say, “Kevin and I are gonna go, Mom.”
“You’re not going because of me, are you? Oh, I feel so terrible I have been such a mess tonight, but how could I have known? I didn’t anticipate this being so difficult. Being a hostess... and having all these people here now... And you’re my family, I don’t know why I don’t manage it better--”
“No, Mom. It’s nothing you did. It’s just that it’s getting late, and tonight has been a rough one for everybody. Okay? This isn’t your fault.” I look over to Alice for support in this but she has removed her hat and is intently tending to her makeup in the mirror. At this moment she peels off a fake eyelash and scratches violently at her eyelid before reattaching it with glue she produces from her purse. What must it be like to be Alice.
Mom continues blubbering. “It’s just that you remind me so much of your father, Sweetie! So much. The way you smile and laugh and, even the way you play with your food. And now that he’s gone... looking at you tonight I’m just remembering how much he loved you-- you two were like little peas in a pod, and oh!” She breaks down sobbing again, and I stare blankly into the tub.
“It’s all right, Mom,” I finally manage. “It’s okay. I just need to go home and get some sleep.”
“He loved you so much, Mackenzie. I just want to make sure you hear me when I say that. He loved you the most.”
And then, perfectly on cue, Alice chimes in, “And now you have Kevin. Blessed be the lord.”