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My mother died when I was 7. That meant my father was left alone to take care of all four of us kids, a job he took about as seriously as his doctor’s advice to quit drinking.

Anyway, being the oldest and a girl to boot, I got handed responsibility for everything my mother, Grace, had done before driving the family station wagon dead on into a giant oak tree outside town. Drunk, probably, but nobody ever said that within my earshot.

We got by on bread and butter and apples we picked from a tree in the garden next to our house until Grandma Agnes figured out the lot of us were half-starved when my father took us to the family Christmas six months after mom died. It was a miracle we got there at all, because dad couldn’t drive anymore. We all rode to my grandmother’s farm in a taxi. 

“Who wants to sit by The Stub?” Dad said as we crammed into the back. Lucy, the youngest, usually got that honor, but because it was Christmas I decided to let her sit upfront instead, and I squished in next to the old man, who cackled and jabbed me in the ribs as I took my seat. 

“The Stub” was dad’s nickname for his right arm, which had been reduced to a nub by a firecracker on the Fourth of July. Everything from the elbow down had been blown to bits and bled all over my tank top and cutoff jean shorts when I hauled him into the ambulance. He didn’t feel much then, having polished off a case of Shlitz before lighting the fuse, but when he woke up in the hospital the next day he howled like a dog with its leg caught in a metal trap.

“Mary, you’re looking awfully thin,” Agnes had said when we’d arrived that day, almost 20 years ago. I looked down into my salad bowl, waiting for her to forget me. I didn’t dare lookup anyway, because my father was making a spectacle of himself by trying to eat his salad without any silverware, grunting softly as he dove face first into his bowl like a pig at a trough.

“That’s enough of that, Maxwell,” Agnes said, grabbing him by the hair and pulling him into an upright position. We could all feel her anger, but she didn’t take it any further – she never uttered more than a sentence to my dad at meals, and then only if she had to. There were years when she didn't acknowledge his existence at all, not even with a sidelong glance. 

As I got older, I realized that the strangest thing about the whole situation was that the family dad tortured each holiday wasn’t even his own. These were his dead wife’s kin, and the only reason they still tolerated him was because he was a package deal with their Gracie’s four kids. 

Even so, the Binghams’ patience wore thin over the years. The family ignored my dad in the hope that he’d realize nobody wanted him there and would just stop showing up altogether, but even if he got the hint he didn’t take it, claiming a seat at the table for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners and eating enough for all five of us. 

Now we were all grown, and though Bingham Family rules forbade bringing a man home for the holidays unless you’re at least engaged, I opted for reinforcements this Christmas dinner.

Tom was an engineer at a big firm in the city. I don't know what engineers do other than being good at math and mostly keeping quiet. I've never met one who showed much emotion or lost control of himself, and Tom was no different than the rest in that regard. He managed to be steady and reliable without boring me, and it was an unfamiliar feeling.

I was glad Tom was here this year, not because I wanted to subject him to three hours with my nearest and dearest, but because I needed a trustworthy witness, someone from the outside. I had a sneaking suspicion dad was finally going to take things too far this year, and my sisters, Sara and Judy, and my little brother Sam were all away at school or busy working and couldn’t make it, or so they said. I’d have offered to pay their bus fare back home to join us, but I figured they deserved the break.

Tom and I arrived a little before 2, when Grandma Agnes called everyone to the table. 

“Mary,” she said by way of acknowledgement after Tom and I took off our jackets in the front entryway. 

“Grandma,” I said, grabbing her by the arm and leaning in to give her a kiss on both cheeks. “And this is —“

I’d been about to introduce Tom, but she waltzed back into the kitchen before I could get the words out. Tom smiled and shrugged his shoulders, then followed me into the kitchen. Moments later, as we were setting napkins and silverware at the table, we heard the front door swing open, banging into the wall with a crash.

“Meeeeeeerry Christmas!” Dad said. His arms stretched out to the sides like a gymnast after landing a double axle. He wore a mad smile on his face and his cheeks were flushed bright red, which some might’ve mistaken for windburn but I recognized as the after effects of Wild Turkey. He was wearing a tatty red Santa suit, along with red fleece pants, and a matching jacket and hat. He even had a white beard, which sat down under his chin. He pulled it over to complete the look as Agnes marched into the foyer. 

“See you still have the old table, Aggie,” he said, as he marched into the dining room. “With all that money you hoarded over the years I’da thought you could afford something new.”

Agnes smiled at him, the kind of tight lipped grin that meant she’d like to chuck an ax at you, but she didn’t respond — no good fighter goes all out in the first round. Agnes was the kind who let her opponent wear himself out early, sitting back as they threw wild punches only to land flat on their backside by the end of the fight.

Agnes’ table was odd, it was true. Years ago, she’d found it at an old antiques shop, a sturdy table big enough to seat 20 or so, made of fine oak and complete with a set of matching chairs. Only problem was it was meant to be a high-end patio table, and as such it had two umbrella holes for shade on sunny days. We didn’t have many of those inside the Bingham house. 

It was also true that, from dad’s perspective, old Aggie had been “tight” with her money, in the sense that when he asked for a loan she never seemed to be able to find the cash. Could she help him put a down payment on a new truck? Could she spare fifty bucks so Judy could get a new winter coat? How about bus fare so he could get to his new job? Agnes treated my father the same way you’d treat a bum on the street who’d just end up blowing that $20 you gave him on dope, but she took care of her grandchildren. If dad told her Judy needed a new coat, a coat would appear in the mail. If we needed new shoes, they showed up in exactly the right size. Dad even got a bus pass once or twice. But no cash. 

Agnes didn’t spare any expense fixing up the old farmhouse, though, and that irked dad to no end. Probably because money invested in the house meant less money up for grabs in her will. Not that anything would pass on to him, but maybe he thought he could wheedle some out of Judy or Sam. I thought Agnes was right to fix up the house, painting it bright red with a sunny yellow front door, adding a big front porch with a swing and a screened-in porch on the back of the house overlooking the sweeping property. 

My mother grew up in this house, and at various times she and her siblings had moved back in as adults. I spent a year here when I was a kid, though I was too little to remember it, when dad couldn’t find work and mom was too pregnant with Judy to get a job. Dad was still good looking back then, tanned from a summer spent playing tennis at the public courts with his buddies, and lean, too. He had strong arms and long legs and a healthy head of golden hair. Nowadays, he’s stooped and sloppy, not quite fat but not thin, either, with an affinity for shapeless sweatshirts and jeans with no belt. He’s still got the hair, though.

“Does he always dress like this?” Tom said, nodding at dad in his Santa suit. 

“No. Something’s up.”

Like a toddler testing his limits, dad ratcheted up his misbehavior little by little, starting with his Santa entrance. Next, he kicked off his boots and left them in the middle of the foyer. When everyone was seated, he spread his legs wide and propped his elbows up on the table. He began serving himself before Agnes said grace, another one of the Bingham Family rules nobody ever violated. 

“Grace,” he said, his mouth full of stuffing. “Grace used to hate this table, too.”

He waited for a response, but nobody said anything until enough time had passed to act like he’d never spoken at all. Aunt Jane turned toward me and attempted to shift the conversation.

“Mary, how are the others?” She said. “Is Sam still planning to go into medicine?”

“Y—,” I began, but dad cut in.

“Boy’s got a big head. Never comes home, just like the others.” I took this to mean I didn’t count. At 26, I’d never left home, not even for school.

Silence fell again. 

“Agnes, these sweet potatoes are outstanding,” Tom said. Bless him for trying. “I’ve never had them with these little ‘mallows before.”

“Mallows? Mary, where did you meet this person?” Agnes said, looking at me instead of Tom. I coughed.

“Tom’s from Maine.”

“Tom, what do you think of the table?” Dad said. “Agnes, more wine.” He held out a hand toward my Grandma’s end of the table, waiting for the jug. When it came, he filled his cup to the brim and began to guzzle. 

Tom looked from dad to Agnes. 

“You’ve set a lovely table, Mrs. Bingham,” he said. A very diplomatic and polite response. Typical engineer.

“No, Tom,” dad said. “The holes. Did you see the holes? This old bat spends a hundred bucks a week getting her hair set and styled, and she cheaps out on the table we all sit at.” He kicked the table leg nearest him, just for show, I think, but as his kick landed something snapped, and the gravy tureen, which had been set on its platter at an odd angle, tumbled onto its side, spilling gravy all over the tablecloth. 

Now he’d done it, and he knew it, too. So he went all the way. Dad got up and gestured to the openings visible underneath the tablecloth, the ringmaster of his own circus. But as he did so, he slipped and fell forward. He tried to catch himself with his left hand, but it slipped on the gravy, and in the chaos The Stub plunged deep into one of the umbrella holes. 

It turned out those holes were wide enough for dad’s arm to fit in all the way up to his bicep. He was well and truly stuck now, his face smushed into Agnes’s red tablecloth, his cheeks covered in gravy and his backside lifted slightly in the air as he stood on his tip toes for balance, while his good arm grasped wildly at anything he thought might give him the leverage necessary to unstick himself.

We watched him in awe, witnessing an act of foolishness unparalleled in Bingham Family history. My eyes bulged, Tom’s mouth gaped open, and the others sat in tense silence as my father squirmed and gurgled, uttering profanities into the tablecloth, which bunched up and smothered him as he writhed on top of the table, his shoulders bumping the turkey and side dishes closer and closer to the edge until the bowl of cranberry sauce fell to the floor, the glass shattering and spraying everywhere.

We all sat still then, all but dad. And then Agnes rose. In her crisp white blouse and her neatly ironed red skirt, she looked every bit the perfect hostess, but at that moment fire burned behind her eyes and her lips set in a snarl. 

Then she grabbed my father by his thick blonde hair and lifted his head up, banging it several times on the table until his muttering stopped and his arms and legs went still.

“Enough,” she said each time she banged his head. “Enough! Enough! Enough!”

Dad laid there like an idiot, his arm still wedged firmly into the hole and the rest of him splayed across the table.

“I’ve let you come to this table for years and years, even after what you did to Grace.”

Dad shrieked and yelled something into the tablecloth, but nobody could understand him.

“Enough!” She banged his head again. “You drove my Grace to her end, you lout. You took and took and took and she didn’t have anything more to give. She was exhausted taking care of four kids and then you on top of it. 

“And you have the gall to come here and continue to push me, the way you pushed her. Enough.”

The banging stopped.

“Jordy,” Agnes said. My cousin, a gangly teenage boy who hadn’t yet grown into his man’s body, looked as if he wished Agnes had called out any other name. “Jordy, get up. I need you to help me lift this table.”

Dad shrieked again, and Agnes kicked him hard under the table.

“We’re getting rid of it,” she said. “Your uncle’s right. It’s time to make a change.” Jordy looked at his mother, my Aunt Carol, who remained stone faced. Then he looked back at his grandmother, whose icy glare remained fixed on his pale freckled face. He began to lift.

Jordy had no problem with his end of the job, but Agnes struggled under the weight of the table. We watched her try and fail several times, but she showed no sign of giving up. Her grunts of effort coupled with dad’s shrieks and the crashing of food and plates reached a crescendo, and we all prayed under our breath for something to give.

Then Tom stood up. He walked over to my grandmother, bent down, and lifted up the table. He nodded at Jordy, and the two of them carried the table out of the living room, my father trailing along with his face still buried in the table cloth, his shrieks growing louder and more frantic.

“By the curb,” Agnes called after them. 

It had begun to snow, and we watched out the window as large wet flakes fell on Jordy and Tom, who walked the table down the long drive before setting it by the side of the road. Then they came back inside, but my father remained, his body contorted as he flailed desperately. It was nearly 4:30 in the afternoon and the sun was setting. The rest of us were still sitting in our chairs, because we had no idea what else to do. All of us except Grandma Agnes, who remained standing at the head.

“Come into the kitchen, Tom,” she said. “There’s pie.”

December 01, 2023 02:32

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1 comment

Marty B
21:37 Dec 06, 2023

I think Tom's now an honorary member of the Bingham family! It took an outsider to finally deal with the drunk Santa, his family would have kept him stuck on that table in the dining room forever, scared to deal with him. Dad's emotional handicap was mirrored in his physical handicap, and both combined to put him in his place, literally! I really liked your descriptions. Thanks!


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