He walked in a stranger, walked out something else. We asked him to stay because that’s what you do, that’s what you say- please stay. Please eat our food and drink our milk.
He walked in a stranger, we made him something else. He was bleak, ash, the grounds stuck in the bottom of an iced coffee pitcher. We were what the back of the door hears after someone’s gone and left their sad behind.
He walked in a stranger, bright and early with the sun we only admired when it set, expected things he knew we were going to give. Because that’s what you do, you say please eat. Please let us watch you eat and ask for more.
We should have left him a stranger, let him burden the back of some other spindle-chair with the heavy of his work jacket. Not that he had a job. Not that he worked. He made up stories with lips that lied and ate our food when we let him even though we knew he lied.
I speak for all of us, we should have left him a stranger. I don’t know what we thought we saw in his shoulders hunched, hiding even from the trees. Why we kept him when his made the biggest prints of all our shoes. When there was only one man stronger, and he was gone most of the time. Bringing home the bread, as they say. Bread that he ate. Because that’s what you do, you say please eat our bread. Please enjoy this spindle-chair with only three legs because it was our grandmother’s and we loved her.
We weren’t supposed to grumble, but we all did, I know. I speak for all of us. We should have left him a stranger. But we didn’t. Three legs became two and our chair wouldn’t stand anymore. We confronted him about it because that’s what you do. Ask why the leg’s broken and the seat’s on the floor and accept the lies that come from lips you know can lie. Agree it was probably an accident. Admit alongside the ash that there were never flames.
He took another chair, and that’s when he quit his role as Stranger. Opened up over pie we gave him and milk that went with the pie because we said so. We knew we’d waited for that, so we said nothing until he was finished. With the pie, his speech, and the milk. All of it. He told us dates, when he was born, about the sad, sad place he’d learned to love; how it was ripped out from under him. I know we all wished we could bundle him up in the tablecloth, promise there’d always be milk and good pie with the crisp crust edges he seemed to like.
His boots went on the mat and that’s when we knew he’d quit his role as Stranger. Some of us traded tall glasses for small ones because that’s what you do. You say please drink more milk; we always have more for you. Please pour more milk, we can always drink other things. We found a glass in pieces under the table, but we dismissed it when his eyebrows curled up in the middle and shook hands. Glad it isn’t the porcelain; glad it wasn’t the porcelain. We always have more. We didn’t have more.
When he talked in rough, stranger syllables we set our hand on his arm, talked under the table saying things like ‘we’ll help you’, and ‘we don’t care what they think’. When our cousin put her hand on his arm we smiled and smiled and offered more milk to the both of them. We saluted the union with our grandmother’s quilt, sharing with him the stories like we’d shared the spindle-chair’s legs. This square came from this dress, these happy smiles from this piece of skirt. He took it all in like he took in the milk, and we drowned our curdled smiles in the must-smells when we found the squares were squares again trailed across the floor.
He lost his stranger status when he met our cousin at the church in the suit we’d bought for him, his boots replaced with our best ones. We stowed their smiling faces in our small attic when he had no money and our uncle lived far, far away. He seemed to like the space; he liked her well enough. He did his face in a smile when she did her hair in a French style and descended the stairs in the milk-colored gown that had been our grandmother’s. We didn’t need excuses when that was ruined because that’s what you do. You leave some things unsaid and some questions unasked.
When there was no more milk in the jar, we sold his stranger status as a good workman. We put a hand on his arm, said this one is strong. These can do work. We saluted his back with a dishrag, saying this is a change. Change can be good. When he was laid off we held his face in our hands, promising justice to the unjust. Listened to limp pink lips lag behind truths he didn’t try to keep hidden. I speak for us all: we grumbled, but we didn’t show it.
Another month went by, and he wasn’t a stranger. We made our grumbles like apple seeds we kept close to the core, feeding him the fruit raw when there wasn’t pie anymore. We smiled over floral-pattered memories and made new ones with the man who’d destroyed them, showing him without words that all was forgiven. Here are our stories, this was our grandmother’s table. Please eat more bread, its all we have left. Please sit in our chairs, we have seven left.
When we woke to the smell of smoke, we wished he was a stranger. We opened our eyes in the dark and made use of our noses, noting the screams that were absent. Noting the bread we must have left too long in the oven, and the even breaths of the family in the next room. We got up to follow the smell and found the table in flames; the walls covered in orange tissue paper. Crinkling, floating down into ash like the grounds stuck in the bottom of our coffee pitcher.
There was no bread in the oven or the breadbox. He was gone when we ran out of the house, hands shaking like baby birds as we gathered each worried face against us to be sure they were safe. Our sighs sang relief when we didn't have to ask him to leave.
We should have left him a stranger.