I face the two-story white clapboard house with its yellow shutters. Three hundred years and counting. Counting down to my bomb. I plan on blowing it all to smithereens.
My family beat me to our annual Thanksgiving shindig. I look in the living room window as I suck on my cigarette and the pint bottle of the family’s claim to fame, Barrens Brandy. They sit around the formal room, thirteen relatives, not a smile on one face. That will happen after a few more rounds of cranberry cocktails.
The room looks like something from a Victorian novel. My father, Adam, fifteenth of that name, nicknamed Red, like all the others, and current owner of Barrens Brandy, the oldest continuous distillery in the United States, stands in front of the fireplace, blocking the heat from the rest of the room, his booted foot perched on a cast iron foot-warming rail. Sibyl, my daddy dearest’s new wife, sits on a settee, long skirt fanning around her, delicate pink slippers on her feet. A shawl drapes her thin shoulders, but still, she shivers. My sister, Hester, four years my senior, hops up like a hot stick pokes her in the ass. She grabs a chenille quilt and tucks it around fragile step-mamma. My cousins, Rachell, Sam, and Thomas, all over thirty, snicker in each other’s ears like six-year-old kindergartners on a playground. Their parents, Uncle John, my father’s youngest brother, and my Aunt Margret, whom rumor has it was once engaged to my father, sit at the back of the room as far as possible from all the others.
My Grandmother (always with a capital G) enthrones herself in the overstuffed Bavarian armchair that sits closest to the fireplace and facing out into the room. Her back is straighter than the chair’s back, her nose high, her mouth compressed to be lipless.
Her twin daughters, spinsters and older than my father, stand behind Grandmother’s chair. Aunt Ida, thin, and Aunt Amelia, fat, gray-haired, and sallow-skinned from unfulfilled lives, act as nursemaids and constant companions to their mother’s every whim.
My father’s twin brother, Ernst, born a minute too late to be the lucky one, stands with his wife, the plain Jane, near the door to the room, all the easier to make their escape if they had the courage for it.
I toss the tobacco butt to the ground and twist it into the November dirt. I climb the front porch, twist the doorknob. I am late, so of course, it’s locked. Tardiness means you don’t get dinner in this house. I’d bang on the door, but experience has taught me there would be no mercy.
Time to start breaking the rules.
I go out to the management office in the distillery barn.
“Good evening,” says the night watchman as he lets me in.
“Evening, Sam,” I say.
“Been a while since we’ve seen you,” he says. “Mr. Barrens and your Grandmother will be happy to have you at home.”
“I doubt it,” I mumble to myself.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“Yes,” I say, “they would be happy to have me back.” I smile at him. I enter my father’s office and close the door behind me, blocking Sam’s curiosity and spying eyes.
I open the cabinet in the corner, grab the master keyring from its hook, and stuff the keys in my coat pocket.
I enter the house at the back door, through the mudroom. I remove my coat and hang it on a peg. I skirt the cook in the kitchen, pluck a slice of turkey from the serving platter, and head to the dining room.
The butternut squash soup course is finished. The servants clear away the blue and white soup bowls, part of the Bonnin and Morris set made in South Philadelphia at the American China Manufactory, high-quality porcelain, made for a revolutionary colonial market. The first Barrens, Jebediah, arrived in New Jersey just before the turn into the 18th century and opened a tavern.
Jebediah hung with George Washington and supplied the revolutionary army with spirits and hiding places in the Pine Barrens. He was quite popular and became wealthy as the cranberry baron, the first Barrens in the Pine Barrens, the man with dreams of a dynasty.
I wait for the servants to leave. I saunter in, kiss Grandmother on her papery cheek, and take the seat to my father’s right.
“Hi-ya.” I sound casual, at ease. Not how I feel, but my acting classes pay off.
“Leave the table,” says Grandmother.
“No,” I say.
Sibyl gasps and slumps forward. Her forehead hits the table. Thank the gods; the soup bowls are gone. I laugh at my silent joke.
Hester pops up and rushes to Sibyl. She leans Sibyl back in her arms, cradling her like a baby. She dips a cloth napkin in a glass of ice water and drapes it over Sibyl’s forehead. Sibyl’s eyes flutter open.
“Take her to her room,” says my father. He slams back his brandy. He places the glass on the table, lining it up with the silverware. He moves it a fraction of an inch to achieve perfection.
Hester escorts Sibyl away. Hester knows her place in the world and fills it without complaint. I would doubt her relation to me if she didn’t look exactly like my father. She no longer needs my father’s booming bullying voice to do whatever he says. She is well trained to follow orders for a scrap of attention. We all gave up on seeking love long ago.
“You’re here.” My father speaks to my sister’s retreating back.
“Obviously,” I say. I reach for the decanter and fill my glass.
“As rude as always,” says my Grandmother. She glares at me from her seat to my father’s left and directly across from me. Her face turns red, and her eyes bulge.
“Careful, Granny,” I say. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The cousins giggle—an odd sound in the otherwise quiet room.
“Why are you here?” Grandmother spits out. Spittle flies from her mouth and stains the bleached table cloth.
“Mother told me,” I say. I look father in the eyes and wait.
His emaciated body shakes, his face is blank. I can’t tell if he’s angry, excited, or scared. It could be all three.
I turn in my chair to face him. We watch each other. I know he doesn’t see himself in me. I look like my mother, the woman he divorced and lawyered into poverty and loneliness when I was five. He tried his best to beat her out of me without any success.
“So you know I’ll be dead before the end of the year.” He refills his glass with brandy and downs it. He grimaces. He rubs his throat. Coughs.
“Yes.” I wait. I will him to say the words. I want him to beg.
“You are finally willing to take your rightful place in this family, in the business.” His eyes are the same vibrant black as always, shiny, hard obsidian.
I glance around the room. My aunts and uncles and cousins hold their breaths. Grandmother covers her mouth with a lace handkerchief. I wink at her.
“No,” I say to my father. I stand and turn over my glass, the dregs staining the tablecloth like blood. “I came here to let you know, before you die, that your only son will not follow in your footsteps. It’s over.”
My father shoves at the china in an effort to rise from his chair. His plate crashes to the floor and shatters. He is the first Barrens to break a dish. He collapses back, breathing hard.
“You’ll get nothing,” he says. “No money, no property.”
“I don’t want any of it. I don’t want you.”
Grandmother throws a roll at me. It hits me in the chest. I blow her a kiss.
“Good riddance,” she says. “Your mother ruined you.”
“My mother saved me,” I say. “I legally changed my name.” I ring the bell for the servants who I know are within earshot, taking in the drama. It will be all over town within the hour. My father and Grandmother won’t be able to keep it quiet.
Sanders, the butler, holds out my coat. I slip my arms in the sleeves. He buttons it for me like he did when I was a child. He grins, pats my shoulders, and leaves.
“I wanted you to know that you are the last Adam Barren. You broke the long line of the oldest male in each generation to hold the position of head of this family and head of the business when you tried to break me.” I pant in my excitement. I breathe deep.
“You broke this family.” I reach in my pocket, pull out the master keys, and drop them on the table in front of my father.
I walk away.