By Jim De Marse
I walked in the back door and smelled pot roast in the oven with gravy, peas, butter, and rolls on the side. Mom was making the gravy in a saucepan. I said hi, took off my jacket, and hung it on one of the hooks above the staircase that led to the basement. I poked my head into the living room, said hello to Dad, who was watching the news, as he usually did at that time. He looked at me, frowned, and said, “You’re late.” Then Mom called us to the table. I hurried to the bathroom to wash my hands, then rushed to my chair in the dining room. Dad said grace. “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I always liked the end piece of the roast—half-charred, thick, dry, with a lot of thick, dark gravy on it, then mashed potatoes with melted butter in the dent I made with a spoon.
Leaves blew against the dining room windows, and the bare forsythia bush convulsed with every gust of wind. We were warm inside with a nice meal before us. What could be wrong with the world? Soon it would be Thanksgiving, then Christmas with sparkles, lights, and Dad decorating the house with lights inside and outside—joy and peace and good feeling. But that was in the future. Now is now. Dad seemed tense.
“Why are you this late?” Dad asked.
“We had a rehearsal. I thought you knew.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Mom said as she looked at Dad. “I forgot to tell you.”
“You were told not to be late for dinner under any circumstances.”
“Well, it was the first day. It was hard to time it out.”
“Don’t let it happen again.”
“Sir. You call me ‘sir’ at the dinner table.”
“What’s the play?”
“The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“Oh, yes,” Mom said, as she took a warm roll and put it on her plate. “What’s it about?”
“It’s about a family in Amsterdam hiding from the Nazis during World War Two.” I put a glob of mashed potatoes on my fork. “They sent you to concentration camps if you were Jewish, and then gassed you,” I replied.
“A family?” Mom asked.
“It’s about Anne Frank dealing with her family. She was fifteen when the Nazis discovered their hiding place. She was taken to a camp at Bergen-Belsen and a couple of weeks later died from typhus.” I put the mashed potatoes in my mouth with butter dripping.
“Oh, dear,” Mom whispered.
“There were six million killed.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Dad grumbled. “I don’t think that’s a fit topic for discussion at the dinner table.”
“I didn’t know there were that many killed. That’s all I meant.”
“I said it’s not a fit discussion for the dinner table. That’s enough.”
“Who’s in the play with you? Anybody we know?” Mom asked.
“Sheila’s in it.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” Mom smiled, relieved to be talking about the familiar. Relieved to be off the subject. “How is she?”
“Sheila’s part Jewish,” I said. “She just told us at rehearsal.”
“I think I heard that. Her mother’s Jewish, I think, a convert to Catholicism,” Mom said.
“I didn’t know that. So, she’s Jewish, is she?” Dad scowled.
“Yeah, but she was brought up Catholic,” I said as an afterthought.
“She’s not really Catholic. Once you’re a Jew, you’re always a Jew.” Dad wiped his lips hard with his napkin.
“I don’t know.”
“They read from the Torah and chant. I don’t think they kneel. And then they hover and talk. A lot of it is very pagan.” He shook his head as he cut a piece of meat and stuck his fork into it and grabbed it with his teeth and chewed.
“They believe in God, but they don’t believe in Jesus, I think. They’re not pagan,” I said, being a little too forceful.
“Why are you in this play about Jews?”
“Well, it’s the school play,” Mom said, trying to placate.
“Let him answer.”
“I don’t think it’s just about Jews,” I explained. “I think it’s about a girl and her family trying to live together and get along hiding in a cramped attic. I play Mr. Kraler, who helps them.”
Then my father looked over my shoulder out the window. The wind was blowing, and I could feel a cold draft every once in a while. There was no moon, just the streetlight in front so you could see just a little of the hedges and some of the apple tree, but not the gully across the street. Time seemed to stop. He looked as if he’d just been hypnotized.
I smeared the meat in the gravy and took a bite and looked away.
He snapped out of it and came back to eating and talking. “I read an article in the paper a few months ago,” he said, sounding like he was on the radio. “It said that Anne Frank’s diary was made up so her father could make money to pay his bills. He was sick or something.”
“I don’t think that’s possible. It sounds like a real girl going through all these emotions, not fake.”
“People need this kind of storytelling to get what they need. The Jews are notorious for taking something out of the air and making money from it. You know what the Jews do really well—experts at it—you know what it is? Movies, radio, entertainment. They ran WBBF. And we know what happened there. Buddy LaBelle wasn’t good enough for them. Anne Frank is made out to be a heroine when she didn’t exist at all.”
“I saw her picture.”
“Why do we buy Campbell’s soup? Why do we pay taxes? Somebody tells us to. Somebody makes something up that we have to pay for. They’re out there, Chris, out there around us. Look at us. Look at all of us. Caught in the dark, victims of the weather—anything can happen at any time. And then we let our guard down, and they slip in and turn everything around. All they do is criticize our church and try to demoralize us. And now here in Irondequoit in a little house on Tamarack Drive, my son comes home talking about Jews, how terrible they suffered. Well, we’ve suffered. I’ve suffered.”
“I know you have, Dad.”
“I’m an American, a Catholic. That’s who I am. I’m not hiding behind a made-up diary in a fortress temple. We’re part of a community, part of a country. We live and we work and we strive for something better. When we don’t get it, what happens?”
“When we read the play, it was real to all of us.”
“We felt like it was real.”
“Act in your play. Go ahead. Be with your Jewish girlfriend. You’ll see. You’ll see how you’ll be treated. We liberated the Jews from the camps. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget the soldiers who died for that.”
“She’s not really your girlfriend, is she?” Mom asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, my head swimming.
I read my survival stories. My favorite was Alone about Admiral Byrd traveling on a dogsled to the North Pole, confronting the endless ice and cold and howling wind all by himself, sleeping in a tent. I knew how to be brave enough to survive in the Arctic, but I didn’t know how to survive this talk at the dinner table.
“Chris? Answer me. She’s not your girlfriend, is she?” Mom asked.
We were all silent for a long time, and I looked at my mother. She looked troubled. What was going on? My father was getting hot under the collar. That’s what was going on.
“I don’t know.”
“You see. You don’t know.”
“I’m just trying to figure it out.” I heard pleading in my voice.
“I’ll figure it out for you. She has no meaning for you. That play has no meaning for you. It’s a play, a forking play. End of conversation. Now let’s eat our dinner in peace.”
“She has meaning for me.”
“Don’t you contradict me. Don’t ever contradict me.”
“I’m just trying to tell you that she has meaning for me.”
You could see my mother getting scared. Her eyes darted to Dad, then back to me. Her back stiffened. It was time for me to shut up and be a good boy. Shut up and not say what I wanted to say. I could feel a shaking in my legs. I ate faster, put a big forkful of meat into my mouth like a cowboy biting a bullet when he’s in pain. I kept my eyes glued to the plate.
“When I say the conversation is ended, it’s ended. Ended. Don’t come back at me. You trying to take over here? You want to take over? Go ahead. You quit school and get a job. That’s what you do. How do you like that? I did it. I was working when I was twelve. Dropped out of school to work.” He was shouting now.
“And your father had scarlet fever, of course, Chris,” Mom added, trying to calm things down. “You know that.”
“What the goddamn are you talking about? Don’t interrupt. Yes. Yes, I did. I had scarlet fever. But I kept going. So now it’s your turn. You go ahead. You take over, put some money in the kitty. Pay for this dinner, why don’t you? Pay for the shirt on your back, the car payments going south, hospital bills—south. Paint the forking house. Do something besides acting in a play and driving around with that friend of yours, going to Ozzie’s Pizza. Paint the living room.” He kept eating but talked through the food in his mouth. “I am so fed up with you people and all the people and all the things. Who paid for this meat? Who made this dinner? Who burnt it and made it like leather?” He was getting louder and louder.
“Now, Bud, let’s not do that. We have a nice dessert. Let’s be quiet now. There’s enough hate in the world.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. Like I’m a child. Can’t make enough money for you, can I?” Bits of food shot out of his mouth.
“Can’t make you proud of your Buddy like I did on my show, like I did when we married and I looked like a million-dollar movie?”
“I’m proud of you, Buddy.”
“Shut up. You shut up.”
He banged his fist on the table, and the plate and silverware rattled like in an earthquake. And that’s what it was going to be—an earthquake. He sprang up so fast he knocked over his chair back onto the floor. I heard a crack as it hit the wood floor not covered by the dining room rug. He stomped into the bedroom.
I was afraid to look at Mom, hoping it all would end now. But no. I heard the banging of doors, along with him shouting something, and then he came charging back to the table with one of Mom’s dresses crumpled in his arms. My legs shook hard as he started to rip up her pretty dress.
“Don’t”—RIP—“talk”—RIP—“to me”—RIP—“like that”—RIP—“ever again.”
His face flushed red, fury in his eyes—frown, eyebrows down, mouth down, quivers and shakes of rage. And then he threw it in her face, stomped back to the bedroom, and slammed the door so hard the house shook.
My first thought was, What did I do?
Mom cried softly.
“I’ll quit the play,” I said.
“No, you won’t,” she said softly. “I’m going to do the dishes.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything.” I could barely speak. “I won’t go out with Sheila anymore. I won’t do anything. Sorry, Mom. I’m sorry.”
She looked at the rag of her torn dress as if it were a dead person; she got up, holding it close for a minute, then gently put it down on her chair. She pulled herself together, gathered up some dishes, and went into the kitchen. I picked up Dad’s chair, then helped Mom clear the table and scrape the dishes.
All my concerns for Sheila disappeared, as well as my feelings for her or for Anne Frank. All those questions, all those feelings about Jews, death, and trying to do that right thing—evaporated. I fell into the bottomless pit, flailing helplessly in terror. That’s all there was. I was trapped. I promised myself I would never smile again, or wink, or dream of holding Sheila in my arms.
Category: Featured, Short Story