This story was one of my submissions in a MOOC held by the University of Iowa entitled “How Writers Write Fiction”, which was an exercise in revealing character through dialogue, with a word limit. I was disappointed that I could only do about half the course because of work obligations. The wealth of material made the joy of discovery and the effort involved a very intense experience. I am not the only translator who participated in this MOOC – I am grateful to the translator who alerted me to this course in the first place and for the interaction a few of us had on the sidelines too.
“What utter crap!”
Megan slumped back into her armchair and rubbed her temples. David couldn’t expect anyone to believe that story. Even on the phone, she could tell he was lying. She was sick and tired of her brother’s problems. And now he had stuffed up big time with that job in the city. The sheen on the upholstery bothered her, the threadbare carpet was the same; it used to be red once, not that you could tell. They were both in their twenties already, for God’s sake. Would this ever end?
“Just get your story straight. And then speak to your so-called Uncle Doug. He owes you one.”
David hesitated, “But it’s my last card.”
“I know. Use it. Speak soon.”
The following Saturday, the doorbell rang just as the family were sitting down to lunch.
“I thought I heard something in the wind. That’s my dear boy back.” said Joan.
“I’ll go Mom.” As Megan opened the door, David engulfed her in his big-brother hug. He smelt of stale sheets, old sweat and cigarettes, but she returned the hug all the same.
“Man, it’s good to see you!” He dumped his haversack in the hallway, but kept his old denim jacket on.
“You pulled it off, then?”
He nodded, and smiled as he took in the sight of her wild, curly, long red hair freshly washed, her new jeans, her new boots.
“I’m going out later. Come, it’s lunchtime.”
Mom and Dad always sat at opposite ends of the table. Billy and Sarah, in their unruly early teens, sat next to each other as usual, and tried to behave. Mealtimes were sacred, after all. Their mother thought so, anyway.
Mom brought the pot of stew from the kitchen and set it down on the wooden board in front of her. David kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her arm.
“Hello, Dad. Hi kids.” He took his place near his mother. He had arrived out of the blue just minutes before yet took it for granted that his place was already set. Mom beamed at him. What on earth did she see in him?
With the deftness of years of practice, she dished a generous helping of rice and a couple of ladles of stew onto each plate and passed them down the line. It was always stew. Yesterday was potatoes; today rice. But it was always stew.
“You arrived just in time, Dave. Fred, I believe we can say Grace now.”
This was the cue for them all to join hands and gaze down at the old white linen tablecloth, the salt, and the bread and butter. Billy and Sarah gave each other a sideways glance and mouthed the word “Grace” to each other, a silent giggle they thought no one else could see.
Fred sighed deeply, “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful and ever mindful of the needs of others – whatever those might be.”
Amen said all, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Fred looked pointedly over at David.
David ignored him just long enough to annoy him, and poured a glass of water for everyone from the earthenware jug in the centre of the table.
“Uncle Doug says I can start work with him on Monday, but…”
“About time you put your shoulder behind something. What do you mean but…?” Fred’s face darkened.
Billy, dear Billy, quickly changed the subject with all the grace of a mule.
“Have you met Megan’s new girlfriend yet?”
“You must do whatever you think best, son,” said Joan, staying on point.
“She’s not my girlfriend, you little twerp.”
“She is too,” said Sarah, “Megan’s a lezza.”
“Sarah, not now. We’re eating.” Fred glared at David, waiting.
“But it’s gonna take a while, Dad. It’ll take ages to pay him back. The wages are not that great.”
“You can stay here, if you’re short, until you get on your feet. You know that.”
“We never think of you when you’re gone.” said Billy.
Sarah piped up, her mouth full, “You always say stupid things Billy – you told me how you want to be just like David. You wanna be just like him. Stupid.” Megan delivered a sharp kick to Sarah’s shins.
“You don’t want to be like me, Billy. It’s way too complicated for a kid like you.”
“Anyway, your girlfriend you should be here any moment.” Sarah said, still defiant.
“Megan, I’ll have no blaspheming at this table.” Mom, of course.
Fred got up. “I’m off to have my smoke.”
Megan followed him. “Your turn to do the dishes, Dave.”
Father and daughter leaned against the wall on the back porch.
“Billy’s right. I am crazy in love with Sadie, Dad”.
“Yeah, well. You know David’s not my son, don’t you?”
“He’s your brother Doug’s, right?”
“Yeah… The whole world’s going to shit. But thanks for what you did for Dave.”
Fred gave his eldest daughter an affectionate slap on the shoulder.
“You run along now, and go and catch that girl of yours.”
©2015 Allison Wright