The dining room was quiet for the first time since the winter holidays had begun, and the woman sat by her husband at the dining table, having managed to somehow get all three of the children outdoors for the afternoon. The two were sitting side by side with their backs to the kitchen door. The woman had her hair combed back in a tight bun, and wore a turtleneck that ballooned out at the top so that it looked like her head was being swallowed by a toothless, gaping mouth. Both of them had been doing chores all day in preparation for the party the following night; making and arranging the seating cards was only one of the many tedious undertakings that remained. The woman had insisted on doing all the writing; her script was more legible she said, and anyway, it would be faster if she just did it. She had asked him to help fold the place cards.
The husband finished the last of them and pushed the pile in front of his wife. She reached for them without looking up. He leaned his chin on his hand and studied her.
“Earnest, grab my papers from the table over there by the window, I just have five more of these to finish.” He pushed his chair out as he got up, and then circled around the table to the counter, stopping to glance out the window at the sidewalk seven storeys below. The cars were all buried under the snowfall from the night before, and the doorman was hurriedly shoveling a path from the end of the awning to the curb, so that guests and residents deposited by taxis could more easily get to the lobby. “That doorman deserves a raise,” he said. By the time the man had taken his place by his wife once more she was hurriedly counting things off on her fingers and muttering, “Fiona, Marcus, Lily—the three kids, Forrest, Hal…I wonder if he’ll want to bring his nephew again…Earnest Dear, remind me to call Hal later…Elle, Marty—,” she stopped. “We really must write these all these down.” She took the papers from Earnest and shuffled through them until she found a yellow notepad with only a few scribbles and telephone numbers on the front page. She tore it out, flipped it over and began sketching a basic floor plan of the dining room. “We’ll need a table for the kids this year of course,” she drew in a round table toward the back of the room and wrote, “CHILDREN” in the center. “We’ll have to call downstairs and see if they can bring one up.” She put the end of her pen thoughtfully to her mouth, brought it down to the paper again, and then let the point rest there, still. “I don’t know where to start, Dear.”
Earnest had placed his head on his chin once more, and resumed his silent examination. He didn’t answer for a minute.
“It’s your party Flor, start with what you want. Who do you want to be next to?” Then sitting up, “The table’s wobbling again. Do you feel that? What a goddamn pain.”
“I couldn’t care less, I suppose.” She said and shot a quick glance at him. “About who I sit next to I mean. I really haven’t any preference.” He had gotten up and was pushing down on the corner of the table to see which leg was causing the trouble. He was too busy with the table to answer.
The phone rang in the other room and was promptly answered.
“Earnest, would you like to sit at the head of the table? My father’s not coming this year because of the storm in Springfield and his knees are hurting him again. The spot is open, Dear, you really ought to in my opinion.”
Earnest was now under the table, on his hands and knees. “But I’m always next to you Dear.”
“But that’s because my father’s usually at the head, Earnest, and this year he can’t be here, and I really do think you ought to sit there. Anyway, who else would sit there?
“Lawrence. He’s the oldest brother.”
Flora was startled, but caught herself, “Only by two years, Dear, and really, I’m sure Lawrence would understand if you sat there, it is your house.”
“You’re right Flor,” Came Earnest’s muffled voice, “Lawrence should probably be next to Monica anyway—”
“But he hates her,” She cut in. “Don’t you think we should spare him that misery, the only reason they haven’t gotten divorced yet is because of the children. Besides she’s awful.”
“How do you know that Flor?”
“I’m just guessing Dear. I’m just guessing because he didn’t hold her hand when we took a walk with them in September when they visited. You should hear the way he talks about her. She really is awful anyway.”
Earnest’s head emerged for a moment below her. The tablecloth was draped over his head so that it looked like he had on a nun’s habit. “When were you talking to Lawrence, Flora?”
“He called last week. You were out getting groceries. We just caught up. I thought I’d mentioned it.”
“I must have forgotten. I probably should have called him anyway. Did he mention how his vacation to Mexico went?”
“He said it was wonderful. No big news that I remember.”
“Even if the two don’t get along, it’s Christmas dinner after all, don’t you think it wouldn’t look right if we separated them? Pass me a sheet of that yellow scratch paper will you?” Flora was nervously picking at some of the spilled candle wax on the tablecloth.
“Elizabeth’s bringing her fiancée this year Earnest, isn’t that lovely? After all these years, they’ve finally decided to get married!”
She forced a sigh. There was a silence. Still picking, Flora repeated, “Earnest, I asked you something, Dear.”
“I nodded,” He said.
“The problem is,” She rested her hand on the back of her neck, “If we put Elizabeth next to Silvia, they’ll most likely start up on politics like last year, and I’d like to try to avoid that, at least at dinner…” She trailed off.
“The scratch paper, Flor.” Earnest reminded her.
She tore out another sheet from the pad and handed it under the table to Earnest.
The cook walked in, “Excuse me for the interruption Ma’am, your cousin Hal called a little while ago, he said he’s bringing his nephew with him tomorrow night. I told him I’d relay the message.” Flora scribbled a note to herself on the top of her seating chart and then half turned her body while still keeping her eyes fixed on her chart, “Thank you Alyssa, also don’t forget to order the extra ice, last year we ran out before all the guests were even here.”
The cook nodded and backed out through the kitchen door, sending a wave of warmth and evocative smells into the dining room.
“Why do you even insist on these dinners Flor,” Earnest’s voice came in heaves as he attempted to jam the folded paper under the table leg. She sat back and waited for it to stop moving. “They only cause you stress, and you don’t really gain anything out of them do you? Your family’s never been able to fly up from Florida, and you don’t even particularly like my mother.” Flora was glad her husband was under the table. She pulled at her turtleneck sweater and scratched her nose. She was beginning to find the Christmas music and smell of baking sweet potatoes overwhelming.
“I like your mother just fine Earnest, since when did a person get criticized for doing something nice. I’m only trying to give the children a better sense of family. I thought you liked it. All of a sudden I’m crazy for wanting to have a nice, traditional Christmas. This is typical of you Earnest. Really typical.”
“All I’m saying is that you put too much strain on yourself.”
“So you’ll sit at the head of the table then, Earnest? I want to start marking this down.”
“Whatever you want.”
“Then let’s put Silvia, and then Hal, and then, Fiona, and then, well, Fiona is always pleasant, I’d be perfectly happy next to her, and then…” She stopped again.
There was a disturbance as Earnest resurfaced from the other side of the table, having managed to successfully stabilize the criminal leg.
“Whatever you want.” He looked down at her trembling hands and picked up Lawrence’s placard, which she had just laid down. He noticed the corners that she had nervously rolled until they were almost rubbed away completely.
“Why don’t you sit next to Lawrence then?” He sat down in his chair once more and swept the pile of chipped wax onto the floor.
Flora looked up at him, and caught his eye. Painfully aware of her hot cheeks, she nodded quickly, stood. “That makes sense, actually Dear, because he probably doesn’t want to be near Marcus anyway, and Monica did request to be nearer to her kids so we can put her next to Marty,” She walked quickly to the window, glanced out and continued, “And that’d mean the kids’ table would be nearby, so she’ll be able to cut their meat for them, which I remember her doing last year too—Earnest, I’m going to go phone the doorman to tell the kids to come back inside, they’ve been out for too long, I think it’s best they come in now. Will you finish up with the rest of the guests? I’ll be in again soon.” When she turned back toward him, Earnest noted that her nose, which she had leaned against the frosty pane, was now the color of her cheeks.
“I think that’s a good idea Flor.”
“Don’t be difficult Dear.”
“It’s my house after all isn’t that right Flor?”
“And you’re my wife after all isn’t that also right?”
Flora stopped in the doorway on her way out.
“Well, at least I know the table won’t wobble anymore.”
Elodie Freymann, Age 16, Grade 11, Trinity School, Gold Key