“The trick with spaghetti is-” Mom pauses to pour a ladle full of sauce onto Dad’s plate, “…is not to take it too seriously.”
It’s an old line, something she says about everything she is sort of good at; knitting, setting the DVR, Angry Birds. We all nod, more interested in the meal than the commentary. I swirl a large wad of noodles and sauce onto my fork and take a bit, savoring it for a moment before chewing. I follow it with a half glass of grape juice.
This is something rare, a Nolan family meal. And it’s not even Thanksgiving or Christmas but a Friday night in September, the least celebrated of months. Mom has even made her one and only signature dish, Fiery Spaghetti, the recipe taken off the back of a Prego jar before I was born. It’s not the best spaghetti (Aunt Kate uses cremini mushrooms and fresh basil leaves in her sauce) and we’ll be lined up at the bathroom door an hour past midnight paying for it, but it’s homemade and delicious and well worth several rolls of Charmin Ultra Soft.
Across the table, Oliver shovels several large forkfuls between slices of Texas toast, pinching the ends together before taking a large bit. He grins at me, sauce dripping form his lips.
I agree with him. This is much better than our usual night of oven-warmed Stouffer’s instant lasagna or State-Fair corn-dogs. Being name brand doesn’t help when you’re a latch-key-kid whose parents are pulling extra hours or a late shift to pay for it.
“Now for why I wanted everyone here.” Mom sets her empty bowl, once containing a small salad, to the side. Spaghetti hasn’t been on her menu for at least three years, not since she discovered the word MILF and began an eternal diet. Watching her, I wonder if having a slender waist and slim, toned arms are worth a life without carbs. As of right now, no. “I’ve been offered a management position at Sunset Meadows Hospice in Morrow.”
Dad finishes his glass of milk and wipes the beads of sweat from his forehead. His face glows a balmy pink, and he looks like he’s just stepped out of a sauna. “That’s great babe. Kind of a drive though.”
“An hour one way. But I’m off on weekends, and it’s all salary.”
“What about your patients at Golden Living?” Morgan asks, her mouth full. Normally, she’d be nibbling on a salad too, but poor self-control and a strong faith in her still high metabolism (she’s onl twenty-one after all) have kept her plate full. “Won’t they need you.”
“Jennifer Snodgrass will be taking my place. I’ll be sure to visit, but I think it’s time to move on.” Her voice quivers. “I will miss them though.”
We pause, forks poised, watching this rare display of emotion, something Mom usually saves only for the dying. At home (and just about everywhere else outside of work; church, Walmart, family gatherings) she’s as unfeeling and stiff as one of her starched pantsuits. I take her in, the brown hair and eyes, her small delicate hands holding each other. But, like glimpsing a Yeti, the scene vanishes before a photo can be taken, and Mom goes on about benefits and vacation time.
“That’s great about Sunset Meadows,” I say. And it is great. She’s wanted to advance for years, but her supervisors have been as long-lived as her patients were terminal. “You deserve it.”
Mom smiles at me (another rare Kodak moment), and I beam.
“Mom, can I have a fifty dollars for science fair stuff?” Oliver asks, his mouth full of bread and noodles. “We’re building a water habitat for tilapia.”
“Who’s we?” Mom asks. Her smile fades and I could throat punch Oliver for stealing it from me.
“Sunny Rodriguez and I have entered together. Our project is about artificial eutrophication. That’s when detergents get into ponds and lakes and-”
Mom holds up her hand. “June’s brother?”
He looks down, studying something microscopic on his plate.
“It’s bad enough Mable is friends with that girl, but now you’re involved?” Her words shot towards Oliver, but her eyes are on me. “How old is he? What are his grades?”
“He’s thirteen,” Oliver lies, knowing the mere thought of a 15-year-old 8th-grader would end the argument in Mom’s favor by technical KO, “and he’s a good guy. He’s really religious.”
“Oh?” Dad grunts. He himself has recently become a deacon at 12th St. Baptist resulting in a double dose of the Jesus bug. He even carries gospel tracks in his shirt pocket, but mostly just to cover up his cigarettes. “What church?”
“That doesn’t matter.” Mom interrupts. “We do our best to raise you kids properly, to make good grades, work hard, be upstanding. We want you to find yourselves. And for the most part, we’ve seceded. But these people, the Rodriguezs…”
She goes on, looking at each of us in turn, me longer than Oliver or Morgan. Dad, the pathetic hen-pecked husband, nods at every point. He hasn’t even stopped eating.
“They’re trouble even though they might seem nice. ‘A little rot will spoil the apple.'” She is using one of Paw Paw’s sayings. I don’t think he liked Mexicans either. “We are better than that….”
There are more words, many more.
Honestly, I wonder what in the world she’s talking about. Maybe she’s gotten us mixed up with some other family in some other town. One with an eldest daughter who wears her purity ring on a chain around her neck and doesn’t keep it hidden in the glove compartment of her car or a son whose six-two and captain of the baseball team, the Morrow Pirates, and not a recluse, too afraid to step outside. Perhaps my own doppelganger is thin and beautiful, destined to be prom queen like Mom was.
“I know that it may seem heartless but I’ve seen to many good people dragged down by their ankles by mixing with the wrong type. It’s just how life is.” She looks at me, and I know she’s measuring out words in her mind, gauging some noun or verb or adjective for maximum impact. “And Mable you’ve gained weight. You’re falling behind. When are you going to get your driver’s license?”
Gained weight? The words, four syllables that are all jagged edges, tear my soft flesh from my hard bones. I’m left naked. I’d rather she’d slapped me.
“I’m taking my test next week,” I mumble. No one seems to hear. Did the words come out or did I just think them?
“But Sunny’s a good guy,” Oliver says, having built up his courage, “he tries hard at school. And he cares about people. He’s real worried about Morgan’s friend Charlotte. He says she’s going to hell.”
Morgan groans, rolling her eyes as if following a mile high 747. Studying her now, with her hickies hidden beneath a dainty scarf, she looks innocent enough. I’m she’ll change to turtlenecks when the weather turns cold.
“We just want you two to stick with people who’ll have a positive impact on your lives.” Mom enters compassionate mother mode, softening her voice and resting her left hand on the table, extending her right towards Oliver and me. “Enjoy being young. Don’t give yourself problems. Make some friends, go to some parties.”
I wonder if she knows what goes on at those parties, or what its like to starve yourself to maybe, by some magical turn, become pretty, or if she has any idea what it means to feel completely alone.
“And I’m done being nice here.” Compassionate mom exits stage left as for-your-own-good mom steps into the limelight. “No more friends with the Rodriguezs. Do you hear me? There are plenty of good kids at West Greenville and church to get to know.”
Oliver and I nod obediently but aren’t worried. Mom has always been more bark than bite, if only for the fact that she doesn’t pay attention to us long enough to remember to sink her teeth in. And with an added hour commute between us, it won’t be long before she forgets this dinner, this conversation, and drift once again out of our lives.