Short Fiction (1,046 words)
It was sometime in late January when our three-year-old began volunteering to say grace at dinner. Heretofore he had been a semi-interested observer in this family ritual—a
ritual my wife had instigated because she’d read an article saying that the single most important indicator of whether a child would turn out well was not divorce rate, not grade average or income bracket, but rather whether or not the family regularly
ate dinner together. Ever since reading that article, she’s been clinging to it like a talisman. And I understand it, in a way. It’s something to hang on to. It makes the idea of human development a tangible art, manageable, something
we have some sort of say in.
She’s a smart woman, though she gets a little crazed sometimes—like her habit of announcing things at dinner that are not negotiable. She always calls it “the
new regime,” as in “Ok, there’s going to be a new regime around here.” The kids have become accustomed to it, though it still makes me a little uneasy. Often, I notice, these regimes seem to be aimed at me—like no
shoes in the house, or everyone must now pitch in around here. Like how to properly make a bed. Or the latest: no food in the living room, which seems irrational to me. Like no more cats, ever, after Niblet started peeing on the Oriental rug she’d
gotten from her grandmother.
She’s frantic that we should be happy, having read some other article about the failure rate of second marriages being worse than first ones. She comes into my den and says without any sort
of introduction, “Listen to this,” reads the statistics, and walks out. It’s unnerving. Even though we’re doing well—I mean, I think things are great. But then she comes into the room with these dire announcements
and I wonder if there’s more she’s not saying. Or worse, that this will be a harbinger of another regime, one involving ballroom dancing , or couples’ counseling, or a vegan diet.
And so when our
three-year-old started saying grace, it was a little amusing at first, but now it’s just weird, like another one of those out-of-the blue announcements. We now have this little evangelist at the table, and he goes on and on with grace until his older
sister hisses, “Wrap it up, Bucko.”
This morning, after a long prayer involving Jesus and breakfast and how the gift of oatmeal came from the earth, his sister (technically his half sister, though we never
use that term), announced to my wife that the oatmeal tasted really weird, that it was not at all like the oatmeal at her mother’s house. I heard my wife sigh, muster up her best parenting voice and say, “Really? I remember when
I was your age that I liked things to be the same all the time, too. What makes it different here?” But Caitlyn could not be specific, just said that it was different in a bad way. It didn’t matter that my wife,
having foreseen this problem, had actually taken my daughter to Stop & Shop where she had personally chosen the brand of oatmeal she wanted, the one she always ate, every single day—the kind in the envelope where you just add water. There was
nothing more my wife could do, really, and this would pass when my daughter reached a more tolerant or reasonable stage, but that was probably years away. It didn’t really strike me as a big deal. It was just apple cinnamon oatmeal.
But I sort of held my breath listening to the exchange. Usually it’s fine, usually such things just pass, but once in a while my wife bursts into tears and leaves the room, upsetting everyone, and I can honestly never tell when that’s
gonna happen. I can’t see a pattern in what sets it off.
But back to grace. My wife had explained to our son Bekkon that grace was a way of saying thanks, and a nice thing to do as a ritual. A ritual,
she had explained, is a good habit (unless you’re the author Shirley Jackson, I had muttered, and then my daughter wanted me to explain who Shirley Jackson was, and so I had explained how some rituals should really be questioned, especially
dangerous ones, like stoning or Apartheid … but that, of course—I hastened to add before glancing over at my wife who was directing that look toward me—but that kind of ritual, of course, was not the same thing
as grace, which is a good thing, I added lamely).
This evening at dinner, the same day as the oatmeal incident, my daughter announced that she thought grace was stupid, that she did not believe
in God, and that she was personally going to substitute the phrase “sacred cow” for God whenever it was her turn to say grace, which was every fourth day. And then our usually inordinately sweet-natured son picked up his fork—actually
held it up in the air in a slightly menacing way, and shouted at her, “HEATHEN!” Caitlin was unflappable. She simply replied “Moron,” and continued pushing food around on her plate. My wife looked over at me, like
I was supposed to do something, so I said, perhaps unwisely, “Well, heathen’s just as bad as moron,” to which my wife said tersely, “What are you, four?” Meanwhile the dog had gotten up from his usually
fruitful spot under Bekkon’s chair, and left the dining room, sensing that the certain mounting tension was not worth a potentially dropped noodle or two. Caitlyn took this as a signal to leave the table too, though she did remember
to take her plate with her as she left, stopping to scrape her plate of uneaten into the trash can.
And so it’s at this point I find myself now. I was about to gamely suggest that my wife
sit down and relax, maybe watch TV while I did the dishes by myself this evening, but out of the corner of my eye, just as Caitlyn was making her announcement and my wife was looking at me, I could see Niblet peeing on the rug, right
in front of the television.