Table Manners

by Sam Claussen

Your fork screeches across the plate, bringing the dinner conversation to an abrupt halt. You feel as if you should apologize but you cannot; improvisation is frowned upon.

It needs salt. All the food does. Hell, the salt could use a dash. Everything tastes as if the color and life has been ripped away from each individual kernel of corn, every medium rare slab of beef.

You pass the rolls. You tell your mother how absolutely superb the mashed potatoes are tonight. Father married a chef. Uncle Ricky now mentions how your father is a lucky bastard, and wonders aloud how he ever managed to lock that one down. Aunt Claudia nudges him playfully.

The conversation turns back to you. Your mother asks if you’re enjoying that book she suggested. You smile. It’s complete and utter shit, but instead you compliment the novel timidly, knowing the words by heart, nodding when you’re supposed to, smiling, and returning your attention to the untouched plate of food before you.

An awkward silence along the length of the table, and then the family is chatting once more.

“So I say, ‘Can’t let them get away! Lean back as ya reel, dammit!” Uncle Ricky slaps father on the shoulder, laughing through a mouthful of steak.

“Did you catch it?” your mother asks Aunt Claudia apathetically.

“No, I’ve never caught one,” Claudia says, smiling at her husband.

“Yeah, well you would if you ever listened to me.” Ricky shakes his head as he lights a cigarette.

Your mother looks at your father, and then at Ricky. “Do you have to smoke in here?”

“Do I have to?” Ricky drops ashes onto the bones splayed across his dinner plate. “Nope. It’s 10 degrees outside. Give me a break.”

The petty argument roars to life once again. You note your mother’s perfect timing and decent delivery; she’s getting better at this. Uncle Ricky is just as committed, but his performance lacks something.

…depth, or perhaps emotion.

Still, you can recognize some of the staples of a good performance. Your family is good, at least for amateurs.

“I’ll be damned if this woman makes me waste one more cigarette.” Ricky pounds his fist on the table, rattling the coffee cups.

There’s that emotion.

“That’s expensive china, Ricky, not an ashtray.” Your mother’s eyes narrow. She passionate tonight. She’s giving it her all. Probably because she got it the worst last time.

“That doesn’t make sense.” You think out loud, and then immediately regret it, your face growing red. The family stares at you, mother’s eye twitching, Ricky looks cautiously at Claudia.

Your father’s mud-brown eyes glare at you from behind his thick rimmed glasses. He sighs. He wipes steak sauce from his mustache with a flowery napkin.

Time to improvise.

“What doesn’t make sense?” he asks.

You look to the others for support. They all look away, down at their plates, and the peeling white walls surrounding them.

“No one would use fine china to serve steak,” you say. “There’s too much cutting and chopping. It doesn’t make sense.”

Your father’s forehead scrunches together as he thinks. For a moment his mask is removed, and you see the person he really is; you don’t like that person. The facade returns, and he’s impossible to read once more.

“Would you like to write the script?” he asks.

No turning back now.

Your anger begins to grow, and soon you’re out of control.

“I’m the bookworm, remember? That’s my role.” Your fingernails dig into your palms. “So yes, my script would be better than a direct ripoff of a million family sitcoms.”

“Enough,” your father says, looking at the others, his thin lips pursed. “That’s enough.”

Your mother stands up, giggling nervously. “Who’s ready for dessert?”

Father grabs her wrist and yanks her back down into her chair. “Sit down,” he says, slow and clear, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Mother nods uncontrollably like a bobble-head. Her eyes well with tears. You shake your head forebodingly as she looks to you for guidance.

No, don’t cry. That would not be good.

The table grows quiet, inhabited by complete strangers unsure of what to say or do. Uncle Ricky’s staring intently at his mashed potatoes.

“Well then,” Ricky says, breaking the silence, smiling at the rest. “Did you catch the Chief’s game?”

“You skipped a—”

“You skipped a line, Ricky.” Father interrupts you. His inescapable grip on mother’s wrist causes her to gasp. “Should we look at the script again?

“No,” Ricky blurts out. “Not necessary. I’ll remember.” He looks to the others for assistance.

You mouth the word stuffing.

“Oh yes!” Ricky clears his throat. “This stuffing is delicious. Speaking of stuffing, Claudia and I—”

“Oh shush, Ricky!” Claudia squeals, ecstatic over getting the train back on the rails. Her eyes darting over at father. “I apologize, everyone. Ricky’s mouth runs like a garden hose.”

The family jumps into the routine, managing to gain control of the scene once more. Your father, hesitant at first, smiles, then releases mother. He leans back, watching the act he’d constructed unfold. He looks at you, seeing if you’ll talk out of turn again. You look down at your book, as directed.

The iron cuff around your ankle itches. Your character, however, has no chains, and so you try to ignore it. The red light of the camcorder blinks in your peripheral vision. When your father looks away you desperately pick at the binding of the book, trying to get at the staples.

A happy family eating dinner together at the supper table. Discussions flow about the unusual and often quirky antics of the day. It is exactly what you’d expect to see on television. Strangers, acting.

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