I made a point to look upbeat as I walked in to my parent’s apartment. The last thing I needed was to upset Momma again. Preparations for dinner were in full swing so the only person to actually walk up to me was Crystal – everyone else was occupied with their various tasks.
Normally, Tim and I would have had chores as well but tonight those jobs were already done by others. I’d have felt bad about that but it gave me a few moments alone with Crystal, an opportunity I intended to make the most of.
I steered her to the comfortable couch – the one with stuffing that wasn’t all crushed – and we sat. I told her funny stories as they came to mind and she laughed in all the right places. I knew full well I’d be expected to tell everyone what happened this afternoon and it was the one story I didn’t want to tell again. Yes, that meant I was avoiding having to tell it more than once.
I really didn’t want to tell it at all. Lying to the cops when I didn’t have much choice was one thing; lying to my family, that’s another and one I didn’t want to do. But how could I tell them the truth? Heck, the more time that passed the less I believed it. Maybe I’d imagined the whole thing. If Chester weren’t upstate fighting for his life, I could have convinced myself it was just a stupid dream.
I had just finished telling Crystal about the time Marty, Kevin and I tried to build a skate board ramp out of an old car hood and the hysterical way Kevin and Tim ended up with broken bones as a result. The thing over turned with Kevin on it (breaking his ankle) and sending his board flying (into an unsuspecting Tim, breaking his arm) when Tina appeared to tell us it was time to come to supper. The last time I’d dreaded suppertime so much I’d been twelve and had to explain a broken window to Poppa. I managed to walk into the dining room with more dignity than I had when I was twelve – but just barely.
We all sat down and Poppa blessed the food. I was careful to snatch the ham first and offer it to Crystal who had not yet learned how to navigate among so many. Once plates were full and some chatter had died down, Momma turned expectantly to me.
Resisting the urge to crawl under the table, I stifled a sigh and began my thousandth retelling of the day. By the end, Crystal was the only one not looking at me like I was out of my mind, and I think that was just her Southern way of not being impolite. No one believed that gang bangers had run away from just me – including me, of course.
Mike shook his head as he forked in more mashed potatoes. Swallowing fast, he looked at me in blatant disbelief, “That sounds like a load of crap, Jack. What’d you really do, shoot ’em?”
“Yeah, with a 80 pound gas canister, sure I did.” I snarled at my youngest brother.
“Well, you did something!” Mike insisted, “Bangers wouldn’t just run for no reason.”
Momma wagged a finger at Mike, “Don’t you talk to your brother like that. He’s had a big day. My sons aren’t liars.”
Mike was protesting but I didn’t make out what exactly he said. I felt two inches tall. Momma had stood up for me but I was lying and I didn’t know what else to do.
Mike wasn’t done. I suppose Kevin digging his elbow into Mike’s ribs was probably having the opposite effect from what Kevin intended. Momma taking my side would have been enough, however. Mike never could stand to be thought wrong when he was sure he was right, which was usually more often than he was actually right. Predictably, Mike turned back to me, “Bangers don’t just run.” he restated even more emphatically.
I shrugged and took a bite of the cracked corn. Maybe if I just didn’t answer he’d settle down.
And maybe he would have, had Jane not decided to come to his rescue. “Did you get hit on the head or something, Jackie?” For the record, Jane is the only one who can get away with calling me ‘Jackie’.
I swallowed. I realized Jane was trying to rescue me but I also knew it wouldn’t work. I shook my head, “No, I didn’t get hit anywhere by anything.” I lied again.
Mike found his second wind, “Just fess up already. That story is total…” Mike shot a glance at Momma and decided to rephrase, “I mean, it just doesn’t add up.” He paused but no one spoke up. The silence was too much for him, “Everybody knows it!” he exclaimed, a lot hotter than he should have.
I’m normally fairly patient but I’d had enough. One long day of trouble and exasperation took its toll on me. I lost what was left of my mind and tore into my little brother, “So, you don’t like that story, do you? Well, how about this one?!” I growled at him as I launched into the full, true account. In the back of my head a voice screamed for me to stop but I was too raw and too angry to listen to my better nature now. I gave it to them straight, just exactly as it had happened. I left nothing out, including the super fast rotting bodies. I stopped only when I ran out of story to tell, paused for a second then added, “Well? Is THAT good enough for you?”
Mike had a fork full of beans halfway between the plate and his mouth, just hanging there as he stared at me. Tina started to sniffle, threatening to cry as she often did when things got tense. Tim and Marty were staring at me, both half out of their chairs, evidently afraid of what I might do. Actually, everyone was staring at me. It was the longest silence that table had ever known as they all stared, trying to decide what to do with their obviously insane brother.
Finally, after nearly a minute of silence, Poppa burst out laughing. He laughed so hard that he started beating on the table. “That was a good one! You had us all with that one, Son!” He managed to choke out the words between guffaws.
Slowly, others joined in, tentative at first then stronger and stronger until the whole table was roaring with laughter. I buried my face in my hand, thanking God that somehow the storm was past. Crystal squeezed my arm reassuringly, I peeked at her, offering a wane smile in return and noticing that we were the only two at that table not laughing.
I honestly couldn’t read her face. Not disbelief and not irritation, just something cool and detached which I’d not seen her do before. It was gone in a moment, replaced by a polite smile.
Tim and Marty turned the conversation purposely toward baseball – the one topic likely to keep Mike from doing anything stupid again. I sat back, wondering when I’d so completely lost my mind. I knew Tim would wait until later to talk to me – my guess was that for once Tim would be on my couch instead of Marty. He’d dress me down just as I would have him for doing something so utterly stupid. That didn’t worry me. That look in Crystal’s eyes – something about it worried me quite a bit.
The rest of dinner passed peacefully. Crystal helped once again with putting up the dishes as Marty goofed around trying to make us laugh. When it was finally late enough that she had to go home, I walked her across the street, knowing full well half my family was looking out the windows watching us. Momma would allow it to make sure I didn’t drop dead or something; the rest wanted to see if I’d kiss her.
Given a nice time and place, and the right mood, darn straight I’d kiss her. But not for my sibling’s amusement and certainly not when her daddy was waiting behind her front door. I settled for a warm handshake again and a demure good bye.
I whistled quietly as I walked back. Whatever that look was at dinner, the one I’d just gotten I understood perfectly well. The lady would welcome another call from myself and she would most certainly be getting one.