7.02 / February 2012


listen to this story

The old man flew in from Florida and is staying with the family.  The old woman drove from Omaha and gets a cheap motel room.  Their daughter is happy to have them there for her son’s graduation but distraught that the old woman will not sleep under the same roof as the old man.  The old man offers to sleep on the sofa in case the old woman changes her mind.  The old woman smiles politely, thinking about a cold day in hell.  The daughter’s husband crams his earbuds in, cranks his music, and slips out to sweep the garage.  The graduate sits on the short-sheeted sofa, calling the old man Pawpaw and talking baseball, though he doesn’t care at all about baseball.  The old man says he’s proud of the boy, good job, keep it up.  The old woman stands in the kitchen looking over the bar to the den, staring at the back of the old man’s head.  His hair is completely white now, she notices, and so thin the scalp shows through at the back, and she has no feeling of tenderness or regret or pity but instead thinks one word: Good.  Her daughter comes up behind her with a wooden spoon, with which she replaces the metal spoon in the saucepan, saying that metal reacts with acid in the sauce and to avoid bitterness you should always use a wooden spoon.  The mother lifts the wooden spoon out and flings it into the stainless steel sink.  It’s her spaghetti sauce, after all, and if it’s too bitter for their precious refined tastebuds they can just get over it; her grandson had asked her, not his mother, to make his favorite dinner, and that’s what she was doing, god damn it.  The daughter turns to her nervous sister-the youngest daughter-and shrugs with one shoulder, and the sister, who has a delicate stomach, turns and walks out of the room.  In the garage the husband has finished sweeping and now goes back to the far corner and begins again.  Inside, the graduate is whupping the old man in a video game.  The old woman dumps two boxes of spaghetti into the biggest pot in the house, a pot so big that water never quite boils in it.  Maybe you could skim off some grease, the daughter says, looking at the sauce.  The old man puts both sock-clad feet on the coffee table and leans back, saying he thinks he’ll take a little nap and asking his grandson wake him when supper is ready.  One sock is black, one’s navy blue.  The youngest daughter was supposed to toss a salad.  The graduate picks up his cell phone and texts his ex-girlfriend.  It’s not too late, the old woman thinks, to poison this tomato sauce.  The husband reluctantly finishes sweeping his spotless garage.  Then he begins on the driveway.  He sweeps around the parked cars.  He finds the youngest daughter-his sister-in-law-lying face-down in the backseat of her locked sedan, crying.  The front door of the house opens and the old woman steps out holding a red-stained wooden spoon.  Her car is parked on the street for a fast getaway.  She throws the spoon as far as she can across the front yard and it lands in the pine-needle mulch around a tulip tree, terrifying the cat.  The husband asks if everything is all right.  His mother-in-law says she’s out of there.  The old man comes to the door in his sock-feet, white hair tousled.  The old woman spins, snarls, throws him a look that stops his gentle hand from reaching out to her.  It’s five steps down to the sidewalk, then twenty-two steps to her car.  She slams the door, jams in the key and guns the engine.  It’s not so far to her motel, but she drives it slow with her cell phone in her lap, hoping they’ll call.  They don’t.

Luke Whisnant’s novel Watching TV with the Red Chinese was made into an independent film in 2010; his most recent book is Down in the Flood, a collection of stories. Recent work has appeared in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine (England), and is forthcoming in Potomac Review and Cider Press Review. He teaches creative writing at East Carolina University, where he also edits Tar River Poetry.
7.02 / February 2012