a short story by
I have always loved Sunday Dinner. As a child, there was excitement in the preparation. The shopping for pastries after church, sfogliatelle, cannoli and napoleons (with that wonderfully sweet cream that always oozed out when you tried to cut it), the hours of cooking, the perfume of bubbling tomato sauce, stuffing manicotti while various meats sizzled on the stove, the frenetic activity as Mom tackled seven jobs bestowed holiday status on our Sunday meal.
We always ate early on Sundays. Even so, by two o’clock the anticipation was unbearable. My brother and I would kneel on the sofa looking out the window, waiting for our Uncle Jake’s car to turn into the driveway. He always brought Grandma and Grandpa and Grandma always brought candies. She always had a pocketful of sour balls and peppermints that she slipped to us one piece at a time before dinner. Don’t tell your mother was Grandma’s whispered mantra. It was almost as important as don’t spoil your dinner. Grandma would tap my belly with her big, beefy hand and shake her head in dismay. You’re too skinny. Make sure you eat. In this family, that was never a problem. I might have been young and skinny but I was fast; I always got my due and more.
The food was always ready by the time Grandma and Grandpa came through the door. The antipasto was waiting on the table and the meatballs and sausage were keeping warm in a chafing dish on the counter. Lasagna or stuffed shells, baked ziti or manicotti was always bubbling gently in the oven; no one would have to wait for the pasta once Aunt CeCe, Uncle Steve and the kids got here. My Aunt was always late and Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa always argued and complained and joked about it. They were loud and animated. That was our way. Once Aunt CeCe and her family arrived, we were all hugs and kisses. I brought pie was always followed by laughter and applause. Aunt CeCe made the worst pies. That was the real joke. Everyone laughed as coats were thrown on the couch and bodies pushed and elbowed their way to the table. Food was ready and no one kept an Abate away from food.
During Sunday dinner, there were two rules. No talk of religion and no talk of politics. At every Sunday dinner, God and the President always got equal time. Voices were raised. Fists were shaken. Someone was always a moron and, yet, no one ever missed a bite. It did not matter if the subject was the Pope or Mark Twain, political graft or the collection plate, the Immaculate Conception or whether Mary really pulled one over on Joseph, or whatever new stupidity was coming out of that damn liberal Court, my family always managed to talk, shout and rage with their mouth full. More sauce was spit on the table cloth than spilled passing overfilled platters. We were always loud but we never left hungry. At the end of every Sunday meal, Uncle Steve’s belt was always undone, Grandpa always complained that there was too much food and my Mom always made my Grandparents a platter to take with them. Everyone always left happy and everyone always planned to come back next Sunday.
It is a tradition that I have passed on to my own family.
It is a tradition that has not stood the test of time.
My family is at the table this Sunday. It is the first time we are together – all of us – in years. I cannot tell you how many years but I can only remember three Sunday dinners in the last year. Once my son was here. Once my daughter came by but left early and once they both left – leaving the kids behind – so that they could go to a party together.
They are all here today.
I had to tell them I was dying to get them to make an appearance.
I had to perform some serious magic to keep them.
I love my family...
They are all here and they are all staring at me. They are all scared; no one has said a word. I have decided I want to enjoy my meal. I am not entertaining conversation. This is our last family meal together and I will conduct it as I see fit.
I sit in my usual spot at the head of the table, patriarch of a sad and dysfunctional clan.
Why are you doing this?
The question is clearly on my daughter’s mind. She has always been the assertive one in this family. It is a question that should be asked, needs to be asked under the circumstances, so I volunteer my reasoning. They are my family, after all.
“I don’t want our traditions to die.”
The antipasto is spread out on several platters across the tabletop. All the usual selections are there. All the treats from my childhood. Italian tuna shares a plate with pimentos, rolled anchovies, sardines, marinated artichoke hearts, stuffed mushrooms and several salamis. There is a plate of asparagus spears, a bowl of fried cauliflower, a platter of assorted cheeses, mostly provolone and sharp cheddar, a dish of fresh mozzarella and basil dribbled with extra virgin olive oil and a Lazy Susan (my Mother’s) overflowing with olives and stuffed peppers.
No one has touched a bite. I smile. My family, my Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Cece, Uncle Steve and Uncle Jake, Mom and Dad, the cousins, would have stormed across this table like Sherman across Georgia. There would have been nothing left and it wouldn’t have taken any time at all. If I close my eyes, I can see them. The image makes me smile.
“I have always enjoyed Sunday dinners.”
I pop a pepperoncini in my mouth and bite off the stem. The juice fills my mouth with hot liquid. I find it strangely satisfying.
”I’m sorry you don’t like this stuff,” I add, waving a hand across the table, “there is a lot more coming.”
Once again, my daughter Miranda takes the lead. There are two men at the table but she has always been the one with balls. She does not wait for her brother to confront me. Mark lacks the tools for confrontation. At twenty-seven, he is more likely to cower and whimper than take a stand on anything. Miranda pauses long enough to look for support from her mother, my wife Agnes; she is still asleep and still useless. Miranda does not pay any attention to her brother’s boyfriend – I think this one is Jeffrey. This is probably a mistake, the result of her own character flaws. She is shortsighted. If anyone will cause me difficulty it is Jeffrey. His jaw is clenched, his eyes, small and hard, are fixed on me. Their message is not friendly. None of that matters. The play begins with Miranda.
My daughter lunges at me but she cannot reach. I am out of range, the result of intense planning. She tries to scream but everything is muffled. I really cannot understand anything she says – or tries to say – but the subtext is obvious.
Why are you doing this?
“I have spent my life trying to keep this family’s traditions alive. This meal – our last by the way – is my way of acknowledging my failure. For the first time, I do not expect a different result. For the first time, I do not care what happens.”
Jeffrey starts to rock and pull against the chair trying to get away from the table. He leans dangerously close to falling backwards.
“If you fall, I will not pick you up.”
It is a throw-away line. I am nonchalant.
“Nothing will change…except, maybe, finding yourself in a more embarrassing position.”
I look at my family.
“I would like to eat now.”
I am firm and unbending. They look at me like I’m nuts.
Each family member, wife, daughter, son, son’s special someone and the children, three sandy-haired grandchildren, are all zip-tied to their chairs. Arms and ankles. A hefty amount of duct tape has been wrapped around their waists fitting them tightly to their seats. A little more duct tape has been deployed to control conversation. No one is moving very far or very much. I sense my wife is starting to stir; the grandchildren will be asleep for a while longer, maybe for the entire meal. Ketamine was a good choice.
“I mean it. I want to enjoy my meal. Please respect all the work that went into preparing this.”
I punctuate the request with the gun. My first. My brand new, out-of-the-box Bulldog Pug is on the table next to my plate. My hand aimlessly strokes the cold, chrome finish.
Miranda wiggles her fingers as if to say why. Mark starts to blubber.
“Every holiday, every Sunday feast that you have bothered to attend has been an unmitigated disaster. Your behavior has been more like animals than humans. There is certainly nothing about family in any of you. I was embarrassed to sit at the same table with you. When I remove that tape, if I remove that tape, I will let you eat like animals…”
I lower my face to my plate to demonstrate. I pluck a piece of fried cauliflower from my antipasto choices and swallow it whole.
“…I’m sure you can all reach.”
As I wipe oil from my nose with my napkin, Jeffrey finds his voice. He starts to scream beneath his gag. He pushes his tongue against the tape and stretches his mouth trying to loosen the restraint. He bellows a lungful of trapped air hoping to reclaim his captured voice. His words are garbled but some are clear enough to make sense of his contribution.
“I am not a member of this family and I am not putting my face in this plate to eat your fucking meal!”
There is a pause as Jeffrey waits for a reaction. When I remain silent he adds an apology.
“I’m sorry if I offended you…”
Jeffrey sounds a little like Porky Pig behind the gag. I cannot resist a good laugh.
“The word fuck does not shock me. These guys cannot form a thought without using it,” I acknowledge my family with a dismissive wave. I resist the urge to spend any more time on them. Jeffrey has worked hard to get my attention. He should have it.
“If you want to die hungry, the choice is yours.”
I raise my gun and aim at Jeffrey.
Miranda struggles wildly. She shakes her head violently. She is arguing with me – Miranda always argues with me – but her voice does not have Jeffrey’s power. Strangely, she is all confrontation; there is nothing entreating in her argument. Her words have meaning…but only to her.
Mark has crossed from blubber to hysteria. His eyes, dripping tears, connect with mine. They plead with me. I can only guess that he cares about the man. I meet his gaze. I shrug. I squeeze the trigger. The Bulldog barks (Sorry!). If you can hear a bullet, Jeffrey hears it whirl past his ear, missing by about six inches. I hit my target. Frank Sinatra’s head, an ugly ceramic statue that my wife and mother made years ago in some neighborhood ceramics class, explodes into a cloud of white powder. I think about a Woody Allen movie…the one where he sneezes into a bowl of cocaine. I smile. I am happy. Almost giddy.
Apparently zip ties and duct tape are not real enough but bullets…bullets are very real indeed. My guests assume a dramatically different posture. Pandemonium is a good word. Cacophony is another. They scream pathetic muffled screams. They pull wildly against the straps. They will all be bruised at the wrists and ankles. What do they say on television: ligature marks? At least one will bleed. Jeffery alone is still. Ramrod straight, he breathes rapidly, sucking and expelling air with each heartbeat. The man must be part rabbit. I tap the nose of my gun on the table restoring some sense of order to our little meal.
“I have tried year after year to keep traditions that meant something to me alive. Holidays, Sundays, Birthdays….they have never been anything by disappointing. Year after year you have sat in those chairs fighting over nonsense, insulting each other with the vilest names and the crudest language. You have complained about everything I have tried to do. One of you…”
I nod at Mark.
“…stopped at McDonald’s before stopping here. Each of you, in their own way, has found ways to arrive late and excuses to leave early. There has been no thought of the meal. No thought of family. No thought of me. I sit at this table – alone – feeling empty and disappointed. I have spent my life wondering what I have done wrong…just what I have done to make you all so fuckin’ miserable. I am a failure. I accept that now.”
The ketamine is wearing off. My wife is finally awake. I think she was able to focus on most of my little tirade. Only the little children remain deeply asleep – or, perhaps, more correctly, only the children are unconscious.
I have been married for almost thirty years. I do not need to hear her words. I know them.
What do you think you’re doing?
I can almost hear her hiss the words.
You pathetic little cock sucker…what are you trying to prove…you hate us…you hate it here…fine…leave…I can kick your fucking ass to the curb if that’s what you want…I don’t need you…I never needed you…I’ll divorce you…is that what you want…I can keep everything…you know I can…I can get rid of you…you know I can…how would you like that, you fucking wimp!
I laugh. It is actually a relief to hear her sound normal. The drug, the zip ties, the duct tape, none of that changes who she is.
“You have been promising to divorce me for twenty-eight years. We are still here.”
“Not tonight. Tonight is not going to be any different than the last eight years. Not in that way anyway.”
This whole exercise has been crazy. I have enough sanity left to realize that. It is just another failure. History repeating without mercy. Their gags are in place but I hear their voices. Nothing is garbled anymore.
Mark has something to say but it doesn’t take much to stop him. I raise a finger, one empty, slightly crooked, probably impotent finger and any other words choke in his throat. He really is a coward.
“I am not done with your mother. Not yet.”
I look back at Agnes. My smile is as fake and empty as words like “honey”, “dear” and “sweetheart”. There is simply no warmth, no affection and no love behind any of them. Not anymore.
“You won’t divorce me because you won’t give me…finally give me…something… anything...that would make me happy. And…AND…if I am wrong about that, so what. You don’t have time for the paperwork. Not anymore.”
There is a pause, a moment of awakening. It is like watching children play connect the dots.
“You’re going to…kill us?”
The question is incredulous.
“What about my children?”
“You don’t want to do that.”
“I’m your son.”
“I’m your daughter.”
“I just met Mark. I don’t have anything to do with this!”
Jeffrey’s voice chimes in as comic relief.
I do not bother answering. Their words are now in my head. They are loud and getting louder. Shouting. The grandchildren will sleep through everything. I am sure of that. Nothing else matters. I don’t even feel like eating. Not anymore. They have taken that from me, too. I guess I am not much of an Abate after all.
I raise my gun as I look at them. I touch fingertips to my lips and throw little kisses at my children. A finger slides over the trigger. There is a little pressure as metal starts to give way to flesh.
My hand is steady. I do not feel the recoil. I honestly do not hear the shot. My bullet is true. It hits its mark and passes effortlessly through my brain. I am sure it shatters something else on the wall but…
It doesn’t matter.
I see my family all trussed up in their Sunday finery.
I won’t have to suffer through another meal.
Maybe I laugh…
I see them all before I leave.
I think again…
Why would I want to take them with me?