From Roost by Ali Bryan:Cover of Roost by Ali Bryan

“Claudia, we need matches!” my father hollers from the dining room.

“I’m getting them!”

I’m standing on a chair, searching through the cupboard above the kitchen sink. Behind the vitamins and piping bags, I find a lighter from when I used to smoke, from a previous life. It is off-white with a red thing that looks like a guillotine, and because I no longer smoke, its only purpose is to light birthday candles. Fat ones shaped like numbers and the ones that never blow out. When I reach for it a tube of Polysporin falls on my head and then lands in the sink full of cold, cloudy water and a few floating pieces of omelette. I’ll fish it out later. Back in the dining room they’ve already started singing “Happy Birth­day.” Tonight we’re celebrating my mother’s sixtieth.

“Just wait!” I shield the flames as I set down the cake in front of her. But no one waits. They finish singing and, with her hands braced against the bevelled edge of my unfashion­able oak table, she blows mightily. Some candles extinguish immediately, while others, the kind that do not blow out, per­sistently flicker, making her sweat. Her grandchildren have abandoned their seats and converged on the cake, but they have the wind power of hamsters and do little more than spray the surface with microscopic bits of the snack mix they spent most of the night gorging on. Four pieces of untouched lasagna on side plates remain on the table as if waiting to be taste-tested.

Two of the kids are mine. Wesley is four. His Transformers underwear, which is on inside out, peeks above the waistband of his jogging pants.

“Sit back,” I say. “Give Grandma some space.”

He returns to his chair obligingly, but he stands instead of sits, keeping his gaze on the trick candles and fantasizing over which piece of the cake will be his. He rubs at his red upper lip and nostrils. My older brother Dan looks at him, repulsed.

“What?” I say defensively. “He has impetigo. He’s itchy.”

“I didn’t say anything,” he replies, as my mother makes a second grand attempt to blow out her cake.

“No, but you looked at him like he was disgusting.”

“I did not look at him like he was disgusting.”

My mother gives Dan and me a beseeching look.

“Come on, Wes.” I take his hand and lead him off his chair. “Go wash your hands.” He saunters out of the room and across the hall to the bathroom. “Try not to touch your face,” I call after him.

Two candles remain lit. “Just take them off and throw them in something,” my father says impatiently, pushing a can of Sprite towards my mother. But it’s a full can and she can’t waste it, so he sighs and puts them out with his wet fingers. I am certain some of his saliva has landed on the cake.

At two and a half, Joan is my youngest. She has weaselled her way up onto my mom’s lap and to her delight is served the first piece of birthday cake. Aside from occasionally humping things and believing that we are all engaged in an ongoing game of chase, she’s the easier of my two children. She is less sensitive than Wes and more independent, and though this offers me some parental reprieve it also worries me; two-year-olds should need their mommies. They should cling to their legs and crawl into their beds and want help getting dressed.

“Come here, Joan.” I gently slap my thigh, but she ignores me and begins licking her plate.

Dan refuses cake and quietly assists his daughter in eating hers. His wife, Allison-Jean, sits to his left. She’s almost seven months pregnant, though she was fat to begin with. It will be their third child. Her hair is limp and the colour of lake trout, and she may have poor taste in shoes and a hyphenated name, but she can move people to tears when she plays the piano.

“Allison-Jean?” my mother says, offering her a lopsided piece of cake.

She accepts it to be nice and this pleases my mother, who all of a sudden looks weary.

“I’ll have one,” I say.

“There’s a shocker,” Dan says, grinning. He wipes the corners of his daughter Hannah’s mouth with a Hello Kitty napkin that he then folds into a triangle. His family life is orderly. Structure over chaos, positive reinforcement over yell­ing. Weekend theme nights and regular bedtimes. On Fridays they play board games as a family and build puzzles with no missing pieces, and when they finish them they disassemble them and put the pieces back in their boxes, which look new because their kids have never tried to stand on them or jab them with tent pegs.

In my house, my grotty three-bed, two-bath bungalow, everything is missing a piece. Kleenex boxes are dented, towels are frayed, and the blinds are twisted like rebar. There is not enough suction in the vacuum, too much water pressure in the bathroom sink, and today there are too many people. After a quick survey of the dining room, I realize my dad has left the table.

I walk through the kitchen that opens out into the living room. My father’s at the back of the living room sliding the glass door that leads to the back deck open and shut.

“What are you doing?”

With one hand he takes off his glasses, while with the other he reaches up to the track above. “It’s a bit jammed,” he says. “See this thingamajig here? It should be lined up with this piece over here.” He grunts as he points to it. “Do you have a Phillips head?”

“Yes, but you don’t have to do this now.”

“It will just take a minute.”

“Seriously, it’s not that bad,” I argue. “I barely use that door.”

But he spreads his arms across it anyway, grips the edges, and in a rocking motion pops it off the track. The weight causes him to stumble back.

“Whoa!” he says, catching his balance. He takes a few re­covering steps forward, props the door against its stationary partner, and asks where he can find the toolbox.

“Is it time for presents?” Wes asks, poking at the small accumulation of gifts on the kitchen counter with a skewer.

“Give me that,” I say, tossing the skewer in the junk drawer. “I think presents are a great idea.” And I let him carry one of the least breakable-looking gifts into the dining room.

Dan and Allison-Jean both rise; she clears the dishes, while Dan follows Wes’s lead and ferries the rest of the gifts into the dining room and assembles them into a neat pile on the table. My dad shuffles back to join us but doesn’t sit down. I’m hoping the gift opening goes speedily so he can get back to fixing the door.

“Isn’t it lovely, Gerald?” my mother says, holding up a teapot adorned with the characters from The Wizard of Oz.

My father nods.

“What does it do?” Dan asks, confused.

“What do you mean, what does it do? It’s a teapot,” I reply.

“Yes,” my mother quickly intervenes, examining the jew­elled appliqués on Dorothy’s ruby slippers, “and I will use it the next time the ladies come to play bridge.”

My father rushes my mother along. “Open the next one,” he suggests.

“She collects teapots,” I tell my brother.

“I do,” my mother agrees, latching onto the next present. She moves briskly, tearing the paper on her gifts instead of carefully pulling back the tape, seemingly on board to get it over and done with. She opens a fancy cheese grater, a pair of leather gloves, and a picture, which she unearths from a sea of mauve tissue.

“What is it?” Wes asks, staring at the brown paper on the back of the frame.

“It’s . . . it’s my mother,” she whispers. “It’s a picture of my mother.” She stares at it for some time before flipping it over for the group to admire. “But how did you . . . I mean it was ripped and bent and . . . I mean, look at it,” my mother says. She turns it back over and runs her fingers over the glass. Dan points to Allison-Jean.

“It wasn’t all me,” she protests. “It was actually Daniel’s idea.”

“Yes, but you made it happen,” he says dotingly.

She blushes. “You’d be surprised what they can do now to restore old photos.”

“Well, yes. I am surprised,” my mother says.

“Let me see,” I say abruptly.

My mother delicately hands over the frame. I don’t recog­nize the photo. I hardly even remember my grandmother and what I do recall of her does not correspond with the woman in the picture, who has a boyish figure and sculpted hair, who is wearing a dropped waist dress and long beads. In fact all I remember is her shortbread and her attic and how as she got older she looked increasingly like an amphibian.

“There’s one more thing in there,” Dan says, setting the dishevelled bag upright.

Of course there is, I think.

Dan waves my father back from the living room as my mother fishes through even more tissue paper. She pulls out an envelope and turns it over as though looking for instructions.

“What is it?” Wes asks impatiently.

“Open it up, Janice,” my dad urges.

My mother tears open the edges. Allison-Jean frantically removes her camera from its Neoprene diaper of a case. Her children smile before she’s even turned the camera on. Dan has repositioned himself behind my mother and appears to be sucking in his stomach. The level of anticipation in the room is compromising my ability to behave. I pick at Wes’s aban­doned piece of cake. My mother reads some sort of printed document and then puts her hand to her chest.

“Danny, you shouldn’t have!”

This time I’m the one who asks, “What is it?”

“It’s a trip to Cuba for your father and me!”

“Thanks for the heads-up,” I mutter to Dan.

Dan ignores me. “You said for a long time you wanted to go to one of those all-inclusive resorts like your friend Betty Jane, so Allison-Jean talked to Dad and, well, you only turn sixty once.”

My mother stands and hugs Dan and Allison-Jean from across the table, and I don’t know whether to start singing “Kumbaya” or stick a fork in my eye.

“I thought you always wanted to go to Paris?”

My dad excuses himself once again to go work on the door.

“Open mine, Grandma!” Wes hollers, handing my mother a mysterious package wrapped in a damp hand towel from the bathroom.

“Oh my,” she says, surprised. “I wonder what it could be.”

He waits anxiously as my mother unfolds the towel. It smells like mildew and 1977, but no one dares to comment.

“Oh they are great, Wesley,” my mother praises him, flip­ping through a stack of freshly drawn pictures of stick people with excessively large eyeballs, one of which has been drawn over my MasterCard bill. “Just lovely.”

I get up from the table and disappear into my bedroom where I play Facebook Scrabble and quietly regret my inad­equate gift. When I return to the kitchen, apologizing and wav­ing around my phone, so that everyone knows I had important business matters to take care of, the sink’s emptied, the dishes have been put in the dishwasher. I check; they were rinsed first. Allison-Jean and Dan are at the front door putting shoes on their kids. Mom and Dad join us.

“Do you need a bag, Mom?” I ask, looking past her and seeing her presents still on the dining room table.

“Oh. Yes, please.”

I go and get her a grocery bag and she carefully slips her gifts inside.

My dad pats me on the back. “It’s all done,” he says proudly, referring to the sliding door.

“Thanks.” I manage a smile.

The rest of the adults linger in the front foyer discussing Cuba.

“We leave tomorrow!” my mother reminds herself.

I open the door. It’s mild outside. The air is damp, the stars not visible. A foghorn bellows from the bottom of the hill. The bass call of a container ship galumphing into Hali­fax harbour, like an oversized pack animal. My family files out and I follow my mother.

“Mom!”

She turns.

“Have a good trip,” I say, hugging her.

She says thanks and I watch her get into the passenger seat of the car where she puts on her seat belt and rests her purse on her lap as she has done a million times before, except this time she does so with an air of childlike giddiness that is both cartoonish and endearing. I return to the house with a smile. She can’t help it that her son is an asshole.

 

Copyright © Ali Bryan, 2013.