It started with a tablecloth - Belgian linen, hand-stitched, long enough to cover the three boards that widened our oak table for company. I was nine and in love with my mother back then, the way most sons feel at that age, the way I still feel about her. I'd invent excuses not to play outside, preferring to watch her perform magic in our kitchen with a stack of red bowls, some wooden spoons, and pastry dough. She always started whipping up the batter late in the afternoon, close to dinner, when the sun walked across her back and her hands raced to beat sugar, eggs, and butter into flour cream. I sat on a metal stool with a catcher's mitt in my lap, secretly hoping she would ask me to add raisins or nuts, sometimes jam.
I wanted to be part of the process of creating, to be her little helper. I think that day she let me sprinkle cinnamon in the large bowl, maybe nutmeg too. I can't remember for sure. The one thing I do remember is that when she asked me which tablecloth to set for dinner, I begged her to use the hand-stitched one.
My parents had known Mitchell and Susan since elementary school, and the four of them were inseparable. They married within a day of each other, honeymooned together in Nashville of all places, and lived on the same street. My father and Mitchell worked in the same insurance company and went duck hunting in the same old van. The twin couples even tried to have children at the same time, but all that togetherness produced only me. Susan was barren, I once heard my mother tell someone on the telephone, and I pictured an empty field of brown dirt like the one beyond our fence, certainly not her pink womb.
Did I say I was nine? I must have been older, for as much as I loved my mother, I lusted for Susan. So I must have been older. Ten sounds right. I was ten when my mother and I lugged the table boards to the dining room from the pantry closet by the back door of the old Victorian house where I grew up.
"We need all three tonight," Mom said as I furrowed between the winter coats and Christmas wrap boxes into the deep recesses against the wall. I grunted, lifting the first leaf, but was unable to raise it by myself, although I was strong enough to carry bags of groceries from the car into the kitchen. The oak plank weighed more than I did. "Hold it a minute, Stephen," she said. "Don't lift it yourself. Wait for me." I did. My mother joined me in the closet. I waited for her to separate the coats across the long rod and watched her enter the darkened space, her pale face a hologram of beauty. I held my breath. "O.K. Ready. Lift."
Together she and I carted the boards from the closet into the dining room. The table was cracked open, waiting. "Careful, Stephen. Push now," she said, "until you hear the click." And after I did, we stood back and examined the table, its length emasculating the four chairs and Persian rug that could no longer contain its legs.
I arranged some folding chairs around the table while my mother retrieved the cardboard box that had been tucked away in the corner hutch. She carried it to the table with pride, her chin jutting forward, holding the masterpiece, precious and dear. "Because you asked," my mother said, opening the lid of the box and slipping her hands inside. She gathered the tablecloth across her arms. It flowed past her elbows, as beige as her skin, and cascaded to the floor. Our Chihuahua, Goliath, pawed at the linen. Anything on the pine floor was his domain. He yelped and scooted in and out of the chairs while Mom and I draped the cloth across the table.
"More on your side," my mother instructed. "And further toward the window."
My fingers stretched the fabric based on her directions. She patted down the hand-stitched decorations, broken crosses that interlaced in alternating threads of magenta and brown. I followed and patted my side smooth with both hands until the cloth hung in perfect relation to the table. We stepped back and inspected our work, quite pleased. Goliath jumped and fell over, but couldn't reach the cloth.
"Put him outside, would you Stephen?"
I did because my mother disapproved of Goliath on ordinary days, let alone days when company visited. I sat on the back step and watched him trot around the yard sniffing clumps of daffodils, then lifting a leg on the old willow tree by the garage. The afternoon sun warmed my face, and I thought I smelled honeysuckle when a breeze passed, but it was too early for honeysuckle and too late for snowflakes, which arrived from nowhere.
It was my job to take the guests' coats and carry them to my parents' bedroom and lay them on the patchwork quilt, one on top of another. It was also my job to "be polite" and "smile, it won't kill you." Of the two responsibilities that night, the coats were a cakewalk, even the heavy ones and especially the beaver jacket Susan wore that I rubbed back and forth all the way up the stairs. Alone in my parents' room, I put it on inside out for a second so the pelts rested against my body like a friendly grizzly bear. It smelled sweet, like oranges dipped in sugar.
"Stephen," I heard my mother calling. Quickly, I turned Susan's coat right side out and laid it across the pillows away from the others piled at the foot of the bed. From the hall, I heard Goliath barking in my room, but with the door closed, he sounded like a lost dog outside on the street. I bounded down the steps to find our living room swarming with adults, none of whom I recognized. Before I reached the landing, my father rushed over and laid three coats across my outstretched arms. "That's the last of them," he said. "When you're finished, come down and meet the guests."
I smiled, job number one almost completed, and raced upstairs again. Goliath was quiet. In my parents' bedroom, I laid a tan raincoat with a military pin in the lapel on top of the other coats. Then I added two navy wool blazers - one, a little ripped under the arm, the other, large enough for two men. I ran my hand down Susan's jacket once more, then joined the party in full swing downstairs. A haze of cigarette smoke floated over the living room. Tall men with cocktails and toothpicks chatted away. My father was shaking vodka in a silver carafe and laughing with Susan and strangers taller than he was. At 6'5", that was unusual. I felt like Goliath looking up at all of them, seeing only trouser legs and distant faces.
"Stevie," Susan hugged my shoulders. "That tie sure is smart."
I blushed, of course, glanced away, and all of a sudden worried where the furniture was. It seemed to disappear in the crowd. Searching around between legs and behind shoes for something familiar, all I saw were Susan's red lips, puckered like a kiss when she smiled. My face ignited, a bonfire of pinkish flame, and I took refuge in the kitchen to find my mother basting a turkey with the oven door open.
"Who are these people?" I asked, reaching for a dishrag to wipe sweat from my neck.
"Susan's family. I told you. They're visiting from California."
"Oh," I said. "Doesn't Susan have any family besides men?"
My mother laughed. "I guess not," she said, closing the oven door and opening it again. "Tell everyone dinner's ready."
I wandered into the living room. The smoke was thicker now, the talk louder. I tugged on my father's coat sleeve and whispered that dinner was ready. He nodded and cleared his throat in an artificial way that stopped the chatter. "Dinner is served," he announced, beckoning the group to follow him into the dining room. Some of the smoke from the living room had seeped into the dining area through the archway and mingled with the candle glow from the center of the table. Smoldering was the appropriate description.
My mother entered from the kitchen as the guests circled the table unsure of where to sit. "Please, make yourselves comfortable anywhere," my mother offered, flipping on the light switch in the corner as I watched the chandelier beam.
I'll never forget the gasps I heard echoing up to the ceiling once the room was illuminated, or the statements made that could never be taken back.
"Is that what I think it is?" an overweight man with bulging blue veins on his nose, smothering a beer stein in his fist asked. He was pointing to the table my mother and I had painstakingly set with wisps of baby violet china and cut glass crystal.
"Is there some problem?" my mother asked. "Please, make yourselves comfortable. Sit anywhere."
"You expect us to sit with swastikas?"
"Swastikas," an older, balding man shouted, his back bent like a drooping flower over the table, his gold-tipped cane zeroing in on the largest row of stitching. "There. Running across the tablecloth. Aren't they Hitler crosses?"
"Please," my father said now. "This tablecloth has been in my wife's family for two or three generations. It's an heirloom."
"An heirloom?" the colored nose man scoffed. "Susan, did you bring us to dinner at some Nazi lovers' house?"
Susan and Mitchell were standing together, each with both hands on the back of a chair. Susan was staring at the tablecloth with a puzzled look on her face, a lack of understanding of her exact role in the middle of this maelstrom. Mitchell nudged her arm and she walked over to my mother and grabbed hold of her trembling hands.
"Janet, dear. My father and his brothers are veterans of World War II." Susan's voice was low, but firm. Her eyes were riveted on the table, away from my mother. " My uncle," she glanced at the old man with the cane, then quickly focused on the table again. "He helped liberate Auschwitz, and he met my aunt there."
"God rest her soul," the old man said.
My father cleared his throat again. I expected him to say something to calm the group. Instead, he kept clearing his throat, never saying a word. Everyone looked at him, waiting for him to speak. When he didn't, the room became very still as if no one could breathe. I stood frozen in the corner for what seemed like eternity, opposite Susan and my mother. Then, the talking got faster, and more heated. I remember feeling even smaller than I had in the living room, a speck of dust on the baseboard, ready to blow away at any time.
"Gentlemen, I meant no offense." My mother's tone was apologetic. "This tablecloth was embridered decades before the Nazis used this symbol as a party insignia. The swastika is as old as man."
"Well, I for one, this old man here,'' the tallest man in the room said, "will never let my brother eat a morsel at this house looking at that poison." He spit on the cloth.
My mother ran over to the table and began wiping the spit with the apron tied at her waist. With each stroke of her apron, she muttered, "Sorry. Sorry. So sorry." When no one offered to accept her apology, she backed away from the table, her mouth and eyes forming the same hollow circles until she started talking faster, rattling off her explanation with lightening speed. "This symbol has been found in the ruins of Troy. In Egypt and China. My grandmother's mother set her table with this very cloth in Romania. Please, sit. Dinner will be cold."
Susan's red lips opened. Her teeth flashed a brilliant white, and reminded me of Goliath when he smelled a dog he didn't like. "We'd better be going now. I'm afraid my family has lost their appetite." She whispered something in Mitchell's ear, but the only word I could make out was "insensitive."
The guests hurled insults as they prepared to leave. There was a tremendous amount of foot stamping. I specifically recall the man with the cane shrieking that he "still had nightmares of Jewish bones in the shape of swastikas lined up for thousands of miles" and that he was "God's witness."
Despite all their shouting and name-calling, I listened to my mother defending her family keepsake, wondering why she didn't just whip the cloth from the table without disturbing the dishes like those magicians do. Start over. Why wasn't she trying to make peace? *I'll never understand pride at someone else's expense.* The men stormed away from the table, but not before the tall one swiped a candlestick with the back of his hand like of a slap, and the candle tumbled out of its holder and caught fire on the cloth. The beige fabric burned so quickly that the water goblets made no difference. Hatred is like that. My father doused the small flame with the water pitcher, while my mother emptied every glass on the singed and ruined cloth. She then turned away from the mess and I saw her cling to the hutch, her inconsolable tears streaking its glass windows.
My father didn't go to her. Instead, he followed Mitchell and the men to the door and then climbed the staircase. Out of nowhere, Goliath raced down the steps, my father unable to stop him. Barking, then growling, he nipped at the pant cuffs of a man eager to leave. "Put him in your room," my father ordered. "Enough is enough!" I shouldn't have obeyed my father. I should have stayed downstairs with my mother, bolstered her, help to ease her pain. I wanted to, but someone wanted something different from me. Someone wanted me in hell.
With Goliath pried away from the guest's trousers and safely tucked under my arm, I bounded up the steps to put him back in my room, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father helping Susan with her jacket in his bedroom. Goliath, a good boy now, and I stood in my parents' doorway and listened to my father's soft voice. He was apologizing over and over to her, rubbing the soft beaver collar of her jacket. Tears similar to my mother's fell against her cheeks. My father wiped them away with his hand, then his mouth. He kissed Susan the way I fantasized about kissing her, only he held her tight in a fierce grasp.
As I reflect on it now, some twenty years later, I realize that I played an integral part as the catalyst for hell. It wasn't just the tablecloth. But I never would have guessed that Mitchell and Susan were the devil's representatives. I could blame Hitler for the education I got that night. I could blame the tablecloth. Instead, I choose to blame myself. A witness to my father and Susan's embrace from an unsafe distance in the dark, I became the keeper of a secret, a secret I had no right or desire to share. As such, those afternoons of innocence with my mother in the kitchen were gone, like the butterfly that landed on my sneaker once in the garden, and fluttered away before I could study the symmetry of its wings.
© Sukie Brown
Sukie Brown's stories have appeared in Happy, Anthology, The Armchair Aesthete, The San Diego Writers' Monthly, and The Higginsville Reader.
Submit your comments on this story to our MoxieTalk
discussion group by clicking here!
You can also send your comments directly to the author using the
You can do both by typing your response below,
submitting it and then copying it, going to MoxieTalk, and pasting it
into the form there for posting a message.
Please include your e-mail address if you
would like the author to be able to write you back.
Copyright 2002 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved