It was a long hallway, the walls weighted by pictures of mediocre talent.
From where she sat at the dinner table, Jenny could see the length of hallway and watched as her mother hurried toward the front door and its persistent summons. She knew from the sound the knocking belonged
to someone who knocked and knocked, even when there was no door.
[quoteright]Like lightning, two white arms shot upward, then came down enmeshed like a chain around Jenny's mother's neck.
Jenny couldn't see who or what it was, but from the edges of her mother, from in front of her, something slapped outward... long strips like leather wings, all bordered in goat hair. Was it bleating she had heard? No, surely it had been knocking, she thought.
A person's head emerged from the swirling goat hair and a scream issued from its mouth. Jenny knew it was human. She heard her mother scream back in reply.
Goat hair flaps flying, the lady was brought to the table and introduced to Jenny. Noting the lady's appearance, Jenny saw large eyes, walnut in color, and spaced closely together. The upper portion of her face was small and pinched, like a shoe too tight. Then it spread wide at the bottom, like a flat foot. Overall, the face was like a pear in shape. The hair was crimped into tight vertical waves hugged close against the head. It was brass colored, and reminded Jenny of a door knocker.
Jenny had an impulse to climb under the table, but instead she reached back for the hand now poked toward her, having parted several flaps of goat hair. "Sally More", the woman said in a full loud voice.
At once, Jenny felt like a valley to which the mountain was speaking.
"Jenny Simmons," she replied in a voice soft as butterfly wings.
From behind the goat hair, a man emerged. His mouth wore a grin. His eyes, half closed, protruded to a point, like a lizard's.
Missing by a foot as he reached for Jenny's hand, but leaning toward her in the process, Jenny knew he was entirely intoxicated.
"This is David More, Jenny. My daughter, Jenny, David."
"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance", Mr More told the vacant space next to Jenny, then lifted one of his wife's goat fringed flaps to his nose and sniffed it as thought it were a rose.
Rather viciously, Mrs More yanked it from under her husband's nose.
"Oh, do come sit down", Jenny's mother said, "I want to hear about your new home and the property and just... everything!"
Jenny realized the visitors had taken precedence over dinner.
She was forgotten and sought the corner couch in her mother's spacious living room which only knew habitation when special guests arrived.
The lizard-eyed man selected a rather stiffly upholstered Victorian chair and turned it one half revolution before seating himself, so now he faced the plate glass window and saw only himself reflected in it. He seemed satisfied and closed his eyes, though Jenny could see his eyes flick like a serpent's tongue beneath his eyelids.
Mrs More batted the goat-haired flaps with the topside of each hand as she took deliberate steps to reach the one red velvet chair situated nearest the middle of the room.
Jenny's mother and father placed themselves as wings, beyond the leather ones with their goat hair, and now sat poised like students around a great teacher's feet.
"Well!" Mrs More blared, shooting her arms through the strips of leather and their goat hair fringe. "David",... she recoiled her arms and pulled her lips all to one side and into a downward position, then nodded toward her husband who continued to sit quietly in front of himself reflected in the window, his eyes still darting in jerky movements under his eyelids... "David is never home to enjoy any of it, but"... this time, she slapped the goat hair outward... "I have three maids to help me keep it all up when he's gone." At this point, Mrs More patted her open mouth in a yawning attitude, four large jeweled rings sparkling at this entrance of her sustenance.
With her thumb, Jenny rubbed the underhand of her thin silver friendship ring. It caused a warm syrupy feeling to move through her. And she was proud to perceive she lacked the envy her parents now so vigorously displayed.
"Oh, tell George how many rooms you have!" Jenny's mother bubbled, indicating Jenny's father.
Mrs More threw back her head and laughed, exposing several gold crowns. "Jenny!" she called, waving her hands and splaying her goat hair, "your mother never tires of it, she just never tires of it!"
Jenny smiled weakly, embarrassed by the disparity between herself and those around her.
"Well George!" Mrs More triumphed, "we have six bedrooms, four bath rooms, two dining rooms, one large .. for the importants, ha ha ha... and a smaller one for family, he he he... AND," she added with a goat hair flying flourish, "three fireplaces, a four-car garage, 13 acres I don't know what to do with, AND," now she winked, "if you're interested, 214 pairs of shoes! ho ho ho!"
Jenny's mother joined in; together their laughter clacked through the air.
Mr More laughed too, pointing at himself reflected in the full length window and doubling over with chuckles.
A picture flashed through Jenny's mind... of children without shoes, with starving distended bellies.
"Well!" Mrs More exclaimed, wiping the tears of hysteria from her pear-bottom cheeks, "at least I can make a getaway in our new car if it gets to be too much!"
Touching her throat with widespread fingers, Jenny's mother called, "George, you ought to see Sally's car!"
George shot to the edge of his chair. "Oh yea? What kind of car is it?"
There was a moment's pause, like a yo yo spinning slowly round which nearly stops at the top of its arc before falling the second side of the circle.
Jenny was forgotten in the tally...in the long white tape of words coming out of Mrs More's mouth...in her loud brassy tabulations... in her father, like a dutiful accountant, memorizing the columns of assets... and in her mother, worshipping the God of wealth with gurgling inarticulate approval.
It seemed to Jenny, the mainly forgotten Mr More was infinitely better off as he sat humming softly to himself, his lizard eyes closed and darting under his thin eyelid cover.
The yo yo passed the top of its arc and began a wild rush downward. Goat hair flew up, down, and around. "It's more a fleet than a car!" Mrs More stated. "Our newest is an xxx, but out there on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd base, we have an xxxx, an xxxxx, and an xxxxxx. And I've plenty of shoes to get from one to the other!"
The laughter burst forth from both Mrs More and Jenny's mother like a sudden violent wind.
Something like pity and disgust swelled in Jenny's breast.
Mr More jumped suddenly to his feet and now crouched behind his chair.
Sally batted her goat hair aside. "Sit down, David, will you?"
Apologizing to his reflection for disturbing it, Mr More sat down again and began to snore.
"We really didn't mean to barge in this way." Sally flung a strand of goat's hair aside and pointed at Jenny with an extended finger. At its end a bright red fingernail shone like a beacon.
Jenny squirmed, not liking this focus of attention upon her. "Here's your daughter to visit you", Mrs More continued, "and we come bursting in!" Mrs More's eyes strayed to the dinner table. "And look there! Already set for three! We really must go!"
"Don't be silly," retorted Jenny's mother, "You're not interrupting a thing. We're happy you're here... aren't we, Jenny?"
If her mother wanted to eat goat hair, that was her business, thought Jenny, but she, Jenny, would not bow...she would not acquiesce...not even for 214 pairs of shoes. "I'm sure mother's friends are more important than her dinner", Jenny answered. The waiting faces moved into smiles. "But", Jenny continued...the waiting faces took on apprehension..."I don't know which is more important to her friends".
"Why, friends, of course!" Mrs More answered, slapping her thigh, and causing goat hair to fluff up on either side of the impact. She didn't understand, Jenny realized.
"Of course they are!" Jenny's mother confirmed with brisk authority, darting a look of disapproval at Jenny.
"But why not have it all?" Sally bleated, her arms tossed wide, goat hair flailing like flames trying to break from their earthly hold.
Jenny saw a blank look cross her mother's face, followed quickly by her eyebrows pinching together. Then, from the spot in the carpet at which she was staring seemed to come the answer. "Of course! Let's live it up! We'll have friends AND dinner! Of course, you'll stay?" Breaking her husband's blank, monotonous stare at Sally, Jenny's mother seethed through clenched teeth. "George! Would you please get the cardboard table?"
Popping up as though from a toaster, Jenny's father hurried from the room.
Walking to Sally, who was standing now, Jenny's mother felt her way through the goat hair flaps, and barnacle-glued herself to Sally's side as they laughed without uttering a word.
Jenny understood the cover and knew the pages within were blank. She despaired while vouchsafing these choices before her living vision. The despair was the solitude of her stance, and for a moment nostalgia filled her to belong. Then her heart focused, and she knew her freedom and her gift was her opposition.
Ha ha ha... brass chords.
He he he... tin trumpets.
Trees without roots.
The night sky without stars.
Birds without wings and flight...no, she was no part of what she saw, no part of this dark deciduous night, no part at all.
"Here we go!" bellowed Jenny's father, carting forth and unfolding the cardboard table. He placed it next to and somewhat lower than the dining table.
While Sally leaned over her husband, burying him in goat hair, Jenny's mother quickly increased the table setting to four and added a fifth at the cardboard table.
Jenny knew the fifth setting was hers.
Holding to a flap of goat hair, Mr More followed his wife to the table and obeyed her point to sit.
His lizard eyes jerked lazily from side to side.
From the cardboard table Jenny's lasting impression of that evening was a toss up...between Mr More stabbing with his fork a loose fold of leather and goat hair and stuffing it into his mouth...and the delicacy of her mother's cooking...Quail Fascinate, with breath of Laurel Sauce.
CHERYL DIANE WESTBROOK is another first-timer this month with "The Cardboard Table." She lives in Glen Ellen, CA.
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