Mother dog-ears the pages.
Recipes with worldly names
like stroganoff, cassoulet, ragout.
In between housewifely articles about
how to clean grout, the perfect smile
and the problem with no name.
Slick photos. Dangerous game.
Father doesn't like his food touching.
Mother has a way of cocking
her hip at the stove.
I'm roused from my reading
to set the table. The flutter of blue
tablecloth in a room of exotic birds,
low-hanging candelabra, curio
cabinet with the good china and silver.
Dinner is mother's insistence
despite how late father gets home.
We have our places at the table.
Mother and father at each end.
My two sisters, me and young brother
arranged around the provincial edge.
Father stares at the casserole dish
in the center of the table, bubbling and bloody.
The eerie translucence of cooked cabbage.
"What is this?" he asks, that thing
with his jaw when he's angry,
even into the light of the window behind him.
"Goulash," says mother, lighting a cigarette,
staring back in a standoff only they
know the meaning of.
Father divines with a serving spoon,
parting the ways of cabbage, ground beef
and tomato sauce, distaste set in his chin.
The spoon in slow motion. The spoon in a flash.
Catapult of casserole onto mother,
who doesn't flinch at first.
We hear the fancy clock tick, tock,
hand nudging incrementally while
we're all afraid to move. Or laugh.
The wideness of our eyes,
sitting on our hands.
Mother slowly reaches,
retaliating with the spoon.
Father splattered with casserole.
He throws down a napkin,
unable to speak past his clenched jaw.
The squeegee sound of the station wagon in reverse.
Mother eats a small portion of casserole.
We feel for each other's feet beneath the table,
trying not to look at each other.
Clumps of casserole cling to mother,
the tablecloth and the wall like scratched scabs.
We have no ideas about appropriateness or response.
We are excused from the table.
Mother clears, taking her time
on the back stoop, shaking out the tablecloth.
She watches the purple martins streak and swoop
in the dusking sky, searching for bugs.
Mother doesn't have to search for father.
She knows where he is.
They sashay home after bedtime,
following each other's headlights.
Meal planning takes a turn,
alternating nights of food that doesn't touch,
with food that does.
We ask for more peanut butter.
Mother buys crunchy
for a change.