It was declared that we’d be ten for dinner. So, it was accepted that there’d be at least that many. I don’t know how often that format assailed us: declaration; acceptance. I can’t even recall the first time I realized that it always went down that way: declaration; accepatance. They funniest part of it, now that I’ve had some time to consider it all, is that it wasn’t always directed the same way.
I mean, sometimes she made the declaration and my Dad accepted the new fact as a fact determined. Then there were other times when he announced something in that strong, definitive and declarative manner and she meekly acceded to his need. That’s the really crazy part of all of this. Neither one of them controlled the deal. There were his choices; there were her choices. We all just went along with it because there was no point in arguing with them when they played this dangerous game.
My two sisters and I never even considered asking "why?" or "how can you do this?" about any of these things. We knew there was no point, although Jackie once tried to change their minds. So, let me tell you that story. That’s a pretty crazy one, the one about the ten people for dinner.
My parents had been married for almost seventeen years at this time. Jackie, the oldest of us, was fifteen and I was fourteen and Roberta was just nine. It was a school night, a Thursday, I think, and when Dad came in from work, his old, battered briefcase held delicately withone crooked finger by the frayed leather handle, and slung over his shoulder. He whipped it around from behind his back and twirled it around his head, the way he liked to do it, and he tossed it in my direction. His throw was a bit weak, I don’t know why, and it was falling short, so I dived for it, caught it and cradled it it my side, like large football. Head down I charged ahead, right for him, and he caught me as I raced past him, grabbing the older satchel right out of my arms.
I heard him laugh, and it was a sound I liked to hear, much better than then grunt that followed a bad day, or the groan that escaped his body when he was hurting for some reason. She came out of the kitchen and told him about the ten people.
"Okay, then," he said without asking a single question, "we’ll be ten or so."
"I’ve asked them for 7:30," she said, declaring one more fact.
"Sounds good," he responded. You can hear that smile in his voice if you close your eyes.
"Don’t you want to know who’s coming?" she asked him.
"Nope. I’m sure they’re great."
She kissed him lightly on the cheek ignoring the fact that I was standing right there, between them.
"You’re my sweetheart," she said. And that was that.
He headed for their bedroom and I followed him. He was taking off his suit jacket when I got to his doorway. I watched him loosen it from one arm, then the other, then spin it into the air, catching it deftly by the exact center of the collar, then spin it around again on one finger as he lifted the wooden hanger from the rod. He snapped that jacket right onto the extended wooden armature and then he placed it into its proper spot in the closet. It was like watching the June Taylor Dancers at the beginning of the Jackie Gleason Show: pure precision and artistry coupled with a small surprise at the end. I burst into applause.
"Hey, kiddo," my Dad said as he turned around to face me. "You enjoyed the show, huh?"
"You got a question for me?" he asked. "Your face says there’s a question inside of you."
"Okay, then, kiddo. Ask the question."
I pulled myself as straight up and down as I could muster. I wanted to be taller, to face him, eye to eye. It hadn’t occurred to me, not then, that one day I would tower over this man and I’d need to sit down to be eye to eye with him. Not yet.
"Why did she do that?" I asked him.
"Why did your mother do what?"
"Why did she just tell you that we’re having company for dinner? And why did you just say ‘okay’?"
"That’s the way it goes, kiddo. That’s the way we do it."
"Hey!" he said, suddenly seemingly sullen. "You know we don’t do those ‘why?’ questions. What’s the answer to a ‘why’ question, kiddo?"
I blushed before I answered him.
"Because," I whispereed.
"That’s right. A ‘why’ gets a ‘because.’ Now if you have a real question I’ll try to answer it, but if you just throw a ‘why’ at me, you’re only going to get a ‘because’ in return."
I stood there silent, no words forming in my mouth, no thoughts complicating my brain.
"Okay, then, kiddo," he said, smiling at me. "If the twenty questions game is over for now, I’ve got some newspapers to read." He laughed as he said that, and then he moved on by me, back toward the living room. Embarrassed, I stood where I was until I heard the television come on. That was what he meant by reading his newspapers, you see, watching the television news at 6:00. Then I headed back to where my two sisters were sitting, playing Cat’s Cradle, and I tried to get into the game with them. Like my Dad did when I asked my question, my sisters both kind of cold-shouldered me and went on with what they were doing.
She was in the kitchen, humming. The TV was talking long and boring words and Jackie and Roberta were lost in their game. I decided to read a book. What else was a fella to do?