Table Manners


(2005; 4542 wds.)

The idea that his family was unknown to him overtook Cliff as he struggled over the Saturday crossword puzzle, that extra difficult, long word version. Why was he staring at these blank spaces? He wasn’t even good at these damn things. His wife spoke from the kitchen, loud enough for him to hear her from his recliner in the den.
    “Dr. Morgan says there’ll be some friends of his from back in Philly,” Marilyn said, and sneezed. “Sanjay and his wife will be there, too. It’ll be good for us to be around all those shades of people, you know, all those colors of skin created by God. It’ll help us when we go to see the baby and meet the other grandparents.”
    “If you say so,” answered Cliff. Marilyn was in charge of the family calendar, and that was fine by Cliff. Right now, though, frowning as he massaged his left arm with his right hand, trying to wake it up, he felt cut off from his wife’s plans and his daughter’s life. “My arm’s bothering me. Feels like it’s asleep,” he said to the blank spaces of crossword he stared at through his bifocals.
    Cliff and Marilyn had one daughter, Darlene, who had married an Arab used car salesman and moved to Valdosta the year before. Last night Darlene had called to say she was pregnant. “I’m due any day now,” she said. “It’s a boy.” Only then did he realize that his wife and daughter had kept up a secret, if otherwise healthy, relationship that excluded the dad of the family. But it made sense to him, and he was relieved without having to say so, that his wife had managed to be faithful to both father and daughter in the face of their stubbornness.
    Now Marilyn was talking to Cliff about the “other grandparents.” She hadn’t said that before, even though she had always said mushy-sounding things when she mentioned the races of the people. Whether it was about people she worked beside, or those she nursed in the maternity ward, Cliff’s decent wife went out of her way to reconcile the sameness and the special qualities of each group. But that part about meeting the other side of his own daughter’s family hadn’t sounded good. Maybe daughter Darlene needs to work some on this side, he thought.
    Darlene had spoken exactly twice in the last year to Cliff. And he figured she was still pissed because he had been unable to offer congratulations when she called right after her sudden wedding at the courthouse. At the time, shocked as he was, all he could do was stutter over questions about where she would work and didn’t she need to honor all that education, the same subjects he’d heard himself hound her about since she was sixteen. The call about her new husband––and this one about the new baby––made him think of her as she used to be during college and graduate school. Those surprises and small crises, made dramatic by Darlene, had caused him to worry that she would never grow up. But, in all the times he was annoyed with her, he could still conjure the sound of his little girl as a baby, of his reading and singing to her, or matching her word for word in nonsense play-talk. These thoughts served to soften him, and he would give up on trying to make the grown woman behave. As he imagined Darlene now, soon to be on the floor with her own kid, he could hear again the little voice from years ago.
    He chewed on the eraser of his pencil. Will the new boy have Darlene’s light hair or will he be dark like his father from Yemen, like what’s-his-face? Cliff had a hard time remembering his new son-in-law’s name because its syllables felt funny on his tongue and because the two of them had yet to meet face-to-face. White face to brown face?
    For weeks, even before Darlene’s latest call, Marilyn had been selling this Fourth of July party as a good idea for the family––for Cliff and Marilyn. Dr. Demetrius Morgan, Marilyn’s boss, had a nice place on the river and threw good parties.
    Responding to her tug on the sleeve of his blue blazer, Cliff stood up and followed her to the garage. “I’m coming, darling,” he said. Taking his place behind the wheel of the Lexus––not the Suburban––Cliff used his right hand and placed his left onto his lap.
    Marilyn was talking as they reached the expressway on-ramp. “Dr. Morgan has been real good to us there in maternity. He is the most considerate, you know, respectful, doctor I’ve ever had. I don’t mean respectful like a black man respecting a white woman like my mother would mean it, you know, but like a sincerely polite person, you know?”
    “You know?” said Cliff. He had made fun of her ever since they were teenage steadies for how she said “you know” all the time. By now, she didn’t notice his jibes; they were part of any conversation between them.
    “You know,” he began with a thought of his own, “I don’t think I could live right by the river the way Morgan does.”
    “I know, honey,” Marilyn replied. This was an old topic where Cliff was on record that he wasn’t envious of the doctor’s bigger house, wasn’t impressed either. He didn’t want to talk about the mansion again, really, but he certainly had nothing to add when his wife went back to the subject of saintly Dr. Morgan.
    “You say this guy has some big fireworks?” he asked, suddenly remembering the real reason he’d first said yes to this party, before he’d learned that he was almost a grandfather.
    “Yep,” she answered brightly. “I understand that they’re big, loud and illegal. Is that good enough for my little boy husband?”
    “Fun,” he said. Cliff could remember his grandfather back in the 1950s, sticking firecrackers in the half tractor-tire planter around his mailbox. Cliff had covered his ears and run away even as Gramps stood his ground, near enough to the random popping to feel the little specs of earth that sprayed up from the black dirt flowerbed. Gramps was wild about firecrackers, and from what Cliff had heard about the good Dr. Morgan’s explosives, this could be fun, even if Cliff didn’t light any fuses. And he should maybe give Morgan a break. Any doctor who shoots off bottle-rockets and M-80s doesn’t take himself as seriously as do the people who work for him.
    Not for a minute, however, did he believe that any person could be as “deep down good” as his Marilyn made Dr. Morgan out to be. Cliff had met lots of doctors at hospital Christmas parties during his wife’s twenty-two years as a nurse, and Cliff held a bit of a grudge against physicians as a class. He thought he felt their pity when his wife introduced him as her husband, the plumber. Every one of them had found it funny to say Cliff probably made more money than they did. And he believed he saw every one of them kind of check their hands to see if Cliff, the workingman, had soiled their highfalutin palms. You know?
    As they rode along, Marilyn coughed and sneezed with those constant allergies of hers, sounding to Cliff like a puppy with asthma. Some days her allergy medicine was worthless. Then he thought of his dad, always clearing his throat and spitting, perched on that Ford tractor with the backhoe. That machine he’d never managed to keep busy enough to justify owning the damn thing. He called himself a ditch-digger, but Dad was actually a decent excavation contractor with weaknesses for going fishing and for the unconditional coddling of dogs. One beagle-looking mutt lived most of his life on the deck of that same Ford backhoe, next to the old man. Cliff had gone on to work as a plumber all his adult life, grappling with nasty stuff every day, but had never allowed his own dogs to ride with him around town the way Dad would have; Cliff was already self-conscious about possibly stinking when he showed up to bid a job. No dogs allowed in the cab.
    Marilyn blew her nose.
    Cliff used his thigh to hold the steering wheel and massaged his arm gingerly. He wondered if those in-law folks of his daughter’s played with firecrackers, too. Down there tonight in south Georgia, would those recent foreigners blow up the big illegal kind that you buy out of state and sneak across the border, or would they be afraid of getting arrested for being Arabs with explosives? Would their arsenal compare with Dr. Morgan’s? Do they send fan mail to Osama? Would they be playful and patient like Gramps, or silent and reserved as Cliff was feeling today, when it seemed that control was slipping his grip?
    “This is where we get off,” said Marilyn, pointing to a sign for the Riverview exit.
    “I know,” said Cliff. After two turns and one mile, he entered the downward sloping driveway of Dr. Morgan’s house and saw a cluster of cars. He stopped and backed out onto the street. “I don’t want to get stuck here all night.”
    The sounds of amplified music greeted them as they got out and approached the thirty steps down to the back yard of Dr. Morgan’s four story house on a hillside, just fifty yards from the banks of the narrow river.
    “Here we go!” said Marilyn, as Cliff gripped the rail with his good hand and took the steps slowly.
    Though there were only twenty people scattered on the lawn around the pool, the rainbow of skin coloring was just as his wife had told him to expect. Marilyn made introduction after introduction and Cliff heard names that simply wouldn’t register because they sounded funny. He had no way of knowing if Marilyn was pronouncing them correctly, and he couldn’t picture their spelling as they would be written out, couldn’t make his mouth form “Yuong” and “Atchel.” He knew about “Jorge and Javier,” though, because of baseball. And he had met lots of Mexican workers on construction sites and heard their calling out to each other. As a workingman’s son, Cliff had pulled himself up in his work with caution and perseverance, just like what he now admired in those newcomers. His khaki uniforms had always been laundered and pressed, no matter the slop of any task. Cliff was a success because he never slowed down, always swore that, “Time is money.” He simply kept reaching for the next work order, the next lump of cash. He seldom worked a job from start to finish these days since he’d grown his business to the place where he believed “It’s all about customer service.” Self-consciousness about his smelly profession had lately given way to pride in hard-won success. But he was still a ditch-digger’s son when he walked into these kinds of social situations.
    “Miss Marilyn has been a great influence for me,” said a pediatrician named Dr. Patel. “She has a good heart, and we need that in the place where we all work.” This was the sort of sweet praise for his wife that Cliff had come to expect at doctor functions. But he felt that he couldn’t answer properly because he was thrown by the casual setting this time, and by clear speech from faces that weren’t like his own, but faces that could be close in color to the one his new grandchild would have. His manners were blunted by a speechlessness he couldn’t overcome with a smile and a leading question, as he normally would do. His sports talk abandoned him, and questions about the other person’s family or work wouldn’t come either. This timidity and fear of saying the wrong thing was new. He had been easy-going for a southern man on matters of ethnic difference until last night, until he learned he would be Gramps to a “child of color.” An Arab son? Hell, he still couldn’t even say out loud that his daughter’s new name was Darlene al Noori.
    A pair of exceptionally tall young men, one white and one black, walked past him holding plates of brown, sauce-covered barbecue pork with sliced tomatoes and coleslaw on the side. He looked up at their faces and recognized them as Tech basketball players. The sports fan in him wanted to follow them to their chairs and ask casual questions about the team’s chances, but he didn’t move. He mulled some questions he could ask about the coach and maybe the kid who got busted for drugs on last year’s team, but he held his peace and kept his place instead, waiting for Marilyn to bring him a stack of chicken.
    In the pool was a tan girl of maybe nineteen or twenty, wearing a two-piece and a baseball cap. She held a toddler boy by the waist, bobbing him in and out of the water, playing those games instructors use on scared kids. Her manner showed that she knew what she was doing. Cliff found an empty lawn chair and carefully lowered himself into it, trying not to plop down like the cripple he resembled tonight. His wife came by with a plate of food and a beer.
    “After you eat, you should get up and move around, mingle. They’ll get a kick out of you,” she said, and kissed him on the forehead. “I know I do.”
    “I’m fine right here,” he said. She patted his cheek and went to join Dr. Morgan and his new girlfriend.
    Cliff was transfixed by the scene in the pool. He took a long time between bites while he watched and listened. The voices there were high-pitched and endearing, but he couldn’t make out words. Because of waving shards of light on the water, and no experience with anything like the sight before him, skin colors of the child and his playful teacher were hard for Cliff to guess, and it seemed essential for him to ascertain for sure. The boy could have been Italian, Israeli, Indian or Algerian. Or a light-skinned black kid from Philadelphia. The teacher could have been a brunette lifeguard with a melanoma-risking sun habit. There was no telling in this glow of yard lights on chlorine treated water.
    What would this grandson be? A merchant? Hah. That’s too obvious. Maybe an athlete? Maybe he’ll be bright––like one in this crowd of many colors, each connected somehow to the medical profession. No stereotypes. Even Cliff knew that word’s deeper meaning. Before he became a big fan of Richard Pryor and his open, funny stories about being a black man in America, or Cosby, who never brought up race in his comedy, Cliff had known wicked race jokes–– told them as well as laughed at them. That was an ugly memory he shared with men his age who had undergone changes after being forced to work and live with that other race. These days, he sincerely tried not to be one of those with sneaky new ways to cover up prejudice. At this moment, though, looking at the pool’s inhabitants, he could imagine all the derision and meanness he knew back then, could almost hear the jeers.
    But now it was being aimed at him, and at the grandson he didn’t know yet but was bound to love because of his devotion to his own daughter. He would embrace the little one as he had embraced Darlene; there was no way that he could hold a grudge against this blessed, innocent offspring with Cliff’s own blood in his veins. He would rejoice in his grandson’s growing up. Maybe the boy would get to have a nice teacher like the one in the water now, or he might get to have a football coach to whip him into shape like the one Cliff had when he was as a kid.
    Now he could see himself “playing hurt” back in high school football but still missing his last three starts at halfback. After the last real rush of his football career, Cliff’s legs were left twisted around each other like a pair of pipe cleaners. He was a senior and he was eighteen. Suddenly, he was sitting on the sidelines while his McArthur High team gave up five fumbles in the first half and got knocked out of the playoffs. That seemed the end of a special life, the end of what made Cliff be Cliff.
    And that memory reminded him of his best friend Dan, who had dropped the ball three of those times and caught blame from everyone, including his own granddad and the Kentucky Fried Chicken day manager. The following April, two months before school got out, Cliff and Dan had gone to the Army recruiter just to “check it out,” they said. When the officer finished his pitch he told them, “You can go home and think about it.” Cliff hadn’t thought seriously about the military until that time, yet something muscular in the words or the delivery of the recruiter got to him, to his manhood, to his idealism. He also got to the boyish part of Cliff who knew he couldn’t win any more games for McArthur high.
    “Okay, I’ll do that. I’ll sleep on it,” Cliff had said with his handshake.
    His buddy Dan had had a different reaction. “I don’t need to think about it. Sign me up.” And within a few months Dan shipped out to Basic at Fort Benning while Cliff had flunked his Army physical. After getting into the best shape of his life, Dan was blown up during a patrol where he walked point and stepped on a land mine, returning home to six months at Walter Reed Hospital where he got a glass eye, adding even more foreign matter to his body, to go along with the thirty pieces of shrapnel threatening to emerge from his flesh every day.
    Cliff had admired Dan’s choice to serve his country and gave the old bachelor a do-nothing job a few years back. That had lasted till his buddy’s liver finally gave in to alcohol’s soaking. Before, during and after Viet Nam, Dan had found explosive entertainment for his life but never made a family, never had the aggravation of a daughter who grows up too slowly and brings too much uninvited change. And no pictures in baby albums either.
    So Cliff’s arm––not the leg that kept him from the Army those years ago––was hurting on this Saturday Fourth of July, and he thought about lonely, old childless Dan.
    And that made him think of the night he’d cheated on Marilyn a week after flunking the Army physical. This girl named Brenda was two years older and had broken up with her lying boyfriend. That guy was a puny, divorced, thirty year-old truck-driver with a limp handshake––working for Cliff’s dad. Looking for sexual vengeance it seems, Brenda had all but tackled Cliff and thrown him into her pea-green Plymouth Barracuda. She dragged him to her trailer where they drank beer and played Johnny Mathis records. There she sat in her flopped-open housecoat showing one nipple or the other when she moved, and she moved a lot. Cliff stared blurry-eyed while she explained how the truck-driver might as well be dead as far as she was concerned. Then, between Schlitz beers, he made love to a woman for the first time with Brenda. But the “love” was not the reason he’d done it. It was because Marilyn, his wife to be, had gotten his promise never to make her do sex before marriage. For one moment in his life, he had ignored his promises, though there was no question that Cliff wanted what he got from Brenda. He thought now it was funny that he’d had no worry over his quick ejaculation. Believing that his big body could be hurting poor little, lonesome Brenda, he got to the end zone as fast as a good halfback could. He’d stayed with her till daybreak, later telling his parents he spent the night with Dan’s folks, a lie they apparently never tried to expose. Within a month, Brenda and the truck-driver were back together, and seven months later a premature boy named Cedric was born to them. As Cedric grew older and began to get his name and picture in the paper as a helluva linebacker, Cliff owned up to himself––and never to another soul––that this was really his child. The only son he would ever have, a son he could never acknowledge.
    But he married Marylyn and they’d had Darlene, and now this year of being kept away from his daughter by her stubbornness––and his own––made Cliff sad on many days. He had always pledged to himself that he would love his daughter, no matter whom she chose to marry and that he would befriend her husband. But this mixed marriage was nothing he had ever thought possible. All of Darlene’s friends had been white in high school and college. At least the ones she brought home. Perhaps he couldn’t know about all the others for sure, now; maybe he just always pictured them as white because Darlene wouldn’t have mentioned skin color, anyway. “I don’t see color,” she had said more than once. Maybe that was the clue Cliff should have paid more attention to.
    But now, even with the sweet kids in the pool before him, ahead of the neat, illegal fireworks to come, he felt revulsion as he soaked in the scene of racial harmony around him, revulsion for himself and why he was so scared by what his family was turning into. And then there was that surging anger, an anger he feared must overtake him someday as the guardian of a wide-eyed little boy who trusted Grandpa Cliff.  Because all a little boy should know is trust. But now there would be meanness from grown people who couldn’t hold back their old habits. And those grown people were some version of Cliff. He felt sick to his stomach. Just because he gave an immigrant a fair shake––a job sometimes just because he needed a helper real bad––or just because he’d put up with a plumber’s apprentice with a thick accent and a fake green card, that didn’t mean to Cliff that he wasn’t a guilty white man.
    But perhaps the baby won’t know that. He’ll see two worlds and see the good-natured jokes in real differences––like Pryor and Cosby––whether he goes to see dark grandparents or light grandparents. He’ll see himself reflected in adoring eyes of grandmas and believe that he’s safe. He will be safe, but Cliff won’t be prepared for some stupid reaction of some clerk who doesn’t know that this is his grandson in the grocery cart, sitting there being cute and blowing spit bubbles while he waits. The clerk will make up her own story in her mind. She won’t know that his blood and the child’s are the same, passed down form ancestors with English gardens or men in Irish pubs who got onto rickety sailing ships and became slave-owners with plantations, then passed that blood down to sharecroppers, then on to ditch-diggers and plumbers like Cliff. The clerk would see the other side––the dark-skinned side––and make a wrong judgment.
    He felt a pain in his chest. “This is my grandson, damn it.” He spoke and his voice was loud enough for the swimming instructor to look over from the pool.
    “I beg you pardon, sir?” she called.
    “Oh. I was just enjoying the way you work. I said good work, there.” He put his empty plate on the ground and took a swallow of beer. Maybe a good burp would make the pain in his chest calm down.
    “Thanks,” said the girl. “Yeah, I do this every summer between semesters. Just love these kids, I guess.” She dunked the toddler one more time and blew in his face. “Do you want to get out now? Maybe you’re getting chilled.” Indeed the kid was shivering through his smiles the way they all do when they stay in the water too long and get the shakes. Cliff smiled broadly as he watched the girl wrap a towel around the child, cooing as she delivered him to his mother, a lady in a flowered sari sitting with a group of women that included Marilyn. To Cliff’s surprise, the young swimming teacher walked over and set a chair across from him, spread her beach towel over it and sat facing him.
    “You’re all by yourself over here,” she said, taking off her cap. She was beautiful to him, coffee-colored skin and close-cut, natural, African hair. “I hope you’re not thinking about work,” she smiled. “This is a holiday from work.”
    A huge explosion twenty feet away made the two of them jump, and Cliff looked up to see the shooting bands of colored light from a bursting rocket. Gales of laughter, led by Dr. Morgan, rained down along with the fireworks’ debris.
    “That’s beautiful, you know?” he said, and suddenly felt sick again. He started to stand up but couldn’t manage. Another explosion went off, but he couldn’t look up. Now he knew he would be sick and embarrass himself, like some nasty, drunk plumber. But he was powerless to move himself to a more private spot. His head was spinning. The girl was talking, but Cliff didn’t hear words. He rose to his feet and his body lurched to his left, toward an empty picnic table where he landed on his back, legs splayed, his head on the corner of a kid’s half-eaten plate of baked beans. His ears were ringing and he couldn’t command muscles to raise his body. He felt the stare from a circle of concerned faces looking down at him, then saw Morgan’s dark, mahogany face over his own. The doctor took hold of the patient’s jaw and nose, then he placed his own mouth onto Cliff’s and breathed into him.


    Opening his eyes, Cliff saw a smiling man standing in a hallway with a bundle in his arms. Unable to move his head, Cliff forced his dry eyes to look around in order to gather all the sights that he could from his propped-up position.
Hospital room. Hospital bed. Then he saw Marilyn at the window, sun cutting warmly across her face. He tried to speak but no sound came. A familiar laugh rang out, and he looked to see Darlene with the man and his bundle. Nice tan and bright smile on this guy, and he was the same height as his daughter, his grown-up daughter who was leaning over the bundle and smiling, tickling with a finger. Mr. and Mrs. al Noori, he thought. And my grandson. The sight made tears a possibility for Cliff but, in his exhaustion and his relief, he simply closed his eyes and went back to sleep.