The Big Table

by William Haskins


I shoved the last of the Christmas gifts into the trunk of the car and climbed into the backseat beside my little brother, Matt.

Mom scurried out the front door, balancing a casserole dish between two oven mitts, and slid into the front seat, twisting the rearview mirror so she could wipe lipstick off her teeth with her index finger.

“Remember what I told y’all,” she warned us. “Mind your manners.”

Dad settled behind the wheel and spun around, drawing a bead on me: “And you… be nice to the little ones.”

I sulked up and stared out the window almost all the way to my grandparents’ house. I was tired of getting stuck with my brother and cousin every holiday. Why the hell couldn’t they entertain themselves? I was a teenager now, and nobody gave a damn.

And I just knew that, when the adults all sat down to Christmas dinner, I’d be stuck at the little table… with the kids.

The dead-winter fields flew past me in a blur of brown and white, and I leaned my head against the window and fell asleep.

*****

I knew before I opened my eyes that we were lumbering up the long gravel driveway, which I was convinced had been designed to give my grandparents sufficient time to get outside, where they could watch visitors arrive with the stoic gaze of the old couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

I hugged Granny and shook Papaw’s hand (snatching mine away before his leather-grip clamped down on it: “Bear trap!”), then turned to the sound of the battered pickup truck winding up the driveway.

Aunt Laurie, tall and slender and widowed much too young, stepped out first, wearing dark sunglasses. Her 8 year-old, Jimmy, barreled past her, giggling as his Papaw got him: “Bear trap!”

Finally, from the driver’s seat emerged Earl Birdsong, Aunt Laurie’s boyfriend. He cast his eyes downward as he shook Dad and Papaw’s hands, and I was reminded of one of my father’s favorite gems: “A man who can’t look you in the eye is a piece of shit.”

I felt sorry for Earl. He had the look of a man beaten down by life, and no one in the family had ever given him much of a chance. Laurie’s first husband, Ben, was only two years dead and had been loved by everyone. All Earl had ever known was small talk and suspicious eyes. As we shuffled into the warmth of the house, Earl followed meekly, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Once inside, Laurie removed her sunglasses. The gasp was audible when we saw the deep, blue-yellow bruise around her eye and the stitched cut that ran from the inside of her brow to the bridge of her nose. Mom and Granny pulled her into the kitchen, questions flying frantically from both sides.

Dad and Papaw stared at Earl, and then exchanged a look that chilled me to my core.

“How long till dinner?” I blurted out awkwardly.

“Go outside,” Dad grumbled.

*****

The smell of roasted turkey filled the house by the time Papaw called us in. We washed up and filed into the dining room, where the big oak dining table—ancient and sturdy and surrounded by dignified high-back chairs—was covered with every holiday food imaginable.

The adults took their places, and I was left exactly where I knew I’d be: at that goddamn gray-beige card table on wobbly aluminum legs.

I wedged my knees under the flimsy tabletop and picked at the cold pile of food on my paper plate.

No one said much as they ate. Papaw and Dad occasionally glanced at one another as if holding a telepathic conversation. Mom and Granny went out of their way to be deferential to Aunt Laurie, who tried in vain to cover her injuries with seemingly casual waves of her hand. For his part, Earl looked like a puppy eating out of a big dog’s dish—hunger tempered by paranoia.

Soon, the women were clearing dishes and wrapping up leftovers. Matt and Jimmy bolted outside, and Earl followed them onto the front porch and lit a cigarette.

Dad pulled Mom aside and whispered to her under his breath.

“It’s none of your business,” she snapped at him. “If she wanted you to know, she’d tell you herself. Now let it be.”

Mom stormed back into the kitchen, and Dad and Papaw exchanged another ominous look. Clenching his pipe between his teeth, Papaw nodded and disappeared into his bedroom. Dad followed.

“Get your jacket on,” he said over his shoulder.

I slipped on my jacket and went outside to wait for them. Earl took a final drag off his smoke and crunched it out under his shoe.

“Some dinner, huh?” he said.

“I guess so,” I answered.

Dad and Papaw emerged, each clutching two rifles, and Dad handed me one of them.

“Keep that safety on, y’hear?”

I took the rifle in my hands and smiled. Maybe they’ve finally noticed I’m not a kid anymore.

Papaw held one of the guns out to Earl.

“What’s this for?”

“Saw some deer tracks down by the creek,” Papaw answered. “Reckon it’s time to bag him.”

*****

We walked in silence through the fields—Earl and me up front, Papaw and Dad behind us. As we neared the creek, I turned to ask where Papaw had seen the tracks, just as Dad’s size-12 cowboy boot delivered a swift kick to Earl’s lower back.

Earl went down hard and pulled himself up onto his knees, eyes wild and confused. But before he could speak, Papaw cracked him in the teeth with the butt of his rifle.

“You like beatin’ up my little girl, you bastard?”

Earl shook his head violently. “I never touched her!”

Dad grabbed him by a shock of his black hair and pulled his head back. “Look me in the eye, you sonofabitch! You hit my sister?”

“No!” bellowed Earl, a mixture of snot and blood dripping off his lip. “I swear to God!”

“You’re a goddamned liar,” Papaw seethed.

I looked up at my grandfather and saw a stranger. Eyes dead-black and merciless. And he turned them on me.

“Time to be a man,” he said from a million miles away. “Time to avenge your blood.”

A wave of nausea swept over me.

“No!” Earl screamed. “You don’t understa—”

Dad kicked him square in the chest.

“Listen to your Papaw, son. Don’t you never let nobody hurt your family. Ever.

I looked at the rifle in my hands and then up at my father. “I… can’t.”

He wrapped his arms around me and cocked the gun. “Do it,” he said coldly.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I blinked in the cold wind. I leveled the rifle at Earl, and he held up a trembling hand, as if to ward off his fate.

I stared down the sight, my head spinning as I tried to figure a way out of this madness. That’s when I felt that leather-grip hand clamp down on my shoulder.

The sharp crack of the gunshot rang in my ears.

*****

Aunt Laurie’s mournful sobs filled the house as Papaw stood out on the porch, explaining Earl’s hunting accident to the sheriff.

“One helluva day for something like this to happen,” the sheriff sighed. “It’s a damn shame.”

“I reckon I shoulda warned him,” Papaw said. “That creek bed gets slick in the wintertime.”

The sheriff shook his head sadly. “That’s all I need, I guess. Give my condolences.”

And that was it. He just walked away and got into his car.

Dad came out of the kitchen with two plates piled with food. “Come on, son. You need to eat.”

He set the plates down on the big, oak table and slid out a chair for me. I sat down and he lowered himself into the chair beside me, just as Papaw came back inside.

“I better show the ‘em where the body is,” he announced.

Aunt Laurie shrieked, and Papaw grabbed her by the shoulders, scanning the injuries on her face.

“How the hell can you shed tears over a man who would do this to you?”

Mom and Granny stared at him in disbelief.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Laurie screamed. “Earl didn’t do this!”

Papaw went pale and swallowed hard. “He didn’t do that to your eye?”

“He never touched me!” Laurie lunged at him. “I was raped! Are you happy now, goddammit?”

Dad got up from the table, and he and Papaw walked out onto the front porch.

Laurie buried her face in Granny’s chest and cried, while Mom stroked her hair and told her it was going to be okay.

I watched them from the shadows of the dining room, the heavy oak pressing into my chest and my feet barely touching the hardwood floor, and I felt incredibly small.

I knew it would never be okay.