Birthday Dinner

Contributor

Editor's note: Kelly Crotty is the third place winner if the Synapse Storytelling Contest creative writing category. From judge, Synapse editor in chief Ariane Panzer: This story had a wonderful pace that laid a strong foundation for the reader to follow to an unexpected and satisfying climax. Strong descriptions helped draw me into the story, making me feel like I was in the kitchen with the main character as she prepared dinner.

She took a break from staring at the ceiling to look at the alarm clock. It blinked 7:56 a.m. at her. She could get up now, but there were only four more minutes until her alarm would sound. Her eyes returned to the ceiling. If she squinted, she could almost see the shape of North America in the white texture on the ceiling. She squinted. There it was. She looked back at the clock. 7:57. She groaned and squeezed her eyes shut, then sat up in bed. Three more minutes, might as well get up now.

In the kitchen, bags of flour and sugar, cans of beans, fruits and other ingredients sat on one side of the counter. She took three pounds of pork, barbeque sauce, and an onion from the fridge and set them next to the rest of the food. As she lifted the heavy slow cooker from the cupboard, her phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me. Just got to the house and we’re loading the car. Once we get on the road, it will be about five hours. We’ll be there by five at the latest.”

“I told you before, you don’t have to arrive so early.” She heard loud giggling in the background. “Are Matty and Emma with you?”

“Yeah, they’re coming. Sam is working this weekend. Besides, Mom is excited to spend time with them. She loves being Grandma.”

“Yeah, I know, but... It’s Dad’s birthday and I thought it would just be us for today.”

“It’s still just family. And they’re easy kids.”

“Yeah, I guess. It’s just not what I thought today would be.”

“You shouldn’t expect so much. We’ll see you at 4:30.” And she hung up.

4:30. That would allow more than an hour of small talk before dinner would be ready. An hour for Matty and Emma to terrorize her new apartment. She turned to the framed pictures hung on the wall and started to take them down. She got to a photograph of her and her dad on a train from when she was eight. He was holding her on his lap in a window seat while she watched the Virginian countryside fly past. It had been taken on their way to Michigan for a family reunion. She smiled as she remembered the trip, but even as she cherished the memory she knew that she was swilling the dregs of a life that wasn’t there anymore. She took the picture off the wall but, after some consideration, stood it up on the top of the bookshelf instead. It was his birthday, after all.

She dumped everything for the pulled pork in the slow cooker and turned it on. As she turned to the remaining assembled ingredients, her eyes continued past the counter to the picture on the bookshelf. She felt her eyes start to water and quickly threw away the corpse of the diced onion that remained on the cutting board.

Milk and yeast joined flour and sugar in her mixing bowl. As she pulled three eggs out of a carton, one began rolling to the edge of the counter, heading for freedom. She caught it just as it fell, saving the egg from certain death before cracking it into the bowl with the others. She let the mixer do its job, blending the ingredients and then kneading the dough with its electric strength. Once the dough was smooth, she covered the bowl with Saran Wrap and set it out of the way against the wall.

Now that the pork was cooking and the dough was rising, she pulled cheese and garlic from the fridge to make breakfast for herself. As the scrambled eggs thickened, she grated cheddar into the pan and mixed in plenty of garlic. She added buttered toast to the plate with the eggs and sat down in front of the TV with her breakfast. She mindlessly scrolled through the options available before giving in to nostalgia and putting on Die Hard, a family favorite. She slowly ate the eggs and sat back with her brain off, mouthing the words to the movie.

She was pulled back to reality when her phone started to ring again.

“Hey, it’s your mom! We’ve stopped for lunch and I thought we’d give you a call and check in with how things are going over there.”

“Hey, Mom. Things are good. What are you having for lunch?”

“Oh, just some In-N-Out. Your Dad always makes us stop at In-N-Out when we come into California. Have you talked with your brother today? Is he on his way yet?”

“I haven’t talked with him yet but texted him yesterday. He knows when dinner is.”

“Ok, good! I can’t wait to meet Christina. She sounds like such a sweetheart.”

“He’s bringing Christina? He didn’t mention that to me at all.”

“Oh yeah! She’s going to make a cake, too. Brian says she’s a great baker.”

“I thought we weren’t having cake. Sweets aren’t Dad’s thing.”

“I know, but she offered and it was such a nice thing to offer. I think we’ll enjoy it either way. It’s going to be yellow cake with chocolate butter cream frosting. Yum!”

“Why didn’t he tell me any of this?”

“There are new people in our family. I know it’s different and can be hard, but if we never accept new people into the circle, eventually we will be all alone.”

“There’s just so much change at once… Christina sounds nice, though. I’ll see you soon.”

She left the movie running in the background while she went back to the kitchen and pealed the Saran Wrap off the dough. She upended the bowl and the dough slowly separated from the plastic walls and dropped with a dull thud onto the flour-coated counter. She sprinkled flour over the lump and began kneading, pushing each hand into the dough ball in turn, then folding the dough back onto itself. Only a few rounds of this motion would have been sufficient, but she found herself kneading beyond the necessity of the dough and putting more force behind her motions. She punched the dough again and again, punching and folding until the dough had taken up too much flour from the surface of the counter and became difficult to work with. She stopped and squeezed her eyes shut with her hands resting on the firm slab of dough. She breathed out and then looked down at the flour that covered her T-shirt and sweats like miniature white fireworks.

She brushed herself off and cut the dough in half, and then cut it again until there were 16 equal lumps. She took one in each hand and, two at a time, rolled the lumps turned into round buns and placed them on a pan until all 16 sat in organized rows. She set the pan aside and let them rise a second time.

Die Hard had finished, so she put on Die Hard 2 and went back to the fridge and took out the ingredients for a salad. She trimmed the stems off of spinach, and then cut open a pomegranate. Her patience waned as she pulled each stubborn gem from its place. She was certain it had taken less time for the fruit to grow than it was taking her to undo the meticulous arrangement of seeds. Once all the seeds were painstakingly removed, she could see their satisfying imprint left behind in the rind. She had opened the fruit so carefully that if she held each piece in the right place, it almost looked like she hadn’t opened it at all. The illusion was incomplete; the hollow pomegranate had no weight without the seeds.

She gritted her teeth when the doorbell finally rang. She immediately felt overwhelmed as her screaming niece and nephew flew past her when she opened the door. She hugged the rest of the family that patiently waited at the threshold and gave them a short tour of the apartment. Everyone immediately began assisting in the kitchen and dining room. Her sister took the buns from the oven and put them on the table while Christina, eager to help, pulled the pork. Once the table was set, they all took their seats, her sister herding the children to their chairs.

Everyone waited for her mom, who sat at one end of the long table. When her mother raised her glass towards the other end of the table, she realized that she had been avoiding looking at the empty chair.

“It has been a hard year for us. A year of firsts. We’ll never stop missing you, especially on these occasions. But we aren’t here to mourn you, we’re hear to celebrate your life. So in honor of the years you blessed us with your love, Happy Birthday.”

Everyone raised their glasses in unison.

“Happy Birthday, Dad.”