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  "The Nature of Things"
  Tin Can

  "Supper on the Road"

Gene Dillon
  Gene Dillon

Tin Can + Literary Series
Supper on the Road

July-August, 2008

A card table, adorned with a green-and-white-checked tablecloth, rests in the middle of Route 20 at exactly ten minutes after 6:00 p.m. The tablecloth is rubbery and waterproof with some sort of white, fuzzy polyester underneath. It flaps lazily in the oppressive summer breeze. Intermittent, fluttering parcels of shade from the waving branches of a tall, silver maple tree barely give relief from a long day’s worth of heat that relentlessly rises from the cracked, sunbaked asphalt. The din of an unseen army of cicadas provides an endless voice to the surroundings—deafening, yet somehow peaceful—pregnant with the faded memories of many a sleepy childhood vacation, when my brother and I would hunt down these big, fat insects and invent new ways to torture them by means of the removal of limbs or wings or submersion into different combinations of fluids. The tranquility is disturbed slightly by my meddlesome feelings of guilt.

About 40 yards from the road, my wife emerges backward from the screened-in porch, bent over with her ass thrust outward to the right, making the door swing wide. She still looks great in a pair of jeans. I glance up at the house. It was built out of wood, using hammers and nails almost a hundred years ago, and the dirty white paint is peeling beyond control. This is the house that I have always wanted. The screen door slams shut, making the sound that I have always wanted out of a screen door that slams shut. Beth is carrying the largest of our CorningWare dishes, white with the blue floral pattern, topped with a glass lid that is clouded with steam. Her oven mitts are a different shade of blue than the CorningWare flowers—in fact, the mitts have purple leanings, and they’re downright filthy. Of course, nothing is perfect.

The card table straddles the middle of the road in a diamond orientation, two of its sturdy, black legs positioned precisely between the two yellow lines. Five cream-colored folding chairs and a white plastic highchair await our arrival. A red book of Jimmy Carter presidential matches is crammed under the southern leg of the table in the eastbound lane in an effort to lessen a troubling wobble that has recently developed. The card table is getting old, but I refuse to give up on it. I found it at a garage sale completely covered with a ton of worthless objects for sale. The only things I ever want to buy at garage sales are the tables that are dragged out of the house to display somebody’s crap. I almost always ask if I can buy one of these tables, and then the people get mad at me—except for this one woman I knew personally. She was moving to another state. I quickly skimmed over all of her stuff, and, of course, I didn’t want any of it. I figured that since she was moving and I’d never see her again, what difference would it make if I offended her? So I asked her if she was selling the lovely card table over there—the one with a giant humidifier on top of it, surrounded by a box of audio cassette tapes, two ashtrays, a Rolodex, a wooden chicken, three decks of cards, a Thermos, a desktop telephone with a cord, a Yahtzee game with no blank score sheets left, and a set of plastic juice glasses with faded tulips painted on them. I could tell that she really had no intention of selling the card table, and she hesitated for a really long time, hemming and hawing and waiting for me to change my mind. I just stood there waiting silently for her to give in—patient but pleading like a bad dog. She eventually caved, and I gave her five dollars and helped her move all of her crap off of the table and onto the driveway before folding up the legs, putting it in the backseat of my Geo, and saying good-bye to her for what turned out to be forever.

Dinner smells good. The Chinet is being held down at each place setting by nice-looking, fist-sized rocks chosen from the edge of the flower bed by the side of the house. The forks and knives are of a sturdy, green plastic, heavy enough to weigh down the paper SpongeBob napkins all by themselves. My wife apologizes to me and to our four young children for being late with dinner again. But the kids are far too excited to care. She made tater tots!

Beth and I position ourselves at the east and west corners of the table so that we are able to view the oncoming traffic from either direction and have plenty of time to react. It troubles me that the children are sticking out into traffic more than we are, but it seems to be the best plan of action, overall. I insist on being the one to face west, feeling a biological sense of responsibility as the man of the house to keep watch in the direction that presents the highest potential for danger—there is a curve in the road toward the left with a clump of trees obstructing our view. We agree that if it becomes necessary, I will grab Kaley in the highchair, and Beth will grab Zack from the booster. Connor and Emily are old enough to fend for themselves, but I take great care in pointing out the quickest routes to safety and how little time they will have to get out of the way of a vehicle traveling at 60 miles per hour and how they should be careful not to freeze up or  make any last-second missteps and that rather than think, they should simply focus and act quickly and keep watching to see what the driver does, because he or she may be surprised, or even shocked, and perhaps not be in the right frame of mind to make a proper decision with regards to braking or swerving.

But what worries me the most is this casserole dish. Beth hates cooking for so many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that nobody in this family likes to eat the same things. I’m a vegetarian, and Emily only likes to have foods that are white or brownish. Connor will eat anything that lacks flavor, and the toddler and the baby have their own special issues with food, surrounding the establishment of boundaries and the testing of manipulative techniques wrought against their parents. I know that trouble lies ahead when Beth pulls out the Betty Crocker cookbook before she goes shopping, like she did yesterday evening. It means that she’s going to try something new. Go and ask a person under the age of ten if they would like to try a new kind of food. Furthermore, ask them if they’d like to see all the new kinds of ingredients mixed up together and baked in an evil casserole dish with little bits of green stuff and some kind of a murky sauce. I observe the look in Emily’s eyes as soon as the dish lands on the trivet. The odor that has intrigued me so is doing nothing to Emily but turning her stomach. She’s going to fight this one, whatever it is.

“Okay, everybody!” calls Beth. “Pick up your rocks and dust off your plates!” I help the kids dispose of their paperweights, because they aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Neither am I, actually, but I take immediate action and toss them over, one at a time, into the drainage ditch past the shoulder.

Kaley is having something mushy and green tonight, out of a yellow plastic bowl, using a tiny spoon that is red rubber coated for her protection. As always, if she excels during this portion of the meal, she will indeed receive the Cheerios. Emily, though six years her senior, has yet to graduate from this phase of meal management. If a biography were to be written about Emily’s life up until this point, it would most likely be called Filling Up On Bread. The rules state that she must eat her vegetable and protein items first, before she may receive any of the tasty carbohydrates. She is predictably jealous of the heaping pile of tater tots that Connor has already taken and worried that we will run out. “Hurry up, Dad!” she yells, as I make my way from plate to plate with a portion of the stuff that Beth has thrust upon us.

The serving spoon lands upon Emily’s plate, spilling forth the contents of my wife’s latest attempt at culinary adventurousness. Beth looks past me into the distance with some trepidation. Four pieces of asparagus tumble down like the felling of massive trees, followed by a cascade of gooey chicken chunks, deeply browned by a reduction of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and caramelized onions.

“How much of this do I have to eat?” Emily demands.

“Gene!” alerts my wife, pointing over my right shoulder with an essence of awestruck wonder in her voice—the kind of tone we use with the kids to distract them from an impending tantrum by getting them excited about something completely different. I turn sharply to glance behind me. The shimmering heat plays tricks with my eyes, but I can see that something is rising and dancing out of the road to the east. I return to my meal quickly—it’s my job to keep a steady watch on that perilous curve in the road before my own eyes. Beth is mesmerized. “It’s like a mirage…an apparition…” Her demeanor is both calming to the children and alarming to myself. It’s like finding yourself hiking alone in the mountains at dusk, when the unfolding richness of nature’s beauty is almost too much to bear—but then you remember that there are mountain lions in the vicinity that, by the same nature, occasionally feast on human flesh.

Fear creeps in to ruin an otherwise perfect moment—just like the guilt about the bugs that hit me a short while ago. I don’t always behave like a thoughtless child anymore; therefore, I don’t have to live in state of perpetual guilt. I can resolve to do better and move on. But isn’t fear different? Fear nags at me because there are things in this life that never go away. Fear sits in the shadows, always within spitting distance. Fear sleeps with one eye open.

But you gotta live your life, and that’s what we’re doing. We continue eating, with Zack making the usual mess—he insists on having ketchup with his tots, and he’s getting it all over his hair and up his nose. Emily hasn’t even touched her food. She keeps dropping her fork or letting her napkin blow away. “Keep it under your plate,” I politely suggest. Beth’s eyes are fixed on the approaching car as she devours bite after bite of her meal, much more quickly than she is accustomed to doing. Now she has the hiccups and has to stop eating.

She indicates to me through husband-wife sign language that the car is slowing down and moving over to the edge of the road. A fat lady with tall hair and giant sunglasses rolls down the window of her burgundy Buick sedan and screams, “Are you nuts?”

I wave and tell her no, with a pleasant smile.

“I don’t like this,” Beth says. “We should both be sitting on the outside, not the middle.”

“I thought we discussed this already,” I reply, but she’s visibly agitated, and my life always seems to be so much easier if I comply as quickly as possible when the alternative doesn’t make that much difference to me, anyway. “I’ll take the westbound lane,” I volunteer. “We’ll need to switch Zack and Connor.” Connor picks up his plate and walks around while I lift up Zack, booster and all, and place him atop the vacated chair on the other side of the table.

So, now my seat and Beth’s are sticking out almost halfway into our respective lanes. Perhaps a mother’s instinct is to put her body between her children and any kind of imminent disaster. I’d prefer logic and reason in this case. Anyway, Zack doesn’t care for the change of plans either. “NO!!!” His screams drown out the chorus of the cicadas. “I…DON’T …WANT … TO…SIT…IN…CONNOR’S…CHAAAAAAIR!!!” And when he says the word “chair,” his voice goes up about nine octaves. I throw down my plastic-ware with a feeble clatter. I can’t eat my Boca bratwurst anymore. Beth tries to reason with Zack by way of threats to remove at least a half dozen of his stuffed animals from his room. Emily spits out an asparagus head into her milk. Connor asks his mom, “Can I have some ice cream?” His plate is empty, but I haven’t been paying attention. I ask him, “Did you have any…” and he interrupts me with a surly “Yes!” but I’m not so sure that I trust him, and Kaley is sobbing because it’s just too noisy around here, and her face is contorted and frozen into that awful state of agony, like a child preserved by the lavas of Pompei, and a huge, black semi suddenly rounds the curve, bearing down at roughly 55 miles per hour.

“SCATTER!” I yell, and I grab Kaley’s high chair by the handle in the back and, just for good measure—I know he’s almost ten, but he just seems to have an underdeveloped sense of danger—I grab Connor by his upper arm and lunge backward toward the shoulder of the road in front of our home. Kaley is strapped in, and her highchair is on wheels, so it glides easily to safety. Connor pulls off a perfect dive-roll on the gravel. I glance up to see that Beth has Zack in her arms, and he’s beating her about the face and neck. Emily has managed to scamper all the way to the other side of the ditch and is already picking flowers.

The massive, roaring truck is in a wide swing straying about a foot and a half over the double yellow line. So many things can happen in two seconds. The casserole shatters against the wide, menacing grill, a thousand bits of pyroceramic glass mixing with an explosion of wet greens and browns. The Chinet sails in all directions like poorly thrown Frisbees, and mangled chairs sail through the air like spastic gymnasts, landing gracelessly upon the gravel or the weeds. The card table—my card table—skids, crumples, and then tumbles, end over end, for about a quarter of a mile before landing in a field of corn. The tablecloth gets caught on the vertical exhaust pipe, and the truck just keeps on going, its newfound victory flag flapping in the breeze. Against the blackness on the side of the trailer, a blur of red, white, and blue zooms past us in the gigantic forms of the letters U, S, and A.

My first instinct is to run and hide like my brother and I used to do when we broke somebody’s window. But the semi rolls on down the long, thin ribbon of road, eventually disintegrating into the distant edge of the horizon, another dancing ghost of mystery. We all stand and stare until it finally evaporates from our view. Except for Emily—she’s doing a little dance of her own over there in the wildflowers. Whoo-hoo! Dinner’s over! Whoo-hoo!

We can’t be bothered to clean this up right now. Thankfully, Zack and Kaley have calmed down. We trudge back up to the screened-in porch. It is time for ice cream, except for Emily. She has to have some carrots, or something, first.

We don’t need to live like this. Tomorrow I’ll go to work on the picnic table. I can rig up a little Go Kart motor and put the thing on some good, strong tires with a steering wheel at the head of the table. We can always look for ways to improve. There’s no sense in living in fear.


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