LITTLE BITS FOR DINNER
By Anna Villegas
My big brother’s romantic history includes a series of reasonably tolerable partners (except Marianne: anyone sporting blood red fingernails on purpose is disqualified from the get-go), women who have been, for reasons dark and Oedipal, gently left in the dust. My beautiful brother Lyle doesn’t mean for these women to love him with such purity. They just do. When their time is up, they let themselves slip gracefully from his spell without drama. Most, especially those local to Bakerville, retain a sincere fondness for Lyle of which I remain the beneficiary. Lyle himself is an introductory practicum in the Zen philosophy lacing his speech, walking proof that attachment is the origin of all suffering. Lord knows he’s catechized me well on this point. Which is why, when I can’t seem to tackle the subject of Elizabeth with him, I put myself on high alert.
“Barbi loved it that we had her to Aunt Amy’s for dinner over Christmas,” I say hopefully. “She’s such a sweetheart. Isn’t she?”
Lyle turns his knife blade to the inside of his empty plate, lines it up with his fork. “She is indeed.” My brother, Mister Manners, focuses on the etiquette of utensil placement postprandial, trying not to listen to me.
“Could we have dinner again, just you and me and Barbi and Aunt Amy?”
“I know what you’re doing, Bonita.” Lyle quarters one of the cloth napkins distinguishing the Home Run Café from every other eatery in Bakerville. We may be mountain folk, but we do have standards. At least Libby, the Home Run’s owner and one of Lyle’s past-life romances, has standards.
“I want you to know what I’m doing.”
“Don’t do it.” He puts the folded napkin on the table, signaling new topic.
“Because…” I learned all kinds of nifty conversational gambits in my stay at New Dawn Recovery Center. And while I may be a recovering alcoholic for life, that doesn’t mean I don’t have certain skills. Insights, like. “Because…”
“Because,” Lyle tells me, whispery, “you know I’m seeing Elizabeth again.”
Until Elizabeth, I worried for Lyle’s aborted romances. He has had plenty, my sweet landlord Barbi a favorite dating back to Lyle’s high school career twenty years ago. Since he didn’t stick with any of them, all of Bakerville offers speculation aplenty as to the exact nature of Lyle’s relationship irregularities. Once, sitting right in this very booth in the Home Run, old Norma Cathcart assured me it was going to be all right even if Lyle was “homosexual” because Heavenly Father, whom Norma knows intimately since her very late-life conversion to Mormonism, will make him all better in the hereafter. Providing he abstains, of course. I cut Norma some slack seeing how she and her husband Walter and their succession of Queensland Heelers were neighbors to my daddy and mama forever. Walter always lets Norma do the talking, yet there’s something irresistible in his gruff silence. If Walter can forgive Norma’s becoming a Mormon, I can forgive her mistaking my brother for gay.
My own suppositions about Lyle’s terminations were, I always believed, far closer to the truth: that my big brother suffers the same abandonment complex as I. I was a brave seven, Lyle a wise sixteen, when our mama suffered a surprise death on the freeways of awful Los Angeles. Whatever we two were supposed to become was revised by Mama’s death. I’d like to ask Heavenly Father about that some day.
“Look.” Lyle flattens his darling long hands on the table. “You don’t know Elizabeth.”
“I know about Elizabeth.”
“Bon.” Lyle cocks his finger at me. “You make things up. You make people up.”
“It’s true.” But I only use the material I’ve been given, just to fill in the gaps. It’s not a crime. It’s a hobby, something to occupy the thirsty dead zone between my mechanicking jobs at the Tune-Up Shop.
“You called her Little Bits to her face.”
“Yes. I did. I made amends.”
Lyle sighs. “You made your amends.” He fishes in his pocket for his wallet, lays some bills on the table. “I don’t think they were as sincerely intended as the ninth step requires.”
Being a psychic twin to an only sibling ten years your elder is super. It means someone’s always riding herd on your delusions, slippery though they are.
“If you say it often enough, you live it,” I recite. “I’m trying.”
“Sister Most Beloved.” Lyle stands. Whenever he calls me Sister Most Beloved, I know all is forgiven. “Why don’t I bring Elizabeth to dinner. Soon. You and Aunt Amy.”
“We tried that once. Before Marianne. Remember?”
“We’ll try it again.”
Lyle and I walk side by side into the dark January of Main Street. I get a homesick aura when my brother unlocks his car to head down the mountain to Stockton. It’s backwards, I know, because I’m the one who hasn’t left Bakerville, except for my season at New Dawn. Watching him leave blows a cold wind through the big hole in my orphan heart.
“I’ll call you about dinner.” Lyle hugs me to him. “No nicknames.”
“The junker going to start?” My brother points to my Toyota.
“Yeah.” I hug him once more. “If it doesn’t, I’m a mechanic, right?”
“Of great renown.” He kisses my head.
I watch Lyle’s rear lights twinkle down Main Street and out of sight. I wonder how many inventories it will take to figure out what makes me so certain Elizabeth is a bad moon rising.
“I do too want him to make a commitment,” I say to Barbi.
We’re eating the vegetarian Chinese take-out Barbi insisted on. For our standing Friday night dates we ordinarily claim the back booth at the Home Run and order something homemade and recognizable from Libby’s menu. That means by the end of the meal Lib has joined us and, like the three weird sisters we were meant to be, we are saving the world from troubles large and small. Libby’s gone off with her husband and little girls to visit in-laws somewhere down south, so Barbi has chosen tonight to decide habits are meant to be broken.
“This is terrible,” Barbi complains. She stabs a long deep fried thing with a single chop stick and holds it up like a flag. “Lib doesn’t have to worry about the competition.”
“He thinks I like finding fault with his girlfriends.” I eat a mouthful of fried rice. It looks like fried rice. “He thinks I’m glad when they don’t pan out.” I think it’s fried rice.
“Don’t give any of this to Mister, Bon,” Barbi warns. “MSG and cats don’t mix.”
“It’s really only Elizabeth I find serious fault with.”
Barbi takes the fried rice from me, stacks the half-empty cartons into a pyramid, lifts herself from my living room floor, and schleps the whole mess to the kitchen sink. “I believe, if I’m not mistaken, that you found a few faults with Marianne. If I’m not mistaken?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“So what’s wrong with this Elizabeth?”
“Lyle.” I uncross my knees and make a lap for Mister. “She speaks for him, like he’s a deaf mute or something. Steps on his sentences.”
“Lyle doesn’t need anybody to speak for him.”
“See? A person who doesn’t know that is not fully present.”
Barbi reclines on the love seat that serves as my living room. Her legs are hanging off the edge, but she looks comfortable. She’s on her feet six days a week cutting hair and plumping egos at Miss Barbi’s Hair Palace on Main Street. I like to think spending time with me is restful, but that may not be the case.
Barbi holds her arms straight up and waves them, like an upside down pumpkin bug. “What does he see in her, then?”
“That’s what’s scary. I can’t answer that.”
“Lyle knows his own mind.” Barbi lowers her arms and crosses them over her breasts.
“Assuming the burial position. Here.” I jump up and plop Mister on Barbi’s stomach. “Pet the cat.”
“How many months now?” Barbi loves milestones: birthdays, graduations, promotions, anniversaries, A.A. chips.
“I stopped counting.”
“Is that good?”
“Counting isn’t required. Meetings are. You want a pillow?”
I get a pillow from my bed and stuff it under Barbi’s head. I am gripped by an uncommon compulsion to tidy up, do bushels of laundry or apply full-strength Lysol to something greasy. “Do cats need baths?”
“Not this one.” Barbi cuddles Mister. “He’s fat, but he smells good.” She caps her hand over Mister’s head and squeezes. “They love this. It reminds them of their mama.”
“Look,” I say firmly. There are no distracting rat’s nests in my tiny apartment, not now, so I return my energies to Lyle. “He’s never revisited his girlfriends before.” I pull my sweatshirt from the back of the love seat and fold it. I fold Barbie’s sweater, too, and line up our shoes at the slider to the tiny cement patio linking Barbi’s apartment to mine.
“Lyle’s an old soul, kiddo.” Barbi sounds like she’s falling asleep.
“True. In lots of ways.” I slump onto the edge of the love seat and slide my way down to the floor.
“Since when have you had any influence over his affairs, anyway?”
“Lyle doesn’t have affairs. He has—“
“—Serial heartaches. He gives them to himself.”
“Yes! Abandonment patterns. He relives them. Until Elizabeth.”
Barbi raises herself on an elbow. Mister gives us a perky snarl and hops off the love seat. “So he’s getting back with Elizabeth—“
“The meanest thing.”
“—to break the pattern?”
“You mean as in evolving?” Working through?”
“We can’t know, honey.” Barbi flaps open her folded sweater and drapes it over her shoulders.
“I’m beat. You need to figure out General Hospital by yourself now.” She pats my head. “Good night, Mister,” she calls. “Night night, Bonita.”
I don’t watch General Hospital, but my Aunt Amy does. Has done for twenty-seven faithful years since her twin babies died before I was born. I will take up Barbi’s suggestion: only in the soap opera world do women exist who would do the kinds of things I am certain Lyle’s Elizabeth would. Aunt Amy can give me some pointers.
My aunt told me to come straight back into her vegetable garden, where she’ll be pulling up last summer’s tomatoes and squash and peppers. I’m to help, as always. I get to decide where next year’s green beans and sunflowers will grow. They’ve been my share in the garden since I became a little girl with a dead mama, when Aunt Amy stepped up and traded her own secret world to stand alongside Lyle as one of the two constants of my life.
“We picked a beaut of a day for out with the old,” Aunt Amy tells me when I find her behind the compost heap, an empty wheelbarrow upended beside her. She’s wearing a Tune-Up Shop ball cap over her newly cut hair. Twenty-seven years my aunt lived without cutting her hair. Then in one fell swoop delivered by Barbi, her tresses went off to Locks of Love, courtesy of the Magi. Lyle, who prefers his only remaining kin to sport sadhu-length manes, still hasn’t recovered.
“A beaut.” I grab the wheelbarrow handles and straighten it up. “Where am I headed?”
I trundle the wheelbarrow to the rows of wiry, wilted tomato vines. On the hills behind Aunt Amy’s house, the leaves of the oak trees glisten in the first sunshine showing itself since early December. Six or seven of Walter Cathcart’s heifers are grazing on new grass. Their sleek auburn coats couldn’t glow any brighter if Barbi had given them a shampoo at the Hair Palace.
Aunt Amy wants to uproot the tomato vines herself, but I won’t let her. Who knows when a stroke is lurking, biding its time, waiting for a sunny day to deceive a person into letting her guard down? I borrow my aunt’s flowered gardening gloves and pull the vines up, relishing the feel of my boot heels grounded in good earth, the tightness of the soil holding the roots, the release that follows my backward-leaning weight. This is why Aunt Amy loves her garden so: the willingness with which plants submit to the demands of the season. Chopping wood and hauling water, Lyle would say by way of explanation. You can’t attach too deeply to plants that are meant to sacrifice themselves.
I set aside the few green tomatoes our Christmas cold didn’t turn to mush and begin on the sweet peppers. Aunt Amy’s raking behind me, tidying the ground for the load of steer manure Walter Cathcart will haul over from his barn.
“Auntie?” I ask when all that’s left are the zuke plants. “What do you think of Lyle’s Elizabeth? The one he was with when I came out of New Dawn?”
My aunt stills her rake. She settles the ball cap on her head, absentmindedly reaching behind her neck for the shorn braids. I wonder if their missing weight gives her phantom pains. When I was released from New Dawn, I hacked my own hair down to stubble. Sometimes I think I still wear it; then I walk by a mirror and see myself, a ghost.
“Whatever I think of Elizabeth, Lyle’s bringing her up for dinner next week. You’re to attend.”
I finish arranging the last zuke skeleton on the wheelbarrow. “I’m supposed to make something to go with dinner. Welcoming, like.”
My aunt cocks her head at me. “What am I hearing in your voice, Bonita?”
The wheelbarrow almost tips when I put it into reverse, but we make it to the compost heap. I pretend not to feel the sharpness of my aunt’s question.
“She’s not nice to him,” I complain, offering my hands to my aunt so she can wrestle the muddy gardening gloves from them.
“She’s not nice to him or you don’t want anybody to be nice to him?” Aunt Amy flaps the muddy gloves as clean as she can.
“You think I’m jealous? Of Lyle’s girlfriends? Of Elizabeth?”
“Don’t sputter, Bon Bon. Calm yourself.”
“I want him to find a nice girlfriend.” I kick a clump of earth. “I want somebody in this family to reach happily-ever-after.”
Aunt Amy steers me up the back porch steps. “Don’t cry, sweetheart.” She bends to pull off her boots and makes a show of checking her watch, a cheap heavy-duty man’s Timex that matches mine; we bought them together on a rare shopping excursion to the Rite Aid store in Jackson. “Just in time for General Hospital. We’ll have hot chocolate. What do you say?”
When Mama died, my Daddy did his best to mend our family, but truth be told, he wasn’t up to the task. Lyle went off to Poly soon after, and Aunt Amy mothered me with a generous, selfless eccentricity. To this day I am grateful for the cast and crew of General Hospital. I remember the characters as a flock of overdressed, sentimentally-spoken cretins against whose sordid expressionism my own novice grief paled. They became my closet relatives, embarrassing and foolish and impossible to divorce. When the winters were bitter cold, Aunt Amy and I would snuggle together on her front room couch, bolstered by pillows smelling of Jergen’s lotion, covered by quilts. Often, hypnotized by the intolerably repetitive plots, Aunt Amy would unleash my hair and give it one hundred strokes. Then I would redo her braids, too, brushing them out and fastening them with the plastic baubles from my own collection. We went entire episodes without speaking, healing ourselves to the unorthodox therapeutics of the doctors and nurses of General Hospital.
As soon as we leave the garden and come inside, the sun loses itself behind a wall of dismal clouds blown in from the west. Aunt Amy’s front room is almost dark except for the light cast by her old box television.
“I guess I don’t need to ask what’s happening,” I say when we’re settled on the couch, slippered feet tucked beneath us, mugs settled on the cedar chest.
“You’ve got a moustache,” she tells me. She traces my lip with her finger. “You’re a smart girl, Bon Bon. You can always figure it out.”
“Shusssh.” My aunt points to the screen.
I’m somewhat of an expert on addictions, yet I’m not quite sure if Aunt Amy’s devotion to General Hospital qualifies. She watches nothing else. She owns only a cheapo radio with abysmal reception and her old TV. She reads The Economist stem to stern each week without fail. Just as her sister, my mama, did, she considers the library to be as necessary as the grocery store or the post office. My aunt is a person of class. Why she would choose to rub shoulders with the dimwits from ABC when she doesn’t tolerate such shoddy behavior from anyone but a blood relative like me is a mystery.
“That’s that.” Aunt Amy gives me her full attention when her soap is over. “Why, exactly, are you concerning yourself with Lyle’s Elizabeth now?”
I stretch my legs, then pull them back under the quilt covering us.
The fire has burnt down to ashes. I’ll need to stoke it and the kitchen woodstove both.
“Bon? It’s Barbi, isn’t it?” Aunt Amy stops my fingers from pulling
at loose threads on the borders of the quilt. “Barbi’s a strong woman, sweetheart.”
“She doesn’t require your services here.”
“I know. It’s not Barbi, anyway.”
“Can you let Lyle and Elizabeth find their own way?”
“It will be Elizabeth’s way.”
“Lyle’s choice,” Aunt Amy says simply.
Lyle may talk a fine Buddhism, but Aunt Amy lives it, without any of the hoopla or multi-syllabic fine-tuning of the formally anointed.
I slip from the quilt and stand. “I’m bringing wood in,” I tell my aunt.
Of course she’s right. You can’t make choices for other people, no matter how much more perceptive you mistake yourself to be. The people you love most have to muddle on by themselves through simple sadness or bad love or alcoholism while you sit on the sidelines, fingers crossed, waiting for them to come around. You need to be there when they do. That’s the thing.
If I am going to make any purchase in Elizabeth’s affections, Barbi says, I should make an effort to dress respectfully for the dinner Aunt Amy will be cooking for the benefit of my brother’s date exactly two hours from now. I took off early from the Tune-Up Shop to shower and make myself presentable, but I’m not trendy enough to determine what presentable is. My ordinary wardrobe is jeans and T-shirts, sweatshirts and tennis shoes. I could wear one of the two dresses I own, except the black one needs ironing and the other would require stockings or tights or some leg wear I don’t own and refuse to buy.
Barbi has lent me some pants. After I roll Mister off the gray slacks I’ve laid out on my bed, I use a length of duct tape to dab his white hairs from them. I have a new sweater, too, in the calico colors of the Shetland pony Norma and Walter used to keep in their back pasture solely for my delight. A person would have to study it closely to find evidence of Mister, lucky for me, because my cat has returned like a bad penny, curling his fat, shedding self into fetal shape on top of the sweater.
“You’re headed for the glue factory, Mister,” I tell him, squeezing his head the way Barbi does. “You’re headed for the taxidermist’s.”
I check my watch, then lie down on the bed and arrange myself next to Mister. The butterscotch brownies I baked before work are stacked prettily on a wooden tray I borrowed from Aunt Amy. I left a small plate of them on Barbi’s counter. I hope we’ll eat them together after I get home tonight. Aunt Amy will not want to dissect the dinner post mortem, but Barbi might. I need to get to my aunt’s before the guests of honor, but the mesmerizing rise and fall of Mister’s fat tummy is so soothing I coil myself around him like an untied ribbon.
I need to take personal inventory.
1. I do not want to go to dinner with Lyle and Elizabeth.
2. I do not want Lyle going to dinner with Elizabeth.
3. I do not like Elizabeth. I do not like the thought of her. I do not like the particulars of her, the way her eyes inevitably stray to my feet and express disdain for the grease-stained tatty Nikes I wear. I do not like her oversized necklaces nestling themselves into her shiny cleavage, always on display. I do not like the manner in which she conducts conversation to areas of her own expertise or experience. I do not like her technique of feigning incompetence for Lyle’s benefit. I do not like the hard vivacity of her voice. I do not like—
“This is not going well, Mister.” I rouse myself from the sullen stupor I’ve induced. “Snakes in my head. I’m racking up a tab of amends, little buddy.”
Snakes, once they go to ground, are hard demons to wrestle.
“There you are, sweet girl,” Aunt Amy says to me after I stomp my feet on the back porch and wait for the kitchen door to open. She kisses my cheek and takes the brownies. “Perfect. I have full-fat vanilla ice cream for these.”
“You are beautiful,” I tell her. Her dark hair glows, denying her age. For once she’s not clipping it back with one of my leftover plastic barrettes. She’s wearing dangly gold earrings that might have come out of a head shop in the sixties. In a crisp white blouse and new blue jeans, my aunt could be a cover girl for AARP. “You are stunning.”
“And yourself?” Aunt Amy spins me around, gives me an exaggerated up-and-down. “Would hip be the word?”
“Never hip.” I laugh. My aunt has the right spirit: wear your most attractive self when marching into quicksand. Look like you’re having the time of your life. “What can I do?”
“Not too much, Bonita. Table’s set, dinner’s in the oven—“
I sniff. “Zucchini risotto?”
“Yes, m’am.” Aunt Amy pauses, as if she’s suddenly forgotten her script and has to improvise. “Lyle said nothing fancy, so nothing fancy it is.”
“I love your risotto. Lyle loves it. It was Libby’s best-selling special last summer.” If Elizabeth doesn’t crow about my aunt’s dinner, Lyle will be exiled from our family, sparse though its numbers be.
“It will be a good meal, Bon.” Aunt Amy touches the cloth on the kitchen table, as if to bless it. “Let this unfold as it will, shall we?”
“And don’t you look spiffy!”
I frown. “Barbi’s pants. This birthday sweater from—“
“Norma. You’ve not worn it yet?”
“Wear it more, sweetheart. Make sure Norma sees you wearing it.”
“Could I go over now? I’d like to see Walter. And Queenie.” I pretend to dart for the door.
“I’ll be good.” Aunt Amy has set the table with three wineglasses. A water glass, my albatross, is placed at the fourth setting. “I promise.”
When a family gathering includes a certified recovering alcoholic, the cocktail hour gets truncated to a bottle of white wine for the sober three who aren’t in danger of spinning out of control and a glass of sparkling cider for the handicapped. I like sparkling cider, actually: it tastes like apple juice and pop mixed together. This is what I tell Elizabeth when she asks me if I prefer red or dislike all wine.
“I’m an alcoholic,” I tell her. Lyle and Aunt Amy seem to hold their breaths. “I like sparkling cider. It tastes like apple juice and pop mixed together.”
“I’m sorry, Bonita,” Elizabeth says. A tremor of worry disturbs her forehead, finely glazed with a sheen of undoubtedly exotic skin toner. “I did know that. Lyle told me. I should have remembered.”
I shrug. I pass the cashews to Aunt Amy. “We don’t dwell on it, anyway,” I lie. Elizabeth doesn’t need to know that I—and by extension Lyle and Aunt Amy—live my alcoholism, its history and its absence, day in and day out.
“Of course not,” Elizabeth murmurs. She’s modulating her voice, forcing it shrink-soft, atonal. The only possible suspect to have leaked the particulars of my inventory of the early evening is Mister the rescue cat. Even a drunk on a bender would not find this plausible.
“Let’s eat!” Aunt Amy rises from the couch and heads for the kitchen.
Elizabeth follows, and Lyle follows Elizabeth. I bring up the rear. Right about now I’d like to give my brother a flat tire, except his cowboy boots make that impossible. I’m debating a wedgie just as Aunt Amy points us to our places.
“More wine, Elizabeth?” Aunt Amy lifts the bottle. “More cider, Bon?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
My aunt fills Elizabeth’s glass. Lyle fills mine. He won’t look at me.
“Do you ever think about going to college, Bonita?” Elizabeth asks when she’s settled a napkin in her lap. I watch her sigh, the heave of her bosom decorated by some slinky gold figure, a skier or a witch on a broomstick, I can’t tell.
“You’re a reader, Lyle tells me.”
“We’re all readers.” I pass the basket of French rolls to Lyle. “It’s congenital.”
“Bonnie won the gold for best English student in high school,” Lyle adds. “She’s a smarty pants.”
“I’d be happy to walk you through admissions.” Elizabeth is some kind of dean at the college in Stockton. Some kind of ad-min-is-tra-tor. “If you like.”
“I work,” I say.
“You can work and go to school, too.”
“I’ll think about it.” I wait for my brother to bail me out, herald my qualities, the rarity of a female mechanic with shade tree instincts.
“Elizabeth, will you pass the salad, please?” Aunt Amy intervenes. “Bonnie made butterscotch brownies for dessert, Lyle.”
“My favorite,” my brother says. “My all-time favorite.”
“I thought you liked chocolate brownies,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth looks at me, eyebrows raised, as if I am a willing confidante. “He told me he loved chocolate brownies.”
“I’m sure he did,” I say before Aunt Amy’s foot has time to press itself on mine. I’m wearing flats I borrowed from Barbi. When Elizabeth’s gaze makes her way down to my feet, she’ll be thwarted. I know for a fact Lyle pretends his sweet tooth, even for my butterscotch brownies, but I keep mum. I am plumb out of new topics. Conversationally bankrupt.
Lyle begins to say something about Aunt Amy’s garden, whether the risotto is spiced by her oregano or rosemary or both.
Elizabeth interrupts. “I have a good recipe for rosemary bread.” She touches her napkin to the corner of her mouth. “Very easy.”
“Aunt Amy makes—“ Lyle begins.
“I could give it to you, Amy.”
“—the best challah—“
“Rosemary bread would have gone wonderfully with this meal.”
“—in the world.”
“Aunt Amy bakes the best bread.” I echo Lyle and help myself to a second serving of risotto, even though I wasn’t hungry to begin with and am beginning to suspect I may be in for a long spate of fasting. “Nobody bakes bread like Auntie.”
“I’m sure the rosemary bread is as good as you say.” My aunt doesn’t, I note, ask for the recipe.
“Did you take any voc tech training before your–” Elizabeth pauses, as if the word for what I do eludes her vocabulary, “–your current job, Bonnie?”
“No, I didn’t, actually. “I followed Dickie de Vane around for a couple of months. Apprenticed, like.”
Lyle begins to explain. “Dickie de Vane is—“
“So you don’t have a certificate?”
“License? Credential?” Elizabeth is looking worried. She’s thinking that the engine beneath the hood of whatever gas-guzzling SUV she drives may have been tampered with by a host of drooling club-footed village idiots. The very idea seems to have put her off her feed. She pushes her plate away and reaches for her wine glass.
“Bonnie’s a self-starter.” Lyle is trying. It pains me to see my big brother, a gentle man by nature, made helpless. The stiletto heels on someone’s bruising shoes have tacked him to the floor. He is not a doormat.
“I’ve never understood,” I say, waving my fork at Elizabeth in a violation of all statutes of etiquette, “why talent, or skill, or intelligence is required to be—“
“I just assumed that—“
“—certified, licensed,or credentialed.” A chunk of rice drops from my fork onto Aunt Amy’s tablecloth. “Oops. Sorry.” I scoop the morsel up with my dessert spoon and lob it onto Lyle’s plate. “Don’t you find, Elizabeth, that we live in a totally too-credentialized culture?”
“Take Libby. She was Lyle’s first high school girlfriend? She owns the Home Run Café? She decided she’d like to run a restaurant and, voila, the Home Run gets rave reviews in Frommer’s.”
“Or Barbi? She was Lyle’s second high school girlfriend? She owns her own salon. Miss Barbi’s on Main? Before cosmetology school, Barb knew how to do hair so well, they made her an instructor her second week there. People drive fifty miles to pay for one of Barbi’s cuts.”
“That’s not the—”
“My point is that a lot of people, maybe most people, really learn their stuff either after school,” here I look pointedly at Lyle, “or without school.” I lift the sparkling cider bottle, wave it dangerously close to Elizabeth’s glass. “Unless they never learn it all.”
“But Lyle has—”
“Sure, Lyle has his hoity-toity engineering degree. He’s told you that all the theory he memorized and dumps into AutoCAD programs is poor preparation for the real world? Real buildings? On the ground? He’s shared that with you?” I gesture to my stricken brother for confirmation.
“Has Lyle ever played his guitar for you, Elizabeth?”
“He plays a terrific guitar. My brother is the most wonderful guitarist nobody knows.” I need to catch my breath. My words have winded me. “He taught himself. It doesn’t mean he isn’t good.” I’m not feeling very sober, either. “He could have been a professional studio musician. Without lessons.” Now I’m panting. “Whether or not people are formally educated has next to nothing to do with whether they’re good at anything. School doesn’t make a person any better than the next guy.” I bow my head. “So no, I didn’t go to school.”
Aunt Amy stands and begins to clear plates. She faces the kitchen counter with her back to me, a familiar trick: I can’t see you, so you don’t exist. Lyle straightens the serving spoon in the risotto. If I didn’t know that I’d just ruined this family dinner by breaking my vows of temperance, I would say that my brother looks more bemused than upset, as if the punch line of a complicated joke is finally making its laborious entrance. Elizabeth is fingering her necklace, pulling it away from her skin, letting it drop.
“I apologize,” I say, extricating my legs from beneath the table, heading for the door. “My name is Bonita.” I bow. “I’m an alcoholic.”
“You may as well have been drinking,” Barbi tells me. “I don’t want you to feel any worse than you should, but it might have gone over better if you’d been tanked.”
Barbi’s buried in her bed, the blankets pulled up to her chin. I wish I’d stayed in my own bed with Mister and my butterscotch brownies, never ventured into high society at all. Everybody knows I have not been properly socialized. I have proved it time and time again.
“I apologized.” For the twentieth time, I pace from Barbi’s bed to the door and back.
Barbi nods her head. “Easier to ask forgiveness, huh?”
“It could have happened on General Hospital.”
“Don’t say something like that to Lyle, honey.”
“Certain public behavior is criminal.”
“A word of advice?
“Give Lyle a call. Not now. In the morning.”
“Here are your shoes.” I slip off Barbi’s flats and hand them to her. “And your pants.” I unzip Barbi’s pants and step out of them.
“Tomorrow would have done, Bon.”
“No, it wouldn’t. I need to return these right now.” I head for the slider to make the cold rush through the patio to my apartment.
I turn back to Barbi. My legs are freezing.
“You look like a skinny little kid. Don’t break my heart.”
“Don’t break Lyle’s heart. Give him a call.”
It’s Lyle who calls me. I’m feeding Mister, practicing the impossible task of living one day at a time, which means there’s not supposed to be a lot I can do about last night and what Elizabeth must think of me, bolting from my aunt’s dinner table as if the banshees were on my trail.
“Bonnie. You need to speak when you pick up the phone, say hello or good morning or something.” My brother doesn’t sound angry, just beleaguered, a teacher discovering his prize student throwing spit wads at Thomas Jefferson’s portrait.
“You’ve reached 654-3253. Please leave a message after the beep.” “Not necessary, Bonita.”
“Okay.” I inhale. “I’m sorry for going berserkers at Aunt Amy’s.
I’m sorry for my rudeness and any harm I may have caused you and your—Elizabeth.”
“She’s not my Elizabeth.”
“Fine. Plain Elizabeth.”
We have a long silence together, just me and my brother breathing. Before New Dawn, hearing my brother breathe was the only thing that kept me from doing even worse things than drinking myself into oblivion. We have a long history of breathed conversations.
“Do you remember the song Ma used to sing to us when we were sick? When she’d turn the couch into a hospital bed?”
“And make us our own bowls of layer Jell-O?”
“And lay out the Scrabble board on the coffee table?”
“And take our library book orders?”
“What was that song?”
“She made it up.”
“Yes, she did. She told me. She made it up just for us. For you first, actually. I inherited it. Hand-me-down.”
“Do you remember it?”
I do remember the words to our mama’s composition, reserved for bouts of sickness or the midnight terrors, her spells for keeping safe her beloved children. I sing them to him, my darling brother, in a trembly voice sounding nothing like our mother’s. At 6:30 in the morning I sing to him, an incantation of grief and forgiveness, the libretto to which we live our flawed but penitent lives.
About the Author:
Anna Villegas is a fifth-generation Californian who lives in Nevada City, California, where her family settled during the Gold Rush. Her published work includes essays, poems, short stories, newspaper columns, and three novels, but the short story remains her favorite form. “Little Bits for Dinner” is from What Doesn’t Kill You, a short story collection in progress.