Professor Elias McCracken bound through the door of his mint green Victorian home, his arms full of books, his briefcase bursting with ungraded essays, his trench coat flapping, tamping his shoes on the rug to drain the moisture, and shaking an unruly umbrella before placing it in the corner receptacle. “Gwen,” he called out when he spotted his wife pacing back and forth in the adjoining study. She held up her index finger to pause him.
“Well, then post a sign on the rare books room, move Allie to the circulation desk, and stick Allen in reference until Tabby gets there, if she ever does.” She paused and listened intently. “Fine. That should hold down the fort until we close.” She paused. “No, I’m sorry I’m not there and you have to deal with this. I really appreciate it, Michelle, goodbye.”
“Crisis at the library?” Elias surmised.
“Being the boss is nothing like advertised,” Gwen punched out of her cell phone and moved in to kiss her damp husband. “Your parents are here for dinner.”
“The old man in the living room, Mom in the kitchen?” he questioned.
“You know the drill,” Gwen called out sarcastically as she turned toward the kitchen.
Elias removed his soaked loafers, padded down the hallway in his socks, shaking them as he trod, and peeked around the corner. “Hey, Dad,” he paused in the archway. “No board meetings tonight?”
His distinguished looking father, in smart khaki slacks and a striped button-down shirt under a navy cardigan sweater, lowered the day’s Wall Street Journal to reveal his face, tortoise shell glasses dangling from his nose, and remarked, “We have a free night. No meetings for me and no art league for your mother. We thought we’d drop in unannounced and ruin your evening.”
“You’re always welcome, you know that. Let me throw on some dry clothes and I’ll join you for a drink.” He waited a beat then asked, “Did you come prepared?”
“But of course,” his father tapped a stack of index cards on the side table next to him, patted his shirt pocket, which rustled and crackled a bit, then fell back behind the newspaper.
After a quiet minute Elias’s mother appeared, her soft gray hair contoured into a sensible contemporary do, her gray slacks pressed, her white blouse feminine and flattering. “Dinner in five,” she chimed.
“Elias and the twins are all upstairs,” her husband informed her. “Just call them on the intercom.”
Within a pair of minutes everyone had gathered in the dining room and settled around the imposing mahogany table Elias’s grandparents had left him. A monstrous matching hutch loomed over the room, a landscape painting of the romantic inclination, with trees blowing in the wind and a distant waterfall misting off center in muted, natural colors hung opposite in a substantial gilded frame. The twins, Athena in her blue and gray plaid jumper and Ari in navy chinos and a white Lacoste, hopped into their chairs. Gwen then emerged from the kitchen through the swinging white door with a bowl of mashed potatoes in one hand and a platter of gravy-laden Swiss steaks in the other. Her mother-in-law, Babs, followed, a hot pink gingham apron tied perfectly around her trim waist, a silver basket of yeast rolls and a bowl of French cut green beans in her hands.
“Everybody’s washed?’ Gwen asked reflexively.
The two women sat down and surveyed the table, every dish in place, every place setting arranged. The Lenox china and Waterford crystal reflected light from the bay window and the chandelier, lending warmth to the room. The family collectively paused for a moment in which many families would pray and began their meal.
“How was everyone’s day? Elias inquired. “I know Mommy’s was hectic and Nana and Poppy’s were not. So that leaves Ari and Athena.”
The twins, who sat next to each other between their parents and across from their grandparents, poked at their food and began to recount the escapades of their second-grade classroom, the idiosyncrasies of their teacher, and the shenanigans on the playground.
“But did you learn anything?” their father asked.
“Education is the cornerstone of success,” Nana added as she pursed her lips and slid a carefully proportioned bite of Swiss steak into her mouth.
“It certainly is,” Poppy agreed. “And to that end, guess what I have,” his voiced lifted.
“Smarties!” the twins shouted in glee.
“Let’s go,” Ari stood up. “I love this game!”
“Can’t we at least finish our dinner first,” Gwen wondered?
“We can eat and play at the same time. After all, we are all intelligent, accomplished persons,” Poppy reasoned. Then he pulled out a stack of index cards and a bag of Smartie candies, all factory-rolled into cellophane wrappers.
“Question number one,” Poppy assumed his role as game show host, Elias shook his head mirthfully, and Gwen dropped her face into her hands in resignation. “How many continents are there?” he asked, and the match had commenced.
“Seven,” Ari called out and Poppy tossed him a packet of Smarties, which he opened immediately and devoured.
“What is the shortest month?” Ari pushed himself in front of Athena and raised his arm in triumph, “November!”
“Incorrect,” Poppy pointed with the index card. “Cupcake,” he gave his granddaughter a chance and she took it.
“February,” she proclaimed.
“And I want it noted that she also pronounced it correctly,” Gwen chimed in.
Poppy awarded Athena a roll of Smarties and flipped to another index card and another question. Again, Ari shouted down his sister and coughed up the answer before she could speak her mind.
“Fork over the Smarties,” he gloated and immediately popped the little sugary discs into his mouth, not even bothering to chew.
Another question came and Ari thrust his arm before his sister like a police officer holding back a crowd and drowned out any chance of her answering the question. Another question came and another answer. “Who was Mozart, how many innings in a major league baseball game, what is the biggest animal on Earth?” The questions kept coming and the twins kept answering, rarely missing any. As the competition forged on, Ari became more and more forceful in his answers, shouting over his sister despite remonstrations from his mother and grandmother.
“The boy’s on fire,” Poppy defended him. “Can’t mess with a streak.”
More questions came and it seemed that Poppy’s stack was inexhaustible. Gwen and her mother-in-law cleared the table when it became clear that dinner as a civilized, cultural event had terminated. Poppy, who relished his role as ringmaster, pushed his chair away from the table in dramatic style, stretched his arms as if to loosen them for combat, and powered on. With each correct answer the children opened their palms and their father, who had assumed the role of assistant, tossed them a packet of candy as if he was feeding animals at the zoo.
The questions fired off like little missiles, but the twins intercepted every one. “Who was the first president, where is the Eiffel Tower, how many planets are there?” Athena, now standing at the table, tried to offer her answers, but Ari nudged her, blocked her, or out shouted her every time. Then he would snap his fingers and grab another bundle of Smarties, pop them into his mouth, and reset for the next question. In fact, his behavior mirrored how he comported himself when the children played games in the backyard. At the first sign of competition a switch seemed to flip inside him, and aggression seized his skinny body. After several frustrating minutes, Athena simply abandoned trying to answer, Poppy and Elias failing to even notice. Instead, they began to whoop and holler as Ari dazzled them with his rapid-fire answers. They began to “high five” or “fist bump” him or break into a short celebration dance when he hollered out an especially challenging answer. He began smugly adding, “But of course” and “Everybody knows” as preambles to his answers. And with each correct response, he crammed more candies into his mouth.
Finally, the supply of index cards evaporated.
“What do you mean they’re all gone?” Ari snapped.
“I think we know who the winner is,” Elias bragged.
“Yeah, boys rule, girls drool” Ari recited a tired playground taunt. As her brother paraded around the room in victory, Athena sat still, head dropped, hands clasping the sides of her chair, her little knuckles white with frustration.
“Bedtime,” Gwen called, flashing a frown at her poor, defeated daughter.
After bath, tooth brushing, and reading time, Gwen peeked into Athena’s room for a final check on her bested daughter.
“Don’t worry about it, sweetie,” she comforted her. “There are different kinds of intelligence. One silly contest doesn’t prove anything,” she smiled. Athena sat with her chin in her chest and her mother hugged her. “You are a bright, beautiful girl. You have friends and family who love you. You have your own gifts.” She paused. “You’ll get him next time,” she kissed her daughter on the forehead. Suddenly Ari appeared in the hallway shadows. His face looked sallow and tinged green; his eyes droopy; his voice small. He held both hands over his stomach and mumbled, “I don’t feel good.”
“I don’t feel well,” Gwen corrected his grammar. “What’s wrong, Champ,” his mom inquired.
“I’m gonna,” he bolted into Athena’s side of their shared bathroom and began to vomit violently. Gwen hustled over to him and rubbed the little guy’s back as he wretched over the toilet. When she glanced back into Athena’s room as Ari coughed and panted, Gwen noticed the girl sitting up in her frilly pink pajamas, her ponytail gone, hair pushed back behind her ears, grinning.
“I know. There are different kinds of intelligence,” she announced. Then Athena opened the drawer of her bedside table and displayed a mound of unopened Smarties.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A., R.H. Nicholson spent many, many years teaching others to write. Now he focuses (finally) on his own work, which has appeared in “The Back Porch”, “The Blue Lake Review”, and “Wordmongers”. He won the 2015 Cincinnati Poetry Prize. He lives in a small Ohio River Valley town with his wife and their geriatric cat Fezziwig.