The Buffet had Everything
Without an appetite, Benjamin stared at the possibilities. Across the room, two families joined together for the first time. Their differences were distinct but they greeted one another full of smiles. Laid out in front of Benjamin were trays of crispy drumsticks and mounds of creamy macaroni and cheese under heat lamps, and down the line there was even a man waiting to slice off a piece of ham. He took his time ladling more mashed potatoes, periodically glancing back at the table.
Benjamin returned with a plate of sides and a Frankenstein beverage concocted from all ten fountain drinks. Eight years old and full of nervous energy, he quietly pecked at his meal while shifting food across his plate to appear as though he had made a dent. Benjamin was a lanky child with a buck toothed gap and a buzz cut that accentuated his awkwardly large skull. It was winter and his naturally tan skin, bundled in JCPenney sweaters, had faded to pale.
They had him seated in the middle of the table close to his father and therein lay the problem. Who was Benjamin's father? No one discussed this with him beforehand. To his left was the man who taught him how to tie his shoes and ride a bike, taught him how to read and tucked him in at night. Across the table sat another man; one who bared a striking resemblance. This man's face, marked with creases and dotted with freckles across the bridge of his nose, with hair more tightly coiled, was unmistakably Benjamin's. He introduced himself as Terrell but Benjamin knew that already. They sat across from one another, while Jim sat at his side.
“Honey, whatchu got there?” Grandma Mary looked at his plate. She was a stout woman, not very tall, with glasses and a southern drawl. Her skin was chestnut colored. She had no wrinkles and Benjamin couldn't believe she was old enough to be his grandmother. Mary addressed him with warm familiarity, which was somewhat confusing to Benjamin as he had met her only twenty minutes prior. He liked it, though, her acceptance.
“All he'll eat is chicken fingers!” Grandma Francine chimed in; her shrill voice piercing Benjamin's ears. Like a hawk, she hovered over him.
“Just chicken fingers?” frowned Grandma Mary. “You gotta get your greens? You don’t like greens?” she asked sweetly. Without waiting she posed the question to his parents, “Does he eat his greens?”
Benjamin’s mother Amy looked toward Jim with a dubious smirk. “We try.”
Jim sighed, “Getting him to eat anything outside the frozen food aisle is a challenge.”
“Well, you come over sometime and I'll make you some real good chicken. And some sweet corn and mashed potatoes. You can have whatever you’d like and maybe some greens,” she laughed.
“I make ‘em good,” Grandma Mary winked.
What would visits to Grandma Mary and Grandpa John’s house be like? Benjamin wondered. He imagined himself playing on their shag carpet, as so many houses from his Iowa childhood were wont to have, or with them at the dinner table relaying stories of recess on the playground. The thing that most excited Benjamin though, was the idea of being seen with them. He didn't fully understand these feelings, but the mere proximity to his new family stirred something in him. He imagined his grandparents taking him out to the mall or to Chuck E. Cheese's. The idea of it created within him a sense of belonging that he'd never felt before. Benjamin was a brown child living in a white household and the family portraits, hung from every wall, served as a constant reminder.
Family was a loose term for Benjamin. Jim was proof enough of the notion that family means being present. And perhaps it was because of this notion that the way Benjamin saw himself in relation to his family became all the more important. This led him to the question: where had Terrell, Rhonda, and his grandparents been?
* * *
While his elders made conversation, Benjamin observed his new-found family. Their drawl, their ease, the lack of judgment in discussing other people’s affairs, all of this differed from what he was accustomed to. His mother’s Irish-Catholic side of the family possessed a deep solidarity with one another that was almost completely obscured by layers of cynicism and a sense of duty. The month before his parents had hosted a birthday party for his uncle's new wife. Benjamin, with hands sore from scrubbing floors and toilets, questioned why they spent so much time and energy preparing a party for someone his mother disliked. To say Amy had gripes with her sister-in-law would be an understatement. She was vocal in her disdain and Benjamin was often her audience. “Why do we have to do this?” he pleaded. “Because it’s your family,” said Amy, and that was the end of the conversation.
“Terrell, why don’t you show him what you got,” Aunt Rhonda called from the end of the table.
It was Rhonda that sought out Benjamin and arranged for the two families to meet. She was a college student living in Iowa City, working on her undergraduate degree. A few months prior she contacted Amy, hoping to connect with her nephew. With his ear to the floor, Benjamin caught snippets of the phone conversation happening in the kitchen below. Rhonda, the youngest of her siblings and the least concerned with her older brother’s say in the matter, told Amy that if Terrell didn’t want to be a part of Benjamin’s life, that was fine, but he couldn’t keep the rest of the family from seeing Benjamin.
“Let the boy eat,” Terrell laughed. “He almost done.”
“I know you, Terrell,” Rhonda glared. “You’ll forget. Go on, take it out.”
Terrell chuckled and lifted a thin box out from under the table. “Picked you up something,” said Terrell, awkwardly handing over the package.
Benjamin lifted off the cover and pulled apart the tissue wrapping. Underneath sat a grey sweater with a football and goalpost embroidered on the front.
“We didn’t know which was your team so we got you this,” said Aunt Rhonda.
“Benjamin, what do you say?” his mother pressed him.
Bashful, Benjamin thanked Terrell. The two made eye-contact for a brief second. Who was this man? Benjamin wondered. Where had he been? He drew conclusions only from his mother’s stories. Occasionally, she relayed brief tales of a community college romance that petered out once the pregnancy came. Amy described Terrell as aloof and distant as her belly swelled. Finally, and the telling of this part was always vague, Terrell walked away, having no interest in being a father.
“Who you root for?” asked Terrell.
“The Dolphins,” answered Benjamin, heart racing.
“The Dolphins?” Terrell chuckled.
“He saw Dan Marino in Ace Ventura and now he’s obsessed,” Jim laughed.
“He wears his Dolphin’s coat so much he put holes in it,” Amy nodded.
“That’s cool, that’s cool,” Terrell conceded, swinging one arm around the back of the chair.
“Got something here for you as well, Chelsea,” said Rhonda pulling another package from under the table.
Chelsea’s ears perked up. Crayon in hand, she looked up from her drawing and saw a thin present wrapped in gold paper. Grin plastered across her face, Chelsea accepted the present and opened it to find a pair of Barbie dolls in hot pink packages.
Benjamin side-eyed his sister and Rhonda with curiosity. He did the bloodline math in his head realizing the two shared not a drop. He found it strange that they should be connected only through him.
“Now Benjamin,” Grandma Mary spoke up, “did Rhonda get a chance to tell you about our side of the family?”
Benjamin smiled and shook his head.
“Well,” Grandma Mary paused to gather her thoughts, “your grandfather and I met in Omaha, 'bout 35 years ago, wasn’t that?” she turned to Grandpa John.
Grandpa John shook from his silence. His lips curled into a grin. John was a portly man with hooded eyes like slits. He had salt and pepper hair and a voice as croaky as a bullfrog. “’62 wasn’t it?”
“No, we met in ’61, married in ’63,” Grandma Mary corrected him. “He don’t have the best memory, never has,” she winked at Benjamin who turned red in the cheeks. “Unfortunately, it runs in the family.”
Grandma Francine chuckled, “That goes double for you. You know, I have to tell Papa four times if I want him to do anything.”
Benjamin feigned a smile.
“You know, that's just how it is with John too,” Grandma Mary laughed.
“I like to take my time,” said Grandpa John with a smirk.
“So we met in Omaha but we weren't there for long. Got a place in Fort Madison after that. Your grandfather's a pastor, did Rhonda tell you?”
“I haven't spoken in front of a congregation in some time but I was active back in those days,” Grandpa John added. “The church sent me out on assignments across southern Iowa a lot round the time Terrell was born.
“That's right because you were mostly working with the church in town by the time I was born,” said Rhonda.
“Right, right,” said Grandpa John. “Your aunt Rhonda was the third, and by that point I was tired of bouncing around. I wanted to be home with the family.”
“Rhonda said you were married in Omaha?” asked Amy.
Grandma Mary nodded. “It was a tiny little chapel on 14th and Mount Vernon. Not there anymore, unfortunately. Got tore down couple years back. It turned out to be a lovely day but boy were we worried. My family hadn't met John yet. Course, I sang his praises over the phone but my folks were skeptical. They wanted to meet him in person but he couldn't get the time off and they didn't want to make the trek from Arkansas, so everyone just had to wait.”
“What part of Arkansas?” Jim asked.
“About thirty minutes south of Little Rock in a town called Benton. Most of my family comes from Benton. My folks were share croppers,” said Grandma Mary. “You know what that is?” she asked Benjamin who looked toward Jim.
Jim, uneasy, said, “They're farmers. They share the land they farm and the money from what they grow.”
In his head, Benjamin imagined his family in mud caked overalls, pitchforks in hand.
“I worked out in the fields picking cotton 'til I was in high school,” Grandma Mary continued. “It was hard work but back then it was all I knew. So anyways, your Grandpa John met my parents on the day of the wedding and everyone got along fine. I think once they got a chance to hear him speak they changed their minds. You know your Grandpa John has a real way with words. Just like when he was up in front of the congregation, he knew how to put those around him at ease. That's how he got my attention, at least,” Grandma Mary giggled.
“Bless you honey but you painting too pretty a picture of me,” John humbly deflected. “I just liked speaking to people, whoever they might be. I thought about going into radio broadcasting before I became a pastor. The year before I met your Grandmother, I worked for the local radio. Got to interview all the musicians that came through Omaha. My father was a pastor and he was eager for me to follow him but I was stubborn. Took him getting admitted into the hospital with a lump in his neck for me to come back to church.”
Benjamin, in silent awe, absorbed every piece of information like a sponge. To know them was to know himself and there was so much to discover. That morning he was plain ol' Benjamin Murphy, eight years old, third grader at All Saints Elementary. Now he was the grandchild of a radio personality and a pastor. Growing up in the Catholic church, Benjamin looked on those in the clergy with great reverence. Like many children, he harbored thoughts of undiscovered importance. Convinced that he was more than his daily surroundings, that some unique portion of him laid dormant waiting to be recognized, waiting to shine, the vindication was invigorating.
But what about what Grandma Mary had told him? It made him uncomfortable to think of her bent over, back aching, in the field picking cotton. He pictured Grandma Mary in rags and a bonnet like the blurry portrait of Harriet Tubman from his social studies textbook and it made him uncomfortable. All he knew of black people, all they taught him, was slavery. A month prior, Benjamin's teacher taught a lesson on ancestry. Benjamin hated it. He knew a part of him was Irish, though he didn't look like what people expected, and for that he felt like a fraud. Around that time, he asked Jim where his relatives came from. Jim said, “England, mostly,” though he wasn't entirely sure. Did that count for him, as well? Benjamin wondered. Maybe, possibly. At school, it was Miranda Jones and Benjamin in a class with twenty European descendants. Miranda, bi-racial like Benjamin, sat across the room and the two rarely talked. Sometimes when the history lessons were too hard to bear, Benjamin would glance over at Miranda to see her reaction. She never looked phased. In his ignorance, shame was all that filled the void.
“It's too bad your aunt Angela couldn't be here, today,” Grandma Mary frowned. “Couldn't get the time off to drive up from Omaha but she misses you. Said to send her love.”
“Angela's the middle child?” Amy asked.
“She's got five years on me and Terrell has six,” Rhonda laughed.
“I wish you could've met your uncle Ray,” Grandma Mary told Benjamin. “He would've been thirty this year. You have the very same eyes, of course you're the spitting image of your father.”
Benjamin glanced to the side at Jim.
Grandpa John laughed, “As we were coming in earlier, your grandmother says to me, 'Look around, you see him?' and glancing across the room and I thought I needed my vision checked. I saw little eight year old Terrell standing against the wall. I said, 'that boy's the spitting image of his father.'”
Benjamin glanced at Jim, then at Terrell. Shame calcifying in his heart, he was forced to acknowledge that what most children inherited from one father, he split from two. He decided he was incomplete.
A moment later Terrell left to fill another plate. Benjamin watched him leave and wondered if they would talk. After the excitement of meeting the family subsided, he was left with the same curiosity he walked in with.
An awkward pause gripped the table. Grandma Mary spoke up and asked, “You done eating, already?”
“I'm full,” Benjamin nodded, praying no one would take too close a look at his plate.
“How bout some dessert?” asked Grandma Mary. “Why don't you follow Terrell and see if he can get you some ice cream.”
Benjamin looked to Amy for permission.
“Go on,” Amy smiled.
“Now Chelsea, whatchu got there?” asked Grandma Mary as she pointed to Chelsea's mini-purse. “That's real pretty.”
Benjamin heard Grandma Mary and Grandpa John buttering her up as he left for the frozen yogurt.
It took him a moment to find Terrell, who was back for his third helping of roast beef. Benjamin couldn't stand the sight of the meat. It's crimson, pulpy texture disgusted him. Unsure of how to approach Terrell, he idled behind him. Benjamin's mouth opened a few times but the words bottled up in his throat. When nervous, Benjamin pursed his lips. Unable to address his father, Benjamin moved around to the other side of buffet so Terrell could see him, hoping he would initiate the conversation.
“Back for more, eh?” Terrell asked.
“Yeah! For some,” Benjamin stuttered, “for some dessert,” he said trailing off at the end.
“What they got over there?”
“I don't know,” said Benjamin. “Ice cream, maybe.”
“Let's go take a look,” Terrell said walking away.
“Okay!” Benjamin trailed behind.
The two found the soft serve machine at the end of the aisle. Next to it were jars of rainbow sprinkles, fudge and caramel topping, and chocolate chips. Benjamin took a cone from the dispenser but before he reached the lever, Terrell insisted he make it. Benjamin watched as his father dispensed the ice cream until it made a swirly top.
“You want some topping,” Terrell asked.
Benjamin looked confused.
“How 'bout some chocolate?”
“Okay, here you go.” Terrell handed him the cone dripping with thick chocolate and sprinkles.
“What's your favorite subject in school?”
Benjamin, trying his best to get the chocolate in his mouth and not on his hands, replied with a mouthful.
Terrell chuckled, “What'd you say?”
“Sometimes I like Science, but sometimes it's really hard. I like writing, but my teacher makes us practice cursive for homework now.”
“Oh, I feel that, I do. I got my worst marks in science and math. They have you doing algebra yet?”
Again, Benjamin looked at him with a blank stare.
“Fractions? They have you doing fractions yet?”
Benjamin shook his head.
“How about geometry?” Terrell asked.
Clueless, Benjamin shook his head.
Around them the clatter of plastic cups and dishware grew louder with each passing moment. Terrell, as if shocked from a jolt of electricity continued, “How's your mom been? We haven't spoke in a while. She's looking healthy.”
“She's good,” Benjamin quietly replied.
“And Jim and your sis? They good, as well?”
“Yeah,” Benjamin nodded.
“That's good, that's good.”
“Say, you should come out and see me sometime!” said Terrell. “Tell your mom to bring you out.”
“Okay!” Benjamin quickly replied.
“Yeah, there's an arcade by mine. They got tons of games, you'll love it.”
“Okay, yeah! I'll tell her.”
For a moment, the two looked at one another with the same silly grin; the son observing what was to come and the father, what had become of himself. Benjamin noticed the bags under Terrell's eyes. He looked exhausted in a way Benjamin had never seen an adult look before.
“Oh, I remembered,” Terrell blinked. “I got some work being done on the house, so tell your mother I won't be able to arrange anything this month. Don't worry though, we'll set something up soon.”
“Okay!” Benjamin accepted.
The two made their way back to the table and when they sat they resumed their distance. Benjamin couldn't explain it but they were impersonal again, and a part of him felt disappointed. This wasn't the disappointment he felt after scoring a low grade or when, last summer, the family had to cancel their roadtrip to Chicago. It was deeper and indecipherable.
Jim put a hand on Benjamin's shoulder, while signing the check with his other. The two families exchanged an outpouring of gratitude for the meeting. Promises of future gatherings were made. Grandma Mary nearly smothered Benjamin in her arms. She covered his face in kisses. Benjamin could barely get his tiny arms around Grandpa John's belly which poked out far enough for him to be Santa Claus. Grandma Francine insisted on getting Mary's number. Rhonda and Amy stood off to the side, jotting down contact information for themselves and the rest of the family, while Terrell idled at the back of the crowd. His good-bye was a hug awkward enough for an eight year old to notice.
Amy was delighted on the car ride back home. She confessed to Jim, Chelsea, and Benjamin that the meeting had worried her, that all of Terrell's deeds had convinced her that his family was no better, but she was mistaken. Jim and her talked of having the family over for dinner in the near future.
As he listened to his mother, Benjamin, forehead against the cold window, watched the bare trees pass by. Outside, the snow had turned to slush leaving brown mush up and down the streets. Another overcast day and it would be dark soon, still so early in the day. Amy spun around in her seat and asked, “So, what did you think? How was it?”
Benjamin had so much to say but it would be years before he could say anything.
About the Author: Matt Smith is a writer, teacher, activist, and pop-culture maven. He spent four years in Ulsan, South Korea as an ESL instructor and in that time set foot on four continents and sixteen countries. Currently, he resides in Portland, Oregon and is putting together a collection of short stories which center around the bi-racial experience in America. When he’s not working, you can find him hanging around the second run movie theaters and pizza joints.