Your estranged daughter, Tara, and her family have driven in from Tennessee to stay, just for a day or two.
Until now, you hadn't seen your daughter for years. The last time, she had just turned nineteen and her eyes were full of leaving. She climbed into the back of some boyfriend's truck. She carried a suitcase, a plastic grocery bag full of panties.
Your husband, Henry, was different after she left. He never recovered.
You act happy to have them. “It's been so long!”
Tara gushes. Her hair is straightened, highlighted by some salon in Nashville. She carries a Coach diaper bag, not the knit one you had shipped to her baby shower.
You turn off the shopping channel and open the door for your daughter's husband, who is laden with wrinkle-wrapped gifts and casserole dishes and a loaded, covered car-seat. Tara looks skinnier than ever. Her husband wears a baseball cap inside to hide his baldness.
“I'm making your favorite for dinner,” you say.
Your daughter bends into the car-seat and removes the infant. “His middle name is Hank. This is your Mimi, Hank.”
Tara unclasps her baby from one dangling earring and he holds his hand up, pink and symmetrical as a starfish. Your daughter lifts your grandson to her shoulder, adjusts his rag body with one hand.
“It's time for his nap.”
So you cross your legs on the sofa, watch the shopping channel. The hosts chat about Your Holiday Home Day, clustering like Christmas carolers in front of a giant screen—a television of snowfall.
A host, the blonde, is wearing a synthetic mink hat. “Faux is so much easier to care for.”
On the television, the brunette host runs one finger across a red patent leather coat. The blonde whispers when she instructs you to wipe clean the parka's croco-embossed finish with a damp paper towel. “Don't tell anyone how easy it is to look fabulous.”
Hank never liked it when you watched the ladies—he used to call them stupid, call them whores.
The hosts are nice young ladies. One, the brunette, is your favorite. Her voice is low and sensible. She smiles sometimes, like she's in on the joke. She folds her thin arms into her side, like a jogger. She warms her long hands with friction.
It's cold in Kentucky, too, but not as cold or white. The foothills winters are different than the mountain winters. In Kentucky, the landscape stays the same from late November to mid-March. The treeline bleeds brown against the low pale sky. Occasionally it'll snow. Then, everything turns gray in the evening, and the black shadows of naked yardtrees stretch towards your little farmhouse.
The day Tara left, it was springtime. The bluebells were already blooming in Peters County. You could see them when you drove home from work—this thin waving line of pale violet just beyond the background of maple and oak.
When Tara was young, she loved to pick the bluebells, to twist their pretty heads from that last inch of green stem. You remember how she cried when you changed her sheets that first night, and she was nine.
After Tara's first period, you walked her down to the forest on the edge of the farm, showed her the emergence of the crocuses from the underbrush.
You explained how the crocuses were among the first flowers to come up in spring: They rise early, sometimes from a light dusting of snow. Then the tulips come. And the daffodils and bluebells. You told her there was nothing special about being first, that she was just the first.
You never explained the bees to Tara—and you still regret not mentioning how insects can flit from petal to petal, how the bees rub pollen across their wrists like the models on the home shopping network when they sample a perfume.
Henry said that once she got out you'd never see her again.
But here she is. The baby—Hank—fusses in his father's lap and Tara is helping you by making the stuffing.
“I'm thinking about going back to school,” Tara says. “To teach.”
You cut kernels from a cob of corn and smile thin.
Tara has a smartphone that doesn't work in the holler, so her husband drives her out closer to town so she can check her Facebook.
So you sit with the baby and watch the shopping channel. At 6 PM, you watch Your Holiday Kitchen, but ever since Hank died, you eat less. No appetite. Hank was always a big man. You used to order him the Kansas City steaks, or the Maine lobster tails.
The shopping channel host—a male, this time—cuts the tip off a Texas-aged prime rib. He pushes on the wall of meat with the tip of his knife.
“Just look at the juices!” Off-camera, he sounds so enthusiastic but the camera always cuts back to his sedate moon face, his forehead tinged thick with sweating makeup.
The camera cuts back to the prime rib roast, the pool of juice clotting and shiny under the studio lights. “Well, doesn't that look delicious?”
If Hank were alive, you would have bought the prime rib this Christmas. You would have bought the Maine lobster tails, too. Messy. They are soaked in a clarified butter that drips primal down the male host's chin.
For this Christmas dinner, the table is only set for four—Tara, her husband, the baby, and you. You sit at the head of the table, talk about their travel plans. You lay out the dining set you bought from the shopping channel. Then the stainless steel cutlery. Then the side-dishes, in ceramic ramekins.
“I saw these on TV.” Tara scoops mashed potatoes and French peas onto her Corningware.
“Daddy wouldn't have liked them,” you say. Your hands are shaking.
“Daddy only liked one thing.”
Her husband carves the turkey slowly.
A portrait of Henry hangs in the dining room, and you have to sit with your back to it.
About the author:
Shaun Turner writes in West Virginia, where he is a 2nd year MFA student at West Virginia University and the fiction editor for Cheat River Review. His work can be found in Hobart, Literary Orphans, and Cleaver Magazine, and The Legendary, among others.