“Here, put the bread on the table and go tell Old Cuss it’s time for dinner,” her grandmother instructed as she handed Cherise a basket of biscuits. Charlene made a face at her little sister and continued filling glasses with ice.
Cherise’s stomach got cold. She took her time with the biscuits, walking slowly to the dining room and finding the perfect spot on the table for them, which just happened to be near her seat. She walked carefully into the den where an old man sat in a vinyl recliner, staring blankly ahead. He wore a cap with the farm and feed store logo on it. His coveralls were dirty and he needed a shave.
“Grandpa? It’s time for dinner,” she said as loudly as she could. Her grandfather slowly swiveled his face to look at her but showed no sign of recognition in his watery eyes. He sighed, pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it, and pulled himself up out of the chair with effort. He began to shuffle toward her and she turned and walked back to the dining room as quickly as she could without being obvious.
Grandma and Charlene were continuing to load the table down as other family members arrived to stand awkwardly behind their seats. When the last serving bowl was added, Grandma took her place next to the head of the table. Everyone else sat down, Cherise diagonally across from Grandma; Grandpa was seated at the end of the table next to her right elbow. He had not sat at the head of the table ever in Cherise’s memory. Then again, he wasn’t often home for dinner.
“Pass the biscuits, please,” said Charles Junior. That seemed to be the cue for everyone else to begin talking at once, asking for chicken or tomatoes and reporting on their latest adventures. Cherise took a biscuit for herself first and handed the basket to her left, looking away from her grandfather’s vacant eyes. Her mother handed her a dish of macaroni and cheese and gestured that she should take some and pass it on. It was not the kind with the orange powder they made at home, and there wasn’t any ketchup on the table for it, but Cherise took a good-sized helping anyway. She almost always ate a lot at Grandma’s house. She could see her mother out of the corner of her eye dipping up butter beans out of a big bowl.
She turned to hand the macaroni to her grandfather, dreading looking at him again. Slowly, he stretched his trembling hands out for the dish. She placed it in the nest of his palms and the serving spoon began clattering against the porcelain. It seemed louder than the talking. Grandpa clumsily set the dish next to his plate and began scooping a serving up for himself. Cherise wondered why someone didn’t just do it for him. In fact, they could have just fixed him a plate and brought it to his room. He didn’t seem to be particularly happy to be at the table.
The conversation died down as plates filled up and everyone set to the serious business of eating. Fried chicken, butter beans, mashed potatoes, cut corn, biscuits, sliced tomatoes, and tea required one’s full attention. Cherise tried not to be distracted by the slurping and smacking noises coming from her grandfather. At home, if it had been her brother or sister or even her parents making those sounds, she would have protested loudly. Her mother said she had “heightened senses, a dramatic nature and a carrying voice,” and that made her a triple threat. But here at her grandmother’s house, she put on company manners and kept quiet.