Twice a month Penelope and Greg strap their son Skyler, who is still an infant, into his car seat—a multifarious contraption aptly named The Adventurer—and drive down the mountain for dinner with Penelope’s parents. They hurl themselves downward, wending along the double-lined road laid into their mountainside. Theirs is how the young couple irreverently refers to the gentle giant tamed by age and erosion. As Greg guides their sensibly-chosen family car over paved protuberances and accelerates into the mountain’s curves, Penelope’s nerves—taking Pavlovian cues from the darkened yet familiar landscape they travel—unravel like yarn pulled too many times through a hole.
Her parents’ house sits in a tree-lined suburb. The town, named for one of the lesser-known battles of the Civil War, is really just a grouping of subdivisions centrally located around strip malls of varying age. The new ones have shiny facades, tiny shrubs, and contain hip chain stores and eateries selling healthy, organic things: foods, clothes, cosmetics. The older strips have cracked parking lots and store-fronts—an eccentric, fusion joint called Ming Yen’s Subs and Sushi, Marina’s Wine Plaza, Cal’s Books and Coffee— rented by citizens who own small-businesses. They are frequented by the established crowd, who believes their judicious patronage, while producing a sentiment of small-town patriotism, indicates distaste for the unchecked growth of the cheaply-made McMansion and the plentiful cafés that sell six dollar coffees to its inhabitants.
East of the sprawling housing developments and layer cake of glowing shops, schools, and municipal buildings is what the natives simply call the city. Many of the locals, including Penelope’s parents, work in the city and use public transportation to cut the cost of commuting. Penelope lives west, though, of the city and her parents’ sprawling suburb in a rambler she and Greg picked out a few years ago. It is, much to Penelope’s mother’s discontent, miles and miles from any veritable nexus of consumerism that most of her family members equate with civilization.
Once, the newly engaged couple drove Penelope’s mother, Mona, out to what the realtor had called a “cute starter home,” and as they exited the Interstate, passing one rolling field of brown grass after another, Mona became increasingly uncomfortable. As the car shimmied off the secondary road and onto a hilly gravel drive, they passed a dingy white sign declaring the End of State Maintenance. Mona clutched her purse to her soft belly and let out quiet, “Harumpfff.”
Penelope and Greg re-enact different snippets of this scene with the intent to entertain one another. Their re-enactments are the unique sort of thing that makes Penelope proud to call Greg her husband. By heart, they banter; lobbing the words that have hurt them, amused them, if nothing else, surprised them, until the instances of their importance are shored-up in their collective consciousness. Entirely at the initial player’s whim, they animate the tableaus of their past over the breakfast table or, most often, over the center console of their car during the ride to Bill and Mona Olander’s house.
“I will never come visit you, if you buy this…this…house,” Greg says imitating the way Mona spit the word house.
“Are you trying to get away from me, Penny? I hope this isn’t the only reason you’re buying this…house,” says Penelope, elevating her voice to mimic her mother’s.
“And look at us now,” Greg says, being himself again. In the ambient blue lighting, he reaches across the console and grasps Penelope’s slender hand. She does not, in spite of her anticipatory anxiety over dinner, protest.
In the backseat, Skyler kicks his tiny, stocking-clad feet and experiments with a rainbow-colored set of plastic keys. Adjusting the rearview mirror so that she can see him, Penelope admires his innate ignorance. She envies the infant’s capability for obliviousness.
“He is so in the moment,” she says.
“Yes, he has no idea what he is about to get into,” Greg says as their car approaches the brick and vinyl façade of Penelope’s childhood home. They park next to her brother’s hand-me-down beamer.
“Look who’s here,” exclaims Greg, motioning, thumb over shoulder, towards her brother’s sleek consolation prize for securing a job at the local bakery. A job that requires him—as Mona remarks to friends and family—to get out of bed at a dim hour he previously reserved for stumbling into it.
Of all of Penelope’s endearing qualities, her ability to identify situations in which speaking her mind is inappropriate is one of her finest. And though her capabilities for situational self-censorship are vast, especially under her parents’ roof, holding her tongue is not a trait she practices. Instead, Penelope slips into a lingo—much like a patient into a coma— comprised completely of aphorisms that she deems relevant but neutral.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she replies.
It is a vernacular that Greg recognizes and indulges.
“Welcome back, to the cradle of your youth,” he says, propping the kitchen door open with his foot so that she and Skyler may enter.
The kitchen is canary yellow. A color Mona chose, most likely after consulting numerous sources on the psychology of color, when she remodeled the house after Penelope left for college. The smell of sweet barbecue sauce mixes with something pungent and hot, like Brussels sprouts in a steamer.
“Sky, my baby blue Sky,” Mona sings when she sees them. Penelope wrestles Skyler’s jacket off and cautiously hands him to Mona. He is pudgy and happy but looks smaller when held against Mona’s large frame. The stature of her family members, apart from Penelope, suggests a pedigree of large, pig-tailed Vikings.
“What color are his eyes?” Mona asks. She holds him at arm’s length in front of her. Her large hands rest under his armpits as she peers into his large, globular eyes.
“Blue like the Isle of Skye,” interjects Penelope’s father as he pads, in brown-leather loafers worn to the malleability of ballet slippers, across the fragrant kitchen.
“No, Bill. They are turning brown,” Mona says, laying blame with a gaze that lingers briefly on Greg.
“It’s neither,” says Penelope. “They’re gray.”
“Gray,” says Mona, “would have been a more appropriate name then, wouldn’t it? What’s a baby named Skyler without baby blue eyes?”
It registers with Penelope that this is a conversation she and Greg will re-hash unflinchingly on the way home.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Penelope. Sweeping Skyler into her arms, she kisses a tendril of his bright wispy hair and inhales his soapy scent. “Let’s get you cleaned up for dinner,” she says—an octave higher than usual—to Skyler.
Greg fastens Skyler into Penelope’s old high chair, a piece of wooden and metal handiwork largely absent from the glossy pages of parenting magazines.
The table is set for six. Matching porcelain dishes and heavy, stainless cutlery sit atop an appealingly textured, beige tablecloth. The centerpiece, which Mona creates for their dinners, always vaguely relates to the temperate season outdoors. A few papier-mâché pumpkins and gourds lay symmetrically across their dining space.
“Is Jonathan coming to dinner?” asks Penelope. Everyone is serving themselves baked chicken breasts appropriately sized to satiate hefty, seafaring warriors. “I saw his car out front,” she adds over the clanking of flatware.
“I suppose,” says Bill.
“Of course, dear. He’s just upstairs. Will you let him know dinner is ready?” Mona asks.
Upstairs is where Penelope’s younger brother, Jonathan, lives among unclassified baskets of laundry and various electronics.
“Well, you know what they say,” says Greg, “the more the merrier.”
Penelope and Greg exchange a shrewd glance, an imperceptible—if only to her family— mannerism characteristic of a couple vibrating on the same frequency.
Penelope still remembers the precise instance when this kind of glance became necessary.
It was Christmas Eve and they had just finished exchanging presents in the wood-paneled rec room of her childhood. An imitation Douglass Fir stood in the corner, everything awash in its metallic glow. Only decorations relating to that year’s theme—elegant-legged porcelain ballerinas, tin soldiers, and tiny mice suggested The Nutcracker—adorned the prickly, plastic branches. All others, including the cheap red bulbs her parents bought as newlyweds and the tiny framed photos engraved with Baby’s First Christmas were relegated to cardboard boxes in the basement.
“Were pregnant,” she and Greg chimed, almost simultaneously. And unlike the time, just before, when they had delivered the news to Greg’s parents, there were no squeals of unexpected delight or dramatic hugs that lasted beyond comfort. There was only Mona’s helpful suggestion—her gracious offer— to pay her regular house-keeper to give Penelope and Greg’s little rambler a deep clean.
“I bet the toilets are too dirty. Even to vomit in,” Mona exclaimed. “You are getting sick, aren’t you?” she added.
Another favorite bit from Penelope and Greg’s repertoire that they drolly recite.
At dinner, Skyler and Bill sit at the head, respectively, of a rectangular table that was perhaps chosen long ago when Bill and Mona envisioned a large family, like the ones often belonging to farmers or politicians who want to secure the persistence of not only their corporeal, but ideological kind. Penelope and Greg face Jonathan and Mona. They sit at a distance Penelope has always measured by her ability to throw a small piece of food into her brother’s water goblet.
Jonathan wears a pair of plaid pajama bottoms to the table. He adds colorful conversation to the otherwise dull recollections of the work week. He chews with his mouth open and laughs at his own jokes.
“Early to bed, early to rise?” Penelope interjects. She tips her head forward to indicate that she is speaking to Jonathan about his pants.
“Oh, these?” Jonathan grins sheepishly, grasping between his thumb and his pointer a bit of the flannel. “I’m not scheduled to work tomorrow. These are from this morning.”
“At least he put on pants for us,” says Mona. She pats Jonathan enthusiastically on the back.
“Who wants dessert?” Bill asks.
“That would be delicious” says Greg, wiping the baby’s mouth.
“Penny, be a darling and grab the dessert plates from the kitchen, please” says Mona.
Penelope lets her fork drop to her barbecue-smeared plate with a satisfying clink as she rises for the kitchen. It takes sixteen steps to reach the cabinet where Mona keeps a stack of small, daintily painted saucers purchased expressly for serving dessert. She is within earshot of the dining room and listens to Skyler test the effect of the word Mama in her absence.
She counts the plates as she takes them from the cabinet and places them onto the cold granite countertop. There is a lull in conversation in the dining room. Jonathan makes a scratchy, guttural noise as if to clear his throat. The sound, an idiosyncratic tick lingering from his recent childhood, is one Penelope recognizes as the herald of bad news.
“Since we’re all here,” says Jonathan, “I thought I’d tell you all. That Melissa is pregnant.”
“You and Melissa…are expecting?” asks Mona.
“You and Melissa are still together?” asks Bill.
“On and off,“ says Jonathan, “but she decided to keep it. Actually, it is a boy…”
“Oh, a boy,” cries Mona excitedly, “we are going to have another Olander!”
“That’s one way to look at it, Mona,” says Bill.
“Penny, come here! Did you hear the news?” Mona shouts unnecessarily.
A dish clatters. On the way down it gleams beneath the harsh recessed lighting of the kitchen, then crashes. Its delicate slivers splay across the linoleum. Penelope half-admires the chaotic mosaic.
Mona stands at the kitchen’s threshold; her large hand rests on the smooth cherry door-frame.
“Penny, are you alright?” asks Mona in an intonation only audible to a daughter.
This is why Penelope had quietly wished for a boy. Skyler. A boy. A prayer answered. Blundering heavy-footed into toddlerhood. Her kitchen would be filled with the sputters and crashes of toy cars and trucks, not words careening imperceptibly through space only to land—not unlike dirt-clumped cleats on the hardwoods—where it hurts the most.
“I thought you’d never fucking ask,” says Penelope. Her black boots click quickly over the mess—like the luminous coma of a meteorite set loose in space—traveling to a place where reconsidering the past is a task as impossible as predicting the future.