“Euphemism is a beautiful word,” he said into the quiet cab of the car. “Are you ignoring me?” He looked in the rearview at his daughters. His wife was in the passenger seat reading People. “I don’t like being ignored.”
His oldest daughter took out her earbuds. “What?” she said, looked out the window at the farmland going by. She hadn’t been listening to music, just using the earbuds as a means for discouraging conversation.
“Forget it.” He turned the radio up and a lady said something about a song, then the song came on. It was from his adolescence. He tried singing along, but only knew the chorus.
“I hate this,” said his middle daughter, and the youngest of the three said, “It’s old people music.”
“Not that,” said the middle daughter.
They were on their way to his parents’ for Thanksgiving. It had been a while since they were last there. His dad wouldn’t be lucid much longer, so it was maybe a final quality visit with him, as a family. As a full family.
Shortly after the song finished the oldest daughter bunched up her earbuds and sighed loudly. “How much longer?” she said. The other two girls said, “Yeah, how much?”
“Now I’m ignoring you,” he said. “How do you like it?”
The mom closed the magazine on her finger, and looked out the window at the road passing under the car. “Not too much longer,” she said. She frowned and tilted her head, feeling the heft of her thought. “About an hour.”
“An hour,” moaned the youngest. She was doing a Mad Lib. She took some time to look at it, with a dull pencil in her left hand. Being the only lefty in the family made her happy. She felt it set her apart. “Give me a adjective,” she said.
“An adjective,” said the oldest girl.
“Happy,” said dad. “As in happy family. Like us.”
The wife fidgeted with her People and then put it in a bag at her feet. She pulled down the sun visor and put on sunglasses.
“Give me a noun,” said the youngest.
“Euphemism,” said dad.
“What’s that?” said the youngest.
“A beautiful noun,” said dad.
“It’s not really English,” said the wife. “It’s Greek or something. Latin.”
“So,” said the dad. “Where does it say in the Mad Libs handbook that you can’t use non-English words?”
“I think French has the most beautiful words,” said the oldest daughter. “If you want to get into an argument.”
“You don’t know any French,” said the middle girl. She held her phone up to her face, her thumbs moving quickly over its surface.
“Merde,” said the oldest girl.
“Watch your mouth,” said mom.
“I’m sorry,” said the oldest daughter. “Let me use an English euphemism: crap.”
The husband chopped wood while the wife got the table ready and helped with whatever her husband’s mother asked her to do. His mother prepared the sides, but she had to periodically check in on her husband, as well. He could not be left alone for long. There was no telling what he might end up doing. Nowadays was the constant possibility of his being injured somehow, or of his breaking or ruining something, or of just wandering off. It reminded her of living with a child, all the precautions one had to take to avoid accidents.
They ate Thanksgiving dinner in silence. The three girls weren’t very hungry, or said they weren’t. They nibbled at the food on their plates and, one at a time, asked to be excused, and went off to corners and did sullen, solitary, teenaged things. Dad had seconds. The two women ate slowly. His mother watched his childlike father.
“You ladies really outdid yourselves,” he said, just to say something.
His wife smiled and looked down at her plate, moved a brown lump of stuffing with her fork.
“Thank you, dear,” said his mother.
“Where’s the goddamn banana pudding?” said his father, laying his fork in his empty plate. He had a string of spittle dangling from his bottom lip.
“There isn’t any this year,” said his mother. She reached across with a napkin and wiped at his lip. He flinched and waved an arm and touched his lip.
“Well, shit,” he said, after a few moments. “We always have banana pudding.” He had always been the one to make it, a fact that may have been lost on him.
“Not this year, dear,” she quietly repeated.
The dad thought that this may have been an oversight on his part. Why hadn’t he thought to make banana pudding for his father? Why hadn’t anyone suggested it? He felt like he’d let his father down in a small but very real way. He hadn’t thought of himself as a son in a long time.
After dinner they sat outside around a bonfire. The girls seemed happier now. Everyone loves a good fire, thought the dad. He looked at his father, sitting in an Adirondack chair, staring at the bed of coals.
“I want something to poke the fire with,” said the youngest girl. She stood up.
“No!” said her mother.
“It’s okay,” said the old man. “Let her poke at it. It’s healthy. It’s a normal thing.”
No one protested further. She walked around the huge yard until she found a stick she thought proper and walked it over to the fire and stuck the end in. She squatted down and turned the stick over in the fire.
“You’re going to wet the bed,” said the oldest girl, in a snarky tone. She was sitting on the ground, hugging her knees into her chest.
“That’s a bunch of horseshit,” said the old man. He held out his hand and waved it. “Help me up.” The middle girl got up and took his hand. He was so thin now. She probably could have picked him up and carried him around the yard.
They walked hand-in-hand: meandered slowly around the yard, heads down, quiet. After a while they came back with two long sticks. She helped him back into his chair and crouched down next to him and they stuck their sticks in the fire.
“You three look like you’re fishing,” said the grandmother. She shook her head and chuckled.
The girls’ father got up and found a stick of his own, and one for his wife and mother, and one for his oldest daughter. He took out his pocket knife and stood by the fire, shaving the sticks clean of nubs and green. He passed them around, and they put their sticks in the fire too, even the oldest girl, and it did look like they were fishing.
They were quiet, just like that, turning their sticks, taking them out of the fire and blowing on the ends, putting them back in again, quite content, quite together, quite like a family. No one ignored anyone, yet no one talked. It was getting dark out now and the fire warmed them well against the evening chill.
“In lieu of banana pudding,” said the grandfather, “this will goddamn do.” Everyone laughed and then got quiet again, almost in unison, and there was a rightness even in that.
Steve Lambert was born on Barksdale AFB in 1974, and grew up in Central Florida. His stories and poems have appeared in both print and electronic journals, most recently in The Cortland Review, Red River Review, and Paradise Review. He has a poem forthcoming in MadHat Lit. He is a three-time finalist in contests held by Glimmer Train. He works in a library and is a second-year MFA student at UTEP. He lives in St. Johns County, Florida, with his wife and daughter.