by Tami Pearce
Daddy had a temper. The worst of it usually flared up at suppertime. I think he got mad about something at every meal we ever ate. The madder he was, the harder it was to eat. One time he came to the table already in a huff and started in on us all in turn. But it was me getting on his nerves the most -- for not eating fast enough.
"You're gonna sit there till you eat every goddamn bite." He had a way of gritting his teeth and talking through them without looking at you. It seemed like it was all he could do not to hit you. That time, I could just tell that he wanted to smash me in the mouth, shove my dinner down my throat. "Eat it!" he said.
I fought back tears and tried not to choke on the bite of stuffed bell pepper I'd been chewing for the last five minutes. Everyone else -- David, Ray, and our step-mom -- had finished eating long ago. We had been living with them about a year, but I still couldn't get used to Mom's cooking. I lay my head over on my arm across the corner of the table, eye-level with the plate, and tried to look past the cold grease and bits of ground beef, slimy squares of onion, and something that was maybe bread. It looked like shit. At one point -- sometime before everyone had finished eating -- Daddy had lurched over the table at Ray and started cutting up his bell pepper into little pieces.
"Here, you little baby," he said, fake-sweet-like. "Let me cut it up for you."
That's when Ray, tears in his eyes, just started stuffing his mouth and swallowing in big gulps. Daddy told him to slow down before he choked, but Ray kept it up till it was gone.
I was still at the table.
"You're gonna sit there till it's gone, or you'll eat it for breakfast." It wasn't just a warning. One time, before I went to school the next morning, he made me eat the cream-of-mushroom soup I couldn't stand to finish the night before. It had been in the fridge overnight and the crackers were all gooey. I threw up on the bus and made David swear not to tell Mom or Daddy. If he ever did, I'd kill him.
I said I thought I was going to be sick and gagged a little, feeling my insides tumbling. I was afraid of Daddy's backhand, but I was more afraid of puking on the table and having to clean it up. I gagged again.
"Goddamn work all day." He scraped his chair back away from the table, and I looked up, hoping he was giving up. "Your mom slaves over this supper, and you think you're too good to eat it." He slammed his chair back under the table. "I'll be goddamn."
I thought he had given up, but he didn't pull out the table so I could slide out. I was stuck. Our table was too big for the kitchen, so Daddy or Mom always had to pull it out for David and me to slide in and then push the table up against our chests. Daddy started toward the door and stared back down at my plate. I could feel him staring back at me. It seemed like a long time. I shielded my eyes with my hand. He turned and stomped out the door, headed out to the Old House to turn some wood. He had borrowed a wood lathe from Uncle PJ and was using it to make a fancy chair for a rich lady in Birmingham. He's always making things for other people. When I'm a grown woman, I'm going to remember that he never made me that hope chest he always promised.
Mom stood at the stove with her back to me. I didn't want her to hate me, too. I thought she was crying because I had hurt her feelings by not liking the food. I squeezed my eyes shut and swallowed. Why'd she have to waste perfectly good hamburger meat, anyway, I wondered. If she had told me we couldn't afford to buy enough meat to make separate patties for everybody, I would've understood. Later when I'm old enough to take home ec. class, I'll learn 10 ways to stretch a pound of hamburger, and one of the featured recipes is stuffed bell peppers with big old breadcrumbs.
I wanted to ask for some ketchup but knew not to push my luck. Besides, I knew ketchup wouldn't help. Plus we were out of it because David had finished it off the week before. I stuck at a piece of bell pepper with my fork.
"I just wish you kids would show a little appreciation, that's all," Mom said quietly. She opened a cabinet to put away a pan. I wanted so much to make her feel better and not hurt her feelings. I decided to finish, no matter what. I speared the piece of pepper and put it in my mouth. Then I tried to balance it on my back teeth and keep it from touching the top of my tongue, which I could do if I rolled my tongue sideways and sort of looked up at the ceiling. Just then, Mom looked over her shoulder and must've thought I was making faces at her behind her back. She slammed the door hard enough to make the pans rattle. I jumped, so startled I swallowed the chunk of bell pepper. Whole.
Mom wheeled around, put her hands on the table and leaned right into my face. I sat up straight as a board.
"Listen, you little shit. You don't straighten up, I'm gonna leave you all here with your daddy. See how you like that." As she spat the words, I felt a couple drops of moisture hit my face. I looked down at the plate and started to gag again. The pepper I had swallowed wasn't going to stay down. Then the tears started to well up and roll down my cheeks. With one swipe of her hand, she snatched the plate, scraped it into a brown paper garbage bag sitting on the floor, and dunked it into the cold, greasy dishwater. She stood there with her hands on the edge of the dishpan. The suds were all gone. I coughed a little and spit out the pepper into my cupped hand. Quickly, I slipped it into my jean pocket. I had already managed to hide a few other pieces there earlier. I stared at Mom's back, watching her shoulders jerk as she quietly stifled sobs.
What she had said was beginning to sink in, and I wanted to go put my arms around her and beg her not to leave us. But it could backfire, and then I'd be to blame for her leaving. I wanted to say thank-you for getting rid of the rest of the bell pepper, but I couldn't think of a way to say it without making her mad or hurting her feelings again. Still I was trapped at the table with my chair against the wall. Before Daddy could come back in and start yelling some more, I ducked down under the table and crawled out the other side. That's when I saw a huge hunk of bell pepper with the stuffing still in it wedged into the metal flange holding up the leaf of the table. David would get a whipping if they found that, unless he could sneak into the kitchen after they went to bed and put it in the trash bag. If I hadn't hated him so much, I could've almost admired the little bastard.
About the author:
Tami Pearce escaped to New York and is working on her first book.