by W.A. Smith
They are sitting at the table: Grace, the quiet, graceful mother; Ellen, the sister from another planet; Emerson, the Daddy Emeritus; and Charley. Supper is roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy…and lima beans. There is no room in Charley’s life for lima beans. He’s herded some of them into a split-open Brown-‘n-Serve roll and shored the whole thing up with mashed potatoes; other beans he drops delicately into his mouth, and with a deft maneuver brings his napkin to his lips and deposits the hated slime-beans into it, lightning quick, before their taste has time to settle on his tongue. The lumpy linen goes discreetly into hiding in the cave of his lap. He will not eat these beans, no matter what.
They’re playing a game called Pig. One of them begins by saying a letter and each in turn adds another until a word lands on someone or someone can’t think of the next letter to keep it going.
Charley wants to beat his father at this game. He always wants to beat him, more than anyone, at every game they play. There was never a time when he didn’t want to. But Charley’s father knows plenty of words’all the long, tangled medical ones too, the ones that sound made-up. He wins nine out of ten.
Ellen adds a g to Emerson’s a. Grace puts on an o.
All right, says Charley, a-g-o. I wish three-letter words counted.
His father, who will be next, says, Alas, they do not. Whaddya say, Charley?
The boy thinks of agony. If he uses n he might catch him. If a word lands on someone and they can’t get out of it, they’re one-third of a pig; three-thirds and you’re out. N, says Charley, shooting a glance at his father.
I, says Emerson without hesitation, almost stepping on Charley’s n.
Charley’s so intent on catching him, the possibility of another word has not occurred until just now.
Ellen doesn’t know what her father’s getting at. She challenges him, something you decide to do only at great personal risk if you’re playing with Emerson Johnson, M.D. Ellen knows the odds, she doesn’t care. I challenge, she says.
Agonize, he says.
She slaps the table with her hand. Damn!
Grace’s eyes grab Ellen. Uh-uh, she says.
Better luck next time, says Charley, as if he’s dropping little boulders on his sister’s head.
Ellen doesn’t like this sort of game much. Knowing words and spelling them are not things she gives a whole lot of critical thought to.
They play some more. By this time Charley’s mother is two-thirds, so is Ellen. His father winks at him, says, Let’s see if we can gang up on ’em.
No fair! Ellen yells, wounded by his suggestion. She really yells too. She’s sure everyone’s deaf.
Grace rests her elbows on the table with her chin in her hands. They’re all talk, she says.
Before long a word has landed on Ellen: she’s out. She tells them she planned it that way, the game was taking too long.
Smart, says their mother. Wish I’d thought of it.
Ellen takes her plate to the kitchen.
Charley’s father starts another round with p and Grace follows with an h. Charley thinks of phone first, then an old favorite blinks in his head: Phthisis (teesis). He wonders if his father is thinking of it too, but Emerson rarely lets on. Charley’s grandfather taught him this word. Big Charley worked with tuberculosis patients most of his life, before he retired, and phthisis was his. Tuberculosis of the lungs. Charley adds t, and without hesitation his father says h. The boy shares a conspiratorial look with his dad’first one tonight’watching his mother counting the letters behind her eyes to see who it will land on. She knows what they’re up to, she’s most definitely familiar with this one. The word is like a friend of the family. Even Ellen knows it. There aren’t any other ones beginning p-h-t-h. Not in English.
Grace sighs, dramatic. Phthisis, she says finally, pushing herself back from the table. You ganged up just fine. I’m undone.
Emerson puts his hand over his heart and assumes the well known worldly casual deadpan that has infuriated every member of his family at one time or another. When he’s ahead in a game, vast reservoirs of off-handed wisdom open up. Torrential wisdom.
I thought we had phthisis licked, he tells Grace. But here it is back again.
She smiles, cocks her head in his direction, looks at Charley. Look out next time, she says, rising. Now Mama Pig has to do the dishes.
Charley can tell by watching her walk away that she hasn’t lost anything, not as far as she’s concerned. She probably couldn’t care less about the game. She’s probably already forgetting it.
His father watches her and turns to the boy with a look Charley has seen a million times: satisfied, dreamy. Emerson’s eyes are half-closed, glazed with memory. Charley knows what his father is going to say.
You won’t find another woman quite as fine as that one, says Emerson’
But that’s no reason not to try, Charley finishes the sentence, nodding mechanically, too fervently, launching a smile but thinking only of the contest at hand. He’s heard romantic stuff from his father before. This is just another slight variation.
Emerson says, So it’s down to you and me again, pardner. Wanna start?
No, says Charley, go ahead. Prepare for defeat.
Never, says Emerson, raising an eyebrow. R, he says.
Emerson looks up at the ceiling, thinking. V, he says.
R-i-v, Charley mumbles, trying to raise an inspired word to trap his father. A, he drags out hesitantly. He’s come up with rival, but wonders if he’s boxed himself in before with this same combination.
Charley’s father leans back in the chair, thumbing through his medical dictionary, running down the words Charley has never heard before. His father enjoys these games as much as he does, and neither of them has ever considered giving one away. They’re the ones who really like Pig. Grace and Ellen play, but Charley and his father are the ones who are most taken with words.
His father’s leg jumps under the table. Charley looks over and sees Emerson’s eyes have turned watery.
I’m sorry, he whispers, taking off his glasses, laying them on the table, and his hand jumps, twitches, like it’s not his. Seizure’s coming, he says. His right eye closes, and his left follows, like a doll.
Mother! Charley spring-loads out of his chair, the crumpled napkin opens like a purse, spilling stowaway lima beans onto the oriental rug at his father’s feet.
Emerson whispers, It’s all right, Charley. Help me out of the chair, lemme lie on the floor. I’m sorry, Son.
It’s ok, Charley says. He’s seen his daddy have a seizure before, but at these times Emerson becomes strange to the boy, moved away. Charley doesn’t know how to respond: he’s not scared of Emerson when he’s this way, he’s scared for him. And for himself.
He urges his father’s slumping weight out of the chair, onto the floor, his mother comes into the dining room. Emerson is waiting for everything to happen. Charley’s right hand is behind his father’s head so he won’t hurt himself when he trembles. Grace takes in the miniature panorama in a second, her blue eyes hold it there, then she seems to swallow it. She still has the dish towel in her hands. When she smoothes her hand across her husband’s forehead her eyes change. There’s a terrible round sadness, she hears the tragic sentence she’s heard countless times before and is coming to comprehend: a sentence or a phrase or the lack of something, which never fails to move her.
Charley’s father’s eyes open but instantly squeeze shut. His left side shudders violently, palpable bolts snap his head back. Charley cradles it in both hands. Emerson’s jaw is clamped by the same thing that rattles him and makes him so frail: the thing trying to kill him. He wants to say something to Grace and Charley, but he can’t. The first few seizures, Charley thought his father was going to die; he didn’t think something like this could happen more than once or twice, holding Emerson down like it was pulling from underneath, shaking him. A wind blowing through his clothes.
After the last one Emerson told Charley, The little seizures come up often. Petite, we call ’em. I let ’em pass with as little acknowledgment as possible. But I have to give some attention to the others, the grand mal.
M-a-l, said his father.
Grand Bad News. It occurs to Charley his daddy’s epilepsy is a kind of memory. When Emerson is under attack, Charley watches his eyes for those brief moments when they flicker open, and it seems to the boy there’s always some of the remembered light in his father’s eyes. The same he saw when Emerson unwrapped the mahogany box on his birthday and glimpsed the war medals inside. Monster memory. Grandancient News. Remembrance forces itself on his father, rising from somewhere beyond him yet inside. An uncontrolled possession.
The seizure begins to subside, leaving: slow, grasping waves Charley can see. His father looks like a man who has almost drowned: lying on the beach without hope or breath.
Emerson’s eyes open and roll toward the light, reaching for it like a child, coming back from farther away than Charley has ever been. The father finds his way into his son’s eyes, deeper into the darkness, begging forgiveness for ruining the game.