Dinner is at 4pm sharp everyday. Just the three of us. Me, Frankie and Mommy. I’m six, Frankie is twelve. The Mickey Mouse club has just ended on TV. I have pedal pushers on and a boy’s checkered shirt and sneaks, Frankie is wearing a baseball shirt from practice and my mother is wearing her usual flowered house dress, no sleeves, raggy slippers that make her shuffle like an old woman. Her hair is set in bobby pins and wound so tight on her head, you see her pulled white scalp.
There really is nothing to setting the table, not much needed for TV dinners in the aluminum tray. Just a fork, and a knife, courtesy of White Tower cutlery, and three glasses. Soda for me, milk for Frankie, and water for my mother. We have the usual, meat loaf for me, Salisbury steak for Frankie and fried chicken for my mother. The only day that varies is Friday. Can’t eat meat on Fridays so we have fishsticks. Just fishsticks. We’re Catholic but we only go to church on Palm Sunday (for the Palm you get) and Easter. Christmas we don’t go because no one can take us.
Next to my mother’s fork is her favorite metal ashtray, my mother’s extra piece of silverware at the dinner table. My brother jumps up to reach the top of the refrigerator where the comic books are kept only to be read at dinnertime.
Frankie puts his Captain Action comic book by the left side of his plate, throws my Archie and Jughead comic book at me across the table and hand my mother her Secret Romance and Confessions comic book which she places on the left side of her plate.
She pulls the aluminum trays from the oven one by one, placing them on the formica table on top of dish towels in front of us. Opening a corner at a time, the steam leaks out and mingles with the stinky cigarette smoke already in the air.
I see her through the haze of smoke coming from the stained-lipstick laden cigarette jetting out from the groove of the metal ashtray. She likes those best- easier to clean. “The cigarette burns are hard to get off glass,” she says, and “Glass ashtrays are only for company,” she declares, which is strange because we never have any company.
Other stained butts lay amidst the ashes next to the currently lit Pall Mall. She does the same thing every time we eat dinner. She picks up the cigarette like a gangster in movie, between her thumb and fore finger, brings the nasty cigarette to her lips, sucks in her roughly skinned cheeks, and inhales and all the while her eyes are squinting as if she were looking directly into the sun. She then puts the cigarette in it’s groove, turns the page of the Romance comic book on the left hand side of the plate, and blows the smoke across the table to where I sit, picks up the fork and stuffs a piece of food inside her mouth. She looks like she’s in a puppet show and some guy is pulling her strings from on top of the stage and can make the puppet’s mouth open and close, move it’s arms with a herky jerky motion. Cigarette smoke always drifts over the kitchen table. I try and wave it away with my hands to keep it at bay, but her constant drags on the cigarette and the smoke wafting my way makes the TV dinners that much less appealing.
Often one of the butts she snuffs out, still burns. She hardly notices. “Ma” I say, “it’s still smoking”. My words seemed to interrupt the flow of her movements and the look from across the table is enough to warn me not to complain any further. The rotten smell covers everything, the food, the house, and me.
“If it’s bothering you that much, get up off your ass and move it to the sink,” she yells, "and take the glasses and silverware too.” I grab the ashtray with my thumb and first finger, careful to touch it as little as I can, as if it has some sort of contagious disease that I will catch and I make a face as I touch it . I gag and give off a dry heave. “Just get the god damn ashtray to the sink and stop being a baby or I’ll make you cry like a baby. I ask you god damn kids for nothing. I ask you for one god damn thing and you make a song and dance out of everything. Give me that,” she says angrily, “you don’t know what you’re doing anyway. Get out of the kitchen and don't bother me."
That was dinner.