“What’s wrong with the women in this house?” Granddad yells from the living room. “Why can’t you all get along?”
My footsteps falter on the thick, mint green, carpeted steps in my grandparents’ home. His baritone shouts always startle me. Even Mom and my aunts stop arguing.
From his big chair, Granddad turns and spots me. “Come in, Marla. They’ve managed to shut up for now.”
As I enter the room, I spot Mom gulping the last of her sherry. My Aunt Connie fiddles with one of the green rhinestones fastened all over her poofy red hair. My youngest Aunt, Ann, strolls to the dining area at the far end of the room, looks at the remains of her twin’s wedding cake, then drags her finger through the white frosting.
Granddad’s question won’t be answered. He’s asked it so often during family gatherings that I doubt he expects a response anymore. Still, he always asks. It’s a habit he can’t break any more than he can quit smoking. Maybe he asks because he knows his daughters don’t have an answer. This way, Granddad gains precious moments of silence.
“Marla, clear the plates, will ya?” Aunt Ann licks frosting off her finger. “Place is a mess.”
I’m surprised she’s waited this long to ask. As the eldest niece, I’ve been the family servant since I was seven. Cleaning up is better than sitting around listening to them bicker, though. I gather cake-stained plates from the mahogany coffee table.
“If Ann hadn’t thrown herself at my husband, nothing would be wrong,” Connie blurts, glowering at Ann. “Find your own man. Jane has one now. Surely you can land a husband, or are you plotting to steal hers?”
Swearing at Connie, Ann stomps out of the room on clumpy sandals.
Granddad mumbles, “Four daughters. Where did I go wrong?”
Another infamous question. Granddad’s brothers had sons, and since he already had two daughters, Granddad desperately wanted a boy. He wound up with twin girls.
“Yes, Daddy, we’re all a huge disappointment to you for not being born male, yada-yada-yada.” Connie’s face turns almost as red as her hair. “Like we had a choice.”
Mom hiccups and raises her empty glass. “Marla, bring me the sherry, honey.”
She points to a decanter containing amber liquid. Mom’s not big on drinking until she’s with her sisters. Thankfully, these visits don’t happen often. I put down the plates at the bar, then lift the decanter with the delicate leafy pattern. Afraid of dropping it like I did two years ago, I use both hands. Sometimes, my aunts still call me the clumsy one.
“Thank you, honey.” Mom takes the decanter from me.
This is my first wedding reception. It would have been nicer if Mom and my aunts left when the other guests did, but my mother and her siblings can’t leave a gathering until one of them is in tears.
I should have gone downstairs to play ping-pong with my sisters and Aunt Connie’s five kids, but their ongoing Supreme Player of the World tournaments bore me.
I walk around Granddad’s outstretched legs to retrieve his plate. He props his elbows on the arms of his chair and entwines his gnarled fingers. To avoid his scrutiny, I focus on his empty coffee cup.
“Would you like more coffee, Granddad?”
He looks at the china cup and saucer rimmed with gold. “Thank you, dear.” Tired blue eyes peer at me. “You aren’t getting married any time soon, are you?”
“I’m only sixteen, Granddad.” Seventeen next month.
“A young lady then.” His smirk stretches below the bushy mustache. “You’ve always been mature for your age, you know that? Intelligent too. Smartest one of the bunch.”
Judging from Mom’s and Aunt Connie’s laser stares at Granddad, another battle’s brewing.
“You want to be some sort of scientist, as I recall,” he adds.
“A marine biologist.”
“Hmm.” Granddad’s brows scrunch into a long furry line, as if he isn’t sure this is an appropriate choice for a young lady. “What are you studying in science these days?”
“I’ve read about that.” He nods. “At least one woman in this family will lead a useful life.”
Why does he bait them?
“For crying out loud, Daddy.” Mom plunks the stopper in the decanter. “I was doing laundry and grocery shopping at thirteen because Mother was busy with the twins. Now I’m raising three daughters on my own and working full time.”
“When will you stop that pathetic self-pity act?” Aunt Connie removes a mirror from her purse, then checks for wayward strands and rhinestones.
A pointless gesture. Her hair hasn’t moved all day. Must have used half a can of spray.
“It’s not self-pity, it’s fact!” Mom’s voice rises. “No one’s had it harder than I have.”
Granddad snorts and turns to me. “Your mother’s been singing that tune since she was your age, you know that?”
“I never was your favorite,” Mom mutters.
“What are you talking about?” Connie shoves the mirror in her purse. “You’ve always been the favorite!”
“Here we go,” Granddad grumbles.
Item number thirty-nine on the list of sibling feuds. Why can’t everybody just play ping-pong? Have some laughs and forget old grudges.
“Marla.” Aunt Connie holds out her dirty plate. As I stroll closer, her bloodshot eyes study my face. “You’ve lost all your homeliness.”
“Thanks.” This is the kindest thing she’s ever said to me.
Plates and cup in hand, I push open the kitchen door with my shoulder, then freeze. My grandmother stands by the sink, trying to strike a match for the cigarette dangling from her lips. I had no idea Granny smoked. Her rigid stance and scowling face suggest she’s had enough wedding celebration for one day.
“Don’t tell Great Granddad I’m smoking,” she says in a hushed tone.
Granny’s seventy-four years old. Great Granddad’s nearly a hundred, and he’s asleep in the guestroom. Why does everyone here worry about what others think?
“Leave the dishes by the sink, honey. I’ll do them.”
“You want some help?”
“That’s sweet of you, but I’ll have them washed up in no time.” As she exhales the smoke, relief dissolves some of the lines on her face.
I knew she’d insist on doing the dishes, but thought I should offer anyway. Granny’s learned to stay in the kitchen when the family gathers. She’s taken too much it’s-all-your-fault-mother abuse over the years to risk more attacks.
After refilling Granddad’s cup, I take a deep breath, then head back to the living room.
“You’re a good girl.” He watches me place the cup in the gold-rimmed saucer. “But if genetics is the big influence scientists think it is, you won’t be for much longer, you know that? All those guys have proven is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“You’re probably right, Granddad.” He likes it when people agree with him.
While collecting plates from the dining table, a thought occurs to me. Maybe what’s wrong with the women in this house is that the apples haven’t fallen far enough from the tree.
I stare at the wedding cake. The once gorgeous three tiers with pink roses have been reduced to a mangled layer of chocolate cake surrounded by globs of frosting.
Aunt Connie’s heavy footsteps come closer. I turn and watch her remove a cigarette from the pack next to Granddad’s coffee. “You have more respect for your grandchildren than us. It’s not fair!”
And whining about it’s supposed to help? I drag my finger through the frosting. Aunt Connie’s ample back blocks my view of Granddad and Mom. Before I know it, I’m flicking frosting at her poofy bullet hair. A tiny clump sticks a rhinestone. Two white dots land below it. Aunt Connie’s so busy lighting her cigarette she doesn’t seem to notice.
I lick my finger, gather more plates, then hurry to the kitchen before the adults discover that this little apple just hit the ground hard.