Every Time I Set My Fork Down
April 2, 2012
My dad had pulled pork in his mouth. As he chewed his cheeks tightened, his mouth opened, just a crack, revealing brown meat shreds dangling in loose stalactites from his upper teeth. His eyes glazed over. Whenever my dad ate, he seemed to be lost in thought.
Across the table, my mother cocked her head to one side, studying the food. Was everything there? Had she forgotten the crescent rolls? I pushed peas around with my fork, rolled them to the rim of my plate, let them spin back down and hurtle into the mountain range of mashed potatoes I’d made. I was twenty-one, far too old to be playing with my food, but I couldn’t help it.
I was about to tell my parents that I found my biological mother online last night and I wasn’t sure how to start. Should I tell them I was pregnant, that the father was some random sophomore I’d just met at Ball State, then soften the news by saying it was all a lie – ha, ha! — I’d simply found the woman who gave birth to me?
I let the peas on my plate rest, looked at my folks across the table and smiled.
Then I sat my fork down.
In high school, my dinner table confessions had become almost ritualistic. As a high-school freshman, I’d been caught ditching school with five boys. I’d spent a Monday afternoon in Earlham Woods getting high and climbing trees. I’d learned to tree-jump and shotgun-smoke and sing Blues Traveler lyrics with such vivacissimo that we had completely lost track of time. While trying to make our way back into school, back to our lockers before the final bell rang, the school policeman, Officer Morrow, caught the six of us ducking around cars in the parking lot.
“What are you kids doing?” Officer Morrow asked, approaching us in policeman fashion – swaggering, gnashing on gum. He was nearly seven feet tall. His forehead was a vast tundra of interrogating lines. His torso was as thick as a barrel. When he spoke he sounded hollow.
My friend Andy threw his pipe under a Corolla.
“Nothing,” I said, standing suspiciously erect. My bloodshot eyes were level with Officer Morrow’s abdomen. I kept my head down and saw that his large black shoes looked like penguin feet, tapping, tapping, tapping on the pavement.
I giggled. I’d never been this up close and personal with Officer Morrow before.
“Pavement,” I snickered.
“Nothing, Abby?” I cringed at the sound of my name from Morrow’s hollow keg of a chest. Morrow and my family attended the same Baptist church. Andy and the others shot me a skeptical glare when he referred to me by name, as if I were some informant for the school’s D.A.R.E. squad, smoking pot with the baddies only to retrieve vital information on whose locker had the stuff. I looked at the boys helplessly, as if to say, What? I’m as bad as y’all.
Before I had a chance to answer, a stout woman approached us, her ratted hair clinging to her scalp like a frightened cat. “I found this,” she said, handing Officer Morrow the pipe. “He threw it.” She pointed at Andy. “I saw it all from my bus.”
We were going to be suspended. Officer Morrow gave me one night to tell my parents on my own. Tomorrow, he told me, gnashing on his gum, the school would notify them about the details; there would be paperwork to be signed.
That night, I sat at the kitchen table playing with my food, feeling terribly ill. I put my fork down and let out a deep apprehensive sigh. I told my parents that I’d been caught ditching school and was probably going to be suspended. My mother cried. My dad sat quietly. He had seemed lost in thought until he announced that I was grounded: no more soccer conditioning after school, no television for a month.
I omitted the part about the weed. They found that out – just as Morrow promised – a day later. My dad had to come in and sign papers in the Vice Principal’s office. After that, it was no Driver’s Ed for a year; I would have to wait until I was seventeen to crash my first car.
I was good at neglecting details when I had to spill the beans. A year after the ditching/weed/Blues Traveler incident, I was caught dealing acid in school. Over a bowl of chicken and rice, I confessed that I was in trouble with Officer Morrow again but left out telling them I might be expelled for good from Richmond High. Over macaroni casserole, I admitted to “borrowing” the 1985 Mustang I was supposed to be learning to drive one afternoon. What I failed to mention at the table was that I’d made mud circles with it around Dad’s alfalfa field; that it was stuck there, its rear-axle resting on a water pipe.
Every dinner table confession was a half-assed attempt to lessen the blow to my parents by neglecting specific but major details: inevitable details that were going to be revealed soon enough. After I admitted to stealing the Mustang, it took my dad all of five minutes to realize it was still missing from the driveway. When he finally asked where it was, I blushed and waved my fork in the direction of his largest crop field.
I sighed and put my fork down.
Sure enough, this move was equivalent to a couple of hushing gavel taps in a courtroom. The kitchen grew quiet. Mom and Dad looked at me. They waited and blinked, blinked, blinked.
I knew I ought to do this the right way. Just be honest and, for once, not omit any major details because the major details were all I had.
I spoke evenly and avoided eye contact. I said, “I know I ought to do this the right way, be honest, and, for once, not omit any major details because the major details are all I have.” I joined both my hands at the fingertips and made a triangle.
My parents didn’t speak. My dad rolled his eyes. My mom squinted. Were they thinking I’d been kicked out of Ball State? Perhaps I had succeeded in lowering my parents’ expectations so effectively that this particular dinner table confession would require no more reaction than the news that I’d left my toothbrush at school.
“Well,” my dad said. “Go on.”
Slowly, methodically, I began to tell my story. “There’s a lady online who might be my biological mother. I was messing around on Ellen’s computer last night and she just popped up. Seriously, I was looking for platform boots.” I continued, “Do I really think she’s my mom? No.” I sent home my response with a fist on the table. “Swear to God.”
My parents stared at me. I stared at the crescent rolls on the table.
My dad spoke first. “Don’t swear to God,” he said.
I looked down at my lap.
“How did you go from looking for shoes to finding your biological mother?” my mom asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was bored.” I pulled a ripped sheet of lined paper from my pocket. On it, I’d scribbled the confirmation code the reunion site had given me: 2429. “Here.” I handed the slip to my mom. “The website gave me this.”
More silence. From across the table, Mom gawked at the paper in my hand. She sat motionless, her face locked in bewildered concern at that little scrap in my hand. “Can I see it?” she asked. When she extended her hand, it shook a bit, like everyone’s does when they’re reaching across a significant distance, stretching really hard to hold grasp something.
I said, “Her name is Judy.”
Dad took another bite of his shredded meat and looked out the window. I knew I had upset them both. Mom had the paper in her hand. Her eyes grew damp. There was nothing that made me feel more helpless than seeing my mom cry; or worse, trying not to cry. Though I had told the entire truth, I felt miserable.
Beneath the table, I crushed a crescent roll in my hand and watched as the dogs, Sadie and Ollie, lapped up the crumbs around my feet.
Should’ve waited, I thought. Should’ve made sure the site was legit.
“Dickson,” my dad said. “Judy Dickson.”
“What?” I asked.
“When we signed your adoption papers,” he continued, “the social worker turned around and I, you know, snuck a peek at your file. I saw her signature. Judy Dickson.”
I stared at Dad, dumbfounded.
He smiled a crooked smile and swallowed his food.
Abigail Higgs will receive her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore in May 2012. She wishes to thank her moms: Janet and Judy.