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Dumb Supper by David Estringel

Talking to the dead is something that one never really gets used to. It isn’t so much the fact that someone, who has long since been dead and buried, is smack-dab right in front of you, or that you are looking at them straight in the eyes (kind of); it’s the chill in the room that seems to seep into the very marrow of your bones; the sense of emptiness that pulls at every opening of your body despite the overwhelming presence that charges every hair on your body. A part of Evan dreaded the coming of All Hallows Eve for that very reason, but the other part of him lived for that night all year long. For him, Christmas came early, but it was a somber occasion. Every year for the past fourteen years.

The house was dark and still, illuminated only by a soft glow coming from the dining room. Evan sat, dressed in white (jacket, dress shirt, and slacks) and bare feet, immersed in the deafening quiet at the head of his glass-topped, mid-century table that comfortably sat six. The faint, persistent ring in his ears was interrupted by the occasional crackle of two lazy flames atop slender, white tapers that stood tall before him, flanking a glass vase of pink, yellow, and white roses, heavy with a sweet scent. Two cream, upholstered chairs sat on either side of the table, facing outward, their backs forming a sort of tunnel between the chair at the table’s far end and him. Before him and at the opposite end were two dessert plates—white with pale blue and silver flowers bordering the rims—from the family china that he pilfered the last time he visited home. The strong aroma of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg from the generous slices of carrot cake atop them mingled with the familiar smells of melting wax and fists of garlic by the molcajete in the kitchen. Looking across the table at the living room clock that hovered above the cold, lifeless widescreen TV, Evan saw that it was 11:56 PM. Four more minutes, he thought to himself – the silence of the room bearing down on his shoulders like the night sky on the horizon.

Fidgeting in his chair, shifting his weight from side to side, Evan could feel the now-moistened back of his trousers bunching and pressing into the back of his legs. As the clock struck twelve, ripping holes in the room’s quiet, his eyes fell upon the empty chair across from him. He gripped the arms of his chair, tightening his grip increasingly, as the clock sounded off the hours. Seven o’clock…Eight o’clock…Nine. After the last gong, a deathly quiet enshrouded the room. Reminding himself to breathe, his chest becoming heavy, aching with the burden of anticipation and trapped air. He looked around—beads of sweat gathering at his temples and upper lip and…nothing. Sitting back, soothing himself into something that looked like relaxation, Evan closed his eyes and remained still, becoming hyperaware of the cold dampness beneath him. Any minute now.

Slowly, Evan could feel the whisper of a breeze against the wetness of his face; it was cold but strangely refreshing. The ringing in his ears dissolved, leaving vacuums of absence. Void. Something had shifted. The hairs on his arms began to stand on end, as echoes of lilac and gardenia emerged from the darkness and filled the room, blessing every surface and obscure corner. Sitting up straight, Evan opened his eyes, fixing them upon the chair before him that seemed to gradually fade into the dark of the blackened background. Closing his eyes, again, he inhaled deeply, exhaling slowly through pursed lips. Opening his eyes, he saw her.

She sat erect, proudly, and statuesque, with her hands resting on her lap out of sight. Her hair was full and dark, cascading down her shoulders in soft waves. Her dress was black with small white flowers that seemed to dance in an unseen breeze. The angles of her face appeared soft. Her skin, pale, almost a part of the swirling mist that separated her from the rest of the world behind her. Then, there were her eyes…or where her eyes had once been. The kindness Evan remembered still lingered upon the delicate countenance save around the black, empty sockets that stared straight ahead, hinting at what life had once hidden. “Hey, mom. You came,” he struggled in a quivering voice, half-sincerely.

“Hello, son. When have I not?” she responded through bloodless lips.

Evan’s eyes remained fixed on his mother’s face, wiping sweat from his brow with the palm of his right hand. Bringing it to the plate in front of him, he tapped the rim with his index finger. “We’re starting with your favorite dessert.” He tipped the plate towards her, so she could see. “See? Carrot cake.” Resting the plate back down on the table, he felt awkward about what he had just said, averting his eyes.

“Yes,” she answered with a slight smile. “You remembered.” Her right hand rose from her lap and fingered the lip of the plate. “You always do.” Her hand slowly slid back, across the tablecloth—white with tasteful sprinklings of pink roses—and down beneath the tabletop—not a sound reaching Evan’s ears.

“Tonight might be cut short, Mother,” he stated, staring at the figure across the table. "I know we have until the candles burn out, which is what you taught me, but I have something to say and am afraid you won’t like it.”

“Go on,” she gently replied. “What is it that you have to tell me?” Those two black voids were fixed upon Evan’s left hand. “I’m listening.”

Evan leaned back in his chair, slightly unnerved by his mother’s stare. Leaning forward, he kept his mother’s gaze. “I’m getting married soon, so we won’t be able to do this anymore. He wouldn’t understand.” He wiped his brow, again, more briskly. “It’s time to let go and move on. For both of us.” He found himself slowly becoming lost in the hollows of her face.

“Him?” she questioned; her voice gentle but cold.

“Yes. Him. Scott,” he exhaled nervously. “I met someone, and his name is Scott. We met around this time last spring. He’s…”

“…important to you,” she finished, her slight smile returning. “I know. I like him.”

The look on Evan’s face grew increasingly confused. “You like him? You mean you…”

“A mother knows. And?” Her head tilted, shattering her illusion of stoniness.

Averting his gaze, Evan grabbed his fork and lifted a chunk of carrot cake to his mouth, rhythmically chewing then swallowing. “Time for the main course,” he announced, grabbing his plate. He moved towards her, the chill in the air biting harder into his skin the closer he got to the other end. Not making it past the flowers, her hand appeared again, slowly pushing the plate of cake in front of her down toward the table’s center. With feet planted firmly onto the floor, Evan leaned forward, stretching his arm forward, using the tips of his fingers to pull at the plate’s lip to bring it towards him. Grasping it with the knuckle of his index finger and his thumb, he spun around and darted to the kitchen, returning with two new plates of chicken and squash with Spanish rice (like she used to make so many years ago). Stopping at the table’s center, he leaned forward and slid the plate of food in his left hand to her, struggling some with its weight. Returning to his chair and sitting back down, he scooped up a heaping helping of chicken and squash to his mouth and chewed (for what seemed like forever). Swallowing, he placed the fork down, resting its prongs on the plate’s rim. He looked up at her, again, losing himself (and time) in the blackness of where her eyes used to be. “I hope you understand.” He felt himself swallow, hard.

“What’s not to understand?” Her slight smile slowly melted away. “You have met the love of your life and now it’s time for me to fade away. Fade to black.”

“Fade to black?” he questioned, shocked (and a bit annoyed). Evan grabbed onto the tabletop and leaned forward. “That’s not fair. What does that even mean?”

“None of this is fair, Evan, but so goes life….death.”

Leaning back, exasperated, Evan dropped his hands onto his lap. Taking a deep breath and holding it for a while, he exhaled and said, “He wouldn’t understand this and I don’t want to start our lives—my life with him—hiding things. Secrets. He wouldn’t understand. You have to see that.”

“You’d be amazed what I see, Evan. Regardless, I supposed it wouldn’t be fair for your husband to compete with a ghost,” she finished, with her slight smile returning to her lips. “But there is so much more to you than this. Things you can’t just conveniently discard when life gets complicated. Not talking to the dead doesn’t mean you still can’t conjure them, just one of the many talents you got from me, may I add.”

“I am not discarding anything,” Evan insisted, the gravity of shame beginning to weigh his head down like a hundred-pound weight, “and that Evan died right along with you; he had to.” Hanging his head, he could feel rushes of blood set his cheeks ablaze, feeling he had gone too far.

Solemnly, his mother nodded. "Wanting and desire don’t just stop after you leave this world, Evan. If anything, their pulls become more powerful, harder to relinquish.” Her head turned, slightly, drawn to Evan’s left hand, again. “I can’t remember what has been without grieving it. There is no joy, no fondness in it. Just emptiness. Grieving you was inevitable, I supposed, and now here we are.” Slowly, her head turned to the mist behind her, as if she was listening to a whisper. Looking back at Evan, she said, “I think we are done here, son.”

“I’m not going to forget you,” he assured, his eyes watering. “I won’t. I promise.”

Leaning forward into the perfume of roses and melting wax, she said, “But, I will. The world of the living slips away more and more, faster and faster, the longer one is here. It—nothing here—is what you think it is. Nothing.” Then the tapers blew out. The room felt warm on Evan’s skin, while distant rumbles of traffic a few blocks away played about his ears. A chill deep within in his chest remained, however, and never left.

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