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January 19, 2017 | Fiction

Stories At The Table

Eric Barnes

Stories At The Table photo

“They were getting ‘the talk,’” Carmen says, pausing dramatically, “and in walks a huge nurse wearing a robe.”

There is an informal but heated competition among the kids over who will get the attention of the family at the dinner table. Singing, dancing and outright wrestling have been banned. By and large, the ban is honored. And so the kids are left with storytelling to get our attention.

Tonight, Carmen has immediately taken over the room. The three other kids and me all stare silently. Waiting. Nora is out with her book club. 

As is often the case, this story Carmen tells is someone else’s, an account told to Carmen by  her friend at an all-girls school. 

“So she, the nurse, is starting to give ‘the talk,’” Carmen says, pausing and looking around at each of us. “You know, ‘THE TALK,’” she nearly yells, making quote marks with her fingers, sitting forward in her seat. 

“Yes, Carmen,” Cole says, “we know what ‘THE TALK’ is.”

Carmen and Cole are both eleven. Sam is twelve. Ellie is nine. 

Carmen nods, satisfied that everyone understands the significance of her story. She shifts in her seat. She re-enters the story. “So, while she’s giving the talk she mentions tampons. Which is okay, because it’s all girls in the room. But one of the girls asks, ‘Where does the tampon go?’ She doesn’t know. I guess her mom doesn’t talk about those kinds of things. I don’t know.”

The rest of the table is spellbound. Hanging on every word and pause. Yet on some level, I can see the wreck coming. A high-speed, multi-car disaster that is forming just over the horizon. But I’m incapacitated by the vision of the robed nurse standing in front of the roomful of sixth graders. 

I can, to a fault, only continue to let Carmen drive us forward.

“So the girl says she doesn’t know where the tampon goes and the nurse, she pulls a tampon from her pocket and sits down and lifts up her robe −” the boys are wide-eyed now and I find that I’m balancing my fork on my index finger and Ellie is sitting forward, mouth open, the definition of agape “− and the nurse puts it in. Right there. In front of everyone.”

It’s a full ten seconds before I break the silence. “What?”I say loudly.

Carmen is nodding happily. She has won the attention of the entire table. She has held it for minutes now. She may never let it go. 

“Yep,” Carmen says and for emphasis she points vaguely toward her lap, finger moving with each syllable. “Put...it...in.”

Sam is pushing his hands through his hair, making it stand twice as tall as normal. Cole has been rendered unnaturally silent. Ellie turns to me, half-smiling, half-shocked, an expression that clearly asks, Am I going to have to sit through a session like that?

“And then,” Carmen says and at this there is a slight but genuine gasp from the rest of us, stunned as we are that there could be more to the story. “Then a girl walks in, right when the nurse is putting the tampon in −” Carmen has clearly gained tremendous confidence in her public use of the word tampon, its inherent weight, its conversation-stopping ability, so that she’s now using the word almost gratuitously “− and the girl looks at the nurse and sees what the nurse is doing with the tampon and the girl throws up. Right there. On the floor.”

Carmen sits back, smiling, looking around at her assembled audience. We are, once again, totally silent.

I can break the spell only by having the kids clear the table. 

Later, when I tell this story to Nora, she is frozen. Silent as I relay every detail. 

It’s a few long moments before Nora says, “A robe? The nurse was wearing a robe?”

Oddly enough, it’s the detail I am most fixated upon as well. I nod. I shrug. “That’s what Carmen said.”

Nora is silent again. She looks around. “Well that story didn’t really happen.”

I nod again. “That’s probably the case. But Carmen sure thinks it happened.”

Nora is quiet again. “A robe?”

I nod. We’re silent for a long while.

After a minute, Nora says, “Well I know what I’m getting the girls for Christmas.” 

“They’ll never wear robes again in their lives,” I offer.

“Think of the look on the boys faces when the girls open the boxes.” Nora says, turning to me, smiling now, reveling in the horror. “Look boys: The girls got robes.”

It’s only a week later that I’m driving the kids home from school. The kids’ school is only three blocks from our house, but when the kids get a ride to or from school, which happens when it’s cold enough or raining hard enough, the drive can take what seems to be 20 or 30 minutes. So much is discussed, revealed, opined upon, disregarded and mistaken. There is something about the process of driving that compels the kids to pour forth stories and comments they would otherwise not reveal.

Essentially, there are three sections to the drive home. The turn onto Belvedere (stage 1), the turn onto Peabody (stage 2), and finally the right-then-left turn onto our street, Vance (stage 3).

When I’m later relaying the conversations with the kids to Nora, I sometimes try to frame each stage of the discussion against the separate stages of the drive. 

“We’re not even in the car and Carmen is deep into a story about some sort of intrigue in study hall,” I am telling Nora. It’s 9:30 at night and the kids are in bed and actually this is a story from a few days earlier, but this is the first chance I’ve had to tell her.

“Isn’t study hall for studying?” she asks.

I shrug. “Yes, but no. Regardless, she’s in study hall, but she’s stuck on some problem, so she goes to find the teacher. Which, by the way, reminds me: Why are the kids always out in the halls? Have you noticed this? They constantly describe wandering the halls during school. Are we sending them to some sort of Montessori school? Are there no rules, no structure?”

“There are rules,” Nora says. “But I think they’re teaching them a sense of responsibility. Independence.”

“Great,” I say. “Our kids clearly need a greater sense of independence.”

“So what was the intrigue?” Nora asks.

“Carmen is out in the hall looking for the study hall teacher. But when she finds the teacher, he’s in another room with another student. We’ll call him ‘Trevor,’” I say, making quote marks with my fingers

“You don’t want to tell me his name?”

“No, Carmen didn’t want to tell me his name. She made quote marks with her fingers and said, ‘We’ll call him ‘Trevor.’”

Nora rolls her eyes. “Where did she learn that? ‘We’ll call him Trevor.’”

“Out in the halls, I guess. I don’t know. That was one of the very few things we didn’t talk about on the drive home. So the teacher, Carmen tells me, is in the room yelling at Trevor. Apparently, Trevor was in trouble for something he’d looked at on one of the classroom computers.”

“Video games?”

I shake my head. “The general consensus was that it was porn. Because Cole and Ellie − we’re all in the car now −”

“Where was Sam?” Nora asks.

“Game. He stayed at school to watch a basketball game.”

“He stayed for a basketball game on Tuesday? Why don’t I remember that?”

“Because you were out at a meeting. By the time you got home, Sam was home, so you never had a chance to notice his absence.”

She stares forward, processing, then slowly nods.

“So Cole and Ellie, they jump into the conversation when they hear about the computers. ‘That’s why we had the lecture,’ Cole says. ‘What lecture?’ I ask. ‘Well, we had a big lecture about not using the classroom computers to visit inappropriate Web sites. We all guessed it was because someone had been looking at porn.’”

Nora raises a finger. “Did he say ‘porn’ or did he say ‘naked pictures?’”

I stop to consider this. “I think he said, ‘Naked pictures.’ Maybe he just said, ‘Look at sex.’”

“I hope so.”

I nod. “I do too. Because if he said ‘porn,’ then he knows about porn, which is different than knowing there are naked pictures.”

“Exactly. So where are you on the drive now?”

“We’ve maybe pulled away from the curb. Maybe.”

“Unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable drive.”

“Like a time warp,” I say.

“So ‘Trevor’ is in trouble for looking at porn.”

I nod. “Yes. And Cole and Ellie got a big lecture about it earlier in the day. And Carmen, she’s just out in the hall trying to get help dividing fractions into decimals.”

“She’s doing decimals now?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t help her with that,” Nora says, sitting forward and turning to me. “You know that, right? I can’t be the one to work with her on decimals.”

“Check,” I say, nodding, taking a drink. “So Carmen is out in the hall waiting for the teacher in order to ask a question about decimals and then she hears her name mentioned. ‘I was eavesdropping now,’ she tells us.”

“How in the world does she know the word eavesdropping?

I shrug. “A spelling test?”

“And why does her name come up in the conversation about porn sites?”

“She didn’t hear. Or she wouldn’t say. But I honestly think she didn’t hear.”

“Well did she get the math question answered?”

“No,” I say. “As best I can tell, she spent all of study hall waiting on the teacher who was yelling at ‘Trevor.’”

“How’d she get her homework done?”

“I helped her.”

“With the decimals? Oh lord, thank you.”

“I knew you wouldn’t want to help. Not that you don’t want to help. But that you wouldn’t want to help with decimals.”

“You knew that?”

“Of course.”

“You must love me.”

“Yes, I must.”

“So that was the ride home?”

“That was the ride to Peabody. By the time we were on Peabody, we were talking about play practice, Cole’s interest in running track, and Ellie’s book report.”

“Due next month, I’m sure.”

“Six weeks, but she’s pretty much done with it.”

“Thankfully.”

“And Carmen also talked about a lot of boys who seem to like her.”

“By this time, you had to be home.” 

“No, when we were in the last section of the ride.”

“How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. I was there. I was driving. There was no traffic. I was not going slow. I just don’t understand it.”

Nora shakes her head. Pondering. Then she moves back a step in the conversation. “Why would the boys who like Carmen even come up in the course of the conversation about computers and study hall and porn? I’m just trying to frame a picture. To understand the context.”

I have to stop and think for a minute. Retracing the drive and the arc of the conversation. “Oh, I remember,” I say. “‘Trevor.’ ‘Trevor’ was the link. ‘Trevor’ is one of the boys who likes Carmen.”

Nora closes her eyes. “Perfect.”

It’s days later that Carmen apparently decides to break up with her mother. She’s come to me at my desk holding a number of items that, she says, her mother has left in her bedroom. “This is her book and her brush and I think this watch is hers, I’m not totally sure, but she can just have it.”

Of note is that Nora is sitting five feet away from me, reading a book. But Carmen has her back to Nora. It’s entirely unclear to me whether Carmen hasn’t noticed her mother, or is purposely ignoring her. The latter seems most likely, but I’m unsure of it.

Carmen leaves the room.

“What just happened?” I ask. 

Nora is staring from me to the place where Carmen was standing. “I’m sitting right here,” she says. 

“Are you two in fight?”

Nora rolls her eyes. “I made her clean her room. It did not go over well.”

Carmen returns in a few minutes. “And this is a picture of her,” Carmen says, handing over objects as she speaks. “And here’s a candle. I think she gave it to me.” She sets it all on my desk. She is staring at me. Her back is, yet again, turned to Nora. “I think that’s everything,” Carmen says, exhaling deeply.

Nora is staring at her, mouth half open. 

“Ok then,” I say to Carmen. “I’ll make sure she gets all this.”

Carmen nods. Grim-faced. “Ok,” she says. And leaves the room.

She spends the rest of the day referring to Nora only as a preposition: She, her, even once calling her that one lady.

The fight breaks the next day, when, apparently, enough time has passed. 

Within two days, Carmen is in a fight with Cole, accusing him of stealing a photo of her and Nora from her room.

We get worn down by the changes, the way the rhythm of our life is thrown. The meter will be broken and suddenly there’s a sense of losing control. A sense of disconnection in the face of the kids changing before us.

But the changes keep happening. We barely keep up.

And then we will all be back at the table. Eating dinner, exhibiting decent manners, relaying the events of the day. The kids will do the dishes and afterward they’ll hit their scooters, all four of them looping in wide curves in the street in front of the house. Ellie will sprawl out on the floor to finish a project. Carmen will begin painting faces on her bedroom door. The boys will play a game where they bounce oranges off their heads.

“Let me tell you about my friend,” Carmen says, all of us stopping on the stairs on the way up to our rooms.

The separation fades. The disconnection breaks.

And afterward everyone goes to bed.

image: Bryan Bowie


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