David McEhelhenny stared at the blue dye that stained the naturally blonde hair of his twenty-year-old daughter. She glared back at him from across the dining room table. Her thin arms were crossed and her lips trembled before she spoke.
“You can’t say shit like that, Dad.”
“Lizzie!” cried his wife, Mary.
His daughter rolled her eyes and sneered at her mother.
“Oh, so you get offended when I say ‘shit,’ but it doesn’t bother you when Dad spews his racist garbage.”
“I didn’t say anything racist,” said David.
“You can’t refer to black people as ‘the blacks,’” said his daughter, turning back to him.
“How is that racist? I can say ‘the Irish,’ or ‘the Italians,’ or ‘the Germans,’ but I can’t say ‘the blacks?’”
“Irish isn’t a race!”
“Irish people like ourselves were subjected to worse racism when we first immigrated to the United States than any supposed racism that blacks experience today,” interjected Chris, his seventeen-year-old son.
“Shut up, Chris,” snapped Lizzie.
“You shut up, slut.”
David slammed his closed fist down on the table with enough force to shake the silverware, silencing his bickering children.
“Enough,” he growled, staring down his daughter. She met his eyes, and he could see tears forming. Chris smirked at Lizzie, and David knew he should be mad at his son. Yet he found himself angry with his daughter. In the last year she had broken up with her high school boyfriend and dropped out of her sorority. A small part of him twinged with guilt, but he couldn’t help himself. She might well be a slut.
“Ugh!” Lizze grunted with disgust as she hurled her plate into the sink with a crash and stormed up the kitchen stairs to her room.
“Christopher, you need to go apologize for calling your sister that nasty word,” said Mary in the shrill timbre she adopted when upset.
Chris got up from the table without clearing his dirty dishes and left for the main staircase in the foyer. David knew his daughter would hear no apology. He felt a pinch and realized his nails were digging into his palm. He relaxed his hand as he rose from the table, eager to migrate away from this scene and into the living room.
“Aren’t you going to help me with the dishes?”
He begrudgingly cleared the remaining dishes from the table, leaving the grimy plates and dirty silverware in the sink for his wife to rinse and load into the dishwasher. He then moved into the living room, fussing with the remote as he flicked on the television. His wife had been watching daytime TV on one of the major networks, which had since been replaced by the usual lineup of talking heads claiming to relay the evening news.
“Fake news,” he grumbled to himself, tuning out the chatter emanating from the TV. Smirking at the image of Lester Holt on-screen, he reached back for the clicker and flipped the station to FOX, yanking the handle on his recliner as the picture on the tube morphed into Tucker. His wife, who he hadn’t noticed sneak into the room, was waiting on the adjacent couch some fifteen minutes later when Tucker’s rant was interrupted by a commercial break.
“David,” she said, “I think you need to be a little more sensitive with the things you say to the kids.”
Riled up by Carlson’s fiery exchange with a college professor, David’s voice rose as he spoke. “I don’t need to be more sensitive. That’s the problem. These liberal arts colleges are turning kids soft. We should have sent Lizzie to a more conservative school instead of Chapel Hill. Someplace like Elon or Furman.”
“Those are both liberal arts colleges,” muttered Mary.
An ad warning that Medicaid-for-all would kill people filled the pause in conversation. Mary shifted on the couch, looking down at the carpet.
“I just… I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble at work, for instance. You know I agree with you, but this is just the way things are now. What used to be okay isn’t okay anymore. Lizzie is right, you have to say African-American when you are talking about black people.”
“Hmph,” David turned his attention back to Carlson, who began his end of show monologue by trashing political correctness run amok.
At breakfast the next morning Lizzie marched into the kitchen with her chin up. She smiled appeasingly at her father and put a new K-cup in the machine.
“Breakfast, Lizzie?” asked her mother.
“Coffee is all I need, thanks.”
“Watching your weight?” asked Chris.
“You watch it, bud,” said David. Lizzie was already thin and he worried that she didn’t eat enough.
“You sure you don’t want some breakfast? Your mother is fixing bacon.”
“I don’t eat pork, Dad. I will do some buttered toast though.”
“What are you, Muslim now too?” asked Chris.
David chortled despite himself. Lizzie and Mary ignored them both. The toaster clicked a few moments later and Lizzie buttered her toast with a half-smile. David watched her, searching for any signs of resentment. She took a bite of her toast, her eyebrows raising a fraction of an inch as their gazes met. Her expression, smug yet reserved, made him uncomfortable. The smell of sizzling bacon filled the room. David turned his attention to The Wall Street Journal, and the kitchen was absent of talk for a time.
Lizzie eventually broke the silence. “Well, I’m headed over to Anna’s house for the day. But I’ll be back for dinner tonight,”
“Sounds good.” said David, without looking up from the paper.
“Uh, Lizzie, is there something else you want to tell your father?” asked Mary.
David raised an eyebrow, focusing harder on the newspaper. Another crappy editorial claiming some unseen danger in the markets. When would they learn?
His daughter shifted back and forth, looking away from him. “I’m bringing a friend. My boyfriend, Brandon.”
David put his paper down and looked directly at her.
“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend since you broke up with Adam.”
“That was six months ago, Dad. I met Brandon after that. He is really sweet. I promise you’ll like him.”
“Well good. I’m looking forward to it.”
David nodded, feeling relieved to learn that his daughter had a steady boyfriend again. But the anxious glances that Mary and Lizzie were now trading unsettled him.
“Okay then,” said Lizzie with fresh enthusiasm, “I’ll see you tonight.”
David nodded, looking at his wife for clues. She looked away. The rest of the Saturday passed as the family went about their weekend routine. Mary cleaned and went grocery shopping. Chris holed himself up in his room playing video games and surfing the internet, periodically emerging for a snack or a soda. David managed his stock portfolio and paid some bills in the privacy of his basement office. By the early evening he found himself mulling about the kitchen, debating if he should have a beer or not before dinner. He was a little nervous and stood in the way of his wife’s preparations. She shooed him out of the kitchen, so he settled on a light beer to sip while he watched TV in the den. The Braves were playing the Nationals at home, so he watched baseball instead of the news. By the fourth inning the doorbell rang and David rushed to the door without checking the camera.
He swung the door open wide, and there stood his daughter in the prime of her emerging womanhood. Lizzie had washed and dyed her hair to more closely resemble her natural blonde. She wore a knee-length summer dress that exposed her shoulders. She beamed up at her father, her golden arm intertwined with the dark brown forearm of a muscular young man. David’s wide grin faded into open-mouthed shock when he saw that arm. His eyes looked up and down at the new boyfriend. He was five-ten, equal in height to David, clean-shaven with a tight fade, and wearing a navy polo. But David was relieved to see no piercings, no tattoos, and that he was dressed in a manner indistinguishable from that of any college-age frat boy. David realized his mouth was open and he closed it. The young man looked at David with his big brown eyes, pulled his arm out from Lizzie’s grasp, and proffered his hand.
“Hello, Mr. McElhenny. I’m Brandon. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
David took Brandon’s hand, finally recovering his manners.
“A pleasure to meet you, Brandon. Welcome to my home. I’m afraid that I’ve only just learned of you this morning, so you’ll have to come inside so we can get to know you better.”
As David stepped aside to let the couple in, Mary rushed forward to give Lizzie an overly enthusiastic hug. She then turned to Brandon with her arms outstretched. He glanced at Lizzie, then David, then back at Mrs. McElhenny before slowly opening his arms so that she could squeeze him. He reciprocated her gesture with a couple light pats on the back before she released him from the unsolicited embrace. The four of them stood for a moment looking at each other without speaking.
“Well then,” said Mary, “why don’t we move to the den? I’ve prepared fresh lemonade and snack for us.”
Lizzie took Brandon’s hand and led him down the hall. David could see Mary searching his face, but he kept up his hospitable smile and followed the couple into the den. Brandon was standing there, sipping his lemonade and watching the baseball game.
“You like baseball, Brandon?” asked David.
“Yeah, I played a little in high school.”
Lizzie gave David a look that meant he had made a mistake. He furrowed his brow at her, then looked back at Brandon.
“I wasn’t good enough to make the basketball team.”
Brandon hesitated and a small smile appeared on his face.
“But the baseball team never had enough people try out to even make cuts. So I played baseball.”
“Well, I was a football and baseball player myself. Back in the day I used to-”
“No one wants to hear about your glory days, Dad,” said Lizzie in a sweet tone.
“It’s fine, Lizzie,” Brandon touched her hand and then nodded at David.
“I want to hear about them, Mr. McElhenny.”
“Really? Well, as I was saying I used to play tight end and first base.”
David continued on about how sports were different back in the eighties. Brandon listened to him, nodding and smiling. Lizzie tapped her fingers on the couch cushions and looked out the window. He saw his daughter’s bored expression, and realized he had been talking about himself for several minutes.
“Anyway, Brandon, you must have met Lizzie at college, then?”
A wide smile materialized on Brandon’s face. David noted his straight, white teeth. The pair told the story of how they met at the coffee shop Brandon worked at part-time.
“I had just started and I made the ugliest lattes. But there was this pretty girl,” said Brandon, looking at Lizzie, “who got a latte and smiled at me every day I worked. After almost two weeks, I asked my manager if Lizzie, I knew her name at this point, comes in every day.”
“Oh my god this is so embarrassing,” Lizzie said, blushing through her tan skin.
“And he said that she comes in everyday, but she doesn’t buy anything if I’m not there,” said Brandon with a laugh.
“So he walked right up to my table and asked me out,” Lizzie finished.
“Such a sweet story,” called Mary from the kitchen, “Dinner is ready if we’d like to continue in the dining room.”
The three of them moved from the den to the dining table and sat down.
“Mary, where is Christopher? Does he know dinner is ready?” asked David as his wife dropped off a glass tray of baked macaroni and cheese.
“You’ll have to call him on his cell phone. Unless you want to go up the stairs and knock on his door. I’m going to finish setting the table.”
David looked over at Brandon and smiled with embarrassment as he dialed Chris and waited for him to answer.
“Teenage boys these days. Glued to their computers. I wish Chris hadn’t quit baseball back in middle school–Son, get down here. It’s time for dinner.”
David put the phone back in his pocket as Mary placed a tray of barbecued chicken down on the table in front of Brandon’s plate.
She gestured at the tray and looked at David as she spoke, “There’s white meat here.”
Then she looked at Brandon and pointed to the thighs and drumsticks, “and dark meat here if you prefer. I’ll be right back with the greens.”
Brandon looked over at Lizzie. “Greens? She doesn’t mean collard greens, does she?” he asked in a hushed voice.
David listened in. He had thought she meant salad, but if she had made salad then she would have said so.
“Here we are. I must admit I’ve never made collard greens before. But it’s always good to try new things with an open mind. I hope you like it,” said Mary.
She put the plate down directly in front of Brandon and then stood waiting for him to speak.
“I, uh, I actually haven’t had collard greens in a long time. But yeah they look good. Everything looks good, Mrs. McElhenny. Thank you so much for cooking dinner.”
“You are most welcome, Brandon.”
Mary took her seat at the other end of the table. Her smile and upright posture radiated nervous excitement. Chris walked into the dining room and took a seat on his mother’s right, across from Lizzie. He stared at his plate.
“You feeling alright, Chris?” asked David.
“Okay then. Let’s say Grace.”
“Would you do the honors, Brandon?” asked Mary.
“Mary, don’t put him on the spot like that,” said David, “I’ll say it.”
David saw his daughter’s smile of gratitude and was pleased with himself. He said the prayer and gestured to Brandon to take his choice of the chicken. He was surprised to see Brandon take only a modest portion of the white meat.
“I also prefer the white meat,” David said.
Brandon nodded and passed him the tray of chicken. David helped himself to a generous portion and held the tray in the direction of Chris. But his son was still looking down at his plate.
“Chris, are you sure you feel ok?”
“No, goddamnit. I don’t feel ok.”
“Christopher!” shrieked Mary.
Chris looked up and faced his father. His voice rose in pitch and volume as he spoke.
“And I don’t understand how you can be ok with this, Dad.”
David was taken aback. Chris kept going.
“How can you let this, this…” his voice trailed off.
“This what?” Brandon asked.
Chris ignored him. “She is your daughter!” he yelled at David.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
Chris jerked his head in the direction of Brandon. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t think I do. Do you two know each other or something?”
David looked at Brandon, who stared impassively at Chris. But David could see Brandon’s jaw clenched tight. He looked to Lizzie, her mouth agape in horror.
“Well, what’s going on then?” David asked.
“Dad, you have got to be fucking kidding me. Chris is pissed because I’m dating a black guy,” Lizzie said.
“Are you serious? Christopher, we raised you better than that.”
“You raised me to be proud of who we are. I didn’t think we were this kind of family.”
He stormed out of the dining room and back up the stairs to his room.
“Brandon, I can’t even begin to express how embarrassed I am. I had no idea that… Chris is a good kid. He’s just in that angry teenager phase, you know? We’re not racist, I have a lot of black friends at work.”
“Look, Mr. McElhenny, I think it’s best if I go now. I picked Lizzie up from Anna’s house, so I’ve got my car.”
“Brandon, wait, we are so sorry. Please, at the very least take some food with you,” pleaded Mary in her shrill timbre.
Brandon shook his head as he pushed his chair back. “No. I’m going to go. Lizzie, I’ll call you later.”
Lizzie chased after him as he disappeared down the hall. David heard her calling his name, pleading with him to wait.
David stared at his wife, who was dabbing away tears with her napkin. They sat there for a few minutes, in a horrible silence and unsure of what to do next. The front door opened and slammed shut, followed by Lizzie diving into her mother’s arms.
“He broke up with me! I don’t understand, I didn’t say any of those horrible things. It’s not fair, it’s not fair,” she cried.
Mary had composed herself and instinct compelled her to comfort her daughter. David was self-conscious enough not to interrupt their feminine ritual. He exited through the hall so as to sneak into the den without passing by them, pausing at the liquor cabinet to pour himself a whiskey over ice. He took a long, slow drink, focusing on the booze burning in his mouth. Then he swallowed and collapsed onto the leather recliner.
The seventh inning stretch had just ended and the Braves were up to bat. He stared at the TV screen without watching the game. He wondered about Chris, what had compelled him to behave in such a way. But as he reflected on the tumultuous evening, David realized he wasn’t angry or upset. If anything, he felt relieved.