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Word of the Day

WORD OF THE DAY

When a family feud between her born-again aunt and her Buddhist uncle threatens to keep her two young cousins from seeing each other, sixteen-year-old Vonnie Green tries to intervene, but fails miserably. Her New Age mother, with her crystals and tarot cards, proves more an annoyance than a help. Her best friend gets involved in the troubles of another girl just when Vonnie needs her help and advice. The boy she likes seems more interested in introducing Vonnie to gourmet food than in kissing her. Even her teddy bears refuse to cooperate.

It's not just her family that exasperates Vonnie Green. She seems to run into "eco-bullies" wherever she turns. At school, and in her summer job, she has to prove constantly that she's environmentally correct. This is despite the fact that her name is Green.

The book also has a gourmet food subplot. The girl hates cheese, but all the while her "boyfriend" (it's not "official") functions as the high school cheese gourmet and traps her into tasting sessions. Talk about conflict.

Word of the Day treats the subjects of teen pregnancy, underage drinking, and birth control. Religious subjects are also frankly discussed. I really enjoyed creating and then developing Vonnie, and the odd people around her. Nature and the mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Vonnie lives, also play a major role in the book. ELLIOT ESSMAN, author    Elliot Essman Home Page

First Four Chapters
Read 'Em Right Here!
Judge for Yourself

Chapter 1: Extremes

Like most families, mine has two sides: my mother’s, the Taylors, and my father’s, the Greens. I understand that two sides are all you get. That’s too bad. It would be great to have a third, sensible, side to the family. Taylors tend to go to extremes. Greens tend to go to extremes. People should marry opposites, but a Taylor married a Green, and Yvonne Juliet Green came into the world. I like my nickname, Vonnie, and I even like Yvonne. I’m the only one with either name in my school. When other kids say, “Vonnie this…” or teachers say, “Yvonne that…” everybody knows who they are talking about (or they think they know). What they do not know are the extremes you grow up with when you are both a Taylor and a Green.

Now what are these extremes about? The two subjects would seem different, if they both weren’t so equally extreme. The Taylors get really excited about religion and, in the case of my mother, spiritual development. My dad, Dave Green, is totally devoted to cheese. No, not chess, the strategy game, but cheese, that congealed milk you eat. On the Taylor side, my aunt and my uncle argue. On the Green side, my dad and I argue.

The war between my aunt and uncle began long before I was even an idea, even before my mother could talk, when Sarah and Quentin were kids. It’s amazing how a grownup brother and sister can argue, as if they were still little children fighting over a toy. The subject changes, but not the fight.

“Nothing is more precious than eternal life…,” my Aunt Sarah starts.

“…and what you get instead is an endless cycle of suffering on this earth,” my Uncle Quentin interrupts.

“Jesus will forgive you,” Sarah says, totally sure of herself.

“…and mislead you,” Quentin adds, totally sure of himself.

This is how they typically talk. I don’t know much about religion, but when you get a Buddhist arguing with a Christian, and they’re brother and sister, nobody wins, nobody even scores points. My mother is their baby sister. She’s the one who usually got the toy the other two were arguing about. Mom doesn’t identify with a set religion like Quentin or Sarah. She’s all tarot cards and crystals. “The path of the spirit shows itself differently in each of us,” she likes to say, “but the destination is always the same.” She makes me want to sink into the floor when she says this. It comes out so automatically. So predictably, like most of her remarks. I am never sure she is actually real. Other people, adults, have to notice. Take my mother together with her brother and her sister and…oh, I want to run, if only we didn’t share DNA.

Sarah announced she was born again only recently, but Quentin has been developing his Buddhist interests for a long time. I should have known when he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago with the words Buddha Mind tattooed onto his arm. I didn’t make the connection then. I thought it was simply another cool tattoo. Sarah glared at the thing, but at the time, I thought it was just because it was a tattoo. Sarah has always been fastidious and proper about anything relating to grooming and appearance. You don’t see her with a tattoo, or even a hair out of place. Quentin dresses in a more relaxed way, but if you look at him carefully you’ll also see the tension.

I wouldn’t mind if Sarah and Quentin argued until the heavens opened and some celestial force decided who was right, if it weren’t for my little cousins. Ashleigh is Sarah’s daughter, and Janine is Quentin’s. They’re both seven, born just a few weeks apart. They see each other less and less because of the debate between their parents. When they do see each other, Ashleigh and Janine never argue. Ashleigh has the more forceful personality. Janine is more thoughtful. Ashleigh collects stuffed rabbits. Janine collects stuffed bears. All they really want is to spend time together, and give the rabbits a chance to talk with the bears. Of course, I don’t ruin it for them by telling them that rabbits and bears speak different languages. I do think it is possible for their parents to start speaking the same language, if they try. Problem is, they’ve got to want to. They obviously don’t want to.

My mom tells me, “The universe will resolve all this,” but I disagree. Ashleigh and Janine grew up so close, and it’s a shame to keep them apart. If Mom doesn’t want to do something about it, I think I will. Her “universe” doesn’t give me any sense of confidence. I’ve always had the idea that she thought I would go along with her way of thinking because, like her, I'm the younger sister. My older sister Rev, who is already twenty-two, only cares about motorcycles, specifically Harleys. She never paid attention to Mom or anyone else, always went her own way. Like Rev—if you have to know—I have a brain, and I think for myself. If I listen to anyone, it’s actually Rev. If…

My mother is hard to listen to because there’s no arguing with her. This doesn’t mean she insists she’s right, just that she remains totally calm, she never sees a problem in the first place, and you get nowhere. I can turn red in frustration, but she never notices. It’s always stay calm, and trust in the universe. I understand that, technically, I live in the universe, but I can relate better to the earth I can see and touch. The earth is filled with people, animals, trees, and rocks. The universe is filled with stars, planets, and weird space-aliens. I sometimes think my mother is actually one of those space-aliens, but that would make me at least half space-alien.

I say “at least” half because I also have doubts about my father, the other extreme side of the family. There’s no arguing with Dad either. He has the same calm never-a-problem attitude. The topic of discussion is different, of course. My dad and I tend to make a theme out of Dad’s religion: cheese. Most of our talk isn’t totally serious, except the part where I worry about his health, because he eats way too much fattening food, especially cheese. Everything I say to him about all that cheese bounces right off. What I really want to do is develop some kind of magnet effect, so that whenever he starts to stuff his face he’ll realize I’m watching.

If I really am a full-blooded space-alien, maybe neither Vonnie nor Yvonne are appropriate names for me. I should be called Fnorg or Snorglefleep or something like that. I’m kidding, of course, but like certain space-aliens on TV or in the movies, I keep looking for some kind of l-o-g-i-c-a-l way to solve every family problem, something I can do. Action excites me. Without action, I wouldn’t have all those trophies on my bookshelves. I may not be able to reduce the unpleasantness between my aunt and my uncle (yet), or prevent my mother from driving me batty with her slogans and her chanting, but sooner or later I will win the battle against cheese! As it is, my dad mixes in, sprinkles on, or melts cheese on top of virtually everything he cooks or eats. There has to be another way!

We’re out of the house, thankfully, away from all that cheese. We’re out together, just the two of us, at a Chinese restaurant to celebrate my passing my driver’s license test. The waiter brings me my Happy Family and Dad his General Tso’s Chicken.

“Can I have some grated Parmesan on that?” he asks the waiter.

“Great what?” the waiter replies.

“Sprinkle some cheese on it,” my Dad says, looking at me sideways.

“This Chinese and we no got cheese.” The waiter looks at us intently a second, a long second, with a look that tells us we’re whatever the Chinese term for “insane” is.

“Okay,” Dad says, cracking a smile, and then looking straight in my eyes, “Maybe next time.” He’s only asked for the cheese for my benefit, to provoke me, the way he used to tickle me when I was small.

Dad’s side of the family likes making rhymes, so I invent one. “Cheese?” I say. “Please, please, not at Chinese.”

We get back to our kitchen, and Dad is into the cheese once again. “You know it’s just a habit,” I tell him. “You can’t possibly really taste that cheese if it’s everywhere and in everything.”

 “How can I not taste it, if I’m eating it?” he answers, scrunching his nose at me.

“It all goes down like a lot of glop. You only think you taste it. You swallow it too quickly to taste.”

“I’m a fast taster. Got a lot of practice.”

“All that cheese isn’t good for your heart,” I say, trying another argument. Dad could lose a few pounds, actually, more than a few.

“I had a normal cardiogram last time,” he says, making me worry instantly. He keeps repeating the cardiogram fact as if it’s the health equivalent of a get out of jail free card from Monopoly. And now he’s mixing cheese in, sprinkling it on, getting ready to melt cheese on top of more cheese, only to dip it all into further cheese. As I said, both sides of my family are extreme.

I have a nightmare again and again. Dad is there, whole, one minute, and then he slowly melts like, well I don’t want to keep saying that word. He ends up a big puddle on the kitchen floor, my anti-cheese magnet fails to work, and then the story is over.

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Chapter 2: Sticky Nickname

The story of cheese, for me, might as well be over. When I was eight, half my present age, I swore off cheese for life. That means, by the way, giving up pizza, which I admit is sometimes inconvenient when I’m with other people, especially with Ashleigh and Janine, who seem to live on the stuff.

Cheese-less-ness is a super concept. Lactose is the milk sugar in cheese. Every third kid in my school seems to be intolerant to lactose, or gluten, or something difficult to avoid in everyday food. I’ve never been tested, but just the thought of absorbing lactose into my body gives me stomach pains. And then there’s casein, the major protein in cheese. It can be used to produce glue, paint, and even explosives, and we’re supposed to eat it? When you get past those two villains, you get oodles of fat. The only good thing in cheese is the calcium, which I read you can just as easily get from nuts and green vegetables.

The big change for me occurred after the now famous cheese incident. Dad prepared a humongous pot of macaroni and cheese, cheese, more cheese, and—you guessed it—additional cheese. My best friend Kimberley was with us. We’ve known each other since daycare. I call Kimberley “Ber” for her middle syllable because we had so many Kims in what she used to call Kimdergarten.

 “I made this extra cheesy,” my father declared. For Dad, quantity beats quality every time. “Eat up, kids.” Kimberley, who even at eight was always on a diet, spooned out a small portion for herself. Without giving me a choice, my dad slopped a big serving of mac and cheese onto my plate. The heap in front of me looked enormous. I desperately wanted a simple bowl of cereal or a crisp apple. Our toy poodle, Muffin, looked up at me expecting her own portion. If only she could have helped me just then.

 “I just can’t eat this. It’s too…”

“One bite at a time,” Dad urged as he filled his own plate to the edges and did the same for my older sister Rev. “Be brave!”

In it went, the first bit of glop sliding down my throat. The second spoonful was also successful, but there my streak ended.

“I can’t,” I gagged. I looked over at Rev, and she had nearly cleaned her plate. Rev has always been able to eat … and never show it.

“Take a break,” my dad said, putting the serving spoon aside.

“Enjoy the whole experience,” my mom suggested. “Go with the flow.” That’s my mom.

“I can’t,” I choked. “I think I’m gonna vomit!” I lost speech. I lost breath. I was about to lose a big heap of macaroni and cheese. Kimberley could tell.

“Go ahead, Vonnie” she said, obviously thinking that this was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. “Go ahead and vomit, Vonnie.”

“Arrgh,” I growled. “Nooooo,” I added, with difficulty.

“Go ahead and vomit, Vonnie. Go ahead … vomit …, Vonnie.”

The two “V” words linked together began to echo in my stuffed head: “Vomit, Vonnie; Vomit, Vonnie; Vomit, Vonnie.” I felt that slithery, slimy, snaky cheese working its way through my throat. I was ready to feel it spurt out my ears and drip down the sides of my face. I took a few breaths. I got to a point where I was simply miserable but knew I wouldn’t vomit.

Kimberley started calling me Vomit Vonnie.

“And how is Vomit Vonnie?” she asked once, imitating the school nurse. “I hear they’re having mac and cheese in the cafeteria today.”

I’m not shy about telling Kimberley to buzz off, because you can do that with friends.

 “I’m really looking forward to that cheese,” Kimberley continued, with a combination of evil teasing and good-natured buddy-ness. “And how about you, Vomit Vonnie?”

What I said in reply I can’t repeat, but it involves certain activities eight-year-olds are not supposed to know about.

“Yum. Yuk. Yum. Yuk,” she went on, over and over, stressing the mmm in the yums, and making the yuks as throaty as she could.

Yes, Vomit Vonnie is a clumsy kind of name, so she had to shorten it sooner or later. Don’t think she would shorten it back to plain and simple Vonnie. Kimberley doesn’t operate that way. She went in the other direction and began just to call me Vomit. And just like real vomit, the name stuck.

When someone calls you Vomit with the deep affection Kimberley does, you get used to it very quickly. Now, if she called me anything but Vomit I would become extremely concerned. I’m particularly thankful the mac and cheese accident happened at the beginning of the digestive process instead of further along. Who knows where Kimberley might have taken that? Even without the sound-alike words, she would have thought of something gross.

I know Kimberley isn’t the easiest best friend to have around. There is never a time when she doesn’t have an opinion, and a strong one. “Your aunt and uncle are really weird!” is a typical statement, but I already know that. Tell me what to do about it, Ber, tell me what to do (while my mother runs around the problem as if it will solve itself if we simply wait)! I appreciate all the fashion advice, the help with hair and makeup, even your opinion about them (boys), but tell me what to do about Ashleigh and Janine. You owe me something in exchange for giving me such a sticky nickname.

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Chapter 3: The Trio

As dynamic as we are as a duet, Ber and I form a trio on our walk to and from school with “Bert,” which stands for Norbert, who officially is not my boyfriend. Norbert is an information junkie, always testing us, often with a word of the day, or an obscure historical or scientific fact. I know Bert sounds a lot like the Ber I use for Kimberley, but I pronounce my t’s very distinctly. Norbert isn’t going to college when he graduates. He’s going to Princeton, where he’s going to teach philosophy, have a family, a golden retriever, and drink scotch. I pay attention to my academic requirements and I keep my grades pretty high. I’m practical and don’t go to the trouble of attending school to waste my time, but I’m not really interested in all the words, and dates and places that motivate Norbert. I kind of trust school. What I mean by that is that I have faith that later in life I will use the material I learn, maybe in some unexpected ways, so I do what I have to do. Other kids just complain.

In the middle of second grade, Norbert’s family, the Hochmeyers, moved here—here is Albuquerque, New Mexico—from York, Pennsylvania. We’ve known each other ever since. What amazes me about Norbert is the amount of talk he can get out while still eating his lunch no slower than anyone else. Norbert-talk is often interesting, but there’s just so much of it that you need a break from it every once in a while. I can’t really complain about Norbert’s words of the day of course—propitious, replete, abrogate, ensconce, plethora, ephemeral, and so many more—since they’re all going to be on some college entrance test sooner or later. As to the rest of the verbiage (a typical word of the day itself), I just want a little less.

Kimberley is a cheerleader, which often puts us on the same field since I’m on the track team. That’s where the trophies come from. The eight hundred meters, middle distance, is my specialty. I might as well not be modest. I’m the fastest girl in Paseo del Sol High School (which makes me a Paseo del Sol Panther), and usually among the fastest five in all Albuquerque (now and then numero uno). I’m thin, and Kimberley isn’t. She dresses around it.

Kimberley always seems to be in the process of making or breaking what she calls a connection with some boy. “I didn’t trust him at first, Vomit,” is the typical way her brain revolves around a boy issue. “Next, I decided to trust him.” Of course, it’s never so simple. “Then he kissed me…twice, and then I kissed him…then I trusted him but I didn’t trust myself…I speak the truth.”

“And where are you now?”

“I speak the truth,” is her basic reply. She says this a lot. “What do you think of him, Vomit? You think he’s.…”

“I think he’s major yuk, Ber.”

“You think all boys are yuk. Sooner or later you’re gonna decide one of them is just a little less yuk than the others. I speak the truth.”

I don’t think all boys are yuk. I just haven’t gotten to the yum stage with any of them. Occasionally a boy asks me out. Occasionally I accept, and yet I’m definitely taking my time in that department, and everyone knows it. I’ve been kissed, twice, but I have not kissed back. Besides, I forgot to tell you, Norbert is about as cute as they come, what with those piercing hazel eyes and that wavy blond hair. He’s tall and fairly well built, with nice muscle definition for a guy who’s on the chess team. You don’t notice all those features while he’s talking so quickly he has to catch his breath in the middle of a word. Sometimes he goes silent and becomes thoughtful, and you do begin to notice. Whether he notices you, whether he sees even an inch inside you, is another question. We do spend a lot of time together, hanging out you could call it, but Norbert has never actually asked me out on a date—a movie, a hamburger or anything like that. I would say yes if he did.

Norbert’s need to educate other people, me especially, is annoying but sometimes also handy. If I understand the argument between Quentin and Sarah the little that I do, it’s because Norbert looks up both Buddhism and Evangelical Christianity on the Internet and then writes up a whole paper on the subject, complete with footnotes, not for class, but just for me. We go over the material carefully.

“We now know more about it than either your aunt or your uncle,” he boasts.

“Maybe that doesn’t help,” I say.

“Right, because it doesn’t bring any understanding to the reason they’ve been fighting since they were kids.”

“Yeah, before all this came up. Rev and I never did that.”

“There’s no way I can look that up.”

“It wouldn’t matter much, if only Ashleigh and Janine weren’t caught in the middle. Still, I want to do something about this.”

“I’ll have to…um…work on that. Hey, I’ve got an idea…,” but Norbert goes silent here. He’s great at research, but the word action doesn’t seem to be in his dictionary. He’s also an only child of only children, so he has no experience of brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts. The Hochmeyers are secular humanists, and they’re one tight family unit.

Norbert and I have lunch together every day at school. Kimberley coincides (Norbert’s term) about once every three lunches. We usually plan this in advance on the Internet chat sessions we have every Sunday evening. She has other friends for those other days, and this is good. I’m not going to make believe I’ve never heard of the celebrities and rock bands they talk about. I’ll let Norbert make believe he’s never heard of them, but of course we both know them. That doesn’t give me the talent to keep up a stream of talk like Kimberley. She needs to let that loose and those other girls let her do it.

When Kimberley, Norbert and I have lunch together or walk home from school together, the two of them do most of the talking, but all three of us communicate. Without me as the middle of the triangle, they don’t have much to do with each other. Kimberley, as history shows, is never shy about giving someone a nickname, but she calls Norbert just plain Norbert. You would think he’d become “Norbitude,” “Norbislurt” or something Kimberley-clever like that. She steps back from calling him Bert because I do that. He calls her Kimberley and he calls me—now don’t be shocked—Vonnie. If Norbert created some special nickname for me, some weird reference from the books he reads, I’d take it. I’d even let him borrow Vomit from Kimberley. Once I thought he nearly did call me Vomit, but he was afraid of Kimberley’s reaction and ended up with something like “Vo…on…nie.” Heck, he could call me “Vinnie” if he wanted to, as long as it was special between the two of us.

The two Ber-people sometimes go hiking with me in the Sandia mountains that overlook Albuquerque to the east. Most of the time I go on my own, since it’s good cross-training for track. A lot of people in the rest of the country don’t know the kind of elevation we have here. We’re not just desert, we’re high desert. Downtown Albuquerque is about five thousand feet above sea level, and our neighborhood is just about six thousand feet up. The trail begins a few hundred feet above that. I usually hike to about nine thousand feet, but I can go farther to the upper crest beyond ten thousand feet.

When I bring one or both of the Ber-people along, we pack lunches. Without fail, they munch on cheese. (This is understandable because it seems this entire country, the United States of Cheesemerica, is hooked on cheese for every meal and snack.) They tease…with cheese, and I let them, because I love them both. I get back at them by out-hiking them, at least for five or ten minutes, until they pant and sweat, and moan and whine about blisters. I usually order them to hush. The mountain doesn’t like a lot of human noise. Down below, I’m forced to listen to every thought that goes through either of their heads. Up here, I am the boss, and what I say goes. When I need something to listen to, I turn to the mountain itself.

ORDER Elliot Essman's novel Word of the Day on Amazon Kindle.

 

Chapter 4: A Question of Belief

My mom’s name is Marjorie. My Dad and most people call her Marge. I call her Margarine because, as I told you already, I’m never sure if she’s actually real. Norbert with all his logic (I can’t stand his logic sometimes) points out that if Mom were real she would be not margarine but butter. How could I relate to that, since I’m dairy-free? I could have made her into Diet Coke instead of The Real Thing, but that doesn’t sound like Marge, so Margarine will have to do. Margarine is what people call New Age. That description is vague and can mean many things, which seems about right, seeing that Mom switches from one interest to the other the same way Kimberley switches eye shadows. Astrology, crystals, incense, auras, past lives, tarot cards—as long as it fits in that general category, she’s for it. Margarine is actually New Age on a professional basis, since she owns and runs the High Desert Crystal and Gift shop right in Nob Hill near the University of New Mexico campus. “I was born,” she often tells me, “in the sixties. I am a child of light.” I point out that she was a teenager in the eighties, which, I read, was the most materialistic of recent decades. Maybe she absorbed something then, because the shop does turn a good profit. Dad’s an accountant, and he approves. Margarine in fact has a graduate degree in business, and once worked as an accountant—my parents joke that they met and first dated over a complex accounting spreadsheet—but crystals and tarot cards motivate her now.

Mom had my older sister Rev pretty early, “while that spreadsheet was still on the screen,” as Dad likes to say. I followed a solid six years later. Sarah and Quentin, even though they’re older than Margarine, waited, waited, and waited until it was nearly physically impossible to have kids and until, as Dad puts it, “they were plumb out of energy to run after them.” Dad gets folksy sometimes. Because Sarah and Quentin took their sweet time about having kids, Ashleigh and Janine, our first cousins, are both just seven. The girls really love each other, but religion comes in the way now.

The Greens, Dad’s family, are Methodist and Presbyterian, with a few other Protestant ingredients, depending on the relative you ask. Church isn’t a big word in the Green family. Everybody does what they want in that department, nobody gets criticized, and the word God is spoken mostly before bless you when someone sneezes and before damn it when somebody finds a ding in a car door. My grandparents on Dad’s side died while I was still officially eating cheese, but I do remember them as being open and accepting, both of them. They were active in a Protestant church, but if they involved Rev or me, it was usually to bring us to a social event like a church picnic or a bake sale.

On the other hand, my Grandpa Dwight Taylor, Margarine’s father, has a thing about religion. He never calls himself an atheist, but his cynicism about religion is total. It all has to do with the strict Baptist home of his youth. They didn’t keep alcohol in the house, or enjoy movies on weekends. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, they were dirt poor but accepted no relief from the government. The Bible answered every question. Grandpa tells me that when he discovered other books, in school or in the public library, he could hardly believe they existed.

Grandpa kept on reading, often in secret. He went to college and became a soil chemist. I’ve heard the story over and over, how working with what he calls the real earth changed his point of view. “Like water that seeps into the ground,” he tells us, “the light started to come into my brain, little by little, until I did not believe.” I’ve heard him say more than once that his parents, my great-grandparents, “stole my youth with their religious darkness.” Grandpa isn’t angry about everything. He’s pretty open on political questions and social issues, for example, but when the subject comes to religion, he’s about as inflexible as the family he left behind. Grandpa is originally from Missouri, but when his work early in his career took him to New Mexico he never returned.

Grandpa raised Quentin, Sarah and Margarine to consider religion a social and emotional illness. When I was small, I’d hear them talking. If the subject of religion came up, Grandpa would completely crush it with a one-word statement (that I usually had to look up) such as “Corrupt!” “Neurotic!” or “Irrational!” The tone said it all: “If you contradict me, you will be speaking nonsense, from ignorance. I will lose what little respect for you I still may have.”

Grandpa’s steamrolling had its limits, of course. Tell a kid black and he will do white. Tell a kid not to get a piercing and…well you get the idea. Grandpa himself rebelled, and two out of three of his kids turned around and rebelled right back. If only all of them could settle on some position somewhere in the middle.

Back last autumn, we all gathered at our house (the family’s largest) for Grandpa’s seventy-fifth birthday.

“Happy birthday to you,” we start to sing, as Grandma brings in a cake. Our Grandma, Vivien Taylor, is a great baker. Her family, the Hansons, ran a bakery you can sometimes see in those black and white photographs of the old Albuquerque. All that is gone now, but we still benefit from the expertise. Ashleigh and Janine have helped her with the cake, and they’re now pretty excited about it.

“Sentiment!” Grandpa bellows. “This country is stuffed with it.”

“Happy birthday to you.”

“Insane! Age is just a number!” Grandpa says loudly enough to halt the singing. The girls giggle a moment and then fall into an uncomfortable silence.

“Oh, and now is your number unlisted, Dwight?” Dad jokes.

“You’re only beginning the journey,” Mom adds. “Life is just the first step in it.”

“Happy birthday dear Grandpa,” we sing quickly, and then the song dies out before we get to the final “Happy birthday to you.”

“All right, Dwight. Make a wish,” Grandma orders. Grandpa is completely bothered, thinks a moment, then pulls me over so I lean on his knee.

“You make the wish, Vonnie,” he tells me quite sweetly, “and then blow out the candles.” There are only two, in the shape of a seven and a five. I close my eyes and wish for everyone to get along. I get the opposite while the smoke from the candles is still swirling through the air.

“I have an announcement, everyone,” Sarah says. The tone of her voice rises as if the statement is a question. Sarah is a school psychologist. Her voice is usually not so tentative. Dad, who has already had a lot of beer, makes a point of clinking a spoon on his glass to make the table hush.

“I have an announcement,” Sarah repeats. She now sounds as if she expects everyone to shut up and listen. “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” Sarah fingers her pearls with such tension, I’m afraid they will break off. She is always carefully dressed.

“Oh, Christ!” Grandpa bellows, turning red immediately when he realizes he’s chosen the worst word he could have. He’s at a loss for words for a moment. “A fine birthday present…this nonsense!”

 “I have been born again, to a different father.” She bites her lip in pride and fear, looking Grandpa straight in the eye.

 “Jesus,” I whisper to my dad, not meaning it Sarah’s way.

“We’re in for a total war,” my dad whispers back.

“Is this your doing?” Grandpa asks Sarah’s husband, my Uncle Cal.

“We both,” Cal stammers, “we both…”

“Psychosis!” Grandpa says, his face redder than I’ve ever seen it. “Absolute insanity!”

“You’d better watch out,” Dad tells Sarah. “Dwight will have you committed.”

“Ashleigh will grow with Christ in her life,” Sarah announces, in a quiet but firm voice, ignoring Dad’s joke. I look at Dad and notice he’s amused with himself, but his face quickly turns glum. I make a note to myself to look up psychosis, if I can figure out how to spell it. Grandma creates a non-verbal distraction by cutting the cake into slices and serving it around the table. We all respect Grandma, we adore her cake, and the combination of the two is about the most powerful force we know. For a moment, I think we can prevent what Dad had just called total war. I am wrong.

 “I also have an announcement,” Quentin says suddenly, clearly copying his sister. Quentin is a detective in the Albuquerque Police Department, in charge of special situations. That means if someone is threatening to throw himself off a highway bridge directly into traffic, Quentin is the one who gets to talk him down. It’s a stressful job.

“Christ!” Grandpa moans again. “I lose both of you on the same day?”

“Christ has nothing to do with it,” Quentin continues. “Christ can do nothing to stop the endless cycle of suffering on this earth. We both have become active Buddhists.” Quentin gently touches the shoulder of my Aunt Wendy, who slowly nods to show her agreement. Wendy is a massage therapist, and I can tell Quentin is going to need her attention once they all get home. I can see Grandpa’s veins pulsating on his neck. All I want to do is stop the conflict. Why can’t they all get together and watch football? Denver and Dallas are playing each other. People in Albuquerque usually root for one or the other.

“The devil has taken you,” Sarah tells Quentin with an air of total conviction.

“You are a spiritual glutton,” Quentin tells Sarah with equal conviction.

Grandpa grunts something I can’t understand, but with equal conviction. I look around for our dog Muffin and finally see her shaking and whimpering under a chair, with absolutely no conviction.

“It’s all spiritual evolution,” Margarine says, “going on right before our eyes.” I cringe at this and slump back into my chair, Rev rolls her eyes at me as our usual signal, but my mother just keeps at it. “It’s just wonderful to see!” A quiet falls onto the table as Sarah, Quentin, and Grandpa glare at Margarine, then at each other, and finally, running out of emotional energy, into their cake. Margarine doesn’t get the message. She has no off button. “Why don’t I do a tarot reading for us all?” she suggests, almost magically producing the cards.

“Why don’t you?” Grandma adds, feeling the time is right for dipping into her small supply of words. Grandma’s active silence isn’t a suggestion but a command, which is obeyed, not only for this family gathering, but over the years whenever we all sit together at the table. Grandma is a rock, solid as anything.

Sarah and Cal tune out of the tarot reading. Quentin listens in a gloomy silence. Wendy seems to have gone to sleep. Grandpa is bored, while my dad delights in everything Margarine says. When she pulls out those cards…well, I hate it. I turn my head and look at anything but those ridiculous cards. I may not be a brain like Norbert, but I have real trust in what I can see and make judgments on, rather than any of my mother’s New Age weirdness. I mean…it can go one way or the other, depending on someone’s mood. You don’t get knowledge that way. No one remembers the content of Margarine’s reading afterward, but everyone leaves the gathering knowing for absolute sure that Grandma won’t tolerate squabbling in the family.

 

As I’ve said, we Greens don’t take religion very seriously, but I do go into a church now and then, just in the off hours when there is no service going on to feel the coolness inside and to enjoy the flicker of the sun through the stained glass. I sit in the back. I must have been at one time or other in nearly every church in northeast Albuquerque (the Postal Service divides us into quadrants). One time I think I see my grandmother sitting in a pew up in the front. I can’t be totally sure because there are a lot of people sitting between us. The woman wears the same type of floral print top Grandma prefers and has her hair in the same simple style. She doesn’t see me, and I don’t bring attention to myself. It’s a Catholic church and we don’t have any Catholics in our family that I know of. The woman moves out into the aisle, and then kneels at the altar and crosses herself. I suddenly feel awkward staring and turn my head to look up at the stained glass windows. I force myself to slip out of the church without looking back. If it had been Grandma, she wouldn’t have wanted me to see her. I give her that, but now I don’t know what to think.

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