The two-story house blended in with all the other one- and two-story houses on the street and throughout this entire small section of the city. The ten-year-old cookie-cutter neighborhood had an almost-new look, with a hint of maturity: trees in both front and back yards stood similar in size; the composition shingle roofs appeared equally worn throughout the area; paint colors faded; open windows revealed dangling rubber seals; and cracks in driveways and sidewalks had yet to grow large.
This was not the house in which Donald and Kenneth Nuss grew up. This white house was roomier and better lit by the Sun than the white house where Donald spent his first 16 years. Not long after his 16th birthday, his father, Carl, decided that the time had arrived to move. Never mind that Kenneth was only months from graduating and the family was two years away from having no children in the house; the Nuss family could afford a nicer house, so a nicer house they must buy.
With little more than the disruption of a Thanksgiving break, the boys embraced their new adventure. The two-mile move was of little consequence to them, and in fact only Louise, their energetic and overly-worrisome mother, saw the change as stressful.
In this house, Carl and Louise felt a little bit of relief to close a chapter in their lives that had been rewarding but troubling. Only they knew of the troubling part, but to close the chapter seemed important to them. A new house and new neighborhood would bring new memories to sweep the old away.
Now, with old troubles out of mind, they waited for Donald to arrive for dinner.
“I don’t think he’s coming, Mom,” Kenneth offered from his seat at the dinner table.
For her part, Louise traversed the kitchen once every few seconds, grabbing various bowls, utensils, and ingredients to add to various foods. The whirlwind of motion lacked gracefulness, but the activity demonstrated efficiency.
“We can eat without Donald, that’s no big deal,” Carl chimed in.
Louise paused to glare at Carl, then returned to her work. Carl shot a quick glance at Kenneth, both of whom tried not to laugh.
“Donald’s never late for anything. Something must’ve happened.”
“That’s not funny, Kenneth!” Louise lectured. Carl frowned his disapproval at his eldest son; he had crossed the line. They needed to stay civil when harassing his wife.
“Sorry.” Kenneth paused to gulp down a mass of celery and cheese that littered his mouth before continuing. “Sorry, Mom. I’m just kidding.”
Louise dumped a large pot of hot water down the sink without spilling the potatoes with it. Steam flooded the entire sink area. The men quietly watched, waiting for a more opportune time to tease her again. When she at last returned the pot to the stovetop and checked the boiling corn, Carl tried again.
“Is there any reason why we’re not eating now?” Carl asked, with a hint of aggravation in his voice.
“Donald! We have to wait for Donald! You know that!” Most of Louise’s words were punctuated with exclamations, at any time, on any day. The petite woman’s energy translated to every aspect of her being. She was exuberant in word and deed; happy- almost to a fault, some said; a servant to her family. She was enjoyable to be around, charming, caring, and loving. Carl knew he was fortunate to have her and had not taken her for granted in over twenty years.
“Donald is sloooowwww,” Kenneth failed to finish his sentence without laughing and therefore ruined his own joke. Before he could stop laughing and continue with his next line, his father moved the conversation along. The younger man was enamored with his own sense of humor, but no one else shared the attraction to his jokes.
“The food’s gonna get cold, Ma,” Carl teased.
Louise turned off a hand mixer she had been using. She grabbed a two-tine meat fork for effect, pointing the utensil at her husband from across the kitchen and squinted her eyes as she spoke, “Why are you sitting at the kitchen table now?! Go! Go!”
Carl leaped to his feet, already moving toward the family room before Kenneth thought to act. She was all show, but Carl liked to have fun. “Come on, Kenneth, before things get dangerous in here.”
Louise smiled as the two men left her alone. Her light brown hair, which barely reached her shoulders, needed coloring again. She got a chuckle out of blaming her husband for the gray, but at 50 years old, she was not about to complain that the time had arrived to begin the hair coloring routine.
Soon she would be surrounded by her men again- the thought filled her heart with a joy she could not describe. She only wished the circumstances could be better.
Carl peeked his head around the corner, “But honey, what if Donald doesn’t show up? Should we try calling his cell phone?”
Louise’s shoulders dropped, but before she could turn around to face her husband, the doorbell rang. “Oh!” she squealed. As she hurried toward the living room, to get to the door, Carl and Kenneth felt it safe enough to return to the kitchen table to munch on more celery sticks slathered in Cheez Whiz.
At the front door, Louise swung it open to find her youngest son standing, looking rather hesitant to even move past the front step. “Honey!” She warmly hugged, then kissed the cheek of the 26-year old, his brown hair flopping in the soft breeze.
“Hi, mom.” He paused, offering a slight smile. “I need a key. I lost my key.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll get you one after dinner. The food’ll be ready in just a couple of minutes.”
Entering the kitchen first, Louise sounded almost triumphant. “You acted like he wasn’t gonna show. Well, here he is, and just in time.”
“Hey, Dad. Hey, Kenneth.” Donald’s lack of enthusiasm was naked, but not unusual.
“Your dad and brother were just about to put odds on whether you’d show up, it sounded like to me.”
“You ’bout ready to eat, son? Me and your brother are starved.”
“Yeah. Sorry I’m late.”
As Louise set a bowl of black olives on the table and sat down, the time arrived to eat their Sunday evening dinner. Carl reached in first to get a piece of the roast. Louise gave him a firm but loving slap on his hand as he reached forward.
“We gotta pray! We gotta pray!”
“Yeah, pray our microwave still works,” Carl bellowed. “The food’s gonna be cold in seconds!”
“It is not!” Louise retorted. They all laughed. It was an odd moment for just the four of them to be together. Times had changed; it was not supposed to feel like it did when they moved into the house ten years prior. The family had grown in number, yet at this moment only four sat at the table.
As they all bowed their heads and Carl asked for God’s blessings on the meal and the family, Donald could not focus on the words being spoken. He wondered whether the others felt as uncomfortable as he did. ‘Of course not- how could they?’ He wondered how long the arrangement would last. ‘Not long,’ if he could help it. He wondered whether he should tell them about the prior night’s dream. That was an easy ‘no.’ He wondered a lot of things in the short seconds it took for the prayer to conclude.
When heads lifted, Kenneth spoke first. With nostalgia in his eyes and voice, he remarked, “It’s good to be back, and not just visiting.”
Carl and Louise smiled, though to Donald they both appeared to be uncomfortable. Both sets of eyes turned to Donald.
“Uh, yeah. Me, too.”
Carl and Louise both nodded. To Donald, it was clear neither parent knew what to say or how to respond. He wanted to tell them that he did not want to be here, but no one would understand, so he dug into the roast and potatoes while trying not to listen to Kenneth drone on with one of his meaningless stories. ‘Yup,’ Donald thought. ‘Just like the old days.’