We were late getting there, what with L.A. traffic and a not-so quickie in the truck stop restroom outside Los Banos. The paper towel dispenser was empty. We took the slow lane, didn’t zip up the highway. Why rush? he said and I agreed, air dried my hands out the window, trying to picture the people in San Francisco I'd never met.
By the time we landed on his mother’s doorstep, blankets and bags in hand, the family's faces were blurry, blank. I gushed about his mother’s amazing flat, the hardwood floors, the view of the bay, the double glass doors separating the living and dining rooms, skipped over mention of her recenly departed husband, his photo in the place of honor on the mantle. I fluttered, not finding a suitable perch. She said I had beautiful hands, asked me to sit, patted the spot beside her on the sofa.
His brother talked about flying in from the East Coast and how the guy next to him blew snot on the airline blanket and then spread it over his chest. He said the kids get up early, an unapologetic warning, before slouching off to the back bedroom to assess his wife's migraine. We got the living room fold-out without much padding, the inflexible frame now cutting into my spine.
At first light, she began setting the holiday table at a dogged pace. I watched with one eye, riding my attention up over the bunched pillow like a sneaker wave, spying on her as she fondled each dish. Against the foil light of dawn, she moved in sparrow hops from branch to branch around the room.
She flapped a white table cloth, smoothed it with veiny hands, pulled brown napkin rings from a drawer in the battered sideboard, held a gravy boat up to the dim light, set it down. She stood hunched before the windows, wiping her eyes, twisting the wedding band around her bony finger, staring at the first hints of another day.
I ignored the warmth coming from behind, the knucklehead nosing my thigh. Clearly, his mother, lost in reverie, wasn’t blind. I nudged him away, suspected her hearing was pretty good, too. He kept nuzzling. I relented, arched my back, leaked tears, broke like a wave over the rising grief.
From "Hard Holidays" flash fiction collection, because holidays sometimes provide food for thought.