This story is by Karen Kinley and won an honorable mention in our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Karen Kinley writes because it’s impossible for her not to. She recently finished her first novel, My Side of the Bed, women’s fiction about a runaway mom. Read excerpts and other work at karenkinley.com. Karen lives in New Jersey with her husband, two grown kids, and one feisty terrier.
The private dining room, despite its sophisticated walnut accents and warm tones, was both stifling and somber. A fitting place for this particular family dinner.
Sliding open the paneled screen, a waiter entered the small space and set a plate of edamame down on the white linen tablecloth. He then stood waiting at the end of the table, clasping his hands behind his back.
Dennis Martinson dismissed the waiter with a wave of his hand, then picked up a pod and munched. He was a man used to getting his way, and he regarded his son with irritation, not hiding the disdain in his voice. “So, Adam, tell me again why you’re planning to leave the business?”
Adam looked around the table at his family, settling his gaze on his mother, Annie, who averted her eyes. He exhaled a loud breath, but when Adam spoke, his voice was steady. “It’s like I already told you. I never did like manufacturing. It was fine when I first got out of school, but it’s been a few years. I need to do my own thing now.”
“Like what? And why would you wait until today to tell me about this?” Dennis glowered at Adam from across the table. “You knew I intended for you to take over the business.” Jeremy, who was sitting next to Adam, said nothing in defense of his brother.
Annie tried to stonewall the conversation. “Why don’t we take a look at the menu before the waiter comes back.” She picked hers up, hoping the others would follow suit.
“Yes, let’s decide,” Dennis declared, acting like it was his idea in the first place. He turned to his wife. “Annie, why don’t we share the sushi combo?” It wasn’t really a question. She nodded dutifully, replacing her unread menu on the table.
“Elise doesn’t care much for sushi,” Jeremy said as if the recommendation was directed at his fiancée. He turned to her and patted her hand. “Isn’t that right?”
Her sheepish look confirmed that this was true. “That’s okay,” she said in a rush. “I can just order some tempura.”
“Well, I’m sure they can make you a filet or grilled salmon if you prefer,” Annie offered.
“Mom, they’re not going to have that here.” Jeremy’s tone was patronizing. “This is a Japanese restaurant.”
“Don’t be silly. They will make whatever you want.”
Jeremy ignored his mother. To Elise, he said, “You’ll be fine. Pick something and if you don’t like it, I’ll eat it.”
As soon as everyone had placed their orders, Dennis turned his attention back to his younger son. “What is it that you are planning to do with your life? You know, I was considering making you a general manager in the next few months, but I suppose I’ll have to groom someone else for the position now.”
Adam stood up to reach across the table for the bottle of sake and refilled his glass. He topped off his mother’s glass and Jeremy’s as well. Elise hadn’t touched hers yet. Dennis was drinking bourbon on the rocks. Adam sat again and leaned back in his chair. “I’m going into real estate.”
“Real estate?!” Dennis boomed. “That’s ridiculous. You have a business degree.”
“Why do you want to sell real estate?” asked Jeremy. “I’ve never heard you mention that before.”
“I have a friend out in Colorado who is making a fortune selling vacation homes in the ski resort areas. A lot of them are being rented through Airbnb.” Adam straightened his shoulders. “Thought I’d head out there and check it out for a few months.”
Annie turned toward Elise, seated just to her right. “So Elise, how are the wedding plans coming along? Jeremy tells me you booked your photographer last week.”
“Um, yes. He, uh, the photographer that is, is the same one my sister used last year.” She fidgeted in her chair, twisting the napkin in her lap.
With an impatient sigh, Dennis cut in. “Annie, we can talk about that later. Right now, I am trying to understand why our son is throwing away a perfectly good opportunity. For God’s sake, I’m basically handing the business to him, and he’s thumbing his nose at it.”
“You know, Dad, I’m twenty-five years old. I don’t need to sit here and be belittled by you.” Adam stood and tossed his napkin down.
“Where are you going?” asked his mother, frantic. No one looked at her.
Jeremy got up and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “No one is belittling anybody.” He nudged Adam back down into his chair. “Let’s just enjoy our dinner.” Annie opened her mouth to say something but then thought better of it.
When Jeremy returned to his seat, Dennis continued as if nothing had happened. “Explain to me how traipsing off to Colorado to sell houses to overindulgent millennials is better than running a solid, established company. It’s not like I can ask Jeremy to take it over. I mean, look at him. He’s a successful attorney at a big firm; he’s getting married in the fall. He values stability. And responsibility.”
Adam didn’t flinch at his father’s harsh words. “Yes, I know. I’m nothing like my big brother. He’s perfect, and I am not.” His tone was flat. “What do you want from me? I’m not interested in the manufacturing business.” Adam looked to his mother for some sort of response, maybe support, but she was staring off, having withdrawn herself from the conversation.
At that moment, two waiters appeared with their meals, scattering more than a dozen small white plates around the table. The family busied themselves with unwrapping chopsticks and pouring soy sauce in silence.
Adam spread a generous amount of wasabi on a piece of sashimi, ate it, and then aimed a sidelong glance at his father. “You know, Dad, you’re assuming I’m trying to avoid responsibility. Maybe I just don’t tell you everything that’s going on in my life.”
Four pairs of eyes swung in his direction. The expectation of his next words hung heavy in the air.
“Is that so?” Dennis sat up, stretching up to his full height in the chair, like a presenting peacock. “Enlighten me.”
Adam paused ever so slightly, then said, “I’m going to be a father.”
Someone at the table started coughing. Adam maintained eye contact with his father, not looking at anyone else’s reaction to his pronouncement.
Jeremy was the first to speak. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone.”
Adam swung his gaze in the direction of his brother and his fiancée. “I didn’t think I needed to clear everything with the family.”
“Well,” said Dennis, “I’m not sure this is something to necessarily be proud of. Knocking up some poor girl . . .”
“I think it’s wonderful,” interrupted Annie, who rejoined the conversation with overt delight. “A baby in the family! Maybe that’s exactly what we all need.” Her face beamed, a rare sight in recent months. “I think we should celebrate. Get the waiter. We need champagne.”
Once the champagne flutes arrived, the waiter made quite a show of pouring the bubbly liquid into each. Annie was practically giddy when she reached for her glass. “C’mon, everyone. Pick up your champagne.” She gushed over her toast to Adam and his future and the new life they would soon become acquainted with. “Cheers!” Her face lit up, she raised her glass, waiting while the others did the same. Everyone leaned in and clinked, mumbling their congrats. Adam, Jeremy, and Dennis each took a big gulp. Annie sipped the champagne, the smile never leaving her face. Elise set her flute on the table without drinking.
Annie noticed. “No champagne for you?” Elise shook her head.
“Not feeling well?”
“It’s not that . . .” Elise trailed off.
But Annie wasn’t listening to her son’s fiancée. She didn’t notice the scowl on her husband’s face. She wasn’t registering the sense of uneasiness all around her. She was too entranced with the idea of a future grandchild. “Oh, Adam. If only we knew ahead of time, your girlfriend could’ve been here to celebrate with us.”
Adam flashed a wry smile. “But see, that’s the thing, Mom. She is.”
And with that, Elise, who was sitting quietly in her chair next to Jeremy, leaned over and vomited on the floor.