Less at the Table Every Year by Jay Wilburn

The Music Be The Food flash fiction event offers up a special round of Christmas “cheer”. This time around the song is “Red Water (Christmas Mourning)”, by Type O Negative. The first piece of fiction is by none other than Jay Wilburn. Listen to the song and read the fiction.

Less at the Table Every Year

Frank walked through the yard toward the dead woman’s house because the driveway had filled with cars. “I have to walk through the yard. There’s nowhere to park.”

A couple girls looked up from a bare kitchen table. The metal along the edge separated to expose the particle board under the laminate top.

“If we can help you with anything, just let us know.” The darker-haired one smiled. Frank smiled back.

The red-head, she had to be fifty or maybe a rough forty, turned her eyes back onto her phone like a girl a third the age she appeared to be. “Prices are marked. Bulk buys are negotiable.”

The dark-haired girl still smiled. “Cardboard boxes in the corner to help you carry what you buy.”

“No checks.” Red-head scrolled.

A group of three women nodded, but set empty cardboard boxes down without buying anything. They left out the open front door.

“Which one?” Frank turned away and grabbed up a sturdy box with a bottle and a black bat printed on the side. “I have no idea, Gloria. If she looks like Octavia, then she might be Octavia’s granddaughter. I never met Octavia, so I’m not going to ask the girl …”

Frank stopped and looked for the clowns. He moved around the clutter of empty boxes and saw them arranged on the card table in the living room in a ceramic orgy of painted faces. He shivered and shook his head. “All of them? Are you sure? I’m going to need a bigger box.”

He frowned as he set one on top of another along the bottom of the box. His fingers smeared through the coating of dust on each.

“Obviously no one did. I can dust them at home, if that matters so much, Gloria.”

The clowns rattled as he moved deeper into the house.

“I don’t know if they have newspaper. Let’s just get what we can and worry about all that …”

Frank stopped and looked for the china cabinet. He stared into the quicksilver reflections in the empty display. He opened the drawers and looked through each empty one. “You see what I see, Gloria. It’s gone. There’s no china and no linins.”

He lifted the hand not holding the box of clowns and waved it at glass. “No, no gravy boat either.”

Frank sighed and leaned back. He couldn’t see the girls at the table, but called, “Is the china or linins still here somewhere?”

“As is.” That was the red-head.

“All sold.” The other offered. “The cabinet is in great shape though. Solid oak all the way through. A hundred years old. Original curved glass.”

“Thank you,” Frank said. He stepped forward to let an old man with a box of 50 state souvenir spoons pass him.

“No, I can’t take the cabinet. I told you I can’t afford it and have no place to put it. I have no way to transport … I’ll get you more spoons … They’re not different, Gloria. They are exactly the …”

Frank stopped and set the clowns down on the floor. He opened a box from under the bed and shuffled through the contents. “Just magazines … I don’t know if there’s another one. I don’t see it here … I can’t ask that because then I’ll have to explain how I know about that stuff. They may not even know about it, Gloria. It may have been moved by those girls’ parents before they were born … I’ll keep looking, but we can only get what I can find. And afford.”

He picked up the clowns again, but stopped in the doorway. Frank listened and then looked down at the box. “Because liquor store boxes are sturdy … I don’t know. Probably not. They don’t sell it in a whole box like that. People just pick them up from behind the stores for moving … No, the owners know about it. It’s a thing. It’s acceptable. No one cares. Forget about the box.”

He walked into another room and combed through the boxes piled on another bed and table.

“If you don’t recognize it, Gloria, it’s because you haven’t lived here for fifty years. Some of your stuff was probably sold during your own estate sale.”

Frank placed an ashtray into the box with the clowns. “I am being careful.”

“Do you remember everything that’s happened since the day you died, Gloria?” He started on the boxes on the other side of the room. Most of them were stuffed animals. “Then, I have no idea what was sold back then or where to find it.”

Frank rested his hands on the flaps to another box. Something metal rattled and scrapped inside as he listened. “I’m sorry, Gloria. Even when they want to, people can’t hold onto and protect everything. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a disrespect …”

He nodded. “Okay. I’m sorry for that too. It’s a hell of a thing to … Sorry, Gloria, it’s a heck of a thing to outlive your children. Have you seen any others since you, I mean, any others like you? … Yeah, I don’t know how it works. I don’t know why I can hear you either, for that matter, since we’re not related and none of this is my business.”

He opened the box and stared down at discolored flowers made of cut tin. Gnarled pipe cleaners twisted out from the back of the homemade ornaments. As he listened to the story of Gloria and her sisters cutting the ornaments themselves the year their mother died, he rubbed the pad of his thumb over the tin roses and felt their deadly sharpness.

He waited and felt cold inside. Frank wasn’t sure how it was even possible for her to cry or why he was the one who had to hear it.

As the supernatural storm subsided, he said, “Gloria, let me buy these. I can use them to decorate my tree this Christmas. I can’t bring any of them back for you, but I can let these pieces see another holiday. We can share these and a Christmas together. I’ve lost people too, but maybe we can share one more Christmas for two this year. At least that much.”

Frank listened and then nodded. He set the smaller box of tin ornaments in their nest of yellowed newspaper on top of the clowns in the liquor store box.

As he walked up the hallway with the box under his arm, he sighed and then whispered. “Fine. I’ll ask about the hat boxes, but they’ll either not know or think I’m crazy … Yes, that red-head is a bit nasty, I think.”

Read more from Jay, at jaywilburn.com.