Jackson didn’t like the fork, and he didn’t like the knife.
He didn’t like the plates either. He didn’t like the napkins, the tablecloth, the table, the chairs, and pretty much everything about this place. He didn’t like any of it.
“Jackson,” his mother said, “What’s wrong? Why are you making that face?”
His face was scrunched up, with a deep frown and a crumpled forehead. It was as if he was concentrating all of his energy into making his face look as unpleasant as possible. In fact, that is exactly what Jackson was trying to do. His suit was too snug and he felt uncomfortable here.
“I don’t understand why you can’t just smile for me,” she said. “Honestly, sweetie, I wish you would behave this once.” His mother was refolding her napkin for the third time, her slender fingers moving about the cloth, a strange look in her eyes.
Jackson felt like exploding at that comment, but instead he merely growled. Normally, he would express his anger in the form of a tantrum, banging fists and smashing plates. He would have liked seeing the tableware smashed, the fork bent, and the knife broken. But Jackson did nothing. His mother made him promise to stop throwing tantrums, especially tonight. Besides, he was a big boy, she told him, and big boys don’t embarrass their mothers.
The door to the kitchen swung open, revealing a tall, thin man carrying a silver platter. Jackson tightened his jaw and tried to give this man the ugliest look he could think of. It was hard to guess exactly what he was going for, but it involved a tongue and a thumb pushing up his nose.
“Soup’s on!” the man said, apparently oblivious. The man’s gaze was towards his mother, beaming with delight.
“I’m not hungry,” Jackson said. His mother gasped, but the man shrugged it off and set the platter down on to the table.
“Jackson, sweetie,” his mother said, “Tim here has graciously offered to invite the both of us to dinner. It would be rude of you to simply refuse to eat.” She sounded impatient.
“Yeah, sport,” Tim added, “I made all of this for you two. If you don’t want it, I guess I’ll just have to throw it out the window.”
Jackson’s mother laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. This was nothing new to Jackson; she had always found those corny jokes funny. She told Jackson once that she always thought a funny man was charming. It was why she was with Tim, she said. It had also been why she had been with Jackson’s papa, but Jackson knew not to say that. It would only make her upset.
She was dating Tim for a few months now, and the two of them decided it was high time that all three of them have dinner together. Jackson, of course, had no part in this decision.
“I said I’m not hungry!” Jackson slammed his fists onto the table, and the tableware shook. His mother gasped again, and Tim shrugged it off again.
“Jackson!” his mother said, a little more impatiently this time. “You stop that this instance or so help me God…” She glared at him, her face reddening, her thin lips tightening. This was her “upset face,” a look Jackson was unfortunately familiar with.
“Alright now,” Tim interrupted. “Let’s settle down. Claire, he’s just an eight-year-old boy. He’s just being, well I don’t know, difficult. It’s always hard for kids to meet someone new, especially when that someone is dating their mother.”
Tim turned to Jackson, flashing two rows of dazzlingly straight teeth, as if he were trying to smile the tension away.
Jackson didn’t like smiles, they made him feel weird. Besides, he had seen better smiles. Like his papa, who had the biggest smile ever. Some teeth may have been crooked or yellow, but it was the best smile he had ever seen. It was the only thing Jackson could really remember about him. He always thought of it when other people smiled, but the short happiness was beaten down by rash anger. He didn’t know why, but he did know it got him into a lot of trouble. Jackson didn’t care. No one could smile his father away.
“Now, Jackson, maybe if you see what I made, you’ll change your mind about it.” Tim pulled off the silver lid of the platter. Surrounded by white potatoes and green beans, there it was.
“S-steak,” Claire stuttered, “I didn’t know it was steak you were making.” The red from her face drained as quickly as it had come.
“Well, you said you only have it on special occasions,” Tim beamed, “And this definitely seems special enough to me!”
“Oh. Well, th-that was very thoughtful of you, Tim,” she laughed nervously. “Don’t you think so, Jackson?”
Jackson stared at the steak. It was thick and brown, almost like some old shoe. His stomach grumbled, but it wasn’t with hunger. It was something else.
“Jackson,” his mother said, “I asked you a question.”
“Wuh?” he mumbled. Jackson wasn’t paying attention. Something about the steak made him feel weird. Shivers ran up his body.
“I said, don’t you think this was very thoughtful of Tim to make this steak, Jackson?”
Silence. Someone started speaking, but Jackson couldn’t hear what was being said. All he heard was “knife.” All he saw was the knife cutting into the steak, revealing the red meat underneath that rugged skin. There was a liquid pouring out of it, making his insides jump up and down. It was oozing out slowly but steadily, as if it was trying to escape.
“Aw shi–I mean, shoot,” Tim said. “I didn’t cook it long enough.”
“It’s alright Tim,” Jackson’s mother said. “We like it rare. Don’t we, Jackson?”
The liquid was still flowing, faster this time. It started seeping off the silver platter onto the tablecloth. Jackson followed the liquid path with his eyes, pupils darting in every direction that the red stream split.
“Jackson!” his mother yelled. “Answer me! Right now!”
Oh. Oh! Steak. Of course. That was what they had together. That last time with papa. It had only been a few years ago, but it seemed so long ago now.
His papa was helping him cut the steak, smiling his big, stupid smile. He smelled funny like he always did, like the funny water Jackson wasn’t allowed to drink. His mama—back when he still called her that—was scowling at his papa. She always had on her “upset face” when he smelled funny.
The apartment they lived in was small with thin walls and quiet neighbors. At night, when Jackson would go to his room, he would hear things. Behind closed doors, his parents would shout loudly and start slamming things and making noise. It always ended the same way, with a loud smacking sound and a light thud. Then everything was quiet.
But this was different. His mama relaxed her face suddenly. Without the scowl, her face was long, with high cheekbones and a button nose. She looked pretty, except for that thing around her eyes. It was some sort of mark, like a stain, and she seemed to wince at it. Claire wore her hair loose, stringy blonde hairs falling delicately over the side of her face, covering the stain.
“I swear,” Jackson’s papa was saying, not really paying attention to his wife. “The guys down at the bar were hollering at Ricky to stand up to Mr. Jennings, when Martin shouted—you remember Martin—at him to sock Jennings straight in the jaw. And then he showed him how on poor Robbie! Ha! Ain’t he a real piece of work, Claire?”
No response. Claire looked away from him. Her food was untouched.
“Hey, I asked yous a question, Claire.” His words started to slur, as if talking strained him.
“Jackson,” she said, “Go to your room.” Jackson knew what this meant. The loud noises would start, and the sooner he was away, the better.
But he didn’t move. His little legs swung, trying to get off the chair, but Jackson stayed.
“Hey, now,” his papa got up. “You let ‘im be. And I asked you a question.”
No response. Claire walked over to her husband.
Jackson tried to swing his legs faster, but still he wouldn’t move. The floor seemed a thousand feet from him now. He didn’t know why, but he felt scared. He wanted to cry.
“Hey,” his father roared, “Answer me! Right now!”
The shouting started, and Jackson balled his tiny hands into his eyes, blocking them from the sight of the fighting. His papa’s words slurred together in his booming voice, which sounded more like roaring than shouting. His mama’s shrill voice was trying to compete in volume but it was drowned out by her husband’s. He didn’t understand what they were saying; the anger was too loud. It was too loud.
When Jackson lifted his hands, his papa did the same with his, balling them into large fists. He slammed the table, as forks and knives and plates jumped. Claire jumped with them, startled as she fell on the floor, next to the fallen silverware. A piece of steak fell with them all, and her knife flung into it, splattering juices on the hardwood floor.
Her lips quivered with Jackson’s. Her face reddened with his. Her eyes met his briefly, and Jackson could see tears, but he couldn’t tell who which one of them was crying. His papa walked towards Claire, and her hands were working fast to help her up as they fell over the steak.
Her slender fingers found the knife and threw.
It happened so fast. A flash of silver. A sound that was a mix between a gasp and a yell. And another sound. An awful, wet sound. Quick but deep.
His papa thudded on the table behind him, a wooden handle sticking out from his chest. His mama stared on, still on the floor, her face still. She had a strange look in her eyes, and her mouth shifted slightly, almost like a smile—no. No, that couldn’t be it. Jackson looked back at the table. There was a red stream flowing down his papa’s shirt. It was oozing out slowly, as if it was trying to escape.
His mother’s still face broke. She started screaming, crying, shouting for her husband. She crawled over to him, touching his face. She clasped her hands to his face, staining it with juice and oil. She brought his face to hers, strands of blonde hair falling over both of them. When she finally looked at Jackson, Claire stopped, staring into his eyes. She quickly turned away from them.
“I—I didn’t…” his mama muttered, staring at his papa. “It was an accident. It was an accident. I swear, I didn’t ki—Oh god, I didn’t. Please, please believe me.”
She was pleading, Jackson could tell, but he couldn’t see why. It was too sudden for him, too confusing, still fresh like the wounds on her face and on his father’s chest. He didn’t understand, he couldn’t understand. He stared at his mother, searching for truth. Yet she couldn’t look him in the eyes. He didn’t understand that either.
Claire reached for the phone, muttering the same words over and over again.
“I didn’t do it.”
What happened next was a blur. Men came, with blue suits and shiny badges. She cried hysterically to them, but Jackson only heard a few words, like “attacked” and “accident.” Some neighbors poured in, with shocked faces and low voices. They asked questions and stared at her stained eye. One of them put a blanket over Jackson. He was still sitting at the table, staring at his mother. His legs were still swinging, trying to get off the chair.
In a few days, Jackson was sitting again, staring at another table. Except it was outside and sunny. The table had a long box and was looming over a long pit. A man in robes spoke and people cried. Claire was quiet. Everyone wore black, even Jackson. He was wearing a suit.
The same suit Jackson was wearing now. It was the only suit he owned, and his mother said she didn’t want to waste money to buy a new one when this one was perfectly fine.
“Jackson!” His mother yelled again. Her face was still pale, but there was no stain, no redness, no broken screams.
She never talked about that night, he knew now. He must have forgotten about it, but how could he forget? How could she forget? Did she forget or did she just want to? He didn’t understand anymore, just like all those years ago. He couldn’t feel angry, but he couldn’t feel relieved either. Jackson didn’t know how to feel, how to look at his mother now, yet that didn’t stop him from staring at her.
His eyes met hers, sharing the same look. There were no tears this time.
“Yes, mother,” Jackson found himself saying, “It was very thoughtful, Tim. Thank you.” He felt cold.
Claire looked stunned and quickly turned away from his eyes. Her face gained color again and relaxed.
“That was very nice of you, Jackson,” her voice sounded pleased. Yet she had that strange look in her eye. Jackson suddenly realized that they always looked strange, since the last time they had steak for dinner.
“Uh, well,” Tim stuttered. “How about we eat? I don’t know about you two, but I’m starved.”
He started to cut into the steak again. Tim and Jackson’s mother started talking, something about gas prices or working a hard day. They laughed together over a corny joke.
Jackson was still shivering, sitting at the table, his legs swinging. He felt hot, yet strangely cold. His breath quickened. He wanted to get away from here, from this place. With all its forks and knives and smiles and red streams oozing out of the body—no, the meat. Yes, that was it.
“Jackson, sweetie,” Claire said, “How about a smile, hmm? For mama?”
Everything seemed to stop for a moment.
She smiled. Claire smiled at him, that same smile. Empty. Like her eyes. Like him.
He felt like crying, like running away, like throwing a tantrum, like smashing everything in sight. But he was a big boy now, and big boys don’t embarrass their mothers.
Jackson smiled. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like any of it.