Alice Elliott Dark
| Fiction

On sunny evenings, rainbows the size of candy bars scattered around the dining room. The children knew they came from the crystal pendants that hung from candlesticks, but still put their hands into the light and twisted them back and forth, enchanted by their multicolored skin.

Kay was too late for that this evening. Her grandfather sat at the head of the table, then Cole, then an empty chair waiting for their mother, then Oscar and Richard with their placemats pushed together, Nanny at the foot of the table, then a spot for her father, then Jerome. She slid in next to her grandfather and he raised his eyebrows sympathetically—it had been worth a try. “Where’s Mum?” Kay asked.

Jerome pressed her foot. He used this signal too often; this wasn’t an odd question. She pulled her feet away.

“She’s talking to Daddy,” Cole said in his cheerful way.


“On the phone,” Jerome said. “She’s upstairs talking to him.”

A door slammed overhead. “God dammit!”

Kay glanced at her grandmother, who didn’t look back but rang the bell by her placemat, and Elva brought in the food.

“This is a real New Jersey dinner,” said Gran. “Flounder, corn, tomatoes, cukes, all fresh.” He tapped the edge of the table with his long flat fingernails and ate a spoonful of buttered corn.

Nanny reached her thin spotted hand across the table toward the children. “Don’t whisper.”

Jerome and Kay exchanged a glance. Nanny could hear their whispers, but not the noise upstairs?

“Your father is at the height of his career,” Gran said. “Men in his position can’t pick and choose what they do all the time.”

Above them another door slammed. High heels tapped the wood floor; there was a bang, bam; windows rattled; a skirt rustled on the stairs; and their mother appeared in stockinged feet in the doorway. She wore a bright yellow dress and a white sweater on her shoulders, the sleeves dangling. A black patent leather belt cinched her waist. Her hair was swept up in a French twist, and her eyelashes had been slowly separated by a mascara wand.

“Is Daddy all right?” Kay asked.

“You’re always so concerned about Daddy. Why don’t you ask if I’m all right.”

“Where is he?” Jerome asked.

“I don’t care.” Their mother sat, pulled her cigarettes from a pocket in her skirt, and held one unlit between her fingers, twirling it like a baton. Nanny didn’t allow smoking at the table.

“Is he on his way?” Kay asked.

Their mother rolled her eyes. “You’d think he was a movie star, the way you act.”

Nanny began her droning hum, and Gran turned to his left. “Cole, I bet you don’t know the right way to use a napkin.”

Cole giggled and shook his head, even though he knew perfectly well what Gran was about to do.

Gran gripped the ends of the napkin and sawed it back and forth across his mouth. The children laughed.

“Do the fire engine!” Cole said.

“Lachlan, no,“ Nanny said. “Not at the table.”

“But he only does it at the table,” Kay pointed out, realizing it was the case right as she said it.

“You’re a bad influence!” Jerome shook his head at Gran.

Gran sawed his napkin again, and then stuck out his deeply grooved horrible tongue. Cole stuck out his tongue in return.

Jerome continued with his mock scold. “Don’t copy him, Cole. He’s being childish, but don’t you. Even though you are a child!”

Nanny touched her own napkin, which was right where it should be, on her lap.

Gran stopped that game and took a bite of fish. “Oh, this is good. This tastes just like the sea. There’s nothing in the world like fresh flounder. Every night when I lie in bed I think of those brave fishermen out on the sea. If I were a young man of no ability I would have either joined the Coast Guard or been a fisherman. I would have spent my life on the ocean, not in an office. How did everyone like the waves this afternoon?”

Jerome displayed the underside of his forearm, showing off the scrapes he’d earned on the ocean floor.

Their mother winced at the raw skin. “Why didn’t you tell me? We should put some Bactine on that.”

“I’m fine.” Jerome looked admiringly at his cuts.

Kay was thinking her father was a man of great ability, and that it was hurting him.

Their mother watched the little boys eat and wordlessly picked up the food they dropped to the floor. Kay ate along her cob carefully.

“I should learn manners from you, Kaydee,” Gran said. “You are what we call in the business, the picture of grace. Speaking of Grace, did I ever tell you I knew old Jack Kelly?”

“Yes,” their mother said peevishly. Nanny nodded, too.

“Handsome man. Good head of hair. You could see where the girl got her looks.”

Kay was stuck on the claim he’d made about her own grace. He’d said this for years but always before it had seemed like him and the way he talked. Now she blushed and lay down her cob.

“Picture of grace, all right,” their mother said, “with a splotch of butter on your top.”

Kay looked down at her front. A dark spot marred the plaid. She dipped her napkin in her water glass and wiped at it. The cold water soaked through to her skin and she got goose bumps.

“Don’t do that. That sets the stain.”

“Never mind,” Nanny said. “It will come out. I’ll soak it tonight.”

“Did Daddy want to talk to me?” Kay asked their mother.


Kay knew this mood of their mother’s and that she should stop talking to her but she was too worried now. “What time is he getting here?”

“Don’t count on that, Kay,” their mother said. “I don’t know if he’s even coming. If he is, he’s staying at a hotel.”

“What hotel?” Kay saw her father in her mind’s eye, exhausted, lying across a bed with his shoes hanging off the side, and she saw herself not being there to take them off.

“Is that necessary?” Gran indicated the children with a tip of his head.

“Daddy, could you be on my side for once?” Their mother pushed her chair back from the table.

“Shhh! Listen!” Jerome held his arms up like a conductor.

Cole heard it, too. “The plane!”

Kay looked back and forth between the adults, none of whom were looking at each other. All around the table everyone clapped or grinned, and the two little boys wiggled in their seats and kicked the bottom of the table.

Jerome stood up. “May we, Mummy?” Their grandparents were in charge of the schedule and manners, but their mother was the one to grant permission for the children to do this and that.

She stood up and dropped her napkin on her chair. “Well, I want to see it. Anyone coming?”

The children, except Kay, cheered.

“Not me tonight,” Gran said. “This is my favorite meal.” Nanny never went, so their mother led Jerome, Cole, and the twins across the uneven back porch. The littles didn’t have to duck under the wet bathing suits, but Jerome purposely let one slide over his face. Kay went last, and in spite of herself, glanced at the mirror. A shimmer was there again. She jerked away and joined the others who were gathered in a tight knot on the landing at the top of the back steps.

“This is our viewing platform,” Jerome said.


Alice Elliott Dark is the author of the novel, Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. Her fiction and essays have appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The New York Times, and many anthologies. She is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers-Newark.

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