Sara returned from her walk through the Pearl District with her mind cleared of all frustrations from the other day. Perhaps if she’d walked longer and further, she might have realized that she hadn’t achieved clarity so much as she’d managed to tidily sweep up her feelings and put them someplace out of reach. It was like when Matt would agree to get rid of something they no longer used or had any need for, and he’d just move it to the basement or attic.
Back at the penthouse, she pulled off her boots by the front door and took whispered steps into the living room, where she stumbled upon the sepulchral figures of Gina’s in-laws displayed neatly among the furniture: Lillian Merrick was draped across the front of a walnut sofa, like a winter coat someone neglected to hang in the closet, and Doug Merrick sat on the opposite end with his legs parted wide and his stubby arms folded gravely.
“Why, it’s Sara Richter!” Lillian glanced at her husband. “Did you know she was going to be here?”
“I do now.” Doug plugged a thick finger into the gray shrubbery growing inside his ear. The only other significant amount of hair on his head was a bushy mustache, which Gina liked to call the “Tyrannosaurus Pornstachus.”
“How are you?” Sara asked.
Doug answered, “Fine!” quickly, dismissively, which was his normal pattern of speech. Lillian’s fingers clicked together like knitting needles.
“Oh,” she said hesitantly. “You mean today? Right now?”
“It ain’t the Daily Double, Lillian.”
“I’m sorry, Sara,” she murmured, punctuating her apology with a gust of laughter conspicuously devoid of joy. “It’s just… my mind… Doug’ll tell you… my mind’s in other places. See, we came over a little early, not to get in the way or anything… Gina has so much to do, not that she needs my help or asked for it… but anyway, I thought we might get some time with Charlie and the girls. We don’t see them as often as we’d like… and I checked with Charlie about what time would be best…”
“Two o’clock!” Doug broke in, his displeasure beating against Lillian like heavy rain. “You’d settled on two o’clock, which is when we got here, and they’re asleep.” He threw up his hands. “Middle of the day. I can understand the kids…”
Sara, who could hear Gina rattling with purpose in the kitchen, offered to ask the younger Mrs. Merrick to rouse her husband and daughters.
“That’s sweet of you,” Lillian said, “but Charlie works so hard at Microsoft, I hate to disturb him. I know it’s not my place. I’m not his wife. I’m only his mother, but he needs his rest.”
Doug smirked through his mustache, but he didn’t push the matter. He seemed content to be disappointed.
“Did you just get back from a walk?” Lillian asked Sara. “I’ve always admired that about you. You’re so active.”
“You’re wrong there, Lillian,” Doug said decisively. “The best thing about Sara is all up here.” He tapped his bald head. “She’s always been a smart girl, real level-headed. So’s Gina, for that matter.” After a moment’s hesitation, he included his own daughter. “And Teri, of course.”
Sara avoided taking a side in the “mind-body” debate and thanked the Merricks in equal measure for their dueling compliments. She sat in a straight back chair opposite the couple and served herself a healthy piece of the German butter cake laid out on the coffee table. She wanted to join Gina, but she felt committed to the Merricks for at least another few minutes. She’d known Doug and Lillian almost as long as her former in-laws, and although they’d always expressed genuine affection toward her, she felt a stifling tension in their presence from the couple’s tortured efforts to maintain an illusion of marital harmony.
Doug’s right leg jerked restlessly. At his own home, he was constantly adjusting furniture, clearing shelves, wiping away traces of dust only he could see, but the penthouse was spotless beyond even his militaristic expectations, with everything just right, so he turned his attention to his wife, whose hand had fluttered over to take a tiny sliver of cake.
“What did we discuss?” His lips drew tight across his face.
“Oh!” She wrapped the stolen slice in a napkin as if hiding evidence of a crime. “I’m just not used to eating Thanksgiving dinner so late in the day.” She gripped the napkin within a clenched fist. “I suppose that’s a regional difference, but we’re all happy to adjust to it for Gina’s sake. And of course the meals are so heavy and rich. It can throw you off your diet.”
Doug’s mustache bristled furiously. “It’s not a diet. It’s common sense. We could skip eating for the rest of the weekend after today’s full-fat fest.”
Lillian sighed, buckling under the weight of her husband’s declaration. “Well, it’s just wonderful to see you,” she said to Sara. “I’m so glad you’re spending Thanksgiving with us. I assume Gina didn’t tell me for a reason.”
“She works for a living,” Doug barked. “She was probably too busy to send you the guest list.”
“I just wish she had,” Lillian said, her sagging eyes still on Sara, “because I would have brought you something. Charlie says you’re practically starting all over, so you might need essentials, you know, like a good vase.”
Doug gestured in disbelief at the empty space beside him.
“That’s kind of you,” Sara said, taking up another forkful of cake.
“Even when we didn’t have much,” Lillian continued, “I would always set the table with fresh-cut flowers. It can be whatever’s on sale at the supermarket, but it just makes your house feel like a home.” Her hand fell on Sara’s arm like a tissue. “Are your parents still in the same house?”
The question confused Sara, and Lillian explained she meant the same house where Sara grew up.
“No,” she said, pausing to swallow. “We didn’t stay in one place that long. We traveled a lot when I was young.” She mentioned a year spent in Costa Rica and another on a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands.
“I can’t imagine not feeling like you had a home,” Lillian said, shaking her narrow head sadly. “We were determined that Charlie and Teresa would have stability, so no matter the sacrifice, we promised never to move while they were in school. When their father was transferred to Denver in ’89, I stayed here with them, and he rented an apartment in the city.” She smiled slightly at the memory.
“Sara doesn’t care about that,” Doug broke in sharply. “What have you been doing with yourself?” he demanded
Sara knew Doug Merrick well enough to understand he was only interested in how she earned money, and she answered accordingly.
“Oh, that sounds… different,” Lillian remarked. “Do you say ‘Order up!’? I like when they say ‘Order up!'” Lillian shared her son’s sense of humor but not his freedom to express it.
“Christ, Lillian, let her get a word in edgewise!” Doug yanked on the ends of his blazer sleeves. “We’ve never spent that much time in restaurants.”
“No, that’s true…”
“Of course, it’s true, why else would I mention it? We never ate out. Now, I did occasionally at business meetings, which were always a waste of time, but we never went to a sit down place and paid for it with my own money until…”
“Charlie introduced us to Gina.” The napkin had shredded in Lillian’s hands and crumbs sprinkled over her shoes. “That would’ve been toward the end of his sophomore year — almost seventeen years!”
“She can remember that but not the exit to our house,” Doug grumbled.
Lillian pressed forward, her fingers weaving together. “I was more than happy to cook a nice meal at home, but Charlie wanted to make a good impression. It was The Metropolitan Grill. It’s probably the Irish in me, but I just find fancy dinners very showy. Anyway, that would have been spring of 1998.” She smiled at Sara. “You hadn’t met Charlie yet, had you?” After a meaningful pause, she added, “What a shame.”
Doug Merrick glared at his wife and, with only slightly less contempt, his watch. “I hope we see these girls before they go to college.”
“I’ve said I was sorry so many times!” Lillian billowed out from the sofa like thin drapes covering an open window during a storm. Her voice, however, never rose above its usual whisper, but that was still the moment when Lillian Merrick’s daughter-in-law appeared from the kitchen — spotless and composed, as if she’d only been calmly watching others at work.
“I heard people talking out here, so I just assumed Charlie was up,” Gina said, placing a hand on Sara’s shoulder. “Why it’s almost 2:30!”
Doug nodded while tapping the side of his nose. “Sara’s been entertaining us while we wait for our appointment.”
Gina clucked her tongue. “Why don’t I arrange a trade? I’ll go round up Charlie and the girls, and Sara can come help me dot the ‘i”s and cross the “t” in Thanksgiving.” She reached over to cut off a tiny piece of cake and popped it in her mouth.
— from “The Wrong Questions”