The girl sat at the table with a twisted mouth. The brussel sprouts, cold knobs on her plate; the baked chicken, cooled, from her refusal to open up. Her mother, having had enough of the girls ways, barked at her across the table; her mouth moving like a cow, her tone , a shrill blow horn. “Eat the food, Hen.”
The girl earned the name after she’d dug up two juicy earthworms and shared them with the dog, Pluto. Her mother, when she found the pair, told her she had less sense than a chicken. How stupid it was to go pecking at the dirt like some hen. Then she called her in the house by her new name; Hen.The girl knew enough by now to keep her eyes down in silent protest. To steady herself, she squirmed back in the wicker chair which creaked under her tiny frame. The pillow placed under her bottom slipped underneath her small thighs and the girl shrank a bit in her seat.
“I guess somebody will be eating this for lunch if she don’t eat it for dinner,” her father said. “And sit up. Straight.” His teeth gritted together like chains.
The girl sat up tall as she could remember, pressing her back into the chair’s cross-stitching and stealing glances at the grown-ups chewing their food like cud, talking about nothing in particular. Her mother’s mouth moved in big, slow circles as she tried to drum up conversation. Her throat, when she swallowed, turned into a muscular snake, the neck tight, the gulps big.
The father liked to pour all manner of sauce over his food. Molasses on french fries. Hot sauce on eggs. Gravy over spaghetti salad. This night, he squeezed ketchup on baked ham and mashed potatoes and mixed it up into a kind of stew. The girl winced, and the father caught it just as she tried to tuck it back into the pocket of her eyes.
A slight grin visited her father’s face, then retreated. He brushed past the girl on his way to the cupboard and on his way back he placed a clean white plate in front of her. He wiped his fork off with a napkin, then put it next to the girl’s plate. “Eat up,” he said. The girl said nothing. She just caught the image of his tongue running over his teeth, then looked past the empty plate. “ Eat up,” he said.
Looking forward and speaking low, the girl said, “Ain’t nothing to eat.”
The father snatched the girl’s fork from the table and used it to slide his stew onto her plate, the ketchup dripping a red juice between his plate and hers.
“Eat the fucking food,” he yelled. His lips were small and pressed together to match the slits he’d made of his eyes.
“Prilly!” the mother squealed, a wad of potato in her cheek. She snatched a look toward her husband and dropped the fork she was eating from, so it clanked against the glass table.
Prilly continued, “Goddamn work all day and this little mutant turn her nose up to the food.” It was his turn to drop something. “ Eat the fucking food,” the father said again.
The mother rose from her chair, clearing what she could from the table, slamming her dish and his cup in the sink.
The father got good and low in the girl’s face and told her what he’s lible to do if she don’t scoop the fucking pig and home-fucking-grown-potatoes from her plate. The mother mumbled under her breath about no goddamn way to raise no child, don’t make no kinda sense, till the father catch wind.
“What’s that you said?” And his eyes rushed over to the sink to greet his wife’s clenched jaw and tense forearms.
“ Nothing. Go on ‘bout your business,” she said.
“Said, go on bout’ your business, Prilly. I ain’t for this shit tonight.”
The father made his way cross the table, knocking the girl’s head forward with his pelvis bone in route to the mother.
“What the fuck’s wrong with your mouth?” he asks and twists his wife’s lips hard, so her eyes water. She squeezed his arm with one hand and knocked a couple forks and knives on the kitchen floor trying to grab the counter for balance. Her lips moved like a fish under his grip.
“Huh?”the father says, pushing his ear hard against her lips and leaning his weight in so her spine dug into the kitchen sink, while her arms flail and fingers point in the direction of the girl. “Huh?” Prilly’s eases up a bit.
“She eating, ” the mother said, a wisp of spit flung from her mouth. “She eating.” And the father’s eyes fell upon the girl as she opened her mouth to take a mouthful.
Printed with permission by Malene Bell, copyrighted by Malene Bell @ 2010. This piece first appeared in Issue No. 9 of the Los Angeles Review.