"Don't spill anything on the clean floor," Vannah hollered as Phia pulled the lettuce from the plastic bag, lettuce covered with chemicals sprained in Chile. Her heart ached as she remembered all the salads she'd made with greens from Mama's garden, the young leaves glistening with dew and early spring rain so that if she picked early enough, she wouldn't have to wash them at all. Phia tried to suggest some dandelion grees to Annie--there were plenty of tender ones growing in the yard at the moment--but one would have thought she was trying to poison the whole family.
"Dandelions are weeds. What do you mean put them in a salad?"
"Okay, how about strawberries or apples?" Phia had seen some in the refrigerator.
"Phia, don't be ridiculous," Annie snapped. "Just make a regular salad."
So she stood at the window, tearing up good old iceberg lettuce that had not a drop of color in it, let alone an ounce of nutrition. She watched her uncles and brothers-in-law stand out in the backyard, drinking beer, their collars turned up to protect against the wind whipping around the house and across the yard from the west. Tommy turned steak and chicken on the barbeque while the others stood in a circle around him, warming their hands in its heat. As Phia sliced anemic carrots, then woody radishes from Safeway, she watched Rudy grab his second and third beers from the cooler. As she pulled pithy, pale tomatoes from a carton and began to chop them, she watched him drain his fourth beer, and mourned the loss of Mama's lush tomatoes in late summer, pulled right from the vine, which burst in her hand as the knife cut threw them. Rudy made a flourish with his cigarette, then stuck it in an empty beer can. Jack, Susu's husband, waved the smoke away from his face. Opening a can of artichoke hearts she'd found in the pantry, Phia saw Tommy point toward the ridgepole on the barn, and she leaned forward, trying to see what they were all looking at. Instead, she saw Rudy bend into the cooler for his fifth beer, blocking her view. Pouring seasoned croutons from a jumbo bag over the bowl, Phia noticed that he'd pulled the tab on his sixth, and by the time she finished tossing the salad with a bottle of creamy ranch dressing Vannah had no doubt picked up at Costco, he was swigging his seventh.
"Phia," Annie said, jarring her from her window gazing. "Take this platter out to Tommy."
"It's about time you came out to see me!" Jack said as Phia stepped off the back porch toward him. Jack wrapped her in his broad arms, squeezing hard.
"How's your ball team looking?" Jack was the coach of the high school baseball team in town. "Are you going to take the league?"
"We're all right, if we can fill the hole in left field," Jack said. "But my pitching's strong." Then he grinned and gently punched Phia's arm. "Shoot, you had me going--I almost thought you were interested in baseball."
Phia grinned back. "I care about your job," she said.
"Hey," Rudy called from his post by the cooler. "You too good to speak to me?"
"Hey Rudy," she said, avoiding his piercing glare.
Rudy flicked his cigarette to the ground. "You're looking your age."
Marty stepped between them and stamped his boot on the smoking cigarette. "How soon, honey?" he asked, draping his arm around Phia's shoulders.
"I think we're ready when you are," she answered.
"Let's get 'er loaded up, then," Tommy said, filling the platter so full of meat Phia's hands began to shake.
"Here let me carry that," Jack said.
Marty opened the door and ushered her through the kitchen and into her place at the table, then helped her slide into her chair. "I'll get you a glass of wine, honey, white okay?" Phia nodded, grateful to be under his gentle care tonight.
Laterh after they'd said grace, and the potatoes and meat were being passed, Rudy belched then said, "You Dalys think your family's the center of the universe, don't you? How do you think I feel coming home to an empty house every night--no dinner, no wife, having to take care of the kid myself?"
There was a startled silence. Phia glanced over at Vannah, but she was pointedly pretending not to have heard. Across the table, their daughter, Dana Rose, had her head bowed against Daire's daughter, Brooke's shoulder.
"But Rudy," Riona said. "Dee sick. You know that."
"It's always been something--Dee's garden, or canning, or you or Annie needing help. Now it's that new baby or Dee and Van goes running. What about me? What if I need something?" He slammed his fist against the table. "I'm sick of it, I tell you." He stood, tipping his chair over, hen tripped as he pushed past Dana and Brooke towards the kitchen, letting the back door slam behind him.
Lowering a forkful of chicken, Phia wiped her lips with her napkin. Vannah's head was bowed, and Riona who was sitting next to her, reaced over and clasped her hand. "I"m sorry," Riona said. "I know better than to argue with him."
"That man--" Annie began, then pursed her lips and shook her head.
"I should go to him," Vannah said, rising.
"I'm already going," Tommy told her. "The last thing he needs is another beer.
Dana shredded a paper napkin into tiny pieces onto her plate of food. Forks clattered across plates but no one spoke for a long time. Finally Phia said, "Maybe Dana could take the bus here from school." Dana's eyes turned toward her. There was so little light in them, Phia thought.
"We could ride home together," Brooke offered. Dana squeezed her hand.
"Mama," Vannah said, as if Phia hadn't spoken. "I'm so sorry to spoil your dinner." She wiped her eyes with her napkin. "When he doesn't drink--"
"Oh Bairn, I'm the one who's sorry," Mama cut in. She leaned forward and rubbed Vannah's back.
Food continued to be picked at until Tommy came back into the room. "I've put him in the car to sleep it off." He place his hand on Vannah's neck. "I'll take him home. You and Dana sleep here tonight." Vannah sighed and sat up. "Come on, Dana."
Dana carried her plate to the sink, napkin pieces fluttering as she walked.
"Vannah," Phia stood up. "Please--stay. Don't let him ruin your night."
"Don't!" Vannah said, sharply.
"But every time I come home, it's the same." Phia broke in. "He's a drunk."
"You can't keep a man for a minute!" Vannah lashed out, her face mottled and red. "How dare you talk about mine?"
Mama put her hand on Vannah's arm. "Hush, Bairn, she didn't mean anything."
"Oh yes, she did," Vannah said. "Rudy has always said there was something about you."
Phia's heart pounded. "So he doesn't like me. The feeling's mutual."
Vannah stared at her, unblinking, for a long moment. Then she picked up her purse from the coffee table in the living room. "Just remember why you finally came home--it wasn't to interfere in my life. Let's go, Dana." She swept from the room.
As the car roared away, Annie stood up. "The kitchen's crowed enough without you all getting in the way. Phia will help me clean up."
"Who wants pie?" Riona said, lining up her pies on the sideboard. "Bring me the cream, will you, Phia?"
"Until you've been a person for a day, you have no idea what's she's living," Annie said once she and Phia were alone in the kitchen together. She scraped the uneaten food from the plates into the compost pail.
"You want to sit back and watch him control Van?" The water in the sink was so hot it burned her hands, making her flinch as she scrubbed and rinsed the dishes. She felt burned on the inside as well, from Vannah's venom, her family's refusal to get involved--even if it might help Van. Wouldn't any of them stand up to him?
"When you were a kid, Phia, we could hardly get you to say two words at a time, let alone express an opinion. What happened to that girl?" Annie set the coffee brewing, then dried her hands on her apron. "You finish up in here while I help your mama get ready for bed."