Winter 2003, Volume 20.2
Kim Bridgford directs the writing program at Fairfield University, where she is an associate professor of English and poetry editor of Dogwood. Her poetry has appeared in North American Review, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Georgia Review, her fiction in Redbook, The Massachusetts Review, and Witness. She received a 1999-2000 NEA Fellowship. To see more of Kim Bridgford's work visit: https://www.ablemuse.com. See more of her work published in Weber Studies at: Vol. 12.1 (poetry) and Vol. 13.2 (poetry).
The day her family asked her to wear a pig snout at her birthday celebration, Esther McKain did not know what to make of it. She was sitting at the head of the table at Bob's Rib House, and everywhere pigs stared down at her, cute pigs like cartoon characters, while her family looked up: her son Ross, her daughter-in-law, Mary, and the two grandchildren, Brie and Jason, whose names she had never liked, especially her granddaughter's, because who on earth wanted to be named for a cheese? Upon the occasion of Brie's birth, Ross had told Esther it was none of her business what they named her, and that she had hurt Mary's feelings beyond repair. It was true that from that moment the relations between Esther and Mary had been ripped open so wide that the whole business of human relations wore them out.
Esther's family—in their khakis and T-shirts and well-fed plumpness—looked at her with expectation, and for a moment she hated them. She had looked forward to this evening for so long, the date marked on her calendar with an exclamation point: Family birthday party, Bob's Rib House, 7:00! Even though the place was casual—there was a picnic, country atmosphere—she had dressed up in her nice pink pants suit and pink and white beads. A moment ago she thought she heard Mary whisper to Ross, "She looks like a peppermint stick." Maybe she had misheard; maybe that was part of the problem: imagined slights, misunderstood phrases. In her excitement she had probably put on too much make-up. Guilty as charged, she used to tell her husband when he would mention it, and she would get out her pocket mirror and rub some off. Afterwards, when they danced, she always felt as if she could dissolve into the air. Now he was dead, going on ten years. It was strange, but enough time had passed so that it was hard to remember to miss him, except in quick bursts that sometimes felt like heartburn. She wondered if by the time she died she would remember him at all, and that thought was so unspeakably sad she felt tears come to the rims of her eyes.
She blinked. To the side of her someone was being served a plate of ham with pineapple rings, someone else a barbequed sandwich. "Will you look at that?"a man in a tropical shirt said, waving his hand at his sandwich as if he'd been served something bizarre, like the feet of some animal. For Esther, it was so easy these days to get distracted from the moment at hand. She looked back to her table and smiled. It was her birthday after all. Yet at the same moment she felt her smile droop. Her presents had been disappointing: perfume and books and a huge figurine of an owl with an alert expression that unnerved her, so that she was already figuring where she could store it so that she would never have to look at it again. She had hoped for liquor and chocolate, two things she could really use. She still had perfume from last year—lavender or gardenia—and if they really thought she read those silly romantic books they gave her, they were mistaken. Imagine all that fuss about whether someone had sex with you or not, when anyone could tell this side of heaven that the issue was love, and it always had been.
Ross was saying something about stocks and Mary's pretty dress, and Esther nodded in agreement, but Esther could tell immediately that she had done the wrong thing, for she could see Mary caught between tears and rage, looking down at her coleslaw. Brie and Jason kept squealing, and it wasn't hard to pretend they were pigs if you closed your eyes. They slapped at each other like the pigs in the pictures above them, and it made Esther want to crawl off in some corner. Instead, she went to the restroom. The room felt wobbly to her feet, and in the mirror she looked like a clown. She rubbed some of her rouge off, and she looked just fine, quite attractive if you didn't mind the wrinkles and pain, she said to herself, laughing. She would share that remark with some of her friends after church on Sunday; she was sure they would get a kick out of it.
On the way back she searched for her table; it was always easy to get lost in these big restaurants. Everywhere people were laughing and eating pork, and the room had a whiff of barbeque. Jason stood up. "Grandma, over here," and he directed her as if she were a piece of construction equipment. She waved back and took her time taking her seat at the table. This was her family, and Esther sighed. She was already thinking ahead to what it would feel like to get home: to watch TV and have a glass of wine in the comfort of her chair. Maybe next year's birthday would be better; maybe a few more people would remember her and do nice things for her. She wondered what Max, her cocker spaniel, was doing. Later, while she dozed in her chair, he would waddle in for a snack or two before he fell asleep.
Still, there was a price you paid, and loneliness could taste like gristle. She laughed. She put the pig snout on. The waitresses came out in their country outfits of gingham and straw hats and sang "Happy Birthday." Someone took a picture. Around her people were laughing and shaking their heads. She blew out the candles on her cake and almost lost her breath. Afterwards, she kept the pig snout on long enough so that no one would see she was crying.