Series I: Stand Off – Chapter 16: Kitchen Temperature

The drive to Kristan’s aunt’s house was a series of twisting roads that followed the natural contours of New York’s mountains. It was dark. The trees that crept up the ridges of the road climbed high. Thomas had to tilt his head down and then up, peering out of the window to see the moon’s glimmer across the landscape.

“Besides the car trouble, how is everything Kristan?” Jan kept her eyes on the winding road as Mark drove at the wheel, weaving the car along the divider like a snake slithering through patches of grass. “How was your first semester?” Jan said.

“It was great!” Kristan exclaimed, putting down her phone. “My final paper for my Public Policies Class was about Yonkers and the city planning for section eight housing,” she leaned forward from the backseat, jutting her head between her parents in the front.

“It’s upsetting how minorities are designated to live in poorly funded neighborhoods based on their income,” she made a gruff noise while shaking her head in disgust, “And it’s impossible for them to move because of that. The areas that are plotted for them are graphed by the kind of people that don’t want the lower income bracket within their neighborhoods.”

She shot back into her seat of the Prius and brought her phone back up to her face. “It makes me mad,” she said. The light from the screen illuminated her side of the car. The light brought Thomas away from peering out into the darkness of the woods. He glanced at Kristan then turned back to the window, watching the trees flicker as Mark drove passed them.

“Ahh, that’s interesting . . . I’m glad you’re getting somewhere with your studies.” Jan turned to look back at her, but Kristan didn’t take her eyes off the screen of her phone. “I remember you saying at the beginning of the semester that you didn’t want to follow through with an MPA, but it seems that you’re finding a passion in it.”

“Yes dear,” Mark looked at her through the rearview mirror, “I’m proud of you; just keep studying and focusing on where this degree will take you. It’s good for your future,” he said.

Kristan just nodded and Jan turned back to face the road that Mark continued to follow with his hands at the safest positions on the wheel. As Mark turned the wheel along the road’s path, Thomas gripped the door to not slide across the seat. He rested his head against the glass and watched the moon’s shine grow brighter through the dispersing fog where the trees became more visible.

Mark stopped the car in a driveway of a small house that looked similar to their house, but this one had a garage attached to it. The garage dug into the hill, which made the house look smaller with only one floor. The front door was open and the stoop leading into the house was followed by a cemented path. This path cut through the grass that surrounded the entire place, like a chalk-line in a sea of black asphalt. Thomas was the last one to exit the car. He followed Mark to the trunk to retrieve the food as Jan and Kristan followed that path into the house.

“Here you go Thomas, make sure you keep it away from your chest,” Mark winked while placing the tin tray down on his forearms, “it shouldn’t be too hot, just wouldn’t want the sauce all over yourself,” he said.

Thomas nodded while watching Jan and Kristan follow the walkway up to the stoop where they entered the house. He heard a burst of welcomes as soon as they did enter and those bursts ended right when Mark shut the Prius’s trunk-door. It latched against the threshold with a thud.

“Let’s not keep them waiting,” Mark said walking passed Thomas and leading on toward the stoop of the opened front door. Thomas kept his eyes on the space between the tin tray and his chest, where the walkway blurred as a continuously moving strip of concrete. He watched it while anticipating the step to appear that would lead him into the house. The light from the living room flooded the concrete, warming it from the moon’s pale glow. The welcomes he heard went from a low chatter to a high ring. Thomas lifted his head to them and immediately the tray was taken.

“You must be Thomas,” Aunt Clare said with the tray in her hands. Her smile stretched ear-to-ear and her teeth brimmed the thin lips that clasped the edges of her gums as she smiled.

Thomas nodded, “yes, I am – um, Aunt Clare,” his voice pitched a decibel higher. He kept looking at her smile then drove his eyes around the living room to find Kristan.

“She’s in the kitchen dear. How about you follow me . . . after I get this tray there, I will introduce you to everyone,” Aunt Clare said.

Thomas smiled as he looked back at her. There was a warm tone in her voice that brought Thomas to feel inseparable – a sense that as long as he was with Aunt Clare, his anxiety about meeting everyone was non-existent.

Thomas did not pay attention to everyone crowding the house as he followed Aunt Clare to the kitchen. They passed the living room through an arch that opened to the dining room, which was adjacent to the kitchen. The dining room table stretched as long as a countertop that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Kristan’s extended family crowded the smorgasbord that was on the table; trays of the food that just what Kristan said there will be at this Christmas dinner.

“Ahh, so this is the gentleman you’ve been forever boasting about Kristan!”

Thomas’s face flushed red and he felt the heat of the food as if he was a part of the meal. He surveyed the expansive dining room until his eyes fell upon the man that acknowledged his presence.

“Um, yes sir . . . I hope what she has said are all good things,” Thomas spoke slowly as to not stutter.

“Oh Barren you’re embarrassing him,” Aunt Clare said as she walked around the table and placed the tray in a spot that seemed just right for it.

“Please Thomas, don’t be embarrassed here because here, you are among good people,” Uncle Barren said. As Aunt Clare backed away from placing the tray on the table, she looked at Thomas and winked.

“Except for him,” she said, lazily pointing a finger at Uncle Barren.

Kristan turned around from the sink in the kitchen after washing her hands. As she grabbed a paper towel from the countertop, she leaned over it and laughed, looking at Uncle Barren, then at Thomas.

“Make yourself at home Tommy,” Kristan said.

Thomas nodded with a smile toward Kristan. He saw Mark enter his line of view from the living room where Thomas’s back was facing. He made his way around the table, greeting those who were sitting at it. He seemed preoccupied, surveying the table for the right appetizer, but Thomas saw in his face that he was genuine while mingling with the family. Mark whispered to one sitting a few chairs away from Uncle Barren and then she leaned sideways. That’s when he went for the hors-d’oeuvres, reaching over as he held his tie against his abdomen.

“Uncle Barren is a musician like you Thomas,” Mark said as he plucked a hors-d’oeuvre form the tray. He smiled after throwing it in his mouth.

“Ah, a fellow musician – what instrument?” Uncle Barren perked up on his seat and leaned forward, placing both elbows on the table where he folded his hands and placed them under his chin. Thomas began to feel flushed with a tint of red slowly revealing itself in the skin on his face.

“Uh, guitar. . .” Thomas nodded. He remained eye-contact with Uncle Barren for only a moment, then diverted his eyes to the table.

“You know,” Uncle Barren raised a finger and shook it toward Thomas, “The acoustic guitar produces the most beautiful melodies; I have mine in the back room. I would love to hear it . . . I’ve been classically trained, but haven’t gotten the time to brush up on it in a while,” he said.

“Uncle Barren is an entrepreneur,” Mark said to Thomas while finishing his hors-d’oeuvre. He then turned toward Uncle Barren. “How are your properties in Florida?”

“Could not be any better, Clare and I are looking forward to an early retirement in Key West.” Uncle Barren sat back in his chair. “You know Thomas, it’s a real shame what happened to those unfortunate people down their when Sandy hit; but, with great strife comes great opportunity,” he lifted his finger again, “remember that Thomas,” he said.

Clare walked up behind him and bent over his shoulder, kissing him on the cheek. She retracted just a few inches and smiled, “You invested to rebuild their homes and give them a second chance. You earned it my dear,” she said.

Uncle Barren smiled back at her. “We both did sweetie,” he said following a short kiss on her lips. Thomas watched them revel in retirement during that moment. He felt sweat beads perspire under his shirt; around his neck and armpits. Nausea crept over him.

A woman with a child was walking up behind Uncle Barren from one of the back rooms. Thomas saw her over his bald head as she walked toward the table and stopping at Uncle Barren’s side. Kristan screeched as if seeing a puppy burst out of a gift-wrapped box.

“Marco! O my god you grew so much since the last time I saw you!” Kristan lunged backward off the countertop and hurriedly walked around to greet the child in the woman’s arms.

“What have you been feeding him Meeka?!” Kristan said as she approached Marco. He was burying his head into Meeka’s shoulder and neck. Thomas watched Kristan’s eyes light up as she took Marco off Meeka’s cradled arms. He just smiled while standing with her family.

“Hahaha, He just woke up from a nap and wanted to say hi to everyone,” Meeka said.

Jan walked over to Kristan now holding Marco. “Hello my little angel,” she said. Marco nestled his head into Kristan’s bosom and shut his eyes.

“Aw, he wants to go back to sleep . . . Marco?” Jan gently pushed her head near Marco, close to Kristan’s chest, “Marco . . .” Kristan then drew away from Jan by twisting her hips in the opposite direction of where her mother was standing.

“Mommy, you’re too close to him,” Kristan said while looking down at Marco.

“Oh Kristan, you’re being more childish right now than little Marco,” Jan moved closer to Marco, stretching a finger toward his nose, but Kristan drew further away. She whispered something to Marco, which caused Jan to walk away and sit down at the table. Meeka followed Jan and leaned over her shoulder, but then Jan just shook her head and waved her hand. Thomas watched Kristan walk back into Marco’s room, but as Thomas started to follow her Aunt Clare intercepted Thomas and grabbed his arm. She turned him toward everyone.

“Ahh now that everyone his here, I would like to introduce everyone to Thomas,” Aunt Clare looked at Thomas, “Don’t be so nervous dear,” she said and shook his arm in a heartwarming way that brought Thomas to smile and nod. He looked around the dining room trying to not make eye contact with anyone. After one full rotation, he started to burn up with his skin flushing red. The faces of the dining room began to reflect concern.

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