- Fabula Argentea - https://fabulaargentea.com -

GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION by Rust Strong

Call me desperate, but I’d been anxious all afternoon, fighting the urge to gnaw on my nails. Not because I cared what they looked like, but because I didn’t want to hear about it from Dad. He and my stepmother, Susan, were hosting my new grandparents for dinner tonight, and he didn’t want to introduce his bloody-fingered son to them. That was a thing with me; once I started something, I had a hard time stopping.

If I were a normal teen, I’d have hid in my room, playing my new yay-your-father-got-remarried-please-be-nice-to-his-new-wife PlayStation 5. Instead, I peered through a slit in the blinds at a white passenger van parked across the street with its front end smashed up. For the last two hours, this abandoned van, this real-world internet troll, had blocked my only view into what would prove to be the greatest thing that would ever happen to me: Becky Torres’s front door. That’s why I submitted a complaint through the 3-1-1 app Dad had me download last year to report the stray dogs terrorizing our old apartment complex.

A crash of metal exploded from the kitchen, and my heart nearly burst.

“Shit!” Dad sounded panicked, layers of stress and desperation in his voice.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

In the short time I’d been gone, chaos had eaten and digested order. Dad bustled around, wrapped in Susan’s pink apron with a million tiny cupcakes printed on it, searching for “this goddamned beeping” while destroying the kitchen in his attempt at covering for my stepmother’s last-minute broken arm. After she’d gotten her cast, Dad wouldn’t let her near the kitchen, which was a shame because Susan was a gourmet cook. Dad, on the other hand, was more of a cereal-and-toast kind of guy. He had both double ovens humming and three burners blazing, each with a pot or skillet demanding immediate attention. When Susan cooked, it was like a ballroom dance, every move perfectly timed and precisely executed. Dad’s version reminded me of two fat thumbs trying to type a text message on an ancient flip phone.

“Dad. The microwave.”

His shoulders relaxed slightly. “Thanks.” He put on the oven mitts and pulled the soup dish out of the microwave and set it on a potholder. “I want everything to be perfect tonight. Susan said your new grandparents are very, let’s say, particular. I’m pretty sure that’s why we eloped. They’re Susan’s family, so now they’re our family, I guess…” His voice withered away. “And no phone at the table! They hate that, apparently.”

Susan’s kitchen—well, our new kitchen now—was much bigger than the one at the apartment Dad and I lived in after Mom left to “escape Texas politics and a life of minimum wage.” (Dad said that while there was some truth in that, her affair with a rich businessman from New Mexico was the main reason she left.)

Everyone said Dad lucked out with Susan, mainly because he was like me—on the shorter side and scrawny, with dark, feckless eyes. Susan, on the other hand, was a trim, model-tall, long-haired brunette in her early forties, with gas-fire-blue eyes and a mind as sharp as a QLED Samsung television.

She loved Dad, though. Not for his height or general brand eyes, but for the altruism that would send Dad chasing after a school bus if a kid missed it, screaming and beating on its side until it stopped.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

His watch beeped, and Dad set off toward the ovens, cursing.

“Psst,” someone said from just beyond the kitchen.

I turned to see Susan, clutching the pearl necklace around her neck. Dad gave it to her as a wedding gift—it had taken us eating an abundance of bean tacos to save up for it.

Her nose wrinkled at the smell of burning. “How’s it going in there?”

I shrugged. “Good?”

She waved me over. “You think he’ll let me help?”

I gestured toward her janky arm. “Nope. I’m supposed to be his helper, and he barely let me in the kitchen.”

This seemed to pain her. “I figured. Here. Take this.” She slipped a folded one-hundred-dollar bill into my shirt pocket.

I went rigid for a long moment, my mouth hanging open. “What’s this for?”

“To help make that good first impression.”

I scrambled for something witty to say. What came out was, “Thanks?”

Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Shit.” Dad, frazzled, spun around while scanning the kitchen. “Which one was that?”

Susan fished her phone out of her slacks. “Doorbell camera.” She squeezed her eyes shut and blew out a long breath. “Showtime.” She disappeared around the corner.

Dad bounced from counter to counter like a pinball, stirring pots, shaking pans, and inspecting the various courses of his meal. Then, rubbing his neck, he simply stopped at the stove as if expecting it to communicate its needs. After a long moment of indecision, he simply turned off all the burners. “I think I’m ready.”

From the other room, the greetings had concluded and chairs screeched against the wooden floor. Dad gestured to the dining room. “Go meet everyone. I’ll be out shortly.”

In my experience, the elderly weren’t bad; they were slow-moving and boring, and hanging out with them was like sitting through the end credits of a summer blockbuster that had a million names on the screen at once. Still, I’d heard stories about my new grandparents.

I straightened my clip-on tie and shuffled out of the kitchen. As I entered the dining room, I noticed a mildly sweet, grassy odor like the one at the assisted living complex where I caroled with my Boy Scout troop. I considered making a beeline for the living room windows one last time but ultimately decided against it and took my seat next to Susan, avoiding eye contact with the four prime-timers sitting across from her. For what seemed like the hundredth time today, she attacked a persistent, unreachable itch inside her arm cast by thrusting a silver butter knife in and out. Then, tugging it out, she used too much force and the utensil fell onto her plate with a noisy series of clanks.

Susan turned to me as if nothing had happened. “Kaleb, these are your new grandparents.”

Witness to the dawn of the zombie apocalypse, I slowly craned my head toward the row of skeletal visages with sunken cheeks, wobbly jowls, and glazed-over eyes staring at the knife like a largemouth bass homing in on a shiny lure.

“This is Grampa,” Susan said. She gestured to the guy at the head of the table wearing a red-and-black plaid button-up and a mug so cold you’d think he was still suffering through the Texas grid failure. “Lighten up, Dad. You’re scaring him.”

His mouth—in a constant chewing motion even though he wasn’t eating anything—reminded me in some nonspecific way of the greeters at Walmart. “You know they make cast scratchers,” he said to Susan. His voice was low and throaty, and no amount of central heat could warm his demeanor. “Bet you can find them on Amazon. I don’t understand technology, and even I know that. It’d keep you from defacing my mother’s silver.” He flicked his eyes in my direction. “You ever see her abusing the silver, call me.” He then let out a forced chuckle to try to soften the blow of his boomer quip. This basic geezer probably had a landline and a cassette tape answering machine, like in those old movies from the nineties.

Susan rolled with it, saying, “Next to him is his partner, Bob. You can call him Bobbo.”

Bobbo wore a white button-up with the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearm. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Bobbo said with a cheerful smile. He extended his hand across the table like they do on television.

I reciprocated, and the old man attempted to crush all the bones in my hand while simultaneously striving to break my arm off at the shoulder. When he finally let go, he said, “Kind of a dead fish you got there.”

Susan cleared her throat. “Bob, kids don’t really shake anymore. Hasn’t been a thing for a while.”

Bobbo gave her a suspicious look before the mental lightbulb flickered on, at which point he drew back his hand. “Of course. Helluva first try. Good initiative.”

The woman next to Bobbo stood and opened her arms wide. “Kevin, I’m Nana.” Her tone was pleasant enough, but it sounded like her larynx had been coated with coffee grounds. “It’s good to… to… to know you.”

“Hello.” My voice cracked on the o. I wondered why this woman was standing. Did she expect me to give her a hug? After shaking that Bobbo guy’s hand, I certainly wasn’t wrapping my arms around her bright-red muumuu. By the look of her, she’d break my back. I stood my ground until Susan saved me.

“His name is Kaleb, and you can sit down, Mom.” Susan’s arched eyebrows weren’t messing around.

Nana’s eyes went cold, her nostrils flaring, but she simply returned to her chair. “Kaleb. My mistake.”

Susan kept her eyebrows directed at Nana for a long, excruciating moment, like she were transmitting an ass-chewing by Bluetooth. Then, like the sun breaking from the clouds, her face relaxed. “Last but never least, this is Lewis. He’s married to Nana.”

Lewis was busy fiddling with the flowers, plucking the petals and lining them up in a row until Nana slapped his hand and said, “Stop deflowering the centerpiece.”

Lewis turned to Nana, opened his mouth to say something, then put his hands in his lap and looked at me. “Hey, kid. I’m Lewis. Your granddad, kind of. Like Bob.”

“I have three new grandfathers…?” My words tapered into a faint squeak as I searched Susan’s face for confirmation. This seemed like something someone would have told me ahead of time. Now I had questions about this Lewis character, because when I originally saw him—Bobbo and Grampa, too—I didn’t expect AARP to mean alliance of adoptive rotten pappies.

My phone buzzed.

I walked my hand down to my pocket and slipped it inside.

“You sure are a quiet one,” Nana said to me, then bumped shoulders with Lewis. “What do they say about the quiet ones?”

My hand halted in its tracks.

Lewis looked at Nana and narrowed his eyes like a cartoon villain. “They go through your trash in search of your dirty underwear.”

From the other side of the table, I heard someone mutter, “Jesus.”

I wormed my phone out of my pocket.

Bobbo gestured toward Nana’s bright-red muumuu and said, “That’s a lovely dress,” then turned and flashed a sly smile at me.

I inched my phone out of my pocket.

“Why, thank you, Bob,” Nana said, then elbowed Lewis, who didn’t react. “At least someone noticed.” She adjusted her wispy silver pixie cut and smoothed the front of her muumuu with her plump fingers. “You can never go wrong letting all your nooks and crannies get a little air from time to time. What do you think, Kevin?”

I felt my eyes go wide at being called Kevin. “I… uh… don’t think I have crannies… or nooks.” I just wanted to glance at my phone but aborted the attempt and shoved it back in my pocket. “But I’m glad yours get to stay cool—”

Dad saved me by humming “Flight of the Valkyries” as he made a grand entrance full of twirling dance moves with a platter balanced on his splayed fingers like a fancy waiter. “Dinner is served,” he said, feigning a British accent and still wearing Susan’s frilly apron.

Nana gripped Lewis’s hand dramatically. “My word.”

Steam billowed from the platter, and the room instantly smelled like charcoal. I sank in my chair as Dad circled the table, slinging slabs of glossy burned ham onto our plates, unfazed. “This is a thyme- and rosemary-crusted ham. Because of Susan’s broken arm, I did the heavy lifting in the kitchen. I’m no Susan, but I didn’t want to resort to takeout on our first meet.”

Grampa bent close to his plate, fingering his well-done ham. “We don’t eat pork.”

Bobbo’s soft smile transformed into a scowl. “We don’t?” He harrumphed. “I’ll remember that on your birthday.”

I shot up from my chair. “Gotta take a—I have to wash my—crap. No, I don’t need to wash my—” Before waiting for anyone to acknowledge my proclamation of scat sanitization, I ran up the stairs, taking two at a time.

In the bathroom, I shut the door and headed straight for the window by the toilet. The van, still parked outside, blocked my view of all things Becky Torres. I knew Becky from school, but when Dad and I moved into Susan’s house last month, my chances for a social upgrade peaked.

I plopped down on the toilet, shaking off the awkwardness from the table. What did they expect from me? I was a teenager and supposed to be moody and antisocial. Maybe I’d just stay here until they were gone.

My phone buzzed again, and I pulled it out of my pocket.

Mondo: You talk to her?

Are you talking to her now????

I exited WhatsApp and opened Instagram. Becky Torres hadn’t updated her profile in over three hours. That could mean a few things: One, what Mondo overheard Becky say about breaking up with her douche, jock boyfriend, Adán, was not the case, and my entire plan hinged on disinformation. Two, Becky was still breaking up with him. These middle school break-ups could be messy. Three, Adán had convinced Becky he wasn’t a bully who terrorized the smart kids and manipulated her into giving him another chance.

I thumbed Instagram closed and opened WhatsApp.

Me: No

I wish

Stuck at dinner

Mondo: Is he still there?

I stood and glanced out the window again, then sat back down.

Me: Someone abandoned a van in front of her house

Can’t see shit

Mondo: Wack

How’s dinner?

Me: My new grandfathers spilled the tea about—I inserted an eggplant, a tongue, and a splashing water emoji—each other.

Mondo: WTF???????

Me: The old people are freaking me out lol

Mondo: Maybe they’ll give Becky some pointers before the homecoming dance

Me: SMH

TTYL

I took one last look out the window, then shuffled toward the door, but my phone buzzed again. My heart raced in anticipation.

To my dismay, it wasn’t a post from @Bec_Tor17 but a notification from the 3-1-1 app, saying my request had been forwarded to 9-1-1 dispatch and they would be in touch shortly.

I’m so fucked.

My fingers went to work and deleted the 3-1-1 app, then jumped between my teeth for their reward.

Before I turned out the light, I thought I heard something and glanced back into the bathroom.

Nothing.

Back downstairs, I took my seat next to Susan as Dad set the soup dish on the table, then sat beside me.

Grampa still fiddled with his pork. “Slippery and burned. Interesting.”

Dad gestured toward Grampa with his fork. “Very astute, Glen. After careful consideration, I admitted to myself it was a little dry, so I misted the ham with some cooking spray to revitalize it.”

“Cooking spray?” Nana grimaced as if this physically pained her.

Grampa nudged the mummified-yet-greasy pig with his fork. “A little dry?”

Bobbo popped Grampa in the arm. “Be nice.” Utensils in hand, he sawed into his slab of ham with the determination of a lumberjack. Finally, he took a bite and closed his eyes. His body relaxed as if an intense pleasure had overtaken him. “Excellent execution, David. The glaze is mouthwatering. I’m denoting hints of brown sugar, cola, and”—Bobbo smacked his lips and drew in air as if tasting wine—“is that mustard?”

Dad’s posture straightened. “It’s my mother’s recipe.”

Grampa frowned and cast a raking glance at me, judging me with his bushy gray eyebrows. “I bet you were skinny growing up. Your mother probably did the cooking. Am I right?”

“She left when I was eleven.”

Grampa’s face didn’t break.

Dad leaned toward me. “They don’t want to hear about this.”

“Then he shouldn’t have brought her up while insulting you,” I said to him, then scowled at Grampa.

Susan came in for the save with a gentle laugh, helping ease the tension.

“I’m sorry to hear about your mother, kid,” Lewis said, scratching his chin. “On the bright side, I’ll know whose house to visit if I’m ever on a diet.” Lewis beamed at the table with giant yellow horse teeth, like a standup comic waiting for the ba-dum-tiss to save him.

Dad clutched my arm and shook his head as I started to push my chair out, his eyes sad and pleading. I scooted my chair back in and sank low again, hoping to stay out of the crosshairs.

Grampa’s face firmed up and then went slack. “Lewis, just because you can put words together doesn’t mean you should.”

So that’s what the elderly calling the geriatric old looks like.

Dad ignored my dueling grandfathers and said to Susan, “I wish your sister could have been here.”

Bobbo twisted his face, trying to figure out what to do with the ham in his mouth. “It’s a damn shame. Six years’ sobriety down the drain because people lack common decency.”

Grampa shrugged indifferently, and a surliness settled in his brow. “I’ll never understand that girl.”

“That’s because you’re a horrible father,” Nana said and crossed her arms. “Always have been.”

While everyone gaped at Nana, I glanced at Bobbo, who, with a magician’s sleight of hand, raised his napkin to his mouth, spat out the ham he’d been gnawing on, and whisked it into his lap.

Grampa’s jaw muscles jumped. “You’re the one who raised her.”

Bobbo shook his head, then looked around the table with great seriousness. “Here we go. It’s 1990 all over again. How did anyone think tonight’s reunion was a good idea?”

I sat tall, perched at the edge of my chair, my words ready to drip with perfect grandson elocution. “What happened in 1990?”

Nana smirked, and then that smile spread open. “Ready for the truth, Kevin?” The sound of her impossibly chippy voice was like a dental drill boring a hole through my front tooth.

Grampa gaveled his fist onto the table. “His name is Kaleb, goddamn it.”

Nana didn’t miss a beat. “Well, you’ve always had a memory for boys’ names.”

I gasped, jerked up out of my chair, and dropped my fork. “Pee!”

“Kaleb?” Dad said. His face held concern.

I ran to the stairs. This time I took three steps at a time, but I lost my footing and the stairs slammed into my face, stars bursting through my head. Dazed, my arms kept moving and I climbed the stairs on all fours, making it to my feet at the top, then drifted into the bathroom.

I turned on the light and examined my reflection in the mirror, halfway expecting to see a river of blood flowing down my face. To my disappointment, I only had a puffy, silver-dollar-sized red spot near my temple. I toyed with the idea of finishing what I started and really pissing this wound off to get out of dinner, but I knew I’d never do that.

Instead, I snaked my phone from my pocket and checked my Instagram feed. Still no update from Becky Torres. I rushed over to the window to check on the van. That fucker hadn’t moved an inch. The 3-1-1 app had said they’d escalated my request to 9-1-1, but where was the urgency? Flames were consuming my house and the firefighters stopped to pick up a nice flan on the way.

Anxiety squeezed my heart. Maybe deleting the 3-1-1 app had negated my request.

I opened WhatsApp and clicked on Mondo’s thread.

Me: Anything?

Mondo: He responded with an emoji of a cricket.

Me: Ducking shit

Duck

Fuck

This dinner feels like it’s ten hours long

Mondo: Want to bust out?

Me: Can’t

I got bribed to stick this out

I shoved my phone back in my pocket and flicked off the light. A loud thud from the bathtub startled me, and a weird grunt escaped from my mouth. I ratcheted my head toward the tub and flipped the light on again.

I took hesitant steps, swiping the plunger next to the toilet for use as a weapon. I cocked it back, ready to knock the block off anyone or anything in the tub. With trembling fingers, I clutched the edge of the shower curtain and yanked it open.

Before me stood Julie, my stepmother’s younger sister—no make-up, vulnerable green eyes, maybe the most beautiful woman I’d ever met. She wore a yellow T-shirt and a navy-blue hoodie zipped up halfway. Her jeans were cropped and distressed, and she had on black Keds.

I stashed the plunger behind my back. “What are you… uh, hi?”

“I had to get out of that place. If only for the night.”

I didn’t know the nitty-gritty about her situation, but from what I’d pieced together, Julie had a rough go of it during college and fell in with a bad crowd. That ended with her dropping out and hitting the bottle from both ends to “transcend from party girl to raging alkie”—her words, not mine. Somewhere along the way, she hit rock-bottom and went to rehab. She’d gotten sober and had walked the straight and narrow for six years, finishing her degree and getting a respectable job at an ad agency, but she slipped up again.

“Uh, wow. So… does Susan know you’re here?”

“It was a mistake. Of all the days to show up!” Her eyes flared in the glow of the LED vanity light. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the golden reapers in the same room before.”

“Do you, uh, want to come down and join us?” I asked. If I were in her position, I’d stay in the tub, but I was being selfish. She’d become the conversational centerpiece, providing me with cover fire.

“I should have spit it out instead of finishing the slice,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut so hard and I knew she regretted everything.

She told me then how, six weeks ago, she’d attended a weekend retreat with her company and had eaten a slice of watermelon spiked with vodka. That was all it took. The night ended with her joyriding in her boss’s Mercedes before redecorating the Dillard’s window display with it. Since the ruling, she’d been in rehab at Sunspire Recovery Center.

“I have to go back down. Do you want to hide in my room or something?”

She shrugged as if to say, When life gives you lemons, break out of rehab and hide in your sister’s bathtub. “I’m fine.”

I took in a deep gulp of air and sighed. “I’ll bring you a plate of soup. I mean a bowl of ham. Fuck. I’ll see you soon.”

At the top of the stairs, I looked back at the bathroom door and almost went back in to give her a hug and tell her everything would be okay. Instead, I shuffled downstairs and took my seat between Susan and Dad, who waggled his eyebrows. I could tell he was just as uncomfortable as me.

“—don’t try to change the subject,” Nana snarled at Grampa, and I knew I hadn’t missed much. “You ran around. A lot. What would you call it?”

Grampa stabbed his fork in his ham. “Unsatisfied.”

“You had to go there.” Bobbo whistled a low tone. “Pass the goddamned soup.”

My father settled into his seat like he was about to watch a movie, picked up his wine glass, and elbowed me in the arm. This was him telling me to relax, that everything would be fine, that these people’s problems weren’t mine and I didn’t need to worry about them.

My phone buzzed. I didn’t really care anymore, so I pulled it out.

Mondo: Becky just posted

Me: Oh shit!!!!!

I opened Instagram and went directly to Becky’s profile. The latest post was an inspirational quote over a melancholy blue background:

“No matter how hard the past is, you can always begin again.” – Buddha

Me: Is that good or bad?????

Mondo: idk

Me: Can’t tell if she broke up or got back together with him

“Kid!” Lewis shouted. “What are you fiddling with down there?”

My gaze snapped to attention and met his eyes.

“Pass me that dish, would you?” He pointed to the white bowl sitting in front of me.

I placed my phone between my legs and nudged the soup next to the gravy.

Lewis poked at the two different dishes, both filled with viscous, olive-colored liquids. “Kind of a weird consistency, are they not? Help your granddad out. Which one’s the soup?”

“I, uh… maybe they’re both soup?” I couldn’t focus anymore. I needed to know what was happening across the street. And in the tub upstairs. Maybe I’d misread the quote. Maybe I misheard the degree of anxiety in Julie’s voice. I waffled between waiting outside so I could see Adán plod down the street heartbroken, crying, getting exactly what he deserved, and going upstairs and crawling into the tub like Julie.

“One of them is gravy, the other a butternut squash soup,” Susan said, fiddling with her napkin.

I surveyed the table and noticed Bobbo had been the only one to try Dad’s cooking. Not even Dad had taken a bite.

“David worked hard on those.” The pep in Susan’s voice sounded forced. “This was supposed to be a meet and greet, but y’all have been fighting since you got here. And rude. So rude. We all need to work harder. Be better.”

Grampa set his empty wine glass on the table. “You remember when you were growing up and we had the rule at the table that children should be seen and not heard?” He directed this look of total disgust aimed at Susan. “You’ll always be my child.” Then he relaxed and did that chuckle thing again.

Susan curled up inside herself, looking as small as I felt. I wished Dad would stand up for her, but he just squirmed in his chair and looked in the direction of this ugly painting of a pink flamingo sniffing its crotch, which Susan had spotlighted in the dining room.

Lewis fumbled with the centerpiece again, rearranging the flowers into a total mess and stacking the stripped petals in a half-circle around the top of his plate.

I felt commotion around my feet and then heard a thump. Grampa jerked and stared daggers at Bobbo while rubbing his leg. “Fine.” Grampa shifted his gaze to Dad. “Butternut squash is usually orange, right? Now… which one’s orange? I’m going colorblind in my old age.”

Dad waited a moment before prying his eyes off the flamingo and studying the pair of dishes. “That’s… a good question.” His gaze jumped between the two dishes before landing on the one to his right. “That one. I think.”

Grampa snorted.

Dad sunk in his chair. I wanted to run away for him. Maybe I’d go back to the bathroom and see Julie. Becky’s dilemmas were kid dilemmas; Julie had real problems, and she faced them head-on, like an adult. She didn’t just post cryptic messages on Instagram, stringing everyone along.

“I’d love to try David’s soup.” With greedy eyes, Bobbo slid the dish toward his bowl. “It looks spectacular, and this meal has been a splendid surprise right from the start.”

“Thanks, but there’s no need.” Dad threw his napkin on the table. “No one else is eating. I know when I’ve failed.” He slid his plate away. “Guess we should have ordered takeout.”

Bobbo straightened his posture, commanding attention. “No, David, you’ve done a great job tonight, and I speak for all of us when I say thank you. Right, Glen?” He nudged Grampa.

Grampa saw where Bobbo was headed and sighed. Shaking his head, he ladled a small portion of soup for himself, then dished out a near-overflowing amount into Bobbo’s bowl. We all watched with intrigue, including Dad.

The old men’s chess game continued with Bobbo smirking at Grampa. “How’s school, Kaleb?” Bobbo’s voice boomed, breaking the trance around the table.

“Okay, I guess.” My voice was so small. Everyone turned an eye on me. I wanted to impress these horrible people with my honors math and my many As across my pre-AP classes. Maybe they would like me, and maybe that would cause them to warm up to Dad. Instead, I came up with, “I’m failing history.”

Grampa snorted again.

“That’s the trouble with the youth today.” Lewis sat up in his chair, his horse teeth in full display. “They don’t care about what’s come before them, and they will make the same mistakes, leading to their ultimate demise.

“Like maybe preventing climate change?” I asked.

“Say again?”

Now I sat taller. “You could have done something to prevent my generation’s demise. You know, not pumping CFCs into the ozone, dumping all your trash and chemicals into the ocean, and exhausting all the natural resources instead of implementing sustainability.”

“I… that’s absurd. I recycle. My beer cans. Soda cans. Lots of good recycling. Glass. Plastic sometimes. You kids, with your phones—”

“I can’t even vote yet.” I looked Grampa in the eyes. “You know why I’m failing history? Because I refused to write a paper on the opposing views of the Holocaust. Like ‘How did the concentration camps make the Nazi’s feel?’”

Nana slightly shook her head. “You might as well write a paper on the benefits of non-voting, non-working women, squeezing out an endless supply of baby extremists.”

There was fire in Grampa’s eyes. “My father fought in the Battle of Anzio against those Nazi bastards. Those scumbags didn’t feel anything but hatred. What in the goddamned hell are they teaching at that school?”

I leaned forward and formed a steeple with my fingers. “That was after I failed a different paper for citing slavery as the cause for false white superiority in America, which isn’t allowed anymore because it can hurt some student’s feelings. My teacher says I’m openly rebelling against education and perpetuating racism by keeping the conversation alive.”

Grampa’s face twisted.

Dad bounced his head up and down in small, violent movements like a pecking chicken who’d found a choice pile of scratch feed. “We have a meeting with the school board, but it doesn’t look good. They just banned Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr. Something about the blending of race and religion being too controversial for young and impressionable minds.” Dad patted my back. “But we’re going to get through this. The rest of the country can’t be this insane.”

Everyone nodded, and for once I felt like we’d all come together and everything would be great. Maybe Dad’s dinner wasn’t a success, but our connection as a family should be stronger than a meal. Our core values and beliefs were aligned, with pure human decency uniting us.

“Blurgh!” Grampa broke into a rattling coughing fit. The mean old man had tried the soup. He mouthed the word water before hacking into his napkin again.

Bobbo, not wanting to be on the wrong side of Grampa, did his own taste-test. His eyes lit up, and he suppressed a cough, then snatched his wine from the table and drank heartily. “David.” Bobbo choked, eyes watering. “It’s a tad spicy.”

“How spicy?” Nana’s eyes flashed with concern. “You know I don’t do hot. Not even when it’s pie.”

Bobbo’s distress was evident with his sweaty brow and runny nose, but he played it off like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “This soup, if that’s what this is, is sweet and savory. I love the hint of ginger mixed with the not-so-subtle heat.” He wiped his puffy, swelling mouth.

With haunted eyes, Dad poured water from the glass pitcher into Grampa’s and Bobbo’s empty wine glasses. “So sorry.”

Grampa sucked down the water, small streams dribbling down his chin and onto his shirt. “That’s not soup. It’s tongue terrorism. It’s mouth—”

Bobbo cleared his throat loudly, shutting up Grampa, both their faces on the verge of turning purple.

I imagined this soup as a form of cosmic karma: This golden-rager with his bilious attitude got exactly what he deserved. I liked Bobbo, though. He was the only one of the four who had even attempted kindness. Still, at the end of the evening, everyone would blame Dad for tonight sucking.

My phone buzzed between my legs.

Then it buzzed again.

And again.

Then one last time.

“I’m not trying that.” Nana grabbed Lewis’s hand. “It’ll wreck my innards. Tell them, Lewis.”

I sat up in my chair and slid my phone out enough to investigate the commotion. Mondo had texted four times—buzz—make that five. I scanned the table to see if anyone would notice me taking a peek at my phone.

Lewis’s head tilted up, a small stack of petals balanced on his nose. With a burst of air from his mouth, the petals launched into the air and plopped into his wine glass. A slight flush colored his face. “They were supposed to float like feathers.”

“Curse of the in-laws tonight,” Grampa muttered to Bobbo. “Who the hell pairs butternut squash with jalapeños?” Grampa’s eyes met my own. “I hope for your sake that incompetence doesn’t run in the family.”

At this moment, I begged the universe for Dad to defy Susan’s wishes, that he would stand up for himself and kick them out. Susan hadn’t uttered a word since Grampa had shut her down and now it was all on Dad.

“Buuurrrrp—hic!” Grampa wiped his eyes. “Goddamned hot hiccups. You’re lucky you’re married to my daughter, David. The good one, not the criminal.”

I exploded from my chair. “You’re a cruel man. You’re all mean.” I swiveled my head toward the stairs. My cheeks burned white-hot as I set my gaze back on Grampa. “You’re out of touch… with everyone. Just because you’re old, it doesn’t make you better than us. I know you resent Julie like you resent your entire family. And Dad and I are just more burdens for you. If you have no intention of connecting with us, then what are you even doing here? You owe my dad and Susan an apology.” Tears streamed down my face, but all I felt was my combusting anger.

Dad put his hand on my wrist and gently tugged it, trying to get me to sit down. I yanked free.

“This whole time we’ve been trying hard to make a good first impression, but what’s the point? Nothing would ever be good enough. You’re a heartless man who enjoys hurting others. I bet the people sitting at this table are the only ones you have left. You haven’t even congratulated Dad and Susan on their marriage. Can’t you act like—”

Susan dropped her wine glass and stood. “Oh my god.”

Julie rushed down the stairs and gave Susan a huge hug. “I’m sorry. I needed to see family. The group wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t mean to barge in.”

My phone buzzed in my hand. I unlocked it and read Mondo’s messages.

Mondo: It happened!!!!!!!

She did it!!!!!

Now’s your chance

Gogogogogogogogogogo

Hello?

WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU!!!!??????

I ran to the front and swung the door open to reveal a guy in his mid-twenties, wearing khaki shorts and a plain white T-shirt, holding two giant paper bags, extending his finger toward the doorbell. He jolted backward. “Oh, hey.” He held one of the bags out to me. “I’ve got an order for Susan Gonzalez.”

“What is it?”

“Chinese food, man. Total is”—he inspected the ticket stapled to the top of the bag—“$82.54”

That’s when I remembered the one-hundred-dollar bill in my pocket.

The delivery guy scanned the ticket again. “This the right place?”

“Yeah.” I pulled out the bill and handed it to the delivery guy who set the bags down near me. “Keep the change.”

His eyes lit up. “Thanks man!” He studied the bill. “Most times I get stiffed. You made my night.” He strutted away like he was top dog.

When I got to the table, the mood had calmed somewhat. I set the bags on the table.

Lewis was the first to spot me. “What’s that?”

All the heads in the room swiveled in my direction.

Susan took one of the bags from me. “Chinese. David’s idea.”

Grampa wiped his tearing-up eyes and blotted his sweating forehead, then chuckled. “You’re a funny guy, David. You really had me going. I love Chinese.” He locked his aim on me. “You got guts, Kaleb. But don’t ever talk to me like that again.”

Lewis rubbed his hands together, staring at the bags. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Dad smiled at Susan and me and mouthed the words, Thank you.

Nana rummaged through the bags. “What? No egg rolls?”

The doorbell rang.

“Speak of the devil.” The twinkle in Susan’s eye had returned. “I’d never forget the eggrolls, Mom.” She winked at me. “Make sure there’s sweet and sour sauce.”

“Got it.” I strolled to the door and opened it.

Two police officers dressed in black towered over me. I can’t explain it, but the way they stared at me, that look of suspicion, made me feel guilty. “Someone at this residence reported a stolen van from the Sunspire Recovery Center.”

“Stolen?”

“Have you been in contact with Julie Noble?” The officer on the left said as he tried to get a good look inside the house.

“It’s okay, Kaleb,” Julie said from behind me.

As I stepped onto the patio, the officers marched into the house.

It was in this moment I knew I didn’t want to be an adult with major league problems. I had enough trouble navigating seventh grade and my church softball team.

My feet took me beyond Julie’s getaway van and straight to Becky Torres’s front yard, where she sat on a decorative bench, puling. I wandered over and sat beside her.

“Rough night?” I asked.

She rubbed her eyes and sniffled, her gaze focused on her shoes. She was so pretty, even though her mucous factory of a nose was in full production. “Yeah.”

Meanwhile, the officers exited my house with Julie in cuffs and escorted her to their cruiser.

“Me too.”

She pointed her magnificent brown eyes at me. “Can I ask you something?”

Though my pulse raced, I inched my hand near hers, feeling her heat, our energies interlacing. The countless hours I spent following her Instagram had prepared me for this moment. I probably knew her better than her friends did. There was no doubt in my mind we weren’t perfect for each other. “You can ask me anything.”

“Who are you?”

==========

AUTHOR BIO:

Rust Strong lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two young children. If he’s not working his day job as a video editor, he’s either wearing his hazmat suit to dispose of toxic diapers or plugging away at his novel.

==========

WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Good First Impression”:

This piece was just so much fun to read with its quirky cast of characters and excellent comedic lines. First-time author Rust Strong paints a cinematic picture that lets us visualize it as if it we were watching it live. He drops in the plot points with perfect timing and keeps the reader off-balance just enough that we’re constantly surprised and amused. And just when we think it’s over and Kaleb will get his long-anticipated reward, we’re hit with that absolutely perfect—and totally unexpected—last line. This is humor well done, and that’s why we chose to publish it.