On the eve of Robbie’s departure, the party at the Tirabis’ had been seven days in the making and it showed. There were kids everywhere, the youngest, a ten-year old girl named Arianna who lived across the street, and had snuck out of her bedroom window to see Gil, her secret crush. They’d been palling around all night, hanging together on the tire swing and talking about “stuff.” Gil tolerated her attentions with more than the modicum of interest he reserved for family members and appeared to be enjoying himself until Arianna tried to hold his hand. Rattled, he mumbled something about forgetting to feed the fish, ran inside and locked himself in his room for the duration of the evening. Robbie checked on him around 10 o’clock, picking the lock with a dexterity indigenous to burglars and jewel thieves, and found him lying on his bed, fully clothed and dead asleep. No amount of nudging would rouse him so Robbie removed Gil’s shoes and turned off the light.
For her part, Aunt Stella sat in the kitchen like a sentry on her watch, guarding the troops, restocking and rearranging the platters of food, and looking for signs of unruly visitors. When the cops came, drawn by complaining neighbors, Aunt Stella sent them packing, a meatball sandwich in one hand and a baggie full of her homemade goodies in the other. She and Avery had spent every day after school huddled together in her kitchen, churning out cookies by the hundreds, along with appetizers, salads and sides, tireless kitchen warriors armed only with whisks, spatulas and carving knives.
But now, at 11 o’clock, Aunt Stella was feeling the pull as she wearily collected the night’s refuse.
Robbie burst in as if escaping. “All this talking and hugging and girls crying. I’m starving. Anything left?” He peered under the lids of the various crock pots lining the counter, savoring the aromas in each. “I haven’t eaten a thing since lunchtime,” he said, spearing a meatball with a plastic fork. He popped it in his mouth and slumped against the counter, eyes closed, chewing.
“What do you want? Pork, chicken, or meatball sandwich?” Aunt Stella asked.
“One of each,” he said. He grabbed her around her substantial mid-section, picked her up and squeezed her.
Aunt Stella blushed, at a loss for words. “Oh my.”
Robbie set her down and kissed her on both cheeks.
“You’re the best, Aunt Stella. Thanks,” he said, waving a hand over the mounds of food still crowding the counter. He grabbed a plate and made a sandwich. “For everything.”
“What about this plastic ware?” she asked, holding up a grimy spoon. “Shall I wash it?”
“Nah. What for?”
“I was thinking of your mother and how that would probably be something that would happen in Ruth’s kitchen,” Stella answered.
Robbie’s face changed, but he kept chewing. “Fair enough,” he said, mouth full to capacity. “In honor of Ruth.” He stuck a used plastic fork in the dishwasher.
Aunt Stella loaded the cache of utensils awaiting dispensation from the sink into the dishwasher. “In honor of Ruth,” she said. She closed it, turning her attention to the disarray of the dessert tray on the table, less to restore order than to avert her watery eyes from Robbie’s careful gaze. When she had regained her composure, she said. “This is your two-hour warning. At one o’clock, the entire lot of them in the backyard are going to turn into pumpkins. That means I want to see them getting in their cars and heading home. Those that can’t drive can sleep down there,” she said, indicating the basement. “And if anyone thinks there’s going to be any funny business, they better think again. Cause Aunt Stella’s on patrol.”
She smacked Robbie’s arm and shuffled off to the living room to catch the 11 o’clock news and a catnap before her next shift began.
The next morning, Robbie rose at four so he could shower and collect his thoughts before his ride arrived. At six a.m., a car horn beeped. They were all sitting in the kitchen again, drinking warm beverages to fight the chill of the coming loss. Robbie gathered his brothers and sisters to him, one by one, enveloping them in his large, bear-like arms before collecting his things.
He climbed in the back seat, rolled down the window and patted his heart twice while the rest of the Tirabi’s stood on the front porch, waving, holding each other like war orphans. Robbie watched them watching him as the view diminished and the space between them stretched out into infinity.
to be continued. . .
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