From WTP Vol. VI #8
Bird’s Nest Soup
By Heidi Stauff
Every Mother’s Day, Ren’s husband takes her to The Golden China Buffet with the gift certificate her daughter sends. This year, Jacob still takes her but pays out of his own pocket.
“I’m going up for more crab legs. You want anything?” Jacob asks, pushing his plate of empty claws to the edge of the table for the waitress to take.
“Oh, no, I’m stuffed,” Ren says.
“You sure? Gotta get our eight bucks worth.” Jacob laughs and pats his stomach.
“Well, maybe one of those little fried donuts then,” Ren says. “If they’re fresh.”
“Okie-dokie.” Jacob slides to the edge of the booth. He takes a breath, then braces himself with both hands to push up from the seat.
Ren watches him shuffle through the line. The girl in front of him reaches under the glass partition for the chicken broccoli, and her shirt rides up her back—a pink triangle of thong peeks out from the top of her jeans. Ren waits for him to notice. He does.
The man behind Jacob heaps food onto a plate while holding the arm of a toddler wearing the same Hello Kitty shirt Ren mailed to her grandbaby—the one her daughter, Ava, sent back with that awful note, still blaming her for something that happened twenty years ago.
Mom, until you are ready to take responsibility for your part in what happened, stop sending me things for Kaylee.
The toddler in the Hello Kitty shirt swings back and forth in her father’s grip, bumping into the back of Jacob’s legs, almost knocking him into the thong girl. Jacob turns around. The father apologizes.
Jacob waves it off, stoops to pat the child’s head. Age has shriveled him like the dried apricots he snacks on. His skin is delicate as crepe paper around his eyes and neck. Age spots map his balding head like faded continents. Sometimes, for a second, Ren doesn’t recognize him in a crowd, still searching for the younger version of him when they first met. Jacob admitted he did the same thing, especially when she let her hair go gray. Ren laughs to herself, remembering him poking fun at the pair of them. Who’s that old bald guy getting in my car? Who’s that gray-haired lady getting the mail?
She watches him run his hand over his head as he waits in line. What’s left of his hair is like the down fuzz on the baby birds Ava rescued every spring as a child, finding them fallen from their nests somehow, lying naked and helpless on the lawn. No matter what Ren did, she couldn’t save them. They were too young, too fragile—blind, featherless things with gaping mouths she could never satisfy with her homemade formula of bread and milk. How Ava cried when they died. Jacob had said, It’s nature taking its course. Only the strongest survive.
Ren remembers this as she watches Jacob drum the buffet table with his slender fingers. She loves his hands, even now mottled from sun and age. They always reminded her of elegant birds—fluttering whenever he tells a story, a cigarette perched between his fingers or cradling a long stemmed wine glass. Her own hands seemed small and stubby nested in his.
She remembers how after Ava’s father left, she went dormant and cold, like the geckos Ava tried to save at the end of every summer, reserving all her energy just to survive as a single mom. Jacob jolted her awake with his booming laugh, captivated her with his colorful stories—with his hunger to know her, to consume her every detail with his sharp mind and those long nimble fingers. Wherever they went, his presence filled the room, drawing people to him like insects around Ren’s porch light. When he left for his own apartment at night, the house became a tomb, leaving her gasping for him like air. When Ren introduced eight-year-old Ava to Jacob, Ava was polite but distant, as if he were an eccentric uncle that would eventually go home if she waited long enough. Ren had hoped Ava would thaw over time.
When Jacob gets his turn at the crab, he scowls into the pan and pokes the leftovers with a pair of metal tongs then flags down a passing waitress who scurries to the back for more. The people behind him fidget as Jacob picks his teeth with a toothpick, holding up the line as he waits for fresh legs. Age hasn’t diminished his appetite any.
He returns with a heaping dish of crab, slides back into the booth and tucks his napkin into his collar. Ren watches him rip the legs from their joints and crack open their exoskeletons.
He slips the white flesh from its casing and holds it up between his thumb and forefinger. “Look at that—a perfect whole piece. It pays to wait for the fresh stuff.” He smiles, a white strand caught in his teeth. “They get old quick, then stick inside their shell and are impossible to get out. Not worth the trouble.”
“Do you think Ava will call?” she asks.
He shrugs, snaps another leg in two and sucks out the insides. “I doubt it after that last conversation.”
“I miss my grandbaby,” Ren says.
Jacob swirls a fat chunk of crab meat into a ramekin of melted butter, then pops it into his mouth. Butter runs down his chin and drips onto his napkin. “You sure you don’t want to try some? These normally cost twenty dollars a pound.”
She shakes her head. She hates their fishy smell. “Don’t you have a fishing trip coming up in New England? I could surprise her. You could drop me off and pick me up on your way back.”
“It’s not on the way,” Jacob says. “It’s two hundred miles out of the way.” He points a claw at her. “In fact, it’s clear across the state in the wrong direction.”
“We haven’t seen them in a year.”
“Then invite them over. Tell her you want to start fresh.”
“You know she won’t. She already told us she won’t. Her and her boundaries.” Wet crab cartilage sticks to the tabletop. “The baby will forget who I am.”
Jacob crushes a claw with a silver nutcracker, sending a fine spray into the air, hitting Ren’s cheek. She frowns and scrubs at it with a napkin.
Jacob says, “Why don’t you take the train up and surprise her? What is she going to do, turn her sixty-eight-year-old mother out onto the street?”
“But what about you?”
Jacob opens a foil packet and unfolds a moist towelette. He pulls his fingers through it, smells them, then pulls them through again.
“I don’t know why she’s being like this. You were like a father to her. The only one she ever knew, anyway. These innuendos about innocent things that happened twenty years ago—they’re sick.”
Jacob pulls his napkin out of his collar and wipes his mouth. “Well, you can’t trust the memories of a troubled adolescent. She did so many drugs as a teenager, it’s a wonder she remembers her own name.”
Ren crosses her arms. She doesn’t like the way he says troubled adolescent, like he’s quoting a statistic from a newspaper. She shakes her head. “No, it’s that lousy counselor and his hypnosis psycho-babble, filling her head with ideas.”
He nods in agreement. “Right. Instead of making her take responsibility for her failures, he convinces her we are to blame.”
Originally from New England, Heidi Stauff currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, where she lives with her husband and two children. A former professional musician and singer, Heidi is working on a collection of short stories and a novel.