Family Dinner

As a ten-year-old, I watched my father and brother have it out for the first time on the family room floor.  At the time I didn’t know it would be the first in a string of many fights between them: some verbal, some physical. 

We had dinner together most nights. Tonight, the main course was meatloaf, made in the only way our family would eat it: without the sauce, onions, or much more than just ground beef. My older sister Leigh sat across the kitchen table from younger brother Stephen. Baby brother Keith played with his mushed carrots and peas a few feet away in his high chair. 

We were just about to say grace when my oldest brother, Chad, came out from his room on the other side of the table. He was an imposing six foot five and pushing two-hundred-eighty pounds. “Who’s been in my room?” he asked through his shaggy hair; his eyes scanning the room. 

Mom put her utensils down and sighed. “I did. I went in there to get your laundry.”

Chad’s hands flew up and grabbed the hair on top of his head; a tense laugh escaped his mouth. “That’s my stuff, Mom! You don’t just go in my room,” he said through clenched teeth.

“You don’t talk to your mother like that, Chad,” Dad said, his brow creased; trading his look of fatigue for the look of barely contained anger.

“This is bullshit! She has no right to go into my room! That’s my stuff—”

Dad’s attempt to contain his anger failed. “You don’t use that kind of language in this house!” He paused and wiped white spittle from the corners of his mouth. “If you bring your damn drugs into this house, she has every right to go in your room. This is our house and she’s your mother!”

“Oh— Screw you, ‘dad!’ She’s not my mother. I’m the adopted kid!”

My siblings and I sat, frozen. The meatloaf sat untouched and growing cold. The carrots and peas laid motionless in little Keith’s high chair tray. Every set of eyes remained focused down at their plates. At least three of us were blinking in an attempt to ward away tears.
 
Dad jumped out of his seat. “You don’t talk like that in this house!”

Chad advanced toward the table and Dad. “I’ll talk however I want! You’re not my real dad!”
 
Mom clamped her hand over her mouth. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she stifled a cry. No one knows who swung first because none of us were looking.

I sat at the chair opposite the struggle and saw the two of them crash into my field of vision as the fighting began. Chad, despite being only fourteen, was larger than most grown men and he knew it. Dad tried to throw his adopted son to the ground, but Chad threw him to the ground instead by advantage of sheer size.
 
Punches flew accompanied by guttural grunts and muffled curse words. Before the scuffle, Chad spoke like a man; squaring off with a man three times his age. Now, the voice of a boy cried from the ground, “What are you doing, Dad? Why are you hitting me?”

“Stop!” Mom pleaded through her sobs. “Please stop.”

The two men glared at each other. Dad’s eyes softened, pulling himself up and offering a hand to his son on the floor. Chad refused to take it and instead, rolled over and got up on his own.

 “I love you both. Please. Let’s sit down and finish dinner,” Mom said, wiping her tears as her forced smile quivered.

“I’m not eating,” Chad said, chest still puffed up and heaving as he stormed out the door.
 
Dad said nothing but took his place back at the table. Dinner was never quite the same from that day on.