By John Thomas Tuft

The `68 Impala station wagon turned in at the bottom of the hill and drove slowly past the rowhouses of the old company town. The small clapboard homes are arrayed in neat rows so that if you stood on a porch at one end and looked down the block, they all lined up, post after post of greying whitewash. The monotony is interrupted only by a splash of the occasional green painted porch swing hanging on rusted chains, swaying in the strong breeze that swept in from the mountain to the west, emitting faint squeaks in anticipation of weary souls seeking their solace. Jerry steers the blue behemoth past the first row, climbing the narrow street to High End, a row of exactly the same houses with exactly the same folks living inside of them. With the surrounding mountains and narrow valley formed by the North Branch of some river, it could be a mining town, maybe logging, or some sort of a mill. Jerry felt fortunate that he paid the company the extra money for an end house, meaning only one shared wall and a view out the two small windows facing east.

He parked in his coveted spot and trudged up the stairs, shaking his head as usual at the pink and lavender paint job of the swing claiming its spot proudly at the end of the High End row, daring the neighbors to give it a second glance. Switching the old tin lunch pail to the other hand, he inserted the key and crossed the threshold to home. “Papa!” Twelve-year-old Penny looked up from the kitchen table where she’d been writing in her diary. “I’ll get your dinner now.” Jerry looked at her as though seeing her for the first time in a long while. When had she gotten so thin? He wondered. And her eyes, they weren’t as bright and lively as he remembered. A sigh escaped before he could stop it. “Papa? What’s wrong?” She shut the diary and came to him. “Nothing, child. I’m fine. What have you been up to today?” He touched her cheek with fingers coated in the grime of hard labor. She rewarded him with a smile that tugged at his spirits.

“How was school, Pen Pen?” She half-frowned, half giggled at him using the old nickname from her childhood. He noticed her jeans sagged at her waist and stopped above her ankles. When did she grow so much? And her shirt…he stopped, something about it didn’t seem right. But he couldn’t put his finger on it. Not yet. “Go wash up, Papa and I’ll get supper on the table.” Jerry tossed his lunch pail on the table. It slid across the shiny surface and knocked the diary to the floor. Penny was busy at the refrigerator as he bent to pick it up. “Dear Mama,” read the notation at the top of the open page. He couldn’t help but read the neat, curly writing. “Papa is so sad. We both miss you so much. Tonight we remember…” It ended there where she’d been interrupted. He quietly closed it. The shirt…it was Ami’s, her favorite, with a painted peacock in full display. Of course.

As he washed up, Jerry stared hard in the mirror at the man he was becoming. “Help me,” he whispered to the image. “I can’t. Not alone…” Penny’s voice summoned him back. He sat down to the feast she prepared: hot dogs, mac and cheese, green beans, and sweet tea. It was only then that he noticed the third place, set for the one no longer with them. Penny reached for his hand, a blessing in and of itself. “Say Mama’s blessing. Do you remember?” He swallowed hard and nodded. “At…at this…” He had to stop. Penny chimed in, “At this table, all are welcome. At this table…” she squeezed his hand, and it gave Jerry strength. “At this table, there are no strangers.” He closed his eyes, memories flooding every seed of his soul.

“At this table, we are free. At this table, all believe.” He opened his eyes to find his daughter staring at him, tears in her eyes. “At this table, all are fed.” They said the thanksgiving together, their voices growing stronger, catching the breeze that stirred the air and wafted out the windows facing east, across the North Branch, and shaking the mountain to the west. “At this table, all are loved. At this table, we find grace. At this table, this holy place. At this table…” They stopped and Penny laid her head against her father’s chest. “Mama,” she said, “we remember.”

And when they finished the blessing, he took a piece of hot dog bun, broke it off, and gave it to her. And Penny took a forkful of mac and cheese and gave it to him. And when they had finished, they took their glasses of sweet tea, clinked them together and drank until they were satisfied. Then they sang Mama’s favorite song, as they danced around the table, laughing at the memories and the times yet to come. When they were done, they collapsed onto their chairs. “Ami loves us,” said Jerry. “Mama loves us,” uttered Penny. And he took her hand, looked into her eyes and said, “And, Pen Pen, if God made you, He’s in love with me. We can clean this up together.” And they did.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.