Maria Garson, despite her last name was one hundred percent Italian, and since her mother died felt it was her duty to carry on the tradition of the big Sunday Family Dinner. At sixty years old and standing all of four feet eleven inches she was a dominating force both inside and out of the Garson family. Her long hours presiding in the kitchen hadn’t affected her high school weight of 90 pounds soaking wet.
Maria explained her youthful figure by simply saying “There’s a fine line between being dainty and dumpy, and I want to be on the right side of it.” That, however, did not stop her from trying to fatten up everyone who sat down to her table.
The Garson clan, with children, grandchildren and various invited friends would gather every Sunday to a typical Maria Garson food orgy. Although her husband, Etienne Garson, sat at the head of the table like the patriarch, it was Maria who really ran the show and he had the good sense to know it. Etienne was a big man as the result of Maria’s cooking. With his curly grey hair and bright blue eyes he still radiated that French charm which captivated Maria so many years ago.
Greg normally looked forward to these Sunday gatherings, but today he dreaded it. The normal cacophony of conversation was muted today. Everyone knew. How couldn’t they? Nothing in his family remained a secret for more than 10 seconds. Even if they didn’t know what was going on, Debbie and the kids’ absence at the table signaled that something was wrong. Greg’s glum and taciturn demeanor only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere.
He had come late to his parents house, not sure if he even wanted to show. But, habit and duty finally drove him off his office couch and out to dinner.
Everyone was sitting down in the dining room when he arrived. The table, large enough to accommodate the food and the people could have doubled as an aircraft carrier. Greg and Tony, along with his sister Anna Marie’s husband Ralph had lovingly built it for Maria on her fifty-sixth birthday. It was made of cherry wood, stained, finished and buffed to a deep lustrous brown.
When he entered, Greg felt all eyes on him and was convinced that everyone had stopped talking.
Mumbling, apologies, he took his usual place next to his father. While his seat was empty, he noted that no place had been left for Debbie and the kids. He was expected but they were not.
After he sat down the talking resumed, but at a much quieter volume. The normal freewheeling chaos of the typical Sunday dinner was gone, sucked out when he entered. It was like he had contracted a terrible disease and no one knew what to say.
Etienne reached over and gave his son’s hand a squeeze. Greg felt his eyes start to glisten. His father was a quiet man who often acted on his emotions rather than to speak them. That simple gesture nearly overwhelmed him. He wanted nothing more than to feel his father’s arms around him and draw comfort from his strength and protection.
It wasn’t until the dessert, cannoli, cakes and coffee, was served, and the children had left the table that Anne Marie took charge. Five years his senior, Anne Marie saw herself as Maria’s chief lieutenant and ultimate successor. Barely five feet tall with lustrous black hair, Anne Marie was a virtual clone of her mother.
When they were children, she had earned the nickname “Lucy” from the Peanuts comic strip by the neighborhood kids due to her bossy nature. It was a nickname of which she was proud. While bossy, and blunt to the point of sometimes being rude, Anne Marie was fiercely protective of her younger brothers, Greg and Bobby. Growing up, no one in the neighborhood messed with or bullied the Garson boys out fear of Anne Marie. Her size never worked against her. Ann Marie was famous for making boys twice her size run home in terror.
Now, in her self-appointed role, Anne Marie decided to address the issue that everyone was trying to avoid.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she said, waiting for the noise to die down. “Look, we all know what’s going with Greg. We need to let him know that we all,” here she paused to look down the table, “ support him. I don’t know what that woman is thinking, but she’s not going to drag him down or keep him away from his children, and us from our niece and nephew.”
Embarrassed, Greg mumbled, “It’s ok, A-M.”
She fixed with that look, “No, it’s not ‘Ok’, but it will be.”
“Jeez, Lucy, what are you going to do? Beat her up like you did Adam Fraser when he kissed my girlfriend in seventh grade?” Bobby said and was promptly elbowed by his redheaded wife, Brooke. If Anne Marie was Maria’s lieutenant, Brooke was Anne Marie’s enforcer.
“No, Bobby, what we are going to do is provide help to Greg. First, Mama told me that you refuse to move back into your old room.”
Uncomfortable with discussing the matter in public, even if they were family, Greg said, “I don’t want to trouble Mama and Poppa.” He said “Poppa” with a natural French inflection
“No, you’re embarrassed about moving back home. I understand, so you’ll move in with me and Ralph. You’ll have the guest room.”
Greg looked to Ralph for support but found none. Ralph smiled and said, “She’s right. We have the room, and you’re always welcome.”
Before Greg could say another word, Ann Marie said, “It’s settled then. You’ll come over tonight.”
Knowing that he could never stand up to the irresistible force that was his sister, Greg bowed to the inevitable.
Bobby, never one to allow tact to slow him down, asked, “So, how’s the divorce going?”
Marie who just came back with a fresh pot of coffee gave her youngest a disapproving look. Brooke taking a more direct approach kicked him under the table.
“Damned,” Bobby said, reaching down to rub his shin. “I just…”
“You’re just being nosy,” his mother said. “We want to help Greg, not poke into his business.”
“It’s Ok, Mama,” Greg said. Although, he was grateful to her intercession. Like his father, Greg was not a big talker, and didn’t want to go into all the details. It was both embarrassing and painful.
With Maria back in the room, Greg was sure the conversation would veer away from him and onto a safer topic. But, when he glanced over to Ann Marie he knew that this conversation would be continued later tonight at her house.
His relief was short lived as Bobby, true to form opened another uncomfortable area of discussion.
“Have you seen Cody or Katrina?” he asked. Unfortunately, there was no kick from Brooke or withering look from Mama. Everyone wanted to know the answer to this question.
Greg looked down at his coffee cup. He held it between his hands and felt the warmth rising up. The surface of the coffee was covered with a shiny oily cover, looking like some black reflective mirror. He rolled the cup between his palms not really sure what to say.
Conscious that everyone was waiting for an answer, he slowly put the cup down. Greg took a deep breath to calm himself. He really didn’t want to even think about what happened on Friday. The supervised visitation at FVS was horrifying.
“Yeah, a few minutes on Friday.” Greg spoke still looking into his coffee.
“It wasn’t fun. It sucked, I only saw them for half an hour and had some social worker there watch, like I’d hurt them or something,” Greg said. He really didn’t want to into detail.
“That troia,” Mama Garson said, shocking everyone around the table.
“Mama,” began Ann Marie.
“We took that girl in and made her part of the family. But, did she ever, ever act like one? No. She was always acting like we was better than us, and that Greg should be be honored that she married him. He did everything for her, and now, she not only throws him out of the house, but steals my nipoti, my grandchildren from us?”
Heads around the table nodded in agreement.
“So,” Bobby said, “what’s the next step?”
“I don’t know,” Greg said quietly.
# # #
Fitz had told Greg never to call before three because he spent all morning in court and all afternoon returning calls. On Monday, Greg really wanted to call at three on the nose, but also he dreaded reliving Friday. He decided to busy himself with paperwork until 4:30 before making the call.
But, when 4:30 arrived, he just sat at his desk looking at the phone. It was a fancy business system from AT & T which included an intercom system. They sold a repeater which extended the range to half a mile. Greg didn’t need that feature, but the fact that his phone could do that made him proud of the business he’d created.
He looked over at the pictures of Cody and Katty on his desk and felt the ground open beneath him. All the pictures of Debbie were gone. In two cases he’d had to use scissors to get rid of her and keep them. If only life was that easy.
Greg looked back to the job proposal on his desk and started to go through it again. After looking at a couple of pages without really seeing them, he sighed, picked up the phone and punched in Fitz’ number.
“Fitzgerald and Steinberg,this Maya, how can we help you?” said the perky young voice.
“Hi, this is Greg Garson, I’m looking for Fitz,” Greg said.
“Oh, Mr. Garson,” she said with such happiness as if she she had been waiting for his call all day,”no problem, let me place you on hold.”
Greg signed again. He really was not in the mood for perky.
He only had a short wait before Fitz was on the line. Without any preamble, Fitz asked,”Well, how bad was Friday?”
Greg was taken aback, “How did you know Friday was bad?”
“Dude, you were seeing your kids at FVS. It starts bad and gets worse. Lemme guess, she’d been pouring poison in their ears?”
The anger surged out of him.”She’s brainwashing my kids,Fitz and telling them that this, this…” Greg could barely squeeze out the words, “ ‘Uncle Willy’, is their new father.” He was gripping the receiving so hard that his hand started to hurt.
“Can’t say I’m surprised. That bullshit order of protection is typical in these types of cases.”
“Typical, what’s so typical?”
Fitz didn’t seem to notice that Greg was almost shouting. “Middled aged woman with kids. You guys married young? Right, I think she was 20, no college. She’s now what,” Greg heard Fitz shuffling papers,”35? Prime mid-life crisis. She’s afraid that this is all that her life is or will be. She needs to quote, live her own life without you controlling her. Unquote. She needs to quote, be who she was meant to be. Unquote. Quote, she needs to move on with her life. Un-fucking-quote.” Fitz sound both bored and sarcastic.
“That’s BS, Fitz. I gave her everything she wanted. I broke my hump for her and the kids. I never did anything wrong to her. I never stopped her from doing what she wanted to do.” Greg was panting, on the verge of hyperventilating.
“Of course, but, when you’re in the mid-life crisis bullshit becomes truth and logic. She’s blaming you for everything to include her perception that her life sucks. And this is the really depressing part, like all these nimrods going through this extended childish temper tantrum, she equates living life to the fullest with getting laid by someone who’s not her spouse.”
“You’re damned cold. This is my life.”
“I have to be cold. I have to analyze everything without emotion otherwise I’m worthless to you. Truthfully, just between us girls, what do you want to do right now?”
Greg didn’t even have to think about it. He’d been thinking about it all weekend. “I want to take my sledge hammer and crush Willy’s balls and then break Debbie’s legs.”
“And that’s why one of us has to be unemotional. Now, tell me everything that happened Friday.”
A half hour later, Greg was still on the phone, but in reliving that nightmare, felt like he’d run a marathon. His back was sticky with sweat and he was emotionally wrung out.
“Ok, this Vasquez person sounds like an asset. Keeping doing what you’re doing,” Fitz said when Greg had finished.
“Don’t you understand, Fitz, she’s poisoning my kids.” Greg hated the pleading sound in his voice. This wasn’t him. He was strong, and now he was reduced to begging.
“Greg,” Fitz said with a maddening calm,”I do understand, but I can’t do anything right now. Right now, we have to plan. What I am going to say really sucks. I’m a parent, so I get it. I’m asking you to ignore the short game for the long game. Now, right now, she’s winning. No questions about it. But, she’s focusing on the moment and if we focus on the long game we can beat her.”
Greg gripped the phone tightly in his hand. His breathing was harsh and labored. “This isn’t a game, it’s my life and my children’s life. I’m locked out and I’m losing my kids.”
Fitz took a minute to answer. “Greg, a game or war, it’s all the same. We have a goal and we have rules we have to follow to get there. It’s about strategy and planning. Debbie is focused only on this moment. In this moment she has the house and the kids. But, under the rules of the game, this will not be how it ends. To win, you have to plan for tomorrow, not live in the moment. Tomorrow, the house will be sold. Tomorrow, you will have regular contact with your children. Hell, if she screws up you might even get custody. Tomorrow, you will be moving forward with your life, your business, your friends and your family. Debbie? She’s going to a sorry, pathetic person. She’ll never be happy, and will always be blaming someone else for the mess she’s made of her life. Living well, moving forward and Debbie not even being in your thoughts is winning. That and buying a red Corvette to drive around your 19 year old stripper girlfriend.”
The last line made Greg involuntarily laugh. “No, women for me right now. I’m done for the moment.”
“Trust me, that too will change.”
“Fitz, be honest with me, can I get custody?”
He heard a long sigh. “Man, that’s a loaded question. First, the rule generally is that the primary caregiver gets the kids. That’s Debbie. But, and here’s the but, if we can prove that she’s deliberately alienating the kids, a judge may, and I underline, may, find that she’s unfit. A custody battle is painful and expensive, and did I mention expensive and painful?”
“Fitz, I have to do something.”
“Ok, let’s see what we can do.”