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The O'Malley Black Sheep

by Madeleine Vitanza

            The dinner table was a Michelangelo, carefully candled and clad in a snowy cloth of Chantilly lace. Intricately gilded China plates rested upon its walnut face as silver cutlery, polished to reflective quality, twinkled beneath a chandelier of dripping crystal. How could knives appear so beautiful? Both the room and its owners were pristine, not a hair out of place. God forbid a hair was ever out of place in the O’Malley family.

            Peggy Miller, formerly Peggy O’Malley, was the second eldest of five girls, five flawless girls—or such was the belief of outsiders. In childhood, Christmas had been characterized by strappy, patent leather shoes and velveteen frocks with too-tight collars. The holidays were a showcase, a presentation of the next generation of O’Malleys. The grandparents, after all, had vast duties in ensuring a fine and well-rounded upbringing of their grandchildren. It was on this day that the family convened, on this day that the family judged.

            Thirty years later and Christmastime had hardly changed at all. Peggy could smell the tension before she glimpsed the house; it hung in the air as a death-dealing python might dangle from the branches of a jungle tree. The perception of this sinister mood was a sixth sense which only the O’Malleys had mastered.

            From the first night Peggy had brought home Max, they immediately adored him, perhaps more so than her. What with his coiffed hair and stiffly pressed suits and haughty remarks about Wall Street, Max was the spitting image of the O’Malley legacy—and her parents saw it. So, when Peggy’s son, their grandson, came out the way he had, her parents were all the more shocked, all the more disappointed.

            In an attempt to appease, Peggy and Max preceded Christmas dinner by dusting off the annual lecture: Nathan had better be a good boy this year; his grandparents and his aunties would be saddened to see such ill manners. And he didn’t want to make his family sad, now did he? No, so he had best behave himself.

            But the speech, Peggy knew, was pointless. Nathan simply did not work that way, could not work that way. The results of the neuropsychologist’s evaluation, which were well-anticipated by Peggy, had placed her parents in a long-standing echo chamber of denial. Our boy? Autistic? That couldn’t be right. The child was an O’Malley and the O’Malleys did not have problems, certainly not those which involved reduced amounts of brain tissue in the cerebellum. No, there must have been a mistake.

            But no mistaking could be found.

            This was Nathan, and though Peggy was proud of his every inch, her family did not view him through the softened lens of a mother’s eye. She understood the icy glares concealed behind falsely smiling faces, understood them because she was an O’Malley, because she had been schooled in the art of silent, scathing disdain.

            New England winters were cold as all hell. The roads, rivered with moisture from the constant snowfall, often became glazed with a perpetual sheet of black ice that lasted from December well through February. The fatal nature of black ice: it doesn’t seem deadly. In fact, it is almost invisible to the untrained eye, unable to be realized until a moment too late.

            The O’Malley driveway was constantly slicked with black ice.

            Avoiding the scatters of lethal patches as she pulled in, Peggy zig-zagged the Lexus into a dry corner and ushered everyone out of the car. They were already running late; Nathan had not taken kindly to his mother’s quest of ensnaring him within a dreaded checked button-down. About once a week, Max would make his thoughts clear: Nathan, at age thirteen, was far too old to be throwing such tantrums. The man didn’t understand his own son, didn’t even try.

            The stretching papered walls were blanketed with old photographs chronicling sunburnt summers in Nantucket and rosy-cheeked winters at the Vermont house near Sugarbush. There were newer photos, too. Eloise’s son, the first grandchild, starred in many; cake smeared across his infantile lips, a plush bear nestled in his arms—they documented right up to the brim of the high school graduation cap that shaded his chiseled cheekbones. Jenny’s precious twins made several cameos as well: two petite blondes pretty as peaches. Even little Sam was there, grinning at the cameraman as she hoisted up her graduate school degree—not so little anymore. All of it acted as concrete proof; here were the perfect O’Malleys living their perfect lives.

            After Nathan’s diagnosis, Mom and Dad had stopped asking Peggy for photos.


            At the dinner table, the daughters shared details of their past year. Liz’s fiancé had been promoted to CFO; one of the twins was taking up tennis (just as much a braggart as her mother, Mia had jumped at the chance to flaunt the new racquet that Santa Claus had gifted her that morning). Peggy and Max were asked (politely enough) about recent happenings, but Nathan was skipped altogether. Probably best, Peggy thought, so as to avoid an outburst.

            Each year before dessert, the tots would open their packages from Grandma and Grandpa. So, into the parlor they paraded. The spitting fire, which might have offered comfort to the more naïve, threw long, flickering shadows upon the heavy curtains draping the floor-to-ceiling windows. A chill slithered across Peggy’s skin.

            With the wrapping paper torn, knit Christmas sweaters emerged. Not homemade, of course—the O’Malleys would never stoop so low. No, store-bought for the grandkids from a small, absurdly expensive local vendor in the Vineyard. Peggy recognized the scratchy wool fibers (her parents had stuffed her into many an uncomfortable Vineyard sweater in her day) and felt a stab of raw sympathy for the children.

            Nathan must have noticed those itchy strands, too; he furrowed his brows and began to gape his mouth in what would undoubtedly be an ill-received protest. Time ran like pine sap as Nathan’s mother watched his lips part. Then, she let his words escape. Had it been an accident? Or had it been a choice? Peggy wasn’t sure. Perhaps she simply couldn’t stop him in time. Yes, perhaps.

            “I don’t want to put this on. I want dessert.” The statement, so simple and so childlike, suspended in the air like a ticking bomb. The family resigned to stillness—as if that could salvage the moment. But Nathan continued.

            “I want dessert, Mom. I want dessert!” The other children had stopped fumbling with their sweaters; the silence was crippling. The four sisters, with their legs sewn together and their rigid spines swallowed by the crimson cushions of the armchairs, pursed their lips. They swapped loaded, knowing glances as if to say, ‘And didn’t we all expect this?’

            Peggy’s mother hovered in the corner of the room, wringing her hands and darting stormy pupils from Peggy to Nathan to the O’Malleys’ patriarch. Peggy chuckled inwardly. Mom couldn’t have concealed her emotions if she had tried.

            Following her mother’s thunderous, sweeping gaze, Peggy found her father—a sculpture of stone. All at once, a terrible fist of rage clenched his marbled features. As suddenly as it had arrived, it disappeared.

            “Let’s all head into the kitchen for some pie, shall we?” His voice was calm, if not slightly pinched around the edges. So, the family stood for a moment, then padded noiselessly into the kitchen like a somber funeral procession.

            Peggy caught her father’s eye.

            Thank you, she mouthed.

            Entombed in black ice, he looked away without a word.

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