After ravaging the Passover meal like the plague of locusts, Jason and his friend Chaz disappeared into the basement. When Greta found them there the next morning, Chaz was sprawled on the couch and Jason had folded himself onto the shabby lounger. Asleep, they looked more like little boys than the kind of teenagers she shied away from on the street. Greta let them sleep—dragging the folding tables and chairs back downstairs could wait. Maybe she could get them to help.
Greta woke up this morning to a sense of accomplishment. She needed to unload and reload the dishwasher of her mother’s good dishes—unearthed from her father’s basement storage—and her own wedding china which Dan had always hated, but had tried to acquire in the divorce anyway. Then there was the silverware. So much silverware. And a stack of soup bowls, still hot from the dishwasher, nudging two bottles of sweet red wine, a box of matzah, and a tin of Passover macaroons. On top of the toaster oven was another tin, this one with a faded wreath stenciled on its lid. It had held oatmeal cookies. All of them now gone.
She was perched on a step stool storing the platters on a high shelf when the doorbell rang. She hurried to the door before a repeat of the chimes could wake the boys and was surprised to find her next door neighbor standing in the damp air looking as if she might bolt. In the morning light, Mary Ann Cecil’s face was too exhausted to be pretty, but it managed a faded appeal. A shadow of some former beauty clung to her eyes and cheekbones in place of makeup. Greta let her in, sighing in nostalgia for the fleeting moments of calm industry alone in her kitchen. The two women stood awkwardly in the front hall: Mary Ann twisting a button on her white sweater and Greta rearranging her arms around the platter she was about to put away.
“I came to thank you for inviting me last night. I hope I haven’t come at a bad time?” Mary Ann’s voice was hesitant. Her statements always sounded like questions. She opened her mouth to add something more, but the words hung stubbornly just behind her teeth.
“Do you have time for coffee?” Greta asked, “I’m ready to take a break.”
In the eight months since Greta had moved there, Mary Ann Cecil didn’t drop by once—not to welcome her into the neighborhood, not to borrow a cup of sugar, nor to offer some of her tomato harvest visible from Greta’s kitchen window. In fact, Greta rarely saw her come out of her house except for Sunday mornings, when she went to church with her husband, and Greta could hear him booming in that smooth TV evangelist voice, “Now don’t make me late, Mary Ann. The devil’s in the dawdling.” Whatever that meant. Last night, after coming over to request Greta’s Passover guests move their cars from the edges of her husband’s lawn, she had sat quietly in Greta’s dining room, looking overwhelmed by the barely controlled chaos of her family. And today she was in Greta’s kitchen, sitting at her kitchen table, skittish as a mouse.
Greta put down the platters and picked up the renegade tin, “The boys finished the cookies last night. Well, you heard the rave reviews. It was very sweet of you to bring them.”
Greta didn’t mention that oatmeal cookies weren’t kosher for Passover. Mary Ann couldn’t have known that. While Chaz’s enjoyment of them was pure, Jason’s was colored by the appeal of them being forbidden. That fact alone made the cookies Manna-in-the-Desert for him.
She couldn’t help adding, “It was really unnecessary, though.”
Mary Ann Cecil didn’t respond. She seemed to be working out a difficult math problem in her head.
Greta sought to fill the awkward silence, “I hope the cars didn’t tear up your grass. I know the adults were careful about how they parked, but the kids…” Greta lifted her shoulders. Chaz’s theme song was the sound of tires squealing. No doubt his parking had been as aggressive as his driving: “You know how boys are.”
Mary Ann Cecil looked up, startled, “Yes. I do. In fact, I do. My son is—my son is away at school right now. Seeing your boys last night, I really missed him.”
Greta hastened to correct her, “Oh, Chaz isn’t mine. He’s Jason’s new friend, a little rough around the edges … it’s so hard to know.”
“Yes. Hard to know which is more frightening—other people’s children or your own,” Mary Ann oddly remarked, retreating into more button twisting.
“So you have a son away at college? Will he be home for spring break?”
“No—no, not college. Stephen is at a boarding school in Georgia. It’s very strict, they don’t get to come home often.”
Jason wasn’t exactly home even when he was home. He was off somewhere in Adolescent Anger Land, staked behind his bedroom territory with a big “NO TRESPASSING” sign on the door and a screen of smoke. Though at least he lived here and not with his father, and not, like Mary Ann’s son, with strangers.
Greta poured coffee into two of her mother’s good china cups. She could hear her advising, Use your good things. Don’t save them. If you don’t enjoy them, what’s the point in having them take up space?
She gave Mary Ann the coffee and the last piece of chocolate matzah extending from the saucer like a wing. On impulse, Greta placed her hand softly on the other woman’s shoulder and was surprised to feel her heave with a swallowed sob.
“Oh, my… no—I’m sorry,” Mary Ann bolted for the back door.
In her haste, she knocked over her hot coffee. It rolled across the table like a black tide, a spray of black liquid spattering a stack of clean dishes. Mary Ann stood frozen between the door and a piece of broken cup on the floor.
“I’m always so clumsy,” Mary Ann sighed, “Vernon says I break everything but the commandments. I’ll clean it up,” but she stood there, staring at the spill, twisting the button on her sweater until it came off in her hand.
“It’s okay. Nobody got burned. My mother used to say that breakages are like wrinkles—signs of a life fully lived.”
Greta had not believed her then and did not believe it now, but Mary Ann was so distressed that she felt guilty about her resentment over the broken cup which was—as her mother would have pointed out—just a hunk of clay.
“Here,” Greta handed Mary Ann a damp dishcloth and picked up the pieces of the cup; Three curved continents whose juncture would now be marked by a seam.
The two women stood side by side, rinsing the coffee from the spattered dishes. With her hands busy, Mary Ann seemed more at ease, and eventually turned to Greta to ask, “Does your son obey you?”
Greta smiled, “No. Does anyone’s?”
“Vernon thinks Stephen is sinful in his disobedience. He’s always pointing out other families in his ministry, other boys who come to church and sing in the choir and don’t run with a godless crowd or have bottles of beer stashed under their bed. That’s why he … we … sent him away to school. To keep him from those influences … to rehabilitate his soul.”
Mary Ann began washing the same dish again, “Why would he do those things? We’ve taught him right from wrong.”
Staring at the running water she confessed, “Vernon says I’m not strict enough, he thinks … he thinks strangers can do a better job raising my child.” She swiped at her eyes with the dishcloth, “He also says tears are the outward sign of a lack of faith.”
Greta extended a tissue and replaced the dishcloth, “In my family, tears are the salt that seasons the sweetness,”—one of Pop’s oft-repeated sayings. Was Jason drinking? she pondered, Probably.
“You all had wine last night. Even the children,” the words escaped Mary Ann as if they’d run away from home, “You don’t think that’s a sin?”
It was a question, not an accusation, so Greta answered as best she could, “No. I guess it’s just another part of God’s bounty. ‘The fruit of the vine,’ the prayer calls it. It’s part of the ritual. The children were supposed to be drinking grape juice, but I’m sure my brother-in-law refilled the decanter with wine. He does every year.”
“What’s it like?”
“Enduring my brother-in-law?”
“No. The wine.”
Mary Ann’s expectation seemed to Greta like a thirst.
“Kosher wine is really sweet, kind of heavy on the tongue, with a sharpness underneath.”
“No. I mean the drinking of it.”
“I suppose it affects people differently. It makes me feel like I’ve just gotten off of a roller coaster—dizzy and lighter and younger, I guess.” Greta had never been much of a drinker.
“Would you pour me a glass?”
Greta was an unlikely guide to the wild side, “Are you sure you want to?”
Greta turned off the water and looked at Mary Ann, who avoided returning her gaze by assiduously drying plates. Greta could see Mary Ann’s face wavering in the shifting reflection on the porcelain.
“Yes…Yes. I want to know why Stephen did it, what the attraction was. Maybe it will help me understand. It doesn’t seem as bad somehow if it’s ritual wine, if it’s been blessed. You won’t tell my husband? God might forgive me, but Vernon won’t.”
Greta recognized something in Mary Ann’s face, something she had seen in her own mirror when she lived in Dry Creek—a kind of desperation for connection. It let her submit that doomed recipe for matzo ball soup to the faculty cookbook, to start airing her vowels out like clothes flapping on a line. But her every word, thought, and gesture had marked her as an outsider. When Greta thought of her neighbor, which she rarely did, she assumed Mary Ann would be enmeshed in the noisy life of her husband’s church. If so, it hadn’t abraded her loneliness. Greta took out a K-Mart wine glass (why risk more breakage?) and poured a couple inches of Manischevitz in it. It looked forlorn on the counter, like Mary Ann herself. An unremarkable vessel half-filled.
Greta fingered two of the wine glasses that had been her mother’s. The faceted bowl of each glass reminded her of the wrinkles and lines in her mother’s oval face—a textured kind of beauty, the beauty of age. We’re both worth the crystal, Greta thought.
“Oh, what the hell!” she said as she emptied the half-filled K-mart glass into one crystal goblet, topped it off, and filled the other,“Oh, God—I did it again! I’m sorry about the swearing, it’s not my usual habit.”
Her effort to avoid saying something that might offend Mary Ann led her perversely to those very words—the magnetism of the forbidden. It drew Jason to flaunt a big metal cross he’d taken to wearing. Or was that his way of extracting the I from the we?
Mary Ann had started working the next button on her sweater. She stared at the wine as if it were ticking, “Please bless it. Like you did last night. Whatever those Hebrew words were. Please.”
Greta had managed the first few words of the blessing over the wine when Mary Ann interrupted, “No. Last night you sang it. Could you sing it, please?”
Greta’s voice sounded reedy and thin in her own ears, but she sang the blessing, and then gave a translation: “Blessed are You, Oh Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine.” Her glass made a tentative clink against Mary Ann’s and she said, “L’chaim,” and then, “To life.”
Mary Ann murmured, “To understanding life,” raised her glass solemnly to her lips, and took a sip. She put the glass on the table with a wary precision, as if it might explode. Greta imagined the caption: “No lightning? No thunder?” After a minute, Mary Ann took another sip. In the movies, they’d be laughing and bonding. In Greta’s kitchen, however, they sat silently sipping.
Greta rose to butter some matzah, “Here. You don’t want to drink on an empty stomach.”
Greta heard a seismic shift from downstairs. Footsteps trudged up the staircase, the door from the basement banged open, and Jason emerged from the gloom of the basement in last night’s slept-in shirt and jeans. His uncombed hair tested the air in several directions, its rough terrain reminding Greta of the missing tufts and matted blood he had after his tussle on the school bus in Dry Creek. He was tougher now. If that’s good or bad, Greta couldn’t say. The cross he insisted on wearing hung front and center on his chest.
Chaz blasted past him, eyed the women, and grabbed a piece of matzah, “Wine for breakfast. Cool.”
Mary Ann’s pale eyes widened. Her skin lost what little color it had.
“What’s with the mini-Seder?” Jason grabbed the other piece of matzah, “Mom. Ms. Cecil’s not Jewish. She doesn’t have to eat this cardboard shit, uh—crap, sorry. I’m out. Later.”
Jason’s flying shirttails barely made it through the door before it banged shut. Chaz’s “Thanks, Ms. Stein” could be heard floating back at them.
“I’d like your help later with the heavy stuff,” Greta spoke to the door. Picture: a closed door. Caption: “My son, Jason.”
“Yeah. Whatever,” he shouted from outside.
Chaz’s car engine boasted all the way out of the neighborhood.
“I didn’t think there’d be witnesses,” Mary Ann said.
“Don’t worry. For Jason, adults are annoying or invisible. I was annoying, you were probably invisible.”
“Is your son a Christian?”
Greta sighed, “The cross? No. The only religion he has right now is anger. Rebellion. Whatever I’m not. I’m sorry he chose one of your sacred symbols as his weapon. He’s managed to offend pretty much everyone by wearing that cross.”
Mary Ann had a long drink and a short laugh, “Vernon would consider him ripe for the picking. Or a fallen fruit; Everyone is clay that he can mold into his sort of Christian. Everyone but Stephen.” Another long drink, “The numbers are important to him—how many he’s saved, how large the congregation has grown, how many watch his TV ministry—sometimes he loses sight of people one at a time. Me. Stephen. He might be a bad son, but he’s not a bad person.” She shook her head, “If Stephen comes back to us from that church school changed, who will he be?”
A silence settled in the room. Greta raised her glass and said, “To our sons. May they survive our mistakes and their own.”
“Amen.” When her wine glass was empty, Mary Ann stood, steadied herself on the back of the chair, and with elaborate care washed and dried her glass. “No evidence,” she said with a rueful grin, “I’ve got to get home to fix Vernon’s lunch. Thank you.”
Her cheeks were flushed and rosy, as if the wine had stained them.
“Have a mint,” Greta offered. And after a pause, “Did it help?”
“No… No. But it was still worth doing.”
“Will you bring the recipe for those oatmeal cookies the next time you come?”
From the door, Greta watched Mary Ann glance up the street for Vernon’s car and, finding the street empty, she slipped across the divide and into her house.
Michele Ruby lives and tap dances in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband, her children and her incredibly talented and smart grandchildren. Her fiction has appeared in Literal Latte (winner of the 2017 short shorts contest), Arts & Letters (winner of 2015 fiction prize), The Adirondack Review (Fulton Prize finalist), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Shenandoah, The Louisville Review, Lilith, Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, Rosebud, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Phoebe, Denver Quarterly, New Delta Review, Harpur Palate, The MacGuffin, Alimentum, and other journals. Collections of her stories were finalists for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award, the St. Lawrence Book Award, as well as Press 53 and Autumn House contests. She has an MFA from Spalding University, has taught fiction writing at Bellarmine University, and was a fiction editor for Best New Writing.
Brad Stumpf is a Chicago-based visual artist from St. Louis, Missouri. Stumpf moved in 2013 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in 2015. He makes paintings of his everyday life, attempting to capture the truth of these spaces with intentional humanistic elements.