stray

Stray Our Pieces: Chapter 9

by Jason Graff

stray

For Gloria Hytner, the only good thing about tiring of motherhood is that it stings less to think of herself as a total failure. She has managed to raise a son just intelligent and sensitive enough to become an easy target for the neighborhood bully. Teetering on the brink of his teens, David still seeks solace from her but Gloria finds her reserves of empathy running low. Bullied her entire life, first by her mother and later by other neighborhood moms who seem to mercilessly flaunt the joy they take in raising their own children, Gloria can only hope to pass along her acerbic wit, thinking it will somehow be of help to her son.

She never planned on becoming a mother, let alone one that stayed at home. In the now increasingly distant past, she had been on her way to becoming a crusading attorney but a personal tragedy forced her to drop out of law school. Now stuck in a humdrum suburban existence, she struggles to even fantasize about escape until the day David unexpectedly exacts revenge on his bully. In witnessing the scene while cheering David on, Gloria finds the courage to set herself free. Family ties are not broken so much as stretched into something new.

Uncertain as to whether or not I could take her failure to look at me as we sat down to eat as a true victory, I kept up my guard as the food was passed around. Daryl and my Uncle Ben were chatting away about cars or property or having a penis. It had to be one of those three things because it was all they had in common. To my right, David held his book in his lap, planning apparently to eat with one hand. I didn’t say anything. I was already suffering from familial battle fatigue. Aunt Helen was seated across from me, sipping wine, working up the courage to speak in front of her sister-in-law. Mother liked that she was so predictably cowed, it allowed her to treat Helen with the open contempt in which she took so much pleasure. Helen’s fading crimson blouse with its shoulder pads and square cut made her seem so small, like there wasn’t much of a body inside of her clothes.
Ben and Helen were wed late in life when common sense indeed maybe even dignity suggested that something like marriage should’ve been given up on as an idea. They’d had a small wedding at the courthouse there in town. I’d waited outside the justice’s chambers. Only Ben and Mother and Helen and Helen’s sister Pam went inside. I think I’d been told I was not allowed to go in; certainly one of Mother’s lies. Many of which I did find as I aged were told for the same reason that I lied to my son, it just made things so much easier.
See, you were not a total failure in passing along your wisdom.
It had rained the night before their appointed day and even most of the morning but by the time they emerged from chambers, so had the sun. It shone down on the courthouse steps with a golden glow. The newly married couple walked towards their waiting car as though on a carpet of glory, while Mother rolled her eyes at me.
Only a month before, I had graduated from college and would soon move to live with Maria in the city to start law school. I had persevered, finishing undergrad in four years without a break, even after Daddy’s death threatened to interrupt my education before it really got started. Everything was going according to my plan for my life, which I would allow nothing to interrupt or so it seemed. When things did fall apart for me less than a year later, when my plan was permanently disrupted, it would take me years to rediscover that toughness, the kind which had deserted me when I had needed it most.
As I watched Helen and Ben walk down the courthouse steps bathed in golden almost ethereal sunlight, I experienced a rush of emotion, a glowing kind of happiness for Helen, whom I barely knew. Surely, she had once given up on love, on finding someone and here she was the blushing bride, coming up on fifty.
There was not a lot of romance in books or on the tube for women of that age. Indeed, the dominant patriarchal forces in society would prefer that women just disappear into the background by the time they pass their child bearing years. Certainly, Ben was no one’s idea of a romantic figure, mistaking as he did owning property for being intelligent and capitalizing on luck for ingenuity.
And so I did allow myself a moment there on the top of those steps to recall my own girlish notions of finding that special someone, of having my own day that was as intimate and joyful as the one embodied by my uncle and aunt walking on what seemed a carpet of golden air. Would he be like Jeremy I wondered? Whoever he was, the tough, still promising me would not be prevented from having a career, from doing what I wanted with my life. I would not settle or so I had promised myself at the time.
Seated next to Helen at the table was Allen Heart and next to him his wife Dale. Allen was successful, spending time as an ADA in the city and then later as a town supervisor. I think I looked up to him before I even realized it. He had jumped at the chance to write me a letter when I was applying to law schools. His face had gotten puffier since the last time I’d seen him, his hair greyer and thinner. His once brilliant blue eyes which hinted at a fiery and incisive intellect had dulled as well, evidence of what retirement and too much time watching the TV can do. The more I studied his face, my long-withered dreams of becoming a public servant, which were suddenly so easy to recall with the past gathered around me, began to make me feel very old.
Something Allen had been eating now floated in his glass. Dale noticed and I could see from her face that she was trying to work out how to remove the sizable chunk of potato doing a water dance in her husband’s Chablis without anyone noticing. She gave me her nearly perfect, politician’s wife smile and whispered to Allen. Allen brought the glass up, examining it in the light, then dipped his fingers in and after a bit of trying removed the submerged spud chunk. Dale Heart, whom I once pitied for being no more than a housewife, gave me a conspiratorial, knowing look. “You know how it is, being a wife is a full-time job.”
“We don’t see you around much,” Allen said to me. “How far is the drive out here? Five, six hours?”
“We did it in four,” Daryl cut in, always there to take charge and clarify when matters of driving times and distances were being discussed.
“And remind me, you’re how far away from the city?” he asked, sipping his wine with obvious relish as though it had not, only a few moments ago, had a large chunk of half-masticated food floating in it.
“About an hour by train,” I said after pausing in case Daryl wanted to chime in.
“We never drive in,” he did add as a follow up.
He could have answered that we never went into the city at all any more. That it was too sad for the both of us, reminding us of the mistakes that can be made there, mistakes which seem to be steering one out of the city even as she thinks she’s reveling in her time there. We half-planned visits, looked at train schedules, debated driving routes but never followed up. We liked the thought of the city much more than the city itself.
“We were just in the city the other day,” Dale said. “Too crowded.”
“What did you go in for?” I asked my question shaped more by reflex than any true curiosity.
“Went to a show, had dinner,” Dale said.
“A musical,” Allen added with bored disapproval.
“Patty’s in Nebraska.” Dale smiled as though feeling comfortable enough to switch from an extemporaneous program to the one she had planned in advance. “Has a big contract job out there to improve municipal water supplies. Poor gal’s been there two years already. When she’s done, she might retire from doing all that, all that travelling overseas and across the country and stuff.”
Patricia Heart was ahead of me by several years at school. She had gone to Cornell on a ROTC scholarship and had worked in government jobs at various levels her whole career ever since. I was never very clear on what she did but she always seemed to be doing things to improve life for people who lived in far-flung, unimaginable corners of the world, like Nebraska.
“Do you think she’ll stay out there when she retires?” I asked, managing to channel Mother by pronouncing ‘out there’ in a way that made it seem vaguely insulting.
“Too flat,” Allen said, shaking his head as if geography was a concern shared by everyone gathered around the table.
At the far end, Mother chatted away with Gertrude Grimlock, who had been living next door for years and in my memory was always wrinkled and old and tiny. Her husband had died around the same time as Daddy. This tragic coincidence allowed the two of them, while neighborly, to form an unbreakable bond of self-pity over being left behind by a spouse who had been inconsiderate enough to die. Their conversations always seemed clandestine. They spoke with their faces very close to each other, their heads bowed, voices low. Gertie, as Mother called her, had the habit of balling one fist into the other as she spoke.
“Everything is very good so far,” said Ben. “Nice work in the kitchen.” He lifted his glass. “To both of you.”
“I just heated it up, Benjamin,” Mother said. “It’s from Tiny French.”
“Chef Bon is a treasure,” Gertie said. “A real honest to God local treasure.”
“Very pricey,” Dale purred, “but so, so good.”
“Mmmm,” her husband agreed through a mouth full of roast goose.
“Sinful,” Dale went on, “simply sinful.”
“Daryl, my good man, you should have some wine with this meal,” Ben said. “It’s a crime to wash this fare down with water.”
“I have to drive,” Daryl said, then slurped from a wine glass full of water. The utter uncouthness of the sound pleased me more than I dared imagine it could.
Blue-collar enough for you, Mother?
“Not even a beer?” Gertie asked. “I thought you liked to drink beer.”
“I’m driving,” Daryl said, then pointed at me, “she’s drinking.”
“The wine goes so perfectly with the food,” Ben said, holding his glass up to the light presumably to show that he knew how to appreciate the color of it.
“Fine wine, fine food, fine people,” Helen added.
“Going out to the really nice places in the towns around here probably would’ve cost just as much as having Tiny French deliver it,” Dale noted.
“Oh, didn’t Mother tell you?” I asked. “She didn’t. Did she?”
“Tell them what, dear?” Mother asked, eyes narrowing, brow wrinkling with years of practiced anger.
“I think you should be honest.” I slurped from my glass after speaking, doubly pleased by the sound.
“She’s joking. She is going to make fun,” Mother said and though she laughed, the expression on her face had not changed.
“No, I’m not. You don’t want them to know. Do you? There is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the ‘in thing’ to do Mother.”
“What are you talking about?” Dale asked.
“Now what is this?” Mother’s brow crinkling further into an I Dare You relief map.
“She didn’t pay for any of this,” I said. “She got it all from the dumpster BEHIND Tiny French. It was totally sealed and everything. So, you don’t have to worry.”
“Dumpster diver,” brayed my husband, following it up with a mule-like laugh.
“A bad joke,” Mother said, “she’s making a tasteless joke. My daughter often mistakes herself for a comedienne.”
“What is that? Dumpster diving, you say?” Gertie asked, her thick spectacles reflecting the candlelight which Mother had hoped would lend the evening the very air I was in the process of extinguishing.
“Some people save money by eating the unopened food they find in dumpsters,” Daryl said.
“Lots of places throw tons and tons of perfectly good food away,” our son added.
“You mean people actually eat refuse?” Gertie asked. “No. No. I don’t believe that.”
“Disgusting,” Helen said, putting down her silverware and averting her eyes from the soon to be refuse on her plate.
“Who does this?” Dale asked.
“People who don’t want to work,” Ben said. “Radicals who think they’re too good to hold a normal job like everyone else.”
“”Where do they live?” Allen asked. “They must live in the city. It always smells of trash in Manhattan.”
“It’s just a bad joke,” Mother hissed. “She read about it in some leftie book or magazine no doubt.”
“Eating trash, here….in the United States of America. I can’t believe it,” Gertie said.
“Jobless rabble rousers,” continued Ben, banging his fist down on the table. “Shoving first their laziness, then their dull, dull ideas in our faces.”
“Is this a real thing?” Dale asked then turned to me. “Where’d you hear about this?”
“Read it in some Godless publication or saw it on PBS or something,” Mother said.
“Yes on PBS! Did you see it too? Is that where you got the idea from, Mother?” I asked, the smile across my face was so broad, I could feel my cheeks tightening. “It was on PBS last week.”
“Of course not,” Mother said. “I do not watch that channel but I know what’s on. Championing the downtrodden in between begging for money.”
“We like the nature programs,” Dale added.
“I don’t have to watch such dreck to know what it is like,” Mother said. “Stories about starving souls who have been beaten down by the system. Illegal immigrants probably….”
“…or drug addicts,” Ben interjected, the distaste evident on his face.
“Sure,” Mother said, leaning forward to nod at her brother, “them too. Don’t forget about them. Oh, they want you to say, look how poor they are? Isn’t America awful? I know the shows you watch.”
I loved the way ‘shows’ came out of her mouth like I was some sort of subversive receiving coded communiques from Moscow in the 1950s. Everyone had stopped eating, except for Daryl, who helped himself and our son to more asparagus. I longed for David to take the awkward silence as an opportunity to tell the assembled how it made his pee smell. He shoveled food in with his fork in his right hand. His left, I presumed, was still clutching his book.
“And we pay for it.” Uncle Ben thumped his fist again, this time with enough force to make his silverware jump. “Our tax dollars pay that channel to insult our ideas.”
“But the nature shows can be informative,” Dale said. “We watched one on manatees the other night, which neither of us had ever heard of.”
“Manatees? I’m sure they’re the liberals of the ocean,” Ben said, sputtering out a weak two-syllable laugh before taking a sip from his glass.
“Dumpsters. Really,” Mother sniffed, “what made you bring up such a thing? Were you trying to be funny?”
“I don’t know, Mother,” I said, biting on my napkin to keep from laughing in her face.
“It’s not fit for my dinner table. I can tell you that.”
“But, Grandma, grocery stores throw out so much food that really can be eaten.”
“Chef Bon doesn’t,” Allen said in the tone of a man used to saving the day with deflection diplomacy. “He donates his to the local food bank.”
Everyone made sounds of approval. Nodding and mumbling and sighing.
“It’s not the kind of topic I raised her to bring forward at the dinner table, I can assure you all of that,” Mother said, cutting a small morsel of food, then placing in her mouth and chewing slowly all the while staring daggers at me. “What happened to his face?” she asked, once she had swallowed then nodded her head at David. The mark of his snowball fight wound still lingered and she felt it was now fair game.
“I got hit in the face with a loaded snowball,” David said, before helping himself to the last of the asparagus, fountains of foul smelling pee, no doubt, dancing in his head.
“A loaded snowball? What’s that? Who threw it?” Mother asked with a shriek. “Your father?”
“No,” David said, his voice cracking, “Kenny Crumbrick.”
I hoped he wouldn’t cry. I wanted to ruin the meal a bit but not to the point that anyone would shed actual tears, except maybe for Mother, alone in her bed, hours afterwards.
“One of your little hooligan friends?” she asked. “Gloria, when you took to the idea of moving out of the city, I didn’t think you’d flee to some God awful little river valley town populated by Boys’ Town rejects.”
“He’s not my friend,” David announced. “He’s just always around.”
“Don’t play with him then.”
“I can’t help it, Grandma.”
“Can’t you? Has your mother had words with this child’s parents?”
“I have,” I said. “There didn’t seem to be much she thought she could do about it. We just tell him to be…watchful when Kenny’s around.”
“Watchful?” she cried, as though I’d revealed my weakness to her. “Watchful doesn’t seem to work. He’s lucky he didn’t get his eye put out.”
Then Uncle Ben rode to my rescue, raising his glass and extolling the most tried and true clichés to excuse male culpability: “Boys will be boys, I’m afraid. I have to admit to getting into some roughhousing when I was young. I’m sure the other men here did too.”
Daryl and Allen both nodded.
“And if you had been hit in the face with a snowball hard enough to wound you, our mother would have found that child’s parents and delivered to them such a talking to that it certainly would’ve never happened again,” Mother said.
“I can assure you, Edie, that would have been the last thing in the world I would have wanted. Boys don’t want their mommies fighting their fights for them. Do we Davey?”
And we had arrived at the crucial moment. David could’ve whined about how big Kenny was, about he’d give anything for it to stop. Or worse, about how I used to push him to play outside with those boys when all he really wanted was to be left alone in his room reading. Instead, he swallowed the last of the asparagus and gave an almost breathless: “Right.”
“Forget the mother,” I said. “I wanted to go out and hit the kid with an ice-packed snowball myself.”
That got a good, knowing laugh from all in attendance. Daryl smiled and reached over to give my hand an appreciative squeeze. I raised my glass to them all, then gave Mother a wink.
Game. Set. Match. Christmas Eve was mine.

About the Author

Jason Graff

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Jason Graff is a widely published writer of essays, poetry and fiction, as well as a Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has been featured in journals, such as: Per Contra, Carrier Pigeon Magazine, Shadowgraph Quarterly, The Ignatian and many others. His novella, "In the Service of the Boyar," is out now from Vagabondage Press. He is also the humorscope writer at blueplanetjournal.com and lives in Richardson, TX with his wife and son.