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Short Story

hors d’oeuvres

THE HASTILY ASSEMBLED spread on the dining-room table—Pringles, Wheat Thins, a bottle and a half of Merlot, four cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, a bowl of leftover Halloween candy—might be worse than no spread at all. This is one reason the hosts, Wendy and Drew Pike-Stuyvesant, are ashamed of and angry with each other. Another is that Wendy and Drew had been expecting their guests, the Fabulous Forties and Fifties of Saint Jude’s Episcopal, next Friday, not this Friday. And then, finally, there’s this: neither Drew nor Wendy is good in a crisis, and they’re each reminded of this personal shortcoming when they see it mirrored in the other. So the nature of the malice between them this evening is, for whatever this is worth, intimate and complex.

Following their cupboard-raiding, table-setting frenzy, Drew and Wendy take pains to avoid each other as they mingle sheepishly among their guests, but the physical distance they work to keep between them doesn’t mute the tension, but amplifies it, makes a spectacle of it. When Wendy notices from across the room the not one but two missed belt loops on Drew’s khakis, she clamps her teeth and pinches her earlobe white, and when Drew spots Wendy’s Zoloft and his ten-year-old daughter Dawn’s Ritalin sitting where they always sit, in plain sight on top of the hutch, he gasps audibly and breaks toward them with the notion of rushing them into the kitchen. In his hustle, though, he fumbles the bottles, and one rolls under the table, so he’s forced to his knees and elbows to retrieve it, and when he’s down there Dawn drops to join him, asks loudly, giddily, “What are you freakin’ doing down here, Dad?” and when father and daughter stand up at the same time, they bump heads, and Dawn sobs for a moment and then, without transition, giggles herself breathless.

The effect of Drew’s rush to stash the pills, of course, is that it turns heads, spotlights the very things he aims to hide. After the fact, this is what Wendy whisper-scolds him about in the kitchen. She has Drew backed up against the microwave, which still holds the bean burritos Dawn and her older brother Andy were heating up when the doorbell rang twenty minutes ago.

“It’s when you hiss at me like this,” Drew answers. “It’s a wonder I’m not the one on pills.” When Wendy takes a step back and rests her folded hands under her chin, Drew apologizes, but there’s a “but” attached, as in, “But seriously, Wendy, how hard is it to mark a date right?” He tells her to watch carefully as he takes the pen by the phone, circles today on the calendar by the refrigerator—he knows he’s being an ass but can’t stop himself—and writes “Progressive Dinner” in the empty square.

The calendar’s January photograph depicts a team of thick-tailed, frost-breathing Huskies pulling an unmanned sled across a sunny tundra. Were one of Drew and Wendy’s guests to stray into the kitchen at this moment, he or she might at first note the similarities between the setting in the photograph and the setting outside—the city is iced over from the storm the night before—and then the guest might note Drew’s intense focus on the calendar along with Wendy’s wide-eyed exasperation and assume the couple to be arguing about animal cruelty or global warming or extreme sports.

Wendy turns on her heel and retreats to the dining room, slowing before the door to gather herself, so Drew’s left alone in the kitchen with the cold burritos, the masterless snow dogs, and the sudden suspicion he’s left the TV on in the bedroom. If someone uses the upstairs bathroom, they might hear it, perhaps even take the initiative to wander down the hall to turn it off. Drew doesn’t remember what channel he left it on, whether or not it was something respectable. There’s a lot of good stuff in the platinum package, but a lot of crap, too. Stuff you watch only with the mute button on or the house empty. This crap, you don’t necessarily set out to watch it, but it gets watched.

Wendy hates Drew watching TV alone in the bedroom. She often uses the word “sequester” when she complains about it. Drew originally thought she was using the word incorrectly, didn’t think “sequestering” was something one could do to oneself, but then he looked it up and realized her usage was fine. Because he never told her he’d suspected she was wrong, though, there was no need to admit anything. Drew has had more than a few arguments like this with Wendy, arguments she’s won that she’s unaware of.

It was almost a year ago that the couple, both very aware, had a big blow-up about Drew’s sequestering. It was at least peripherally about that. After church one Sunday, Wendy had been talking to a guy who’s since moved away, a single guy, Patrick something, and Drew heard her say, “Thanks, but I don’t think so. I don’t golf. Drew used to, but now he just sequesters himself in the bedroom on Saturdays to watch TV.” Wendy said it loudly so Drew would hear. She meant it funny, she said. Couples tease each other in public. It’s like flirting for married people. But Drew didn’t think it was funny, and he didn’t think this Patrick’s follow-up line about TV being a married man’s best friend was funny either, and he couldn’t help but be irritated that this Patrick had invited his wife to play golf.

In response, Drew had walked out of the sanctuary, headed to the fellowship hall to rustle up the kids and then out to the car with them to wait for Wendy. When she got there, she was angry. She said he’d embarrassed her, the way he’d stormed off. Drew was incredulous. He’d embarrassed her? The spat lasted a week, off and on. Over the course of their marriage, it’s the only full-fledged fight Drew remembers that didn’t end in an apology session. Neither of them ever said sorry. To this day. The matter simply lost steam, faded.

When Drew pushes himself away from the counter, he notices the blinking microwave timer. When he pops open the door, he comes face to face with the pair of burritos. An ugly sight. The kids over-nuke everything. It takes four bites for him to down the first, and he devours the second in two. As he eats, he becomes more convinced that he left the TV on upstairs—by the time he’s finished chewing and wiping his mouth on the dishtowel by the sink, he’s positive—but he still can’t remember for the life of him what he was watching. The more he strains to remember, the more worried he becomes. He should get up there. Pronto.

With their hosts battling in the kitchen, the guests have been desperate for something else to focus on, so they’ve gamely engaged twelve-year-old Andy, who’s suddenly sporting a red cape over his Buffalo Sabres jersey and performing under-practiced magic tricks in the living room. After each botched attempt, Dawn, Andy’s anti-assistant, provides detailed and thunderous commentary on how her brother’s trick went awry, and when Andy finally pulls off a trick—the disappearance and then reappearance of a quarter—Dawn announces the secret behind the illusion. “There are two freakin’ coins! Check the freakin’ dates!” Like she’s performed her own trick by swallowing a microphone.

“Can you turn water into wine, Houdini?” Jerry Stepnoski smiles at Andy and then at everyone else in the room as he pours the last few drips of Merlot into his wife Karen’s glass. “Maybe a nice freakin’ Beaujolais?”

Wendy emerges from the kitchen too late to hear the line but in time to see everyone grinning, so she grins back. She tries to keep this grin even as Drew bursts into the room, parts the guests without as much as an “excuse me,” and ascends the stairs heavily, two at a time.

“Where’s the freakin’ fire, Dad?” Dawn bellows. When there’s no response, she flies up the stairs after him, serving as her own booming echo. “Where’s the freakin’ fire?”

§

soup

On the drive from the Pike-Stuyvesants’ to the Markhams’, Brangwynne Koonce, president of the Fabulous Forties and Fifties, wonders how the night could’ve started worse. Technically speaking, Drew and Wendy shouldn’t even be in FFF. Wendy shouldn’t, anyway. She’s only thirty-eight. Does Brangwynne need to go to the extreme of checking drivers’ licenses? Requiring birth certificates? Someone like Wendy could use another couple years to mature. She had the easiest course of the night and couldn’t pull it off. You volunteer to do something for a group you shouldn’t even officially be a part of, the least you can do is remember. The woman had to get off her elliptical trainer to answer the door for hell’s sake. She greeted her guests in Lycra shorts and a sweaty sports bra, a tiny music player clipped to her shoulder strap, earphones in her head. Embarrassing for everyone. Bad enough. But then not to own up to the fact that she’d forgotten, to try to cover up and muddle through. That’s when embarrassing became insulting. And the husband storming around like a moody toddler. The clownish children. That dreadful word the girl kept screaming. Freakin’. The least Wendy could’ve done for her neglected guests was kennel the children in their rooms.

At any rate, what’s done is done. There are still three courses to go, and Brangwynne is heartened by her faith in the upcoming soup course. Peter and Ginger Markham are both wizards in the kitchen—their cream of butternut squash might just be what’s needed to get the evening back on track—and their children are of the grown and moved out variety. Brangwynne’s spirits lift when she sees the couple on their front porch, waving to their arriving guests. Six cars, eleven diners. Five couples and Brangwynne.

When Brangwynne founded FFF a year ago, she knew the make-up of the group would be mostly couples, but she’d hoped it might attract a few singles, too. Patrick Bogardus, especially. He wore great sweaters, and his singing voice, a rich tenor, resonated with Brangwynne, echoed in her ears long after the service was over. He’d attended the late service on Sundays—Meet the Press ran during the early liturgy, he told her once, and he was a fan from way back—so she began attending the late service, too, even though she’d always been an early riser. She’d never been able to stay in bed past six-thirty, so sleeping in wasn’t an option. For a couple of Sundays in a row she tried to watch Meet the Press, but it made her feel tense and nervous, so more often than not she ended up attending both Sunday services at Saint Jude’s. No one, not even Father Garrett, seemed to notice.

She’d try to sit in the pew in front of Patrick so she could listen. She wished everyone else in the sanctuary, choir included, would be struck mute—a miracle in reverse—so she could experience his voice more directly and clearly. When the congregation exchanged the peace and Patrick would turn to her, she’d be moved by his puffy red eyes, amazed by how deeply the liturgy affected him, and she loved how he used both hands on her in greeting. He’d take her right in his right, but where his left ended up varied. Her shoulder, her forearm. He once reached around and rested it lightly on her back as if asking her to dance. Another time when she wore new earrings, he used two fingers to brush her earlobe as he complimented her on them, and when she rose a few moments later to go to the altar for the host and wine—her second helping of the day—she discovered she was shivering.

Ginger Markham and her beaded moccasin slippers. Peter Markham and his full, curly beard. Their spotless home’s wood-stove warmth. Brangwynne prefers most couples individually, one at a time—they’re more digestible that way—but Peter and Ginger she likes as a set. When she walks through their door, she likes how Peter’s large, heavy hands, helping her off with her coat, complement the lightness of Ginger’s lips on her cheek. Brangwynne doesn’t often entertain thoughts of marriage anymore, but here, under the affectionate care of the Markhams, she thinks for a moment she could see herself married to them. Not like bigamy. Not like Peter would have two wives. He’d have Ginger, and then he and Ginger as a couple would have a wife, Brangwynne, and she wouldn’t have a husband and a wife, she’d have a couple. Where two or three are gathered together. Brangwynne surprises herself with this notion, is surprised by the tingling in her stomach as Peter and Ginger, one on either side, escort her into the dining room to get her approval on their beautiful table settings. She sniffs the air. Cumin and cinnamon. A touch of nutmeg. Perfect.

When Ginger and Peter ask Brangwynne how it went at the Pike-Stuyvesants, why Drew and Wendy didn’t continue on with the rest of the group, Brangwynne just raises her eyebrows and shakes her head, and the three of them exchange small, sympathetic smiles.

Peter and Ginger tell their guests to sit wherever they’d like, except for Brangwynne, whom they want with them at the head of the table. There’s a small package by Brangwynne’s bowl—the bow is larger than the box—and as she opens it, Ginger, to Brangwynne’s right, and Peter, to her left, take turns explaining to the other guests how much Brangwynne does for the Fabulous Forties and Fifties, how selfless she is in sacrificing her time. By the sounds of it, the gift’s more than simply a late Christmas present; it’s an award of sorts. Something Brangwynne’s earned.

Brangwynne hasn’t seen Patrick Bogardus in about a year. Just as she was getting FFF up and running, his job transferred him out of town, so it surprises her now to be thinking of him. She’d like him here, though, to watch her open her gift, a gorgeous beach glass brooch, a starfish, that Ginger made herself. Brangwynne would’ve liked Patrick to be here to ooh and ahh along with everyone else, and when the moment came for someone to help her pin the brooch on her sweater—she’s overcome with gratitude and pride, and her hands are shaking too much to do it herself—she would’ve liked him to be the one to step up.

As it is, no one moves to pin the brooch on Brangwynne. Several women ask if they can get a closer look, and it’s carefully passed around the table like an infant at a family reunion, but when the brooch finally makes its way back to Brangwynne, Peter simply says grace, and then Ginger rises to take the rolls out of the oven.

There are two kinds of rolls: lemon poppy and pumpernickel. A few of the couples take one of each and split them so neither husband nor wife has to miss out on either flavor. Before the basket of rolls reaches Brangwynne, she empties her glass of Chardonnay and then excuses herself and heads to the bathroom to use the mirror. She pins and unpins the brooch three times before she’s satisfied it’s in the right spot.

When she gets back to the table, her glass is filled with Pinot Grigio. Eventually, a nice Riesling comes around.

§

entrée

Kyle’s surprised to hear the doorbell. Surprised it was necessary. He figured Sara would’ve been stationed at the window, on the lookout for her guests. He figured she would’ve been smiling in the open door before the guests had even climbed out of their cars. Smiling and ready with her story.

This bug, it had hit Kyle out of nowhere. One minute he was in his office trying to finish up emails so he could get home early to help Sara get ready, and the next minute he was doubled over in the corner retching into his wastebasket. Each wave felt like it had to be the last, but it wasn’t. When Graber in the next office came over to check on him—“You dying in here?”—Kyle was drenched in sweat, half delirious.

He recovered enough to make his way to the parking garage and drive himself home, but he probably shouldn’t have. Just after he let himself into the house, he had a second bout of intestinal violence in the downstairs bathroom. This was three hours ago. He thinks he’s through the worst of it now, but he still feels weak, his ribs and back throb, and he looks like he popped off to the wrong guy. There are purple patches of broken blood vessels under both eyes. In the aftermath of his outburst in the downstairs bathroom, Sara had told him, not for the first time, that he was a melodramatic vomiter.

After helping him into bed and cleaning up after him, Sara announced her intentions to go ahead with the dinner—what else is she supposed to do with eighteen dressed Cornish hens?—and, furthermore, rather than tell the guests that Kyle’s upstairs in bed with the stomach flu, she’s going to tell them that he got hung up at work, that something unforeseen and unavoidable had come up. “It’s not a one hundred-percent lie,” Sara said. “You were at work when the unforeseen and unavoidable thing came up.”

In the hour before the guests are scheduled to arrive, Sara parks Kyle’s car at the dentist’s office a block away and stows his jacket and briefcase in the bedroom closet. She resolves to keep everyone downstairs by announcing that the only available bathroom is the tiny one off the study. The upstairs facility is, alas, out of order. Again, the way she figures it, it’s not a full-blown lie she’s telling, considering how the handle of the upstairs toilet has to be jiggled and how the sink spigot drips unless the hot water handle is positioned just so.

When Kyle asks Sara why she simply doesn’t tell their guests the truth, she puts the shoe on the other foot, says if she were a dinner guest at someone’s house and before the meal was told there was a sick person upstairs, she’d be grossed out. It would kill her appetite. She’d immediately start thinking exit strategy.

“So you’d want to be lied to?” Kyle says.

“I’d prefer not knowing,” Sara answers. “Besides, I’d like to think my host would have been responsible enough to triple-Lysol everything the ill person touched.”

Kyle wonders how one can simultaneously not know something and hope to be protected from it, but he doesn’t have the energy to pursue the matter. Besides, the least he can do is work with Sara on this. His timing’s horrible, and he feels guilty. Not that getting sick is his fault, but it could be. He’d been half-contemplating the possibility of faking something to get out of this dinner—a migraine or sore throat—so maybe he got what he deserved. Karma. The least he can do is promise Sara he’ll stay quiet. “You won’t hear a peep from me,” he says. “I’m Anne Frank up here, hiding from Nazis.”

“I know you don’t like them all, Kyle, but Nazis? Really? They’re Episcopalians.”

“Nazis in the sense that I’m Anne Frank hiding from them.”

“You’re sick,” Sara says. “Both kinds.”

It’s not long after the doorbell rings that Kyle begins to hear the rhythms of friendly conversation, the occasional burst of polite laughter, and then after ten or fifteen minutes pass, he hears the squeak of the dining-room chairs and the clinking of silverware and wine glasses. He smells the food—along with the stuffed hens, Sara has roasted asparagus and prepared a baked corn casserole, Kyle’s mother’s recipe—and he’s actually beginning to feel a little hungry. This kind of stomach bug, it’s here and then gone. Messes you up something awful but doesn’t linger. Kyle’s disappointed in himself for thinking this, but if he’s honest, he’d have to admit it’s not a bad trade-off. A few hours of physical agony in exchange for sitting out the progressive dinner. He’s accepted worse deals.

What’s Kyle’s problem with Saint Jude’s and the FFF’s? He and Sara have been down this road. Is it that he finds them boring? If that’s all it is, Kyle has to admit it sounds petty. Who does he think he is? What makes him so exciting? Sara would like to get more involved at church, to try to be more social. Volunteering for a leg of the progressive dinner was her first attempt. When she was awarded the main course, she felt affirmed. Kyle understands Sara’s desire for a more dynamic social circle, and if it were only the Saint Jude’s women, he’d have no problem. He finds all of them relatively charming and easy enough to talk to. Harmless. Their husbands, though—it’s not that they aren’t decent people; it’s just that Kyle feels restless around them and, what? Underprepared? Like them, he follows politics and sports, but whereas Kyle focuses on these topics at the national level, the Saint Jude’s crew’s interests seem primarily local, and their conversations tend toward insider gossip. And the lot of them are storytellers. They take long turns recounting experiences, most of which seem to Kyle pointless and anticlimactic. After church one Sunday, one of the guys—either Gary or Jerry; Kyle gets them all mixed up—had Kyle cornered for twenty minutes as he gave a blow-by-blow account of the patio stairs he’d built the weekend before. Kyle doesn’t have a patio. He doesn’t have a toolbox. And the guy with the well-coiffed beard, Peter Markham, he’ll hold forth about his garden as if he were behind a podium. His thought process in choosing what variety of tomatoes to plant. His latest strategy to foil rabbits.

When Kyle tried to explain to Sara about the overboard storytelling, she at first missed his point, telling him she was sure he could think of a good story to share if he put some effort into it. When she finally caught his drift, she tried to defuse Kyle’s complaints with humor. She reminded him that Jesus was a carpenter, and she told him that one of the greatest stories of all time was set in a garden. The Garden of Eden. When he didn’t laugh, she told him to get over himself.

There’d been one guy at Saint Jude’s whom Kyle got on okay with. A single guy. Patrick Bogardus. Sara had invited the guy to have dinner with them a couple times, and after that Kyle had golfed with him now and then, watched a few ballgames at his apartment. Of all the men he could’ve partnered up with at Saint Jude’s, Kyle had to pick one without a wife. He knows that’s what Sara thought. Whenever he left for Patrick’s, Sara would make a comment about “the bachelor pad.” Kyle imagined Sara imagining lava lamps, black lights, leather beanbag chairs, a pinball machine and a full bar.

But Patrick’s place wasn’t like that at all. It was actually somewhat classier than Kyle and Sara’s. Patrick was into art, and he was a meticulous housekeeper. He brewed his own beer, and it was pretty good. The last time Kyle was over, only a few weeks before Patrick left town, there was a fresh batch of ale to try. Patrick served the beer in juice glasses, sipped it like wine, and with pen and paper in hand, solicited Kyle’s feedback.

After the beer that night, Patrick got up from the couch where he and Kyle were sitting and took down a vase from the fireplace mantle. He reached in and produced a bag of marijuana and some rolling papers. “You smoke?” he said to Kyle as he rolled a joint on the coffee table.

“Wow. No,” Kyle said. “Not since college.” He leaned back and stretched his arms and neck to show that he was relaxed, unfazed. “Not even then really.”

“You’re driving, and we’ve already had beer, so I won’t suggest you partake, but if you wanted to make the suggestion yourself….” Patrick took a lighter out of a drawer on the coffee table and brought the joint to his lips. After he hit it, he leaned over and offered it to Kyle, who smiled and shook his head. “Good man,” Patrick said, exhaling, and then he took another hit.

Kyle stayed another couple hours to listen to Patrick, who suddenly had a lot to say, much of it surprising and personal. Afterwards Kyle wondered if Patrick had planned to unburden himself that night or if it had just happened. He also wondered if Patrick felt okay the next morning about having shared so much. Kyle couldn’t help but suspect that Patrick had some regrets, especially because Patrick never called Kyle again, not even to say goodbye when he moved.

Patrick told Kyle three things that night. First, he told him the truth about why he was leaving town. He hadn’t really been transferred; rather, he’d quit. If he stayed, starting next month, he’d be subject to random drug testing. “Bullshit I don’t need,” he’d said. “A matter of principle.” Second, he admitted to Kyle that for the last six Sundays he’d gone to Saint Jude’s stoned. He said he thought he would continue to do this, even if he came out of his funk, because of how much better the worship experience was for him while under the influence. The music, the homily, even the Eucharist. By better he meant fuller, deeper. “I’m able to get out of my head so God can get in,” he said. Finally, Patrick told Kyle that he was in love with someone he couldn’t have, someone who lived far away, that this had been the case for nearly a decade, and he thought he was reaching the end of his rope.

“This woman,” Kyle had asked. “Why can’t you have her?”

“It’s more complicated than the most complicated thing you’ve ever heard of,” Patrick said. His eyes welled up as he shook his head. “Bless you for asking, though.”

The obvious question didn’t arise then, but Kyle finds himself posing it now as he drifts off into a nap over the head of his wife and her dinner guests and their Cornish hens, and when he wakes up forty-five minutes later, the question’s still in his head. What’s the most complicated thing he’s ever heard of? He has no idea what the answer might be.

Kyle sits up in bed and listens. Nothing. Everyone’s gone. Sara’s pulled it off.

He thinks about switching on the TV, but the remote isn’t on his bed-stand, and it’s not on Sara’s either. Kyle’s suspicion is that Sara hid it, so he wouldn’t be tempted.

Kyle rises to his feet with the notion of heading to the kitchen to make himself some toast. He’s a little dizzy but definitely on the mend. Even though he’s famished, and he imagines there are leftovers in the fridge, he knows he needs to go slowly, start small.

He’s in the kitchen removing the twist-tie from the bread bag when he hears the toilet flush. He freezes, unsure what to do, and in a few seconds Brangwynne Koonce is standing in the doorway looking at him. She’s wearing a star on her chest, like she’s the sheriff of something.

“Kyle,” Brangwynne says, taking in his boxers, undershirt, and black socks. “We missed you tonight.”

“How were the hens?” Kyle says. “Sara was hoping they wouldn’t be too dry.” He puts the toaster cozy back onto the toaster. He works the twist tie back onto the bread bag and studies the nutrition information. Seventy calories a slice. First ingredient is water. Surprising.

“Perfectly not dry,” Brangwynne says. She scratches her hip lazily and a smile grows on her face. “My hen was a perfect hen. And the wine, too. The wine was perfect wine. And your wife. Your wife is perfect and waiting for me outside in her car. She tells me that she’s my ride for the rest of the night.” Brangwynne giggles a little and starts to turn around, then stops. “Could I ask you something, Kyle? I hope this doesn’t sound too whatever.”

“Sure. Okay,” Kyle says. “Shoot.”

“Patrick Bogardus.” Brangwynne pauses to clear her throat and trace with her thumb the star on her chest. “He ever mention me?”

§

dessert

Ann was already up drinking coffee when the sun rose this morning. The post-storm scene outside the dining-room window was breathtaking. There wasn’t a hint of wind, and in the park across the street, the ice-glazed trees glared so brightly they were hard to look at. Garrett didn’t come downstairs until just before noon, and until then, Ann sat at the dining-room table studying the icescape, lazing over the newspaper, and making her grocery list. In addition to the regular weekly shopping, she’d have to get stuff for the pies she was making. The progressive dinner’s tonight.

By midmorning, the neighborhood kids were out in the park full-force. Ann was impressed by how they got busy right away, gathering fallen branches to make a fort. The parents of these kids had to threaten them with various indignities and penalties to get them to do their homework or make their beds—Ann’s heard them, and depending on the tone of voice has either grinned or winced—but this morning, hauling wet wood around a park, these kids looked like they couldn’t get enough of work.

For most of the kids, though, the novelty wore off eventually. They began to take long breaks from fort-building for slush wars and games of tag. For a few of the kids, though, building the fort was serious business, and they came up with a good design. They built two lean-tos facing each other and spanned the gap between the structures with brush for an extended roof. Ann was reminded of those longhouses the Iroquois built.

When the worker kids finished the fort, the more play-minded kids wanted to play in it right along with them. Of course this happened. And, of course, the worker kids balked. There was yelling, name-calling, threats of tattling, and then there was an advance on the fort. The worker kids were badly outnumbered, so it was over in a matter of minutes. One kid stood up under the low roof and wrecked it, and then a wrestling match broke out in one of the lean-tos, and that came down. The second lean-to eventually came down, too. It was one of the worker kids who knocked it down, and she did so purposefully. Out of resignation. Frustration. Ann admired her a little.

Ann wonders if that’s it for the fort-building, or if there’ll be a second act somewhere down the line. She’d like to think the fort builders will get a second wind and take another crack at it. Eventually parks and recreation workers will descend with chainsaws and a wood-chipper, but that won’t be until spring, which, in winter, always seems to Ann an eternity away.

Ann spends the rest of the day grocery shopping and baking pies. It’s early evening when she’s pulling the pies out of the oven and Garrett enters the kitchen to dispense information.  In England, a progressive dinner is called a safari supper. The British version incorporates many more guests and hosts, is much more complicated. It requires extensive planning, tight scheduling. Dining stations serve simultaneously, and at each course, you might eat with a different group of people. At every stop you get an envelope giving you your next assignment. Everyone is decidedly not in the same boat. Sometimes couples are even split up. The luck of the draw is part of the fun.

“Someone’s been on Wikipedia,” Ann says.

“The pies look incredible,” Garrett says. He puts his hands on Ann’s shoulders and kisses the top of her head.

“Apple, cherry, lemon meringue, shoofly,” Ann says.

“I approve,” Garrett says. “I should probably go throw more salt on the sidewalk. I bet we got an inch and a half of ice last night, and it’s refreezing now. Getting treacherous again.”

“What’s a broken neck or two among friends?” Ann says.

“That’s right,” Garrett says. “Okay.”

Ann knows her comment didn’t register. Things like expected company preoccupy Garrett. He drifts in and out of listening mode. He’s the first to admit it. Ann sometimes resents his quick and easy admissions, wonders if they get him off the hook too easily, wonders if a little denial now and then, a little back-and-forth once in a while, might not be healthy.

Once the guests arrive, sit down, and have their pie orders filled—Ann predicts apple will be most popular, shoofly least—Ann knows that her husband, the Very Reverend Garrett Tudor, dean of Saint Jude’s Episcopal Cathedral, will hold forth with the safari supper material. His inclination in conversation is to lead, and he prepares himself accordingly. Even when it’s just the two of them sitting down to leftovers in the middle of the week, he always seems to have one or two subjects already in mind, a clear idea of how he wants conversation to play out.

Ann doesn’t bake often. This is in part because Garrett’s watching his triglycerides and in part because baking reminds her too much of her first husband. Her late husband. Many things in Ann’s life remind her of Nathaniel, but baking brings him back too fully. Especially when they were newlyweds, Ann and Nat often baked together on weekends. Money was tight when they were young, and baking together, and then eating what they baked, was a relatively cheap date. Nat, who’d grown up in a house where men stayed out of the kitchen, couldn’t get enough. He appreciated the process as much as if not more than the product, and when they treated other couples to their creations, Nat was stubborn about sharing recipes. “Magicians don’t give away their secrets,” he’d say. When Ann would assert that baking was more chemistry than magic, he’d reply that he was fairly certain chemists didn’t give away their secrets either.

So now, a decade and a half after his death, Ann finds herself on the verge of talking out loud to him as she cracks eggs, wields measuring spoons, and rolls dough. This impulse unnerves her. Talking to ghosts is something people do on their deathbeds. As Nat had neared the end, he’d more than once cooed for Merle, his beloved beagle, who’d been gone four years. It had hurt Nat and Ann so much when Merle died that they’d sworn off dogs.

This is Ann and Garrett’s tenth anniversary year, and she’d gotten to ten years with Nat before he passed, so as it stands now, it’s a tie. She’s as much Garrett’s wife as Nat’s. Garrett is as much her husband as Nat was. This kind of thinking, Ann doesn’t imagine it can lead anywhere good. She knows it’s not something she’d share with anyone, and she figures that’s a good indication she shouldn’t be thinking about it. This week, though, it’s been hard not to. The baking, but before that, last Sunday, is when the seed was planted. The year B lectionary reading for the third Sunday after Epiphany.

In Ann’s opinion, Garrett took the easy way out in his sermon by ignoring Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and focusing instead on the Old Testament and Gospel readings. Jonah—fresh from the whale and grumpy—finally delivers his message of fire and brimstone to the Ninevehites, who, in turn, repent, and God shows mercy. A few hundred pages later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heads down to the Galilean docks and starts recruiting disciples, his “fishers of men.” Grace and salvation. Feel-good stuff. Affirming and familiar. Spiritual comfort food.

Saint Paul’s words from I Corinthians, though, are of a different variety. Mourners should cut out their mourning, happy people should sober up, and married people should forget their spouses. Why? Because this world is on its way out. No metaphor here to hide behind. No wiggle room. Ann would’ve liked to hear Garrett’s spin.

Of all the available notions of heaven, the one Ann comes closest to believing in is the personal heaven, the tailor-fitted paradise. When Nat passed, more than a few of Ann’s church friends suggested she read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Empathy was why. Lewis had lost his wife to cancer and in the book posed to God the sort of anger-tinged existential questions that Ann’s friends assumed must’ve been haunting her. What most intrigued Ann about Lewis, though—she’d gone on to read a few more of his books—wasn’t his widower status and pain as much as his ruminations on the afterlife. Lewis likes to think marriage bonds might stay intact somehow, goes as far to propose that entire families and households, beloved pets included, might be reconstituted, like orange juice. When Ann remembers this idea now, she thinks of old Merle, imagines him curled at her feet as she sits on the middle cushion of a celestial couch, smack-dab between Nat and Garrett.

Ann isn’t the kind of person to laugh out loud much, neither alone nor with other people—she’s more of a grinner, more apt to say “That’s funny!” than actually giggle—but this version of her afterlife has her laughing so hard and so suddenly that she has to put both hands on the kitchen counter for support. When Garrett reenters, he’s stunned into laughing along with her. Ann shifts from the kitchen counter to Garrett, wraps her arms around him and is laughing tears onto his cold neck when the doorbell rings.

A few hours later, the group that inhabits Ann’s house is a bit more ragtag than she’d expected. They’re not all together—the doorbell rings three different times—some of them seem a little sleepy even though it’s not yet nine o’clock, and the final couple to arrive, Brangwynne Koonce and Sara Lutz, comes armed with half-empty bottles of wine left over from the previous courses. If there’s another progressive dinner in the future, Ann thinks a walking tour might not be a bad idea.

An hour and a half after the guests arrive, they’re gone. The pies were a hit, even the shoofly, and after serving three pots of coffee, Ann felt better about sending everyone home. She abstained herself because coffee doesn’t agree with her at night. Not so much because of the caffeine—she’d brewed decaf, too—but because it gives her heartburn. She has that in common with Garrett. Nat, though, would drink the stuff from sunup to sundown.  Man had a stomach like cast iron.

As Ann finishes the dishes—Garrett had offered to help, but she’d sent him up to bed, to channel-surf himself asleep—she wonders if heaven might require her to make a decision between Nat and Garrett. Ladies’ choice, like a Sadie Hawkins dance. And then she wonders if there might be a third option offered, if she might not rather do heaven single. Unmanned. While quiet and sometimes lonely, those five years that Ann had on her own between Nat’s passing and getting together with Garrett weren’t altogether unsatisfactory. She wouldn’t trade them in.

In Ann’s opinion, the most entertaining guests this evening had been Brangwynne Koonce and Sara Lutz. Ann watched them all night. The only women without men attached, they’d stuck to each other. At one point they interlocked their arms and fed each other pie; at another point Ann saw Sara brush back Brangwynne’s hair before whispering into her ear, and whatever she whispered made Brangwynne fall over forward and giggle on Sara’s shoulder. Ann hadn’t even known the two women were friends, and suddenly they were acting like tipsy sorority sisters. On some level it made sense. Ann had suspected both of having crushes on Patrick Bogardus before he left town, so they had that in common. They weren’t the only ones, either. On Sunday afternoons after church, Ann and Garrett would chuckle about it. Garrett had said that Patrick, if he wanted, could start a very successful niche ministry for middle-aged women, both single and married alike. It felt okay to joke about because it was all so obviously harmless. It takes two to tango, and Patrick, while polite and personable, clearly had no interest in any of the women. He appeared dedicated to flying solo.

As Ann closes up the house and turns off the lights before heading upstairs, she realizes how tired she is. She’d spent the night before on the couch. Garrett had been in and out of bed with stomach trouble, and on top of that, of course, there had been the storm. Thunder, crashing branches, sleet pinging the windows. Ann wonders if she slept at all. Wonders if she’ll sleep tonight.

 


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