Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Strange Plots 17

Previous

I didn’t know how much space Vin would need to sort himself out, but there was no doubt he was a slow mover. I was bracing myself not to hear from him until the fact of my absence percolated down through his system and pooled in his nerve endings. For myself, I was already at that point, feeling my want of him stinging throughout the day and building to a steady yearning by night.

To distract myself, I went out and got a job. Not a cool job at a bookstore or Starbucks or secretary at a publishing house or at some classy boutique, like in a Hallmark movie. Nor a career like my mother would have approved of, getting my first leg up at some reputable tech company or getting in on the ground floor of a hot start-up. No, I needed something fast and I needed it now, so I went down to the mall and applied to work holiday retail. I’m young and pretty and ready to start now, so there wasn’t much challenge in hurdling the low barriers to entry. By Wednesday after Thanksgiving I was ringing up credit cards and gift wrapping packages and making jolly chitchat with harried shoppers.

By my second day I’d already had to bite my tongue to keep from telling off a fool, but I had some strong motivations to maintain my cool. First and foremost was Vin’s example of humility. I couldn’t be near him in person, so I was near him in attitude, smiling patiently as customers took out their year’s worth of frustrations and family stresses on the one person who had to treat them as if they were always right. When I felt hot words boiling up, I swallowed and became Vin patient with his crazy mother, or (more compelling) Vin, patient with crazy me. And to my constant surprise, not only did it work in the moment, but it changed people. A few shoppers went away with their nastiness still fully lodged up their asses, but most of them, given space, softened and regained their humanity and even apologized to me for losing their tempers.

As I neatened the cash wrap in the slower moments, I thought about the times when I’d been extended my own grace moments to let my brain catch up with my behavior. Never from my mom, who loved to catch me out. But dad, whether because he had more tolerance for me or because he just didn’t like conflict in general, almost always gave me that room to change myself without being forced to. Maybe that’s why he and I had a stronger bond and a more flexible relationship than I did with mom.

But what about me? Did I ever give mom the same space I was making such a big deal about right now? I tried to remember the last time I’d let her words hang and echo in the air. I always had to have a comeback, to give as good as I got. I could never let anyone get one up on me. One-upping wasn’t really a good name for a process that was more like a race to see who could dig themselves in deeper. And Mom and I had dug down so far that we were stuck in our World War One trenches, facing off across no man’s land, and I didn’t know who was going to be able to sneak out first and cut the barbed wire.

So that was one reason and two reasons not to blow up my job: Vin’s respect, and space from Mom. The third was straight up money. Driving to Titusville took a lot of gas, and looking cute for Vin meant a girl had to go every now and then and drop a wad of cash on a pair of boots or a pair of new hoops. My own savings were depleted perilously low, and I could not always be borrowing from Grandpa or my dad, open-handed as they were. Until my finances regulated and expanded I was stuck living with Mom and Dad — not the world’s worst arrangement, when everything was peaceful, but a little humiliating nevertheless. But they say that the best time to look for a job is when you already have one, so maybe after the holiday rush I could find something better and more permanent, which in turn could lead to more and quality adulting.

These considerations filled my working time, and when I got off I was worn out and ready to veg and stream some brainless entertainment, so I was surprised on Friday to get a call from Vin.

“Hey, sorry to disturb you,” he said.

“You’re not bothering me,” I said.

“I just always think I’m going to interrupt someone. But look, I was wondering if you could come up today. I ran into Father Leonard in town, and he said that he was wanting to get in touch with you. It seems like he had something to show you.”

“Something show us? What do you think it could be?”

“I don’t know. I wondered if maybe the man from the cornfield was buried in the Catholic cemetery or something.”

Oh my gosh, I wish I could get up there right now,” I groaned. “But I’m scheduled to work this afternoon. I’d get fired if I blow it off, and I’m really trying hard to make a good impression.”

“You have a job?” Vin was too polite to register all his surprise, but there was definitely an inflection of disbelief there. “When did this happen?”

“Right after Thanksgiving. I’m actually on break right now. I didn’t know when I’d hear back from you, so I decided I’d better start living my own life in the meantime.”

“Oh.” I could hear the gears shifting in his head, and I wondered with satisfaction if he’d gotten used to the idea of me being available whenever he needed me. “Okay, yeah. Of course. When are you free?”

“I’m off Sunday morning. Are you?”

“This week? Yeah.”

“What if I come up to Titusville and we go to mass, and catch Father afterwards? That way we’ll know exactly where and when to find him.”

“Wait, can I just go to mass with you? I thought there were rules about that.”

“Of course you can just go to mass with me. What do you think, that we have bouncers at the door keeping you out?”

“No, but I mean… I thought you had to go through some initiation to be Catholic.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to be Catholic to go to mass. Anyone can go to mass.” I reached back to my catechism days. “That’s what catholic means. It’s Greek for ‘universal’ or something.”

“But what about your Lord’s Supper? Not just anyone can take communion, right?”

“You can go to mass without taking communion.” I sighed. “I have to do it a lot, actually.”

When I got home I dragged myself into the kitchen for a snack, and found Mom at the table. We’d mostly avoided each other since Thanksgiving, but if we were going to be under the same roof we weren’t going to be able to keep that up indefinitely.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”

I rummaged in the fridge. “By the way, I’m going to Titusville again on Sunday.”

“On Sunday? Really.”

“Really. I’m going to mass with Vin.”

“Vin is Catholic?”

“No.”

Mom got up from the table and shrugged. “That’s nice you’re going to church together.” And she left without further comment.

I stared after her. I’d concocted plans for many discussion scenarios — snark, needling, prying, dismissal — but outright acceptance had not made any part of my battle strategy. And her retreat had never been factor I'd considered, mostly because I’d never seen it happen before. I wondered if everything was okay and whether I should go upstairs and press the point with her. And then I thought about how I’d just been pitying myself for never getting any space from Mom. Take it where you can find it, I told myself. This moment may never come again.

“Thank you, Lord,” I breathed. “Let me not screw this one up.”

The Sunday sky was gray and lowering as I headed up into Titusville. The forecast called for snow, and I was glad of it. It would be such a pretty picture: Vin and me, strolling around the old square in the swirling flakes, crystals glistening against our hair, dark and red. (Hats did not figure in my images of seasonal bliss.) Snow melting in our hair as we knelt together at mass. Except Vin wouldn’t kneel, because he wasn’t Catholic so why would he?, but maybe he’d do it just to be polite. But would that be worshipping false gods if you didn’t actually believe? Suddenly I hoped I wasn’t provoking a theological crisis that would tear us apart before we were actually together. Maybe mass hadn’t been the best idea for a meeting place, but it was too late to change it now.

And indeed, the first flakes were starting to fall as I pulled in next to Vin’s car in the small parking lot next to Sacred Hearts. He was studying the pretty stonework so intensely that I felt intrusive knocking on his window.

“Sorry,” he said, getting out. “I was just thinking about how this church has been in Titusville for almost 100 years, and I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve only gone inside once on a call. There’s so much history I’ve never been curious about, or taken any time to explore. I’ve been so obsessed with the missing fathers in my history that I’d never asked my grandmother about her own grandmother. What else have I been missing all this time, that’s always been right under my nose if only I could see it?”

“Hello,” I said, cozying up to his side. “I’m right here.”

“So you are.” He put his arm around me. “And we’ll go into that church together, where Father Leonard is plotting to steal you away and make you a nun.”

“What on earth?”

“And then someone will ask me, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’, and I’ll point to you and say, ‘Nun’.”

“Do you even know the first thing about Catholi… No. Just, no.”

Vin was shaking silently next to me. I drew myself up with dignity.

“I hope I would have more respect than to go to your church and desecrate the holy ground with godawful jokes.”

“That’s why I have to come to church with you.” Vin gurgled. “We don’t even have nuns. Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to become Catholic. You guys have the best scope for puns.”

“I’m pretty sure God is going to send fire from heaven to strike you down,” I said, hampered in my ability to stalk off by Vin keeping a tight grasp on my hand.

Fortunately he didn’t cause any scenes, humorous or ecumenical, during mass. As we all knelt, I glanced over to see him sitting in universal posture of religious respect-but-not-ascent, elbows leaning on knees, head bowed. But he was watching the altar in fascination. I watched, too, wondering what he was looking at, trying to find something new and unfamiliar in the same liturgy I’d seen week after week, year after year.

“That was something else,” he said, as we sat in the pew afterward. “”There’s a lot of stuff going on up there.”

“It’s the first Sunday of Advent, so you have the Advent candles added in,” I said. “Otherwise, it was pretty standard.”

“What do you do on weeks when you don’t have the Lord’s Supper?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “We go to communion every Sunday.”

“That’s a standard part of every Sunday worship service?”

“It’s a standard part of the mass. There’s not a ton of variation. You could go to mass and take communion every day of the week if you wanted.”

He gazed up at the golden tabernacle where Father Leonard had put away the hosts. “Do you want to?”

“Go every day? I never thought about it.”

“I would,” he said, sitting back. “That, every day. You’re lucky.”

Father Leonard passed up the aisle from greeting his sheep. “Hello again to both of you. Come back in the sacristy with me. I have something you will be interested to see.”

In the sacristy, Father unvested while Vin tried not ogle the closet of chasubles or the narrow drawers of linens.

“I thought a good deal about what you told me,” said Father, hanging everything up. “You have Aaron Moore, a tiny black baby, or half black. And he is not taken to the county orphanage or put in local foster care. He is taken to Roanoke.”

“Maybe his parents didn’t want anyone to know about him?” Vin suggested.

“But why not take him to a state institution in Roanoke?” Father asked. “Doesn’t it seem strange to you that someone would have come all the way down from the mountain to seek out a Catholic orphanage for this little baby? I thought about this, and I decided to do a little digging around in the only Catholic institution in Titusville.”

He led us back into a small room off the sacristy, not much more than a glorified passageway from the back door, packed with filing cabinets and drawers. A computer took up most of a small desk under the window. There was just about room for one extra chair.

“This is my office,” said Father. “It’s been the parish office ever since the church was built. Here is where we keep all the old registries and records.” He pulled down a large book bound in red leather. “In those days, the priest here did not have a secretary or a staff. He did all the recording himself. A lot of work, though the congregation up here has never been very large.”

He flipped open to a page he’d marked with a ribbon. “This is the registry for the 1920s and 30s, from the founding of the mission.”

The double page spread was lined with columns with Latin headings and filled with a tight cursive hand.

“This is the date,” Father said, stabbing the far left column. “You see this page is Summer 1934. And this next one says, in English, ‘I, Father So-and-so, baptize you’, and Father So-and-so would write his name.”

The top entry for the column was scribed “Francis X. Walsh”, with ditto marks most of the way down the page. 

“And this says, ‘Name of Infant’.”

He traced halfway down the page and stopped under a neat listing that read, “Aaron.”

“Oh my god.” I looked at the next column. “Natum? Is that birthday?”

“Yes.”

“This is the day before his birthday. Oh my god. It’s been wrong all these years.”

“If he was very small, the orphanage may have listed his birthday as the date they found him,” Father said.

Vin had moved to the next column. “Ex Parentibus. Parents. A.M and T. Why aren’t they written out? Everyone else has full names.”

“Perhaps even in an obscure Catholic registry, Father Walsh didn’t want to make it too clear who the baby’s parents were.”

“A.M,” I sobbed into Vin’s chest. “Aaron Moore. I wish Grandpa were here. I wish he could see this.” Father Leonard patted my shoulder as Vin murmured into my hair.

“You see,” said Father Leonard, brushing at his eyes. “No godparents. This must have been a very private baptism.”

“I wonder who T. is?” said Vin. “She must be the missing maternal link.”


“But wait,” I snuffed into the tissue Father handed me. “Why did no one ever know about this? It’s right here in the open.”


“How would you ever have known to look, though?” Father Leonard said. “If Aaron Moore came to the orphanage as a foundling infant, the sisters probably assumed that he was unbaptized. If he has been recorded there, and has traced back his records to the orphanage for all these years, why would he look elsewhere? And if no one in Titusville besides his parents knew that he existed, how would anyone in Titusville know to search for him?”

“And if his father was really killed by Old Titus and the mayor, then no one but the priest ever knew.

“Until the DNA test,” I said. “It’s like this was hidden in plain sight all these years.”

“Father Walsh’s name is only in the registry for another two months after the baptism,” said Father Leonard. “Then another priest took over. So if he were gone, and A.M. the father was dead, and the mother was not talking, perhaps understandably in the circumstances, then there is no one left in town who even knows that there is a mystery of Aaron Moore to solve.”

Next.

Strange Plots 16

Previous

1933. Father was coming home that night from the city, and Lavinia wanted to make a surprise for him.

Father went down in Roanoke every few months to lay in supplies, things the general store in Titusville didn’t always carry or he thought it vanity to order from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Even though he would rumble in after dark, Lavinia would run out to meet him with the oil lamp, and together they would haul in package after package. Father would let her open a few that night and exclaim over the contents. The next day, everything would be sorted and stored in its proper place, and the farm would be set up until the next expedition.

He always brought her some treat, some chocolate or taffy, or a book, or fabric for a new dress. Once — oh joy! — he had even bought her a ready made dress, with its neat factory stitching and fashionable lines. Today she donned that dress and carefully rolled her braids over her ears to look as mature and respectable as possible. She was going to make Father a treat, and to do so she needed to ask a favor.

The walk into town was nippy on this late autumn morning, but in her jacket and hat she was snug as could be. Mature she may be, but she wasn’t too old to stomp leaves under her feet for the fun of hearing them crunch. She wasn’t afraid of the solitary road. She loved quiet, and peace, and being alone with herself. Thank goodness Father didn’t make her go to the high school. How could you learn stuck in a school, surrounded by other people? A desk by the window, a book in your hand, a room to call your own — that was happiness.

And yet, you couldn’t live life with your head in a book. There was the farm, and getting married, and having babies. To have babies you had to be married, and to be married you had to know a man you could love and cherish and… and make babies with. The facts of life were simple. She’d known them since she was a little girl toddling around the farm. Anyone knew how pigs and horses give birth, and anyone knew how they bred. Women, too, gave birth that way. It was not quite as clear how the rutting of dogs or bulls might be different as performed by a man, but there was time enough to puzzle that out when she’d met a man worthy of running her father’s farm.

For now, Father was the man about the place, and as he took such loving care of her and brought her gifts from town, she was going to do something for him. She was going to make him a pie. Not just any pie, mind you, though it was easy enough to make an apple or a custard pie. Those were fine in their ways, but they required a certain amount sugar, and sugar was so expensive and better used in preserves. Once, however, Father had eaten one of Mrs. McGrath’s meat pies, and had been forced to admit that it was as good as any he’d ever had. Lavinia had tried on the sly to imitate the filling, and had even bought several meat pies from Mrs. McGrath bakeshop to taste and examine, but she couldn’t quite get the proportions right, and she didn’t want to serve one to Father until it was just so.

But now there was no chance of tasting another pie. Mrs. McGrath was now Mrs. Sanders, and too elegant to run a shop. That was right and just for the mayor’s wife, of course, but it didn’t help if you wanted to recreate her signature pie. Mrs. McGrath-that-was had declared that her recipe was a secret that would go with her to her grave, but surely there was some way to convince her to share it with one person, or to entice her give even a hint that would help Lavinia make a pie that was just as good as anything Mrs. McGrath had ever turned out of her bakeshop. Anything a McGrath could do, a Titus could do better. Father had always believed that, and she was ready to prove it to him. How he would laugh when he realized what she’d done!

But it would be best if he didn’t realize entirely what she’d done. Lavinia was not to socialize with the McGraths, or speak to them, or even acknowledge them in town. Father had laid this down as a precept and followed it religiously himself. It had cost him some influence in town, since it was bad form to snub the mayor’s wife. But Father held his conscience as a higher authority than the esteem of men. Mrs. McGrath was a woman of sin, lawless even though she was now allied to the law. Perhaps she had repented of her destructive moonshining ways and her service to the vile drink that had destroyed brother Quintin. If so, she showed no sign of it with her vain dress and her tawdry hair of a color offensive to God. Lavinia privately thought that if God had given Mrs. McGrath her red hair, he must not find it so awful as all that, but it wouldn’t do to flout Father by saying so.

And so she was sneaking into town this morning, stealing in by back paths to avoid being seen, so that she could visit Mrs. McGrath (how hard it was to get used to saying Mrs. Sanders, when the hair was still McGrath!) without word getting back to Father.  Luck was on her side today. Automobiles rumbled, but none passed her. Sounds of morning fuss came from houses, but no one was outside to catch her as she slipped by. The first person she encountered at all was the Sanders’ colored man, raking the leaves in the front yard. Should she speak to him, or should she ring the doorbell?

He noticed her hesitation, and stood with his rake held respectfully before him. “Can I help you, miss?” he asked.

“I need to see Mrs. Sanders,” said Lavinia, and added, “Privately.”

“Of course, miss,” he said. “If you’ll follow me around to the kitchen, I can bring you right to her.”

And such a kitchen! Lavinia stood in humble awe while the man stepped into the hall to call Mrs. Sanders. Perhaps it was vanity to live in such luxury, but oh! the green pressed glass knobs! The linoleum floor! Lavinia itched to examine the modern range more closely, but it would not do to be caught prying like a silly schoolgirl when she needed to be shrewd and astute.

“My dear, what can I do for you?” Mrs. Sanders stepped into the room, as cool and powdered as a woman in a cigarette ad, not pink and flustered from a brisk walk into town. How did one address such elegance? But a Titus must be above such worldly considerations. A Titus must rise above the lure of the flesh both for the sake of holiness and for the sake of winning the prize. She must not fidget with her dress or pat her hair to see if it was in place. She must speak.

“Mrs. Sanders, I know this is unusual, but I hope you’ll pardon the intrusion.” Was her tone right? Just serious enough, without sounding servile? “I’ve come to ask a great favor of you.”

“A favor!” Mrs. Sanders’s languid eyes showed a spark of life. “How charming! Of course I’ll do anything I can to help you.” She took a seat at the kitchen table, and invited Lavinia to do the same. “But maybe your father won’t prefer that you take help from me, if there’s anyone else who can aid you.” She shook her head ruefully at the foibles and follies of men, and Lavinia caught herself smiling back.

“I don’t know if you will, when you hear what it is,” she said, trying to sit as gracefully as Mrs. Sanders had. “But you’re the only one who can help with this particular request. Mrs. Sanders, I want the recipe for your meat pie.”

“My recipe?” Mrs. Sanders seemed caught off guard by such a bold stroke. “Why?”

“Father is returning from Roanoke tonight, and I want to make the pie for him.”

Mrs. Sanders blinked for a moment, considering, and then her face relaxed into a gentle glow.

“I know your father has taught you well from the word of God.” She scratched a match and touched it to a cigarette as she took a long drag. “Perhaps you remember the book of Job, how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Right now the Lord giveth to me. I live a comfortable life, with a loving husband and a big house and my dear son. But there was a time not long ago when I had nothing. Your own father was the hand of God, humbling my pride by destroying the wicked instrument of my life of sin and killing my son. My only means of support was my old pie recipe. It’s my whole livelihood. Should the Lord taketh away again, I must be ready to support myself, and if I give you my pie recipe, how will I be able to compete with such a darling cook? Who would come to me anymore when dear Miss Titus can do what I do, but with the benefit of youth and beauty?”

“I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Sanders laughed. “I don’t say it to reproach you. I’m flattered that you want my recipe. But the answer must be no. I’m afraid there will be no pie for your father, and I’m afraid I must tell him that you’ve come asking me, since I’m sure you’re here against his wishes.”

“Not about the recipe,” said Lavinia in a small voice. “I am sorry for the death of your son. It was very wrong of Father to shoot him when he came to make peace. “

“To make peace?” Mrs. Sanders’s face was neutral, her tone flat. “It was put about that Allan was trespassing.”

“His only trespass was to reach his hand out across the gate. My brother told me. You must believe me, Mrs. McGrath.” In her haste, Lavinia was forgetting the proper name to use, but the woman sitting across the table from her did not seem to notice. “I would do anything to atone for his death, ma’am. To make peace as he tried to make peace.”

“Anything,” said Tamar, her beauty caught and suspended in a death mask. “Anything. Did you say that your father would be home tonight?”

“Yes, that’s why I want to make the pie today, while he’s gone.”

Lavinia began to grow frightened by her stillness behind the drifting cigarette smoke.
Then, suddenly as spring, her soft smile revived. “My sweet child, you shame me. I’m just an old bitter woman but you have a heart as fresh and pure as your pretty face.”

“Thank you,” said Lavinia, her alarm beginning to melt.

“I cannot give you my recipe,” said Mrs. McGrath. “I know you will understand that. But I will let you look at it.” She rose and went to a small dresser, taking a box from the top drawer. Bringing it to the table, she flipped through the index cards, selected one, and placed it on the table before Lavinia.

Sage even in her gratitude, Lavinia scanned down the card, trying memorize proportions and ingredients. Already a few of her flops began to make sense to her as she compared her efforts to the recipe. There was a tap on the hall door, and the colored man put his head in. Mrs. McGrath stepped into the hall, then popped back into the kitchen.

“Please excuse me for a bit,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few moments.”

A few moments were all Lavinia needed. When Mrs. McGrath returned, the card was sitting in front of her place at the table, and Lavinia’s hands were folded neatly in her lap.

“Thank you so much,” she said, rising. “I am so grateful to you. I must go to the butcher now and get some cuts of meat. I must get started if I’m to be done in time.”

“My dear, never!” Mrs. McGrath took her arm and led her to the icebox by the back door. “I have all the meat you’ll need here. Stay and mix up the pie here with me, and I’ll show you the right way to chop and combine all the ingredients. Do you have raisins at home right now? Do you have nutmeg?”

“Well…” said Lavinia, wondering if this constituted taking charity.

“Please,” said Mrs. McGrath. “Allow me this pleasure.”

Soon the meats and fruits were on the cutting boards, and a merry swishing of knives filled the room.

“Did you learn your cooking from your mother?” asked Mrs. McGrath as she deftly minced the meat finer and finer.

“No, ma’am. She died not long after I was born.”

“That’s the plight of women in this world. If a child is not taken from it’s mother, the mother is taken from the child. She does the work to bring it into the world, and then it’s no longer hers to hold and protect.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. McGrath laughed and shoved a flamelike lock of hair away from her cheek with her wrist. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, but you will one day, when you have children of your own. You want children?”

Lavinia blushed. “I’d like to get married one day, ma’am. A big family is a boon on a farm. And I’d like to have a little baby, to mother as I wish I could have been mothered.”

Mrs. McGrath gasped and sucked on her sliced fingertip. “This just goes to show me I’d better keep my mind on the task at hand. Wouldn’t you say? Are you ready to add the spices?”

Soon the filling was all assembled, and Mrs. McGrath produced dough from the icebox, and they rolled it out together, chatting about butter versus shortening in the crust and the best way to cut in the fat. In no time, a lovely pie sat on the counter, top crust embellished with cunning designs.

“Now you take that home and you bake it, and you come back and tell me how your father liked it.” Mrs. McGrath wiped her floury hands on the towel, content with a job well done.

“Thank you, ma’am. And perhaps,” Lavinia could not believe her own boldness, “perhaps I might come back and make a pie with you again.”

“Oh, my child.” The older woman laid her hand on Lavinia’s cheek. “I would like that above all things.”

The kitchen door swung open, and Mrs. Sanders’ son, a broad shouldered boy Lavinia had seen at church, banged his way in and then stood, tense in surprise at the sight of his mother and Miss Titus in the kitchen.

“And here’s Demetrius home early from school!” trilled Mrs. Sanders. “I tell you what, it’s going to be a long dusty walk home with that nice pie. Why don’t I have Aaron drive you home?”

“Oh, I don’t know…” said Lavinia.

“And that way nobody will see you walking with the pie, and your secret will be safe from your father.” A sunny smile lit her face. “And Demetrius will escort you, for propriety’s sake.” Demetrius jerked and stared at his mother, who laughed. “Such a shy boy around a lady. Demetrius! Run out to the garage and tell Aaron to bring the car out.” When he hesitated, his mother inclined her head toward the door. “Go on and tell Aaron what you need to do.”

Demetrius backed silently out of the kitchen at his mother’s command.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Lavinia, taking up the pie dish. “You’ve been so kind to me today.”

“It’s the least I can do for such a lovely child,” said Mrs. Sanders softly. “Here, let me help you into the car.”

As Aaron drove off, Lavinia in the back seat and Demetrius next to her holding the pie, Tamar watched them from the back stoop, her eyes tragic. Then she sucked on her cut finger, went inside and shut the door.

Demetrius was not much company. He sat ramrod straight, without looking at her, and flinched if her elbow or knee jostled him. But Aaron more than atoned for Demetrius’s sulkiness, making Lavinia laugh all the way home with his stories and riddles and songs. He drove with skill, sometimes veering into a back road or a pasture path if they heard another auto approaching. “Got to keep your pie a surprise, miss!” When they came to the Titus gate, Aaron wouldn’t hear of Lavinia walking all the way down the driveway. “Service right to your door, miss!” he said as she shut the gate behind him and hopped back in. He maneuvered down the drive so gently that he made no tracks in the gravel or in the empty yard. Right at the back porch he came to a precise stop, and opened her door for her like a real French chauffeur.

“Mister Demetrius, you carry that pie in for her,” Aaron said. “Ain’t no lady should have to bear a burden with a gentleman present.”

Demetrius sat immobile in the car. Aaron opened his door his door too and stood looking down at him. 

“Now you treat a lady right,” he scolded with paternal kindness. "Mind you take that pie right in and set it on the counter!”

“Maybe she doesn’t want me to,” Demetrius said, in his slow way, finally looking Aaron in the face.

“But if she doesn’t get started on her baking it will be too late,” said Aaron with an edge of patience. “What time does your father come home, miss?”

“Not until after dark.”

“And you want everything to be ready and waiting for him! Mister Demetrius, do you hear?”

Still he sat. “I can’t go in that house with her.”

“Miss Lavinia, he’s just too proud to go into the Titus house!” Aaron chortled. “Won’t you ask him? He won’t listen to me today.”

Lavinia stepped to the door and laid a hand on Demetrius’s stiff arm. “Please won’t you come in?” she asked, smiling to put him at his ease. “Let’s make peace between our families. Won’t you at least have a glass of water with me?” She stifled a laugh as she caught Aaron’s wink from the corner of her eye. The sound of her mirth seemed to kindle something in Demetrius. He got out of the car, awkward with pie in hand, and pushed ahead of her to the door.

“Let’s go,” he said hoarsely.

As Lavinia opened the kitchen door and closed it behind him, Aaron leaned back against the car and lit a cigarette, cupping his hand against the sudden chill breeze.


Shortly before dusk, a car crept gently down the Titus drive away from the dark house, disturbing no gravel, and turned softly onto the road toward town. The mayor’s chauffeur was at the wheel, driving in his correct and unobtrusive fashion after fastening the gate securely behind him. In the back, hidden on the floor, was Demetrius McGrath, clutching the unbaked pie in his bloody hands.

“Your mother will certainly enjoy that tonight for her supper,” Aaron remarked. “It was clever of you to remember to take it.”

“Shut up,” came a strangled moan from the floor.

“Ought to sleep well tonight,” said Aaron, with no hint of malice. “Always do, afterwards.”

The only sound from the back was muffled wrenching sobs.

Previous

Strange Plots 15

Previous

I’d meant to try out my new supporting role, get into the spirit of being loyal and all, but when Vin opened the door to me I ended up smiling just from the sheer pleasure of him being there.

“I’m glad to see you again,” I said.

I stepped toward him, and for a moment I thought he was going to be very glad indeed to see me. But he pulled back, though reluctantly, and ushered me inside.

“Some of my aunts and uncles are here, and my cousins, and Grandma Kay.” He started to help me out of my coat, but held on to it. “I wish it wasn’t so cold out. We could take a walk down the driveway.”

“I’m for it,” I said, waiting for him to slide my coat back onto my shoulders. But he shook himself and hung it up instead.

“I’m just being a coward,” he apologized. “Anyway, it’s almost dinner time. Let’s go on in.”

The living room was still a pristine temple to holiday cheer, but the kitchen felt merry. Heather and two women who must have been her sisters were bustling between the stove and the island, transferring food from pots into serving dishes. Kay was setting the serving dishes on the sideboard in the dining room, but she took a moment to kiss me on the cheek.

“Get our boy to smile,” she whispered to me.

In the den and around the kitchen table were several teenagers, old enough to have been useful, who were all slumped over their phones. One or two looked up with mild interest when Vin brought me in. 

“This is Erin Ramirez, a friend of mine.”

Probably he didn’t call me his cousin because he had literal cousins right there, but I approved the change.

Vin’s aunts had to come over and check me out — good-naturedly, of course, but you know how aunts are. I declared my willingness to work, which put me one up on the teenagers. Vin’s dad, stepping away from the den where the uncles were worshipping at the altar of football, was thrilled, just really jazzed, to see me and offered me any drink in the house, including his own.

“Erin, I’m so glad to see you again!” squealed Heather, performing happiness. I immediately hoped (and was immediately ashamed of hoping) that those same words had sounded more authentic when I’d said them to Vin.

“Nice apron,” I said, as heartily as I could. “Someone cool must have given it to you.”

She smoothed the blue tartan over her hips with the flair of a 50’s housewife, but managed to refrain from patting her hair and lighting up a Virginia Slim. “Erin gave me this,” she announced to the room. “Did I tell you how she just knew exactly what I liked? And look, it has…”

“Pockets,” murmured one of the phone-wielding teens, not loud enough to carry to Heather. “Yeah, we heard.”

“Come help me set the table,” said Vin, steering me toward the dining room. “Everything is nearly ready, but we can put the finishing touches on.”

“What’s left to be done?” I asked, as I circled the table choked with china and glass already gleaming on the immaculate table cloth.

“Place settings, candles, centerpieces,” said Vin. “Finger bowls, fish knives, doilies, chalices, nutcrackers. Just the usual.”

“The usual? Maybe if you’re Queen Elizabeth…” and I halted as Vin, with a handful of place cards, burst out laughing.

“Fine, you got me,” I said. “Your grandma told me to make you smile, and I did better than that, so I win this round.”

“I’ll allow it,” he said. “Set those flowers on the table.”

Heather wandered in to inspect the proceedings. “Oh, Vin, you can’t sit Erin on that side of the table. She’s the guest of honor, so she has to sit here on my right. That’s the etiquette.”

“I thought she should sit down on this end of the table with Dad and Grandma and me, since she’s our guest,” said Vin.

“But I’ve already charted it all out,” said Heather, moving my place card to her end of the table. “See, that’s proper.”

Once she was out of the room, I picked up the card with my name. “Should I move it back, or it it going to make make your life harder if I mess with it?”

“It would make my life better if you sat by me,” he said. “It would make my life easier if Mom didn’t get het up about this sort of thing.”

“Why don’t we just eat in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I wish.”

Heather came back in. “You see, it’s a matter of etiquette,” she said, taking my place card and putting it back by the proper plate. “The guest of honor always sits by the hostess. Is that not how you do it at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner?”

I thought of the Ramirez fiestas, paper plates and plastic tablecloths that we wrapped over all the dinner mess and pitched at the end of dinner. “We don’t tend to stand on ceremony.”

“It’s just our tradition,” she said earnestly. “Some people would get really upset if we didn’t get the protocol right.”

I glanced at Vin. “It’s no problem.”

The teens were eating in the kitchen, but everyone had to gather in the dining room for grace.

“Teens first at the buffet!” said Heather. “While we’re all in the room, let’s go around and say what we’re thankful for. Dad, you start.”

Dan, at the opposite side of the table, beamed. “For friends and family and football!”

“This drink,” said Kay, raising her glass.

“For Madi’s successful surgery,” said Aunt Karen. People around table murmured agreement.

Friends and family were the theme, with few variations. A couple of the teens had to be funny (“I’m thankful for all memekind.”) but in general, familiarity bred content.

“I’m so grateful for another year of blessings,” Heather cooed, “and for new family in the new year.” She made meaningful eyes at me. The room buzzed, and even Kay raised an eyebrow at Vin, who sighed.

And now all eyes were on me. I tried to think past my irritation. If I said I was grateful for friends and family, I was basically confirming Heather’s insinuation that Vin and I were practically engaged. If I denied it openly, I made Heather look like a fool, and while that might give me a moment of satisfaction, she might take it out on Vin later. I raised my glass.

“I’m grateful for family too,” I said, “especially for Kay and all her ancestors.”

I didn’t know if that would settle the rumor mill, but it would gum up the works, at least. And Vin relaxed. He was brief on his turn. “For us,” he said, and tipped his glass to the whole table, which included me.

Once the teens cleared out, I got to serve myself first as the guest of honor. If it had been a free-for-all like Ramirez thanksgivings, I would have attached myself to Vin in line and just hung by his side, but we had to follow protocol and go around the table. Fortunately, Uncle Preston, on my right, was a Hokies fan, so we kept up a steady social stream of abuse of U.Va until we could get down to the serious business of eating.

“Is the cranberry sauce gone?” Heather asked, the last one at the buffet.

Everyone denied taking the last of the cranberry sauce, or any at all.

“But we did have cranberry sauce, didn’t we?” Heather insisted, looking around at everyone’s plates. “Who was supposed to bring it? It’s not Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce.”

“I was supposed to bring it,” I said, and was rewarded for my honesty with a tableful of silence, people fiddling with forks or napkins. “But there was kind of a mishap, and then I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

Conversation at the table picked up with a determined burst of energy.

Heather seated herself next to me and spread her napkin over her lap.“That’s too bad about the cranberry sauce. It’s just that it’s our family tradition to have it every Thanksgiving.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was working on it this morning. But it’s my family tradition to fight with my mom on Thanksgiving, and she dumped my sauce down the sink.”

Kay guffawed, and she wasn’t the only one.

“Oh, but you can’t make cranberry sauce the day of,” said Heather with concern. “It has to set up overnight at least, to gel.” She mused as she speared a piece of turkey. “So maybe it’s for the best. It would have been runny.”

“I know my mom will be glad she did you a favor,” I said.

“What about those impeachment hearings?” asked Uncle Hal desperately to the table at large, and the family settled down with real gratitude to a nice political squabble.

“But did you call?” Heather asked. “We could have run to the store and picked some up.”

“Stores are closed, Heather,” muttered no one in particular.

“I’m really sorry,” I said, hitting a Vin-like trio of apologies.

“Hey, it’s no problem!” said Dan expansively. “We’re just grateful for good food, right?”

“Excuse me, it is a problem,” said Heather, setting down her fork. “This was a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. Everything was perfect. But it’s now it’s ruined. It could be just any dinner, without cranberry sauce.”

“If it was just any dinner, hell if I’d be here,” Uncle Kev mumbled to Aunt Megan, who snickered.

“Babe, your turkey is amazing!” said Dan, now behind her rubbing her shoulders. “We literally only have turkey on Thanksgiving. That’s what people will remember.”

Heather got up. “Maybe I could go out now and get some."

“Heather, it doesn’t matter,” groaned Aunt Megan. “Dinner is great, we’re having a great time. Let’s keep it that way.”

Heather surveyed the room, her lips compressed. Then, with an effort, she shifted back into hostess mode and trilled her imitation laugh.

“You’re right!” she said, her tone pure Sweet ’N’ Low. “It doesn’t matter to anyone. I guess I’m just making a fuss about nothing. We don’t want to add your tradition of fighting with your mother to our Thanksgiving, do we, Vin? What do you think?”

“Maybe we have a can of sauce in the pantry,” he said. “Do you want me to go look?”

“Oh no, I’ll go, don’t bother getting up,” she purred. “But if I find a can I’m eating it all myself, haha!”

“Knock yourself out,” someone grunted at Heather’s back.

With her absence, the meal became comfortable. Some people traded seats, so I picked up my plate and shifted into Dan’s vacated chair over by Kay and Vin.

“Tell me about this fight with your mother,” Kay greeted me.

“It was really stupid.”

“Most fights are.”

“How about you tell me about your mom?” I said. “She’s much more interesting. Better yet, tell me about her mother, Lavinia.”

Kay shrugged.“ I’ll tell you what I can. I should have asked Mama more questions while she was alive. She didn’t talk much about her mother, but I don’t think it was because she was keeping secrets. I just don’t think she knew that much herself about her mother. Mama was raised by some Tituses who lived a little ways out of town. That’s one reason she ran off at 15, because she was sick of being the adopted daughter-slash-hired girl.”

“Eugene at the diner told us Lavinia was in an institution or a home,” Vin said, leaning in.

“Eugene!” said Kay, rolling her eyes. “He’s so full of hot air it’s a wonder he don’t float off the ground.”

“But he did know Helen,” I said. “They were about the same age. So it’s not surprising he should know a bit about her mother.”

“Why was Helen brought up by someone else?” Vin asked. “Why didn’t she live with Lavinia?”

“There was something wrong with Grandma,” said Kay slowly, pulling on ancient threads of memory. “I remember Mama saying once that her mother didn’t always remember who she was. And that she talked kinda funny because there was something wrong with her face. Mama got to visit her now and then, but I think Grandma died when Mama was fairly young, pneumonia or something. I got the impression she was never very healthy.”

“So she was in a home because she was sick?” I asked.

“No, it wasn’t just ill health.” Kay screwed up her brain. “What did Mama say about her? That when she was a little girl, she would go to visit, and give Grandma a hug, and she remembered Grandma nuzzling her with her face. But there was something…” She drummed on the table, trying to thump the memory loose. Across the table from me, Vin was lost in attention. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the photograph of the vibrant young Lavinia with the strange silent woman of his great-grandmother’s memory.

“She couldn’t move.” Kay’s face cleared as smoothed as the missing piece of memory finally fell into place. “She was paralyzed. That’s why she was in a home. It was all tied in together, the hazy memory and having to be in bed all the time.”

“That’s awful,” I breathed. “Poor lady. I wonder what happened?”

“Was it that she’d been in an accident? Or no, she’d had a fall, I think.”

Our reverie, part reflection and part turkey coma, was broken by one of the teens, a girl in leggings and a ridiculously short sweatshirt, who draped herself over Aunt Karen.

“Mom, Aunt Heather’s in the kitchen having a fit about her cake decorations,” she complained. “Can we leave already?”

“Hon, we haven’t even had dessert yet.”

“I don’t want dessert. I want to go home.

Uncle Preston pushed back from the table.

“I told you if she gets started again, I’m out,” he said to Karen. “You said it would be different this year.”

“Look, for Dan’s sake,” Karen pleaded. “It’s not his fault.”

“Anyone who would marry Heather gets what he deserves.” Preston turned to Hal. “I was thinking of getting home before the Cowboys game starts anyway. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t stay late this year.”

Hal fell in with this idea, and the two went off to the den to round up the teens, carefully skirting the kitchen. Karen rubbed her forehead in frustration.

“I tried,” she said to Vin and Megan, wearily. “I promised him this year would be different. I would have hosted, only Madi just had surgery. What was I going to do?”

“Hal didn’t even want to come,” said Megan, biting off each word. “The kids hate it here, and it’s Macy’s last Thanksgiving before college. But I didn’t feel like getting into it with Heather, and she was so excited about getting everyone back to the old house. Next year we’re going to Hal’s family.”

“We’ll go to down to Florida and see Mom and Dad,” said Karen. “Heather thinks she can manufacture the good old days, but it’s empty here without them.” She crossed around the table and hugged Vin from behind. “I’m sorry, honey. I wish we could stay longer, but you know how it is. Your mom doesn’t actually like having people around.”

“I know how it is,” said Vin, getting up and returning the hug. “Don’t worry about it.”

Once the decision to clear out had been made, the afternoon’s lethargy seemed to clear up miraculously. Both aunts squeezed Vin and told him how much the kids missed seeing him, although I hadn’t seen the kids pay any attention all afternoon to anything that wasn’t a handheld screen. The uncles joshed with Dan, who never seemed to take anything personally. Even Kay started making moves toward the door.

“I promised Stanley I’d stop over and see his grandkids,” she told Dan.

“Who’s Stanley?” I whispered to Vin.

“Her boyfriend.”

Somehow, with all the sleuthing into relationships of the past, it had never occurred to me that Kay might be seeing someone now. I had to remind myself that she was still a young 69.

And Heather was there too, floating through the crowd, chatting genially as if nothing had happened. If I hadn’t been around for dinner, I would have gotten the impression that everyone had enjoyed themselves immensely and were only leaving under duress.

“Are you heading out too, Erin?” Heather asked me.

The temptation to get out was strong, but I remembered how Vin had called himself a coward when he’d been considering walking outside with me, and I understood now what he meant.

“How can I leave before pie?” I said, and was rewarded by seeing a shock of hope shoot through Vin.

I wish I could say that being alone in the bosom of the family allowed me to get to know Heather, but it’s hard to bond with someone who’s so glossy nothing can stick to her. She played at being interested in anything I had to say. She laughed at my jokes, a nanosecond too late. Detailed anecdotes about people I’d never met, tartan apron carefully donned for a busy night of cleaning, studied little tilts of the head standing in for genuine engagement: everything seemed staged for the benefit of an audience, but I couldn’t tell if the audience was me, or her family, or the actual Heather sunk deep in the well of self-perception. Dan was delighted to play along, but each gesture and verbal tic drove Vin further into his own shell. I couldn’t blame him. Even I was exhausted waiting to see if the mask would slip, and if it did, what would be underneath.

Abruptly, Vin stood up. “Erin and I are going to take a walk now.”

Outside, bundled in our jackets, we crunched in November silence up the gravel driveway.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like if I don’t get out I’ll drown.”

“I get that.”

“You were sitting right next to me, but it was like there was a wall between us, getting thicker every second, and I had this sudden fear that if I didn’t break us out now, there would be so much distance between us that you’d be entirely out of reach for good.”

“I don’t know that I’d put it so poetically, but yeah.”

“Each time I go home, I think, ‘This time I know how to deal with it. I know how to let it wash over. I know the parameters.’ And that’s what home is: somewhere you know the parameters. They may be good, or they may be bad, but you know what you’re dealing with. But then I come back, and the parameters have shifted. I never know what my mom is going to be. Is she warm and welcoming mom? Helicopter mom? Sporty mom? Even, god forbid, sexy mom. If she was even knew who she was, at least she’d be consistent, and I’d know how to play the game. But to keep things consistent, you have to stay away from her triggers, and those seem to change from day to day and minute to minute. And I always have to be on my guard. I don’t know if I even know how to let it down anymore. I mean, am I even capable of having a good honest relationship? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lying to myself, thinking I have any business trying to start anything with anyone.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” I said, forgetting that I was supposed to be supportive. “You’re not starting just anything, and I’m not anyone. I’m me. Erin. I don’t want some random anything with you. I want to be connected to you. Entwined, tangled up, so we can’t be separated. Not as your cousin, not just as your friend, but as a woman.” I stopped in front of him. “So here I am. Connect with me. Learn my parameters.”

He wanted to, I’d swear it. He was right there within my grasp, but he just couldn’t break through that wall. Yet.

“You’re mistaken if you think you can’t put things poetically,” he said, back on his guard. “But how do you know I’m even capable of forming a connection you’d want? You’ve seen my mother.”

I wanted to pound some sense into his thick head. “You’re nothing like your mother, Vin.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re a real person.” My brain caught up with my mouth, and I sighed. “That came out wrong.”

“No it didn’t. You said exactly what you thought, and I know exactly what you mean.”

“Are you offended?”

“No.”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Yes.”

We reached the top of the driveway and turned back in silence again, but this time the silence roiled up in a slow boil.

“When am I going to see you again?” I asked, back at my car.

“I’ll call you when I learn more about the family,” he said. “I feel like I can’t know who I am if I don’t understand how we fit together.”

“I don’t need a family tree to know who you are.” I wanted to throw myself at him, consequences or no, but another instinct told me to leave him wanting more. I opened my door. “Are you leaving now too?”

“I ought to go in and say goodbye to my parents, but I’d rather just drive away behind you.”

“Drive behind me all the way to my house,” I invited, but he just smiled.

I should have been paying attention to the the driveway as I pulled out, but instead I kept glancing in my rearview mirror to watch Vin let go the handle of his car door, straighten his shoulders and walk back to the house.

My parents had already left the Ramirez gathering by the time I pulled in, but the party was still in full swing. A few people howled, “Wassup, girl?” as I entered, and I howled right back at them. I’ve got my differences with my cousins, but they’re my people.

Grandpa Aaron was there, as always, reclining in a comfy chair by my Grandpa Ramirez, two old men letting the chaos wash over them. Grandpa Ramirez was inoculated again the noise by long years of exposure, and Grandpa Aaron enjoyed it as a sign that he wasn’t dead yet. I settled down in the old folks corner and imagined I was 85 years old, knowing that the life I heard all around me was my legacy.

Grandpa Aaron stopped pretending to sleep. “Missed you at dinner.”

“Missed you too, Grandpa.”

“How’s Kay?”

“Okay.”

“How’s Vin?”

“I’m working on him. How’s my mom?”

“She’s an idiot as always, and she won’t say she’s sorry no matter how much she wants too.”

I thumped my head back on the couch. “Why do I have to be the adult in this relationship?”

“It’s good practice for other relationships.”

I threw him the side eye, but he was settled back in the recliner with his eyes closed, a faint smile playing over his face.

Next

Friday, November 29, 2019

Strange Plots 14

Previous

2019. The problem with Mom is that she always has to be in the right. I don’t mean that there aren’t times when she is right, and I’m certainly willing to admit that she knows more than I do — age hath its privileges — but she must win, always and everywhere. And the thing about always needing to be in the right, even over the smallest details, is that the other person always has to be in the wrong.

Let’s take a random example, like, say, Thanksgiving dinner, and the preparing of it and the eating of it somewhere other than the bosom of one’s family. Now some mothers would be fine with that, realizing that their daughters have to grow up sometime and fly from the family nest. Other mothers, who have spent their daughter’s lifetime making her earn mom’s goodwill, ought to be proud that she’s finally showing some initiative and working independently toward a goal. The goal, in this case, being to get the hell out of the mother’s house.

Being coy is getting tedious, so let’s skip it. The plain fact is that Mom and I had been skirmishing ever since I’d last gone to Titusville, and on Thanksgiving it escalated to open war.

As I’d threatened Mom, I was going to Titusville for Thanksgiving dinner. Vin’s parents were hosting. I might have been apprehensive about going back to their house after the pie-making fiasco if it weren’t that some of his mom’s family were coming over as well. Strength in numbers, you know. And maybe a larger crowd would allow Vin to relax in a way he couldn’t when there was no one else to be a buffer against his mom.

My own mother was definitely entering buffer territory.  She was not even hosting Thanksgiving this year, but she was royally peeved that I was skipping out on the Ramirez family gathering. In vain I protested that I would try to make an appearance late in the evening, that I’d seen my grandparents over the summer, that I remembered any number of my cousins dropping out of the family dinner over the years to spend the holiday with another person, and that sometimes that person had become family in their turn.

Mom, not quite ready to deal with the idea of her daughter growing up enough to bring new people into the family, switched tack as she peeled potatoes.

“I just don’t understand how you could stay away from your Grandpa Moore this year. You know he’s not getting any younger. What if this is the last Thanksgiving you’ll ever have with him? Is this really the memory that you want to go out on, that you chose strangers over your own grandfather?”

My cranberry sauce, the side dish I’d boldly promised to bring, was refusing to gel. Considering that not only had I read the entire recipe beforehand, but had also slogged all the way through a blog post about how the author developed this painstaking gourmet recipe to embody the ambiance of the canned sauce always on her grandparents’ Thanksgiving table, my patience was about as soupy as the mess simmering in my pot.

“That's just silly, Mom,” I said. “Grandpa is the main reason I’m going. He’s the reason I’ve met these people in the first place. You keep forgetting that they’re family too.”

"You’re not going for Grandpa’s sake,” Mom scoffed. “You’re going for yourself. You just want to see that guy.”

“Why not both?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with wanting to see a guy? You yourself are married, so I assume that at some point, you pulled away from the family Thanksgiving — Grandpa’s Thanksgiving, might I add — to go to some guy’s house. And I bet Grandpa didn’t make a big deal about family loyalty.”

“It’s not like I had a grandfather to neglect,” Mom accused. “You at least have a grandpa who loves you and would give anything to see you happy.”

“And I want to see him happy! That’s why I’m going to where his family is from, to learn more about them. Why does that make you so angry?” Cranberry sauce sloshed onto the burner as I slapped my spoon down in the pot.

“I am not angry. Why would you think I was angry?” said my mother, with the grim calm of the truly angry.

“Stop picking at me, then!” I yelled. “What is your problem?  Year after year I’ve heard you whine about going to the Ramirez Thanksgiving dinner. You bitch about the side dishes and the kids underfoot and people who vote Republican. What is it, are you jealous because I’m getting the chance to cut out and you can’t?”

My trigger finger was itchy, ready to shoot out my next comeback, so it took me a moment to realize that there had been a moment of silence. It looked like I’d scored a palpable hit. I stirred my cranberries in uneasy triumph.

“What a spoiled, easy life you've had,” Mom said, dripping with soft venom. “You’ve never had to do anything you didn’t want to. You’ve never had to take someone else’s point of view into account. Always what you want, never what anyone else needs. A typical only child. I hope your new boyfriend knows how intolerable you are to live with."

So we were going to get bloody, then. “If I’m spoiled, who made me that way?” I demanded. “You raised me. Look at me — I’m your prize. I’m the judgment on your parenting. And you tell me why I’m an only child. I didn’t deny myself brothers and sisters. That’s on you.”                           

“Shut up!” screamed Mom. “Get out. Go have your Thanksgiving with your new special people. But you’d better pick up something to bring, because you’re not taking this mess, as if you're representing my kitchen.” She snatched my pot of boiling berries off the stove and dumped it down the sink.

“With pleasure.” I seized my coat and purse. “And I won’t bother picking up anything, when I can just recount this little incident to everyone to explain why I won’t be eating Thanksgiving dinner at home this year, or any other year.”

I slammed the door to give a stereotypical coda to the stereotypical holiday strife. Stalking down the driveway, I nearly tripped over Dad as he bent, Starbucks cup in hand, to pick up the world’s last home delivered New York Times.

“What’s wrong, honey?” he asked, managing not to spill his coffee as he recovered his balance.

“What’s wrong is your wife. But no, that can’t be, because she’s never wrong.” I swiped at the angry tears freezing my eyelashes. “Doesn’t it ever bother you? Doesn’t it ever grate to be the person always at fault? I’m done with it. Why aren’t you?”

Dad shot an apprehensive glance at the house. “Is Mom upset?”

“I’m upset!” I bawled. “I’m the one who’s right here in front of you.”

He hesitated, torn between the two demanding women in his life, trying to salvage some chance of a Thanksgiving where he could just watch the game in peace.

“I’m sure whatever it is, we can work it out together,” he said, tucking his paper under his arm as his leisure time reward for after he’d brokered peace. “Come on back in with me, and let’s talk to Mom. Let’s not fight on Thanksgiving.”

But I yanked open my car door in disgust. “You could have just hugged me,” I said. “I was right here in front of you.”

After my initial haze of fury cleared, I still had fifty minutes of enforced meditation time in the car. I’m not a big thinker, as you’ve probably noticed. I say stuff and do stuff in the heat of the moment, and the consequences usually take me by surprise. I don’t know why. It seems like there are two kinds of people in the world, the kind who speak their minds, and the kind who think, and I seem to fall in the dumber half of the speaking crew.

So, I’m not used to spending a lot of time alone with my thoughts. But there was nothing else to do on these trips to Titusville. At first I drove without the radio or my playlists because I wanted to concentrate on the directions. Then I wanted to concentrate on the scenery. This time, I found myself reflecting on myself — my whole self, inside and out.

When you see yourself only from the inside, you’re sunk deep in a well. When you see yourself only from the outside, you’re stuck in the shallows, never able to get out into the ocean. But to be able to think about yourself all together, not just in bits and reflections, is some kind of grace that’s usually just beyond my grasp. But somehow, between being emotionally exhausted from fighting with Mom, and feeling flayed from being avoided by Dad, the long drive allowed me to float along with my thoughts without my feelings weighing me down.

What if Dad, instead of retreating and trying to hold some middle ground between me and Mom, had acknowledged that I was upset? What if he’d chosen me in that moment, told me he was sorry that I was feeling hurt? What if he’d wanted to comfort me and make me feel better? I think — and I think I’m being honest — I would have gone back inside with him. I think I would have told Mom that I was sorry for being a jerk, if I’d known that he was in my corner. Maybe Thanksgiving could have been saved for our family, even if I was still going to go to Titusville.

But who am I kidding? If it’s a battle of loyalties between me and Mom, I know that Dad is always going to choose Mom. I guess that’s fair — he’s going to have to live with her a lot longer than he’ll live with me. My interior voice mused about how amazing it would be to have someone who was loyal to me, who always chose me first.

But — the outside voice intruded, and I let it have its say — would I want someone who was unthinkingly loyal to me? I knew how frustrating it was to have Dad seek the path of least resistance by always playing Mom’s side even when she was determined to be right by cutting me down to size. And having seen the tension at Vin’s parents house, I had a sense for how unstable life must be when one parent demanded so much loyalty that the other parent had nothing left to give the child. Who would want to do that to their family? Who would want to be that person? Wouldn’t it be better to have a partner, a friend, who would choose the whole me, even if that meant calling me out when I was wrong?

As Vin had done. He had not been afraid, even on a first meeting, to let me know that I had crossed the line. He respected himself enough not to put up with my tantrum. And yet he didn’t try to provoke me in order to build himself up, as Mom did. Just knowing that gave me the desire, and the ability, to be more aware of myself around him, and to be more aware of him around me. He made me a better person, and I loved him for it.

I loved him.

The pavement before me snapped back into full focus, every bare tree branch arching overhead in crisp outline. The flat autumn colors glowed with strange intensity. Everything was alive. Even the rocks and road and rails shared in some hidden source of animation that gave each thing, each particle of a thing its own particular character. Somehow I was connected to all these odd, outside pieces because they were here with me at this moment of understanding, when everything inside and outside me fused into a radiant ball of happiness.

I loved Vin, and I needed him. With his help, I was able to find the better part of me. But what was in it for him? I was mouthy and pushy and loud, all the things he wasn’t. I didn’t have his restraint or his work ethic. I could be volatile, and maybe that was something that would remind him too much of his mother. What could I do for him that no one else could do? What could I be for him that no one else could be?

Loyal. I could be loyal to him. I could be the one who was one hundred percent for him when he felt like he wasn’t good enough. I could encourage him when he was low, and support him when he was tired. Maybe that would be something new for him, to be the center of someone’s world instead of the steady background character. Maybe he would want that enough to love me back.

And if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t try for it.

Next

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Very Cranberry Thanksgiving to You!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Our house was once the home of Arthur Flemming, president of Ohio Wesleyan University the early 50's. Flemming later served as the U.S. Secretary of Health under President Eisenhower. He is chiefly remembered for is tanking the cranberry harvest of 1959 by announcing, two and a half weeks before Thanksgiving, that the cranberry crop was potentially tainted by aminotriazole, and recommending that consumers should hold off on buying berries if they didn't know the source.

So, from our house to yours, happy Thanksgiving, and merry cranberry sauce!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Strange Plots 13

Previous

Aaron Moore lived in a room out back, over the mayor’s garage, and called no attention to himself. All he did, it seemed, was work, and at night his window glowed virtuously with the light of book learning. He was a man who kept his own counsel, preferring to stay close to home rather than wandering the small town late at night. He did not drink. He did not smoke. He did nothing but work quietly and earn his pay.

Demetrius McGrath took to sitting outside near Aaron as he worked. Sometimes Aaron split wood against the winter. Sometimes he sat and repaired small items. He would chat with Demetrius, just this and that, telling what to do to tame a mean dog or how to drive an automobile. He never asked Demetrius about school, or about kid stuff like what games he liked to play. Aaron talked to him like he was another man. Even his mom still treated him like a boy, keeping him out of her schemes for revenge. Of course she was plotting revenge. She was a McGrath. And Demetrius was a McGrath too. Didn’t she think he was old enough to trust now?

If Allan were still alive, Demetrius could have talked to him about Ma. Of course, if Allan were alive, Ma wouldn't have been out for revenge. Some days he missed his brother so much he was sick with it. Others, he reveled in his position as oldest and only son, filling a place in Ma’s heart that was rightfully Allan’s. It was uncomfortable, all these feelings jumbled around, and sometimes Demetrius hated himself for being so wrong and mixed up.

His thoughts about Lavinia Titus were also all jumbled up. Some Sundays her father deigned to come into town to the Baptist church, and then Demetrius could look at her out of the corner of his eye as he sat in the Sanders pew with Ma. Ma went to church now because she had to as the mayor’s wife, although she complained enough at home about it. Demetrius went with her, not, as Ma teased him, because he was turning into a townie, but because Lavinia might be there. He had almost spoken to her once, when she had nodded to him and smiled on her way out of church. That memory had fed him for a week. She was an angel, pure and golden. He did not dare to think of her for himself. Only Allan would have been good enough for her. He would have known how to take care of her and protect her, how to talk to her. If only Allan were alive, he would have married Lavinia, and Demetrius could have been near her always.

But Allan was dead because Lavinia’s father had killed him. How would Old Titus like it if something happened to his child? How would he suffer if something awful befell his pride and joy? He would cry out for mercy and beg for death, and he would deserve it after what he did to Allan. No torment was too vile for him.

Demetrius pushed these thoughts away, but others he could not escape so easily. Lavinia floated into church as lightly as an angel, but as she sat down, her skirt might be tucked closely around her thigh. Or as she turned to speak to someone, her bosom might press against her blouse. Demetrius wanted to touch her, wanted to feel her touching him, to see her looking up at him, to hear his name on her lips. He wanted to know more about the body under the skirt, the blouse, the stockings. Then he remembered how pure and sweet she was, how good and pretty, and he was disgusted at himself for sullying her image.

Even at home he could not escape this tension of craving to know more and hating himself for the desire. He wasn’t blind — he could see the way his mother acted with Aaron when her husband wasn’t home. Maybe she thought he was too dumb to notice. Or maybe she thought he was old enough to be trusted with her secret. Whichever it was, she was bold with Aaron in ways that she never was with Sanders. She gave him private looks. Her voice simmered when she said anything to him, no matter how dull. And Aaron, despite his respectful his words, spoke as if Tamar, a white woman, was his to command.

And it was not just words and looks. Ma breathed faster when Aaron touched her. They were more careful about that when he was around, but once, when they didn't know he was in the garage, he had seen… He grew hot to think about it. Ladies, he knew, were supposed to be good and clean and not want the bad things that men wanted, but Ma seemed to want them from Aaron. What if Lavinia could give him what Ma gave Aaron? He made himself sick.

One day out in the yard, as Aaron was whittling a stake for the garden, Demetrius sat down on the porch step to watch.

“Want to try?” Aaron said. He handed Demetrius his other knife and watched him shave a few curls of wood. "I see you know a little something about woodworking.”

“Allan showed me sometimes,” said Demetrius, taking care to hold the knife just as Allan had.

“He knew how to do a lot of things, did he?” asked Aaron.

“Yeah.”

“What was he good at?” A few more strong strokes of Aaron’s knife, and the end of his stake began to taper and point.

Memories of Allan welled up. Allan showing him how to fish in the pond they’d dammed up in the stream. Allan in bed telling him stories of the haints at the old cemetery. Allan talking Ma out of giving him and Demetrius a licking for letting the pig out of its pen.  One detail led to another, until Aaron’s patient rustling drew him back to the yard and the task at hand.

“Allan liked to talk to people. He could talk to anyone.” He concentrated elaborately on his whittling. “I bet he could even talk to Lavinia Titus.”

“She ought to count herself lucky if Allan had a mind to talk to her,” said Aaron.

Demetrius was quick to stand up for his lady, even against the claims of Allan. “Lavinia is real quality. Not like the stupid girls at school. She’s too good for this town. She’s… she’s an angel.”

“An angel.” Aaron chuckled, low and wicked. “Her father is the devil, all right. No sir, Miss Titus is flesh and blood, through and through. And she ain't no girl. She’s got a woman’s body under those church mouse frocks.”

Demetrius flushed, caught in the familiar conflict. He didn’t want Aaron to cheapen Lavinia by talking about her body, but he desperately wanted more.

“Depend on it, she’s a woman all the way through, and women want one thing. A man. I bet she’s noticed you already and is putting on her pretty airs to tempt you. Moving all proud like that, sassing you with those hips. Thinking she’s better than you because she's a Titus. But ain’t no McGrath man ought to take any disrespect from a Titus hussy.”

“Hush your mouth!” He ought to fight Aaron, punch his teeth for the trash he was talking about Lavinia. But stirring within him now was not just desire, but the honor of the McGraths. They were as good as any family in town, better even. The thought of Lavinia flaunting herself at him as a challenge made his blood pound. But she wasn’t like her family. She was kind and gentle. But she was a Titus, and blood would tell. And she was a woman, and a woman wanted a man, like Ma wanted Aaron, even though Aaron was only a black man who didn’t ought to dare to think about Ma, or Lavinia…

“You got no right to talk about a white woman that way,” Demetrius muttered. “I ought to teach you your place…”

"Easy there, young buck! You gonna turn that stake to toothpicks the way you chopping at it.” Unafraid, Aaron plucked the knife from Demetrius’s clenched hand. “Don’t know a woman is a woman, black or white? Your Lavinia may carry herself high and mighty, but between the legs, she’s the same as any other chit.”

Demetrius was on his feet. “You take that back.”

Aaron got up too, with easy confidence. “Boy, have you ever even seen a woman? Or do you only know about skirts and hats and gloves?”

Sullen and silent, Demetrius paced restlessly, stabbing his stick into the ground.

“Come on up here and I’ll show you something,” said Aaron, heading toward his garage room. “You like pictures of girls? I got some magazines that might teach you a few new things.”

As Demetrius followed unwillingly, eagerly, Aaron glanced back toward the house and gave the minutest of nods. Tamar, at the kitchen window, met his eyes and returned his nod with grim satisfaction.

Next

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Thoughts on Warren's The Two Income Trap

A friend had suggested I read Elizabeth Warren's book The Two Income Trap, and since she seems to stand one of the better chances of becoming the Democratic Party nominee, it seemed like a good idea. It's an exceedingly thought-provoking book, though it fails to follow through on its key ideas. In this post, I'll lay out the book's main points and give some overall reactions.

The book opens with something that Warren found in her research: a large portion of bankruptcies are filed by women who would otherwise be considered middle class. Why is this? According to popular wisdom, she says, people should have more money and be more financially secure because now most women work full time whereas a generation before (she wrote the book around 2000, so she's talking about the 1960s/1970s) women had less employment opportunities and most women stayed home after marriage.

She examines the theory that this is because people are blowing all their money on dinners out, designer clothing, and expensive vacations, running up irresponsible credit card debt, but after examining inflation-adjusted average household spending on categories such as food and clothing, she concludes that people actually spend less money on most types of consumer goods now than in the past.

What are people spending more money on, then? Warren argues that women entering the workforce has allowed married couples to enter a bidding war for good housing (driving up the price of houses in neighborhoods with good public schools) and for private preschools and college educations. So even though the average married couple makes more in 2000 than in the 1970s, they don't actually have more available money than couples did then because they're spending it all on these things.

But that's just in the good times. Warren argues that because both spouses now work, and because they've made commitments to mortgage payments, tuition, car payments, etc. which take up both those incomes, couples are less able to weather a major financial reverse like a job loss, disability, or divorce than single income couples. The argument goes like this:

Under the single income, stay-at-home-mom model, the family had a significant extra resource for either doing unpaid work or adding a second person to the workforce if something went wrong. Say the husband's factory shuts down, and he's out of work. The wife can go out and get a job, and the husband might take a part time or lower level job while looking for a good new job. The combination of these efforts might not make up for all his lost income, but it would cover enough that they stood a good chance of being able to keep up with their essential bills. If he could get a job making 50% of what he used to make, and she could get a job making another 40% of his former income, they'd still be making 90% of what they were before. Or imagine a different type of reverse, where one of their parents becomes sick and needs a lot of care, the stay-at-home spouse could devote her unpaid labor to taking care of the sick parent, thus avoiding the necessity of shelling out major money for paid supervision.

In the two-income model, if one spouse is laid off, there's no fallback. The second spouse is already in the workforce. Perhaps they could try to get more hours, but the family is likely to suffer a 50% drop in income. Similarly, if there's a family problem which requires lots of time, like a child with a serious medical condition or a frail parent needing care, there's no one available to do the work, so they either need to pay someone (which is expensive) or one of them will need to reduce hours or even quit their job, thus significantly reducing their income. Since they've made fixed financial commitments based on both of them working, if suddenly only one of them is working they'll quickly fall behind on the mortgage, car payment, tuition, etc.

This also makes divorce financially catastrophic. When a couple splits, one of them (often the woman) ends up with the kids and the house and thus has basically the same bills as before. However, that parent has a significant drop in income. If she was already working her income is exactly the same as it was before, but instead of having her husband's full income to help cover those bills, she has only a fraction of it designated as child support. Increasing the child support payments isn't much of a solution, because the ex-husband now needs to pay for his own apartment, etc. Warren argues that "deadbeat dads" are not a solution to the financial woes of divorced women, because divorced men are also driven down into poverty by the same financial dynamics.

Moreover, even if the divorced mother adjusts to this first shock by moving into a cheaper house, getting rid of a car payment, or cutting tuition spending, the single parent is now in a permanently disadvantaged position versus two income households. With the majority of households being two income households, the price of houses, cars, tuition, etc. is set by the market of two income households. Single income households, whether single parent or stay-at-home-parent, will invariably find themselves at a disadvantage, and single parent households much more so because they lack the support in non-paid labor of the non-employed spouse.

After laying all this out, Warren struggles to come up with any useful suggestions. She insists that she does not mean to say that women going into the workforce is a bad idea. There's an extended section in which she suggests that the loan industry should be significantly more regulated, so that people who might end up in financial trouble can't get credit card loans, but it's unclear how that helps. Indeed, it would mostly push people to a crisis even faster if they had no ability to borrow on credit cards to get through a short term financial crisis. She observes that women are much less likely to experience bankruptcy if they choose never to have children, but backs off actually suggesting that mass childlessness is a solution. In a brief practical section near the end she advises couples not to take on fixed bills such a mortgage, car payments, tuition, etc. in excess of the income of one of the earners, saying that the second income should be used for savings and for "extra" spending such as vacations and dinners out. While it may seem irresponsible to spend lots of money on such "extras" the advantage is that in a crisis you can always cut extra spending. You can't cut loan payments and other committed bills.

I think there's value to the exercise that she describes of doing a "financial fire drill" where you look at what your income in versus how many bills you have each month that can't be changed. Interestingly, many of the creative suggestions she has in the book for breaking some of these cycles are things she's had to abandon as she's tried to become a Democratic candidate. In the book she advocates for a public school full tuition voucher that would allow families to truly choose schools. Her stated purpose with the vouchers is to break the connection between bidding up neighborhood housing prices and specific public schools. She's since dropped support for school choice. She also argues in the book that supporting publicly funded preschool and daycare just adds to the cycle, since it provides money to two-income families and leaves families with a single income and one parent at home even further behind. She suggests that instead it would be better to provide some sort of per-child credit or subsidy which could be used either for child care or to make a single income family more viable. Needless to say, that kind of thinking is missing from the presidential candidate Warren, who needs to fit into the standard Democrat box.

It's also worth noting that her bidding up home prices theory is not actually all that well supported by the data she presents in the book, something she obscures by the way she presents the numbers. She lays out an example of a middle income family in the 1970s where the husband works and the wife stays home. The husband makes $38,700/yr in inflation adjusted income. They spend just over a thousand a year on health insurance, $5210/yr on their mortgage, $5140/yr on their car expenses, pay 24% in taxes, and have just under $18k (46% of their income) left to pay for food, clothes, and other non-fixed expenses. She compares this with a two income couple in 2000. The sum of their two incomes is $67,800. They pay $9000 for their mortgage, $8000 in car expenses (two cars), $4350 for daycare, $5320 for private pre-school, and pay 33% in taxes. This leaves $17k left to cover food, clothes, etc. Less in straight dollars than the 1970s couple, and a significantly lower percentage of their income. Note, however, that she gives the taxes as percentages. If you actually do the math to calculate those taxes in dollars, their tax burden has gone from $9,288 to $22,374. Their income has increased by 75% and their mortgage, insurance, and car have all increased by less than 70%, while their taxes have increased by 140%. That and daycare/preschool are by far their biggest increases in dollar spending. If we take it that the daycare, preschool, and increased tax rates are all a direct result of taking on the second job, we see that taking on the second job (assuming that the husband makes no more than in the 1970s once you adjust for inflation -- which for a white male at that earning level is probably true) provides $29k in extra earnings but nearly $23k in extra expenses. It drops very little money to the family's bottom line. Perhaps I'm suspicious, but it seems likely to me that Warren talks about taxes in terms of percent because an increase in tax rate from 24% to 33% doesn't at first sound like that big a change, and she doesn't want the reader to notice that her example couple has had their taxes go up by $13k while their mortgage (supposedly a key factor in the two income trap) has gone up less than $4k.

Set aside the fact that since the Bush tax cuts, it seems hard to credit the idea of a couple with two kids and a mortgage making under $70k per year paying $22k in taxes. (Maybe this is supposed to include payroll, state, and local as well? She doesn't seem to say, though talking being bumped into a higher bracket suggests she's thinking of federal taxes.)

Taking her numbers at face value, it seems to me that what both the idea of the two income trap and also the very low return in disposable income she shows from putting a second person into the workforce point to is that our society has a tendency to focus too heavily on paid work and not enough on the value of unpaid work.

How can unpaid work have value? One example appears right in Warren's figures, though she doesn't describe it that way. When the wife enters the workforce, it immediately becomes necessary to pay someone outside the family to spend time with the young children as she was previously doing. Her example family spends nearly $10k on daycare and preschool. Because there is no longer a parent home to watch the kids play, read to them, etc. the family now has to pay someone else to do that -- a change which absorbs a significant portion of the family's increased income from the second outside job. Additionally, as Warren describes in the two-income-trap phenomenon itself, having both parents in full time outside employment depletes the family's reserve of labor. Now that both parents are working full time, there's not someone available if either taking additional paid work or taking on some important piece of unpaid work (such a caring for a sick child or parent) becomes necessary.

Having a person in reserve might at first sound wasteful or demeaning. Are we saying that that person should just sit around, wasting their time, just in case they're needed to step in later? Why not commit everyone to be fully useful? A reserve is hardly useless, however. In planning a battle, a general who kept no reserve would be almost certainly condemning himself to defeat. Reserves exist to meet unexpected eventualities. The idea is not, "I'm keeping these reserves as extra, just in case I need them" but rather "I hold back on committing my reserves until I see where they are needed." The commander who commits all his reserves at the beginning no longer has any flexibility, and so when a crisis comes up, he had no resources to meet it with.

I think this is essentially the problem that the "two income trap" identifies. If both spouses are allocated to working full time in traditional jobs, and if the family is then using the money from both those jobs to meet necessary monthly expenses, the family no longer has any flexibility in deciding how to apply its resources.

Of course, as the book also identifies, the fact that the majority of married couples with children are two income families means that families trying to fight the trend and survive on a single income have it harder. While a lot of the second income goes to daycare, schooling, and taxes, there is also money available to afford things which a couple holding just one comparable job instead of two will not be able to afford. At this point, we ourselves are in the somewhat privileged group of families in which the single spouse holding down a traditional job earns more than the median married household. That was not always the case, however. When we started this blog we were expecting our third child and my income was right at the median income. Back when we had our second child, I made well below the median.

It's impossible to select one approach that every family should follow, however, and that is not my aim. What I do think is important, however, is to think about these issues with two things in mind.

First of all, we should not think of paid work as more important than other forms of work simply because it is paid. Yes, every family needs an income, but the unpaid of work of caring for others is just as if not more important than the work of earning outside money, and even non-paid or low paid non-traditional works which a spouse does while "in reserve" is not low value or holding pattern work. Often, these kinds of non-paid work are the most valuable work that we can do, in that they are the work which we actually select without having to bias our decision-making according to what is most highly paid.

Second, we should keep in mind the existence of families that survive on a single income (whether with one spouse staying home or because there is only one parent) when thinking about family policy and avoid picking policies that needlessly give advantage to families with two working parents over families with one. If we assume that all parents will work, but we recognize that parents need a certain degree of flexibility in order to deal with taking care of new babies, sick children, aging relatives in need of help, etc., there's a tendency to try to make employers or the state pay for flexibility. What if we required that everyone be offered a year of paid new baby leave, generous time to care for children, relatives, etc.? Well, logically, that means that in order to get the same amount of work done, a company would need more people in order to cover for the percentage of people who were out on leave at a given time. If the company needs more people to get the same amount of work done, it stands to reason that each individual person will be paid less. But in a world where couples trying to survive on a single traditional income already find themselves struggling to keep up, lowering their pay in return for more flexibility only pushes them closer to the point where they can't afford to have a spouse at home. If we're to advocate for "family friendly" policies, we should at least pick ones which don't needlessly hurt the few remaining single income couples relative to the dual income ones. This gets tricky because for the increasingly large number of single parents trying to juggle a full time job and parenting, these sorts of benefits do help a great deal, and yet the trade off of benefits for income serves to put those single parents even further behind the two income families. Warren hints at a few solutions to such problems. For instance, rather than providing subsidized child care or pre-school, people might instead advocate for a per-child benefit which families could use either to cover expenses such as childcare or use to offset the forgone income of a spouse staying home. Such a per child benefit could go down as household income increases so that it's not increasing the gap between dual income and single income families. However, Warren's advice in these areas is pretty cursory, in part because she doesn't seem all that committed to thinking of ways to make it easier for couples to have one parent at home. Even though she identifies the two income trap phenomenon and talks about it interestingly, she still seems to buy in to the basic idea that being in the full time traditional workforce is the most important and fulfilling way for every adult to spend their days.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Strange Plots 12

Previous.

1933. A stranger came to town, and he brought with him fire.

Tamar was an ideal wife for Mayor Sanders: organized, decorative, a good hostess. She still baked her pies, but now for charity bazaars and funeral luncheons. She opened the county fair. She even sat for a portrait, which Mayor Sanders hung in his office. He certainly felt no lack of marital felicity in his domestic arrangements. But for Tamar, it was a marriage of convenience. At night, after she had lulled her husband to sleep, she lay in her own lace-curtained room and burned.

One day there was a knock at the front door. The hired girl being off, Tamar opened it herself. A black man stood on the porch, hat in hand, the very picture of a vagrant except for the boldness with which he met her gaze.

“Beg pardon, ma’am,” he said, his voice almost entirely deferential. “I was wondering if you might need any work done around the place.”

Tamar gave him a once-over. “Go around to the kitchen, boy,” she said, and shut the door.

The kitchen was still savory with the smells of gravy and spices and crust. Pies steamed on the counter and washed knives gleamed on a towel on the table. Tamar first locked the door to the back hall, and then opened the back door and motioned the man in. He eyed her pumps, her silk stockings, her painted lips with a connoisseur’s appraisal.

"Aren’t you a tall drink of water, ma’am?”

“Go sit down,” she said, and locked the back door behind him. He wandered the kitchen, examining the stocked pantry, the linoleum floor, the painted cabinets.

“Aaron Moore,” she said coolly, moving from window to window closing the blinds.. “How’s business?”

“Tamar McGrath,” he said, turning on a faucet and letting the water run down the sink. “You’ve moved up in the world.”

“If this is the world you want to move up in.” She turned off the water and leaned against the sink, arms crossed. “I asked you about business.”

“The old networks are still in place,” he said. “All that’s missing is the McGrath moonshine.”

“The networks in place, and the still gone.” Tamar smiled with her teeth. “And what brings you to McGrath territory, now that there’s no more McGrath?”

Aaron Moore showed his teeth in turn. “The city is too warm for me right now,” he said. “Our friends suggested that maybe dear Widow McGrath might need a man about the place for a while. Come to find out that you are the place, now.” He reached over for her left hand and inspected her ring. “And no longer a widow. Tell me, widow, is respectability everything you hoped it could be?”

“No,” said Tamar, not pulling away from him. “I can’t do what I want, just yet.”

His nearness had the dusty smell of mountain roads and the bite of moonshine. “And what do you want?”

“Revenge.” She rolled the sweetness of the word over her tongue. “Revenge for my still. Revenge for my son.”

“Revenge.” He too savored the taste. “And you’re planning revenge on your own?”

“I do everything on my own.”

His low liquid laugh rippled over Tamar’s body. “Everything by yourself? I do believe you’ll wear yourself out.”

“Oh, I’m never worn out. After all, I’m the mayor’s wife."

 “Then you must be able to afford a man who can do any maintenance you require.”

“Perhaps. But they say I’m a demanding mistress.” Tamar perched on the table and smoothed a slight snag in her stocking. “I don’t pay for work unless I’m satisfied."

“Satisfaction,” Aaron murmured in her ear, “is guaranteed.”