Context: Jeannine and her three sisters have been invited to the home of Angel’s (oldest sister) teammate for dinner, as their mother is hungover and in bed.
I’d been in Alex’s house before. It wasn’t that big, but it was really nice. When you opened the door there was a little vestibule with old tile on the floor, and beautiful glass in the windows of the door that led into the living room.
“Oh my God it smells good in here!” Angel exclaimed as we walked in.
Alex’s great-grandfather and her uncle were sitting on the sofa, watching football. Her uncle was reading the paper. They both stood up, and Joy immediately ducked behind Angel’s legs.
“Pa Bill,” Alex said loudly. “This is my friend Angel. And these are her sisters, Jeannine, Kathleen, and Joy.” Alex looked at us and gestured to the other man. “And this is my uncle John. Talk loud.”
Angel stepped forward, Joy stuck to her leg, and held out her hand to Pa Bill. He was stooped and balding, wearing thick glasses, but steady and alert. He grasped Angel’s hand.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Angel said. She turned and shook hands with Uncle John.
“Angel swims with me, Pa,” Alex explained.
“Ah.” Pa Bill nodded and peered around Angel to wink at Joy.
Uncle John took our coats and we went into the kitchen for a minute. Claire had on an apron dusted with flour and her hands were sticky with something. She kissed Angel without touching her.
“Hi girls!” she said to us brightly. Vanessa was rolling out dough on the kitchen table.
“Can I help?” Angel asked.
“Can you chop celery?”
“Sure.” Angel turned to me. “Take the girls into the living room.” She looked at the girls. “Be good in there. They’re watching the game. Don’t make noise.”
In the living room, I pulled Joy over to the fireplace to sit with me on the floor. She’d never seen a real fireplace with a fire in it before. The cat was curled up on the floor, sleeping. Joy reached for it. I held back her hand.
“Be gentle,” I whispered to her. “Like this.”
I showed her how to pet the cat with just one finger.
On the coffee table there was a tray with cheese and crackers, vegetables and a dip, and some olives in a little dish. There were also nuts and a nutcracker in a wooden bowl. Kathleen had plopped herself right down between Pa Bill and Uncle John and was already eating a cracker. I left Joy for a minute and, without fully standing, scooted over to the coffee table. On a shelf beneath it were some big books. The one on top was an atlas. I looked up at Pa Bill.
“May I look at this?” I asked.
“Why certainly, young lady,” he said.
I looked at Kathleen, who was stuffing food into her mouth. “That’s enough,” I said to her under my breath.
“What’re these?” she asked, pointing to the nuts.
Clearly Pa Bill and Uncle John were surprised by the question.
“They’re nuts!” Pa Bill exclaimed.
“They’re like peanuts, but they still have their shell,” I explained to Kathleen. “You have to use that thing to open them.”
“Let me show you, young lady,” Pa Bill said. “Now, what’s your name again?”
I went back to Joy and the fire, and happily opened the atlas.
Joy was stretched out next to the cat, stroking it from time to time, her own eyes getting heavy. I turned to the maps of Europe and studied each country, cross-referencing to the page that had facts about each nation, like the population, the per-capita income, and the national resources.
“Jeannine, I’m thirsty,” Kathleen said after a while.
Joy was sound asleep on the rug. I stood up and went to the kitchen and asked for something for Kathleen.
“What’re they doing?” Angel asked, getting some apple juice.
“Joy’s asleep. Kathleen’s talking.”
“Of course,” Angel said. “I hope she’s not bothering them.”
“I’m sure she’s not, Angel,” Claire said. “Pa loves kids.”
“She can be a pain.”
Angel headed for the living room to deliver the juice and check on Kathleen for herself.
“Wow, she’s being really nice with him,” she said, observing Kathleen and Pa Bill through the doorway, opening nuts together.
“Maybe it’s the other way around,” Claire said.
Angel cocked her head. “Maybe she’s being nice because he’s being really nice with her.” “Hmm,” Angel murmured, nodding.
I stayed in the kitchen to help with dinner. Claire put me to work with easy jobs like folding napkins and slicing apples for a pie that was about to go in the oven.
“This is for you, Jeannine,” Angel said as Vanessa crisscrossed strips of dough across the mound of apples, cinnamon, and butter. “With whipped cream.”
I smiled. No pumpkin pie for me. I thought it was disgusting— such a strange texture, like that weird tofu Angel once brought home from someone at the pool who told her she needed it for protein packing.
I looked at Vanessa working with the dough and Alex stirring something on the stove. They didn’t look much alike. Vanessa looked like Claire—soft, wavy, light brown hair and green eyes—but her skin was darker, more like Angel’s. Alex was darker still, and she had dark brown eyes. Her hair was brown, thick, and curly.
I thought Alex must look like her father. I knew from Angel that he lived in Baltimore with his new family and didn’t visit very often. But, Alex told Angel, every two weeks money went right from his paycheck into Claire’s bank account, so that was something.
I knew I looked like my father, too, because I certainly didn’t look like Pic. But I also didn’t look like Angel, because she looked like her father. I thought it would be nice to resemble someone I knew. Finally, Claire had us all taking dishes to the table. Uncle John waited a minute before carving to let us all admire the turkey.
Angel went over to the fireplace to wake Joy. “C’mon, Joyful,” she said, kneeling down and lifting Joy, who was getting heavy, her big kindergarten self.
Angel took Joy to pee and then sat her between the two of us.
“Who wants to say grace?” Claire asked, looking at her grandfather.
“I will,” Angel said, totally surprising me—and everyone else, too, I think.
“Okay,” said Claire, and we all bowed our heads, except for Joy, for whom this was a completely unknown ritual. She stared at Angel.
“Thank you, Lord, for making sure we have enough to eat,” Angel began. “And please help the people who don’t. And bless the people who aren’t with us today, like my grandmother and Alex’s great-grandmother. And thank you, Lord, for giving us good friends who really help us when we need it. Amen.”
We raised our heads. Claire leaned sideways and kissed Angel’s cheek.