In the gray light of the kitchen, Ellen sets the table for supper, keeping the chipped plate back for herself before lowering the rest in turn. The plates are pink with yellow flowers twisting around the edges, and they glow between the pale frosted glasses, the stainless steel knives and forks, the plastic pitcher of milk. In the center of the table, the roast platter steams between the bowl of wrinkled peas, the loaf of sliced bread. Ellen wipes a water stain from the cupped palm of a spoon. Soon all the bright plates and glasses and flatware will be soiled, and she finds herself imagining how it must be to wait for that first hot splash of meat, the cold dribble of milk.
"Time to eat," she calls down the narrow hallway to the living room, where the children and her husband and his parents are all watching TV. She gets the cloth napkins from the drawer and folds them into tall, peaked hats, something her mother always did when she wanted the table to look nice. The napkins are also pink, and they match the plates and the tablecloth, and come very close to matching the curtains, which are drawn tightly closed. The yard beyond stretches plain and white into the next yard and the next, the single scrawny pine along the lot line stiff with ice. When Ellen walks home from work late in the afternoon, that tree reminds her of an animal, the way it stands without the slightest movement, corralled by the neat rows of houses lining the block.
The children straggle in and sit twisting in their chairs, raising the cloth napkin hats to their heads, giggling at their game. James and his parents shake out the hats, and James smooths his across his lap, his shoulders firm against the back of his chair. Ellen sets a saucer of margarine beside him, and abruptly the color seems too bright, like cheddar cheese or sweet acorn squash. She fights a vague queasy feeling; when James's father begins Grace, she closes her eyes, speaking each word clearly in her mind, trying to concentrate. It's one of the first prayers she ever learned, chanting along with her mother and sisters in the cozy heat of their farmhouse kitchen, the family cats brushing their ankles like silk. She remembers the rich odors of mustripen and sausage and thick bread pudding, the eager edge of hunger a deepening crease that ran from her chest to her stomach.
Bless us O Lord. These thy gifts.
By the time she has finished praying, the serving bowls have already begun their slow start and stop around the table. The children look at her curiously; she quickly takes a piece of bread. James ladles peas onto his plate with a clatter that lets her know she has embarrassed him in front of his parents, in his parents' home. They eat without speaking, and it's hard to swallow without the gravy of conversation, the children's playful bickering, James's questions about her day, her own questions and his responses, the hollow overlappings of their words.
She watches his jaw as he chews his roast, the roast she has prepared for him, dry, the way he likes it. The motion of his jaw is steady and unconcerned; his lips are pinched tight over his teeth. She thinks, I have kissed those lips, I have pushed my tongue against those teeth, and this thought fascinates and repels her. Amy asks for milk and Ellen fills her glass. Herbert's napkin slides to the floor and she tells him to pick it up. But her eyes are fixed to James's jaw, and she thinks about how strange it is that one small thing like a jaw or a look or a brush of a hand can become so much larger than it actually is, so large that it closes itself around you and squeezes until it is hard to find air.
It is November, and she can hear the wind moving over the walls of the house, stroking the windows, trying to coax its way past the curtains to blow the flowers from the napkins and plates, to muss the perfect leaves of the plastic plants that hang side by side above the sink. The house is filled with knickknacks -- china angels, statues of saints, small glass animals with beady eyes -- and each of them has to be dusted and the surface beneath polished with lemon oil, and then each has to be set back down precisely as it was before, the beady eyes staring in the same direction, the dust settling about it in the same design. The copper duck and goose Jell-O molds have hung for so long above the stove that the paint behind them has kept its color, and when Ellen takes them down for polishing, a perfect bright shape of a duck or goose remains. A place for everything; everything in its place. The house is as rigid, as precise as a church, and there was nothing to disturb its ways until three months ago, when Ellen and James and the children moved in because they had no place and nowhere else to go.
James had been laid off just as the lilacs in the yard of their rented house bloomed, open-eyed and fragrant, trusting the Illinois winter had passed. The next day, an ice storm trapped the world in crystal. The school where Ellen taught closed for the day, and she spent the morning playing cards with Amy and Herbert -- their school had closed as well -- and mourning the lilacs, and the budding trees, and most of all the colorful heads of the tulips, which were frozen to the ground. James watched TV on the couch, bundled in a quilt, his body tucked close against itself as if he wanted to disappear. Talk to me, Ellen said, but he listened to her the way you'd listen to a faucet drip, not assigning any particular meaning to the sound.Vinegar Hill. Copyright © by A. Ansay. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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