The grandmother did not care that the boy had disobeyed her at lunch in front of all her widow friends from church, not to mention all the other diners in The Bonefish Grill, and the waiters, and the cooks peering out from the kitchen, and any nosy people walking by outside. Even just seeing the dim twitching of shadows through frosted panes of glass, they would have said: that boy does not listen to his grandmother. But she had not been embarrassed. Embarrassment, the grandmother thought, was for the unsaved and the stupid. Those who worry only about the moment, the feeling in their brain’s belly, and think not of eternity stretched out before them forever and ever. She scrubbed her hands under cold water at the sink; the fatty finger pads under her second knuckles were red gristle. The disobedience still meant something. The collapse of the nuclear-family-based Western society! She’d seen people on the news say just as much.
At lunch, all the grandmother had done was tell the boy to flip his church tie — the boy was staying with her for three Sundays, down the turnpike in Marlton while his parents “took a timeout,” and yet her daughter had sent the boy with just one church tie — over his shoulder, so that it would not loll like a floppy fabric tongue into his tomato soup. That was the way all tie-wearing men should dine. With all their clothing under control.
Flip it up, she said. She demonstrated with a broad smile and her napkin.
No, said the boy.
Flip it up, the grandmother said again, louder, in case the boy had not heard.
No, the boy said again. His face seemed to shrink and swell at the same time, as if some wild animal was trying to thrash out from inside him. The grandmother felt eyes on her and the boy took his soupy little hands and dipped the tie in the soup, swished it around, then removed the tie and let soup drip all over his shirt, his pants, his napkin, the tablecloth, the floor.
How’s that? hissed the boy. Are you happy?
Now, the boy was in bed. The grandmother had hit him when they got home, just for a little while, just on the backside and the sides of the thighs, just through his church slacks, just with a wooden kitchen spoon, saying to him: I’m not enjoying this, you know, but it’s what must happen.
He had lost all his starch, and pretended to not be able to stand anymore, and shuffled off to bed right away when she told him to do so. The grandmother thought: this will make a good story, next week. I’ll tell them all about it, and they’ll see there’s still hope for him. Still hope for us all. I’ll do him some good. And she sat quietly in the house and listened to the clocks tick just the way she’d set them.
Sam Milligan (he/him) writes when he isn’t moping about the 76ers or making single pot rice and beans. He’s got two cats, and one of them likes him. His work has appeared in Rejection Letters, Many Nice Donkeys, and elsewhere. Go Birds. He’s on Twitter at @sawmilligan.
image: MM Kaufman