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A Stranger in the Cul-de-Sac

A humorous story of misunderstandings and hypocrisy at a family Easter lunch

By Teralyn PilgrimPublished 3 years ago 16 min read

Janey should not have smacked Derick’s hand.

All he did was reach for the platter of sugar cookies that were shaped like carrots. He had strained his arm and toes up as high as he could and had barely brushed the edge of one with his little finger tips. He was so determined, Avery almost thought her son deserved to have it. She was deciding whether or not to stop him when Janey’s hand shot out. It made a sharp tap sound as she made contact. Avery’s stomach dropped so sharply that it hurt.

Derick cradled his hand and his bottom lip trembled, not from the pain of the slap, but from what he saw as the unfairness of it. Avery gently guided her son out of the kitchen and cradled him in her lap.

Janey gave the two of them a “look.” Avery had grown up with that look and knew it well. She ran through the possible meanings behind such a look, things Janey would never say but was undoubtedly thinking: You should take better care of your kids. You spend all your time on your catering business and neglect them. I still don’t understand why you divorced your husband. Children shouldn’t have to live in broken homes. You think Steve can make your family whole again? Give me a break.

Avery folded her resentment up like a note and tucked it into a pocket of her heart, a very specific pocket for Janey that was already filled with pieces of bitter paper.

What would Rick think about their sister running around, slapping his nephews? Avery considered telling him, but he probably wouldn’t care. Even when they were kids, the way Janey treated people had never bothered him as much as it bothered her. At least Rick liked Steve. No one else seemed to. Avery suspected their dislike was a silent criticism of her divorce, and they would never accept him no matter what he did. Rick, on the other hand, would play ping pong with Steve in Janey’s basement for hours. It was an easy way to avoid everyone. Rick said Steve made these pointless holiday-get-togethers bearable.

Janey, on the other hand, was about as happy as she could be. The crisis with little Derick had been adverted, the laboriously-frosted carrot-shaped cookies were still assembled on their platter, and everything else about her Easter was flawless. Fit for a magazine. Every casserole dish steamed, every pie glistened, and every platter was piled high, all of it meticulously arranged on her granite countertop. The men watched TV and the children zoomed back and forth as they chased each other, everyone happy, everything perfect.

Planning family get-togethers was an art, and Janey was good at it. Ironing out all the kinks with her siblings had taken years – several years longer than necessary, in her opinion. Every family member had to be trained. Goodness, were they stubborn. Her three siblings and their families were more than happy to enjoy the decorations at her house, watch their kids do the activities she planned, and gorge themselves on her food. But it irritated them when holidays required any effort on their part. They wanted everything to magically appear on the counter, like Janey had little fairies to do her bidding. Who did they think organized all of this? The maid?

Many times Janey was tempted to make them celebrate a holiday by themselves. She would say, “Your turn,” and enjoy watching them flounder and fail while she reclined on the couch and asked when dinner would be done.

Just the thought of so much chaos made her edgy.

Because of her generosity and hard work, Janey was the most hated member of the family.

It was the food assignments that did it. Not only did they have no say in what they got to make, but Janey would attach the recipes, too, like they weren’t capable of finding a good recipe by themselves. Beth abhorred hard-boiled eggs in any form – their taste, their texture, their smell – and she was assigned the deviled eggs every year. Beth piped them with such precision, it would be “criminal” to let anyone else do it, and she only had to make them once a year, for heaven’s sake. Beth would have rather piped frosting. She loved showing off her cakes, but, “This is Easter, not a birthday party.”

Avery, on the other hand, wanted to put her new culinary degree to good use, instead of making the same recipes their mother had made over and over since they were born. Actually, she was the reason Janey included recipes with the assignments. One year, when it was her turn to bring an appetizer, Avery made endive boats with herbed goat cheese. The others politely nibbled on them, but Avery ended up taking most of them home. Janey got more specific and asked her to bring a salad. Avery scooped the filing out of halved tomatoes, stuffed them with sprouts, and put a ball of mozzarella on top to look like an egg in a nest. Janey flipped.

“It’s cute because it’s Easter,” Avery argued.

“I didn’t think I had to specifically tell you to make a salad with lettuce,” Janey had snapped back.

Janey was worried about her sister. She had gone back to school and started her own business, in the midst of her divorce, while raising two kids on her own. She deserved to be successful. What if her catering company failed because she kept making food no one wanted to eat?

Avery was assigned the scalloped potatoes indefinitely.

No one blamed Megan for getting their mother’s recipes wrong. She was an in-law. Megan had failed at so many recipes, though, that she was no longer allowed to cook at all. Janey only trusted Megan with pre-cut vegetables. Pre-cut, because of the time Megan arranged sticks of carrots, celery, and bell peppers in individual plastic cups with a layer of ranch dressing on the bottom. Megan thought they were cute. The vegetable cups took up so much counter space that there was barely room for the other appetizers. Janey pulled Megan aside (though not so far to the side that everyone couldn’t still hear) and told her it would be better to buy platters from the store from now on.

It didn’t matter to Megan what her sister-in-law thought of her. If Janey believed she was too incompetent to arrange vegetables, whatever. She had nothing to prove. Megan told Rick how much she didn’t care as soon as her food assignment popped up in her inbox. She said it again to him in bed the night before Easter, and once more in the car ride over, and when they arrived at the house she told Beth and Avery how much she didn’t care about it, and anyone else who happened to be nearby. Except Steve, because no one but Rick could stand talking to Steve. He was the single most idiotic man Megan had ever not. She could only roll her eyes so many times in a day.

Megan was telling herself she didn’t care about the vegetables again as she dabbed at tears in the entryway. She meant to wait until she made it to the bathroom to cry, but didn’t make it past the hall.

Megan peered out the front door window when she noticed Avery’s girl, who had been playing in the cul-de-sac with her cousins, guiding an adult stranger up the driveway by the hand. The woman’s shoes were tucked into the crook of her arm. That was the first thing Megan noticed. Instead of wearing the shoes – ankle boots with a high-block heel – the woman had on a pair of dirty pink slippers. The woman’s shoulders slumped, her feet dragged, and she swayed heavily as she walked. Her hair was a frizzy mess. Strands of it stuck out in tiny waves like she had been electrocuted.

The woman was too young to be one of Janey’s friends and too old to be one of Avery’s or Beth’s, not to mention that she wasn’t the right race.

Little Sara opened the door by herself and brought the woman inside.

“Who is that?” Megan asked her niece.

“My friend.”

“Is this your house?” the woman asked. She looked uncomfortable, at least.

“It’s my sister-in-law’s house.”

“I’ll take you,” said Sara. She and the stranger disappeared into the kitchen.

Megan was very much interested in how this would play out. She followed them into the family room and stood back to watch.

Janey reacted much as Megan had expected. She looked up from the cutlery she was arranging in fans, and her smile vanished.

“This is my friend!” declared little Sara.

The woman put her hand to her chest and said, “I am so sorry to bother y’all…”

“Sara, come here,” Avery hissed at her daughter.

Sara reluctantly schlepped over to her mother, who held the girl protectively against her chest as she eyed the stranger.

“How can I help you?” asked Janey in a forced way that actually meant, How can I make you leave?

“I’m really sorry to interrupt alla y’all’s meal, but I got stranded and I’ve been walking for days.”

“Is that so?” asked Janey. She did not believe anyone could walk for days.

“All I need is a ride to the bus station so I can go home. I live in Tennessee and I was visiting my family in Texas, but on my way back, my luggage got stolen. I have my purse, but my wallet and phone were in the bag.”

“So you need money,” Janey said flatly.

“No m’am, I have my bus ticket right here in my pocket. I had taken a taxi to a hotel that was a half hour away from the bus station. I shouldn’t have stayed in a place so far away, but it looked so nice on the website. When I realized I couldn’t get back I asked around for help, but all anyone did was hand me money, and I kept having to spend it on food. No one has helped me get to the station. I can’t even remember where it is.”

“And you thought a cul-de-sac would be a good place to ask for help. On Easter Sunday.”

“No m’am…”

Sara piped up, “I found her on the street!”

“What were you doing in the street?” Avery whispered to her daughter.

“Please, I just want a ride to the bus station.”

Janey sighed. “Pete, will you take her?”

Pete had already planted himself in the leather armchair. It was his customary spot for family gatherings, and he only ever peeled himself off of it with great reluctance. Groaning, Pete gripped the arms of the chair and, with exaggerated effort, hefted himself to his feet.

“You must be hungry,” Megan said.

Megan had suggested this to be nice, but she watched Janey’s face as she said it and had to bite her lip when her sister-in-law’s skin turned a lovely shade of purple.

“Pete, make her a sandwich. I’ll get a paper bag. No! Not the ham! Not the ham!”

He froze mid-cut and his wife yanked the knife out of his hand.

“That ham is for lunch,” she gasped. “Use the deli ham from the fridge.”

Pete could fit all the care he had for his wife’s meal on the tip of a Bic pen. For each of these stupid events, he and the kids had to spend days cleaning the house and yard while Janey slaved away in a kitchen to make food everyone would eat in half an hour and then forget about. They’d all be happier if he ordered pizza.

He put the sandwich in a paper bag and nothing else. His car keys jangled when he picked them up from a shelf.

The woman took the bag he offered to her. “Thank you,” she told everyone. “I’m really sorry for interrupting.”

In the entryway, the woman pointed to a wall in the front room and told Pete, “I’ve always loved that painting.”

“Huh?” asked Pete. He followed her line of vision to a huge framed print of Jesus. “Oh, yeah,” he said, and he walked down the driveway.

The woman closed the door behind her.

Janey waited until the car turned onto the street before scolding Sara.

“We told all of you children not to leave the cul-de-sac,” she said. “You see now how dangerous it is to go out on the street?” She directed her scowl at Avery.

So, Avery’s kids didn’t wait to eat cookies when they should, didn’t stay in the cul-de-sac like they should, and didn’t make friends with the people she should. Apparently, she couldn’t do anything right as a mother. Janey had already physically assaulted her son. This – criticizing Sara for helping someone, and then criticizing Avery for letting it happen – was too much. Avery steamed with a closed lid and no vent. Another note to fold up, another piece of paper to tuck into her resentment pocket.

Janey returned to her food preparations. Sara had broken her concentration. Ah, yes, she had been working on the cutlery.

“I don’t see how Sarah did anything wrong,” said the boyfriend, Steve, in a dumbly absent way like he actually couldn’t figure it out. Megan could barely hold back her smile. For once, his knack for saying the wrong thing was going to be amusing.

“Hmm?” Janey asked. She was re-glazing the ham with motherly affection. It was probably the best glaze she had ever made. They were going to love it.

Avery perked up. “Yes,” she said hesitantly, as she tiptoed into the dangerous territory her boyfriend had just opened. She could feel her heart beating. “Sara didn’t do anything wrong. And, and, I don’t like it when you get onto her in front of everyone.”

They were still talking about that? “She brought a stranger in from the street! You don’t see anything wrong with that?” Janey talked while glazing. “I can’t believe a mother would let her child speak to strangers begging for money on street. Sara could have been kidnapped, and…”

Before Janey could say what happened to children when they were kidnapped – a fact Sara had always been somewhat fuzzy on – Avery stood up stood up with conviction. “I will not teach my child to stop being kind!”

Avery hadn’t meant to raise her voice quite so high. Every side conversation abruptly halted. Because of the silence, the TV now sounded too loud. They had been watching Trolls, of all things. Avery and Janey stared at each other while two cheesy trolls sang “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”

“Fine, if you don’t mind your children getting snatched up,” said Janey.

“I would rather that than raise a callous child who can see someone suffering and do nothing about it! My children are not cruel!”

Was Avery implying that Janey’s children were cruel, and that therefore Janey was actually a worse mother than Avery? Or was Megan giving her sister-in-law too much credit? Either way, this conversation was more than Megan hoped for.

Pete returned from the station and plopped back on his armchair, making a definitive oomph in the cushion as if to say, Here I am, and I will not be moved.

“How did it go?” asked Janey, darkly, as if she suspected there had been foul play.

He shrugged. The woman had awkwardly tried to make conversation about the weather and her work in advertising, then sighed with relief when they pulled into the bus station and she could finally get out of the car. Maybe he should have been nicer to her. It wasn’t her fault that he was grumpy from putting up with all their unspoken feuds, each of them guessing what the other person was thinking and often getting it wrong. It was like the women didn’t want to be happy.

“Well?” asked Avery. “Is the woman okay? Did she get on the bus?”

He shrugged again.

Janey clapped her hands together. “Alright everyone,” she declared with gusto, “it’s time to eat!”

The side conversations started up again. She was in the middle of taking a stand. She couldn’t let her family brush past her on the way to the kitchen as if nothing she said mattered, she just couldn’t.

Avery thought fast and pointed an accusatory finger at Janey. “You…you’re a hypocrite!”

Everyone who had started to rise from their seats slowly eased back down. Avery had the odd sense that she had plopped herself into a pit of mud. There was no backing out now, even if they would talk about this at every family gathering for years, even if it meant she and her sister stopped speaking to each other.

“A hypocrite!” Janey cried. “How on earth am I a hypocrite?”

Rick entered the room to ask Steve to play table tennis with him, despite lunch being ready. He had been sneaking bites of food all morning (including three of his sister’s carrot-shaped cookies, which were delicious) and wasn’t all that hungry. To his dismay, something was going down between his sisters. Steve was all the way on the other side of the room. Beth’s husband was standing nearby and he thought about tapping him on the shoulder, but Aaron was a pain in the butt to play with. He always stopped the game when he had something to say and Rick would impatiently wait for him to serve again.

“You care more about appearances than people!” cried Avery. “You have a painting of Jesus in your entryway talking to Mary and Martha, but you’re just like Martha. You don’t know how to choose the better part, like Jesus said.”

“I do not have a picture of Mary and Martha!” said Janey.

“I thought we had a picture of Jesus talking to kids?” said Pete, turning his head back from his spot in the chair. Though they might have settled on the one of the woman at the well because the blue in her dress matched their curtains. He hadn’t been in the front room since they moved in.

Janey said, “Pete! It’s a picture of Jesus looking at a sunset!”

It was actually a picture of Jesus looking out over Jerusalem and saying, “How often I would have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.” Megan considered pointing this out, but she didn’t want to slow the momentum of the train before it wrecked.

Avery said, “I don’t know how anyone with a picture of Jesus hanging in their home can treat someone in need so badly. Feed my sheep, he said! Inasmuch as you have done this unto the least of these my bretheren, you have done it unto me!”

“Can we talk about this after lunch?” Janey asked. “The ham is getting cold. Better yet, let’s say a prayer over the food now and we can keep arguing while everyone dishes up their plates.”

“You act like you’re the perfect Christian,” Avery continued, undeterred. “You have a perfect house that’s perfectly clean and perfect kids and a husband with a perfect paycheck! The truth is…”

Avery decided to call Janey the worst thing anyone could say to a white person.

“…you’re racist!”

The room gasped. They each had the surreal feeling that something had happened which could not possibly have happened.

“Yes,” Avery said, more sure of herself now that she had everyone’s attention. “You are racist. You wanted to get that woman out of your house just because she was Indian.”

“She was black,” said Steve.

Megan wondered if he had any idea what was going on. What an idiot.

Not having her boyfriend’s support threw Avery off. “No, she wasn’t,” she insisted, though she was no longer sure. “The woman had one long braid. Black people have a bunch of tiny braids.”

Megan mumbled, “I’m pretty sure black people can wear their hair however they want.” Beth was the only one who heard, and she smirked.

Rick thought maybe if he could get Steve’s attention, he could make some sort of signal that he wanted to play table tennis and then Steve could sneak away.

Janey said, “If I were racist, I wouldn’t have helped her, and anyway, if we don’t start eating soon, we won’t have enough time to do the Resurrection eggs with the kids.”

Beth quietly walked into the kitchen. She picked up her platter of the deviled eggs she had made, lifted the lid to the trash can, and chucked all of them into the garbage. She put the dirty platter back in its place on the counter and returned to her seat.

Bravo, thought Megan. She wanted to get up and do the exact same thing with her platter of vegetables. Maybe she would. Except the platter was kind of expensive.

Finally, Steve happened to look over and Rick used his head to gesture to the basement staircase. Steve smiled and shrugged as if to say, “I know, these women are crazy!” Defeated, Rick sat on the couch and sulked.

“I don’t know what’s going on.” Janey was shaking from what Beth had done. “We need to talk about this later. It’s time for Easter lunch.”

No one moved from their seats. Her voice wavered. “Please. It’s time to eat.”

Avery put an arm around Sara’s shoulders, triumphant. Sara frowned because she had wanted a deviled egg.

“So I’m the bad guy?” Janey asked the room. “After I cared so much to make everyone’s Easter special? Do any of you understand the planning that went into this?”

“I would rather spend Easter in a soup kitchen, like Jesus would have,” said Avery, which sounded stupid even to her.

Janey looked from person to person, but not a single one of them defended her. That was the worst part. It was normal for Avery to get defensive about silly things – that was just Avery – but if no one contradicted her, perhaps everyone agreed. If everyone agreed, what was she going to do?

Janey broke into heaving, uncontrollable sobs. The adults and the children looked away as she wept. She couldn’t bear to see a perfect ham go cold.

Short Story

About the Creator

Teralyn Pilgrim

Teralyn Pilgrim has an MFA in Creative Writing from Western New England University and a BA in English from Brigham Young University. Her work has been published in the Copperfield Review.

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