By William Locke Hauser

Wanda had offered to cook Slovak dishes, but Elena turned her down. "This here’s my party, and we're having what I'm famous for." She ticked off a list: portobello mushrooms sautéed with garlic and red wine, angel-hair pasta tossed in hot olive oil with broccoli and cauliflower florettes, veal saltimbocca made with genuine prociutto di Parma. And a zabaglione for dessert, “if anybody has room.”

"How come all Italian?" Wanda asked, "Slobo's a Serb. Wouldn’t he be asking you to fix something Serbian?”

"Montenegrin," Elena said. "You should know better, having used to been married to his brother. Malkoviches are Montenegrin, but anyway Slobo don't hold with that ‘old country’ stuff. And Thomas is coming, and he ain't no kind of Slav, even if his name is Stovanovich. His people come to America so long ago, he wouldn't know one of them places from another. But anyway, my people come over from Italy, and Italian is what my guests get to eat." She was at the stove, her hair turning straggly in the heat, gonna look a mess by the time the others came. Still, if it didn't bother her, it didn't bother Wanda.

"How come you set seven places?"

"You and Stephen, me and Slobo, Little Elena, Thomas," Elena counted on her fingers, "and Little Elena's new boyfriend."

"Didn't know she had one."

"Name's Gerald Toussaint. Slobo’s boss hired him last month, to change oil and such, so’s Slobo can concentrate on repairs like he learned on that course in Germany. Slobo brought him home one day and I fed him. Next thing you know, he's got his eye on my baby girl." Elena lifted the cover on a pot, and steam enveloped her face. "Um-yum!"

"That's one of them Frenchie names, ain’t it?" Wanda prided herself on knowing these things. Her own people were Slovak, which most folks didn't know from Czech, but she didn't bother to explain. Her girlfriend Verna, who worked in Nellie’s Nails across the street from Kevin’s Diner where Wanda waitressed, she lived with her boyfriend name of Sean, and one day Wanda said, "I never knowed a Jew before, not really, and Sean's real nice, but how come he has an Irish name?" And Verna said it didn't make no difference, that people's names was all mixed up in America. And Wanda said maybe it was like that where Verna lived out in Big Sandy but in the Gulch it was mostly East European Catholics, and they set store by such things. And Verna said that's why she never came into town except to work, because of all the prejudice. Wanda didn't answer, because there was no talking to Verna when she had her back up.

"No more French than I am," Elena said. "Zit-faced kid is what I call him, except not around Little Elena."

"I seen him, come to think. Scrawny little feller. You know what they say — "Big man, big time; little man, all the time."

"Now that's enough!" Elena said.

"Thomas’s here," Slobo's voice boomed from the living room.

"Go help entertain him, Wanda."

"He's your husband's friend."

"Yeah, and he's your husband's colleague on the force, and I'm cooking. If no one talks to him, he'll have Slobo drinking so much they'll be zonked before we eat. Go on, now."

Thomas Aquinas Stovanovich was tall and big-shouldered, and would've looked real good if he didn't let his gut hang out. He wasn't fat, but there was that round belly pushing over the belt of his jeans. It even bulged out from his police uniform when he was on duty. No wonder he couldn't hold on to a woman. Making love with him would be like having a bowling ball laid on your stomach. "Hi, Thomas," she said.

"Hi, Wanda." He was already opening a beer, snapping off the cap against his oversized belt buckle. He sat down massively, causing the couch’s plastic cover to squeak in protest.

"Where's Stephen?” she asked.

"The new chief didn't want to let both us sergeants go, but it was a weeknight and nothing much gonna happen, and we've done it before, with two juniors instead of one plus a sergeant. So he said okay, but Stephen would have to stay late and brief them real good. You know Stephen, probably talking his philosophy stuff at them."

"How you getting along with the new chief?"

"He'll be okay after he's been here awhile, if he lasts."

"He ain't gonna make it?" Wanda thought that would be too bad, because she was getting to like him, even if he was . . .

"That's not what I meant.” Thomas took a long pull on his beer. "McCorkle's kind don't hang around a little burg like this. He'll be running for county sheriff, where the power is. We're just a stepping stone for a guy like him."

"Doing pretty good for a black man."

"Don't you just know it! Johnson, the colored junior we got, you should see the way he's started putting on airs. Like he thinks he'll be the next one to get promoted. I told him, ‘Don't hold your breath, John. McCorkle's sort, they're not black or white, just green."


"Money, Wanda — salary, promotion, perks and stuff. Us, we’re the Americans who get left behind. The coloreds and Jews are taking over, and the spics’ll be next, taking all the good jobs away from real Americans. Our kids’re gonna live in a different country." Scooping a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the coffee table, Thomas tossed them into his mouth.

Wanda didn't much like this kind of talk. In America, she reckoned, you might start from behind the line, but you could rise by working hard and smart. Sitting on your ass and bitching, like Thomas and like her ex-husband used to, why of course others would pass you by, including blacks and Jews and Hispanics and whatever. Her Stephen was Irish, and he’d put himself through college, and he was taking law classes in his free time, and maybe someday he’d sit for the bar like Chief McCorkle had. By that time, he'd be as old as she was now and maybe have to stay in police work, but was that so bad? No layoffs there, not with so much crime nowadays.

There was a knock at the door. "I'll get it," Slobo grunted. He rose and lumbered across the room. He had big arm muscles, and large square hands, with knuckles always nicked from working on cars. He could fix anything, Elena said, and the stuff in their house was always in apple-pie order. Wanda wished Stephen was handy like that, but he wasn't, so she had to be content with his good qualities, which he had lots of. Maybe that was him now.

But it was that skinny young guy, silhouetted against the light hanging over the transom. "C'mon in, Gerald," Slobo said.

She didn't much care for the way the boy looked. At nineteen, he still had pimples on his face, which meant he jerked off a lot, or so she'd heard. But maybe that was a good thing, what with him dating Little Elena and her being only sixteen.

"Thanks, Mr. Malkovich," he said. He stepped into the front room real slow, like he wasn't sure he'd really been invited. "How are you, Officer Stovanovich?" He was dressed nice — Wanda would give him credit for that — in a dark plaid shirt with long sleeves, and no holes in his pressed Levi's. His hands were stained from shop work, but he looked clean otherwise.

Stovanovich rose to greet him. "You can call me Thomas," he said, stooping as if to emphasize the gesture of equality.

"You know my ex-sister-in-law, Wanda Moriarty?" Slobo asked.

"Yessir, I do," Gerald said. "It's nice to see you again, ma’am." Maybe he was okay, in spite of what she'd heard about him having been suspended for using drugs in school.

"Little Elena, your boyfriend's here," Slobo called. Gerald looked at the floor and shifted from one foot to the other.

"Out in a minute, Daddy."

"I'm not really her boyfriend," Gerald explained to Thomas. "We're just friends."

"Getting to be better friends all the time, I'll bet." Thomas nudged Slobo, who responded with a scowl.

Little Elena emerged, her hair reflecting the light from lamps at either end of the couch. Enjoying the men’s attention, she pirouetted, revealing leopard-pattern G-string panties. Wanda disapproved, but what could she say?

"You gonna have a beer?" Slobo asked.

"Yessir, Mr. Malkovich, thank you," the boy said. Slobo nodded, declining to copy Thomas's offer of familiarity. The pecking order at Hank’s Foreign Car Repair stood inviolate.

"Let's eat," Elena called from the kitchen.

"Stephen's not here yet, Mama," Little Elena said.

"That don't matter. Food's gettin' cold. What’s that man of yours doing, Wanda, bucking for lieutenant?"

Wanda expected some reaction from Thomas, but he was intent on opening another beer. "Jeez . . .” The mouth of the bottle had chipped from his effort.

"Get you another," Slobo said. "You could cut your lip."

"Alcohol's sterile," Thomas said.

"Shee-it," Slobo said. 'Scuse me, Wanda, 'scuse me, Little Elena." He shoved a bottle into Thomas's hand, removing the other. "No blood poisoning in my house, you don't."

"I said all of you come," Elena yelled.

Elena had just redecorated the dining room, and Wanda thought she’d done a really good job with that fancy wallpaper showing ancient ruins covered with grapevines and bunches of roses, and curtains to match. And she set a really nice table, crystal glasses and candles and pretty china, to make her guests feel special.

They were barely seated when there was another knock on the door. "It’s unlocked," Slobo called, and Stephen entered.

"And just why is it unlocked?" Elena asked. “Close as we live to them lowlifes farther down the Gulch — men are stupid!" She emerged from the kitchen with a platter of mushrooms.

Setting the platter down, she took her seat and put a napkin in her lap. "One of the guests has to say grace."

"Not me," Thomas said. Slobo looked at the ceiling and Gerald lowered his eyes modestly.

Stephen came back from washing up. "I'll do the honors." He clasped his hands. "Most blessed God the Father, most blessed Lord Jesus, most blessed Mary ever virgin, most blessed Holy Spirit, be with us all as we consume this thy bounty. Amen."

"I don't eat mushrooms," Gerald said.

"You allergic?" Elena asked. Her daughter tittered, hiding her mouth with her hand.

"What's so funny? People can die. Their throats swell up."

"It's not that," the girl said. "Gerald thinks mushrooms taste like . . . like something dead."

Elena brushed the air, as if the notion were some insect. "Everything we eat is dead."

"He even scrapes them off a pizza,” Little Elena said. “He says they even feel like something dead." Wanda heard Thomas exhale sharply. Was he going to be sick? He took the tiniest possible portion, though she knew he’d later have seconds and thirds.

"You eat what you want." Elena reached across the table and patted Gerald’s hand.

"That's kind of you, ma'am, and it’s kind of you to welcome me here with your family." Elena might be taken in by such over-politeness, Wanda thought, but she wasn't. Boys were after just one thing, and this one, from the way his eyes kept wandering toward Little Elena's lap, thought he was close to getting it. The signs were all there — Little Elena hanging on his every word, watching his face, his hands, his body movements. Yes, he was surely . . .

"Little Elena's the prettiest one," she heard him saying. "She ought to be head cheerleader, not that Marilou."

"You go to the games?" Slobo asked. "Season starts next week."

“Look who’s talking!” Wanda thought. Most Saturdays, he got drunk so early that Elena had to go see Little Elena’s cheerleading all by herself.

"Never missed a one last year," the boy said. "I . . ."

"Any colored girls in the cheerleaders?" Thomas interrupted. His speech was beginning to slur. Why, Wanda asked herself, did these Slav men, when they drank — and some nights they didn't drink at all — always end up drunk, why was that? Was it they figured it isn't worthwhile unless you went all the way? Some said Irish were like that, but her Stephen never was.

"No, Uncle Thomas," Little Elena said, "unless you count Barbara Coats, but she says she's gypsy and that's where the frizzy hair comes from."

"But Jews. You got Jews."

"Marilou Nussbaum is Jewish. She's real popular, though, and always been nice to me."

"Lots of Jew teachers, too, aren't there? Some of them queer too, so I’ve heard."

Wanda was getting uncomfortable. "Thomas, you're talking like one of them militia we been reading about. You haven't joined up with some kooky outfit, have you?"

"I ain't no goddamn Nazi or Ku-Kluxer, and I got nothing against Jews personally, in fact I admire their intellect. Their kids have an advantage over ours, you know, because their folks make ‘em take extra school on Saturdays. Gives 'em a leg up. But we're losing balance, if you get what I mean. If this Marilou wasn't favored by Jew teachers, she'd probably never ‘ve made head cheerleader, and our Little Elena could be it." He used his hand to muffle a belch.

Stephen, who usually didn't argue - sometimes he was so meek, he made Wanda mad at him - spoke up. "There has always been competition for power among ethnic and religious groups. Like the Dutch were here first, and then the English, and then..."

"I have a French name," Gerald said. Wanda glared. He shouldn't interrupt when Stephen was speaking. And he was drinking too much for such a little guy.

"We all originally come from somewhere else," Stephen said.

"But my folks were important in the colonial days around here, before the English won that war with France. My granddaddy told me."

Stephen continued. "My ancestors were Irish, like yours were French, but we're all American now. The families with English ancestry ran things for a long time around here, but not anymore. We're all the same now - Americans."

Thomas sprawled his tattooed arms across the table. "Yeah, and what the hell ever happened to the American Revolution? Jews take that over too?"

Where did all this hostility come from, Wanda asked herself, was it toward Stephen's education, or maybe his relationship with the new chief?

"We're all Americans." Stephen's tone was patient - too patient, she thought, and a little bit on the stuck-up side. More of what Thomas had called "his philosophy stuff."

"I was talking about Irish-Americans and French-Americans," Stephen continued, "and now our Town Council has a chairperson who's Jewish-American."

"That's how her daughter come to be head cheerleader," Slobo rumbled.

"No, it ain't," Elena said. Wanda could tell they'd had this argument before. "Marilou is a couple of inches taller, that's all. All other things being equal, they pick the taller girl, ain't that right, Little Elena?"

"If it was me, I'd 've picked Little Elena." Gerald hiccupped. "Way prettier'n that Marilou."

Little Elena blushed. "No, she's the prettier one, except that . . ."

"Except what, honey?" Elena asked.

"When you look at her from the side, she has a big nose that sticks way out. But the teachers don't see her from the side, where they sit in the stands during the judging. They just saw the front of her face. That's what's not fair."

Wanda darted a warning look at Stephen, then rose to help Elena gather up dishes. "Us women are gonna make coffee to go with dessert. You men settle back and talk about car racing or something. Little Elena, you come help."

"Gerald and I want to make the eight o'clock show, Aunt Wanda." The girl rose from the table, and took the boy by the hand. "Let's go, Gerald!" She was obviously vexed with him for drinking so much, and determined not to leave him with the men for further rounds of beer.

There was a quick shaking of hands, and they were headed for the door.

"Wait a sec," Stephen said. "Gerald, let's you and me have a word." Taking the boy by the arm, he led him into the hallway leading back toward the bedrooms.

Moments later they emerged, Gerald looking pale. The young couple went on their way.

"What'd you say to him, Stephen?" Elena asked.

"Told him to drive carefully and for both of them to wear their seatbelts. These young people think they're immortal, you know."

Wanda and Stephen stayed for dessert and awhile afterward, she washing up with Elena while he joined Slobo and Thomas in the living room to watch a pro football season special.

Then, conventions having been observed, she embraced her former sister-in-law. "This was real nice, Elena. You gotta give me the recipe for that primavera. Mine don't taste the same, must be the herbs. Everything couldn't have been more delicious, ain't that right, Stephen?"

"Delicious as always," he said, kissing Elena goodbye.

Walking home hand in hand, Wanda returned to Elena's question. "What'd you really say to that kid, Stephen-more of your philosophy stuff?"

"Hardly. I told him his drug apprehension is on record down at the station, that we've got suspicions he's still in the game, and that he's been observed coming out of a whorehouse in Polton Mills where a lot of trading goes on. And I reminded him that Little Elena is your goddaughter and underage, and if he so much as puts a hand on her below the waist I'll get him sent to jail so fast it'll make his head spin. Just for good measure, I added that I'll bust his ass good before the judge sends him there."

Wanda reached to hug him. That was her kind of philosophy!