Annie puts some spaghetti in a pot of water and sets it on the gas at the lowest heat. Usually Willy does the cooking, but today is payday so he’ll stay late at the bar, drinking their money away. Willy is the cook at Granger’s Bar and Grill, where he shovels out hamburgers and hot dogs and shepherd’s pie for a bunch of millworkers who also drink up their payday money. Annie doesn’t complain. She knows that Willy has to drink, so once a week she struggles to make dinner.

She is upstairs changing into dry clothes when the kids come home, all of them piling in at the same time. Annie’s heart races.

“Ma-a-a-aah,” Mary calls out in that razor voice of hers.

“Oh, shit,” David says, looking at the stove. “Ma’s cooking tonight! God lay donk.

“What does that mean?” Virginia asks. “Is it dirty?”

David points to the pot of spaghetti, now on the boil. “God lay donk! It means ‘Look at that!’ ” He shouts, “Hey, Ma, are you home? Ma! Hey, Maaaaa! ” And the others shout, too, until Annie can’t bear it any longer and comes downstairs.

She greets them with a nasty look and goes to the stove. The spaghetti is overcooked, but what can she do? She opens a can of stewed tomatoes for the sauce. “Somebody set the table,” she says. She is busy cutting the tomatoes into small pieces that she dumps into a saucepan and puts on the heat. To her surprise, the kids set the table without complaint. If only they could be nice all the time.

The youngest, Eddie, says to Annie, “They’re saying ‘Regarde–les, donc,’ but they leave off the ‘Ruh’ part. It means ‘Look at that!’ ”

Annie bends over and kisses Eddie’s head. “I knew you’d catch on. French should be easy for you. Your father is French.”

“I know merde and putain.”

“Don’t say merde. It’s a bad word.”

“It means shit. What about putain?”

“I’m busy now,” Annie says, and upends the spaghetti into a strainer, and from the strainer she dumps it into a bowl. She can see it’s a disaster, but she pours the tomatoes on top and hopes for the best.

“What about putain?” Eddie asks again.

Everybody sits down at the kitchen table and Annie tries to say grace, but before she can get beyond “Bless us, O Lord,” they have discovered that the spaghetti is stuck together in a solid mass.

“We can’t eat this, Ma!” David holds the bowl out to Mary, who digs into the spaghetti and says, “This isn’t spaghetti, Ma. It’s shit!”

“Watch your language, young lady!”

“It’s merde,” Eddie says, delighted. “We’re having merde for dinner.”

“Eat the sauce,” Annie says. “Tomatoes are good for you, and I’ll open another can.”

Je m’en fiche! ” Eddie says. “M’en fous.”

They sit and take turns poking at the glutinous mass while Annie opens a large can of tomatoes. “Mary,” she says, “give me a hand and get out the soup bowls. We’ll have a tomato salad, sort of. I’m not a cook like your father.”

“You can say that again.”

“I’m sorry,” Annie says. “God help me, I’m doing the best I can.” She wishes she had not gone to the movie. She could have cooked something delicious. “You poor kids,” she says.

“Tomatoes aren’t even a meal. They’re a vegetable.”

“They’re merde.”

“Willy would never serve us a meal like this.”

“Yay for Willy! Willy don’t serve us merde.”

Annie is about to break down and cry when she is saved by the unexpected arrival of Willy himself.

The front door opens and Willy staggers in, drunker than usual on paydays, and relieved that he has made it home to his family.

“Willy!” they all shout. “Willy’s home!”

“She’s trying to give us tomatoes for dinner!” Mary yells.

Willy holds out the large brown bag he’s been cradling in his arms, and tries to say “spaghetti,” but he can’t find the word. The kids take the bag to the table and have at it.

So he has saved Annie, who is grateful and resentful at the same time. She tries so hard, but she can see that God never meant her to be a mother. She puts her shameful bowl on the kitchen counter behind the Wheaties box, where nobody can see it.

Willy’s restaurant spaghetti is delicious, and the kids devour it as if they were starving. Annie, sick with a sense of failure, leans against the counter while Willy dozes quietly in the rocker. Anyone looking in would think that this was an ordinary family having dinner. Then a quarrel breaks out.

Annie has no idea what it’s about, but David has found her sodden bowl of spaghetti hidden behind the Wheaties and set it down in the middle of the table, saying, “O.K., I dare you.” Virginia, the quiet one, reaches into the bowl, makes a spaghetti snowball, and throws it, hard, at David. He is covered in the mucky stuff. Startled, he grabs a handful of mush from the bowl and throws it back at her. She dodges, and he hits Eddie instead. “Putain! ” Eddie hollers. “Merde on you!,” and suddenly they’re all fighting for the bowl, shouting and laughing, and they get louder and wilder, until finally Willy wakes up.

He is cross now, and his speech has returned, so he shouts, “Cut it out! Show some respect for your mother!,” though he has no idea what is going on.

Annie bites her knuckles, fighting the urge to scream.

They all quiet down and wait to see what’s going to happen.

Willy begins to understand the situation. He is the father here. He should take charge. “Your mother works all day to make you a beautiful dinner and you don’t appreciate it,” he says. “You should be ashamed. She’s a weak woman, in her condition.” He wanders off course. “Responsibility begins at home, you kids should know that, and some day I’m gonna put down my foot . . . down.” He leans back in his rocker and closes his eyes.

The kids laugh, but they recognize that the fun has ended.

Annie has had enough. She was not raised this way. She has been a nun in a convent. She is an independent woman.

She goes to the front room to phone her sister, Millie, and ask if she can stay with her for the night. Millie says yes, though Annie can tell that she is hesitant. Well, too bad about Millie, who has everything and does nothing.

With a prayer of thanks to Jesus, Annie seizes on her power as a modern woman. She will take her life into her own hands and let someone else do all the work for a change. She may never come back.

A Refuge

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