© 2017 by Michael Kroft
© 2017 by Michael Kroft
The Final Supper
At one time, she had sat at the ten-foot-long dinner table contently dangling her feet a foot above the floor, giggling and playing with her supper while her father ate at one end and her smiling mother watched her from the other. Now, she sat quietly and despondently with her feet planted firmly on the floor as her stone-faced, graying father ate at one end and her just as stone-faced stepmother ate at the other.
With her stepmother’s beehive tilting over her plate, Ruth thought again of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The woman had worn her hair in a dyed-brown beehive as far back as Ruth knew her, long before she was the second Mrs. Goldman. The hairdo fascinated Ruth. At eight inches high, making the woman four inches taller than her below-average-height husband, it was so tight that it pulled up her ears and stretched out the wrinkles on her forehead, making her believe she appeared younger. But it was such a bother to wash and redo, she only did it every two or three weeks, when it began to smell like her husband’s cigars or, to her hairdresser’s silent disdain, like rotting flesh.
Pulling her eyes from the hairdo, Ruth cut her steak into bite-sized pieces while hoping to avoid the conversation that had repeated itself during every other supper over the last two weeks. Catching the glance her father tossed at her from over his habitual frown, she feared he would say something to start it, but he didn’t.
Desperate to distract her mind, she watched her stepmother through the corner of her eye and counted the woman’s chews. Missing what the woman had just placed in her mouth, Ruth discreetly watched her swallow what must have been vegetables. It fascinated Ruth –twenty slow chews for vegetables, no more and no less, and thirty slower ones for meat.
From the swinging door of the kitchen behind her, a tall man in his mid-sixties wearing a black three-piece suit used both hands to hold out in front of him, melodramatically, a small, early nineteenth century Baccarat sugar dish. Quietly and stiffly, he walked over to Ruth and said with the slightest residual of a New York accent, “My apologies for the delay. It’s been warmed.”
Ruth turned her attention from her stepmother to the rigid man. “Fred, there’s no reason to apologize. I’m still cutting it up,” she said with her enunciable British accent.
Seeming not to have heard her, Fred placed the dish down, added a small spoon beside it, and with a subtle bow of his head, returned to the kitchen.
“I will certainly not miss that,” grunted her father, replacing the awkward silence with awkward talk.
“Miss what? My cutting up the steak?” she asked, feigning ignorance.
“That too, but more your constant need to call him Fred.”
“He’s my friend,” she whispered loud enough for her father to hear from five feet away.
“He’s not your friend! He’s the help!” he declared without caring that his voice easily travelled into the kitchen.
Ruth set down her fork and lifted the top off the sugar bowl. “To me, he’s my friend. Mother called him Fred too.”
As Ruth expected, the second Mrs. Goldman huffed at Ruth’s reference to her mother, raising her eyes from her plate to glare at her husband.
“Right...well...well that was then and this is now. How...how is your steak, dear?”
“It’s fine,” his wife snorted.
Ruth scooped out a dollop of the dark-yellow syrup and began coating the pieces of steak.
“I do wish you’d let Frederick do that for you...before we sit down to eat, I mean. It’s bloody awful watching you destroy a perfectly good steak with honey.”
“Hear, hear,” hissed her stepmother with her eyes again focused on her plate. “I’ll appreciate not having to see that for a time.”
Ruth ignored the woman. “Mother was the one who introduced me to it.”
Her stepmother huffed again just as Mr. Goldman growled, “Yes, but she did it so you’d eat the bloody thing! I think if she knew you’d take up the habit permanently, she’d never have done it!”
With her heart beginning to race, Ruth continued spreading the honey over her steak. “Like she said, you won’t be seeing it for a time so that’s something to appreciate, right?”
“Yes it is, and I suppose Roland will be saved that pain too, for a time, by your running away.”
And so it begins again, thought Ruth. “I’m not running away. I’m just leaving home for a short time.”
His face reddened. “Just leaving home? Leaving your fiancé for a year to take a job in Cambridge when you have a perfectly fine one here with me. First there was your need to go to college, then your need to work, and now this. You should be marrying and starting a family! That’s what we do! We don’t postpone a marriage so we can experience life on our own. This whole thing embarrasses me. And his father tells me he’s more than upset. I say, you’re lucky he’s not calling the whole bloody thing off!”
Having heard the same thing from her father several times in the last two weeks, Ruth didn’t bother responding as she ate her honey-coated steak.
“She doesn’t deserve him. He can do better than that,” her stepmother moaned as she prepared a fork of baked potato before mechanically chewing it.
Mr. Goldman’s eyebrows narrowed at his wife for a moment before turning his glare to Ruth.
“With one call I could have them pull their offer. It’s only because of me that they even offered you the position. I expect at this moment they’re laughing behind my back. My only daughter wanting to live in a man’s world, live like a man!”
“Live like a man,” her stepmother repeated with a snicker as she shifted her eyes from her plate to her husband. “The next thing we’ll hear is her wanting the same voting rights as men. She’s a horse that needs to be broken, I tell you. A lady working is no lady. There’s a reason those ladies of the night are called working ladies.”
Ruth found it easy to ignore her stepmother’s comments. She had discovered that most insults only hurt if she liked or respected the person hurling them.
“Well, now that you’ve brought it up, I don’t see what’s so wrong with a woman under thirty having the right to vote,” said Ruth, taking advantage of the chance to change the subject. “We should be able to do it at the same age as the men. We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re ten years older...and without those extra restrictions too.”
Mr. Goldman struggled to swallow what was in his mouth. “You’ve made that known already. It’s old news!”
Ruth forced down a gulp of white wine, preparing herself for what she expected would be a short debate during what she hoped would be a quick end to the dinner.
“Ok, but what’s so wrong with a woman wanting to work? Mrs. Hart ran her bakery for five or six years before she married.”
Mr. Goldman placed his fork on his plate and used his napkin to wipe his mouth and then his thick, graying chevron mustache.
“Is that the only example you have? She had to take over her parent’s business when they passed. Considering I’m sitting here breathing, it’s a rather desperate example.”
“Maybe he’d wait for Anita to finish school,” suggested his wife. “She’d be more his type. She’s more than pretty enough...and knows her place. He’s already waiting for her to come to her senses, and that could be longer.”
Ruth was surprised to see her father shoot an intense glare at his wife, looking as if he was about to respond with some uncommonly blunt and sharp words, if not for the Grandfather clock in the hall striking the hour. No one had to count the deluge of gongs to know it was seven o’clock.
“Well, this conversation will certainly help my digestion,” he said sarcastically. “I’m rather disappointed that we can’t continue it further. What time are you leaving tomorrow morning?”
“Eight thirty,” replied Ruth
“I’ll see you then to wish you a safe journey,” he said as he stood up from the table. “Now, I must ring Fitzgerald to set up a time for a short meeting tomorrow.”
“If it’s short, why not just say what you must on the phone?” asked his wife.
“It doesn’t matter how short the meeting is. Anything to do with business, or anything for that matter, should be done face-to-face. I say, if you want all of Britain to know what’s going on, just tell it to someone, anyone, through the phone.”
With her father gone and Fred having silently cleared Mr. Goldman’s dishes away, Ruth and her stepmother ate in silence.
Ruth finished the last of her wine and stood up from her plate of one remaining piece of honey-coated steak. She walked over to her stepmother and gently placed her left hand on the top of the beehive. “Have a good night.”
Her stepmother responded with a single grunt as she slowly chewed her steak.
Standing stiffly by the kitchen’s entrance, Fred forced down his grin as he shook his head feigning disapproval while handing Ruth a damp napkin.
“Thank you,” Ruth smirked as she wiped her left hand of the sticky honey and handed back the napkin.
Fred only nodded before walking to the table and removing Ruth’s then empty plate.
With her legs crossed, Ruth sat on the dark hardwood floor of her bedroom studying the photos in the album numbered twenty, which she considered the last of her family albums. Turning the thick pages that held the three-year-old photos by their corners, her eyes got stuck on one of her father and mother sitting on a loveseat. Her mother held a giant smile and if not for her somber father’s two hands gently clasping her one hand, one would assume he didn’t want to be there. He seemed to fear the camera would steal his soul if he were to reveal it.
Weeks before, Ruth was certain her mother would have approved of her decision, but since then, she began questioning it. She wanted to believe that her mother would be smiling at her now just as she was in the photo, approving of her decision just as her father disapproved of it. She hoped her mother would be happy that she wanted to experience another side of life before settling down and starting a family, doing what she wanted instead of reluctantly conforming to what was expected of her, going against the waves and risking drowning by doing so. If her mother were still with them, Ruth would be comforted knowing she was there to throw her a life preserver if she needed it. As it was now, she felt there would be little chance of receiving one, and if she did, she would never hear the end of it, making her reluctant to take it. If she needed to make it back to familiar but uncomfortable land, she would have to do it on her own.
Ruth sniffed as a tear hit the photo. Panicking, she quickly used the sleeve of her green blouse to dab the photo dry.
“It’s good to live in your past for an instant, Ruthy,” Fred said, surprising her as he casually leaned against the frame of the door while looking down at her with caring eyes and offering a creaseless handkerchief. “Not so good to dwell there though. It can upstage your present.”
“Thanks, Fred,” Ruth forced out as she placed the album down, stood up, took the cloth and dabbed her eyes. “Sometimes you can be so quiet. It’s like you’re a ghost.”
He shook his head in response to her handing back the napkin. “Give her a good blow.”
Ruth nodded and dabbed her eyes again before blowing her nose and causing Fred to smile to the gurgling honk. She folded up the soiled handkerchief and cautiously handed it back to her servant and friend, who took it without a care and placed it in the pocket of his suit jacket.
Then Ruth asked the question that she had been struggling with for at least a year. One that she didn’t want to know the answer to until that moment. “Tell me, you would know more than anyone, was father having an affair during mother’s illness?”
“I’ve been expecting you to ask that for some time, and I would know more than anyone, and he wasn’t. I understand it would be much easier leaving if you hated him, but you won’t find it there. The most you’ll find is sympathy.”
“How is it you always know the reason I do things,” she asked. “Well, I can easily find reasons to hate her. I just can’t get my mind around why he’d marry her, or even get married so soon afterward. If she had had her way, I’d have stayed in College thinking mother was fine.”
“I can’t say I know how your father’s mind works, but some people need a companion more than they may want one, and perhaps your father is one of those people.”
“I hope to never need one. I don’t think I could respect myself. I only want to want one...one to love, but not just any one.”
“Ruthy, I believe you’re proving that by leaving,” he said, pausing before adding, “I hope you’ll be packing your camera. I’ll want to see some snaps of your adventures.”
“I’ll have to tell you about them. There’s no room in the trunk. But since you’re here, could you squish it closed for me? I may have overfilled it.”
“Certainly,” he said, kneeling down by the Louis Vuitton monogrammed travel trunk with its green-patterned fine cloth exterior and leather wrapped corners.
Ruth never appreciated that gift from her father who tried to offset his distant nature with expensive gifts. Before she had reached her teens, her father had purchased it for her and her mother’s trip to Canada. Ruth didn’t want to take the trunk with her, now that she understood it as a status symbol, but she needed to. She would rather not be seen with it and its air of elitism, especially during Britain’s depression, but that was all she had to use.
Fred gently pushed the short tower of clothes down and used some force to push the silk-lined cover closed. With it clicking, he grunted as he stood up to catch his breath. “I suppose I’m not as young as I like to think I am,” he panted. “So, tomorrow morning I’ll wake you at seven thirty and have the auto at the door an hour later, correct?”
“That’ll be perfect. Thanks, Fred, and sleep well,” Ruth said as she hugged her friend.
“I would say the same, but I expect you’ll have a difficult time doing so with all the excitement and all.”
“You’re probably right, but I’ll try.”
In his study on the third floor, Mr. Goldman sat at his desk using only the light coming from the dark-green glass shade of the brass lamp on his desk. From the opened door, he could hear the familiar tapping of shoes coming up the second flight of stairs. He expected Fred to be making his way to bed, but the tapping continued toward the study. He took his eyes from the correspondence he was reading and waited for his servant to appear.
“You should turn on another light. This is only adding to your gloom,” Fred said as he invited himself to sit in the dark-brown leather armchair facing the desk.
“I want it that way. Makes it less comfortable so I don’t settle down in here. I’d rather pull myself away before Neta has a chance to.”
Ignoring the response, Fred’s voice lowered, taking a serious tone. “Abe, you haven’t talked to her yet, haven’t wished her well. Don’t let your frustration with her need for self-discovery cloud your mind. Don’t let her leave thinking you want her to go...if it’s not what you want.”
Ruth’s father’s voice rose. “Of course it’s not what I want, and she bloody well knows it!”
“Does she? From what I’ve seen, it sounds like you’re telling her to go if she doesn’t want to stay. Showing her the door, so to speak,” Fred challenged.
Sighing, Mr. Goldman leaned forward, placed his elbows on the table and his voice softened, “I don’t mean it to come off that way. I just don’t know what to say without losing my patience and starting another argument. I’ll see her before she leaves tomorrow morning. I’ll talk to her then,” he promised. “Are you certain Rothman isn’t going to say anything? I can’t see how he can’t when she’ll be so close to him, a reflection of her mother staring him in the face.”
“He won’t say a word, but I need you to think about this: if she was to find out now, she might just be relieved by the news,” Fred frowned.
“What are you saying?” asked Mr. Goldman, fear showing in his eyes. “Does she hate me?”
“We agreed I would never pass on what she tells me, but I’ll say this, she does want to –it would certainly make her decision easier– but she has no solid reason to...even though you seem set on giving her one. And this keeping a distance between you and her is not helping matters.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but I feel like I’m being pulled in two directions by the women. Since she’s still adjusting to her new home, Neta’s demanding a monopoly on my attention...and it’s becoming difficult to give much to Ruth. It would be so much easier if they got along, but I don’t think there’s any hope of that happening soon.”
Fred stood up, took off his suit jacket and placed it over his arm. “It may never happen, but it’s up to you whether or not you become a casualty of their mutual resentment.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Mr. Goldman said as he leaned back in his chair. “I’m sorry to be so rough with you now that Neta is here, but we can’t give her any reason to suspect. She’ll know after Ruth knows.”
“Can I suggest something?”
“I suspect you’re going to anyway.”
“You should let Ruthy know you love her. You don’t want her going away questioning it,” Fred said before leaving.