General Fiction posted December 1, 2021

This work has reached the exceptional level
Exploring the meaning of grace


by Theodore McDowell

Story of the Month Contest Winner 

 Mariam Talib used her worn apron to wipe the sweat from her forehead as she cooked eggplant stew for her thirty-sixth wedding anniversary dinner with her Iranian husband, Ali Talib. Mariam glanced at the clock on the oven. Ali, who was a senior partner at a high-powered law firm, would be home in two hours, and he would expect dinner to be ready when he arrived. Mariam called Ali to confirm the dinner plans.
“Hi, Ali. I’m just checking to make sure you still want to eat around seven. I’m making your favorite meal, eggplant stew.”
“I’m swamped at work, but I’ll be there.” Ali paused for a moment. “Hey, what do you say we get crazy? I’ll bring home sushi from this great new restaurant I’ve found, Sushi Yoshino. We can save the stew for tomorrow when things are less hectic.”
Mariam’s heart dropped. She had hoped her Persian recipe would generate nostalgia for their common immigrant history. You know, she thought, the poor years, the best years.
“I hate sushi. You know that.”
“Come on, Mariam. You hate anything that isn’t Middle Eastern. Try some contemporary food for a change. Step into the new world, try these California rolls.”
“Cooking the old recipes gives me pleasure. There’s something soothing in those meals. Don’t you think?”
Ali sighed. “Of course, of course.”
Mariam heard loud boisterous voices in the background. “Where are you, Ali? It sounds like a party or something.”
“Don’t be paranoid. We’re celebrating the retirement of one of the partners.”
“Really? Who is it?”
“You don’t know him.”
Mariam felt a familiar panic strangling her voice. At times, when the house seemed unbearably silent and dreary, she feared Ali had left her behind for the American dream filled with fancy cars, lavish dinners with clients, and cocktails at bars with starry-eyed secretaries.
“Listen, I’ve got to go.  At least let me bring home a bottle of red wine to go with dinner.”
“Fine, but you know I don’t drink.”
“There’s always a first time to branch out and experiment. Can you at least have your father in bed so we can eat alone on our anniversary?”
Mariam hung up and glanced at her ninety-five-year-old father slouched in a wheelchair, asleep in a corner of the kitchen. She cared for him with the help of daytime home health nurses and aides during the week. The wedding anniversary fell on a Saturday, so she had been on her own with her dad for the entire day.
Mariam sighed and shook her head at his scruffy facial hair and emaciated body. Sometimes at night, when her thoughts tangled with the unceasing hum of the cicadas, she wished he would die a graceful death like her mom. He was a gnarled rugged fighter, struggling against the tortured unraveling of his body and mind caused by congestive heart failure and dementia. She lightly brushed her fingers across his wrinkled cheek and kissed his forehead.
The stew simmered in a large pan on the stove, and Mariam took a break from cooking to walk into the den and stare at her wedding picture on the bookshelf. “Sushi,” she muttered. “Now he prefers sushi.”
Ali’s light brown skin, curly hair, and dark eyes in the photograph still thrilled her. Where had her Ali gone? She had married him, at least in part, to remain immersed in her heritage. She shook her head, marveling at his seamless transformation into an American. She called Ali again.
“What is it, Mariam?”
“I just want to tell you that I appreciate you. You worked hard and gave Susan and me a stable life. You allowed our girl to dream.”
Silence. He wasn’t the same man; he had drifted away from her. Mariam nervously stroked her mom’s wooden rosary beads she kept in her pocket. “Ali?”
“I’m here. Are you okay, Mariam? Is something wrong with Susan or the grandkids?”
“No, no. Everything is fine. We can talk when you get home.”
“Good, because things are crazy here. My phone is ringing off the hook.”
“I’m such a fool,” Mariam thought as she hung up. His compliments had dried up a long time ago, but not his expectations. She returned to the kitchen and her place at the stove to finish what used to be Ali’s favorite meal.
Mariam’s cell phone rang, and she answered the call from her daughter, Susan. “Hello, Mom, I wanted to wish you and dad a happy anniversary.”
“Thank you, but your dad is still at the office.”
“On a Saturday and his wedding anniversary? Mom, what’s going on?”
Mariam ran her hand along the black quartz of the kitchen island. “Nothing, Susan. Your father is busy, that’s all.”
“Mom, either he’s having another affair or granddaddy is driving him crazy in the house.”
“Oh, my dear. You worry too much.”
“No, you don’t worry enough, Mom. Your caring for granddaddy is too much for you. Besides, it drives daddy away from you. Face it. It’s time to move granddaddy to a nursing home. You can’t handle him anymore, and he doesn’t remember what you do anyway. I don’t even think he knows who you are.”
“That’s not true. Today I took him to the cemetery, and he remembered your grandmother and me. If I put him in a nursing home, those rare moments will no longer happen between us.”
“Why do you even care, Mom? I mean, after all he did to you as a child.”
Late at night, when the cicadas sounded like steel pressing against a grinding wheel, Mariam wondered the same thing, but she kept those thoughts locked away in her heart. She wanted to forgive her father, and the unexpected moments, like the one at the cemetery, softened her heart.
“I care for your grandfather to show him the grace of God.”
“Mom, he doesn’t deserve grace.”
“Exactly, grace is undeserved, Susan.”
“Sometimes you infuriate me with your religious platitudes. I think it’s a cultural thing, your Middle Eastern heritage. All you’ve ever know is subservience to men.”
Mariam realized Susan pulled her in a different but equally uncomfortable direction as Ali. Secretly, she relished Susan’s independence and progressive attitude, even if she couldn’t embrace the perspective. This time, however, Mariam pushed back against Susan’s implied feminist critique.
“I feel compelled to care for him. It’s all I’ve ever known. I don’t feel like I have a choice.”
“Stand up for yourself, Mom. You always have a choice. Move granddaddy to a nursing home or you’re going to lose Dad.”
Mariam touched her wedding ring. Her hands looked so old. “I lost your dad a long time ago, Susan.”
 “Mom, I’m sorry. I’ve pushed you too hard, but I just want you to be happy. You deserve it.”
Mariam wept. “I no longer wish for my happiness. If you and my grandchildren are happy, that is enough for me.”
“That’s so sad to me. I love you so much, Mom.”
Ali Talib showed up three hours late to the wedding anniversary dinner, long after Mariam had put her father to bed, blown out the candles on the dining room table, and stored the eggplant stew in the refrigerator. He didn’t even bring flowers or a gift, but he did smell like cheap perfume.
“Sorry I’m late, Mariam. I had an emergency with a client. I’m starving. Why don’t you heat up the food? We can still celebrate our anniversary.”
“Do you even know how long we’ve been married?”
Ali rolled his eyes. “Long enough not to pretend it matters, right?”
Mariam didn’t answer. She pulled the food out of the refrigerator and warmed it on the stove. They sat down for a silent dinner together. No pretenses, she thought, but she was tired of being submissive, as Susan had suggested.
“You’re having another affair, aren’t you, Ali?”
Ali stalled for time, slowly eating a large forkful of rice. “Don’t be silly. It’s offensive when you accuse me. Stop being so suspicious. And, yes, I know we’ve been married for thirty-six years and, hopefully, many more.”
Mariam didn’t know how to respond. She lacked the assertiveness to fight through his denials. He told his lies with such a straight face, and he looked her directly in the eyes. She was always the first to look away.
“I don’t believe you,” she persisted, surprising herself.
From the back bedroom, her father broke into the confrontation with a cry of “Help.” They rushed to the room. Her father lay on the ground, apparently falling as he tried to go to the bathroom. He had wet his bed.
“God damn it, Mariam. This arrangement is no longer doable.”
Mariam held her tongue as she quickly changed her father’s sheets. They both lifted him onto his mattress. She sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his back.
“Thank you, Mahin,” he whispered, believing the hand belonged to his dead wife. Mariam hated him for not realizing he was being soothed by her touch, the caress of grace.
When she returned to the dining room, Ali was halfway through his meal. She sat down and clenched her jaw, intent on making it through the meal in bitter silence. Her daughter’s words clamored in her head: “You’re subservient, Mom. It’s a cultural thing.”
“Ali, what exactly did you mean by the arrangement being no longer doable? Were you referring to the situation with my dad or our marriage?”
Ali tossed his napkin onto the table. “Jesus! What’s gotten into you? I meant your dad, of course.”
“Then why do you smell like perfume?”
Ali pushed his chair away from the table. “I can’t take this anymore. I give up. Yes, I’m having an affair, but what do you expect? We have no time alone together with your dad in the house. He’s more of a priority to you than I am.”
Mariam held back her tears. She was in uncharted territory, asserting her rights as a decent human being. “Do you remember the story I told you about my dad and the candy?”
Ali huffed. “Yes, I remember.”
“Tell me the story, Ali.”
“No. That has nothing to do with the current situation.”
“Then I’ll tell it again. It has everything to do with you and me.”
“Listen to me for once…My father used to hold out a piece of candy to me and tell me to come to him. If I hugged him, he said, he would give me the piece of candy, but when I toddled to him, he would hit me and tell me I was a girl, a bad girl.”
“And your point?”
“That’s how I feel every time you betray me with another woman. Yes, my father abused me, but if I rank my abusers, my dad is second behind you. I used to trust you, no questions asked. That’s why I married you. You seemed gentle and so different than my dad. Your betrayals hurt me more than my father’s physical abuse.”
“Wow! I’ve heard enough. We don’t even know each other anymore. We need to end this charade.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. Susan is all grown up. I think it’s time.”
Mariam felt her throat closing with panic. “Time for what? Spit it out, Ali.”
“Time for a divorce. I think it’s for the best, to end the misery. I’ll stay over at Susan’s house until we can work out the arrangement.”
Mariam felt her lungs collapsing but, suddenly, her lungs expanded. She took deep breaths of relief. His words had lifted a heavy weight off her chest when he really meant to crush her. The fear left her, at least during the heat of battle.
“Everything is an ‘arrangement’ with you. Do what you want. You can’t hurt me anymore.”
That night, they slept in the same bed, probably for the last time, Mariam thought. They even held hands for a brief period before Ali turned onto his side and fell asleep. Mariam couldn’t sleep. She replayed the conversation over and over, thinking of things she should have said to make him regret his words or at least feel some pain or even empathy. Surely, he couldn’t walk away from thirty-six years that easily. She listened to the cicadas grinding down the night and wished both her dad and her husband were dead.
Mariam continued caring for her father when Ali moved in with their daughter and prepared the terms of the divorce. Mariam didn’t know what else to do. She still hadn’t forgiven her dad, and that seemed to be the only meaningful goal left in her life. She had to admit to herself, however, she felt a sense of being betrayed by Susan for letting Ali stay with her. In a way, Susan was supporting Mariam’s emotional abuser and choosing Ali over her.
Three months after the separation, Susan called Mariam. “Mom, I need to talk to you about dad.”
“I don’t want to talk about your dad. He’s made his choice. Talking will just bring more pain, Susan, especially since you’ve already told me he’s going to move in with his new girlfriend soon.”
“Mom, stop. Dad’s been in a horrible car accident. He’s in the hospital unconscious. He’s paralyzed.”
Mariam collapsed into a chair. A horrible whiteness swirled in her head like a blizzard. From the den, her father yelled, “Mahin, where are you? Have you left me? I need you, Mahin.”
Mariam hung up the phone. She drove her dad to the cemetery and let him weep in front of Mahin’s grave.
The doctors informed Mariam and Susan that Ali would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. In the car after the meeting, Susan gently stroked Mariam’s back. “What am I going to do, Susan?”
“I know you don’t want to, Mom, but you need to arrange for dad to be in a nursing home.”
Mariam’s entire body felt numb. Her heart throbbed uncontrollably. She placed her hand over her chest, letting her arrhythmic heartbeat convince her that she was still alive. “What am I going to do?”
“Do you want me to tell you what I think?”
“Yes, please tell me. I can’t think. It’s all jumbled in my mind. I hate and love them both. Do you get it? I can’t sort it out anymore.”
“Here’s what I think. Sell the house. Put both granddaddy and dad in a nursing home and come stay with me. I’ll take care of you.”
“I can’t be a burden on you, my dear.”
“You don’t have a choice, Mom.”
“I could care for them both at home with around-the-clock home care. I could do it. I know I could. We have enough money.”
“Mom, it would kill you. You’re not in good health yourself.”
“I have faith. That’s all I have. Surely God will give me enough grace to care for them and let them die with dignity.”
“I won’t allow it, Mom. I’m sorry. We’ll start making arrangements tomorrow.”
Mariam clutched Susan’s hand. “I haven’t forgiven either of them, yet. Don’t you see?”
“It’s not your job to be their saviors. Do what’s best for them and yourself. You’ll come live with me.”
That night, Mariam tucked her dad into bed and kissed him on the forehead. The kiss was light and soft as if she were trying to airbrush the pain and childhood abuse out of the relationship. She traced the age spots on his hand and lifted the gaunt bony hand to her face to feel her tears. She left the room and lay down in bed, waiting for the hum of the cicadas.
Gradually, the golden hour of morning broke through her window. From his bedroom, her dad called out, “Mahin, where are you? I need you!”
Mariam grabbed her mother’s rosary off the bedside table and knelt beside the bed. Her hands worked the wooden beads. “God please help me. I don’t know what to do. What do I do now, God?”


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