Story — From the August 2013 issue

The Way Things Are Going

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So, here we were now, drinking tea out of mugs around Gwen’s kitchen table.

“You girls should do what I did,” Ma said brightly. “Take in the odd man of an afternoon.”

Gwen snatched up the scones and held them out. “Here, Ma,” she said. “Sonia made them.”

“Sonia? Who’s Sonia?”

Sonia rolled her eyes. She was a charmless girl, sneering and sarcastic. Gwen said they were all this way, American teenagers, because right from the start they’d been fed a diet of praise and false encouragement. And look what it produced — joylessness, confusion, discontent.

“I just followed the recipe,” Sonia mumbled.

Ma twisted around to take her in. Soon she wasn’t going to be able to see at all, Dr. Slatkin had warned me, nothing to be done about it. “Couldn’t you find a girl who speaks English?” she said.

I saw Gwen stiffen. “Let it go,” I whispered. “She’s just enjoying herself.”

But Gwen could never let a thing go, certainly not when it came to Sonia. She might have theories about American teenagers, send the girl to her father’s when she’d had enough of her rudeness, because really she was just like him, she said, vicious, unprincipled, aggressive — she might long for the day when the girl would be out of her hair and away at college — but when it came to Ma, all she wanted was to have Sonia properly loved.

“That’s Sonia, Ma!” she said, starting the whole rigmarole again. “And we don’t have a ‘girl’ here, only a cleaning woman, who, as a matter of fact, doesn’t speak a word of English. This ‘girl’ is your granddaughter. And she certainly speaks English! American English! Because she’s an American!”

Ma shrugged. “Well, whoever she is, there’s no reason even an American can’t make use of her afternoons. Mark my words, my dear, it would go a long way toward helping with the petty cash.”

Sonia launched herself from her chair and stamped out of the kitchen. Hers was a different world from ours, Gwen had explained, and there was nothing you could do to bring such teenagers around to the sort of compunctions under which we ourselves would have had to labor if an aunt and a grandmother suddenly descended into our lives.

“Oh, Ma!” Gwen said. “She’s only fifteen, for God’s sake!”

But Ma just gave her a cagey look. “Fifteen? You could always try marrying her off, you know. If she’d stand up straight and do something with that hair, some man might find it in him to take her off your hands.”

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’s memoir “Keeping Watch” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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