Forks in the Road
Daniel called them the peanut butter and jellies. The handles were long rectangular prisms -- half translucent raspberry, half viscous brown -- and from them, worn metal tongs, dull knife blades, and spoons appeared. Chicken soup, pot roast, the waffles Grandma made tableside: simple things transformed when delivered to his waiting mouth via the peanut butter and jellies. They became special.
When his mother called to tell him Grandma had died, Daniel thought of them instantly. Her drawer of silverware, closed now, unused, abruptly abandoned.
* * *
It turns out they were Bakelite. Daniel found this out during his yard sale years, which translated exactly into his years with Karen. They’d stopped at the edge of a bright green lawn somewhere in Ohio, on a meandering drive home from her parents’ house. He spotted them next to an old blender and gasped.
“Bakelite,” Karen told him.
He traced the handles with his fingertips, oddly near tears.
“My grandmother has the same ones. I loved them when I was a kid.”
Karen’s smile stretched across her face, wide, like her home state.
* * *
Daniel said goodbye to his mother and slid to the floor with the phone in his hand. He pictured the drawer of cutlery in his grandmother’s kitchen, and he imagined getting to it: the roads and rooms and states he would need to travel through. His mind snagged on the funnel necks: merging into Staten Island traffic after the Verrazano, waiting for the guy to fill up his car someplace in New Jersey, pressing four inside the elevator of her building. In between was the endless turnpike, bad coffee, bad radio, fields and cows, ugly American growth. His grandmother used to be, improbably, at the other end of all of this. Her soft cheeks and rough hands and pinprick questions. “What happened to that one, Daniel? I liked her. Perfection doesn’t exist, you know. I’m old. I know these things.”
* * *
The funeral was the next day at eleven at Burton and Hirsch’s on Greenfield Avenue -- the same place his grandfather’s had been eight years earlier. Same place as Aunt Clara’s and Uncle Saul’s, and Cousin Caroline’s. Eleven tomorrow meant getting in his car today, and so Daniel began putting things in bags -- dress shoes and the novel he’d been meaning to read and four different ties -- all the while running through the plants needing to be watered and his mail taken in and who he should call and report the news to. He leapfrogged from his tie to his suit jacket to how hot it would be in his grandmother’s apartment, summer still, with all the relatives standing around eating lox and drinking cream soda. He wondered if they would use the peanut butter and jellies. Probably not. He pictured a basket of plastic cutlery, and his brain jumped on. Peanut butter and jellies. Bakelite. Karen.
He had the phone in his hand. The bag wasn’t zippered yet, he didn’t know who would take in his mail, but he was dialing Karen from memory and counting the rings. Karen met his grandmother once, at Passover. She would understand. She would tell him what he needed to hear. She would give him a name for what he felt.
Her machine picked up, and he heard, in six words, the voice which once inhabited his daily life. This is Karen. Leave a message. Daniel stood with the phone to his ear, the recorded silence forming an invisible, untraceable connection to the woman he used to love, who had wanted to be with him, and who, for this reason perhaps, he had detached from his life years ago.
* * *
He bought the peanut butter and jellies: four spoons, six knives, seven forks. Seventeen peanut butter and jellies, all his. He didn’t care that the numbers were wrong.
Driving home, they got a flat, and everything came out of the trunk: the box of records, the jar of marbles, the peanut butter and jellies. Underneath their bags was the spare, and Daniel put it on the car while Karen called AAA. They made it to a service station and home later that night, but somehow the peanut butter and jellies never did. They remembered putting everything back in the trunk, but the peanut butter and jellies were gone. Four months later, Karen suggested they move in together, and Daniel counter offered a break up. He pictured those spoons and knives and forks, rolled together in a cheap plastic bag at the side of a road near a small town in Ohio. He knew it had happened then, whatever it was which led him to now.
* * *
Daniel hung up the phone without leaving a message. His mind wandered between the quiet drawer of cutlery in his grandmother’s apartment and the bag of forks lying in the road in Ohio. Everything now, even the people, was a memory he had to visit alone.