“I tell you, Janice, he is.”
Janice turns away and refuses to answer.
“I know you don't want to hear it, but I saw them with my own two eyes. Out in public, even.” Ruth wipes a bit of fluff off the curio cabinet beside her. “What do you want me to do, lie?”
Janice finally relents. She sighs and addresses her words to the credenza. “I know, Ruthie, I know you're just telling me what you saw. It's just... I don't think I can believe it.”
“Well, who would want to? Your own boy, him barely even a man and gone off like that.”
“You can't stop them, once they get it in their heads to go.”
“Course not. It's nothing you did, Janice. Just the way things are, sometimes.” Ruth sets down the casserole dish that had given her a reason to stop by. “Anything I can do for you, now I'm here?”
Janice bristles at that. “I have everything around here well in hand, Ruth May, and can't you see that?” She picks up the casserole dish with one hand and heads for the kitchen.
Ruth waits a moment and then follows her. The best conversations always happen in the kitchen, where women can relax and talk about everything they don't say out in public. She stands in the doorway and waits.
Janice sighs again and gives her a crooked grin. “Fine, come on in and we'll talk about it, then,” she says.
“Don't have to, if you don't want to,” Ruth offers. “It's just I figured you might want to. I would, if it was me.”
“Might be you, in a few years, you know,” Janice says.
“It might, sure enough. So...” Ruth trails off and starts putting plates from the dish drainer into the cupboards. She checks to make sure each one is dry before sliding it into its spot.
“So,” Janice asks, “what did you see, exactly?”
Ruth turns from the plate she's inspecting. “It wasn't mistakable, Janice, honest.”
“Still. Okay. You know how I went in town yesterday, had my doctor appointment? Well, I was coming out of there, all relieved it wasn't bad news—it wasn't, you know, he says it looks like everything's cleared up and I don't have to go back unless I find another lump—anyway, I walked right out on the sidewalk and there was your boy. He said hi to me, very polite and all. He always was a good one.”
Janice nods regally. This is true.
“So I give him a few bits of news, you know, little things he might not know, and then this other fellow comes out and your Jason, he just snuggles up to him, arms around him and a little kiss, and then they stand there holding hands and I get introduced to the other one, Dan.” She watches to see what Janice will do.
Janice pulls out onions, carrots, and potatoes for dinner. She sets to work with a peeler and hands the peeled vegetables to Ruth to chop. “No worse than I thought, Ruthie, and thank you for telling me. A mother would wonder, otherwise.” She hesitates. “Was... was the other one older?”
Ruth pulls the cutting board from its place by the fridge, takes out the sharp, wide-bladed cleaver. “No, I'd say he's probably a year or two younger, actually.” She looks at the potatoes. “You want these for soup or what?”
“Boiled dinner, so just quarter 'em.”
“Right.” Ruth cuts the vegetables idly while she speaks. “So... yeah, younger. And he seemed like a nice young man, all in all. Shook my hand and said he'd heard all about me, and then asked after my Will's health.”
“Ah.” It's a sound like a shock, escaping without volition, that could mean anything. Janice sweeps her pile of peels into the garbage can. “Well, Jason wouldn't ever go with someone who wasn't brought up with decent manners, you know. He's always been a good boy.”
“Sure has. I was tickled he'd been thinking of Will, even since he'd gone.” Ruth finishes chopping and puts all the vegetables in the ceramic crock-pot. “You have corned beef for this?”
“Sure do, hold on, that and the cabbage.” Janice digs in her refrigerator. “Here you go.”
Ruth quarters the cabbage and drops it and the meat into the crock-pot too. “So it seems like Jason, well...”
“Like he at least got himself a nice boy? Yeah.” Janice's smile is wry. “How's Will, anyway? I heard you kept him home from school Tuesday.”
Ruth nods. “Oh, it was nothing important. Just a bit of a cold. It's been two years since we had any reason to worry, you know? Not that we stop worrying, but he seems all right.” She knocks on the wooden cutting board, twice. “Knock on wood.”
“It's good to hear that, real good. I was a bit worried.”
Janice fills the crock-pot with water and turns it on, then fills the battered old kettle and sets it on the back burner to heat. “Tea?”
“Love some, thanks.” Ruth watches Janice getting down the tea bags and a couple of mugs. “Listen, Janice, there's one more thing I kind of wanted to say, about your Jason and his friend.”
“Yeah? Hold on a minute, just let me get settled in.” Janice pours, gets out the cream and the sugar bowl, and sits at the table. “Sit, sit, and tell me whatever it is you really came here to say.”
“Am I that obvious?” Ruth pretends to be embarrassed. “But seriously, it's important, and I want to say it right.”
“I'm listening,” Janice says patiently, taking a careful sip of her too-hot tea.
Ruth looks her over carefully and then nods. “Right. It's just that I know it's not the sort of thing you want to hear, that your oldest has gone off and, you know, gotten with another man. Makes you wonder if it was your fault, makes you wonder what kind of life he'll have, right?”
Janice nods but doesn't speak, waiting for Ruth to continue.
“Well, Jason looked pretty good to me, like he's been taking care of himself, and those two boys weren't hiding anything from anyone, they kept waving at people who walked by. I think they must know the whole town, you know?”
Janice nods again. “He's always been friendly. Likes people, Jason does.”
Ruth nods. “Sure enough. Anyway, we stood there all of us talking for a while, and Jason asked after everyone, and then he got to saying how he'd like to come home for a visit, him and Dan, so you could meet him. And he looked all, you know... hopeful. Like a puppy that's not sure whether it'll be fed or kicked, you know?”
“Sure I know,” Janice says, and really smiles for the first time. “I've seen that look a hundred thousand times out of that boy, every time he asked for something he knew I didn't want him to have.”
“Exactly! And I couldn't say no to him looking at me like that. Just couldn't. So I told him, come on home next weekend, and I'll make things right with your mother and everyone.”
Janice's smile widens to a grin. “You said that? You just figured you'd come in here and break the news to me, and then talk me around to extending an invitation to the both of them?”
Ruth doesn't look down; her grin mirrors Janice's own. “I didn't figure it was much of a risk. You're not the type to turn away your own flesh and blood, no matter who he's gone and fallen in love with.”
Janice nods, satisfied. “All right, you're right, I'm not.” She pauses and looks at Ruth, sitting across the table looking smug, and adds, “Now drink that damn tea, while I tell you something you might not know about your Will and Sarah Monroe...” She laughs out loud at the look on her friend's face. “Honestly! You're not the only one who knows anything, Ruth May!”