Sudden Ritual

by Rachel Astarte Piccione

Because it is her birthday, Carl has built a cake for Ellen — two layers of angel food with strawberry icing slathered between. When she makes the first wish-slice, and serves him a wedge, she says it's sweet. It looks like a reverse Canadian flag without the maple leaf. She does not realize, he thinks, what he went through to organize this night for her. The cake was made from scratch. Fresh strawberries and cream from the farmer's market. He had to borrow a friend's mixer. He guesses it's all right that she doles the cake out as though she were dealing a poker hand. It was Kant, he remembers, who said that if one does a good thing in order to be recognized for it, the action ceases to be virtuous.

Carl scrapes the plates into the disposal. (Ellen has never finished a piece of cake since he's known her; she stops halfway through and starts picking at his.) She sits at the dining room table, staring ahead, dutifully awaiting the next surprise.

This time he knows when her mood changed. He had forewarned her: there were only little presents. Why was she getting so excited? He reminded her that they scramble to pay rent on the house every month. He offered to wrap up the gas bill, if she liked. She didn't find that funny.

He watches Ellen from the kitchen as she sits meditating into the ceramic bowl centerpiece and feels sad for her. Carl knows she doesn't expect lots of presents, or even one — that isn't what would make her happy. It is that he isn't clever enough to turn nothing into something, make their graduate student poverty disappear and from its center bloom joy and celebration. He's not even sure that kind of irrationality is wise. Isn't it better, after all, to acknowledge what one doesn't have and live in that truth?


After her third glass of wine, Ellen opens his card, leans over and kisses his cheek. That martyred smile pains Carl as deeply as he hates it. From her end, she isn't even aware she does it anymore. Her face can't lie. That's not her fault, is it?

"Any wine left?"

Carl pours a glass, places it on her emptied card envelope.


"I have work."

"On my birthday."

"Hon. I've explained this to you. If I don't work, I don't get my dissertation done. If it's not done by spring, my aid stops—"

"—and we'll go spiraling into Hell."

Ellen takes another mouthful of the 1986 Chateauneuf-du-Pape he picked out for the occasion. They hadn't tried it before; Carl was excited. When he showed the bottle to her at the shop, she checked it for alcohol content before she approved. She probably thought he didn't notice this. That was another thing: she never sipped wine. He has watched her swig down glasses of thirty-dollar Cabernet at gatherings as if they were lemonade. His Philosophy of Mind professor once remarked, "You're so lucky to have a wife who knows how to drink, Carl. There aren't many of them anymore."


Ellen sits at the table long after Carl has returned to his upstairs office. She hears the creak of his chair as he moves in it. She lines crumbs of birthday cake along the pattern of the tablecloth. The front door is open. She walks to it, pushes the metal pane of the screen, descends the concrete steps, turns right and feels the cool nighttime grass under her bare feet. Breathes the dark summer moistness. She lies down in the backyard under the apple tree. As Ellen puts the earth beneath her back, she hates the fact that her first thought is this: Don't worry, honey. They can't see me; I won't upset the neighbors.

But soon she remembers herself and thanks her life as she stares up at the heavy darkness of the sky. She is saying: Thank you for allowing me to come this far and lie in the grass under this rented tree.

Carl calls to her; she has the urge to jump up, cover herself, hide this sudden ritual. But she stays — it's time, she thinks — and he finally sees her.

"I wish you wouldn't drink. This is how silly you get." And he goes to bed, leaving the door open for her.


After a while, she sees the future — it seems to be a light beige color with pockets of rusted brown. She clambers up and out of these holes for decades in her mind.

She sees herself very old, very quickly.

By this time, she realizes she is crying and, in fact, is quite loud. A neighbor's light goes on. She doesn't like what is about to happen.


When the ambulance arrives, Ellen's husband sleeps through the noise. She has to wake him.

"I have to go," she tells the dark curve in the pillow by his left ear.

"Okay." He rolls over, wakes. "What?"

Carl sits up, blinking. Behind his wife, in the doorway, is a young paramedic.

"They said I can go anytime. I'm going now."

She says that, then turns and leaves and he breaks — actually, it is a crack in the floorboard as she steps on it, but it feels to him like a cord between them snapping.

When she is at the end of the hall, he lies back down. They'll all know: His crazy wife, they'll say. The young professor with the wife who went nuts...and so young...

Soon the lights stop flashing outside. The street is silent again.

He lies there, moving back into sleep, thinking of lesson plans for the Logic class he will teach tomorrow at nine-thirty. He pictures writing the symbols for a logical fallacy on the blackboard. Correcting them. Sees his students' muted faces. He pictures his wife lying in the backyard, on the grass under the apple tree. He pictures her not lying there. They feel the same.