Gregory Stiglitz spent that last February of his marriage picking his two nephews up from school and letting them watch his television and feeding them milk and tunafish on wheatbread and making sure they had their schoolbooks opened when their mother showed up. At that time (around five-thirty) he would be leaning against the doorframe in his undershirt or else sitting on the porchswing with the business section spread out on his lap. His wife’s sister was thin and longlegged and redhaired and she wore pantsuits all the time, and these traits intimidated him but he sometimes wished he’d married her instead.
On the last day with his nephews Gregory called them to the dinnertable and presented them with a dark braided polished-looking loaf of bread. “This is a challah, boys,” he said, sliding his hands into his slackspockets. “We eat it on special occasions.”
“Jews?” said Bryce.
“This is a special occasion,” said Gregory. “It is our last meal together.”
The boys stared at the challah. Bryce’s nose wrinkled up and when Timothy saw his older brother’s reaction, his nose wrinkled up too. They seemed not to comprehend the meaning.
“Eat it,” said Gregory.
Timothy leaned forward and poked at the challah with his fork but Gregory shook his head no, no, no, and sat in the chair at the head of the table and told them to use their hands, like this, tearing a strand off and shoving it into his mouth and leaning back in the chair and crossing his arms over his chest. The boys laughed and followed. They reached over the table and ripped at the challah and huffed and smacked their lips and Gregory himself couldn’t help but chuckle at Timothy’s little furrowed brow and the strands of challah he gripped in his little fists.
“Why do Jews eat this stuff?” Bryce said.
“I don’t know,” said Gregory.
Timothy nodded as if he understood.
Gregory went on watching them. He tore a strand off and began to eat with them, his elbows on the table, looking at them one and then the other, not thinking about anything at all. Then he glanced up at the chair on the other side of the table and he stopped chewing and he shook his head. He didn’t know how his life had changed and he didn’t know—but he stopped himself. He looked at his watch. (It was five-eighteen.) He rose and he slid his hands into his slackspockets and he said: “Time to crack the books, boys,” whereupon they fell to whining and dawdling down from their chairs and he started toward the standing boxes in the frontroom where he thought he’d left the paper.