“So, how was your day?” she asked.
“Fine,” he answered, just as he had done twice since coming home from the grocers. He had already put away the meat and the milk, but the dry goods along with her shampoo were still on the kitchen counter. He had lost track of time driving between the Supermarket and the closest Walmart by getting trapped by the heavy beach traffic coming off the barrier island, which was compounded by Florida tourists and New Year’s Eve travelers. He should have known better. He was late in getting dinner ready.
Manning the stove and hot skillet, he continued, “Now, Brenda,” he said, checking over his shoulder to ensure he had her attention, “there’s a cake in the garage fridge, remember it’s for tomorrow.”
“Right, right…” she repeated, perhaps asking, sitting uneasily at the kitchen table. She was already in her robe and pajamas. So many patterns stitched in mismatched directions, yet the pink of her nightgown picked up the pink threads of her cotton robe pulling it together into a crazed ensemble. She clashed sitting against the floral of the kitchen wallpaper. “And, tomorrow…”
“…tomorrow is New Year’s Day” he answered for her.
“Your brother is back down for the winter and coming for dinner, tomorrow.”
“Yes. So is his wife, Ann…”
“…Angie. His wife Angie.”
“…and their son…”
“Peter,” she added, “because he is home from college. And he studies, um?”
“Right, right, at that expensive law school.” She repeatedly tapped her forehead trying to stuff the facts into the invisible crack in her brain.
“I taped a note on the cake. In case you forget. Don’t eat it.” With the finesse of a short order cook, he flipped the burgers browning in the skillet before bending to open the oven and turning the fries baking inside.
“Yes, yes,” she continued, “I’ll remember. So, James, what did you decide to make for tomorrow? Your chicken cacciatore?”
“Nah,” James smiled, “It’s going to be a beautiful day. It’s a new year, baby. I’m grilling. Ribs.”
“Oh, good! With your honey rum sauce?”
He nodded, again, and this time with a hungry grin.
“Oh. You’re going to do the beans, too, aren’t you?”
“Yep. Soaking them now.”
Perhaps it was the angle of the light or the way she cocked her head, but there it was, that gleam, that lovely salacious gleam of hers. The one she casts with a side glance. He falls for her every time.
That gleam, he decided a long time ago, was rooted in her eternal optimism for all things good. Brenda sought to surround herself with all the things she found good. So, when that gleam shinned from her eyes, lifting her lips back to a smile, he was reminded that he was also good. Yet, with the twist of a loose curl, or a passing cloud, or her search for the correct word, the gleam would dim back to sick Brenda rubbing her nose with her back of her sleeve. He watched her finish the glass of water he had poured for her.
“So, how was your day?” she asked.
He fished three hamburger buns from the package and placed them on two paper plates. From a smaller cabinet, he opened one bottle of pills and made his way from right to left, adding different colored tablets to the plate with a single bun. With pure chagrin, he placed a single pink pill on the plate that would be his. He was older, too, though he did not feel it. Then again, he shared his father’s shape; always tall, always a full beard, and always fighting a gut with a fear of gout. His pill was for hypertension. The only ailment he agreed to treat after his last physical.
“Brenda? Could you get the mustard and ketchup, and wipe the table with a couple of those napkins?”
It was not a question. It was an order. She never lost the ability to follow directions.
“And don’t eat the cake in the fridge. It’s for New Year’s Day tomorrow.” He repeated as he plated the burgers and fries. Turning off the stove and oven, he grabbed himself a can of diet soda before sitting down. Brenda sat as well and began dressing her burger, salting her fries. She still wore her hair in a knot on the top of her head. She turned gray way before most women her age. The only time she was early with something, she used to say. He married her already knowing what she would look like old. Beautiful, sweet Brenda who remembered to bring the mayonnaise to the table because he liked mayo on his fries.
“Happy New Year’s,” he popped open his soda and shared a small amount in her glass.
“Happy New Year,” she repeated and sipped. “Did you decide to go to the New Year’s Eve party, after all?”
“Yeah. Remember? I told you this morning.”
“Yes. I saw Connie’s invitation on the fridge. Why does she send invitations anyway? She has a party every year. It’s not like we don’t know. It’s just the neighbors. What’s the theme this year?”
“She’s going with a rock-and-roll anniversary. To celebrate ten years of starting the new year with a party and hangover” He answered mopping the burger juice from his chin. “Ten years of Connie’s neighborhood parties. Crazy. What time should we go?”
“Oh no. I’m already in my scuffs.” She rubbed her slippers together under the table.
“Beloved, it’s right outside the door, at end of the block, just an hour…”
“No, James, you go!” she pointed towards the garage. “You’ve been working too long this month, taking double shifts, and you missed last year’s party, all because of me.”
The stroke left her memory selective. She could recall last New Year’s Eve sitting in her hospital room watching the ball drop and missing a neighborhood party, and yet she could not recall lunch.
“I want you to go, Love,” she said.
He understood that was her order, not a request or suggestion.
“I want you to go,” she repeated. “It’s time for you to get out, be human, join the neighbors, talk about things. Go and talk. Enjoy yourself. You hear me?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
She squirted too much ketchup on her fries.
“Connie cornered me at the store,” he said. “She was out getting gifts. She’s doing a gift exchange. One of those White Elephants?”
“White Elephant? Like in the room.”
“Damn Connie and her party games. Got to love her. She said she got me something I’d really like. Something I’d want enough not to trade. Stupid game. But I agreed. So, I got a box of chocolates from Aldi to toss into the exchange. I’m sure it’s fine. That was her earlier during your nap. She called to borrow the big white cooler.”
“Yes, the cooler.”
“I helped her with the folding tables before I left for the store. It’s cool enough to light a fire pit in the driveway later, and maybe some fireworks. Imagine, back when we used to curse the cold and the snow on New Year’s Eve before we retired from up North. Remember? It’ll be chilly tonight, so I lent Connie some wood. I guess she invited a whole bunch of new neighbors. Including a nice couple down on Rosewood Lane, Sam and Sue’s friends, the Johnsons. They seem nice. Frank is coming, too. Can’t wait to hear about his new boat.”
Brenda smiled and ate.
He smiled and continued to eat his burger, too.
“So, how was your day?”
A writer of short stories and essays, Julieanna Blackwell‘s work has appeared in several publications including Lunch Ticket, Burningword Literary Journal, Scribble, and Slippery Elm Literary Journal. Her column of humorous personal essays was published by the Naples Daily News. She is also an editor for 805 Literary and Arts Journal. You are always welcome to visit her at www.julieannablackwell.com.