(This is fiction for grownups by Kim Norris.)
Chapters 1-3; Chapters 4-6
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Chapters 1-3; Chapters 4-6
************* (7) *************
Jerry pushed his plate away, the fried fish and chips only half consumed. He wanted to save room for a slice of the triple layer coconut cake he spied under the dome of the crystal cake plate. Mother had served the usual, not unexpected, but disappointing. Determined to keep his promise to his lover, Jerry braced himself for the lecture he knew was coming. His mother, Doris, didn’t miss a beat.
“Something wrong with the fish, dear?”
“It was delicious, Mother. I’m just trying to watch what I eat. How about a thin slice of that beautiful cake?”
“You need to finish your dinner first.”
“I’m not ten.”
“I can’t afford for you to waste food!”
“I brought you the fish. It didn’t cost you a dime. So how about that cake?
“Why are you watching what you eat?
“The waistband is getting snug.” Jerry pointed to his belt. “I read an article that suggested portion control was an effective dieting strategy. So half the fish, a smidgeon of cake...”
“You don’t need to lose any weight. You’re just healthy.”
“Well if you must know, I have a date, and I’m trying to get in shape.”
“When’s the date?”
“You can’t lose weight by then.”
“Good point, Mother. So how about a little slice of cake. Just a thin piece.” He held his thumb and forefinger a scant ¼” apart to illustrate.
His mother looked at him with deep suspicion but stood and cleared the dinner plates before them, hers clean, his littered with a half eaten fish filet and most of the sweet potato fries she had made as a side dish. “Who are you seeing? Have you gotten back together with Sharon?”
“Gloria Kneadler. My neighbor.”
“The young widow? Do you think she’s ready to start dating again so soon?”
“No, not her. Gloria lives directly next door. She’s the other widow, the one with the big house.”
His mother seemed to consider it for a moment. “That won’t work. She’s too old for you.”
“Ten years maybe. It’s not that great an age difference.”
“She can’t have babies, though. Why would you waste your time and money on a woman who can’t give you babies? No. Cancel the date. I forbid it!”
Jerry laughed before he could stop himself.
“What’s so funny?” Doris’s face reddened alarmingly, except for her pinched scowl, which pushed the blood away from the area around her lips. Jerry knew the look well. She was angry and about to get irrational.
“Didn’t mean to laugh, Mother. I really would love some of that cake.” He watched as she sliced with vehemence and then cut out a piece of cake several magnitudes thicker than what he had requested. As she slammed the plate in front of him, he decided not to mention it.
“I’ve only ever wanted one thing from you, Jerold.”
“My happiness? My success?” He put a large forkful of cake into his mouth.
“Don’t be smart with me. Grandchildren. Why can’t you settle down and start a family? You’re nearly too old as it is, and God knows I’m not getting any younger.”
“Listen, Sharon left me!” Jerry knew he sounded defensive. Why did he let the bitch push his buttons every time?
“You didn’t spend enough money on her. Or time. It’s like you don’t even want children.”
Jerry concentrated on eating cake, large forkfuls, painfully aware of the tightening waistband on his pants. Doris joined him at the table with a much smaller slice of cake and the coffee pot. Setting her own plate down, she poured for both of them into the cup and saucer settings. She put two lumps of sugar in her own and one in her son’s cup. After stirring both with the same spoon, she sat back down and picked up her dessert fork.
Blood had returned to the wrinkled and slightly mustached area around her lips, allowing Jerry to relax some. He scraped his fork along the china to capture the dregs of coconut frosting, briefly contemplated the last “bite” and then added it to the frosting mound before pushing it all into his mouth.
“I’m 74, Jerold.”
“You don’t look a day over 60.” He regretted the comment instantly.
“Stop being flippant!” The blood left his mother’s lips again. “I spoke with Bitsy earlier today. Her daughter is expecting again. Third grandchild! Last week at the cribbage game, Eleanor announced her son and his new wife are already pregnant. Though I suspect that was also true at the wedding.” Doris sniffed disapprovingly and took a sip of coffee. “That’s when they all turn and look at me as if to say, “well, Doris, where are your grandchildren?”
“Surely they don’t actually say that to your face?”
“Bitsy would if she didn’t think Eleanor would disapprove.”
“I’m really sorry, Mother,” and Jerry tried to sound it.
“Was I that horrible a mother?”
“Of course not!” Jerry did his best to refrain from rolling his eyes. Mother was in insecurity mode tonight; it was his least favorite of all her moods – the need for constant validation – well it simply exhausted him to try and fill that void for her. To his horror, he noticed her eyes well with tears. If he didn’t escape soon, things would degrade rapidly, and he had no desire to fight with his mother. He stood and went around the table to where she sat, her chin quivering. With a suppressed groan, he kneeled before his mother and took her hand. Kissing it, he said, “you were the best mother any man could have wanted. I’m just having trouble meeting a woman who I think would be as amazing a mother as you.”
“You do…” Doris hiccupped a little and swallowed. “…want a wife…don’t you?”
Jerry tried to keep an impassive face. “More than anything. It doesn’t help for you to harp on my failure to attract a suitable mate. But I am sorry I’ve let you down.” And that statement, he meant.
************* (8) *************
Fish or chicken? Gloria usually wasn’t indecisive. Fish was seasonal, but she had never tried the recipe before. The chicken dish she had baked a thousand times with great success – foolproof – her signature dish. But was she playing it too safe with the chicken?
Under ordinary circumstances, Gloria would reach for the phone and call her daughter, but she refrained. She didn’t think Caroline would approve of this date. A younger man, one she barely knew after seven years of being neighbors. Gloria really didn’t know enough about the man to tell Caroline anything. Over the years, Gloria had guessed a thing or two, but nothing she could confirm. She knew he was a writer, but under no circumstances would she reveal how she knew that. The mutual masturbation sessions they shared as she watched him from the window -- no one would know about those. Not even Jerry. Not even if they became intimate. In any case, Gloria wasn’t interested in fielding a bunch of questions from Caroline.
She was tempted to go next door and ask him, chicken or fish? But she had seen him leave earlier, and he had not yet returned.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she muttered as she paced in front of the open freezer. Closing her eyes, she reached in and grabbed the first item she touched. She pulled it out and looked: frozen, peeled edamame. No inspiration there – the bland bean went with anything. A fresh edamame hummus might be a good hors d’oeuvres, though; her seasoned, home-baked pita chips made a perfect compliment. But it didn’t answer the big question: fish or chicken? Chicken or fish?
Never mind what to serve, what the hell would they talk about? Suddenly overwhelmed by her nerve, her cheek, she sat down heavily, forgetting to shut the freezer door. Had she really asked a man to dinner? What had she done? That man? Shit, shit, shit, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…what would Jesus do? “He would serve fish,” she mused aloud; the laugh that followed felt good and wrong at the same time.
Gloria had not dated since Bud died. Had not dated since Bud married her. Had not dated, actually, since Bud had taken her virginity. Oh my God, she thought. What the fuck am I doing?
Chicken. She walked back to the freezer. Gravity had helped the door swing shut, but it had not closed hard enough to seal, and the air around the handle was cold. Rummaging for just a moment, she pulled out a package of boneless skinless chicken breast and laid it on the counter. Next she pulled out broccoli that she had purchased yesterday, a tray of button mushrooms, and a thin package of bacon – uncured – it was supposed to be healthier – as if bacon could be healthy. She liked the taste better, though. The casserole flavors married well if the ingredients were assembled the night before and allowed to sit in the refrigerator.
As she sliced mushrooms and onions and set the sauté pan on medium heat (Gloria did not take the shortcut of using canned Cream of Mushroom soup) she considered what topics of conversation she could use during dinner. She would ask him what he did for a living. That could fill a few minutes. She would tell him about the grandsons, of course. She wondered if he had any children somewhere. She imagined a nasty divorce in his past and bitter custody battle, his broken heart and missed moments with his children.
Gloria knew Jerry had a girlfriend earlier in the year. She watched them from time to time. It didn’t seem like a particularly intimate relationship, and best she could tell, it had ended a few months ago. The woman had been too young for him, in Gloria’s opinion, and not very pretty. Then again, maybe he was the “confirmed bachelor” type, unable to commit to one woman, preferring instead to play the field. Would that bother her if it were true? What was she really looking to get out of this relationship?
This answer came more readily than the menu – sex. Gloria wanted to have sex with a man -- an actual alive, warm from blood and not batteries, man. Scratchy from razor stubble, sweaty from passion, snoring contentedly until she woke him with coffee in bed, some crispy bacon and a toaster waffle…a man…in her bed, in her life. Loneliness had turned Gloria into someone she barely recognized. Caroline would be horrified, but then, Caroline had a man in her bed.
Gloria chopped three slices of bacon, which popped the moment they hit the hot sauté pan. She stirred quickly, rendering the fat and browning the edges. She removed the crispy bits and added the mushrooms and onions, still stirring. Flour, then cream, a dash of salt, and three grinds from the pepper mill completed the sauce. She set it aside to cool.
What if he hated mushrooms? Shaking off the doubt, she sliced stalks of broccoli as thinly as possible and blanched them briefly. Dessert was another matter. Should she bake or just pick up sorbet and ladyfingers? Did he drink coffee? She didn’t, not for years, but she kept one-pot sized bags of both caf and decaf in the freezer just in case she had company that preferred coffee.
Gloria drank water mostly. It was good for her skin.
Strips of still slightly frozen chicken hit the hot sauté pan, reawakening the scent of bacon. Once the chicken had browned, she began to layer the casserole dish: mushroom cream sauce, broccoli, chicken, sharp cheddar cheese, repeat, repeat. More cheese and the bacon bits comprised the final layer. She wrapped the whole dish in aluminum foil and put in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
As she cleaned the dishes, she stared out the window into the darkness. Her streetlight lit up the bit of driveway she could see, but the rest of the neighborhood was dark, asleep. Her own reflection stared back, unnatural looking, monochrome. Tomorrow, if she could manage it…if the universe would throw her a bone, she would add some color back to her life.
************* (9) *************
Even Gail couldn’t believe the colors, the quality of the light, the sharp detail of every petal, every stamen and pistil. The tablet’s camera was superior to anything she had ever owned. Ray had been correct to buy it for her for Christmas. The color laser printer too, she thought. It had seemed extravagant at the time, but Ray had understood better than she...
She pulled the still warm page from the printer output tray, pinned it to her easel, and grabbed her old wooden palette. Squinting slightly, she studied the photo, the colors, the textures. Without really thinking about it, she began to mix colors.