by Harley April
As soon as I walked into the house, I sensed it: the absence, and the inexplicable presence of someone or something. It was just past eight o’clock on a Monday morning; I was returning from the gym. Sunlight, the teasing kind, October-like and golden, played on the tree tips, the way it usually did when I took my first cup of morning tea, Ceylon or green, gazing out the window. I was looking forward to the first gusty sip. But today, the doors—as I made my way from the garage up through the labyrinth of the mudroom to the main floor—were strangely ajar. The back door, letting out into the rear yard, showed the empty dog pen. No black Scotty, no Gracie in sight. And then, as I made my way up the stairs, slowly, there in the shadows of the kitchen, looking at a pile of my recently clipped recipes, stood Suzanne, quiet as a mouse I might have missed. Stock still she stood, light in shadow, shadow in light, her neat mop of white hair, stylishly un-dyed, glowing momentarily when I switched on the light.
“Oh, hello,” she said, letting a collection of papers drop from her hand to the counter. Catching her red-handed like that, I felt like I was in the middle of a scene in my very own movie. My senses immediately went on high alert, like they do when I feel like someone has been snooping around, spying on me, trying to uncover my secrets. These days I feel like I am keeping way too many secrets, though I’m not sure why.
“Hello,” I said. I could tell I wasn’t sounding too friendly.
“The men are outside, talking,” she said, stepping away from the pile of papers. “They should be in soon.”
I watched her take a brief look around the kitchen. Trying to see what else to focus on, no doubt.
The men. My husband, and Gary, her partner, the boss of our construction company. Not that we’re doing anything big or glamorous this time. It’s an electrical problem out in the yard they’d come to consult on.
“So what are you doing these days?” she said with her signature smile, so friendly and warm, I began to relax. At that early hour, I thought, for a moment of offering to make her a cup of coffee or something, but I didn’t.
What am I doing these days? This is a question that always perplexes me, throws me off, when someone tosses it at me, like a slap intended to bring someone back to real life.
“What are you making? Baking?” she said, as if reading my mind. Or was it some look on my face, giving me away? “I know you’re always into something.”
Suzanne has always admired my kitchen, the one she and I designed together. “We’ve done so many high-end kitchens,” she has told me often, “but yours is the only one that actually gets used.” I always took that as a kind of acknowledgment, some indication of my worth. Being a stay-at-home mom, I was always on the lookout for affirmations.
“These days I’m pretty much into chocolate,” I said, surprising myself with my candor. “And candy. Do you like toffee?”
“I love it,” she said. Her voice was so gentle and soft, I wondered how she managed it, that even rhythm all the time. “I haven’t eaten it in years,” she said, just like everyone else to whom I ask the question. And then, once I give them a sample of mine—chocolate-dipped squares of pure crunchy delight— they’re completely hooked. I was taking out the box to make up a little packet for her when the men came back into the house, trailed by Gracie.
There was Gary, a picture of health, tall and tan and trimmer than my husband ever would be, but the hand was unmistakably trembling again, maybe even more so, as he attempted several times to put it in his pocket during our conversation about the electrical wiring for the pipe out front.
“So,” he said, coming up to the counter where Suzanne and I were transacting our little business. “There are a number of ways we can approach this. We can either go through the garage or come up underneath the front steps…”
That’s when I remembered: The last time I had seen him, his hand, the way it had trembled, just enough to cause me to mention it to my husband over dinner that night. Back then, he had waved me off. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Maybe he was just nervous,” he had said. The same thing he had said before his father’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s, so many years ago I had almost forgotten the conversation.
Gary, like Suzanne, speaks with a slow, thoughtful cadence, something I could always hear in my mind even after he had left our house. But this time, my husband had noticed it too, his voice a tiny bit slower, and the trembling hand that he tried over and over again to slip into the pocket of his jeans.
After they left, we looked at each other without saying a word, because now both of us knew.
And I was glad I hadn’t given Suzanne a hard time about surprising me in the shadows of my kitchen, or peeking through my papers. Glad I had pulled my toffee box out and given her a few pieces for the road ahead.
Category: Short Story