Her First Day
(flash fiction piece)
The sound of the oats in water surprised her. Every evening before going to bed, she carefully laid two cups of steel cut into just enough water to cover them. In the pot she would light in the morning to cook, the oats soaked covered with the lid. She couldn’t recall ever really hearing them before.
Stirring them moved her, somewhere deep inside. She felt suddenly alive, charged with a sense of love. From the oats on the stove, she moved to the refrigerator and found the cream, full clot like she had always eaten on the farm (only this was pasteurized, but you can’t get it in the store like mom would make it) and orange juice. Poised to empty a canister of concentrate into their plastic pitcher, she glanced over at some navel oranges, a gift for Christmas from a coworker at the salon, and chose to make fresh squeezed instead. Two days after the biggest holiday of the year, and this was a day special for no one, not for her people anyway (it might be the start of Kwanzaa, she had heard on the news, but she wasn’t sure). Somehow, though, she knew it was a fresh-squeezed kind of morning. The delicate twist of her wrist, asking the blessings of the juice on her breakfast of ordinary oats and cream. Enough for two. Enough blessings and food for two.
The phone lay silent. The dog, satiated from her wet food and a small run in the backyard, unusually warm and foggy for late December, snug in her bed in the warmest corner of the kitchen. No light but for the tree, always lit overnight, and the wreaths they kept on the front and back door, which somehow even reached her in the kitchen, penetrating the 5am pre-dawn she woke in even at this time of the year. Farm days will do that to you. She prepared the breakfast in relative silence and lightlessness.
The scrape of the spoon culling the last of the cream out of the container. The hush of oats shuffling into two bowls, both rimmed in geese leaning into each other with ribbons daintly draping over their long necks. Two sunny glasses with small wedges of watermelon along the side jumped out at her from the shelf. She picked them, knowing he could chide her for her choice. He always mocked those glasses. “If them’s was real watermelons, they’d be made only for the mouths of mice,” he would laugh, then puff his pipe with a self-satisfied smile.
She half dreamt of him still sleeping upstairs, and laughed to herself, a woman married to a man now for over thirty years. The same loud voice, the same scent of smoke trailing after him as he barked orders to her from across their two-acre yard. He wasn’t perfect, no. But she had never once considered leaving him. Somehow this moment, the juice carefully metered and the oats steaming from the twin bowls, seemed to verify her choice, even vilify it. Yes. She had done right, by herself, by her family. By staying with him.
It’s her daughter who had brought their marriage to question. Her daughter, who had lived with them for the last six months, after her husband left her in the cold, no alimony, for another woman, with a six year old son. Who’s she to give marriage advice, she snarked in her head for a second before recalling her daughter didn’t know any better.
“You know dad is gruff, Mom. We’re mostly out of the house now. You could leave him. He could handle it and you could, well, you’d be fine. You know that.”
“Brenda, he ain’t never beat me. Ain’t never done me wrong, cheated on me or raised a hand to me.”
“Sure, Ma, but he’s loud like and often makes fun’a you. That ain’t right. It’s ok to leave you know, if it ain’t goin’ right.”
But she still loved him. His broad back a strong roof over her head, the smell of his sweat after a weekend of camping with friends better than any elixer. And as she set up the tray, one side each containing separate napkins and spoons for the oats, which now slid slightly as she picked up the tray, she felt compassion for her confused daughter, now so alone in her big suburban home, without the kind of history she and her husband had.
Up each of the steps in the dark. She knew he hated breakfast in bed (“Too many chances to stain them good cotton sheets!”) but hoped he would see it as a treat, just this once. The children cleared out, their daughter staying with a friend and son back with his family just on the other side of town. Just the two of them, and their old sweet dog, a small black poodle without any fancy frill haircut, who sidled up the stairs with her in the dark, slowly giving over to light. She didn’t even need to count the steps, knowing them so well from so many ascents in the dark. Not even the scent of the full cream threw her off. Not even the coffee she thought of just a moment too late – she’d get it when she finished his plate for him, always a step behind her, as she savored every last morsel.
Slowly, she opened their bedroom door. He had finally fixed the creak last week, before the kids came home for the holiday. She slid the tray without a sound onto the dresser and turned on her bedside light. A soft glow illuminated his head, and his white hair turned sunrise alive. He lay, face up, blankets carefully tucked under his thick arms, old navy tattoo still barely discernable on his right bicep. She took his food and placed it, cup by bowl by napkin, on his bedside table, and placed her own on the right side of the bed, where she had slept no matter where they had laid their heads for over 30 years now.
As she raised her glass, the tears in her ears caught in the sunlight of the rising sun. She closed her eyes, setting the tears off, and they cascaded into her orange juice, which she soon swallowed whole. She then set her spoon into her oats and cream, slowly mixing them, listening to the sound as if it were the last she would ever hear, or the first, as his freshly cooling body, cardiac arrested, did not protest her.