Gary Guinn

Having Dessert

When Walter came through the back door, bringing the cool night air that smelled of the pasture with him, Emma walked out of the pantry at the far end of the kitchen and put a pint jar of peaches down on the counter.

"Will you open these for me?" she said.

He heard the difference in her voice. The edge gone. It was not bound up
like a coil of tight new wire, with no bends, no kinks. Not let out slow
and even, as if a life depended on every word. It was not the voice that
had said goodbye that morning. Not the same voice he had heard every day
for more than a year, since Joshua died.

They had tried for five years before she got pregnant. The first year they
were married, her mama and the other women at the church asked those probing questions about when they could expect to hear the good news. At least once a week. Then the questions came less frequently. Then they stopped. And her mama let him know from time to time, without ever saying a word, that it was his fault. Just the way she looked at him.

Then Joshua came. And eight weeks later he died after having the measles
and getting meningitis. After his death, Emma's voice sounded as if she
spoke out of a shadow, and when she spoke she looked at her hands or out the
window. Never at Walter.

She waited now, standing in front of him, looking up at him. The kitchen
was warm, and the smell of baked bread and fried round steak hung in the heavy air. His hands were still dirty from the mill.

He stepped over to the counter, wiped his hands on his pant legs, and
twisted the lid of the jar, loosening it, hearing the little gasp it made,
but not lifting it off.

Small lines spread from the corners of her eyes. Sun wrinkles from working
in the garden without a hat.

"I'm putting supper on," she said. "Be ready in a minute." She took a bowl
of mashed potatoes from the back of the stove and went into the dining room.

As he stood at the counter, he heard her voice again in his mind. And he
remembered the first year they were married, remembered picking apples in
the orchard that first fall, standing above her on the ladder, picking the
high branches, the sack slung over his shoulder. He remembered her easy
talk, her laughter, her humming, the steady drone of the bees and the thick
sweet smell from the apples rotting on the ground.

She called from the dining room, "Stay out of those peaches. They're for

He leaned against the counter and took off his boots, dropped his shirt and socks into the clothes basket by the back door, and washed his face, neck, hands, and arms in the kitchen sink. Then he went to the bedroom, put on a clean shirt and trousers and stepped into his house shoes.

Emma sat at the table in the chair nearest the kitchen door, resting her
chin on her hands, waiting for him. Two candles, one shorter than the
other, a thick trail of melted wax down one side, burned in the center of
the table, the only light in the room. He ran his hands through his wet
hair and sat down across from her.

Her shadow spread large on the wall behind her, and the tree frogs sang
outside the open window just to his right.

She smiled. "How come you're late today?"

"Springfield had a rush order for lumber," he said. "Had to keep the mill
running till we filled it. Took us all day."

For a few minutes they ate quietly, their knives and forks scraping on the
plates, and Walter focused on the food in front of him.

When he finished, Emma took their plates into the kitchen and brought a pot of coffee and filled their cups. She put her hand on his shoulder and
leaned on him as she poured. When he breathed, he smelled the bread, the
coffee, and the faint scent of shampoo from the long braid of her hair,
which she had pulled around to the side and which swung close to his face.

When she pulled away from him, he remembered how it used to be. All the
private signals in her voice and in her hands. Remembered being so sure of
what was coming that the waiting became something he could feel in his
hands, in the shallow breathing, the drumming in his ears of the excited
blood, the butterflies in his stomach. But that had been before Joshua.

Emma took the coffee pot back to the kitchen, then sat again at the table.
Walter cut the half loaf of bread that lay on the cutting board and gave her
a slice.

"Daddy stopped by this morning," she said.

He cut a slice of bread for himself.

"Need something?" he said. He didn't want to talk about her parents, about
the feeling he had that they, especially her mother, couldn't quit blaming

"Just had the urge to see his little girl, I think," she said. "I was
working in the garden, pulling up the corn stalks and stacking them for you
to burn." She looked out the window. "Those stalks stand out there after
harvest like skinny old women, turning brown, drying out, stooping,
shuffling in the wind." She smiled. "Always made me think of somebody I
know, like Mrs. Ivey."

She sipped her coffee. "This year they made me think of myself." She looked
over at him. "Funny isn't it?" she said.

Her eyes were gray beneath the dark eyebrows, and the shadow her nose made
on her cheek just touched her lower lip, which cast its own slight shadow.

"When the corn stalks are gone," she said, "the pumpkin vines cover the
garden, and the pumpkins look like fat little islands."

"I'll get to those stalks this weekend," he said.

"I talked to Daddy about Joshua," she said.

Walter looked out the window. Darkness had swallowed everything there. The
lane, the fence, the shed, the field. He should have known that he was
fooling himself, misreading her voice and her touch. The old illusion.
Joshua, as always, would rise up between them, inspire her guilt and doubt.
And every other possibility would be smothered in the wringing of hands and
the tears.

"I told him how much we wanted that baby after waiting so long" she said,
"and how helpless Joshua was and how I couldn't do anything to save him
after he got sick." She ran her finger along the edge of her cup. "Nothing
he hadn't heard before," she said, "but then I told him how it seemed like
something more than Joshua was gone."

Walter didn't want her to say it, that desire had died with Joshua, but he
sat and waited.

"Daddy surprised me," she said. "He got that serious look on his face, you
know the one, and I thought oh no I didn't want to get him started quoting
scripture at me, but he just said, 'Emma, there's lots of stones out in that
cemetery that stand over babies like Joshua. You got to quit mourning that

She picked up her cup and started to take a drink, but stopped and said, "I
couldn't believe he said it." She looked down into her cup and said, "I'm
going to need some more coffee to finish this bread. How about you?"

He wanted to tell her that for once her father was right, that she should
stop talking about Joshua, but he said "Sure."

She brought the coffee pot, and before she poured her coffee, she stopped
and looked out the window into the dark and said, "He started me thinking
about something else, something Mama told me a month ago. We were shelling
beans, and right out of the blue she got all teary eyed."

Emma filled her cup and said, "Then she said something that I've been
thinking about ever since. 'Emma,' she said, 'you know what's hurting you
most, don't you? It's never being able to touch Joshua again. That's what
is hurting you. You've always had to touch a thing to believe it was
there.' Then she said 'But Emma, you can't just up and quit touching now.'"

She leaned over Walter and poured his coffee. He made himself breathe
slowly. He could smell her hair, the coffee, the bread. She set the pot on
the table, and sat down.

"After Daddy left," she said, "I kneaded the bread dough, and while it rose
I sat out on the front porch cutting up the Jonathans for a pie, thinking
about what Mama said." She took a drink of coffee, looked at him over the
cup. "And I kept thinking about those corn stalks," she said, "drying out,
rattling in the wind."

She took a bite of the bread and as she chewed she took a deep breath, and
her breasts rose and fell with it, and a smile lifted the corners of her
mouth. She wiped her lips with the napkin and stood up. Walter stood,
stepped around to the side of the table, cupped his hand around behind the
candles and blew them out, then held out his hand to her.

She took it as she came up to him, and he pulled her to him and kissed her
and she turned and led the way to the bedroom. As they walked through the
dark living room, she pulled the clasp from the braid of her hair and let it
fall loose around her shoulders. Their footfalls were quiet, but the floor
boards creaked just in front of the bedroom door, first as Emma crossed them
and then again with Walter.

At the side of the bed she pulled his face down to hers and kissed him. She
unbuttoned the cuffs of her blouse and started working her way down the
buttons on the front. In the dim light bleeding in from the moon, he saw
the white of her slip when she dropped her blouse, and she reached behind
her and unhooked her skirt, letting it fall to the floor.

The cry of a cicada rose and fell one time, and a bobwhite whistled from the
fence row by the road.

She began loosening his shirt, and he pulled her to him and lifted her over
onto the bed.
The tree frogs sang late into the night. The jar of peaches sat on the
counter, the lid loosened, unopened, until past midnight, when Emma woke to
the hoot of an owl in the gully behind the house and remembered and slid
over Walter and padded into the kitchen. The floor board at the door
creaked when she returned, and his voice came from the darkness.

"What are you doing up?"

She lay down beside him and took his hand and pulled his arm around her, and
she said, "Having dessert."



Ann Malone 2.jpg (121837 bytes)

(photo by Ann Malone)