CORN - A TREAT
CORN - A TREAT
Before leaving the house, Gertrude checked in on her husband, Carl. He was lying on his back on their bed in a sleeveless T-shirt, pale blue boxers, and black socks. His eyes were closed, and the blinds were shut against the late afternoon light. A fan in the corner moved back and forth blowing the hot Indian Summer air. The radio on the bedside table was turned low to a baseball game; she didn’t know if he was listening to it or not. She looked past him to the back of the closet door where the outfits they’d picked out for their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary dinner hung. That had been two weeks ago, but Carl hadn’t felt up to going.
Gertrude closed the bedroom door and went into the kitchen. She filled her biggest pot with water, covered it with a lid, and set it on one of the burners on the stove. Then she collected her purse and left through the back door. She drove down the hill, out Farmington Avenue a couple of miles, and stopped at a roadside produce stand that was surrounded by fields. No one was there except for a big man behind the counter. He nodded to her as she came up and said, “’Lo, Mrs. Allen.”
“How’s your husband?”
“Oh, about the same.”
Pete nodded some more and adjusted the cap on his head. “Hear from Tom?”
“He called this morning.” As boys, the two of them had grown up together, played on the same sports teams through high school. She said, “He might come out soon.”
“Tell him ring me up, if he does. We’ll have a beer.”
She looked out across the fields. Even in the shade of the produce stand’s canopy, it was hot, humid, still.
“So,” she said. “Any salt-and-pepper corn this late in the season?”
“Just picked.” He gestured to a basket at the end of the counter. “How many ears?”
She set her purse on the counter between them and opened it.
Pete asked, “You want to choose?”
“No, you can.”
He stepped over, sifted through the basket, brought back two of the biggest ears, slipped them in a thin plastic sack, and twisted the top. A flock of birds flew off over the fields, wrens or sparrows.
She asked, “How much?”
“Buck and a half."
Gertrude took a dollar bill out of the flap in her wallet, set it on the counter, then opened her coin pouch. She felt the big man’s hand on hers. Their eyes met.
“Forget it,” he said. “That’s plenty.”
She smiled, and he returned it.
At home, she turned the burner under the pot to high right away. While the water heated, she husked the corn and sliced a tomato into four wedges, licking the juice from her fingers. She set the little kitchen table with two plates, silverware, napkins. The water in the pot had begun to bubble, so she dropped the corn in, and set the timer for eight minutes. While the corn boiled, she put a few slices of deli ham and Swiss cheese on each plate along with a couple of the tomato wedges and a few blueberries. She filled two glasses with ice and water from the sink and set one next to each plate. Then she went down the hall to their bedroom.
Carl was lying in the same position as she’d left him, his hands folded on his chest, breathing out of his mouth. She shook his shoulder gently. He opened his eyes and blinked up at her.
She said, “Supper.”
He continued to blink at her, frowning. She slid his walker over from the near wall and helped him sit up on the edge of the bed. She turned off the radio and gave him his rimless glasses that were next to it; he fit the glasses around his ears and onto his nose. He smoothed the small tufts of white hair left above his ears, then gripped each side of the walker and nodded to her. She crooked him under one of his armpits, slippery with sweat, and they managed to get him standing.
The stove timer began beeping, and Gertrude went ahead of Carl through the door and down the short hall to the kitchen. She turned off the timer and burner and used tongs to set a steaming ear of corn on each plate while he shuffled after her to his place at the table. She waited until he was seated to take the butter dish out of the refrigerator, place it between them next to the salt shaker and pepper mill, and settle in her own chair across from him.
Carl lifted his eyes from his plate to her. “My,” he said. “Salt-and-pepper corn. A treat.”
“Yes. Pete asked about you.”
Carl nodded and reached a hand across the table; she took it in her own. They lowered their heads and mumbled grace together. Then, like always, he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it before releasing it. They both unfolded napkins on their laps and took turns twirling their corn in the cake of cold butter, leaving a pebbled trench in it. Carl seasoned his corn and tomato wedges; Gertrude left hers alone. Carl cut the tomato, ham, and cheese into small slices; Gertrude lifted them off the plate to eat them. When Carl took his first bite of corn, he closed his eyes, and said, “Yum.”
They ate slowly. A dog barked nearby. The tinny music of an ice cream truck came from a few streets away, then died off.
After a while, Gertrude said, “Tom called this morning.”
“I brought the phone to you, but you were sleeping.”
“What did he have to say?”
“He might come for a visit soon.”
Carl’s eyes widened. “That so?”
“Yes, if he can get time off from work and the plane tickets aren’t too expensive.”
“That would be nice.”
Gertrude nodded. “It would.”
They went back to eating until the only thing left were Carl’s blueberries. Gertrude watched him stab at them with his fork, chasing them around the plate. She shook her head, then reached over and closed her hand around his that held the fork. With her other hand, she picked up a blueberry and lifted it to his lips. He opened his mouth and took it onto his tongue.
“There,” she said. “That’s so much easier, isn’t it?”
“I guess so.”
“You don’t have to worry about manners. Who’s watching?”
Carl chuckled softly, and lifted a blueberry to his mouth with his own fingers. When he’d finished them all, she said, “So, it’s cooling down a little. Do you want to sit on the front porch and play gin rummy?”
He shook his head. “I think I’m just going to lie back down.”
"Watch some television?"
“All right.” She forced herself to smile.
Carl scooted his chair back and pulled the walker in front of him. He placed one hand on it and the other palm flat on the table. Pushing with that one and trembling a bit, he got himself up. Leaning there on the walker, his thin shoulders slumped forward, he said, “That was good. Very good. Thank you.”
Gertrude watched him make his slow way back down the hall and turn into their bedroom. She heard the mattress groan as he settled himself onto it, heard his glasses clatter onto the bedside table, heard the radio turn back on. She looked at the birdfeeder hanging outside the kitchen window; the crusts she’d left there that morning were gone. The crab apple tree beyond it was full of green-red fruit. She thought about planting that tree after they’d first bought the house all those years ago. She thought of them making love under it one night after a party at a neighbor’s house. They’d come through the gate in the hedge along the alley. Tom was off for his first year of college. A hot Indian Summer night like this one. Carl just stopped her and took her in his arms. A moon, waxing or waning, filtered through the tree’s branches. Thirty years ago. She heard him clear his throat in the bedroom, followed by a short cough. The light outside had started its slow descent towards evening.
After she’d cleaned up the kitchen, she took the trash out to the can beside the garage. The mound of earth they’d always used for a garden sat unplanted and covered with weeds between the garage and their neighbor’s fence. Before pulling down the garage door, she looked over Carl’s birdhouse materials scattered across his workbench inside; they hadn’t been touched in months. She glanced at their easels and painting kits next to the workbench that hadn’t been used since the previous summer. The door came down with a soft thud.
Back inside, she entered their bedroom quietly. Carl was lying on his back again, his hands like before on his chest, snoring softly. She turned the radio off. In the muffled light, she watched his tufts of hair rustle as the fan’s wan breeze passed over him. A little trail of drool had escaped the side of his mouth; she took a tissue out of her pocket and wiped it off before closing the door behind her.
Gertrude went into the small bedroom next to their own that had been their son’s and that she used as a kind of den. She sat at the desk and turned on the gooseneck lamp. She opened the ledger that was on the blotter to the pages a pencil divided in the middle, licked the tip of the pencil, and ran her finger down the last list of entries. On the next open line, she wrote the date, then: “Corn – a treat”. She moved her finger across the page to the column for expenses and entered: “$1.00”. Gertrude replaced the pencil, closed the ledger, and turned off the lamp. She sat very still, her hands clasped together in her lap. Every now and then, she was aware of a car going by down the hill on Farmington Avenue. She sat there as the light fell further towards full darkness and the sounds of crickets began outside.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Ruminate. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.