FICTION: Kitchen Love
The red digits on the clock show 1:00. I slide my feet into the depression next to me on the mattress and it’s still warm. I keep the blinds and drapes drawn tightly and so I’m never sure exactly what part of the day it is. The pillow beside mine retains the indent from his head. I listen for the toilet or the tap in the en suite. No light under the bathroom door.
It’s time to get up for awhile. With my mauve chenille dressing gown belted and feet secure in the non-slip slippers, I make my way down the hall, listening, watching. There’s light filtering around the kitchen door.
Ahh the tap, the coffee bean grinder. It might be good coffee today. I won’t disturb him. Walter does better without interruption.
The Miss Anderson, that Matron hired to stimulate her clients and help us remember, said, “Everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame.” She’s naive enough to believe that we all have a story to tell.
One day soon she’ll call on me and say in that sweet voice, “Betty, it’s your turn to share your life with the group.” What story can I tell that bears any importance and resemblance to those poor people who lost everything in that hurricane Ike? Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I’ve lived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada all my 68 years. I’ve experienced some wicked “dry cold” snow storms. I could write about the time I drove back into the city after I completed the home care visit with Jack and Nancy. The policy was that if the highway department advised that the roads were dangerous, then we should stay in the city. But even though that was the case, Jack was desperate. Nancy’s pain had passed the limits of the medication they had. I picked up a new prescription and drove the 60 kilometres to their farm.
Jack held Nancy’s hand until the new drug took effect and then he served warm Saskatoon berry scones and tea. It was lovely sitting by the fireplace while the wind whipped the snow across the fields. Nancy settled and I left.
On the way home, it hadn’t been any worse than any other white-knuckle winter driving on Highway 16. Thank goodness other drivers were smarter than I was and stayed home. Then I hit a patch of ice and swerved. I steered into the skid, the car drove through the ditch and into a grain field. After the car stopped, I assessed the situation. This happened before homecare nurses had cell phones. We had to think for ourselves. I drove forward. The snow clung to the undercarriage of the 1967 brown Ford Galaxy. Home Care staff vehicles were only rear wheel drive at that time. I had one option. I found a place large enough to back into and completed a three point turn and followed my tracks back out of the grain field and through the ditch. It was plain luck when I hit the highway and the tires drove over the ice. I kissed that St. Christopher medallion. I don’t tell that story very often because it was kind of silly to go out the same way I went in, especially since I slid in the first place, but I’m here to prove no real harm done.
There isn’t any sunlight creeping through the living room drapes so I suspect that it is early morning. That Miss Anderson said, “Read the paper for ideas.” There was a picture and caption of a soldier’s common-law wife holding their little boy’s hand. Now she’s a widow because her man and their son’s father joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Apparently he went to Afghanistan and was accidently shot by another security officer just two weeks before he was supposed to come home. I’m glad the stigma is gone for their son. When I was young, mother wouldn’t have allowed me to play with a child who came from an unmarried woman. He’d have been called different things and certainly that common-law widow and her son wouldn’t have had their picture in the paper. They’d have been pushed into the background.
Walter wasn’t in a situation where he would be shot. He worked for the fire department for 30 years. He’s a pretty good cook after all those years of taking his turn and cooking for the crew. His chicken primavera is to die for.
I hear the fridge door open and close. I imagine he’s trying to decide what to cook. This tiny kitchen doesn’t allow us to keep much on hand.
Our apartment is pretty quiet these days but all those years when he was on duty, I listened to the local CBC news on the half hour for a clue to his day. If there was a fire or an accident reported, I watched the TV willing him to be careful and come home. After his shift he would come home exhausted and he’d talk about bodies melted into chairs and little ones dead in a crib. He stopped telling me about the children when I was pregnant with the first of our two, a boy, Owen, and then 18 months later a girl, Lilly. The only time he left me was when I disconnected the smoke detector because it kept going off when the toaster invariably burnt the bread. I cried myself to sleep that night. I don’t know how he did it, but he came back at 2 a.m. with a new toaster. This was long before anything other than a service station stayed open after 6 p.m.
The next week he hired an electrician who wired in all the smoke alarms.
That was fortunate because when Lilly, our little experimenter, mixed something together from her toy chemistry set in the basement, the smoke set off the alarm and we were alerted before she was hurt or the house burned down. She’s still a bright bulb in the research team. She’s studying old folks. I told her to put her talents to work for the young. But she doesn’t take my advice. I think she’s writing a book about her father and me. She sure asks a lot of questions every time she telephones or drops by.
Owen, he’s another pickle in the barrel. Walter stopped talking about the teenage crash sites about the time Owen began to drive. After Owen’s first speeding ticket, Walter and he spent a long time in the garage. I wasn’t told what went on between them, but as far as I know, Owen didn’t speed again. Sometimes when he’s driving us to our doctor’s appointments or to get a few groceries, I want to tell him to give it a little more gas but I bite my tongue.
Just before Walter retired he stopped talking about the seniors who forgot pots on stoves.
We had a few years of driving our fifth wheel around Canada and the States, golfing and making all kinds of new friends, before we moved here. We checked out many senior care homes. He wasn’t comfortable until we found this cement bungalow style apartment with two exits, one into the common hallway and one out the patio doors to the centre courtyard. There are some things my fireman hasn’t forgotten. I hear the metal whisk bang against the glass bowl. I wonder if it will be an omelet or scrambled eggs. If he makes bacon, I hope he uses the microwave like I taught him. Our Lilly reminded me that some new information won’t stick like his old habits do in his memory. But I have to keep trying.
I should tell Walter’s story. He had plenty of adventures. But he’s a humble man. He wouldn’t let me display the medals he received for his acts of bravery.
He’s humming a familiar tune. The best thing I can do for him, the doctors say, is be patient. This creative writing is supposed to give me something to think about while I wait for him to call me into the kitchen. The song, it’s Happy Birthday.
I could make up a story about an affair, falling in love - lust with the postman - too cliche. My denturist? - nah, his fingers in everyone’s mouth. My doctor - no he’s seen everything and hasn’t even feigned interest.
Now Dr. Barker, my podiatrist, he could be interesting. He has a wonderful British accent. He lives outside the city. We could rendezvous at his place. I’d have to drive in the dark because he still works. Okay, I can pretend my cataracts don’t create halos of light. This will be fiction. I can delete my varicose veins. No, after 40 years, Walter knows my buttons to push, a little pressure here and a little nudge and smile and I’m ready to snuggle in with him. I’d have to read all about attracting men again - besides Dr. Barker has a lovely wife. She works in the office with him. They also have two great daughters whom I hear him talk about throughout my whole appointment while he’s scraping at my calluses.
This is hopeless. What have I done God that you haven’t given me more sensational life experiences to write about?
Think, think Betty. There must be something. Miss Anderson said, “Dig deep.” Well, there was the time when I was in grade 3. Sister Agnes let me go to the bathroom all by myself and Mr. Harvey, the janitor, stopped me and told me that he heard a kitten in the furnace room. He asked me to help him find it in the basement. When we got there, he held me on his lap and told me to call the kitten because it was probably scared. I couldn’t hear a kitten over all the strange noises coming from his throat while he jiggled his knee up and down. I told him I had to go before Sister Agnes came looking for me. He let me go. I never told anyone. It didn’t seem too important at the time, but of course later I understood what had happened. This story writing doesn’t sit too well, if I have to think about that kind of thing. I really don’t understand how they can invent robotic arms that work in space, but they can’t keep children safe. Besides, I seem to remember Miss Anderson say stories about child molestation and incest were passé.
Oh, there goes the smoke detector. It’s become our dinner bell. Our meal is ready. He’ll be tired after this and we’ll go back to bed. Living in a retirement home is great. No one calls to wake us up as long as I slide the signal under the door in the hall. That way they know we are alive.
I know what I’ll find when I open the door. The aroma of breakfast has always been my favourite but the tidying up is something I could live without.
“Hi Walter. You’ve been busy.” He’s smiling. Every pot, pan and bowl is out of the cupboard.
“Have a seat,” I tell him. “I’ll pop the bread into the toaster to go with our bacon and scrambled eggs.” Toast is my breakfast specialty.
He focuses on me. “Have you had a busy day, Betty?” He remembers my name today.
“Walter, I’ve been working on my storytelling for my next writing class.” I find that if I look at him when I speak, he remains connected to me.
“Do you remember when I asked you to marry me?” He reaches for my hand and he kisses my wedding band, just like he has done so often throughout our 49 years together.
“I do. It was the happiest day of my life.” The toast popped. When I turned to grab the bread, he let my hand drop.
“Do you like catsup?” His voice is hesitant.
“Yes, I do and here it is.” I whisk it from the refrigerator with flourish.
“Do I like catsup?”
“Only on your eggs, never on meat.”
“I’m hungry. Let’s eat.” His napkin is tucked into the collar of his pajamas. “And then we’ll have a little lie-in before we start the day again, okay.” I touch his shoulder before I sit beside him.
He has that twinkle in his eye, “Don’t mind if we do.”
I wonder if the class would be interested in a real love story. I wouldn’t be telling them anything they haven’t seen or heard about a hundred times. But perhaps Walter would like to hear.
That’s what I’ll do, I’ll tell our story to an audience of two. After we get up, I’ll write a few paragraphs while the pans soak. I remember somewhere that Alice Munro wrote while she cooked supper. If it’s good enough for Alice, it’s good enough for Betty. I’ll tell the funny parts when I’m called on to share.
His eyes are focused on the Heinz bottle. “What do you need, Walter?”
“Catsup, do I like catsup?”
“Yes, you do. Here it is, love.” He struggles with the top. The last time Owen bought the groceries he forgot to get the old fashioned glass bottle with the metal top. This new flip top slips through the cracks of Walter’s memory. “Let me help you with that.”
“After we’re done eating, let’s go to bed for a nap. I’m tired.” He yawns and his eyelids droop.
“Yes, and I’ll tell you my story that I’m going to write. It’s about Walter and Betty.”
“I like stories. Does it have a happy ending?”
The toast crumbs are sprinkled in his whiskers.
“It has many happy parts. I don’t know the ending just yet.”
He places his utensils across his plate like he has done every day since his mother taught him seventy years ago. He’ll wait until I’ve finished eating before he’ll leave the table. He waits for me to lead him down the hall and tuck him in before I slip onto my side of our bed. He’ll be asleep in a few minutes but I’ll tell him our story anyway. Perhaps he’ll dream about our past. Maybe that Miss Anderson has something there, except it won’t be just fifteen minutes of fame; it’ll be many fifteen minute segments of love.