By Samantha Rae-Garvey
She went over the list in her head again. Black beans, kidney beans, and tomatoes. Ground turkey to take the place of ground beef. Onions, chili powder, garlic powder. With all her ingredients stacked at her end of the kitchen island, she pulled the skillet from the drawer. It had seen better days, but still got the job done.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him—her sweet handyman—down at his end of the island. Nearby, the outer shell of the dryer sat in its usual spot, its guts strewn across the kitchen. Methodically, he examined every part as he took out each one. She had no doubt it would be put together correctly—probably better than before.
While the turkey browned in the pan, she waited for his usual “I could be a … ” followed by his latest escape from the grind of his normal 9 to 5—or 7 to 7 in his case. Yesterday, it was a woodworker. The day before that, a farmer. Tonight, repairman. Her answer was always “Yes, you could.” She always meant it and hoped he knew that.
Grabbing her phone, she snapped a few pictures. She smiled at him through the camera lens. My handyman, my partner, my lover. She added one more title, still so new it took getting used to. My husband.
He caught her mid-snap and smiled back at her. Those eyes, she blushed.
In a big stewpot, she mixed together the beans she’d just rinsed with the diced tomatoes. In a smaller bowl she stirred the seasonings into the tomato paste: chili powder first, then garlic powder, then a little more chili powder because you never get enough on the first shake. In that order. Some fresh chopped basil because she remembered there was some in the fridge. The aroma of the paste blend filled her nose. The turkey went in last, much easier than beef since there was no excess grease to drain.
The dog paced as usual, from the living room to kitchen then back again. The dog knew that each pace would get him another treat. She knew it, too.
She looked over at the kitchen table where the old man had been watching her handyman work—except now, he wasn’t. She knew the old man would have been directing the project if he were able. The stroke might have taken his confidence to do much talking, but it couldn’t take away his love of taking things apart and putting them back together—even though the only thing he could do now was replace flashlight batteries. Everything else was left to his son, the handyman.
She hadn’t heard the old man when he left the table because he’d not taken his cane with him. Again. And she didn’t see him when he left because, without the cane to slow him down, he could move through her blind spot quicker than the dog running after another treat. And her attention had been elsewhere.
As the chili continued to simmer, she collected the pieces to put together a pan of cornbread. She read the recipe on the back of the bag. Combine buttermilk and cornmeal in large bowl and let sit for 10 minutes. Her face scrunched. Let the cornmeal soak?
His head inside the dryer cavity, he asked her what was wrong. He always noticed when something was wrong with her.
She explained that she’d never made cornbread this way before. When he assured her that it would be good, she believed him.
The whole kitchen filled with the aroma. More than once her handyman called out to say how good it smelled. She savored the feeling—knowing she was appreciated, loved even. She hoped he really was hungry and not just saying he was. She wanted more than anything to help him. To be good for him. To make sure he considered her a good decision. Right now, that meant just making sure he ate well.
When he laughed, she looked over her shoulder. He wanted her to look at something.
She walked over to the repair end of the island where the disassembled parts and tools spilled over the edge, admiring how cute he was when he laughed. His cheeks filled out and showed off his button nose.
He held up something: A marble, made out of lint, she finally realized. It had come out of one of the spokes inside the drum. A rare dryer pearl. They took turns rolling it gently in the palm of their hands, offering theories on how it might have come to be.
The dryer pearl found a new safe place inside an old prescription bottle. She imagined how, years from now, a new generation would find it and wonder what it was; why mom and dad had kept it; what deeper meaning it must have—then another generation would question why grandma and grandpa were so weird.
His arms found their usual path around her waist, and he pulled her close. Not close enough, she thought. But it would do. Besides, the only thing better than talking about the future with him was being in his arms right now.
The dog tore across the living room. She caught sight of the ball flying past the doorway. Peeking through it and to the right she saw the old man, revving up for another fling and the dog revving up for another flight. The old man’s smile was as big as she’d ever seen.
The dog seemed to know when the old man needed to take his time, and the old man knew when the dog couldn’t wait any longer for the next throw. She felt like an intruder but watched for a few more seconds before going back to the stove.
The drum was back in the shell. Somehow, she’d missed that part, along with the replacement of the faulty belt. She went over to her handyman’s end of the island and put her hand on the small of his back. He shuddered just slightly. She spun around to face him and reached both hands around his waist to pull him close to her. Never close enough.
Her right ear pressed to his chest to listen for his heartbeat. She felt him smile as he pecked the top of her head. With her head still pressed against his chest she examined the scene. Evidence of all the hard work he was putting into his task still lay scattered everywhere. A part of her—the petty part—hoped it wouldn’t work. That all the effort he was putting into this dryer would be in vain because it was a token from his life before her—his life with someone else who left a long time ago, but was somehow still here, casting a shadow. Funny that he wasn’t nearly as haunted by this as she was—if he even was at all.
But she knew he had fixed that dryer. By this time tomorrow, she’d be drying a load of laundry. That’s just what he does, she thought, he makes things work again. She pecked at his cheek and smiled.
The old man was gone when she went into the living room to refill his drink cup, which explained why the dog had started pacing again. Then he perched on the back of the couch even though she didn’t like it when the dog sat there. He was looking into the hallway, waiting for the old man.
The other end of the island was quiet when she got back into the kitchen. He’d finished the job and gotten away. She grabbed a can of food for the dog while she was over there. The dog heard the crack of the can, so she didn’t have to call him to the kitchen when she put his bowl down. She heard his little smacks and smiled.
The cornbread was nice and golden, and filled the air with its scent. Pulling a butter knife from the drawer, she sliced into the cornbread. The fresh cut square steamed. Over the past five months, she’d learned to taste the things she cooked or baked before serving them. That was her biggest improvement as a cook, and it worked. Although no one else ever complained. She was the only real critic in the house unless her brother came over for dinner.
The steaming square seemed perfect until it got closer to her face. A panic came over her. She could smell the ten minutes the cornmeal had soaked in the milk. Milky and stale. Subdued yet blaring. Her nose scrunched.
Once she got past the smell, the cornbread didn’t taste bad. It simply didn’t taste at all. Its sadness seeped through the butter she’d smeared across the top in an effort to revive it.
She shook off the disdain toward the cornbread, turned off the burner under the stewpot, and put three bowls and three plates on her end of the island.
He came back into the kitchen, fresh out of the shower, with the dog following close behind. He peered into the stewpot and told her how great it looked. Her first thought had been to toss out the cornbread before he came back into the room, but he had smelled it baking. So, she advised him against it, explaining where she thought it had all gone wrong. Of course, he wouldn’t hear any of it. There’s no way it’s that bad, he wagered.
She cut him a little square and told him to find out for himself—but not to say she didn’t warn him. She saw it on his face instantly, even though he did his best to hide it. His cheeks puckered enough to let his button nose turn up just slightly. That nose. She couldn’t help but smile.
She ladled chili onto a plate, added two spoons of rice with another slice of butter on top for the old man. The old man loved rice. And butter. She turned back around and caught him cutting a square of cornbread. The old man never complained about a meal, but he knew what tasted good and what didn’t. And he let them know by what he left on his plate. When they brought him his ice cream later for dessert, she knew that square would still sit there, with half a corner missing.
The dog had already finished his dinner and had been dutifully following her every step. She grabbed a chicken chewy to keep him satisfied at least long enough for them to make it to their seats with their plates. Her handyman tapped her arm and pointed at the cornbread. They both laughed as the old man cut another square and put it in the dog’s bowl.
A few bites in she went back into the kitchen to grab napkins and the drinks they’d forgotten. The dog was standing by his bowl looking up at her. The cornbread was gone.
She laughed, and her handyman came running. She pointed at the dog and his empty bowl. Her handyman gave her an “I-told-you-so” grin. He cut a small square, and the dog’s tail wagged.
They went back into the living room, and he tapped her arm again. Her eyes followed his pointed finger to the old man’s plate. The entire square of cornbread was gone. A few crumbs were the only evidence it had ever been there at all. You’re kidding, she said.
The old man hadn’t thrown it away because he didn’t have a trashcan near his La-Z-Boy. No, the old man had eaten the cornbread. Which meant he had to have liked it. Perhaps more than the chili and rice since there was enough of each still on his plate.
The handyman went back into the kitchen and came back with another square to put on the old man’s plate. The old man thanked him and carefully cut into the new square, spreading the slice of butter evenly across the top as he did. Unbelievable, she smiled.
She woke up a couple hours later with the book she had been trying to read folded up across her chest. Her hand had become a bookmark. Their bed bounced a little as he tore off all the pillows from his side except for one. She put in an actual bookmark and laid the book on the table next to her. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. She grinned at him. He pulled her close. Never close enough. She listened again to his heart beating as he talked. Steady, melodically.
He thanked her for dinner, complimenting her on how everything was perfect. Everything except that cornbread, she quipped, too quiet for him to hear. Or so she’d thought. She realized he’d heard her when he told her to stop it. Didn’t she see how everybody ate their fill? She caught his smirk, grabbed his chin, and laughed. He was just as bad a liar as she was. And for that she was infinitely grateful.
His cheeks flushed, knowing he’d have to fess up. His left arm let her go just long enough to turn out the lamp on his table.
Sleep never seemed to have trouble finding him. Within minutes he was snoring again. It lulled her. In another life, the darkness would have kept her awake even longer, but these days sleep came easier. That snore and those arms were teaching her the meaning of being safe, of being home.
She lifted her head up to give him one last peck before she let her eyelids close all the way. He squeezed her tighter. He kissed her back. As they both waited for sleep to return, he cleared his throat to pave a way for his conscience. The cornbread lingered. “Well, I guess it wasn’t that great,” he confessed, “but the old man and the dog liked it.”
Samantha Rae-Garvey is a lover of words and good storytelling. She has recently made a change in her career to focus on her writing. “The Old Man, The Dog, and The Cornbread” is the first short story she has shared for publication. Samantha lives in Covington, Georgia, with her husband, dog, and two cats.