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Old Flame

by Lori Dantuma

 

I plop two blueberry Eggo waffles into the toaster as the painted roosters on the clock above me squawk five times. The ice from the frozen artificially flavored “berries” sizzles on the hot coils while I place a set of thick black utensils at the head of the kitchen table. I still don’t understand what Jack sees in those pockmarked hockey pucks when my fresh scrambled eggs have been good enough for sixty years, but because they’re the only thing he wants anymore, we now have three boxes wedged in the freezer door. A pair of headlights streak past the window, and I crane my neck to watch the neighbor boy, Calvin, swing his truck around by the barn. He must notice the kitchen light on because he waves before climbing up the old John Deere combine and disappearing into the fields.

 

As my toe taps along with the timer on the toaster, I catch my warped reflection in the microwave door above the stove. Darker versions of my green eyes roam over the wrinkles crisscrossing my forehead, framing my mouth. My thin white ringlets feel like carded wool when I reach up to smooth out the same bangs I’ve cut myself since 1952. I swallow a laugh at the memory of that first day of high school. My mother and I had both known that I needed to look my best — we just had different ideas of what that meant. She’d already pinned back my rag-rolled curls, but I couldn’t take the way they all clung to the back of my neck in the humidity, and I thought just a trim wouldn’t be so hard. And bangs, of course. By the shade of Mother’s face when she found all the hair on the bathroom floor and the jagged remnants left on my head, I thought steam was about to come pouring out of her ears. Still, I marched proudly out to the bus with the scissors tucked in the waistband of my skirt. I could hear her yelling all the way down the gravel driveway, but I liked the curls cradling my ears, and how the fringe on my forehead fluttered like cornstalks swaying on the side of the road. And, frankly, if it hadn’t been for my wild hair, I might not have caught the eye of the handsome junior slouching behind the bus driver.

I waddled down the aisle as the bus lurched forward and found an empty spot across from my girlfriend Dot, but instead of saying hello, she just giggled behind her freckled hands. Leaning across the gap, she nodded towards a head peeking out of the front row and swore that that boy’s eyes had stuck to me like a tick the second I got on, and didn’t I notice? and didn’t I know who he was? Apparently, his name was Jack Doyle, a friend of Dot’s older brother, but more importantly — according to Dot — every girl was just itching to go out with a charmer like him. I rolled my eyes, but she was convinced that he’d be on my arm by the end of the week. Apparently, he was, too, because as soon as my foot hit the sidewalk, Jack sidled right up next to me and asked for my name. My friends called me “Bee,” but he wasn’t one of them, so I told him he could call me Beverly. He wanted to know if he could call me his girl, confidently ran a hand through his slick, combed blond hair, but I marched toward the school and insisted with my head held high that “Bev” would do just fine, thank you — take it or leave it.

 

After a couple weeks of Jack carrying my books to class, slipping his letterman over my shoulders when it rained, and escorting me home after the football games, I was beginning to think that maybe being “his girl” didn’t sound so bad after all. So when I got on the bus one day only to feel a tug on my sleeve, I let him pull me into the seat beside him. That’s when he asked if I’d go steady. I told him I thought he was crazy, and he said maybe so, but he swore the way I strolled down the lane that first day, I could have strutted straight out of Vogue and set fire to it on the way out. His nervous smile, thumb dancing across the back of my knuckles, burned away the butterflies in my throat. I stared into his steel blue eyes and realized I never wanted to look away again.

 

Four homecomings, a couple spring formals, and one special visit to my father later, I walked across the gymnasium with a diploma in one hand and a diamond on the other.

 

Jack’s labored coughing yanks me back, and I quickly pop the blueberry waffles onto his plate as he shuffles into the kitchen. The stains in the knees of his favorite jeans still smell like grease no matter how many times I scrub them, but at least his “Ag in the Classroom” t-shirt is clean. Faded from the sun, but clean. He grunts as he lowers himself into a chair that protests when he pulls himself as close to the table as his round belly will allow.

Staring down at the steaming waffles, he mutters, “Throat’s dry.”

 

I hurry to the fridge, fill a glass with orange juice — careful not to catch any pulp — and toss in a metal straw. Setting the drink in front of him, I step back to watch him concentrate on wrapping his hand, permanently frozen into a claw from arthritis, around the cup. His movements are slow, calculated as a surgeon’s, but as he tries to tilt his palm just right, the glass slips and spills across the vinyl tablecloth.

 

His voice is still gruff with sleep when he yells to hear himself over his hearing aid, “Bev . . . ?”

 

I’m wiping up the juice with a dish towel before he can even finish.

 

“Thank you. Are the meds ready yet?”

 

“Dr. Bitale hasn’t called, no.”

 

“But my foot is—”

 

“We can elevate it while you’re eating,” I sigh.

After wrangling up a few couch pillows, I pile them under the table, gently rest his leg on top, and grip the edge of his chair to climb back off the floor. He nudges my arm.

“Can you cut the waffles?”

 

“We just bought you new forks and knives,” I remind him, out of breath with a hand on my hip. “Your foot might hurt, but your eyesight is fine.”

 

“They don’t work.”

 

“What do you mean? They’re plenty big with those fancy rubber handles.”

 

“I can’t.”

 

“Yes, you can.”

 

“I can’t!”

 

“Just try!”

 

“Bev—”

 

“I can’t do everything for you, you know. You’re a grown man, Jack, you should be able to cut your own food!”

 

The words sting my tongue the moment they fly. Jack’s eyes are glossy pain. Nothing but pain. Pain from his foot, pain from his hands, pain from a pride strangled by helplessness. I silently lean over and cube the waffles, refusing to look anywhere but down at the plate. When I finish, Jack mumbles another “thank you” and tries to brush the back of my hand, but I whirl around to fill the sink with warm bubbly water and dump in dishes that aren’t even dirty. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice he’s managed to wedge the fork well enough into his fist that he can shovel pieces into his mouth. Still, the effort knits his eyebrows together. I focus all my attention on the floating bowls in front of me because if I scrub something, anything, hard enough, maybe I can scrub away the tears trailing down his cheek. I hear the chair legs squeak as he gets up and hobbles over to his favorite red recliner in front of the bay window in the next room. After everything within reach is clean, I reluctantly follow.

 

Even though he hasn’t run the farm himself since we leased it out to the neighbors three years back, he still insists on sitting by the window every day to make sure each sweep of their tractor is even. I would have been bored to tears plowing back and forth all day like that, let alone just watching it, but Jack used to say working the fields was almost therapeutic. As long as the wheel stayed straight, a John Deere didn’t care where your brain ran off to. He’d just turn on the radio and let muscle memory do the work. Bumping along on worn springs made Jack’s back throb after a while, though, so every afternoon at 2:30 sharp he would come clomping in to lie on our bed for twenty minutes. That is, until I kicked him off for staining the white sheets with sweat, and he moved his naps to the living room floor – work boots and all. Even then, I fussed about the dirt he’d track in the house, but over the years I found myself waiting just to hear the door creak open, and I’d end up bundled in his arms, face pressed against the itchy shag carpet and sound asleep.

 

Looking at him now from my matching brown recliner on the opposite side of the room, I can’t remember the last time we slept together like that, or even slept in the same place for that matter. Jack’s new medication makes him snore now, anyway, and ever since my second hip gave out, I can’t sleep anywhere except in this old La-Z-Boy. Shaking my head, I slip a pair of reading glasses low on my nose and find a new page in the Sudoku book I keep on the side table. While I pencil in numbers, Jack continues to stare out the window until the faint square of sunlight on the floor sharpens and inches up the wall. The empty couch between our chairs might as well be a canyon for how little we talk while we waste away the days like this.

 

Resting the puzzle in my lap, I study him the way he studies the land. He still combs his hair the same way as the day we met, though the blond gave way to silver a long time ago. Those blue eyes are a little duller now, or maybe just softer, but they’re still his. Those hands are the same hands that slipped a jacket around my shoulders in the rain even if decades of gripping a tractor’s steering wheel have crippled them. And that ring. I stare at the thick gold band I’d found in a catalog and circled in red pen and spent all my babysitting money on. The one with special beveling on the rim and our initials etched on the inside. The one that hasn’t left his gnarled finger since 1956.

 

Glancing through the open doorway and up at the clock above the kitchen sink, I give the painted roosters a quick nod. As I stiffly rise to my feet, Jack is too lost in the fields to notice, but I sure do catch his attention when I brace my hands against the back of the couch and shove it out of the way. His eyes follow me as I turn back to my recliner and push, digging my heels into the carpet and scooching it a few inches at a time across where the couch used to be. About halfway, the muscles in my arms start complaining, but I keep marching like I’ve got the wind in my bangs and a bus to catch. Finally, I feel my recliner softly thump against Jack’s. I collapse into the leather, sweat framing my hairline, and pull the lever to lie back next to him.

“Bev, what the hell are you doing?” He chuckles as I tug his arm into my lap and curl myself around it, and that sound alone is worth all the meds and doctors and waffles and stains and canyons in the world.

 

Closing my eyes, “2:30” is all I can say before drifting off to the warm pendulum arc of his thumb against the back of my hand.

Lori Dantuma earned her BA degree in Creative Writing from Augustana College and is currently a contributing editor for Tiny Spoon Literary Magazine.

photo by Joshua Torres on Unsplash.

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