Stories, Essays, Poems, all pointing to JOY
Muddy Smile

Muddy Smile

The rain had cooled the atmosphere outside, but in the house it was still stifling hot. The baby was sleeping soundly, as if the rain had cooled off her bedroom. But the echoes of his fork hitting his plate when he dropped it and the quiet scrape of the screen door when he closed it still bounced around the kitchen. Cindy stared through the screen door, looking at the driveway, wondering if he would return. It had been one hour and thirty seven minutes since he left. She had gone into the baby’s room and held her baby, comforting the infant with some words of comfort that she wished someone would say to her.

Finally, she got up and, with trepidation, returned to the kitchen. She washed the dishes, remembering with each dish how a pleasant lunch had slowly degenerated into the worst argument they had ever had. The door was open; she could just drop what she was doing and run. Run away forever. In her mind’s eye she could see him return to find their baby sleeping, but no trace of her—she had been whisked away as if she had never been. She was rinsing the last sauce pan when the baby woke up.

In the process of fixing the baby’s bottle she realized that her plan had been to go shopping this afternoon. But Steve had the car. With a long sigh she looked around the kitchen for something to fix for supper. She didn’t know if he would be back for supper. She gave the baby her bottle and returned to the kitchen. That’s when she knew she did not want to cook anything. She wanted to get out of the house.

Soon Cindy was pushing the stroller up the street toward Staley’s. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun was peeking through the clouds. The clouds were quickly drifting over the hills. The air was much cooler. The rain had washed the air, making everything she looked at appear crisp and clear–quite unlike her thoughts, which were mushy and opaque. So, in an effort to maintain some sanity, she concentrated on the wildflowers growing on the side on the road. She began to jog behind the stroller, feeling better in the pure air and brilliant sunshine.

There were plenty of yellow flowers, bright petals bobbing gently in the breeze, with a few butterflies and plenty of bees buzzing around them, milking the pollen. She noticed blue flowers and some white ones, but the prettiest were pale lavender. Lost in reverie about the flowers, she almost jogged past Staley’s.

No one was sitting at either of the picnic tables, even though the weather-worn umbrellas had kept the seats dry. Then she noticed that there were no customer’s cars in the parking lot. Well, she thought, it was Saturday afternoon. Everyone would be out and about. That’s when she realized she had come here for company. She had hoped to see someone she knew. But now that she was here, she realized that she did not want to talk to anyone, and she was grateful that the store was empty.

Martha was the only employee. Sitting on her stool behind the deli counter, she looked like she was part of the store fixtures. Cindy thought of her as “Mrs. Staley” even though she knew Martha’s last name was Fraser. She ordered a cup of hot tea and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream, she knew, came with a couple of homemade chocolate chip cookies. She looked at the tables the store provided for deli customers, but she didn’t want to sit. Instead, she pushed the stroller up and down the aisles, as if it were a shopping buggy. She stopped and began to search for the shopping list. Unable to find it, she tried to remember some of what was listed, but everything she remembered reminded her of Steve.

So, she pushed the stroller over to the tables and sat down, looking out the window. When Martha brought the tea and ice cream, Cindy was staring out the window, apparently lost in thought. Martha set it on the table in front of Cindy and went back to her stool. Cindy continued to stare, as if she had not noticed Martha.

A young man entered, obviously one of the many bicycle riders that lived in the valley. She heard him order the fried egg and bologna sandwich. It made her think of Steve. He frequently ordered the same sandwich. The man sat down at the table catty-corner to her, facing her. She could see his bicycle chained to the light pole in the parking lot. She glanced at his feet to see that he was wearing mountain bike shoes, the same sort that Steve wore. And like Steve’s his shoes had dried mud on them. As he sat there eating his sandwich and drinking sweet tea, Cindy became aware of her ice cream and tea. She began to eat and drink mechanically.

Her daughter was still sleeping. She always fell asleep when she rode in the stroller. As Cindy watched her daughter sleep she could see in her mind’s eye the car backing out of the driveway and, once again, felt abandoned by Steve. She did not understand what had happened. But they had had an awful argument.

It started, she guessed, when she mentioned that her sister was coming for dinner after church tomorrow. He said he remembered. Then she mentioned some things around the house that needed attention. He grunted something about it being Saturday. She then asked about going shopping. He seemed to be okay with that, but then he said something about never getting to ride his bike. She said that maybe this was not the best weekend to go riding. His response to that was to ask in a rather loud voice what weekend would be a good one. She then said something about he spent more time thinking about the bike that he ever thought about her. She was sorry she said that, but it was true.

What really scared her was the way he dropped his fork, stood up and left. He said nothing. He just got up and went straight to the car and drove away. No comments about her family, no accusations, no counter arguments. He just dropped his fork and left. Then it started raining.

Are you in pain?” The question seemed to come from the ceiling. She looked up, then all around as she slowly realized the bicycle man had asked the question. She shook her head and forced a smile, but dared not say a word for fear that she would burst into sobbing. He seemed to guess that she was in emotional turmoil because he just smiled at her and went back to the game on his smart-phone.

A few minutes later he looked up at her and said, “Did he hit you?”

She looked up and met his gaze; then shook her head and said in a voice that was just about to break, “He just left. Dropped his fork and left.”

Apparently, from the remains on the table, she had eaten the cookies and some of the ice cream. What she had not eaten was melted in the bowl. Steve would have picked up the bowl and drank it. She looked up, wondering where Steve might be.

I saw him sitting in that pull-off over at the top of Harrison Hill. It looked like he might have been crying. I waved and came on here.”

She nodded. He was on Harrison Hill not that long ago. Maybe he was home.

Slowly, she pushed the stroller back to the house. When she got close, she saw the car in the driveway. Then she saw the window screen had been fixed. She went inside. She could see that he had fixed the toilet so it flushed properly. As she went upstairs, she noticed that he had tightened the handrail so it didn’t wiggle. But he was not in the house. In the kitchen she saw a big bouquet of flowers on the table. But no Steve and no note. Checking outside she saw that his bike was gone.

The shopping list was also on the table. She picked it up. She was going to have to fix something for dinner tomorrow. So she put her daughter in the child safety seat and drove back to Staley’s.

Steve had driven less than a mile when he realized that he had no idea where he was going. Through the rain he saw Staley’s sign and pulled in. Kermit was sitting at the far picnic table, eating. He waved and went in. Hank Fraser was minding the store. He ordered a cup of coffee from Hank and sat down at the far table. The rain would keep Cindy inside, so he had time to think.

Hank set two cups of coffee on the table and sat down across from him. “Mind if I join you?” he asked, but didn’t wait for any answer. Then he came right to the point, “You must be really shook up. You walked right past Kermit and ordered coffee without even saying ‘Hello’.”

Steve looked him straight in the eye, but feeling defensive said rather sarcastically, “So, store, deli and now counseling—or are you practicing to be a bartender?”

Hank grinned and said, “A friend.”

Steve nodded. They sat quietly for a few minutes. Bill Monroe came in and bought some milk and bread. Hank returned to the table.

Steve looked at him, as if to say something, but he could not get the words together. He just stared at Hank.

Hank offered, “Argument with your wife?”

Steve nodded. After another few minutes of silence he tried to present his case to Hank. His sort of stammered at first, but then quietly told Hank his story.

I, uh, love to ride. You…you know that. Cin…Cindy knows that. Every day after work I come home and do all the chores around the house so I can have Saturday to ride.” He took a deep breath, glanced out into the parking lot and returned to his story. “It’s been a year and a half since we were married. Lately, Cindy’s been giving me a hard time about riding. When we first met I tried to get her to ride with me. But it’s muddy and there’s bugs and snakes. She has never made the effort to join me. And now she is trying to get me to stop. We have Saturday morning together, and then Sunday afternoon. Sometimes we watch football (she’s a Dolphins fan) but we always spend Sunday together. Today she reminds me that she’s invited her sister for Sunday dinner. And then she gives me a list of honey-dos. I know she wants everything perfect when her sister comes over. But, well, it’s Saturday.” He ended his story with a slight whine in his voice.

Hank nodded. ‘Been there…done that’ he thought. Every couple has to work out solitary time and together time. He and Martha had some terrific fights until they learned how to manage their time. He asked, “What sort of honey-dos need to be done so the house will be in order for company?”

Steve told him about the window screen and the toilet.

Hank told him about some of the arguments he and Martha had had. He emphasized how they needed to work out their together time and their solitary time. Then he suggested, “You could head over to Mikes Hardware in the village and get the things you need, fix them and then go riding. Later, when you’re both in good spirits, you need to clarify how you feel to Cindy.”

Steve nodded, and then said, “Okay, I guess.” He sat for another minute, trying to comprehend what Hank had said. Then he said, “Yeah, Hank, I think you’re right.”

Martha walked through the door. She called out to Hank, “Hi Honey! I left you a list on the table; but if you want to go fishing I’ll not object, as long as you catch supper.”

Hank looked at Steve and winked. Steve grinned and paid for the coffee. “You could be a bartender,” he said.

He made his purchases at Mikes and saw the florist shop across the street. It was actually a card shop, florist and craft store all in one. But they would have something for him to bring home to Cindy.

Cindy was nowhere to be found when he returned to the house. He looked for a note, but couldn’t find one. At first he was angry, but then realized that maybe she just took the baby for a ride in the stroller. So he fixed the window screen and the toilet. Cindy still was not home. He remembered she had worried about the handrail on the stairs, so he checked that. It was easy to fix, so he did that too. He started to call her, but saw her cell phone on her dresser. So he got back in the car and started out to look for her. At the top of Harrison’s Hill he pulled into the little overlook parking spot and tried to get his thoughts straight. He didn’t know where she or their daughter might be. He couldn’t call her. He finally gave into the tears. Then realized that she might be home, wondering where he was.

But she had not returned when he got back. Frustration shook his whole body. He needed to do something. So he donned his bike gear and took off on his bike. He didn’t plan to be gone long, but he couldn’t sit around the house and fret. He headed back up Harrison Hill, then down to Beaverdam Pond, then downstream to the village and out to the main road. From there he took the Paydirt Trail that ran along the creek back toward his house. Paydirt Trail was a single-track path that, today, was more of a single-track mud hole that followed the creek up stream. He started to return to the paved roads, but this time of day frequently produced a lot of traffic.

Their car was missing from the driveway. He started to take off, but thought she might have left a note, so he went inside. No note. He felt frustration and anger for a moment, but they were quickly replaced by hunger. He had not eaten all of his breakfast; he had had a cup of coffee at Staley’s and now, after a long bike ride, he was famished. A handful of peanuts and a glass of juice helped with the hunger. A glance in the fridge proved that Cindy might be shopping. He said out loud to no one, “Well, looks like supper at Staley’s.”

It felt like the longest ride he ever made. As he thought about what he might eat, he guessed that Eric and Patty would be manning the store. Eric, he though, made the best bologna sandwich. On entering the parking lot he could not help but see their car. His first thought was to write a note, put it under the wiper, and head into the village. But he was too tired and too hungry and he didn’t want to ride home in the dark. Besides, he really did want to see her.

He looked around the store. Cindy was pushing a grocery cart down the aisle toward him. He thought she was as pretty as she had ever been. A weary smile spread across his face. Cindy saw him enter the store. She watched him look around and she saw that weary smile spread across his face. Steve saw her eyes light up. He started toward her, but she pointed to the tables. He sat down at the first table, in the closest chair. All her anger and frustration drained away. She had planned her arguments well, point and counterpoint. But that weary smile changed everything.

Cindy walked over to the counter and ordered two bologna and egg sandwiches. Then she bent over her muddy husband and kissed him.

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