(…) He opened another beer from the fridge, walked to the screen door and latched it, and picked up the packet of cigarettes from the sideboard. He stood there a moment, peering into the dark at the heavy mass of the rusted vehicle sitting in the yard, stranded and broken, and bound to the earth. He lit a cigarette and sipped the beer. The he turned, crossed the room, and nudged a cheap plastic chair away from the kitchen table opposite her with his foot and sat down.
He looked at his hands for a long time, then at the dirty floor. He watched the thin thread of smoke from the burning cigarette between his scarred fingers curl upwards, disturbed only when he raised it slowly to his mouth. He looked at the small bubbles and moisture of condensation on the dark green glass of the beer bottle, and felt its sticky coldness in his hand and the stale, bitter taste of the liquid in his mouth. He put the bottle among the rubbish on the table, then crushed the smouldering stub of the cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray and looked at her.
The soft brown fabric of the dressing gown was worn and frayed, and hung in loose wide folds from her shoulders. It was tied low at the waist revealing the swollen cleavage of her breasts, and was drawn across her leg, exposing her thigh. The material was discoloured and dirty, and a dark matted stain ruined the left arm of the gown, which hung slack and limp below the seat of the chair. Her right hand lay nestled in her lap on the crumpled sheets of newspaper that spilled off the edge of the table onto her knees. She was looking down and slightly to one side, her face obscured by the thick, tousled locks of her hair, but when he shifted sideways in his chair and leaned forward he saw her tired, sad eyes fixed determinedly on the article she was reading. He reached for the beer again, tilted the bottle to his lips and swallowed deeply until the froth at the bottom dripped slowly onto his tongue. Then he set the bottle on the table, stood up, and walked to the sink.
He listened to the click and buzz of dry insects in the darkness outside, and the slow rustle of the gnarled old tree’s sparse leaves moving in the night breeze. There was a single street light glowing in the distance beyond the yard fence, its cold fluorescent light casting dim bands of grey shadow across the yard. He took the ladle, turned to the stove, and lifted the lid off the pot. He stirred the thick broth a few times then tasted it. He paused, stirred again, and raised the wide spoon once more to his lips. He looked into the pot, and across at the vegetable peels and scraps lying discarded in the basin, and the few loose onions rings and strings of fat and gristle on the cutting board. He put down the ladle and clenched his fists slowly and deliberately, feeling his finger nails pressing into his palms. When he looked down at his hands they were trembling. The ants tramping along the window sill had stopped moving, and he heard the flutter of newspapers sliding to the floor behind him. He uncoiled his fingers and gripped the edge of the sink, then drew a long deep breath and turned around.
She had settled lower in the chair, and her leaning shoulder had drawn her hand and the papers from her lap. He waited, watching the fly buzz heavily around the lip of the beer bottle on the table, and listening to the soft flickering hiss of the gas stove behind him. The newspapers lay in a loose mess on the floor beside her, the edges drawing and absorbing the dark puddle of moisture beside the leg of the chair. He turned his head to the stove behind him and picked up the ladle. He stirred the soup, catching and lifting a spoonful of meat and vegetables from the pot. He looked at it, tipped the contents back into the pot, and placed the ladle on the bench.
Then he picked up the knife and strode around the table to her, resting his calloused hand gently on her shoulder. Her head rolled to one side to look up from her lap and her hair fell away from her face. He brushed a lock of hair gently behind her ear, and pushed up the right sleeve of her dressing gown. (…)
© andrew wheeler