(Read the other chapters here.)
The Minnesotans arrived a “smidge” past six, just as the woman said they would. Sherilynn McCaffrey looked as I had imagined. Medium height, not heavy, but for certain not thin. She had brown hair with severely bowed bangs that framed eyes as round and brown as the center row of a Whitman’s Chocolates sampler. Her smile was weirdly constant, while the man at her side, Henry, who preferred to be called Hank, was a frowner. He, too, looked as imagined–an amiable sort, the only kind I’d imagine Sherilynn would have as a husband. Yes, standing inside my foyer, the couple appeared smiley and televangelistic, their hands intertwined, their North Face backpacks looped securely over their shoulders.
I smiled back, motioning for the couple to take a seat. “You’ll have to excuse the mess out front,” I said, referring to the bombardier’s latest effort toward making my life miserable. “Fraternities sometimes go a little crazy around here.”
“Oh no, ma’am, we didn’t noticed a thing,” Sherilynn said, scanning the living room, dropping her husband’s hand to allow him to take her backpack. I felt my face growing warm. ‘Didn’t notice a thing.’ I knew this was what people said even when they saw your skirt tucked into the back of your pantyhose or spotted dust bunnies Goliath wouldn’t have the courage to confront.
“Yes, indeed, we’re certainly glad to be here. It’s just as pictured, right, Hank?” I tried not to cut my eyes at the woman, and hoped I was wearing my glasses in case I had, though it didn’t feel as though I was.
Hank removed his Minnesota Golden Gophers’ baseball cap, revealing a head of hair that would have made Reagan do a double take. “Very nice place you have, Miss. We’ve been looking forward to seeing this part of the country for awhile now, and really appreciate you being able to work with our schedule.”
“With the drive, we’re a little tuckered, but we’re going to see it all – no stone unturned, right, hon?” Sherilynn said.
Henry ‘Call me Hank’ McCaffrey, winked at his wife, then yawned.
“Well, you have to be tired, so let me show you your room.” Looking over at Hank, I said, “I can take those bags, Hank,” motioning for him to hand me the backpacks.
“Gracious, no, ma’am,” he said.
“Gracious, no,” Sherilynn echoed as if I had invited them to witness a virgin sacrifice. “My gracious, no,” she repeated.
“Alright then,” I said, heading up the stairs, “once you get settled, come on down, and I’ll have dinner ready. I think you’re going to like what we’re having, crab and corn fritters…” but before I could finish rattling off my list of “special first night” menu items for my very first guests, Sherilynn stopped me cold.
“That sounds wonderful, Miss, but we couldn’t eat not one more bite.”
Hank yawned again.
“Well, sure, you might not be hungry now, but later, you’ll see,” I said.
The woman whose smile hadn’t left her face since walking through the door, said, “No, ma’am, we’re pretty fixed for food, today anyway.”
Hank hefted one of the backpacks. “Yeah, we put the feedbag on and then some, stopping at the WaWa. Practically got a full course meal. One chicken parm and–whatchu’d get again, hon?” he asked his wife.
“What I always get, the brisket, you know that, Hank.”
Standing mid-staircase, I looked from on to the other, “The WaWa?–The gas station?”
“It’s more a traveler’s emporium, I’d say.” Sherilynn laughed, looking over at her husband to confirm this. “Now, I bet you never been to a WaWa. Have you, Miss?”
I started climbing the stairs again, “You’re right about that, Sherilynn.” Then not wanting to sound as abrupt as I knew I had, I quickly added, “I don’t have much need of gas – no car.”
“Oh, you don’t have to be buying gas to go to the WaWa. Not in the least. If you don’t have to eat in, WaWa’s one of the better places to get a decent meal,” she said, following me into the bedroom.
“Well, if you get hungry and want something different, feel free to buzz me,” I said, pointing to the intercom mounted right above the night stand. I stood at the door, waiting as they put down their bags and quickly scanned the Lorraine Hansberry. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Sherilynn sniff upon entering the bathroom. “This is certainly nice. Just as pictured.”
Again, I tried not to roll my eyes. It was almost as if they were brown marbles, and it was taking everything in me not to have at it. Still, it was not what the woman said, but how she said every word, enunciating each syllable as if doing this would aid her if she ever had to pass a lie detector. Sherilynn McCaffrey, how was that trip to Baltimore you and your husband Hank went on?
“OH, IT WAS JUST AS WE IMAGINED. CLEAN AND TIDY. VERY NICE. SUPER NICE.”
“Well, if you need anything, I’m just a buzz away, and the cable remote is on the nightstand.” I walked over to the cedar chest and lifted the quilt inside. “Now, it’s been pretty warm for October, but if you need something for the chill, you have this comforter. Extra sheets and towels are in the armoire.” I was about to put the comforter back, when Sherilynn took it from my hands. “Oh, this is so pretty. Look, hon, isn’t this design pretty?” Hank, busy unpacking, smiled in a disengaged way, as if to say, “All right, enough already, Sherilynn. Put a cork in it, my dogs are barking, and I need to unwind.”
Sensing this, I began walking toward the door. “I’m upstairs, on the third level, so if you–”
“We shouldn’t need a thing, ma’am. But thank you, so much,” Sherilynn said, still holding tight to the quilt.
I wasn’t sure how much Middle America politeness I would be able to stomach for the next two days, but for $180 for two nights, somehow I’d adjust.
I heard the phone ringing and knew it had to be Benny. I let the answering machine pick up. I wasn’t up to a full debriefing. And so, I took a seat at the small kitchen table, one hand supporting my chin and the other examining the mangos I had rushed about to get for mushy spots, and sat and listened.
“Hey, pick up if you’re there, Stell. I’m callin’ to see how things are going. Are they there yet?” Silence. “See, this is going to be a problem. Because I know you’re there because you wouldn’t leave knowing they’re comin’.” More silence. “Okay, call me. Because if those hayrakers got you all tussled, girl…” Then the answering machine cut off. I was glad. This was one of the few times I failed to find Benny funny.
I fried two fritters and placed them on a plate, along with a big dollop of the remoulade I had gotten up early that morning to make. I wanted to take a couple slices of the bread I got especially for the guests to make a big double decker sandwich, one with the remoulade, a couple of thinly sliced tomatoes and onions, maybe even go all out, and toast the sour dough in the cast iron skillet. I wanted a sandwich worthy of a linebacker, a sandwich that could hardly be contained between two beefy hands, and could only be devoured completely, crumbs and all, with aid of fork and knife.
Instead, I sat quietly picking bite size bits from my crab and corn fritters and sipping a glass of Zinfandel alone at ten o’clock on a Saturday night in my beautiful kitchen. I chewed slowly, like what I imagined women waiting to be executed did when eating their last meal. I smiled to myself. Even when Benny wasn’t around, his influence was clear. Still, I wouldn’t be calling him back. Not this night. And seeing how he hadn’t called again and wasn’t banging down my door, it was clear any concerns he had about me “tussling” with the hayrakers had been allayed.
I washed the couple of dishes I alone had used, and cut off all the lights downstairs except for the light on the one appliance in the kitchen not a 1950s reproduction–the microwave. If the Minnesotans found room in their bellies for yet another bite, the rest of the fritters were in the refrigerator encased in Tupperware, alongside a platter of assorted deli meats and cheeses. Mounting the kitchen backstairs in the semi-dark, I heard the gurgling of the Deer Park water dispenser, and though I was the only one there to witness my stellar culinary hospitality, I had no problems admitting I had done damn good.
I steeled myself as I took the last stair, not wanting to disturb my guests as I tiptoed down the hallway. There was the sound of a shower running and a low yet familiar rat-a-tat-tat, staccato of voices coming from the television. Good. People feel more at home when they’re watching the tube. As I neared Lorraine Hansberry’s threshold, I lightly pressed my ear up to the oak door.
“You need to hurry on up with your lathering and rinsing, hon. It’s not like I can wait.”
“Dang, I’m almost finished with the bits and pieces, Sheri. Can you wait a minute? Lord knows I done waited on you enough times.”
“Yeah, but you know how much I’ve been looking forward to this.”
“OK, give me a minute, just a minute, hon, ‘cause I’m comin’.”
“All I can say is you’re ‘bout to miss something awful good, ‘cause looks like that boy Omar is up to his old tricks.”
In the darken hallway, I emitted no sound. I only moved my lips to mouth these words: “Those cotton picking hayrakers – I cannot believe they’re in there watching The Wire.”
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.