This Month’s Fall Look
When Meg knows for sure, it’s a little before noon and she calls Robert, but she gets his voice mail and guesses he’s at lunch. She tells him everything on the message because he’ll want to know right away. After she hangs up the phone, she gets some old grocery bags from the hook in the pantry. She puts one bag inside another because one alone won’t be strong enough, and she stuffs in their flatware, cloth napkins, and straw placemats. Even with the two bags, some of the knives start to poke through, but the holes they make are tiny and inconsequential. In the garage, she gets an empty cardboard box. Whenever they have orders delivered to the house, they save the boxes. Usually they’re small and flat because Robert orders a lot of books. She finds one that is tall and wide. She takes it back into the kitchen and carefully packs up their glasses. There isn’t another box for the plates and bowls, but she pulls out their largest suitcase from the closet upstairs and packs the dishes in it, using paper towels for cushioning.
The young guy at the charity’s loading dock looks at the open trunk of her car.
“What about the suitcase?” he asks, scratching his ear.
“That too,” she says. “You can take all of it.”
At the mall the parking lot is crowded even though it’s the middle of the week – a school day and a work day. There will be lots of mothers with their children. The older children will be eating cheese-flavored crackers spread out on the trays of their strollers and there will be babies too. Some of them will be sleeping with their legs scrunched up. Others will be looking around with big eyes. Their legs will be stretched out long and sometimes they will flap their arms with excitement about something small like a bright color or the feeling of the wind on their face.
She knows and she gets out of the car anyway. When is a time they wouldn’t be there? In the evenings maybe. At dinner or after, when it’s time for baths and stories. She’ll have to remember that the next time she comes.
The first store she goes into is all wrong. The colors are too bright--yellows and oranges-- and everything is block-shaped with hard edges. It’s not the look that she wants. She walks toward the other end of the mall where the air smells like cinnamon and French fries from the food court upstairs. She finds the store that she has in mind and it’s packed full of the right sorts of things. Bleached grey tables the color of driftwood on the beach. Thick linen napkins and mercury glass hurricane lamps. She checks prices, even though the money isn’t the problem. They’ve always had plenty of it. There is a table near the center of the store covered with a white cotton tablecloth and on top of the tablecloth, a burlap runner and woven placemats the color of Granny Smith apples. She’s never thought of this much layering and now it seems essential.
Waiting in line to check out, she sees a mother with a baby. She looks away, but she can’t help remembering how last week she felt slightly dizzy. She can’t explain it, not when she realizes it couldn’t have meant anything after all. She thought she had a heightened sense of smell too, although now she knows that it must have been her imagination. When the bleeding started, she began to panic and then she thought of what she had read: implantation bleeding can result after the fertilized egg burrows into the uterine lining. She pictured a child in bed pulling up a blanket and settling his head on the pillow.
The baby in the store starts to cry and the mother takes him out of the carrier and holds him on her shoulder, patting his bottom, and Meg thinks of how the bleeding turned out to be nothing new. It was the same thing it had been all the months before. She holds the fabric up close to her face and breathes in the new smell of it.
In the last store she picks out dishes, flatware, and glasses. She considers the slight differences in color, and how one thing looks next to another, and the weights of things in her hand. It’s not that she wants or expects everything to be perfect, but she wants it to be enough.
At home she unpacks all the bags. She takes her time, ironing out the wrinkles in the fabric with the steamer and plunging the glasses, dishes, and flatware into hot, sudsy water before rinsing them off. She dries every piece with a microfiber towel to avoid lint and water spots. Everything is ready in plenty of time and she starts preparing their dinner: pork loin with ginger and apricot; crunchy shoestring potatoes; and mixed greens with sesame vinaigrette.
Driving home from work Robert wonders what he’ll find. Last time, her face was scrubbed-looking and pink and her hair had streaks of blonde that weren’t there when he’d left for work that morning. Her nails were painted a glittery white color, like snow in sunlight, and she said that her eyebrows were a new shape. He didn’t notice any change in them, but she said there was more of an arch and he told her that it made a big difference.
The time before that, he’d noticed the changes from the street even before he pulled into their driveway. The overgrown forsythia bush that for years had been to the right of the front porch was gone. He couldn’t imagine how long it had taken her to rip it out of the ground. In its place there was a Leland cypress that looked trim and compact, almost naked. There were fresh pine needles surrounding the base of the tree and new purple flowers lining the edges of the sidewalk.
Tonight he parks in the garage and when he opens the back door, she’s in the kitchen with one hand in an oven mitt. He goes to hug her and her eyes are bright. He can’t tell if she’s been crying or how recently.
“Something smells good,” he whispers in her ear. “And you look so nice.” She shakes her head.
“Come see,” she says, tugging on his arm.
They go into the dining room and he sees the new white tablecloth and napkins, the burlap runner and the pale green placemats, the tall glasses, and the white plates with a grey pattern around the edges like a fence.
“Beautiful,” he tells her. “Wow.” He touches an over-sized spoon. “This looks so nice. It’s right out of a movie or something.”
“The only thing I forgot is something for the middle of the table,” she says frowning. “Everybody’s using those oblong bowls now. You know, the wooden ones? I think they’re called dough bowls. I guess bakers used to knead the dough in them.”
“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. There’s one on the cover of the magazine you’ve been reading.”
She nods. “Exactly. That’s what I mean.”
“Hey, I forgot one thing in the car. I’ll be right back.”
In the garage he gets a flash light from his work table and opens the door that leads to the back yard, shining the light on the ground. He fills his pockets with pine cones and thinks it might mean something that there are so many of them in the yard, waiting for him. He goes back into the garage, putting the flash light back on the table and pulling the string for the overhead light. He has in the trunk of his car several bags. A paisley silk wrap dress in a size four. A soft, white hand towel with braided trim. A thick coffee table book about stained glass windows. And a wooden dough bowl. Although he has guessed, this time he’s been lucky, at least in this small way. He leaves most of the bags in the trunk, but he takes out the bowl and places it carefully on the hood of the car. He can picture the magazine cover exactly and he starts with the biggest pine cones, saving the smaller ones to fill in the empty space around the edges.
Heather Bell Adams lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has published fiction in Folitate Oak, Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, The Dead Mule of Southern Literature, First Stop Fiction, Deep South Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, Appalachian Story, and elsewhere. She is a member of the North Carolina Writers' Network. You can find her at http://www.heatherbelladams.com/ or on Twitter @Heatherbelladam.