Shirley pushed her cart up and down the meat aisle.
She picked up and put
back several slabs of beef from the refrigerated case. Frank had given her
sixty dollars. It was the same amount he always gave her. Her list was the same
as it always was, and every night they'd eat the same things. She wanted to tell
Lorraine she'd lost her recipe, or that it had completely slipped her mind, but
for Shirley, no matter could ever be dealt with so simply. She was a married
woman, after all.
Her lips moved as she tallied the prices of the
items in her cart, but she
kept losing count. Maybe she was dumb at math, like Frank always said. She
tried placing her hand on each item and rounding the numbers. It worked well enough
until she got to the pound cake. Her pulse quickened as she imagined abandoning
Frank's loaf on an end-cap display of paper towel rolls. Again, Shirley began
her tally, this time, starting with the pound cake. That meddling Lorraine! Shirley
sighed. She knew, really, it was her own fault. She shouldn't be talking family
business to anyone, even if it was only about cake. Frank always said her big mouth
would get her into trouble.
She grabbed the same size roast she always did,
turned her cart down the next aisle and headed for the register. She should
have paid more attention to where she was going. The next aisle happened to be
the baking aisle, and passing by the flour, sugar and baking powder only made
things much more difficult. It made her think, again, about the butter. She
pushed her cart back to the meat case. I'll just get a smaller roast, she
thought, and she unfolded the recipe. She ran her finger along the ingredient
list. The real problem was that butter. A whole pound! She pictured Frank
slamming his fork on the table and pushing her face into his meager second
portion of beef, or maybe he'd just give her a good slap for ‘socking the change,’
like the last time the milk prices went up.
She examined the roasts again. She hated making any kind of decision. She
always seemed to make the wrong one.
Shirley didn't realize that her hands were trembling
until she saw the
recipe drift to the floor. I must have dropped it at the grocery store,
she thought. It was perfect and it wouldn't be a lie. She couldn’t lie. Lying
to Frank made her too nervous and lying to anyone else would be a concession
she was not yet willing to make. She kept telling herself that if she didn’t
have to lie to anyone, then things at home really couldn’t be that bad. She
glanced at her watch. She was taking too long.
Shirley almost wrecked the Oldsmobile trying to
save time on the way home,
but when she got there, Frank was in his toolshed, drunk and tinkering with an
old, busted chainsaw. If he even noticed how late she'd been, he was saving it
for his next tirade. Shirley put away the groceries and began preparing the
roast, and as she did, she kept thinking of the way Lorraine had butted in and
volunteered her to make that cake. It should have been enough when she'd said
that Frank didn't like it when she baked. That would have been enough for Doris
or Rose. That would be all she'd have to say, and they'd know. They'd know they
ought not get involved in someone else's domestic matters, but not Lorraine.
Lorraine had put her right on the spot without a second thought, like it was so
easy for people to just change the way they did things. Maybe it was
that easy for Lorraine the merry widow.
Shirley glanced at the clock on the wall as she
placed the roast in the
oven, and then began neatening the living room. She listened intently for Frank
and when she was certain he was still in his toolshed, she slid the novel
Lorraine had lent her out from under the sofa cushion.
She had told Lorraine, “Frank thinks it's
frivolous to read novels,” but
Lorraine had kept on pushing like she always did.
“Nonsense!” she'd said, “this
isn't some silly novel. In fact, it's quite
educational,” and she'd forced it into Shirley's hand. Shirley had hoped she'd
managed not to frown as she turned the book over and read the synopsis. Who
wanted to read a book about a battered woman? Really, what an awful book it
must be, she'd thought.
Awful or not, Shirley was determined to read that
book and get it out of
the house, where it would no longer threaten to slip out of hiding and upset
Frank. So, she sat on the sofa and read and listened for him as the roast browned
in the oven. It wasn't until she smelled the roast burning, that she realized
how engrossed she'd been. She was curious about how someone so strong, like the
heroine, Jeanie, had fallen into love with such an awful abuser. She didn’t
want to see things go badly for Jeanie, but she found it hard to put the book down.
Later that evening, Frank blackened her eye and
gathered every left shoe
that she owned. He locked them in his trunk and took off. He'd come home in a
few days. He usually did. She wouldn't be able to go to bridge club the
following day, of course, but at least she wouldn't need to worry about the
cake. She'd say she wasn't feeling well, and after all, that was true. Shirley
decided she would make good use of the time and try to finish Lorraine's book.
The sooner it was out of the house the better. It had already been enough
trouble. It had distracted her from the roast, and she was sure it would just
keep distracting her from a million other household duties, duties she wouldn't
even realize she had slighted until Frank pointed them out. That book would just
keep getting her in trouble until it was out from under that cushion and back
in the hands of that meddling widow. If she finished the book that day, she
wouldn't have to upset Frank, and she wouldn't have to make any excuses to
pulled the book out from
under the couch cushion and read right through her hunger pangs at lunchtime.
It was better if less food disappeared when Frank wasn't home, anyway. She wouldn't
want him to think she'd had company.
Shirley kept reading, and by the time the sun
was setting, her face was
streaked with tears. She carried the book in front of her, barely glancing away
from the print, as she rose to pluck a tissue from the box on the mantle. She wondered,
why couldn’t I see before? Jeanie’s husband was just like Frank. When
Jeanie went to therapy in the book, Shirley felt as though she was beside her
in the chair, speaking for her—telling the therapist all the things that Frank
did. Am I a battered woman? She certainly didn’t like thinking of herself
that way; what a shameful thing to be. Beneath the shame, Shirley felt an ember
of rage. She hoped the book’s final chapter would burst that ember into flames.
She was tired of feeling scared and sorry. She longed to feel something
different. As she turned the page, a slip of paper fluttered to the carpet.
The following week, Shirley stopped by Lorraine’s
house after bridge club.
The two women sat in the parlor and made small talk over tea. Shirley told
Lorraine that she'd misplaced the cake recipe, and though she told Lorraine not
to trouble herself, Lorraine wrote it out again.
“It's a very simple recipe, Shirley. You'll
know it by heart after making
it just once, and it's so much better than store-bought.”
Shirley swallowed hard and forced herself to smile.
“I'm sure that's
true,” she said, as she tucked the rewritten pound cake recipe into her coupon
said, “So, what do you
think about the book?”
already finished it,” said Shirley
as she dug the book from her purse and extended it to Lorraine. Lorraine grasped
the book, but Shirley didn’t let it go. She kept her grip firm and leaned even closer
to Lorraine. She lowered her voice, “You left something between the pages, right
before chapter thirteen.” Shirley released the book and bit her lip. She
hesitated. “It, sort of, looked like another recipe.” She reached back into her
purse and felt around for the slip of paper.
Lorraine clasped Shirley’s wrist, forcing
her to abandon her search. “You
know, before I moved here, before Doris invited me to join you and Rose at the
bridge club, I was like the girl in that book.”
Shirley shook her head in disbelief. “I
didn’t know. I never would’ve thought
you’d have gone through something like that.”
two women locked eyes. Lorraine
said, “You think we’re really so different?”
Shirley squinted at Lorraine. We as in you
and me, or we as in you and
Jeanie? Even if she asked, she wouldn’t have been sure how to respond.
“All three of us,” said Lorraine.
Shirley took her hand out of her purse and looked
up. No one had ever come
so close to saying it outright—that Frank was abusive. She’d only just admitted
it to herself. The similarities between her own situation and Jeanie’s had been
too striking to ignore.
“The coroner said it was a heart attack,”
Shirley looked at her, confused. “He ruled
it as a homicide,” she said.
Lorraine smiled. “Jeanie’s husband
was rather young though, wasn’t he?” She
zipped Shirley’s purse closed and gave it a little pat.
Shirley's next trip to the grocery store felt
easier. She'd been rationing
butter for two weeks and besides, there were a few more days before bridge
club, and for those few days, she supposed she wouldn't have to use any butter
at all. Then again, they might not be meeting for bridge this week. It wouldn’t
be appropriate. She pushed her cart down the aisles and picked out the same
size roast she always did, and she loaded up the cart with the same things, as
usual. It’s fine that I’m nervous, she thought as she pushed her cart to
the register. I’ve been nervous for as long as anyone in this town has known
When she got home, Frank was in a good mood. He
was out on the patio wiping
grease off the gears of an old, rusted lawnmower. He smiled and grabbed the
glass of beer from the tray she'd brought out. He took a long pull of the beer
and grimaced. “What’d you pour in this,” he said rotating the glass.
Shirley froze. She still couldn’t bring
herself to lie to Frank. Despite
how much she loathed him, and despite the upper hand she had now, she was still
afraid of him. She was certain that he’d know. He’d hear it in her voice.
“Goddamnit, Shirley. Is this the IPA?”
She lowered her eyes and managed a stiff nod.
“Those were for Al, you nitwit. I don’t
drink this crap,” he said, pausing
to take another pull. “Go get me a Budweiser,” he said.
Shirley managed to steady her trembling hand and
reached to take the glass
from her husband. He swatted her hand away and took another sip. Shirley stood
beside him, heart hammering, as she waited for the glass.
“Are you stupid. What are you just standing
there for? Go get me my Bud.”
When Shirley brought the next Budweiser out, the
first glass was nearly
empty. Frank held a finger up at her, as she waited for it. She watched him
swallow the dregs. When he was done, he handed it to her with a grunt.
In the kitchen, Shirley let out her breath. It
felt like she’d been
holding it since her wedding day. She was calmer, still, after she donned her
rubber dish gloves and scrubbed the glass under scalding water. I'm actually
really good at math, Frank, she thought. She glanced at the clock and knew
precisely how much time was left for preparing dinner, how much time she’d have
to wait until Frank’s ‘heart attack.’ She had calculated. She liked the sound
of that: calculated. It seemed like something a powerful woman would do. She
smiled as she placed the roast in the oven and sat at the kitchen table where
she could watch it closely. Tonight, Frank’s roast would be perfect.
Kaiser is a writer of poetry and fiction. Her work has
appeared in literary journals such as Skidrow Penthouse and Meat for
Tea: The Valley Review, among others. She lives with her husband and son in
KJ Hannah Greenberg captures the world in words and images.
Her most recent poetry collection is Rudiments (Seashell Books,
2020), her most recent essay collection is Simple Gratitudes (Propertius
Press, 2020), her most recent short story collection is Demurral:
Linens, and Towel and Fears (Bards& Sages Publishing, 2020), and
her most recent photography collection is 20/20, Eye on Israel (Camel