Prose: Gene Twaronite
The Woman Who Came for Lunch
Who is she? the old man muttered, peeking through the window. And why is she making a sandwich in my kitchen?
The old man continued to stare as if he had never seen a person make a sandwich before. He watched her delicate hands caressing and alternating the provolone, Swiss, salami, turkey, and deli loaf, and tingled at the thought of being one of the slices. But who is she?
The old man forgot all about the newspaper he had gone to retrieve from behind the hedge. Shivering, he pulled his bathrobe around him. It was just not right. Strange women don’t suddenly appear, at least not in his house. Maybe he should call the police and ask them if a missing person had been reported. He felt a headache coming on. Why do these things always happen to me?
The old woman tried to concentrate on her sandwich, but she did not like being stared at. Who is he? Maybe he’s the gardener. But why was he wearing only slippers and a bathrobe?
She picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1. Please help me. There’s a man standing outside my window in his bathrobe watching me make a sandwich. What does he look like? Well, he looks kind of sad…and hungry, too. And he’s got really nice gray hair.
Then the old woman gave the dispatcher an address, which was the only one she could remember. It was the house in Brooklyn where she was born.
Now she’s using my phone. The old man was furious. Who knows, she’s probably calling some secret lover in Australia or Japan. He peeked at her again and at the way the late morning sun illuminated the gray speckles in her curly hair. Yes, she would be just the type to have many secret lovers. The thought filled him with sadness. Yet he was also happy for her. A beautiful woman like that deserves to have many lovers.
Still, this did not change anything. There was a strange woman in his kitchen and his feet were getting cold. What should he do?
Maybe he should just go inside and find out. It was not his first choice. All his life the old man had tried to avoid direct confrontations. There was usually a safe way around any problem. No sense asking for trouble. Still, it was his house and his food. There was only one thing to do.
The old woman looked out the window but the gardener was gone. She decided to call him that after remembering who he reminded her of. It was the handsome, gray-haired gardener who tended the botanical garden that she had visited with her father when she was eight years old. One day, the gardener tipped his hat and bowed, handing her a gardenia. It was the most romantic thing she had ever experienced. Often she would think about him, wishing she could hurry and grow up so she could meet him again.
She sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the sandwich on her plate. She was not hungry now. Eating alone was no fun. Had it always been this way? It didn’t seem so long ago that…what? She struggled to regain some clue to her recent past, but it was no use. Yet she felt there was something or someone important that she should remember. She hated herself. What kind of person would forget such a thing? But why did something she couldn’t remember cause her such pain?
The old man decided to walk around the block first before confronting the woman. There was nothing in the world, he believed, that couldn’t be walked out. He pulled his bathrobe tighter. Maybe he should have changed first. But it was a short block and he was already at the corner of Mayflower Street. The old man stopped and gaped at the street sign. He knew every corner of this neighborhood and there was no Mayflower Street. How could a new street just appear?
Maybe he had somehow gone past the street where he was supposed to turn. The old man spun around and retraced his steps. When in doubt, start from the beginning, he muttered. But the street he had lived on for thirty-six years was nowhere in sight. All the houses seemed out of place. He ran back to the corner to read the sign again – Mayflower and…Hope. That’s not my street, he thought. But then, what exactly was it? He tried every memory trick he could think of. But the name had vanished.
He wandered up and down one street after another, searching for some clue that might lead him home. But none of the street names sounded right. With mounting panic, he swept the landscape for some familiar feature, but the harder he looked the more alien it appeared. Nothing made any sense.
The old man started to run, anywhere that might take him away from this nightmare. He was about to give up and ring the nearest doorbell for help when he noticed the house. He was sure he had seen it before. Was he was going in circles? Not a good sign, old boy. Yet there was something more. Perhaps it was the way one of its windows was framed by the evergreen hedges. Or maybe it was the silhouette of a woman eating a sandwich by the window. He knew that woman, but from where? He crept in for a closer look.
The old woman ate her sandwich in an unwelcome silence. She strained to hear some comforting sound from the house, something that would tell her things were all right. But all she could hear was her own nasal breathing. She put down her teacup and it made an awful crash on its saucer. It’s all wrong.
She began thinking of the gardener again. And she imagined him sitting across from her at the table. He was still wearing his khaki uniform, all worn and green-stained, though his hat was on the rack by the door. She was all grown up now, but he was still the same age as he would always be. He looked into her eyes and planted a gardenia in her hand. The old woman lifted it to her nose and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. All these years, she had wanted to say so much to him, to tell him all her dreams and private thoughts. But now, she couldn’t think of anything to say. And when she opened her eyes, the gardener was gone.
The old man slipped quietly through the backdoor and into the hallway. Everything suddenly seemed familiar. Off the hallway to the right he knew was the kitchen. Somehow he had found his way home. He was about to drop to his knees and kiss the floor when he remembered the strange woman in the kitchen. A bead of sweat trickled down his nose as he began to shake. Who is she? Steady, old boy. He gripped the sides of his father’s old desk and stared into the hallway mirror.
Then he remembered. It was something he had hidden. Now which drawer was it? Quietly, he pulled open one drawer after another. Each was filled with hundreds of boxes and bottles. He opened several of the containers, only to find smaller and smaller empty containers, apparent decoys for whatever treasures lay concealed there. Where did all these come from? Could someone else be hiding things here? None of the containers seemed familiar. Frustrated, he sat down at the desk. Where was it? Instinctively, he felt behind the black plastic trays inside the desk. Then he found it – a thin cigar box wedged tightly behind the trays. He opened it and gazed upon the objects of his memories: a fossil Trilobite, three packages of colored rubber bands, a golf score card, a headless British tin soldier, two cancelled movie tickets, and a ripped out page from a department store catalog. He held the page reverently. There she was, still as beautiful as ever. Modeling a sleek gown, she was all that a teenage boy could wish for in a woman: beautiful, mature and understanding, someone who would not laugh and who would gladly share his life with him forever. He had been especially taken with the model’s pearl necklace and gray-speckled hair and the way she primly crossed her legs in the ad. Suddenly he knew who the strange woman in the kitchen was. He closed the box and placed it back in its hiding place. Then he headed for the kitchen, but not before plucking one gardenia from the garden.
Startled, the strange woman turned around as the old man entered. When she saw him standing there framed by the kitchen archway, she smiled as she had not smiled in years. Her gardener was back. He bowed and handed her the gardenia. Stroking her pearl necklace, the woman primly crossed her legs and pulled out a chair.
Would you like a sandwich?