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Jenise Aminoff is a writer who lives in Cambridge, MA. She works as a web designer, tech writer, and instructor. Her fiction has appeared in Dark Planet and in genrEZONE, and her poetry has appeared in Terra Incognita.

 

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Gingerbread

by Jenise Aminoff

 

Adele sat in her kitchen and stared at her oven. She loved cooking and adored baking, but she had little enough reason to do any. Her children were long since grown and fled to different cities, counties, states. Her husband, too, had Passed On and been buried at the base of the cottonwood tree in the back yard.
She had often thought of asking her closest son, the one a hundred miles away, if he would come and hang a swing over her husband's grave so that she could swing and talk to him on long summer evenings. But he did live so far away that she hated to impose, and besides, she was more than a little afraid he'd think she was crazy.
Honestly, she was just lonely, having no one to talk to and little reason to drive the five miles into town. She made reasons, sometimes. A washer for a leaky faucet, though she knew if she rummaged through her husband's workroom, she'd be sure to find one. Or maybe she'd decide to get snow tires in August. Couldn't be too prepared. Best to plan ahead. That day, she'd gone in for raisins, not knowing what she'd do with them, but craving them just the same, not the taste so much as the sweet bubbling smell of them baking in with something nice. Raisins had been Henry's favorite snack: in cookies, on oatmeal, or just plain, bite by sticky sweet bite.
Gingerbread, she decided. I haven't made gingerbread in ages, not since Henry died. And gingerbread she mixed, and gingerbread she shaped and laid out on a pan. She set the oven to 350 and settled back to wait for the scent of baking to fill the house. After twelve precisely timed minutes, she put on her mitts, went to the oven, and pulled the pan out.
He wasn't what she had expected. Darker, for one thing, the color of thick molasses. She ran her hand over him lightly, not wanting to be burned, and he was smooth to the touch, firm but not crisp. Her fingers traced the curves she had sculpted in the dough, now baked to muscle. Adele ran her hand through the chocolate curls on his head, placed her thumb in the hollows of his collarbone, elbow, hip, knee.
She waited, watching him, and when he had cooled enough, he opened his sweet moist raisin eyes and looked at her.
"You're too good to eat," she told him.
"That's fine with me," he said back, his icing-white teeth flashing. And so he stayed.
Monday, when she went into town for her groceries and some shoes for him, her nearest neighbor ran into her as she was coming out of the store.
"Say, Adele, I saw a boy wandering around your place yesterday," he said, and she knew that by "boy" he did not mean child.
"Yes," she said slowly. "He came by a few days ago, looking for work. I needed some chopping done, so I hired him on."
"Looked to me like he was wearing some of Henry's old clothes."
"Well, his were worn to threads, and Henry won't be needing them." She fidgeted, balancing a grocery sack on one hip.
"Surprised you kept them that long." Her nearest neighbor paused in front of her, blocking her way to the car. "Well, just you be careful, Adele. Boys like that can't be trusted. Liable to run off with your silver."
"Ginger's not going to run off," she protested, but he had already moved past her and into the grocer's.

 

Adele knew that news would spread, that speculation would run like wildfire, but she didn't quite expect the results.
Early the next morning, in Henry's overalls and the new shoes she'd bought him, Ginger went out to mow her lawn. She came out on the porch to watch him, the sun shining on his sweet, dark skin as he pushed the mower around and around her yard. The sun glinted off him, especially his brilliantly white teeth and the whites of his eyes.
And then Adele spotted the nearest neighbor's wife. She had paused along the fence surrounding Adele's property with her small spotted dog panting on the end of a leash. Leaning on the fence, the nearest neighbor's wife watched Ginger make his circuits, the neatly clipped strips of lawn stretching out behind him like carpet. She watched, with something like hunger, and the dog panted, and Adele realized that she had to do something.
She stood up on her porch and waved. The nearest neighbor's wife didn't see her at first, so Adele waved more vigorously, frantically, until the dog caught sight of her and started yapping. The woman jumped, then waved back to Adele and marched up the road to the house.
Adele fought her memory and came up with a name. "Hello, Mary," she told the woman mounting the porch steps. "What brings you out this way?"
"Oh," said Mary, flushed from exertion, "Pepper here wanted his walk, and I thought I'd come over the hill for a change."
"Quite a walk," Adele murmured. Then, "Would you like some tea?" she said, to be polite.
"Thank you," Mary told her, wiping her forehead. "Don't mind if I do."
Adele fetched her a tall glass of tea with mint and honey, and they fell to talking while Ginger spiraled tighter and tighter around the yard. They talked about dogs and children and porches, on brewing tea and drying herbs and canning tomatoes come fall. They talked about the church bazaar coming up and the new department store in the next town over and whether the local Kiwanis Club would finally give up and fold. They had just started discussing bridge and where two more players could be found when the silence hit.
Ginger stood on the porch beside them, his skin glistening like melted sugar glaze, the mower silent on the perfect green. "The lawn's all finished, Miz Adele," he said.
Adele swallowed hard. She felt suddenly dizzy, like a bee who had circled a particular flower once too often. "Thank you, Ginger," she said, her voice squeaking. "Why don't you go in and get yourself some tea?"
He ran a hand over his curls, saying "Thank you" sweetly, and stepped inside the house. Both women breathed out.
"Well," Mary said. "Thank you for the tea. I'd best be going."
"You take care, now," Adele said, and then added slowly, "Come by and visit again."
Mary beamed a smile at her and tugged the little dog down the steps. Adele watched them until they disappeared over the hill that marked the edge of her property.
The next morning, as Ginger went around mending the fence, Mary showed up again, and the mayor's wife dropped in to hand out a flyer for the next election. Her name turned out to be Louise, and she, too, stayed for tea to the rhythm of Ginger's hammer on the whitewashed boards. They talked about blueberry picking and national parkland and property taxes. They debated sex education in schools and censorship in general, and they complained about the new rise in rates for the ferry across the river. They had just begun talking about starting up a quilting bee when the hammering stopped, and Ginger came in for his tea, and the ladies scattered from the porch like wind.
Adele, watching them go, sighed. Then she picked up the glasses and went in.
The next day, when Adele came out onto her porch, Mary and the old maid from down the lane were leaning on the newly mended fence, chatting and waiting. Mary, who had not bothered to bring the dog, spotted her instantly and steered the woman up to the porch. "Hello, Adele!" she cried. "I just found out that Ida Mae here plays bridge. Isn't that grand?"
"Mmm, yes," Adele agreed. "Grand."
"I thought that if Louise showed up, we could start a game." Mary paused. "Where's Ginger?"
"He's out back fixing the motor on the tractor. I thought I'd have him mow the north field Friday."
"Oh," Mary said, and her face puckered slightly as it had when Adele had put too much lemon in her tea. But then Louise drove up, and she had brought a pie, and Ida Mae had brought her cards, so Adele brought out the tea, and they played bridge until noon, when Ginger came onto the porch pulling grease-smeared gloves from his perfect brown hands.
Adele offered to make him lunch, and then felt obliged to invite everyone to lunch, which they all declined with one excuse or another and scattered, drunk on tea or the sight of Ginger.
That evening, Adele handed Ginger some rope and led him out into the back yard.
"I'd like you to hang me a swing from this cottonwood, Ginger."
He grinned at her. "Sure, Miz Adele. Nothing to it." Slinging the rope over one shoulder, he shimmied up the tree. As he tied the rope firmly to the branch over Henry's grave, Adele spoke to him, casting her words up through the branches.
"Ginger, have any of the ladies who come visiting spoken to you?"
"Oh, yeah," he called down. "Miz Mary talked to me the first day she came."
"Really?" Adele asked, feeling her hands clench. "And what did she say?"
"She said I did a good job, that she had work for me up at her place. She said she'd pay me better than you did."
Adele shook a little. "And what did you tell her?"
"I told her I've got too much to do here."
A length of rope fell at her feet. "That's good, Ginger. You know, don't you, that these women don't mean you any good. Don't let one of them catch you alone. If you let them take you, you'd melt away to nothing inside them, you know that?"
Ginger laughed, and the leaves danced and shook with his laughing. "Don't worry, Miz Adele. I'm too fast for them. No woman's going to catch me." A second section of rope fell, then Ginger let himself drop to the ground right in front of her.
She could touch him. She could reach out and grab him, feel his chest under Henry's shirt, run her fingers over his gingerbread thighs. She could lay him down there, under the willow, press her lips to his molasses skin, and bite. She stepped forward, her hand outstretched.
And stumbled. She had forgotten about the slight mound of Henry's grave, and before she recovered her balance, Ginger moved away, out of range, to get the seat for her swing.
I can't catch him either, she thought. What would I do without him?

 

For the next two weeks, the bridge club came together on the porch to sip tea and take tricks and watch Ginger coddle life back into Adele's tiny patch of farmland. They talked as they played about bridge strategies (of which Ida Mae knew plenty) and bingo night at the church and more about the bazaar. They talked about home crafts and white elephants and baked goods (during which Adele snuck guilty glances at Ginger). They talked about holidays and family get-togethers, and finally, Louise got around to asking Adele to a quilting bee at her place that weekend.
Adele didn't know whether to thank them or accuse the women of luring her away from her farm and Ginger. Instead, what came out was, "My, Louise, won't your husband mind us women taking over his living room?"
Louise gave her an embarrassed smile. "Oh, no. Bob's much too busy working on his election. He won't notice a thing. Sometimes he doesn't come home for days."
"Well, what about you, Mary? Won't your man mind you taking off on the weekend?" Adele stirred her tea softly.
"Oh, Nicky will want to go fishing," she said sarcastically. "He takes off with his pole and tackle box every weekend. Just throws the stuff in back of his truck and heads out for the far side of the tracks. Good fishing there."
The women of the bridge club squirmed. They knew the seedy hotel that squatted beside the tracks, knew the sort of women that waited in its lobby. For a moment, Adele pitied Mary.
She glanced at Ida Mae, never married, who nodded gravely at her as if to say, I know why you did it. I'd get myself a boy like that, too, if I could, oh, yes. I know. But Ida Mae was a terrible cook.
"Well," Adele said loudly. "I'd love to come to the bee. We'll have a grand time, we four. I'll bring a casserole."
The other women chimed in, promising their own goodies. Ida Mae would make the tea. It was then that Adele remembered her third-youngest grandchild's birthday with mild horror.
"I can't bear to go," she told the bridge club. "My nearest son's wife can't stand me, and it'll be nothing but insults and whining about inheritances if I go."
"Oh, what a pity!" Louise said. "It works best with four, you know. I so wanted you there, Adele." And she reached out her free hand and put it over Adele's.
"Yes," Mary said, and it seemed that, just this once, Mary looked at her, not Ginger. "It would have been grand, the four of us going at it all day. Just us girls." She laughed.
Ida Mae just smiled and shook her head.
Adele glanced out at Ginger, the gleam of his teeth visible even from this distance, and the idea hit her. "I'll send Ginger," she announced.
Silence fell over the table. Finally, Mary spoke up. "You can't be serious."
"Of course I'm serious," Adele said. "Ginger is perfectly trustworthy."
"It's not Ginger," Louise piped up, then blushed and stared at her cards.
Adele spluttered. "What then? Why shouldn't I send him?"
It was Ida Mae who finally spoke up. "It's the ferry driver. That red-headed girl from out of state. We've all heard the rumors. My nephew's best friend from the next county over got tangled in a divorce over that girl. She's sly as a fox, she is. Waits until some poor man's stuck on her ferry alone and stops it there until he gives in."
Adele laughed at them. "You're all crazy. Ginger would never let a woman like that catch her. There's no woman alive that can catch Ginger," she added and instantly regretted it.
The conversation dropped off after that, and even though Ginger had not yet come in for his lunch, the game ended early, and the bridge club blew away on the afternoon breeze.

 

Saturday morning, Adele dressed Ginger in Henry's best, handed him the hastily wrapped package and the keys to the car, and had him drive her to Louise's.
"Now, my nearest son's across the river and down the highway about fifty miles," she told him along the way, cradling the casserole in her lap. "Turn left at the tourist shop in the shape of an Indian teepee, go another thirty miles, over the bridge, and into town. It's Summerset Street, third house on the left. Here's a lunch I packed for you. Don't drive too fast, and be careful if it rains."
Ginger laughed at her. "Boy, aren't you just my mother? Don't worry, Miz Adele. I'll be fine."
Adele nodded. "I'm sure you will, but all the same, watch out for that ferry girl. I hear she's a slick one."
"Can't catch me," Ginger sang out. "I'm too fast."
He pulled up to Louise's, and Adele clambered out, casserole balanced on one hip. Through the lacy curtains on Louise's front window, she could see three faces peering out. Adele gave him a kiss on the cheek and watched him pull away. For hours after that she could still taste gingerbread on her lips.
The quilting bee was unnaturally quiet, subdued. Each of them stitched steadily, almost frantically, sneaking glances at the grandfather clock in Louise's parlor. Two hours passed, then three, four. He should be back soon, Adele thought. He'll be pulling up in front any time now. Any time now.
When the quilt was done and the last of the casserole was gone and no one could think of anything to say that wouldn't make matters worse, Adele collected her dish and caught a ride home with Mary. They rode in silence, and Adele could feel Mary thinking, I told you so, you damn fool. I told you that ferry girl was no good, and now she's got him. You could have let one of us have him. You may not have wanted him yourself, you dried-up old sow, but we did. We did.
Adele got home and set the dish in the sink, not bothering to wash it. She fixed herself a glass of tea and sat out on the porch, alone, to wait, thinking, he'll call any time now. "Sorry, Miz Adele," he'll say. "I had car trouble, but I'll be home directly." She waited until the sun had begun to set, and then she left the glass on the porch and wandered out to the backyard.
Adele sat on her new swing and talked out loud, saying, "Henry, Henry, he's not coming back. I couldn't catch him either, and he's not coming back."

 

THE END