The Hand That Feeds You
The room is small and musty, the stark, dingy walls whitewashed with yellow water stains. She sits in a hard metal chair, her hand wrapped around a coffee cup. Above her the light fixture sways back and forth, creaking like a worn out rocking chair. The motion casts shadows on the walls making it appear as if someone is in the room with her. It is eerie, the almost silence. Sudden shuffling of feet and muffled voices causes her to sit up straight. As they move on down the hall she slumps back in the chair, eyes fighting to stay open. She is sleepy even though the room is cold and uninviting.
She can’t remember the last time she had a good night’s sleep, one eye always open looking for the unknown intruder who invades her dreams. The harsh, dark voice whispering to her, “Confess your sins.”
He had brought the dog home when it was just a puppy. A noisy, messy puppy, chewing up slippers and the morning paper, doing its business on the floor. The first time the puppy peed on the floor she was forced to clean it up.
He would roll around with the puppy. The animal shed all over his clothes as they played like children, her husband laughing and the puppy bounding about. “Who’s a good boy, whose daddy’s good boy?” He’d be on all fours nose to nose with the puppy, both of them with tails wagging. The puppy would yelp and snap at her husband’s nose pretending to pounce. His affection for the animal puzzled her, his physical closeness with it even more.
Her friends found him peculiar but she shrugged it off. All professor types could be a bit odd. She thought him charming. His peculiarities were subtle at first, the wiping of hands on his trouser leg after he had held her hand. She found his attention to detail, as he called it, endearing, cups on saucers placed just right, cans rotated by date in the pantry and underwear folded in thirds and placed in drawer by color and when last worn.
The night they were married he ran a warm bubble bath, lit candles and a poured her a glass of wine. Once she was in the tub his warm hand was on her inner thigh. Then with careful strokes of the razor her black curly pubic hair was replaced with a slick, peach colored mound of flesh, a prepubescent expression between her legs. If he were to touch her she had to be clean and shaved. That was always the expectation. Now after all her shaving and washing she watched as an animal licked his face, his hands, his ears.
They had met when she was student in his philosophy class. He was handsome, brilliant, and she fell in love with him for all the clichéd reasons. “Ms. Hardy, would you mind giving us your thoughts on the central theme of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Do you find he demonstrates some bitterness toward religion?”
She had blushed. He rarely called on anyone to give an opinion during class. Fumbling with her pen she stumbled about. “Well, he, uh…he thought…”
“Oh, come now. You argue quite eloquently in your essays. No need to stumble about so.”
She sat up straight at the compliment. “Nietzsche has a commanding knowledge of the Bible, warning his readers not be sheep. He thought God not a metaphysical reality, but… well in layman’s term, God was just in our heads.” Her classmates chuckled. He doesn’t respond to her answer.
“Class dismissed. Ms. Hardy could you please stay I need to chat with you.” He asked if she would be interested in joining him for dinner, with a group of friends. Even though she blushed at this improper behavior between a professor and his student, she immediately accepted.
“Oh I would love to!” She had looked away embarrassed by her prompt and rather teenage girl like response. He’d laughed “Aren’t you the silly girl? Meet me here, tomorrow evening, at seven.”
Their second date had been at a coffee shop on the university campus. He had inquired about her need to have children. “I don’t recall saying I wanted children.”
“All women want children.” He stated it as a matter of fact. She did want children. Growing up as an only child with just her mother, the thought of big dinners around the kitchen table filled her heart with joy. But after two years of marriage she found herself childless. When she raised the possibility of fertility testing he told her he’d had a vasectomy while in his 30's.
“I told you I didn’t want children. Besides it is your job to keep my dog clean and fed.” He indicated to her that the dog was just like having a child, but less work and when he too old he could be put to sleep. “Can’t do that with kids now can we pumpkin? Don’t forget to brush his teeth, his breath is horrendous. What have you been feeding him?”
His intellect was irresistible. One evening during dinner she propped her elbows on the table, her head in her hands as she listened to him talk. He finished his sentence and then reached over and slapped her elbows out from underneath her. Her right elbow knocked over the wine glass, shattering it as it hits the floor of their formal dining room.
“I understand you may not have been taught manners growing up, so I will let it go this time. Don’t do it again. Now clean up your mess.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin and left the table.
She had only taken the philosophy class, where they’d met, to fulfill a requirement. It seemed more interesting than the other humanities electives the college offered. She was studying art education. Her aspiration was to own a studio where people could come and learn to draw, paint, sculpt or whatever their hearts desired. To her art was making love with the medium at hand.
She had been upstairs painting and he walked in behind her. “You really don’t have an eye for clean lines.” He cocked his head to one side. “So, messy. No depth.” Embarrassed she put the paint brush down. She did return to her painting a few more times, but the fear of his ridicule made her too anxious to create.
She soon grew tired of always being at home with only the tedious chores to keep her occupied and the dog to keep her company. The burden of running the household made her nervous and tense. She found it difficult to know when she would please him or worse, displease him. “Why can’t I work?” She had asked him one day.
“Why would you want to?” He seemed confused by the question. “Don’t I provide for you? Most women would kill to be in your position, besides your job is to take care of me and the household. My wife will not sully her hands with mundane work or her mind with mediocre personalities.” He waved her away. The authoritarian manner allowed her to believe he was looking out for her, taking care of her.
Every morning, at breakfast, his routine was the same, newspaper folded to a razor sharp edge; which he laid to the left of his place mat, the rough edge one-half inch from his plate, the bottom edge lined up with the edge of the table. He would tilt his head to the side, making sure it was lined up correctly. If it wasn’t he would start all over again. Picking the paper up, he’d take his thumb and finger of his left hand and run them down the edge of the paper, squeezing it tightly to make sure the seam was pressed to his satisfaction.
He had to have a spoon, fork and knife to eat the same meal every morning. Two eggs sunny side up, toast cut into four squares, buttering done after cutting. With his fork and knife he would cut the egg into four pieces. Using his fork he would pick up one square of the toast, place that on top of the egg section, count to five and using his spoon scoop the combined mess into his mouth. The last piece of egg left on the plate was placed on the floor where the dog would lick it up, pushing the plate around with its nose trying to get it all.
And he inspected the dishes. At random times he would pull them out of the cabinet and look for any plate that might be less than squeaky clean. “Are you rinsing them in bleach water and letting them air dry?”
He always found something. “Can you not feel this?” He rubbed his fingers across the plate. “Here.” Grabbing her hand he forced her fingers across the offending spot. “Wash them again.”
“I don’t feel anything” she said the first time he held an inspection. Talking the plate from his hand she put it back in the cabinet. The dog was beside him; as usual, he reached down to pet it. “You are a good doggy aren’t you? You mind your daddy don’t you?” When she turned back to him, he stood and his fist slammed into her left jaw. “I said wash them again.”
Dozing off she catches herself just before she falls out of the chair. Her neck is sore from flinging her head upright each time she begins to doze off. She takes a sip of her coffee and spits the cold bitter liquid back into the cup. She gets up and looks out the small window in the door. Nervous, she begins to chew on her fingernails. A habit given up long ago, but not really. In the last year she chewed on them relentlessly.
Her husband hated it. “Stop that.” He would smack her hand out of her mouth. “What are you a cave woman? That is disgusting. Don’t do it again or I will pour a bottle of hot sauce down your throat.” He touched her face gently. “You have beautiful hands; I just want them to stay that way.”
One morning, after numerous attempts to get his paper just right, his eggs had gone cold. “Fix me two more.”
“Of course.” She stood up from the table and pushed her chair in. She watched as he patted his leg and the dog jumped up, putting its paws on the master’s trousers. He petted the dog on the head, mussing its fur like one would a small child. She walked to the stove. The egg carton waits open and she placed her hand on one of the eggs. He cleared his throat. Without even turning around she knew what he was doing. “How many times have I asked you not to place red roses in with the pink ones?” Every morning the flowers were a matter of dismay for him. The arrangement never suited his taste.
She cracked the egg against the side of the skillet and stares at the golden runny liquid dribbling out into the hot pan. The eggs sizzled and popped in the grease.
Grabbing the pan with both hands she picked it up oblivious to the hot grease spattering her arms and face. As she stood behind her husband, she planted her feet firmly and swinging her body around, she places the cast iron skillet to the side of his head.
His face lands in the plate of eggs. She struck the back of his head a second time knocking him out of his chair. The floor’s wet from egg and blood making his struggle to get away futile. Her foot went to his chest and she struck him two more times in the face.
He was quiet. Yellow and white globs of cold egg, mixed with blood, run down the side of his face. She knelt down beside him to remove the pieces of toast from his hair.
“Why dear, you have egg on your face.” She laughed surprised at her sudden wit. If he could only see himself. He would be mortified at his disheveled appearance. Standing up she wiped the tears of laughter from her face.
“I’m glad you’re dead.” She kicked her dead husband in the face and then in the head. She picked the skillet off the floor and threw it at him, hitting him in the chest. The dog sniffed around the body, whimpering. She had killed the dog’s master.
There is the sound of a key in the door. A detective walks into the room and tosses a thick clear plastic bag on the table. She leans forward. Inside the bag is a hand, partially decomposed, fingernails still neatly manicured. The bones are brown, stained from months of exposure to the dirt they were buried in. Looking closer she recognizes the wedding ring.
The dog had dug up her her sin and deposited it on the steps of the nearest neighbor, a mile away. The offensive, smelly and rotted secret greeted the ten-year-old neighbor’s son as he went outside to play. She hated that damn dog. She should have taken it to the pound but she kept the dog, out of some irrational guilt. Why hadn’t she taken that cast iron skillet to the skull of that dog as well? Buried them both together. Happy forever.
The detective takes a seat across from her. She breathes a heavy sigh. Her head goes back and she looks at the ceiling. A smile begins to grow across her face. She hears the voice of her grandmother. “Every southern woman needs a juicy cast iron skillet story.”
“Do you like eggs, detective?”
“I don’t care much for them, but my husband sure liked them. He liked them sunny side up, fried in a cast iron skillet.”