Emma’s hands were immersed in hot, sudsy water when the screen door squealed open and then slammed shut. She turned and smiled at Deloris who kicked off a pair of plain black pumps before she wiggled her toes on the cracked linoleum.
“Well I did it,” Deloris said, and flashed a Cheshire Cat smile at Emma. Using two hands to open the cupboard door so it wouldn’t fall out of the hinges, she grabbed her favourite mug–World’s Best Fly Fisherman, it proclaimed–and then she padded to the coffee pot.
Emma paused to push wilted bangs from her face with her forearm. “And?” she asked.
Deloris poured a cup of the bitter brew, took a sip, made a face, then blew across its surface before taking a longer drink. “Well, I still have all my teeth,” she chuckled. “It went down just like you said it would.” She gave Emma’s shoulder a shy touch, put her cup on the counter, and picked up a clean dishtowel. “He said thanks to my heads-up last month; he already had a couple of jobs lined up. He was actually grateful for my honesty, and didn’t throw one punch. So because of you I still have my good looks.”
Emma returned her smile. Deloris was good-looking. With her football player mascara gone, her eighties bangs toned down, and the animal print outfits secured away in a Goodwill Hamper, Deloris was a real catch. Now she just had to believe it.
“And your day?” Deloris asked.
Pulling the stopper in the sink, Emma shrugged, and then rinsed the soap bubbles down. “Same old, same old,” she said. But her gaze flickered across the room, and over to the cupboard door above the fridge. “That woman I told you about last week came in and single-handedly destroyed the shoe section – again. I had to count to ten before I could force myself to help her.”
Deloris put the last dish away then grabbed a pack of dog-eared cards held together by a thick elastic band. “Whose go?” she asked.
“Your deal,” Emma said.
“Something smells good,” Deloris said. She split the deck in two and started to shuffle.
“It’s chicken casserole – with a twist. I found the recipe on the back of a soup can. I hope it tastes as good as it smells.”
Deloris flipped them six cards each and then groaned when she looked at her hand. Emma smiled. Deloris always groaned when she had good cards.
When they were half way through the game, the kitchen door banged again; Emma’s daughter, Peta, stood in the doorway. “Hi Mom. Hi Deloris,” she said, and dropped her book bag on the floor. “Yum, dinner smells great.” She stooped and gave Emma a quick peck on the cheek.
“I got science homework,” Peta said, then headed down the hall to her room. The hinges creaked in protest when her door opened and closed. A second later her music blasted full volume, but was suddenly muted. “Sorry Mom,” came a muffled call.
Deloris and Emma exchanged looks and smiled. “Fifteen two, and three twos make eight,” Deloris said.
“Standard eight, and one for nibs,” replied Emma. She held the painted blue toothpick in the air as she waited to peg her points. Then it was her turn to deal, her hands moved on autopilot, even though the soft cards made it difficult to shuffle. The picture of a rolled lottery ticket inside an empty soup can, and stashed in the back of the high cupboard, made it tough to concentrate. All the numbers on it matched the two and a half million dollar prize, her name signed on the bottom claiming the stake.
The money wasn’t enough to restore them to their pre-2008 status, but it was enough to buy a nice new house, and to put Peta and Maxie through college. There would even be enough left over to give David a chance to get back in the game.
She thought of Maxie, bitter and disillusioned, fifteen when they had lost everything, at first living with them in the motel which only turned the hot water on once a week, then lying on a hospital gurney while the doctors pumped her stomach. Fleeing to her grandmother’s once she had been discharged. And Peta, eight years old, large grey eyes on a little elfin face, clutching a one-armed doll.
Emma looked at her hands, blunt fingernails, still red from the hot water and soap, strong hands, no longer manicured and soft. She thought of David. Of his face, haggard, hunched over the Want Ads every morning. Of his suits, as they slowly lost their luster, even though he meticulously brushed them every night. And of his long bouts of wakeful silence and quiet weeping, when he thought she was asleep.
It had been hard, almost too hard. They had been a hair’s breadth from being turned out of that shitty motel and into the street when she landed her first job as a waitress, then David exchanging his suits for jeans and plaid work shirts, coming home triumphant, a labourer in the local plant. After six months, they finally had enough to rent a house – this house.
Then meeting Deloris, a cigarette glued onto crimson caked lips, as she clip-clopped around the house in clear plastic, four-inch heels, warning them that if she didn’t get her money by the first of every month she wouldn’t think twice about kicking their collective asses into the cold.
The worst was finding the letter from Jennifer, David’s ex-secretary, explaining how she had lost the baby, begging him to take her back. He told Emma it had been over almost before it began; he had no idea why he had kept the letter. Then he was the one doing the begging. He said he couldn’t do it alone. It was only the prestige of his position which had women throwing themselves at him. Emma was the true love of his life.
The shock, fear, and bitterness were behind them now. David, smiling and joking as they played Hearts on the weekends with friends. “I don’t even miss the clubhouse,” he had told her last week. “It was always just a big sausage party. Everyone trying to outdo each other. I was an asshole when I was with those guys,” he admitted. Then he scooped her into his arms and kissed her, his whiskers scraping her cheeks and his tongue twining with hers and tasting of mint.
“Are you going to deal those cards, or were you thinking of shuffling the tits off the queens,” Deloris asked.
“That was dee-lish,” David said. He carried their plates to the sink while Emma sat sipping her iced tea. He turned and leaned up against the counter, his arms crossed over a flat stomach. “I’m getting a raise,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling under the fluorescent lighting.
“Oh David,” she breathed. “That’s wonderful.”
“Not only that,” he said, his face flushed pink, “but they offered me Lead Hand. That means no more night shifts. And if I do a good job I’ll be eligible for foreman by this time next year.”
That weekend they celebrated with cheap champagne and spaghetti at their new favourite restaurant. Maxie with her own news. She had turned in her cheerleader’s uniform and managed to pull off all A’s during her last year, had won two scholarships, as well as a bursary from David’s workplace, so would start at the university this winter. If she worked during her school breaks she would have enough money for four years. Emma watched her family’s happy faces as they ate faux Italian food and laughed at each other’s bad jokes. They finished the festivities at home, eating cake and talking long into the night under the soft glow of candles. Maxie and Peta falling asleep together in Peta’s small bed.
“Coming to bed?” David called.
“I’ll be a minute. I just have to blow out the candles.” She pulled the stool over to the fridge and reached far back into the cupboard, her fingers hooking the soup can. For a long moment she stared at the piece of paper with its promise of change, then dangled it over the flame until it caught.
Emma dropped it back into the can and watched it blacken and curl until it was nothing but ash.
“Campbell’s Chunky Soup,” by Mike Mozart. www.flickr.com. Some rights reserved.