That Wednesday he finished painting the living room then walked over to Juneau, bought two bags of food and took the bus back. Diane was in the door at six to find him chopping a blood-red pepper for the salad that would go with the chicken he was roasting in the oven, along with the onions, potatoes, carrots and whole cloves of garlic he put in with it. He had a feast planned that included red wine and black olives and a raspberry torte he’d bought at his favorite pastry shop that made them fresh every day.
“Whoa, it smells sooo good. You didn’t tell me you were doing all this. You just said you were buying food, not cooking it. Dessert too!”
“I feel like the family homemaker, moving furniture, painting, cleaning, sweeping, cooking. I should have an apron that says ‘HAPPY HOMEMAKER’. Or something like that.”
“Well, if you keep this going a few more days I’ll show you a good time.”
“You know I might not be around tomorrow night.”
“I know. I know. They don’t have to be consecutive. You can stagger them.”
She went over to him. He put the knife down and gave her a big squeeze and a smack on the lips, a little string of saliva losing the tug of war to her when she pulled away. After it, she picked two strips of pepper off the slicing board, cut one in half with her teeth and closed her mouth over it.
“How was your afternoon? Any easier than the morning?”
“No. It’s still a lot harder than it was before the strike. They’re saying something’s going to break soon.”
With both hands he scooped up the slices of pepper and dropped them in the big ceramic bowl with the lettuce and tomatoes. “I wonder about that,” he said. “They say that stuff to keep morale up.”
“I’m doing things I haven’t done since I was an intern. No one’s happy about it. That’s for sure. I’m not a happy R.N.”
She’d said the same thing when she was back on Monday and Tuesday. Just like today, he listened. He knew her days weren’t easy.
She tipped the bottle of red wine at him. “Do you want some more? I see you’ve already had a couple. Are you okay?”
“It’s been a long day for me too. This handyman-housewife thing is a lot harder than it appears from the outside. Hit me.”
She poured some into the glass he’d left out for her. He held out his own. Did she sense the private plan he was holding in? Or his anxiety about it? A nervousness that was like an athlete anticipating a big game, that’d last until the first play, the first direct contact. It can’t be any other way, he wanted to come clean to her, almost in apology, without explaining anything else. Or did she think it was just the wine that was making him a little nuts? He’d been working on the apartment all day and now he was making dinner for them, a special dinner. That should be enough to cut him some slack. He deserved a little wine even if it was more than a little.
The next morning the alarm buzzed right at six-thirty. It was on the floor next to their bed and his torso hung over the side to turn it off.
“That’s for you, I believe,” he said.
“Shit, Peter, why did we stay up so late?”
“You wanted to show me a good time? And you did. That means I’ll make you breakfast as promised.”
“I don’t think I’m capable of anything right now. I need a shower. Then I need coffee, and more coffee.”
“How’s this sound, scrambled eggs and toast, a sectioned grapefruit, lots and lots of coffee. All for two-twenty-five. Tax and tip not included.”
“I gave you your tip last night.”
“You did. You did.”
She went into the bathroom and shut the door. He was in the kitchen putting a filter in the Melita cone when he noticed the evidence on the table, ten or so thin black droppings around the toaster and salt and pepper shakers. He spotted more on the floor. So their little friend, no doubt seduced by the juicy roasted chicken he’d made, had come back to nibble on whatever bits of food they’d missed cleaning up. It’d never left, he knew. Mice never left a building. They always found a way back in, or they made their own way back.
He wet a paper towel and wiped the table clean. Got the dustpan out from under the sink and the broom from the corner and swept the floor. There was another trail of droppings along the baseboard behind the stove and refrigerator. He gave the wall back there a bang with his fist in warning. He hit it again a little harder. He looked around some more, but didn’t see any new holes. He’d deal with the problem after Diane went to the hospital. He didn’t want to tell her about it right now. He wanted to make her breakfast and send her off without having to think about a mouse frightening her when she got back later on. He found some humor that a woman who could dress the deepest wound or manage a patient with the gravest illness could be so afraid of a little mouse.
“You were cleaning up mouse shit? We have that little bastard again.”
His secret didn’t keep her from wondering what the banging had been about. Why did he need the broom and dustpan when they’d cleaned up after dinner?
She was in the doorway, in her bathrobe. She continued to rub her hair dry with a thick bath towel. He was at the stove all ready to crack four extra-large eggs into the bowl he’d add milk to and beat with a fork before scrambling them in the frying pan. On the table, sections of grapefruit were spread on two plates in the neat order of a crescent moon. Slices of wheat bread were in the toaster, the coffee done dripping through the Melita cone, the pot under it half full.
He turned the heat down under the pan and used a voice that would worry her the least. “I’m not sure. Maybe.”
But she saw in his face the answer was yes. “Just say it. We’re never getting rid of them. Shit. You said the poison would keep them out of here.”
He put the fork in the bowl and held out his hands. “Traps are the only way. Breaking their little necks is the ultimate discouragement. It passes down to later generations. Don’t eat anything in there, it’s a sure death sentence. I’ll get some at the hardware store.”
She got dressed in her white uniform, the shirt and pants, and the soft-soled shoes that were also white. She looked so pure in it, an angel with nothing to tell the priest in the confessional except for a few minor indiscretions that couldn’t be resisted forever. But he knew better than that, of course. As for indiscretions, she was a devil in disguise.
He scrambled the eggs, buttered the toast, poured mugs of coffee for both of them. It was the coffee she went for first, like a woman who’d been without water for days would go right to the tap. She made a little slurping noise as she held it there for a moment.
They ate the eggs and toast and grapefruit. They had only twenty minutes before Diane had to get to the corner and into her car and drive to the South Side. He felt distant, already anticipating what might come later on. Would it be a go or not? But the meal he’d made for them kept him with her, a shared activity that kept them attached.
“Will you still be at the bookstore when I get back?”
“I think so. Unless Neil’s not going to be around. If he’s not, there won’t be anything for me to do.”
“Well tonight I’ll bring dinner home. How does a salad and sandwiches sound?”
“That’s good enough for me.” He looked at his plate, scraped up a gob of scrambled egg and brought it to this mouth.
He hadn’t told her Willie was coming down too. He wanted as few questions as possible. She’d find that out another time, soon enough, some night over dinner it’d slip out in a conversation. Gail would say, he drove down and got back late. Did you guys have company? Is that why he didn’t stay with you?”