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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Short Story: The Spice of Life… In a Small Town

[Published in Life Will Surprise You in the End (2014).]

The Spice of Life… In a Small Town
It started as an inconsequential, even trivial, comment. Ray and Jolynn Anderson were spending a little time on their porch swing. They liked to swing and talk like this several times a week – just swinging and talking about this and that – several times a day when the weather was fine and nothing needed tending. They would wave to any neighbors who walked or drove by and then they would talk about their neighbors too. Today, they were killing a little time until Jolynn’s usual appointment for a check up with Dr. Madison.
Life in small town Kansas could be demanding in the way that milking cows or taking out the trash or going to church was demanding. There were just things that you had to do regularly and do just-so. And if you didn’t, then somebody would roll their eyes and then, if you still didn’t get on the ball, you started hearing about it. Ray hated it when Miss Bessie, the cow, Mrs. Anderson, his wife, or Pieter Wojicke, the Pastor, rolled their eyes.
Life could also be demanding in the way that a tornado or a wedding or
a new tractor was demanding. These unexpected events produced a sudden change in routine. You could almost look forward to a small tornado – if it didn’t knock down your barn. Ray reflected that it was good that a man could count on his wife and his buddies and his dog and his pastor to be predictable. God and his weather and his foxes, or even a bad rash, added a little spice, but were just something you hoped wouldn’t cause too much trouble.
Now, I don’t mean that Ray didn’t have any ambition. Ray, like all his buddies who met for coffee most mornings down at Mae’s Cafe and Hardware, were honest, hardworking men who took their responsibilities seriously. When the situation called for it, they would spend every waking hour getting the seed planted before it rained or just keeping things in good repair. If God or the foxes were going to cause mischief, it wouldn’t be because these responsible men had failed to patch the barn roof or mend the chicken fence.
Oh yes. I was going to tell you about the thing that started with Ray and Jolynn on their porch swing. As they chatted, Elliot Williamson and Anna Kincaid rode by on their bicycles on their way to somewhere-or-other. Ray observed that they were probably up to no good. Jolynn chided him that they were just kids and that she happened to remember several times, when Ray was younger, that he had definitely been up to no good. With a wink, she dug her elbow into a rib. With a wince, he draped his arm across her shoulder.
About that same time, Wanda Tillotsen walked by on her way to the post office with her son. Wanda had her little Bobby on a dog leash, fastened to what looked like a 5-point harness around his torso. Like your typical small dog, Bobby was running in circles that threatened to hobble his mother. “That kid’s gonna be good at calf roping,” observed Ray. Jolynn countered, “Yeah, but Wanda’s keeping him out of the street.” She could see Ray frowning like when he was trying to start up his favorite old 1944 Farmall H tractor. Eventually, Ray added, “Lets be sure to never get one of those little terrier dogs.”
Jolynn thought back to to when their children had been young — back before they moved away to the city — back to when their house had been full of children and dogs and movement and noise and urgency. She thought back to when she and Ray had still occasionally got up to no good.
Jolynn remembered when she had eventually tried to fire up Ray’s ignition with one brand of perfume after another. He usually didn’t notice at all. One time, he sniffed the air and asked if somebody had been using bug spray. She finally gave up when, one evening, she had evidently scratched an itch on her head while making peanut butter sandwiches for the kids’ next-day school lunches. That night, Ray had surprised her with a hug and murmured in her ear, “Mmm, you smell good.” Jolynn had rolled her eyes and then rolled over.
It didn’t help her attitude that, in fact, Ray didn’t smell particularly yummy. He wasn’t rancid like some other husbands in town, but he had that plain manly scent to him. She didn’t wish that he smelled of orchids or lilacs. She didn’t wish that he smelled of cinnamon, or ginger, or vanilla. But, a splash of Old Spice would have been nice. Maybe something to cover the lingering scent of bearing grease and chicken shit from his boots in the corner.
Yes, their lives could use a little spicing up. Ray was not a spicy kind of guy. He didn’t tease her with suggestive double entente in their conversation, furtive pats on the rump in Church or even opportunistic gropes in the barn. He liked his meat salted but not peppered. He even liked his pumpkin pie as plain as she could stand to make it. Jolynn always put in a quarter-teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg, insisting that you simply had to have a little spice in your life.
They had both been quiet for a bit, absorbed in private thoughts when Ray suddenly spoke. “You ever notice all the local kids look alike?” Two little creases appeared at the top of Jolynn’s nose. Ray didn’t notice and plunged on, “You’d think there was something funny going on. Bobby and Elliot could be brothers. That Anna Kincaid is the spitting image of our girl at that age. It’s hard picking kids out of their school group pictures.”
Jolynn allowed as how, being in a mostly-Scandinavian community, that wouldn’t be much of a surprise. Ray allowed as how she had a point. “Well,” Ray said, “I guess you’d better be getting to your appointment.” He also reminded Jolynn to be sure and not forget the spice cake that she had made for Dr. Madison. Jolynn blushed.