She woke up smiling.
It was a beautiful day, and she had to decide on the evening meal before she went shopping. Some of the old cookbooks were already open on the dusty counter, but they really did not offer any advice. Italian? Indian? Greek? Maybe it would be better to choose something that was closer to home. Her dinner guest would not want to be too surprised when he came over that evening for their yearly get-together. Yes, something close to what they already knew would be best.
So, she made her list. In her notebook, she had written down certain ingredients that she could not find on her shelves or in the old fridge. It would not take too long to prepare things, but she knew that passing by the grocery store now before it got too late was best. Yes, that was the best way to do this.
The local greengrocer, Daniel’s Fine Emporium, had most of the things that she would need, but there was still one other stop that she needed to make. Mimi's Spice Rack. Rolling her wheeled stroller behind her, she was overtaken by the richly spiced air and the flickering neon behind the counter that functioned like a strobe light (were they ever going to fix them?) And it was an early morning stop, so the place was still quite quiet, No one was going to be ahead of her in line or block her way down any of the aisles, like last time (a bad moment). Ideal moment, she thought; the absolute best time.
“Ms. Mary, good morning! Same as ever?”
She recognized Mr. Michael, a man heavy around his waist but still quite handsome with the mustache and his rough face.
“Good morning. It is the same but different.”
“How so that?”
“He is coming back today. Tonight.”
Mr. Michael turned back to the boxes behind his counter. “That right? Today? That is truly amazing.”
“So, I need something special, if you have it.”
He looked past her, as if he was recalling something he had once done before.
“Let me think.”
He did not need much time to help her. It was perfect for her dinner. He wrapped up her purchase nicely and gave some very strict instruction on how to use it when she brought it home (if he hadn’t, he thought, she might not even listen to him). She thanked him and left the store with the package in her handbag (she would not let it touch the other items in her stroller; a pretty good idea).
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the kitchen with swollen feet, steam in the air, and hot elements on a very well-used stove. It took about three hours to prepare everything that she had in mind for his return home. It was easy to do the basic preparation work with meals that she had made since her mother taught her how to cook. In her childhood, it was easy; now, it was a challenge.
She had to be careful.
She had to add the right amount to the meal.
And then she had to rest.
The smells, heat and anticipation all helped her make it to the couch and take a well-deserved nap after so much work. Her clothes would come next (he always like the yellow one when he was around) and she should probably take a shower (did not want to smell stronger than the food). All the elements were off and the food was in the stove, just waiting for the meal. It would be around 7 in the evening when he would arrive; they would eat until 8; maybe a drink or two, and then…
Foolish, foolish woman, she thought. Don’t let your head put you in places where the body can’t go.
She grabbed at the clock and set the alarm for an hour.
No need for more than that.
It was a good idea.
It was over a week later before she had to buy groceries again. She stopped by Daniel’s for the basics before deciding to head over to the same stop for another package.
“Good morning, Ms. Mary! You look happy today.”
“Always happy! Always.”
“So, you are back. Same as always?”
“Well, you know, I was thinking about something a little different. Maybe something extra special…”
As they spoke, Mr. Michael was joined by a young man that she had never seen before. He was a handsome one, she thought, very much like her own guest (at least when he was younger), and obviously the son or a relation of the owner.
Mr. Michael frowned.
“Didn’t I tell you to wait out there?”
“Sorry. Mom said I should ask you about dinner.”
She blushed at that. “Everyone worries.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I did not know that he would be this angry about…another customer?”
“Yes, yes. I come by often. Ms. Mary.”
“Ah, Steven. I knew a Steven, very much like you…”
Mr. Michael spoke up.
“Okay, Steven. Tell your mother that Ms. Mary is here and that we are still talking. She’ll know what I mean.”
“Ms. Mary? Oh, I see. Yes. Okay, well, it was very nice to meet you. I hope we can take care of whatever you need.”
She smiled dazzlingly at the young face.
“You always do. Never once have you let me down before. And I hope you are never a stranger.”
“Hope I am not. Good-bye.”
Ms. Mary and Mr. Michael carried on as before and she had her package in her handbag before any other questions could be asked about this son that she had never seen. All this time and he kept him a secret, she thought. Some people have strange ideas.
“Was your lady-friend here again?”
Steven had too many questions and could think of no better time to ask them.
“Did her husband really just die and she could not take it?”
His mother, staring at a plate of overcooked noodles and fish, answered her son. She had been too tired to work at their counter, but she really could not concentrate on their dinner.
“Yes, she really could not take it. You can’t tell? The same clothes on her back; the same sad story about making a meal for a man that would never come back; the same nonsense about a package your father fills up with spice that we cannot afford? Yes, it is all true.”
“She has no one else, mom.”
“And we do? Let’s just eat. Your dad can deal with it. He always does, like the two of them in a conspiracy.”
Her husband knew this would happen one day, but he never wanted to talk too much about their “Mad Mary” or “Mary, Queen of the Lost”, or whatever it was that his wife and neighbours called her. It was not fair to let her live this way, but he could not deny her at least one illusion. They both needed this. It seemed to be a good idea.