by Anne Bauer
I cleared the supper dishes, ran the hot water and squirted soap into the sink. Joe slung his arm around the narrow-backed chair like he was holding it together. He didn't say anything for quite a while. I plunged my hands into the water.
"You oughta get some gloves. You'll chap your hands," he said.
"We got better things to spend a buck twenty nine on," I said.
"It ain't that bad, is it?" Behind my back, I heard him rustle around. I looked out the corner of my eye. He was pulling his wallet out of the back of his Dickies. He found two bucks and laid them on the table. "There. Next time you're at the store you buy you a pair."
"That's your lunch money for tomorrow."
"So, bake me a potato and I'll eat that."
"That's no kind of lunch," I said, turning back to the dishes. "A man's got to eat." I liked looking at him, but didn't want him to catch me. I loved that man. I loved the way his long eyelashes framed his brown eyes, what he did for me, everything about him. I'd still be in my daddy's house if it weren't for him.
He'd done me the biggest favor of my life and he was my best friend. I couldn't ask him for more. All I could do was make him not regret it. There was no way he was going without nothing but a miserable little potato for lunch tomorrow.
I washed up the dishes and turned the water back on to rinse. I started putting them in the dry rack. He got quiet again.
Finally he said, "That's not all a man's got to do."
"Yeah, you got to belch after supper, too, and leave your towel on the bathroom floor." I picked up the dry towel and snapped it at him.
Joe grabbed it. "Sit down for a minute, Patience."
I sat down in the chair next to him and propped my chin with my hand, like I was playing, but I was nervous. Something was wrong with him. He had a serious set to his jaw but his eyes looked wet, kind of like the halo around the moon.
"That's not all a man's got to do," he repeated. "A man's got needs, Patience."
I pulled my head up straight and put my hands in my lap.
"Now, we're married," he said. "Legally. But not, like, really married. In the physical sense." He looked at my lap, and his jaw was working even while he stopped talking for a minute. "I know the physical part, that's not part of our arrangement. But it's driving me nuts. You think I'm this wonderful guy. You treat me like a king, but I'm just a man. I need more. I want to be your husband in every way."
I could feel the red rolling up my neck into my face, clear up to my head. I wanted that too. I'd had thoughts about that with him since we were kids, and he'd take off his shirt and jump into the wide part of the creek after haying. One time he came out of the shower and his towel slipped and I saw the dimple of his butt when he walked away and I felt like all the blood in my body was going in one direction. I'd pushed those thoughts away. I was no virgin, and he knew it. He should have a real wife someday, somebody made for him alone. I was lucky just to be living here with him, with that piece of paper between me and my father. Legally married in this state means I have the same rights as an adult. He can't come near me, and if he does, I can call the cops. .
I shook my head and went to speak. He looked at me like a beagle puppy. The phone rang.
"I'll get that," he said and hefted himself out of the chair. The long phone cord swung around while he stepped from one foot to the other. "Uh-hum. How long? Where? Be right there."
He hung up the heavy black receiver and looked over my head.
"Got to go," he said.
"Call out? Somebody's pilot light go out again?"
"Prob'ly." He's the new kid, low man on the totem pole, so he always got called for the boring jobs.
"Hope it's not long," I said. Callout pay was an automatic two hours of overtime, just for going on the call, but if it lasted for hours it wasn't really worth it. He'd come home so tired he'd need his boots pulled off him. "Let me make you some coffee," I said to his back.
"No time," he hollered from the doorway, keys in hand.
I tried to do some schoolwork after he was gone but his face kept coming back in my mind. He wanted to... does that mean he loves me, like, romantically? Why else would he do everything he's done for me, part of me asked. The buttoned-up voice in my head said the marriage was because he felt sorry for me and the sex was because he's a man. He's not my father, I argued back at myself. I decided I'd find out the best way I could. I climbed the creaky spiral staircase up to Joseph's loft with my nightgown on and my hair down. I brought my hairbrush and did my 100 strokes sitting on the chair next to his desk. My heart was pounding. I climbed under his covers and breathed deep. It smelled like him – a little sweaty, kind of sweet, but there was a musky smell there too. I took my nightgown off and lay it on the chair. The air was cold and I covered back up and fell asleep.
When I woke up Joe was standing in the light that shone in through the small four pane window. He slid into bed. He was so warm.
About the author:
Anne Bauer lives in Montana with her family. Her fiction has previously been published in Montana-based publications and at flashquake. Someday she will complete her MFA, but for now she is chained to a mini-van. Luckily, it's equipped like a jet liner.