What Was It You Wanted

What Was It You Wanted

What was it that you wanted
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The days were long and yellow, and the heat thick as syrup. Ron was itchy in his work clothes, plump now because Joan cooked so well. His heaviness and the strokes in his face had people he didn’t know calling him Mister or Sir. It was funny. Only a few years ago, he was slim and rigid. The whole of life was work at Bytes.co New Media and movies and coffee shops. That was all over with. He’d moved them to the downtown and never went around back to the old neighborhood from his bachelor days. At the little corner grocery just down the ways, he bought gifts like gummy candy and root ale on his way home. For the first time in a long while, everything he did had purpose.

When he came home, Joan had dinner cooking on their two-burner stove. He liked carrying Violet about what they called The Big Room like she was a train car. The Big Room had the sofa bed they slept on, and the kitchenette. Violet was too little for candy, but she had loads of stuffed animals instead. At bedtime, Ron read her picture books. Violet looked along with the pictures. She was going to be a smart woman one day. She might be a genius, for all they knew. Geniuses were birthed to dumb, everyday people all the time. It made Ron wonder.

Dinner was something quick and easy like hamburgers or pork chops, but Joan liked making big desserts. Ron dipped her flies’ cemetery in maple syrup and drank toddies from warm milk, cinnamon, and a shot of brandy. When getting a little drunk on the hot summer nights, they wore their underclothes and told each other old stories. He said a lot of things he’d never thought he would say to anyone. It almost felt wrong to hear the words, but he figured there wasn’t any point keeping them locked within him anymore. He only tried not to be stupid. Sometimes he was. He was stupid because it’d been a long time since he’d been close to anyone. Joan made him want to say everything he hadn’t ever gotten the chance to before, and anyways, they were still falling in love. Some nights Ron said to maybe add a little more brandy. They stayed up past their bedtimes in The Big Room.

It didn’t matter if he got brandy-drunk a little because everything was different, and he could enjoy drinking for the taste of the liquor and not for the consequences. Work wasn’t so boring anymore, and the younger people looked up to him. Food tasted better, and he no longer smoked cigarettes. Sometimes he wanted to do something mean to himself just to see if he could handle it. But then he would be reminded that he had a family, and he couldn’t waste money. Nothing else mattered except for Violet. He’d wanted to be a family man ever since he was little. It was the only thing he’d ever wanted, and it’d been a hard time for him to get started. Women hadn’t ever showed him much attention, and he’d been alone most of his life. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, but he wasn’t ever smart or tough. And now when he reached out to tousle Joan’s hair, it was because he hadn’t gotten very many chances to do so with anyone else before.

She’d been the friendliest person at Blessed Hope Advent. He’d noticed her almost immediately, always sitting in the front row, surrounded by some old women. He’d liked her a long while, but Reverend Bauer had to take him aside and tell him what to do so she would like him back. Reverend Bauer talked with some of the old women, or the women talked with him, and Ron was told lots about her and her all about him too before they ever shook hands. After a little while, she’d said how much she liked him, that he had a lot of good within him. Because he was polite and honest and always went to service. They were married at Blessed Hope Advent, and her family traveled from Dexter. Reverend Bauer sermonized on the importance of his congregants to build something of their own, both within the church and separate too.

They lived by the post office in the part of town where he’d grown up. The streets had the same magnolia trees he’d seen ever since he was a little boy. It was still old, not like the apartment complexes down by the water or those cottages up the hill. Their apartment wasn’t so nice with only The Big Room and the bedroom down the hall where Violet slept. But from Violet’s window, they could see all the way to the steeple of Blessed Hope Advent, and down the other way was the eastern hills, and the broad streets that led to the highways. Ron sometimes walked up there to look around because the houses were quaint. He couldn’t help himself. They would need to get a better place if The Lord blessed them with a second child. They were old, but miracles like that happened all the while.

On a warm Saturday morning, there was a cry from the bedroom. Ron was mixing waffle batter with apples and cinnamon in the bowl. He’d gone to the big supermarket yesterday, and there was Hilltop Boilers maple syrup, strawberries, and ham steak for breakfast. The small coffee machine bubbled and shook. It was going to be a hot day. They would take Violet to the beach. Ron was dreaming, but he heard another sharp cry and ran down the hall to the bedroom. Within the half-hour, Violet had been taken to the hospital. The doctors and nurses tried very hard to wake her but the doctor came out after not so long and said she had died. The funeral home was called, and she was taken there in the coroner’s van.

“I’m very sorry,” the doctor with speckled skin said to them after the commotion was over. The doctor adjusted his glasses and shifted to get out of the way of a passing nurse. “It’s not uncommon. There doesn’t appear to be any reason, no deciding factor.”

Ron shook the doctor’s hand. He nodded to each of the nurses, and he wished to thank them all for their diligence and effort, but he couldn’t speak. The doctor turned and washed his hands in the small sink in the corner of the room. They were in the emergency room of the hospital and a cloth curtain quartered the patients, but it wasn’t a busy hospital.

“It does happen,” he said, as the doctor had told them.

“Yes, I know,” Joan said.

When the doctor left, they sat at the end of the corridor. All was still except for a patient’s muffled gasp or the hurried beeping from a breathing-machine. At the far end by the doors, the nurses sat around a round desk. Ron and Joan hadn’t been allowed to be with Violet when the time of death had been recorded. Only when the doctor resigned from behind the curtain were they told what they already understood.

“I will need to see the coroner,” Ron said with cautious uncertainty. He stared out to the lot, but the window had a glaze to it as if treated with alabastrine, and he couldn’t see so well. “I will need to see Reverend Bauer too, to ask if he will be available for the service.”

“Do you think he will be?” Joan coughed into her sleeve. “He’s always so busy.”

“I hope so. But Reverend Bauer sometimes goes out of town and...”

“That’s what I was thinking. He might not be able to do it.”

Ron thought. “He was going to Wells,” he said after a moment.

“They’re opening a new church there.”

“You’re right,” Ron told her. “They’re opening a new church there.” He watched the ambulances leave the hospital’s garage and go back into town. “I’ll see him tomorrow,” he decided. They would need to walk home. “I don’t think I’ll see him today.”

“Will you see him tomorrow?”

“I think I will need to,” Ron said. He knew he must, but he didn’t know how he would. “I will make an appointment.”

He sensed Joan’s understanding, but he was frightened to look at her for what her face might betray. It occurred to him suddenly that they’d known each barely two years, and there were many unknowable things. They’d been trying very hard to get used to one another, but maybe there hadn’t been any point to it. Ron didn’t know. He was unsure and a little frightened. Not knowing what he could, he stood and walked the hall from the nurse’s desk to the ward. The second time he passed the front doors, Joan was waiting for them, and they left the hospital.

That evening, he stood by the window in The Big Room chewing on a piece of baking chocolate and watching the crowds swarm farther down the street. They made a lot of noise, but they were going to have fun and that didn’t matter to them in this cool, still apartment. Ron didn’t so much mind watching them. He’d forgotten how good it felt to feel sorry for how things were, and he made many promises as he stood there eating the chocolate, that he was making a bond with The Lord to never be happy again, in payment for Violet’s passing.

Joan made her orange chocolate bread. Her head was bent and she wore her red apron over her pajama bottoms. They hadn’t done much since returning from the hospital. Her hair was undone, and he was unshaven. Joan was quiet making the bread. Sometimes he wanted to help, but he was too afraid to ask what he could do. He would linger nearby waiting, then take a little chocolate and go away to eat it. The pan of oranges and chocolate bubbled on the stovetop and the chocolate tasted bitter, and he was in the mood for a shot of brandy in a glass of milk.

They’d left in such a rush this morning that the bowl of waffle batter was in the sink, and the coffee pot remained full. The waffle machine he’d bought special was out on the countertop. In the mirrored top of the maker, he saw how lumpy and misshapen his face was. Ron turned from it. Now the sun was going down, and tomorrow he would need to see Reverend Bauer. He would then go to the funeral house to arrange the casket. He would leave early tomorrow before Joan awoke. She might decide to come with him on the errands, but he would leave before she awoke. But he didn’t want her to worry over such things and decided to do it himself.

“The bread looks good this evening.” Ron wanted to be with her. “Want a glass of milk?”

“I don’t want it but let me get it for you.” Joan whispered.

He jumped. “No, you keep working on the bread.” He thought he should make her a glass anyways. There must be some brandy around, and maybe he would have a drink, but he didn’t know if he should. “That bread smells better than anything.”

She pressed the dough into a flat square and dressed it with the orange chocolate sauce. He watched her so intently he spilled milk down his shirt. He fell asleep while the bread baked, and the following morning, he ate a slice on the way to the funeral home, brushing the crumbs from his mouth with the back of his hand.

He’d awoken early and had dressed in the clothes that he wore to work. Joan rolled over a few times, and once he caught her staring at him, but he looked away. At the funeral home, the undertaker moved him around the caskets. Ron nodded politely and asked some questions. At the end, he said that he would come back after he’d spoken with his wife. He started for the church, but he couldn’t yet speak to Reverend Bauer and instead wandered quietly about the town.

That broad country land didn’t matter to him anymore, nor the quaint streets of cottages atop the hill, and he found himself loitering in the old neighborhood where he’d spent the years before meeting Joan. Before getting the job at the Bytes.co New Media, he’d worked in stores and restaurants and had even driven a taxi. There’d been a lot of wasted time. But all that was long ago, but it could’ve been yesterday for all he remembered. Nearby the old apartment were the usual people sitting outside in lawn chairs. Ron stopped, and because the people didn’t know anything, he talked alright on some new restaurants and the firework show later that evening. Someone gave him a cigarette like it was the old times. He decided not to see Reverend Bauer.

When he returned home, Joan had packed Violet’s things in a small cardboard box. The box sat on the table in The Big Room, and Ron saw her clothes and books and stuffed animals. Joan said to look to see if he wanted anything, but he didn’t want to. She’d made coffee, and they drank it at the table. Ron told her that he’d gone to the funeral home but that he hadn’t done anything else. He sat there looking into the coffee mug.

“I guess the chocolate bread was alright, but I was thinking about making snickerdoodle cookies tonight,” Joan told him. “We haven’t had them in a while.”

“That sounds like a nice treat,” Ron said. He looked out the window. “It’s almost too late now to go out to the supermarket. But maybe I can rush to the store if you need anything.”

“No, you don’t need to go.”

“I wouldn’t mind. I was only asking if you wanted anything.” Ron finished the coffee. “What I’ve been meaning to say is I don’t want people to know yet. It’ll make them want to talk to us about it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone to know.”

“I don’t want anyone to say anything, but we’ll have to tell them before the service.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell Reverend Bauer. I couldn’t go to see him.”

“He will need to be told soon, but I don’t want to tell him either. Maybe tomorrow?”

Ron folded his hands. “Reverend Bauer is a nice man, and he loved Violet very much.”

“I will need to make the phone calls tomorrow.”

“I didn’t want to choose a casket until you saw them.”

“We’ll go soon,” Joan said after a moment. “We need to pick the casket.”

“Today was church but maybe we could go next Sunday.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t even call my boss to tell him,” Ron realized suddenly. “I forgot.” He didn’t much care to ever go to the company again, but he would go back in a few days more. “I will need to see Reverend Bauer tomorrow,” he whispered.

“That’s what I mean,” Joan said. “If we don’t go like normal, people will wonder. But then they’ll feel sorry.” She stood and brought to him the last of the orange chocolate bread. “If we don’t go to church anymore, then people will wonder. If we do go, then people will know what happened and then feel sorry for us. Reverend Bauer will feel sorry too.”

“He’ll ask where I am if I don’t go to Bible study.” Ron ate a little of the bread.

“Will you go?”

“If I don’t go, they’ll wonder why I’m not there. I haven’t missed except for sometimes.”

“That’s what I mean. If we don’t go, then people will wonder more.”

 “I don’t much want to go to Bible study.”

Joan was thinking. “You don’t think we should do everything ordinarily?”

“We should. I think that’s the best way. But I don’t want to.”

“I only don’t want people to know because then they’ll feel sorry.”

Ron nodded. They had good people around that would be worried on them. The church service was one thing, but Bible study was something different. He’d always gone, and it didn’t matter that he wasn’t as smart and talkative as the others because Reverend Bauer said it only mattered that he was trying. He hadn’t known what he was getting out of church and could’ve been knocked over with a feather when Reverend Bauer had told him how Joan liked him back.

“Don’t you remember how you told my dad that you wanted to marry me?” She was splitting the bread into even pieces. She got up to make them cocoa. “Don’t you remember?”

He looked up. “What did you say?”

“Don’t you remember how you told my dad that you wanted to marry me.” She paced from one side of The Big Room to the other. “What did you say? Do you remember?”

“Don’t make fun of me for that again,” Ron said into his sleeve. “I didn’t mean anything. I only thought it was a nice thing to do.”

She studied him. “I wasn’t going to make fun of you. I was going to ask what you told him.” She waited. “Don’t you remember how you told my dad that you wanted to marry me? I know you remember. I mean, don’t you?”

“I only meant to tell him that I was going to marry you and that was all.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t deserve to be made fun of.”

“Nobody made fun of you... I was only going to ask what you said to him.”

“I don’t remember,” Ron told her.

“You remember. Don’t you?”

Ron ate the last of the bread. “I only said that I wanted to marry you and that if he was going to give me his blessing or something and... it must’ve sounded stupid,” he mumbled.

“Don’t you remember what you said exactly?”

He closed his eyes. “I probably don’t remember much of it,” he said. Her father had looked at him like he was a dim, weak man. Then it got turned into a big joke, and they all laughed at how sensitive he was. “It was something like what he told you. I’ve said it.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“I’ve said such things to you all the time.”

“He told me you promised him all these things, but he didn’t tell me what they were. You haven’t told me. I would’ve remembered.”

“I told him a bunch of things, and then everyone laughed,” Ron said. “I’m sure it sounded nice in my head or else I wouldn’t have bothered. But your dad was looking at me with a funny expression. Then I started getting nervous and that made him laugh.”

“Nobody was laughing at you. Nobody was laughing at all.”

“I know you weren’t.” He stuck his finger into his eardrum to clean it, and then he went to wash them at the sink. As he washed, he turned the wedding ring around. “I don’t remember what I said. It wasn’t like I was going to say anything that hadn’t already been said many times. Most people say what I did.” He coughed into his elbow and went back to the table. “I don’t remember well. I don’t have anything to be embarrassed by.”

For the life of him, the people she came from were wiser and more reasonable than him. He must’ve been acting stupid that day to say what he had to make them laugh so hard. It hadn’t been so funny to him, but he made sure to be a good sport with them because he wanted them to like him. He remembered Joan’s dad telling them at the table. Even Joan had laughed a little at the table. But the laughing ended after some time, and hadn’t her dad and the rest of them seemed proud and respectful that it was him to be her husband? He’d maybe thought so.

“I’m not embarrassed about it,” Ron said.

“You shouldn’t be.”

“Well, I’m not.”

Joan was slow to answer. “I was only asking if you happened to know what you said to him. I was only wondering because you never said exactly what you said, not to me.”

“I guess I didn’t,” he said. “I’ve been trying to rack my brains standing here. I don’t think it was anything so special, but it wasn’t anything that I was ashamed to say or take back or anything like that.”

They rose early the following morning to do what was needed. Somehow, their secret was out and people stopped them on the street. It went alright at the funeral home, and Reverend Bauer acted like he was going to lead them in prayer, but he didn’t in the end. He seemed to know they didn’t want it. Reverend Bauer was wiser than most people. Going back home, Joan walked tersely next to him, and he often grabbed her for no other reason than he wanted to, and she didn’t seem to mind though maybe she would someday.

“I don’t much want to do anything all the rest of the day,” Joan said as they were going up the walk. “I’ll sit around.”

“I’ll get cool and then go out to the supermarket. You lie down. It’s a hot day.”

“What are you doing now?”

“Maybe read and pray for a while,” he said as jokey as he could, though he meant it. “I was only thinking to do something. My head’s a little cloudy to just sit around.”

“If you’re going to pray for me then I will for you,” Joan said. “I’m not so tired anyways. I only thought you might be. I swear I’m not.”

They loitered on the walk talking with a few of their neighbors and then went inside and prayed for a long while. When they were done, things were better settled. Study was Wednesday. The funeral was Saturday morning at ten o’clock. That Sunday was church. Monday was back to work. Joan had some cookies leftover in the freezer. They were oatmeal and raisin. She made glasses of milk for them too. Ron sat with the prayer book on the table. Tomorrow was service. Reverend Bauer said they should go. Wednesday was Bible study. He was thinking over what he’d said to Joan’s father when he’d gone to ask him on the marriage.

About the Author

Hunter Prichard

Hunter Prichard is a writer from Portland, Maine. He has been published in Hunger Mountain Review, Touchstone Literary Magazine, and The Tampa Review. Follow him on Twitter at @huntermprichard.

Read more work by Hunter Prichard.