Cassie Monroe stood in front of the stove holding her breath. The doorbell had just rung and she heard her husband’s heavy tread coming down the stairs, smelled the heavy-handed after shave wafting through the kitchen doorway. She felt sick.
“This has to be the perfect dinner,” Steve had told her. “I did everything I could at the office and this little prick Smithwick still seems to be the forerunner but your perfect dinner could change all that. That walrus of a boss – all he thinks about is his gut. He was droolin’ over your Christmas cookies and if you do this, we’ll all be fine. He’ll be having me sign on the line at dessert time. Ha! You do want a happy, successful husband, don’t you?” His gimlet eye bored through her, questioning. He had intense black eyes, though they were dead eyes, predator’s eyes. She had nodded, looking down. “If not, you’ll get it good.”
The first time he had “given it to her good,” he had broken three fingers. “It’s your fault, you dumb cow,” he had said contemptuously. “If you didn’t put your hand up, I wouldn’t be taping your fingers together, now would I?”
She had put her hand up to protect her face again the coming blow of his meat-like hand. At that time, she didn’t know the rules; didn’t know when to be quiet; didn’t know when to suck in the sobs and to keep her head down. Then, she had protested, “Why did you hit me in the first place? What did I do?” His brows came down to a complete line and another finger was broken. “Any more questions you wanna ask?” She put her head down and shook it timorously. He had smiled.
Steve was especially proud of her cooking. That’s why he married her in the first place. She had entered a pie in the Woodstown County Fair and he, a volunteer judge, said that from the moment he first tasted her blueberry pie, it was love. It was not, after all, her looks, he snorted, she being petite, plain, shy, and somewhat over the marriageable age. She was twenty-nine; he was twenty-six.
Everything else she cooked was perfect. It was her one skill and one talent and she was proud of it in a time when most people stopped for take out and bought pre-made dinners at the supermarket.
Steve said he had won the lottery and praised everything she cooked. He was courteous, polite, and caring during the courtship. Cassie never had much male attention and now she reveled in it. She had a man on her arm and love in her heart. Every once in a while he would be sharp to her and cutting, and he blamed it on his hard day at work, where he was trying to make something of himself for her, he said. She was impressed and forgot the bad every single time. She thought there was too much good to be bothered by the bad. That’s what she thought. She didn’t think so now.
They married in the courthouse, moved into his family home, in which he lived by himself. He believed, he said, in a woman staying at home, so she stayed at home, cleaned the house, cooked his meals, and prepared to spend her years with a good husband and a happy life. The second year they were married, in a moment of inattention, she scorched his favorite shirt. That was the first time she got it good. The second time was when his steak was a little overcooked. That time he gave her a black eye and he had to go to the market and the dry cleaners in order to save her, he said, the embarrassment of going out in public and realizing that everyone in town knew she was a bad wife. He said it with a sneer and a snide laugh. “Ha!”
She almost left then. She got out her gray suitcase and started to put her clothes in it and then – when she was putting her hand mirror carefully in a side pocket – she caught a glimpse of her face. Her plain, old, tired face with the old scars and the bruised eye. If she left, where would she go? All her relatives were dead. She had no friends. They had all wandered away after her marriage with a pitying look and a boatload of excuses. Anyway, who would want her? The only thing she could do was cook but now she couldn’t even cook his steak correctly. One tear – just one – fell on the mirror. With a sigh, she started to unpack. She would stay for another ten years.
“Hey, Gus,” her husband cried in a hearty tone as the door swung open, “come on in, and your pretty wife too. How ya doin,’ Mrs. Stroughton?” There was no response from Sara Stroughton, and Cassie knew she would be looking at Steve with disapproval. Steve always referred to her as “that bitch” and said she poisoned her husband against him.
Cassie couldn’t figure out why that would be so. The only time Mrs. Stroughton saw him was at company picnics and Christmas parties. Steve gushed over his wife’s cooking and always had Cassie cook something “extra good” to show everyone else up. Cassie filled his plate for him, fetched him beer, and sat at his elbow with her head down, speaking to no one. The one time she tried to speak to Mrs. Straughton to thank her for the party, Steve interrupted and yanked her back so suddenly that she dropped her plate and cried out. Mrs. Straughton’s eyes narrowed at Steve and Cassie knew she was, once again, gonna’ get it good. And so she did.
“Come on in. Cassie, our guests are here.” She took shallow breaths to keep from tearing up and crept out to the living room to be the good wife.
She was making her famous lamb dish, the “Perfect Dinner.” The first time she made it, Steve had been in the kitchen yelling about something she had done. Tears streamed down her face as she stirred the gravy pot. He was right in back of her; she could feel the heat of his breath scorching her hair and the nape of her neck.
She felt sick and her knees were threatening to buckle but she didn’t say a word, just stirred and stirred. He finally stomped out and turned up the television set loudly. Cassie just stirred and stirred, rubbing the hem of her dress over and over with the other hand.
He apologized over dinner and praised her lamb dish, which he proclaimed perfect while she smoothed and smoothed the hem of her dress under the table. She ate her perfect lamb dish, acknowledging that it was good but took no pride in it.
The second time she made the Perfect Dinner was for his birthday the following year. She carefully set the table with candles and their good china and silverware. She had a gift wrapped in his favorite colors on the table, a romantic card, and a layer cake that she had slaved over most of the day.
He had been drinking and was in a foul mood. He objected over the present and the cake on the table: “After dinner, you dumb bitch. Who puts a present and cake on the table before dinner? Huh?” The still unwrapped present found its way into the middle of the cake and her husband left for another case of beer.
Cassie took the destroyed cake to the kitchen and threw it into the trash. She cleaned off the present and put it off to the side and then she went back to her lamb dish and, once again, while tears streaming down her face, she stirred and she stirred.
When Steve came home, he apologized profusely, proclaimed her dinner a huge success, and ripped open the card. He grunted at the flowery proclamation of love, and left the table. Cassie was half-way through her dinner. She stopped eating and smoothed and smoothed the hem of her dress until she got up mechanically to clear the table and toss her half-eaten dinner on top of the ruined cake. She tossed the gift, still unwrapped, into the trash can as well. He never even noticed.
“Very good dinner, Monroe, very good dinner. Cassie, always a pleasure. Your dinners are a treat.” Gus Straughton looked slightly uncomfortable and didn’t look into Cassie’s eyes. “I’ll see you in the office Monday morning, Gus. Thanks for coming. Goodbye. Goodbye, Mrs. Stroughton.” Mrs. Stroughton shook hands with Cassie and, surprisingly, squeezed for a second. Cassie, startled, looked up. There was pity in Mrs. Straughton’s eyes and something else that Cassie couldn’t decipher. A warning, maybe? A look of understanding? Then, it was gone and Mrs. Straughton swept out into the cold with her husband and disappeared from view.
Steve closed the door very quietly and stood, facing the door, not moving. His shoulders looked enormous. Cassie started to shake.
“One thing.” Steve said quietly. “Only one thing I asked of you. One perfect dinner and you couldn’t even do that.” He turned and Cassie saw his eyes, cold and dead. Cassie shook more violently.
“I made it exactly like the last time,” she gasped. “Exactly. I didn’t do anything different. I don’t know…” She started to back up. Steve stepped slowly toward her.
“You don’t know…Do you know what you’ve done?” he asked quietly but with mounting danger in his voice. “Do you know what you’ve done?” Cassie whirled and took a step to run but he was on her before she had even moved. “God damn you! Can’t you do anything right? What the hell is wrong with you?” He slapped her face and she fell across the hall table.
“I didn’t mean it,” she whispered, “I did everything right.” She stumbled back, putting her hand on the table to support herself. Tears filled her eyes.
“But you didn’t, did you?” he bellowed. Cassie’s hand felt something on the table and as Steve raised his hand to slap her again, she grasped the item and swung it. It was a small plant in a heavy metal planter and she grazed Steve’s head as she threw it at him. He swung his head back as it flew past him and it ricocheted against the wall. As it fell, he caught it in one of those enormous hands.
“Oh,” he said, “you wanna do this, do you?” He raised the planter and came toward her as she stumbled into the kitchen.
The rest of the Perfect Dinner was on the stove, still in its pan. Cassie hurled herself to the stove and stood sobbing over the pan, hands helplessly on either side of the stove. Her tears plopped into the gravy as Steve raised the planter behind her and brought it down hard on the back of her head.
She stayed there for a minute, swaying, and then, with a grateful sigh of relief, slithered to the ground. Steve looked at her open and unseeing eyes and all rage left him. The planter hit the ground unnoticed. His mind was confused. He didn’t see his dead wife on the floor. His eyes, aimlessly flitting around the room, came to rest on the gravy pot with The Perfect Dinner inside, congealing and sad. He thought of the other times Cassie had cooked his Perfect Dinner. What was wrong with it this time?
The first time, he yelling, her tears spilling into the gravy. The second time was on his birthday. He was unsure but he thought he had made her cry because of the cake and the gift. She was standing over the pot there too. His head felt light and his legs shook.
He looked down into the gravy, a mess, with her last tears splashed on the surface of the plastic-like remains of the gravy. Calmly, he took up the spoon and stirred the tears slowly into the gravy. Then he dipped the spoon into the sauce and, with a shaking hand, lifted it to his mouth and tasted it. “Perfect,” he said tonelessly. “Perfect.”
Naomi Brett Rourke has three short stories in various magazines and two short stories in anthologies appearing in spring 2016, including the highly anticipated Native American speculative fiction anthology, Life on the Rez. “The Perfect Dinner” was originally published in London in 2015 in Morpheus Tales. While her website is under construction, go
say hello on her Facebook page.