There was always a plate of buttered toast at breakfast. Sometimes she’d fix eggs and bacon, or sausage and pancakes, sliced tomatoes and, when there was enough money in the grocery tin, thin slices of salty country ham, curled up around the edges, fat glistening. But there was always a plate of buttered toast. Half a loaf, perfectly brown, perfectly buttered, towering high in the middle of the table like a yeasty crown.
Breakfast, she’d call, and kids would tromp down stairs, shirts halfway done, hair still wet. They’d shove the feast into their mouths, yelling at each other between bites, complaining of bathroom indignities and trading pinches beneath the table. Then they would disappear in a whirl of dust kicked up by the tires of the school bus, carrying away their noise and mischief and holding it tight until 3 o’clock.
When the children had grown and gone, the plate of toast continued to appear every morning, though most mornings it was accompanied by oatmeal or cold cereal and cream. Richard sat at the head of the table and chewed silently, clutching his hat in one hand so he could rise with the last swallow. HIs wife rattled pots and pans and tried to fill the space left by her children’s voices. She regularly let out heavy sighs, wanting to say something and not having anything to say, breathing out her discontent into the room.
They were alone, but they were not lonely. They learned to talk about things other than report cards and football games, trouble on the bus and teenaged dating. They remembered that they fell in love with each other first and, to their surprise, did it all over again. They held arthritic hands and kissed wrinkled cheeks and read aloud to each other from matching easy chairs.
The morning after his wife died, Richard walked down the stairs of their house and sat at an empty table for the first time in forty-seven years. He realized, in a rush of regret and sadness, that he had no idea where she kept the toaster.
Grief is a funny thing. You can make a racket and push it down and away and hammer away at it until you drown it out. Or you can wrap your arms around it like a lover, and wear it around like a black and terrible robe, losing yourself in the heaviness of the burden. Richard encased himself in grief. He boarded up windows and shunned visitors, left dinners and cards to pile up on the front porch and trip up anyone who dared ring the bell. His Salisbury Steak Sentry, his Hallmark Guard; he fought his neighbors with their own good intentions.
The children had all moved away and did not bear witness to his unraveling. He answered the phone when they called and said all the right things, Yes, yes! I just went out last night! Yes, yes! Of course I’ll come for Christmas! Then hung up the phone and sank down lower in his chair and wept.
And just when Richard starting eyeing his belts in a different way, and questioning the ability of certain light fixtures to bear his weight, the letter came. The script on the front was old woman scrawl, but he recognized in it the young woman he once knew. His hands trembled when he opened it, and the message made him suck in his cheeks and hold his breath until he nearly forgot to breathe again.
So sorry for your loss. Will be there at Christmastime, would love to see you again.
He carefully folded the letter, returned it to the envelope, and put it in his back pocket, where it burned like coal. He felt himself blush, to have something that had touched her hand in such an intimate place. It felt like a secret, like a horrible, wonderful secret.
Richard rushed to the kitchen and began tearing open cabinets. He pushed past mason jars of green beans and the yellowed deep fryer (when had they ever used that?) and finally, in a low cabinet by the stove he found the toaster. He plugged it in, pulled a questionable loaf of bread from the pantry and began feeding the slots. One by one, until the bread bag was empty and toast piled high on a plate. He sat down at the table and slowly, deliberately, began to eat.
Would love to see you again.
He was going to need his strength.