art by Liz Clarke
Guaranteed to Work
by Lee Hallison
The day Ruth met her fairy godfather started out poorly. She sat across from Frank, twisting her cup between her hands.
"Yesterday was our anniversary," she said, watching the coffee swirl.
"Now it's my fault? Don't recall you remembering."
"I didn't say it was your fault." Ruth felt a familiar frown pucker her brow.
"Well if you cared so much, you would have done something about it. I can't keep track of every little thing."
Ruth pressed her lips tight as she stood up. She swept out of the kitchen, hands clenched at her side. Sometimes she felt like bopping him one.
Instead, she bopped the couch with her fist as she passed it. The small leg on the end collapsed, cushions sliding off as the corner tilted. She shoved the couch up and over, and it knocked over the lamp as it tumbled. The racket drew Frank to the living room door, mouth open in surprise.
"I asked you to fix it!" Ruth's eyes smarted. "Don't you care about anything? You don't help. You don't ever pick up, or wash a dish, or vacuum. I wish you'd never retired. You make me crazy."
Frank tightened his lips and turned away. He'd walk back to his workshop to play with his little toys, and she wouldn't see him for the rest of the day. What a total waste of air.
She went into the kitchen when she heard the door bang shut and began cleaning up.
Cleaning. Cooking meals. Mending his coveralls. Fixing things around the house. Doing the household books, filing his papers, reciepts, important junk he insisted on saving. Over and over, the same thing day after day, for years and years. Unshed tears burnt her eyes as she washed the dishes, soaping a glass without seeing it, rinsing the silverware automatically.
She'd had such dreams for when he retired. They'd travel, revisit the places they used to live in, trace their path through the different jobs and stages of their lives. They'd read books together, like they used to, share the Sunday paper in bed, sunlight streaming across the rumpled sheets. She'd make scones and he'd trace her lips with the cream the way he did when they were first married.
Instead, he'd retired and built himself a workshop away from her. Whatever she said, whatever she did, his response was irritation, dismissal, disgust. He couldn't stand her, she realized soon enough. She tried everything, new clothes, new hair, new tone of voice. She wheedled and smiled, tried stroking his hair, touching his arm when she passed by, ignoring his flinches.
She'd had it. The man could rot for all she cared. She grabbed her woolen coat from the peg on the wall and left the house, slamming the door behind her.
In town, she sat at a corner table in the cafe, looking out the window and stirring tea in a white mug. Her heart had stopped pounding. All she felt was grief.
"This seat taken, girlie?" A wrinkled face peered at her from the table's edge. A tiny old man held onto the chair across from hers.
"No, go ahead," she said.
Instead of taking the chair to another table, he clambered up, kneeling on the seat and leaning on the table with liver spotted fists.
"Uh, sorry. I'm not interested, please, I'm having tea alone right now." She pulled back, uncomfortable with his piercing stare.
"Well, now, looks like what you need isn't tea alone, but a friend!" He cocked his head, his eyes softening. His voice crackled with good humor, a grin deepening his wrinkles.
She shook her head, but he didn't seem to notice. He twisted around in the chair and signaled the waitress.
"I'll have a hot chocolate." He watched the waitress sashay away, then turned to Ruth. "Whipped cream, hot chocolate--what could be better?"
Ruth sighed and looked out the window. More grief, old grief, pinched at her heart, prickling her eyes. Their son had loved hot chocolate. Neither she nor Frank ever drank it again after Trey died, his little empty cup sitting in the dish cupboard for nearly 30 years. They'd clung to each other, but at some point bickering started, bickering and picking and poking, almost as if they couldn't otherwise feel.
"Is today a special day for you?" The old fellow wasn't giving up. She looked over at him--such a funny looking thing. Dwarf, maybe? Or just a short fellow. What did it matter, he was annoying, just like another old man she knew.
"No, there aren't any special days in my life," she said, surprised to hear herself speak.
"Johnny." The man held his hand out to shake. Shrugging, she shook.
"Now that can't be, all sorts of days are special. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays...."
Ruth sniffed and the story spilled out. The forgetting, the indifference, the disgust he had for her--Ruth told the man all of it.
"Well now, you need a good love spell. Nothing like a good love spell to turn things around. Yessir, nothing like it." He rummaged around in his pockets, turning things out of one pocket and then another, bits and pieces of paper and lint and clips and plastic chunks.
"Ah, here we go. A love potion, even better." He pulled out a tiny stoppered metal container and held it out to her. "Guaranteed to work."