|Apple Blossoms by George Chernilevsky, Wikimedia Commons|
"Yowza!" Moses hailed the children with his arm, traced circles in the air. "Amy and Johnny! Come see a dirty old man attempt a death-defying knobble. Of course, I mean a smooch, a flip of the lip, with his frigid old woman."
His sons and daughters and grandchildren gathered around him like chumps to the side-show. As the star, he put one arm on Letitia's shoulder and hugged her. It was their wedding anniversary. This was in Richmond, Virginia, near the end of the hottest week of the summer in nineteen hundred and seventy-nine. Perspiration stained his shirt. A fan blew from the window behind him. Most of the members of the reunion party had wandered up onto the porch. Flies buzzed around the picnic plates below.
"Not a spectacle," he said. "No! Not a spectacle for the faint of heart."
"How about for the weak of stomach?" Patting a pot-belly, his oldest son Abe smiled from behind the punch bowl. "No one else has mom’s daring."
"You wound me, sir, you wound me. Nevertheless, I will carry on. I will carry on."
"Yes, you do." Abe poured himself a cup of crabapple punch, complete with a floating crabapple.
"Carry on, and if there are any others who dare to follow in my footsteps, they are welcome to. This lady has been known to be generous with her favors."
Letitia smiled and tried to set her glass down, as if afraid someone would bump her. After thirty years of marriage, Moses would have expected her to get accustomed to being near the center of attention but she seemed, somehow, to always hand onto the vestiges of her dignity – straightening her bra strap, covering a hickey with her scarf, or laughing at her shocked friends across the lunch table. She looked as prim and stiff as she'd been when she was nineteen.
He sighed, patting her thigh. When he was a young man he thought she'd be the type to loosen up over the years but when he'd reached thirty, he'd realized she was slimmer and more proper than ever. Her skin had tightened. Her bones had grown pointed. She was tan as dry dirt in the summer and as grey as charcoal ash in the winter. Making love to her was like sailing face down in a birchbark canoe. Not that he didn’t enjoy it.
"Let's get it over with, dear," Letitia said. Her voice was low, not quite a whisper but something close to it and almost as private.
"Abe and John, you boys watch close now." Moses had been struck, for an instant, with the feeling that he was alone with his wife. It was the way she had pressed herself close. He remembered how small and dry her breasts were, how carefully he had to touch them. "Gonna show you how a real gentleman does this."
Letitia poked him in the ribs.
"Don't bother," she told him, and her arm reached up behind his neck. Her eyes closed.
He leaned in. Despite the sheen of sweat over the rest of him, his lips felt dry. He licked the inside of his mouth to summon saliva to his tongue. In his biceps, he felt her weight shifting as she rolled up on her toes. Their hips touched. Her body fell, firm and tight, against his. He placed a hand gently over the warm wrinkles of her neck, where he knew he could make her sigh or blush with a stroke. The other he pressed on the small of her back, below the belt of her dress.
Her lipstick was warm and slipped against his skin like moist clay. Moses peeked between his eyelids for a moment and caught a glimpse of her blue irises. She fluttered her lashes at him. He felt his puckered skin pressing flat against hers and her cheeks growing hot. The blood rushed to her face. Sweat ran out of the pores in his hands and seeped into the back of her dress. He tickled her earlobe and moved his fingertips away, down behind her shoulder blades.
Their first kiss had been like this, no tongues, amidst other couples, a crowd standing by to watch from the dance hall. Her perfume had made his nose itch. In fact, he'd nearly sneezed through his teeth. It had been a scent like the one she wore now, a sweet breath of apple blossoms. There had been something else in it, a hint of clove or some other spice, but the sticky sweetness of the blossoms had overwhelmed everything else.
His father had planted an apple tree in the front yard during the summer when he was seven years old. Moses recalled the fragrance, thick and eye-watering. Every spring, as it burst into bloom, he would come down with a slight fever and a fit of sneezes. The reaction would take up about two and a half weeks in April or May and he'd retreat to his bedroom, an invalid, barely able to leave the house. He'd sit by his window and spy across the street on Kathy Lee.
He never opened the window to wave to her. Those had been protracted moments of shame for him, his fatal weakness exposed. He simply watched as she passed or he waited for her to skip out onto the sidewalk where she lived, just one house up, on the other side.
She was divorced, now, and double-chinned. He'd seen her once, at Zayre's, while she was looking at a lime green pantsuit. But underneath all that fat there was a slim, blonde six-year-old, skipping rope on a cracked sidewalk in Burke, wearing an old blue skirt and a halter, singing Ten Cents A Dance and Cheek To Cheek, calling to him across thirty feet of asphalt. Every summer and fall, he'd roll his hand-me-down knee socks to the ankles and run along the looping sidewalk for a hundred, two hundred yards to reach her. Then he would turn the rope for her by tying one end to a tree or they'd play hopscotch and leapfrog or sit by the flowerbed and draw in the dirt with sticks.
Once, he had been standing underneath the willow tree in her yard. There were a few willow leaves and apple blossoms on the freshly cut grass beside him. His back was turned to her and he drew his initials in the mud with a rock. Kathy Lee bent over him, watching.
Her hair fell down the back of his neck and tickled his ear. He stopped writing. After a moment, she said, "Kiss me."
"Are you crazy?" Moses turned around. Her mouth was a line. Her blue eyes stared.
"Come on. Kiss me."
"Why?" He backed into the hedge. She took one step towards him, to help, and he edged sideways.
"Because I want to know what it's like," she said.
His eyes widened until it hurt to blink. He slipped and fell to one hand. His leathery, brown shoes tore into the soil. He rolled away and ran down the sidewalk.
When he reached the picket fence about halfway down the block, he stopped to climb over it. There, he hid himself under a bush in the yard. He ripped up fistfuls of grass and threw them. He found a pebble, pressed it into a clump of moss, pulled it up again and wondered. He had been about to write Kathy Lee's initials in the dirt with that stick. Right next to his own. She had smooth, cool skin and smelled like a dandelion. He thought about the sweet spiciness of her.
After a while, he figured it was safe to go back. He rolled out, climbed the fence, picked up a whole handful of pebbles, and walked down to her hedge.
She was playing jacks. Her nimble fingers caught three up on a bounce, snapped the ball out of the air, and put the three back in her purse. She glanced at him, bounced the ball another time, and snatched up four.
"Want to play hopscotch again?" he said.
She bounced the ball, tried for five, and missed. She shook her head.
"Why?" She pulled a golden strand out of her face.
"Just come here." He stuffed the pebbles into his pocket. If he ducked his head, standing by the hedge, they wouldn't be in view from her mother's window.
Kathy Lee threw her jacks down onto the sidewalk. She stood, brushed her long hair back, straightened her skirt, and marched over to him. A foot away, she stopped. Her arms fell to her sides. Moses grabbed her by the elbows and pulled her closer.
"I want to kiss you," he said.
He did. Her lips were smooth as her hands and hair. They were as sweet as the spoons of white sugar her mother gave them. She closed her eyes and put her arms around him they way they both had seen her parents do. He tried to put his around her but got one of his sleeves caught on the hedge. They froze. Kathy Lee opened her eyes.
She fluttered her eyelashes at him, Letitia, taking her arms off the back of his neck and resting one of them on his shoulder. She pushed herself away. The other hand reached up to her bun of brown hair and patted it to see if the clip was still in place. She opened her eyes and Moses felt his chest tighten. For a moment, her expression had belonged to Kathy Lee – not the woman in the department store with a double chin but the little girl with thin, agile bones.
His chest hurt. Still staring at his wife's eyes, Moses turned sideways and clutched his ribs. His right hand dug deep into the flannel shirt and flesh, tugging at his diaphragm.
The scent of the blossoms made him dizzy. His view of Letitia blurred as tears welled up on his lower eyelids. For a precious instant, as he tried to re-focus on his wife, he felt as if he were seven again. The muscles in his chest would not expand, his spine arched backwards from the hip, tilting his head to the ceiling. He felt something about to roar out of his chest.
"Waaaaachoo!" He doubled over, surprised. An instant later, he straightened himself.
"Here Dad, take my handkerchief." His younger son, John, flapped open a white slip of cotton cloth. It had the family monogram on it.
"Yes, thanks." He dabbed his eyes. He switched the cloth from his right hand into his left so he could reach out to his wife. He took her fingers in his own. "Letitia.”
“What?” Her eyes narrowed at him.
“Thank you.” He wiped his mouth and stared.
originally published in The Frederick New Paper, 1990