Mike Pemberton is a freelance writer and English teacher at Danville Area Community College. His short stories have appeared in various literary journals and he is a frequent columnist in the Sunday Commentary section of the Champaign News-Gazette.
Theresa shut off the shower and shook her thick gray hair. She slid the vinyl curtain away and grabbed a damp towel. Fluffy, dry ones appeared only in her dreams. She wrapped a second soggy towel around her head and opened the bathroom door. A gust of crisp autumn air and a howl cut through the comforting steam.
Theresa strode to the second floor railing.
“Jason, Caleb, enough.”
Her shout surged down the stairs, looped through the foyer and crashed on the two combatants like a hail storm splintering a wood shingled roof. The boys stood still, nine-year old mirror-image red-headed twins, chastised not by the words but the tone of their mother’s voice.
“Here, take the stupid remote,” Jason said. “I didn’t want it anyway.”
“Momma,” Caleb called.
“Enough,” Theresa said. “Turn the TV off. Caleb, preheat the oven and empty the dishwasher. Jason, call your Daddy on the cell phone and see if he wants us to bring supper to him and your brothers or if they’re coming in. The Weather Channel says rain. Go on now. Make yourselves useful. It’s harvest time.”
Theresa heard grumbles and squeaking floor boards as her two youngest trudged to their tasks.
Shivering, she dashed to her bedroom, closed the door and rummaged through an antique chest of drawers for a clean pair of panties and bra. She shed the towels, slipped into a terrycloth bathrobe, ignoring her body in the dresser mirror as she sat down at her battered vanity and clicked on a mock Tiffany lamp. The light shone on a picture of her and Jack on their wedding day. Theresa stared at the 21-year old June bride, face aglow with a shimmering tan, indigo eyes sparkling beneath a wispy, white veil floating on auburn hair. Jack stood straight and proud next to Theresa as she clasped a bouquet of periwinkle and cream petals.
Theresa inspected her face. She glanced at the picture then her reflection, trying to reconcile the girl she envisioned in her mind’s eye, the beauty in the picture, and the weather-worn woman before her.
She slammed a pearl comb against the vanity, stinging her hands, already raw from a wind-burnt day in the garden clearing the remains of sweet corn stalks, pumpkin vines, and tomato plants. Her knuckles throbbed from clutching the wooden hoe, worn smooth over the years, and swinging the steel blade with short jabbing strokes, cracking, then turning the brittle ground over with each whack, jagged clumps of coal black earth popping and dropping around her scuffed boots. Theresa smashed the clods into small pieces, then swapped the hoe for a heavy steel rake, wielding it with long, steady strokes, protecting the soil from the frigid Midwestern winter with each push, preparing for the promise of spring with every pull. As she worked Theresa thought of the supper yet to be cooked, children to be fed, and a husband to support as he labored through the endless days and nights of harvest.
And now, staring her reflection down like a misbehaving child, she attempted to shame herself into dutiful action. She was a farmer’s wife. She had no time for self-centered nonsense.
Instead, her right hand opened the makeup drawer and Theresa applied foundation with a quick, dabbing motion. She spread a thin layer of the smooth, soothing cream upon her splotchy face, brushed on rouge, powdered her nose and applied mascara with a steady hand. A few swipes of cherry red lipstick and the illusion was complete.
Theresa compared the painted face to the young bride.
“Vanity,” she whispered, shaking her head.
As she snapped the lid shut, the door creaked behind her.
“Jack,” Theresa said to her husband’s reflection. “Why aren’t you in the combine? It’s not raining. My God, are the boys okay?”
“Boys’re fine,” Jack said tossing his John Deere cap on the burgundy and gold checked quilt covering their four-posted bed.
“Then why’re you here?”
“Smells like rain.”
He raked grimy fingers through salt and pepper hair.
“Fields are so dry,” he said, walking toward her, corn dust puffing with each step. “A shower wouldn’t hurt. Settle the dust. Keep a field fire from sparkin’. Let a man take a breath.”
“Well, you and the boys could use some rest,” Theresa said, still staring at him through the mirror.
Jack placed blue-veined hands on Theresa’s shoulders, knelt behind her and planted a kiss on her neck.
Their eyes met in the mirror. Theresa flushed red and ducked.
Jack lifted her chin and smiled, then brushed the gilded gold frame of their wedding photo with callused fingers.
“Sometimes forget we were young,” he said.
“You know,” he said, still looking at the photo, “the scent of rain reminded of another day, long time ago. A rainy harvest day. Dad gave me the afternoon off. I took you to a movie. It was pouring when we went in, but when we came out the sky’d cleared, so we walked down to Dairy Queen and ate cheeseburgers and sipped Coke floats. I couldn’t believe you’d go out with me. Our first date.”
A bevy of crow’s feet crinkled around Jack’s brown eyes.
“Jack, I’ve been so busy. I didn’t remem….”
“Understandable,” Jack said as he slipped a single red rose from his faded blue jean jacket. “Scent of rain reminded me.”
Theresa’s eyes brimmed as she held the fragile flower between cracked hands. She raised the glistening petals to the tip of her powdered nose and breathed deep.
“’Course it’s still a mystery,” Jack said, smiling at her in the mirror. “Beauty like you fallin’ for a farmhand.”
Theresa studied the framed, frozen image resting at the edge of her vanity. She felt the warmth of her husband’s soft touch and returned his steady gaze in the looking glass. The same gaze they shared over Coke floats, on their wedding day, at the kitchen table with their children, and every night before they turned off the lights.Outside, a gentle rain fell.