Bertie adjusted the placement of the chipped plates on the Formica topped table and placed a folded paper towel underneath the unmatching silverware. It wasn’t perfect, but it had to be better than what he was used to. She went back to stir the stew on the stove.
“Dinner’s ready!” She yelled across the kitchenette and down the short hallway which led to the two bedrooms. She heard the old cheap lock on the door pop open and saw Eddie come down the hallway, wearing the same T-shirt and blue jeans he had been wearing yesterday. His long silver and gray hair were slicked back and looked like it would have asked for a haircut if it could talk. He ran his fingers through each side putting it behind his ears. He walked quickly as if the food was going to run away when it saw him coming.
“It’s beef stew! You used to really like that.”
“Hmm,” he answered and sat down at the table, bowing his head over the bowl of steaming stew, not in prayer, but to breathe in the aroma of the stew. “Smells good.”
Bertie handed him a basket that she kept for bread, and he quickly took a piece, plunging one tip in the stew.
“How was your day?” she asked him.
Again, the answer came, “Hmm,” as he focused on eating the stew.
With no further comments coming across the table Bertie said, “They put me on the self-checks today. It’s such a pain, I have to watch four customers instead of just one, and they all want to steal us blind.”
“What’s a self-check?” Eddie asked with no hint of embarrassment.
“You know. It’s where you check yourself out at the store.”
He looked bewildered.
“It’s a machine. Customers scan their own purchases and put the money in themselves. There’s no cashier.”
“No one takes their money? Who rings the stuff up?”
Bertie took a deep breath. So much to explain. “Everything has a bar code on it. They run it over a machine, and it adds up how much anything is. And then at the end you either put in cash or usually people use their debit card.”
Eddie looked deflated. “How’m I supposed to learn all of this. And what the fuck is a debit card.”
Bertie handed him the breadbasket again, hoping to take his mind off his situation. “You’ll get the hang of things. It’s not that hard.”
He reached out for the bread exposing the soft side of his wrist. There, over the old scars, was a new scratch. Not deep, not scary, but definitely new.
Their eyes met as Eddie saw her notice it. He grabbed the piece of bread and quickly pulled his arm back so that she couldn’t see where he had cut himself.
“I got frustrated today. There’s a lot to get used to.”
Bertie stood up to clear her own dishes. She had barely touched her stew, but the stress of trying to talk to Eddie was much more than she could bear right then. She turned her back and stood at the sink. She didn’t want him to see that she was lying. “It will be okay. I understand a lot has changed.”
She slowly began rinsing out her bowl, so that she could place it into the old dishwasher which was brown inside from age and hard water. Still not making eye contact she said, “Do you think you might want to sleep in my bed tonight.” She winced as she said the words, “my bed.” It was their bed. Or had been their bed 20 years ago. She didn’t want to say “sleep with me” because that implied sex. She just thought he might want some comfort. Or realize that she wanted some comfort.
“Why would I do that?” I’ve been sharing a room with someone for the last 20 years. I finally got a single!” He laughed as he said it. His laughter cut through her like the knife that had cut his wrist earlier in the day. Not deep. Not scary. Definitely a new cut.
Eddie pushed back from the chair and turned to go back to the room he had been using for two weeks since he was released from the Pearson Correctional Center. He walked down the hallway. Once stepping inside the room, he turned and stood there, waiting.
Bertie stood over the sink, gently crying. “Eddie. Eddie, please don’t make me do this.”
Eddie stood there, 18 inches away from the door and waited, not moving, not asking, just waiting.
Bertie took the paper towel she had placed on her plate, but was unused, and wiped away her tears. She walked down the hallway and closed the door on Eddie. She heard the lock on the other side of the door. As he had done for the last 20 years, Eddie had locked in for the evening.
Bertie finished cleaning the table. She loaded the dishwasher. She sat on her favorite end of the sofa and watched TV. Just as she had done for the last 20 years.