Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in Pumpkin Center aka Punkin’ Center, North Carolina. I’ve drank moonshine, gathered fresh eggs, fallen into cow manure, and been shocked by an electric fence. Cornbread and story-telling were staples around our dinner table.
Rob and Millicent stood shoulder to shoulder at the kitchen sink scrubbing the dinner dishes. She washed and rinsed. He dried and sat them in the rack. They went through this ritual every night. Rob wanted to just go ahead and use the dishwasher because it would be easier. Sometimes they did if it were during the day or if guests were over, but Millicent liked to wash the dishes together in the evening. She called it “quality time.” Rob thought that’s what dinner was for.
“I don’t know why you just won’t do this for me.” Millicent said. “Millie is shorter, which means it’s easier. I’d think you’d like that, you lazy old goat.”
Rob chuckled, watching the cute way her lips pursed when she got frustrated with him.
“Millicent is a nice name. I was my great-grandmother’s name,” he insisted.
“I know. I know,” she sighed. “You’ve told me a thousand times. About her. About the stories your mom told about you about her childhood visiting the farm and how magical it was for her. I’ve heard it all.”
“Millie makes you sound like that bouncy high school girl at Mattie’s Diner that serves us burgers on roller skates. And… ”He paused for a second to dry a plate and place it neatly in the rack before continuing. “You’re not in high school anymore.” His face was turned toward the rack, hiding a smirk, but he could see the lines crinkling up in her forehead, the widening of her eyes, the flush in her cheeks as if he were looking right at her.
“Thank you, Mr. Sensitive,” she said while picking up a gold-trimmed dinner plate from the rack to re-dry. “And the waitress’s name is Chrissy.”
“Same thing.” He shrugged and picked up another plate and began to scrub.
“You look ridiculous in that lipstick,” he noted matter-of-factly as he carefully picked a tiny clump of dried spaghetti sauce from the plate his wife handed him. Millie had started wearing red lipstick. She called it, “Sunset Escape,” and she’d started wearing it a few weeks ago, the last time they were at the diner.
“Who wears red lipstick to wash the dinner dishes? You look just like a stripper. Hey, maybe Millie can be your stripper name,” he teased and smirked, very self-satisfied. That is until he noticed his wife was sulking. Rob kissed her on the cheek and placed the last neatly scrubbed dish onto the rack. He went back into the living room.
“Well, you see, I’m not wearing the lipstick just to wash the dishes. I’m going over to Katie’s and we’re going over to that new bar over on Clover Street.”
“Oh, I see. You wanna look nice for Katie,” he continued to joke.
“I just wanna look nice is all.”
Millicent finished the dishes, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door. Outside, the air was sweet and the sky was alive with the colors of a summer sunset.
Millie applied a fresh coat of lipstick before getting out of the car. Top lip. Bottom lip. Blot on the tissue. Just the way her mother had taught her and the way she had watched her mother do it a thousand times growing up. Her mother, Agatha, had loved red lipstick. She wore it everywhere.
“Just to look nice, in case,” her mother would say and wink at her. Her mother had never married and always had her eyes open for what she called “a wonderful new romance.”
Later, Millie had joked with her husband that her mother was “in love with being in love.” But she “got bored easily.” Millie admired herself in the mirror. Then frowned slightly at the new wrinkles just outside her eyes when she smiled.
Millie got out of the car and immediately scanned the parking lot for Jackson. Not that she would say anything to him if she did. They had a routine. Small restaurants in nearby towns. They met inside. The first to arrive got the table and then waited. When the other arrived, they approached the table and shook hands. Jackson said it made it look like they were meeting for business, just in case.
Millie thought it was sweet that he was so protective of her, and she enjoyed the excitement of secret, forbidden meetings.
The restaurant was new. She’d never been there, but Jackson had. He talked about it a lot and had promised to take her there one day. She thought this would be the perfect time to surprise him.
“Baby,” she began. “We don’t have to sneak around anymore just to have little dates. We can just leave. Go away for the weekend. I think I’ve found the perfect place and…”
“What?” His face was stoic. “You know I can’t just do that, Millie. My wife would find out.”
“I still don’t understand why we just don’t tell the both of them and leave.”
“I’m not fighting a custody battle for my kids. You know how I feel. This is all I can give you.”
Millie let her head hang in disappointment for a few moments. Jackson reached over and squeezed her hand.
She knew he loved her, so she mustered up a happy face and changed the subject.
On the way to the hotel, the conversation was pleasant enough, although Millie was still thinking about how Jackson responded to her idea to go away for the weekend. She so wanted the excitement of running away for the weekend. She was sure she could come up with something to tell Rob. And she was pretty sure Jackson could make something up to if he really wanted to.
“Couldn’t you just come up with a story about going to a conference or something?”
“What are you talking about?” Jackson asked.
“I mean, so that we could go away for the weekend.”
“Please just drop it,” he said, his voice exhausted and distant. “This is the last thing I need right now,” he added.
Suddenly, Jackson’s phone rang and he reached his hand out to pick it up.
Millie’s head flung forward and she gasped for breath, a sharp pain shooting down her back. Her heart felt like it dropped right into her stomach. It took a moment for her to realize what had happened. Jackson had rear ended the car in front of them.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I think so,” she replied softly, still a little dazed.
“What happened? Who are you talking to?” Millie could hear someone on the other end of the phone.
“I just rear ended a damn car trying to answer the phone! That’s what happened.”
“Jackson…” Millie began.
“Who is that?” the voice asked again.
“It’s no one,” he replied quickly without even a glance her way.
Millie didn’t hear any more of the conversation. No one? She was stuck on those words. No one. She tossed the words around in her head over and over.
When the police finally left, Jackson drove her back to her car. The evening ended with a long goodnight kiss in his car. When he looked into her eyes as she slid out of the car, she felt a small hard knot drop into her chest. That was the look her husband used to give her when they first started dating. She shut the door hurriedly and headed for her car. He never said a word about his conversation on the phone.
She heard the sound of the football announcer from the front porch where she stood, her feet frozen to the concrete. She reached for the door with a shaky hand, her palm a little sweaty, like she used to get on first dates. The door opened slowly. Rob was standing in the living room, staring. Not at her, at the TV screen.
“Hey,” she started.
Her husband didn’t respond at first even though he was standing not more than a foot from her.
“Good-night, Baby,” she tried again, this time walking by him.
“Good-night, Millie,” he nudged her with his elbow and kissed her on the cheek. She smirked in reply and headed for the hall.
“Did you have fun with Katie?!” he called.
Millie froze in the doorway. “Um, of course. We always have just the best time,” she replied with an upbeat lilt in her voice and a knot in her throat.
In the bathroom, Millie held a washcloth under the hot water until the steam hit her face and the cloth burned her fingers. Then, she scrubbed her lips until they were bare and a little raw. The skin left underneath the lipstick was almost as red as the makeup. Millicent looked at herself.
“No one,” she said to the face in the mirror. She stared at the clean raw skin until she managed to force her lips to an upward curve. Then she went to bed where she lay awake, her eyes following the swirls in the wallpaper until Rob came to bed. She, finally, drifted off to sleep.