The Summer We Got Free Online - Mia McKenzie

1976

Ava did not remember the taste of butter. It had been seventeen years since she had last moaned at the melt of hot-buttered cornbread on her tongue. She was not bothered in the least about it, because she did not know that she did not remember. At breakfast, when she dropped a square of butter on grits, or on yams at dinner, and laid a spoonful of either on her tongue, she believed what she tasted was butter. She did not know that she was only tasting milkfat and salt, the things that make up butter, which, of course, is not the same thing. She certainly did not know that the taste of butter was a thing that had once made her moan. Ava did not remember what it was to moan.

Standing at the green-checkered, Formica-topped table in her parents' kitchen, on a drizzly Saturday in August, Ava spread butter thickly on a slice of toast and yawned heavily. It was just after four in the morning and she was still in her nightgown, a pale yellow, plain thing, and her hair was tied up under a kerchief. She was thirty years old, but she looked and felt years older, especially on mornings like this one, when the damp got into her elbows and knees and the joints of her hands, down in the marrow, and settled there. Buttering the toast, her fingers felt stiff and unwilling.

She placed the toast on a plate in front of her husband, Paul, who smiled tiredly up at her from his seat at the table.

"You look half asleep," she told him, as she poured him more orange juice.

"I'm alright," he said, chewing slowly.

They had been married four years and this was one of their rituals. Whenever Paul took a night shift at the cleaning company where he sometimes worked, he had to skip dinner. By the time he got home in the morning he was exhausted and didn't want to eat a whole meal and go to bed on a full stomach, so Ava got up early and made him a couple of slices of toast, and she sat with him while he ate. When they were first married, he took night shifts often, but over the years that followed he had taken them only when they needed extra money for something specific. Lately, though, in the last few months, he had been picking them up after his regular shifts at the hotel, where he worked full-time. This change had come about because he had finally secured a long-time-coming promotion at the hotel, to day manager, and between the two of them they were making enough money to afford their own house, and Paul was picking up the night shifts for extra money for a down payment. Twice in the last week he hadn't gotten home until nearly dawn, and once they had only had time to kiss goodbye as Ava passed him on her way out to catch her bus to work at the museum.

"We got jam?" Paul asked.

Ava shook her head. “You asked me that already.”

“I did?” he asked, his eyes red and half-closing.

"You working too much."

He rubbed his eyes and some of the butter from his fingertips left a tiny smear on his eyelid. "How we gone get a house if I don't work?"

"We already got a house," Ava said.

Paul sighed and stuffed what was left of his toast into his mouth. "This aint our house, Ava," he said thickly.

Ava took the last slice of toast from the toaster and buttered it, thinking about this house and her husband's renewed determination to leave it, which she did not share. She had lived here almost her entire life, since she was four years old. And while she could not remember very much about her early childhood here, she could remember some things, like the day, twenty-six years ago, when they moved in, when she first saw the red wallpaper, which her parents had hated, but which Ava thought, and later convinced them, was the most perfect wallpaper anyone had ever hung. It had faded in only the last seventeen years as if it had been fifty years, and a grayness now lived inside the red.

Still, Ava had grown up playing hide and seek under this very counter where she now stood buttering Paul's bread, and playing jacks on this floor, underneath the kitchen table with her siblings. If she tried very hard, she could almost, but not really, remember how the jacks sounded