Jamie used a wooden spoon to chip away at a frozen clump of beef stew in a three-quart saucepan on the stove. An under-cabinet radio played a smooth jazz melody from her favorite radio station. The music carried her to a better place. A time when life was simple and unadulterated from the influence of her significant other. A time when her needs came first, and the dormant temper of Alan Blanchart remained as stationary and uneventful as the leftover entrée on her flat top range.
The music segued to commercials. The washer hit the spin cycle in the laundry room, gyrating the unbalanced load in the oversized tub.
She sliced a cucumber and added it to the grated carrots and diced tomato in the bowl of mixed greens. She sprinkled fresh parmesan and added homemade croutons to the mix the way Alan liked it.
With dinner preparations nearly finished, she hung her apron in the pantry and hauled a load of clean laundry from the dryer to her bedroom.
She folded Alan’s shirts in a neat and orderly fashion. She folded his socks and underwear in the same manner, placing each garment in her husband’s bureau drawer. Socks to the left. Underwear to the right. White T-shirts belonged in the bottom drawer stacked in piles of three.
She wiped the sinks in the bathrooms and mopped the floors. She dusted the family room and the dining room table. She took out the trash and cleaned the windows.
Chores were a fact of life. A nuisance at times, but one she could live with. They kept her busy and provided a welcome distraction from her menial existence as the wife of Sheriff Blanchart. Dreams came and went, yet her married life persisted, despite the challenges and the ambiguity that defined where Alan’s life ended and hers began.
Settled in the quiet, rural suburb of Lakewood, Florida, she kept her business to herself. From all accounts, the neighbors respected her privacy, going out of their way to steer clear of an awkward conversation with the small town sheriff’s wife who came and went at prescribed times. Girl Scouts shied away. Trick-or-treaters kept their distance at Halloween. The mailman slipped in and out like a ghost.
She wiped a smudge from the bathroom mirror in the foyer and cleaned the sink with a disinfectant wipe. She folded the hand towel in thirds and placed a fresh roll of toilet paper on the spool. Then she grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen on the third ring and answered, “Hello?”
“Can you hear me?” Samantha Perkins shouted over a spirited MC and loud strip club music.
Jamie could tell her caller, as usual, was in the strip club where she worked. “Barely,” she replied.
Samantha apparently moved away from the source of the music. “How ’bout now?”
“A little better.” Jamie stirred the saucepan and mashed the big wooden spoon at the melting clump of stew. She covered the top with a lid and adjusted the burner. “Are you at work?”
“Just changing. You sound distracted. Is this a bad time?”
“It’s fine,” Jamie lied with an eye on the microwave timer. “I’m cooking dinner,” she said, retrieving her apron from the pantry.
“Where’ve you been? I left you messages. I thought maybe you went into witness protection or something.”
Jamie watched the pool boy through the kitchen window. His tan arms flexed inside his muscle shirt as he brushed the pool up and down. “I’m just busy.”
“Are you back to work yet?”
“I’m staying home.”
“I thought you took that nursing job?”
“I turned it down.”
“Alan needs me at home.”
“You’ll go crazy at home,” Samantha insisted.
Jamie rubbed her hands on her apron. “Are you on break?”
“I go on stage in five minutes.” Samantha sneezed. “Charley sent me flowers.”
Jamie smiled. She could hear the excitement in her best friend’s voice. “The guy you met on-line?”
“He had them delivered to the club.”
“He’s falling hard for you.”
“How many dates have you had with him?” Jamie asked.
“Did you kiss him?”
“We covered that base on our first date.”
“Was it good?”
“You always say that.”
“I’m serious this time.”
Jamie sprinkled salt and pepper in the stew. The taste was close but not quite to Alan’s liking. “What’s so great about his guy?”
“He listens to me,” Samantha said. “He cares about me as a person, not an object.”
Jamie tucked the phone between her chin and shoulder. She added more pepper to the simmering meal and stirred the pot. “He wants to get inside your pants.” She paused before the next words came out of her mouth. An extended silence persisted on the line. “You already slept with him didn’t you.”
“I’m a dancer, not a slut.”
“That’s why he sent you roses.”
“I didn’t say they were roses,” Samantha said.
“You’re unbelievable. You just met this guy on-line.”
“He’s not a creep.”
“That doesn’t mean you should sleep with him on your first date.”
“It was our second. And I couldn’t help myself. I feel this amazing chemistry between us. Like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”
Jamie stuck the wooden spoon in her mouth and pretended to gag. “I still think you should take it slow.”
“Look who’s talking,” Samantha countered. “What about you and Kyle Miller? Or Ben Redcliff. Or that ski instructor you hooked up with over Christmas break in college? You practically jumped his bones the minute we got back to the lodge.”
“I was taking lessons from him.”
Samantha laughed. “I bet you were.”
Jamie laid the wooden spoon on a plate. “I just hate to see you get burned again.”
“I can take care of myself. You’re the one with the perfect life in your sunny Florida home with a pool.”
Jamie laid the placemats on the table. “It’s not as easy as you think.”
“That’s why I’m coming down for your birthday.”
“It’s not a debate. I felt bad when I missed your party last year.”
“I never had a party last year.”
“Exactly. And you didn’t turn forty last year.”
“I don’t want to turn forty this year.”
“Any woman would kill to have a figure like yours at your age.”
Jamie switched the phone to her other ear. “I’ll put that in my diary.”
“Make sure you write in big letters,” Samantha teased, “so you can read them without your glasses.” She laughed to herself. “I’m serious about your birthday. We’ll rent a limo in Miami and go club hopping. I’ll take you to a Chippendales show.”
“Alan would never go for that.”
“What your hubby doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
“It’s not the strippers,” said Jamie. She grabbed plates from the cabinet and set the table. Her neck hurt from craning it against the phone. “He’s strict about other people staying over.”
“Forget about him. This is your birthday.”
“I should probably do something simple at home,” said Jamie.
“Why don’t you come up here? We can see a show. Go out for Sushi. We’ll have a girls’ weekend in New York.”
“I can’t afford it right now.”
“I’ll buy your ticket. Call it an early birthday present.”
Jamie set the silverware by the dinner plates. “Alan won’t let me.”
“Since when do you need his permission? It’s one weekend, Jamie. You deserve it.”
Jamie paced back and forth. “I can’t.”
“Alan needs me at home. Work’s been stressful for him lately.”
“Alan can survive one weekend without you.”
Jamie caught the headlights in the front bay window as Alan’s cruiser turned into the driveway. “He’s home. I have to go.”
“I’m serious, Jamie. Don’t be a stranger. You’re going to have fun on your birthday if I have to come down there and steal you away myself.”
Jamie heard the door open and hung up. “You’re home early,” she announced as the sheriff emerged from the laundry room entrance.
Blanchart hugged his wife before he removed his duty belt and hung it in the closet. “Smells good,” he said. He followed Jamie to the kitchen. “I’m starving.”
Jamie stirred the pot with her back to him. “How was your day?”
“Did you make the funeral arrangements?” Jamie asked over her shoulder.
“It’s taken care of.”
“How is Deputy Carter’s wife holding up?”
Blanchart rubbed her shoulders. “You feel tense. You should take a hot bath tonight.”
Jamie turned down the burner and dipped a ladle in the stew. “How’s your hand?”
Blanchart kissed her nape. “Better, now that you’re here.”
“I have salad to put out.”
“I thought you were hungry?”
“I ate a big lunch.”
Jamie turned around and kissed him on the cheek. “Dinner’s ready, silly.”
Blanchart checked the caller ID list on the house phone. “Who called?”
“Your stripper friend from New York?”
“She’s a dancer.”
“What did she want?”
“She wanted to talk about her new boyfriend.”
“Nothing. She asked about my birthday. She wants to come down and spend the weekend with me.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her I’d talk to you about it.”
Alan dipped the wooden spoon in the stew and licked it. The broth was bland. The potatoes overcooked. The house was clean, but his wife smelled dirty. “What did you do to your hair?”
“I added some highlights.”
“You look cheap.”
“I can take them out.”
Blanchart glared at Jamie with piercing eyes. “You can’t undo a mistake like that.”
“The color wears out.”
“So does my patience.”
Jamie cowered from her husband. “I’m sorry… I just thought it might be nice to try something different. I didn’t think you would notice that much.”
Blanchart jammed the spoon in the stew. “Then why bother to mess with your hair at all?” He looked out the kitchen window and scowled at the pool boy with sandy blond hair and an easy smile. “Who are you trying to impress?”
Blanchart closed the window shade. Veins twitched in his forehead. His eyes were red with fury. “If you’re lying to me…”
“I’m not,” Jamie insisted. “I swear.”
Blanchart cupped a clammy hand on Jamie’s mouth and squeezed her face hard enough to control her head movement without bruising her cheeks. He shoved her against the hot oven door. “Your appearance reflects on me. God knows what the hell you’ve been doing in this house all day besides playing with your hair, but you better pray your housework is done.” Saliva frothed at the corner of his mouth. “A good wife knows her place.”
Jamie stood on her toes. Her eyes darted wildly back and forth. “You’re hurting me,” she mumbled through Blanchart’s grasp.
“Can you be a good wife for me? Can you?”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Yes,” Jamie squeaked through fish lips.
Blanchart let go. “I’m going out of town for a few days. Can I trust you while I’m gone?”
Jamie wiped the smeared mascara on her teary face. “Of course.”
Blanchart brushed his hand against her hair. “Cancel the pool service. You can manage the pool by yourself from now on.” He touched the stitches on his hand and made a fist. “And make sure you wash your car when I’m gone. It looks like shit in my garage.”