Happily, my balcony garden is growing well, especially that huge tomato plant! The trick here in Texas seems to be starting plenty early (mid-March) so the plants are well established before the overwhelming hot weather hits. I already have lots of little green cherry tomatoes. I enjoy reading out here!
I’m also pleased to report that my story “Shelf Life” now appears in the 7th edition of the U.P Reader (Modern History Press). In this twisted tale of revenge, a woman discovers some shocking news and proceeds to serve an unusual recipe to guests! I’ll have to wait a while to share that one with you. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy my story below, which was published last year and features a very different type of meal.
Dinner for Two
by Becky Ross Michael
Built at the advent of the twentieth century, the proud house on Tamarack Street keeps watch over the neighborhood. With a facelift of white paint and new porches, the home embraces the whispers, laughter, and tears of those who came before. Tulips and daffodils reappear like clockwork each spring, and perennial flower beds rebloom every summer. Each autumn, the maple leaves let go of life and flutter to the ground. And the inevitable snows blanket the dormant lawn and insulate the foundation every winter.
Within the walls, modern updates conceal remnants of faded papers in floral prints and musty wooden lath. Residues of past colognes and stale cooking aromas occasionally escape into the air to puzzle the present-day residents.
In the kitchen, snowflakes swirl beyond the windows as the man carefully constructs a multi-layered vegetable dish. No meat or dairy, as a nod to her favored eating trends. Together, they learned to cook by trying new recipes and ingredients in their remodeled kitchen.
A snowplow churns past the corner, throwing a wall of white.
He places the pan into the oven and sets a timer for one hour. Surely, she’ll come. It’s her birthday, after all. Taking a sip of white wine from his glass, he glances at the bottle of red set aside for the occasion. I hope she’s careful driving on these roads.
While cutting and chopping vegetables for a colorful salad, he thinks back to other birthdays. One year, he hired a string quartet to accompany their meal. For another, the two dressed in Victorian garb for the memorable occasion. The man chuckles aloud, thinking of a time early in their story. The beef Wellington had refused to bake beyond an overly rare pink. Maybe that led to her dislike of meat?
He checks the timer and savors the lovely smells filling the kitchen. Now to set the dining room table. He has purchased roses, not easy to find in the North during long winter months. I’ll wait to light the candles. While choosing some of their favorite music, the man rests on the sofa near the fireplace, enjoying the ghostly reflection of flames dancing on the surrounding tiles. With escalating winds outside, the old house creaks and sighs.
The sound of the timer startles him, and he moves back to the kitchen, switching the oven from bake to warm. As he reaches for the wineglass, the man notices the quickening beat of his heart and admits to feeling nervous after all these years. Things have been rocky between them, as of late, with more time spent apart than together. Hopefully, this evening will be a step in the right direction.
Seated at a small bistro table near the stove, he finally opens the saved bottle of red wine, noting her still-empty glass. The sky is now dark. Through the frosty window above the sink, he sees the revolving white lights of a snowplow as it cycles through the neighborhood. He peers at the clock and is at first surprised to admit she is late, worrying that dinner will turn dry.
The furnace clicks on, disrupting the stillness in the room and breathing a soft puff of air upon his neck. Suddenly, a new dread grabs hold of his mind. What if she’s hurt and needs me?
When he jumps to his feet, the man’s shoe catches on wrought iron. The chair topples on its side with a clatter and jars his senses. Only then does he remember that she is gone. There will be no more shared birthday dinners or plans for a renewed future. The rooms will remain silent and lonely. They had already said their final goodbyes without realizing the truth at the time. This life is the “empty after” he has always feared.
With tears of regret burning his eyes, he leaves the warmth behind and heads out for a cold winter’s walk. After the door is closed and latched, the house heaves a long moan of sorrow.
I have no idea about the names of the people in the photo shown above. But I know the house intimately. It was built around 1900 and had been updated countless times when I moved in over 20 years ago. The house still needed a great deal of work, and it really started to shine during the years when I was lucky enough to live there.
A kind resident of the small, Upper Peninsula town loaned me this old photo. They had known someone who lived on the street and realized I might be interested in this historical image of my house. I formed the mat around the copy of this picture with remnants of vintage wallpaper found hiding in the walls during renovations.
After mulling over my story, “Dinner for Two,” for years, I finally knew the missing piece. The house needed to play a more important part as a character, along with the man and then the woman, known only to the reader through the man’s recollections.
I’m pleased to say that my story now appears in UP Reader #6, which is published by Modern History Press! Because this just came out, I can’t share this tale with you, yet. But I’m happy to now post a story that I told you about last year…”Sumac Summer.” This is based on memories my father told me from his own childhood and was such fun to write. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about this young boy’s suspicions of a possible poisonous mistake!
“Philip, why are you still awake?” Mom whispered. She carried a lantern to avoid the bright hallway bulb.
“Too hot,” I murmured, from my spot by an open window. Four brothers snored nearby. My six sisters were quiet in their room down the hall.
“A few more minutes and back to bed,” my mother warned, as she left on tiptoes.
Something outside moved from the shadows. Dr. Justin walked the path to my friend’s house with his black medical bag. Was Danny sick?
The stairs squeaked, and I dove for my pillow. I ignored the need for an outhouse visit, pressed my eyes shut, and fell into a sweaty sleep.
The air was even warmer when the rooster crowed the next morning.
“Looks like our next-door neighbors moved out,” my big brother, Harold, said at breakfast.
“No way. Danny’s my best friend. He wouldn’t leave without telling me.”
“When I delivered their newspaper, the window shades were still closed, and their car was gone,” said Harold.
“Dr. Justin was over there last night,” I said. “I wonder what happened.”
“I bet they didn’t move,” said my oldest brother, Ernie. “They probably got sick and died from poison, or something.” He clutched his throat and fell to the floor with a choke.
“Don’t tease,” Mom said with a frown. “Danny’s mother mentioned that his father had health problems. She said they might move closer to family in New York.” ***
By the end of that week, I decided Danny was gone for good. Harold reminded me it was my turn to cut the grass. I grabbed the wooden handle and gave our mower a push across the lawn. By the time I finished, the sun was high in the sky. My cheeks were on fire, and my mouth was dry as dirt.
I guzzled water at the kitchen pump and grumbled. “Why can’t we ever buy soda pop from the market?”
“Treats like that cost too much for a family of thirteen,” said Mom.
“Could we make more root beer?”
“That wasn’t cheap, either. And we had a terrible mess in the basement when a bottle exploded.”
“I have an idea for a drink,” Dad said, as he walked into the room. “It’s almost free and not messy to make.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Sumac (‘sue mack’) juice. It’s been years since I made any, but I remember the steps.”
“Never heard of it.”
“The sumac tree’s red berries can be used to make a lemon-flavored drink,” said Dad. “Some people even call it sumac lemonade.”
I pumped another cup of water and listened.
“The family next door has gone. No one cares if we cut berries from those sumac trees between the two houses,” Dad continued.
“Guess not.” Even though the neighbors had only been gone a week, I missed Danny. He’d been my best friend and could even make doing chores seem like fun.
Dad eyed the trees through the kitchen window. “We’ll soak the berries in water until it’s pink and lemony. Sugar or honey adds a bit of sweetness. The flavor will be strongest when the clusters turn dark red. Here in Northern Michigan, we won’t see that until late summer.”
A quick look at Mom told me she was okay with his idea. Hadn’t my parents ever heard of poison sumac? With a gulp, I swallowed the words so they wouldn’t escape from my mouth. What if Ernie was right? What if Danny’s family was poisoned? I wanted to trust Dad on this. But it might make us sick, or even worse!
When I checked outside, the skinny leaves on the short, thick trees were mixed with light green flowers. I didn’t see any berries.
Sleep didn’t come easy that night. I jerked awake. “Argh!!!” Danny and some strangers with hollow eyes and red drool on their lips visited my dreams. Could that nightmare be a sign that sumac juice might not be safe? ***
Within a few weeks, little green berries appeared. They turned a rosier color each time I dared to peek at them. No words popped into my head to warn my parents they might be poisonous. I had to learn the facts before it was too late. Since it was summer vacation, I couldn’t ask my teacher. The library was the best place to start.
“Chores are done, and I’m going for a bike ride.”
“Sorry, Philip,” said Mom. “You’ll need to watch your younger brother and sister. I’m late for my women’s meeting.” The screen door slammed before I could argue.
Paul and Eunice weren’t too heavy, and I could pull them to the library in our wagon. The shortest way took us past the blue water of the bay. If only we could trade places with the people who played in the waves without a care in the world.
The air was cooler inside the small, brick library. My sister and brother ran toward the picture books. I started my own search for adult books about trees.
“Philip Ross, I haven’t seen you here in a long time,” said the librarian after a while. “Could I help you find something?” She eyed my sister and brother. Had they emptied all those books from the shelves?
“Ah…no, thanks. We should get going.” I grabbed Eunice by the hand and Paul by the shirt. The walk back home with the wagon was even hotter, and I hadn’t learned anything helpful.
Once we got in the yard, I reached to check the trees and found blood-red berries. Some clusters were even covered with white, sticky stuff. We were almost out of time. My new idea felt scary, but I had no choice. I wiped my hands across my pants and planned for the next day.
I awoke early to a gray morning. After sneaking from the house, I steered my bike through quiet streets. I headed to the drug store, where one of my older sisters had an afternoon job. While I waited by the locked door for the owner, Mr. Keiser, I peered down the road through the fog.
Teacher told us that druggists go to college for a long time. That’s how they learn to make safe medicines. Mr. Keiser should also know which plants were safe. His tall body finally appeared from the fog. I ignored the lump in my throat and told him my problem. With a strange look, he motioned me inside the store.
“Aren’t you one of Pastor Ross’s boys?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, I’m Phil.”
“Tell me the details.”
He sat on a high stool, and I began with the way Danny and his family had vanished. I ended with my fear that Dad didn’t know the red berries were poison.
“Your worries are over,” he said. “That’s harmless sumac. You can tell by the red or purple clusters that point toward the sky. The sticky part you described has the strongest lemon taste,” he added.
“Is there a kind of sumac that’s poison?” I asked.
“Yes, but that looks very different. It has green or white berries that hang down.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said in relief, and stuck out my hand to shake his.
“Make sure you always check with your parents before eating anything that grows in the wild,” Mr. Keiser reminded me, as I turned for the door.
I flew toward home on my bike and jumped off before the wheels stopped turning. Fat drops of dew sparkled on deep purple berries. “They’re ready,” I yelled, at the back door. “It’s sumac juice time!”
As the sun slipped lower in the sky, I sat on our wide porch with my family. Dad filled glasses with sumac juice for everyone. Mom added frosty chunks from the large block the iceman had just brought. The drink was cool, sour, and sweet on my tongue. Everybody liked it, except Eunice, who didn’t like most things.
“Afternoon,” said the mailman, from the bottom step. Mom traded him a glass of juice for a few envelopes. He drank it and talked with my parents on the shaded porch.
Mom sifted through the mail as soon as he’d gone. She held up an envelope, written with ink. A cloud of worry crossed her face. “It’s a letter from out East,” she said and opened it. Her frown soon disappeared. “Philip, it’s from Danny’s mother. She says they left early that morning to beat the heat and apologizes for not saying good-bye. She’ll work in her family’s store while her husband recovers,” Mom folded the page. “Time will tell, if they’ll move back to Michigan.”
“I’m glad they’re okay,” I said and turned away to hide my sadness.
“Danny sent you a note, Philip.” She raised a paper written in smeared pencil.
I grabbed it and hurried to the side yard that overlooked my friend’s old house and the sumac trees. Danny’s story made me laugh out loud. On their way to New York, he and his mother had to change a flat tire. He described the scene so well that I pictured them in mud up to their knees as they search for a dropped lug nut. Maybe I could think of a tale to send back?
I had a whopper of an idea. I’d write about a missing friend, fear of a poison potion and a tasty ending!