Her dress was of cheap muslin meant to be white, but so coarse it had adopted a jaundiced pallor nearly matching the all over sprinkling of dusty pale sprigs of once-upon-a-time colors of pink and yellow and green- a cheesecloth meadow. Her legs and arms, lightly tanned were bare save for freckles. The thought of air tripping along the gold-brown polka-dots caused a shiver in him. He wondered if he ought to have offered money for stockings.
Above the ample shelf of her bosom her powdered immigrant face smiled broad and flat amid a nimbus of hair the precise shade of a milk pumpkin freshly rent from it‘s umbilical vine. For a moment he thought he could smell the mildewed flesh, see the concave withering shell as it fell in on itself, age distorting it‘s form. His eyes drifted heavenward as his stomach began to churn.
Batting his eyelids against the heat of the afternoon sun he ran his hand through the short shorn dark fluff the army had accustomed him to. Beads of sweat were gathering at his temples like dew on grass. His hand fell away, tacky and tremulous. Soon the office would reopen.
Toward the rear of the car an excited chatter progressed. Veda and Augusta. The two women leaned against the bulging fender fanning themselves with floppy straw hats, gossiping just as if it were any other day. At his elbow, Lidell wheezed, a low whistling tunefully broadcasting from his ill-fitting dentures. “We’re in for it,” the older man offered.
Nodding agreement on the concise weather forecast but with secrets stowed deep in his chest that led his thoughts other directions, he almost smiled. Almost yelled. Almost ran, as they said, for the hills. Almost prayed to the, in his experience, unhearing God up above beyond the great burning blue sky, the gaseous sun, the frigid stars. He ground his molars with such force he thought he might permanently realign his jaw.
At last the man came, parking his faded black car, walking in the leisurely southern style across sidewalk, up steps, fumbling with keys at the door. “C’mon in, folks.” He grinned, magnanimous, comfortable, sagacious.
In gilt even letters, traced and painted with a nimble hand, an inner door read, Ernest K. Floyd, Justice of the Peace. Beyond this door was a room at once dull and bright- not festooned with even a shred of those items which sang of matrimony, no flowers or crepe paper, no rice, unless it was secreted in some drawer or cabinet- but aglow in premonitory light and heat from the bank of windows on one side. The jovial J.P. wedged himself behind a desk, pulling out ledger and receipt books. “Who’s for it, then?”
Augusta blushed, Lidell emitted a chuckle that could have passed for the beginning of a bronchial fit, both backing slightly to the rear. Firm, unembarrassed, Veda stepped up, her chubby dry fingers grasping her fiancé’s wrist as she went. He stood mute beside her as she rattled off answers that Ernest K. Floyd diligently copied down in the ledger.
Again his mind insisted on wandering. He thought of his wanting childhood, the dank gray nights of the war, the muddy shell-shocked days, the heady welcoming return, the utter quiet and blank faces as he tried to find employment, the distracting, boisterous presence of the woman beside him, ready to take him up, believing in her heart that she was doing him the favor, saving the lanky former private from a future of unwomaned loneliness.
In profile he looked at her full coral painted lips, thick soft shoulder, balloon breast beginning to perspire through over-taxed brassiere and off-white dress. His eyes strayed to her stomach, where he imagined he could see the flesh move, grow taught and begin to tear as the outline of a toe formed a hill that pushed out against stomach and dress, threatening to kick it’s way out of the womb.
The time had come. He took his place beside her, repeated the ritual words without a stumble, kissed the rough mouth offered to him which tasted of mint and chicory, felt a hand good-naturedly slap his back and told himself he’d kill her in her sleep if the baby that wasn’t his came out colored.