When Stanton came home a quarter past midnight, he still had on his powder-blue work shirt and Eckerd's nametag. He hung his flannel on the wall rack carefully. To appear sober required a concerted effort.
"Stan," Joan called in a neutral tone from the easy chair. M*A*S*H was on the television, but she had no idea what episode it was. The nauseating, sweet smell of Wild Turkey mixed with his cologne always put Joan on edge, but she didn't consider him dangerous tonight.
"The kids asleep?" Stanton asked, slowly.
"Glenn put up a fight." Joan faked a smile, as if something on the television could have amused her. "The pajamas he wanted were in the laundry." She rose as Stanton crossed the room to the stairway, but she resisted the urge to take his arm.
"I'll kiss them goodnight." Stanton nodded slightly, evidently pleased with this idea. He looked at his boots and used the pine banister to pull himself onto the first step. Joan positioned herself by the rail to make sure he did not fall. When the toe of his boot caught on the carpet of the third step, Joan was there to grab him. Stanton was a small man, outweighing Joan by only ten pounds, and she had little trouble getting him back on balance. It was when Stanton could again hold onto the banister that he turned and glared angrily at Joan, his jaws clenched, the muscles in his cheeks and temples bulging.
Joan pulled her arms against her sides, protecting her ribs. She looked upstairs, to Glenn's and Paula's rooms and hoped neither was awake. Stanton slapped her in the face, his hand slightly curved, the sound much like that of ground beef dropped onto a kitchen counter.
Joan's vision blurred instantly. Stanton knocked her from the bottom step nearly to the floor, but she used the halogen lamp to steady herself. Stanton licked his teeth. He didn't call Joan's name as she went for the front door. Joan worked the handle clumsily, seeing everything through a red haze.
The air on the front porch usually felt cool and fresh to Joan on these nights, like the first breath following an escape, but it was chilly even for October. Though the frigid air helped cool her eyes, she could not help shivering. The air chilled her cheek, which she could feel starting to numb and swell.
The neighborhood was quiet and dark. Joan wanted someone to be out there, someone she could run to and explain that Stanton had never hit her in the face before, but she didn't know if she could stand the questioning, the sympathetic frowns she'd get from the neighbors once they knew. It was the senselessness of everything that got to Joan the most. Her life with Stanton was good otherwise. He kept his job and kept his thoughts to himself most of the time. If something was bothering him, Joan had no idea what.
The living room light went off, and Joan could hear Stanton fumble his way around the coffee table on his way to the television. For a moment, she thought he was coming toward the front door, and she hurried off the porch and started towards Newton Park, where she usually went to walk in the cool air and give Stanton enough time to calm down and fall asleep. Sometimes he got into Glenn's miniature bed and slept there, the child using one of Stanton's arms as a pillow.
The park was a quarter-mile away, in the center of town: a circular enclosure of grass, a playground, elm trees, all bordered by a red brick sidewalk that split Newton Road. The neighborhood there was one of municipal buildings and stores, vacant this time of night. As Joan walked, she saw Stanton come home over and over again.
On the redwood bench, under the only lamp in the park, Joan let herself cry. When she finished, she thought of walking alone for a while. Going back home was always the hardest part of these nights, but there was nowhere else for her to go.
It was a while before Joan noticed Elise Fiske, who was standing on the stone picnic table. Elise was waving her arms and hopping up and down, as though hailing a cab. She was a slightly older woman who baked strawberry rhubarb pies and tuna-and-bean casseroles for holiday potlucks and played the witch who threatened to turn children into toads for the VFW haunted house. As Elise clambered drunkenly off the picnic table and walked around the swing set, Joan covered her cheek.
"I've seen you out here before," Elise said, walking gingerly on the damp grass. She was wearing brown slacks and a Morris the Cat T-shirt. "I saw you a couple months ago," she said, "when it was still warm. You had on your housecoat, the pink one, the one that's quilted." Elise Fiske was known for a sharp memory of clothes, hats especially. Morris the Cat stared coolly out from her shirt.
Joan kept her eyes on Elise's feet, aware that her lashes were still moist, her eyes red. Elise was wearing women's sneakers. The hole in her left sneaker betrayed the red toe-line of her ankle sock.
"I like the park this time of night," Joan said. "The air feels good."
"Sometimes I come out here myself," Elise said. She spoke with an inquisitive lilt to her voice, as though she were conducting an interview. "But I don't see you out here all that much." She bounced in place impatiently. She seemed in a hurry. "I usually go to Frieda's on Friday nights and help her bake." She pointed towards the section of town where Frieda Briar lived.
Joan kept her head down, but Elise just kept talking.
"Sometimes I just sit in the backyard and listen to the birds," Elise said. "Squirrels sound nice, but they get into our tomatoes and I have to chase them away. Sometimes I sit on the seesaw when you're not here and Frieda's not baking. When I do see you, I usually just keep walking, and you don't notice me."
Joan wanted to leave, but she knew she hadn't spent enough time out of the house yet. It was when Joan saw Elise lose her balance and nearly fall that she herself realized the woman was drunk. At this thought, she felt her eyes turn moist again, and she put the heel of her palm to her nose. Elise was standing before her, and they were alone, but Joan did not think that Elise Fiske, wife of Deputy Bertram Fiske, would know anything about her situation. The Fiskes were always one of the first couples dancing at the New Years' Gala at the elementary-school gymnasium. They played bingo and won occasionally. Bertram drove the Miss Flemington float in the Christmas parade.
It was getting harder to keep from crying again. Joan wiped her nose on her sleeve harshly. Elise was still staring at her.
"I'm okay," Joan said. She stood slowly, keeping her injured cheek turned away. "I'll go home now."
"I was going to Frieda's," Elise repeated, pointing the way.
Joan shook her head.
Elise kept her arm poised, as if she couldn't bring it down again. Frieda Briar was a widow and ran her own bakery. Friday was baking day. Saturday morning, people crowded Frieda's bakery for fresh bread, cake and hand-dipped candy. Joan knew where Frieda Briar's house was, but had never been inside it.
"It's just over there," Elise said. "Frieda's making taffy tonight. They're always up late baking, and Frieda told me they were making taffy tonight."
Joan was about to make an excuse about having to get some sleep when Elise said, "Bertram only yells at me. He tells me to get the hell out of his house and never come back." Elise was tapping her toe hurriedly, her eyes wide from too much liquor.
Elise led the way, crossing streets without looking for traffic. As she plowed forward she said, "It's just a couple of blocks," as if she knew Joan was thinking of giving up and heading home. Elise kept her hand out as they passed a telephone pole.
"We're nearly there," she said, barely avoiding a fire hydrant.
The streaks Joan's tears had left on her cheeks felt like dry spirit-gum. She felt she could peel her sadness right off her face.
Frieda's pink delivery van with THE LOVIN' OVEN stenciled onto the doors was parked in the driveway. The front door to the three-story house was wide open, and the light inside made a long rectangle on the porch ceiling. It was hot inside the house, hot enough to make Joan slightly dizzy. Elise's glasses fogged up, and she cleaned them with her T-shirt as she led Joan to the kitchen.
The kitchen, double the size of any Joan had ever seen before, looked dim through the fog of flour. Three women were at work, supervising the industrial kneader, making rounds among the eight ovens, pulling out browned loaves of bread and sheets of Halloween cookies and replacing them with unbaked dough that sat ready beside the ovens. Frieda was the widest of the three women, her apron tied at the back instead of the front. The heat and the sight of this huge woman prancing around this large kitchen were overwhelming to Joan. She thought of leaving and going back to the park, but Elise took her by the wrist.
"Frieda," Elise called, and Frieda turned quickly and started toward her, her face sour and businesslike. She clapped her hands together briskly and left a trail of flour smoke in the air behind her. Joan backed away in fear and respect, and Frieda practically pinned Joan in the hallway with her hip as she pointed toward another part of the house.
"The taffy pots are in the den," she said. "Take a free one and have someone tell me when they're all through. After I flavor them you can cut and wrap."
Elise nodded in an almost military style and started for the den, releasing Joan's wrist. Joan moved to follow, but Frieda grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the kitchen. Joan resisted at first. The heat in the kitchen was too stifling, the floured air hard to breathe, but Frieda's grip was strong and she pulled hard. She looked at Joan as if she were about to scold her for being trouble.
Frieda pulled Joan over by the sink, which was half-filled with beaters and wooden spoons caked with dried batters. Measuring cups littered the counter, and Frieda looked through them until one met her qualifications. She cracked an egg over it and flipped the yolk from shell-half to shell-half until all the white had fallen. Joan was mesmerized by the woman's speed. Frieda scraped some flour from the counter and ran a little warm water in the cup. She mixed it all with quick, perfect strokes.
Frieda pulled on Joan's chin until the bruised cheek was facing her. Joan tried to resist again, but it only made Frieda pull harder. As Frieda dabbed her fingers in the measuring cup, Joan felt passive and scrutinized, like a patient at a checkup.
Frieda murmured, "This'll hurt a little," just before she patted Joan's cheek with her dripping fingers and rubbed forcefully. Joan winced, but kept still until Frieda stopped and said, "That should help some. Go to the taffy, now." Joan left the kitchen gladly, already feeling a film of sweat forming on her forehead and upper lip.
She found Elise on the floor of the den behind a pot of raw taffy. Elise had both hands in the mixture and was squishing and pulling at it, her face concentrated and determined. The strips she pulled at were already smooth, and they gleamed dully in the light. There were other pots of taffy on the floor, and Joan sat in front of one. Already she could feel her cheek beginning to dry, and she wondered if the poultice was going to flake off by itself.
"Just work at it," Elise said, pulling another large ball of raw taffy from the pot and working it with her hands. "This is a really good batch. It comes together nicely."
Joan looked down into the raw taffy in front of her and was reluctant to touch it-a potful of chunky off-white liquid, which looked more like something used to make a man-eating blob in a horror movie.
Elise wove her fingers together, breaking the webs of taffy between them. She let her hands back down into the pot with a slap. "This stuff is going to turn out fine," she said. Her forehead glistened, and she drove her hands deep into the pot, her face tense and serious as she worked the taffy together.
Joan could hear the clanging of cookie sheets and baking pans and the hum of the kneader at work through the wall. Slowly, she reached into the pot with both hands. The raw taffy surrounded her forearms like thick liquid, but her hands could grasp handfuls of the stuff. She opened and closed her hands in the taffy for a while, feeling the candy between her fingers, before she grabbed two handfuls and pulled them slowly from the pot. A long string of taffy followed her hands, and she kneaded the raw mixture a little before letting it back down. She had forearm-length taffy gloves, and her skin was warm. She looked over at Elise and smiled, but Elise didn't look up from her work. Joan followed her example, amazed at how well this batch was coming together.