This story is by Emily Brady and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Everything changed when Mrs. Bronson dropped her salad. One moment, she clutched a large serving bowl between her hands, moving swiftly through the kitchen toward the garage. The next, a burst of mayonnaise, potatoes, celery, and porcelain shards sprayed across the tile floor.
“Fiddle sticks,” she muttered. She could still see fragments of the chinoiserie floral print on the larger pieces of glass.
A round-bellied corgi trotted out from under the dining table, tags on his collar jingling with each tiny step, and began to lick mayonnaise from a lump of potato.
“Fiddle cotton-picking sticks!” She clapped her hands at the dog, shooing him away. Forcing a breath through her teeth, she grabbed the broom and began to sweep the salad remains into a pile. She glanced at the clock. So much for punctuality, she thought, scraped the salad-and-glass mixture into the dustpan and slopped it in the garbage.
She left the broom on the back porch with flecks of mayonnaise and glass clinging to it, shoved a role of tinfoil into her bag, tucked another serving bowl under her arm, and scuttled out the door.
The grocery store was on the way to Milly’s house. Milly was Mrs. Bronson’s daughter, and although she was Milly Kenny now, Mrs. Bronson always thought of her as a Bronson. She thought the same of Milly’s son, Little Bentley. “Little” wasn’t part of the baby’s name, but it had all but become his legal title for the number of times Mrs. Bronson cooed, “Who’s my Little Bentley?”
A traffic light turned yellow. Mrs. Bronson pressed her foot into the brake, and her handbag tumbled from the passenger seat. Checkbook, notepaper, a bible, and the roll of tinfoil toppled to the floor.
“Dear me,” she said to herself. Today was the kind of day that made her feel one step behind, like that time in the eighth grade when she’d learned to square dance.
One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.
But for Mrs. Bronson – MaryAnn, as her parents called her then – the dance went something like One, two, three, three – and fell apart.
The corners of her mouth pulled into a snug smile – more felt than seen – had anyone else been riding in the car. And there she went again, lost in thought, nearly missing the grocery store parking lot and slamming the brakes again.
Scanning the aisle’s Bean & Son Market, Mrs. Bronson felt a dull panic wrap itself around her like a heavy blanket. Her watch read 12:57. The party would start in three minutes. In three minutes, guests would spread mustard on hamburger buns, arrange pickles on charred patties, and open fizzing cans of coke. And all without a drop of potato salad.
Maybe Milly remembered potato chips and a veggie plate, or even picked up a half-pound of macaroni salad from the Deli. The deli! She strode past the cream cheese to the deli counter at the back of the store.
“I’ll have,” she began and stopped to scan the options behind the glass. “Some of that one. Please.” She pointed to a potato salad with mustard and, more importantly, dill pickles instead of sweet relish. “And hurry, if you can. I’m late for my grandson’s first birthday and that salad is expected.” She didn’t bother telling the man behind the counter that her salad was actually expected. He wouldn’t understand the difference, and Mrs. Bronson hoped Milly’s party guests wouldn’t either.
In the parking lot, Mrs. Bronson sat in the front seat of the car and carefully removed the plastic lid from the tub of salad. One leg stuck ungracefully over the running board as she peeled the lid back, balanced the tub over her second-best serving bowl, and shook the contents into it. She tore off a square of foil and gingerly covered the salad, set the bowl in the passenger seat, and fumbled with the seatbelt to secure it.
“Excuse me,” a voice said from behind her.
Mrs. Bronson jumped, one leg still dangling from the open door of her car. A man was there, not much older than Milly. A bundle of twisted dreadlocks hung at the back of his neck, partially concealed by a frayed beanie. One fist, clad in fingerless gloves, grasped the strap of a battered backpack. The other held nothing.
“You startled me,” blurted Mrs. Bronson.
“Sorry about that,” the man said, “I was wondering if you could spare a few dollars.” Before Mrs. Bronson could respond, he added, “Anything helps.”
Bolstered by the truth (and a sizable donation to the First Baptist Church’s food pantry last Christmas) she said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash with me right now.”
“God bless,” he replied, and turned his back before Mrs. Bronson closed the door.
When Mrs. Bronson parked at Milly’s house, the dashboard clock read 1:13. A tangle of blue and green balloons bobbed above the mailbox. In the house, she found her daughter in the kitchen arranging cheese slices and lettuce leaves on a tray.
“You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had!” Mrs. Bronson spouted, setting her bowl on the counter by a tray of hamburger buns.
“Oh?” Milly smiled, sliding a piece of lettuce into place. She took it in both hands and began to move toward the back yard. “Do you mind?” She nodded to the door handle.
A gaggle of children darted across the yard while their parents watched from plastic lawn chairs, sipping cans of diet soda. Milly’s husband stood over a grill idly flipping hamburger patties. “To begin with,” Mrs. Bronson eyed the other guests and whispered, “The salad isn’t mine.” Her lips formed a small frown. “I had to get a new one from the store.”
“I wouldn’t have asked you to make it from scratch,” Milly said. She was now arranging paper plates and plastic utensils on a picnic table. “It will be perfectly fine.” Then, noticing Mrs. Bronson’s purse, said, “Let me put that with the others.”
“I can manage,” Mrs. Bronson chided, and stepped back through the door to the kitchen.
A tidy row of handbags and diaper carriers sat on the family room sofa. Mrs. Bronson placed hers at the end, only to have it slide off the arm and capsize onto the carpet. For the second time that day, her bible and tinfoil tumbled out – along with a fistful of dollar bills and coins.
Something like guilt reached through Mrs. Bronson’s chest and squeezed.
I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash with me.
But she had. Right there in her bag the whole time. In a moment of carelessness, she’d forgotten about her change from the deli and lied. She knelt and slowly reassembled the contents of the bag. She smoothed the bills and counted the coins. Six dollars and seventy-two cents. Of course, she couldn’t have known – she’d simply forgotten. She wasn’t a liar; she was forgetful. It was a sloppy– leaving money in the bottom of her bag. But it wasn’t – surely it wasn’t a sin.
But it wasn’t the truth either.
She clasped the bible in her hand before slipping it into the purse. Three steps toward the back door, she spun around, grabbed the bag and began fumbling for her keys. A minute later, she was driving with the six one-dollar bills still clutched in her hand, crumpled against the steering wheel.
Not even the memory of square dancing could ease her conscience. Only making amends. She just needed to tell the truth. As she parked, she saw the man ambling into the crosswalk, his backpack slung over one shoulder.
“You!” cried Mrs. Bronson. “You, stop!” Her feet thudded on the pavement, jolting her knees. By the time she reached the edge of the street, he was at the opposite curb. “Wait!” Mrs. Bronson tried again, waving a hand. The money escaped her grasp and fluttered into the street like leaves. Bolting forward, she scrambled to collect them.
But the word was drowned in a blaring car horn and screeching brakes. Mrs. Bronson was shoved backward. The smell of exhaust and hot rubber filled her nose. She lay sprawled on her back until a hand reached out to her – one she recognized by its grimy fingers poking through fingerless gloves.
“You okay?” the homeless man asked, pulling Mrs. Bronson to a sitting position.
“You saved me!” Her voice rattled. The man offered his hand again. When Mrs. Bronson took it, she pressed the wadded bills into his palm, fingers shaking. “I’m just fine,” she said. And before he could respond, made her way back to the curb.
As she reached for the door of her car, her stomach rumbled with hunger. What she needed now was a burger – no onions – with a side of potato salad.