by Delilah Grey
Ethel Mayberry smoothed the crisp, white napkin down on the table, making sure the corners were perfectly aligned. Lifting it as gently as a baby bird, she placed it in the exact middle of the plate. Stepping back, she smiled. Was there anything as beautiful as an impeccable dinner setting?
The trick is perfect simplicity, her mother had told her, with an emphasis on perfect. Starched napkins, silverware shined until it gleamed, a menu that exemplified her talents as a cook, yet hinted at delights yet untasted. Perfect simplicity indeed, she thought, pulling the ruler out of her pocket to triple check that everything was in the right place, unlike Helen Patterson’s dinner last month. It had been a travesty. The napkins had been fanned in the middle of each plate and the whole thing had gone downhill from there. The gelatin in Helen’s cucumber and relish salad had never fully solidified, and she had chosen to serve meatloaf as the main course. Meatloaf. At a dinner party. To top it all off, the charades had been less than challenging, and she and John had won handily. Or would have, if Helen’s cousin Alice hadn’t cheated, that hussy.
This dinner party had to be perfect. John was up for a big promotion at work, and impressing his boss, Barney Adams, and his wife Susan was essential.
Ethel was more than prepared. Fifteen years of dinner parties had prepared her for a moment such as this. The food was bubbling merrily on the stove, the kids were off with her parents, the games were already set up in the parlour, all that was missing were her guests. She quickly consulted with her carefully tabbed First Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home to make sure that everything was correct, even though she knew it would be.
“Darling, you need to relax,” John had said that morning, absent-mindedly kissing her forehead on his way out the door.
“Do they like lamb?” She had asked.
He had merely smiled, getting into the car. “I’m sure whatever you decide will be delicious, as always! Barney and Susan will be thrilled with whatever you make.”
Men. A few details would have been the least he could do. Despite his lack of information, she had decided on a complete menu with cocktails, canapes, a roast lamb, and a beautifully light sorbet for dessert.
The doorbell rang. She glanced at the clock – 5:30? Dinner wasn’t supposed to be served until 6. Who could that possibly be?
She did a quick check in the mirror before she answered the door. Flawless, as always. Unless, was that a wrinkle? It couldn’t possibly be a wrinkle. Probably a laugh line. She made a mental note to laugh less.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the man before her said, removing his hat to reveal a slightly balding and very sweaty forehead. His grey uniform was wrinkled and stained.
“Good afternoon,” she replied. Polite but firm was the best way to remove an unwanted presence from one’s porch.
“I’m here to fix the washing machine,” he said, lifting his bag of tools.
Her heart sank. “You can’t possibly fix it today,” she said, “you were supposed to be here yesterday, and we are having company in thirty minutes. Can you come back tomorrow?”
He sighed and shook his head. “Sorry ma’am, if I don’t fix it today, I can’t come back until next week.”
Panic fluttered in the pit of her stomach, where it then balled up and sat, a steady knot of anxiety. She knew she should have tried a glass of the dinner wine.
“Fine, but can you do it quickly please? We have guests at 6.”
“I’ll go as quick as I can, ma’am, but these washing machines, they’re temperamental, you know.”
She ushered him into the house and was a few steps behind him when she noticed them.
Muddy footprints on her newly cleaned rug. Anger bubbled under her skin. This was turning into a disaster. But she could still have time to clean up before anyone arrived.
“Sure smells good!” The man said. “Having a dinner party?” He stopped and peered into the dining room. She was almost insulted by his lack of manners, but not entirely surprised. Her table setting would have made anyone stop in their tracks.
“Excuse me,” she said, “your boots are full of mud. Would you mind leaving them by the door?”
“Oh yes, of course, no problem,” he mumbled. He bent down, propping himself with one hand against her dinner table, making it creak as he leaned over and balanced on one foot while he removed the first boot.
And then placed it on the table.
Next to their wedding silver, and Aunt Betty’s best china.
A fleck of dirt landed on one of her napkins.
Something inside her snapped.
When she came back to herself, she stood above the man wielding one of her gleaming silver candlesticks. He was sprawled on the floor, looking as if he had just gotten tired and decided to take a nap there. His eyes stared sightless at the wall, blood pooled on the carpet that she had been so worried about moments before.
That will never come out, she thought.
The phone rang. She was frozen for a moment. Then she calmly set the candlestick back down on the table, and answered it.
“Hello darling.” It was John. “I do hope you and Barney are having a wonderful time, I hope his little joke didn’t startle you!”
“What do you mean?” She asked.
He laughed. “Oh Barney is such a clown. I’m sure you thought him showing up on our doorstep in a repairman’s uniform to fix the washing machine was a hoot, especially after I told him about them not coming yesterday. He’s always playing practical jokes like that! I should tell you about what he did in Bill Simmons’ meeting last week. Mrs. Adams should be along shortly. I just wanted to let you know that I’m leaving the office now, and I can’t wait to eat whatever you have cooked up for us. Please don’t tell Barney the story about our old car while you’re waiting, you know I tell that one better! I love you darling,” he said, hanging up the phone.
Ethel set the receiver down with shaking hands, and did the only thing a sensible hostess could do: open her Emily Post to the index and look for the page on how to hide a dead body.