On Sunday morning, Maggie Amberson arrived at Sue Horn’s place, the faded farmstead at the end of the split road west out of Leander. The dew was burning off, the big yard shivering.
Sue was at her kitchen table with her head in her hands. She sat up sharply when Maggie came in.
“Nice of you to join us,” she said, folding one black-stockinged leg over the other and putting on her usual scowl.
Maggie decided not to mention her friend’s peculiar pose. It would embarrass Sue for Maggie to acknowledge that she’d caught her napping. Instead, Sue fetched the cookie dough from the icebox. They’d made it the previous evening and chilled it ten hours as dictated by the recipe. Neither woman could remember who’d come up with the recipe. It was hand-written on an index card that had been smudged and smeared over the years so that it was hardly legible now.
“How is it?” Sue asked, peering over Maggie’s shoulder.
“Fine,” Maggie said, though, as always, the dough had formed a puckered skin.
“It didn’t dry out, did it?”
“No,” Maggie said, “It’s fine.”
Maggie settled into her routine, pressing and rolling. Her hands ached. Sue had somehow dodged arthritis and yet Maggie with her angry fingers always ended up doing this part.
Once the dough was ready, Sue would descend upon it with the ancient cookie cutter she kept on a shelf beside a carving of the Virgin. Sue relished the cutting, Maggie knew, because it gave her occasion to swear.
“Damned thing,” she would say, “doesn’t cut for shit anymore.”
She never allowed herself curses worse than these but speaking them seemed to enliven her in a way nothing else did. By the time she finished the first batch, she’d be moving around the room with a certain derring do, whistling or even laughing.
How many Sundays had they performed this ritual, Maggie wondered? It had to be getting on to thirty years now. For most of those Sundays, their girls had been here, yanking at their skirts, begging for bites of dough. And their husbands had been prowling about, jostling one another, managing to always be in the way. Now their girls were grown and their husbands were ashes scattered two summers apart on the bank of Marlow Lake.
“Watch you don’t roll it too thin now,” Sue said.
Maggie pressed harder in response.
Sue frowned and pinched off a dime-sized piece. She chewed thoughtfully, staring down at the dough. “Did you remember to half the salt?” she asked.
“Of course I remembered to half the salt,” Maggie said. This was one of many unwritten alterations to the recipe.
Maggie tried to look at the dough the way Sue did, as if arcane symbols were etched in it. But to her, the dough looked like nothing more than what it is. Though, of course, it formed the substrate of their friendship. Without it, they’d have drifted apart the way Maggie had drifted from pretty much everyone else in town. With John dead, she’d become a regular shut-in, venturing out only for the meager meats and soft canned vegetables that kept her alive.
Sue was crouched in front of the oven.
Her next question would come in three…two…
“We didn’t accidentally use baking powder, did we?”
“Nope,” Maggie said. “I double-checked.”
With a groan, Sue stood up. She plucked another cigarette from the pack. “You think you’d like to own this place one day?” she asked.
Maggie raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“It’s just about your second home already,” Sue said. “It’d just be yours on paper too.”
Sue stared at her friend. “What’s this about?”
Sue shook her head slowly. “Never mind,” she said. “Just odd thoughts. Haven’t slept well this week.”
Maggie nodded. “Alright,” she said. “But if it was something, you’d tell me?”
“Sure,” Sue said. “Of course.”
When the cookies were done, they had a choice to make. Ham salad or chicken salad on the porch for lunch. Then the decorating.
“I believe I’m feeling ham salad today,” Sue said.
Maggie nodded. “I was thinking chicken.”
Sue grunted. “You go on and have chicken if you want chicken but I’ve my mind set on ham.”
That was when Sue cut herself, the cutter slipping from the dough and running hard across her hand.
The cutter fell to the floor.
“What happened?” Maggie asked.
The water rushed from the tap. Sue crouched over it, looking numbly at her hand.
“I think I cut myself,” she said softly.
“It’s alright,” Maggie said. “I can finish up.”
Sue shook her head. “Just get me a bandage.”
Maggie rushed from the room. The hall smelled sour and was crammed with boxes of God-knew-what. Maggie hardly noticed.
But something caught her eye as she passed Sue’s bedroom. Something was laid out on the old bed that shouldn’t have been. Maggie stopped short.
The rifle was nearly as long as the mattress. The barrel stopped at the center of the pink pillowcase. It must have been the one Sue’s husband Mitchell had brought back from the war. But what was it doing here? Fingers still sticky with dough, Maggie lifted the weapon and pulled the bolt. A shell glittered in the chamber.
When she got back to the kitchen, Sue’s hand had already stopped the bleeding so there was no need for the bandage. Maggie watched her friend run the cutter through the dough once more. She did not know this person’s pain, she understood. Despite thirty years working beside her, she would never truly know it.
Though the realization might have brought her to her knees under other circumstances, today she merely went to Sue and placed one hand over the cutter.
“Come here,” she said.
“What’s wrong?” Sue asked.
But when Maggie embraced her, she seemed to squeeze back as hard as she could.
Kevin Tasker’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, Entropy, Flash Fiction Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.