Hot Grits, Cold Heart
by Donna Smith Fee
I left him in the oven with his feet sticking out like a turkey too big for the pan. Giggling at the thought of Hansel and Gretel and the nibbled house of sweets, I felt like a good witch.
Driving south on 441 from Athens, Georgia, I matched my breathing to Naomi’s slow deep breaths. Roommates at the University of Georgia twenty-plus years ago, she and I had always gotten each other into and out of trouble. I wasn’t sure who was in more trouble this time. Me, for pushing her husband into his bakery’s oven, or her, for leaving the hospital despite her broken ribs, miscarriage, facial contusions and I.V. drip.
“What?” she looked so weak in her hospital gown and stolen scrubs.
“It is just a little funny. A baked baker.”
“What if he’s dead? How am I going to explain that?” Naomi sought the order in things, looking for the whys. I mostly struggled with the why-nots. We slowed down as we passed through Madison with its streets lined with antebellum homes supporting fabulous porches and Boston ferns bigger than tubas. The town claimed they were too beautiful for Sherman to burn on his march to the sea.
“He hurt you,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure he’s not dead.”
When Naomi called me from Athens Regional Hospital, I had known it was bad this time. Usually the calls from the emergency room began with a lie: Tripped on an extension cord or fell out of a tree trying to harvest mistletoe.
This time there was just a directive.
“Go to my house and pack a suitcase for me,” Naomi whispered into the phone.
“Of course,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t know,” she said and hung up the phone.
It was lunchtime. Will would be at his bakery, being sweeter to his customers than he ever was to Naomi. His customers thought he was a man made of hard work and sweat, but Naomi knew he was made of something altogether different.
I went to their house and packed a pair of sandals, a pair of jeans, and a few of her t-shirts. Her favorite was a brown one with happy smiling cupcakes dancing across the front. From the bathroom I grabbed the hairbrush I’d given her two Christmases ago. That same year she’d given me five guitar lessons. I only had four more to go. I grabbed a pair of khaki shorts from the basket of clean laundry that was always left unfolded in the hallway.
On the mantle was a wedding photo. In the photo they both looked happy and beautiful. Will is standing behind her with his arms around her and she is laughing up at him. What the picture doesn’t show was later that night she was sitting on his lap at the after-party. He shoved her to the floor when she said it was time to go. The few who witnessed it chalked the incident up to wedding stress. Naomi said, “Oops, this dress sure is slippery on his tux!”
I packed the novel Jitterbug Perfume because it had made her laugh the first time she read it. I threw in A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. I had never seen the last book and flipped through a few pages. It had line drawings of women being burned and hanged. Women accused of witchery died in the most tragic of ways. Looking at those innocent women being tortured, I remembered Naomi and hurried to complete my task.
She and I had been talking on the phone a few months before about witches and conjuring spells and happenings. We had both agreed that hexes would be bad, that power, if one possessed any, should be used for good. We had tried to conjure the pizza man but ended up using the phone. How wonderful it would be to have power that floated around you and through you. Even just a little bit for protection from heartbreak, pain and uncertainty. At the very least, the pagans seemed to have it all figured out: When in doubt, throw a party.
On the way to the hospital, I drove past Raising the Bread to make sure his truck was still there. I didn’t want to run into him at the hospital. I could not be trusted to be pleasant with him as I’d always tried to be before, for her sake. I was afraid the redneck girl living inside me would cut him with the professional-grade Swiss Army knife I’d kept in my purse since college days to impress boys.
Once inside Naomi’s hospital room, I cried at the site of her. Naomi’s eyes stared at me dull and dry as pecan hulls. I sat beside her on the bed and held the hand not attached to the dripping I.V. The left side of her face was dark blue like a thunderstorm thick with quiet lightning. I leaned to hug her, but she stopped me by lifting her gown to expose her bandaged torso.
“I’m wrapped up like a crazy man in a straight jacket,” she said and tried to smile.
“Crazy man is right,” I said. “What’d you do this time? Forget to cheese his macaroni?”
“No,” she said, “he did this.” She raised her hand and pointed to the damage he had inflicted on her pretty face. “So I threw hot grits on him and then he did this.” She lifted her gown again to show me her bandages.
“Hot grits?” I laughed. “That was your weapon of choice?”
“Well,” she said, Mae West-style, “a girl’s gotta work with what she’s got.”
“Maybe you should have used something more lethal,” I said. She ignored me and continued her story.
“I was cooking grits for that casserole dish everyone likes so much. You know the one with grits and sausage and cheese? I was making it for Mr. Edwards. His wife is down the hall.”
“So what’s that got to do with hot grits?” I asked. I smiled because I’d realized this was the first time Naomi had fought back.
“They were boiling on the stove when he came in asking about some insurance bill he said I forgot to pay. We started fighting, and he hit me with the cutting board. I don’t remember grabbing the pot off the stove, but apparently I did. I hit him hard across his face and grits went everywhere. They were even in his hair.”
The thought of Will with hot grits avalanching down his face was an image I wanted to hold on to for a long time. I didn’t want to hear what happened next. I would find nothing useful in knowing and the telling would only hurt Naomi.
“Here’s your bag. I packed shorts and jeans and a few books. What’s with the witch book?” I asked.
“I found it at the book store last weekend. It’s such a cool book. I picked it up for a dollar. Did you pack it?”
“Yeah, it’s there with Jitterbug,” I said. “Are you finally going to leave him?” I blurted out. I had tried to respect her wishes regarding Will. In my mind, that meant to listen and to tell her I loved her. I knew that speaking against him would make her defensive and ultimately cost me the best friend I’d ever had. Maybe my silence had been selfish.
“I was pregnant,” she whispered, the words hanging in her throat like cotton.
I heard what she said, but it took me a minute to realize what she meant. She’d been trying to have a baby for a few years.
“Did he know?” I asked. I tried to sound neutral but the kernel of anger in my throat was growing.
“I was almost three months,” she whispered. “We were going to make the announcement next weekend.” She began crying so softly that I didn’t notice the tears until I kissed her wet cheek. She winced when I touched her. “I love you,” I said.
“I don’t want him to hurt me anymore,” she said. She struggled to sit up straight against the hard hospital pillows. She reached up with her free hand and held her fingers against my cheek. “I don’t want him to ever hurt me again.” Naomi said each word with precision and without breaking her stare into my eyes.
“Then he won’t,” I said. “We can make it so he never hurts you again.” I smiled at her, and we agreed to a plan without saying a word.
“Are you going to be alright here?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, “You’ll be fine, too.” I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. It was the only place I was sure did not hurt. I pulled out both books and put them on her bed.
By now the lunch rush was over and Will had put the Closed, Come Back Tomorrow! sign in the window. His truck was the only vehicle in the red dirt parking lot. I parked and walked in the back door. He was cleaning the large oven with a wooden handled brush that reached to the back of the rotating metal shelves. He leaned in the oven so far that one of his feet kept lifting up from the floor as he scrubbed the blackened bits from the oven shelves.
I stood there watching him work and listened while the radio played Season of the Witch.
Naomi’s spirit was a friendly force.
I walked over to the oven and just as his foot left the ground again, I grabbed it and shoved him up quick and hard. My knee pressed down on the metal bar that told the motor to begin its work. Slowly the oily chain turned on its wheel moving the shelf. I held his feet and continued to push in as he tried to push out. We’ll see who’s stronger this time, I thought.
“Sonofabitch!” he yelled over and over as if that might slow the oven’s shelves from their upward turning. When I was sure he was unable to loosen himself from his predicament, I turned off the motor to the oven.
“Will?” I said. “Can you hear me?”
“Jessie?” he asked, unsure of what was happening. Then he got a clue.
“I’m gonna kill you! Let me go!”
“That doesn’t motivate me,” I said.
He screamed, his voice echoed from inside the oven.
Silence settled like flour in the airless bakery. “Come on, Jessie,” he finally said in a milk-and-cookies voice of a better man. “What do you want to do me like this for? Ain’t I been good to you?” Clearly he’d been listening to Delta blues again without the least bit of understanding.
I turned the motor back on and pressed my knee against the bar again. The shelves moved and pressed harder on man and metal.
“Jesus Christ! You’re killing me!” came the voice inside the oven.
I knew I could kill him. It would be so easy to turn the oven on 500 degrees and walk away.
Instead I hoisted myself up on the bread table where the sourdough rolls were kneaded every morning.
“Tell me what you did Will, and I’ll let you go.”
He said nothing. I had time on my hands, so I took a knife and opened up several 50-pound bags of flour. The sound of the serrated edge ripping through the bags was incredibly satisfying. The flour made a big puff of white each time it was hit by the blade. I had flour on me, and it was everywhere on the red tiled floor and the old Hobart mixer. I picked up the end of one bag and flung it around until it was empty. I did the same to three others. A bakery with 200 pounds of flour strewn about looks so peaceful and fun. I thought about making a flour angel.
“Whatever you’re doing out there Jessie, you better stop.”
I was stupefied by his need to control things even when he had no control at all.
“Tell me what you did, and I will let you go.”
“I didn’t do anything! She’s my wife!”
Not anymore I thought, but truly I didn’t know what Naomi would do. She and I had agreed he was never going to hurt her again. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but Will in the oven seemed a good start.
“Here’s the deal Willy. I’m going to leave you here for a bit, and when I feel like it, I’ll call the cops and tell them where you are. In the meantime, watch your step. There’s flour everywhere.”
I walked out the back door and went to get Naomi from the hospital.
“Yep, that’s just how it happened.” I felt good about everything and liked that there was still flour on me.
Naomi smiled but it hurt. She held herself tight and smiled big and laughed in silence. I knew she was getting on the good side of okay.
Then I saw the sign that said Milledgeville 10 miles. I took a hard right to get off the road. Gravel ate into the underside of the car and red dirt spewed behind us like dry flames. I had not been this close in more than two decades and would not go any further, not even for Naomi.
“What? What?” she asked, “Did you leave the oven on?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why are we pulled over?”
“Stop it with all the questions. Here are some questions for you.” I plummeted her with demands for decisions. Where did she want to go? What about Will? Go back to Athens or somewhere else? I knew I was out of line. I could see she was in pain. We had not taken any medications with us. I didn’t know what was in the thinning I.V. bag on her lap, but I was sure the pain meds were wearing off.
“How about Milledgeville? Let’s go there and make a plan.” I had managed to pull the car over exactly in front of the Milledgeville 10 miles sign as though it were a screen at a drive-in movie. I stared at the letters until they no longer spelled anything recognizable.
He would still be there. The man who smelled of pickled eggs and whiskey and who put a knife to my throat in my own bed in the middle of the night twenty-two years ago would still be there. He might still have the knife he had used to cut my panties. He had dragged the sharp tip inside my thigh all the way up to the hard center between my breasts. There he had cut off the white t-shirt I was wearing. All the while whispering, “Don’t tell, or I’ll kill you.”
I never told.
“Milledgeville,” said Naomi. “Let’s go.”
“Not there,” I said.
“Please,” she whispered. I was angry with her for being so needy. In our rush to leave Athens, neither of us had managed to keep a cell phone. Mine was most likely in the bakery covered in flour, and her cell phone was on her desk in its charger. “I’m bleeding,” she said.
On the seat was a dark stain so red it was almost black. Still, I hesitated. He might be an orderly at the hospital. Hell. He could even be the CFO. I have no face for him in my memory. I remember begging him not to hurt me. I had just lain there sobbing and pleading. While I begged, he ran the knife blade along my body until I could feel its presence everywhere that was part of me. I could not scream. I could not fight. All I could think was don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me. Finally it was over, and I was not dead.
“Hospital,” said Naomi. Then she put her head back and closed her eyes.
Just as we passed the Milledgeville city limits there was a blue sign with the big white H and an arrow pointing left. There was no breaking as I spun the car left and clipped a USPS mailbox on the corner. Federal offense, I thought, as I pressed the gas pedal all the way down.
We pulled into the hospital parking lot and the transmission groaned when I shoved the gear stick into park.
“Wait here!” I said. Naomi opened her eyes.
“I survived the drive here. I’ll be fine for another 5 minutes.”
We looked at each other and I wanted to tell her how brave I was for bringing her here. The hospital in Milledgeville was the very last place on earth I ever wanted to be. I had ended up here that night so many years ago. After the weight of him had left me, I moved like a spirit in my room. I methodically got dressed and failed to notice he had cut me in several places. Small wounds that would leave the tiniest of scars and would trouble me if my mind wondered back to Milledgeville.
The next thing I remembered was exactly what I was seeing now as I walked into the emergency room. The pale green walls, the sickening medicinal smell, the glass window where a woman sat with nails too long to do anything accept watch TV.
She slid open the window and asked how she could help.
“I’m in trouble,” I said.
“We don’t handle trouble,” she said. “Unless you’re hurt. You hurt?”
“Yes.” I put my hands on the counter and squeezed as hard as I could. “I mean no. I’m not. But I have a friend in the car. She’s hurt.”
“Can you bring her in sweetie?” Her voice slowed considerably, and she spoke to me like I was a child. “Honey, can you bring her in? Can she walk?”
“I don’t know.”
The lady with the too long fingernails picked up her phone. It was out of my hands now. They would help Naomi just like they helped me that night. There had been a nurse, and a doctor and another woman wearing pajamas. She was holding my hand and explaining what the nurse and doctor were doing. I didn’t hear complete sentences. Just words strung together like broken Christmas lights. Rape kit. Police report. Suspect. They scraped under my fingernails. They combed through my pubic hairs looking for anything not belonging to me. They cleaned my cuts and put butterfly band-aids on them. They sent me home in a police car.
“Naomi Watson wants to speak with you,” said the woman from behind the glass. “She’s just past that curtain and toward the back.” I looked to where she was pointing with her long red fingernails and headed in Naomi’s direction.
She looked better. She was in a new hospital gown, and they had given her a full I.V. bag.
“What’s in these things any way,” I asked as I tapped the clear plastic bag.
“Gin and tonic.”
“Can’t be. No lime.”
“I’ve made few phone calls,” said Naomi.
I knew this could be big. She had planned her entire wedding in six phone calls. Maybe she could divorce in two, maybe less.
Her brother was going to get Will out of the oven. Her mother would go to Naomi’s house and supervise the movers who were to arrive within the hour having been offered a huge bonus to move everything belonging to Naomi. Everything being whatever had belonged to Naomi before the wedding. Will could have whatever remained. The last call had been her lawyer to whom she had gone to the day she realized she was pregnant. Her child deserved more and now that the child was gone, Naomi’s vision for her baby was her vision for herself.
The doctor came in, and Naomi asked me to stay when I made the move to leave the room.
“I have a prescription for you to manage pain. Those ribs are going to be very sore for a while. The bleeding from the miscarriage will be heavy for another day or so, but you’re going to be fine. The worst of it is over.”
We both believed him. While we waited for someone to show up with discharge papers Naomi told me she knew about Milledgeville.
“There’s nothing to know,” I said.
“Liar. You don’t think I noticed what you did every time there was a rape scene in a movie? You always got up to get popcorn, go to the bathroom, or checked to see if the windows were up in your car. And you cry out loud in your sleep sometimes. So I know about you and Milledgeville. I’m so sorry.”
I told her how awful it was not to fight back.
“Sometimes it’s better to play dead than be dead,” she said.
And sometimes it’s better to throw hot grits.
Donna Smith Fee is a working mom who loves her hometown of Athens, Georgia, and steals as much time as she can to write. If money were not an issue, she’d write in the mornings, play in the afternoon and have cocktails promptly at 5. She recently had a short piece published in Athens’ The Flagpole, titled “Bacon Wars.”