It was spring and company was coming for dinner. Joyce prepared all the food herself. She thought it important to show her domestic side on this particular occasion since the company was Stan Witter, a friend of her brother’s and a most eligible bachelor.
Joyce was twenty-three and unmarried. All her old friends from high school were already married and had drifted away. She was the only one left behind. She had set a goal for herself to be married by twenty-five and have a home of her own. It was a goal that didn’t seem impossible of fulfillment, especially if things went well with Stan.
Stan was twenty-four, what Joyce considered the perfect age. He lived in a twelve-room, two-story brick house in town that came to him after his grandmother died, and he lived there alone. He must naturally want a wife to live in the house with him. Joyce supposed he was rich by most standards without having to work for what he had, but she didn’t care so much about money and wasn’t interested in him for that.
She knew him slightly in high school. He was a grade ahead of her, so she hardly ever had a chance to speak to him. He always stood out from the crowd, though. He was coolly handsome, with his dark hair, pale skin and green eyes. He didn’t bother himself with all the silly goings-on in high school, such as dating and girlfriends. He was quiet and shy, and any time Joyce saw him he was usually alone, reading a book or looking at the sky or seemingly thinking about things that other people never bothered to think about.
She had managed to mostly put Stan Witter out of her mind until he and her brother, Curt, became best friends and Curt began mentioning Stan in conversation at the dinner table. They went to a football game together and a swim meet and then there were overnight trips to the lake or the city. Stan liked museums and plays and concerts. She didn’t understand why he would like Curt and would want to spend time with him—they were so different—but she figured there must be a side to Curt that she had never seen. Maybe Curt could come to like those things too.
Joyce left the hot kitchen—the ham was still in the oven and everything else was ready. All she had to do with change her clothes and comb her hair and put on a little makeup. She sat down in front of the mirror and regarded her reflection with hopelessness.
The thing about her that she believed held her back was her eyes. They didn’t work in concert. The left eye was all right, but the right eye moved about uncontrollably in its socket. Those who knew her hardly noticed the aberrant movement of the eyes, but to anybody else she looked slightly crazed or demonic. A boy at church said she was evil. She knew, or felt, that people were always looking at her and for that reason kept her eyes downcast.
When Stan arrived for dinner at the appointed hour and Joyce saw he was wearing a jacket and tie, she was glad she had taken the extra effort with her own appearance.
“Why so dressed up, cowboy?” Curt asked. “We’re strictly informal here!”
Mother greeted Stan effusively, taking his hand in both of hers. “I’m so glad that you and my son have become good friends,” she said. “I haven’t always approved of some of his friends in the past.”
“Mother!” Curt said. “I’m sure Stan doesn’t want to hear that! I know I don’t!”
Joyce passed around a tray containing little glasses of wine and after the wine had been drunk, it was time for dinner. Stan and Curt took their places at the table in the dining room and Joyce and mother brought the food in from the kitchen.
“This certainly looks wonderful!” Stan said.
“I hope you like ham,” Joyce said, speaking for the first time since he arrived.
“Of course I like ham.”
“I’m starved,” Curt said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”
“Whose fault is that but your own?” mother said.
After everybody had their plates filled, mother insisted on a little of word of grace: “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord.”
“A-men!” Curt said.
“I hope you don’t mind the prayer,” mother said.
“Of course not,” Stan said.
“Some people are funny about those things.”
“He’s a regular all-American guy!” Curt said.
“How do you like living way out here?” Stan asked. “Outside of town, I mean.”
“It’s quiet,” Curt said.
“It gets a little lonely sometime,” mother said, “especially since my husband died two years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Stan said.
“On that cheerful note,” Curt said, “pass me some more of those sweet potatoes.”
During a lull in the conversation, Joyce cleared her throat and said, “When Curt mentioned that you were coming for dinner, I remembered that I had known you in high school.”
“That’s right!” Stan said. “I remember now.”
“All these years have passed.”
“Not so many. Seems like yesterday.”
“You graduated a year before I did, I believe.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
When Joyce saw that Stan was looking at her, she looked down and began rearranging the rolls on the plate. “Would anybody like anything else?” she asked.
“How about some dessert?” Curt said.
She went into the kitchen to get the cherry pie and when she came back, mother said, “We wouldn’t have had this lovely dinner if it hadn’t been for Joyce. She did the whole thing on her own.”
“She did?” Stan said, smiling. “Well, everything is just perfect. It couldn’t have been better.”
Joyce flushed with pleasure at the compliment and in the next moment she was afraid that Stan would notice her eyes and run screaming from the house.
After dinner, Joyce and mother began clearing the table, while Curt took Stan down to the barn to show him the horse he had bought. He paid less for it than it was worth, he said, and hoped to sell it at a profit.
“I think it went well, don’t you?” mother said while they were washing the dishes.
“I guess so,” Joyce said.
“I think he likes you.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The way he looked at you.”
“He looked at you the same way.”
“I think the next step is he’ll call you and ask you out on a date and if that goes well, we’ll have him out to dinner again, maybe a barbecue. Then the two of you can go on a picnic somewhere. Picnics are a good chance for young lovers to get better acquainted.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, mother.”
She couldn’t help feeling hopeful, though. Having him to dinner was a good way to remind him, without being too obvious about it, that the two of them had been in high school together. Mother was right, though. The next move, if there was one, was up to him.
Mother was putting the clean dishes away and Joyce was stowing the leftovers in the refrigerator when the phone rang. It was the man calling about the horse that Curt hoped to sell.
Joyce volunteered to run down to the barn to get him. It would give her another chance to spend a minute or two in Stan’s presence before he went home.
She crossed the back yard, trying to keep from stepping in the mud. At the point where the back yard ended, the barn was about five hundred yards farther on.
As she approached the barn and was for the moment blinded by the sun, she didn’t see either Curt or Stan. She crossed the threshold of the barn and, in the dimness, saw the whiteness of Stan’s shirt.
He had removed his jacket. His pants were down around his ankles. He was leaning into Curt pushed up against the wall and the two of them were kissing passionately. Curt was alternately clutching Stan’s shoulders and the back of his head and unbuttoning his shirt.
In one instant it all became clear. It had really been clear all along but she refused to see it. There had been so many signs: Curt’s indifference toward girls, his obvious adulation of Stan, the trips together, Curt’s overnight stays at Stan’s house in town.
She wanted to get away before they saw her. She turned and began running back toward the house.
In the back yard was a sycamore tree with a huge horizontal limb about five feet off the ground. She had been dodging the limb her whole life. Not seeing anything—only wanting to get away—she struck her forehead on the limb, knocking her out cold.
The next thing she knew she was lying on her back in the mud and mother was kneeling beside her, delivering little slaps to her cheeks.
“What happened, dear?” mother asked. “Are you all right?”
“I must have hit my head,” Joyce said.
“Can you get up off the ground?”
Mother helped her into the house to a chair in the kitchen.
“You have a big welt on your forehead, dear. It’s going to swell something terrible, I know. I’m going to call the doctor.”
“No, I’m all right,” Joyce said.
“Do you feel dizzy or anything?”
“My head hurts.”
“Well, let me at least wash the wound. That’s all I can do now. I think you do need to see the doctor, though.”
“No, I’m all right,” Joyce said. “I’m going to lie down for a little while until the pain in my head stops.”
“Do you want me to help you into your room?”
“Isn’t there anything I can do?”
“You can leave me alone for once and stop your fussing! I said I’m all right!”
She stayed in her room for two hours and when she came out, mother was anxiously waiting to know how she was.
“I feel like I’ve been hit in the head with a sledgehammer,” she said.
“Stan was sorry he missed you,” mother said. “He wanted me to tell you how much he enjoyed your dinner. He said your cherry pie was the best he ever ate.”
“I don’t care what Stan thinks.”
“He left with Stan. They were going to see a movie in town. They’re spending the night together at Stan’s house.”
“Of course,” Joyce said. “How could I have been so stupid?”
Mother wasn’t hearing what Joyce was saying, though. She was looking closely at her face. She took her by the arm and led her into the kitchen where the light was stronger.
“Look at me,” mother said.
“Just look at me.”
She sat Joyce down in the chair and took her by the chin and tilted her head first one way and then the other.
“I never thought it possible!” mother said.
She gave Joyce the hand mirror and told her to take a good look at herself.
“Ugh!” Joyce said. “I’ve always wanted a lump right in the middle of my forehead. I wonder how long it’ll take to go away.”
“Not that,” mother said. “Look at your eyes.”
“What about my eyes?”
For the first time since she was eight years old, her right eye and her left eye worked in concert. She stood up and took a few steps, looking at her eyes in the mirror. She danced from the table to the refrigerator and over to the sink.
“My eyes are normal!” she said. “As normal as yours! As normal as Curt’s! As normal as anybody’s!”
“It’s a miracle,” mother said. “It was the blow to the head that did it.”
“I’d call and tell somebody if there was somebody to call.”
“The next time Stan comes for dinner,” mother said, “you won’t be self-conscious about looking him in the face.”
She continued to look at herself in the mirror. She wanted to surround herself with mirrors. Even the mention of Stan’s name wasn’t able to detract from the happiness she felt.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp