Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: JAM (02/09/17)
TITLE: A Whisper of Raspberries
By Jan Ackerson
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Two days later, he knocked on the door of a faded white clapboard house with a sign in the window: Room to Let. A red-haired woman wearing a stained blue apron opened the door, and a heavy sweet aroma drifted past George’s nose. “Ma’am,” he said, “I’m looking for a room.” He nodded toward the sign. “But perhaps you’ll not want to rent to…”
She interrupted him. “You have a job?”
“Yes, ma’am. I start tomorrow at the lumbermill. Name’s George Jackson.” He started to hold out his hand, then pulled it back, awkwardly.
“How much are they paying you, Mr. Jackson?”
“Fifteen dollars weekly, ma’am.”
She wiped her hands on her apron. “Five dollars a week for the room, laundry, and breakfast. Six if you want supper.”
“Six dollars, then,” George said, and she nodded, inviting him inside. She led him through a small parlor to a hallway, and showed him the bedroom and the water closet. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“It’s Doris. Doris Drake.”
“Mrs. Drake.” He stood awkwardly, wanting to unpack his suitcase, shy that she might see his three shirts and his faded underwear. He asked the question that pricked in his spirit. “Will there be trouble if you rent to a negro?”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Coffee will be ready at six, Mr. Jackson.”
The next morning, he walked into the kitchen at five minutes to six, wearing the black trousers from his suit and one of his clean shirts. The fragrance that had invaded his sleep was stronger here, rising from a large pot bubbling on the stove.
Doris placed a mug of coffee on the table and sliced the heel from a loaf of bread. “Butter and raspberry jam’s right there,” she said, nodding toward a little tray.
George murmured his thanks and slathered his bread, while Doris turned back to the pot. He took a bite, then stopped chewing as sweetness flooded his mouth and seized his tonsils. “Ma’am…I have never in all my days tasted anything so fine.” He stopped, embarrassed to have spoken before swallowing. “My apologies. I…” He took another bite, closing his eyes to hold the flavor in.
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. It’s my own recipe. I put a bit of lime juice in with the berries, and some honey.” She blushed, prettily.
He finished his bread and looked longingly at the loaf, but gulped down the coffee and picked up his hat. “I thank you for the breakfast, ma’am,” he said.
That evening, they ate a silent meal of meatloaf and butter beans. There was a row of glass jars on the counter, each filled with jewel-red jam. George wondered if there would be bread and jam for dessert.
“Mr. Jackson,” said Doris. “I want you to have my husband’s dungarees and work shirts.” She hesitated, wanting to spare his feelings, glancing at his scuffed black shoes. “He had some work boots, too.”
George looked away from the jam jars, startled. “Your husband. He’s…”
“Dead,” she said, and she took his plate to the sink, even though he hadn’t finished his beans. There was a sticky spot on the table; he touched his finger to the spot and brought it to his lips, tasting a whisper of raspberries, lime, and honey. When she turned around, he hurriedly pushed away from the table. “Good evening, Mrs. Drake,” he said, and went to his room and closed the door.
Saturday was a half day of work. In the afternoon, he helped her fill a wagon with four dozen gingham-covered jars to be sold at the market. “Look,” he said, “this one’s cracked.” Some of the jam had oozed onto his hand; he started to wipe it on his trousers, then thought better and licked it off.
Doris laughed. “Take that one inside, Mr. Jackson. I guess it’ll do for your breakfast.”
That evening, in his room, George tried to read, but his eyes continually slipped away from the page. He closed them—it was easier that way, to gather the scent that seemed always to linger in her house. Easier, too, to bring to mind the memory of her laugh.
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