MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Fish and Muffins

Monika R. Martyn

Stella stared into the rain. She had set her hope on sunshine, but the miserable shade of grey painted on the skyline warned her to pack a sweater. The umbrella’s looped handle was already wrapped over her wrist. It wasn’t the gloom that upset Stella. The gloom was a close twin to her mood. She had spent an hour on her hair, even when she started to drag the brush through the long, wet strands she had little hope of the bulk giving in to the heat of the blower for long. Her hair preferred its natural nesting state. While thinking of it, Stella twisted a scrunchie onto her wrist. If need be, and he was there, she could always swing her hair into a bun.

But with Jason there never was such a guarantee. He was the most unreliable person she knew, but didn’t really know, and he only showed on the pier on random days. She wasn’t so fortunate. She ran the small coffee shop next to the tackle and bait shack. At least on days miserable as today, she sold twice as many cups of coffee and tea. And it being Wednesday, she’d bake her midweek favourite: apple crisp laced with her secret caramel sauce. Jason had called it sinful while winking at her with his green eyes. Of course Jason didn’t know that Stella knew his name. She greeted all the pier fishermen with the same congenial grin, teased them about their lures and fishtales. It was good for business to pretend she’d like to fish, if time allowed.

“Who would run the shop? Bake the muffins, slice the loaves of cinnamon bread, steep the tea and grind the beans?” She joked, often winking at the older fellas, the ones who were safe to flirt with.

She overheard Jason introduce himself to the men he now called mates. That familiar slap on the shoulder, the teasing over the size of their lure. Jason didn’t look like the other fishermen. He wore office slacks, often a sweater over a button shirt, and loafers. He came on his lunch hour.

“To get away from my desk. Some fresh air.” He said as if needing to explain himself though no one cared. They all heard the call of the fish for different reasons.

Stella arrived at the shop, always promptly at six. An hour before the kitchen help arrived, Stella set the coffee to brew, and the tea to steep, because on some mornings an overeager fellow would knock early. She filled the muffin pans, the loaf pans, with the mixtures she had whipped up before closing the shop. By seven, she’d pull out the first fresh batch of the day. Blueberry, oatmeal, carrot and raisin bran.

Looking good for a customer should not matter to Stella. She was not in the market for a mate.
So to speak, she had lied to the friends who teased her with suggestions.

“Once is enough.”

She teased back, gulping a bit of residual pain while she busied herself with a cloth, a wipe or a sweep. It wasn’t that some of the men hadn’t tried to whisk her off her feet. Herman used to shyly ply her with his choice catch.

“Oh Herman, shouldn’t you be offering that to your missus?”

Larry used to spend an inordinately long time tying his lure, often bungling it so he’d have to retie the fly.

“Damn it, Stella. You rob me of my reason.”

If Larry hadn’t such a bad way with money, he might have been a decent bloke. He was handsome enough, had the gift of gab, which was an essential ingredient in any relationship as Stella could account to, but give him a dollar, a minute later, he’d have spent it or lost it on a bet.

“Oh, Larry, you never had any.” Stella would tease him back.
.
Steve used to wait, pretending to be tinkering with his car, at the end of the dock.

“Need a ride home, love?” He’d catch her just as the bus pulled around the corner.

“Thanks Steve. But I got a date with the red limo. And with that old beast of yours we’d never make it up the hill at my place.”

Regardless of their offer, Stella brushed them off with a side of good humour, a soft blush on her cheek and a wave as she walked away.

***

Jason didn’t wear a ring on his finger. Not even a tan line if there ever had been such a mark on his life. He showed one sunny Wednesday, a freshly bought tackle box swinging from the same hand as the rod; still stuck with a sticker denouncing its overpriced price. Hank saw to him and set him up at the rail. Jason had never fished before.

“Like a fish out of water yeeself.” Hank teased, tied a lure for what was baiting in the deep waters off the dock.

Jason wasn’t squeamish about piercing the worms, about unhooking the gills and about clubbing the fish to stop them from slapping the deck. He even surprised them on his first day out when he caught a good sized Jack, completely inedible.

Stella didn’t care about the fish, what Jason did at the office he needed to get away from, where he lived and what his last name was or might have been. She just wanted to relive that moment on his second visit, when he paid for his egg salad on toast sandwich, and their eyes accidentally touched. His green matched to the green in hers, and in that second neither was quick enough to allow themselves a longer look. As if in looking, they stood naked at the counter. Jason had just finished explaining something to Hank. Something startling.

“No, I’m single.” and Hank had pointed to Stella, “What’ll know? So is this good looking gal.”

While turning fifty shades of pink, Stella pasted a grin on her mouth. “And loving it.” She said. Though why, she could not say.

For the last five years, her well meaning friends had scoured the country, just to find a mate for Stella. Even though she pleaded with them, a thousand times.

“I’m not ready.”

They, however, were certain she was lonely, that Tom, from such and such, was ideal for her. He wasn’t. Of course there was Rodney, handsome if a bit stout. Her friends cajoled that Stella with her experience in the food business could rectify his passion for bad food choices. Then there was Mike, who even after only one date, proposed managing the Muffin Shop with her. He had such plans and visions. Pete had been the last unsuccessful match, and on paper he seemed better than any fish the men hauled in. Good family, good though gentle looks, decent job, nice manners, but a passion for midnight movies that he let slip on their first date. Stella didn’t do porn, didn´t watch it, and didn´t speak of such topics with anyone.

Stella was attractive. She had good hair and a nice figure. Her tidy little business racked up a tidy little nest egg. She was frugal, she was witty, and kept a decent house. She gloated of her single status for a different set of reasons. Stella had loved once. Given her whole heart only to find out Sam only loaned his to her for a short while. Ten years, then one morning he asked for it back.

“You what?” Stella stared at Sam across from the kitchen table. Tea steam rising from their cups.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve been seeing someone.” Sam tried to trap her hand as if touching her might weaken the poison in his words.

“You what?” Stella repeated.

She should have seen the markers. The late nights at the office, the sometimes sweet scent on his shirts, the meetings out of town on weekends. The kisses goodnight instead of more.

“Don’t do this.” Sam pleaded. “You saw the signs, you just ignored them like you do me.”

True. She had ignored his advances late at night. She had ignored his kisses and winks. She was just so tired. Running the shop, managing the kids, keeping the house had worn her out. Then there were the stresses of their aging parents. Her job was flexible, Sam had told her, and because of the bendable way of her shop hours, she took the brunt and catered to her parents and his. Her parents were easy, she had a built in tolerance for them and they for her. But his parents always thought she was beneath Sam. Running a shop. Her mother found it shameful for a woman to run a shop for fishermen. Unheard of.

The worst and most painful was sharing the kids. On first instinct, she wanted to hide them from Sam as a sort of punishment. But he was a good father, and the kids needed him. She insisted on shared custody, though each time they left to spend time with their father, they tore a little rent in her heart coupled to a fear they’d never return.

With time to spare and lonely nights, Stella renovated the coffee shop and bought out the small shack next door. She advertised her lunches at the banks, the offices up the street and hired her children, Evan and Stacy, to distribute the flyers. Within a month, she hired a girl, daughter of a friend, to come work with her. Stella’s biggest talent wasn’t her cooking. Though she could muster up a fabulous dinner on a minute’s notice, it was her detail driven knack managed by her organized mind that she always managed to run her life smoothly. It was also what drove Sam away. Stella neatly slotted everything.

“You haven’t got an inch of spontaneity in you.” Sam had accused and named it his number one reason for tiring of her.

His new flame was spur of the moment, and she had no qualms to wreck a marriage in a single afternoon.

At five in the afternoon, Stella’s disappointment shoved over to another plan. She’d go to the beach, like the hundreds of others would, or maybe something else might surface. It always did. She’d not let an overactive fantasy to ruin her day. Stirring a batch of blueberry mix, she watched the purple magenta juice stain the vanilla paste, and she loved watching the juice bleed in a swirl. For a week now, Stella had rehearsed her plan.
“Would you like to come for lunch one weekend?”

She picked lunch to make it seem more casual, less threatening. The bathroom mirror always answered back.

“Oh that would be lovely.” And mimicked Jason’s voice. She also had another ace up her sleeve.

“Oh Jason, if you’re not busy this weekend, I have a ticket for the concert in the park.”

“That sounds marvellous. I wanted to go but the venue sold out.” Jason would answer. His eyes arguing for something more.

Stella practised grinning without a blotch spoiling her blushing cheeks.

***

So Jason hadn’t come today and seen her in the new denims that lifted her butt, the tight sweater that hugged her curves and made Hank blow a whistle this morning. Jason didn’t show for lunch like she had expected him to and it wasn’t the end of the world. Stella set the last batch of muffin mix in the large cooler when she heard the door jingle.

“Can you see to them?” She nodded to her hire. “Today’s muffins can go at half price, with tomorrow being a holiday.”

The girl nodded.

A holiday. A day off to put her feet up and allow the overwhelming rush of loneliness to come get her. She hated holidays when the kids were at their father´s. Of course she could spend some time with her parents, treat them to lunch. Help mother set their apartment right and argue her father out of the stacks of newspapers he liked to hoard.

“Stella? A gentleman here to see you.” The girl nodded her head in the direction of the front counter.

“Who?” Stella mouthed.

“Better go and see.” The girl grinned.

Stella wasn’t prepared. She wiped her hands on her apron and didn’t give the dusting of flour on her nose a second thought. But the second she saw the gentleman in question, she regretted not giving the mirror a chance to rectify the wrong. With a nervous run, her fingers brushed the ever errant curl behind her ear.

“Hi.” She almost said Jason.

“Sorry to bother you so late. I’m guessing you are about to close.”

“No worries. What can I do for you?”

“May I call you Stella?” Jason extended his hand. “I’m Jason Harding.”

“Nice to meet you. Stella Gleason.”

“I’m not sure who to ask, but since you do such a bang up job cooking lunch, I was wondering if you could teach me how to cook the fish I caught?” Jason laid a newspaper wrapped body on the counter and looked at Stella with an expectant peep out from under his long lashes.

“The fish? Why sure.” She peeled the paper away to look. “You didn’t catch that here on the dock?”

Stella knew her fish, and she could not wait to hear Jason’s tale.

“Not exactly.”

“It’s a beauty. I know just the thing that would go lovely with it. Are you cooking this for someone special?”

“Yes. I am. I heard someone say this particular lady likes Atlantic salmon the best.”

“She has good taste. How about some wild rice and asparagus. It’s best to keep it simple to enjoy the delicate taste of the fish.”

“Sounds lovely. Should I bring white wine or red?” Jason grinned nervously.

“Whatever you guess the lady’s favourite would be.”

While Stella waited for Jason to answer, she pictured some young girl in a nice summer dress lounging on Jason’s balcony while he cooked. A glass of Pinot Noir clasped between her elegant fingers. The dress billowing in the breeze. She pictured them laughing at something Jason said, soft saxophone music playing in the back.

“What is your favourite Stella?” Jason reached out and touched her hand. She hadn’t noticed that it needed holding. And his thumb brushed over her knuckles.

“Me?” Stella stared at the thumb running away with her hand. “Me?” She asked again.

“The cooler is packed with a chilled Californian bottle. I think I heard you mention it as your preferred choice. I picked up asparagus, young and tender, and the rice has been soaking since last night.”

“Sounds like you don’t really need me.”

“But I do. It’s taken me all month to muster the courage to ask you out. The way the guys on the dock speak of you, you’ve turned many better men down. I just thought that maybe I stood a chance.”

“The whole month?” Stella grinned. She hadn’t been courted in a long time. “You must be hungry then?”

“Is that a yes?”

“My place in an hour?”

“I could drive you. I brought the car.”

“Ten minutes then.”

Stella looked down on their entwined hands. She was loath to ask for hers back. She would miss the warmth enfolding hers.

“I’ll be here waiting.” Jason’s eyes smiled.

***

The pink salmon flesh sizzled on the grill. Stella had slipped out of her denims and opted for a fresh linen dress. A plain number that had it’s own magic. When she joined Jason in the living room, he was bent over a long line of family photos. Long minus Sam.

“Your kids?” He asked and handed her a glass of wine.

“Yes. Fourteen and twelve. They’re with their father this weekend.”

Stella liked catching her reflection in Jason’s eyes. On the drive over he had apologized for tricking her into cooking.

“I wish I had thought of a better plan. You must be sick of cooking.” His knee in the small space of his Miata touched on hers.

“Actually, I’m glad you asked. I love cooking, and I enjoy eating with someone.” She deliberately left her knee on his.

“Mine is eight. He lives with his mother.”

“That’s hard.”

“Amicable for us. My ex had an opportunity in the city. I couldn’t deny her that.”

“Sam and I have found a groove too. Though more out of necessity than my generosity.”

“It’s never easy.”

Stella swung away to test the salmon, and to poke a fork into the asparagus. ”Almost.”

“Sounds like someone’s at the door.” Jason set his glass down. “Mind if I answer?”

“Sure.”

Stella thought it might be Marie from next door. Marie meant well, but her nose was particularly pokey when it came to Stella’s affairs. She could not keep the grin from sliding over mouth. Marie would be gobsmacked at seeing such a handsome man open the door.

“Mom, we’re home.” Stacy bubbled into the room.

“What? What happened?” Stella swiftly caught Stacy by the arm.

It was already too late when she saw Sam, arguing with Jason.

“What’s he doing here?”

“Stacy, Evan go to your room! Please.”

She waited until their doors shut before addressing Sam’s beet red face. Jason stood with his feet in military style, arms braced across his chest.

“Sam, the question is why are you here?”

“Kate’s gone and broke her ankle. I’ve no time to argue. But he should leave.” He pointed to Jason, jabbing the air.

“You know each other?” She directed her question at Jason.

“Go on. Tell her! Or I will.”

“Sam. Whatever Jason has to tell me is none of your business. Get out.”

“You’ve no idea Stella. This guy is an ass.”

“That explains how you know him then.” She pushed Sam toward the door. “Out.”

“Stella.” Jason looked over Stella’s shoulder. “The fish.”

“Oh geez. But you don’t get off that easy. Set the table for two more will you.”

Stella rushed toward the stove and killed the flame. “Perfect.” She cut the fish into four and laid out the tender sprigs and spooned a heaping of rice on each plate.

”Out with it before I call the kids.”

“Fine. I was going to tell you anyway. I work with Sam. I’m his new boss. I used to be Sam’s flunky but worked my way up. That’s why he hates me.”

Stella rearranged the pieces of information in her mind. “So you came to the coffee shop knowing who I was?” Stella dropped her brows.

“Have for a long time. I saw you at one of the office parties once. But no one introduced us. I was freshly separated and wondered what fool would cheat with the office bimbo on someone like you.”

“You knew then? About Kate and Sam?”

“I’m sorry to hurt you, but everyone at the office did.”

“Nice.”

“Look Stella. I’m sorry. But ever since that party, I could not get you out of my mind. I used to park my car at the pier and watch the coffee shop. I know it sounds creepy. But I was lonely, and after Sam left you, I imagined you were lonely too. I felt a bond toward you.”

“I’m not sure if I should ask you to leave or not? Let’s not ruin a perfect dinner, and I will chew on this.”

***

Stella watched Jason scrub the pot. He volunteered, and he and Evan made friends easily. Evan asked if Jason might take him fishing during dinner. Stacy asked if he was her mom’s new beau, adding it was high time.

“Another glass?” Stella asked.

“I shouldn’t. But might I ask if I’m banished?”

“Only if you want to be. Look, it is a bit odd that you’ve followed me, that you are Sam’s boss, but I often felt there was someone out there who knew exactly what I was going through. I had this suspicion someone was looking out for me.”

“Look, Sam and I don’t get along. He resents me as his boss, and if you allow me to see you again, he’ll resent that too.”

Stella leaned in toward Jason. “Kiss me.” She said. “I want to know if you’ll be worth the tongue lashing and whinging I will have to endure.”

Jason dried his hands and without dropping her gaze, kissed her. After a minute and catching her breath, Stella winked.

“You’ll do.”