By Joan Stephens
There. Everything was ready: the table was set, the mint juleps ready to be mixed, the biscuits already in the oven. Every eye on the stove held a pot and the microwave had seen its bit of use. All this kitchen activity had stemmed from last night when Catherine had told Vincent about spending two weeks in southern Georgia during her eighteenth year. She had stayed at the plantation of one of her fatherís second cousins. It was during the spring and she had been invited to the spring cotilion which was really a debutanteís ball. Intrigued, he had questioned her extensively then said he had never had southern fried chicken, hominy or grits. Years later, this would be one of their favorite memories as it marked an easing in their relationship, a lightheartedness that comes with comfort and commitment.
"Let me cook a typical southern dinner for us? To give you a taste of southern hospitality." she begged. At his raised eyebrow, she laughed, "I know, I know. Iím not the worldís best cook but Iíd love to try."
He capitulated immediately although he feared for his poor stomach. She was as excited as a school girl and had started, at once, to make plans and lists. Vincent sat back and watched her like a doting father, smiling gently. It amazed him how little it took to make her happy.
So, now here she was waiting for him to arrive. A knock on the door brought her out of the kitchen. On opening the door, she saw the smiling, freckled face of Geoffrey. He handed her a note after greeting her and left on the run. The note said Vincent would be delayed about two hours but was still looking forward to the meal. She spent the next two hours trying to keep the food warm and palatable.
At last, Vincent arrived with a bouquet of magnolias and greeted her with a kiss. "Where on earth did you get magnolias?" she asked, touched that he would go to all that trouble to do this for her.
"Oh, I have my sources," he replied, as a grin spread over his uniquely beautiful face, noticing how lovely she looked. The woman he loved had taken special care in preparing for this night. She wore a soft, knit shift of white, a golden chain belt around her waist, and wisps of sandals on her feet. There was just a hint of makeup with a light touch of his favorite perfume. All in all, she was the most beautiful thing in his life, and he treasured her more than he could say, but oh, how he loved to tease her just to hear her musical laughter ring out.
Taking the flowers Catherine found a vase for them, filled it with water, and after placing the flowers in it, she happily placed the vase in the middle of the table. This gentle, loving man gave her more joy than the whole world put together. He was so beautiful that it took her breath away every time she saw him. Like tonight; his golden halo of hair looked as if it had been brushed and brushed until it glowed. He wore his best shirt, the one with ruffles at the throat and wrists, black corduroy trousers that fit him like a glove, and his best knee high boots. Altogether the effect was magnificent and she could hardly take her eyes off him.
"Am I too late?" he finally asked, bringing her back to the matter at hand.
"No, no, sit down. Everything is ready. Iíll bring it right out," she assured him as she took his cloak, folded it, and laid it over the back of the nearest love seat.
He settled into his chair noting the care she had taken with the table settings while Catherine bustled around getting the dinner on the table,
As she took her seat, she smiled nervously at him. "I hope everything is all right."
"It will be fine, Catherine," he said, biting into an overcooked chicken leg.
She became more upset as the meal progressed. The litany of ruined food ran through her mind: dry potatoes, lumpy gravy, scorched sweet potatoes, the grits--well she didnít know how to describe the grits. Just then, Vincent, accidentally, dropped a biscuit and it bounced. It bounced. It was so hard that it could easily give a person a concussion. Vincent watched its journey across the table then raised both eyebrows at her and chuckled.
Tears sprang to her eyes and she bolted for the bedroom slamming the door. Contrite, Vincent hurried after her. He knocked on the door, timidly, and called, "Catherine?"
"Go Ďway,í" came the muffled reply.
"Iím sorry, Catherine. It caught me unaware. Forgive me, please?" He waited a few moments then called to her again, "Catherine?" He heard her moving around and after an agonizing moment the door slowly opened.
Catherineís tear-stained face came around the door. He smiled, tentatively, waiting for her to smile back. When she gave him a watery smile, his heart melted and he pulled her close and kissed her tears away.
"It was pretty funny, wasnít it?" She giggled then asked, "How about a piece of pecan pie, that should be safe?"
"That sounds delicious," he answered as she disappeared into the kitchen.
She returned with two slices of pecan pie, each of them topped with a large dollop of whipped cream. One, she set in front of him and kept the other for herself. Tentatively, she took a bite and let out a quiet sigh of relief. It was very good. Vincent nodded in agreement as he took a bite. It was sweet and crunchy. Maybe, a little too crunchy? His chewing stopped, he stared at Catherine, then opened his mouth and carefully removed a piece of shell.
She glared at him, daring him to go on. He hung his head then raised his eyes to hers. Holding the piece of nut shell between his thumb and forefinger, she saw the deviltry in his eyes just as he opened his mouth to comment. Fixing him with a jaundiced eye, she ordered, "Donít you dare say a word." Each word punctuated with a stab of the fork in his direction.
He snapped his mouth closed, ducked his head and chuckled softly, wisely keeping his witty remarks to himself. They eyed each other soberly until the corners of his mouth began to quirk and his lips to twitch followed by a grin that soon became a full-throated roar of laughter. Bemused, Catherine stared at him, not knowing whether to be put out with him or to join him. The latter won out. She giggled then threw her head back, gusts of laughter bubbling forth. Each time there was a lull, they would glance at each other and that would set them off again. Unable to stop himself, Vincent gasped, "I think the nuts should be shelled, my love."
Catherine gasped at his effrontery, then collapsed on the table, pounding it soundly with the flat of her hand.
At last, collapsing into his chair, Vincent held his stomach, groaning. "My stomach hurts," he complained.
Catherine fell back into her chair, wiping her streaming eyes, smudging her mascara more than ever. "I havenít laughed this hard in years," she panted.
"Neither have I," Vincent agreed.
"I donít know what was so funny though," she added.
"Nor I," Vincent replied as he rose and, coming around the table to stand beside her, he gently wiped the tears and streaks of mascara from her satiny cheeks. Bending down, he lightly touched his lips to hersĖhe didnít dare do moreĖand said, "Thank you, Catherine, for a taste of Southern Hospitality," and he didnít mean the food.