The final breakfast was scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, grits with real butter. Alison peeled four extra strips of bacon from the slab. On this morning of all mornings, she would keep the temperature of the stove eye just right. She wasn’t the cook of the house, but Robert had taught her all about Southern cuisine, especially that of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before they met, her breakfast consisted of a cup of what Robert teasingly called a “girly French coffee” and maybe a yogurt. He’d introduced her to the joys of an unhealthy start to the morning, along with plenty of other things, the best of the rest coming after sundown.
Even after two years, Alison wasn’t as enthusiastic about the morning cholesterol infusion as Robert was. Or his dog. About once a week, though, she’d get up a half-hour early, drag the scarred skillet from beneath the counter, and peel those slick and marbled pieces of pig fat. The popping grease never failed to mark a red spot or two along her wrist as she wielded the spatula. But she wouldn’t gripe about the pain today.
Robert would be coming down any minute. She could almost picture him upstairs, brushing his teeth without looking in the mirror. He wouldn’t be able to meet his own eyes. Not with the job that awaited him.
Alison cracked six eggs in a metal bowl and tumbled them with a whisk until the yellow and white were mingled but not fully mixed. The grits bubbled and burped on the back burner. Two slices of bread stood in the sleeves of the toaster, and the coffee maker gurgled as the last of its heated water sprayed into the basket. Maxwell House, good old all-American farm coffee.
She avoided looking in the pantry, though the louvered doors were parted. The giant bag of Kennel Ration stood in a green trash can. On the shelf above was a box of Milk Bones and rows of canned dog food. Robert had a theory that hot dogs and turkey bologna were cheaper dog treats than the well-advertised merchandise lines, but he liked to keep stock on hand just in case. That was Robert; always planning ahead. But some things couldn’t be planned, even when you expected them.
Robert entered the room, buttoning the cuffs on his flannel shirt. The skin beneath his eyes was puffed and lavender. “Something smells good.”
She shoveled the four bacon strips from the skillet and placed them on a double layer of paper towels. “Only the best today.”
“That’s sweet of you.”
“I wish I could do more.”
“You’ve done plenty.”
Robert moved past her without brushing against her, though the counter ran down the center of the kitchen and narrowed the floor space in front of the stove. Most mornings, he would have given her an affectionate squeeze on the rear and she would have threatened him with the spatula, grinning all the while. This morning he poured himself a cup of coffee without asking if she wanted one.
She glanced at Robert as he bent into the refrigerator to get some cream. At thirty-five, he was still in shape, the blue jeans snug around him and only the slightest bulge over his belt. His brown hair showed the faintest streaks of gray, though the lines around his eyes and mouth had grown visibly deeper in the last few months. He wore a beard but he hadn’t shaved his neck in a week. He caught her looking.
Alison turned her attention back to the pan. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not much to say.” He stirred his coffee, tapped his spoon on the cup’s ceramic rim, and reached into the cabinet above the sink. He pulled the bottle of Jack Daniels into the glare of the morning sun. Beyond the window, sunlight filtered through the red and golden leaves of maple trees that were about to enter their winter sleep.
Robert never drank before noon, but Alison didn’t comment as he tossed a splash into his coffee. “I made extra bacon,” she said. “A special treat.”
Robert nodded, his eyes shot with red lightning bolts. He had tossed all night, awakening her once at 3 a.m. when his toenails dug into her calf. He must have been dreaming of days with Sandy Ann, walking by the river, camping in the hollows of Grandfather Mountain, dropping by the animal shelter to volunteer for a couple of hours.
Alison moved the grits from the heat and set them aside. The last round of bacon was done, and she drained some of the bacon grease away and poured the eggs. The mixture lay there round and steaming like the face of a cartoon sun. She let the eggs harden a bit before she moved them around. A brown skin covered the bottom of the skillet.
“Nine years is a lot,” she said. “Isn’t that over seventy in people years?”
“No, it’s nine in people years. Time’s the same for everybody and everything.”
Robert philosophy. A practical farm boy. If she had been granted the power to build her future husband in a Frankenstein laboratory, little of Robert would have been in the recipe. Maybe the eyes, brown and honest with flecks of green that brightened when he was aroused. She would have chosen other parts, though the composite wasn’t bad. The thing that made Robert who he was, the spark that juiced his soul, was largely invisible but had shocked Alison from the very first exposure.
She sold casualty insurance, and Robert liked to point out she was one of the “Good Hands” people. Robert’s account had been assigned to her when a senior agent retired, and during his first appointment to discuss whether to increase the limit on his homeowner’s policy, she’d followed the procedure taught in business school, trying to sucker him into a whole-life policy. During the conversation, she’d learned he had no heirs, not even a wife, and she explained he couldn’t legally leave his estate to Sandy Ann. One follow-up call later, to check on whether he would get a discount on his auto liability if he took the life insurance, and they were dating.
The first date was lunch in a place that was too nice and dressy for either of them to be comfortable. The next week, they went to a movie during which Robert never once tried to put his arm around her shoulder. Two days later, he called and said he was never going to get to know her at this rate so why didn’t she just come out to his place for a cook-out and a beer? Heading down his long gravel drive between hardwoods and weathered outbuildings, she first met Sandy Ann, who barked at the wheels and then leapt onto the driver’s side door, scratching the finish on her new Camry.
Robert laughed as he pulled the yellow Labrador retriever away so Alison could open her door. She wasn’t a dog person. She’d had a couple of cats growing up but had always been too busy to make a long-term pet commitment. She had planned to travel light, though the old get-married-two-kids-house-in-the-suburbs had niggled at the base of her brain once or twice as she’d approached thirty. It turned out she ended up more rural than suburban, Robert’s sperm count was too low, and marriage was the inevitable result of exposure to Robert’s grill.
She plunged the toaster lever. The eggs were done and she arranged the food on the plates. Her timing was perfect. The edges of the grits had just begun to congeal. She set Robert’s plate before him. The steam of his coffee carried the scent of bourbon.
“Where’s the extra bacon?” he asked.
“On the counter.”
“It’ll get cold.”
“She’ll eat it.”
“I reckon it won’t kill her either way.” Robert sometimes poured leftover bacon or hamburger grease on Sandy Ann’s dry food even though the vet said it was bad for her. Robert’s justification was she ate rotted squirrels she found in the woods, so what difference did a little fat make?
“We could do this at the vet,” Alison said. “Maybe it would be easier for everybody, especially Sandy Ann.” Though she was really thinking of Robert. And herself.
“That’s not honest. I know you love her, too, but when you get down to it, she’s my dog. I had her before I had you.”
Sandy Ann had growled at Alison for the first few weeks, which she found so unsettling that she almost gave