The misunderstood devil knocked on the back door around noon on a Sunday. Mae looked up from the stove where she had just set her drained pot of boiled potatoes to cool. She dried her cooking hands on a towel hung on a drawer handle and turned down the kitchen radio that was playing war time classics.
“Who is it?” she called out.
The knocking came harder, and she went closer to the door and stood against it.
“Who’s there?” she said again, her heart beginning to race.
Then there came a man’s voice from the other side. “I’m very sorry to bother you on the Lord’s Day, but I was wondering if I could use your telephone.”
Mae paused for a moment and then told the stranger something untrue.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t open the door to strangers. However, my husband will be home momentarily if you’d care to wait.”
She held her breath for an answer.
“It’s quite cold out, mam. I’m not a murderer. I swear it.”
“What do you need the telephone for?” she asked. “Perhaps I could dial the number for you.”
She could hear the crunch of snow beneath the man’s boots as he shifted. She imagined he was looking around, searching for another way into the house.
“All right then,” the man’s voice came again. “I’ll be frightfully honest with you. I have no money and I’m hungry. I was hoping you might have a bit of food to spare.”
Mae bit at her brightly colored bottom lip and thought about it. “What does the good book say about such a situation?” the voice inside herself asked. She quickly decided and opened the door.
A small man wearing a hat and jacket wet with snow stood there and attempted a smile. “Mam,” he said. “The name’s Ed Jallow. I sure do appreciate it.”
“Come in, Ed,” Mae said. “Please, have a seat at the table and I’ll get you a cup of coffee to help warm you up.”
“Thank you,” Ed said, and he pulled a chair out from a small table by a set of large windows that looked out upon a modest yard now caked in various layers of snow. He sat down. He pulled the hat from his head and stuffed it into a pocket of his coat. He sniffled and then coughed.
Mae turned from the kitchen to look at him. “Are you sick?”
“No. I don’t think. It’s just I’ve been breathing all that cold air.”
Mae carefully carried over a steaming cup of coffee atop a small plate. She set it down in front of him and studied for a moment the now revealed top of his balding head. “Here you are. It’s a good thing for you I keep a pot going most of the time. I’m an absolute fiend about it.”
He smiled at her and picked up the cup, blew across the top of it and then carefully took a sip. “Hmm. That’s a good cup of Joe,” he said.
“So,” Mae wanted to know. “Where are you from?”
Ed Jallow cleared his throat. “Detroit,” he said.
“Detroit? What brings you all the way up here?”
A cuckoo clock suddenly released its half-hour call from up above them on the wall. Ed became startled. His hands trembled slightly. “I’m a fugitive from love, I guess you could say.”
Mae was intrigued. “A fugitive from love?”
“Marriage trouble,” Ed confessed. “I’m afraid I didn’t plan well enough. Ran out of gas. And so here I came around to your abode, penniless and hungry.” He feigned a laugh, but she could sense the stress devouring him.
“You were in the neighborhood?”
“I suppose I got lost,” Ed said.
“Would a sandwich be, okay?” Mae asked, quickly changing the subject. “Ham on rye?”
“Great,” Ed answered. “And do you have any potato chips? I’ve got a thing about potato chips.”
“I’m sure I could dig some up,” she said, and she went into the kitchen to fix up his plate.
Ed craned his neck to get a good look at her tightly packed rear-end as she moved it around while she worked. “You said your husband would be home soon?” he said, wanting to clarify the situation.
Mae quickly looked in his direction. “That’s right.”
“Does he work on Sunday?”
“No. He’s down at the corner bar watching the big fight with the fellas.” She strutted back to the table carrying a plate with a sandwich and a small mound of potato chips on it. “I could call down there and have him come home. Wouldn’t take him but about five minutes or so to get here.”
Ed Jallow eyed the plate as she set it down in front of him. He quickly snatched the sandwich up and bit into it. Then he shoved a few of the chips into his mouth. The noises he made while eating bothered her and she walked toward the phone and picked it up.
“What are you doing?” Ed asked.
“I was going to call down to the bar and ask my husband to come home.”
Ed waved his hand against the air. “You don’t need to do that. Let the guy enjoy the fight.”
Mae hesitated for a moment and then hung the phone back up. “I suppose you’re right. No man likes to be nagged.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
Mae smiled. “As soon as you’re done eating, we can go to the garage. I’m sure my husband has a gas can out there somewhere.”
Ed looked at her with a puzzled expression. “A gas can?”
“Right. You said you ran out of gas.”
“Oh yeah. Of course. Gas. I could sure use some gas.”
“What’s so funny?” Ed wondered.
“All this talk of gas.”
Ed pushed the plate away and wiped at his mouth with his hand. “How about we go check on that gas now?” he said with seriousness.
“Follow me, Mr.… Jallow, right?”
“That’s right. Like shallow but with a J.”
Once inside the garage, Ed followed her movements with his eyes as she searched for the gas can.
“Surely there’s some gas in here somewhere. I can smell it. Can’t you smell it?”
Ed got closer to her and looked at her face in the dim light. “All I can smell is you, and you’re in heat. Why are you in heat? For me?”
She looked at him as if offended. “Mr. Jallow?”
“What do you really want from life? You want me?”
“Mr. Jallow… I’m a married woman.”
He suddenly grabbed her left hand and held it up. “You’re not wearing any sort of wedding ring… And I didn’t see a single picture inside of you with some fella. What gives, lady? Why are you lying to me?”
Mae yanked her hand away from him. “Why are you lying to me? You’re not some poor fella from Detroit run off by his wife… You’re nowhere near out of gas and down on your luck, are you?”
He got close to her face. He squinted his eyes in defiance. “Looks like you got me pegged, lady.”
“What do you want from me?” Mae quivered.
He was breathing heavily. “I want you to take me to your bedroom and spread your legs for me. Is that bold enough for you?”
With her movements void of any hesitation, she led him back into the house, through the kitchen, and past the table where he sat to drink coffee and eat his sandwich and potato chips. He followed her down a dark hallway, past a bathroom with the door slightly ajar, and finally into her bedroom in the corner of the house. Ed gently closed the door behind them, shed his coat and threw it on a chair in the corner. He loosened the collar of the shirt he was wearing, unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up the sleeves like he was about to fight someone.
“Get out of your dress,” he ordered her.
Mae slipped out of the dress like he asked.
“Now everything else,” Ed instructed.
She did as he said until she stood fully naked before him.
“Get on the bed.”
“How do you want me?” she asked.
“Like if you were sleeping, but relaxed, open, untethered,” he told her.
Mae got onto the bed and laid down on her back. She felt his eyes on her as she looked up at the white ceiling that resembled swirled cream.
“Now what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing,” Ed Jallow said. “You don’t have to do anything. I just want to look at you.”
Mae propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him, confused. “You’re not going to have your way with me?”
He avoided her stare for just a moment. “No. I can’t. I’m not able to. I got an injury in the war. They told me I’m only half a man now.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
Ed walked to a window, parted a tender curtain with his hand and looked out. “I’ve been driving the last day and a half, and I just wanted to see something beautiful for a change. I’m plain sick of the way the world looks and acts out there. Plain sick of it. I never meant to scare you. You’ve been very kind. I should just go now,” he said, and he moved away from the window, reached for his coat and made his way toward the door.
“Wait,” Mae said to stop him.
He turned to look at her lying there naked on the bed.
“What’s up, lady?”
“Do you like fire?”
“What kind of fire?”
“Crackling, orange fire that gently licks at the brickwork,” she explained. “Would you like to sit in front of the fireplace with me in the other room? It’s supposed to snow more. And where else would you go?”
Ed Jallow scratched at his balding head. “And you won’t mind if I just get lost in the flames for a little while?”
She bowed her head for a moment to think, and then she looked back up at him. “Isn’t that what life’s all about?” she said, her tone thorough and full of conviction.