A Lick and a Promise
By Sarah McIntyre, copyright 2007
Sticky fingered and engrossed in her novel, Selma didn’t hear the soft tread of Milton’s feet on the carpet as he entered the living room. When she sensed his looming shape behind her, she whipped around, stuffing her contraband behind the sofa cushion.
“I’m going to take a mantic guess,” Milton said wryly, watching Selma sit up straight, her cheeks flaming, but with a defiant look in her eye. “You haven’t done any house cleaning today. … And from the look of that book, you’re eating something messy, and now it’s getting on the couch.”
The book had arrived that morning, special delivery, just after Milton had left for work in the car. Even the feel of its cardboard packaging had given Selma a sapid flush of pleasure. Opening the book’s pages, she inhaled the intoxicating smell of fresh printing. She had intended to make at least a show of housework for Milton, running the dust cloth over the bookshelf and clearing the sink of the cereal-encrusted bowls and coffee mugs. Just enough for a lick and a promise, she thought. But the word ‘lick’ had set her musing on a different way to spend the morning. It’s serious praxis, she told herself. I need to do this to develop my mind. She sat down on the sofa and started to read. Ten minutes later, she raced out the door, jumped on her bicycle and returned with a small paper bag slung over one of the handlebars.
Two days ago, in a moment of serendipity, Selma had spotted a book looking cold and lost on the park bench. She snatched it up and gave it refuge it in the inner pocket of her raincoat. She began reading as soon as she got home, a story about a comfortable woman who set up a company, the only female-run detective agency in her African country. As the characters chatted with each other and drank steaming cups of redbush tea, Selma wondered. She had never seen redbush at the supermarket, when she dutifully bought food to cook for Milton. Then again, she wasn’t looking for it. Milton liked coffee, not tea.
She had put down the book and walked to a nearby import shop. She paused briefly at the door. She had passed the place many times on the way to the bank, but she had never thought to go inside. “Caught up in the latest Zeitgeist fad,” is what she knew Milton would stay disparagingly about the place. “Run by a bunch of college hippies.” Entering, she saw that the cashier did, in fact, wear a nose ring.
“Can I help you?” asked the girl, smiling at Selma’s hesitant expression.
The box’s label read “Ataraxia Rooibos”. Selma turned over the box. "For perfect peace of mind without caffeine, drink deeply of Botswana’s perfect brew."
“Reading that African detective agency book?” asked the girl while ringing up Selma’s purchase. The two women exchanged conspiratorial looks.
At home, Selma clattered at the back of a cupboard and emerged triumphant with the old kettle. Soon its shrill whistle broke the kitchen’s silence. Selma didn’t have a teapot, so she made the tea straight into a mug. She added milk and a teaspoon of sugar, and carried the mug and her book over to the sofa. As she settled into the worn cushions and opened to her bookmark, the rich smell of the tea left her breathless, with its pull to some other place, a land of sun and dust and eucalyptus trees and clever women.
Milton went to bed early that night. Selma ordered another book over the Internet, a novel with pictures. “Stupid comic book,” she knew Milton would say. Selma started reading the next morning, a tale of a girl in wartime Iran. On page six, the family sat together in their living room, singing Persian songs and eating something called halva. Selma stopped.
Back from the Middle Eastern grocery, Selma took the plastic tub out of the bag and peered at the confection: white, nutty, semilunar chunks, with a coating of sesame seeds. She sank into the couch and popped the first achingly sweet piece into her mouth. Together with her novel, Selma journeyed deep into Persia until Milton came home, zooming her abruptly back to the shabby living room.
“I’m going to get a job,” stated Selma, her face the color of pomegranate seeds. “I’m going to go work at a book shop.” Milton blinked.