Bewildering Stories

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The Taste of Bitterness

by Norman A. Rubin

The queue at the cafeteria’s rail counter moved slowly. Patrons, shoving aluminium trays along the attached shining shelf, carefully chose dishes to their taste and purse. A pause ensued when hesitant hands carefully lifted plates of chosen food; then with a thought of two placed the choice on their individual trays.

Mrs. B... was counted as one of the customers standing in the queue at the crowded cafeteria. She was one of the many unknown souls that existed in a non-caring world. The woman could be described as a stout middle-aged housewife, somewhat thrifty in appearance. The winter coat she wore was slightly shabby from continual use; a knitted woolen cap, discoloured and frayed, covered the grey of her hair; the booted heavy brogues were scuffed in use and outdated in fashion.

Mrs B...’s careworn facial features told of a hidden misery that dampened her very being. It was seen in her tear-filled pale grey eyes, darkened below her wrinkled brow, and with bitterness lined on her thin chapped lips.

Her movements were hesitant, burdened with thoughts that rumbled through her unquiet mind, which were filled with miseries and sorrows that overflowed the cup with bitterness. Then an insane reflection that burned with the brand of the hell-fire overshadowed her rumination. Over and over thoughts drummed in her mind that brooded in the taking the steps to complete her final end to life, a welcomed relief to her miserable life. The troubled woman’s fitful mind repeated over and over her careful plan, worked out in the wakeful hours of the past night.

Mrs. B... moved slowly along the counter searching with her eyes at the plates of food displayed, until a lettuce and tomato sandwich garnished with mayonnaise caught her attention. “’Tis be right fer what ah need,” she contemplated. Her rough-skinned hand lifted the dish and placed it on her server. A dispensed cup of coffee completed her choice.

She moved slowly to the checker. Two dollars and fifty cents was her tabulated bill. Nervously she withdrew a small purse from her peeling pseudo-leather handbag. Various coins was taken from the case, counted carefully, and passed to the impatient cashier.

The woman clasped her handbag under the elbow of her right arm, grasped the aluminum tray tightly in both hands, and left the confines of the counter. She looked about the cafeteria for an empty table, till she spotted a place in a quiet corner.

Mrs. B... moved quickly as the heaviness of her thick and veined legs allowed. It was a table suitable for two, just right for her needs. She placed the tray on the table with a slight clatter, and, alongside, she put her handbag. Then, without opening her coat or removing her cap, the woman pulled out one of the wooden chairs from under the table. With a deep sigh she placed the heaviness of her body on its hardness.

The matron just sat and stared at the stained white of the nearby wall, without bothering to partake of the food or drink. Her eyes overflowed with tears which ran down her frosted cheeks. She remained rigid in her misery, just staring.

A few moments passed when Mrs B... reached out to her handbag for a handkerchief to dry her tears. As she dried her reddened eyes, her mind again thought on the agony of her life that has plagued her very existence. After a while the poor creature exclaimed in a muted angry voice, “What th’ hell... T’ain’t no use carryin’ on... Must put an end to th’ troubles once an’ fer all...”

Without further thought, the pathetic women hurriedly searched through her handbag until she grasped a small glass container. The vial, labelled with a medical issue and signalled with an red emblem of a warning, was removed from the purse. With shaking hands Mrs. B... open its plastic cover and gazed at the white crystal powder. “Must do it now... Must do it now... and git it over!”

Carefully Mrs. B... turned her head and furtively searched through the cafeteria to see if the other patrons had noticed her. But, to her relief, she saw that the various people were mainly interested in the food of their choice; all bowed to their plates in the task of eating and drinking.

Without any further thought, the matron sprinkled some of the white grains into her coffee, mixing the contents with the dark fluid. Then she open the sandwich, sprinkling a bit of the powder on a large slice of tomato; then lifting the vegetable roughly with a chapped finger, she sprayed the remainder of the bottle onto the lettuce leaves, mixing the crystals in the yellow of the mayonnaise spread. Quickly she sealed the contents with the white slice of the loaf.

Mrs B... stared at the cup of coffee and sandwich filled with her handiwork. Her thoughts spun crazily through her head; thoughts of events, with its endless string of troubles, which brought her to this miserable state.

Mrs. B...’s contemplation carried her to the recent past. The order of her life, with a caring husband and a dutiful grown son, had changed drastically. Whether it was an accident or planned Mrs. B... found herself with child. The doctors warned of pregnancy in her advanced age with its various medical complications. The warning was heard and she and her husband discussed the issue with its pros of having another child, and the cons of the warnings of the doctors. But in the end, they agreed, with hesitation to bring forth new life.

True to the words of the doctors, the baby, embodied with girlish features, was born deformed. Her appearance was of a demon incarnate with pointed hairy ears, a devil’s smirk on the mouth and accusing unseeing black eyes set deep in its sockets. The child’s body was not of an infant. The miserable creature was shaped like the workings of evil spirits with crooked hairy arms ending in large pointed fingers; and her bent stumpy legs were that of a imp, and not of a newly-born.

At the birth, advice was passed to both parents that the infant be placed in a caring institution, but Mrs. B... ignored it, despite her husbands’s protestations. She took no warnings from the medical staff, which told of a short life span for the infant and of the hard-ships she would face in rearing her. “Th’ baby was her child, an’ she will care for her,” she reasoned “’Tis’ th’ will of th’ blessed Lord. “

Secretly, the couple had the child baptized at their church and blessed by the understanding priest. After the brief ceremony the infant was brought into couple’s home, and placed lovingly by her endearing mother in a newly bought crib.

Through its short term of life the child created havoc, upsetting the daily routine of life in the household; the baby cried and screamed continuously, only resting in short intervals. Mrs. B.... endured the hardships and carefully nurtured her baby. She breast-fed it despite the child’s growing pointed teeth that scarred and pained her nipples. Her life was centred on the care of her newborn, ignoring her other duties.

Even her other child, a dutiful, caring son, was also hardly noticed during this period. She did what was necessary towards him in her daily tasks, rarely asking of his welfare or bothering to inquire of his varied activities. There were few words spoken when he came to her for advice, for a thought on the daily occurrences, or for a well- deserved compliment on his achievements. And on the day of his eighteenth year, when he was called to war in an Asian country, the woman neglected her motherly duties and sent him to battle with only a few caring words; she coupled her terse phrases of farewell with the blessing of the Good Lord.

There were no answers to this curse as the couple was righteous in their ways. The whispered tongues that told of the small creature being Satan’s child and through the womb of Mrs. B... entered into life. Its appearance, they hushed, spread evil to all that neared, but they were only the words of gossipers.

The husband endured the ugly site and the nerve-wracking temper of the child for only a few months before seeking companionship in a nearby bar, until the day he just walked away from the hearth, never to return. Neighbours and kin folk feared the strangeness of the so-called demon child rumoured through tongues, and they politely rejected any offer of visits.

The misery passed slowly in its pace, but redemption finally came when the little child mercifully passed away after three short years of life. It was silence in the home; nobody passed through its portals and offered condolences after the simple funeral except for the priest and an elder sister. All was quiet and empty.

But the devil entered and flung one last curse upon Mrs. B... During the period of her reverie, the quiet of the hour was shattered with the pealing of the front door bell. Standing at the entrance to her home was a messenger with a telegram. Mrs. B... grabbed the envelope and, with nervous hands, tore it open. She cried bitter tears as the fading painful words told of a loss in the duty to his country. The evilness still haunted her existence and the thought of ending life entered her mind.

“T’ain’t no use puttin’ it off..., she brooded with the tremble of agitation. She grasped the sandwich in both hands, looked at the white of the slices filled with its grisly contents, and, after a moment or so, returned it to the plate.

Then her trembling hands grasped the still-warm cup of coffee. Her lips touched the rim of the ceramic container, but the contents remained untouched. Slowly she returned the cup to the aluminium tray.

Through the misery rumbling through her mind she remembered the fiery sermon of her vicar that thundered out the punishment for the act of taking one’s life. His lasting words told of how the soul of those who have taken this way will wander forever through limbo, never resting. The threatening words burned deeply in her innermost thoughts and caused her to have an imagined deep fear of the fiery curse of eternal damnation. Fire and brimstone flamed in her mind. Then with a set mind, she chose her plaguey curse as the lesser of the two evils.

“Can’t do it... can’t do it... ‘tis a cardinal sin...”

Mrs. B... shoved the aluminum tray with the untasted coffee and sandwich to the middle of the table. She stared for a moment or two at them before shuffling the chair from the table. Slowly she lifted her tired frame from the hardness of the wood and, without hesitation, made her way from the cafeteria; her footfalls trod heavily on the worn linoleum floor.

A non-descript, foully-dressed bag lady was the only witness to the hesitant actions of the matronly woman. The hag was there in the eatery in her daily task of mooching leftover food, which she placed in one of her many worn shopping bags. Her aged rheumy eyes searched about the cafeteria for a sign of leftover edibles, till she spotted Mrs. B... pushing aside her food and leaving the premises. She glimmered in sickening joy as she spotted the uneaten sandwich centred in the corner table. The creature of misery lifted her bony legs and hustled to the spot. With a quick snatch, her trembling hand seized the treasure of her delight; then she hurriedly placed the catch in the safety of one of her dirty bags.

“Get th’ hell away from there..,” a fuming voice was hurtled towards her. The bag lady turned and saw the angry presence of the irate manager standing close to her. He aimed a threatening pointed finger at her as he told the creature of misery in a few short-tempered words that she had been warned many times to stay clear from the eatery. He yelled at her, threatening that the forces of the law would be notified if she was seen again in the premises. The furtive woman snarled and muttered curses at her adversary. Then she dodged the feared sight of the manager and, crab-like, scurried away.

Outside, the bag lady searched about and, seeing the alley next to the cafeteria as a quiet and secure refuge, she scampered towards it. She searched through the narrow passage, lined on one side with dumpsters, cartons and assorted junk. The pitiful creature shuffled through a rubbish-strewn path until she found a quiet niche, etched in a brick wall of a building. She ruminated a bit before accepting the spot as being suitable to her immediate needs.

The place was fouled with debris, and it took a few kicks of her foot to clear a space for her to place her miserable body and the dirtiness of her possessions. Then, without further fuss, she heaped her body on the dirt of alley with her back on the nearby brickwork. Her miserly possessions heaped alongside. Then, with a cackle on her lips, she searched through one of her bags, and removed the dripping sandwich.

She gripped the contents in her unwashed hands and directed it towards her the opening of her mouth. Saliva drooled from her cracked lips; her poorly fitted dentures clattered as she struggled to contain their erratic movement... With a bit of effort, she succeeded in tearing a part from the sandwich with her loose teeth, and ...

Copyright © 2003 by Norman A. Rubin

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