THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING IS IN THE EATING
Viola carefully pruned the aconitum plants before leaning back on her haunches and surveying her handiwork with an approving smile. Their delicate blue flowers were among her favorites, accenting their brethren: the yellow, pink and white buttercups surrounding them. She had several rose bushes, azaleas, and other colorful plantings in her flower garden, but she found them a little gaudy for her taste, preferring her aconite buttercups for their dainty, but elegant blooms. She picked up the small trowel and began digging up the errant weeds attempting to invade the flowers’ domain, dropping their remains in the plastic five-gallon pail sitting next to her.
Almost finished, the booming voice of her husband interrupted her work coming from the rickety, wooden front porch. “Where the hell’s my lunch? It’s almost noon,” he bellowed.
Viola jumped up with a gasp and a groan, her back and knees creaking in protest, her bad right knee shooting her a sharp reminder to move slowly. She quickly threw her trowel into the bucket, followed by her threadbare gardening gloves. “I lost track of the time, I’m acomin’ Stan.”
Her husband stood there for several seconds staring at her, stern-faced, one fisted hand on his hip, the other holding a half-empty bottle of his beer of choice, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Wearing baggy, faded blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a stained t-shirt stretched to the limit by the pot gut sagging over his belt, “Stan the Man,” as he liked to call himself, presented an almost comical figure. His semi-bald head and sparse mustache didn’t help. Viola didn’t even consider smiling but kept her eyes fixed on the front of his t-shirt with its worn message: Savannah, est. 1733, Georgia. Stanley had been a truck driver stationed out of Savannah when Viola met him when she’d been waitressing at Louie’s in Toccoa—
“And I don’t want any of them damn leftovers from yesterday neither,” he said, interrupting the memory. He took another swig of his beer before turning and leaving, slamming the cabin’s screen door behind him.
Viola retrieved the hand clippers from the pocket of her sundress and expertly snipped several lengths of various buttercups to spruce up the drab interior of their home. Flowers in hand, she rushed up the steps and into the house to fix Stanley his lunch.
The football game came on at one o’clock and her pig of a husband didn’t want to miss it. Their old TV decked out with an even older set of “rabbit ears” for its antenna, only received three channels, one of which was carrying the game on this fine Sunday. Viola figured the ancient 32” television must have weighed 100 pounds, and she was surprised they even made those weird set-top antennas anymore. But they worked and the three channels were free, which was A-Okay with Stanley.
Stanley wolfed down the last of his grilled cheese sandwich, polished off what remained of the mountain of macaroni and cheese, took a swig of beer to wash it down, belched, and pushed his chair back from the table. “I’m going to watch the football game now,” he announced as if Viola needed enlightenment. He stood and headed for the living room but paused in the doorway. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.
Viola was already filling the sink with the dirty dishes. “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes,” she answered.
“Don’t forget the peas. Dessert?”
Stan grunted his approval and disappeared into the other room, and Viola went back to doing the dishes. Depression enveloped her like a dark, oppressive cloud imprisoning her much like the cabin and the isolated foothills of the Ozark Mountains had done. Once upon a time, she had tried to convince herself that her life was better now than it had been in the past, but as time went on that had become more and more difficult, then impossible.
What she had thought of as her boring, dead-end days at Louie’s Diner had now become nostalgic, wistful memories. Viola had dropped out of high school and left home at sixteen with few recriminations from her alcohol-soddened mother. She stayed with her widowed Aunt Matilda for several months in nearby Toccoa and had providentially found the waitressing job in town, crusty old Louie merely grunting his acquiescence when she told him she was eighteen. Eventually, he even rented her a small room in the rear of the dingy restaurant, allowing him to liberally dock her wages, meager as they already were, but it had allowed Viola a modicum of independence. And so, began three years of mind-numbing drudgery.
Then along came her knight in shining armor, Stanley J. Tannenbaum. A long-haul truck driver, he had enchanted her with tales of far off places and imagined adventures. Although 20 years her senior, and sporting a blossoming pot gut and thinning, wispy brown hair, he had been eagerly attentive and interested in her. Viola had no illusions about her physical attributes: short, flat-chested, thick in the waist, butt, and legs, with a decidedly flat and unimpressive face. She had basked in the glow of his increasing romantic attentions. She looked forward to his infrequent stops, and more so to his occasional layovers at the nearby truck depot on Route 6.
Finally, he had suggested Viola accompany him on a trip to Toledo, Ohio. Just a short hop, there and back—a week at most. Viola, having never taken any time off from her job because she never had anywhere to go, was grudgingly given a week’s vacation by her boss, Louie. So, fate and the open road beckoned, and Stanley and Viola were off.
While in Toledo they visited Stanley’s cousin, Amy Palter, and her husband Tom. They lived in a rural, poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of Toledo in a decrepit mobile home but had welcomed the travelers with open arms. It was during this overnight layover, while the truck was being loaded at the depot, that Amy gifted Viola with a healthy aconite plant from her flower garden next to their mobile home. Viola had been fawning over the garden and vowed to have her own someday—that day coming sooner than expected
On the way back to Savannah, Stanley suggested that he had the perfect place to plant her own flower garden. Dropping off his rig in Savannah and reclaiming his Ford pickup, they had driven up into the Ozark foothills where Stanley proudly showed her his cabin in those same picturesque hills. Viola had to admit it was a beautiful spot, remote and unspoiled. The remote part hadn’t caused her any apprehensions at first, and she jumped at the chance to marry him when he had proposed, thoughts of “happily ever after” chiming in her head.
It hadn’t taken long for those thoughts to begin their long, slow crash to earth. Not long after they had settled in Stanley had suffered a back injury helping the workers load his truck at one of the terminals. He eventually recovered but was never the same, ending up on disability, then Supplemental Social Security. But the changes in Stanley had started before that; the accident was merely frosting on the cake allowing him an income without working, or even trying, which suited him perfectly. Things had come full circle, and Viola’s dreams had been crushed in those Ozark foothills.
She was a virtual prisoner. Stanley had an old Ford pickup and kept the keys on his person. The same with the cell phone, although there was no reception unless you went the half-mile to the end of their driveway. No landline, of course. The mailman delivered once a week to the mailbox at the end of the drive every Wednesday, but Stanley always stayed home on that day. Their nearest neighbor was over five miles away and Toccoa almost ten. She seldom went into town, and only with Stanley.
Stanley hadn’t become physically abusive, although Viola figured it would happen sooner or later. Viola had slowly become inured to a life of drudgery and boredom. But even her ennui had its limits, and of late she had begun having thoughts of, and a craving for, life without Stanley. She could probably walk to the nearest neighbor or even Toccoa itself, or maybe dash to the postman’s car on a Wednesday with her tale of woe. She might be able to swipe Stanley’s truck keys without him knowing and make a run for it, but he would probably just hunt her down and, besides, she didn’t have any money. Stanley kept a stash, she knew, but where it was hidden was the problem. But the nugget of revenge was smoldering and growing within her like a cancer. The fat pig had stolen years of her youth. She couldn’t get them back, but she could make him pay dearly… somehow.
And the “somehow” soon crystallized in her mind and heart. Stanly didn’t mind her receiving gardening and related magazines in the mail. The month past she had waded through a lengthy article in the local Gardening Monthly magazine about the attractive aconite plant. Viola didn’t understand all the scientific mumbo jumbo or the long Latin names for it, although she did like one of its alternate names, wolfsbane. But what had caught her attention was the adamant warning concerning its highly poisonous qualities, used in that capacity as far back as ancient Greece. And she had a new recipe to try it in…
Viola watched Stanley wolf down two large helpings of meatloaf, mash potatoes, and peas, interrupted only by a couple of deep belches in between. Silently, he studiously stirred his peas in with his mashed potatoes. Her Prince Charming didn’t like to waste time with conversation during his meals. Viola picked at her food as she watched him make short work of the mountains of food, looking on with distaste but keeping her expression neutral, even managing a smile here and there.
Stanley washed down the last mouthful of food with a gulp of beer and a burp. Finished, he gave her a grudging look of appreciation, then in a condescending tone, “That was good, Viola. You said something about puddin’ for dessert, didn’t you?” he asked.
She pushed back from the table. “Yes, chocolate pudding, a new recipe. I hope it’s not too sweet.” Viola doubted it. Stanley had a huge sweet tooth. She retrieved two bowls of the dark pudding from the refrigerator, his in his favorite large plastic bowl, hers in a smaller pink one. She placed them on the table.
“Whipped cream?” he questioned.
“Sorry, almost forgot.” Viola headed back to the refrigerator.
Stanly grunted his disapproval as she returned.
Viola sat down and watched as her husband started shoveling the pudding into his maw. “Seems a little grainy and a bit sweet but I like it,” he managed with his mouth full, whipped cream leaking from the corners.
“I’m so glad you’re likin’ it, Stan,” she answered, smiling. And it should be sweet she mused. She had to use a ton of sugar to mellow the bitter taste of the ground up aconite roots in his portion.
Stanley picked up the can of Reddi Wip and squirted a mountain of the foamy whipped cream into the canyon of his waiting mouth. He belched and sighed. “You did good Viola,” he managed before burping again. “I think I’ll grab a beer and watch a little tube for a while. Maybe later we can have a little romp in the hay,” he said with a knowing wink, leering at her.
Viola managed to keep the smile pasted on her face. “That sounds like a mighty fine idea, Stan. I’ll just clear the dishes, grab you a beer, and you can go and relax.” She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she set the dishes in the sink and opened the fridge to pull out a Pabst.
Stanley pushed back his chair and stood. Suddenly he grunted and plopped back down in his chair, leaned forward, and grimaced.
Viola turned, feigning concerned surprise. “What’s wrong, you okay, hon?”
“Just a cramp, musta ate too much too fast.” He tried rising again only to fall back heavily with a groan, almost doubling over. “Jesus, it hurts. My guts are on fire.”
“Anything I can get you, baby?” she cooed, smiling. Stanley seemed oblivious to her tone. Another minute passed as he rocked and groaned in his chair. “Maybe you should go and lay down for a while,” she suggested.
He groaned loudly before hissing through clenched teeth, “I don’t think I can get up; everythin’s a little numb, and my heart is racing like a jackhammer.” In between his back and forth rocking, Stanley managed to get his cell phone out of his pocket and toss it on the table. “You’d better run down the driveway and call me an ambulance; somethin’s really wrong.”
“Okay, Stan, I’ll be right back,” she said, scooping up the phone and hurrying out of the kitchen. Viola slowed and walked leisurely into the living room, throwing the phone onto a chair before falling onto the sofa and putting her feet up on the coffee table. Waiting. Long minutes passed while the groaning and moaning from the kitchen grew louder. Finally, there was a large crash as Stan the Man fell to the floor, taking the table with him. Viola listened to the patter of his feet on the linoleum as he convulsed the last seconds of his life away. When silence finally ruled the house, she waited another five minutes before returning to the kitchen.
Viola rose and began edging back towards the kitchen slowly. Her teeth clenched, lips a thin, nervous line of consternation, she was no longer smiling as the enormity of her actions confronted her full force. Turning through the open doorway, she faced the irrevocable results of her deed. The small kitchen table had overturned, pulled over by the death throes of her dying husband, strewing the remaining items of their dinner on the floor. Stanley was lying on his back like a beached whale amidst the clutter, his face frozen in a rictus of death, bulging white eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling, mouth wide in a silent scream of agony, milky froth pooled and cooling by his head on the floor from his poisoned body and draining mouth.
Viola staggered back a step, a hand unconsciously flying to her mouth in revulsion, and grabbed the back of a chair to steady herself before sitting down heavily. For several minutes she struggled to get her breathing under control. You can do this, she mentally screamed at herself. You’ve got this all planned out. Just stick with the plan! The ticking of the cheap, battery-operated clock on the kitchen wall, loud in the surrounding silence, helped slow her thudding heart. Nervous energy soon had her out of her chair.
First, she covered Stanley’s face with a dishtowel secured by duct tape from the junk drawer in the utility room. It was horrible to look at his face, now frozen in its ghastly death mask. Finished, she righted the table, grabbed his arms, and began tugging, pulling, and dragging his dead weight through the house, out the front door, and down the steps. Exhausted from the effort, Viola had to stop and rest as the surrounding twilight slid into darkness. She finished dragging him to his truck before being forced to rest again.
She would have preferred putting Stanley in the bed of the pickup, but there was no way she’d be able to hoist his body high enough to get it in. So, grabbing him under the arms and summoning all her adrenaline-fueled strength, she managed to lift him high enough to get his fat ass to rest on the passenger side running board. Going to the driver’s side, she reached across, grabbed his arms, and pulled and yanked at his body until it was inside the cab far enough to get the door closed. Viola grimaced as she accomplished the distasteful job of rummaging through his pants pockets to find his keys. She pushed him with her feet into a contorted sitting position, so the body wasn’t blocking the pedals or gearshift, fired up the truck and headed down the driveway.
In the beginning, before he had morphed into his curmudgeonly state, Stanley had taken her fishing several times at a secluded, deep spring-fed lake farther up in the Ozark foothills. It was another four miles past their cabin along the dirt road. Stanley had kept a small wooden rowboat there, now rotting at the bottom of the lake. He never knew if the lake was on private or public property, but you could get fairly close to the bank with a vehicle. It had been a long time since Viola had been there; she hoped she didn’t miss it in the darkness with only the truck’s headlights to guide her.
She found the lake fifteen minutes later and the spot she was looking for in another ten. She pulled the truck near the edge to double-check the location. The bank was about 20-feet above the lake’s surface, its rock-strewn slope angling down at a 45-degree angle towards the deep, cold, and silent depths. She backed the truck up to the dirt roadway, about 75-yards distant, calculating the path of travel through the trees and the point at which she would have to exit the vehicle. At the last second, she remembered to remove the dishtowel from Stanley’s face and throw his cell phone on the seat.
Viola took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and gunned the truck forward. The speedometer read 35 when she opened the door and jumped. A second later the truck cleared the edge, went airborne, and splashed down several feet beyond the lake’s edge. Viola rolled on the leaf-covered ground, missed the surrounding trees, stopping short of the drop. She stood and took inventory. Nothing seemed broken, although it felt as if she might have strained her bad knee and wrenched her shoulder when she landed. She limped to the bank's edge and watched the truck, still illuminated by its head and taillights, drift farther out into the lake, propelled by waning momentum. She held her breath and watched it fill and sink, its lights growing dimmer as it submerged. It reminded Viola of a diving submarine she had seen in a war movie on TV. She finally relaxed and grinned into the darkness. “Bye-bye, Stanley. I’m glad you enjoyed your pudding. You fat pig.” She turned and began her four-mile walk back to the trailer.
Viola was exhausted and lapsed into a deep but fitful sleep when she finally fell into bed almost two hours later. Upon rising the next morning, still tired and unrefreshed, she cleaned the kitchen and began a search for Stanley’s hidden stash of “emergency” money. It took most of the day, but she eventually discovered his hiding place: the bottom of a coffee can of nails in the storage shed out back of the cabin. She counted several rubber-banded wads of bills: a little over $7,000. “You son-of-a-bitch, Stan. Emergency fund, my ass. You saving up to run out on me, wasn’t you?” she asked in the rising heat of the shed.
But this was the unexpected, last piece of the puzzle completing her plan of escape. It was now Monday. She’d relax on Tuesday and putter around in her garden. Then on Wednesday, she’d flag down the postman, asking for his help because her husband was missing—last seen driving down the road towards Toccoa. She’d make the necessary missing person police report, of course, praying they wouldn’t drag the lake for any reason. If they did and found Stanley and the truck, she hoped they didn’t do an autopsy and find evidence of the aconite poisoning. Odds were on her side; the area around Toccoa in the Ozark Mountains wasn’t exactly a high crime area. She’d spend some of Stanley’s stash at Malcolm's Used Car Emporium, a highfalutin name for a tired, used car dealership in Toccoa that never had more than a dozen rust buckets on the lot at any one time. She’d pick up a set of wheels from ol’ man Malcolm. And when the local interest, if any, over Stanley’s disappearance had died down and his affairs were settled, she’d quietly sell the trailer and land and hit the road. She’d be free, have money, and would eventually get a job when she finally landed somewhere. Life would be good.
Viola finished the cleaning and tidying of the cabin late on Tuesday afternoon and made several visits to the shed toting boxes of Stanley’s belongings. Out of sight out of mind, she figured. When Viola finally returned from her last trek it was near sundown. She had an uneasy feeling as she walked past her flower garden but couldn’t identify the source of her anxiety, and she was too tired to worry about it. After a long, hot soaking in the bathtub, she donned her nightgown and crawled into bed, almost immediately falling asleep.
Viola woke with a start in the middle of the night. Her sleeping mind had abruptly remembered the cause of her angst by the flower bed; something had been different. And now she recalled what. There had been fewer aconite plants there than she remembered. Some of them could have died over the last few days, her waking mind mused. Maybe the abrupt memory was part of a forgotten dream. Or maybe the memory was just a dream her still foggy mind volunteered. She felt the urge to go outside with a flashlight and check. She looked at the alarm clock, 2:37 a.m., and peered at the shadows cast by the tree limbs waving at her bedroom window. It was windy outside, a storm was rising, and the nights were still a springtime cold. She tamped down her unease; she could check on the plants in the morning.
She was almost asleep when she heard the first thump. She rolled over, thinking it a branch from the tree outside the window smacking the house in the storm and tried to relax. Then came a second thump, and she realized that it wasn’t outside her bedroom but farther away, nearer the front of the house. Her mind was suddenly on red alert; animals, maybe a bear disorientated in the growing squall, was seeking shelter. Viola jumped in startled surprise as a third bang, louder than the first two, reverberated through the house. Silence followed; she could hear nothing but the cold, howling wind churning around the cabin.
The last crash had been loud enough to cause damage, Viola worried. She decided to investigate. She turned on the lamp, donned her robe, and crept down the hallway to the living room, turning on lights as she went. She made a cursory inspection of the room, the small adjoining dining room, and the second bedroom where Stanley often slept. All seemed in order. The front door was still locked and undamaged. Viola’s nerves were frazzled. She wasn’t used to being alone in the house at night. She decided to have a shot or two of whiskey to help her sleep and headed for the kitchen. The lights went out before she made it.
“Dammit and tarnation, the storm musta took down one of those rickety ol’ power lines somewhere,” Viola muttered in dismay. It had happened before, and Stanley had installed a gas-powered generator in the shed, but there was no way she was going to brave the screeching wind in the dark and stormy cold; it could wait till morning. Viola fumbled her way across the room to the old hutch and rummaged through the drawers until she found a thick candle and matches. She lit it and made her way to the kitchen, pulled down a saucer from the cupboard, and planted the candle. By the flickering candlelight, she retrieved the bottle of whiskey from a lower cupboard and poured herself a liberal dose.
She turned to sit at the table and froze in mid-stride. The candle continued to sputter in the drafty kitchen, but Viola could see well enough. Neatly arranged on the table was an eerie, welcoming tableau—a vase of her blue aconitum flowers and her pink, left-over bowl of chocolate pudding from dinner, a cloth napkin and spoon placed handily next to it. She stared wide-eyed in confusion. True, she had picked flowers for the house, but they weren’t the dainty blue ones, and besides, she had put those others in the living room. And Viola was sure she had put all the leftovers, including her pudding, in the fridge Sunday night. Had she intended to have a snack before bed, become distracted, and just forgotten? And, of course, things had been a little stressful of late. But the setting was all so neat and inviting…
Viola was still gawking, stupefied, at the table setting when a loud splat sounded from the direction of the darkened living room. It was akin to a wet ball of laundry being dropped on the hardwood floor, but the sound that followed was worse—a liquid gurgling and another fluid plop. The musky, dank smell of rotting algae and the heavy, rich stink of lake mud created by years of forest decomposition, now with an underlying sense of decaying, putrid flesh, assailed her. The thick miasma of noxious odors was nearly overpowering. Another wet plop, closer to the kitchen door. Below Viola’s gawking eyes, her nose wrinkled up in unconscious revulsion at the stench.
And now, realization grabbed her heart in an icy grip. She knew why the aconitum plants were missing from her garden. Some were in the welcoming vase on the table, the rest Stanley had used for her pudding. And now he was coming for her. Her mind knew all this was impossible, but her heart and soul knew differently. In her mind’s eye, she could see his viscous, bloated, white body lumbering wetly across the floor towards the kitchen, towards her, strands of rotting lake vegetation clinging to him. Viola knew he was coming.
She turned and ran to the back door. The old doorknob turned loosely in her hand but would not catch. She jerked it back and forth, pulling and pushing frantically. The knob came off in her hand. “Dammit, Stanley, you’re supposed to fix this!” Viola screamed into the ominous silence.
A liquid gurgling answered her. A laugh?
Fighting rising panic and despair, she glanced at the window over the sink. Too small for her to squeeze through. She was trapped in the kitchen.
There was a squish and a rattle as the shambling horror bumped into a table near the kitchen door. She grabbed a knife out of the kitchen drawer and held it out in front of her with both hands. She giggled hysterically. How were you supposed to kill something already dead? The candle flame had steadied, the deep blue of the aconite flowers appeared deep purple—like drying blood. The pudding was a blackness in the bottom of the bowl—a yawning abyss.
Viola dropped the knife and sat heavily in the chair. Her screaming mind played out the end to the gruesome finale in her small kitchen: the gelatinous pale blob that was now Stanley, with its staring white eyes, loose and yawning mouth—drooling vomit and river mud—would slither over her, hold her down—it’s foul, fetid breath gagging her—and force-feed her the tainted pudding.
She looked at the open doorway. Was that the white shadow of a wet, hulking monstrosity, of Stanley, ready to enter? She giggled again, her mind teetering. She looked down at the dark bowl before her, dipping her finger in and tasting. She smacked her lips and grinned at the shadows. “Yes, you're right, Stanley. It is a little grainy and a bit sweet. I guess it's true, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating,'” she whispered, the flickering stillness beckoning her.
She grabbed the spoon and began to eat...
Publication Date: 05-02-2020
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