by: Julie Howard ((Header Art by Willian Deutsch.))
An ordinary Mahjong Morning with the ladies takes an unexpected turn, owing to the arrival of a batch of “special” brownies…
“Ooh, almost a heavenly hand.”
The other three women at the mahjong table rolled their eyes at each other.
“Nettie,” warned Gladys, the youngest of the group coming in at a blossoming seventy-one. “That doesn’t help.”
Nettie looked down at her row of Mahjong tiles, the swirling colors and symbols. The flowers were her favorites – the orchid and plum in particular. They were the only symbols in the set that remotely looked like their name. The rest were chicken scratches on faux ivory squares. She had no idea if her tiles constituted a heavenly hand, a guaranteed instant win, but she loved the sound of those words and saying them out loud. She said them at the start of every game, regardless of the tiles she was dealt.
There was a silence among the women and the room was quiet except for the steady clicking of tiles as play went around the table.
“Did you bring that delicious pound cake again, Velma?” Nettie asked. “It’s not right that you won’t share the recipe.”
Velma looked at her sternly. She didn’t know why they kept Nettie in the group. She was slow in playing her hand, always asking how to score at the end and making rude comments like this. Of course she wasn’t going to share the recipe.
“I told you last time,” Velma said. “It’s a family recipe. And no, I didn’t bring it because it’s Doris’ turn to bring dessert.”
Nettie looked sadly over to the next table where another four women – including Doris – clattered their game pieces together. Doris didn’t cook, but tried anyway. Her cookies were burnt, her cakes were dry and her Jell-O mold never quite set. Fortunately, it was her turn in the desserts rotation only every eighth week. Still, having dessert after playing was Nettie’s favorite part of her Mahjong mornings.
“Doris,” Nettie called across the room in a high voice. “What did you make for dessert?”
All the ladies looked over towards Nettie.
“Shush now, Nettie,” snapped Barbara, red lipstick drawn firmly outside the lines of her mouth to enhance age-thinned lips. “We’re playing.”
Doris, though, smiled broadly at Nettie.
“Something very special today,” Doris said.
“Store-bought?” asked Nettie, hopefully.
“Partly,” said Doris, mysteriously. “And partly homemade.”
Gladys cleared her throat.
“It’s not dessert time yet, Nettie,” she said in an annoyed tone.
The rest of the game went by agonizingly slow. Nettie was distracted, Velma nursed her resentments and Gladys was considering once again how to eject the bothersome Nettie from the group.
The cry went up within minutes of each other at both tables and time for dessert had arrived at last.
There was a flurry of activity back and forth to the bathroom and then the ladies gathered around the counter where Velma was pouring out coffee and Doris was flourishing a plate of brownies.
To Nettie’s practiced eye, the brownies looked nicely baked – not burnt or mushy – though disappointingly cut into small-sized squares.
“These look very good,” Nettie said, taking two and placing them on her ceramic flowered plate. “You made these yourself?”
“Not those,” said Doris, before opening a plastic tub filled with more chocolate squares. She looked down at the tub she was holding. “I made these.”
The two versions of brownies were clearly different. The ones in the tub were even smaller and encased individually in plastic wrap. The women looked between the two versions and then back at Doris expectantly, awaiting a reply.
“These,” said Doris, holding the tub against her ample bosom, “are special.”
“My grandson ate ‘special’ brownies one time,” Barbara piped up, making little quotation marks with her fingers. “In high school.”
The women chuckled and clucked their tongues.
Doris raised her eyebrows at the group and a little smile danced around her lips and in her eyes.
“You don’t mean….” started Gladys. “You didn’t….”
“I do and I did,” exclaimed Doris. “Jim’s been suffering just awful with insomnia and with my arthritis acting up we figured we’d drive to the coast for a few days, do some shopping and, well, try it out.”
The women stared at the tub of brownies. Nettie nibbled at the store-bought one on her plate.
“I’ll take one,” she said, breaking the silence. “My back hurts at night.”
“Nettie!” Barbara exclaimed. “You will not.”
Nettie reached out and Doris dropped one of the special brownies in her hand.
“Did it work?” asked Velma. “For Jim? And you?”
“Jim’s sleeping like a baby ever since and we went dancing two nights in a row,” Doris said, a youthful smile passing across her face.
Velma pursed her lips.
“My dentures make my mouth sore,” she said. “Think it’ll help?”
“I’m sure it will,” said Doris, holding out the tub.
Velma reached in and took one, hesitated and then took another.
“For Harold,” she said. “His knees have been bothering him.”
Gladys stepped forward.
“Dick gets terribly constipated,” she explained.
One by one, the ladies reached forward and took a brownie, each noting a physical complaint – migraines, tinnitus, restless legs at night.
In the end, only one square remained – and only Barbara remained empty handed. Barbara glared at the friends she thought she knew. In her day – which, for god’s sake, was also their day – this would be completely unacceptable. The ladies stood in a half circle around Doris and her plastic container, their eyes on Barbara expectantly. They were either all in, or all out.
“I’m perfectly healthy – nothing wrong with me – strong as a horse,” Barbara said, jutting out her chin.
“Stubborn as a mule, more like,” muttered Velma.
“Live a little,” encouraged Doris.
Barbara saw the faces of her old friends harden against her. She felt the future of her Mahjong mornings wobble in the balance. These mornings were the highlight of her weeks now that Norm was gone.
“I have a little patch of eczema,” she proffered, accepting the last brown square between a thumb and forefinger.
“Well ladies, shall we get back to work?” Nettie called out in a chipper tone.
The women bustled back to their seats, excited by the morning’s turn of events. “No more chatter,” warned Velma.
Heavenly, thought Nettie to herself with a smile.
Julie Howard is a former newspaper journalist and editor who has covered topics ranging from crime to cowboy poetry. Her career was primarily spent with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Sacramento Bee and the bygone Maturity News Service. She has published short stories in Literally Stories, The Piker Press and Dime Show Review. She currently lives in Boise, Idaho where she is working on longer fiction.