The shaggy retriever flung himself at Becky’s lean, bare legs with a woof. She stumbled, grabbed onto Joe’s muscular arm and gave the beast a glare.
“Hey Red!” said Joe with childish glee.
Becky stumbled again as Joe swiveled and dropped into a crouch. Steadying against the porch railing, she straightened the hem of her sun dress and rippled her fingers so the new diamond glistened. Then, she watched with a grimace and raised brows as Red proceeded to lick Joe’s square face like a doggy ice cream cone.
Joe ruffled the long fur now flecked with more gray than rust with his strong hands and laughed.
“Down boy, down.”
The dog jumped up again, hairy paws on Joe’s broad shoulder. He gently tossed Red’s front legs back to the grass and the dog loped back onto his stringy hind quarters.
Becky sighed and fought not to roll her eyes at the cyclical game. Instead walked up the creaking steps and took in the round table at the other end of the porch. A red and white checkered table cloth swayed in the breeze. The three places had already been set with china plates rimmed with curving edges, squat drinking glasses and gleaming cutlery. Citronella candles glowed and a vase full of magnolias perfumed the air.
“Hope you two are hungry!” The call from Gloria pierced the screen door and clung to a heavy spatter of hot oil.
Becky winced as a breeze from the kitchen coated her skin like mud.
She smiled over her shoulder as Joe came to stand behind her.
“Yeah,” she said as Red rubbed his head on to her leg, his tail wagging with youthful vigor. Her lips strained to stay in a pleasant curve while the canine musk stained her flesh.
Joe leaned in a planted a kiss on the top of her head. “I promise,” he said, his words muffled in her hair, “I’ll take you out for a digestible meal afterwards.”
“It’ll be fine.”
He shook his head and gave her knobby shoulders a quick squeeze. “Thanks for doing this.”
“She’s your Grandmother, Joe. The least I can do is have lunch with her.”
“Wait until you see lunch.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Becky whispered.
Joe’s smile stretched. “The words cholesterol and low fat just aren’t in her vocabulary.”
“Suppertime!” crowed Gloria as she swung through the screen door with a clack of her cane. Her cloudy eyes squinted behind bottle cap frames and finally latched on to them. Her smile bloomed.
“Let me get that, Grandma.” Joe strode forward, seeking to claim the platter balanced in her free hand.
“Shoo,” she snapped with phony anger. “Just get yourself seated before this gets cold.”
The older woman’s calico dress and stained apron swayed with her waddling stride. Red padded along silently at her heels, his tail gently swishing.
“Smells delicious,” said Becky, following in Gloria’s wake.
“Damn right it does,” added Joe.
Gloria set the tray where the fourth setting would have gone. She plopped down into the next chair and her hands fumbled for the dripping pitcher brimming with sun tea and lemons. She then poured each of them a glass full without wasting a drop. She waved toward the other chairs.
Becky fell like a lump onto the floral cushion before Joe had a chance to tuck the chair under her. Her eyes grew wide and she licked her lips as her gaze flickered across the platter and then the other baskets completing the light lunch.
Tubes of glistening sausages rested next to a mountain of chestnut brown fried chicken. A moment passed before she realized the basket set between her and Joe contained buttery cornbread and not simply squares of butter. The other side dish sagged under the equal weight of cabbage and mayonnaise.
She jolted in her seat as Joe gave her shoulder another squeeze. He slid into the third seat and gave her an apologetic smile as he laid his napkin over his trim stomach.
Gloria meanwhile struck out with her veined hand. “Hand me your plate, hon’.”
Becky picked up the china with two hands and forced her arms to extend toward the older woman’s beckoning fingers.
“Poor scrawny thing,” murmured Gloria. “Little of everything?”
Becky hoped her grin didn’t bare too many teeth like in a grimace. “Please.”
Beneath the table she felt Joe place a supportive hand on her toned leg.
Gloria handed back the plate, dripping with heaps from each platter, basket and bowl, large enough to feed a hungry teenager.
“Don’t wait on ceremony, sugar, dig in and put some meat on your bones.” Gloria batted Joe’s arm and repeated the process of scooping, plucking and placing.
Becky watched her own fingers strip away a crackling layer of fried skin from the first of three hunks of chicken on her plate.
Red pressed his furry head against her knees, making her jump. She juggled but the piece of oil scorched meat tumbled from her slick fingers. The strip bounded toward the floor and she dipped to the side in order to scoop the morsel off the ground.
A wet nose and tentative lick met her cheek. She looked at her fingers, then at Red’s soft brown eyes locked on the chicken. His tail thumped against the porch’s floor.
Becky offered the meat to his muzzle and he snatched the fried bite with a swish of his tail. He then gave her palm a lick.
Gloria scowled across the table as Becky straightened in her chair.
“Is that dog bothering you?”
“Oh, no,” said Becky, giving Red a hearty scratch on the top of his head. “He’s my new best friend.”