Ellie was leaning over the kitchen sink listening to the Christian radio station and wondering what to do with her vegetables. If she put the same old vegetables in the same old pot, how was the soup not going to taste the same as it did a few days earlier? Five months ago when her husband, Gerald passed, she was glad to not have to fix meat dishes anymore. Meat required some degree of planning ahead. Would it be beef or pork that needed thawing? Would it be fried or baked? How long could she serve it as leftovers before Gerald realized there was no meat in the casserole? Just vegetables and noodles with a can of creamed soup.
That was Ellie’s favorite, noodles and vegetables with either cream of mushroom or cream of onion soup stirred in. Smash up some saltines for a topping with a bit of shredded cheese and pop it in the oven. She could get four meals out of that one casserole dish. Sometimes when she didn’t feel like scrubbing, peeling and chopping vegetables, she’d just open a can of tuna fish and mix that in instead. Tuna wasn’t meat. It was fish. Just like her sockeye salmon in the red can. With canned salmon she’d mix in some of those smashed up saltines, add an egg, shape into patties and fry in butter. She rather enjoyed the crunch of those fish vertebrae that were left in the can with a bit of salmon skin….added texture.
She turned on the kitchen tap to clean the morning’s harvest of six potatoes, four carrots, two bird-pecked tomatoes and one large onion when she heard the preacher on the radio ask, “What would Jesus do?” Stupid question, Ellie thought, he’d do what he always does, the right thing. These preachers always tossed out two options for Jesus when they were getting to the end of addressing their flock. A congregation of people Ellie thought might be a bit dense to even waste time deliberating on an answer. One option was nasty, mean, thoughtless, and the other was kind, forgiving, and tender. Of course Jesus was going to go for the latter. He had years of practice and did not need anyone giving him advice. Why didn’t those preachers use their Jesus connections to find out something useful?
“Is the neighbor’s dog ever going to stop barking?”
“How do you feel about hip replacements?”
“You had a way with water. Do you have any idea how to elevate these vegetables beyond soup?”
But no, the preacher always asked, “What would Jesus do?” after dragging out some dramatic dilemma that would end with this inevitable question just before the half hour was up. Then the news came on for five minutes, and finally Ellie’s favorite, Southern Gospel Hour.
When Gerald died, one of the first things Ellie did was turn the radio dial off his right wing talk show in search of anything else, and stopped when she heard the deep tone of Mahalia Jackson singing, “Take My Hand Precious Lord”. Hearing that hymn took Ellie all the way back to little white dresses, shiny shoes and her dearly loved Louise. They were bittersweet memories of a childhood empty of any affection beyond what the housekeeper showed her.
Ellie smiled remembering every afternoon on her break Louise would push her way into the front porch rocker and hold out her arms. Ellie would scramble up past rolled stockings to a generous lap of folds and flowers. As the chair rocked slowly back and forth she would tell Louise all about her day, making it up as she went and keeping her ear close to Louise’s chest to hear the rumbles of suppressed laughter deep within. After twenty minutes or so, Louise would lift Ellie down, grab her little hands and say, “Pull!” Ellie went back to her swing, Louise into the house to start dinner.
No, she was never going to move that dial any place beyond 84.2 AM Radio.
Ellie thought it was too bad she wasn’t allowed in the kitchen back then. If she was, she’d know what else to do with these vegetables. Because Louise would have shown her. She would have told her all about how those vegetables needed to be cooked and seasoned before dumped hot and buttered into the white dish that Louise held as she served the family. Ellie kept her eye on that dish in Louise’s hands and watch her slide her big thumb over a newly chipped edge before taking up the spoon and serve the vegetables as she moved around the table. First Ellie’s father, then her mother before smiling down at Ellie as she put extra melted butter over the potatoes and carrots that were spooned onto her plate.
Louise was instructed to only serve the vegetables after slicing the meat and placing it to the right of father’s plate. Only he would determine the portions to serve his family. Later Ellie’s mother would be doing the same with the dessert, varying the sizes as she deemed appropriate.
Ellie never went hungry but was always aware that she could be if she didn’t measure up to the servings they gave her. Whatever was needed to be appropriately fed today would be her pattern to follow tomorrow. Simple. She never went hungry and that was good enough.
In all her years with Gerald it was she who served the food at meal time. Put as much as she thought he would eat on his plate and do the same for herself. The table always set for just the two of them. Never any children that needed to be fed. She asked Jesus about that a long time ago but he never got back to her.
As the gospel music filled the kitchen, Ellie, lost in thoughts of Louise, scrubbed and peeled the potatoes and carrots, sliced up the onion and cut out the bad parts of the tomatoes. Then she boiled the potatoes and carrots together in a pot and melted some butter in a pan for the onion slices. When the boiled vegetables were soft enough and drained she mashed them together and liked the color. She liked it very much. Next she slowly stirred in the browned onion slices with a bit of salt and pepper. It looked good. Later she would heat it up in the oven with some cheese slices spread on top and use the tomatoes as a side dish. It made her hungry just thinking about this new dinner combination and how good it smelled. Putting it in the refrigerator for later, Ellie pulled out two slices of bread, an egg to fry in the butter left from cooking the onion and the jar of mayonnaise. Lunch would be one of her favorite sandwiches, an over medium egg between two slices of white bread slathered with mayonnaise.
Tomorrow she would go into town. The milk was beginning to taste funny and fresh green vegetables were needed. Whenever she tried to grow them, bugs, worms and rabbits got to them first. So mostly her green vegetables came from a can. But on the days she went to town, a bag of fresh spinach or kale would come home with her. Whatever she didn’t eat fresh would be chopped up and put into soups and casseroles.
She could be going into town today but had already made other plans.
After lunch and when the kitchen was cleaned up, Ellie headed out to the shed to find a shovel. Today was the day she was finally going to bury Gerald’s guns. God, how she hated those things. She did not want them in the house one more minute. Today was the day to get it done. She never saw Gerald use them. He probably just wanted to own them, then own a few more.
He never went hunting with the men he hung out with in town. He probably wasn’t asked that often. Ellie suspected that he wasn’t asked because it was one more thing that he wasn’t good at, shooting straight. The men never knew how many guns Gerald owned. And even if he told them, they likely would not believe him.
Ellie knew this because one day she overheard one of them say, “Did you ever notice that when Gerald clears his throat, the next thing he says is a lie.” They laughed at that because Gerald always was clearing his throat before finding his voice. And Gerald couldn’t keep from exaggerating. A forecast of flurries was a blizzard coming. A downpour instead of showers. Like Ellie, the men would politely wait for Gerald to finish his predictions and then pick up the conversation where they left off.
There was no way she was going to tell them about the guns she found stored in a chest shortly after Gerald passed. He had taken great care to wrap each one in an old towel before putting the biggest ones on the bottom then placing the smaller ones on top. There had to be more than a dozen in there. Maybe two dozen! When did he buy them? And where did he buy them? Flea markets most likely. Not by mail. Ellie would have seen the boxes. No, had to be from the flea markets when he said he was going out to rummage through old tools that might be useful.
So where to start digging? Some place where the ground was soft. The garden! Where else? At one end Ellie had tried to grow beans. It was not successful. The few that tried to climb her carefully tied strings just seemed to give up after one twist around. There was little effort to climb further and since they were within reach of a rabbit, well that was that. Canned green beans were just as good and more dependable. Yes, down here at the end by the shed was perfect. It was out of sight from the driveway and the neighbor. Now the question was, how deep? How deep did guns need to be in the ground so as not to pose a problem? Three feet seemed like a safe depth. Five feet long and three shovel widths wide. After a little over two feet deep, Ellie thought it was good enough.
She took her wheel barrow around the back of the house and into the garage. Put the guns in in the order she took them out of the chest. That way the long ones would go in first and the small ones could fill in the spaces before going on top. She kept them in their towels just in case someone came by and she could say she was just taking rags to the shed. A few boxes of bullets were also in the chest and those too would go in the hole.
Wheeling her way out of the garage, around back and out to the garden took a bit more time and effort than she thought it would. She rested on the edge of the wheel barrow between the wooden handles and wiped the sweat with her apron. Maybe she should move that old wooden bench by the shed door over the burial site. Plant a few of her woodruff plants under the bench so they could grow there in the shade. Something good should come from Gerald’s gun collection. Might as well be a place to sit and feel the tickle of woodruff on your ankles.
Ellie stood up and pulled out the first long gun. Placed it in the hole and decided to alternate how they went in, just to conserve space. She could feel the barrel end and laid it next to the handle end of another, then the reverse with the next. Once all those were in she carefully spread the short guns over them, and put the boxes of bullets into the corners. When everything was in the hole she shoveled in the fresh dug dirt and packed it down with the back of the shovel.
Next she dragged the old bench over and squared it up on the mound of dirt and took a seat. Looking over her garden Ellie decided that maybe she would do a bit of weeding tomorrow when she came back from town, planted the woodruff, and dug out a few more potatoes.
It was always better to think of the things she might do than look back on the things she’d already done. Those things were over. Ellie had moved on. It may not have always been in a straight line but she stepped away from her yesterdays with hardly a glance back. She would square her shoulders and slip easily into another day of doing the things she planned on doing. She might have to make adjustments if something unexpected came up but managed to either take care of it or pretend it wasn’t happening. Easy. Living alone and old age simplified her life, her routines and responsibilities. Ellie enjoyed what could be called a “controlled aloneness”. Be seen hanging something on the line once in a while kept the neighbor from stopping by too often to see if she was okay. If there were tea towels and underwear pinned there then Ellie must be fine.
Still the neighbor would check in every few weeks if she had not seen Ellie in town or out in the yard. She was much younger than Ellie and a regular church goer. Or so Ellie thought because when she went back to her own yard, she’d wave and say, “Have a blessed day.” Only Jesus people say that. Ellie would smile and roll her eyes heavenward as if to give recognition to where blessings came from.
The only other person to come by was her old friend Margaret coming at lunch time to have some of Ellie’s soup and make suggestions. Those visits were much more appreciated. Ellie liked Margaret’s company. They were both widows of a similar age. Margaret being the more sociable of the two would come by for a visit if she had the time, bringing fresh bread from the bakers or some homemade jam in the hope Ellie would invite her to stay for lunch. Not that she enjoyed Ellie’s vegetable soup that much but it was a meal she did not have to eat alone. On the other hand, Ellie only left her house to get groceries, do her town business and come back home. No stopping to chat.
Another difference between the two was that Margaret missed her deceased husband and Ellie did not miss Gerald. Not in the slightest. If there was a rating scale for husbands, one to ten, ten being the highest, Ellie would have put Gerald at a solid 3.5 with an occasional 4. He would have received a higher rating if there was just one time Ellie could recall Gerald asking if she’d like to go out to dinner.
She didn’t think Gerald was a bad husband. He was simply Ellie’s only husband, so there really was no personal experience for comparison. Getting together seemed the right thing to do when neither one of them had anyone else in their lives. They were loners but not lonely. Neither one of them had any expectations of the other. Gerald worked, Ellie took care of the house and kept him fed. She had noticed early on in the marriage that they preferred their own company to that of each other. Problem was that although Ellie assumed Gerald wasn’t a bad man, she had no idea if he was a good one. Gerald just was. And after he retired Gerald was always somewhere around, showing up at meal times. They didn’t talk much because there was nothing to talk about. Neither of them had questions or answers if there had been. Over fifty years of shared space and considerable silence seemed to make the marriage work. And continue to work with a certainty of going on for even more years.
So when Ellie came back in the house five months ago and found Gerald laying on the floor, red faced and gripping a meat-filled sandwich he made himself, she did not come closer. Instead she backed up quickly so as not to hear a last gasp if there was going to be one, and waited twenty more minutes in the garage.
That should be enough time for Jesus to figure out what he was going to do.