Edna Jane Price had never minced her words in whole long life, and she didn’t intend to start then. Pushing her tightly permed gray hair away from her ear, she shouted into the phone, “The beans are ready! Get down here and help pick, for the Lord’s sake!”
At the other end of the phone line, her daughter-in-law Karen cringed and leaned back against her pillow. Peering at the bedside clock, she saw 6 a.m. writ in red, like large eyes. Her mother-in-law’s caustic voice always sounded like what a cannon going off in a tin tool shed might sound like. Edna Jane was the boss and that was that.
“Yes, Edna, we’ll be there as soon as we can get there,” Karen sighed. Driving over mountain roads at 6:30 a.m. on an August morning was never the safest thing to do, since the mist rose up, dozens of ghosts melting together not unlike marshmallows on yams, making it hard to see headlights, much less the grazing deer herds that seemed to have taken over every inch of land these days.
“Well, I sure do hope ya git here fast. It’s going to be so hot today cow piss will sizzle on a flat rock before too long.” Edna Jane slammed down the phone so hard the cord quivered like a snake digesting a mouse. That Karen, that city girl, how terrible that Billy John married that girl. Seemed like she never learned a thing in all these years. She couldn’t cook her way out of a tin can if she tried. Only good thing she ever done was porch sittin’ with her nose in a book and havin’ babies. Three of ‘em, which was more than Edna Jane had managed, Billy John being the only one she ever got. Sure, those grandbabies were little dolls, so blond, like little angels. Well, they all growed up and moved to DC, workin’ for the Beltway bandits, whoever THEY were, and drivin’ fancy cars made by Germans, for the Lord’s sake.
Setting all the canning jars in a row on her kitchen counter, Edna Jane groaned with each movement. This damn arthritis, can’t a body have one day free from the aggravation? Good thing Billy John and Karen were there to pick. Edna Jane knew she’d be sweating from the pain, not the heat, after 15 minutes. She rubbed her fingers hard, marveling that she’d gotten to this point in life, where every day she didn’t have to call the doctor was a flat-out miracle. Well, today she wasn’t gonna call no doctor. No sir. It was bean-picking and bean-canning day. And she was going to do it up right, just like she learned from her grandmother and her mother. And Nanny Velma, the family’s colored cook.
My goodness, I been doing this for going on 75 years, ever since I was 5 years old and couldn’t see over this counter top to save my life. Nanny Velma had to lift me up high to put the beans in the jars in those days.
But mostly Edna Jane had just sat in the dirt between the long green rows of beans, and ate one bean for every five she’d pick, dirt and all. Now she could barely do the canning part of the job. Life’s good until you can’t do what you gotta do, that’s for sure
She lined up the canning jars, with their shiny new lids, getting everything ready for when Billy John and Karen finally got there.
Just then, Joe padded into the kitchen, grabbing the walls to find his way as he wiped his eyes, trying to get the morning blur out. His eyesight never was too good after that German lobbed a grenade into his foxhole in the Ardennes Forest at the Battle of the Bulge. Now, at 82, he was just plain old with dim vision. It didn’t help that Edna Jane kept the lights off in the kitchen in the morning because they hurt her eyes.
“Make me some coffee, will ya, woman. I’m so tired I could go back to bed. Seems like I never get no sleep no more, with you tossin’ all the night long.” His raspy voice startled Edna Jane, who dropped a canning jar on the peeling yellow linoleum floor. Amazingly enough, it bounced once and then rolled under the flecked formica-covered table in the center of the cavernous kitchen.
“Geez, Joe Dan Price, ya scared me half to death. I didn’t hear ya comin’.” Edna Jane yelled.
“That’s ‘cuz ya’re getting’ deafer ‘n a fish.”
“No I ain’t! Besides, who knows if fish are deaf? They can’t be deaf. Look how ya’re always shushing me when we’re fishing. Telling me to keep quiet on account them fish will run away if I talk. Go on. Enough of that nonsense. I’m gonna make that coffee.”
Edna Jane moved over to the stove, grabbed the old enameled coffee pot, dumping in the coffee and the water, set the pot on the gas burner, and listened to the satisfying sound of the gas hissing into flame as she had every morning for years. The old strainer sat on top of Joe’s cracked white mug, the one he’d once won at the county fair for his prize tomatoes. Karen gave them a Mr. Coffee one year, complete with those little paper filters, but Edna Jane hated the taste of the coffee. Tasted like chemicals, Edna Jane told Billy John when she loaded the machine into her car to take to a church yard sale.
That Karen, she couldn’t even give a gift that was worth much, Edna Jane sniffed as she poured the coffee through the filter and handed the mug to Joe.
“The first sip, always the best!” Joe drank the strong black coffee, hot as it was, without flinching. “What time is it? Why ain’t those kids here yet?”
“Well, they ain’t kids, and it sounded like they was still asleep when I called,” Edna Janesaid.
“What time ya call anyway? It’s still kinda dark out there,” Joe said, staring out the screen door at the morning mist, barely making out the fence and the barn across the driveway.
“It was 6 o’clock, if ya gotta know.” Edna Janecontinued putting the canning jars on the counter, counting them. That should be enough for three 50-foot rows of beans.
Sitting down with a cup of coffee, she said, “Joe, what do ya think ‘bout askin’ Billy John and Karen to move in with us pretty soon? We sure could use some help ‘round here, don’t ya think? I’m gettin’ awful sore with this arthritis, and you getting’ blind as a bat. What a pair we is.”
“I don’t know that Karen will wanna be doin’ that, ya know she got that fancy job up at that university. No way she gonna quit to take care ‘a coupla old folks like us.” Joe rubbed his chin, feeling the stubble that used to be black but now depressed him with its grayness every morning. “Besides, I ain’t gonna quit fussin’ with my land till I can’t go on no more.”
“A daughter-in-law’s supposed to do that! I did that with your momma, didn’t I?” Edna Jane retorted loudly.
“Hush, here they come,” Joe said, interrupting Edna’s latest rant, as Karen and Billy John walked into the dimly lit kitchen.
Looking at Karen, Edna Jane said, “What took ya two so long? The sun’s comin’ up fast now and I don’t wanna be melted into the floor when we start cannin’ them beans!” Edna Jane rarely showed her grumpiness in front of Billy John, who didn’t believe all the stories Karen told him about Edna’s manner toward her.
But today was different.
“Mama, why are you so angry? It’s 7:30 in the morning, we did the best we could!” Pecking his mother’s cheek with a swift kiss, he walked over to Joe and the two men shook hands. That was it for physical affection in the family.
“Karen, don’t just stand there, grab a sack and get goin’ on them beans. I’m startin’ the pot to boil now.” As she lifted the lid of the five-gallon dented aluminum canning pot, Edna Jane glared at Karen.
Karen took the white cotton flour sack hanging from Edna’s gnarled hand, and Edna Jane watched her walk out into the yard.
Karen ain’t ever gonna change me. Karen thinks I’ll be dead soon and that’s fine with her, I’ll bet.
* * * * * *
Karen ducked into the barn to see the five tiny kittens she’d discovered under a pile of straw last week. If she could convince Bill — only his mother called him Billy John any more — she was going to take two of the little beauties home with her soon, after one of Edna’s obligatory weekly Sunday dinners of greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and cloud-light biscuits.
Cradling the two kittens, Karen suddenly remembered the beans, the damn beans, as she called them. Every year it was the same. “The beans are ready! Get down here!” Edna Jane would holler into the phone. When Karen married Bill, she’d thought how great it would be to have a family nearby, a place to go for holidays. An idyllic farm, with contented cows and tall corn in even rows and tomatoes so sweet you’d think you’d died and gone to heaven. Ever since Karen’s parents died in Africa when she was 15, in a plane crash over the Serengeti, she’d been alone in the world. Except for Bill and the girls, of course.
That old woman, no way would she ever be a pleasure to be around. And so much for the romantic farm idea. Though Edna Jane could sure cook Southern, Karen would admit that much to anybody who asked.
Oh well, time to get to those beans before Edna Jane yells at me again. Karen’s feet rumpled the dry straw around the kittens as she hurried out toward the garden and the rows of beans. Edna’s voice followed her into the garden like a haint’s, “Karen where are ya? Why ain’t ya out there pickin’? The water’s just ‘bout heated up. I’m waitin’ on ya.”
As she stooped to pick the first row of beans, Karen saw Billy John come out of the kitchen, dragging a white cotton flour sack just like the one she was filling with the long slender, almost fuzzy green beans.
Just as Billy John squatted down to begin picking, Edna’s voiced boomed out the door, “If that woman don’t answer me, I’m gonna have a stroke ‘a the sun! Billy John, go get that lazy wife of yourn!”
Karen stopped picking, her eyes staring at Billy John.
He jumped up and ran toward the kitchen door.
“Well, did ya find her?” Edna Jane snorted when he walked through the door.
“Yes, Mama, I did. She’s out there picking, just like you asked her to do. Mama, Karen is not lazy. Please don’t talk to her like that ever again, do you hear me?”
“OK, OK, just get them beans in here. Ya don’t have to talk mean to me, I’m your mama. Ya look just like your daddy used to when he was frettin’ with me.”
Just then Karen walked through the door, the cotton sack polka-dotted with the dust and sweat.
“Here, help me git them beans into that pot. The water’s boilin’ hard n’ fast,” Edna Jane said, as Karen dragged the heavy sack across the yellow linoleum floor. Silently, the women blanched the beans and then stuffed them into the Mason jars lined up on the counter. Edna Jane poured the pickling liquid over the beans. And then Karen screwed on the lids, tight. She blinked several times, not sure it was tears or sweat she wanted to get rid of.
The grandfather clock bonged in the parlor.
“That’s it! Noon! Time for dinner,” Edna Jane hooted, opening the refrigerator and pulling out the tray of bologna and pimento cheese sandwiches she’d made the night before.
“Joe and Billy John, git on over here now. Time to eat. Let’s set on the porch, it be so hot this darn kitchen!” she yelled out the screen door. “Lord, I’m glad that cannin’s done over with for this year!” she said as she down in her rocker and straightened her apron. She bit into a pimento cheese sandwich.
“Where’s the chow, Edna Jane? What’s this stuff?” Joe asked.
“Well, I just didn’t feel up to no fried chicken today,” Edna Jane mumbled, as she chewed, sweat trickling down her pale face, white as a flour sack.
* * * * * *
She stood on the porch and watched through the window as the men in their threadbare suits hoisted Edna Jane Price’s pine casket off the sawhorses set up in the dining room. Straining with their load, the pallbearers staggered down the three wooden steps to the driveway and shoved the rough box into the back of the rusted black hearse. Billy John and Joe and the girls and all the neighbors walked slowly behind the hearse, their faces bleached sepia by the fading daylight of early September.
Karen flicked a drowsy fly off her neck and smacked it. She turned and went into the house, the screen door slamming behind her.
An opened jar of pickled green beans sat on the counter in the kitchen. She picked up the jar and threw it on the floor by the sink. The yellow linoleum shimmered with sugary pickle juice and glass shards. Then she shrugged her shoulders and ran out.
Billy John turned as Karen caught up with him.
He took her hand and squeezed.
For better and for worse. As it ever has been and will ever be.