Beans for Supper
Vicki L. Weavil
They would have beans for supper. This was decided at lunch. Ellie’s father Carl, after balancing a paper plate piled high with fruit salad, sliced ham, and potato chips on his knees, announced he felt like eating green beans at supper.
Resting on the dusty screened porch after lunch, Ellie’s husband suggested perhaps it was a little too hot for bean picking today, but “beans would be good” was all Carl had to say.
“You don’t always have to do whatever he asks, you know,” was Steve’s comment when he and Ellie retired to the privacy of the tiny guest bedroom.
Ellie glanced up at the remark, momentarily distracted from her search for the sneakers she’d tossed into the battered pine wardrobe on their previous visit. The white iron bed, its surface pitted with dents, could not contain Steve’s lanky frame. His bare feet dangled through the bottom rails.
“If I don’t help, Mom will just take it all on herself,” Ellie yanked tight the frayed laces of her sneakers.
Steve, Ellie’s second husband, was unencumbered by memories of Carl in his prime. He pulled on a faded Nature Conservancy t-shirt, his third change of the day. “Glad to help.”
But Ellie said no, she didn’t want to embarrass her mother. She and Steve had only been married for two years and her mother still considered Steve a guest.
The garden lay just beyond the backyard. The yard, Carl’s pride and joy, was strictly maintained. Every Friday, barring rain, Carl commandeered the ancient John Deere lawn tractor while Frances, Ellie’s mother, maneuvered the little orange Murray mower around the oaks, mock orange, and mimosas. The garden was ringed by a tangle of honeysuckle and the scent hung heavy in the shimmering air.
Ellie considered green beans the devil’s own vegetable. The pods and leaves were identical in color—she could never ferret out all of the beans without pulling the bushes apart. Straddling a row, Ellie puffed away the gnats swarming her ears and nose. Salty sweat stung her eyes and slicked the bends of her elbows and knees. Straightening for a moment, Ellie’s head spun. Her legs were weak as old celery.
She probably shouldn’t be out in this heat, but there was her mother, who’d already picked one row of beans and dumped her full pail into a bushel basket. For one second Ellie could have sworn it was her grandmother standing there, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. Neither Grandmother Frye nor Frances smoked, except in the garden and only, they said, to keep the bugs at bay. Unlike Ellie, in her gym shorts and pink tank top, Frances wore khaki slacks and a gauzy long sleeved blouse. A floppy white hat hid Frances’s feathered cap of gray hair. The hat was too large and made her narrow face appear gaunt. Frances was a slight woman, considerably smaller than Ellie, who took after her big-boned, blonde father.
“Why?” Ellie wiped the back of her hand under her sticky chin. “Why do you always agree? Hot as it is, let him pick his own damn beans if he wants ‘em so bad.”
Frances crushed a spent cigarette under the heel of her garden clog. “Isn’t about agreeing.”
“What’s it about then? Keeping the peace? Being the good wife? What?”
Frances pulled a crumpled pack of Virginia Slims and a box of kitchen matches from her shirt pocket. “This really does help with the bugs.” She lit two cigarettes at once. “Those creatures will eat you alive otherwise.”
“Thanks.” Ellie pulled one cigarette from between her mother’s calloused fingers. “But that doesn’t answer my question.”
Frances blew a thin trail of smoke from between pursed lips. Slowly, as if luxuriating in the mingled scent of tobacco and menthol. “You don’t live here anymore, Eleanor. You don’t know how it is.”
Ellie waved the cigarette about, refusing to put it to her lips. “I can see how it is.”
“Don’t think so.” Frances’s hazel eyes, clear as water in a fast moving creek, rested on her daughter with an expression modulating between amusement and exasperation. “Most times I don’t mind working in the garden. Quiet out here. Gives me time to think. I like to be doing something useful and it does get me out of the house.”
“I can see why that might be appealing.” Ellie tugged at the damp waistband of her shorts, which felt tight despite the give of the elastic. “Good way to escape Dad’s demands, I guess.”
Frances smiled. “Oh, it’s not necessarily me that’s escaping. Do you really think your father gives a darn if he has green beans for supper or not?” She turned away, picking up her dented metal pail and swinging it as she crossed over to another row.
Ellie considered telling her mother she had it all wrong, debated mentioning Steve’s nickname for Carl (the man who would be king), remembered the times her father lounged on the porch, five steps from the kitchen, tapping his foot as he waited for her to bring him a glass of ice tea.
“If he doesn’t care he shouldn’t make demands.”
“He likes to have something useful to do, same as me,” her mother replied. “Some contribution to the day, you know.”
“Telling you what to cook for dinner? That’s a contribution?”
Frances paused in her pursuit of beans long enough to light another cigarette. “Makes him feel a part of things around here. When he was working full-time most nights he never even got home until supper was on the table. Didn’t matter then, though, ‘cause he had put in his day’s work and felt justified sitting down and eating whatever I prepared. But it’s different now.”
“Yeah, he feels justified just sitting down.” The cigarette dangling from Ellie’s fingers had burned to ash. She tossed it onto the hard-packed red clay and ground it into powder under her heel.
“He worked hard for thirty years,” said Frances, turning her attention back to the row of vegetables. “His work fed and clothed you, Eleanor. That should count for something.”
It counted. But what also counted was her father’s implacable will. What he said was what must be done, and on his schedule. Never mind if her mother had just cleaned the house or fixed lunch or run one of his errands. If he wanted green beans for supper then someone must pick the beans. Not him, of course. He had a bum back and high blood pressure.
“He takes advantage of you.”
Ellie’s mother set the metal pail on the ground, wincing as she straightened. But Frances never used her bad hip as an excuse for anything.
“Your father and I have been married a long time.” Frances fixed her gaze on her daughter. “Not sure you understand what that means.”
“Oh, here we go. The divorced daughter speech. Yes, I know I couldn’t make the first one last beyond five years and then I waited forever to embark on marriage number two. So, okay, I’ve never been married to one person for a long time. Not yet, anyway. But I can still see things clearly, you know. I see how Dad treats you, and how it’s gotten worse over the years, ‘specially since he retired.”
Frances shoved her hat back away from her face. “Did you ever think he might be bored? Or feeling useless? He never got into any hobbies, you know. Couldn’t really, when he was working those crazy hours. Only thing he ever did outside of work was keep up the yard. So that’s what he’s got left. The yard. And me. And you kids, when you bother to talk to him.”
“We don’t have much to say to each other.” We never did, Ellie thought, with a spasm of regret.
“Doesn’t have to be much. Just talk. Tell him about your work or something.”
“He thinks my work is boring.”
“He said that?”
“No, but I see his eyes glaze over whenever I bring it up. Well, to be fair guess it is a little boring. Teaching ten-year-olds. Not the most scintillating occupation. Heck, I bore myself talking about it.”
“Then find something else to do.” Frances dumped another pail of beans into the bushel basket. “No use being bored when you’re young. You’ll suffer enough of that when you get old.”
“Not so easy.” Ellie pulled a few beans off the bushes and tossed them in her pail. “Changing jobs.”
“Easier than being unhappy.” Frances stood at the end of the row, wiping her face with a tissue. “Your dad, you know—or maybe you don’t, as he doesn’t talk about it—never wanted to be an electrician. He wanted to be an architect, like Steve. He saved money for college by working many different jobs. After school, summer, whatever he could get. Never had any fun, like most of his friends. Worked all the time. Finally, he had the money saved up, but the summer before he was go off to college his mother’s house burned down. She didn’t have any insurance. Not everybody did back then.”
Ellie straightened and turned to look at her mother. “So he used his money? To build her a house? The house you live in now?”
“Yes. The house you grew up in, Eleanor. The constant reminder,” added Frances, stepping into a new row, “of what he gave up. Of the dream he lost. But he lived here and he worked as an electrician because, after everything, that was what was best. Best for me, anyway. And best for his family. For your sisters. For you. I’m not sure you understand what that means, living all those years after losing your dream. You didn’t experience that, did you? You didn’t live with it, like your father and I did.”
As a grasshopper leapt from a bean bush to her bare knee and off again, Ellie realized her mother was right—she didn’t really know anything about her parents’ lives. She hadn’t understood as a child and she didn’t still. There was always the mystery of her mother and father and the secret world they inhabited. They’d moved within a bubble, together even when apart, always separated from her and her sisters by some transparent but impenetrable wall.
Ellie splayed her fingers gently across her stomach, feeling nothing changed but knowing everything was different. She wanted to call out to her mother and tell her, right then and there, about the baby. But Ellie wasn’t so young anymore, or so the doctors warned her. All those doctors—they’d consulted, concurred, and suggested amniocentesis as the best option. Not wanting to raise false hopes, she and Steve had agreed to wait. They wouldn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the tests. Ellie wasn’t entirely certain what they would do if the “after” wasn’t what they hoped. It was something she and Steve still needed to discuss. Whatever the outcome, this time, this waiting, would always be their secret.
Ellie studied her mother, bent over despite her trick hip, picking beans in the high summer heat, two rows away.
“Guess you’re right. Guess I don’t understand. Don’t suppose I can.”
Frances didn’t reply, but then, Ellie hadn’t spoken aloud. She leaned over her row of beans, curved about her own mystery, realizing the separateness, the disconnect between her own self and the part of her growing into her child. I’m sorry, she told the tiny mass of cells. Sorry there’s no way for you to truly know me. Or your father. Don’t worry though. Never worry. We’ll love each other anyway. It’s the best we can do, unaware as we are, separate as we’ll always be.
Human as we are.
Vicki L. Weavil is a writer living in North Carolina.