A battered checked cloth covered the kitchen table. Running his finger over the cracks in the vinyl, he could see through to the dirty bottom layer of cloth. On every fifth white check there was a red apple. Across and down. Across and down.
He liked that old worn cloth — so plain, so familiar. It reminded him how often he had sat in that kitchen, and it gave him the sense of belonging there. He pressed his fingertips on the apples, trying to steal from the tablecloth its comfort, its ease.
His gaze shifted from the apples on the oilcloth to the apples in the green bowl. His mother had owned one of those bowls too, and now it was shoved forlornly in the back of his hall closet. It was probably worth something now that everyone wanted the old stuff again.
He began uncertainly. “Uhh, Mrs. Tenant…”
She snorted. “All business today, eh Jackie?”
“Mary,” he said softly. His eyes pleaded an apology that he couldn’t say, but she wouldn’t look up. Her paring knife scraped away the shiny red apple skins while Rufus snored gently in his rocker by the stove.
She peeled the apple with a smooth turning motion of her wrist and the skin dropped to the table in one long perfect spiral. “You’re good!” he smiled, genuinely appreciative of her skill and also trying to ease the tension between them.
She didn’t look up.
There are only two more apples, he thought. A break in her rhythm will force her to talk to me.
He watched her peel the last apple and put it on top — round, white, glistening apples — shivering without their beautiful red skins, the ones on the bottom already turning brown from their loss.
She viciously stabbed the top apple with her peeling knife, a startling uncharacteristic movement that surprised him. “Some folks are good at peelin’ apples and other folks are good at eatin’ them. Would you like to learn how to peel them for once?”
He cringed at the sting in her voice — and then he knew that he would calmly take all her anger. It would also free him from his guilt and eventually, maybe, they would be able to be friends again. “You’re right,” he admitted. “I never could peel apples; I’m left-handed.”
She acted as if he hadn’t spoken. “They want us to move to those things; what are they? Those towers. Have a nice little apartment with a yellow kitchen and a green flowered davenport. I’ve seen ’em. My sister Louise lives in one.” She paused. “What would I do with my chickens?”
His memory flashed to her old chicken coop. “How many do you have now?”
“Ten,” she grunted. “Ten measly, scrawny hens — only lay a couple of eggs a day.”
She’d always had a flock of at least forty. He used to go over after school and help her wipe off the eggs and box them up. He’d always get a dozen to take home and fifty cents or so for his pocket.
“How many floors in that place?” she demanded.
“One for each of my chickens,” she mused. “Huh! They’d probably put us on the top floor. Have to take an elevator home. Sounds grand, don’t it?”
He was silent.
“I hate elevators!” she burst out. “Always made my stomach…” Suddenly she paused in the middle of her words. “Rufe here,” she said softly, “he wouldn’t know what hit ’em.”
They both looked at Rufus asleep in his chair, his hands empty in his lap, head tilted back, mouth open, and some spittle drooling out one side. His white hair was still thick, and he looked handsome when he was awake, but his twinkling blue eyes had recently clouded over with cataracts and what the doctors said might be Alzheimer’s. “No, that’s not true.” She changed her mind. “He would ask me five, ten, twenty times a day where we were and when we were going home. I don’t know if I could stand it.”
While she had been talking, he had felt close to her, but now the silence settled thickly into the cracks of the oilcloth. Wearily she stood up to put more wood in the stove. It was a cool April day and the fire in the ancient Home Comfort felt good. A few years ago he had tried to get them to sell it and get a good gas range. You won’t be able to split firewood forever, he had told them.
As she sat back down, she absently wiped her hands on her apron and studied him. His fingers drummed nervously on the table and played with the cracks in the cloth. He probably wanted a cigarette, and she wondered that he hadn’t asked her for the ashtray. She kept one up in the cupboard just for his visits, though she had seen less and less of him in the last years since he had graduated from law school and set up a practice in the next town over.
He had changed over the years, sure, but she had never thought he would be this much of a stranger to her. She had done a lot of mothering for him after Bea had died. Why she couldn’t even remember all the times they’d spent in this kitchen, talking or not talking — it didn’t seem to matter. They had needed one another. She the childless mother, he the motherless child. And here he comes calling me Mrs. Tenant! What was wrong with him anyway?
She stared at his face… “How come you called me Mrs. Tenant?” she demanded. The bitterness she felt made her suddenly want to feel the sweet juice of an apple on her tongue, and she slowly quartered one and brought it to her mouth.
He shrugged self-consciously. Was this the time to talk to her, or was her anger spent? Through his muddled angst, he did know that she had to be thoroughly done with anger before he could explain anything. If she wasn’t, she wouldn’t listen, and it would all be for nothing. And she would still consider him her enemy. He decided to wait.
“I’m sorry,” he began and then helplessly looked around the kitchen for another familiar object. “I haven’t been here for so long, and I knew you were mad at me…” His voice trailed off. He wanted a cigarette, even though he had technically quit over six months ago. Or a shot of whiskey. She always used to keep a bottle around… “Do you have any whiskey in your cupboard?”
She nodded and pointed with her knife at the old built-in cupboard next to the sink.
“You want one?” he asked as he got down the half-empty bottle of Kessler’s.
“I only drink with friends.”
He’d never seen her drink any. Rufe either. For awhile he’d thought she kept it there just for him, but he knew it wasn’t the same bottle. He poured a glass half full and put the bottle away. Holding the glass in his hand, he stared out the kitchen window across the neat yard and down the rutted driveway to the main road. He watched a shiny white pickup drive too fast down the road and disappear around the curve.
“You!” she shouted at him. “Weren’t we friends? Weren’t we good friends? What are you doing?” Not giving him time to answer, her words ran on. “At those meetings… you were on our side. Paulie told me so. She said you were doing it for free. She was so proud of you — she went on and on about it. Some nonsense about ideals and law school.” She stopped for a breath and went on more quietly. “You know what I told her? I said, ‘Paulie, there’s right and there’s wrong and Jackie’s doin’ what’s right and there’s nothin’ high falutin’ about it’.”
For the first time since he’d been in Mary’s kitchen that day, he relaxed and grinned. He imagined that conversation between two women he had loved at such different times in his life, and it delighted him to think he could hear every word in his own mind.
She stared at him, not without dislike and anger, but tempered now with the realization that he would soon have to defend himself. “So tell me, how am I wrong?” she asked softly. “I don’t want to be wrong about you.”
He took a deep breath. “I don’t want you to have to move, Mary. God knows I can’t stand thinking about it. This was my second home; you know that.”
Oh God, please don’t let her cry. I haven’t even gotten started yet… He almost panicked and quickly gulped down a shot to give him a second to gather his thoughts. “There’s a law, ” he began, “called Eminent Domain — you know we talked about it at the meetings.”
As he looked at her passive face he knew suddenly that she was beaten — too old and too tired to fight any more — and he hated it. Even worse, he was encouraging her to give up the fight; he disgusted himself. He threw down another shot of whiskey and started speaking to the apples on the tablecloth. “Well, sometimes when a community bands together and raises enough fuss and stalls and gets court injunctions and a lot of press; well, sometimes the officials decide it isn’t worth the hassle and back off. Maybe they forget the project, maybe they put it off for a few years until the furor dies down, or maybe they reroute it. There’s lots of options for them. A few years ago something like that happened up in Elmer Springs.”
While he had been talking, she had been calmly coring and quartering the apples, not looking at him, but obviously listening. When he stopped, she silently handed him a few apple pieces. It was a peace offering, he knew.
“It doesn’t look good,” he continued. “The road is bad; they have the statistics. A lot of it goes through state game lands. Some hunters were mad at first — you remember Walter Johnson at that first meeting? Well the state guys at the Dept. of Environmental Resources have promised to develop a couple of other game preserves on land that’s been owned for a long time. You know over around Pines Corners — the unemployment people are all excited about that because they can bring in a new training program in forestry and wildlife management for the long-term unemployed; and also there will be construction jobs for a couple of buildings, altogether about sixty new jobs, and that doesn’t even count the people that Donleavy’s will be hiring to build the new road.”
He looked up at her and shook his head. She had put down her knife and was now watching him intently. “There are only about five or six people who really stand to lose from this project, and from the state’s viewpoint, that’s pretty good.”
“But there were so many people at all those meetings,” she began and then faltered.
“They’re mostly being taken care of. Most people were glad to sell their five or so acres for more than the going rate. Mostly it’s just fields that were bought up. There’s only a few buildings in the way. There’s you and Rufe. There’s the Shorts’ and their store, and Reenie and Joe Price. There’s Lester and Doreen Watson down nearer to Hatterstown. It’s their gas station, and even they are starting to negotiate.
“We haven’t had a meeting for several weeks,” he added. “If we called one tomorrow, I bet only a third of all those people would show up. And lots of them are only involved peripherally, like Paulie and the Dennys and the Andersons. They live on the road, but it doesn’t affect their land. To the officials, they don’t even count.”
She got up stiffly, went to the old desk and took out the official letter he had written them a week ago. She read it again, in front of him and crumpled it up in her fist.
“It took me hours to write that letter, Mary,” he said quietly. “Do you see the tear stains on it?”
“I see mine,” then she paused. “And yours.”
He swallowed the rest of his whiskey and shut his eyes.
In the corner by the stove, Rufe’s head jerked forward suddenly and his eyes opened. “Mary?” he called.
“I’m here, Rufe,” she said as she walked slowly over and bent to touch his hand.
Disclaimer: Sometimes the unexpected is just what we need. Or not. There’s not much write-worthy going on at the cottage, so, dear readers, you got a story today. It was written a long time ago, tidied up a bit, and here it is — either a story or chapter one — whatever turns out. The wonderful painting of the bowl of apples was used with the permission of Marilyn Timms, a Canadian artist. Go visit her site and enjoy her beautiful artwork.
The second print is one from my collection of Bob Ernst prints and paintings. He was a landscape artist who painted Northwestern Pennsylvania landscapes, barns, and buildings. This one is an old store that used to be at Petit’s Corners in Crawford County. Bob is gone now, and I couldn’t find any trace of him on the internet, so I don’t think anyone will mind that I used it here.
And if you don’t like the fiction, don’t worry, regular Apple Hill Cottage posts will be back next week.