For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Michael challenged me with “‘We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other.’ –Ernest Hemingway” and I challenged Kit with “A potter at her wheel; a photographer behind his camera.”
Millie sat on the back porch unzipping pods and thumbing the peas inside into the metal pot she held between her feet. She smiled: The peas made a satisfying thunk in the bottom of the pot.
“Afternoon, Miss Millie.” Etta Mae stood on her own porch, a wicker basket of laundry held against her hip. “Hot enough for you?”
Miss Millie nodded. “I got some lemonade in the icebox, if you want to set a spell.”
Millie laughed. “Naw.” She liked shelling peas; liked measuring the progress of her afternoon by the speed at which she could cover the bottom of the pot. She liked watching the peas climbing up the sides; predicting how full the pot would be when the empty shells lay in the colander at her side. “I’m freezing them tomorrow. Do you want me to save you a quart?”
Etta Mae smiled. “That’ll be fine, Miss Millie.”
Millie nodded. She envisioned the peas, tucked carefully into the deep freeze. ‘Course she would set some by for tonight’s dinner. Earle loved peas swimming in butter and salt; a bit of ham on the side; a couple of biscuits, if it wasn’t too hot to bake.
“Just look at these shirts, Miss Millie.”
Millie looked up. “What’d Junior do, roll around in the dirt?”
Etta Mae shook her head; reached into the pocket of her apron and stood on her tiptoes to peg a clothespin over the shoulder of one of her husband’s tee shirts. “I swear, Junior’s no better than a little boy.” She sighed and hung up the last shirt. “I believe I’d like that lemonade now if you don’t mind, Miss Millie.”
Millie nodded. “Come on over. You know the way.” She went into the kitchen and poured two tall glasses of lemonade; pressing one against her forehead to take away the heat, if only for a moment.
“Here you go, Etta Mae.” Millie set the glasses on the porch and resumed her shelling. Etta Mae, as Millie had predicted, absently grabbed a handful of peas and set to work.
“Junior’s driving me crazy, Miss Millie. Been driving me crazy for near forty years now. Went and got his salary docked on account of another fishing trip.”
Millie laughed, exposing chipped and broken teeth. “That’s men’s jobs, ain’t it? To drive their wives crazy? Least, that’s where they pick up after the kids have gone off. Soon’s I got the last one to college, Earle started acting all child-like.”
Etta Mae nodded. “When do you get completely used to a man’s presence in your life?”
“Never.” Millie hooted and scratched at a scab upon her knee. “You spend all your time cleanin’ up after ‘em; sweeping up after ‘em; running away from ‘em when they’s feelin’ frisky.”
“Miss Millie,” Etta Mae whispered. “Did you ever wonder why you got married in the first place?”
Millie nodded. “Least once a day, Etta Mae.”
* * *
Three weeks later to the day, Miss Millie and Etta Mae both lost their husbands. Earle was out plowing the fields across the street when he was surprised by a heart attack. Everyone was astonished: Earle had always been the model of health. Junior had waded too deep into the pond to go after the trout he swore lived smack-dab in the center of the pond. Junior never was much of a swimmer.
In order to save the Ladies of the First Baptist Church an extra day of cooking, to save the pastor an extra day of preaching; to save the choir another day of singing in the heat of the summer, Miss Millie and Etta Mae decided to have a joint funeral. It was nice, they realized, to have someone else to depend upon in this time of decision-making, paper signing…in this time of absence.
Eventually, the houses of the mourners emptied: sons and daughters gathered up the grandchildren and returned home; the Ladies of the First Baptist Church cycled through each of their twenty-seven members and quietly ended their visits. Silence settled all around them.
And despite their constant complaints about their husbands, each found they missed having another person in the house: a person to feed; to lecture; to scoot out of the way of the silverware drawer so a set of dry spoons could be put inside. Who would Miss Millie shell peas for, now that Earle had been tucked into the ground? Whose collars would Etta Mae scrub, if not Junior’s?
“Etta Mae,” Miss Millie said, taking a sip of her lemonade, in the middle of August. “I believe the funeral went quite well, don’t you think?”
“Very well, Miss Millie.” But then, having spoken of their troubles with their husbands for so many years, Miss Millie and Etta Mae fell into a silence.
Miss Millie scratched at her elbow. “Etta Mae,” she ventured. “What do you say we combine households? We can rent out one house and share the other?”
Etta Mae nodded; looked out over the horizon as if she could picture it out there somewhere. “I think that’s a fine idea, Miss Millie. We’ll live in my house, of course. It’s got a bit more room.”
“But my house has been…” Miss Millie searched for the words that wouldn’t offend. “…updated.”
Etta Mae waved her hand at this comment. “Too modern. Besides yours will rent easier. We’ll get more cash.”
Millie nodded. Etta Mae had a point.
* * *
“Miss Millie, I am tired of eating peas,” Etta Mae said, that December, as one year closed and another prepared to open. “You put too much salt in them. And the butter? Oh, my Lord, woman, ain’t you never heard a’ cholesterol?”
“Earle liked my peas just fine.”
Etta Mae raised her eyebrows. “Probably sent him to a early grave with them peas.”
Miss Millie stood; tossed the bowl of peas at Etta Mae. “At least I didn’t send my husband to his eternal rest with ring around the collar!”
Etta Mae glared. “I did no such thing!”
“You just jealous, that’s all. Me and Junior had something special.”
“I ain’t jealous of your dirty laundry. Woman, you can’t even fold the towels proper. I swear if you was a man, you’d leave the toilet seat up.”
“Get out of my house,” Etta Mae shouted and pointed.
Millie stormed out of the house and headed next door. There were lights in the house; welcoming lights. They were the lights of the tenant. She headed back. Knocked on Etta Mae’s door.
Etta Mae opened the door. “You all don’t have to knock, Miss Millie, you live here now.”
Millie nodded. “I guess we’ll just have to make the best of this-here arrangement.”
“I miss Junior,” Etta Mae said, dabbing her eyes on her sleeve.
“I miss Earle, too.”
The two looked at each other through tear-filled eyes and laughed.
“What do you suppose we do now, Miss Millie?”
Miss Millie cleared her throat. “We must live it, now, a day at a time and be very careful not to hurt each other.”
Etta Mae nodded. “Hemmingway.”