Idella and Edward rolled over the hot sand until Idella was dizzy with him, until her hair was gritty and hopeless. Laughing and flea-bitten, they rolled toward the water over broken bits of mussel shells and slimy blobs of seaweed. Sand was in her bathing suit and under her nails and between her toes. It clung all up and down her wet legs. The long fingers of a wave slapped over them. “Cold! Oh, God, it’s cold!” Idella screamed. She was as happy as she had ever been.
She squirmed out from under him and ran back to their blanket, splaying herself across it. He followed. “Oh, Eddie, how will I get cleaned up enough? What’ll I tell Mrs. Haskell? I’m all over sand. It’s in my ears even.”
He leaned over her and put the tip of his tongue in her ear. “Did you get sand under your suit?”
Idella leaned up on her elbows. “I’ve got to start the Haskells’ supper. I only have the afternoon off, not the whole day like you.”
“I took the whole day. I didn’t have it. I took it.” His mouth was on hers, his lips soft and open and warm. “Mmm,” he said. “I like eating sand like this.”
“We’d better stop.” She disentangled herself, then gathered up their towels and shook them out. Idella loved being with him. Even though he was a full six inches shorter, that didn’t matter. He was still handsome. With Eddie she felt like she was a desirable woman. After all, she was nearly twenty-two. And, well, they had gone pretty far in Eddie’s car—further than she’d ever dreamed of going by choice.
Idella folded her dress and stockings and rolled them into her towel. “The tide’s gone out. Let’s look for sand dollars on the way back. They’re good luck.”
She walked ahead of him, searching for signs of the flat white shells. “They like the tide pools. We used to find them up in Canada when we were kids and make believe they were real dollars. My sister Avis would use hers to play poker with Dad. I kept mine in a cigar box. Most dollars I ever had.”
“What happened to them?” Eddie was walking along behind her, watching as she searched the edges of tidal pools.
“Got thrown out probably.”
Eddie stopped and poked his toe at something white. He bent down and scraped the object clear. “Well, now, this isn’t a whole dollar.” He picked out broken bits. “I guess it’s spare change.”
Idella took the biggest piece from him. It had traces of a star pattern, as though etched by delicate needles. She smiled and closed her fingers around it. “You have to start somewhere. Found money. I’ll take what I can get.”
They walked until they came to the point of rocks that jutted out into the water. Mussels and periwinkles, exposed by the tide, were sharp to walk across. Strands of seaweed were slick underfoot. Eddie took her hand.
“Look at that man out there.” Idella pointed to the smooth, steady strokes of a swimmer along the shore. “I think that’s a marvel. Can you swim like that, Eddie?”
“I never learned to swim. Knight’s farm had a pond where the kids would all go, but my mother wouldn’t let me. Said I’d drown. Said it was full of cow dung and I’d get sick and die.”
“Couldn’t you just go anyway?”
Eddie laughed. “You don’t know my mother. She’d have come tearing down to that pond and I would have jumped in and hoped, by God, to drown.”
“Oh my, all right.”
“I can’t swim right, either. The water is too cold up in Canada. None of us girls was allowed to go in. Men’d go out fishing from the cliffs. And on Sundays we’d all climb down the ladder and have picnics on the little strip of beach. But it was rocks mostly.”
They had rounded the point to the bay side. Here the water was flat and calm. There were many more people. Mothers lined the scalloped edges, holding discarded plastic shovels, their eyes trained on their children.
“One time a couple of boys drowned down by the cliff shore. When I was seven. Mother was eight months along or so with my sister Emma. I remember clear as day seeing her run across that field. She lifted up her skirts, with that big belly, and ran to get to the ladder. Down over the edge she went, down to the beach to try to save those boys. But they were gone.” Idella and Eddie kept walking, angling between blankets and shoes with socks stuffed in them. “Who knew that she would be dead one month later? So healthy she was. Who knew? And me, just seven.”
Eddie stopped. Idella was startled by the abruptness. He turned her towards him. The sun was behind him, but she could still make out the lovely clear blue of his eyes, prettier than the water.
“I want you to come up to the house for supper this Saturday and meet Mother,” he said. “She’s been asking. You might as well meet her.”
“Do you think she’ll like me, Eddie?”
“No telling.” Eddie smiled and shrugged. “There is no telling with her, Idella. She don’t think right sometimes.”
This was not reassuring.
Eddie had come down Wyer’s Hill to meet Idella at the bus, thank God. She was nervous enough already.
“She’s been sitting there since lunch, watching and waiting.” Eddie helped Idella down and pointed at the house on top of the hill, where he lived with his parents. “It’s that big gray house, see. She’s on the porch. It’s screened in so you can’t see her, but she’s watching.”
“Goodness! She’s been watching since lunch? Here it is almost supper.”
“She’s been cleaning all week. Starched the curtains. Had them things stretched out on racks all over the house.”
“Oh, that’s a big job. Doing curtains.” Idella wondered if she should mention how nice the curtains looked to Mrs. Jensen. “You mean the sheers, Eddie? She did the sheers?”
“Hell, I don’t know what you call them. The curtains. She borrows them racks from Cora Belanger with the nails all over the edges. I cut myself on them every damn time, bringing them over for her. Look here.” Eddie showed her where he had been scratched as if by a cat’s claw across the base of his thumb.
Idella touched her fingers to her lips lightly and patted Eddie’s thumb. “There.”
Eddie smiled, took her arm, and started up the hill, Idella wobbling in her new shoes.
“Your mother doesn’t get out much? She’s not in any clubs or anything?”
“Hell, no. She sits on that porch is all. You’ll like my father, though, and he’ll like you.”
“You mean your mother won’t?”
“There’s no telling, Idella. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Oh. I see,” Idella said, not at all sure if she did. She felt like she was being led to market.
Eddie opened the front gate for her. It hung down off its hinges, dragging across the dirt when he pushed it. “There’s another damn thing I’m supposed to fix,” he muttered.
Idella could see Mrs. Jensen now, watching from the porch, from behind her glasses. She didn’t move or wave or anything. As they walked up the path to the house, Idella wished she could give herself one final check and run a comb through her hair.
Eddie opened the porch door, motioning for her to go in ahead of him. Mrs. Jensen was in the act of rising up out of her rocker. A lot of bulk was involved. She had a cane lodged between her two feet, and she leaned all her weight forward and over it. She finally stood, hoisted and hovering, above that little stick of wood.
She looks like a potato, Idella thought. And the nose on her looked like one of those knobs you find on the potato that sets out growing in its own direction altogether.
But she had gone to some trouble with her appearance. She had on a nice white blouse with a lace collar that was freshly starched, anyone could see that. And she had a large oval cameo brooch right at the center of her collar, with an ivory profile, a profile that clearly did not belong to her.
“Mother, this here is Idella. That I told you about. Brought her up here to meet you.” Eddie had his hat in his hand and was talking in a way that seemed formal to her.
“My, my, what a nice surprise.” Mrs. Jensen cocked her head and smiled. “Kind of tall, ain’t you?”
“Oh, just a little.” Idella regretted that little bit of heel on her new shoes.
“Eddie, take her right on into the parlor.”
Eddie led the way into the kitchen and through the dining room—the table was all set—and on into the parlor. Mrs. Jensen hobbled along from behind with her cane, making a slow clump, tap, clump, tap.
“Where’s Dad?” Eddie asked.
“He’s gone back down to the store. We need a new piece of meat.”
“We don’t need an old piece, Ma.” Eddie winked at Idella.
“You quit being fresh, Eddie. I sent him back down to Hebert’s. Too grizzly it was. I told him to take it back. I wouldn’t serve it to a dog. All over grizzly. I don’t know what kind of cow that piece could have come from, but it was not a clean animal. It was not any kind of quality animal.” Mrs. Jensen’s breath came in spurts. “They gyp you down there at Hebert’s. They’ll gyp you every time.” She stopped and leaned on her cane. Eddie and Idella stopped, too, and waited for her to resume motion. “He’ll be along any minute, then I’ll get things to cooking. He’s too trusting, Jens is. He’ll take whatever they give him and not see he’s getting gypped.”
“My, what a lovely room,” Idella said as they entered the parlor. “What lovely white curtains. So fresh and stiff.”
Mrs. Jensen, having reached the doorway to the parlor, smiled broadly. “Oh, well. Yes. Fresh curtains. They make a difference in a room.”
“I should say.” Idella smiled at Eddie.
“Now, Eddie, you help Idella get seated good there in the couch. You sit down and rest for a few minutes, Idella. Eddie has a few things to do out in the garden and with the chickens.” Eddie rolled his eyes. “Eddie, you come help me now.”
She turned and waddled back toward the kitchen.
“Eddie, what do I do?” Idella whispered as he started out behind his mother.
“Hold your horses while I pick the strawberries and feed the damn chickens.” He bent over and gave her a kiss. “Think about that while you wait.” He brushed his hand against her breast. “And this.” He already acted like he had a right to her breasts, and Idella didn’t mind. It seemed natural. And thrilling.
“Eddie! I need you!” Mrs. Jensen called from the kitchen. “Eddie!”
“Jesus!” he muttered.
Idella had been sitting alone in the parlor for an awfully long time. This room was so stuffy and stiff and unused-feeling. Mrs. Jensen must keep it special for when company comes, like a basket of fruit all wrapped in cellophane.
Every surface had a knickknack on it with a doily underneath. Idella was not fond of knickknacks. They were so useless—glass dogs and figurines sitting around on shelves, needing to be dusted all the time. What good were they?
This was a nice big old house, though, so much nicer than what she’d grown up in. Eddie had no earthly idea of how poor they were up there in Canada. Hardscrabble. Maine seemed so friendly and civilized compared to it. Lots of big old shade trees and lawns, and flowers in the gardens along with the vegetables.
Growing up, they’d just had wildflowers. No one planted fancy flowers. The wildflowers never lasted in the house. But she and Avis kept picking them anyway and sticking them into the canning jar they used as a vase. The flowers would wizen up even before the girls could sit down to supper. They were such wild things, they weren’t meant to be brought indoors.
That’s what the men were like, too, crude men who were not brought up right. Not the farmers who lived there and had families and such. They were nice enough men. It was the strays Dad hired, who showed up all of a sudden and left that way. They didn’t even belong in a house.
Eddie was more gentlemanly. He was fresh sometimes—but a fun kind of fresh, not scary. He had those blue, blue eyes and that dark, dark hair. Idella’s eyes and hair were brown as a plowed field. They were not her best features.
The front door opened and closed. Someone walked through the porch. “Jessie, here is your new piece of meat.” That must be Mr. Jensen. He had a soft voice with a foreign accent. Eddie had said his father was from Denmark.
“That’s too small! There won’t be enough! There won’t be half enough!” Mrs. Jensen’s voice came out in bursts. “Why so small? Where’s your head?”
“Now my dear, that meat is more than the one I returned. I paid for the five more ounces.”
“You paid too much!”
“Now, Jessie. Don’t go on so.”
Idella was amazed. No way would Dad have ever stood there and listened to the likes of Eddie’s mother telling him to go back down to the store and get a better piece of meat. My God, my God.
“That girl will be saying things. She’ll tell people I can’t cook a decent meal.”
Idella was glued to the couch, listening intently.
“It does you no good to upset yourself.” Then his voice got too low to hear the words. She could only make out murmurs and little squeals of response, like from a—well, like from a pig, really.
The back door banged and brought the voices to a halt, as though a radio had been turned off.
“Scrape your feet, Eddie. Don’t go walking that mud through my house.”
Eddie’s footsteps did not pause till he reached Idella. He was suddenly standing in the door frame. “How you holding up?”
“Getting sort of antsy.”
“Antsy, eh? Ants in your pants?” He smiled that smile of his that went from one ear to the other. “I brought you something.” He reached down and took her hand and placed a large red strawberry into it. “I picked you the prettiest one. Take a bite.”
“Oh, Eddie. It’s got the weight of a plum to it.” Idella held the dark red berry carefully by the stem and used her other hand like a saucer. She bent over and took a cautious bite. The sweet juice oozed and dribbled as soon as her teeth broke the fruit’s surface.
“Now I’ll have some.” Eddie leaned over her and took the strawberry into his mouth and bit it off. She was left holding the little green cap. A stir went through her when he got so close—his mouth, those blue eyes.
“Ripe one, ain’t it? And sweet.” He leaned over her, bent down lower, and kissed her. One thumb was under her chin, pushing her head up toward him. His mouth tasted of the berry juice. It was a slow, delicious kiss.
He pulled her up to standing. When he did, the last bit of stem and berry fell from her fingertips onto the couch. A dark red smudge was left, unmistakable.
“Oh, Eddie, look!” She tried to dab at it with the hem of her dress.
“Leave it,” Eddie said. “She’ll never even notice.”
She’ll see it all right, Idella thought, as Eddie led her into the kitchen. She’ll see it and she’ll smell it.
“Oh, here they are, here they are.” Mr. and Mrs. Jensen stood together beside the stove. “Jens, this is Eddie’s friend, Miss Hillock.”
“How do you do, Miss Hillock? So pleased to meet you.” Eddie’s father walked over to Idella and reached out his hand. He had a sweet, shy smile. He was tall and thin, with a cap on his head like working men wore, and trousers with suspenders. He had a dark moustache combed so nicely and light blue eyes. Even in his working clothes there was a bit of style to him. He seemed, somehow, a gentleman.
“Jens, take your hat off.” Mrs. Jensen had an apron tied around her waist. She was all smiles. “Now, Idella, can I make a glass of lemonade to refresh you?”
“Why, yes, thank you.”
Mrs. Jensen already had her hands on a glass juicer. “We got real nice lemons here. We got them special.” Her smile made her nose protrude even more. A bowl on the counter had four or five large yellow lemons. She set about slicing them in two. “Now where did a name like that come from? Not from around here.”
“It is an old-fashioned name, I guess.” Idella watched Mrs. Jensen cut three lemons down the middle and twist them over the cut glass juicer. “My father said it must have come from a book my mother was reading. She loved to read. He didn’t have much to do with the naming of us, is my understanding. I have heard of a few Idellas up in Canada. I saw one once on a grave in the little cemetery where my mother is buried.”
“You come from up in Canada?” Idella could see that large seeds were floating on top of the pooled yellow juice. The juicer was pretty full.
“Yes. New Brunswick.”
“Is your father still living?”
“Oh, yes. Very much so. He’s still on the farm.”
“But your mother passed on?”
“When I was seven.”
“Was it sudden?” Mrs. Jensen stopped squeezing.
“Yes. In childbirth.”
“It wasn’t you, was it?”
“That she was having. When she died?”
“No. I was seven.”
“It was my sister Emma. It was a great shock to all of us.”
“Oh my. Oh my. To think of it.” Mrs. Jensen shook her head in a distracted manner and poured every drop of the juice, three lemons’ worth by Idella’s count, into a tall glass. Then she took a spoon, with no sugar on it, and stood stirring and stirring, staring down into the glass as if in a trance. “Nothing worse than the death of a parent to a child,” she finally said. “Less it be the child dying and the poor parent left.” She looked up at Idella, so sad, and handed over the glass of straight-up juice.
Two large seeds floated to the top. Idella took a sip. Her eyes watered immediately. “Delicious.”
“My Albert!” Startled, Idella looked up. Mrs. Jensen was crying. Just like that. “I only had him for one month, Miss Hillock. One month.”
“Christ. Here we go,” Eddie muttered from behind them. He was leaning against the porch doorway.
“Now, Jessie.” Mr. Jensen walked over and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Little Albert! Belly button never did heal proper. He died from it.” Mrs. Jensen was all crumpled up on herself, sobbing. Mr. Jensen offered her a handkerchief. “It was nothing I did. Everyone said it was nothing I did.”
“Oh, I’m sure not, Mrs. Jensen.” Idella turned to Eddie. He would not look up.
The whole kitchen was filled with the sounds of Mrs. Jensen’s whimpers. Idella stood mute and watched the lemon seeds floating on her drink.
Finally Mrs. Jensen pulled away from Mr. Jensen and blew her nose. She took off her glasses, all fogged up from crying, and wiped them on her apron. When she put them back to rights she looked at Idella and smiled the most pathetic little smile. “Is your lemonade all right?”
Idella smiled brightly. “What a nice big kitchen!”
“It’s old. Too old.” As though stirred to action by the change of subject, Mrs. Jensen set about peeling potatoes in the sink. “Just look at that stove,” she said, pointing with a potato at the large black stove in the middle of the kitchen. “Burn myself on it getting them lids off. I can hardly lift them.”
“Yes, they look heavy.” Idella nodded.
“Will you look at how this kitchen floor sags? I’ve tried to get Jens to fix it. Said he would but didn’t. I’ve heard that before. It’s like walking down Wyer’s Hill to go from one side of the kitchen to the other. I’ll drop right over one of these days and roll.” She kept peeling and peeling.
“Well, people get so busy.” Idella nodded at Mr. Jensen.
“Oh, he’s busy all right. Always out there doing something. He gives more care to those cows and horses than he does to me. Tends them animals like as if they were babies.”
“You need me to pick something, Ma? For the supper? In the garden?” Eddie was restless.
“We’ll be needing peas. I was waiting to get Jens to pick them so they’ll be fresh off the vine and he took too long with the meat. Always takes twice as long to do something as I would if I could. You like strawberry shortcake, Idella?”
“Oh, yes. Very much.”
“It’s Eddie’s favorite. He eats and eats when it comes to my shortcake. I always make him an extra. Eddie’s extra. You love my shortcake, don’t you, Eddie?” Mrs. Jensen stopped carving the potato and looked at him over the top of her glasses.
“I’ll go pick the peas.” Eddie gave Idella a quick glance and started through the back room that led out to the garden.
“Take something to put them in!” Mrs. Jensen called after him. The screen door banged in reply.
“Eddie told me what a good cook you are, Mrs. Jensen. I look forward to your supper.” This was not exactly true. Eddie had told her that his mother’s cooking was spotty. What Idella looked forward to was the meal being over.
“I do try to lay out a nice meal for company.”
“I’d be glad to help you in some way.”
“I won’t hear of it. You are the guest. You cook for a living, my goodness sakes. You enjoy your lemonade. Oh! I have to start the biscuits! I’m behind on the biscuits! Jens! Now where’s my butter?”
In a waddling frenzy, Mrs. Jensen set about to make biscuits. She got out a large bread board and took a bowl from the cupboard and a sifter from below. Mr. Jensen placed the butter next to her and then stepped back out of her working area. The potatoes, Idella couldn’t help but notice, were left half done. Some were lying whole on the counter by the sink. Some, with the daylights peeled right out of them, were left sitting in a pot of water. They looked more whittled than peeled. For a flick of a second Idella’s eyes met Mr. Jensen’s. And in that flick she knew that they both had decided not to mention the word potatoes.
“You want you should meet Chocolate Milk, Miss Hillock?” Mr. Jensen spoke so softly. Like little songs his voice was. “My horse that helps deliver the milk?”
“Oh, she don’t want to go see no horse, Jens. She’s seen horses. Isn’t that right, Idella?”
“We had one on the farm, of course. For work in the field mostly, but he’d take us to town in the wagon. I’d like to meet Chocolate Milk. What a dear name.”
“Oh, well, the children. They named her that. Used to be her name was Brownie.”
“I named her that. Brownie. That was the name I give her. ’Cause she’s brown.” Mrs. Jensen was measuring flour and baking soda into her sifter.
“But the children, coming around the wagon when I deliver the milk, they changed it to Chocolate Milk.”
“Silly name for a horse,” Mrs. Jensen muttered. She was sifting flour onto the breadboard. “You love that horse more than me, the way you go on.” As she turned to Mr. Jensen, flour sifted all over the floor. “Oh, oh, oh, look what you made me do! I’ll have to start all over measuring or the biscuits won’t be right.”
Idella stood clutching her lemonade. After what seemed like forever, Eddie came in with a basket full of peas. Mrs. Jensen looked up and scowled. “Them need shelling.”
“I can shell those,” Idella piped up.
“Let’s go sit on the porch. I’ll do it.” Eddie carried the basket out of the kitchen and sat on one end of an old wicker couch. Idella followed him and sat on the other end.
“Take the pot,” Mrs. Jensen called. “For the peas.”
“You want me to pee in the pot, Ma?” Eddie smiled at Idella.
“Eddie!” Idella whispered. She was glad he was back.
“I’ll come too,” Mrs. Jensen called. “I could stand to sit a spell.”
Mr. Jensen took the pot in one hand and his wife’s arm in the other. He helped her onto the porch and over to her rocker. She hovered, then landed with a whoosh onto the dark green corduroy cushion. The chair lurched back with such a thwop when her weight hit it that Idella thought it might upend entirely.
“Are you comfortable, my dear?” Mr. Jensen asked as the rocking subsided.
“I’ll do.” Her legs were so short that only the toes of her black lace-up shoes touched the floor.
“Oh, a porch is so peaceful,” Idella said.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Jensen. “I sit here for a bit every day to rest my legs. Varicose veins, you know.” She looked at Idella.
“Oh, no. I didn’t know.”
“I got them something terrible. They throb. My legs are purple all up and down. I used to be skinny as a rail, like you. Not so tall of course. You got the height on you to stretch it all out. Short legs like mine, you get squashed come time to put on the weight. And the varicose. They are a trial. All swolled up my legs get. I shouldn’t have been on them so long today. But I had to make a special dinner.”
“I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble for me, Mrs. Jensen!”
“If I was younger, course, it would be no trouble. Not that it’s been trouble.”
Mr. Jensen sat down on a wicker chair next to his wife. “How’s that lemonade, Miss Hillock?”
“Oh, fine, thank you. Fine.” Idella smiled and took a sip. Her whole mouth puckered.
“We’ll just set out here on the porch a while and get acquainted while Eddie shells the peas.” Mrs. Jensen took up a fan from a nearby table. She opened it, slowly waving it back and forth.
They all sat in silence, looking out the porch windows. There was just the thud, thud, thud of peas dropping into the bottom of the pot. Mrs. Jensen’s fan kept whooshing. Idella held the tall, smooth glass tightly and took a few sips for show. Mrs. Jensen nodded whenever she did, and Idella held the glass up and smiled.
The fan stopped. “There goes Mrs. White.” Mrs. Jensen leaned forward in her chair. “That’s her there walking down the hill. She lives up the road. She’s got no one to take care of her. Poor thing. No children, see, to look after her. All alone.”
Mrs. White, a tall, skinny woman who looked to be in her sixties, was walking straight along the sidewalk, not looking to either side. She wore a little white sweater across her shoulders, the empty arms dangling to either side.
They watched until she disappeared down the swoop of Wyer’s Hill.
“Is she a widow woman?” Idella asked.
“He run off on her. With Clara Leroux—a French girl, you know—about fifteen or more years ago. Worked together down at the mill sorting stacks of paper. Usually it’s the women do the sorting, but he was on some kind of disability that kept him from the big machines they got down there. They run off down to Biddeford. And not long after she had herself a baby boy. Only ’bout four months after—five at the most.”
“I see,” Idella finally said. “That’s sad.”
“Mmmmmm. She got the house. Little green house. She still goes by the name Mrs. White. But there’s no more Mister.”
“Couldn’t have been too bad a disability he had,” Eddie stripped a pod of peas directly into his mouth.
“How about some ice in that lemonade?” Mr. Jensen asked her suddenly.
“I’ll get Idella ice.” Eddie shot up out of his chair. Finally, Idella thought, he was taking some notice. “I’ll cool it down for you.” He took her glass and went into the kitchen. They listened as he opened the icebox and got the ice pick from out of a drawer and started hacking. A dog barked across the street.
“Them Belangers should get rid of that dog. It barks like that half the day. I hear it at night, too—barking for no reason. It’s a nuisance.” Mrs. Jensen flicked her fan with quick little jerks. “That dog should be done away with.”
“Now, Jessie. It doesn’t really bother you. Those girls love it.”
“It does bother me, that dog barking all the time.”
Eddie came back in. “Here you go, Idella. That should be more refreshing.”
“Thank you, Eddie.” Idella took the glass, now cold from chips of ice and sipped. She glanced quickly at Eddie, who had resumed shelling peas. He smiled and nodded his head just enough for Idella to know she was right. He had also put in whiskey.
“Did the ice help cool it?” Mrs. Jensen was smiling at her.
“Oh, yes,” Idella said. “Very much.”
Mrs. Jensen leaned forward. “Is that the Belanger girl, out raking the grass over there? I can’t see proper from this distance. Is it Linda, the older one?”
“Linda, yes.” Mr. Jensen stretched his long legs out in front of him. He couldn’t be very comfortable on that little wicker chair, Idella thought.
“Well, she’s putting on some weight, I can tell you. Can you see how thick she’s got? You see it from here. Do you know the Belanger girls, Miss Hillock? They live in that yellow house there directly across.”
“No, I’ve never met them.”
“How would she know them, Ma?” Eddie reached down into his basket and took up another handful to shell. Idella longed to keep her hands busy shelling peas.
“Well, that oldest one is getting thick right through the middle. She was out there raking grass last week, too. And she was barefooted, with only a pair of shorts to cover her bare legs. The Axelson boys, they kept walking by one after the other, all four of them. They stopped and talked to her. More than one of them did.”
“People talk to each other, Ma. The Axelsons live next door. They have to walk by there to go anywheres.”
“Eddie, don’t get fresh.” Mrs. Jensen turned toward Idella. “Do you own a pair of shorts, Miss Hillock?”
“Well, no, I don’t. My legs have always been so skinny. Bird legs. Not that I would. They don’t suit me.”
Mrs. Jensen leaned back and resumed her slower fanning. “Eddie tells me you are in domestic service.”
“Well, yes. I’m a cook. I cook for this certain family, the Haskells.”
“Imagine having a separate person that you pay just to cook your meals. Do you cook fancy?”
“Oh, no. Just regular. Regular meals like anybody else.”
“You went to school for it?”
“I had some lessons is all. When I worked down in Boston, the two ladies I was working for sent me to cooking classes. It wasn’t fancy, more common sense really. But it taught me, oh, how to make a certain sauce for a certain cut of meat, say. Or how to roast a chicken or make biscuits. Common sense things mostly.”
“I never got schooled as a cook. I make things like my mother did.” Mrs. Jensen looked sternly at Idella over the rim of her glasses. “That’s been good enough for my family.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Plenty good enough. More than.” Idella, in her fluster, took a gulp from her glass. Dear God, the whiskey burned her throat.
“Well, I’d best get back to the kitchen and finish.” Mrs. Jensen closed her fan. “Take them peas out to the kitchen, Eddie. Help me up out of this chair, Jens. Nothing fancy, mind. I don’t know about sauces. Just pan-fried steak is all. Potatoes and peas.”
“Simple is best, I think,” Idella said. “Steak cooked in a good black pan. That’s the best.” Idella had noticed the pan.
Mrs. Jensen smiled. “You two sit out here for a bit. You enjoy your drink, Idella. I’ve got things to do. Jens, come help me. You like plain mashed potatoes, Idella?”
“I love any kind of potatoes. I’m happy with potatoes only!”
It took some doing to get Mrs. Jensen up and off the porch. Idella concentrated on admiring the row of violets that edged the inside of the fence on the front lawn. “So pretty,” she said out loud, as though she had been in the middle of a conversation.
“What’s that?” Edward returned without the peas and slid close to her as soon as his mother had waddled out.
“The violets. So pretty.”
“Not as pretty as you.” He touched her knee.
“You shouldn’t have put that in my drink,” Idella whispered. “What am I supposed to do with it now?”
“Drink up. That’s what I’d do.” His eyes were so blue coming right at you.
“Eddie, I can’t get tipsy.”
“You had a nip while you were out picking the strawberries, didn’t you?”
“What if I did?” He started slowly to crinkle up the dress on her leg.
“Eddie, you need to help me through this.”
“She won’t bite. She barks more than the dog across the street.” Eddie’s voice was right in her ear. His mouth was just an inch away. The warm puff of his breath sent tingles down her back.
She stood and walked over to the screen door. “Let’s go look at the violets. I love violets.”
Eddie followed her out onto the front lawn. Idella took a deep breath. “It was getting a little close in there.”
“I like it close.” He came up behind her.
“Show me the violets, Eddie.”
“Nothing to see. Just flowers.”
They walked across the lawn, newly mowed and sweet smelling, to the corner of the fence. Idella scooched down and ran her hands lightly across the cool, dark, heart-shaped leaves. “They are so lovely.”
Eddie reached down and pulled a violet out of the ground.
“Don’t pull out the root, Eddie.”
“There’s plenty.” He handed her the flower, its thread of white root trailing behind it.
“Your mother won’t want her flowers pulled up!” Idella plucked off the trailing root.
“You can’t tell what will set her off. Gets mad over nothing. Holds grudges. People walking by, she calls them over and starts in telling things. Gossip. She makes things up, see, about people, and then believes it. They say it’s the scarlet fever she had.”
“You mean the fever affected her mind?”
“Christ, I don’t know, that was before I was born.” He shrugged. “She used to try and hang herself, right in front of me and Helen.”
“She’d get a stool and put the rope around her neck and pull up on it and say she was going to string herself up from the light. Me and Helen were kids. Scared the hell out of us.”
“What made her do that?”
“Christ knows. Helen didn’t fold the clothes. I didn’t pick enough beans. Hens didn’t lay eggs. Anything. I’m getting the hell out.” He looked through the fence and down the hill they had walked up together.
“Where do you think you’ll be going?” Idella twirled the violet stem between her fingers.
“Maybe into Portland. I’d like to sell cars. Something with a chance to make me some money. I know I’m not staying at the American Can Company.”
“I’m glad you’re not going far away.”
“Now why is that?” He smiled.
“I’d like to see more of you.”
“You would, huh? Which part?” Eddie raised up his eyebrows.
“Eddie! I mean, you know, be with you more.”
“Uh huh. I know.” Eddie took hold of her hand, smothering the violet in his grasp, and pulled her toward him. “Come on over here to the other side of this elm tree and kiss me.”
“Eddie, stop. Not here on the front lawn! She’ll see.” Nervous, Idella held up her glass. “Eddie, what am I going to do with this lemonade?”
“It’s straight lemon juice. And the whiskey. It’ll make me sick.”
“Jesus, no sugar?” Eddie laughed. “I hate to waste a good swig.”
“I’m going to pour it out. I have to.” Idella let go of his hand. The plucked violet fell into the grass. She scooched down again and slowly poured the contents of her glass down into the ground. “I feel like I’m peeing in public,” she whispered, giggling.
She stood up. Eddie took her elbow and she gave him a quick kiss, relieved to be done with the drink. They turned back toward the house. Eddie’s mother was standing in the porch doorway. She was holding a second glass of lemonade and watching the two of them.
“I guess you won’t be wanting another,” she said directly to Idella and turned and walked back into the kitchen.
“Shit,” Eddie whispered. “Goddamn it.”
Idella and Edward stood mute in the dining room and stared across the table at each other, guilty as children about to get strapped, openly listening to the conversation going on in the kitchen.
“She’s uppity, that Hillock girl. Poured the lemonade all over the violets. The juice of three lemons. Not good enough, I suppose. Not good enough for her.”
“She’ll be laughing at me. Making fun of me at that rich woman’s house where she works. And the steak all over grizzle. I can’t make my biscuits now. She’s been to school. She studied biscuits.”
“Now, Jessie, you make the meal you planned. We’ll all enjoy it.”
Idella didn’t know what to do. She looked down at the table. The forks were wrong. She couldn’t help but notice, after all her time in service. It was her training. She saw the dessert forks were switched with those for main course.
“Should we sit?” She looked over at Edward, who was now staring out the dining room window.
“Sit if you want to.” Idella didn’t know if he was angry at her or at his mother.
From the kitchen, Mr. Jensen’s voice was like a radio playing music low. The clamor and scrape of pans on the iron stove indicated some activity now. There was a sudden loud sizzle when the meat hit the pan. Idella knew by the sound that the pan was too hot. Way too hot.
She felt ill. All that lemon juice was seizing up down there and puckering her insides, the way it did her mouth when she first drank it.
Mr. Jensen stood in the doorway. “Sit, Miss Hillock. Sit. Soon we will be eating.” He placed a bowl of peas and a dish of pickle relish onto the middle of the table.
There was visible smoke now, coming from the kitchen. And Mrs. Jensen was calling Mr. Jensen to help turn something over. The meat must be glued to that pan.
Eddie had already set himself down across from her. He was silent, not even looking at Idella, sunk in on himself. Idella reached across the table to pat his hand. “Eddie,” she whispered, “it’ll be over by midnight.”
Eddie smiled. It was slow coming across his face, but it finally came. “Maybe it’ll just be starting,” he said.
“I mean the meal, Eddie. It’ll have to be over by then.” She giggled. “I need to be back to the Haskells by then.”
“I was thinking of dessert,” he said, reaching to squeeze her outstretched hand.
“Shortcake?” she asked, smiling.
“Mmm,” he said. “With cream.”
“The potatoes! I forgot the potatoes!” A wail came from out of the kitchen. “Oh, there’s no time for them now. No time. Everything is ruined!”
Mr. Jensen came in, carrying a platter with the steaks laid out across it. They looked as dry as last year’s cow patties, Idella thought. There was no juice whatsoever under, over, or between them—just dry plate.
Mrs. Jensen came in at the very last, more composed than Idella expected, and took her seat at the head of the table. She carried a basket covered with a linen cloth and placed it on the table right up against her own plate, like she was protecting it. That must be the biscuits.
Idella praised each dish extravagantly as it was passed to her. When her plate was fully loaded, she set about to cut a piece of steak. It was challenging. Pan-fried, Idella thought—it’s more like tanned leather. She took a small bite. A bit of gristle would have added some sweetness. “Oh, this steak is so satisfying.”
“I’m sorry about the potatoes, Idella. New little potatoes they were. So good right out of the ground.”
“These things happen,” Idella assured her. “We have so much good food here already.”
“With fresh butter and pepper. That’s how we were going to have them. Butter made right here. Jens whipped it up for them potatoes.”
“Ma, I think we should stop talking about potatoes, seeing as we won’t be getting any.”
“Don’t be rude to me, Edward.”
“Why sit there and talk about what we aren’t going to have?”
“Don’t you go blaming me. I tried. But it’s too much to do everything all by myself. It is too much!”
Mr. Jensen raised his hand up. “Eddie, Jessie, please. It don’t matter about the potatoes.”
“No,” Idella said. “No. We have no real need of potatoes.”
“If I had more help around here instead of doing it all myself, I’d have had time to remember the potatoes.” Mrs. Jensen was on the point of tears again. Those damned potatoes. By now Idella was ready to eat them raw.
“Tell me now, Miss Hillock, have you been in this country for long?” Mr. Jensen steered to a new topic.
“Just over four years now. But it was just, you know, just Canada. Not far. Not like coming to a foreign country.”
Jens smiled. “Yes, I know what that is like. When I came over, all of my papers for work were in Danish. You know—letters that people wrote about me as a worker. No one here knew what was in them. They could have said I was a lazy good-for-nothing and no one would know any better.”
“I’m sure they didn’t say that.” Idella liked him so much. It was calming just to look over at him. His eyes spoke right to you.
“Well, I should hope not,” Jessie chimed in. “I hope they said something better than that.”
“Of course they did, Jessie dear. I could read them.”
“Oh, yes, a course. I forgot.” She actually smiled. “I forgot that Jens can read the Danish.”
“What sort of work did you do in Denmark, Mr. Jensen?”
“Well, we had the farm, sure, we all worked the farm. But I also worked in a clothing store for men in Copenhagen. I enjoyed seeing the different people, and helping them. It was a change from the loneliness of the fields.”
“Oh, yes, I know what you mean. Dad talks about how lonely it gets being out in the field all day. Course he likes it, too. Nobody to bother him. That would be the other side to it. Nobody to tell him what to do.”
“Well, I tell Jens what to do.” Jessie was smiling. “I tell him what needs doing and when. Don’t I, Jens?”
“Well, nobody’s going to tell me what to do.” Eddie leaned forward now. “I’m going to rule my own roost some day. And there won’t be any damn chickens in it, I can tell you that.” He laughed at his own joke.
“You’ll need eggs, Eddie,” Mrs. Jensen said. “You can’t have eggs without the chickens to lay them.”
“I know that, Ma. I know all about chickens laying.”
“Why, Edward.” Mrs. Jensen’s face flushed red.
“I can go get me some eggs down at Hebert’s. I can let somebody else’s chickens lay my eggs.”
“This is no conversation for the supper table, Edward. Really. More peas, Miss Hillock?”
“Please!” Idella held her plate under the heaping bowl, to catch the peas.
There was too much food. Mrs. Jensen was fueled to animation by Idella’s ornate compliments. She blushed with pleasure at praise of her peas and gurgled happily when Idella asked for more of that homemade pickle relish, though she didn’t really think it went with the meal. The more Idella managed to eat, the chattier and happier Mrs. Jensen became.
“Look, Idella! It’s that Belanger girl!” Mrs. Jensen was pointing. “See, look out the window there. Pull back the curtain, Eddie, so Idella can see. There she is sitting under that tree over there on the lawn. See her? Right out there for all the world to see.” Mrs. Jensen lowered her voice. “She is in the family way. I know it. Looks high up in her, too. Could be turned wrong. They get that shape when the baby’s turned wrong. That’s what happened to Helen with her first one. Breech they call it. Almost killed her.”
“Ma, let’s not talk about this now.”
“That doctor had to cut her right down through to get that baby out. To half an inch it was from her rectum. Half an inch I swear is all. I saw it. I saw.”
Edward was pale. “Ma, please.”
“My dear, maybe we shouldn’t bother Idella with these things.” Mr. Jensen put his hand over his wife’s. She batted him away.
“I have never seen a baby come out so hard. All turned around he was. Facing the wrong way. Cord around his neck. It was wrapped right around it thick as a rope. A thick rope. It’s a wonder she didn’t burst right open. I thought honest to God it was going to happen and we’d lose her and the baby. Half an inch to her rectum. No more than that.”
“My babies come out pretty easy compared to that.” Mrs. Jensen smiled and nodded toward Edward. “Eddie got the Schouler legs like me. Helen, too. Now Helen is my own daughter, and I love her, of course, but I knew when she was born, from the day she was born, that she would not be smart. Or pretty. She’s a good girl, but those two gifts are not hers.”
“Well, I haven’t met her yet. Eddie’s told me about her situation.”
“Oh, yes. Terrible. Left alone with four children to raise. Husband killed at the mill on Thanksgiving. Terrible shock. They had him working in an ice storm, you know. His own father sent him out that night. His own father.”
“I can’t even imagine,” Idella whispered.
“Now, my Albert was smart. I like to think that he became a doctor. You can tell right away with babies. Albert was smart.” She smiled at Idella. “Any more steak? I’ve saved you a nice second cut.”
“Oh, no, thank you, Mrs. Jensen. I’ll burst. It’s all so good. So delicious. I’m saving some room for the shortcake. I’m so looking forward to that. Why don’t you have that extra piece yourself?”
“Yes, my dear,” Mr. Jensen said. “You take that last piece.”
Mrs. Jensen shook her head. “You know I always seem to make that little bit of extra. Like for another person. Enough for one more. It’s Albert’s portion, I tell myself. That extra portion would have been for my Albert.”
“I’ll take it, Ma,” Eddie said, handing his plate toward his mother.
“Albert would be twenty-seven years old now. Imagine. Probably tall like Jens.”
“Ma, I’ll take that last piece.” Eddie reached across the table and forked the last steak. He was red in the face.
“Well, what about me?” He was shouting. “Did you decide about me? Did you have me down for feeding the chickens on the day I was born? Pulling the goddamned weeds from your garden?”
“Edward!” Mrs. Jensen gasped.
“I’ve heard all I’m ever going to hear about Albert! He was a goddamned baby is all!” Edward rose up out of his chair and pounded his fist on the table. “A goddamned baby! He wasn’t anything. He died before he lived. ‘If Albert had lived. If Albert had lived.’ I’m here, goddamn it. I lived. You’re crazy, do you know that? You are a crazy woman and if Albert had lived he would have hated you too, just like I do. A goddamned crazy woman.” The silver trembled against the plates. “And Helen isn’t pretty! I’ve heard that enough. And she’s not smart. But she got out of this house. Away from your watching, watching, always watching. Always saying a mean thing. Crazy old lady sitting on the porch all day, watching.”
He grabbed his dinner plate and clutched it, shaking. Idella thought it might break down the middle, he was holding it so tight. Peas rolled off onto the floor. Their soft tumbling was all that could be heard. No one moved. Then Edward threw the plate across the table towards his mother. “Here! Give this to Albert. Give him my supper!” It landed with a thump in front of her, knocking over her glass. Water pooled and spread, a darkening puddle in the white linen.
He stormed from the dining room, sending a last tremor through the dishes on the table, and went out the back of the house. The screen door screeched open and slammed shut. Idella sat, stunned, staring at her plate. There was a crack in it, a faint crack like a vein that linked the dried bits of meat, then disappeared under the peas and ran off the side, right up to the gold rim.
“Well,” Mrs. Jensen finally said, her voice gone all funny. “Well. Well.”
Mr. Jensen righted the spilled glass and sopped the water with his napkin. He took Eddie’s plate, bent down, and gathered up peas from the floor. Nothing was said. He worked gently and quietly. His long arms reached carefully across and in front of Mrs. Jensen, scraping up food.
She seemed not even to see him. The cameo brooch was heaving up and down on her blouse, as if it too was gasping for air. She moved her head back and forth and began making whimpering sounds. She pursed and unpursed her lips, as though wanting to speak.
Idella felt so heavy—her head, her arms, her chest, all so heavy. She couldn’t move. She dared not speak. She only lifted her eyes in thanks when Mr. Jensen removed the plate from in front of her.
“The shortcake. My biscuits.” Mrs. Jensen simpered. The starch was all gone out of her. She peered up at Idella, so sad looking. Her thick glasses reflected the glare of the overhead light. “Do you want shortcake, Miss Hillock? Strawberry shortcake?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Jensen,” Idella answered. She stood and pushed her chair in. “I’d best go find Eddie. I think he went out back.”
She stepped carefully out of the dining room, past the slumped, chittering figure of Eddie’s mother. Mr. Jensen was cooing her to calmness like a mourning dove, gently stroking her hand.
Idella walked through the kitchen. Such a nice big kitchen, she thought. She saw the iron skillet askew on the eye of the stove. Dried clumps and shreds of burned meat clung to it in thick patches. Its surface needs priming, Idella thought. A black iron pan is no use for frying if you don’t take good care of it.
The back room was taking on the evening’s coolness. Its darkness was soothing. Idella walked on through it, past the jars of preserved jams. I wonder what those are like, she thought. Sour, probably. Or runny. Poor old soul. She noted the nice stacked shelves along the walls, some lined with empty canning jars. This back room does make a nice summer kitchen. She reached the screen door and swung it open. The raspy, hawing sound of the rusty hinge filled the air like an old crow’s call. She stood for a moment, holding the door open, looking out over the garden and field. Chickens quietly clucked in the little henhouse, their gentle pips of noise adding to the sense of quiet. A firefly blinked. Another, farther out.
And there was Eddie, over by the strawberry patch, scooched down on his haunches. He, too, was looking out at the field—a soft gray figure silhouetted in the dimming light, fuzzy around the edges as though sitting in a private fog. Mist rose up from the long field grasses and sat like puffs of smoke in the lower dips and hollows. Idella slipped gratefully out of her new shoes—she wasn’t used to wearing that much heel—and stepped down onto the cool dark grass. She walked toward Eddie, choosing to let go the screen door so it screeched and banged shut behind her. Not for the last time, she thought, as she padded toward him, smiling. Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang shut.