by Kathleen Thompson
In Watonga, Oklahoma, the men have oil and cattle money in the bank, mud on their shoes, and thirty-thousand dollar pickups in their driveways. But they are Oklahomans, not Texans. They are quiet, smiling men. At haying time, they will sit up in a field all night waiting for the dew. Later they will share a large table at the truck stop near the highway and talk together for hours over sausage and ham and cigarettes and thick mugs of coffee. They will argue about whether to burn off a field after harvest.
These men have wives who live in houses that are much bigger than the ones they cleaned and cooked in when they were first married and had children running around to fill up the rooms. They have help that comes in once a week to give a hand with the heavy work and a great deal of time to spend every day in a town that does not offer them many ways to spend it.
There is only one restaurant in Watonga, besides the truck stop and the two fast food places out on the highway, and it is open only for lunch. This one restaurant is tucked into the corner of a modern hardware store, where the screws and nails are packaged in plastic bubbles on cardboard. The woman who runs the restaurant is Patsy, the hardware man’s wife. At Patsy’s, you can get a half sandwich and a cup of soup so that you’ll have plenty of room for her pie. When you want to go to dinner, you drive to Guthrie, a half an hour away.
On a day in late summer, three friends were sitting around a table at Patsy’s Country Kitchen. Liddy and Gail were well dressed in “nice” clothes that had been fashionable only a year or two before. Peggy was a little more casual and a little more up-to-date. She and her family had moved from Watonga to Oklahoma City a year before, and she didn’t get back to see her old friends very often. Her children were younger and her days were fuller.
The three women ordered, and their waitress, Bobby, arrived with a tray. Bobby was in her twenties, with a pleasant face and a nice figure. She had once dated Liddy’s son, but everyone knew they wouldn’t get serious.
“Look at that pie,” said Peggy, as Bobby put a piece of chocolate cream in front of her.
“You tell Patsy she’s got to stop making such good pie,” said Gail. “She’s ruining my diet.”
Bobby said what she always said. “I’ve gained ten pounds since I started working here.”
“You have not,” said Peggy.
“I have. Swear.”
“You don’t look it, Bobby.You look just fine,” said Liddy. She liked Bobby as much as she’d liked any of Johnny’s girlfriends. More, maybe, since she’d never worried that he’d marry her.
“It’s all on my hips. Claude says I’m starting to look like a pear. You had the chili, didn’t you?” She put a bowl down in front of Gail, who frowned.
“Did I say a bowl? I thought I said a cup.”
“I’ve got a bowl down here.”
“I think you said a bowl, Gail,” Liddy put in.
“That’s what I’ve got down.”
“That’s fine, Bobby. A bowl is fine,” assured Gail, dipping her spoon into the chili to put Bobby’s mind at rest. Bobby smiled at the gesture and went to take Darrell Coffey’s order, although she knew very well what it would be.
Liddy reached out and put her hand over Peggy’s. “Goodness, it’s nice to see you.”
“I know, I just don’t get over to visit enough.”
Gail looked dubiously at her lunch. “I meant to ask for a cup of chili and here I asked for a bowl. I guess.”
“Is it good?” asked Peggy, turning her soup over with a spoon to cool it.
“It’s always good here,” said Gail, still frowning.
“Well, if it’s too much,” said Liddy, “you don’t have to eat it.”
“Oh, I probably will.”
“Well, just leave what you don’t want,” Liddy said. “I remember what my mother always said. If you eat food just to get it off your plate, you’re using your stomach for a garbage pail.”
“Here, put a spoonful in my soup,” said Peggy. She pushed her soup over towards Gail.
“You’ll have to eat some first.”
“I just want a spoonful. For flavor.”
“Well, there isn’t room for a spoonful in your cup. That’s what I wanted. A cup.”
Gail looked down at her bowl as though she still couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t a cup. But the others at the table knew she would eat everything in front of her. She was what the women in Watonga called “heavy-set.” Her dark hair brushed against very full cheeks, and her well made linen-blend suit stretched across both her hips and her bosom.
Liddy’s suit was just as well made and far less strained. She took pride in her trim figure and complemented it with makeup that, if it was a tad heavy, was artfully applied. Her hair was quite red and would have looked fluffy if it had not shone with shellac.
Peggy looked young compared to the other two. She wasn’t really, but her children had come later, and sometimes that keeps you looking young. Her khakis and soft yellow polo shirt didn’t hurt either.
“I didn’t believe some of the prices they were getting for that junk, did you?” asked Liddy.
“It was all those dealers. Those dealers’ll pay anything,” said Peggy, lifting her spoon to her mouth.
Gail picked up a package of cellophane-wrapped crackers. “Did you see that light colored crock with the flowers painted on? It had a big old chip out of it and one of those dealers paid twenty dollars for it.”
“With a chip out of it?” asked Peggy.
“A big chip. Unless he had somebody could fix it.”
“They say you’re supposed to let antiques be,” said Peggy. “You’re not supposed to fix them. How am I going to eat my soup with that chocolate pie staring at me?”
“I know,” said Liddy, “but you have to order your pie when you get here, it goes so fast. By noon, it’s about gone.”
“You’ve got to admit Patsy makes good pie,” said Gail, pulling at the cellophane.
“If you don’t get it early,” Liddy agreed, “there’s only a couple of kinds left.”
“Well, it’s hard to eat soup when you have chocolate pie staring you in the face.” Peggy turned her pie around, as though looking at the other side would be easier. Gail glared at her crackers.
“I never can get these things open.”
“I always end up using my teeth,” said Peggy, picking up a cracker package absently.
“Like this,” said Liddy. “You do it like this.” She pulled deftly on a cracker package and it opened easily.
“Where’d you pull?” asked Gail.
“Right on this fold here.”
“How’d you get so smart?”
“Did it work?” asked Peggy, looking down at her own crackers.
Gail exhibited her open cracker package proudly. “It did.”
“Where’s that tab?”
“It’s not a tab, it’s a fold,” said Liddy, holding up a virgin cracker package. “Right there.”
“Like this?” asked Peggy, tugging on cellophane. “I’ll be.”
“Bobby,” Gail called. “Come here.”
Bobby turned away from Darrell, tucking her order pad into her apron. “What d’you need?”
“D’you know how to open a cracker package?”
“I just use my teeth.”
“Liddy, show Bobby how to open some crackers.”
Liddy held up yet another cracker package. “Just like this. You just pull right here.”
Bobby reached for a package from the cracker basket in the center of the table. “Let me try that.” She pulled and the package opened.
“See?” said Gail.
“I never knew about that.” Bobby headed towards the kitchen. “Donna! D’you know how to open a cracker package?”
Liddy looked down at the littered table. “Now what are we going to do with all these crackers?”
“Take them back to that sale and sell them to those dealers,” said Gail.
The door to the hardware store opened, and Herman Locklin walked in with his son Jason. The father was big across the shoulders and even bigger around the waist. The son was straight and slim. When they played golf, his father called him “flatbelly” and beat him handily.
“You ready for that spoonful?” asked Gail, putting a taste of chili in Peggy’s soup.
“It’s even better in stew,” said Peggy. “Picks it right up. Hey, there, Herman.”
Herman turned towards the restaurant and moved a hand to show that he’d seen Peggy, then tipped his head a fraction of an inch towards Gail and Liddy. Jason smiled a tense sixteen-year-old smile. Then the two walked over to the Black and Deckers.
“I should have ordered a cup,” said Gail. She put down her spoon and reached her fork out to her pecan pie.
“Are you eating your pie with your lunch?” Peggy asked Gail.
“I always eat my pie with my meal or I don’t eat it.”
“There was surely a lot of junk at that sale,” said Libby. “They said they’d be selling the house at one o’clock. I don’t believe they’ll make it. They were going to sell all that junk first.”
“I don’t know what they did with her art objects,” said Gail.
“There weren’t any there today,” said Peggy, pushing her empty soup bowl towards the center of the table.
“She had some nice art objects.” Gail lifted a forkful of pecan pie to her mouth. It dripped one sweet dollop of thickened Caro onto her chin, and she resisted the urge to swoop it up with her tongue. She lifted her napkin.
“Probably sold them ahead of time,” said Peggy. She picked up her half a chicken salad sandwich. Mayonnaise thinned by juice from a tomato slice dripped onto her plate.
“She had some nice Dresden,” said Gail.
“Maybe they went to the family.”
“There wasn’t any family,” said Liddy.
Gail nodded. “She had full time help the last year. Around the clock. There was just her and the help.”
“I remember when my father . . . would you pass that salt over here?” asked Peggy. “Thanks. I remember my father didn’t see too well there at the end and the woman who came in to help kept offering to dust the china cabinet. Every time she came she asked him did he want her to dust the china cabinet. Finally he wrote me and said Peggy if you want any of this stuff you come down here and get it because I’m running out of reasons for her not to dust the china cabinet. So I just went and cleaned it out.”
“And I bet she stopped offering to dust the china cabinet,” said Liddy.
“There was nothing left to dust,” said Gail.
“And that’s not why.”
“He really couldn’t see very well,” said Peggy. “She could have taken just about what she wanted.”
“Well, maybe the help got the Dresden,” said Gail. “But I know she had Nell’s things. And Nell had some nice things. And they didn’t have them there today.
“Five dollars for those old blue fruit jars with the fruit still in them,” said Liddy. “I wouldn’t clean those things out for five dollars.”
“The things people’ll pay money for,” said Peggy, looking tenderly at the last bite of chocolate cream pie.
“They’re going to have to take them home and mess around with all that old fruit.”
“The couple we rented Dad’s place to, the girl went down cellar and found dozens of jars down there, with pickles and all in them, and she asked if she could have them,” said Peggy. “Stuff still in them.”
“We sold ours,” said Gail.
“I told her if my girls didn’t want them. Of course they did want some. She cleaned them all up and gave my girls half. This sandwich is so good.”
“We sold dozens of them.”
“Not for five dollars apiece,” said Liddy.
“We got a pretty good price.”
“Two of them, a man and a girl, were standing there together,” said Peggy, “looking at those old dishes. I know they were dealers.”
“One of them was standing next to me,” said Gail, “and she asked me, are you a dealer, too? So you know she was.”
“The man at the cash box asked where my store was,” Liddy offered.
The three women could have been dealers, could have owned stores, although they had no need to. Besides the wealth of their husbands, each had money inherited from her rancher father. Gail and Peggy had brothers who had inherited the land and stock. Liddy, an only child, had inherited everything, and her land was added to her husband Gene’s ranch. A few years later, he bought the land between them. Liddy had always managed her own investments, but Liddy and Gail both had time to run stores or teach school or anything else they chose to do. They had a great deal of time.
“It’s ’cause you bought that old big box,” said Gail. “What’re you fixing to do with all that junk?”
“Throw it out, I guess. I just wanted that pair of ceramic elves,” said Liddy, pushing away the last of her lemon meringue pie and pulling out her cigarettes.
“I wasn’t going to buy anything at those prices,” Peggy declared.
“The whole box was only two dollars. And I used to have a pair of ceramic elves just like the ones in that box. Gene gave them to me to put on the windowsill with my plants. The kids broke them. Donna, I think. You can’t keep track of what your kids break or you’d never forgive them.”
“They were real cute,” said Peggy.
“And there were four good flower pots in that box and a bag of tomato food. That’s more than two dollars right there.”
“Well, then you got the only bargain there,” said Gail.
“Did you see the couch? Like the one I have only bigger. I wonder what they’ll get for it.”
Gail folded her napkin and put it on the table, then leaned forward for emphasis. “I heard that big brass bed was appraised at seven hundred dollars.”
“I was talking to Dorothy Westfall over to the gift shop,” added Liddy, pulling on her cigarette “and she said Nell left some real nice things when she passed and Mary should’ve had them. But they weren’t there today.”
“She’s a nice person. Dorothy.”
Bobby stopped to pick up empty plates. Libby nodded when she reached for the lemon meringue. At the last moment, Gail slipped the last bite of Libby’s pie onto a fork and into her mouth.
“What’d Mary die of,” asked Peggy. “Do you know?”
“Don’t you?” asked Gail, as the meringue slid down her gullet.
“How would I know?” said Peggy. “I wasn’t here.”
Liddy looked at Gail and Bobby and then at Peggy. “It was the strangest thing.”
“It was,” agreed Gail solemnly.
“I’d never heard of anything like it, had you, Bobby?”
“Never.” She shook her head and went toward the kitchen with the loaded tray.
“What was it?”asked Peggy.
“Well, you know how she had the sugar diabetes,” said Gail. “Runs in her family.”
“I guess it runs in everybody’s family,” said Liddy. “Everybody that has it.”
“Well, Mary had it,” said Gail, nodding slowly.
“And there was so much she couldn’t eat,” Liddy continued, reaching into her purse for another cigarette. “You know.”
“She couldn’t eat hardly anything,” said Gail with great sympathy.
“So when she found something she could eat that she liked, she just ate it and ate it,” said Libby, flipping her lighter into flame and inhaling. “Well, you can understand.”
Peggy nodded. After all, she could eat pretty much anything she wanted and she still wished she had another piece of pie.
“Well, that’s what happened with the cole slaw,” said Gail.
“She found out she could eat cole slaw,” explained Liddy, “and she just started eating gallons of it. I mean, gallons of it. She ate it all the time.
“It seems like you’d know it wasn’t good to eat that much cole slaw.”
“It doesn’t look like there’d be anything wrong with it, Gail. It has good ingredients.”
“But if you eat that much of it.”
“She started hemorrhaging,” said Liddy solemnly.
“Cut up her insides just like it was knives, that cabbage,” added Gail. “You know how sharp cabbage can be.”
“She bled to death internally.”
They sat in silence for a moment before Peggy said, “That’s almost unbelievable.”
“Well, you can believe it,” said Gail. “Hey, Bobby, tell Peggy how Mary Garland died.”
“Ate too much cole slaw,” said Bobby, slowing down as she passed to deliver a slice of pie.
“I didn’t mean I didn’t believe you,” protested Peggy.
“Lord, who ordered that caramel fudge pie?” asked Gail.
“Ruthie Simms,” said Bobby.
“And she’s as fat as I am,” said Gail. “You tell her they don’t even list that stuff on the calorie charts. They don’t have enough numbers.”
“You tell her yourself, Gail Stevens. I start talking to the customers about their figures I won’t last here another day.” She continued on her way to a far table, where Ruthie waited for her pie.
Liddy looked after her and then turned to Gail. “Is Ruthie still helping you? “
”Once a week. She works so hard it wears me out.”
“I’ve got Donna Weber coming in. That boy of hers sure is growing up.”
“Clayton says he’ll be All State this year.”
“That’s what I heard about Grey.”
“It’d sure be nice. After his brothers,” said Gail.
“That can’t be easy for the boy,” said Peggy. “Following Johnny and Wayne.”
“Gives him something to shoot for.”
“Well,” said Liddy, “yours isn’t doing too bad herself.”
“Don’t say that around her,” warned Peggy proudly.” She’s got the big head already. I always tell her, you’re turning out pretty well for an accident.”
“You don’t either,” said Gail.
“She knows I’m just teasing. But she was. Matt was in second grade and I thought I was through.”
“I always thought I was through,” affirmed Gail. “Every time. Thank heaven for hysterectomies.”
“Jilly’s not that tall, is she, for basketball?” asked Liddy.
“She’s fast. And she knows what she’s doing,” said Peggy. “Her dad and her brothers made sure of that. I guess Johnny’s boy’ll be coming up pretty soon.”
“He’s only seven,” said Gail. “And you can’t get him away from his computer long enough to practice. No, I think it’ll end with Grey.”
The bell on the hardware store door clanged regularly as they sat there and men came in wearing jeans and yoked shirts, boots and Stetsons. There were no overalls. These were ranchers, not farmers. Members of the Cattleman’s Association. Most of them came in for home repair products–gaskets and washers and wire strippers. The feed and seed store was just outside town. Some of the boys and younger men wore T-shirts and baseball caps.
“Is Clayton working cattle today?” Peggy asked Gail.
“Him and Grey.”
“I tell you the way those men fuss over those cattle you’d think they made money off them.”
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” said Liddy. “Coffee goes right through me.”
“We’ll save your place,” said Peggy.
Peggy and Gail watched their friend walk away. “She’s smoking too much,” said Peggy.
“She’s always smoked.”
“Well, now she’s smoking too much.”
The bell jangled again. Bobby laughed at a customer’s joke. Frank Marrs nodded to Peggy and Gail as he headed for the key-making counter.
“Was it November?” Peggy asked Gail.
“Early December. It was when we had that bitter cold day that time.”
“Was that in December?”
“Almost to the holidays.”
“He wasn’t much over fifty, was he?”
“Fifty-one. Two years younger than Clayton.”
“I wish I’d have been here,” said Peggy, gathering cracker wrappers and putting them back in the basket.
“She read me your letter. It was real nice.”
“It’s hard to believe it could happen like that.”
“Well, the doctor told him.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was something where he wasn’t supposed to be out in the bitter cold. The doctor told him that,” Gail said, with an edge of impatience in her voice. Impatience for men, of course, who die and leave women in sorrow.
“Well, why’d he go then?” asked Peggy.
“Liddy tried to keep him. But he got that phone call and he said he’d better go out there to the cattle. And it was just like something snapped out there in the cold.”
“He shouldn’t have gone out there. He didn’t have the right.”
“You can’t stop them.”
“I’d stop Owen, I can tell you.”
“If you knew he was going to die,” said Gail. “It’s not like you know when they walk out the door.”
“If the doctor said.”
“The doctor said Clayton has to lose thirty pounds. He’ll do it when he’s ready.”
“She couldn’t have stopped him.”
This truth sat on the table between them, then grew to fill Patsy’s and the entire hardware store. Every man in the building walked across its linoleum floors or stood at its formica counters without giving a thought to the grief his wife would feel because he ignored his doctor.
“They don’t think,” said Peggy truly.
“Clayton always gains weight around his heart, that’s where the fat goes. And that’s where the doctor says it’s dangerous.”
“You probably haven’t noticed how much Liddy’s smoking. You’ve been around her.”
“If I’ve been around her . . .”
“I mean, if it happened gradually.”
“They’re worse things.”
“She looks good, anyway. Don’t you think?”
“She’s started selling Mary Kay cosmetics. I have enough lipstick to last me . . . and it’s none of it the right color,” said Gail. But I don’t know what the right color is, maybe that’s it.”
“I think I’ll try to get over here more.”
“You ought to come by to the study group sometime. Joyce is going to do a program next week on Yoga.”
“I mean,” Said Peggy, “I think maybe I’ll just come over to visit sometime.”
“It’s not that far, when you think about it,” Gail said, as Bobby came by the table. She stopped long enough to say, “Ruthie says to tell you she had Patsy take the calories out of that pie when she baked it.”
“Did you tell her what I said?” asked Gail.
“Mmmhm. And she says she isn’t either as fat as you.”
“Bobby! You’re lying to me.”
“You go ask her.”
Peggy broke in. “You want to give us our check, Bobby?”
“Sure,” said Bobby, pulling her order book out of her apron pocket.
“If you just lost me my help,” said Gail.
“Oh, that’s what I forgot. Ruthie also said to tell you she wouldn’t be by this week cause she’s going to work for the T.G.&Y.”
“I’m going to tell Claude on you.”
“What Claude don’t know about me you can’t tell him. You know, if you wanted the calories took out of your pie, you should’ve told me that when you ordered.”
Peggy and Gail were smiling when Liddy came back. Old jokes are steps you repeat in the dance. Your moves. Good moves don’t have to be new.
“Well,” said Liddy, sitting down. “They keep the bathroom nice, don’t they?”
“That’s Patsy,” said Gail. “She keeps this place like it was her own home.”
“Gail was just telling me you’re selling Mary Kay,” said Peggy.
“Well, I don’t have a pink Cadillac yet.
“You don’t have a moisturizer that really works, do you?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Liddy. “I think moisturizers make your face break out. All of them. But I have this night cream, if you think–”
“Owen’s not exactly crazy about me coming to bed with junk all over my face,” Peggy said.
Peggy stopped speaking quickly, but she didn’t blush. Liddy didn’t look stricken. Gail didn’t reproach Peggy with her eyes. But the moment seemed far more silent than it was, than it could be in a busy restaurant in a busy hardware store.
“It’s light. You can’t see it,” said Liddy.
“Well, maybe I ought to try it,” said Peggy. “I could use some help, that’s for sure.”
“I’ll bet you he doesn’t even notice. I mean, when you have it on,” Liddy said.
“Probably won’t notice at all. I could pick it up next time I’m over. Would you look at what time it is?”
As Peggy got up from the table, Gail spoke. “Barbara’s having a sale over at the dress shop. Better than half off.”
“It’ll have to be better than half, the prices she charges,” said Liddy, reaching into her purse for her cigarettes.
“I don’t know,” said Peggy.
“It’s only twelve thirty,” said Gail.
“I ought to be getting home.”
“Come on. Girls’ day out.”
Peggy turned to Liddy. “ I will if you will.”
Gail picked up the check. “I invited.”
“We’ll all have that much more to spend at Barbara’s,” said Liddy.
As they walked out of Patsy’s, Peggy touched Liddy’s shoulder gently. Liddy did not move away.