Look for Light in the Vegetable Patch ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Front Porch Review.)
Lorene Gauss maneuvered her white Cadillac through town and out the other end onto a country road. She was sweating and her throat felt dry. These little excursions to deliver food baskets to the poor made her feel prickly and nervous, but she believed she was only doing what needed to be done. She couldn’t be the only member of her women’s club who didn’t participate in an important charity initiative; she wouldn’t have anything to talk about at the meetings with the other ladies. And, besides, she was the treasurer of the club.
She brought her daughter, Patsy Ruth, along on this trip. Patsy Ruth wasn’t much good with trips to visit the poor, but at least it was some small consolation to have somebody in the car with her, especially when she was going to a place she had never been before and she didn’t know how to get there. She felt a certain amount of resentment toward the other members of the club for assigning her this delivery when they knew she didn’t like going so far out of town.
Patsy Ruth sat staring straight ahead out the windshield, biting her lower lip. At age fifteen, she was beginning to look just like her father, with her receding chin, pink skin and unruly red hair. She would have done better to look like her mother, but we never have any say in these matters.
“I think you missed a turn,” Patsy Ruth said.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Lorene said. She looked in the rearview mirror to make sure no cars were coming, slowed, and executed a u-turn in the middle of the highway.
“Turn on that dirt road there where that old fence is.”
“Whoever heard of not having signs to mark the streets?”
She followed the winding dirt road for a mile or so until she came to a weather-beaten two-story house with a sagging front porch on a rise overlooking the road.
She stopped the car and looked apprehensively up the hill at the house. “This has to be it,” she said. “It’s the only house for miles.”
While she was getting the food basket out of the trunk, a little white dog came from around the house, gave two sharp barks and ran toward her wagging his tail. He yipped excitedly and nudged at her ankle with his nose.
“I think he likes you, Mother,” Patsy Ruth said. “He wants to play.”
“Get away!” Lorene said. “Get away now! Oh, I hope it doesn’t have fleas!”
When the dog attempted to jump on her with its front legs, she gasped and nearly fell, handing the food basket to Patsy Ruth. Patsy Ruth was able to distract the dog by making clicking noises with her tongue and doing a little dance.
“I think that little beast snagged my hose,” Lorene said as they walked up the hardscrabble slope of the front yard to the porch.
They held the food basket between them as if they were posing for a picture. When Lorene rapped on the door, it was opened with such suddenness that Patsy Ruth emitted a little scream.
“Yes?” a dark man inside the door said.
“Mr. Mudge?” Lorene said with her brightest smile. She made sure she had the name in her head so she would get it right.
“That’s right,” he said, opening the door farther. “You lost?”
“Who are you then, and what do you want?”
“I’m Mrs. Gauss and this is my daughter, Patsy Ruth.”
“Are you sure you’re in the right place.”
“You’re Mr. Mudge, aren’t you?”
“You from the police? I’ve already explained that little matter about the snake all I’m going to. If that boy was bit by that snake, it wasn’t my fault. I told him about it beforehand.”
Lorene gave a little laugh to show she understood. “It isn’t anything like that,” she said. “We’re from the Harmony Hill Christian Ladies’ League. We brought you this basket of food as an offering, as a gesture of good will, with our best wishes and our hope that you enjoy it.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said, looking suspiciously at the basket. “What the hell’s in it?”
“Oh, let me see…a variety of things, I believe.” She looked into the basket self-consciously. “Canned vegetables, spaghetti, potted meat, peanut butter, cookies, beans, flour, sugar, coffee, tea, cornbread mix. Things like that.”
“Any chewing tobacco?”
Lorene laughed again. He was obviously making a joke. “I doubt it,” she said.
“Just kidding. Come on in. My wife will have to see this for herself.”
He left Lorene and Patsy Ruth standing just inside the door and went into another part of the house. In a minute he returned with a woman wearing men’s clothes walking behind him. She was a woman who looked to be fading away. She was thin and her shoulders stooped. When she saw Lorene and Patsy Ruth, she opened her lipless mouth to speak.
“May I help you?” she said. “You lost?”
“How do you do?” Lorene said. “I’m Mrs. Gauss and this is my daughter, Patsy Ruth.”
Patsy Ruth executed a little curtsey in her church dress as if she was a six-year-old, rather than a big galumphing girl on the verge of womanhood.
“This is not about those knives and forks, is it?” Mrs. Mudge asked. “I’ve already said I don’t know nothing about them.”
“We’re from the Harmony Hill Christian Ladies’ League. We brought you this basket of food as an offering, as a gesture of good will, with our best wishes and our hope that you enjoy it.”
“We won it?”
“No, you didn’t win it. It’s being given to you.”
“Why is that?”
“Just take the damn thing,” Mr. Mudge said, “and quit asking so many damn questions.”
He took the basket from Lorene and set it on a chair beside the door. He then gestured for Lorene and Patsy Ruth to sit on the sofa while he sat in a chair next to the sofa and Mrs. Mudge sat on a metal kitchen chair.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked. “A scotch and soda?”
“You came all the way out here to give us this basket?” Mrs. Mudge asked.
“That is correct,” Lorene said, clasping her hands and taking a deep breath as if she was testifying at a murder trial.
“We didn’t win it or nothing like that?”
“No, you didn’t win it.”
“What do we have to do for it?”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Well, you see,” Lorene said, “we have this club with about twenty-five active members. We have bazaars and bake sales and things in which we make money. Rather than use the money for something for ourselves, we think it’s a good idea to help some of the people in the
community. It’s a community outreach kind of thing.”
“Are you satisfied now?” Mr. Mudge asked.
“But why us?” Mrs. Mudge asked. “You don’t even know us.”
“One of the club members submitted your name. I don’t know who.”
“We don’t know any of those people.”
“Well, somebody in the club knows of you. Let’s just put it that way.”
Mr. Mudge stood up. “I want you to meet the rest of the family,” he said. He went out of the room and came back pushing a very old woman with bright red hair in a wheelchair. “This is my mother.”
“How do you do?” Lorene said.
Patsy Ruth would have curtseyed again had she not been sitting down.
The old woman showed no sign of awareness; her chin rested on her chest and her eyes were closed. When she breathed, her lower lip fluttered.
“She’s asleep,” Mrs. Mudge said. “Why didn’t you at least wake her up?”
“She was awake when I went in,” Mr. Mudge said. “She went to sleep just that fast.”
“I just dyed her hair yesterday,” Mrs. Mudge said. “I think it looks pretty, don’t you? It’s kind of a lot of trouble to do it, but I think looking pretty makes her feel better. We have to lay her on her back on the counter and hang her head down in the sink. She puts up a fuss because she thinks we’re trying to drown her.”
“She isn’t well, I take it,” Lorene said.
“She’s got the TB,” Mr. Mudge said. “Final stages.”
“Do you mean tuberculosis?”
“That’s right. She’s been dying now for about fifteen years.”
“Shouldn’t she be in the hospital?”
Mr. and Mrs. Mudge both laughed but Lorene didn’t get the joke.
Mrs. Mudge stood up and went over to the elder Mrs. Mudge and screamed into her ear, “Did you hear that, Ethel Jean? This lady thinks maybe you should be in the hospital. What do you think? Do you think you should maybe be in the hospital? And just who would pay for you to be in the hospital, I wonder? Is there a genie that pops out of a bottle and pays your hospital bills whenever you need him to? I don’t think so!”
“Huh?” the elder Mrs. Mudge said. “What did you say? I didn’t say nothing.” She looked around the room; her eyes came to rest on Patsy Ruth. “Who are they? I haven’t ever seen them before. Are they calling about the squirrels in the attic?”
“Don’t mind her,” Mrs. Mudge said. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying most of the time.”
“It’s how she gets her way all the time,” Mr. Mudge said. “Nobody dares to go against her.”
“I think we’d better be running along, don’t you, Patsy Ruth?” Lorene said. “We don’t want to intrude on these fine people any longer.”
“Oh, don’t go,” Mrs. Mudge said. “We so seldom have visitors.”
“She’s right,” Mr. Mudge said. “You don’t have to go just yet. I want to talk some more.”
“Don’t argue with them,” the elder Mrs. Mudge said. “I don’t care so much about the money. Just make sure they understand what’s expected of them.”
“She’s got an awful pretty hairdo, yes she does,” Mrs. Mudge said in a surprising falsetto voice.
“You can see what kind of a life I have,” Mr. Mudge said.
“You have a pretty place out here,” Lorene said, in an attempt to redirect the conversation. “I always think it’s so peaceful out in the country. Just the birds singing and the wind in the trees.”
“It’s lonely,” Mrs. Mudge said. “We’ve talked about moving into town but I don’t think we ever will.”
“I won’t ever live anywhere else,” Mr. Mudge said.
“It’s just the three of you living here? You don’t have any children?”
“We’ve got two,” Mrs. Mudge said. “A boy and a girl. They both live a long ways off and never come to visit.”
“They don’t care if we live or die,” Mr. Mudge said.
“You said this big girl here is your daughter?” Mrs. Mudge asked, pointing at Patsy Ruth.
“I have a grown son. He lives far away too. We see him only once or twice a year.”
“Is he married?” Mrs. Mudge asked.
“No. He says he’s too busy.”
“Now I know now where I’ve seen you!” Mr. Mudge said, clapping his hands one time, startling the elder Mrs. Mudge.
“As soon as you came through the door, I knew I had seen you but I couldn’t think where. What did you say your name is?”
“What was it before you were married?
“Lorene Albrecht, of course! Didn’t you go to high school about twenty-five years ago?”
“Well, yes, I did.”
“I was in high school at the same time. I was one grade ahead of you.”
“Mudge? I don’t remember anybody by that name in high school.”
“Everybody called me Monk, but my real name is Everett.”
“Everett Mudge? I’m sorry, I don’t remember. It’s been so long ago. My memory of high school is rather hazy.”
“I was one of the retarded hillbilly kids that you and your crowd looked down on.”
“People called me Monk because they said I looked like a monkey. I never did like it.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”
“My father was Smoky Mudge, the town drunk. You probably heard of him for all the wrong reasons. He was hit by a freight train one night and cut in half. He was too drunk to get out of the way.”
“Why, yes. I believe I remember that incident. I’m terribly sorry.”
“At the time you were all laughing about it. It made for terribly amusing chit-chat over lunch.”
“I don’t believe I was laughing about such a thing.”
“Mother, look at the time,” Patsy Ruth said. “Hadn’t we better go? We have a couple of other stops to make.”
“My mother had to raise five kids on her own after the old man checked out but, then, he was never much good anyway, even when he was alive. I worked as a janitor’s helper at the school to make a little money to help out at home. Whenever you and your snooty friends saw me cleaning vomit or piss up off the floor, you laughed at me and made monkey noises.”
“High school was so long ago,” Lorene said. “Are you sure it was me?”
“Once when I was hitchhiking, you came along driving your light-blue Thunderbird, with three or four of your friends in the car. When you saw me standing alongside the highway, you stopped like you were going to offer me a ride. As I started to walk toward your car, you threw a dead fish at me wrapped in newspaper and drove off, laughing loud enough that I would be sure and hear it.”
“I don’t remember any dead fish. Where would we have got a dead fish?”
“Maybe it would be best to not bring these things up,” Mrs. Mudge said meekly.
“I think I hear that rooster again,” the elder Mrs. Mudge said. “I want to see it again to make sure it’s the same one.”
“Do you remember a fat girl in high school named Ella Sue Risley who always wore old-lady dresses because of her religion?” Mr. Mudge asked. “You and your friends called her Little Orphan Annie because she had funny eyes.”
“Of course I remember Ella Sue,” Lorene said. “I always felt bad for her because she never seemed to have any friends.”
“Ella Sue won the school art competition one year for a picture she painted. You thought you should have won it. You were jealous so you had one of your friends in the art department ruin her painting with black paint. When Ella Sue saw what you did to her painting, she had an epileptic seizure and nearly died.”
“That wasn’t me! That was somebody else. I was never in any art competition. I would never ruin a girl’s painting because I was jealous.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“It was such a long time ago,” Lorene said. “I don’t remember the dead fish, a ruined painting, or any of the other things you mentioned, but—if I’m the cause of such unpleasant memories—I apologize.”
“There’s no reason to apologize all these years later. I just want you to know what a swine you were.”
Lorene stood up, as did Patsy Ruth.
“Well, it’s been an interesting conversation,” Lorene said. “There’s nothing like hearing about one’s transgressions from the far-distant past, when, of course, it’s too late to make amends.”
“It’s not possible to make amends,” Mr. Mudge said, also standing.
“You never know when you’re going to be confronted with something that happened a long time ago. It seems there’s no living down certain things, no matter how much time passes.”
“Well, it certainly was a pleasure to meet you,” Mrs. Mudge said. “Maybe we’ll see you again sometime. I hope so.”
“Give a yell out the window,” said the elder Mrs. Mudge, “and tell them you made it through.”
“There’s one thing I’d like for you to know,” Lorene said, facing Mr. Mudge. “If I was a swine in high school, that wasn’t the real me. I was going through a phase. I was insecure and I longed to be accepted. I felt terrible about some of the things I did, but it’s been so long ago. Am I really not to be forgiven? Was I really so terrible?”
“You thought every boy in high school wanted you, but I couldn’t stand the sight of you. No matter how pretty you were, no matter how blond your hair or how fancy your clothes, I knew, deep down, you were the one who causes misery in the world. If you had cracked up in your pretty little Thunderbird, there would have been no tears shed in certain quarters.”
“Well, you’re very plain spoken, aren’t you? We came here to do something nice for you and you act as if I were some kind of criminal. Had I only known, I believe I would have declined the pleasure of coming all the way out here to—”
“Good-bye, Mrs. Gauss. Thank you for your visit. I don’t think we’ll see each other again, do you?”
Mrs. Mudge held the door, smiling apologetically. “Bye, now,” she said. “Have a safe drive home.”
When Lorene and Patsy Ruth were going back down the sloping yard to the car, Lorene stepped in a hole she failed to see and broke the heel of her shoe. She didn’t bother to pick up the heel but kept on going, suddenly in a hurry to be gone. As she opened the door of her car and started to get in, something—was it a sound?—made her look back up the hill toward the house. That’s when she saw the object sailing through the air toward her in a high arc—almost like an enormous cannonball in slow motion.
She knew the object wasn’t going to hit her so she made no attempt to get out of the way. It landed with a crash—a splintering, cracking, crunching sound—about five feet from the car. It hadn’t been meant to hit her but only to let her know that her kind of charity wasn’t wanted.
The little brown dog approached the strange object cautiously, wagging his tail. He grabbed a ginger snap cookie in his mouth and ran back under the porch. He crouched down and held the cookie between his front paws and began chewing, a gleam of happiness in his eyes.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp