(content warning: domestic violence)
“I smush myself flat, wedged tight between the backside of the door against the wall, learning in-between the crack. Momma’s had to put steak on her eye before, & she didn’t waste the meat, either. Took to bed instead of church that Sunday, too.”
No Reason to Waste Good Meat by Allie Marini
Y’all listen up, now, says Betsy Chesser, you just can’t figure it out no matter how hard you try. Can’t wrap my head around it. She’s shelling summer peas into the speckly enamel dish on the stoop. Bridie Snell is snapping the ends of wax beans & tossing them in the same stewpot she’s fixin’ to cook them in when she walks back across the street, once the Dogpatch misters start coming home, trucks start kicking up dust down the way. I mean, Loretta’s been lonely as a pine tree in a parking lot, but shouldn’t she wait longer? I’ve stayed quiet behind the screen door & they seem to have forgotten I can hear them. So I hold my breath & wait. Grown-ups talk is punctuated by the rhythmic sounds of women getting vegetables ready for supper: Betsy with her sweet peas, Bridie with an apron full of wax beans & Momma—they call her by her not-Momma name, Bobbie Lou—peeling clean-scrubbed carrots & turnips to cut into quarters. They prep together & then split the vegetables three ways, so everyone gets a full plate & it looks like more than what any of us actually have. Usually it’s a four-way split. But Loretta hasn’t come round in weeks, & her absence is what they’re hen-talking about. Bless your heart, Bridie. Momma chucks a piece of carrot peel in her direction. You know good & well Loretta could eat corn through a picket fence. Holdin’ off won’t do her no favors.
Betsy agrees. Well, that last mister of hers…. flyin’ off the handle like he did & her come running out like a like a scalded haint from that house. Most every Saturday night. She turnt up on my porch more often than not. Never did waste the steak though—even if it meant missing service. They laugh in the way that grown women do when something isn’t ha-ha funny, but they’re glad it’s not them this time—you know that laugh, right? It starts off louder than it needs to & then gets softer, uncomfortable-like, before it just trails away like steam rolling off the top of a boiling pot. I smush myself flat, wedged tight between the backside of the door against the wall, learning in-between the crack. Momma’s had to put steak on her eye before, & she didn’t waste the meat, either. Took to bed instead of church that Sunday, too. Well, Betsy says, that’s a hard dog to keep on the porch, I s’pose.
I reckon it is. Momma’s practiced hands pull a purple & white coil of turnip skin off the root in one clean peel, like a ribbon. She drops it into a bucket that I’ll have to take out to empty into the compost heap after supper. I can taste a bit of sick crawl up the back of my throat & land bitter on my tongue just thinking of it. The compost heap is scorching & the fumes coming off it are thick with rot, riddled through the center with maggots when I push it around with the compost stick. Momma reminds me when I complain that chores teach character, & anyway, that stinky compost makes it so we’ve got food growing in our garden.
Bridie snaps the last bean into her pot & wipes her big, freckled hands down the front of her apron, draped over the expanse of her prodigious thighs. She twists at her long brownish-red braid, thick as a man’s belt, that hangs slack over her shoulder. Not too bright, either. She nibbles at the dry skin of her bottom lip—which it seems is always chapped, split down the center sometimes, a thin brownish slash like a hair stuck smack in the center of her pillowy bottom lip. Guess that explains taking up with Loretta, Betsy laughs, meanly, a splinter of jealousy pricking the uptick of her voice, matching her face, which always seems sort of pinched and hollow at the same time, a little like one of the empty pea shells heaped into the dry wicker basket she brought to set on the front steps. Still smushed up behind the door, I wince a little on Betsy’s behalf, because I don’t think Betsy intends to be mean when she says that. I think she’s just wishing it was her instead of Loretta, same’s I’m wishing it’s Momma, instead of Loretta, who gets to eat meat that never went half-cooked bringing down the swell of a black eye, that got to eat it fresh & without looking down on the plate & hating the meat for all the violence—the kind we think of, & the kind we don’t—bleeding out onto the plate. Quit bein’ ugly. Momma shoots the same sharp look at them that she uses on me & Sally when we get to bickering. I swear. I wonder if she can read my mind when she says, You’re as bad as my girls sometimes.
Back in September, I got in trouble for eavesdropping when Betsy come over one night crying & Momma caught me hiding in the hallway—just like I am now, except less sneaky—listening. Ever since, I been more careful & never let on that I heard what all Betsy told Momma about her mister leaving. There was meat that night for supper too, and no church in the morning again. Nothing ever goes to waste, not in these houses, not in Dogpatch. One day, when I don’t live here anymore, I promise myself, flattened out behind that door, I’m never eating meat again. Momma pulls another papery spiral of scrubbed turnip peeling off under the capable pressure of her thumb against the blade of the paring knife. Bridie stands up, hoists the heavy pot of beans to perch on her sturdy hips, like she’d balanced babies & laundry & all manner of baskets of vegetables over the years since she was my age. She wasn’t being ugly, she says, just honest. She throws the braid back over her shoulder, so it hangs down her spine, smack between her shoulder blades, like a noose trailing off right over the witches dimples just above her butt.
Momma, Bridie, & Betsy—& Loretta, before her new mister—starting supper on the steps, divvying up the vegetables & hen-talking is a pattern. Just like the turns they take over the years, nursing each other’s eye with cuts of steak that none of them can afford to waste, skipping church to make hotcakes & whisper in the kitchen. Marrying misters who bring home the steak & dole out the shiners is a pattern, too. A rhyme that falls flat on all their tongues, though they sing it like a nursery rhyme & keep teaching it, daughter to daughter down to daughter. There’s no logic to it & what Betsy can’t quite wrap her head around is how plain old Loretta—who’s not too bright & can eat corn through a picket fence—figured something out before any of them managed to put it together. How Loretta created a new rhyme all her own, what with sending out her mister out on his ass & taking up with a younger mister, who they need to tell each other ain’t too bright or handsome, because he treats her nice & hasn’t sent her off in need of meat, not even once. There’s got to be a trick to it, they just can’t figure out what it is. Surely, they couldn’t have all gotten duped by a trap that simple, that anyone could bust out of it by just saying, No more, I’m through with this, I need more for my supper plate than my own flesh served up, night after night.
I s’pose you’re right. Momma drops one last corkscrew of turnip peel into the bucket, joining a heap of orange curls of carrot and the brittle outer skins of an onion—the compost bucket a collection of things no one can really eat but are no less useful, because once they survive the hot pressure of the compost heap, they can be used to blanket over seedlings & grow something better. Maybe it’s me that’s thinkin’ ugly, Momma says. Because what there’s no rhyme or reason to is why we’re still on this here porch, all of us chilling a cut of meat in the icebox, & there goes Loretta, off to church as fine as you please. She pulls herself up from the stoop, brushes off her sturdy behind. See y’all tomorrow, girls. She thumps her knuckle across the front door & says, Time to take out the compost, Gracie. And ‘member what I toldja ‘bout eavesdropping. Ain’t polite. But I hope you learned something worth knowing. I wriggle out from behind the door, grab the compost bucket by the handle. When I stir up the compost, I breathe the smell in deep, searing it into my memory like the sear on the cut of meat Momma’s fixing in the cast-iron skillet. I look at the maggots wriggling in the center with respect, ask them honestly, How do you make something better from the scraps of stuff no one wants to eat anymore? They dig down into the hot center of the compost heap & tell me, You fold everything back onto itself, & hang onto the things that nourish, & let the rain wash away everything else. Now head on back home—supper’s about ready, & you still need to set the table.
Allie Marini is a cross-genre Southern writer. In addition to her work on the page, Allie was a 2017 Oakland Poetry Slam team member & writes poetry, fiction, essays, performing in the Bay Area, where as a native Floridian, she is always cold. Find her online: www.alliemarini.com or @kiddeternity.