Log Cabin Chronicles

Martha is dancing
in butternut time

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, or in your head. The author accepts no responsibility for the actions of the characters.

JOHN MAHONEY

And now Martha dances through the kitchen to the sink where she sways in time to the melody running through her head. Outside, the dew is still on the grass but the sky is that clear, hard blue that happens only in autumn, and it promises to be a fine day.

"I'll take the children to the park," she says aloud to the empty kitchen. "We'll visit the ducks."

Martha hums and sways as she runs cold water into a small pan in which she will boil Honey's egg for exactly six minutes. Honey is adamant about six-minute eggs. He maintains that if you boil them longer the yolks seize up, and less time means slimy whites. Martha doesn't like to start the day irritating Honey.

She wears a faded plaid robe over her flannel nightgown. She has closed it with a belt made from one of his old ties, a wide, shiny green tie imprinted with the head of a smiling horse inside a golden horseshoe.

Her hair bristles with curlers, pink and blue, and is covered with a bandanna of yellow polyester mesh tied at the nape of her neck; on her feet a pair of bunny scuffs, the ears floppy now, the eyes long gone. Martha's heels are rough and callused, and as red as her hands.

While the water heats she spoons instant coffee into their cups, slides three slices of raisin bread into the toaster, and pours two small glasses of prune juice. The water boils; she deftly slips in a egg, sets the timer, and calls: "Breakfast is ready, Honey."

Martha hears bedsprings creak, the sound of feet slapping the floor. She smiles as Honey enters the kitchen, digging the sleepies from his eyes. His thinning grey hair is in spikes. He is in his underwear; the neck of his tee-shirt sags and there is a hole under his left arm. His white, hairy belly pooches over his jockey shorts.

"Oh Honey, put on your pants."

Honey grunts, sits heavily and yawns, then glares at his juice glass.

"What the hell is this?"

"Your prune juice."

"Oh God, Martha. Again?"

"You know what the doctor said."

Honey makes a face and tosses the juice down in one gulp. He chokes and sprays juice across his plate and the kitchen table. Martha quickly pats it dry.

"Where's my egg?" Honey's face is red, there are splatters of prune juice on his tee-shirt. He wipes his hand across his lips.

"In a minute, Honey."

"Remember, six minutes is the way I like 'em, Martha."

"Oh Honey, how could I forget after all these years?"

Honey farts, reaches for a piece of buttered toast, and devours it in three bites. He washes it down with a half-cup of black coffee.

"I'm taking the children to the park today, Honey. We're going to visit the ducks."

"The ducks," Honey snorts. "We're going to see the duckies. Ain't that grand? Well, all I want to know is how many kids are you babysitting today, and how many bucks are we getting for visiting the ducks?"

He laughs and slaps his thigh, which is dead white except for a scattering of wiry black hair. "Hey, Martha, you get that? I'm a poet. How many bucks for seeing the ducks..."

Martha shrugs and goes to the sink to wash up. As she reaches for the soap she sees Wendell, their neighbor of 20 years, crawling on his hands and knees in the wet grass. He is a slight man in his early sixties and this morning wears a light poplin jacket over denim coveralls.

Martha watches as he crawls past the rhubarb patch, now frost-killed and soggy-rotten, which separates their properties. He is on their lawn now, picking up the butternuts that have fallen from the massive tree which belongs to them.

Honey never seems to get around to harvesting the nuts in the years the old tree sets fruit. Martha finds them too difficult to crack and Honey is always too busy. "I'd rather have salted peanuts, Martha," he says when she asks for shelled nuts for her holiday baking.

"Well, I'm glad someone is going to use them," Martha says. She taps on the window and catches Wendell's attention. He smiles, waves. She returns the smile and, hesitantly, the wave.

Honey looks up from his egg. "What are you banging on the window for?" He gets up and lumbers to her side at the sink. "Who you waving at?"

"It's Wendell, Honey."

Honey peers out the window. He has left his glasses in the bedroom but can see his neighbor crawling across the lawn on his hands and knees, putting something in a basket.

"Damn it, Martha! He's stealing all my butternuts." He raps sharply on the window. "Leave those nuts be!"

Martha puts her hand on his arm to calm him. "Honey, let him have them. We never use them. You won't even pick them up."

"I don't care. By God, Martha, I'll put a stop to that. Where's my pants?"

Honey pulls on his pants, then slips into a pair of rubber boots. As he walks across the grass he pats his hair into place. Wendell gives no sign he is aware honey is approaching. He continues poking in the wet grass.

Honey steps in front of him, blocking his path. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Hunting butternuts." Wendell doesn't look up.

"That's my tree. Those are my nuts." Honey's face is deeply flushed now as his blood pressure rises. Both hands are curled into tight fists, and jammed on his hips.

Wendell is silent. He crawls around Honey's legs and continues to pick up nuts.

"I said, that's my tree, those are my nuts." Honey's voice is tight. He growls rather than speaks.

"I know that," Wendell says in a soft voice.

"You picked up all the nuts that fell on your lawn first, I see."

"That's right, I did."

Honey nudges the basket with his boot. The wet black rubber glistens. He is beginning to enjoy this game.

"Well," he says, again nudging the basket with his boot but a little harder this time, "where are my nuts?"

Wendell sighs, and gets up with obvious effort. He is grinning.

"In your pants, I guess."

Honey looks at him in disbelief, which rapidly turns to rage. He kicks the basket, scattering the butternuts across the lawn. Then he spits on the front of Wendell's jacket. A speck of spittle remains on his lip.

"Thief," he snarls. "Damn dirty stealer." He stomps away and slams the kitchen door behind him.

Wendell looks at the spittle on his jacket. He wipes at it with his hand, then kneels in the wet grass. There is a rapping at the window and Wendell raises his head. Martha is at the window. crying. She raises her hand and gives a little wave. Wendell half raises his hand, then turns away. He starts to pick up the butternuts.

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Copyright © 1996 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/12.96