By Kimberly Lundstrom
Doris pulled the last jar of the summer’s tomatoes from the shelf and set it on the counter. She’d have to ask Liz to get on the stepstool and bring the rest of those beans down lower where she could get at them. Robert put them up for her like he always had, with no thought that he wouldn’t be there to get them down.
She set the jar on the counter and looked up at its empty place on the shelf. Maybe she’d use the store-bought sauce this time, save the good garden tomatoes for later, maybe for the next time Liz stopped by. Doris picked up the saucepan and shuffled to the sink for water to boil the noodles. Not too much now, or you’ll never get it back to the stove.
“Hey, good lookin’, whatcha cookin’?” He’d asked her that as he seated himself at the counter that first night at the Mountain Man Café, and probably a thousand times over the next 50 years. She’d rolled her eyes every time.
But he was a handsome son of a gun. And charming, too, in that homey way that made kids and dogs warm up to him right off. Not charming like a movie star, her Robert. He was no Cary Grant.
He’d sauntered right up to the bar and sat down, wrapping his long legs around the stool, spouted that silly line and beamed at her like he was the first one ever said it and she the first that ever heard it. She couldn’t help but smile back.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Well, you know, I’ll tell ya,” he said. “You can come see the justice of the peace with me.”
“The justice of the peace?”
“Sure.” He slapped a big hand on the bar. “That ol’ boy get us hitched up good and proper.” Then he grinned.
She snorted and continued wiping down the bar.
Doris turned on the water and stared out the window. Soon it would be time to put in the garden again. But who would do it? She sure couldn’t do much out there; her back wouldn’t allow it. Why, she could hardly sit or stand for any length of time without the pain making her antsy. Never mind stooping over.
Why him? A man like Robert, still so strong and active. He’d put in that whole garden himself last year, and kept it up too. Plus harvested and cracked all the walnuts—ended up with 53 one-pound bags of them to sell. You’d think it would’ve been her, what with the fall two years ago and all her troubles with the heart disease. But he was the one gone. Pneumonia, of all things. Let himself get too sick. He always was a stubborn old cuss about getting to the doctor. “I’m fine, Dorrie, I’m fine,” he’d say. “Quit your worrying.”
“What are you worried about?” he’d asked on his fourth night in a row at the Mountain Man. “Why wait? Look, I figure we know each other as good as anybody, better’n folks trying to impress each other in some fancy restaurant. You know about that floozy ex-wife of mine. And I know about your ex too, leaving you on your own with the kids and all.”
Doris gripped the washrag a little tighter. Why had she told him about Rex? It just came out, like she could tell this man anything.
“Hell,” Robert said, “I got no secrets, not from you. And I think we’d make a good team. Pool our resources, times being what they are.”
She allowed he had a point there. It was hard to make ends meet with what she made at the café, and her sister was getting tired of watching Doris’s kids as well as her own. And here was this Robert, with his steady job at the lumber mill. The other men who came into the Mountain Man had nothing but good to say about him—hard worker, honest.
“Got me a piece of land up on the hill.” He reached across the bar and took her hand, which still clutched the damp washrag. “I’ll bring home the bacon. You can put in a garden.”
Doris looked up, searched his eyes.
“We’d be good together. I can tell. C’mon, Doris, give it a try. If you decide you want out, I’ll let you go. We can head down to Reno, get us one of them quickie divorces. No hard feelings. What do you say?”
She’d started with the tomatoes, picking and putting up the first ones that ripened on the vine, fat and red. That first year they had a bumper crop. They filled all the shelves Robert built from scrap lumber his boss at the mill let him haul home, filled them with tomatoes, then beans, then corn. All the kids had enough to eat and to spare. She’d traded rich tomatoes for sweet peaches with the woman down the way.
Doris turned off the water. The saucepan was too full, of course. She’d have to pour some out. But for the moment she left it in the sink. She noticed that last jar of tomatoes standing on the counter and took it up in both hands to lift it toward the empty place on the shelf. It shone in her hands, radiant in the light of the setting sun. Doris smiled. She grabbed a spoon out of the drawer. Why wait?
Copyright Lundstrom 2012