Bailey White: 'The Second Hand Or The Roach'
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
Every year on Thanksgiving we take some time to step away from the daily news to present an original short story by Bailey White. It's been a program tradition for more than two decades and we're glad to continue it today. This year's story she calls...
BAILEY WHITE: "The Second Hand or the Roach."
CORNISH: It's set in the Deep South, where White lives, and we'll leave the rest to her.
WHITE: You know you're under a lot of stress when you find yourself grinding your teeth in time to Patsy Cline singing "Crazy" inside your head. That's what happened to Eantha the year she and her partner, Deb, moved into a hundred-year-old house on Barton Street. Leaky roof, peeling paint, falling off porch, and a hole in the floor where the old Campion sisters had let a log roll out of the fire.
One night, rats stole Eantha's eyeglasses off the bedside table.
Deb was a strong, capable, hard-working woman, and she was doing all the work on the house herself. Every day, she put on her leather apron and climbed up the rickety scaffolding she'd erected around the chimney.
But what about the roof, asked Eantha? They had to step around pans and buckets they'd placed under leaks. First, the chimney, then the roof, snapped Deb. She was irritable. And who could blame her? Day after July day, hauling bricks in that broiling sun. People walking by squinted up at her, shaded their eyes and said, is that a woman up on top of that old house?
The arrogant, young man from across the street with his dug-up sandy yard full of biting dogs; the pretty young thing from the dolled up side hall Victorian on the corner, who pranced by every morning with two pink plastic weights in her hands; and their pitiful little old neighbors, the Termits, who lived in the oldest house in the neighborhood, an elegant little Greek Revival now falling down around them.
Deb gave them all names: The Slouch, Miss Priss, and The Termites.
Crazy, I'm crazy for trying, crazy for crying. Eantha's dentist fitted her with a fitted her with a plastic teeth guard that made her look just like John Travolta.
This neighborhood revitalization was a collaboration between the homeowners, the city, and the Architectural Preservation Organization. The chairman of the organization had been the first to see past the decay and squalor, to the potential in the six blocks of Loomis and Barton Streets. Shaded by great live oaks, the old houses though not grand or showy had a lot of architectural charm.
The preservation organization bought the houses for resale below market value. The city offered tax advantages. And the new owners agreed to covenants and restrictions, and promised to complete the exterior of their houses within two years. Now, a few years into the experiment, the neighborhood was in transition. Fashionable people in colorful houses quickly done over by professional contractors; do-it-yourselfers, like Eantha and Deb; some renters in unimproved houses from the before period; and then the Termits.
The poor old Termits were in retreat from their house. As room after room became uninhabitable, Mrs. Termit would simply close the door and move into the next best room. Mr. Termit would creep out and move the air conditioner from the window of the abandoned room to the window of the next. The march of their retreat could be marked by the empty air-conditioner support brackets outside each window.
It was a shame because the Termit's was the oldest and finest house of all, the only real architectural gem in the neighborhood built in the 1840s by Mrs. Termit's great-great-grandfather. Revitalize, cried Deb. Get those Termites out of that house before it's too late.
Deb could fix anything and one thing she loved to work on was old gas stoves. Eantha was a gifted cook and an educated nutritionist. She worked as the dietitian at the elementary school. They joked that that was what had brought them together in the first place. You provide the groceries and I'll provide the gas, said Deb.
Some late nights after one of Eantha's fine meals, Deb would fantasize about what kind of stove the Termits might have in their fine, old, falling down house. Nothing new had ever been brought into that house and nothing old had ever been hauled out.
Go over there one afternoon, Deb said to Eantha. Act nice, see if you can get a peek into that kitchen. I bet they've got a beautiful, old gas range in there with the ceiling collapsing on it. But it was old Mrs. Termit who was the nice one.
One Saturday, she appeared on their front porch with a little cake wrapped up in wax paper. Eantha invited her to come in and she perched on the edge of a chair with her feet together, and her hands clasped in her lap, ladylike.
Your friend works so hard, she said. Yes, she does, said Eantha. You must worry about her so high up on that roof in all this heat. What if she fell off? Well, that's coming right to the point, said Deb, that evening, as they unwrapped the cake.
Is it a mix, asked Eantha sniffing at it? Will it have that under the house flavor of old people's cooking? But the cake was surprisingly good, with a thin crust of caramelized sugar. And inside, blueberries - each one perfectly ripe, little pools of delicious purple goo. This came out of a well-calibrated oven, said Deb, poking at the inside of the cake.
By the early fall, Deb had finally reached a fancy corbelled top of the chimney. And Eantha launched into Judith Jones' series of duck recipes. There were many steps, each one dependent on the before. First the chimney, then the roof, thought Eantha, rendering cracklings for the next night's cassoulet.
She took a little cassoulet to the Termits. Why, thank you, dear, said Mrs. Termit. But she stepped out onto the porch and carefully shut the door behind her. Eantha did not get a look at the stove.
That evening, while they ate their duck giblet salad, Eantha delicately ventured into a troubling subject. Someone from the Architectural Heritage Society had stopped by the school that day. Just to see how you're getting along with the house, and if you maybe could use some help, he'd said tactfully.
We signed that contract, said Eantha. They see those pretty little renovated houses that Thornton Enterprises turns out one after another, and here we are with a beautiful chimney almost finished. And we only have a half a year for the whole rest of the house. This was a difficult subject for an exhausted, overworked woman, who had spent July and August on the roof; and that very day had smashed her thumb. And in the end, Deb shoved back her chair and stomped out.
Eantha heard the car engine roar and saw the headlights sweep across the porch.
The heritage society had given Eantha a list of names of young men looking for work, and it was not a question of money. It was a question of pride. Deb was difficult to work with. She had her own way of doing things and no patience with anything else. How dare someone suggest that she need help.
But was it reasonable for Deb to think that she could renovate a whole house all by herself, thought Eantha, just one middle-sized woman against all this sagging bead board, peeling paint and two rotten sills? Maybe she'd bitten off more than she could chew and was ashamed to admit it. And how deep did this go? Had Deb set herself up as an example of the strength and endurance of women for all to see? And if she failed on this house, would she bear the burden of letting down a noble cause for which she'd fought so hard?
Or was she just being stubborn, butt-headed and mean? Worry, why do I let myself worry, wondering what in the world, sang Patsy Cline. Deb was still gone the next day when Mrs. Termit came through the (unintelligible) on the hedge to return the little casserole dish with some roasted pecans. Eantha took off her teeth guard and they sat on the front porch. The pecans were perfect, no salt or flavoring of any kind, simply toasted to bring out the depth of their flavor.
You are a good cook, said Eantha. Everything you make is the best it could be. They talked for a while about food and cooking. The blueberries in the cake had come from a row of bushes in the backyard and the pecans were from a tree Mrs. Termit's grandfather had planted in Elliot. More than we can use, honey. You come over and pick up all you want, said Mrs. Termit.
This would've been a good time for Eantha to invite herself to see Mrs. Termit's gas stove. It was something she could do to ease the reconciliation with Deb, but she didn't do it. Instead, she said, my partner is upset. She stomped off in a huff last night because I reminded her that she's behind on this house. A house can be very trying on the nerves, said Mrs. Termit.
Deb came back the next day, but she didn't go up on the roof. She took a set of tiny screwdrivers and a greasy rag into a back room and worked all day long on the stove clock that had never kept time, defying Eantha to say, we don't need a clock. We need a roof. But Eantha didn't say anything. She did what she always did in an emotional crisis. She planned a meal.
Mr. and Mrs. Termit had a car, a 1972 Ford Falcon with four flat tires parked in a shed that was slowly collapsing on it. It don't matter, said Mrs. Termit. We can't see to drive anyway. Twice a week she walked six blocks to the IGA for groceries. They have everything I need, she told Eantha. But this day was harvest festival at the farmer's market and Eantha invited Mrs. Termit to ride out there with her.
You will love seeing all this food, she told Mrs. Termit. It was a glorious celebration of the harvest. Some young people were cooking pizza in a wood-fired oven, a potter was working at a wheel making a five-gallon pickle crock with a design of moon and stars. A man with a long beard was playing a didgeridoo and the whole parking lot was full of abundant and showy food, mounds of purple, red and gold tomatoes, salad greens of every shape and texture, weird foreign vegetables with stripes and warts.
Pumpkins, pears, mirlitons, mayhaw jelly, dried figs. Eantha was the kind of cook who planned a meal according to what looked the best and here, she wanted to cook everything. The sight of all that food so urgently needing to be prepared into well-planned meals made her hyperventilate until she felt dizzy and slightly nauseated.
She filled her canvas bags with striped beets, frilly lettuces, malabar spinach and a haunch of goat. At noon, she and Mrs. Termit met back at the car. Have you ever seen so much of everything, Eantha gasped. I almost brought that pickle crock and 50 pounds of cucumbers. It's a mighty lot of food, Mrs. Termit agreed. In her lap, she held one little brown paper bag, it's top neatly folded over.
And inside her harvest festival purchase, two yellow squashes. One for me and one for Mr. Termit, she said. We ain't big eaters. Eantha's harvest festival supper was not a success. The goat was rank and stringy and the batter bread did not rise. It's not the fault of the oven, Deb said testily. Other things were said over that sad elaborate meal - mean, hurtful things. The house was the subject, but not the theme of the conversation.
Why does Brad come to you with his questions? What do you know about it, you in that school lunch room every day telling other people what to do, snarled Deb. But how did you think it would be different when we took on the house, asked Eantha. Did you really think you'd be able to do it in two years all by yourself? If he has questions about the house, why doesn't he come see me, said Deb.
Because you scare people, said Eantha. With that, Deb put both arms together on the table and swept them apart like a child making an angel in snow. Dishes, glasses and silverware flew across the room in both directions and the mangled joint of goat landed on the window sill. Deb flung herself out and slammed the door. Not quite ready to face the mess of broken and dirty dishes, the dabs of leftover food congealing in pots and pans, the food processor and all its attachments tipped into cold greasy dishwater.
Eantha stepped out into the backyard for just a minute to catch her breath. One cricket was chirping and from Mrs. Termit's kitchen next door, she could smell their supper, browning onions and squash. Patsy Cline's voice died away in her head and through the lighted kitchen window she watched Mrs. Termit wipe out her skillet and hang the spatula on a nail. Then, she stepped out onto the porch and dumped a pan of dishwater over the porch railing onto the mint bed.
The little whiff of mint coming through the (unintelligible) on the hedge was like the most exquisite dessert after an elegant meal. It was 2:30 in the morning when Eantha finished in the kitchen, scraping, mopping, scrubbing, drying and putting away. She sat down in a chair in front of the stove, wrung out the dishtowel and stared at the clock. Deb had fixed it and it kept perfect time, but somehow a big lean, gleaming roach had gotten into the face of the clock.
Every time the second hand swept by it snagged on one of the roach's prickly legs and dragged him up clockwise. But the roach was a fighter. In a wild scramble, he grappled with all his legs at the seven, the eight, the nine. Between eleven and twelve, he'd managed to free himself, but there was no hope for the roach because the tireless second hand would sweep by again and the battle would recommence.
It was hard to take sides in such a contest - the second hand or the roach? Eantha sat and watched for a long time going back and forth between them in her mind. The next day was one of those gorgeous, warm fall days that come right before a change. The light filtering through dogwood and hickory leaves made the late afternoon a glowing pink and gold. Just before dusk, Eantha heard Mrs. Termit's little voice call out.
There stood Mrs. Termit in her backyard, her hands clasped at her chest, her eyes wide and her mouth agape in wonder, watching an undulating column of iridescent rising from the base of the little car shed. Mrs. Termit looked like someone in a picture from a child's illustrated Bible watching a miracle. Eantha went over and together they watched the filmy column curving this way and that, making loops and arabesques, a line of grace rising, rising to disperse and disappear into the glowing sky above their heads.
It's a swarm of termites, said Eantha. Well, life's won, said Mrs. Termit. Quick, said Eantha. I'll get a sheet and a bamboo pole. You get your dishpan. They went to work. Eantha tended the sheet above the swarm and as the termites rose against it, they slid down into the enamel dishpan where, in agitation, they shed their silvery wings.
CORNISH: Eantha flapped the sheet and Mrs. Termit moved the dishpan here and there, two instinctive good cooks working together in the presence of a rich protein source. By gently blowing over the dishpan, they winnowed away the wings and when the dishpan was almost full, they took it into Mrs. Temick's kitchen. Yes, Deb was right.
WHITE: There was a fine old black garland range. The knob turned just as smooth and Eantha watched a little blue flame run around the eye low and even, infinitely adjustable. No need for grease. Mrs. Termit's skillet was exquisitely seasoned. Eantha turned and flipped the termites with the worn thin spatula. It only took a minute. The termites cooked up like little cracklings.
Mrs. Termit got out a box of salt and two spoons and they stood together at the stove, tasting. Here were all the attributes of great food - nutritious, locally grown, humanly slaughtered. Delicious flavor and a pleasing mouth feel, crisp yet umptuous, glistening and golden brown. A dishpan full of termites cooked down to just half a cup. You take them, dear, said Mrs. Termit. Mr. Termit and I have our supper all planned.
Eantha got out her best blue willow plate and a screen wire dome to go over it. She knew Deb was not a quitter. She would come back. She had ordered the shingles from Lowe's and they would be delivered tomorrow. Deb would probably come down off the roof at mid-morning wanting a snack and there it would be waiting for her, termites on toast.
CORNISH: Bailey White, her story is called "The Second Hand Or The Roach." She comes to us by way of member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.