The Ten Pound Roast
At first, the butcher didn’t see her. Then, as a muffled sigh arose from the front of his counter, he saw her, below, her cheek against the glass case housing the cold cuts.
“Orinda! What are you doing down there young lady?”
(Insufferable impertinence!) “I’m resting, Mister Hubbard, on my campstool. I’ve had a long walk.” She stood up and folded the seat over one arm.
“Well, well, all the way from Park Street,” he chuckled.
“Yes, I brought my stool so I could rest along the way, so don’t you worry, I’m not going to collapse in your shop.” She pulled a ticket from her generous purse. “Here. I won it at our church’s festival yesterday.”
One glance told him it was a coupon, written in his own handwriting, all right. The bearer of this paper was entitled to a ten pound roast beef. His mouth smiled, his eyes did not.
“So, Orinda, you’re the lucky lady. Congratulations. Now, Orinda, I want to tell you something. Ten pounds is a lot of meat for just one person. Would you like to trade it for a couple of chops and some franks? Maybe some cheese, dear?”
She was too much of a lady to telegraph her dislike of such familiarity.
“Mr. Hubbard, the ticket reads that Al Hubbard’s Market will award one ten pound roast to the bearer. It’s my prize, your giveaway.”
“And how are you getting all the meat home, little lady? You’ve got your umbrella, pocketbook, and that canvas do-hickey.”
She had ordered a taxi, this morning, from Ed Dulin, but she wouldn’t let on to this smart aleck.
“I’ll manage, thank you. Wrap it up.”
On the ride home, she gave instructions. The taxi was to go down the alley, behind her house, so she could scurry, unseen into her back door. That would prevent Etta Hobbs, seated on her bay window, just across the street, from spying on her and then having her say on the phone that Orinda Hummer sure was an uppity party, throwing her money around on jitney rides.
In her kitchen, Orinda thought about Etta. In 1950, their ring of friendship had been broken—no, smashed to pieces. It had happened while a committee of dedicated women was preparing an elaborate church supper. Etta and Orinda had been co-chairmen, working side by side, for a good cause, as usual. It must have been for patching the roof, Orinda recalled.
A merry group of ladies were slicing and dicing, setting tables and jawing away, when Orinda noticed Etta pouring a wicked looking red sauce over the pans that held the slices of Virginia baked ham.
Astonished, she had asked Etta what in the world was she doing?
“Putting my tomato sauce over the meat”. She had smirked then. “It’s the way my family likes it. I always fix it that way”.
Oh, to spoil the sweet richness of ham with such a concoction! Before she could catch herself, Orinda had protested.
“Oh no—you mustn’t. We can’t serve it like that. No one will eat it that way”.
Etta’s eyes had narrowed. “You wouldn’t know that, since you haven’t tasted it”.
The reputation of the church, all future fundraisers now teetered on this decision. Orinda, throwing caution to the winds had poured the offending sauce down the drain, and had ordered the troops, aghast witnesses to this scene, to wash the slices of ham, then reheat them.
Etta Hobbs stood stiff as Lot’s wife, mouth open, curls aquiver. When she got breath enough, she shrieked. “Orinda Hummer, you are the worst cook in town. Everybody knows it. Your fixings aren’t worth a plugged nickel. That’s why you never got a man, because your old maid persnickety doings. You aren’t my friend any more, and I vow never to set foot in this church again”. Out she had stormed, leaving her tea towels, and two crystal bowls.
The ladies had gone about their chores in silent horror, letting Orinda to shake with guilt over her boldness.
And that’s the way the game had begun. No waves, no conversations, no meetings. If Orinda had knocked on Etta’s door, Etta would have turned the lock, the minute she had seen Orinda coming up the walk.
Well, Orinda could consider Etta invisible, too, if that was the way the hand had been dealt. The congregation as well as the whole town soon knew that Etta and Orinda “didn’t speak”.
As the years went by, stories of the rift assumed various diagnoses. Some said it all started when Orinda wore her Easter dress, Etta had labeled her “an old mutton dressed like a lamb”. Others reported that once Orinda had sniffed at Etta’s daughter’s choice of a husband, saying “She sure took her ducks to a mighty poor market”.
So it became a way of life, to live in close proximity, but worlds apart.
But today, Orinda had other fish to fry, so to speak. She would have a dinner party, Sunday noon, her first in twenty years. The ten pound roast, cooked slowly, with a gash on top to fit in a clove of garlic, would be the blue ribbon offering.
She would have to iron Mama’s table cloth, that had been in the sideboard so long. Good dishes would have to be washed, silver polished. She’d crack black walnuts for the light-as-air cake. She giggled at the joy of hospitality.
She really hadn’t cottoned to Cousin Leah, her husband Morton, and their son, Jack, but they were the only kin left, and it would be nice to have them at table, for the first time. She would even show them she kept a neat as a pin house. That would mean washing the curtains, and lots of dusting, but she had until Sunday to spiffy things up.
Cousin Leah had seemed surprised at the invitation but she agreed to arrive at noon, when Orinda told her, “My stomach operates on standard time”.
So began a painful crusade of cleaning and cooking. Her old bones did allow her to sweep the front porch, knowing full well that Etta was watching every switch of the broom. Many a time she had sat on this porch, in the dark, listening to Etta playing hymns on her Gulbransen across the street. But once Etta had discovered Orinda enjoying herself, she had called Ollie Bates, the handyman, to move her piano away from the front hallway. Ollie had told Orinda that fact when he had come to put up her storm windows.
Etta had joined another church, too, and was singing in their choir.
Sunday morning rolled around on schedule with Orinda humming ”Onward Christian Soldiers” and smiling at her shining rooms. No church for her today. She’d put an extra dollar on the plate next Sunday.
The delightful fragrance of her down home cooking filled the house. A bit giddy with anticipation, Orinda pressed a ribbon from a saved candy box, fashioned a bow to top her gray waves. To wear an apron or not. Orinda decided not to. She’d be extra careful, dishing things up.
By 11:30 all was ready. Orinda sat in her rocker for a bit, and then the phone rang.
Cousin Leah’s wining voice shook her. “Orinda, honey, I’m terribly sorry, but we won’t be able to join you today. (Was she really hearing this?) Jack’s ride to the university petered out, so Morton and I must drive him to school. You’ll forgive us and ask us again sometime”. (Never, never—never, Orinda thought).
Were those tears dribbling on her best lace collar? She had been gracious in her acceptance of Leah’s excuse. Had her voice broken? She sobbed and rocked and her face hurt. All the preparation, all the work, and all the goodness of the ten pound roast, now wasted.
When she had had her cry out, she thought of Etta. In the old days, they might have laughed over the ways of the young, especially those of Cousin Leah. They could have told yarns of how kids can trample your heart, but how oldsters can bounce back. They might have gorged on all this food. They could have sung old songs. Maybe they might have planned the next church project.
But those were the old days. She would never give a crumb to Etta Hobbs, no siree, not after what that woman had done and said. She’d rather go out on the highways and byways, like the king in the Bible, when nobody came to his feast. He brought in the rakings and scrapings of the earth to his table. She laughed then, to imagine herself wandering downtown to invite any bum she might meet to eat her dinner. Mama had always told her that a lady never even looked in at the pool hall, as she went by. “I’d stir ‘em up, walking in there”, Orinda chuckled.
Well, all the shirttail relatives in the world couldn’t keep Orinda Hummer down. She would forget this Sunday, put the food away and plan to eat on it for the next two weeks.
As for Etta and her cackling, well, she’d be dogged if she’d let that woman with her “rearing and charging” manners, stop her from joining the quilting group or maybe teaching Sunday school.
She took a little nap then, dreaming of new friends yet to appear, but Etta’s face, surly and sulky as the mumps kept interfering.
It had grown dark when she awoke, stiff as a poker, but she made it to the front window. Funny there seemed to be several cars parked across the street.
Next day, at half past nine in the morning, the phone rang. Had Leah decided to apologize again? Maddie Offenbach’s voice was penetrating.
“Orinda? I’m calling all the church ladies. Have you heard about Etta Hobbs? She passed away yesterday. They found her sitting in her bay window. He daughter and all six kids have come from across the river. All of us are showing our respects by bringing in covered dishes. I’m taking a lemon pie.”
Orinda marched to her icebox and took out the ten pound roast. They had kept tabs on each other all these years, often behind the lace curtains, or from a basement window, and now Etta Hobbs had slipped away and Orinda had to get information from Maddie Offenbach, of all people.
She plumped the roast down in her second best roaster. She puttered about her kitchen until it was a decent time to go calling.
It has been years since she had climbed Etta’s steps, so it felt strange, but she bravely rapped on the door.
Lots of people had arrived. The preacher from the other church clasped her hand, muttering his blessings.
Etta’s daughter bustled up, eying the roaster. “Orinda, dear Orinda, come in!”
“I brought some meat.”
“How thoughtful of you. You are mourning Mother, and yet you took time to cook”.
“It’s not a ham”, Orinda explained. “It’s a roast beef.”
Etta’s daughter removed the lid. “And you’ve covered it with tomato sauce, just like Mother used to do!”
The preacher spoke up. “Etta and Orinda, two pillars of the church!”
“She was a saint”, intoned Orinda.
Winning Entry of Multi-State Short Story Contest
Mary Elizabeth Mruzik