Bean Counter

There’s a cake walk and a hot dog stand with sodas and beer for sale.  A Hula Hoop contest.  Pin the tail on the donkey.  Balloons on a plywood board just ready for popping with darts.  This event, down here at the public park, this is all for Roxie. She’s our next door neighbor and my momma’s best friend.  We have been working for days getting this thing ready,  but my momma is in charge.  Actually, it was her whole idea.

Most days, ever since Roxie’s operation last winter, we’ve been bringing food and stuff to her and Nina, Roxie’s little girl.  The last time we went, day before yesterday, Momma made me go into Roxie’s bedroom to say hey.

“Hey, Roxie.  How you feeling?”

“Fair to middlin’, sweetheart, all in all.  I want to thank you for playing with Nina.  She likes getting all this attention from the big girls, you and Lolly.”

“Oh, you are welcome, Roxie.  She’s so sweet.  I just gave her my old dolly, Winnie, who walks and talks and sings.  Or she used to before her battery died.”

“Well, I’m sure she’ll love it just the same.  Anything from you, Donna Lee.  She worships the ground you walk on.”

“Roxie?” I wanted to tell her something funny, but couldn’t think of a thing.

“What, honey? Hhhump.” she began to cough, a deep watery cough, then tried to smile. It was horrible.  She just showed her teeth like a dog in pain.  Those teeth, yellow and sharp looking were the biggest thing on her face.  Silently, I handed her the water tumbler before I backed out of the room.

That night, I started counting for the bean jar.  It took me more than two hours the first time, then I counted it twice more to make sure I had the right sum.

***

“Got the number, Slim?”  Daddy has come up right next to me in the tent.

“I do, Daddy.  It’s taped to the bottom of the bean jar.”

“Remember.  Don’t tell a soul.  Have them write their guesses down in this book next to their name, but only after they give you a quarter.  One guess for one quarter.”

“Okay.  Quarter, name, guess.  I can do that.”

“Don’t let on now.  Promise.”

“Daaaad.  I won’t.  I promise.”

People come and go all day, until a lady dressed up in a white low back sun dress, white sandals,  white silk scarf tying back her long black hair, white sunglasses with rhinestones on the cat eyes, comes up to my booth.  She must be one of the Winter People.  They don’t stay on here in the desert much beyond Easter.  Too hot for them.  But here she is today, mid-July, standing right there in front of me, looking just like a movie star.

“Well.  What have we got here?  Guess the number of beans in the jar?  My, that’s a big jar for such a little girl.  What will I win if I guess right, honey?”

“Half the pot.”

“Half a pot of dried beans?”

“Hah.  No.  I mean, half the pot of money from the guesses.”

“And what happens to the other half?”

“It’s for Roxie.”

“And who is Roxie? “  She twirls around, looking this way and that. “Why don’t you just point her out to me?”

“Oh, she’s not here.  She’s too sick to get out of bed now.  Her little girl, Nina, is around here somewhere if you want to meet her.”

“Oh.  Oh, goodness.  When I stopped in I thought this was just a little town fair.  Is she, is Roxie pretty sick?”

“Yes.  And she has a lot of bills and stuff.  And she has her little girl. And her husband up and left right after she got the cancer and now she is …”

That’s when it dawns on me.  Nobody has really told me this, straight out, but I know this is true.  Roxie is going to die.   For real.   I start to cry, right then and there, standing in front of my jar of beans.

The lady, looking even whiter for a minute, puts her arm right around me.  She smells like flowers, flowers and something even sweeter.  Like cotton candy.   She hands me a lace hanky from her pocketbook.  I don’t even want to touch it, let alone blow my nose in it, it’s so pretty.

“Oh, my goodness.  What a sad story.  Your momma must be quite a special friend to put together such an affair.”

Oh, Momma.  Poor Momma.  She’s the one gonna really miss Roxie, miss sitting with her in the little side yard between our houses, drinking sweet tea and smoking cigarettes.  Talking about this and that.  And them.  Mostly, talking about them, the other ladies in the neighborhood, the ones who wear dresses in the daytime, not halter tops and shorts like Roxie and Momma.  The ones whose husbands are always home right after work.  The ones who don’t practice what they preach, Momma says.  Go to church on Sunday and leave all their charity right there in the collection box.

Then I remember the beautiful lady standing there.   I wish I could wash it up first, but I hand that white hanky back to her.  “Anyway, you can guess as many times as you want, but you have to pay a quarter each.”

“Here’s ten dollars.  How many guesses do I get?”

“Hmm… 10 times 4 quarters in a dollar equals… 40!”

“But that will take too much time to put in 40 guesses.    Here.  Why don’t you just write in one number for me and I’ll hope for the best.”

“That wouldn’t be fair.  I’m the bean counter, so I know the answer.”   I really want to do it for her because she is so beautiful.  And nice. But fair is fair.

“No, honey.  You are right.  It’s not fair at all.”

“So, then, anyway, put your number right here in the book.  Your name and your guess next to it.  Are you sure you don’t wanna put down lots of guesses?

“Just the one.”  In a flash, she writes her name, a beautiful name, Aurora.  Just one name.  Imagine that?   Having a name like Aurora.  Next to that name she puts her guess, one that is mighty close to my count.

“Might be a winner.  That’s all I can say.”

“Too bad for me that I can’t stay.”

“If you put your address there, we could mail it to you, Aurora, I mean, ma’am.”

“No, that isn’t possible.  If I win, just buy something for Roxie’s girl.”

She drifts away like a cloud, white and cool on this hot day, drifts until I can’t see her anymore from where I stand.   I miss her already.

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