Every once in a while I strike a serious pose. While living in Arkansas my ex and I took a day trip to Hope. This story grew from a moment where I found myself parked on a sparsely populated country road in that city across from a piece of overgrown property. From my vantage point it appeared the property housed a trailer in such ramshackle condition I was amazed to note it was inhabited, the carcass of an old pick up truck, and a rusted out toilet with no seat. A very pregnant young girl, looking barely old enough to understand how she came to find herself that way, was gathering tomatoes from the garden and placing them in the pocket she’d created in the bottom of her shirt. It was unbearably hot and she looked so miserable I made up a story about her while waiting for my husband.
Even in the early morning hours the heat was relentless. The old swamp cooler labored loudly in the front room waging a valiant if futile fight against a far stronger opponent. Maggie sat Indian style on the kitchen tile wishing for redemption for whatever evils she had inflicted on the world to find herself baking in this double wide oven, floating in a pool of her own making.
Groaning, she laid back on the cool tile to let what little air there was to be had circulate over her swollen body. A yellowed strip of fly paper swirled overhead turning right, then left, and back again. Both sides of the strip were dotted with the small corpses of its unsuspecting victims. Those who had escaped a sticky end, circled like a minute dog fight over the dirty dishes piled in the sink. They’d better eat their fill today, she thought, because the empty syrup bottle was sitting in the recycle bin next to their last box of biscuit mix. If Drew’s job interview didn’t pan out today, they might well be fighting the flies for a left over morsel.
A small kick beneath her ribcage reminded her to take her vitamins. Grunting, she heaved herself to her feet and reached for the oversized pill bottle on the counter. “Could they make these pills any bigger?”, she said disgustedly, popping two in her mouth while filling the only clean glass with water to wash them down. More for something to do than a sense of order, she turned her attention to rinsing the dishes. Drying them she cast a wistful glance at the old TV set in the living room. Last week they’d turned the cable off. Calling to ask for an extension, the chirpy female voice on the other end of the phone said, “Y’all haven’t made a payment in three months, Sugar. Send in a payment and we’ll get you turned back on in 24 hours.” Before hanging up the woman had told her to “have a nice day”. Why do folks say that kinda stupid stuff anyway, she thought? They don’t mean it. Besides if you haven’t paid your bill in three months, likely you’re not having a nice day, not having a nice day at all. Maggie wished they’d just say, “Hope that lottery ticket you blew your last dollar on hits all the numbers, or Publisher’s Clearinghouse knocks on your door with a film crew wavin a big assed check in your face”. Anything would be better than “have a nice day”. Right backatcha.
Another kick, this one much stronger brought her hand up lovingly to pat her swollen stomach. “Three more weeks, old son, and you won’t be able to kick your Mama anymore, at least not without getting a swat on your behind”. The thought made her smile, the first one her face had managed to produce since she’d rolled herself out of bed.
Taking an absent swat at the small brigade of insects now forming by the kitchen window; she pulled back the curtains to glance down the road. Nothing there but the same ol’ clay colored dirt. Down a ways she could see the neighbors lazy assed blue tick hound lying in his usual spot beneath the Eucalyptus tree. The only thing to indicate he was breathing was an occasional flick of his tail to discourage an annoying fly. Useless dog couldn’t catch a coon if it was handed to him in a bag with a twist tie on it, she though testily.
Beyond the bridge a puff of smoke was visible above the familiar faded green roof of Jeb Miller’s old tractor affectionately referred to as Norma Jean, for reasons known only to Jeb. Beyond that, the water tower stood above the treetops with only the letters “OPE” of visible from her angle. OPE, standing for Hope, Arkansas, population, 11,150. Soon to be 11,151 she thought, absent mindedly resting her hand on her stomach once again.
Hope was something her Mama always held close to her heart. “Maggie Lynn”, Mama would say often, “you can’t fill yer cup with enough hope, it’s free, and cain’t nobody take it away from you, exceptin yourself”.
This brought her thoughts to her daddy. Maggie had last seen him when she was eight. His lanky, perpetually drooped frame walking through the screen door to fetch a pack of his beloved Camel unfiltered at the corner store. Memories fading now, she did clearly remember his favorite expression, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Most probably because it was repeated so frequently during an afternoon of drinking, which for him was most any day of the week ending in “y”. Thirty-four that year, and the sixth baby occupying the well-used bassinet in her parent’s bedroom, the man got tough, got going, and never looked back. Word around town was he’d been spotted at a Motel 6 in Hot Springs the following summer with Mavene, a clerk from the Piggly Wiggly who had suspiciously disappeared around the same time. Good luck to Mavene, already showing a swell in the stomach region. If her daddy was good at anything, it seemed it was that. Mama, well she had hope, and God knows it was free, and there was plenty of it.
Maggie wished she could see her Mama now. Wished she could smell the vanilla scented hand lotion she rubbed into her chapped dry hands every day. Once a month she and Drew visited the head stone at the cemetery where they’d laid her to rest two years ago, twenty odd years too soon. Micah, or Joshua, they hadn’t decided on a name yet, would never know his grandma, the brown eyed lady with her eternal optimism and easy smile. A woman who no matter how tired always found the time to stop and give the attention to whichever of her offspring needed it most at the moment. Mama who bought a new pair of shoes maybe once in five years and worked at the mill and the coffee shop to keep food on the table often falling asleep at it with food still on her plate. Not once, not even once, had Maggie heard her mother complain. Christina Anna Bennett, 1948 – 1996. Beloved Mother of Six.
Looking at her feet Maggie thought they looked curiously like inflated plastic gloves. Her once delicate toes were hardly recognizable beneath their puffy exterior.
One o’clock. It had been three hours since she’d handed Drew a freshly pressed shirt and a manila folder with his resume inside. They had agreed if he got the job he would hang his red handkerchief out the window of the old Ford truck. What he lacked in background, Maggie hoped he’d make up for in enthusiasm. Bassett hound puppies lacked less in the enthusiasm department than her husband did. Two years her senior at twenty-four, it often felt more to her like he was six years her junior. Until he’d seen his son on the ultrasound, he’d pretty much relied on his big blue eyes and engaging ways to get him out of trouble and get him what he wanted in the world. It had certainly worked well on her.
Once again she tugged at the curtains, only to find the dusty road and the tower. OPE, because OPE was free and there was plenty of it.
Slowly she made the bed, her bulky frame making it more difficult to bend and the heat encouraging her not to. Outside the bedroom window, her tomato plants were heavy with fruit. In sympathy feeling the same, she reluctantly put on a straw hat, slipped on her old flip-flops, and went outside to relieve their burden. If things didn’t go well, tomato pie might be on the menu for dinner. Mama’s three ingredient pie crust could be filled with about anything and taste like a feast. Growing up Maggie had learned the recipe at her mother’s knee and tomatoes, or whatever she might find in her garden and a little flour, butter, salt and water, and they would eat well tonight.
Picking the ripe tomatoes in the warm sun made her sleepy. Another small nudge from her internal tenant and the sweat moving like a river beneath her clothes moved her back towards the house and whatever relief the swamp cooler might provide.
Standing at the sink she washed what she’d picked and left them in a sieve to dry. Desperate for any sound besides her own thoughts she turned on the small turquoise radio on the coffee table.
Tired, Maggie lowered her body into a chair near the swamp cooler. Before long, the day washed over her and she closed her eyes. Dreaming of crystal blue seas and cool waters her sleep was interrupted by honking and the squealing of tires out front. Through the faded rooster curtains she saw Dru waving his red handkerchief and behind him HOPE was now clearly visible on the water tower. Christina Anna Bennett’s spirit was alive and well.
Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura
I used: red bell peppers, broccoli, scallions, mushrooms, and zucchini. Also good red onion, yams, carrots, string beans etc.
1 cup plain flour
1 cup rice flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1 cup ice water (this is a must – don’t use tepid water)
1/3 cup pale ale beer
Oil for deep frying (grapeseed or peanut oil is best)
Prepare vegetables and put in a large bowl. About 1 hour before cooking lay vegetables out on a clean kitchen towel and place another towel on top to dry
Rinse and devein shrimp. Keep chilled. Before cooking pat dry with a paper towel.
Place oil in a deep heavy pan. (I used a small wok). Do not fill more than 1/3 full with oil.
Sift together the dry ingredients in medium mixing bowl and set aside.
In another bowl, beat the egg slightly and mix with the ice water.
Stir in the dry ingredients. Stir only until mixed. Mixture will be slightly lumpy.
Heat oil until hot (375 degrees). Dip vegetables first in batter in batches allowing excess batter to drip off. Drop in oil. Fry ingredients a few at a time. You will want to cook in moderate size batches. Do not crowd or put too many in at a time. Cook about 3 mins. or until golden brown and vegetable is cooked.
Fry shrimp last also for about 3 mins. until golden brown. Do not overcook.
Line a cookie sheet with paper towels. Lift cooked items from oil with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to dry.
Serve immediately with sauce. I serve with a bed of white sticky rice on the side.
1 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin (Japanese rice wine)
2 tsp. superfine sugar
2 tsp. finely grated fresh ginger
Tops of three scallions, sliced thin
Mix together all ingredients but scallions and refrigerate until ready to use. Add scallions before serving.