“Covered Dish”… a short story

          From Pantry to sink, beveled edge to backsplash, Betty’s kitchen counter was piled with casseroles.  Creamy tuna with crushed and crunchy potato chip topping; broccoli with cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers; green bean with mushroom soup and French fried onions; three bean, three bean with pasta, three bean with no beans.  Food was everywhere.

          The dining room held the big stuff.  Spread atop the good linen were; two country hams; biscuits; jello salads with marshmallows and nuts;  jello molds in friendly shapes and all the primary colors; ice tea, fresh and sugared; bit sized pecan tassies, gooey and warm; and last but not least, two different kinds of sweet potato pie.  The welcome wagon had definitely arrived.

           The neighborhood woman came early bearing covered dishes. Each dish was packed proudly inside its own quilted warmer, each warmer decorated with cross-stitched flowers or proudly embroidered initials marking ownership.  Some ladies brought more than one dish, each with its own cover and of course all matching.  The dishes sat clustered together by families of color and content.  

A covered dish was serious business.

           The notice had appeared in the weekly bulletin at church.  The newest members of the family were to be welcomed this Sunday.  The traditional method was, of course, the covered dish.  There was nothing like good food, good conversation, and good people.  Everyone was invited.  Everyone came.

           Betty stood among them. The colorful swarm, a procession of reaching limbs and plates, utensils at the ready.   Each smiling face introduced itself again as each passed, each turning and heaping another serving of his or her favorite dish, each leaving through the opposite end of the kitchen.  It was a divine, lively, ceremonial dance of welcome.  Her house was filled to the brim with new friends, and Betty couldn’t remember feeling happier.

          Betty remembered most of their names, but some she recognized by other methods.  The woman who played the organ was there, buzzing around in bright yellow organza with matching shoes and purse.  Even the beads around her neck were the perfect matching shade of yellow.  The organ woman fluttered from room to room smiling and chatting.  Everywhere she went, that perfectly matched purse held fast in the crook of her arm, part of her being.

          The buffet-receiving-congo line seemed endless.  But the growing stack of dirty plates, glasses and silverware told Betty otherwise.  As wonderful as it was, it would soon be over.  As she moved toward the sink, a blur of navy jacket, red tie, and bulging brass buttons caught her eye.  It was the salesman.  The soap salesman.  Effervescent and ever smiling, he was making his way through the crowd toward her.

          She turned, hoping his name would come to her before he reached her at the sink.

“Betty…” he boomed, “got something for you.”

          She turned back, too late; she could only remember the soap.  She would have to ask his name.

“Now don’t tell me, you’re going to try and sell me some soap, right?” she asked.  She smiled, “I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name…”

“Betty, don’t you worry about it. You remembered the soap and that’s more important!  Brought something for you, fell off the shelf at the plant, if you know what I mean…” he said.  With a wink and a smile he handed Betty a bag.  Betty looked inside; it was full of sample-sized soaps, laundry powder, and dishwashing lotions. At the bottom of the bag stood a large unlabeled bottle.

“Thank you, you shouldn’t have really…”

“Think nothing of it, I thought I would get your opinion on some of our products.  Did you see our latest, the big bottle, the dishwashing lotion?” he asked as he pulled it from the bag.

“This stuff will take the grease off a hog, and that ain’t no lie! Thought I would bring you a large size–knew you could use it today of all days!” he chuckled, nearly bursting the hold his buttons had on the jacket.

“This stuff really is the best stuff for getting grease and grime off your dishes, cars, and let me give you a free tip–just a little in a bucket full of water will make your windows sparkle.  I’ll tell you what, you get that husband of yours in here, and I’ll give you a little demonstration!”

          With a push on her back, and a gentle” go on now”,  Betty found herself looking for her husband, Tom.  She didn’t have to go far; he was trapped in the hall between the organ woman and one of the church elders.  The elder was slight, and with a  wrinkled smile. His large black-framed spectacles gave his eyes an exaggerated size.  Tom stood trapped between the fluttering yellow and the nodding elder owl.  He didn’t have a chance.

“Can I steal my husband away for just a minute?” Betty asked as she pulled Tom back from the edge.  She added, “the soap man wants to see us in the kitchen.  I think he’s going to give us a demonstration of one of his new products.”

          Tom and Betty headed for the kitchen.  The line was gone, and replaced with a mountain of dishes at the sink.  The soap man was standing next to the sink, jacket off, sleeves rolled, ready for action.

The salesman started to pitch, “Betty  if I could trouble you for a large bowl, I can get this little show on the road.”

           The elder owl and organ woman had followed Betty and Tom into the kitchen. Tagging along were several other neighbors and children.  Betty had the feeling this was a regular occurrence at these things.  She liked the idea of someone helping her with the dishes.  She hoped Tom was taking notes. 

Betty retrieved the bowl from the top shelf and handed it to the salesman.  Then he started.

“First, let me welcome one and all to the home of our new friends, Betty and Tom from way out west.  Where was that, Arizona?” Betty and Tom smiled, and he continued. “Betty has been kind enough to let me show you all the greatest little product we have come up with yet.” He held the product high and turned for all to see.

          By now there was quiet a crowd gathered in the kitchen.  Betty wondered just how many people there were, she couldn’t seem to count them all.

“Betty,” he continued, ” could I possibly trouble you for a little salt and pepper?”

          Betty retrieved the items from the counter and handed them to the salesman.

“And could I possibly trouble some of you folks to clear a space for me and my bowl at the table?”

          As he motioned towards the table, the crowd parted and magically room was made, and the salt, the pepper, and the bowl were placed upon the crowded table.

“Now Betty, if I could ask just one more thing,” he smiled. “Just what do you have a lot of out there in Arizona?”

          Raising her arms above her head, betty bounced, “Cactus, giant cactus.” Everyone laughed, Betty beamed.

“Well we don’t have much of that here, but I tell you what we do have…I need some water…could someone bring me some water for this bowl please?”

          Tom took the bowl from the salesman and filled it before handing it back.  The food had been moved by now, and all that sat upon the good linen now were the large bowl of water, the salt, the pepper, and the unlabeled bottle of soap.

“Like I started to say,” he bellowed, ” we don’t have any of those things here.  If it’s got thorns and prickers we get rid of it.”

         The crowd chuckled.

“Especially if they are bigger than we are. We don’t take kindly to plant life that inflicts pain whatsoever!”

          Betty and Tom and the ret of the crowd couldn’t help but laugh.  The salesman got louder and louder with every approving guffaw.  Betty was glad he had taken off his jacket;  those buttons wouldn’t have made it this far.

          The salesman started shaking salt into the bowl and asked, “No, what I meant folks, was what kind of those…what do you call them…vermin kinds do you have out there, we have another kind which I am sure you know of.”

          A ripple of approval began to surround betty and Tom.  Loud nods and mumbled yes sirs, and yes ma’ams, crowded around them.

“HIS- SPAN- ICS–spics–that’s what I meant. Out here we got ourselves a bigger nigger problem, you see.”

          With that, he began to shake pepper into the bowl until the water was no longer visible.  A thick black layer of pepper completely covered the water.

“Yes, we have us a big ol’ problem here…” he chuckled as the pepper continued to float upon the water. “But now we have us a solution.”

          The salesman held up the unlabeled bottle and turned for all to see.  The crowd roared.

“Yes sir, all we have to do is take a little of this magic soap…”   The salesman pulled the top from the bottle and placed a single drop of soap upon his finger. he then ran his finger over the rim of the bowl, depositing the soap inside.

          The crowd pushed toward the table; eager faces poised to watch, as the slow-moving drop of soap cleared a path down the inside of the bowl towards the water.  The soap hit the water, and the blackened surface parted, revealing the still unmelted grains of salt upon the bottom of the bowl.  The pepper had been isolated to the edge of the bowl, a black circle of wasted spice.

          Betty noticed that  the owl had somehow lost his eyes.  They were hidden in a mass of wrinkled skin pushed up from his beaming grin.  As she turned to face the mound of piling dishes, she noticed the organ lady no longer held her matching bag.

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