When they were children growing up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, her brother Kirby often pointed out Evelyn’s wide mouth. He’d say, “Little Sister, your mouth is stretchy as a clothesline on a windy Wednesday.”
It was true. Evelyn had no trouble nibbling her lips around spoonfuls of food – perhaps because as a child of the Dust Bowl, she seldom had enough to eat. She was from a family of ten. Her father George, a country doctor with a lascivious eye, abandoned the family and skedaddled back to Arkansas so he would not have to pay child support while he successively married wives number two through five. Perhaps Evelyn was hypoglycemic because in a jiffy she would become voraciously hungry.
In addition to possessing a ravenous appetite, Evelyn was a tightwad. In the mid-‘60s, when her two daughters were young, she was so penny-pinching, she would sit in the frayed velvet chair under one light bulb at night, stitching holes in their panties. She’d hoard soggy, crumpled Kleenexes complete with twisted stalagmites and stalactites in the caverns of her handbag and bathrobe pockets. Sometimes after Evelyn took the girls shopping downtown at the 40% off sale, and they were on their way home – even five minutes from home – suddenly she’d announce, “I’m hungry!” Then they’d have to stop right there at Orange Julius across from the college for a big splurge on hamburgers, fries and three of those fizzy, orange, delicious shakes that puckered their tongues with cistrus bubbles. The little girls were thrilled to have such a hungry mom!
Her appetite did not diminish as Evelyn aged. By the time she was in her eighties, she was living in a two-bedroom apartment with a full size kitchen at the Old Rugged Cross Baptist Home, in San Gabriel, California, a prudish retirement villa where alcohol and cigarettes are strictly verboten to this day, and women are banned for wearing shorts in the dining hall although men clad in shorts with unsightly legs are always welcome. As long as she was able to reside in her apartment, Evelyn grabbed the handles of her walker with alacrity and strolled purposefully to the dining hall at 11:45 am on the dot. She perched in the lobby on one of the chintz sofas along with various other eager diners, waiting tensely until the doors glided open at noon. She was served a generous lunch: a choice between two savory entrees; several sides including starch and vegetable options; a small green salad or canned fruit suspended in jello; a petite glass of juice and a tall glass of milk; plus a tasty selection from the dessert cart which was wheeled willy nilly through the maze of tables by an unpleasant waitress in a white, starched uniform and tight hairnet. Evelyn drove a perpetually dusty Toyota Camry, and shopped at Walmart for her breakfasts and light suppers – cereal, fruit, milk, coffee, soup, bread, lunchmeat, mayonnaise, and cookies. So you would think that she wouldn’t get hungry. At the market, she parked in the handicapped parking and steered her grocery cart like a luxury liner in order to navigate the long, spacious aisles of the gigantic boxstore.
One day, her younger daughter Clara invited Evelyn out to a stylish cafe where the well-coifed, well-heeled women of Pasadena often lunch. They arrived at glass double doors under a striped awning. Evelyn, bent-over and grinning wildly, held onto the crook of Clara’s arm for support with her left arm while she used her right hand to jab the floor with her cane. It must have been half past noon because Evelyn was becoming increasingly famished. After a couple of minutes, Evelyn and Clara were seated at a table for two. As Evelyn slid into the booth, she started eyeing the adjacent table. The party of five was close to the end of their meal, but a platter of half-eaten sweet potato fries remained among the finished dishes. As soon as the group stood up to walk away, Evelyn’s arm snapped out like a slingshot. Her knobby fingers snatched a clump of fries drenched in ketchup. She cupped the clump against her mouth and shoved it in, quick as could be like a squirrel foraging in the woods.
“Momma!’ Clara admonished her mother. “Don’t eat food off of other people’s tables! What if they’re sick?”
“But I’m so hungry! I can’t wait!” Evelyn reached out to swipe another fistful of fries.
“No, don’t do that! You can’t do that here,” Clara insisted. She asked the waitress to bring some crackers right away.
A few months after the french fry incident, Evelyn’s granddaughter Madeline was at home cooking a gourmet Thai chicken curry dinner for her grandma and the rest of the family. Clara drove over to her mother’s apartment to pick her up. To Clara’s surprise, along with her cane and purse, Evelyn was also clutching a giant, bedraggled, cellophane bag of Whole Foods popcorn. When she sat down in the front seat of the car, she kept the popcorn on her lap, and reached into it periodically to scoop out large handfuls of crunchy kernels which she shoved enthusiastically into her mouth. Stray pieces of popcorn flew from her fingers and lips, bouncing on her lap and falling into the gaps between the seats. Clara thought, this is odd! Since when does my mom shop at bougie Whole Foods? She shops at the Walmart. There wasn’t a Whole Foods close to the Old Rugged Cross Baptist Home. Whole Foods was a few miles away from the ORC, and Clara couldn’t believe her mother would drive all the way to Whole Foods. How did she park in the tiny, crowded parking lot? How did she negotiate the narrow, slanted aisles of the market and get past all the yoga moms with their soy lattes blocking the way? How did she rationalize wasting gas to drive the extra couple of miles? And imagine how much that popcorn cost!
“Since when do you shop at Whole Foods?” Clara asked Evelyn.
“I don’t shop at Whole Foods. I shop at Walmart,” she replied.
“Then where did you get that popcorn?” Clara inquired.
“Oh, you know,” Evelyn said with an impish, little smirk.
“Where did you get that popcorn?” Clara repeated, unconvinced.
“Oh, just be still,” Evelyn insisted primly.
They stopped at a signal, and Clara saw the corner of a box deep down inside the popcorn. She saw a logo of a camel. It was a package of Camel cigarettes, buried in the the bag. Clara pulled over and parked. She grabbed the popcorn bag and pulled out the cigarette box. It was open and two unused cigarettes plus a butt were inside the box.
“Momma, where did you get this?” Clara demanded.
“I found it yesterday at the bank,” Evelyn told her daughter.
“They don’t sell popcorn at the bank,” Clara sputtered.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” Evelyn demurred, her chin tipping up like a warning.
“What do you mean you found this popcorn at the bank?” Clara asked her mother heatedly.
“It was in the bushes. I went to the bank, I saw it in the bushes, and I took it,” Evelyn explained with an exasperated tone.
“This is trash! You can’t eat this! This is some homeless person’s popcorn with their used cigarettes in it! We have to throw this away!” Clara hurled the bag of popcorn into the back seat.
“Oh, Groan,” Evelyn complained. “I brought that so I wouldn’t get hungry while Maddie’s cooking the evening meal. The last time I came over to your house, dinner wasn’t ready until very late, and I got so hungry!”
“Well, just ask me for food if you’re hungry. We have lots of snacks at our house. We have crackers and cheese and celery and fruit that would tide you over,” Claire said. “You don’t have to get some trash out of the bushes.”
From that time on, when Claire and her family took Evelyn out to eat or invited her over to their house for dinner, they always made sure they offered her plenty of Cheez-its. And that jumbo used bag of popcorn and the box of Camels went straight into the trash.
Chuka Susan Chesney is an artist, poet, flash fiction writer, and editor. With the help of Dr. Ulrica Bell Perkins, Chesney recently edited an anthology filled with the art and poems of painters, sculptors, and poets from across the United States. The anthology, “The Book of Sighs”, is scheduled to be published with Little Red Tree Publishing in November 2019.