Stranger At The Table

Viola had shit to her name. She had two sons with her name, but the pair of them were worth less than shit. At least shit was consistent (in that it always stank). Viola’s sons said some mighty nice words at their father’s funeral, but when they found out he didn’t have life insurance and died a year too soon for their dear old mom to receive his Social Security, those nice words stopped short of action. All they had were suggestions: Don’t you have some cousins out in the country? Maybe you could move in with friends. Maybe the church would help you. Maybe you could apply for assistance.

The only assistance Viola needed was from her children, but it seemed as though they forgot everything she’d taught them about how to treat someone. Her Pappy said that was what happened when people moved to the city. Said people were better out where the corn grew tall and the hogs grew fat. Said folks were always willing to welcome a stranger to the table. Said he should have stayed out in the country and he would have, too, if Viola’s daddy hadn’t made him move to St. Louis after the boar nearly tore out his femoral artery after he slipped in the winter slop.

It was that line, about country folk always being willing to welcome a stranger to the table, Viola remembered when she was scraping the bottom of her savings account for one more month of rent. It was that line she thought of when packing her clothes into plastic bags and shoving them and her favorite dog-eared romance novels into the trunk of her Ford Taurus. It was that line she referenced in the note she left for her sons along with the gray flip phone they’d insisted she bought five years prior.

It’d seemed like such a good idea as she watched the city disappear in her rear-view, windows down to allow the cool autumn air to ruffle her hair. She had four hundred eighty-three dollars and seventy-eight cents in her glove box (the entire contents of her savings account) and the biggest adventure of her fifty-one years of life ahead of her as she drove west.

It seemed like such a good idea until she was bent over a map on her car’s hood at a gas pump, trying to figure out which wrong turn she made in the fading light. The speaker hissed and someone sounding authoritative told her to either fill her car or leave. She left.

She should have filled her car.

Another hour later, the sun was long gone and so was her gas. On either side of her car, fields of dried corn scraped in the breeze. She pulled out her map again, squinted at it. All she remembered was passing a sign saying six miles to Humansville a few minutes before her engine died.

Well, her pappy always said people were more friendly in the country. Viola wasn’t going to have a better chance to find out. She put on her tennis shoes, white ones that had never seen dirt, stuffed the cash from her glove box into her purse, and locked her doors. Thankfully, the batteries of her red mini maglite seemed strong. She started walking.

Viola started to regret a lot of things while hoofing it down that road, none of which were making the trip. She regretted marrying an older man rather than going to college or looking for work. She regretted staying home with her sons rather than getting a job and staying home once they left for school because she’d never done anything else. She’d relied on her husband to take care of them financially and assumed he would always be there to take care of them. Assumed the doctors were exaggerating when they told him to eat more broccoli and less bacon. He’d looked so healthy until the heart attack. Then, he looked dead.

She stumbled, scuffing the pristine white leather of her shoes. In truth, Viola felt duped by life. As though she’d given thirty-three years of her life to marriage and family and been suckled dry by both. She’d invested her life in others. It had yielded shit.

Her flashlight caught the edge of a driveway, macadam yielding to gravel. She turned, thinking of the breakfasts her Pappy recounted from his childhood. Biscuits slathered in lard and topped with eggs, crocks of cream and bacon to boot. She thought of a long table, filled with smiling faces, people wearing coveralls and plaid shirts, keeping one chair at their table empty so she could join them.

The walls of corn on either side of the gravel lane gave way to grass. There was one spot light attached to each of the three buildings. None of them were houses with window boxes or painted shutters, where people left a porch light on just in case a stranger’s car ran out of gas.

They were long rectangular buildings, a shade of mint green only seen in high school locker rooms in the 1970s. Giant exhaust fans drowned out any noise from within, but with the noise came the stench of shit and urea, thick enough that Viola thought she could see it.

This was no place for her white tennis shoes, even if she had scuffed them.

Turning to leave, she caught sight of a gold Ford F-150 parked in the shadow of one of the spotlights. She reasoned that the farmer had come by to check on his animals. Maybe he would be wearing a red plaid shirt, denim coveralls, and had a place for her to sleep that night.

She crept up to one of the sliding doors and pushed it open.

3 thoughts on “Stranger At The Table

    1. Thanks so much! On my first run-though of the story, I wrote what was in the buildings, then deleted it as to allow it to be open-ended for the next person. I’m excited to read what you wrote! (And will, once I’m done scraping cow shit for the day).


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