Navy Beans

I moved home to Shuffletown from the city when my last child graduated from high school. I had promised my dad that I would return once my kids were grown. I moved into Dad’s small yellow rental house on Mt. Holly Huntersville Rd. about three hundred yards from the Shuffletown crossroads. Dad was probably the only family member delighted by my return.Well, that’s not completely true. I do believe my Cousin Phyllis enjoyed my three year retreat to Shuffletown as it provided a grand opportunity to continue the love-hate relationship of our childhood. We visited over coffee, watched television together late into the night.

And we traveled together. Phyllis, who taught Shakespeare at the local high school, made reservations for visits to England while I treated her with trips to resorts that offered me, free accommodations in trade for articles I would write in travel magazines. At that time, I was still a member in good standing of a regional outdoor writers’ association. Every year, I received an invitation to their annual convention. With my two kids in tow, I had attended one of their conventions back in the 1970s. I had a wonderful time. I learned to shoot a bow and arrow and met several interesting men some of whom had a full set of teeth.

The ratio of men to women outdoor writers, at that time, was 51 to two. Back in 1971, the only reason I had only been invited to join the circle of men was because I signed my articles on marlin fishing and boat building with my initials, not my first name.

When I received the annual invitation to the convention, I became obsessed with the idea that this would be a grand adventure for me and Phyllis. The writers’ convention was to be held at a large state park in Tennessee.

“Why don’t you come along with me to the convention,” I asked Phyllis on one of our convenience store runs, trying not to sound too attached to the idea.

“What?” she retorted? “Are you asking me to go as your spouse?”

“Well, I am currently without a spouse,” I responded.

“They’ll think we are lesbians?”

“Somehow, I doubt it,” I replied. “We will wear heels to the banquet on the first night.”

Phyllis narrowed here eyes. “If I have to spend one night in a tent, or if I have to pee in the woods, I will kill you.”

“I swore to her that we had reservations in a motel with clean sheets each night. I swore, too, that I would find out how to get to Tennessee before we left. “I’ll call a travel service for a map,” I wheedled.

Begrudgingly, Phyllis agreed. However, in the next few weeks, if I so much as mentioned our trip to anyone in Phyllis’s presence, she would add, “And, I am going as Judy’s spouse.”

The night before the trip was to begin, we agreed on a 9:00 a.m. departure for the six hour trip to Tennessee. On Thursday morning, with map in hand, we each knew the name of the state park where we were headed. But by the time we returned, the park’s name was completely and permanently deleted from memory. We tried, many times to recall it; we pulled out maps and asked native Tennesseans the names of their largest state parks. But to this day, I cannot recall the exact name of the place or how we got there.

Nine o’clock sharp, I pulled into Phyllis’s driveway and honked the horn. Phyllis poked her head out the door, coffee cup in hand, “I will be right out,” she said. And she was.

We slammed her luggage into the trunk and she settled into the passenger seat. “Let’s stop by Mom and Dad’s, I want to say goodbye and give them the name and phone number of our motel.”

I drove up the hill and parked in my aunt’s yard. We ran inside.

“Won’t you stay for a cup of coffee,” Aunt Mutt asked.

“We are ahead of schedule,” I replied as she poured us each a cup.

Twenty minutes later, we were back in the car. I drove the short distance to the crossroads. While the car was idling at the light, I saw my dad walk to his mail box. “I need to make sure I gave him the motel information,” I said and turned the car left instead of right towards Tennessee.

“Come on up to the house,” Dad said.

We obliged. Dad had received a gallon of strawberries from a friend and he wanted to give us some for the trip. We sat at his kitchen table eating doughnuts and drinking ice tea while he washed and sorted the berries carefully placing them into a Tupperware container. It was 10:30 before we were back in the car.

“Why don’t we stop at Shuffletown Grocery and get some cold drinks for the trip?” Phyllis suggested. “You can top off the gas tank.”

Uncle Ed was leaning over the minnow pool when we pulled up by the gas tanks. “Where are you two troublemakers going this early?” he asked.

“Tennessee,” I answered, “for an outdoor writer’s convention.”

“I’m going as her spouse,” Phyllis said as she entered the store.

Uncle ED followed us inside, “I always knew you two were strange,” he said drying his hands.

We spent about fifteen minutes at the counter, swapping gossip and jokes with the regulars. Back in the car, Phyllis discovered a stamped invoice she needed to mail. “Run back by my mailbox and let me drop it in?” she commanded.

I turned the car around, turned left and drove up her driveway. Uncle Johnny had somehow beaten us to the mailbox, where he was placing his monthly bills in for pick-up.

“Phyllis,” he said, poking his head in the window, “I just heard Billie Paulson died. She taught you how to play, Rook. Maybe you ought to stay for the funeral?” he asked.

“No, Daddy, I have to go with Judy. I have to go with her to be her spouse.”

Uncle Harrison grinned and scratched his head. “Y’all behave yourselves. Judy don’t you get Phyllis in trouble.”

At eleven o’clock, we left Shuffletown’s lone intersection for the open road. As we passed the high school, Phyllis blurted, Pull in here. I’ve got to get something out of my locker.”

It took only two minutes to get her notebook, but another 58 minutes to speak to every one we passed in the halls, plus Phyllis wanted to stop in the principal’s office to tell his secretary a joke.

It was noon before we were back in the car headed out of town, at last. The first thing we saw was one of our favorite restaurants, Mama’s Home Cooking.

“We may as well eat lunch,” Phyllis suggested, “and then we can just drive straight through to Tennessee.”

I pulled into the parking lot and we entered the restaurant. It took us a full five minutes to make our way to the corner booth, what with Phyllis talking to everyone she knew on the way. Before, our dinner arrived, a young man dressed in brown work clothes slide in beside Phyllis and hugged her.

“This woman got me out of high school with a diploma,” He said pulling off his cap. Other former students joined us for lunch and we spent an hour exchanging Phyllis stories.

“We owe a lot to this woman,” they said before giving her a squeeze goodbye and going out to his truck.

By l: 00 p.m., we were finally on the road. It was a long boring drive with most of it on four lane highways that curved around mountains and avoided towns. I drove all the way about an hour into the trip I noticed that Phyllis was popping Tums in her mouth.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Do you have heartburn?”

“God no, I have gas and if I don’t eat these, we will have to ride with our windows down.”

“You know, I don’t ever get gas,” I observed.

“You’re lying.”

“Nope, do not ever have a problem with gas. I can eat anything.”

“You are lying. Everybody gets gas.”

“No, really, I have never had a problem with gas.”

I could feel Phyllis’s eyes boring into the side of my head. “Girl, you are lying.”

We spoke of many things on that ride, but often, Phyllis would state her disbelief that I had never farted.

We arrived at the motel well after dark, in fact, utterly missed the banquet. While I was registering at the front desk, Phyllis announced to the desk clerk that she was my spouse, “but just for this convention,” she assured him.

The clerk was obviously finishing up his eight hour stint behind the reception counter, his tie was loose and his patience was worn thin.

I shook my head, and said, “This woman is nuts. I just picked her up a few miles down the road where she was hitchhiking. I told her she could take a bath in my room. Don’t you smell her,” I asked, wrinkling my nose.

He looked at me with heavy lids, “Last guest I registered had a two headed turtle in a jar.” Unsmiling, he handed me the room key.

In the room, tastefully done in neon colors of orange, Phyllis carefully unpacked all of her clothes and placed them in the bureau drawers. I opened my suitcase laid it out on the floor, hung my cowboy hat on the doorknob, pulled out my toothbrush and pajamas took a bath and hopped into one of the double beds before Phyllis had her slacks on a hanger.

“Aren’t you going to hang anything up?”

“All I brought were jeans and shirts. The wrinkles will fall out when I wear the shirts or I will hang them in the bathroom when you take one of your twenty-minute showers. If I unpack, I’ll just have to repack when we leave.

“You are a slob,”

“I know it,” I answered. “Got any magazines?”

As I drifted off to sleep, she called to me, “I know you are lying. Everybody gets gas.”

Friday, we made our rounds at the convention. We were hit on by almost every man in attendance. Trouble was many of them had lost their teeth since the 70s. Others had married. Two smelled like they were wearing deer urine. There were two who interested us, but not enough. One was the guy with a two headed turtle. We ate lunch with them and turned down their offers for hikes. Later the one with the two headed turtle called our room and asked if I would like to come up to his room to see it. I refused.

The next time the phone rang, it was his friend. He asked to speak to Phyllis. He had borrowed the two headed turtle and wanted to know if Phyllis wanted to come to his room to touch it.

Saturday, we decided to leave the park and drive to the nearest mountain village. We thought maybe it would be a good idea to purchase cheap wedding bands and, once back at the convention, announce our love for each other at dinner.

We poked through merchandise in stores that were heated with coal stoves in the winter time. We wandered through a couple of antique shops, got back in the car, and headed for the next village, I was feeling a mite puckish when we drove past an eating establishment with a packed parking lot.

“Looks like a good place to eat,” Phyllis said.

“All you can eat,” I read off a metal sign tacked to a tree.

The curtains were red gingham, the tables were covered with oil clothes, and the buffet table was laden with home-grown vegetables, okra, corn, tomatoes, yams, green beans, baby lima beans, and squash. The soup of the day was Navy Bean soup. I polished off two bowls before loading my plate with vegetables and fried chicken. The two of us ate like starving children and washed the bounty down with sweet tea. Phyllis finished and watched me wolf down my third bowl of Navy Bean soup.

“Idiot, you are going to get gas.”

“I told you I don’t get gas,” I replied and pushed the empty bowl away.

We headed back to the motel, because we were about an hour and a half away from the motel and Phyllis wanted to participate in the clogging classes at 4:00.

An hour into the trip, my stomach began to hurt. I breathed deeply, wondering if I was getting the flu. When we arrived back at the motel, Phyllis changed shoes and I tried to beg off the clogging class.

“I came with you to this convention,” she said, hand on her hips and now, by God, you are going to the class with me.”

Fifteen minutes of dancing in circles and stomping the ground with my heels and I knew I had to sit down. As I sat on the wooden bench, my stomach began to rumble and swell. It was the flu, for sure. Half an hour into the class, I signaled to Phyllis that I was going back to the motel.

“I’m sick,” I hissed when she came over, “I hope I am not taking something.”

Phyllis insisted on going with me. I drove back up the hill towards the motel like someone being chased by armed assailants. In the room, I ran to the bathroom and slammed the door. Thankfully, I got my pants down before I almost blew the commode out from under myself.

I sat there for a long, long time. Eventually, I opened the door and peeked out.

“As God is my witness,” I wheezed. “I do believe I have gas,” I leaned against the wall, the back of my hand on my forehead.

Phyllis began to laugh. “You will never live this down,” she promised.

I went to dinner fearful that my stomach would make a noise loud enough to embarrass me and four long-dead previous generations of ancestors.

The eager twosome had saved us a seat at their table. I ate sparingly with the waist of my blue jeans unbuttoned and held my breath between chews. They walked us back to our motel room. The amorous writer grabbed me, leaned me backwards with a flourish and kissed me goodnight. I gave him a wrong phone number and stepped inside.

“Whew,” Phyllis said, “We escaped.”

“Whew is right. It was all I could do to keep from blowing my pants off during that kiss.”

Once back in Shuffletown, Phyllis lived up to her promise. She told the world about my Navy Bean soup experience. For the next three weeks straight, I received recipes that featured navy beans from her friends from Maine to California. They kept pouring in after that, too, but I began to deposit them into the trash can without reading them. I still have about twenty of the recipes.

On Valentine’s Day, I went to the high school to substitute teach for Phyllis so she could leave a day early on a trip to New York City. When I arrived at eight in the morning, there was a recipe for navy bean soufflé written on the blackboard. In the course of the day, I watched as dozens of roses were delivered to sweet young girls during class. At least one student in each class sat at the back and periodically gave up the sound of emitting gas.

To this day, many years after Phyllis has departed this world, a friend of hers who lives in Maine remembers me at Christmas. She sends me, of course, a recipe for navy bean casserole.

Ps, Navy bean recipes are not available upon request.

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