Ethel Jordan holds her hands out in front of her. She never liked her hands. The fingers are stubby, too short to be mistaken for the fingers of a pianist which she had wanted to be in another life.
She turns her hands over and stares at the calluses that remind her of Rufus. Oh, how hard they had worked, side-by-side, day after day after day after day. Just trying to make a living. The thought caught her by surprise. Why would aged calluses bring one of Rufus’s pet phrases back to life?
She thinks about how, whenever they went to town, someone would always call out to Rufus, “Rufus Jordan, how ya doing?”
Rufus would always reply, “Just trying to make a living. Just trying to make a living.”
Just trying to make a living. They had tried to make a living, hadn’t they, but trying hadn’t been enough. There was always not enough. Not enough time. Not enough space. Not enough money. Not enough of anything! Not even enough love to keep him just trying to make a living with her.
They never had any children, which was just as well since she never relished the thought of trying to put food in a hungry child’s mouth, something she had once said to her mother. Her mother’s response was unexpected. Ethel thought her mother would try to convince her of the selfishness of her remark. Instead, her mother burst into tears and ran out of the room.
It was only after her mother died that Ethel realized the salt she had poured into her mother’s wounded heart, a woman who had done her best to put food into all five of her childrens hungry mouths when Ethel’s father died.
Five children. People don’t have that many children anymore. Maybe people don’t want that many children anymore, if they want any at all. Some people don’t deserve children. Like Mildred’s mother who looked like she hated all her children but the one she seemed to hate the most was Mildred. Maybe it was because Mildred looked too much like that husband who walked out on the mother and had left her trying to put food into those three hungry mouths.
Mildred had been Ethel’s best friend in elementary school and part of high school. They were “thick as thieves,” as her mother used to say about them. Ethel shared everything with Mildred, food and clothes and her bed on those nights when Mildred’s mother would kick her out of the house because she was “sick of the sight of her.”
It scared Ethel to think about what could happen to Mildred on those bitter nights if she didn’t have her room to come to. But, one bitter night Mildred did not run to Ethel’s room. She had just turned sixteen and told Ethel that her mother’s boyfriend kept trying to “mess with me,” as Mildred put it. Ethel hated those stories so much that she began to avoid her friend simply because she didn’t know how to help her. Nobody talked about those things back then. Ethel even told Mildred to stop making him look at her. Then one day it just happened, Mildred disappeared,
“Run off is what she did,” is what her mother would say to anyone who would listen, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Ethel still wonders.
“I wonder how people can be so mean to their own flesh and blood.”
Ethel could not see how a woman who had carried a child inside her with all that wiggling and squirming going on inside her, heartbeat under her heartbeat, how could she just treat it like a sack of garbage after the child was born? Seems like there should be some kind of connection between those two hearts so that birth only strengthens that which was concealed and is now revealed.
Guess it just ain’t so. Leastwise it wasn’t so for Mildred.
Life is full of wonders, children run away and mothers who don’t care. Husbands who try to make a living up and leave the woman who worked just as hard alongside him to try and make a living.
Ethel looks at her hands again and wonders about Rufus’s hands, those hard rough hands that would grab at her after long hard days of just trying to make a living. Hungry, angry hands that grabbed and pushed and pulled without love, just a hard angry hunger for release. Just trying but never succeeding, trying, trying, trying without a thought as to her hunger and desire for softness.
Rufus’’s hands had not always been rough. They had not always been calloused. They had not always been hungry for self-satisfaction with no thought to her needs. Ethel remembered when Rufus’s hands and body spoke to her without fear or hesitation, reaching out for her with hope and desire.
The memory saddens Ethel. The fire that had blazed brightly in the early years slowly dimmed until years later the hard times and the hardness of small town living put out the flames. Ethel was left with a hunger she gradually came to realize would never be satisfied again. Rufus’s rough calloused hands were a harsh reminder of loss and need and hunger.
Ethel stopped caring about Rufus. Ethel stopped caring if he came home or not. Stopped caring about the smell of alcohol on his breath. Stopped caring about desire or passion or love. She stopped caring about rough calloused hands that grabbed at her for release, stopped caring about softness.
Ethel just stopped caring and one day Rufus stopped caring about coming home, just disappeared from her life just like Mildred had done way back when they were teen-agers..
Ethel looks at her hands again and tries to recall when they turned into wrinkled, brown spotted hands with stubby fingers that do not play the piano and no longer hold onto hope.
When Mildred’s mother died years ago. Ethel heard from one of Mildred’s sisters that between ragged dying breaths the mother had cursed the memory of a daughter who disappeared one night and never had enough care about anyone to return.
“Why would she care about Mildred’s absence on her deathbed? She made Mildred’s life a living hell! Good riddance to bad rubbish!”
No one cares enough to ask about Rufus anymore. Just as well.
Now when Ethel Jordan goes to town, folk call out to her, “Hey, Ethel Jordan, how ya’ doing?”
“Just trying to make a living; just trying to make a living.”