A Shovel, A Skeleton, and Stewed Tomatoes

A Shovel, A Skeleton, and Stewed Tomatoes May 7, 2024

cans of tomatoes on a grocery store shelf
image via Pixabay

 

All I wanted was a shovel.

I hadn’t been able to finish my gardening last night, because I broke the shovel. I had a few seedlings still to go in and some seed still to be planted, but I didn’t have a shovel to finish turning over the grass with. There were only two days left before it was predicted to be drenching rain for a week. And it was the middle of the month, that excruciating marathon where we pinch every penny to try to make rent on the fifteenth, and the car needed a tank of gas. So I couldn’t just go out and buy garden tools.

I picked Adrienne up from school just as a sizable tip came into the tip jar: not enough to save our skins, but enough to get half a tank and drive to the shopping center to pick up a few things. “Want to come with me? We can see the skeleton man.”

The “Skeleton Man” is a person who lives on fourth street downtown. They keep one of those fifteen-foot novelty skeletons in their yard year round, and even have a collection of smaller plastic human and animal skeletons to enhance the diorama with. At Christmastime, the giant skeleton was wearing a Santa Claus suit and the other skeletons were dressed up to ride in his sleigh. On Valentine’s Day the skeleton was dressed as cupid. In the weeks leading up to Easter, it was wearing bunny ears and surrounded by chicken skeletons and large plastic eggs. Up until two days ago, the skeleton was decked out for Cinco De Mayo in a giant sarape and sombrero, and one of the little skeleton attendants had maracas and an embroidered peasant dress. I wanted to see what the Skeleton Man had planned for a display now that Cinco de Mayo was over. I’ll always go out of my way to drive past the Skeleton Man’s house after I run a lot of errands, even if my errands are on the opposite side of town.

Adrienne was glad to go with me.

We started out at Ollie’s, a great big warehouse that sells closeout merchandise. I always go there first if I need a random object like a shovel. But I don’t like to take Adrienne there, because somehow I always walk out with candy and toys I don’t need when I take a child to Ollie’s. On this particular day, Ollie’s had a large gardening section at the front with all kinds of tempting things: ceramic planters and garden hoses, novelty wind chimes and inflatable pools. There were a thousand toys and games and sporting goods. There was a pink frying pan that looked just darling and a handsome air fryer that I fell in love with, for forty-five dollars marked down from seventy-five. But I was good. I resisted the temptation. I only bought a board game and the largest Three Musketeers bar I’ve ever seen, for Adrienne’s after school snack.

We got in line with the candy and the board game, behind an elderly couple who were having an animated conversation with the only clerk on duty. The clerk was smiling pleasantly so I thought they were just talkative Appalachian folks having a conversation. Eventually, though, I realized something was wrong. The clerk kept smiling and saying “well I can’t change the rule, I’m not the management, I don’t even know how long I’ll be here,” and the elderly couple kept talking. After five tense minutes, they left without their shopping cart.

The clerk smiled wearily at me as she rang up my groceries.  “Those people came in here last week and gave me such a hard time. They made this big purchase, but they kept saying it was against their religion to sign the electronic debit pad. Have you ever heard of that? I don’t know what religion that is. But finally I found a way to print off a piece of paper for them to sign. Today they come back, and they want to return all of this food. I told them we can’t just re-sell returned food and it’s going in the dumpster, couldn’t they donate it anywhere? But they wouldn’t listen. They kept saying I had to change the policy, but I can’t do that. All this is going to be thrown out. Do you want it?”

I ended up walking out of Ollie’s with at least seventy dollars worth of random canned goods, and no shovel.

There’s a Rural King about 100 feet from the Ollie’s. Rural King is another gigantic big box store like Ollie’s, but instead of random discounted objects it sells farm and garden supplies. There are Carharts and hunting rifles, animal feed and horse bridles, bird feeders, garden gnomes, potted plants, moon pies and live chickens at Rural King. Of course they had a shovel. They had several different kinds, and one of them was on sale.

“Thank goodness,” I muttered as the clerk scanned my shovel.

“Why did you say ‘thank goodness’ instead of ‘thank God?'” asked Adrienne.

“Because you’re not supposed to say ‘God,’ you’re supposed to say ‘gosh’ or ‘goodness!'” I explained, conscious that this didn’t make any sense.

The man behind me in the checkout laughed. “Well, I think you can thank God for a shovel. You sound like a Christian!” and he handed me a Baptist tract.

At home, Michael and I sorted out the eclectic groceries in my trunk. I’d suspected some kind of scam, but it was all unopened and unexpired with the Ollie’s tags still on it. Yes, we would eat the ranch dressing and the Parmesan cheese. No, we would not eat this canned soup, but somebody else might like it. Yes, I would keep the two gigantic bags of ketogenic stevia chocolate chips, which would’ve cost at least twenty dollars at the grocery store. There were six or seven big cans of cooked chicken that sounded useful, but we’d just bought hamburger meat and didn’t really need it. Nobody except a restaurant would go through a plastic tub of oregano this large. This looked like good jarred Alfredo sauce, but it was a brand Adrienne didn’t like. No one in the world could eat eleven cans of unseasoned stewed tomatoes.

Adrienne and I took the canned chicken and the other food we didn’t need downtown to the Friendship Room’s free food pantry, chatting the whole way. I found myself babbling that I had never heard of a religion where you’re not allowed to sign a debit pad; it’s not as if there’s anything about that in the Bible. No, strictly speaking, I didn’t believe it was a sin to say “thank God” or “Oh my God,” the commandment is actually about swearing falsely in a court of law, but “oh my gosh” is more respectful. No, I wasn’t going to go to the Baptist church, but it was nice of him to tell me about it.

I explained to the volunteer at the Friendship Room about the weird pile of food, and they were happy to take it off my hands. Canned meat is worth its weight in gold for a food pantry.

On the way back, we passed the Skeleton Man’s house. The skeleton is currently naked with a stepladder set up beside it, waiting to be dressed for the next holiday.

We got home just as it stared to rain. I couldn’t go straight out to the garden, but I ate a bowl of ketogenic chocolate chips.

There isn’t really a moral to the story today. This is just to say that Steubenville is a very weird town, and Northern Appalachia is a very weird culture. But I am having a good time.

 

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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