That’s all she needed
Medium-sized, yellow or white, hot or mellow
Her idea bore all the earmarks of trouble.
Beyond Eily McKintrick’s kitchen window, widower Marshall Frye worked in his garden, dirty canvas cap plopped like an afterthought on his balding head. Bib overalls billowed whenever the wind wafted through the manicured rows. Every day she saw him out her window, hoe in hand, back bent, head bobbing in time to the rhythm of his arms. Today was no different.
But not every day did she need an onion.
She studied the recipe for garlic beef enchiladas in front of her, drugstore reading specs suspended on the end of her nose. Ticking off the list of spices with a forefinger she located each one in her kitchen cupboard—cumin, sage, and chili powder. She removed the spice jars from the lower shelf and set them on the counter.
A stepstool under her feet, Eily rummaged through the assorted canned vegetables stored higher in the cupboard. Standing on tiptoe, she dug into the corners, wobbling when the stool squeaked. Her hands flew out, gripping the door of the cupboard, heart racing.
One of these days I’ll move the waffle iron and the bread machine and put the canned goods below the counter. No sense breaking my neck for a container I could just as easily get from the ground.
At the back of the middle shelf she found the cans of tomatoes and beef broth. Huffing, she climbed down and set the containers next to the spices. Eily really needed that onion.
She stared out the window, wondering where her neighbor might be growing a few. She didn’t care if the little spheres were white, yellow, hot or mellow, as long as they chopped fine enough to disappear into her ground beef filling.
Eily sighed. What to do? If she were smart, she’d hop in her car and drive the three miles to the nearby Shop and Save. But she didn’t have the time. And with so many vegetables across the fence, the effort seemed wasteful somehow. Wouldn’t it be easier to appeal to Marshall’s giving nature and save a trip? One onion wouldn’t kill him, would it?
The words of her late husband Kenny echoed in her mind. “Eily,” he’d said, rolling the I of the nickname he’d given her, “Marshall is quiet, but he’s reasonable.”
Leaning against the counter, Eily pondered her next move. Tonight, she planned to take her enchiladas to the Hungry and Homeless supper hosted by the Ladies’ League at her church. Each member of the group would bring a favorite dish to feed the indigent in their surrounding community. Eily’s enchiladas always scored a hit.
Her close friend Hillary Shepherd would be among those present. That gave Eily pause. Years earlier Hillary had staked her claim on Marshall Frye—no one dared cross that line. Eily often wondered if Hillary befriended her only so she could come and watch Marshall from Eily’s kitchen window. Eily had made it clear that she and Kenny had been back-fence neighbors with Marshall long before Hillary stepped into the scene. Though Eily didn’t see Marshall often, she took comfort knowing the man who lived so near was someone she knew. She considered him a friend. If Hillary learned that Eily had approached her neighbor, Hillary would probably see the deed as betrayal—intrusion where Eily didn’t belong.
“That’s just too bad. She can stew if she wants. This is an emergency.”
She looked at the ingredients sitting on the counter, retrieved the tortillas from the shelf, and reached into her refrigerator for the ground beef. Water heated on the stove to preserve the peaches she’d picked yesterday. If she canned the fruit and then went after the onion, the enchiladas might not get done. Running out of time, she grimaced at her choices.
She wanted that onion.
Eily gritted her teeth, picked up a large, unblemished peach, and smoothed the embroidered apron she wore over her ample front. She’d try anything.
Removing her glasses and laying them on the kitchen counter, Eily moved through the back door. She grabbed her floppy, blue sunhat from where it sat on a shelf inside the porch, pressing the crown firmly to her head. Slipping through the screened exit and holding the frame so it wouldn’t make noise, she stepped outside, pausing on the porch steps. Her fingers feathered her graying, curly hair.
Timing her next move, Eily remained still as Marshall hoed his row of corn, plodding toward the corner of her wooden fence. The smell of manure mixed with damp earth offended her nose. He pushed and pulled, transforming the dark, rich soil around the plant stalks. Flipping the hoe to its flat side, he tamped the ground, leaving the corn standing in perfect, manicured soil. As he reached the last plant next to the fence post she sauntered to the horizontal wooden rail.
“Morning, Marshall. Care for a peach?”
He jumped out of his tracks, dropped the hoe, and stepped back two paces. His face paled, and his jaw dropped. “Tarnation, woman! You trying to give me a heart attack?”
“No, just a peach.” She extended the pink and yellow fruit toward him. “I picked these yesterday at Olsen’s Orchard down the road. They’re fresh and juicy. You ought to try one.”
“Why would I want your peach?” He glared at the fruit, glancing up, lips pressed into a taut line. His eyes narrowed, studying her.
Eily wilted in his gaze. What is he staring at?
“Well, if it bothers you to take it, why don’t you trade with me?” She smiled and thrust the fuzzy peach toward him. “How about an onion? Couldn’t we swap?”
He reached for the peach, watching her in silence for a moment, suspicion in his eyes. “Can’t eat peaches. Gives me the runs.” He tossed the fruit into the pile of weeds he’d gathered by the fencepost.
“Really, Marshall.” Eily bristled. “Was that necessary?”
“I told you I can’t eat peaches. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got gardenin’ to do.” He tipped his hat, moving to the next row to pull a turnip and toss it in his wheelbarrow. Eily followed him down the fence like a bantam hen looking for bugs.
“Those are the biggest onions I’ve ever seen. Did you grow them yourself?”
“Onions?” Marshall straightened and gawked at her, mouth agape. “Onions? Woman, can’t you see this is a turnip?”
“Yes, a turnip. The onions are over there on the other side of the pole beans.” He harrumphed. “Onions.” He shook his head in disbelief, the trace of a smirk on his lips. She could see him watching her from the corner of his eye. He returned to his turnips.
“Enjoy your gardening.” She spun on her heel and hummed a tune as she ambled back to the porch. As she went a plan formed in her mind. Onions are on the other side of the pole beans. How convenient! If he wouldn’t trade, she’d do a little gardening of her own. He’d never miss one onion.
But, then again, he might.
Marshall owned one of those few acreages left in the area, three acres that faced onto Willow Springs Drive, a side road that met hers, Kenyan Creek Avenue, at a corner. The back of her suburban lot next to his parcel looked like a postage stamp glued to an envelope, his acreage a wonder of nature compared to her tidy lawn lined with flowers.
His vegetables were important to him—he always donated them to the Civic Club food drive—after he showcased them at the County Fair. Losing one onion might have consequences she wouldn’t be willing to pay. Not to mention risking the wrath of her friend. She considered the problem as she set her hat on its shelf inside the porch, the screen banging to a close, and opened the back door.
Using her kitchen window as a command post, Eily slipped on her glasses and watched Marshall pull his turnips while she prepared her peaches. She blanched the fruit and poured them into a sink of cold water. Her hands moved methodically. Years of practice slicing the peach’s middle, popping the seed, and slipping the skin from the flesh paid off today as she continued surveillance. She filled each quart jar with the prepared halves and added syrup to keep the fruit from turning brown.
She’d loaded the last jar in the canner when she glimpsed the back of Marshall as he straightened and lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow. He wheeled the turnips to his shed, a small one-room structure that occupied the center of the large garden area. Adjusting the lid on her canner, she caught sight of him again when he sat on a bench and snipped the tops off the turnips. Placing the greens in a bucket, he dumped the purplish-white turnips into a black mesh bag.
Her canner had reached the desired low-boil stage when Marshall stood, mopped a handkerchief over his forehead, and faced his house—the bucket of greens in one hand and the sack of turnips in the other. With each step his giant frame diminished until his faded overalls appeared as a speck at the back of the distant dwelling. Water sprayed from what she guessed to be a hose he kept below the porch. Marshall disappeared inside. Perfect timing.
Eily had twenty minutes. The peaches would need to come out of the hot water bath at the end of that time. Removing her glasses and leaving them on the counter, she grabbed her hat and slunk out the back screened door, creeping to the fence. Short enough to hide behind the upright corner posts, she guessed they would block enough of her that her form would not be obvious from Marshall’s kitchen windows. She tiptoed from post to post until she stood even with the row of beans. Leaning over she squeezed her hips through the horizontal rails and skulked behind the first pole supporting beans.
As if she’d run a marathon, she panted, nervous about the deed ahead. Her conscience warred with her determination, scripture verses playing in her head like a recording. Thou shall not steal. . . Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s garden. . .
“But Marshall grows more vegetables than he needs, Lord, just to show off at the Civic Club booth at the fair.” She glanced around her, checking for her neighbor. “I plan to feed hungry people tonight. And I don’t have time to run to the store. You said that even a cup of water in your name is a good thing.” She paused. “And please make sure Hillary doesn’t find out.”
Satisfied that the Lord must know her good intentions, Eily surveyed the ground around her. To her dismay she saw that the onions once planted there had been pulled. Only dried tops lay scattered here and there along the row. Had Marshall purposely led her astray? She knelt down and waddled duck fashion along the poles to the next hill of beans, scanning the ground for an onion still growing.
Something wiggled beneath her feet. Caught between a rut in the dirt and the space in the arch of her shoe, a garden snake struggled to slither away. Stifling a scream, she closed her eyes and held her breath as the horrid creature slipped around her ankle and slid under the bean plant. Cracking one eye open, then the other, she glimpsed the head of the snake as it stared back at her, its tongue slipping in and out of its mouth. She shuddered and surveyed the area for onions.
Splat, her calico kitten, came down the row, tail curling lazily behind as it sniffed where Eily had crept. The animal bumped its head into her thigh and kneaded her side, purring contentedly.
“Shoo. You’ll give me away.”
The cat’s ears flattened, and it emitted a low growl. Hissing, Splat turned and fled toward the fence.
The animal’s sudden departure worried Eily until she heard a bark. She glanced up to find herself staring nose to nose with Marshall’s mutt, Blarney, his dark brown eyes as penetrating as his master’s. Part spaniel and part airhead, the dog’s curly-haired ears drooped down to the dirt. His tongue hung out, panting.
“Nice, Blarney. Nice, doggie.” Eily reached out her hand, palm turned up, hoping to pet the animal. The dog only yipped and sat watching her.
They stayed that way, studying each other for a minute. Perspiration trickled off her forehead, snaking its way down the bridge of her nose and into the smile lines framing her lips. She could taste the salt at the corners of her mouth. Her knees started to cramp as she continued to kneel beside the beans. Another five minutes in this position and she’d have to be carried from the field. She could see the headlines now—Woman turns into pillar of salt digging onion from neighbor’s garden.
Eily dropped to her knees and tried to crawl closer to the onions. Blarney’s beady eyes followed her, another short yip forthcoming. Suddenly his tail wagged. Eily’s chance had come. She reached out to the dog, hoping to be friendly, only to see a pair of boots appear behind him. Following the boots up the legs to the torso, she stared into the narrowed eyes of Marshall, his face pale and unreadable, his stance like that of a marble statue—cold and unwavering.
“Mrs. McKintrick.” His hands rested on his hips. “What in heaven’s name are you doing in my garden?” He waited, stern-faced, while she formed an answer.
“I wanted to see your onions.” She flashed her best smile.
Marshall stormed away down the row, reached for a green top, and pulled up an onion. He strutted back like an arrogant rooster and waved the vegetable in her face.
When he held out his prize for inspection, Eily was sure she could see his comb waggle. The white onion’s pungent smell wafted to her nose, making her eyes water. She peeked at him, embarrassed, catching a glimmer in his eyes. Is he taunting me?
“Does this quell your curiosity?” Marshall’s face turned red, and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. Eily could almost hear the old bird crow.
“Impressed is more like it. Very impressed.”
“Then are we finished here?” He cocked his head, brow furrowed into a single wrinkle between his eyes.
Eily pushed to her feet and straightened, brushing the dirt off her apron. “Yes. Thank you for the tour.”
Marshall harrumphed, tossed the onion into the weed pile by her fence, and stalked in the direction of his house. The onion bounced and rolled, its long, green top splaying under the bottom rail.
Eily crawled back through the wooden rails and picked up the discarded vegetable. Had Marshall pulled the onion on purpose? It certainly seemed that way. But she gave him credit for his ingenuity. He’d granted her request and saved her integrity. Ingenious. Though she doubted he’d see her, she waved in the direction of his house as she scrambled up the porch steps. She checked her watch to see if the peaches were done. Five minutes to spare.
She had her onion.
“What was she thinking?”
With perspiration pouring down his face, Marshall stood inside his porch, adrenaline pumping through his body. He watched through the screen window to make certain Eily McKintrick went into her house. He could see her at the back corner of his property, bending over to pick up the onion he’d tossed toward the fence, and waving before climbing the three steps to her back porch. He waited, worried that she’d reappear. His fingers tapped the top of the washing machine in front of him. Who knew what stunt she’d pull next?
That last trip almost gave him a heart attack. He’d dumped the turnips and had turned back toward the garden when he saw her form on the ground. Blarney sat over her as if on watch. Marshall had hurried, panicked, afraid of what he would find. But there she sat, squatting near the pole beans, holding a handful of dried onion tops. “Wanted to see my onions.” He shook his head. “Right.”
Glad to be out of the sun, Marshall flipped his work cap onto a peg near the porch’s back door. He kicked off his garden boots with such force they slid across the floor and banged into the freezer.
Blarney jumped at the noise and cowered in the corner, a pitiful whine coming from his throat.
Marshall sighed, remembering again the dog had been abused by his previous owner. “Sorry, boy.” Marshall patted his thigh, and the dog slunk toward him. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
The dog looked up and waited while Marshall scratched under the animal’s chin. Blarney licked his hand. Marshall called the dog to follow him, walking in stocking feet to his kitchen. He flipped on the light, the fluorescent fixtures blinding him after standing several minutes in the shadows of the darkened porch. He blinked several times, allowing his eyes to adjust, and ambled across the room to the kitchen sink.
“I should have been nicer to her.” Marshall washed his hands. His work shirt clung to his skin, the dampness of sweat turning cold along his spine and soaking his undershirt. “She’s always been nice to me.”
He glanced at the dog. “But I’ve got reasons to keep my distance.”
Tail wagging, Blarney’s tongue hung out, his chocolate-colored eyes following Marshall’s every move.
Drying his hands, Marshall reached into the cupboard for a tall glass and set it on the counter. Pulling open his refrigerator, he removed a pitcher of the sun tea he’d made earlier that morning. He poured the glass full and moved to the kitchen table. Straddling a chair, he set the drink down beside the pitcher on the table and sighed, waiting for his heart to stop pounding.
The dog collapsed at his feet.
Marshall drew his hand across his sweaty face. “She scared me when I found her on the ground.” He shuddered at the memory. “I thought sure she’d had a heart attack.”
Blarney thumped his tail, his brown eyes rolling upward. The dog rose and laid his head in Marshall’s lap. He scratched the dog’s nose, his gaze straying across the room to a portrait of him and his late wife. The incident in the garden had stirred up memories of another death. His eyes blurred.
“You’d have loved Gina.” Marshall chugged the iced tea, letting the sweet, dark liquid cool him before pouring another. His free hand fingered the dog’s ears. “She never stopped cooking. Had to have something in the oven to surprise her family. I came home from the high school after a long day of dealing with students to a kitchen full of delicious smells. Always brightened my afternoon.”
He set the glass back on the table, closed his eyes, and remembered. Sometimes if he listened, he could hear Gina’s voice in the silence. Could still hear the laughter and the happiness they’d shared together. But then came the cancer, the unrelenting treatments, and the awful decisions that accompany someone who is slipping away. He’d lost everything he cherished when he’d been forced to let her go—everything.
Marshall gazed around the kitchen. Above the cupboards, the soffits he’d painted for her still danced in lively shades of ivy green and blooms of lavender. The counters where she’d set her assortment of ceramic roosters, the rods where towels bearing images of the cocky birds hung, and the shelves that collected memorabilia of everything fowl, now were vacant, empty of clutter. Save for the sweat of his garden clothes and the odor from Blarney’s fur, the barren room hovered, devoid of smell. Gina no longer lingered here, the kitchen sterile—like his life. If it weren’t for the hum of the refrigerator, the room would be silent.
He refused to let himself dwell on the sorrow, to loiter in the shadows of yesterday. Doing so depressed him and changed nothing. His mind wandered back to the present and his afternoon encounter with his neighbor.
“Didn’t know an onion from a turnip.” He smirked. “I’ll bet I surprised her when she searched the ground for onions and only found tops.” His eyes filled with moisture as he choked back the need to laugh. “If I hadn’t caught her in the act, she would probably have crawled back to the fence to avoid being seen.” He chuckled now, remembering his neighbor on all fours, staring up at him from the ground. “And that silly hat.” He leaned back and laughed. “As big as she is.”
He had met her husband Kenny one evening shortly after Gina died. The McKintricks and their two, high-school-aged children who still lived at home had just moved into the neighborhood. Marshall was repositioning irrigation pipes when Kenny, standing near his arbor pruning grapevines, hailed him. Eily had brought out a tray of lemonade to share, and they’d gotten acquainted.
He and Kenny discovered they were the same age and spent many a summer evening jawing over that fence, discussing politics, the economy, and education. He rarely saw the missus, except when she brought out more drinks. He’d envied Kenny then, a man with a healthy wife and four loving children, two of them already married and out of the nest.
Kenny died the year Marshall retired early from the school district. He’d attended the funeral, paying his respects as a neighbor should. Emptiness would find the woman when the flurry of activity after the funeral died down, the family withdrew, and Eily returned to an unfilled house that was only an echo of memories.
Marshall sighed. “She’s probably as lonely for Kenny as I am for Gina.”
Stuart Mann, his vice-principal at the high school, and Marshall’s replacement when he retired, had broken his hip skiing last year. Stuart had mentioned to him how Mrs. McKintrick and the Ladies’ League from Hope Community Church supplied his meals during his convalescence.
The ministries there would keep Eily busy, much as they had occupied Gina’s time when he and his wife had attended the church. For years Gina had helped with the homeless suppers, visitation of the lonely, and meals for the sick. He’d bet his corn crop Eily McKintrick did the same.
He slumped back in the chair, remembering Mrs. McKintrick’s attempts to trade her peach for his onion. He should have offered her one. But seeing her sweat was kind of cute.
“Probably wanted that onion for something she’s making for someone else.” Marshall sighed. Why was she afraid to ask? Maybe his garden intimidated her. Or his donations to the Civic Club made her nervous. Or maybe it was him.
Blarney yipped, catching his mood.
“More than likely she’s concerned about her church friend.” Marshall, noting the sarcasm in his voice, grinned back at the dog. He still remembered when he’d been caught in the food line with Hillary Shepherd at the after-church potluck. Gina had only been dead six months. Marshall hadn’t even had time to properly grieve his loss, let alone think about a relationship with another woman.
But it didn’t stop Hillary. She’d latched on to his arm near the dinner plates and giggled her way to the potato salad. She almost sat in his lap at the table, her chair scooted close enough for him to see the roots graying at her hair line. When he’d gotten home, he’d found her phone number scribbled on a napkin stuck in his Bible.
He quit going to church that day and never looked back. Kenny had mentioned his family attended the church, even invited him. But Marshall learned Hillary had befriended Eily, so he’d made excuses why he couldn’t accept. Worship with Gina at his side had been special—as an eligible widower he’d become the prized turkey.
He petted Blarney. “Mrs. McKintrick is a nice lady, but she could become a nuisance, especially with the friends she keeps.”
No. He shook his head. Associating with Eily McKintrick could only mean one thing—trouble.