When I was seventeen, my mother threw my ass out of the house. I was a major fuck-up. I dropped out of school, wouldn’t work, partied, sold pot, and never did the goddamn dishes, even though my mother worked forty hours a week at a bank kissing ass and wearing one of those goofy woman suits with the shoulder pads.
This was the first time I was homeless. I had a little money from selling pot and my grandma gave me some cash. I also got a job washing dishes and prep cooking in a shithole restaurant. I slept in my car for a while, showered at the gym, and ate fast food. In a few weeks, I was able to rent my first apartment. Well, it was a motel room that had been converted to an apartment. It had a two-burner stove and no oven. I lived there for a year or so and about once a week, I came home with a frozen pizza, only to throw it away because I had forgotten I didn’t have an oven.
I met Steve Lindy in those days. He lived in the same building, was an avid smoker of the weed, and played blues guitar like it was going out of style, which, of course, it was.
He was a hell of a guy. I liked his parents too, Jack and Elayne. Good, solid Midwestern folk. Now that I’m older, I can really tell the difference between the freaks and lunatics living all around the edges of this fucked up country and the completely normal people living in the heartland—you know, like Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Anyway, Steve was close to his family and often went to their place for supper. After we became friends, I would accompany him on these once or twice monthly excursions into Home Cooked Meal Land. His mom Elayne took a special liking to me, finding me hilarious and charming, of which I am both in spades. She also felt sorry for me because I was such a vast loser with no money or prospects. At the end of every meal, she bestowed upon me any leftovers.
“Take it, Mike,” she’d insist, and I would, thanking her vigorously. In time, I had a tall and very unstable stack of Elayne Lindy’s Tupperware in my apartment that I kept forgetting to get back to her.
One Fall evening, Steve came over, banged on my door, and said, “Mom’s fixin’ spaghetti and meatballs. Hungry?”
Jack and Elayne lived about four or five miles out of town on the way to Pringle in a pleasant single-story house. They were not rich folks, but ranked somewhere in the upper part of the lower end of the middle class. At Jack and Elayne’s, you ignored the front door and went in through the side door, directly into the kitchen. This was the heart of the house. They had a living room, but no one, as far as I could tell, ever used it.
I was excited for some homemade spaghetti and meatballs. It had been a few weeks since I had been out to the Lindy’s and I had been subsisting on various burritos and burgers in the meanwhile. Homemade spaghetti and meatballs. Nummy.
We entered the kitchen as usual through the side door and stopped dead in our tracks. Every available surface area was covered with jars, clear glass jars containing a dark and mysterious purple-ness.
“Oh, hi boys!” called Elayne from over by the stove. “I pickled my beets!”
“Her and her goddamn beets,” Jack said from behind his paper. He was sitting at the table. This table was also covered in the glass jars. There must’ve been a hundred of them all told.
“I know Stevie hates ‘em, but what about you, Mike? You like pickled beets?”
“Um, sure, Mrs. Lindy,” I said, even though I had never seen, much less tasted a pickled beet before. I just wanted to please her. She was such a sweet lady and I wanted to be on her side.
“They’re nasty,” Steve said.
“And all over the place,” Jack added from behind his paper. “Everywhere you look, a jar of goddamn beets.”
Since Elayne had been busy all afternoon pickling her beets, supper was a bit delayed. We didn’t finish up until half past eight. The spaghetti and meatballs were delicious. Elayne had also made salad and crusty garlic bread. There was a slice of homemade apple pie for desert.
It was heaven.
Sitting there, my mouth covered in succulent residue, I asked Elayne to please, for the love of god, adopt me.
“Oh, Mike,” she cackled. Later, she sent me home with another piece of pie and two jars of pickled beets.
The next day, around 11 am, I cracked open one of the jars and ate, for the first and last time, a pickled beet. Actually, they were pickled chunks of beets.
It was tangy and sweet and vinegar-y and slimy and made my eyes water and was, yes, absolutely nasty. I took the opened jar of beets outside, walked a ways away from the apartment building and poured them out onto ground, knowing that no grass would ever grow in that spot again.
I lived in Custer another five years and every time I came into contact with Elayne, which was at least monthly, she would give me some more pickled beets. I never refused them and always thanked her vigorously. Sometimes, she’d give me a single jar, sometimes two. Around Thanksgivings and Christmases, she’d give me four or five.
Over those five years of living in Custer, I moved probably six or seven times, and each time I did, I had more and more pickled beets. New apartments or trailer houses had to have enough pantry or cupboard space or I simply couldn’t rent them.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. The rent’s great and I like how there’s only one hole in the roof, but there simply wouldn’t be enough room for my real food and my pickled beets. I’ll have to keep looking.”
It wasn’t until I was leaving the state that I considered getting rid of what was, by then, my enormous collection of pickled beets. I had packed them into boxes. Six boxes.
“You know,” I said to myself, “this is getting kind of ridiculous.”
But I left most of my books and kept all of the pickled beets. You’re damn right I did. A very nice lady named Elayne had, for half a decade, made it her mission in life to make sure I had enough pickled beets and I simply couldn’t just throw her success away.
I lugged those motherfuckers around with me until my late 20’s. I eventually did get rid of them. Well, all but one jar, which sits in my pantry as I write this, just beyond the spaghetti sauce.