Perfectly Good Beans


From The Home Stretch: a Father, a Son and All the Things They Never Talk About. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2020. Order the book directly from Arsenal Pulp Press.

The morning after I arrived on my first trip, Dad wanted to go grocery shopping. I said I had to clean first. I had to clean the fridge. “I’m not putting groceries in that fridge,” I said.

Inside the fridge was covered with dead fruit flies.

Hundreds of them.

The house was infested. I made a trap and caught a bunch of larger ones, and the fruit flies kept getting smaller and smaller—but they also kept coming. Where were they coming from?

I investigated, searching for the fruit fly factory. In the basement, I found the problem. Dad had left some turnips (I think) in the cold room in plastic grocery bags. He had probably intended to deal with the produce later but then forgot. This was October—they were not from this year. The rank brown slime in the bags appeared to have already been processed through a digestive tract. That is a polite way to say it looked exactly like shit, and smelled even worse. Putrefaction slid from the bags and seeped into wooden crates. All this disgusting mess had to be hauled out of the cold room, up out of the basement, and taken outdoors.

The house immediately felt cleaner.

The fruit fly situation improved rapidly, but the cleanup in the cold room was just beginning. What else might be sitting in there, rotting? There were rows of bottled preserves, decades old, which should never be eaten. What about in the back corner, under that pile of boxes? Oh yes, the tub of beans.

I recognized this tub. It was the perforated tub from a large old automatic washing machine that Dad had repurposed to store dried beans. He grew long rows of Jacob’s Cattle beans every year, and they were a lot of work. They had to be planted, and weeded, and then in the fall, once the plants had died and the bean shells were dry enough the beans had to be harvested. All this work was done by hand. Sometimes the entire plants had to be pulled and dried indoors if the weather did not cooperate. Once the plants dried enough, indoors or out, we had discovered the easiest way to get the beans out of the shells was to hold the plants by the main stem, and whack the top part of the plants against a big board. We used the headboard of the garden trailer, and the beans flew out of the dry shells and collected in the trailer bed.

More than little white-and-maroon beans collected in the trailer. Dirt and leaves and stems and weeds were all mixed with the beans.

The work, really, was just beginning.

The beans had to be cleaned. On a breezy day, you could try winnowing out the dirt or frig around using a screen of some sort, but mostly you ended up picking through and handling almost every single bean. Nothing less than perfection was acceptable to Dad—all the dirt had to be removed and not a single bean discarded in the process. Of course there are machines to do this job, but why spend money when your kids work for free? This was painstaking work, and incredibly boring. It was high on my list of most detested jobs—though I must admit, the top of that list was very crowded.

The whole process was heavily dependent on child labour, and even then there was no money in it. Dad sold some of these beans for pennies a pound. When I go to a grocery store today, decades later, and handle a pound of premium organic beans priced at $2.89, I think about how those two or three cups of dried beans would have taken so many tedious, backbreaking hours to plant, weed, harvest, clean and sort.

The old washing machine tub in the cold room held a massive stash of vintage Jacob’s Cattle. The beans are white and all shades of maroon, and the top layer looked fine. Not far down, the beans were mouldy. I didn’t dig any deeper. If some of the beans were mouldy they all had to go. I certainly was not going to pick through them another time.

That tub of beans represented hundreds of hours of work. Dad had bumper crops and no market. He rigged that old tub, probably forty years ago, as a place to store his beans. Boxes were placed on top, and before long, he never thought about them again.

He planted more beans each year, while keeping at least 150 pounds in his damp basement.

Dad became suspicious whenever I focused on a project. The stir of activity in the cold room had him on high alert. He worries that I am going to throw something away. When he was growing up, nothing was ever discarded. Every can and jar and piece of string might have a future use. He still has that mindset.

“What are you going to do with those?” he asked, when he saw me coming up from the basement with the first of many buckets of beans.

“Compost heap.”

“Nothing wrong with those beans,” he said.

“Look at them,” I said. “They’re mouldy.”

He picked up a handful and let the beans dribble through his papery fingers back into the bucket. “Not all of them,” he said.

“I’m not picking through them,” I said. “These beans are forty years old and they’re rotting. I want them out of the house. The place stinks.”

“What a shame,” he said. “Perfectly good beans.”

At this same time there was a good-sized cardboard box of Jacob’s Cattle beans on a shelf in the garage. These beans were only about five or ten years old, and there was enough to feed a bean-eating family for years. Dad never remembers these beans exist. Several times, when he was still planting in the main garden, he’d start talking about how many rows of beans he should grow.

I said, “Let’s use up the ones we have first. No need to plant any more.”

“Where do we have any beans?” he asked. “We don’t have any beans.”

I’d remind him of the box in the garage, but directly below his living room chair, in that very same corner of the house in the cold room, sat a washing machine tub full of beans that we all had forgotten about.

Hundreds of hours of child labour spent filling that tub of beans in the basement cold room. Still more work decades later lugging the beans back outside and dumping them. Once the tub was light enough, my brother helped carry the whole damn thing upstairs and out the door. Dad hated the sight of me throwing out his good beans. I hated the thought of all the hours of my youth wasted on those beans, just to have them languish in the basement.

During my teens, I was considered lazy because I’d rather read classics of world literature than do real work. In one memorable episode, in the midst of plowing through the relentless heft of The Brothers Karamazov instead of mowing the lawn, my mother told me, “You’re so lazy you stink.”

Each bucket of beans I lugged out of the basement cold room had more than a physical weight. Each represented a lost opportunity.

For my own bitter amusement, I started naming the buckets as I carried them out. These two were Crime and Punishment. The next two were Pride and Prejudice. Four especially heavy buckets were designated War and Peace, books one and two. The beans were The Plague, I was The Idiot, and the jars of toxic preserves lined up on the bare wooden shelves spoke to me of Cannery Row.

So much waste all around. Still more time spent justifying my actions to Dad, over and over, every time he brought it up. Finally, he once again forgot all about the washing machine tub of beans in the basement and never mentioned it again.

The fruit flies, though. That is another story.

What might that story be?

Once the flies are gone, and I am gone, the events settle in Dad’s mind.

On my next trip to visit my father this is what he said to me: “Don’t know what you did, but last time you came home we had fruit flies something fierce. I had a heck of a time getting rid of them. I don’t want to go through that again. So be careful how you do things."

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George K. Ilsley is the author of the story collection Random Acts of Hatred and the novel ManBug. He lives in Vancouver.



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