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Canning

Canning

Elizabeth Sowden

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She stands on the porch, watching the gray sky. The leaves on the silver maple are motionless. The air is damp and warm. The radio in the kitchen crackles as it warns of a tornado, and in the distance, an air raid siren moans in agreement. She closes the windows and turns off the stove. She yanks the trapdoor shut as she descends into the basement, and presses her spine against the cellar wall. She wishes she had brought the radio down with her.

Her hands are raw from canning. Yesterday she canned peaches, today corn. The gleaming jars of peaches line the wall—six quarts of pinkish peach halves and eight pints of jam. For dinner that night, she would roast a pork loin and smother it with peach jam, then make gravy from the mixture of meat juice and jam that gathered at the bottom of the roasting pan. It would be sweet, pungent and heavy. She would watch her husband make a well in his mashed potatoes and fill the crater with her dark, thick gravy.

She wonders how her husband is weathering the storm. Better than she, no doubt. He works at a brewery on Marshall Street, and it’s in his union contract to have a beer break each day. She imagines her husband and his friends slurping foam and laughing.

She wonders how her husband is weathering the storm. Better than she, no doubt. He works at a brewery on Marshall Street, and it’s in his union contract to have a beer break each day. She imagines her husband and his friends slurping foam and laughing.

Thunder rumbles, and the jars of peaches tremble slightly. She worries about her corn, which is already in jars in the canner on the stove. She imagines the beautiful yellow and white kernels of sweet corn in a steaming heap on the floor, studded with broken glass. Scott would be so irritated if that happened. He didn’t understand why she needed two bushels of corn for just the two of them, but she insisted. She grew up accustomed to hard winters, when all they had to eat was what they had canned the summer before. Her mother used to can five bushels of corn every year, even when three of her four brothers were away fighting the war.

A gust of wind rattles the windows, and something hits the floor upstairs. No sound of glass breaking, she thinks, so it probably wasn’t the canner that capsized.

“Lieselotte,” her mother likes to say. “There is no such thing as a cellar that is too full.” Lieselotte. She hates having such a German name, and she hates the stern way her mother corrects anyone who dares call her Lottie in her presence. (She confessed to Scott that she hated her name when they were first going together, and he said, “Fine. I’ll call you Pearl.”) Lottie is the oldest in the family and the only one without an American name—her brothers are John, Robert, James and George, and her sister, the baby, is Shirley. Lottie is the only one who can read and speak German, and she is the only one who wrote letters to a distant cousin in Dresden, whom she hasn’t heard from since before the war. When she speaks German with her mother, her brothers complain that she’s being unpatriotic, and when she speaks English, her mother shakes her head and grumbles that she wishes she had at least one child who appreciated her roots. 

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Thunder rumbles again, farther away this time. Lottie can’t tell whether the storm has passed, but she decides to chance it. She opens the trap door and feels the hotter air on her face. The humidity is gone, and so is the storm. The canner is on the stove where she left it, but the floor is strewn with cornhusks. She forgot to close one of the windows, and the gust of wind knocked over the garbage pail, over which she had shucked corn all morning. The radio, which sits in a puddle of dirty water, has shorted out. 

“Hey, Pearlie,” Scott says when he arrives home from work. He kisses her cheek. “What’s in the oven? It smells good.” He takes off his work shoes and changes his shirt while she takes the roast out of the oven and mixes the gravy. She’s also made mashed potatoes, pearl onions, and a pan of fudge. She has to be a Good Wife; Scott comes from one of the wealthiest families in Minneapolis who disowned him the day he married her. Men didn’t leave behind wealth for a woman. Rich women sometimes did this, but not men. If she wasn’t careful, Scott would realize his mistake and leave.

“How about that storm?” he asks as he pulls a chair up to table. “Glad to see the place is still standing.”

The meat falls apart when Lottie stabs it with a fork. She puts a chunk on his plate while he scoops up a spoonful of translucent onions.

“Johnny asked if we’d join him and Millie to see Samson and Delilah on Friday night at the Ritz.” Johnny is her brother John. He and Scott served in the same infantry during the war. Scott saved John from drowning off the coast of Sicily. After the war, John introduced Scott to Lottie. This is a story that John likes to tell: “When we got back to the base, I asked him ‘How can I repay you for saving me from drowning?’ And he pointed to the picture of my sister I had taped to the inside of my locker and said ‘You can introduce me to her.’” Scott likes to say that it was Lottie’s picture that got him through the war. When the war was over, Lottie and her mother threw a party to welcome the boys home, and they each invited their army buddies. Scott came through the kitchen door as she chopped onions for a zwiebelkuchen (which she called “onion bread,” since the boys wouldn’t touch it if she called it by its German name; she wouldn’t have made it at all if it hadn’t been George’s favorite). The first time she saw Scott’s face, it was through a prism of tears. 

“That sounds like fun. Maybe we can go out to eat after.” He nods, and she watches while he shovels a spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth. His eyes widen with surprise, and after he swallows, he says, “This gravy is great, honey.” He leans over and kisses her. His mouth is wet and soft.

“That sounds like fun. Maybe we can go out to eat after.” He nods, and she watches while he shovels a spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth. His eyes widen with surprise, and after he swallows, he says, “This gravy is great, honey.” He leans over and kisses her. His mouth is wet and soft.

His parents were angry when he told him he’d enlisted. His father was a professor at the University of Minnesota,  and he thought wars were best fought by uneducated men. When Scott got a job at the brewery they were appalled, and when he married Lottie they were livid. Scott says he doesn’t care what they think and never did—their protests never stopped him from doing what he wanted and they never would. But Lottie isn’t sure she believes this. She doesn’t know how she’d survive without her mother. Her father is dead. 

After dinner, Scott sucks on her nipples and slides his fingers between her folds until his fingers glisten with her fluid. She smiles as he fills her up and welcomes his unhurried thrusts with moans. She relaxes and sinks a little into the mattress; it’s nice doing it in a bed, in private, but she misses those feverish moments that they burned up together behind her mother’s barn or in the back seat of Scott’s car. She remembers their first time—bent over the hood of Scott’s car, parked on a dark stretch of dirt road—and has an orgasm.

Before they were married, Scott used condoms. She didn’t know about condoms, but she knew about sex. She lost her virginity when she was fourteen with a boy who was three years older in the clearing at the edge of the corn field. He took short little breaths and it was over fast. She didn’t think it was very much fun, but still she did it with him three more times before she stopped getting her period. Two weeks later, she got her period, but she never let another boy touch her after that. Until Scott.

Before they were married, Scott used condoms. She didn’t know about condoms, but she knew about sex. She lost her virginity when she was fourteen with a boy who was three years older in the clearing at the edge of the corn field. He took short little breaths and it was over fast. She didn’t think it was very much fun, but still she did it with him three more times before she stopped getting her period. Two weeks later, she got her period, but she never let another boy touch her after that. Until Scott.

Her period is late again. She’s not sure yet if she’s pregnant. She wonders what Scott will say if she is; she worries he won’t like it. To stop herself from worrying, she thinks of names, something that would go with Pearl, like Ruby or Amber or Beryl.

Scott pulls out, spilling his semen into his cupped hand. He turns his back to her while he licks his palm. He only does this occasionally. “It’s a habit,” he explained once. “I’ve broken myself of it, mostly. But sometimes I forget.” When he crawls back into bed, he apologizes. He always apologizes after this. But she doesn’t care. She has four brothers and has seen each of them do far more disgusting things with garden slugs, deer scat, and dead rodents. Besides, though they only discuss it in opaque terms, she knows she’s better off than most of her friends, who never shared with their husbands, or with anyone, the passion she shares with Scott.

She kisses him and licks his lips. He returns her kiss and pulls her tight against him. “Not bad for a Tuesday,” he says, and they both laugh. 

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On Friday, Lottie gets dressed for the movies. She puts on a red skirt she made herself, copied from a Vogue pattern book. She stuffs her feet into dark blue pumps and buttons up a white cotton blouse. She wears a little red hat with delicate black netting and tiny jet beads. She tugs gently on the netting so that it hangs just above her eyes. Scott gave her this hat for her last birthday.

Scott arrives just after five o’clock and changes clothes. Together they take the streetcar to Thirteenth and Fourth Street and buy a poppy seed roll at the Polish bakery next to the theater. Outside the theater they meet Lottie’s brother John and his fiancée Millie. Millie is short and plump with shiny orange hair. She smiles when she sees Lottie.

Lottie likes Millie. She was pleased when John told her he planned on proposing. Before the war, he’d been engaged to a different girl, but while he was in North Africa, he received a letter from his fiancée with the ring stuffed inside. In Rome,  he pawned the ring. Lottie knew all along that the fiancée wasn’t the girl for John, but she never said this to her brother. Better that he should find out on his own.

Millie, on the other hand, is sweet and loyal. Millie likes to dance in spite of being clumsy and always stepping just behind the beat, and when it comes to whiskey she can out-drink the men. For a wedding present, Millie gave Lottie a four-quart butter churn from the Sears catalogue.

After the movie, they eat dinner at the café. Scott, Millie and John each order steak and potatoes, but Lottie orders chicken and dumpling soup. The smell of beef makes her nauseated.

They have dessert at Lottie’s; she slices the poppy seed roll and puts out a plate of divinity while she waits for the coffee to percolate. They play cards until 3. After Millie and John leave, Scott and Lottie tumble into bed.  

Scott and Lottie were married in Minneapolis, in the living room of a Methodist minister. Lottie wore a simple gray suit with a tulip skirt and a string of rust colored pearls that Scott had given her as a wedding present. They had lunch with Scott’s friend afterwards at a diner on Central Avenue and the next day drove out to Lottie’s mother’s farmhouse, where Lottie’s mother threw them a party. Lottie’s mother invited everyone she knew.

Lottie has a photo of her parents’ wedding. It sits on a shelf next to the photo of her and Scott. In it, her mother wears a long white dress and veil trimmed with rosettes. The rosettes are tinted pink to match her parents’ cheeks. She slips the photo out of the frame. On the back, it says in pencil, “Mannheim, Deutschland,” but there is no date. 

On Sunday, she and Scott sleep through church. They drive out to Lottie’s mother’s house for Sunday dinner, and twice Lottie makes Scott pull over because she feels like she’s going to be sick. Both are false alarms, but she begins to dread the smell of her mother’s sauerkraut.

“Are you alright, Pearlie?” Scott asks as he rubs her shoulder. She nods. 

Lottie grits her teeth as they cross her mother’s threshold. The smell of beef roast hangs heavily in the air, drags everything down. Lottie eats her mother’s beef but swallows before she can taste it. She eats several rolls without butter.

Lottie grits her teeth as they cross her mother’s threshold. The smell of beef roast hangs heavily in the air, drags everything down. Lottie eats her mother’s beef but swallows before she can taste it. She eats several rolls without butter.

Was ist los, Lieselotte?” her mother asks. Lottie feels the collective gaze of her family upon her and mutters,

Das macht nichts.” She touches her hand to her forehead, but she can’t tell whether her face is warm or her hand is cool.

“Speak English,” growls George. Lottie sighs. She feels Scott’s hand on her knee and she longs to lay her head on his shoulder but she resists.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Scott asks on the drive home. She nods, but stares out the window. Just before they left, her brother George ran out into the fields and screamed, “Nazi words! Fucking Nazi words!” Before the war, George lied about his age so that he could enlist like his brothers. Lottie wishes now that she could have stopped him from going. She falls asleep in the car. Scott carries her to bed. 

The next morning, Lottie cranks the handle on the butter churn. She watches as clumps of butter clot in the cream. She unscrews the lid and peers into the jar, but the smell of the milk causes her stomach to coil and she runs outside and spews up breakfast, vomit splattering against the side of the house.

She looks over her shoulder and sees a black wall of clouds advancing toward her. She opens the trap door and crawls into the cellar. She presses her feverish cheek against the cool floor. This time, she can hear the roar of the wind. It is a heavy vibrating sound, like angry planes. She remembers the sound from newsreels she used to see during the war. She feels the wind slam into the side of the house and hears the sound of glass breaking. The jars of peaches and corn tremble on the shelf. She hears a loud groaning followed by a crush. One of the jars of corn falls from the shelf and shatters. The juice leaks and spreads and soaks the hem of her skirt.

Lottie waits until she no longer hears the wind. She tries to open the trapdoor but there’s something lying across it, something heavy. When she pushes on the door she feels it pushing back. She pushes until her arms shake but she can’t make the thing budge. Finally she hears a car pull up outside and Scott’s footsteps on the walkway.  

“Lottie?” he calls. He almost never calls her by her real name. She punches the trapdoor and calls his name. “Lottie!” He cries. “Don’t worry! Just hold on!” Soon she hears the sound of an axe, and minutes later the heavy thing rolls away. She opens the trapdoor and Scott pulls her up into his arms. The kitchen ceiling is gone; a tree crashed through the roof and fell across the trapdoor. Scott chopped out a section of the trunk so that he could roll it away from the door. The kitchen floor shimmers with broken glass. The butter churn lies on its side, cracked and leaking. Where the wall used to be, there is a patch of sky.

Lottie cries and Scott’s arms tighten around her. “What are we going to do?” she sobs.

“Maybe I can ask my parents to lend us some money to rebuild,” he offers.  Lottie doesn’t like this idea. It’s the beginning of the end, she thinks. She holds her breath and forces herself to stop crying. 

Scott manages to rebuild the roof and replace the glass without the help of his parents’ money, but he’s been sullen and distant ever since he returned from their big Victorian house on Portland Avenue. He’d driven over there to supplicate his parents, to ask them to be merciful and generous in the wake of an act of God. When he returned, all he said to Lottie was, “Why did you let me do that?”

Lottie stands in the kitchen with a broomstick in her hand, trying to chase away the bats that got into the house before they fixed the roof. Lottie has news for Scott. At first she thought it would be good news but now she isn’t so sure. She found out the day after the storm and has kept it a secret a whole week. She’s going to tell Scott tonight. She’s baked his favorite cake, the kind with thick chocolate icing and walnuts. She’ll put a beef roast in the oven and cover it with stewed tomatoes, and she’s going to make buttermilk biscuits and creamy mashed potatoes to soak up all the gravy.

Lottie thinks of names: Linda, Barbara, Patricia. Those are the popular ones, but she doesn’t like them. Nancy, Judy, Betty. Sarah, Donna, Gloria. She wants to pick one of these, but they all sound the same.

She hears a knock at the screen door and mops the sweat from her clavicle before she goes to answer it. Through the screen, she sees a woman wearing a Chanel suit—a real one from Donaldson’s or Power’s, not copied from a pattern book and sewn on a whiny Singer sewing machine. Lottie opens the door.

“Can I help you?” she asks.

“I’m Scott’s mother,” the woman says as she steps inside.

“Oh,” Lottie whispers.

“I came to see the repairs.” She walks into the kitchen and looks at the ceiling, her head slowly turning as she surveys the room. Lottie prays that none of the bats appear. The woman turns to Lottie and says, “I’m sorry Scott hasn’t introduced us.”

“So am I,” Lottie replies, playing the game.

“I’m glad to see the house is in good shape. You keep house well.” Scott’s mother examines the cake on its glass pedestal.

“Thank you.”

“Are you pregnant?” she asks, taking a step forward.

“What?”

“If you’re pregnant, it’s my grandchild and I have a right to know.”

Lottie nods.

“Does Scott know?”

“No,” Lottie replies, “but I’m going to tell him tonight.”

The woman reaches across the counter and feels the fabric of the curtains that hang on the window above the kitchen sink.

“Children are expensive,” she says. “Especially sickly ones. Scott was sick often when he was a baby.”

Lottie presses her hand against the waistband of her apron.

“They need more than a brewer’s salary can provide.”

“We’ll be fine,” Lottie insists, crossing her arms over her breasts.

The woman nods. The sunlight reveals the lines on her face. “Sure, you’ll be fine. As long as there are no more tornadoes.”

“We’ll be fine even if there are.”

The woman nods. The sunlight reveals the lines on her face. “Sure, you’ll be fine. As long as there are no more tornadoes.”

“We’ll be fine even if there are.”

The woman smiles, deepening the crevices around her mouth. “Sure. But why risk it? My husband and I can guarantee you security. In fact, we own a little cottage on Madeline Island. It would be a very peaceful place for your child.”

“I don’t think Scott would like that,” Lottie frowns

“You’re right,” the woman says, crossing back toward the door, “he wouldn’t.” She reaches for the door, but before she opens it she turns to Lottie and says, “You don’t have to tell Scott tonight, do you? You should wait to tell him. You’ve probably waited a week now already, so what’s a few more days?”

The screen door clacks as Scott’s mother walks out to her car.  

Scott comes home late that evening. The gravy is congealed and the potatoes are cold. When he walks in, Lottie is seated at the table staring at the chocolate cake which is missing a large slice.

“I’m pregnant,” she announces. “And if it’s a girl, she’ll be Astrid Isolde. After my grandmother and mother.”

Scott winds his arms around her. As she breathes in his scent of sweat and hops, she decides she’ll go to the farmer’s market tomorrow and buy a bushel of beets to pickle and can. She envisions her cellar shelves lined with a rainbow of jars, from pink-tinged florets of cauliflower to green chunks of bread and butter pickles.

Her mouth fills with hot saliva and she grits her teeth.

All Rights Reserved to Elizabeth Sowden

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