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Mrs. Greenwood's Jelly

Mrs. Greenwood's Jelly

Angela Palm

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Love in a vacuum, Dorothy thought. Love in the mail. Love in a blender. She almost laughed, then remembered she was pretending to sleep. Every morning, she waited for John to leave like this, listing out ways to contain and distort love. It lacked some dimension of rationality, to her mind. Love, which you couldn't even touch with one shaking finger.

Dorothy never warmed to sharing daybreak, to a plush floor meeting her morning feet. She never got to like not waking up to milk the lone female goat, to weed the half-acre of vegetation, to wonder at a newborn thing mewling out the arrival of dawn. She liked a quiet bath, though, how it was hot every time, liked the day's first light to wash over her in laggard waves. But John always prattled on about bank rates in his undershirt and socks—interests and securities and economic recovery. As if she understood those things, or cared. He shouted for her to bring the paper for his bathroom. He hummed Duke Ellington while the coffee percolated, the closest sound she could make to rain snatched away by his off-key crooning. Dorothy hated Duke Ellington. And she cringed at John's furry body reddened by the hot water, turned her face toward the door as she handed him the towel he always forgot to grab.

The first thing to go was doing the coffee for him. Next was the paper. Finally, the towel went. Exhaustion, she claimed. She became like the land. Resting herself until she could become useful again, lest she over-reap what had been sown in this marriage. She thought if she stayed in bed, he'd quiet down and she could ease herself back into the routines of her married life, rhythmic-like, without his noticing she'd changed him by changing herself. But no. John talked to himself. He talked to the walls. Scuttled his wet, naked body down the hall, skin squeaking, to the linen closet every day.

Dorothy waited for the thunk of heavy wooden door, the storm door's thwack. Thunk-thwack. Thunk-thwack. She'd measured the days of their marriage by that odd melody for four years. Not in a tedious way, not to complain. But this morning, the one morning she required privacy, the doors didn't bang, so she stopped listing love and got out of bed to see what was the matter.

She'd gotten the whole house down to just an hour of daily work. Then nothing. The days stretched out before her like spun sugar. Slow, hot, saltless.

John sat on the sofa bent over his shined shoes.

"You'll split your coat like that," she said and squatted next to him in her nightgown.

"The horn's stuck is all," he said.

She plucked it out easily. "There," she said. "Off to work with you."

"You ought to scold me for shoes on the carpet."

This surprised her. "Why? Isn't that what the sweeper is for?"

He shrugged. "My mother always did." He smiled at her and pinched her rear through her nightgown. "See you at supper," he said.

She forced a smile in return and let him pass by, out the door, thunk-thwack. Her own parents had barely spoken, just shoved eggs or emptied plates across the table with barely a look in the other's direction. With John she felt she was playing a part in a play for which she hadn't rehearsed, always grasping for the appropriate reactions, the right lines.

Dorothy hurried to the bedroom, tucked John's side of the sheet under the mattress, letting her side hang free. She squared off the white chenille coverlet, its raised patterns running in perfect little grids up and down the bed. She creased the blanket beneath the row of pillows with the flat of her hand, marveling for a moment how white the white. It all took less than a minute to arrange. She'd gotten the whole house down to just an hour of daily work. Then nothing. The days stretched out before her like spun sugar. Slow, hot, saltless.

Dorothy lit a cigarette for breakfast, ashed it into the toilet, then flushed the butt. She had an hour until the post. She opened Art and Beauty Magazine to the dog-eared page and read the ad for the fortieth time:

Every person who is married or is contemplating marriage should listen to a word of advice. Too many people enter into the holy bonds of matrimony absolutely ignorant of any of its responsibilities. As a result, thousands of homes are wrecked, poor and innocent men and women are made to suffer untold misery all because they did not know the laws of nature.

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She smoked another cigarette, then wrapped herself in a brazier and threw on a shapeless green dress. On her way out, she grabbed the umbrella and a five from the middle of the roll in the mason jar. "Send no money," the ad said. "When the three books arrive, pay postman only $2.39 plus postage."

The post office bustled, all light and motion, dresses cut in familiar fashion, hats in duplicate on men's heads. She made nervous small talk with her neighbors as they came and went. More people were at the post than in all of her home town. And they were chipper, nothing like her people, who wore troubles on their faces, loss in their eyes. Pleasantries didn't come so easily to Dorothy, although she tried. An extra smile at John, a feigned compliment for a friend. Slapping her cheeks in the mirror, rosing them up so she'd seem excited about things that didn't excite her, such as a second car, or new drapes, or John's going on about how he couldn't wait to have a baby.

Betty Jean from two doors down joined the line.

"Morning, Dorothy. Lovely day today, isn't it?"

"Just ducky, if you don't mind rain." Dorothy kept her hands tucked firmly into the pockets of her dress, one hand smoothing the five dollar bill against her hip. The umbrella hung askew from her wrist.

Betty Jean touched her arm, her made-up face beaming. "It's not raining, dear."

"It will rain," Dorothy said.

You're certain?" Betty Jean loved when conversations turned in her favor. Her face raised—eyebrows, nose, and chin all at attention.

"I grew up on a farm," Dorothy said. "It'll rain." Her daddy had taught her the signs—wind shifts, leaves upturned where the stem met the flat parts, the way the birds moved.

"If you say so." Betty Jean was positively smug. "Maybe you're pregnant," she whispered with a sneaking smile. "That's how I first realized."

"How?" Dorothy asked. Her face tightened.

"My looks went to hell for a while, and I found it so difficult to go about my day. Oh, won't John be pleased."

Dorothy shrugged and moved up in line. John would be pleased at that. Had they ever even discussed children as anything but inevitable? She stewed about it daily, pulling in tiny sips of air between the cigarettes, flitting about the house full of nerves. She was indebted to John for bringing her up in the world, economically so to speak, despite her discomfort with it. But was she expected to repay him in children?

Had they ever even discussed children as anything but inevitable? She stewed about it daily, pulling in tiny sips of air between the cigarettes, flitting about the house full of nerves.

"Next," called the postman.

"Packages for Mr. Greenwood, please." Dorothy slid the postal note across the desk.

"You got it, Mrs. G." He leaned over, disappearing into a laundry-sized bin of packages. "Here you are. From Sears."

Dorothy stabbed the box with the letter opener that had been her daddy's, three years dead, rest his soul. She was supposed to believe he was watching her, a celestial star suspended in heaven meant to protect her. She crossed herself and whispered an apology, though she wasn't sure to whom she should be directing it. Her father? Jesus? John? She pried the box open and spread the books out on the floor. She fingered their covers and bindings. Dimpled, matte-finish. Serious looking, but with whimsical women spread across the inside pages, all happily informed of how to avoid foolish chances in marriage. She'd start with the most basic of the texts, What Every Mother and Girl Should Know. Most of what she knew was from her limited experience with John and watching animals on the farm, although her daddy had tried to keep her from seeing. She counted herself lucky she'd come across the box of magazines when she and John had moved in. "Decide to learn all about birth control now! Later may be too late," the ad read in each issue. It had taken her four years to decide to learn.

The next item was more intimidating. She tried to wrap her thoughts around the idea of deceiving John, the guilt she'd feel, but shook it off. She'd gotten lucky so far, but every passing day brought her closer to a fate she couldn't even picture. She hadn't the faintest idea how to use the stuff, though. Dorothy inspected the tube curiously, a lump rising in her throat. The name seemed to be the main problem with it: contraceptive jelly. On the one hand, it sounded technical and tricky. On the other hand, it sounded like a breakfast tart, harmless and pedestrian. She'd begun to read the directions when a car pulled noisily up the drive. She looked at the clock on the mantle—not even lunchtime yet.

The name seemed to be the main problem with it: contraceptive jelly. On the one hand, it sounded technical and tricky. On the other hand, it sounded like a breakfast tart, harmless and pedestrian.

Dorothy's stomach heaved, and a bitter taste rose to her mouth. In a panic, she kicked the packaging under the sofa and stacked the books beneath a pile of magazines on the coffee table. As the door opened, John halfway through it already, she realized she was still holding the jelly. She quickly rotated it so that the label faced her stomach.

"You're back early," she said, trying for calm. She gingerly rearranged the sofa pillows with her free hand.

"I'm coming down with something," he said. "Make a broth for me, won't you, dear?"

"Sure. Why don't you go lie down?"

"What's that?" he asked, nodding at the jelly.

"Oh, this? This is a…well an experiment really. It's supposed to heighten one's pleasure, or some such thing." She hadn't thought of how she'd get away with using it. "It was going to be a surprise."

"Where'd you get an idea like that?"

"The, well, one of the ladies' magazines had an ad and—"

"A ladies' magazine." He nodded and half-smiled. "So they're not just about homemaking. Well, maybe tomorrow you can tell me about this experiment of yours," he said, heading for the bedroom.

"You go on and lie down. I'll bring you that broth in a jiffy."

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Dorothy threw herself onto the sofa once he was in the bedroom, knotted inside and fully as ill as John claimed to be. They were coming down with something. But she forced herself up to her feet and went to the kitchen to warm the broth.

At the sink, she scrubbed the jelly's label with steel wool until it broke apart in gluey lumps of wet paper. Bright blue suds stained her fingers and ran down her forearms, cascading into the sink. She heaved again, and allowed herself to vomit into the sink. She washed it all down the drain and set the tube on the counter where John would be sure to see it, sure to be overcome by curiosity once he was well, sure to implement himself in her plan to manage this part of her life—her own body.

She thought of her new books and of tomorrow, and of the next tomorrow, and of the one after that. She'd bought herself months, at least.

She poured the broth into a large bowl and carried the steaming bowl down the hall in tiny, careful sashays. She set the bowl by the bedside. "There you are," she said and touched John's forehead with the back of her hand for a moment. She thought of her new books and of tomorrow, and of the next tomorrow, and of the one after that. She'd bought herself months, at least. It was a temporary solution, and one with admittedly short sight on long-term consequences, but it was enough for now. She'd problem out the rest later.

She rested in the kitchen, where she liked to watch the sky and the little plot of green behind the house. These, her last connection to her home. Her last remembering. A gray cloud moved across the sky. The rain began. Dorothy puffed a cigarette. Love in a plastic tube, she thought. Love in a boil. Love in the afternoon. 

Angela Palm owns the Renegade Writers' Collective, a writing center in Burlington, Vermont. She's the editor of Please Do Not Remove, forthcoming from Wind Ridge Books in 2014. Her work appears in apt, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Prick of the Spindle, ARDOR Literary Magazine, Little Fiction, Big Truths, and elsewhere. Her essay, "The Devolution of Cake," was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

Illustration by Dan Forke

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