162. Canning

Stationed in
The kitchen: some at
Table, some at
Sink, some at the stove.
Miss Flynn from
Relief had brought tomatoes!
Drove up in her
Car and dropped them off. Patty
Had a pressure cooker,
“Precious cooker,” tenant women
Called it.
Now, tomatoes
Dipped in boiling water, then
Peeled, cooked, canned.

Patty’s kitchen:
Chatting back and
Forth above their chores,
Mopping foreheads,
Shoving back moist
Hair, the women
Of the club still
Tried to look their
Best: Patty’s
Apron stiff as
China figurines’.
The tomatoes, free,
A windfall–but if they
Worked hard, then
They could take them home
And still feel good.
Riah, too, had
Pride. Above all–
She glanced side to
Side–she wished to
Be thought neat.
Neat as secretaries at their
Desks, in ads that
She’d spied in
Louise’s magazines:
Spectacles, crisp seams.
Riah’s sweat dripped
From chin to her bowl.
She scalped boiled
Tomatoes, tart juice
Scalding nimble fingers,
The room fogging,
Rank with soupy steam.
Riah’s cheeks were
Spattered–sodden
Mass, her lap–
Hectic red flecks
Clinging to her arm.
Here in patches
Rash began to spread, itched
In between her
Fingers, down her
Back. Pulp-smears
Where she scratched.

Overseeing,
Patty stood content.
Here she was in
Charge. She wished to
Speak, and speak to
Riah. Hand on
Riah’s arm, she
Eyed the bustling kitchen:
“Nice to work
Together.” Riah
Nodded, peeling.
Patty: “Peaceful.
No disturbance. No…
Unpleasantness.”
Riah paused, still
Peeling, but more slow.
“Riah, dear,” said
Patty, motherly,
“Earlier today I went to
Town. And I saw
Her–that Mrs. Kemp.
Bickering with
That new grocery boy–
Adams boy–wanting goods on
Credit till next week.
Dozen eggs, I think.
She was shrieking
Like a fishwife, Riah!
At that boy–she
Said they had no food–
She called that Miss Flynn
An awful name. And took
The Lord in vain.”
She’s in your church
Sundays, Riah thought, not
Mine. Why tell me?

“As I say, I
Spoke up–I know
Folks like her will
Listen, if you’re firm.
I reminded
Her of where she was.” Patty
Shook her head. “Then,
Having her attention,
I put it to
Use. I mentioned
You.”

Riah froze. “I
Spoke on your behalf.
Merely said you’re
Such a Christian
Woman. Said you’d
Never  turn
A person from your
Door. No matter who.”
No matter who?
“And how I had
Heard that in the
Name of Christian charity”–
Here a chill gripped
Riah–“that you
Let her in.
Let her call.
But that surely
It could not be proper,
Her to be all
Hours at your house,
When you’re busy
There with James and Tom–your
Family–what
An embarrassment,
Though you’re much too
Kind to tell her so–but being
Who she is….
She knows, Riah. Only wants
Reminding.”

Riah’s knife dropped
To her lap.
She stood up and
Let it clatter down.
Her tomatoes
Tumbled, landing, smack.
At this several
Ladies looked up,
Piqued–suspecting
Lately Riah
Just could not act right.
Beneath splotches
Riah had gone white:
Stared at Patty,
Who stared back amazed. At last
Riah spoke.

“Tell me, Patty,”
She said, her voice straining:
“Tell me that you
Did not say
Those words”–and
Louise had heard?
Riah could not
Bear. “Why,” Patty flushed–
“Which words?”
Riah breathed in.
Teeth clenched, she said:
“Charity.
Embarrassed.”
Patty stood still.
Riah’s face had
Drained. “Patty!
Well, what’d she do?”

“Why–” but here Patty
Paused. She noticed
Displeased faces
Turning Riah’s way.
Patty saw
The room was on her side.

She did
Not go on.
Eyes averted,
Riah snatched a purse,
Pushed her hair in
Place, and then was
Gone.

One Response to “162. Canning”

  1. Kaki Says:

    Shelley, this is absolutely amazing writing. I can see and hear these women and town folk. You have done a masterful job of characterizing each one so beautifully with only a few words. I plan on visiting often–I can learn a lot from you. Thanks for sharing.

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