Enjoy a little fiction this month!
They live in the screened in porch all summer long, particularly on these hot days when the ancient air conditioner in their century old farmhouse seemed to do nothing more than sigh a slightly moist breath through the vents. Weathered ceiling fans lazily spinning, seeming to only throw the heat from one end of the porch to the other but the satisfaction of bug-free evenings always call them outside. A roll of duct tape is hung like a talisman on the wall, at the ready to repair any damage to the beloved screens. By the end of each summer, between kids throwing baseballs or an arrow gone awry, dogs and cats clawing their way in out of the rain, the screens are becoming a patchwork quilt of muted silver. There’s one big patch from when Cassie and Tom drank too much elderberry wine from their neighbour Hank and ended up making love like teenagers on the sagging settee, sneaking away from the kids and neighbours during a celebratory gathering, only to find themselves bare and revealed as the brightest spray of fireworks ignited into the sky, sending Tom careening off Cassie directly through the last intact panel of screening. Cassie rolled herself in a blanket, was horrified that someone might have seen them but Tom assured her everyone was looking far up into the night sky and that the big plum tree just beyond the porch would have sheltered them anyway. They both laugh now when they see the man-sized gash covered in tape zigzagging like a lightning bolt down the screen, their secret tryst a small flame between them. The best nights are when they take the projector out and perch it precariously on a chair sitting atop a table to get just the right angle and watch a movie all together, the peeling white cement walls of the garage the screen. Small hands, sticky from homemade maple syrup popcorn balls, finding their way into Cassie’s, hers entwined with Tom’s. She always pictures their hands this way, a nest holding their babies.
It’s July, the days beg for rain but each day simply grows hotter, the sun a white orb in a bleached out sky. The breeze goes from hot and dusty to nonexistent and the grass wilts, parched. The cattle basking like black blobs under the trees. The cats lay panting in the shade from the rusted out tractor. By the sixth day of the heatwave, dark clouds gather menacingly in the south like a vast family of crows, but they stay there, suspended and teasing then drift away. And still no rain. Cassie makes lemonade by the gallon, the cut crystal goblets she serves it in sweating and leaving water rings on the antique tables gracing the porch. Two of the kids, Jane and Kelly, play dress up with some of the kittens until Cassie rescues them, admonishing the girls for threatening to overheat the poor loves. Pete and Wally continually come back throughout the day in varying degrees of filth; first covered in hay, then mud, then soaking and sandy from swimming in the creek that borders the neighbouring farm. All the children squealed when Pete produced a handful of frog eggs he had snuck into his pockets. Cassie manages it all, saving the mauled cats, hosing off the boys, picking away decaying frogs eggs from the rattan furniture while Tom is oblivious, riding the tractor and mowing the lawn in loops even though the grass is short and dying in the relentless heat. Cassie mentally accuses him of avoidance while making yet another meal and quenching her hot feet in a bowl of ice water.
The monotonous weather is just one more bead on an endless string, each day passes just like the last. A revolving door of meals, cleaning, minding the kids, falling into oblivion, waking to do it all again. Each night Cassie’s head hits the pillow she goes through her gratitude list, “dear God, thank you for today. I am so grateful that Kelly finished her project, that Pete found grampy’s watch…” and somewhere between giving thanks for her kids and her husband, she has fallen away into a sleep so deep she can’t remember if she even thanked God for her own self.
Today Cassie tried to make it different in some way, peering at herself in the mirror after her shower, looking between the usual faded men’s overalls she rotates with her stained cut off shorts and one of ten tired tank tops. Didn’t she used to love dressing up, wearing fitted dresses and pant suits? Inspired she took her black crepe dress from the back of the closet, the one with tiny white polka dots and a ruffled low cut collar. It fit but just barely so, when was the last time she wore it? The neck of the dress was pulling, but her breasts are smaller now, deflated after nursing three of her four kids, what’s up with this thing? And wasn’t it longer before? Now the hem just tickled her knees but she was sure it cut mid-calf before. The sash felt too high, the openings at the arms too small. Despite how the heat clung to her in the dress, trapped between the fabric and her damp skin, she was committed to wearing it. She felt validated as Tom actually stopped the tractor as she stepped off the porch, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow. Eyes wide and grinning he wolf whistled as she shooed him away but inside she felt a glow. Cassie managed through dropping kids at various activities, picking up the reupholstered ottoman and chasing a wayward guinea hen out of her yard. But by dinner the dress was in a damp ball on the stairs. “Mom why aren’t you wearing clothes?” Asked her oldest daughter Kelly, face crumpled in disapproval. Cassie snapped her tongs at Kelly then resumed turning the chicken wings in her bra and underwear. Later she’ll sew some flower embellishments onto the overalls and feel pleased at how feminine she truly is while still being practical and comfortable. Tom will still look at her like he’s a burning man and she’s the soothing balm he craves even if he doesn’t stop working to wolf whistle.
Midway through the 74th batch of dishes the next day, something catches her gaze. Through the deep set window in front of the porcelain farm sink she can see a shimmering but it isn’t just the heat, the grass out beyond the yard is waving in a sudden breeze. Instantly Cassie feels transported. A long ago summer on the coast, felt like a whole lifetime ago, someone else altogether. Faded grey board and batten saltboxes, white fences half buried in sand, the long beach grass rippling like the grey ocean beyond it. A Hudson Bay blanket over her creaky brass bed, the primary coloured stripes faded from years of use. Each day when she woke, she had stood out at the shore, glimpsing the fishing boats bobbing on the mercurial ocean, a gang of birds circling noisily. She would think of the boats as she and her friends dined on grilled haddock and fried clams dipped in butter, the men with rough hands and salty words, backbreaking work, she would savour each bite, licking her fingers. The best part of seafood was the allowance of melted butter, what other food could you eat like that? Her skin had been salty and nut brown, her legs strong from peddling her bike through narrow streets and long country roads. Every shower she took, sand littered the tile floor, caught from the wild waves in her hair. All summer long she wore rolled up jean shorts and a bikini, a woollen cable knit sweater over top, scratchy but comforting.
A rush of sound, her family clattering in through the back door, the girls squawking, one of the boys holding a barn cat, a bloom of blood on its white paw. And like that her memories of days so long ago, the days she knew herself best, were fading back into the recesses of her mind, only to be drawn back to the surface in the calm repetition of domestic life. Calm like the weather these days, calm that turns to listlessness as everything dies in the heat. Waiting for the storm.
The cat bandaged and released, Tom back to the barn, the kids settled into a movie, Cassie turns towards the kitchen. It’s late now and she’s deflated at the thought of making supper. But the breeze that has picked up beckons her to the stove. It’s Tuesday and that means it’s the day to take stock of how many collected chicken and duck eggs have yet to be sold by Kelly and Jane at the farm stand by the road. Tuesday is referred to as Omelette/Pavlova/Hollandaise day, interchangeable culinary words that instruct that all meals that day will feature eggs in some form. Settling on meringues floating in custard, Cassie looks for her whisk. The drawer that holds her baking utensils smells inexplicably like melted butter. And there it is again, that memory, a summer spent eating more food than not drenched in butter. She was 23 and certain that life was meant to be lived in big ways. She worked at a bookstore and helped her aunt Tilly at the ice cream shop while taking a summer painting course. Everyone said she was talented. She had no doubt that by the time she was thirty she would be living in Toronto featuring her landscape paintings at galleries by day and draped in black silk by night, visiting the poshest parties, smoking skinny cigarettes and drinking cocktails named after cities. Absently whisking the thickening custard Cassie feels stunned for a moment to consider that she is now 41 and she never made it to Toronto, on her thirtieth birthday she was pushing two year old Pete down the dusty laneway of Tom’s family farm that they unexpectedly inherited, Kelly turning like a fish in her belly. The last time she thought of painting was when she accidentally toppled down a shelf in the shed reaching for a flower pot and her old acrylic set nearly cut her toes off as it crashed to the earthen floor. That night she had told Tom that he had to make her a studio space and he actually did get started on it. But before she could even brush off her easel she was pregnant with Wally and the studio became the new nursery. She’s tallying the years and trying to think what has become of her, a pain and a heat is spreading through her chest as she panics with the recognition that it’s been 16 years since she picked up a paintbrush. Cassie realizes she’s been holding her breath as Jane comes crashing into her legs, pitching the whisk out of her hand. Her breath tumbles out in a ribbon of curse words just as she sees the pot of custard has curdled and burnt. With a growl her children haven’t heard from her before, she throws the whole thing off the back porch. That night the kids eat ham sandwiches made by Tom on the porch, feeling the wind menacingly pick up as they look sideways at their mom. Cassie is stone faced, sitting away from her family in the rocking chair, watching out the screened windows while the cats and dogs come to lick the sweet eggy mess from the pot.
Cassie awoke to a crash of thunder that jarred the whole house. Lightning streaked purple across the sky as she bolted the hallway windows shut. A gust of cold rainy air caught in her nightgown, blowing away the heavy sticky heat she’s felt for days.
The breeze coming from the window beside her bed woke her the next morning. The most delicious feeling, that coolness, instantly Cassie felt refreshed and renewed. Born again. Cuddled under the heaviness of her down duvet, the thing she had been shoving off the bed the last few nights in a fit of sweaty rage, the stillness of the heat making the night oppressive and sleep elusive. Tom and the kids were already in the kitchen, surprising her with crepes made from the Tuesday eggs. They all sat on the porch to eat, now in long sleeves, the weather dramatically changed. Cassie pulled her robe tighter around her as Tom brought her coffee and they stood silently together. Cassie resting her back against Tom’s chest feeling his slow and steady heartbeat, and she looked out through the damaged but repaired screened windows of the porch. Listening to the kids laughing as they squashed strawberries onto their noses, seeing how the land itself seems to have exhaled and already started to green up from that one big storm. The plums on the tree just beyond the steps ripened now from the hot spell, today Cassie will make plum preserves and the colour will remind her of the canvases she used to paint but this time she’ll feel hopeful and she’ll make the decision to turn the old pig shed into a studio.