The Canning Season

Polly Horvath

Square Fish

The Canning Season
MRS. MENUTO LOSES HER HEAD
"I'm going where?" Ratchet gasped.
"Maine."
"Maine?" Ratchet cried. "Why am I going there?"
"You're spending the summer with great--second cousins, Tilly and Penpen Menuto. You can just call them aunts. I called them Aunt Tilly and Aunt Penpen, and they always referred to me as their niece. You can be a niece, too. Who says 'Great--second cousin once removed Tilly' or whatever it would be. It's too much of a mouthful. They're some distant relatives or other. I'd almost forgotten about them. I used to spend summers with them. You're old enough now to get some away-from-home experience, and that's the only free place I could think of."
"I'm going tonight? Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I thought it would make a nice surprise. Come on, hurry up, it's going to take two days to get there. I've got train and bus tickets foryou. You'll like sleeping on the train. The clickety-clack and all that. Here's your itinerary. Hurry up, Ratchet, get your coat."
"But it's hot out," Ratchet said.
"Not in Maine. Don't they teach you anything in school?" Henriette was walking swiftly up the basement stairs to the parking lot. She drove purposefully with no idea where she was going. She had never been to the train station, but she figured, what the heck, she had a map. Henriette took the same routes through Pensacola and never deviated from her habitual courses. Within minutes they were lost. Ratchet clutched her seat nervously as Henriette, flustered that the streets weren't where she figured they should be, almost hit a pedestrian and ran a stop sign. It was at this point that Henriette remembered Ratchet's suitcase sitting at home.
"Too late," she said. "Too late. Damn it. Well, I'll try to remember to send you a few things." She swung into a convenience store to find someone who could tell them how to get to the train station, and they got there just minutes before the train pulled out.
"I didn't even know I had any relatives," Ratchet said as they hurried across the platform.
"They were already old when I spent summers with them. They must be casket-ready by now. Penpen was kind of fat and happy-happy all the time, and Tilly looked like a sphincter."
"Like a what?" Ratchet asked, but the conductor was hurrying her up the steps to the train. She and her mother didn't say goodbye. Her mother had long ago told her that in their family they were no good at hellos, no good at goodbyes, and not much good with the stuff in between. As Ratchet turned, she could hear hermother trying to shout something to her over the roar of the train starting up.
"What?" Ratchet called through the open train door.
"Keep That Thing covered!" Henriette cried and headed back to the parking lot.
Ratchet watched her mother's retreating form as long as she could, then went into the train car. People were already slumped and slumbering, their faces pressed against windows, or their heads hanging heavy on their chests. There weren't any seats next to women available, so she sat next to a man who was sound asleep and drooling slightly on his lapel. She felt a terrible wrench at being pulled away from her mother, like a boot being pulled out of thick mud with a great sucking sound. But she knew her mother would despise such feelings. They were fussy. She put her feet and knees together and her hands in her lap and kept this position pretty much all the way to Maine.
 
Tilly was tiny and very, very thin. Penpen was round and jolly, just as Henriette had said, and even though she had short white hair, she didn't look all that old. Not nearly as old as Tilly, but Ratchet knew that she must be because the first thing that Tilly said to her when she got in their waiting car was, "We are twins. We were born together, we grew up together, we have lived our whole lives together, and we have plans to die together. The thing is, as I tried to explain to your mother, who by the way--"
"We are living somewhere very remote," interrupted Penpen, flashing Ratchet a smile from the front seat.
"So if we die, you will be stuck, that's all I was trying to tell Henriette! But, as usual, she wasn't listening. Stuck," said Tilly glumly, putting on her driving gloves.
Tilly sat on two phone books and a cushion and yet she could barely see over the wheel. Ratchet sat in the backseat. It was black out. In fact, the night sky, the whole night air of the Maine woods, had an oily quality--a dark so deep you could almost see rainbows in it. Ratchet had no idea where she was. Her ticket said "Dairy," but Henriette had told her that her great-aunts had a house past Dink. All these "D" names blurred in her mind as they drove through tiny lit streets. Finally even the few lights of town were gone and she was too tired to track their journey further. Too tired to do anything but try to remain upright in the backseat and be polite.
"If something were to happen to one of us, as I tried to explain to your mother on the phone, you'd be sunk," Tilly went on.
"Unless you learn to drive the Daimler, of course."
"Your mother--"
"Oh, look, a bear!" said Penpen.
Ratchet pressed her face to the window to see the bear but saw nothing except more darkness, so she leaned back. The roads became narrower. Penpen asked if anyone wanted a brown bag, of which they kept a healthy supply up front "just in case." Ratchet reached a hand forward for one, but although Tilly's driving made her queasy she never needed to use it. Instead she fidgeted, twisting and untwisting it. Tilly drove twenty miles an hour and made many sudden jerky stops because she kept thinking she saw things in thedark. Penpen would crane her neck around, checking the car on all sides, before saying, "Drive on, Tilly." And Tilly would drive on until she saw the next mirage and jerked to another stop, and another, until they finally stopped for good beyond a gate with a sign reading GLEN ROSA.
The Menuto house was enormous, made from old brick and spouting a profusion of towers and turrets that reached up in line with the tops of the pines that encircled it to prick the vast starry sky. From the front yard, where Tilly stopped the car, Ratchet could hear the sound of the sea crashing on rocks somewhere below. She tripped sleepily toward the house. She had spent forty-eight hours traveling, most of them sleepless, and could barely keep track of her feet.
"Don't fall down the cliff," said Penpen, grabbing Ratchet's shirt between her shoulder blades and yanking her back. Ratchet was so tired that the sudden sight of white foam spraying below and the realization that she had almost joined it with a splash didn't startle her, but Penpen's hand on her shirt did. She immediately and instinctively jerked away, wondering if Penpen had felt That Thing through the thin fabric. But if she had, she registered nothing. Ratchet looked down after that and followed the white rock walkway up to the house. She was too tired to take any notice of her surroundings. All she could remember as she drifted off to sleep was climbing a large winding staircase and being shown to a room from where she could hear the sound of the sea even louder, banging its way toward shore and back. Why does it keep doing that? she thought; why can't it just shut up? and fell asleep in her underwear.
 
 
"The most immediate concern," said Tilly the next morning over waffles with raspberries--there seemed to be a great deal of raspberries around; there were baskets of them rotting all over the house--"is clothes. Most specifically, but not entirely, Penpen, summer clothes."
"Swimsuit," said Penpen.
"Shorts."
Underwear, thought Ratchet.
"She hasn't even a toothbrush!" said Tilly indignantly. "Her mother--"
"Would you like some more berries?" interrupted Penpen, passing a large bowl across the table to Ratchet.
"How did you sleep?" asked Tilly.
"Good," said Ratchet. It was the deepest sleep she could remember ever having. She had never slept above ground in an upstairs bedroom. There were no underground insects drilling small holes. She had awakened groggily in the middle of the night to see the wind off the ocean fluttering the yellow dotted-swiss curtains in front of her octagonal window. I have a porthole, she thought. She wanted to call Henriette and tell her. Ratchet tried to stay awake to watch the fluttering curtains in the light of a moon that emerged in the middle of the night, but she was too tired. Sometime during her sleep she had surrendered to the sound of the surf, the soothing waves, their deep rhythm creeping into her unconscious all night like the heartbeat of a large animal.
"Go out and get some air," said Penpen. "Tilly and I must tidyup and get our hats and then we will go make the necessary purchases in town."
Ratchet went outside to explore. The morning was bright, sunshine sparkling on the water, filtering through the pine trees. She didn't bother to put on her shoes but scrambled down the rocky edge of the cliff to dangle her feet in the sea. A seal swam by and a fishing boat chugged along in the distance. Sea gulls made a great deal of early-morning mindless noise. But it was all strange sounds, strange sights. These were not Florida gulls, they were strange northern gulls. Even with the porthole she did not want to be here and wondered if she would be able to keep her breakfast down.
"Come along," shouted Tilly from the cliff top. Ratchet ran up the cliff for her shoes.
"We're going into Dink, dear," said Penpen.
They climbed into the Daimler. Penpen, with a grimly sympathetic look, gave Ratchet a brown bag. Tilly still drove with a series of slow violent jerks, as if the car itself were heaving its way down the road, but Ratchet was distracted by seeing the countryside she hadn't been able to see the night before. First the dirt road ran inland through thick bushes that scratched against both sides of the Daimler. Then it widened and swampland appeared, and woods so deep it looked as if night had fallen permanently beneath them. Blueberry bushes grew everywhere in the swamps, and in the distance she saw a large animal drinking.
"Oh, look at the moose, Tilly!" said Penpen, which caused Tilly to drive off the road into a bush and it took fifteen minutes to maneuver the car back onto the road.
"Please do not point out any more wildlife, Penpen," said Tilly "If we get stuck here, we'll be stuck forever. None of us could walk all the way to town."
"I'm almost certain Ratchet could. You have good strong legs, don't you, Ratchet?" asked Penpen.
"I don't know," Ratchet said, looking down uncertainly at them. When Henriette saw them she always said, "There's your father's bony knees staring at me like a reproach."
"Even if she could walk it, it would only be to be eaten by a bear along the way," said Tilly.
"True, too true," said Penpen.
"There was that incident years ago."
"But that was many years ago," said Penpen.
"Yes," said Tilly and sighed as if the subject were closed. "You see, Ratchet, that's what I meant when I said that if we were to die and you were alone at Glen Rosa ..."
"And could not drive ..."
"And could not walk ..."
"You'd be pretty much sunk."
"What about the telephone?" Ratchet asked.
"You can't call out, you can only get calls in," said Tilly "Father fixed it that way the year after we first got the phone. It was because our mother developed a habit."
"She certainly did," said Penpen.
"She phoned everyone."
"The San Diego Zoo, people in China, proprietors of shops in Little Rock, Arkansas. She had this great curiosity about the world. It was a wonderful thing, really."
"And if Father had only let her travel I'm sure she would never have developed the habit. But he kept her here on our property, far from anything, and didn't even let her do the shopping."
"He thought it was undignified. A Menuto shopping! That's what servants were for."
"So she never got to go anywhere or meet anyone. It was a real tragedy."
"She's what people today would have called a people person," said Penpen.
"So at least she was spared that," said Tilly, "dying when she did. At such an early age."
"We were just girls, Tilly and I. Exactly your age, actually."
"How did she die?" Ratchet asked.
"She offed herself," said Penpen.
"What?" Ratchet said.
"She killed herself in a particularly brutish and horrible way. I don't know why. I suppose it was all she could come up with at the time. Or maybe she was experimenting. She was very imaginative."
"How did she do it?" Ratchet asked.
"She cut off her own head."
"Oh no!" said Ratchet.
"I suppose you think that's rather thrilling," said Penpen. "People think children are going to be upset by things that I'm sure they think are quite thrilling. Tilly and I were proud of her. It must have taken extreme nerve, wouldn't you say, Tilly?"
"It wasn't your ordinary way to go. Mother never did anything the ordinary way."
"Weren't you so sad?" asked Ratchet.
"Oh, we were," said Penpen, "for many many years. She was a wonderful woman, but she simply wasn't made to be closeted up like that. Anyhow, Father never bothered changing the phone line afterward. I guess he thought it would come in handy when we had swains. Not that things ever became very swainish around our house. Too far out. And so Tilly and I just kind of stayed on, and then when we were in our teens Father died. We dismissed the servants after that and buried Father in the backyard, and Tilly and I taught ourselves to drive."
"We never bothered with silly things like licenses," said Tilly. "At the time you didn't need them."
"No, but it doesn't matter, of course," said Penpen.
"All these things that people 'out there' think you need that are complete hogwash. Anyhow, I reminded your mother when she phoned that we were in a very remote area and could really not take on the responsibility of a child. Not because we couldn't care for one but because we plan to die together, and if we suddenly do, then you'd be trapped out here. It isn't a pretty thought. But Penpen had to go and become a Zen Buddhist."
"Now, now," interrupted Penpen, "I wouldn't go that far. I haven't become anything but interested."
"She said," Tilly went on, "that we must take in whatever shows up. You cannot turn anyone away. Take in the whole world, these Buddhists do, if it shows up at their door."
"It's a lovely philosophy, and you see, there you were showing up, just as I was espousing it. Can there be any real accidents? Mustn't we trust in some kind of design to it all?"
"Good thing we don't live closer to town," grumbled Tilly. "We'd be eaten out of house and home. Vacuum cleaner salesmen would be moving in with us. What were those men that used to go door to door selling spices, Penpen? We haven't seen them in years and years. Raleigh men! We'd have Raleigh men in all the spare bedrooms. Just because they showed up at the door. It isn't a practical philosophy."
"I don't believe there are Raleigh men anymore," said Penpen.
"Where did all the Raleigh men go?" asked Tilly.
"And even if there were Raleigh men and even if they showed up, I don't suppose they'd all want to stay."
"Makes no difference, I'm sure you'd be clunking them on the head and dragging them in anyway, Penpen."
"I'm really not like that," Penpen said to Ratchet.
And then they drove quietly, peacefully on.
The trees were opening up over the Daimler and the road widened. Eventually they pulled onto a paved road; then it was still another hour, passing nothing but logging trucks and an occasional lost vacationer, until they came to the small town of Dink, where they bought Ratchet clothes and a few groceries from the general store. The pickings were slim at the store, which was very general and seemed to have been stocked randomly--a few nails, a couple of cake mixes, some shower caps, a chicken in a can. Tilly held up the whole canned chicken and she and Penpen burst into hysterical giggles. "Who buys a chicken in a can?" she asked and the two of them snorted, bent double with hilarity as the sullen girl who worked the counter stared at them. They found Ratchet a smallwoman's swimsuit, which they decided would fit with a few safety pin adjustments. For the rest they had to make do with some boys' clothes that fit Ratchet--some ill-fitting shorts and socks and underwear--and toothbrushes and necessities. Tilly loaded up the counter and paid the girl before moving on to the post office, where they collected six months' worth of mail from their box.
Even though the postmistress knew Penpen and Tilly she made them use their key in the empty postal box before she would go in the back and give them the big bag of mail she had collected for them. "I wish you ladies would come in a mite oftener. The stuff piles up," she said. "Why, you were in town just last week. I saw you. You could have checked your mail then. You ought to get it at least as often as you're in town."
"Nonsense. It's all junk. It does make good tinder in the fireplace," said Tilly and stalked out, dragging a bag of it behind her. "Now let's go get a drink."
Penpen and Tilly took Ratchet through the thick door of the town's tavern, where she was immediately surrounded by unfamiliar smells--it was beer, dampness, cigars, woodsmoke, old wood, and the sweat of many men over many years trapped in the cool dark bar. That was why Tilly and Penpen liked it so much. That was why Ratchet liked it, though none of them knew it. It was the smell of the men. Tilly and Penpen climbed up on stools and ordered glasses of whiskey for themselves and a Coke for Ratchet. They stayed for a long time, eating bar nuts, Tilly drinking many whiskeys and Penpen teaching Ratchet to play pool.
"Well, well, look who's here!" came a voice, and a large man sat down and put his arm around Tilly.
"My goodness, Burl, your stomach is hanging over your pants!" said Tilly.
"Is that any way to speak to your own true love's son?" asked Burl thickly.
"Come on, girls," said Tilly. She threw back the rest of her whiskey. "Time to go home." They spun off their stools and Ratchet made her edgy way around Burl.
"He's drunk," Tilly said tersely as soon as they got outside.
"Who was that?" Ratchet asked as they got in the car.
"Just an old fool," said Tilly, starting the car. "He thinks being born a bastard scarred him for life. As if it made any difference to anyone but him. Myrtle knew it and married him, didn't she? And as if it were my fault! My fault!"
Tilly's driving was even worse on the way home than it had been on the way to town, although Ratchet hadn't thought that possible. Three times they saw a bear coming out of the woods; one of them appeared to be lunging purposefully at the car, veering off at the last second. Ratchet gasped each time one appeared. After the third one ran off, Ratchet caught her breath and said, "They must be really hungry."
"I think they only do it to annoy," said Tilly and stepped on the gas, causing the car to lurch suddenly forward and Penpen's head to hit the dashboard. "Goddamn bears."
Copyright © 2003 by Polly Horvath