Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 31—Francyann Gets Stuck in the Pantry

It was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down.

—Emily Dickinson

Tony Veader was the losing boy; he had come up with the short straw in the Francyann lottery. The drawing of straws to find her an escort for the sixth grade dance was the idea of Miss Peterson, their teacher. Tony played out his part in their comedy of romance with squared shoulders and a dab of jam on his chin. He was not very good-looking but Francy would have been grateful for whatever came her way, date-wise. “Not a solid man,” her father pronounced at the expulsion of the only suitable suitor who would ever come to call.

“No substance, nothing inside. Hollow. Like a chocolate Easter rabbit,” said her father. He was a timekeeper at the rail yard and carried a large silver pocket watch. The railroad had stopped using its Willipaq spur except for the weekly freight run to the pulp mills. Her father clearly knew about things of the world such as substance; he had been out of work for six years. Her father consulted his watch, “You are still here, young man. Better get along home.” Tony Veader had gratefully fled. There were no men of substance these days, her father had said that.

“You are becoming a young lady. Best not to grab hold of the first underfed admirer who comes along.” Her father adjourned to the porcelain-topped kitchen table where fried potatoes with onions were forming up. Her dream of young love shattered, Francyann realized she had no future, young or otherwise; polite society would turn her away because there was no acceptable man at her side.

*  *  *

Sixty years have passed and Francyann Kennealy is wedged between tightly packed rows of cans, bottles and cartons of powdered milk, cereal, sugar and flour. She had attempted to escape from the grip of the shelving in the narrow passageway but only got jammed in tighter. “I am stuck in the pantry and shall spend the rest of my life in here.”

When she was a small girl, the pantry was a place to escape to, a haven of refuge from the taunts of the other girls, the prettier girls, the bigger girls. And some boys, although sometimes she would wait for them, they would swap taunts and end up rolling together on the ground, laughing and close. “I have been going in and out and thinking about things and hiding in this pantry for years, years. Could I have gained so much weight in so short a time?” The time so short was measured in not years but decades—decades which flew by, birds of passage destined to break their necks against the oncoming, unforeseeable future. No, she had gained weight—it was laughably simple. Francyann smiled. Then frowned. An extra cookie, an extra cookie every day, every other day, and over twenty years the pounds piled on. At an advanced age, an age in excess of seventy years, the scientific journals reported an accretion of fat about the hips and waistline plus skeletal compression of some inches over a lifetime, the Psalmist’s three score and ten, a plateau to which leftover debutantes might aspire. Francyann had shortened and widened and now she was stuck as were the debutantes whose pictures once adorned the society pages.

At an itching between her shoulder blades she raised a hand to scratch and knocked a glass jar of kosher dills off the shelf. Its lid popped off as it hit and a vinegary smell pervaded the cramped space. It must have been spoiled. Botulism. Death by pickles. Now that sounds silly. If a visitor came by before her body was too far along in decay she might yet be presentable, the ambulance drivers could follow the smell. It was a comforting thought. Next year’s Halloween tricksters would find her here, a withered corpse.

What was it the rude man, Lucy Hobart, had said to her just that morning? “You’re not stupid, Francy, just ignorant. People are born stupid—that is the human condition. Ignorance is hard work, a lifetime of denial. You have labored mightily to be a cipher.”

She did not understand. “What are you trying to say, Lucy?” she had said. That he was having fun at her expense was clear from his crooked smile—a lifted eyebrow, one corner of his mouth turned up.

She had not grasped its meaning at the time, just thought it another of the disagreeable, ill-tempered things he liked to say—insulting people to their faces and getting away with it. He was a joker, and a joker was not a solid man. “That Lucy,” said Francyann Kennealy. “Calls himself Lucy, a girl’s name. What does that say about what he does when the shades are drawn?”

*  *  *

That she had been at one time presentable, even more than presentable, was the touchstone of her disengaged, isolated life. “I may have put on some weight. I am aging,” said Francyann to a jolly smiling Quaker who adorned a cylindrical box of pre-cooked rolled oats. Bought November 2006. $15.00 case. Calories per serving 607, 10 grams fat. That she read all the labels of her stockpiled foodstuffs for nutritional information and caloric content was the firm foundation of her cloistered life.

From Heaven, a questing angel performed a fly-by and a charleyhorse convulsed Francyann Kennealy with waves of pain. She wondered where young Tony was now, if he might come to help her. No, her father had most likely hurt his feelings.

“Good food. It is important to have good food. I keep my pantry stocked against the unforeseen,” Francyann said. She spoke not to a visitor, not to young Tony, but the cat, for there were no visitors, only snippy Lucy and that handyman of his come to pry and spy. Well, in all fairness she had called them. But she knew there would be talk. And the talk would circulate, becoming larger and more complex by repetition: “Small lives, small lies,” her mother always said. Small lies became bigger lies. Then there would be embarrassment. Not embarrassment at anything she might be doing. No scandals, a corollary tenet of her mother’s: If one must do something nasty one should perform said act away from curious eyes.

Raised in the privations of the Great Depression, and living in fear of the next, she was a model child and then a model grownup, saved the coupons the stores were always leaving in the mailbox and kept her clothes from uncalled-for wear by moving as little as possible. With no money to spend and nowhere to spend it if she had it, life was uncomplicated. Everybody stayed home. This seemed a sound philosophy and she held to it. If she were at home then she would always know where she was. There would be a considerable saving on an automobile and maps alone.

“Burraow,” the cat rubbed against her legs attempting to reach its litter box at the far end of the narrow hallway. Francyann’s pantry had been a hallway—once, before. She had complained of drafts. Lucy came with Donnie LaViolette and a pickup full of drywall and two-by-fours. They carpentered a room within a room, blocking out the window and any chance of ventilation. The dull, heavy air grew thick with cat excreta, the mustiness of storage and vanilla extract.

Pickle juice. Francyann dumped the pickle juice down the drain. Her mother had saved the juice that was left behind when her store pickles were gone; Francyann did not. She trusted her home-made pickles and her home-made pickle juice, but bought store pickles because her mother had. “For fish,” her mother had said. “Fish and fried potatoes.” They could not afford to buy fish and ate fried potatoes drenched with pickle juice.

Francyann was a devoted redeemer of her coupons. “I know a good thing when I see it,” she said. “Lo, the Redeemer cometh,” one of the boys at the Red and White had said that. Snippy like Lucy. The shelves were crammed with lead items bought with coupons and arranged alphabetically. Francyann wrote the date of purchase and the price on each bottle, box, can and jar. Donnie LaViolette had come alone, silent and accommodating, to put the shelves in. “Too narrow,” he had said. “Gotta build ’em out here. Then pop ’em in like a ship in a bottle. Ever see a ship in a bottle and wonder how it got in there? Watch me; I’ll show you.”

He carried a table saw into the close confines of her kitchen and opened the window so to have room sufficient to swing the boards onto the saw. He spent the better part of a day, the big black carpenter’s pencil stuck behind his ear. He measured, scribbled fractions on the backs of boards, rubbed them out, then measured again. He sawed shelves and hand-chiseled slots where the uprights would go. The then assembled shelvery finally stood at a tentative vertical in the middle of the linoleum. “Pretty good. Now comes the fun,” he said. Donnie removed his hand and the shelves wobbled. “Remember the ship in the bottle.”

He produced a squeeze bottle of yellow carpenter’s glue and removed a pair of braces diagonally across from one another. The shelves squeezed together like a concertina. Donnie sidestepped the object into the former hallway, applied beads of glue to no apparent purpose, and then with a rubber headed mallet gave the whole thing a series of whacks and it popped into place, square and true. He went back to his truck for an electric screw gun to fix it against the wall. “Perfect. Wha’d I tell you?”

Francyann loved her new shelves. She painted them white enamel—three coats—then applied oilcloth to the surfaces. “There.”

The right wall of shelves preponderated with the end of the alphabet: milk (powdered), milk (canned), tomato soup and vegetarian dried lo-fat dehydrated luncheon packs (one serving) and One-Pie New England Pumpkin (and squash, apple, cherry and blueberry pies in-a-can). On the left dry breakfast cereals occupied the C slot. Bakewell Cream (Gluten free!) and Davis (Double Acting) baking powder occupied the foremost position with baked beans, lima beans, black beans, red kidney beans and soldier beans both dry and canned filling out the collection. There was no A.

Francyann waited. In a year or so there was a special on white asparagus spears in water. She bought a case to even things out.

A cash purchase of bitter alum at the drug store filled out the head of the spices followed with tarragon, ginger, nutmeg, crushed red pepper, black peppercorns, thyme, dill weed, ground mustard and cloves, whole cloves, cream of tartar, cinnamon, oregano, parsley and basil, with the seldom-used chili and garlic powders at the far end.

She remembered Donnie LaViolette popping the shelves together “like a ship in a bottle.” Well, if Donnie could pop them together, she could pop them apart. Francyann clutched at an upper shelf and pulled. Nothing happened.

The house. It was the house. It was getting narrow even as she widened. Why had that Donnie made the shelves so deep? Because I asked him to, she remembered. Room for the cartons of powdered milk and the big three-gallon glass jars of dried soup beans she filled herself with equal parts of lentils, yellow-eyes and split peas, just in case she became overwhelmed by company one day. Well, perhaps it wasn’t the house’s fault; women tended to spread at the hips in their later years. She had heard that.

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