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Low taxes were the big advantage in living farther out from the more populated area of Cooperton. Houses had bigger lots. They were older, too.
"More character," Kelwyn, her husband, had explained.
She felt weak. How could I have been so careless she thought? Just graduated, pregnant, back in Cooperton, isolated in the middle of Wisconsin, not in graduate school. She cuddled her cat, Mewmew, in her arms. At least there's still you, Mewmew,
So, this is character, thought Cara Bow Keck. That was her name now. The kitchen, with its cracked glass doors on the tall cabinets had character, Cara Bow had to admit. The handles on the doors were small butterfly shaped knobs, that were hard to turn, because they had been painted over so many times. The frame around the glass was now a color called antique red, the latest color in home decorating magazines, explained the realtor.
"What was the year on the magazine, Fred?" she murmured, half to herself. She felt so weak.
The realtor's name was Fred Albert, the sole proprietor of Albert's Cozy Home Realty. There was only one realty place in Cooperton. Not much chance for buying and selling because people tended to stay put and outsiders seldom wanted to buy into the town. It was a small town numbering about 25,000 people. It was trying to be a city. There was even a mall with sort of half-sized department stores offering second tier merchandise. And of course, all the fast food places lining the outskirts as one drove into the town. Taverns popped up here and there, too. There was one featuring Girls, Girls, Girls in pink flashing neon lights.
"I'm not sure about living so far from the town center, Fred," murmured Cara Bow. The winters in central Wisconsin can be pretty brutal. I know. This is where I grew up."
"I really like this place, Caribou. It will give our child a lot of space to run around in and explore nature," said Kelwyn.
"Well, I'm not that much into nature, Kelwyn," she protested, this time finding her voice.
"I've already put down a deposit, Caribou. Mr. Albert went to a lot of trouble finding this place."
"How long has it been on the market, Fred?" asked Cara Bow.
"Not that long, Mrs. Keck. Two or three years, I believe."
Oh, God, thought Cara Bow. I'm just too tired to argue anymore. They had not been married long and the prospect of moving from her parents place was compelling. Kelwyn snored.
"We hear him all over the place, Cara Bow. Your father needs his rest," said her mother, Judy.
"Let's fill out the papers, Mr. Albert," said Kelwyn, cutting off Cara Bow from further protest.
Fred Albert smiled with the prospect of selling the white elephant. "You won't be sorry, Mr. and Mrs Keck. This is a great piece of property."
Cara Bow would hear a lot about the Alberts grip on Cooperton in the days and weeks and years to come. She had never paid much attention to the name while growing up. The Alberts were Catholic and the Edens, her parents were proper Presbyterians.
The move happened shortly after the money was paid. A pregnant Cara Bow surveyed the house with mounting despair. "Oh, God, Kelwyn" she cried. "This kitchen definitely needs a complete makeover. There's no dishwasher and the refrigerator must be at least twenty years old. It's not self-defrosting. The water pan under the unit has to be emptied daily."
"You're raising your voice, again, Honey. The neighbors will hear you."
"What neighbors, Kelwyn. Where are the neighbors?"
Kelwyn didn't answer. He put on his jacket and left, saying he had some business in town.
Oh, this house. I hate it. All of it, just look at this place, she thought after Kelwyn had left. Who lived here before? She stood in the kitchen in her fluffy slippers, Mewmew at her feet, purring against their soft sides.
"Well, Mewmew, let's explore," she said resolutely.
There were three doors from the kitchen one leading to the dining room, another to the basement and another door next to the basement door that she never used. It led to the attic. She opened it and saw cracked wooden stairs, a single bare bulb at the shadowy top and curtains of cobwebs covering everything, like a shroud. She closed it quickly but not before she felt a cold draft whooshing down as though the attic had been in a vacuum.
In the next weeks, her list grew of the things that had to be replaced of removed. One of her biggest complaints was the furnace. She had to go some evenings to the basement to pry out the glowing clinker from the coal furnace with large metal tongs and place it into the nearby large tin bucket. If it wasn't removed the house would fill with smoggy, smelly gas overnight. That was one chore she could usually count on Kelwyn doing unless he was out with his new buddies in one of the local taverns. Kelwyn liked the bar where there was a dart board on the wall and pickled pig's feet in large glass jars on the bar counter.
Cara Bow usually left the clinker task to Kelwyn unless he was very late. He seemed to enjoy the task, piling the hot clinkers into the metal bin — several bins — because he never removed them to the outdoor ash pile. "We'll have them taken out when they put in the new gas furnace, Caribou. I talked to the heating company this morning and they've promised to start next week with the installation." Caribou was what he called her as a term of endearment. He'd started calling her that name when he found out that the nickname had been attached to her in first grade
The new teacher had mispronounced her name during roll call. Caribou instead of Cara Bow. "Present," she'd responded. The name caught on. It was a keeper. Cara Bow didn't mind, having no idea at the time what a caribou was. Later, when she saw a picture of a caribou in her geography book, she was so impressed with the great animal and its huge horned rack, that she considered the name an honor, and even repeated it to herself when checking in a mirror for lipstick smudges. That was when she had started wearing lipstick — in the sixth grade. She drew it on her bow lips before class in the girl's bathroom. The teacher never said anything to her about taking it off. She was, after all, the daughter of Judge Eden. Cara Bow's lips were considered her most beautiful asset. Her mother had wanted to name her Clara Bow — after her favorite the silent screen actor — because of her perfect bow lips but finally reached a compromise with the judge and dropped the 'l'.
"Say goodbye to the clinkers," Kelwyn said one morning explaining that the new boiler would be small and compact, no more big aluminum heating vents crisscrossing the bare wooden studs in the basement. "I'll be able to put a pool table down there, you wait and see."
"That'll be nice Kelwyn. A new furnace. But do we really need a pool table?"
"I've always wanted my own pool table, Caribou. It won't be in your way at all. And we'll get a washer and dryer, too. There's room for it in this big kitchen. We won't have to cart the laundry to your parents anymore."
"We, Kelwyn? I'm the one who does all the carting and its getting a bit much with my expanding waistline. And I'm tired of washing out your socks every night in the kitchen sink."
The kitchen sink was ancient, but at least there was hot and cold running water. The drain pipes under the sink were exposed. Cara Bow had managed to conceal them with a curtain of flowered bark cloth, un-hemmed, and chopped off at the proper length. She knew only a little about sewing. Once she had tried to make an apron from a kit, pricking her finger so many times, that she eventually threw the whole thing away unfinished. Housekeeping is not my thing, she thought.
The dining room had built in cabinets all along one side, made of wood — "real oak," Fred Albert had gushed in his sales pitch. The cabinets were vertically striated with years of grime. It had an odor of rot. A side door led directly from this room outside to a small cement porch which had no railing. One had to be careful when going out or it would be easy to fall off the edge onto the long gravel driveway which ran alongside the house.
The dining room floor was covered with black and white diamond patterned asphalt tile, the white tiles really a dirty grey shade which Cara Bow made an occasional stab at when wiping down with a floor mop. The stains refused to be lifted off, even with the help of ammonia. The smell of the ammonia made her eyes water.
She decided this would be a good room for the out-of-tune baby grand piano which her mother had let her have when she married Kelwyn. A telephone was in this room, too, screwed to the wall, a non- working rural telephone that had required one to ask an operator for the desired party number. It's like stepping back a hundred years, thought Cara Bow. Thank god for my i-phone.
The living room was baronial, the biggest room in the house. There was a huge, natural stone fireplace which smoked up the whole house every time it was lit. The chimney draw was unfixable. Brass sconces flanked the fireplace which had once held candles but now held tiny light bulbs that no longer worked as the wiring had been eaten by mice. But the windows were nice. Mullioned. Only a few of the panes were cracked.
"We'll put in gas logs when we get the new boiler," Kelwyn had promised.
"Kelwyn, there are no town gas lines to this place."
"I know, I know. Don't look so worried, Caribou. They're bringing a bottle gas tank at the same time as the new boiler. They'll put the tank right in back of the house. You'll have to be careful with your cigarettes. One little careless match near the tank and the whole house will be blown to kingdom come."
I would like that, thought Cara Bow. As if I would ever walk in that so-called back yard. And I'm not smoking now because of the baby. The backyard was scruffy. Rocks and quack grass poked through the sandy soil. A muddy stream ran along the west side of the house, which was a breeding ground for hordes of mosquitos when they emerged from their tiny eggs in June and August. The Kecks had moved in in July, just in time for the second swarm. There appeared to be no natural mosquito predators in the area.
Well, there were the swallows. Vicious birds. They nested under the eaves at the front of the house. When Cara Bow did venture out to pick up the plums that had fallen from the two trees on the property, the swallows, whose two nests were nestled under the eaves, would swoop down, almost hitting her head in their effort to protect their babies who seemed to be perpetually hatching. Cara Bow was not that fond of babies.
There were the wasp nests, too. More environmental misery, especially if she was wearing scent when running for her car to head out for some errand. She complained about the wasps to Kelwyn. Once in that September, while she was eating a golden delicious apple and walking to the mailbox at the end of the drive, a wasp flew into her mouth stinging her tongue.
"My tongue hurts, Kelwyn," she said thickly. Can't you get rid of the wasps?"
"I'll talk to Mr. Olsen," he promised. "He can probably take care of it."
The nearest neighbor was Mr. Olsen. His family — there was a wife and three sons — ran a potato farm. His ground was rocky, too, and in spring he hired local kids to pick rocks. There was no end to the rocks. They kept erupting from underneath the soil, as if there was a mine of evil gnomes below the surface who took delight in enlarging their space by tormenting Mr. Olson with the grey round stones. Cara Bow had met him once when he stopped by the house to give her a plastic container with cookies inside as a welcoming gift.
"My wife baked them," he said.
She thought he had a troubled face, deeply lined. The farmer tied his long straggly hair back in a ponytail. He wore a flat grey hat with a duck brim. The cap had a gold eagle pin fastened to the front.
Trying to make conversation, Cara Bow commented on the pin. "That's an interesting pin, Mr. Olsen," she said.
He said it was a souvenir from his time in Iraq. "Now, I have to be on my way, Mrs. Keck. Tell your husband I stopped by. Those aren't wasps. Those are sweat bees. They'll only bother you in the fall." I'd probably just leave them be for now. By October they'll be no trouble."
He came with his tiller one day and offered to plow up a plot of ground on their property so the Kecks could have a garden in the spring. Cara Bow saw no point in having a garden, but Kelwyn said, "Go ahead, it'll be good for Caribou to have something to do."
"I have plenty to do, Kelwyn. There's the two-thousand-piece picture puzzle of the Empire State Building on the dining room table, and all those plums that keep falling from the plum trees. I'm always gathering them up and making the plum jelly that you like so much on your morning toast." He made the jelly sandwich in three layers. Three pieces of white bread toast with the jelly oozing from the sides
"Making that jelly is a huge job." The plums had to be boiled with pounds of sugar in a large kettle on the old electric stove, then pectin was added when the thermometer indicated it was time, then the mess had to be ladled into a giant cheese cloth bag to drain the red juice that was then poured into little jelly glasses and topped with melted paraffin, so it would keep. "You have no idea. I don't need a garden to weed." She hated the thought of a garden with the hovering swallows, wasps and mosquitos geared for the attack.
She didn't mind the jelly task that much, as she had majored in chemistry in college, and she thought of the jelly making as a transformation, a combination of elements, a mixture, turning one thing into another. Farmer Olson did plow the area, but nothing was ever planted and in time it was covered with milkweeds, nettles, and quack grass.
The whole front yard was quack grass that Kelwyn paid Mr. Olsen to mow every two weeks on his riding mower. There was a large field of tall grasses to the east of the house. That fall the county workers set fire to the grass — a-controlled burn it was called. The smoke made her eyes water. She had to keep the windows closed but that was little help. Mice and rabbits and other small creatures could be seen scurrying from the blaze. Not all of them escaped, of course. Cara Bow made sure to keep Mewmew, her beloved cat inside. Her parents had given her the ragdoll kitten for her sixteenth birthday.
Mewmew was quite a large cat by this time. There was no longer a cat box. Now she did her business out of doors. Sometimes she brought Cara Bow a gift of a wriggly mouse or a small dead wren. Murdered, thought Cara Bow. She wished the bird was a swallow, but they were just too quick for Mewmew.
Why am I in the hinterlands, she wondered. The center of Cooperton was at least three miles away. No nearby train to Green Bay, no easy walk to the mall, no Starbucks, but there was a gym. She decided to enroll for a class in stretching. It was some break in the tedium, but she felt like an exile, not knowing anyone. She had been away for four years and had had no intention to return.
Evenings, she sat on the black Naugahyde two-piece couch, her rationed cigarette butts filling the marble ashtray on the one end table, silently fuming with the smoke curls as she watched Kelwyn in his easy chair reading the paper that he brought from the office, rarely stirring. He's like a dung beetle, Cara Bow thought. How did I ever think he was the love of my life? He rarely looked up or said anything to her. "How was your day?" was never asked. "What's for dinner?" he voiced on occasion. He doesn't love his Caribou anymore, she thought. Well, I don't love him either. I wish he would disappear. Had she really thought that? She wondered why her thoughts were so often of murder. I want to murder him. Yes, I do want to murder him.CHAPTER 2
Her mother had warned her about marrying Kelwyn Keck. "He'll never get anywhere in this world, Cara Bow." That may well be, Cara bow thought. She and Kelwyn had met during Cara Bow's senior year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Kelwyn was a Chicago man, a plus in Cara Bow's mind. The boys in Cooperton had never interested her. She envisioned living in Chicago with Kelwyn. They met at a Greek restaurant, where the lamb kebabs were the best. She went there for the first time with her sorority sister, Alecia. Alicia was from Chicago too, the well-to-do north side part of town. Alecia spotted Kelwyn nearby and called out, waving him over to their table. It apparently was all arranged.
"You've got to meet this guy, Caribou. He told me he wants to meet you, too. He said you were the prettiest girl on campus."
"Really, Alecia? I've met a lot of guys since I've been here. None of them stuck around for long. My fault, maybe. I spend a lot of time in the lab. My Quantum Spectroscopy Lab TA thought I should go on for my masters. Maybe even a doctorate. My professor, Dr. Timmer thinks so too."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Plum Jelly"
Copyright © 2019 Jean Bell.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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