Corn on the Cob

by Eva White

Rachel lay in bed in the fifth floor tenement,  just one block away from the raised train track. She could hear the rumbling of wheels above the avenue as the El was rattling along. Every few minutes it passed, part of the gigantic New York City transit system. She couldn’t always hear the rumble in the day. There was too much crying and yelling in the apartment. The baby cried, sometimes hysterically, gasping for breath between sobs. Rachel knew the baby had trouble breathing; not long ago she’d almost died for lack of air. The older sister, Helen, shouted—shouted and kicked furniture and walls and sometimes even threw cups and ashtrays. Her voice was shrill, her words stinging.

But even shriller, louder, more stinging was the voice and words of the aunt. Her aunt yelled in the old language and she knew how to curse. Sundays, when the father was home, he added to the yelling. His voice was deep and booming and he knew more swear words than the aunt, his older sister.

So Rachel rarely heard the El during the day. But late at night and very early in the morning she’d listen to the rattle of the trains with closed eyes, letting the sound travel through her. She imagined herself on the train and it carrying her away. Away from this outer borough and into the city.

She’d been to the city. It was filled with bright lights, green and red and yellow, flashing on billboards high above the crowds. Once when she looked up she’d seen a gigantic head, a hole for a mouth, blowing smoke rings into the air. Cars and cabs honked their horns—she loved the sound of honking. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars cleared a path as they raced though the traffic. People were dressed up: men in suits and hats, not the work clothes men wore where she lived. Women wore high heels and hats decorated with feathers and flowers. Everyone hurried. They had important places to reach, important things to do. Vendors called out to passersby selling wares, offering tickets, laughing at their own jokes. In this scene Rachel imagined she could disappear. She’d be one of the crowd, no one would know her, no one would take any notice of her. She’d be hurrying to her own exciting destination.

In the morning she found herself in the bed next to her sister. She lay there, still and straight, so as not to disturb Helen. She feared that if her arm dropped over the edge it might be devoured by creatures lurking beneath. She only half believed Helen’s stories about them.

The aunt yelled at them to hurry up and get ready for school. Faster. Faster. They were already hurrying. The aunt grabbed at Rachel to yank a collar, pull up a sock. Her fingers dug into flesh. Then, eat up. Hurry. Hurry. Rachel gulped down the milk and bread. No time to chew. The aunt slammed the door behind them. They were out.

***

Downstairs in the foyer hung the poster—the face of a young girl with dark, curly hair and big dark eyes. Rachel passed her at least twice a day. Next to her face was a drawing of a large thermometer. As the tenants of the building contributed to “the war effort,” the color in the thermometer rose. They were in competition with the other half of the building.

Rachel often imagined she was the little girl on the poster. Bullets were flying around her. She ran holding her mother’s hand. Her mother was shot and she ran on by herself. She found a hiding place. She crouched inside the empty hut. She heard bombs fall. She saw houses in flames. She heard the soldiers. Their heavy footsteps. Tramp. Tramp. They were searching outside. Their rifles were ready. They wore helmets. Thud. Thud. The door opened. A soldier looked in. Rachel lay stark still, stretched out under the thin grey blanket. The door slammed shut. Rachel remained still all day. When it got dark she moved. Just a little. She stayed on the bed. Then the long days and nights of starvation began. Her stomach cramped. Her throat cracked. Slowly, painfully she became weaker. Finally she died.

That was one of the stories. Rachel had others. But always there was war, just like in the newsreels. There were bombs, and the little girl, she, Rachel, died.

On the way to school, Helen was meant to look after her. There were streets to cross and big boys to avoid. But Helen met up with her friends and younger sisters were in the way. Rachel tagged along behind. Once in school, she felt better. No aunt, no Helen. She sat at the back of the room, daydreaming.

***

This day she was thinking of corn. A woman often stood outside the school tending a large pot of boiling water. Some mothers stopped to buy corn after collecting their children. The woman pulled out a cob of corn, wrapped it in a bit of paper and exchanged it for the coins the mother held out. Sometimes a mother bought several pieces, one for each of her children. Some mothers even bought a cob of corn for themselves. Then they walked off eating the steaming corn. Today Rachel imagined she was one of these children. Her mother bought a cob for Rachel and one for herself. As they walked, Rachel slowly turned the cob, carefully eating two rows at a time from one end to the other. The kernels were bright yellow. They were hot and juicy. Row after row disappeared until there wasn’t a single kernel left. She and her mother finished at the same time. They smiled at each other. They both loved corn. Her mother took the bare cob from her and wrapped it up to throw away when they got home. They walked on, hand in hand.

***

When Rachel was forty years old she returned to the street where she grew up. She didn’t often think about her childhood. She enjoyed her busy life and felt contented. When she came to the building where she had lived, tears began to roll down her cheeks.

“Why are you crying?” her little daughter asked.

“I’m not sure,” Rachel answered.

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