Cora Comes to an Understanding

[This short story appeared in Talking Stick 29: Insights in 2020. The fiction judge selected it for an honorable mention.]

“It’s 72,” I say, after peeking at the thermometer outside the backdoor. I write the temp on the chalkboard hanging by the window overlooking Grandpa Harold’s gigantic garden.

“Needs to be 74 by one o’clock,” Grandma Cora says, “otherwise it’s too cold for swimming.” She wipes her nose and shoves a hanky back into her apron pocket, putting an exclamation point on her words.

And if it reaches 74 after that, she won’t take us because she’s got to can and freeze stuff that comes out of Grandpa’s garden. He gives her updates every morning. Yesterday, he said, “Cora, there’s peas need shelling.” This morning he said, “Cora, the beans need picking.”

Between all that canning and freezing, she’s baking bread, cookies, cakes, and pies. Grandpa doesn’t like store-bought bread, and I think he declared a law that his meals must end with dessert. Then, she’s got to cook supper before Grandpa gets home from the gas station he owns.

A week ago, instead of filling his plane with skydivers, Dad loaded up Christina and me and flew us to our grandparents. Mom had surgery the week before and almost died. To save her the doctors cut her open from her navel to her private parts. Being my sister’s nine and I’m ten, no one told us any of that, but they didn’t have to because we did some eavesdropping. Grandma met us at the small airport near her home. Dad stashed our luggage into her station wagon and said, “You girls behave yourselves.” As Grandma drove away, I watched Dad start his pre-flight check before he flew back home.

We’ve been here a week now and Grandma has us trapped in her routine. We eat breakfast and do the dishes. We eat lunch and do the dishes. We eat supper and do the dishes. Between meals we play outside or walk to the IGA and buy penny candy when Grandpa gives us each a dime. If the temp’s warm enough by one o’clock, Grandma takes us swimming. After, she has to hustle to get her chores done and supper cooking.

Today, our thermometer watching started while we set the table for lunch.

“You’re going to let all the flies in,” Grandma says. “You don’t need to check the temperature every five minutes. It’s either going to be 74, or not.”

She’s got a point, but it doesn’t stop us.

Grandma goes to church every Sunday and plays the organ and leads the choir. Dad says that she’s a God-fearing, praying woman. I believe she prays every day the temp won’t reach 74. Christina and I aren’t church going, but we pray for rising temps.

The firehouse siren wails, telling us it’s noon.

The backdoor opens. “Cora, I just came from the garden. The raspberries need picking too.” Grandpa’s home for lunch.

“It’s 73,” Christina says and writes the temp on the chalkboard.

Grandma’s shoulders sag, and she sighs.

After lunch, before we can check the temp again, Grandma sends us to the basement with old newspapers, which Grandpa burns in a small stove. When I come up the stairs, I see Grandma’s butt holding the backdoor open, and it looks like she’s messing with the thermometer. Behind me Christina belches and startles her.

“That was quick,” Grandma says smoothing her silver-gray hair. She’s acting like she always hangs out the backdoor to fix her hair. Her fingers are wet. I say nothing, but I know the temp has dropped. We aren’t going swimming.

Then the phone rings, and Grandma leaves the kitchen to answer it.

I wait until she’s all wrapped in her call and open the backdoor. It’s 70 degrees. I place my thumb on the thermometer and watch the red line rise. It hits 75. I go back inside and help Christina finish the dishes. Grandma returns to the kitchen.

Five minutes before one, I hang up my dishtowel and check the temp.

“It’s 75.” I grin.

“What?” Grandma says.

We look at each other—eyeball to eyeball—a cheater’s standoff.

After we get home from swimming, Grandma picks beans and cooks supper. We stay out of her way.

Shortly after five, Grandpa comes home. “Cora, I told you the raspberries needed picking.”

“Christina and I are doing that after supper,” I say. “We begged Grandma to let you teach us how to pick them.”

Grandma and I look at each other—eyeball to eyeball—a liar’s agreement.

She smiles first.

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