Short Story. 2100 words. August, 2017.
PHOTO: CORNFIELD, ST JACOB’S, ONTARIO, 2018.
Wondering whether his simple bachelor meal lacked nutritional merit, Grant turned, searchingly, toward the open cupboard. Perhaps a vegetable was needed with his fried ham and potatoes. He wasn’t creative in the kitchen and these were lean days, enduring yet another seasonal layoff. A tiny yellow and white can of sweet corn faced him, the label proudly facing forward. A whole can to himself always made him happy.
Whether a grain or a vegetable, he was fond of corn and never got enough. Growing up with two older brothers and a much older sister, they were arranged by age at the kitchen table and an inviolable rule ordered the distribution of food: every serving dish arrived at Grant’s place last. Only a few meagre yellow kernels ever reached him, though asparagus and Brussels sprouts came in abundance.
His father encouraged egalitarianism as each family member served themselves: “Take some more,” or “leave some for your little brother,” he urged, depending on which dish was being handled, but his instructions were not always rigidly or fairly applied.
Selecting the can and reaching for the opener buried in the second drawer of his tiny, dispiritingly beige kitchen, in this small city that shivered and slumbered through each long winter, Grant’s memory served up an image of eating corn fresh off the cob. It was tastier, healthier. There was one whole ear for everyone. Guaranteed.
Drifting back to a rural, sunny day in late July – when Grant was about six – his father came home and offloaded an armful of corn onto the white laminate kitchen counter, each ear tightly wrapped in its natural green husk with plenty of yellow and dark brown silks protruding.
“You haven’t started dinner, have you, Eleanor?” Evan asked, without even saying hello. Normally weary when he came home from his insurance job in the city, Evan’s eyes glowed with excitement when his wife confirmed she had gone no further than deciding what leftovers to reheat.
Knowing the faux wood paneled kitchen was his wife’s exclusive domain, he politely inquired, pointing to his bounty: “May I?”
Eleanor nodded and her husband eagerly strode toward the sink, plugged it with the strainer basket, and began running cold water. He loosened his striped blue tie and rolled up his sleeves as the children gathered. The youngest had no idea what was happening. Seeing his father at the sink – for any other reason than to place a dirty dish in it – was rare. He’d have been just as surprised to see him riding the Big Wheel racer Grant received last Christmas from his only uncle.
Taking one ear of corn, the boy watched as his father peeled back the long, rough green leaves, one at a time, with delicate precision, carefully keeping them attached to the stem. After removing the stringy silks and shaking a few clinging strands from his fingers, where they fell in equal measure to the floor or counter top, he folded the leaves back into position.
Grant thought this was also strange, like unpeeling a banana.
The sink half full, his father shut off the tap and immersed the first ear of corn.
Grant recalled the way his mother shucked corn. She completely removed the leaves and placed the bare yellow cobs in a massive chrome pot, boiling on the stove. The pot reflected a distorted image of himself, his face long and narrow, each time he tip toed up to it. Grant wondered if his dad might be doing it the wrong way – putting the corn in the sink rather than a pot – but trustingly kept silent.
Husband and wife worked as a team on the next four ears of corn. Peeling, de-silking, refolding and submerging. Evan grabbed the sixth ear while his wife began cleaning the counter. Moving the stainless steel garbage can from its place beside the fridge to the spot where she had been standing, she herded the heaping mound of husks, guided them over the edge and into the waiting bin below. Next, she located the whisk broom and set to work on the floor.
“I’m going to change while they soak, then I’ll fire up the barbeque,” Evan explained.
This news thrilled the boy. A barbeque meant the rare treat of dinner outside: the blue and white checkered cloth thrown over the old, wooden picnic table, a pitcher of lemonade sweating in the shining sun. Hamburgers, hot dogs, pickles, and ketchup.
But that evening was different. Wet corn, re-wrapped in its natural green foliage, was the only item on the grill of the big, round, rust coloured barbeque. Nearly the same circumference as a beach ball, it stood on three silver, skinny legs. Blackened, hardwood lump charcoal was set atop yesterday’s crumpled newspaper, doused in pungent lighter fluid – from a blue, metal canister, which puckered and popped when squeezed – and set alight.
Evan turned the corn every few minutes. The leaves slowly blackened and became as dark as the coals themselves. With the help of her children, Grant’s mother set the table: orange paper plates, red plastic glasses, yellow lemonade, green salt shakers and the clear Wexford patterned, pressed glass butter dish, which seemed incongruously elegant on the aging picnic table.
When the ceramic serving tray was set before the waiting family, the meal looked anything but appetizing. Grant’s face wrinkled in disgust: “Looks like burnt scarecrow legs,” he offered.
His mother quickly shushed him while his father rebuked: “Don’t judge a book by its cover. Give me a minute.”
And with that, Evan grabbed the first ear of corn – almost too hot to touch – and carefully stripped away the charred leaves to reveal a plump, succulent, steaming cob of dark yellow corn. It was magical.
“That looks better,” his sister confirmed.
“Thank you,” Evan replied, shaking his head at Grant. “Impatient boy.”
Thirty years later, Grant still remembered how beautiful a meal it was. Crisp, juicy corn under a blue sky. It was hot and breezy. Raspberries were ripening in the garden as the whole family enjoyed an open air dinner, shaded by tall poplars.
The best part, Grant recalled, was the butter. Indoors, they used a butter knife and sliced a slab as thick as a domino. Spreading slowly, it melted and soaked into the crevices as they rotated the corn by hand. But outdoors, greater liberties were taken with decorum. Evan took a whole steaming cob and balanced it directly on the long stick of butter. It hadn’t yet softened in the heat but quickly liquefied on contact. Spinning the cob with both hands, the full length of corn came away dripping wet, with a slick, shallow groove worn down the center of the softening yellow slab.
As Evan lifted the ear of corn back to his plate, quickly, to avoid letting a drop fall on the table cloth, he held on to it with one hand and grabbed the salt shaker with the other. Holding the corn at a forty-five degree angle, he turned it as salt fell evenly across the cob, dissolving in hot butter.
The Wexford dish was passed to Eleanor next, then the eldest daughter and both brothers in turn. Grant worried his food might grow cold but this was unlikely on such a sweltering summer’s day. The butter was nearly liquid by the time it reached him; the groove started by his father had grown deeper and the valley was so wide half the cob could be shellacked at once. It came away dripping, over the table cloth, over Grant, but it didn’t matter as his teeth sank into the rich, crispy sweetness of the best meal he tasted that year.
Not only was the corn fresh off the cob, it was fresh from the field.
Back in his tiny apartment, the Niblets simmering in a dented pot on the stove, Grant was awash in memory. Growing up in the country, his house sat on a small lot, subdivided from the farmer’s surrounding fields, which doubled as a playground. Although the houses were generously spaced – never more than four or five homes on any kilometer-long stretch of road – Grant had more friends, back then, than he did in his current building. (There were eight floors, ten units per floor. After two years, he could name exactly four residents. Meanwhile, with fourteen people per square kilometer in the rural township, he remembers as many as ten kids playing in the field at once.)
The crops were rotated but there wasn’t much fun in a strawberry patch, though eating them was delicious. Yet a cornfield provided endless entertainment. When Grant was a little taller, but still towered over by ripe, tasseled stalks, he remembers playing tag in perfectly straight rows. Stretching north to south, they were two feet wide but, along the east-west axis, they grew much closer. He could pass between them but not easily. His eldest brother had trouble doing it without damage and that was the one rule for playing in the fields: everything had to be left exactly as it was found. Too many broken stalks meant permanent banishment, the farmer threatened.
It was a maze, a jungle, a living ceiling of leaves completely shading fertile soil below. He remembers standing by the road, giving his friends a head start, then wading into the greenery. Walking stealthily, he heard the buzz of insects and smelled raw earth. Leaves rustled. Slivers of warm sunlight brushed his face. He walked half the length of the field before spotting the blue or red clothing that gave his friends away (those dressed in green or brown stood a much lesser chance of being “tagged”). Slyly, he cut between the rows and tried to come from behind his target. Reaching the appropriate row, the chase was on.
Grant also remembers being sent with his brothers to gather dinner. Venturing out like seasoned hunters, they separated in search of the perfect catch. Grant walked with his right arm outstretched. Using it as a measuring stick, he believed he knew the place, just past his elbow, which the length of an ear of corn must exceed if he had any hope of finding the biggest cob ever – and that was the ultimate goal.
Looking upward, sunlight illuminated a canopy of long, sharp leaves. Against the sun, the waving ridges in each leaf glowed with golden, almost heavenly light. Silks cascaded like a waterfall, draping over the lower greenery. Grant glimpsed one tassel waving high above the others and was sure he had discovered the magical stalk. Assuming the smallest ears were at the bottom, he ignored them. After measuring one cob growing at eye level, he snapped it off, knowing it had potential.
Straining to reach the highest ear, Grant eventually put one hand after the other a little farther up the stalk and arched the plant over. The narrow, pointed leaves scratched his forearms as he finally found the ear node and cracked the stem.
It was practically as long as his arm.
Twenty minutes later, Grant and his brothers compared their take. His prize-winner was a full finger longer the one collected by his eldest brother. Bragging rights were his until the next time. Like fisherman feeding their families on the day’s haul, the boys readied their rewards for the barbeque. It satisfied them, Grant and his brothers, to eat corn caught with their bare hands.
Back in his apartment, ready to add the heated, canned corn to his simple meal, one last memory came to Grant, one he had forgotten, until that very moment.
Since moving out on his own, Grant never barbecued. He preferred minimal food preparation time and appreciated the ease and simplicity of eating from a can or frozen food tray. The last time he ate corn on the cob was a decade ago, when a friend sent him to pick some up from the local supermarket. Walking straight to the produce section, he was surrounded by colour: fat peppers, plump tomatoes, misted lettuce, juicy berries, crisp apples, seedless grapes, bulging lemons and navel oranges. It was beautiful. He wondered why he rarely visited this section. Not seeing what he was after, Grant asked for help from a woman in a blue apron, busily replenishing a tray of mangos. She raised one eyebrow, then almost smiled, before pointing to the bin immediately in front of Grant.
Looking down, he saw a jumble of corn within easy reach, each ear thickly wrapped in natural, rough leaves, with messy silks embedded and overflowing. His mistake was looking for something yellow and commercially packaged, rather than dark green, directly from the earth.
“Of course,” he sheepishly replied.
Then as now, Grant realized he had come a long way from nature. The hunter had vanished.