Jessie’s Life in Three Surnames: A Triptych by Kathryn Kulpa
Jessie wakes to the smell of manure being spread. Every day. Or maybe only growing season, but it feels like every day. When her father and brothers come in from the fields and Ma has one of her sick headaches, it’s Jessie who washes their clothes, pounding dirt and dung out of stiff, worn denim, watching her hands grow cracked and red, and thinking about death. Or a life like this one, 50 more years of leaning on the pump handle, watching the well water flow out, cold and clear but with a bite of rust. Jessie’s making alternate plans. Borrowing bag balm from the cows to soften her hands. Jessie in gingham, starched so it snaps blue like her eyes. She refills the boarder’s glass. Thank you, Miss, he says. I might wish it was beer, but I thank you just the same. The boarder laughs. His clothes are clean, his eyes grey as morning mist. His people are farm people too, he says, back in Sagadahoc County. I could use another hand around the place, Jessie’s father says. And Jessie freezes, her mind saying no, no, no, and the boarder thanks her father but says he plans on Going Into Business. He smells of Pears’ soap and close shaves and Jessie knows the only way to move ahead is to burn your bridges, and she’s got matches to spare.
Mr. Willis the whistling ice man comes with his ice wagon and his happy dappled horse that Jessie always saves a lump of sugar for. The sugar is white and Jessie’s in black. There’s a black wreath on the door and a deep black hole opening up under Jessie’s feet and she can only sidestep it most days, can never fill it in. We’ll try again, she tells her husband, not that she wants to, his punch-drunk eyes the grey of ashes now, his stubbled cheeks, the way he smells of beer and defeat. Infant girl. Pneumonia. Dirt falling on that tiny grave. Ten years from now he will join her in it, but Jessie will be standing in another man’s kitchen by then.
Ice has no smell. It’s clear enough that you can see through it, and when it melts, there’s nothing left. Jessie likes that about ice.
Mr. Ethier wants to open a boarding house and Jessie’s a good cook. It falls into place with a click, just like that, nothing romantic about it and nothing has to be, now. She’s done with drama and tragedy, fire and ice, dirt and death. What Jessie likes are hot and cold faucets that run with the lightest touch of her hands, an all-electric kitchen, and a fat grey cat that crawls under their quilt at night when her feet are cold. The cat never says Are you happy now, Jessie?, and so Jessie never has to say yes.
Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her chapbook Girls on Film and is the author of a short story collection, Pleasant Drugs. Her work has appeared in Superstition Review, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and other journals, and she serves as flash fiction editor for Cleaver magazine. “Jessie’s Life in Three Surnames” is loosely based on the imagined life of her much-married great-grandmother.