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Recently a person in their early twenties looked and me, wrinkled their nose, and declared something smelled funny. I immediately sniffed my shirt sleeves, starting at the armpits. It wasn't that. I also sensed the foul aroma near my cuffs. I washed my hands after the incident, but apparently, I should have scrubbed my arms too. I began to explain, "Do you know what a corn bag is?"
"Yeah, you use them to play Bags, you know? You throw the corn bag to a deck about twenty feet away, trying to put it through the hole for points." They explained, "You also try to knock your opponent's bags off the deck to keep them from scoring."
"Yes, I'm familiar with the game," I said, "but I thought those bags were filled with beans." We both looked doubtful, second-guessing our knowledge. I researched it later. The bags can be filled with various materials: field corn, popcorn, beans, rice, wood pellets, plastic beads, aquarium gravel, or anything else you want to fill them with – but not kitty litter.
One article specified cat litter would break down inside until it became a bag of dust - unless it got wet, in which case, the filling would clump. Another article said the game of Bags is also called: Cornhole, Bag Toss, Sack Toss, "or whatever y'all call it in your part of the country."
This younger person sincerely thought the game was one their generation created. "It's been around for centuries in various forms but is most commonly called Shuffleboard." They acknowledged seeing such game tables in some of the pubs. "Bags is sort of a cross between that and throwing Horseshoes," I said.
Having no idea what that was, I suggested to them, "Lawn Darts?" They looked at me as if I was really old and possibly crazy. "Anyway, when I was a kid, we called the game Bean Bags." They seemed interested, so I continued.
"We didn't have fancy, high-gloss finished decks with painted lines for scoring; we drew circles on the driveway with chalk. When we didn't have chalk, we etched lines with a piece of lime-stone gravel. It was like scratching circles in the dirt with a stick to play marbles."
They were baffled, "Marbles was an actual game?" Their reaction caused me to feel old, giving me aches and pains that weren't there when this little chat session started. Suddenly I needed the kind of corn bag I had initially been talking about!
"Never mind the games; we're getting way off the subject." I continued, "A corn bag is a cloth bag, with dried field corn in it. You put it in the microwave for a minute or so, then place it on whatever part of your body hurts. The corn holds its heat for a long time, so it works like a heating pad without an electrical cord."
The younger person grinned with enlightenment, as did I. We were finally on the same page. "Okay, I know what you're talking about! My Grandma makes those for Grandpa, but I thought she filled them with rice." My smile went awry. Part of me wanted to walk away from this conversation – but I stayed to explain.
It all started in the kitchen earlier that day. I had some writing to do, but first, I seasoned a pork roast. Adding a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a cup of water, I put it in the crockpot and turned it on high. I was wearing socks but no slippers; my feet were cold from standing on the ceramic floor tile. I put a corn bag in the microwave oven, setting the timer for ninety seconds.
My cousin, Robin, made this corn bag for me with a tie-dye patterned cloth. A little larger than most, it was the perfect size for my intended use. When the timer beeped, I set the warm, colorful bag on the floor under the kitchen table. It was comforting to rest my cold feet upon when I sat down to write.
The words were coming to me quickly; I was on a roll. I didn't want to break my stride, but the hard floor soon drew the heat from the kernels. The corn bag was cold, and so were my toes. Working for nearly an hour, a quick break was in order.
We have a plastic lid in the microwave oven that we set corn bags on when heating them. I put the corn bag inside and set the timer for ninety seconds. I lifted the lid on the crockpot and checked my pork roast. "Oh my!" The seasonings were coming alive, and the aroma was amazing.
Smells are a powerful memory trigger. The scent of that roast reminded me of something I wanted to include in my story. I quickly went back to my laptop to write a couple of lines before I forgot them. Then a couple more lines, and just like that, the momentum I had going came right back to me. I kept pecking away at the keyboard.
Melissa called out from the living room, "Are you cooking something." Apparently, the fragrant seasonings were making their way to the other room.
"I have a pork roast in the crockpot," I boasted. "It smells awesome, doesn't it?"
"It really stinks," she complained, "can you turn on the exhaust fan." Wow! I've never had anyone tell me a roast in the crockpot stinks.
Trying to remember the line I was working on, I got up to turn on the fan, but it was already running. "Strange, I don't remember turning that on." I glanced at the microwave oven door – the light inside seemed a funny color. I'd check it in a minute, but first, I wanted to see why she said my roast smelled terrible. When I tipped the glass lid, the steam rose, smelling just as good as it should. I set the cover down and glanced at the timer on the microwave panel.
"How can that still have seventy-four seconds left?" It felt like time stopped for a moment. The digits, seven and four, weren't changing, but the two numbers to the right of the colon continued to count down. "Oh my God! That's seventy-four minutes left."
"What did you do?" was all I heard from the living room.
I quickly opened the door to stop the possessed appliance. Plumes of black smoke belched from the opening; the exhaust vent tried to capture them, but it was too much, and the smell was absolutely putrid! I slammed the door shut. "What is that? What did you do?" She was standing right behind me, so I couldn't hide it.
"I must have accidentally set the timer to ninety minutes instead of seconds." I was trying to answer her and figure out what I was going to do simultaneously.
"How could you possibly…? How long has that been in there?" She was not a happy woman.
"It hasn't been that long, and you can't get on me for entering the wrong amount of time." I defended myself by recalling where I had experienced this nasty, awful stench before. "Remember that time in Winona, when you burned popcorn, and it stunk so bad we had to throw away the popcorn bowl and the microwave?" (Smells are a powerful memory trigger.)
"That was thirteen years ago! You can't bring that up now!" The unhappy woman was getting unhappier.
"Oh, all of a sudden, there's a statute of limitations on bringing up what you did?" My reply was only making matters worse. "Besides, it's not my fault – the smoke detectors didn't even go off to warn me of the problem."
"That's because the microwave was so hot, it automatically turned on the exhaust fan." She snapped back.
I muttered under my breath, "…is that how the fan got turned on?" My attempts to minimize my error were working about as well as trying to put a fire out with gasoline. "Look, we can hash this out later. Right now, I have to figure out how I'm going to get that burning pile of grain and rags out of the house."
Wearing a pair of oven mittens with the non-slip finish, I used a knife to raise the edge of the glass turntable. I lifted it out of the microwave oven and set it in a large glass baking dish I had placed on the stovetop below. Melissa opened the back door, and I rushed the smoking mess outside to the deck. I returned with a quart bottle of water to extinguish whatever was burning.
I examined the charred pile of rubble and wondered, "Where did that plastic lid go?" I poked at the mass with a chopstick, "Oh, there it is." The three-inch tall cover had been reduced to a melted flat crescent; some sections of the plastic piece were just gone.
The corn bag itself, which used to be about an inch-and-a-half thick, was bloated to four or five inches. Amidst this disaster, I was able to find some humor, "I guess field corn will pop like popcorn – if it gets hot enough. Maybe I should save this and ask Melissa if she wants to have a movie night tonight." I quickly looked around to be sure she didn't catch me laughing.
About twenty minutes later, Melissa pointed out the window, "Your corn bag is smoking again." This time I saturated the smoldering mess. The once-mighty nuclear inferno was fighting to survive, but the full gallon of water was too much. The beast released two final puffs of smoke, then surrendered to its demise.
I went inside to wash my hands and face. I brushed my teeth, fixed my hair, and put on a clean shirt. I would be singing at 7:00 that evening at Saint Mary's Church in Silver Bay. I wanted to go over the music one more time before then, so I drove to Holy Spirit, in Two Harbors, where the cantor would be singing the same songs at the 5:00 mass. I could follow along.
The conversation with the younger person occurred on my way from one church to the other. "And so," I concluded, "I'll probably have to replace the microwave oven - that smell never goes away." I sniffed my sleeves again, near the cuffs, "I washed my hands well enough, but I guess I needed to wash a little further up my arms." They nodded in agreement, and we said our farewells.
I hummed through my songs while driving to Silver Bay. Turning into the church parking lot, I thought about the charred remains on my back deck at home. I had to laugh at the irony; the reason for an evening mass on a weekday? It was Ash Wednesday.