Cabbage Patch

by Michael Carter

The smell of cooked cabbage combined with the odor of the open latrine that flowed through the patch of land between Arizona and Oklahoma Streets down to the red-light district never went away. But after a few weeks, you became accustomed to it. You had to if you were down on your luck and needed a place to put out a shingle.

Maggie O’Connell crushed cloves with orange peel when they first moved into their shanty in the Cabbage Patch, but realizing it would not overcome the stench, she gave up. The smell of the Patch infused in her and her son Timmy’s clothing and hair. It became a part of them. Plus, there were more important things to worry about, like hunger pains and brittle teeth. And the mines.

On the eleventh day of every month, Maggie fried an extra serving of cabbage, and if they were lucky, she served a piece of hearth bread or boiled potato. The eleventh day was not a time of celebration however; it was the day her husband Colin died in the Never Sweat Mine. Or was it Little Minah? She’d suppressed so many of the details. All she could remember were accounts from survivors of an explosion, the “popping” sound of support beams, the screams, and then fire.

Whether Colin was crushed by beam or rock, or burned to death, she never found out. In her heart, however, she always felt it was the latter. So, she burned the cabbage. She sliced it thin, fried it in lard until black, and dashed it with rock salt in hopes that Colin would someday rise from his underground tomb and return to eat. The uneaten servings rotted to advanced levels of decay as the months passed. Timmy pushed his chair farther and farther from each month’s rancid meal.


“Ma, why must we leave rotting cabbage? Father has not come back for it.” Timmy lifted the thick-bottomed pan for his mother so she could scoop. It was too heavy for Maggie’s good arm; her other was shrunken and curled into a claw by polio.

Maggie lined up Colin’s serving next to the previous month’s, clanking the plates edge to edge. Timmy’s chair was now pushed to the end of their poplar-wood table.

“Hush and eat,” Maggie instructed while she whipped more cabbage into the pan, spattering sizzling lard against the oven’s backsplash. “It’s all we have and you should be thankful.”

“Yes, Ma.” Timmy sat down, swirled the charred pieces with his fork, and wrinkled his nose when he looked down the table at the old servings. “If I eat my helping, may we dump the molding ones?”

“Don’t be disrespecting your father like that. Eat it!”

As Timmy forked a piece to his mouth, a heavy knock came to the door.

“Mrs. O’Connell, open up.”

“Timmy.” Maggie motioned to the door as she put down her spatula and wiped her good hand on her apron.

Timmy dropped his fork to his plate, pushed from the table, and bumped the corner with his shoulder as he hurried to the door.

“Say, lad, we’s been sniffin’ the rot from your shanty for months,” the tall man with a boars-hair mustache and whiskey breath said. “Tell your momma to stop pollutin’ our already stank air. Close quarters here in the Patch you know.”

Maggie made her way to the door. “This is for my late husband,” she explained, gesturing to the table.

“We understand, Mrs. O’Connell, but we’ve had enough of it. If you don’t stop, we’ll have to find a way to settle up.” The man looked down at Timmy and smiled. “Timmy wouldn’t mind helpin’ out in the district or the mines, now would he?”

“Leave him be!” Maggie said.

The man’s eyes gravitated to Maggie’s chest. His mustache flared and eyes sparkled. “Lessen you want to settle up by runnin’ a room in red light?”

Maggie quickly buttoned the top of her blouse and hiked her apron top higher. “I have my standards.” She fixed her red hair behind her head into a rudimentary bun.

The tall man’s eyes narrowed as he looked back down to Timmy, then smiled again. “Meaty arms, your boy.”

Timmy huddled behind his mother’s legs. Maggie slammed the door.


On the eleventh day of the next month, Maggie charred up Colin’s plate of cabbage, then Timmy’s. She lined them up.

“It’s final,” she said as she put down her own plate. “I’m leaving the Patch forever.”

Timmy didn’t answer.

“I’ll make my way West, but to a place where there are no mines, perhaps past Placerville.”

Timmy nodded but again did not speak.

“Maybe to San Francisco.” Maggie finished her last piece of cabbage. Timmy’s, and, as always, his father’s, remained uneaten.

Maggie wiped the corner of her mouth, cleared her dinnerware, and said one last prayer. She prayed for the route West, and if it indeed took her all the way to the Pacific, she hoped that the salty air would cleanse her hair and skin of the smell, along with her memories of the Cabbage Patch.

Hoisting her duffel of clothing, she headed out their door. She turned and waved to Timmy, still sitting behind his plate, the outline of his tiny body a glimmer. A larger body flickered into view next to him. Colin. He put his hand on Timmy’s shoulder.

Maggie blew them a kiss while closing the door. They raised their arms and waved, their faces fading to nothingness as their spirits found a place to rest in the darkness of the shanty.

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