Joan Presley “Contents Under Pressure”

Contents Under Pressure

By Joan Presley

I hear her shoulder hit the kitchen’s swinging door, hear the scrape of the tray as she pushes it through the doorframe, hear her shoes stick and suck off the breakfast nook floor, where somebody probably spilled milk earlier and just left it.  My mother enters the family dining room carrying the first course of tonight’s dinner, shrimp salad with Louie dressing and homemade bread.  My dad, grandmother, sisters, brother, and I sit, waiting, around an antique mahogany table in the large, gracefully appointed room, dimly lit by sixteen candelabra.  Built in the late 1920’s, this house on Haas Avenue denotes the genteel lifestyle of a well-to-do family.  That’s not us, but we pretend.  We pretend to be a little bit rich, rich like our neighbors in this upscale part of San Leandro.  

I grab a hunk of bread, load on the butter, and tear into it.  “A couple more hours, we could call this a midnight snack,” I mutter to my father. 

The candelabra softens our features.  We need more than our features softened, or so says mom.  My teen-aged sisters and I are dissident soldiers shanghaied into lady-training boot camp, reporting to our drill-sergeant mother, who dreams of daughters married to junior executives. 

Grandma’s royal blue and gold furniture, Chinese rugs, and breakable knickknacks adorn the formal living areas.  Our jalopy furniture goes downstairs, where we really live.  Grandma helped buy this house.  That’s mostly why she’s here, although we say otherwise.  But her productive cough makes us gag; her hearing aids squeal, yet never work; and her geriatric needs disrupt what used to be our family rhythms.  We’re not set up for seniors.  Last Wednesday, around two in the morning, deciding she was dying, she woke everybody up for lengthy, tearful good-byes.  The next morning around 7:00 she came downstairs, hungry for breakfast.  “What’s she doing alive?” my sleepy dad forgot not to say out loud. 

Mom ignores her mother’s drama by sticking to routine.  She starts preparing dinner at five o’clock every evening.  First she pours a glass of Gallo Dry Sherry.  Closing both kitchen doors, she turns on Tony Bennett, high volume.  Gathering her tools, she begins washing, chopping, and seasoning.  This is her favorite time of day.  Her focus softens; she caresses her surroundings.  I like to sit on the yellow stool next to the stove, to watch her hazel eyes sparkle.  She’s pretty again.  Sometimes we talk.  She’s likely to grant special favors about now, like use of the car or her Macy’s charge card.  But if she pulls out that pressure cooker of hers, I’m gone. 

In the 1960’s, pressure cookers were popular, but not always safe.  To prevent disaster, like an explosion, for example, a particular weighted device had to be affixed to the top of the cooker within a specific time frame.  The process seemed sketchy to me.  I don’t know what worried me the most: my mother or the pot.

Pretending to have money takes planning.  My tall, thin sisters and I share clothes where we can.  They belt the dresses that barely clear my hips.  We adjust hems or seams as necessary.  We need clothes to cover the obligations mom makes for us, like the teen club at church so we can dance with Catholic boys, and the drama/literature club at school to attend plays with affluent ones.  We’re grooming for the affluent; Catholic’s merely convenient.  We study French, not Spanish.  Refined women do not speak Spanish, or so says mom.  She points out worthy boys we never like, or, worse, arranges dates through their parents.  We put on swishy dresses, do as we’re told, then bring home our own choices anyway: future ex-husbands.


I get a Barbie for my tenth birthday.  I wanted a bike.  I imagine myself gliding smoothly, hands-free, through the almost car-free streets of Bonaire, the subdivision of three-bedroom, one bath houses on tree-named streets, where we’ve lived my whole life, in a yellow house.  Our street, Beechwood, dead-ends into the school, James Madison Elementary.  Behind Madison, just past the tetherball poles, the blacktop transitions into twenty feet of weeds butting up to a Chain Link fence, separating school property from a farmer’s field.  The farmer keeps cows.  Past the cows, a wood post and strung-wire fence protects the animals from freight train tracks.  An old iron bridge carries the trains over the San Leandro Creek, which empties into the San Francisco Bay five miles to the west.  Some years, the creek overflows and is full of poison oak.  Despite the “No Trespassing” signs, I have quickly learned I am very allergic to it. 

On a Thursday afternoon about two o’clock, the twenty-three kids who live on Beechwood are playing outside, even though there’s little shade and the brittle grass, long past green, hurts our feet.  We’re always outside, unless we have something like measles, mumps, or chicken pox.  Dressed in shorts, tee shirts, and rubber thongs varying only in color, we decide to play The Thong Game.  It goes like this:  everybody takes off their thongs and makes them into a huge circle.  Two captains choose teams.  The team outside the boundary tries to pull the inside team out.  The insiders defend their territory.  It’s a one-on-one scramble, encouraging slapping, scratching, punching, hair-pulling, and name-calling, aimed at wearing the enemy down.  Last person standing wins for their team.

Suddenly Butch, my captain, says, “Eewww, I smell something awful.”  We all stop and sniff.  The odor comes faintly at first but, wow, gets rancid – grows bigger, heavier, deeper – wafting in from the west.  Everybody quits playing and runs.  Screen doors slam up and down the block.  Kids yell, “Mom, c’mere.  You won’t believe it.”

Half an hour later, it’s gone.  Everybody goes back outside and meets at the thong site, but we don’t play.  We sit there, trying to describe what it was like.

“One thousand extremely dirty feet,” says Mike, Mr. Know-it-all.

“A semi-truck load of spilled, spoiled milk,” his brother Robert guesses. 

Mike snorts, yelling, “Duuuummmmb,” like he always does. 

My best friend Virginia thinks rotten eggs or maybe a sewer leak.

“Dead or dying fish.  Obviously,” says my brilliant older sister.

I suck in my breath, thinking:  Oh no, the Bay of Fundy. When we studied Fundy in fourth grade, its erratic tide patterns horrified me.  What if nobody had told me about it, and I went to Nova Scotia on vacation, just happened to stop by Fundy and walked way far out, exploring in the wet sand, all innocent and everything, and hearing a strange sound, look up, and here comes this entirely gigantic load of bay water rushing back in, and then — uh — where’s the shore?  I hate it.  And now what if our bay is doing that, and, well, what about our fish?  When the water goes out, do they know to go with it?  No, they don’t.  They’re not Canadian.  They stay put; they die, and now they’re stinking up the place.

Crazy maybe, but still.  The smell keeps coming back randomly: no schedule, no warning.  We hold our noses, run, and hide, from, well, we don’t even know what.  Eventually, the newspaper declares algae’s causing the odor.  My mom disagrees.  She claims it’s the blue-collar neighborhood itself.


On Haas Avenue, my mother goes to the kitchen to get our meal’s second course.  She returns looking red-faced, bigger, puffed up maybe.  Sometimes, like tonight, when food from the first course hits the cocktail hour drinks in my mother’s stomach, the chemical reaction goes astray.  A sunken-eyed, tight-lipped mom offers us tomato sauce-topped eggplant alongside a dogpile of beef hearts.  Imitating a fog horn, John, my nine-year-old brother, tones out, “Bee–Farts.”  We laugh.  Quietly though, quietly. 

I sit next to dad, at the head of the table.  Mom, at the foot, sweating and unfocused, passes the beef hearts to grandma and the eggplant to older sister Lynn, then picks up her fork and calls out “Get me some air.”  Younger sister Gail jumps to, unlocking the floor-to-ceiling windows near the corner.  Lynn cracks the smaller ones adjacent to the alleyway for cross-ventilation.  I don’t do anything because I’m already cold and not that well-trained.  I manage to skip family dinner more often than not.  I don’t want to get caught in this mix.  Most nights, hand on the door, I pause with relief as I turn to say ‘bye, then bolt from the house. 

“To the library,” I answer most of the time, hoping we still have one and nobody comes to make sure I’m there.

I glance towards dad who’s pushing food around his plate, looking for a corner to park it in.  Slow your hands down, I want to tell him.  Pretend to chew.  Something might happen, a distraction, like a visitor or a phone call, an earthquake maybe.  But it’s too late, she sees him.  “Joan, tell your father to eat his meat.” 

I look my father in the eye, trying not to smile.  “Dad, mom says to eat your meat.”

“Joan, tell your mother to eat her own greasy meat.”  Oh shit. 

I swivel my head towards mom.  “Mom, dad says to eat your own greasy meat.”

“Oh, aren’t you the smart mouth?  You, the trampy looking one, with all that make-up.  Put down your fork.  Go upstairs.  Take half of it off.”

Good fortune!  I push back my chair to get up.  She yells, “Sit down.  Eat.  You don’t know from nothing.  Don’t ever forget that.  You don’t know from nothing.”  I stay quiet, chew my beef heart.  I do know one thing.  Don’t provoke her at night.


The pressure building inside a cooker releases as a whistling sound, dissipating through a valve.  The valve and the rubber ring between the pot and the lid work together to ensure the food inside cooks uniformly, without exploding.  Pressure cookers create a closed environment, forcing steam through food.  The system effectively transfers heat without damaging contents as varied as delicate, tender vegetables, rock hard potatoes, or large chunks of frozen meat.   

A good meal results, unless something goes wrong.  For example, if the seal fails, scalding food can spray violently up and out of the pot.  Most explosions occur when people who don’t understand how the system works try to remove the lid under pressure, scalding or burning themselves or others unfortunate enough to be standing next to the pot.


The inside of my family’s house looked, basically, like what I have been told the inside of any bona-fide Shanty Irish family’s home might look like.  We didn’t exactly put things away.  We stuffed them in a closet, draped them on a chair, or piled them on a bed.  I didn’t like to invite friends over, preferring to go to their homes instead.  One morning in sixth grade as I left for school, my mom said, “Why don’t you bring your friends here this afternoon?”  I turned and stared at the dining room table.  A two by three foot mound of books, bills, toy trucks, blocks, and Barbie’s covered it.  Glancing back towards my mom, I said, “Not today.”

Even though my family identifies as Irish, we’ve intermingled with the Danish, English, and Germans.  I hoped for a recessive housekeeping gene.  German might be best.  Yet all these years later I find myself using my garage as a huge garbage pail.  Not always, but sometimes, like when I’m cold and don’t feel like walking across to the dumpster.  I open the door from the laundry room and just toss.  No, nothing rancid, like old food.  I don’t have rats or vermin.  It’s just junk: clothes, rugs, or decorations that suddenly must go.  Sunday newspapers, empty water bottles, or dog things: their leashes, sweaters, or parka’s — just so much stuff.  What do other people do with it?     

I don’t start throwing things until the garage already has some sort of a pile-up mess in one spot or another, but once an episode starts, I give up, because as soon as I clean it out, the garage fills up again, automatically.  It’s like an ice-maker sensing an empty tray.  A few clicks, a plop, and it’s full again. 

I spent the last two years ignoring the mess, because my ex-husband needed a place to store his stuff.  I told myself that once he picked up his belongings:  motorcycle, bedding, towels, shower curtain, table and chairs, tools and pictures, my garage would be clear.  That was last fall.  The garage is stuffed again.  There could be people living in there, and I might not notice.

Maybe I’m like an ice-maker myself.  When I sense an opening in any storage space, I fill it automatically: plop, pile, push.

My friends Becky and David laugh about my mess of a pantry, overflowing with non-food items, like a huge bowl of sunglasses, a stack of bills, another of oversized pots, pans, and bowls, a back-up coffee maker, and coffee pods I will never drink.  Nobody else will drink them either, because they’re horrible flavors.  Maybe I will get up and go throw them into the garage.

“Pantries are for food, Joan,” Becky says.  They both laugh.

“Food comes from restaurants, idiots.”  Why do I have to remind them of the obvious?


Standing on the hump in the back seat of our pea-green 1947 Chevy, holding onto the front seat for traction, I sniff my momma’s perfume while she tugs hard on the steering wheel to pull us away from the curb.  She looks little in the big spot where daddy usually sits.  “Mommy, you look like a movie star,” I yell in her ear.  Smiling, she takes a slow drag from her cigarette.  I watch as carefully polished fingernails move the lit menthol tip towards her red-lipstick covered mouth.  She inhales deeply, then blows smoke out her nose to entertain me.  Bodily fluids delight me, especially from the nose.  Mommy made nose bubbles once with Root Beer when she was laughing really hard. 

We head downtown to buy my birthday dress.  I’m turning six and want to look just like her.  She wears a different dress every day.  Most fit snugly to the waist then flare out into a full skirt.  Someday I will wear high heels, nylons, and mascara like she does, and I’ll look like a movie star too.  I hold her arm tightly.  She’s pretty enough to be on television, but I wouldn’t want her to leave me.

I grab two sticks of Black Jack gum from her purse and mommy shows me how to make it snap.  We hold hands, skip, snap, buy my dress, and get home to our house on Beechwood by 4:30 so she can put the tuna casserole in the oven.   

Daddy, Mommy, Lynn, Gail, and I sit in the kitchen at the shiny black table eating our Friday fish at 5:30.  Nobody enjoys the casserole or the peas that come with it.  We like to be Catholic, but not on Fridays.    

The phone rings.  My sisters and I sing out, “Is Elvis there?”  When grandma’s here, she tells them he’s gone to the store, but mommy picks up the phone and says, “He doesn’t live here.  No, we’re not related.”  But she always tells us that daddy looks just like Elvis to her, and since they’re both Irish, that proves it: they’re cousins.  “Do not tell the teen-agers,” she warns, “or they’ll keep calling.”    

We turn back to our plates.  “What did you learn at school today, Lynnie-Pot?” daddy asks.  She begins talking about third grade things that Gail and I don’t understand.  While our parents listen to Lynn, we hide our peas under the tuna, shout we’re too full until dessert, and run out to the swing-set. 

My birthday pictures taken the next week show a happy-faced girl missing one front tooth, wearing a flared-skirt dress, blowing out six candles on a large chocolate-frosted cake.

I ask for a bike on my seventh birthday, but get a baby doll instead.  In my photos that year, I tilt my head backwards and squint at the camera, holding up my present. She wets her pants when fed a bottle.  I like the fluid output, but she’s no bike.  In the family picture, pregnant mom stares into the camera, no smile.  With a full-toothed grin, dad looks towards her belly, where he’s rested his arm.  To his left, Gail, preparing to relinquish her spoiled youngest child title, perfects her torture skills by pinching Lynn.  She will be ready for that dumb baby.  I stand on the right, mouth wide open, staring at my cake, asking, “Where’s the frosting?”    

That night after dinner, I steal Lynn’s bike and ride off quickly, as she whines to dad.  He says, “Well, you weren’t riding it, were you.”     

Eighty-year-old Mom and I sit at the mahogany dining room table in the Haas Avenue house while dad prepares Stouffer’s in the oven.  Microwaves can’t be trusted.  I attempt to visit with my mother, but she doesn’t hear well and won’t talk today.  Pointing to the picture-lined dining room walls, I try to remind her of the lives she and dad created.

“There you are, newly-wed, almost skipping down the aisle.”  She doesn’t respond.  I point to the next.  We three sisters five, six, and eight stand on chairs learning to wash dishes: aprons, suds, dish towels, faces full of unmitigated glee.  Next, our baby brother, in a picture by himself, wears a hand-embroidered bib advertising “Daddy’s Little Buddy Boy.”  I move on quickly.  He died young.  “Oh, there we are as teen-agers.  Look mom.”  Her three girls face the camera straight-on wearing tons of makeup and pretend bored expressions.  A few years later, the family portrait expands with husbands.  The next contracts as they disappear.  Finally it’s Christmas.  My elderly parents sit against a living room wall in folding chairs, staring towards the party.          

Dad interrupts us, bringing lasagna for mom, a stuffed pepper for me, and an enchilada for himself.  We sit in our originally-assigned chairs, maintaining a distance, despite compromised hearing and five empty slots, chewing silently, until: “Joan, tell your father I’m ready for dessert.”

I swivel my head, “Dad, mom’s ready for dessert.”

“Tell her I’ll get it when I finish eating.”  I turn back towards my mother wondering why I’m still doing this.


A working pressure cooker contains food, air, and water.  The cooking process systematically changes mass and energy inside the pot.  Dishes like stew, which can taste marvelous when prepared in the cooker, contain food with varying energies.  Pressure cooker stews blend meat, potatoes, and vegetables smoothly together, resulting in an exceptionally tasty and popular meal; but here’s the rub: a pressure cooker does not operate like a crock pot.  It’s essential to cook meat longer than potatoes, potatoes longer than vegetables.

Cooking unlike mass and energy sources as if they were interchangeable is the most common mistake, and it ruins one or more of the ingredients.  Food becomes gooey, almost disappearing, or tough, drying out, when it spends too much time in the cooker.  The cook’s good intentions to provide her diners with vitality, health, and vitamins float away, dissipating in the steam.  The result is an unappetizing, nutrition-free meal.  The diners feel cheated, the cook disappointed.     

Selected List of Works Consulted

  1. Durand, Faith.  “How Pressure Cookers Work.”  A Primer on Pressure Cooking. 193715.  n. pag.  21 August 2013.  Web.  March 2014.
  2. Pohl, J.  “Basic Thermodynamics.” 176-1830. n. pag.  Web. March 2014
  3. “How Does A Pressure Cooker Work?”  n.e.,  27 Sept 2010.  n. pag.  Web.  March 2014.
  4. “Pressure Cooker Stews.”  Home of the Home. n.e., n.d., n. pag.  Web. March 2014

About the Author

Joan Presley lived in the east bay suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area for the first thirty years of her life. She currently resides in Reno, Nevada where, for the past two years, she has been studying creative writing at Truckee Meadows Community College.


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