A Psychological Study of Ida Black

By Karen Brode

Ida Black wasn’t like other people. When she was a child growing up in the 50s, her parents scratched their heads and wondered how she could be their daughter. Like all parents, they wanted to be proud of their little girl, and in some ways they were, such as that she was only three when she started organizing her books on the bookshelf in perfect alphabetical order and that she arranged her dolls on the floor in order of size.

It was the other things she did that concerned her parents. Mrs. Black was particularly distraught by her child’s behavior and she did everything she could to make Ida more “normal.” She was convinced that, if given the chance, Ida would take to dolls in the way normal little girls did, so she bought her daughter a doll for every occasion. Mrs. Black wasn’t prepared when Ida threw the doll aside to play with the box it came in. And she nearly fainted the day Ida took the box to the backyard, got in it, and pretended to be sailing across the ocean.

Mrs. Black sighed and wrung her hands wondering where she had gone wrong. She finally decided what Ida needed was a tea party. She invited all the little girls in the neighborhood. Maybe Ida would make some friends and become more like them. The hand-printed invitations informed the little guests that they were to dress up and arrive at 2:00pm. It was going to be a grand time.

On the day of the party, three little girls with hats and their mother’s heels arrived at the door giggling and talking about Barbie dolls. Mrs. Black smiled down to the children with a vacant smile only a disappointed mother can have.

Oh why did Ida have to be so different, she thought.

“Ida,” she called with an uncertain tone. “Your…friends are here.” At these words she winced. She knew that her daughter didn’t know the other girls, but she didn’t know what else to say.

She waited with a strained smile on her face, but Ida did not come, so she called again.

“Oh, Ida, honey.” She used her sweetest tones as she went around the house looking for her daughter. She became frantic when she could not find her. She stalled as much as she could, asking the girls about what they wanted for Christmas and talking about Barbie dolls. Now and then, she excused herself to look into the backyard and front. There was no sign of Ida. She had known her to do these kinds of things in the past, so she didn’t worry about her being in danger. As the time passed and there was no sign of her daughter, she admitted to herself that Ida had never wanted the tea party to begin with. She sighed to and thought about how everything she did for that child always went terribly, terribly wrong.

When finally the other little girls had gathered around the table, Mrs. Black poured the very pale tea into their cups and explained that Ida was not feeling well.

“That shouldn’t stop us from having a grand tea party, though,” she said with an embarrassed giggle.

When the tea party was over and the girls had gone home, Mrs. Black finally spotted Ida in the tree in the front yard. Her daughter had climbed way too high to be safe and Mrs. Black nearly fainted.

“Honey,” she said in a shaky voice, “please come down from there.”

Ida just squinted at her mother through eyes of distrust. She shook her head and clung more tightly to the branch she was sitting on.

“If you will please come down I will never have another tea party for you,” Mrs. Black pleaded. But nothing she said convinced Ida to climb out of the tree. In fact, she was still there when Mr. Black returned from work. He found his wife collapsed in tears on the couch in the living room.

“Will you try to get Ida out of the tree,” she managed to say.

Mr. Black went out to the front porch and peered up to find his daughter hanging like a monkey from one of the branches.

“Ida May Black,” he yelled. “You get out of that tree and into this house right this minute!”

Ida was in mid-monkey swing when her father yelled at her. She grabbed onto the branch with both hands to keep from falling. Branch by branch—and with no monkey antics—she obeyed her father. Mrs. Black was still crying on the couch when Ida finally entered the house and went to her bedroom.

***

The Blacks were a devout Baptist family, but Ida had noticed that sometimes her father nodded off during worship service. Whenever this happened, her mother went on and on for the rest of Sunday about it.

“I can’t believe you,” she’d say. “Falling asleep in church. What an embarrassment! We’re going to have to stop going to church if you’re going to keep that up. You can’t stay awake for just one hour to serve the Lord?”

If that didn’t work, she laid on the guilt. “I don’t ask much of you, but if you can’t control your sleep habits, we’re going to have to stop going to worship and Ida will grow up a heathen. Do you want that?”

Whenever Ida overheard this lecture, she secretly hoped her father would continue to sleep through the services. She thought it would be a good thing not to go to church. It didn’t seem like anyone was really paying attention. Even as a young child, she watched the teenage girls giggle and pass notes to boys on the row behind them. She wondered if they were listening to the minister. Then she looked at the minister and decided that they probably were not. Brother Tommy was a yeller. Ida could have done without the yelling, but sometimes it was entertaining for her to look around the congregation and see the expressions on the member’s faces.

Brother Tommy’s pants were always a little too short for his legs. Ida tried to look and see if he had pulled his pants up too high. It was hard to tell because he wore a jacket to preach. Surely he knew that his pants were too short. She’d heard the teenagers talking behind their hands about “high waters.” Now she knew what that meant.

She may have understood why they said that, but she knew it still wasn’t nice. She wouldn’t sit there and make fun of Brother Tommy for trying to save them all from the fires of hell. Even if he didn’t make much sense and raised his Bible above his head as if in a threat, she felt sorry for him. She could tell that he was sincere.

The day she spotted Mrs. Baker with her earmuffs on her ears, she was completely intrigued. She watched idly at first, but as time went on, it occurred to her that she had never seen Mrs. Baker without the earmuffs, whether it was summer or winter. She wondered if Mrs. Baker was making a statement about the church, the minister, the sermons, or if she really had a constant earache. Ida wished she had some earmuffs.

***

When Ida was 35 years old, she lived in San Diego, and worked as a typesetter for a magazine that no one ever read. The job she’d had before that was a little more controversial. She worked for Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the leader of atheists in the United States, also known then as “the most hated woman in America.” It didn’t bother Ida that Ms. O’Hair was an atheist because she didn’t think her own beliefs bothered her boss. After all, Ms. O’Hair worked to separate church from state matters. Sometimes, Ida wasn’t sure how she thought about it all. She had come to believe that sometimes it was better not to think at all.

As Ida got older, she could see that she wasn’t able keep up with everything like she used to. She tried to keep lists and keep everything in her house organized, but it was impossible. Eventually, she started throwing things into a corner. Before long, whatever it was had grown to take up one whole bedroom. As long as she kept the bedroom door closed, she didn’t have to think about it. She felt that she couldn’t throw anything away because she might need it later. It was much safer to just keep everything.

On a Saturday in June, though, Ida tried to open the door to the bedroom where she kept everything, but the door would not open. Somehow, whatever was in that room, had reproduced over the weeks, and it was preventing the door from being opened. At first she panicked. She tried to think of what all was in there, but it was just too much to take in. She looked at her watch. She needed to go to work and really didn’t have time to think about it.

On her way outside to her car, she stopped by the window to look in. She couldn’t see anything except a tower of clothes, blankets, and trash bags pressed against the inside of the window. She wrinkled her nose wondering how things could have gotten to this state and then she shook it off with a snort.

I don’t have time to think about it right now, she thought, and she got in her car and tried to forget all about it.

The days rolled on and the state of the room continued to haunt her, until finally, on Thursday evening, she sat on her couch flanked by her cats, and flipped through the telephone directory. She had decided to see a psychologist. Since it was San Diego and not Bakersfield where she grew up, no one would know her, so she didn’t have to feel weird about it.

Finally, her eye fell on an ad for a psychologist whose office was not far from her house. Somehow, that made it a little easier for her. His name was Dr. Gray and, to Ida, that sounded like someone who would be understanding and not too judgmental. He wouldn’t think of things as right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. He was Dr. Gray, which surely meant he would understand someone like her who had lived most of her life in the gray places in life.

With determination, she picked up the phone and called the number of his answering service. She left her name and phone number and told the machine that a morning appointment would be best for her. She had barely hung up the phone when it rang.

“Hello, Ms. Black?” asked the familiar voice on the other line. It was the same woman’s voice who had been on the answering machine.

“That was quick,” Ida said, not realizing she said it out loud.

“Would nine in the morning work for you?” asked the woman.

Ida nearly fell off the edge of the couch as she heard herself agree to an appointment that would happen so early the next day. It had bothered her a little that she had been called back so soon with a spot open so quickly. It was almost as if they knew she needed to help right away.

The next morning, she parked her car outside the professional building. She took in the many stories of the building and all its windows. She sipped the coffee she had bought at a gas station and wondered which window belonged to the doctor. She folded her empty coffee cup into a square and tucked it into her fanny pack.

You never know when you might need a coffee cup, she told herself.

Looking back at the building, she felt a small shiver go up her spine at the reminder that she would have to ask someone for the location of Dr. Gray’s office in the building. It seemed sort of like shouting to the world that she was a crazy person.

At five to nine, she got out of her car and made sure everything was in place: fanny pack, bag on her left shoulder, bag on her right shoulder, keys attached to her belt. She didn’t want to have to worry about losing things because she was already a little nervous. She knew she shouldn’t be. She was acting like her friend, Jane, who had to take a pill every time she left her house.

Thinking about her friend Jane, Ida squared her shoulders, tossed her hair back, and started toward the building. She stopped at the first office on her left. Without reading the sign on the door, she walked into the waiting room and presented herself to the woman at the counter.

“Excuse me,” she said. She was always polite, even when she was nervous about being crazy. “Is this Dr. Gray’s office?”

The woman glanced back to another woman who was typing and widened her eyes. Then she turned back to Ida and said, “No. This is Dr. Martin’s office, the neurosurgeon. You want to go to the third floor, suite five.”

Ida thanked the woman and went out into the hall to wait for an elevator. As soon as she was on her way up to the third floor, her thoughts crept back to her friend Jane.

“Jane can’t ride elevators,” she said out loud, as if talking to someone. Ida knew that her friend had been seeing a psychologist for quite awhile, but she didn’t know if she had made any progress.

“Probably not,” she said, snorting. She blushed, then, realizing she was talking out loud to no one and then she held her chin higher and said in a whisper, “Jane isn’t the type of person who makes progress.”

On the third floor, Ida found Dr. Gray’s office. Once inside, she saw two women standing behind a window.

A black-haired woman slid the window open and asked, “Do you have an appointment?” The woman seemed angry or upset. Ida wasn’t sure. She wondered if she had done something wrong. She didn’t think so, but she knew you could never be sure.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “For nine o’clock.”

The woman nodded and told Ida to take a seat.

Ida sat down and pulled out the book she was reading, “The Fixer” by Bernard Malamud. She was almost halfway through it. She tried to concentrate on her book, but her ears kept picking up on the conversation going on behind the window. She didn’t miss the desperation in their voices or the expressions of both the women. It made Ida nervous. She wondered if she should leave.

At one point, Ida looked up and jumped to see that both women were looking at her in horror. Her hands immediately went to her hair and then to her face. She was dressed. She thought she had combed her hair. And she always brushed her teeth. She ran her fingers down the buttons of her shirt. All of her shirt buttons were buttoned. What was wrong?

Ida pressed her fingers to her temples and cheeks. She had always refused to wear make-up, but surely these women were not that upset by her lack of makeup. Ida’s mother still sent her some lipstick with her other presents at Christmas. She always tossed the lipstick as soon as possible. She thought women who wore any makeup at all were just ridiculous creatures that could not accept themselves as they were. In Ida’s opinion, she looked better without makeup, but seeing the expression on those women’s faces made her question this for the first time in her life.

Then, the black-haired woman came into the waiting room and sat in the chair next to her. She put her hand on Ida’s arm and said in a soft, motherly voice, “When did you make your appointment?”

“Last night,” Ida said. “Quite frankly, I was surprised I could get an appointment so quickly.”

The black-haired woman cringed and looked up to the ceiling before looking over to the reception counter. She seemed to be trying to summon help of some kind. This made Ida nervous. She made the decision then that she didn’t really like these people. She might be crazy, but this woman was nuts. She held her breath and consoled herself thinking that Dr. Gray would be much nicer.

“Is the doctor almost ready for me?” she asked, peering into the dark hallway beyond the reception desk. She thought if she could just get in and see Dr. Gray, everything would be all right.

The woman in front of her put her head in her hands and then lifted her eyes to Ida.

“I am so sorry to have to tell you this,” she said, “but Dr. Gray committed suicide this morning.”

It took Ida a few seconds to completely grasp that there was no Dr. Gray, no one to hear her story. She wasn’t sure how long she stared at the woman before she stood up in silence, gathered up her belongings, and started walking to the door to leave.

Just before she turned the knob, she remembered her manners. She turned back to the black-haired woman and, with her shoulders squared, she said, “Thank you.”

As she walked out, she paused for a moment and shook her head. “What was I thanking her for?” she said out loud.

Standing in the hallway outside of Dr. Gray’s office, Ida looked back at the door shut behind her. She wondered if the doctor had known she had made an appointment. She shifted one of her bags more firmly to her shoulder and then felt for the keychain on her belt. She wondered if Dr. Gray had known she was coming.

“Did he know?” she asked as she stared at his name etched into a plaque on the door.  “Did he kill himself because of me?” She didn’t want to think that she had somehow caused this poor man to kill himself. She fingered the doorknob and contemplated going back in. She wanted to ask if his death was somehow her fault.

And what if it was? She thought to herself. “What if I killed him?”

She sucked in her breath and drew her hand back from the doorknob. The purses slipped from her shoulders and the belted keys made a jangle as she repositioned everything. This woke her out of her thoughts. She straightened her fanny pack and grabbed more tightly onto the straps of her purses on each shoulder before turning and walking stiffly back to the elevator.

“It’s probably best if I don’t know,” she said.

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

 

Deliver Me!

By Karen Brode

“Don’t let her go back in your house,” said Mary, who was sitting at the steering wheel of my car. “We’ll never get her out again!”

Unfortunately there wasn’t much I could do. I was lying in the backseat with a terrible backache. I had bent over to dry my hair that morning and my back had seized up.

As I lied there, I couldn’t help wondering if my pain was psychosomatic. I really didn’t want to go anywhere with these people, never mind three hours on the road from Palm Springs to San Diego with them. Why couldn’t we have just gone out to lunch, or gone shopping for an afternoon? But no, that wasn’t enough. Ida and Mary wanted all of us to go visit Pam. Mary said it would be good for us, for our friendship. She had even talked about going swimming in the ocean. Wouldn’t that be something? Ida couldn’t seem to find her way out of my house. How did Mary think she’d be capable of swimming in the ocean? If you asked me, the entire trip seemed overly ambitious.

After my back seized up, I had considered calling an ambulance to come get me and take me to the hospital.  They could just go without me. And yet I knew even an ambulance couldn’t rescue me. They’d wait. They’d reschedule. I was destined to go on this trip, even if it killed me.

Originally, Ida told us she would be at my house by 9 AM at the latest. Mary had bet it would be noon before she got there, and now it was after noon. I was already tired and we hadn’t even left my driveway. My back hurt, but I told myself I would feel better if we were at least moving in a direction toward our goal. Instead, we were in my hot car in my garage waiting for Ida.

After what seemed like hours, she came out of my house with her sack of fruit. How she had managed to lose it in the first place was beyond me, but then it took her another ten minutes to find it after she ran back into the house in a panic.

Mary was in charge of driving. This made the most sense given Ida’s penchant for indecision and my back pain. But Mary drove with cruise control. I knew it was irrational of me to worry that it would get stuck, but I worried. I never used it. I wondered what we would do if it got stuck. Would we go hurtling past San Diego and into the ocean?

The two ladies chattered away in the front seat while I fought to put the thought of drowning in the Pacific Ocean out of my mind. It seemed to me that, with all that talking, Mary couldn’t be too aware of whether the cruise had gotten stuck, so from time to time, I raised up a little to monitor the car gauges. I was glad I didn’t have to actively participate in the conversation. This allowed me to focus on the pain in my back as well as keep an eye on things from the back seat.

The desert hills and small towns melted into each other as we drove down the highway. The original plan was to drive about halfway to Pam’s house before we stopped for a meal. An hour and a half went by and we had neither spun out of control, nor killed each other yet. When we finally reached an exit that promised restaurant options, Mary took it.

“What about Pamir Kabob House?” Mary asked, looking towards a little yellow storefront with a striped awning over the door. “I’ve never had—what kind of food is that?”

“No, no, no. I want regular food,” Ida said, much to my relief. It’s not that I didn’t like trying new things, but the idea of trying a new kind of food with “Ida-n’t-know” was a level of torture I was not prepared for.

A few days before the trip, the three of us had gone shopping at the local mall. I had wanted to go and I had really wanted to enjoy it. These were friends I didn’t get to see often and it should have been enjoyable. Instead, it came to be a reminder as to why I don’t see these friends very often.

I had stood in the shoe store with Ida for I don’t know how long as she compared thread count and brand names and thicknesses of socks. She carefully studied each pair, she scrutinized the labels, and she asked the saleslady what brand might last longer. The saleslady stared for a moment with a look that seemed to suggest she didn’t get paid enough to deal with people like Ida. Then she composed herself and said she didn’t know for certain because she had only been working there for a few months.

Finally, when Ida picked up the first pair of socks to compare them with the last pair, I walked out of the store leaving Mary alone to assist in the purchase.

I felt tired as I walked to a bench in the middle of the mall to wait for my friends. What surprised me, though, was how I started crying as soon as I sat down. I couldn’t have told anyone why I was crying. I didn’t understand it myself. Yet, there I was, a grown woman, worn threadbare after an hour of waiting for Ida to choose a pair of socks.

Another half an hour passed and finally Ida and Mary came out of the store. I wiped my eyes and tried to look as if I hadn’t been crying. Later, I apologized to Mary about it. Even then I couldn’t put a finger on why I had cried.

Back on the road, we couldn’t seem to decide on a place to eat. We passed a pizza place and a Mexican place, both of which looked nice, but either the parking lot was too full for Ida’s liking or she didn’t like the way the windows were shaded.

“Is your back any better?” Mary asked as she turned the car around to drive back through the shopping area.

“No,”  I whined. “I don’t even know if I can walk!” My arm was draped dramatically over my eyes, but I could see enough to notice how Ida and Mary looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

“Take a look in my purse,” said Mary. “There should be some Advil in there. If you take it now, you should feel a lot better by the time we get to Pam’s house.”

I looked in her purse, and I found the Advil. It was a giant pill that I knew I would never be able to swallow. What was she thinking? I started to remind her of my inability to swallow pills, but then I decided it was best to let it go. I slid the pill back in the bottle and thanked her.

She circled the car back around one last time when Ida said, “There’s Macaroni Grill. Let’s eat there!”

I slowly and carefully got out of the car and followed them into the restaurant. I lagged behind in my infirmity. My back did seem a little better. Maybe the thought of taking an Advil had made me feel better.

Once inside and seated, we sat in silence while figuring out what we wanted to eat. Mary and I closed our menus within a couple of minutes, having made a decision. Ida, on the other hand, studied her menu as if she were preparing for a final exam in Italian cuisine.

“I wonder if this alfredo sauce has real cream or if they make the sauce at the restaurant. I would be afraid of what might be in it if they make it here.”

When the waitress arrived to take our order, Mary ordered a pizza and I ordered the fettuccine alfredo.

“Does the alfredo sauce have real cream?” Ida asked.

The waitress, who had probably graduated from high school the summer before, told Ida she wasn’t sure, but she would go check. When she came back, she confirmed that there was real cream in the sauce. She looked at her notepad expectantly and waited while Ida studied the menu a little more.

“I don’t mean to be difficult,” Ida said, “But I have to be careful not to eat anything with additives or dyes.”

The waitress nodded as Ida continued. “If I accidentally ate something with dye in it, my heart would speed up and my arms would no longer work.” She waved her arms around as if to illustrate which part of her body would no longer work.

The waitress looked around the restaurant, apparently looking for reinforcements, but they must have all seen Ida coming and ran. There wasn’t another waitress nearby. Ida continued to examine the menu and the waitress’s eyes glazed over waiting.

Finally, Ida wanted to know if the bolognese sauce was made with real tomatoes, “Because if it has any red dye in it, there’s no telling what would happen.”

The waitress tried to make eye contact with Mary and me, but we had simultaneously started rooting around in our purses wishing that we could somehow disappear.

“Do you think I can get a salad with no dressing on it?” Ida asked. The waitress rallied for a moment obviously thinking a decision was at hand and the ordeal would soon be over. She told Ida she could definitely get the salad without dressing and, as she said it, she wrote it down on her notepad.

“No, honey,” said Ida. “Don’t write that down yet. I was just asking if the salad was an option. I’m not sure if I really want one.”

At that, Mary took the menu from Ida’s hands and told the waitress to bring the lasagna bolognese and a salad with dressing on the side. The waitress seemed so grateful to Mary that I thought she might hug her. Ida, however, sat across the table and regarded Mary as one might regard a poisonous snake.

As soon as the waitress left, Ida said, “I think I should have gotten to order my own food! I hadn’t made up my mind yet.”

“Well, you wanted the lasagna,” said Mary. “Just accept that and move on! Besides, we don’t have all day. Poor Pam, she probably thinks we’ll be driving up any minute now!”

The thought of Pam peering out of her window blinds wondering where we were sent me to a new level of panic. I didn’t think any of this was my fault, but Pam might.

When we left the restaurant I turned the car keys over to Mary because my back still hurt.

“Huh,” said Mary. “That Advil should be making you feel better by now.”

“I know,” I said, trying to sound positive.

Even if I hadn’t hurt my back, it was probably for the best that I didn’t have to put my feet in the floorboards because Ida had filled them with sacks of no telling what. I wouldn’t have had a place to put my feet even if I could’ve sat up.

We were about half an hour away from Pam’s house when Ida began rummaging into the back looking for something. I picked up different sacks and handed them to her.

“No, not that one,” she’d say. I handed one after the other to her, but none of them had what she was looking for. After she examined the contents of each sack, she stared straight ahead and said, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!”

Mary pulled off the highway and stopped the car.  We waited in suspense.

“I left my insulin at that restaurant,” she said. She was Type 1 diabetic. I knew that insulin meant life or death.

I lied there, biting my tongue. I had expected something like this to happen. I began to wonder if we would ever get to Pam’s house.

Ida told Mary to keep driving toward San Diego and we could stop at a place called Charlie’s Nook. She could call Macaroni Grill from there. To sweeten the idea for us, she said she had once seen Willie Nelson there. In my case, it made the idea much less appealing because I didn’t want to see Willie Nelson. I was pretty sure Mary didn’t want to see him either but we were trying to be nice in light of Ida’s dire situation.

As soon as Mary pulled into the parking lot, Ida was out the door and running toward the building. It was a large place—larger than a nook. The parking lot alone seemed as big as a couple of football fields. As soon as we entered the building Ida yelled to us from a bank of pay phones.

“What town was that where we ate?” she asked.

Mary and I looked at each other perplexed.

“It was halfway between here and Palm Springs,” I said, trying to remember the name of the town. That was the best I could do. Ida turned back to the phone and looked through the phone book. She started calling every Macaroni Grill between San Diego and Palm Springs, not really knowing even if the restaurant she called was along our route.

“They hung up!” she screamed after a few calls. She looked at me as if it was somehow my fault that they had hung up on her.

As she continued to call all the Macaroni Grills in Southern California, Mary and I went to find a restroom. We had just entered a wide hallway when a woman hurried past us wearing nothing but a towel. Not long after that, another woman in a towel hurried past us.

“Jane, I think Ida brought us to a brothel,” said Mary, giggling.

“I was thinking the same thing.” I said. “We could call Pam and tell her we’re in a brothel and can’t get out!”

Then I said, “Now listen Mary, if it was just you and me, we would have been at Pam’s house hours ago. Now, now, we are in a brothel.”

I looked around, panic rising to my chest. “We could go out that other door and we could get in the car and just go to Pam’s house. Ida’s resourceful. She would find some way to get to San Diego.” My mind raced imagining Ida alone in the brothel. “Maybe she could hitchhike,” I said. “Besides, my nerves are too far gone to spend another minute with her. It would be best for everyone if we just left her here!”

Ida’s voice carried across the entire warehouse of the place. She was loud and sounded as panicked as I was. She had called six Macaroni Grills and no one knew anything about her insulin.

When she had exhausted every restaurant in the book, she said in her loudest, most annoying voice, “So rude! Not one person could help me.”

“That’s terrible,” I said, secretly wishing the day would be over.

Mary asked for a San Diego map and I began to wander up and down the store aisles realizing that I would probably not get to Pam’s house today or any other day. I stood out of sight and hoped with all my heart that we would not have to turn around and go back for the insulin, but I also tried to convince myself that if we had to, we had to.

Mary asked me to call Pam and tell her where we were.  I went to the bank of phones where Ida had just spent the last twenty minutes. Mary attempted to locate the town where we had eaten.

Ida should have been the one to call Pam and tell her why we were late, but it was up to me. I didn’t want to incur Pam’s wrath alone. If we had all arrived at her house at the same time, I might not be singled out for verbal abuse. But we were all in this together, I told myself. There was no going back.

I took a deep breath as the phone began to ring. Before I could even say more than “hello,” Pam started yelling and screaming.

“Where are you?” Her voice was so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “I have been terrified about you. Were you in a wreck? Did you have a flat tire? Are you okay?” She barely took a breath between each question.

I paused before answering, trying to figure out how to sum up what all we’d been through. “”We didn’t have a flat and we didn’t have a wreck,” I said. “We had Ida!”

“Oh no! What did she do now?” she asked calming down.

That’s when I began to sob. “I don’t know if I can make it all the way to your house. All of this has just been too much.”

In a gentle voice she said, “Jane, just hang on for a little while longer and when you get to my house, I will take over and you can rest or do whatever you want. Just concentrate on how much better you’ll feel when you get here.”

I looked over at my friends who were trying to make heads or tails over the map and watched as yet another woman walked by in a towel. Before I hung up, I sighed and promised Pam I would try.

______________________________

Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

 

West Texas Wagon Trip

By Karen Brode

It was almost 11pm and Winnie was still up. She never had any trouble going to sleep because, even at 13 years old, her daily work schedule was so exhausting. If she could just get another pone of cornbread made, she would be able to lie down, and she knew she would go to sleep immediately.

She had fried two chickens and put some roasted corn on the cob into a dishcloth and wrapped them tightly. Her mother had asked her to make lemonade, which was Winnie’s specialty. She glanced at the clock and decided it might be better to make it before going to bed rather than counting on having time to do anything in the morning.

She thought over her list yet to do. She would have to get baby Travis ready in the morning, but that wasn’t really work. She took great pride in taking care of her baby brother. He was almost two. Sometimes, he looked at her with such love in his eyes. She loved her him so much. She loved Albert, too, but he was so different from her and this sweet baby. She had known from the beginning that little Travis would have a very special place in her heart.

Her father, John Hawk, would be up before dawn packing provisions in the covered wagon which would take them to West Texas where so many of their relatives lived. That was a long way from Ambrose, but they could make it in three or four days. She tried not to get too excited about seeing all the relatives until the time was closer.

Once they were there, they slept on their quilts in the yard or on the porch of the house where her relatives lived. If it rained, there was always the covered wagon.

She thought about the pilgrimage they made the year before. A downpour seemed to follow them the entire trip. She and Albert were inside the wagon while their mother held an umbrella above herself and Travis on the bench next to Daddy. Winnie cautioned Albert not to touch the inside of the cloth that covered the wagon. Rain would drip into the wagon wherever he touched it. She should have never told him this. She should have left well enough alone. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him reach up and poke at the cloth with his index finger. Sure enough, in came a steady drip. She looked for a bucket of some kind to catch the drops. It was no use being mad at Albert. He was like a force of nature.

One of her favorite parts of making the trip to West Texas was getting to see her favorite cousin and best friend, Christine Wells. Winnie was six months older than Christine, and they had written to each other since they could write.

Winnie put the fried chicken in the icebox and blew out the lantern. In the stillness of the house, she heard Albert snoring softly in the back bedroom. His sleep sounds were nothing compared to their father’s. He drowned out everything else with his snoring. Sometimes, he stopped snoring abruptly and she would sigh with relief, but then he snorted and snored with more gusto.

Sometimes, if he was very very tired, he yelled out his horses’s names in his sleep, “Gee haw, Kit and Rhody!”

He always seemed fine in the mornings, so she never mentioned his nocturnal noises.

Travis still slept in bed with their parents. Winnie suspected that her mother could not feel that he was safe sleeping anywhere else.

Winnie got the quilts down from the closet and went to bed.

***

There was a faint pink streak on the eastern horizon when Winnie woke up. She was very sleepy and she could not afford that. There was work to be done. Her mother was already inside the wagon holding Travis in her lap. Daddy and Albert sat on the bench seat to drive the horses. Winnie sat in the wagon with her mother and and the baby. Before long, the soft swaying of the wagon lured Winnie fast asleep.

She woke when the wagon stopped. It was time for their nooning. She spread a tablecloth on the ground and put out the chicken, cornbread, and corn on the cob. Then she remembered the lemonade.  It was in a well bucket, and there was only one dipper, but they all drank the lemonade. Even Albert commented on how good it was.

In no time, they were back on the road. She had brought a book to read to pass her time on the trip. Sometimes she got sick if she tried to read while the wagon was moving, but on this day she read through several chapters of a book she had borrowed from the school library. The book, Freckles, was  about a boy close to her age. As she progressed through it, she began to feel as if she knew the boy and was living his life for awhile, instead of her own.

The wagon stopped. Daddy jumped down from the bench seat and leaned backward with his hands akimbo trying to pop his back.

“Where are we?” Mother asked from inside the wagon.

“I think Gainesville is right over that next ridge,” he said.

Winnie got the quilts out to spread on the ground where they would sleep. Mother and Travis would stay in the wagon, but Winnie thought there was something magical about watching the stars light up the dark sky overhead.

It was almost dusk. Daddy ate a banana while everyone else had an apple. Winnie was surprised that her father did not ask for the peanut butter. She had packed it especially for him.

He turned around to look at the road behind them, and said, “Just look how far we’ve come in one day!”

__________________________

Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

The Kindness of Strangers

By Karen Brode

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled as I sat in my car hoping the rain would let up. It seemed to come in alternating waves of intensity. I thought if I could just catch one of those times when it wasn’t hammering down on the car, I could make a run for it.

It wasn’t just about the rain, though. I was extremely afraid of lightning. When I saw it flash, I could count, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, and estimate if the storm was getting further away.

Really, though, the truth was, I simply didn’t want to be there, no matter what the weather was doing. I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather not be than at the nursing home where my mother lived. As it turned out, no one else wanted to go there, either. There wasn’t anyone but me to do what had to be done. They had all scattered to the four winds after she went to live at the home. They wanted nothing to do with her.

Finally, the rain let up enough that I decided to run for it. I ducked my head and ran. It seemed long ago when Mother and I had sat on the front porch of the nursing home, but it was just last summer. I tried to imagine that we were just sitting out on her front porch at her house. She liked nothing better than to sit on her front porch in the twilight. This was a little better than staying inside the nursing home.

During that visit, I had brought my Bible to read to her. I searched through the pages to find something appropriate to read to a woman who had lost everything.

I began, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

“I shall not want!” She almost shouted. She would never have done that before Alzheimer’s. She was so quiet. It just killed me to see her that way. I guess it was good that she was in her Alzheimer’s World because she did not hear my sobbing as I turned away.

When I looked back at her, I saw her sitting in her wheelchair dressed in some other old woman’s clothes. Her beautiful silver hair was cut at chin length. I wondered what she would be like if she hadn’t turned into this facsimile of herself. But it was no use to wonder that.

In the beginning, it had upset me to see her in someone else’s clothes and to spot other people wearing the dresses I had bought for her. After awhile, I realized that there was no way to keep up with clothes, and I should just be grateful she was dressed.

I made it safely to that memorable porch out of the rain. I shook my umbrella off and left it outside. I had forfeited my lunch hour from work earlier that day so I could just go home when my time at the nursing home was over. I wanted to sit quietly in my house and not have to think about any of it.

She was usually in the cafeteria when I arrived, but when I looked in, she wasn’t there. One of the nurses said she was asleep in her room. I walked into her room and watched her sleep. The thunder clapped in the distance. I told myself that nothing could ever be as bad as this. Nothing for the rest of my life could hurt as bad. I put my hand on her hand as I stood by her bed. I didn’t mean to cry, but the tears came unbidden.

The door to her room opened. I turned to see a woman in a business suit. Her hair was professionally coifed. I wiped at my eyes and she came to stand beside me. She explained she was from the State of Texas. They were doing a routine check of the nursing home. She saw my tears and put her arm around me as I cried some more.

“My mother has been in the nursing home over ten years,” I said. “She used to have Sunday dinners at her house, and the table would be full of family members, but now. No one else in the family will help. ” My voice broke off.

She nodded. “It’s not right, but this is usually what happens. Usually just one person ends up doing all the work.” Then she hugged me again and left the room to continue her rounds.

After she was gone, I leaned down and kissed Mother’s forehead. “Momma, I love you.”

_____________________________

Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

Om My God

By Alexander Dominick

He’s embarrassed to admit the extent of his anger. Embarrassed and a bit bemused to admit to his writing group that he had visions of “accidentally” pushing his wife into the path of an oncoming bus. He’s bemused because he supposes he is not alone in this. Still, he has never imagined he could be so twisted up inside that such thoughts would gain a foothold in his mind.

He often senses how ridiculous it is to be so angry, but he can’t help going over and over the wrongs he has had to endure, the thoughtless and selfish individuals in his life, the genetics, the history–all the justifications for his righteous indignation, or the keen awareness of justice mishandled, or justice just missed.

The assignment for his writers group has roiled and gotten beneath the mostly peaceful eddies inside him. He is torn between finally being open about his rage and maintaining his image as the cool outsider above such human foibles. They’ve asked for a two-page essay that reveals some unknown quality of the author. It’s a valid assignment, given that true art is always an exercise of self-revelation.

His mind locks on to another of his unlearned life lessons: expectations. Maybe he could write about how that one word and all its power has perplexed and confounded him. Jesus, what a briar patch.

His father told him once, drunk after a Christmas party during which the hostess actually put a lampshade on her head, that the most important thing in life wasn’t what he did, but striving to be the best at whatever he chose, having the respect of his peers, and finally, whatever his choice, leaving the world a better place for his having done whatever it was.

Great. Just great, given that his father was a prominent national politician and public servant whose own father was a giant of Wall Street from its earliest existence, with a mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut, a huge apartment in Manhattan, a beach-front home in Honolulu and his own private island off the coast of North Carolina. If it weren’t for the fact that he was simply grateful that his father was talking to him man-to-man, for the first time in his young life, he might have realized how Herculean this simple credo would be to undertake.

He rolls the two ideas around in his mind like those Chinese meditation balls, conceding that they are intertwined and there’s nothing he can do about it. He has studied and knows the truth of the exhortations by great mystics and spiritual leaders to be in the Now, to live in the breath, to accept that the present moment is the only moment that matters. There is a part of him that yearns for the peace that would come by accepting their wisdom.

But goddamn it, there is so much to be angry about! And anyway, let’s be real, who wants to live like a mystic, for God’s sake? Who really wants to turn the other cheek, when the real satisfaction would be to respond with a backhand? What’s so great about living clean and sober, eschewing alcohol, or drugs, or food, or sex, or anger, or whatever happens to float your boat, just so you can get along? Fuck that noise.

He’s read the books, and briefly recalls the mantra, “Don’t sweat the petty stuff.” He can’t help but falling back on his sometimes sick sense of humor and thinking, “Yeah right, don’t pet the sweaty stuff.”

“Just be nice and fit in,” he can hear his mother saying so many years ago. “Don’t be so angry. Anger is bad.”

All those years of lectures and bedtime chats after “incidents” at school, or in the neighborhood, only to find out that she was as hypocritical and two-faced as anyone else, and that she stuffed her admittedly justifiable anger in the bottom of a bottle of vodka so she could still pretend that they had the “best family anyone could ever hope for.” It’s much easier not to be angry when you’re checked out, right?

It wasn’t until rehab that he learned that anger was just another emotion. It was institutionalized and structured at the Center: Got a problem with a brother or sister? Write it down, put it in the Group Box, and wait until the staff can put the two of you in a group together, so you can express “healthy” anger. (Right. Put two junkies in a room and watch them tear each other’s heads off over a perceived slight at the breakfast table.)

So he’s just supposed to live the lie, accept the faults of others, find peace in the sacrifice of Jesus, shuffle along, be happy, let go, and live happily ever after?

He’s found that it is impossible to ignore the Vesuvian inferno eating away at his gut. He remembers saying, not so long ago, that he’s one trauma away from a one-way ticket out. But he knows he won’t pull that trigger, because he’s still interested in what’s going on somewhere else, anywhere else. At the same time, he is aware too that the old saw, “wherever you go, there you are,” is waiting to waylay him in his quest for inner peace.

Still, the fantasy often overpowers the logic, and he finds some daydream solace in the notion of a life lived the way he wants to live it: free of the wife who seems to need him physically when the trash is full, or emotionally when her favorite contestant gets knocked off American Idol; free from the kids who seem to need him when their purses are empty, or they’re bored and need a road trip to the nearest Wendy’s; free of the constant nagging feeling that his life is living him, not the other way around, and he’s fast nearing the age when quantum shifts are going to be tough to come by.

“No,” he thinks. “If I give voice to this, it will have a power that is too frightening to envision. They’ll know something about me that I can’t share, even with strangers.”

What else, then? Maybe that thing from his earliest childhood.…

“Jesus,” he thinks. “How can I even think about talking about that when I can’t talk about something as mundane as an angry young man?”

Instead, he pushes back from his desk and calls out to his wife. “Let’s go, honey!  If we hurry we can make the bus.”

_______________________________

Alexander Dominick is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. He describes himself as a lover of words and language. “Writing has always been a beacon and a terror for me,” he writes. “What if I don’t succeed? What if I do? An ex-wife convinced me that writers were people who hid behind life rather than live it.” Thankfully for his readers, he has stories to tell and an undeniable urge to tell them. “My hope is that they will resonate with those who read them.” Alex has traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, and lived and worked in Paris for nearly ten years.

Brother Betrayed

By Eliot Gregory

My twin brother, Bradley, has always been a religious type. We didn’t go to church when we were growing up, so I don’t understand how that happened. I wasn’t religious at all. Usually, twins are more alike than different. We are fraternal twins, not identical. Maybe that could explain the differences in us. As I understood it, we just happened to be born at the same time. We have always been totally different, and, as life goes on, the differences become more pronounced.

For starters, Bradley was a football player in high school. Wild horses couldn’t have made me an athlete! I watched from the bleachers as he made touchdowns, and I cheered with the others who were screaming around me. This was Texas, where football is a religion all its own. I was afraid not to cheer! I didn’t understand the sports world, but I knew it could draw anger from others if I didn’t pretend to be excited by everything that happened on the field.

After high school and college, Bradley took his religion from the field and into church. He became a minister, of all things. He didn’t want me around much during those years. He married a girl he met on a mission trip to Italy. She could barely understand any of us, let alone Bradley. I could see after a year or so things weren’t going to work out, but there wasn’t anything I could do but watch his life implode.

That’s when he finally turned to me for help. He asked to live with George and me in our condo in Austin. We had the room, but to be honest, it really wasn’t comfortable with him there. At times, I saw the distaste on his face that he had for George and me. I tried not to let it bother me because I wanted to help him. So, I ignored the looks and became a sounding board for him.

Funny how it was me who let him into my life when he had once shunned me and put all his stock into his church. By the time chinks started showing in his armor, though, his Christian friends had completely deserted him. He realized too late that Christians aren’t always very nice. They might say they cared, and they all said they’d pray for him, but their actions spoke much louder, in my opinion.

For years, I kept my mouth shut about all of it. And I’ll admit that it gave me a tiny bit of satisfaction to know the church had turned on him. It didn’t make me happy to see my brother so sad and out of options, but there was a little piece of me that enjoyed hearing what all had happened to him at the hands of his beloved church family, especially when he had shunned his real family (me) because of his beliefs.

I wanted to say, “Well, Bradley, where are your church friends now?” Believe it or not, though, I don’t always say everything I think. I knew my words would twist the knife in his back. I didn’t want to add to his misery, so I tried to help him pick up the pieces and move forward.

Most days, he languished in his bedroom reading or watching TV. George and I bought  a TV for his room.  I knew he was taking pills of some sort but he had always been fairly responsible, so I didn’t worry too much. I didn’t realize the extent of the damage done to him, though.

He cried hysterically when he talked about the senior pastor yelling at him when everything fell apart. It must’ve been awful for him to go through that and then see the guy up in the pulpit on Sunday mornings talking about how Christians should encourage each other and bear each other’s burdens.

“Church is a haven; a place of rest,” the minister had told his congregation. That’s a fine thing to say in public. Too bad he couldn’t have practiced what he preached.

By the time he turned to me, Bradley’s wife had long divorced him. He was greatly diminished as a person and nearly annihilated as a minister. I never went to his church. I just couldn’t do it. I had thought to myself that he was so happy and anxious to do a good job, especially in those early days. I guess they thought that’s who he would always be.

He went through so much. I wanted to tell his church friends that, but I could already see the critical looks that would be on their faces if I tried to talk to them about their hypocrisy and unfairness to this man who gave his life to their service. But I would be wasting my breath because I know how church people are. They’re scared! Plus, I knew they would never admit they had been wrong to fire my brother at such an awful time in his life, even if they sort of believed it in their hearts.

Not long after he was fired, we found out he had a brain tumor. Stage three brain cancer. I don’t think I have ever felt so sorry for anyone in my life as I felt for Bradley during that time. Not one of the church leaders that he had looked up to all those years took the time to visit him or even call him. He had a broken heart along with that brain tumor.

Even after he came through that horrific disease, he was constantly pulled back to the torment of what had happened at church. I listened patiently to every story that tumbled from his lips. He explained just how petty things had gotten before he left, such as how he had left a message from one of the members for the senior pastor on a sticky note.

He put his head in his hands and sobbed.

“Well, tell me the rest, Bradley,” I said, because I couldn’t imagine how that had been wrong.

“He screamed at me for leaving messages on post-it notes!” This big man just crumpled in front of me. He dropped his head back in his hands and cried.

It took everything in me not to go give that pastor a piece of my mind, but it would’ve been pointless. I could see all the church people standing there against me; against poor Bradley. It was so senseless, all of it. The people who should have been there for my brother deserted him at the worst possible time. And they couldn’t ever be sorry because they couldn’t admit they were wrong.

So it was Bradley who had to change and accept things, and the church people would not be held accountable for their actions, at least not in this world. I tried to take deep breaths when I spoke with my brother so I didn’t explode. I wanted to keep my voice calm because he was already so visibly shaken much of the time. I watched him disintegrate and I didn’t know what to do.

After a while, I knew all of it backward and forward. Months went by, maybe a year. I heard the story over and over until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I knew it was time for him to move on, but he couldn’t.

One Saturday afternoon, I went in Bradley’s room and pulled up the blinds to let the sun shine in. He was still in bed. He groaned and rolled over, away from the light. I told him I wanted him to get up, get dressed, and go somewhere. I didn’t care where, just somewhere.

It was then I noticed the bottle of pills on his nightstand. He didn’t leave his room much, but when he finally went for a shower, I went in and looked at them. Whatever it was, he had 90 of them.

To see us standing next to each other, someone might think the athletically built Bradley was the strong one; the one who could handle the vicissitudes of life. And I would be seen as the opposite, with my thin bone structure, pale appearance, and shy demeanor. Bradley never had much of anything go wrong in his life, whereas I was bullied relentlessly in school. I watched him all throughout high school. Although I didn’t envy him, I did want to understand him, so I stood on the sidelines and paid attention. He and the other football players punched each other in the arms. They talked about which cheerleader they were going to take out on Friday night, and they chatted about the game the week before.

My brother is a people pleaser–always has been. When he had the beautiful wife from Italy on his arm, he looked like the picture of success. I think in his early adulthood, he thought he was still on that football field and he could still hear the cheering. Then it all went away and he crumbled.

I felt sorry for him at first, but after a while, it got old. I heard the story too many times. Finally, I just couldn’t listen to it anymore. I know he felt that there was no one left in the world who cared.

Last night, I had had too much. He followed me down the hall screaming, “They told me I could never make another mistake!” I looked at him with disgust. He was disgusting to me now.

“Get over it, Bradley,” I said as I closed the door in his face.

He yelled at the top of his lungs for what seemed like hours. He beat on my locked door and cried and begged me to not leave him alone. I tried to burrow more deeply into my bed. I couldn’t stand to hear any of it again. I ignored his pleas. And, finally, he cried himself out and went back to his room.

To be continued….

_________________________________

Eliot Gregory is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. For him, writing is an exploration in human emotion and action. He has been writing for his own enrichment for more than 20 years. Thankfully, upon gentle encouragement from others, he decided to share some of his favorites with us.

An Evening on Jupiter Island

By Alexander Dominick

My favorite nickname for Jupiter Island is “God’s Clipper Club.” It’s the place where old people go in the winter–to visit their parents.  Situated about 40 miles north of West Palm Beach and nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Inland Waterway, Jupiter Island has served as a winter home for many of America’s wealthiest families since the creation of the Jupiter Island Club by the Reed family in the 1950’s. The island can be reached on the south side from the town of Jupiter, or from the north through the smaller town of Tequesta. From the Tequesta side you cross a drawbridge that spans the Inland Waterway. There are always a few thin old men dangling fishing lines over the bridge, day or night, sitting on overturned bait buckets, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, passing time.

Once on the island, giant ocean pine trees bracket the narrow avenue, arching over the road and darkening it as if you were entering a cathedral.

My parents began to winter there in the mid-70s. My father suffered from late-onset multiple sclerosis, and my mother took care of him for the last and worst six years of either of their lives. How they got there is irrelevant to the telling of this story. What is relevant is to understand the people who inhabit this island.

The vast majority are American royalty, born to wealth, sent to the best schools and the best universities, groomed for a lifetime of privilege, and well aware of their exalted status in society. There is never any question about the “rightness” or fairness of this good fortune. That certainty of position permeates everything on the island. The signs of wealth and privilege are everywhere. All the houses have names discreetly displayed by the driveways. They are immaculately kept, and most of them exude that air of simple elegance that is expected of a winter home. (Some of the “newer” people have had the gall to build giant compounds, great walled fortresses that shriek nouveau riche, but they are the minority and only marginally tolerated by the Old Guard. It’ll be a long, long time before they’ll gain membership at the Yacht Club.)

The police are extremely polite. One evening as I walked to the beach from my parents’ home, a cruiser stopped and the patrolman inquired if I needed any assistance or if he could give me a ride. This after making sure I actually belonged, of course.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of status is the style of dress. Plaid pants, citrus-colored shirts, white shoes–all very common attire. My mother wanted to buy me a mustard colored blazer, a Brooks Brothers shirt and a navy blue tie with ducks on it for the “Young People’s Dance,” but I was able to escape with only the tie. As a postscript, this dance is open to all the children of club members, as long as they are younger than 40.

Fast forward to 2002. My father died in 1981, and my mother has aged beautifully, living to an age that no one else in her immediate family has ever reached. She is in a remarkably healthy state of mind, spirit and body. She continues to winter on the island and summer in Colorado, driving herself back and forth cross-country every year. She lives alone in a secluded house in south Denver, and is also alone but slightly less secluded in her house on the island. She has the wonderful gift of being able to listen and relate to everyone. All of my visits to her home there have been punctuated by her friends’ declarations that, “Your mother is the most popular woman on the whole island.”

One of her dearest friends is a woman named Martha, the proprietress of the local antique store who recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Martha is a Southern woman who came of age in Knoxville. She is fully armed with the weaponry bestowed on all Southern society women. She is also remarkably healthy, with one glaring exception: she is 95% deaf, even when wearing hearing aids. Still, she drives all over the island, seeing friends, playing bridge, dining out and managing a store full of merchandise that she personally selects at antique markets in England during the summer.

Another dear friend is Emmy, a woman of indeterminate age who stands erect and shines the light of Northern aristocracy from her piercing blue eyes. One can see by the “cut of her jib” that she’s a Yankee through and through: tall, spare, charming when she wants to be, with rapier-quick reflexes when meting out judgments on social inappropriateness. Emmy too appears very healthy, playing tennis regularly, appearing at social events and quickly becoming the center of attention by both her demeanor and her striking appearance. Again though, there is one small glitch: in spite of her healthful appearance, Emmy’s mental faculties have jumped ship. She is increasingly unable to remember where she is, where she is supposed to be, or what she should be doing at any given moment.

On a recent visit to the island, my brother Michael and I were privy to a very amusing evening. Mom had invited Martha for dinner. I had met Martha and socialized with her over the years, and knew her to be charming, witty, gracious, and very, very funny. Michael had also become acquainted with her and had been the recipient of her generous offering of two unused bicycles for his young daughters when they were visiting their “Mimi” on school vacations. We all looked forward to spending a quiet evening at home with this special friend. Neither Michael nor I was aware of the extent of her hearing loss, however.

At the appointed hour, Martha screeched to a stop in her gray Volvo station wagon, spraying gravel across the front lawn. She parked in front of the house, maneuvered out of the driver’s seat with assistance from her cane, and came to the door. She came in loud, a preemptive strike against having to be at the disadvantage of not hearing what we were saying.

“I’M SO FLATTERED TO BE INVITED TO YOUR MOTHER’S HOUSE!” she yelled. “SHE’S THE MOST POPULAR WOMAN ON THE ISLAND, YOU KNOW!”

The tactic worked. Michael and I, stunned by the volume, backed away and made hand gestures to her to show her that we’d like her to come in and sit down in the living room. Mom came out from the kitchen to join us in greeting her and was treated to a similar onslaught.

“I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU INCLUDED ME IN THIS, NANCY! IMAGINE, ME HAVING DINNER AT YOUR HOUSE, ALONG WITH YOUR TWO HANDSOME SONS!”

Mom laughed, welcomed her, and offered her something to drink. Martha just stared at her. Mom repeated the offer, this time with an empty glass in her hand.

“A GLASS OF ICE TEA WOULD BE WONDERFUL, THANK YOU!”

Mom went into the kitchen to get Martha her drink, leaving Michael and me to entertain.

My opener: “How have you been, Martha? You look wonderful!”

“I JUST TALKED TO MY SON, IN KNOXVILLE! YOU KNOW, SOMETHING BIG IS GOING TO HAPPEN THERE THAT NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT YET! I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO SAY ANYTHING!”

Michael and I looked at each other. It was his turn.

“We went by the store to see you yesterday, but you weren’t there.”

Martha just stared at him.

Just then, as Mom arrived from the kitchen with Martha’s ice tea, Emmy came blasting through the front door.

“Hi everyone!” she called out gaily.

“Hi, Emmy,” we called back. Michael and I scrambled to our feet.

Martha yelled from her seat, “IS SHE INVITED TOO?”

Awkwardly, we all stood there, except for Martha, who was comfortably installed on the sofa and wasn’t in the least interested in otherwise acknowledging the new arrival.

Mom, slightly flustered at the unexpected guest, quickly recovered and said, “Emmy, dear!  You look wonderful, but we weren’t expecting you!”

Emmy’s look of confidence was immediately replaced with one of self-doubt and embarrassment.

“Oh dear,” she said. “Am I supposed to be somewhere else? I thought I was supposed to come here.”

“Well I don’t know, dearie. I saw you earlier today playing tennis with the Bishops, and I know they are having a dinner party tonight. Were you maybe supposed to be over there, do you think?” Mom was trying to be gentle, as Emmy was becoming increasingly distraught. Martha sat and waited.

Mom offered to call the Bishop house to see whether Emmy was indeed supposed to be their dinner guest.  Michael, Emmy, and I stood in the entryway. Emmy made little half-laugh noises to try to cover her anxiety. Michael and I tried to make some small talk to put her more at ease. Martha, in her sofa seat, sat and waited.

Sure enough, Mom came back with the news that Emmy was expected at the Bishop party—but rather than leave, Emmy hesitated, shuffling her feet a little and biting her index finger.  The anxiety was palpable.

“I don’t think I remember how to get there,” she stammered.

“Dearie, it’s the house right around the corner,” Mom replied. But it was obvious that Emmy had no idea how to get anywhere, much less “around the corner” in the dark. “Would you like me to lead you there?” Mom offered.

“Oh would you please, Nance?” she asked, almost out of breath. She glanced at Michael and me, standing behind our mother. “She’s the most popular woman on the island, you know.”

As they were going out the front door to Mom’s car, Martha yelled, “THAT WOMAN STAYS AND STAYS!”

While Mom was taking Emmy to her dinner party around the corner, Michael and I resumed our conversation with Martha. Having learned, we started off each salvo at high volume, making sure to have direct eye contact with Martha. Sometimes that worked, and she answered the correct question.  Sometimes she answered a question she thought we’d asked, at length. Other times, she’d just look at us, turn her head slightly to her right and mutter, “Well….”

It was going to be a long night.

Mom returned a few minutes later. She apologized to us all for having had to leave and expressed her concern for poor Emmy. Then she ushered us into the kitchen for dinner.

The meal consisted of some kind of chicken patties that had been mixed with herbs and spices and cooked with a cream sauce, string beans, and wild rice. While she was facing the stove, she said, “Martha eats like a horse, so I’ll give her two of these patties.” She knew, of course, that Martha wouldn’t hear her.

Martha did, in fact, eat like a horse. While we were trying to talk, yelling across the tiny table in the kitchen, Martha methodically dissected and devoured the food on her plate.

“NANCY THIS IS DELICIOUS! DID YOU MAKE THIS? WHAT IS IT?”

WHAT? CHICKEN?”

“WHERE’D YOU GET IT?”

WHERE? IT’S THE BEST CHICKEN I EVER TASTED.”

And then, “I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO SAY ANYTHING, BUT MY SON TOLD ME TODAY THAT GEORGE BUSH IS COMING TO VISIT KNOXVILLE NEXT WEEK.” She bellowed it with a conspiratorial wink.  “NOBODY KNOWS IT YET!”

Everyone within a three-mile radius now knew that George Bush would be in Knoxville the following week.

I watched as the food disappeared into her mouth, fascinated in particular, to see the way she slowly sucked in the green beans. I was reminded how an iguana might look, sitting on a hot rock in the Arizona desert devouring its prey.

After a few more minutes of idle, wall-shaking chitchat, Martha made her goodbyes and once again sprayed gravel from the driveway as she headed into the otherwise quiet darkness of Jupiter Island.

It seemed especially quiet after she left, and it took several minutes for the island’s equilibrium to ease its way back into our conscience, but once it did I recognized the quietly respectful symphony of night critters, as if they too were aware of the storied population and history of their human neighbors.

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Alexander Dominick is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. More bio information to come!

Jewel

By Eliot Gregory

Jewel pulled her cloth coat closer around her and braced herself for the north Texas midnight wind. She carried her purse beneath her coat in case anybody got any ideas about trying to take it.

She had to walk two unlighted blocks to get to the Harbrick Company, a cotton gin that had hired her reluctantly, and only after her father had talked to the owner. It was a dull job but that might be for the best. She had not finished high school and she knew a lot of girls dropped out of school if the right man came along.

Under her breath, she said a quick prayer for Louise, “Lord, please watch over Louise while I am at work. Keep her safe and let her sleep.”

Louise was her 8-year-old daughter. Jewel had had to leave her that night in her apartment by herself. She had explained to Louise that she had to take whatever job was offered, even though it might not be ideal.

As always, she went over the rules with Louise before she left the house. “Keep the lights off, don’t answer the door no matter who it is. This door is opened only for me when I get back from work in the morning.”

As she rounded the corner of the Harbrick Company, she came upon two teenaged boys leaning against the brick wall.

“Hey baby, where you goin’ on such a cold dark night?”

Jewel’s pulse raced but she kept a steady pace and walked past them. In less than a minute, she was at her work station inside the company. She smiled at Gertrude who stood across from her. The bell whistled and the cotton bolls came down the conveyor belts. She and Gertrude were the first ones in  line to grab  cotton bolls and separate the cotton from the seeds.

She was glad she wasn’t the last worker on the line. The last workers were often yelled at by Mr. Fisk, the manager. She had never seen Mr. Fisk actually do anything. It was his job to stand at the end of the conveyer belt and see that no seeds were mixed in with the cotton that fell on to the next conveyer belt. It was a job he was born for. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest and a disappointed look on his face.

Even though it was cold outside, it got hot in the building. Workers were never allowed to turn on the air conditioner in the summer or the heater in the winter. Those decisions were made by the men who sat at big desks with their cowboy booted feet crossed on top of the desks leaning back in their easy chairs while smoking a cigar.

Jewel and Gertrude didn’t get to talk much because it was too loud. It wasn’t worth the effort. They each got a ten minute break every three hours. It was only long enough to go to the one restroom in the building, and there was always a line. Jewel often looked at her watch and weighed the time it would take her to get back to her work station. Mr. Fisk made checkmarks by the names of workers who were even a few seconds late getting back to their stations. She certainly did not want any checkmarks by her name.

She thought how, under different circumstances, she and Gertrude might be housewives visiting back and forth between houses, their children playing together, family barbecues on Sundays. It was best not to think of “what-ifs.”  She was living in the real world where she had to leave her child alone at night to make a meager living for them.

She had been the envy of all the girls when she announced her engagement to Homer Martin. She was 16 when he pledged his undying love for her in the Baptist Church where she had grown up. Now she felt like crying when she thought of him. For her husband, there was always another party, always another woman. He heard distant music and couldn’t be tied down with a wife and daughter. Jewel never saw him as an enemy, but she did feel betrayed by him. He had loved her and made her feel happy, as if all her dreams were coming true.

She wondered if he ever thought about her or about Louise. He never sent his daughter any birthday cards or Christmas presents. She probably couldn’t even find him if she needed him. But then, she couldn’t imagine why she would ever need him. She didn’t know where he lived or if he was happy. She wanted to think that maybe he sometimes had a sad pensive moment when he thought about his own past, the family he made.

She felt sad when she thought of how quickly her charmed life had gone away when she married Homer. She felt so many possibilities in life, and then, like a dream it had all gone away. Being married  wasn’t as much fun as she had thought it might be. Her father had worked as an accountant at the Bells Cotton Gin. He was a deacon in the Baptist Church there. He brought his paycheck home every Friday night and handed it to Momma. How was Jewel to know this was not the way of all men?

She couldn’t let her mind go off on these tangents. She had to just accept her life and focus on her work at the cotton gin. This was her life. She wouldn’t get another chance. Her efforts had to be for Louise. She was 25 years old and, as she tried to push away the past, her future telescoped before her and made her tired.

Sometimes when she was daydreaming as she picked at the cotton bolls, she would think that someday Homer would realize what he had given up. She liked to think that he would come crawling back to her and Louise and beg her forgiveness. But she wouldn’t take him back, not after all of this. She wasn’t seeking retribution and she didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, but she could never feel anything but sadness and betrayal when she thought of him.

Louise looked a lot like her dad, but Jewel didn’t hold it against her. That little girl was the reason Jewel got up in the morning, the reason she worked at this awful job, the reason she lived in the best apartment she could afford. When she had a day off from the cotton gin, she would usually sew a new outfit for Louise.  She didn’t want her daughter to suffer or go without just because her father was a lout.

All of Jewel’s sisters had married much nicer men. It made her wonder how she could be so fooled? Poppa had not liked Homer, but her father wasn’t the kind to interfere if they loved each other. Momma had gone to bed for several days when Jewel quit school to marry Homer. Her mother didn’t handle things well. She could afford to not handle things well because her dad was there to pick up the slack. Jewel realized with stark clarity that she could not afford this luxury.

As she rifled through all her old memories and daydreams, one particular scenario played out in her mind and brought a smile to her face. In it, Homer was old and lying in a hospital bed. Jewel, being the kind good Christian woman that she was, would go to visit him and, from his bed he would cry and say, “Oh, Jewel, I’ve been such a fool! How could I have lived like this?”  He would beg Jewel for one more chance, but without much emotion, Jewel would say, “I don’t think so, Homer.”

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Eliot Gregory is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. We look forward to hearing more from him in the coming weeks and months.

Spanish Flu

By Eliot Gregory

It was December 3, 1918. William stood in the snow with stinging pellets of sleet slashing his face. Although he wore a wool coat, gloves, and a warm scarf around his neck, nothing could stop his shaking.

He took a moment to lean on the shovel. The sky seemed to be glowering at him in anger. There was no sense in what had happened. He wanted to shake his fist at God. He had always served God and he was a good man. He knew he was. Shouldn’t these things happen to scoundrels and wicked people? Not him.

Now he wasn’t even sure there was a God. Why would God let this happen?

His thoughts turned to the day he and Annabelle had gotten married. It was the happiest day of his life. She was beautiful and she was his. That had been less than a year ago. Things had seemed so happy and bright. He had looked at her with awe that such a beautiful woman would even look twice at him. It was still hard for him to believe that she loved him.

He pushed on the shovel and tried to push those thoughts from his mind. He couldn’t think about it right now. He pushed again and again but the ground was too hard to break up. It was frozen. He stood on the shovel but made only small indentions in the ground. He reached up and wiped sweat off his forehead. He knew he would probably be sick, too. He couldn’t help wishing that he, too, could be carried away by the Spanish flu. Maybe it could still happen. He didn’t want to go on living without them.

He had contacted several grave diggers, but none of them were available. They were either trying to nurse someone in their own family or they had this awful flu themselves. Who knew that something like this would come and take everything away from him?

He should not have been so happy, he told himself. He shouldn’t have allowed himself to be so taken by the baby. Maybe God was mad at him for loving Annabelle and the baby too much.

When little Henry had been born, no one was ever as happy as he and Annabelle had been. They took him everywhere with them. Henry was such a good baby. He didn’t cry and take on like some babies at church.  Annabelle was very discreet and kept a blanket over her chest when she nursed him. Everything about Annabelle was first rate. He sometimes worried that he wasn’t good enough for Annabelle.

Fresh tears ran down his face as he pictured his baby son. The tears froze into icicles against his face. Little Henry had begun smiling at William when he was a little over a month old. At first he and Annabelle had thought the baby had gas, but no, he was overjoyed at the sight of his father when he came home at the end of the day. William would sit in the chair by the fireplace in the small kitchen and hold the baby while Annabelle finished cooking supper.

He and Annabelle had named the baby Henry after his grandfather. It made him so happy that Annabelle wanted to name the baby for the grandfather he had loved so much. Having that sweet baby named after him was almost too much happiness for one man. He had been 21 when he and Annabelle married. By 22, he had everything he had ever dreamed of having, and then so quickly he lost it all. The rest of his life looked bleak and hopeless.

When he had been a child, he often spent time with his grandfather. He loved listening to the old man’s stories about the good ole days. Sometimes his grandfather would tell him something sad about his own life. It was hard for William to imagine his grandfather ever playing any role in life except being his grandparent. He tried to think of what his grandfather might have been like as a child.

If only he could go and talk to his Granddad Henry about all this. It wouldn’t make it go away, but he would feel a little less burdened. He knew he couldn’t talk to him ever again. It was too sad to think about. Wherever Granddad was his heart must be breaking, too, because they had loved each other so dearly. William would’ve given up everything he owned to bring any of them back. Even as he thought it, though, he realized he was asking for the impossible.

It seemed  an intolerable cruelty that he had to dig the grave that would hold the two people he loved most in the world. He wondered what he had done to deserve it.

People all over the village were screaming and crying in anguish at the death of another beloved relative. He didn’t want to hear them. He had heard enough screaming and crying to last the rest of his life.

He and Annabelle had held little Henry over a steaming pot of water on the stove. Henry coughed so deeply and even in the beginning, it made William  shake when he felt the cough that rattled his son so deeply. Then one night William went to check on Henry in his  sleep and, well, he couldn’t dwell on that. No amount of grieving would bring him back.

Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, Annabelle came down with the same thing. She had cried and wailed when the baby died, but William couldn’t comfort her because he was wailing on the inside. Annabelle lived 36 hours after Henry died.

William thought about the Black Plague that had decimated entire families all those years ago in Europe. In the night, wagons would go up and down the streets and carters yelled for people to throw out their dead. Bodies of the dead  were taken to a common grave outside of town and dumped in with all the other bodies. He felt sick when he pictured people being dumped in with other dead bodies just because no one had the time to grieve or to move on. He could do precious little for Annabelle and the baby now, but he would see that they had a proper grave, and a headstone.

He had sent his brother a telegram to tell him what had happened.  It said:  “Wife and baby both dead STOP.  Come if you can. STOP.

Some people in the community didn’t bother with funerals. William wanted Annabelle and Henry to have a nice service. He was burying them together.

He looked again at the sky that that was still spitting snow at him. Slowly the hole in the ground that would receive the bodies of his beloved Annabelle and his two-month-old son began to take shape. The afternoon was colder and darker as he chipped away at the graves, but he knew he could not stop because if he did, he might never be able to start again.

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Eliot Gregory is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. We look forward to hearing more from him in the coming weeks and months.

Raining in My Mind

By Eliot Gregory

I listened to the puddles of rain splashing up underneath the car as we drove down the highway.  The sky was pewter and looked as if it might rain some more. It was a fitting day to be going where I was going.

George drove. Our friend, Doris, sat in the passenger seat of the car. My car. It seemed appropriate for me to sit in the backseat of my own car, representative of my life. I was no longer in the driver’s seat. Frankly, it was a relief to let them make decisions for me.

“It’s so nice to be insane, no one asks you to explain.” This line kept going through my head in a loop, over and over. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it–perhaps it was part of a song, or maybe just something I had read–but all I could remember was that one line.

I wasn’t insane, though. I was a drug addict. And no one was more surprised than me.

In high school, drug addicts were brought in to speak about the horrors of addiction. I usually read a book during these testimonials. None of it applied to me. I was smarter than that. Now, though, every time I heard the word addiction I cringed.

It was April 20, 2011. Doris knew a psychologist in the next town and after months of pleading, she and George had finally talked me into going for an appointment. Just one visit, they said. Doris set everything up and scheduled it.

When I heard her say the date, it the first thing that came to mind was that it was Hitler’s birthday. I knew I shouldn’t think about that, but it had to be a bad omen. I was certain that a normal  person would think of something happier and lighter. Instead, I thought about how Hitler and all of his SS officers carried cyanide capsules in their socks and were expected to use them in emergencies. I wondered how I could get cyanide. I’d have to find it in another form instead of a capsule because I can’t swallow capsules.

The idea was intriguing, though. I doubted I could order it on the internet. I’d heard it was a very quick death, though I couldn’t remember whether the word painless was used when describing such deaths. I just didn’t know. Was it painful? I wasn’t that much into pain.

The idea blossomed in my head, gaining steam with each mile passed on the road to the psychologist’s office. I knew I couldn’t look it up on my home computer. It would be recorded that I had searched for the information. I could go to the library if I could get myself together. I wondered if that kind of death would look like a heart attack. Heart attacks were prominent in my family. I had to make sure there was no curiosity by investigators as to the cause of my death.

My twin brother Bradley recently recovered from a very deadly form of leukemia. We have always been close and his potential death was too much for me to handle. I was still surprised that he was alive, quite frankly. I remember walking the halls of the hospital wringing my hands when I thought he was dying. It was such a painful thing to watch. Too painful. More than once I stared out from the fifth floor railing that opened onto the atrium below. It would be quick, I thought. But what if five floors up wasn’t quite enough?

It was the worst time of my life watching my twin suffer and nearly die. For 25 years I had worked as a teaching assistant in the same school. I thought I was surrounded by loving people who cared for my family and me. Of all people, I thought they would understand. They didn’t. Instead, they fired me.

I often told myself as I opened the tranquilizer bottle that anyone in my circumstances would do what I was doing. There was no other way to get through it.

George turned into the parking lot of the psychologist’s office. My stomach turned to ice. It was the last place I wanted to go.

I thought fondly of Dr. Lemon, my former psychologist. I  hadn’t seen her in almost 15  years, but we had stayed close through letters and email. All the time that Bradley was in the hospital fighting for his life, I felt her near me, but the idea of seeing her during that time was too much. I just couldn’t get myself together enough to call her. I smiled as I thought of her and how I almost hadn’t gone to that first appointment just because of the psychologist’s name!

Then it was too late. She was gone. She was 88 when she passed away. I was lost without her in the world.

“It’s time to go in!” Doris said as she got out of the car a little too loudly. Her voice could really be obnoxious sometimes. I sat in the backseat clutching the armrest and seat padding. It was drizzling, but my resistance had nothing to do with the rain. I just didn’t want to go in. George opened the back door and urged me to get out with the look that always won any argument. I did.

We walked through the light spring rain and I noticed that on the window of the psychologist’s office were the letters spelling his name, Robert McGill, followed by a series of letters indicating his education and licensing.

It’s supposed to assure people that he was licensed, I thought. I wouldn’t have known the difference. I didn’t care how many licenses he had. I just wanted to go home!

The waiting room was not what I expected. It had three hard wooden chairs  that looked as if they were carved out of a tree. I thought there was probably a good reason not to have comfortable chairs in the waiting room. People wouldn’t loiter then. There were magazine racks filled with Cowboys and Indians magazines. I had never heard of a magazine devoted to Cowboys and Indians, at least not since I was a boy, but Doris picked one up and started reading it as if my world wasn’t falling apart.

Dr. Lemon  would be so sorry for me if she could see me now, sitting in some strange psychologist’s waiting room in a total panic.

Then the door to the inner sanctum opened, and Dr. Robert McGill asked us all in. I  kept reminding myself that it was just this one time, just to make Doris and George happy. Doris had told me that the good doctor had gone to the same grade school I had. She probably thought I would be more eager to go to the appointment knowing this, but I wasn’t.

I had a vague memory of Dr. Robert McGill. He was a jock and jocks like him made fun of me. In fact, somewhere in the back of my memories, I was pretty sure we had a schoolyard altercation. It was almost a daily event in my life back then. As I sat in the chair he offered, I hoped he wouldn’t remember me.

Even without that horrible nightmare of a memory, I could tell immediately that he was someone who could never understand me. Few people did. Doris is case in point. She had obviously made a mistake. I couldn’t tell this man anything at all about my life. I had asked to see a lady psychologist and here I got Dr. Cowboys and Indians. It was clear that he was light years apart in thought patterns and lifestyle from me. I sighed loudly to let Doris know my first impression. It was turning into more of a disaster with each minute that ticked by.

Doris handed him my bag of pills. He made a big effort to pick it up, acting as if it was the heaviest bag he had ever lifted. I watched him warily as he picked up each bottle and commented on its use. I felt attacked.   Finally, he put the bag down and looked over at me, tired.

“I see that you are going to Dr. Marvin?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, my voice shaking more than I wanted it to.

“Do you need all these pills?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. I shifted in my seat and felt lightheaded.

From the look in his eyes, I could tell he was angry. Maybe I should have said no? Instinctively I leaned more toward George as the doctor continued.

“I have seen so many people whose lives have been ruined by this man,” said the doctor, clearly furious.

I was flabbergasted. Couldn’t he see that I would not still be alive if I hadn’t had those pills to blot out some of the pain? Suddenly, I was the one that was angry. I didn’t like this man putting down my medical doctor. Dr. Marvin understood how horrible life can be. He helped people get through the unbearable times. I felt the need to defend him right then and there.

“Dr. Marvin didn’t put those pills in my mouth! I did that myself!” That told him!

“He sure set the table though, didn’t he?” shot back Dr. McGill with lightning speed. He burned red and nearly rose from his chair in anger.

I had no answer.

He sat in the center of the room in a chair with a word processor from the 80s balanced on his thighs. His thoughts seemed suddenly far away. The timbre of his voice softened as he asked other questions, but I could tell there was another not so comforting voice just underneath.

It didn’t matter, I thought, because I had just made up my mind. I was never going back there. I was there in the first place because of Doris and George, but it was the last time I would ever be in that office.

In my mind, I  could hear Dr. Lemon’s voice saying, “Run! Run as fast as you can!”

As I stood up to go, Dr. McGill asked if  I could come back the following week.

I said, “Sure.” There was no conviction in my voice, no real commitment. I said it knowing I would cancel the appointment later.

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Eliot Gregory is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. We look forward to hearing more from him in the coming weeks and months.