Spirits In The Wind

By Karen Brode

“Karen,” said the strained voice on the other end of the line. “I need to see you.”

I knew the voice well. It was my brother, John, but the urgency and fear in his voice made me shudder. Before I said anything, my thoughts immediately jumped to the worst conclusions—cancer, accident, death.

“What is it?” I asked. “Are you okay? How’s Jan? Is she hurt?”

“It’s nothing like that,” he said, resuming his usual gruff tone. “It’s…it’s something I can’t talk about on the phone.”

I could almost feel him looking around to see if someone was watching. Now I wondered if he had committed some horrid crime. My hands broke out into a sweat and the earpiece of the phone receiver stuck to my ear from perspiration.

“What did you do, John?” I asked. My voice trembled imagining what he had done.

“Nothing!” he said. “I just…it’s just…I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

I paced a hole in the floor in the time it took my brother to get to my house. When he banged on the door, I jumped. By then, I was a complete wreck. I had told myself that I would demand him to tell me what had happened before letting him in my house. If he had committed a crime, he could be endangering me or my husband by making us accessories. And I didn’t want to go to jail.

But when I opened the door, the shell of my brother stood before me. His face was pale and clammy. I couldn’t utter a single word looking at him.

He didn’t wait for an invitation, either. He pushed past me into the living room and sat down in the green chair he always favored when he visited. He leaned his head back and let out a long sigh.

“They were all in that wind,” he said.

“What wind?” I asked. “Who?” I was at a complete loss where he was going with this.

“Look outside!” he said.

I pulled the curtain from the picture window that looked out onto the street.

“I don’t see any wind,” I said. I was beginning to think maybe John had lost it. Or maybe he was on something?

“Exactly,” he said. “And what month is it?”

“John, this is ridiculous. Just tell me what’s going on.”

He bolted up in his chair and said, “It’s August!”

I just stared at him. I didn’t know where this was going and why he was so upset.

“August in North Texas isn’t exactly known for its cold wind, is it?” He leaned back in the chair as if he had just clarified everything.

“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” I said.

He nodded and closed his eyes.

“You know that property I bought from you?” he asked.

I nodded, but didn’t say anything.

How could I forget? It was my share of the old homestead our grandparents had left us in their wills. And John had essentially badgered me out of my share for a price I would never have taken from anyone else. He knew no one wanted to fight with him. He was so blustery and his threats seemed real when he made them. So, everyone in the family just gave in before things got ugly, even if it meant giving up a piece of good land at a bad price.

My silence made him open his eyes and he glared at me, thinking I hadn’t answered his question.

“Yes, John, I know the property you bought.”

“Our grandparents’ homestead,” he said, as if I needed reminding.

“Yes.”

“Well, did you know that the old home place burned last night?”

“I heard something about it, yes,” I said. I had also heard that John had arranged for the house to be burned down. It was just too coincidental that the house burned almost immediately after he assumed ownership. It seemed clear to me that he didn’t want the house. He wanted the proceeds from the insurance company.

John leaned forward in his chair. “The whole place is gone,” he said. “All those family times we had…now all that’s left is a pile of smoldering ashes and the old chimney.”

His voice shook a little when he talked.

“I thought I was going to cry when I saw it,” he continued. I noticed his hands were shaking when he lowered his head and covered his eyes with them.

I pictured it as he described, a chimney just standing there like a sentinel in the remains of the house. I remembered when they had built a sidewalk from the front porch steps to the road, and I thought of what the sidewalk must look like now, a sidewalk to nowhere. I supposed the storm cellar was still there, also. I could picture in my mind how desolate it must look.

John had raised his head and shook out a cigarette from his pack. He looked around for an ashtray.

“I don’t have one.” I reminded him.

He sat with the cigarette between his fingers and his eyes seemed to lose focus, like they were looking at something distant, some memory.

“When I drove up in front of what was left of the house,” he said, “I couldn’t believe it! This was the house they loved.”

I nodded. “They had loved that home,” I said.

“I cried, Karen!” He seemed almost in tears now, which was enough of a shock by itself. “I don’t think I can go back down there ever again!”

“I might go down there later,” I told him, just trying to calm him down. I had no desire to see the way it looked now, but I didn’t want him to know that, so I added, “I don’t want to see it right now, though.”

John fell back against the back of the chair and looked up at the ceiling.

“I got out of the car,” he went on. His voice sounded dry. “I stood there at the edge of the road, but I couldn’t make myself go any closer.”

“I understand all this, John, but you seemed urgent on the phone. Was it about the fire?”

He turned his head and looked at me. “Then the wind came.”

“What wind?” I was starting to get impatient.

He turned his face away from me. He was crying. He was never one to show emotion, at least nothing like fear or sadness. I thought about how our mother used to fret over the fact that he wasn’t like other kids. His emotions were so buried inside him—all except anger. He didn’t want the kind of hugs and cuddles I adored from our mother. And he definitely didn’t care if anyone approved of him—not like me. It upset me terribly if our mother was mad at me. John, though, he would do the most horrible things and never apologize for them. So, to see him crying now worried me.

I waited for him to answer, but he didn’t right away. He wouldn’t look at me. He stood up, walked to the window, and looked outside. He seemed to be checking if someone was coming for him.

Finally, he dropped the curtain and looked over at me. The tears had all but dried from his eyes.

“That wind came out of nowhere,” he said. “It was cold and it completely surrounded me.” He lifted his arms out and made a motion to demonstrate how the wind circled around him.

“It enveloped me and then,” he snapped his fingers. “As fast as it had come, it was gone.”

He leaned in closer and said in a low voice, “Karen I think they were all in that wind.”

I blinked back at him and tried not to smile. What he said sounded crazy.

“You think Granddaddy and Grandmother were in the wind?” I managed to keep the giggles from bubbling to my mouth.

The look John gave me made me hiccup. He was completely serious, almost terrified.

“All of them, Karen. Every last one of them who had lived and loved in that house. They were all in that wind.”

I took a deep breath. It was only wind, I thought. As nervous as John was making me, I reminded myself that at least he hadn’t robbed a bank or killed somebody. It was just the wind.

But John wasn’t finished.

“I’m telling you, it wasn’t just a normal wind,” he said. “There were presences in that wind. And…and they are all mad at me!” He looked away from me, back outside, and whispered, “They think I am a fool.”

Hometown But Not Home

By Eliot Gregory

After so many years away, I was back in my hometown. I didn’t know if anyone would remember me. I sort of hoped they wouldn’t. I liked the idea of being a bit invisible.

This was where Bradley and I had grown up. We were fraternal twins and there could not have been two people in the world who were less alike than my brother and I. It often seemed like our birth and childhood had been a cosmic joke.

Bradley had been a football player in high school and he looked like it. At six foot two with eyes of blue he was the stereotypical heartthrob quarterback that everyone worshipped.

No one worshipped me. I was almost the exact opposite of my brother. I was tall, but not as tall as Bradley. I had a ruddy complexion with dishwater blonde hair. While Bradley was the picture of American masculinity, I was wispy and thin. Perhaps the biggest difference of all, at least to our parents, was that I was gay and he wasn’t.

As you might imagine, high school was not something I wished to prolong, whereas Bradley’s glory days were those between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was king of the varsity team. At the time, I was jealous of him for all the admiration he had, but as time went by, I watched how fervently he clung to those memories, as if time might possibly stand still and he could relive them again one day.

That never happened, of course, and everything else that came after it paled by comparison. None of his wives lived up to the girls he had dated in high school, even though at least two of them had been girls he had dated in high school. Eventually, even his children left him as he slipped into middle age and held on to the dreams of a boy.

Even though I had been only a shadow in his life when we were kids, it still hurt me in a primal way to see Bradley suffer as an adult. His failures led to addictions and, before it was all over, the failures won. They were larger and heavier than the few victories he’d had in his youth. I watched my brother give up. He stumbled down life’s road and stopped caring anymore about anything.

I would never have wanted that for him, not ever. But I’ll admit that, after all I had been through—none of which Bradley noticed or acknowledged—a part of me initially felt a bit justified when he came to me for money or needed help sobering up. I admit to feeling a twinge of justice that he had not had a completely charmed life.

The cool autumn air forced me back into the present. I felt a chill walking down the sidewalk. I was in my old neighborhood. The sun was just starting to set but the old-growth trees blocked what warmth might have lingered. I pulled my cardigan tighter across my chest and folded my arms to keep it there. It wasn’t lost on me that this might also be a way of protecting myself from the past.

The neighborhood hadn’t changed much in thirty years. The old homes were stately with beautiful lawns. Some even had the proverbial white picket fence. It was so perfect in some people’s view of perfection, but even as a small child I knew I would never fit into that particular view. I used to think that it was only me who was different, but I have lived long enough now to know that the lives of people – anywhere – are often not what they seemed to be.

Finally, I came to the house where Bradley and I had grown up. It had been repainted probably a half a dozen times since we had lived there and some of the trees had been replaced over the years, but otherwise, it was the same. Or, at least, it felt the same.

I thought back to the sign my dad had pounded into the front lawn boasting his son’s status as an all-star quarterback on the football team. How many Friday nights had we traveled to Bradley’s games and cheered him on?

My eyes lingered on the window that used to be my room. There were shutters now where there had once been curtains. My mother had sewn them by hand. I wondered if the built-in desk was still there. I had logged so many hours at that desk, studying for tests and memorizing lines for the plays I was in. It’s how I earned a scholarship to the school that set me on the path I had followed for the last 25 years. I tried not to think about the disappointment of the boy who had sat at that desk, hoping that maybe this time his parents would show up to the play he was lead in, hoping for the kind of celebration Bradley got when he brought home another victory.

These days I was proud of what I had accomplished, proud of the love and acceptance I had in my life. I could see, though, why Bradley had clung so much to his time living in that house. He had the love and acceptance then that it took me a lifetime to discover. There was never any doubt in my mind that my parents might have been happier if I had not been a member of their family. So, while Bradley stayed locked in the past, I ran as fast as I could toward a future that might be different from what I had known as a child.

A car pulled into the drive across the street and it woke me from my thoughts. I moved on. I didn’t care to be questioned by one of the residents of the neighborhood.

I’m not sure why my feet took me past the old church I had attended as a child, but I did feel drawn there. Church was no longer a part of my life. I came out when I was in my twenties and was told I no longer had a place there. By then, it wasn’t much of a shock and, in some ways, was a little bit of a relief. I was released to go find community with people who would love me for who I was. In my heart, I knew what drew me there now wasn’t the church. It was the cemetery where my parents and Bradley were buried.

I walked under the archway at the entrance to the cemetery, and headed down a small pathway to the family plot. My parents lay side by side under the double gravestone. I ran my fingers over the chiseled names and dates. My mother had purchased the tombstone after my father died not long after Bradley and I had graduated high school. Mother’s gravestone sat for over twenty years unclaimed. Her name and birthdate had been there but there was nothing after the little dash.

Mother died less than a year after Bradley killed himself. Even standing there alone, I wanted to use euphemisms when I thought about Bradley’s death, but the truth was the truth.

All the years of hard living took a toll on him. He hadn’t thought about what he might do after high school. I guess he thought it would always be like that.

He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when he was in his thirties and it was like nothing to him. I can still see him sitting at Mom’s thanksgiving feast asking if he could have another piece of pecan pie. Then the drugs and alcohol caught up to him. He had a stroke at forty that miraculously didn’t take his life but it left him limping and one side of his face was always a little slower to react than the other.

A few years back, he had confided that he had stopped taking all of his medications. He wasn’t going to the doctor anymore. He was tired of it all. I tried to rally him, to give him reasons to live, but nothing worked.

Now – when I think about it – I wonder why I didn’t jump up and go find his medications and make him swallow them. The truth is, he wouldn’t have done it, and, toward the end, he was just unhinged enough to say I tried to kill him.

By the summer after his stroke, he was in a wheelchair, but not the one he wanted. He was so angry about everything by then, and I can’t say that I blame him. But he wanted to blame me.

“If only I had the motorized wheelchair,” I heard him saying. “I wouldn’t have to rely on you.”

He had ordered one in the spring and by summer it still hadn’t come. He was convinced that was the only thing that would keep him going, and he blamed me because I had not yet called the company to find out what was going on.

I couldn’t get the company to move any faster on the wheelchair, so I tried to be there in other ways. It was no use. When I took him for a leisurely stroll in a park near his house, he screamed the entire time. He accused me of trying to dump him out of his wheelchair and kill him. I’ll be honest. The more he kept on about this, the harder it was for me not to just dump him out of his wheelchair and go on with things.

And then there was the diagnosis of cancer. His dentist found the tumor under his tongue. By then, though, it had invaded his jawbone. I tried not to imagine what he might look like after that surgery.

Surgery couldn’t happen, though. The doctors called Mother and I as next of kin to be present when they broke the news.

“This is the worst case of cirrhosis of the liver I have ever seen,” they said. “His heart is enlarged and the cancer has spread to his lungs.” They couldn’t do surgery, not with all of that.

We sat there in that little room after the doctors left. I remember searching my mind for something to say that would be comforting, but there was nothing. I just looked up at him, into those bloodshot, empty eyes. He was broken.

He had enough pills and things to keep the pain at bay that it would have killed a horse to take them all at once. As it was, Bradley was halfway gone already, so I can’t imagine that it took long for him to go after he swallowed the whole bottle. I try not to think of it, what his last moments were like, but when I do, I realize that it was really his last years that were the worst. He hated his life.

There are questions I could never answer. My poor mother followed Bradley to the grave soon after his death. She just didn’t have the will to go on and I was definitely not enough to keep her here.

First Summer Home

By Grace Washington

Sunday mornings were always busy in Momma’s house. All five of us kids knew church attendance was mandatory. Even I, who had been off at college over the last year, knew not to question that.

Being the oldest, it was my job to help the younger ones get ready. I had just stood up from buckling my baby sister’s shoes when I caught my mother looking in the mirror in her bedroom. Outside that room I felt the chaos of five young people getting their hair pinned back or worrying about where they put their gloves. Inside Momma’s bedroom, it was completely still.

“What you looking at, child?” my mother asked, her eyes still turned toward the mirror while she adjusted her hat.

“It’s just so quiet in there,” I said. I walked forward to the doorway and leaned against the frame.

It had been months since my father had passed away. The last time I had been home, he had been confined to the bed that was now perfectly made, without the hint of a wrinkle. He had shriveled up to nothing by then, but his presence was anything but quiet. He was in such pain and misery and so very helpless. I was at college when he died, but Momma told me to stay put. She didn’t want me to miss a day of schooling.

“I’ve got church folks who can help out,” she had said over the phone. Her voice had sounded so tired, so worn.

So I had stayed at school and finished my semester there, telling myself that it was only a couple of weeks, trying to believe that she would need my help more once the reality of things set in.

Momma turned from the mirror and smiled. That weariness I had heard in her voice on the phone showed up in the wrinkles that tugged at her eyes. She was forty-five, but she looked sixty. She had the same expression on her face that I had seen on other black people as they aged. It was the look of resignation.

“We all ready for church?” she asked. She walked past me and patted me on the shoulder.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. I walked to the table and put my own hat on. “We’re ready.

All of us moved toward the door and I noticed as Momma walked through, her shoulders relaxed and her posture grew more confident. We were going to church as we had done every Sunday since before I was born, but it was the first time I realized what it gave my mother. It was a way for her to feel more hopeful and secure about her life and the world in which she lived.

The walk to the church was not far and we met up with others along the way. I had grown up around all of them. We were like extended family, really.

I watched Momma greeting the other families. She was so graceful, so much more alive than any other time. Her smiles were effortless with her lady friends at church. I thought about the many times I had seen them gather at one another’s homes after worship and how everyone raved about my momma’s bread pudding

No wonder she loved it so. It gave her so much and helped her keep going. As happy as it made me to know she was well loved and respected, my year at college had opened my eyes to a life different than this. It was a hoped-for life, but it was a life without the weary ways of hard labor and racial injustice. I felt sad when I realized that there were borders in every part of my Momma’s life, lines not to be crossed. She had accepted her lot in life a long time ago, but I couldn’t let go of the possibilities of something different.

Walking with those families to church for the first time since returning from school, I couldn’t help but feel a world apart. I think they felt similarly. Sure, they smiled and were kind, but they looked at me differently, as if I had crossed one of those borders, as if I had betrayed them somehow.

My sister Pearl seemed to believe I had and she told me so.

“What you think you’re doing?” she had said before I left for college. “You just going to make life harder for all of us!”

I remember then struggling to keep my mouth shut. What did she know? She was 15, beautiful, and boy crazy. With all the boys who flocked around her, she was headed toward babies and marriage before she was 17. I didn’t think she had a lick of sense. But since returning from school, I was starting to think maybe others felt the same way.

Still, I did my best that summer to fit back in and to help out Momma. I put on a uniform, just like Momma’s, and I accompanied her to her cleaning jobs. When she wasn’t at the nursing home taking care of old white folks, she was cleaning their families’ houses. She worked so hard. I wanted to take some of the burden off her if I could.

No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t shut out the year of college under my belt. It had opened my mind, raised my consciousness. Momma never questioned her existence. She didn’t have the luxury to think about it, I guessed. And she didn’t understand why I did. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help. I especially wanted to make Momma’s life better, but as the weeks passed, I didn’t think change would come in time to save her.

That first morning of work together, she and I left before the sun was over the rooftops. The early summer air was fresh, not yet sticky like it would be later in the day.

A few minutes passed before either of us said anything. It was enough to be together, to listen to the birds busy in the trees and bushes.

It was Momma who broke the silence. When she spoke, I realized that she had been holding whatever it was in. Her words came out awkward and hurried.

“Gracey, there’s something you need to know.”

I stopped walking and turned to look at her. She stopped too, but she looked off in the direction we were headed. I had the sensation that she was afraid to go on but also afraid not to.

“We’ve got a job to do today,” she said. Her fingers dug into the pockets on the front of her apron, which was part of her uniform.

“Yes, ma’am.” I held my breath and dared not rush her. She seemed skittish as an old hen.

“It’s just,” she said and then paused for too long. She was searching for something. “Maybe you oughtn’t to come with me.”

I felt my shoulders stiffen. Was Pearl right? Had I made things harder for our family by going to college? Is that what this was about?

Before I could protest, Momma raised a hand to my arm. “There’s a man at this first job,” she said. “He’s…he’s not a good man.”

My cheeks burned hot with anger at the thought that someone had hurt my mother. I wanted to scream, but I knew it would do no good to anyone.

Instead, I took a deep breath. My lips trembled as I said, “Momma, has he hurt you?”

She looked down and then off again toward the place where we had been heading. “His wife is usually there,” she said.

She didn’t answer my question directly, but she didn’t have to. I tried not to hate anyone. Being vindictive and resentful never did anyone any good. But sometimes, I just wanted to take matters into my own hands and hurt those who hurt the ones I loved, especially Momma.

“You can’t go there, Momma,” I said. I heard the pleading in my voice and I couldn’t control it. “Please. Let’s find something else.”

She shook her head. “If I don’t go, there won’t be anything else. Word gets out that I’ve up and quit for no good reason I won’t get another job anywhere. Gracey, I need the money.”

I looked into her dark eyes and I felt all her weariness weighing into my shoulders. Survival was why she put up with this life. She just needed to get through another day, get her kids fed and grown. I wanted to take all that from her and give her a good life. I wanted her to have respect and ease and comfort. And then I felt the resignation I had seen in her. It crept up into my shoulders and neck. She had no other choice. There were hungry mouths to fill and no other way of making do.

“I’ll go with you, Momma,” I said. I tried to speak evenly so she wouldn’t hear the heartbreak in my voice. “Maybe with two of us there….”

I didn’t finish the sentence. I wouldn’t have been able to without being honest. The truth was that I hoped with us both there he wouldn’t try anything and I wouldn’t have to kill him.

Momma nodded. She held out her hand and I took it. She wrapped my arm in with hers and we walked the rest of the way in silence.

_______________________

Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice. 

No More

By Grace Washington

“Momma, don’t look so worried,” I said. I patted her arm and walked past her to the room I shared with my sisters.

“I ain’t worried!” she said in a huff. “You just ain’t got no sense is all.”

It took restraint for me not to roll my eyes. It would do no good to be disrespectful. It didn’t matter that I was a grown woman now, a college graduate. Momma could still remind me of her place in our house.

“As long as I lived under her roof,” she’d said time and again.

But now I was moving out from her roof and she was scared. With every piece of clothing I packed, her hands plunged deeper into the pockets of her uniform. I knew her heart was breaking, but it was time for me to go, even if where I was headed was scary and dangerous, even to me.

It had been two years since the Freedom March in 1962 when I had heard Doctor King speak. My heart swelled with pride when I listened to his speech. He gave such an impassioned plea for help with the civil rights movement. It had stirred something deep within my soul.

I knew then I wouldn’t be able to stay in my little town of Milledgeville, Georgia. If I did, I had only one choice, and that was to become a service worker like my momma.

I looked over at her, her hair graying at her temples already. My going to college was hard enough on her, but she was proud I had graduated, and magna cum laude, no less. The whole neighborhood got an earful about that. But the people Momma worked for didn’t even know she had a daughter that had gone to school. In fact, she hid that fact from most white folks. If they knew, it might make life very difficult for all of us.

No, if I stayed in Milledgeville, I’d end up walking with Momma every morning to Rosehill Lane where all the society matrons lived. I’d spend my days minding their children and doing someone else’s dirty laundry. They would give me those measuring looks when they wondered if I had taken some of their silver after I spent the afternoon polishing it. They would choose to treat me as if I were a pet, and pretend we were friends. Or they might scream and yelI if I didn’t stay in my place.

Staying in my place meant different things to different people. In Milledgeville, it would always be my job to know what my place was in any social setting.

I saw the writing on the wall. I could see how it would always be. I wouldn’t survive in Momma’s world. I needed things to change.

In Momma’s world, she was “Girl” and she had to jump whenever anybody told her to. The only place she could be just herself was at the Immanuel Baptist Church around the corner. They called her Mrs. Washington there. I’m not sure how she did it, but somehow, every Sunday, she managed to get all five of us kids washed up and down to the church. We went during the summer’s heat or winter’s ice. It didn’t matter.

My momma had made a name for herself at church. Even after working long hours at the nursing home, she was there for any family who needed her. She was known for always showing up on the doorstep of bereaved families with a baked ham or a caramel cake. Some days, her oven didn’t get turned off until late at night. In addition to looking after the white folks at the nursing home and the heartsick people at church, she tended to her houseful of kids and a sick husband, too.

Was it wrong that I wanted something different than that? It was 1964, and change was in the air. I wanted to be a part of that.

“Now don’t forget to bathe everyday,” Momma said, as if I might forget. “And don’t draw any attention to yourself. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Her eyes glazed over then. I could tell she didn’t hear me when I told her I would be okay and would do all that she told me. I watched her face for a minute. She seemed lost in another time.

When she looked back at me, her eyes were clouded with tears.

It’s just…so much can go wrong. And some things never change,” she said. Her voice trembled.

There was something different about what she said, a tone I had never heard before. It surprised me, so I just stood there and listened.

“There’s always going to be white people and you ain’t ever gonna change their ways no matter what you do.”

She reached in the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a worn out photograph.

“That was my brother,” she said. “Ben. I don’t even know how he got that picture made. He was always a charmer. He had his ways. And it’s what got him in trouble.”

“What happened to him?” I asked, even though I had my suspicions. Even these days it happened often enough that I didn’t really have to guess.

“I was just a girl,” she said. “It was after midnight. We lived in a two-room shack out in the woods.” She pointed somewhere in the distance, a place I had never heard of or been to.

“The hooded white men in sheets came up on our front steps. They banged on the door and hollered for Ben to come out. The whole family was terrified.” Even so many years later, her eyes were wide with fear.

“Daddy asked what business the man had with his son. Ben was only fourteen. But the man just fired a pistol in the air and said, ‘Bring us Ben or you’ll all get some of this. You got ‘til Three.’ And he started counting.”

“It didn’t take but one word for my brother to walk out onto that porch with the rest of us. We didn’t even blink twice before those men had him off the porch and strapped up in an oak tree right next to our house. They had the noose made already and they tied his hands behind his back.”

Momma shook as she told this story. I realized I was shaking too. I guided her to the bed and we sat down, both crying hard tears.

“Every one of those men grabbed some part of the rope and hoisted Ben into the air. He put up such a struggle. And then one of them yelled up to him. ‘You gonna whistle at another white woman, you nigga?’ But Ben couldn’t answer.”

Momma gasped at the memory. “His head lolled onto his chest and the only sound left was the creaking of the branch he was swinging on.”

She grabbed my hands tight and said through gritted teeth, “And now you’re going off as if you can change anything. Why in heaven’s name you got to put yourself in harm’s way? Where did you get this from? Ain’t nobody in our family got the gumption you got. Why’d you have to grow up and be like this?”

Tears blurred my vision. “Momma,” I said. “I got to do this for Ben. I got to do this so we don’t have to grieve like this anymore.”

She grabbed me and pulled me to her, sobbing into my neck. “But why you?” she asked.

Not an hour later, I had a moment asking myself the same question.

I boarded the bus and the driver simply looked past me like I didn’t exist.

All around me were empty seats, but my place was in the back. I felt angry all the sudden, sad and angry. I hesitated for only a moment at an empty aisle seat and the white woman sitting next to the window put her purse down, daring me with her eyes to just try to sit there. If I had, she would’ve caused some sort of ruckus. I might be kicked off the bus before I left my own town!

I moved on toward the back and tried not to show my anger. An old black woman on the next to last seat in the bus patted the seat next to her. She seemed upset about something and I assumed she was angry about the same thing I was. Her dark eyes flashed and her lips were pursed together tightly. She was dressed much like my momma, in a service uniform, but I couldn’t tell where she might have worked or why she was on the bus.

Once I got settled in, she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Did you really think you could sit next to that white woman? Who do you think you are?”

It didn’t much surprise me to hear her say those things. Momma probably would have said the same thing. But I said what I would have said to Momma, “Nothing will change until someone makes it.”

She stared at me as if I had slapped her and it nearly made me smile. She did remind me of Momma. And something about that gave me comfort.

“Now, you listen here!” The woman said. “You don’t know what you’re playing at.”

I looked down at the worn picture of Ben my momma had given me. It was true that my heart beat with fear for what lay ahead, but I couldn’t just sit still anymore.

The woman looked over at the picture and nodded.

“Somebody you know?” she asked.

I shook my head. “He died before I was born.”

“Oh yeah,” she said, her voice cracking. “We’ve all got one of those.”

The bus driver announced the next town ahead on my journey to Mississippi and any fear I’d had before disappeared. It was happening. It was really happening.

I reached out and took both of the woman’s hard, work-roughened hands. “Don’t you understand? Everything I do from now on is so we don’t have anymore of those.”

_______________________

Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. We look forward to hearing more from her!

Gene’s Proposal

By Karen Brode

From this valley they say you are leaving
I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For I know that you’re taking the sunshine
That brightened my pathway awhile

Winnie reached up to turn off the radio. It was better if she didn’t think of him. She stared out the kitchen window and sunk her gloved hands back into the plastic dishpan. She tried not to think of him. There was no way that anything could ever be worked out now.

She remembered that spring when her life had been so happy. She was 24 years old. She had graduated from college and started teaching at the community school. And then, almost on cue, there he was at church one night. Every time she peeked at him, he was looking at her as if his whole world revolved around her. She didn’t understand this. She knew she wasn’t pretty.

She had inherited her mother’s olive complexion and her uncontrollable hair. She couldn’t remember the number of times she had given up in despair trying to make it look normal. But it never did. It was easier when she was a child. She wore it in a long braid down her back, but as she had gotten older, a braid looked ridiculous, so her mother had cut it off when Winnie entered high school.

Her hair was bad enough, but she wasn’t like any of the other girls at church who wore makeup. She had no clue where to get it, let alone how to wear it! The only places she ever went were to church, work, and the grocery store. The grocery store only had basic necessities like flour and sugar and cornstarch. And even if she could get it, she didn’t know who to ask to help her with it.

Lucy Bradshaw was one of those girls who never needed that sort of help. She seemed to understand instinctively how to use makeup to make her beautiful eyes stand out more. And, of course, she did everything she could to bat her baby blues at the handsome man who had started coming to church. But, miraculously, it didn’t work. He seemed to have eyes meant only for Winnie.

His name was Gene. Eventually, she learned to accept his attention to her. It still troubled her that Lucy Bradshaw and Clara Bates stared daggers at her from the other side of the church, but it’s not like she had thrown herself at Gene. If she could’ve understood what it was that he found attractive in her, she would try to capitalize on that, but he seemed to accept her for who she was and what she looked like.

He sat by her every Sunday night at church that spring, and sometimes he was waiting for her when the school day was over – just to be with her.

So come sit by my side if you love me.
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the girl that has loved you so true.

When they took walks together, they talked of mundane things.

“The corn looks good this year.”

“It looks like like it’s going to be a dry summer.”

Among the mundane, Winnie wanted to ask him what he saw in her that he wouldn’t want those pretty girls, but she never did. After all, her skin was leathery from picking cotton under the unrelenting north Texas sun. Her hands were rough and hard. It would make so much more sense to her if she could understand what he saw in her.

She felt like she was in a strange land where she didn’t know the customs. She was fearful of saying something or doing something that would make him suddenly realize who she was.

Eventually, she decided that he was seeing her through rose-colored glasses and she accepted this, especially when she realized that her own life was nothing without him.  He completed her.

In late May of that year, when school was almost out, Gene came to her house on a Sunday afternoon. This was not something he had done before. Winnie and Gene sat together in the glider out by the shed. It was a nice day, and shady where they sat. He seemed nervous and excited. She could tell he had something very important to tell her.

From her place on the glider, she could also see her mother, Effie, pulling the kitchen curtain to the side keeping watch over everything that happened. Winnie panicked a little when Gene slid off the glider and knelt at her feet. She thought maybe he was hurt. Her first instinct was to try to help him. Then he opened the little black velvet box and asked her to marry him. He put the ring on her finger and, for the first time, kissed her lips.

It was all too much for her. She cried out of joy and wonderment. All of it felt like someone else’s life. These things didn’t happen to her!

She was so overwhelmed that she didn’t know what to say. Gene took her hand in his and told her he loved her.

But the curtain shifted at the window and a familiar twang of guilt nudge her side. She was very practical minded and was led mostly be loyalty to her family. She hesitated then and looked down.

“I…I need to let you know next Sunday,” she said in a whisper. Her eyes flickered up to his face and then beyond to the window. “I need some time to think things over.”

The spark in his eyes trembled and dimmed. Confusion and hurt furrowed his brow.

“I do love you,” she said. “I just can’t make a decision right this minute.”

He grabbed her hand and held it. His grasp was both tight and gentle.

“I got a job in Missouri,” he told her. “I’ll be going there in a few weeks. I’d love for you to be there with me.”

Winnie nodded and smiled. Tears brimmed her eyes. “I’ll let you know. Just give me some time.”

She sat as still as possible on the glider when he got up to leave. She didn’t want this moment to end. She realized she had been holding her breath after he had walked far enough down the road that she couldn’t see him anymore.

It wasn’t long before Effie was outside standing where Gene had been standing only moments before.

“What was that all about,” she asked, her tone accusing and bitter.

Winnie flinched and had the urge not to respond. She didn’t want to tell anyone, especially not her mother, and take away that moment of magic.

But she owed it to her family to know, so she held the lump in her throat and said, “Gene asked me to marry him. He got a job in Missouri and wants me to go with him.”

Effie’s face twisted up like she had eaten a lemon. “Well, you might as well just get the gun and shoot me now.” She rubbed her neck with a handkerchief. “It’s just as well. My life is almost over anyway. I wouldn’t want to go on living if you were way off in Missouri. I don’t even know where that is!” Her rant continued with the nervous energy and fear fluttering out through shaking hands. “It’s not like I could make a trip there!” She clutched her chest and fanned herself while waddling off toward the house. “Oh, my chest hurts. I’m going to lie down in my bed and hope death comes quickly. I don’t want to linger.”

Winnie sat in the glider until the shadows had started to grow long. She had always suspected her mother would be unhappy if she married and moved on, but now she knew that Effie expected Winnie to live with her and Papa for the rest of her life.

Winnie tossed and turned through many nights wondering and worrying and trying to figure things out. She was certain that Effie could not keep her there with anything but guilt. But guilt was Effie’s currency. She manipulated her husband and her children with it, everyone except for Albert. Somehow he had escaped the chokehold of their mother’s guilt.

It was three o’clock in the morning on the Wednesday before Winnie would give Gene his answer. Effie woke and went to Winnie’s room to tell her she thought she was having a heart attack. Winnie walked Effie back to her bed with soothing words, just like she would have done a child of her own, and waited while her mother slipped back into sleep. But Winnie did not sleep.

On Sunday morning, Winnie put the black velvet box in her purse and went to church. Gene was waiting for her there. He watched her walk up with happy anticipation. His face practically glowed. She took her usual place beside him on the pew.

During the sermon, he leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”

Winnie did everything she could not to let the tears fall, but they did. She didn’t say anything until after church was over, but she knew what she had to do and it was the hardest thing she had ever done.

When the last song had been sung, she asked Gene to follow her to the back of the building. It seemed an appropriate place for what she had to say. Cigarette butts littered the ground and the smell was heavy with the smoke of men who went there to smoke out of sight of their wives or the minister.

Winnie reached into her purse and pulled out the black velvet box.

“I can’t marry you,” she said, chocking on her words. “My mother is very ill and needs me to take care of her.”

She looked up into Gene’s face. Only moments before, it had had such a soft, gentle expression. Now, his mouth dropped open and he leaned against the church building like he would fall if it hadn’t been there to catch him.

Shaking, she took one of his hands and placed the box into it. And with as much courage as she could muster, she turned and walked toward her house. She didn’t look back. She knew if she did, she would never go home and she would live to regret leaving her mother.

Won’t you think of the valley you’re leaving.
Oh how lonely, how sad it will be?
Oh think of the fond heart you’re breaking
And the grief you are causing to me.

Even all these years later, the memory of Gene’s proposal left Winnie in heart wrenching sobs. She did love Gene. Why had her mother constantly stood between her and any happiness she might have?

_________________________

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.

I’m Going to Kill Him and Tell God He Died

By Karen Brode

“I’m going to kill him and tell God he died!” Albert stormed through the house toward his son’s room.

His wife, Hazel, was just a few steps behind him.

“Albert, please!” she said, desperation in her voice. “Don’t talk to him now! You’re too angry.”

Albert stopped so suddenly Hazel nearly ran into him. He turned to face her, his eyes wide in disbelief.

“How in hell could I not be mad?” His chest rose and fell with the hot, angry breaths he took. His fists opened and closed in sync to his breathing. “Why aren’t you mad? You know he is just going to keep on doing these things. You sure aren’t going to stop him. It’s all up to me.”

He started to turn back toward his son’s bedroom but Hazel’s face made him stop. It was a soft, gentle face, so vulnerable. He thought back to his mother’s words before he married Hazel.

“She’s been too sheltered to weather the storm of a marriage to you, Albert.”

His mother had never pretended to like Albert. In return, he certainly had never cared about her the way a son should about his mother. He thought about a family picture his mother had shown Hazel before their marriage.

She would try anything to ruin my happiness, he thought.

In the photo, Albert stood off by himself. He remembered that day. His parents and sister and little brother all huddled together as if they were one big happy family. But he knew better. He knew they didn’t love him like they loved each other. The photo proved that. Was he supposed to smile and hide the disgust he had for all of them too, just because they wanted to be something they weren’t?

Standing in the hall with his little doe of a wife, he knew his mother had been right about Hazel being weak. He saw the pain in her face. He knew it worried her so much that he could fly off the handle so easily, especially when it came to their son John. In his defense, though, he was such a difficult kid.

Still, Hazel’s eyes plead for mercy on John’s behalf and all the fight went out of Albert. He was still angry, still bitter toward his son and all the trouble he caused them.

He threw up his hands and said, “Just let him do what he wants, then. He’ll end up in reform school or prison.” He looked past Hazel and sighed. “I’m so tired of trying to get through to him.”

He pushed passed his wife in the hall and went to the back door. If he couldn’t fix his son, he’d keep working on that darn boat he was building. Even that had pain in it, though.

He had started building it with hopes that his son would maybe want to help him with it. He wanted his son to be with him and he wanted them to have some good times. He thought if he could manage to get John to even come out and watch him as he went through the steps, maybe somehow he could reach that part of him that was like him. But he had yet to see any hint of that. His son wasn’t like his side of the family. He was a Morrison through and through.

Albert poured his frustration into sanding the board he was working on. He thought about how John had never been like him and how his wife was so taken with him, so protective. Sure, he was a good-looking kid, but Hazel went overboard. She made all of his shirts on her sewing machine in the bedroom. Even that made Albert mad, though, because when she stepped on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, the television turned to snow and static. If Albert was watching a baseball game or a wrestling match, he could just forget it. John’s shirts were way more important to his wife than anything Albert wanted.

He swore when he popped open the can of stain and spilled half of it on the ground. If he hadn’t been angry, he thought, that would never have happened.

His mind turned to Hazel’s family, her sister, Opal. This was really all her fault. If Opal hadn’t constantly told Hazel how ugly she was as a child, she might realize how beautiful she was and not have to live vicariously through their son. It didn’t matter how often Albert told Hazel how she looked like a million dollars when she did herself up, she never believed him. And so she took all her pride in her son’s looks. She thrilled at the sight of young girls walking up and down the street giggling and stealing glances at the house with hopes of seeing John.

Albert stood there staring at the half-finished boat. He felt hopeless thinking about his son. None of the things Hazel did made John any more devoted to being a good son. He knew if he even tried to talk to his son, he would look at him with that look of complete, bland disrespect. In those moments, Albert didn’t trust himself not to hurt John. He brought out the absolute worst in Albert!

He wiped his hands on an old rag and started cleaning up his tools.

Maybe it was better to just try not to be around his son. But that wasn’t the answer either. He would be shirking his duty as a father. And yet, at every turn he knew that Hazel would be there to stand between him and John no matter what.

The phone rang in the house and Albert listened when Hazel picked up the line. From what he could tell, it was John’s teacher. He could only imagine what he had done this time.

He heard Hazel apologizing and then, “I’ll be sure an talk with him.”

That’ll be the day, thought Albert.

When Hazel got off the phone, she looked outside at Albert. They made eye contact, but she broke the gaze off quickly. He knew it was bad if Hazel didn’t want to tell him what the call was about. And he knew her excuse would be that she didn’t want to worry him with these things.

Albert felt his blood pressure rise until his ears were ringing. What he wanted to do was go give that son of his a good dose of whatfor. But he was tired of fighting and he knew Hazel would be there to block him, so he picked up a hammer and took out his anger on the boat.

_______________________________

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.

John’s Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

In the summer of 2005, my brother John, moved back to Grayson County in Texas where we had grown up. He was wrinkled and worn, and for the first time, I noticed that he seemed tired. I tried not to think about all the situations that had driven us apart for so long. The list was endless, and I didn’t have a lot of fight left in me.

The truth too was, no matter what had happened, I had missed him. I often wondered how it could be possible to detest and love someone at the same time. But I did. And I sensed that he wanted to try to be a family again, so I gave it my best shot.

He had been gone for ten years, living in Las Vegas. I wondered how he could live in the entertainment capital of the world one day, and then the next day live in Pottsboro, Texas, the epitome of a tiny Texas town with only one red light.

He had only been back for a week when my husband Gary and I met up with him and his new wife, Jan, at a Mexican restuarant for supper. I hoped and prayed that things would go well, that maybe we could salvage some kind of relationship from the ruins.

He looked old and so small compared to the larger than life man I had known just ten years before. There were no black hairs left on his head, just gray and white. Inside, though, he was still John. He regaled us with some of his favorite stories during supper. They were stories I had heard before, but I wanted to hear them again. I hung onto his words as he wove his stories and I watched the cigarette smoke rising from his mouth.

“I was working at an air conditioning and heating place in Fredericksburg,” he said. “We went out early in the mornings to install new units. That day, we had just climbed up into the attic of a house  when I heard a man’s voice down below asking us how things were going.”

“Well, what was I supposed to say? That it was as cool as an April morning? Hell no. I looked down toward the voice and simply told him the truth–it was hotter ‘n hell up there.”

“You actually said that?” I asked, laughing. I knew this story. I knew he had actually said it, but it had been so long since we had had times like these that I relished hearing it again.

John nodded. “Sure did. And wouldn’t you know, when I looked down through the ceiling air vent, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson opening his morning mail.”

I laughed again. “Did he say anything back? Get onto you or something?”

“Naw. He just stared down at his mail and smiled.”

Sometimes, I wondered how true any of these stories were, but I didn’t really care. It really made them more exciting and interesting.

John had always been more at home in the world than most people I knew. Even as his old age crept up behind him, he still had the confidence and demeanor of the handsome young man he had once been. He even flirted with the waitresses at the restaurant and it didn’t seem to surprise him a bit when the young girls flirted back.

From about the time his feet touched the green grass of Texas, John started talking about having a family reunion. I wasn’t against it exactly, but wasn’t exactly up to it either. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And if I couldn’t explain it to myself, I certainly couldn’t explain it to my brother.

So, soon he was calling me several times a week to go over his list of invitees.

He kept saying “Have I forgotten somebody?”

With every name he added to the list, I felt a deeper sense of dread. So the plans marched on and one day he told me he wanted to have the reunion in July, the hottest month in Texas.

July. Sometimes the entire month went by without a cloud in the sky. The month always made me think of Momma and the song we had sung at her graveside service, “Uncloudy Day.”

Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, the land of cloudless day
Oh, the land of an unclouded day
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, they tell me of a home where my friends have gone
Oh, they tell me of that land far away
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.

Months went by and John kept making plans. I tried to distance myself from all of it for a while. Something told me that he wanted me to cook all the food, just like our mother would have done when she was alive. I really didn’t want that kind of responsibility, so I kept the reunion conversations at arm’s length. Still, I didn’t want to walk into some kind of John-created chaos on the day of the reunion, so I got up the courage to ask him about it.

“Oh, I’m going to rent a boat and ferry people across the lake to the islands,” he said.

He sounded like a little kid, to be honest, and like most kids, he never really thought all his plans fully through. I felt panic rising in my chest. I still couldn’t explain why, but it was there.

“Then what?” I asked, hoping that might prompt more in-depth thought to his plans.

But he heard my worry and got irritated. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll have fun no matter what we do.”

I sat there on the other end of the line wishing I could understand why I was so reluctant about all of this so I could explain it to him without him getting angry.

Maybe it was my age, I thought. Maybe I’m just getting too old for things like this. So I told him that.

He snorted. “You’re still just a kid,” he said. “You always will be.”

He had always felt like I had been shielded from life’s harsh realities.

I pictured Aunt Jane riding in a boat going across a large expanse of lake in 110 degree heat. Old people would be dropping like flies on that boat and John hadn’t thought about any way to keep them from overheating, keeping everybody hydrated. Did he expect me to come along and pick up the slack?

“You can’t worry about all that right now,” I heard him say into the phone. He had gone from irritated older brother to snaky salesman. “Just think of sitting under the shade of those big trees on the islands. How long’s it been since you played a good game of dominoes? Wouldn’t that be fun to sit outside with our family and play dominoes?”

The week before the family reunion, I felt as if something catastrophic was bearing down on me, and there was no getting out of the way. How could I have stopped it? I had rarely seen John this excited.

I comforted myself by thinking that maybe the world would end before it happened. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the earth and I wouldn’t have to worry about the family reunion. I tried to appear excited when John was around.

He had contacted every member of each side of our family that he could hunt down. He had asked me a thousand questions about people we hadn’t seen in decades.

“You think Clyde is still alive?” he’d ask.

I hadn’t thought about Clyde in a month of Sundays, so I just shrugged and said I didn’t know.

Each day leading up to the reunion was hotter and drier than the one before. No cloud graced the North Texas sky. I wouldn’t watch the weather forecast because it was always the same–sunny and hot! It was the same every summer–a high pressure ridge sat over us and any possible precipitation went around us.

A few days before the reunion, the phone rang. John’s voice was muted on the other end. He sounded tired and sad.

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think we are going to have that family reunion.”

“What?” I asked. I was glad I had been sitting down when he called because otherwise, you could have knocked me over with a feather. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Tammy,” he said, talking about his oldest daughter. “She’s been taken to drug rehab in California.”

And that’s when I realized it. He had planned the whole thing for Tammy. She was the real reason he wanted to get the family together.

Never would I have wanted his daughter to have the problems she had and I certainly would never have wished for her problems to be the reason we couldn’t have a family reunion. But there was a part of me that was relieved.

Still, I couldn’t show my brother that. So, I commiserated with him and did my best to sound disappointed.

And then I said, “You know, John, we can have it another time.”

__________________________________

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.

Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

Mother got into the driver’s seat of our car,  and Opal took the passenger seat.  Thankfully I had a quilt and a pillow in the backseat. I liked to watch the trees zoom past the back window. We had to drive 100 miles to get to Marble Falls.

It seemed odd to see my mother driving Opal around. My aunt usually commandeered any situation. But, in a burst of unusually rebellious energy, Mother had hurried to the car and got behind the wheel. That left Opal no choice but to sit in the front passenger seat.

I was proud of Mother for taking charge. It was something she rarely did.

We had only been in the car for about thirty minutes when my aunt began squirming.   Mother cut her eyes to watch each time she changed positions in her seat.

Finally, Opal said, “Hazel, I have to find a bathroom!”

Mother’s face blanched. “Oh no. You didn’t take your water pill this morning, did you?”

Aunt Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed her brow with a handkerchief. “You know I have to take that pill every morning! It’s prescribed by my doctor. I don’t have a choice.”

“Couldn’t you have waited to take it after we get there?” My mother’s rebelliousness petered out into a whisper.

Opal glared at her before grabbing her belly and sucking fast air through pinched lips. She seemed miserable.

Mother sighed and looked out the window. I noticed that her hands, placed always at “ten and two,” had a hold of the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles were white. I knew she had not wanted to go to this family reunion, but Opal had planned it and insisted we participate. She had spent the fall and winter contacting all of the relatives on their father’s side of the family.

Neither my mother nor my aunt had had much to do with Poppa’s side of the family. For one thing, there was Uncle Gerald. It was rumored that he had made a killing in the stock market early in his life and now lived in luxury. When Poppa was in the hospital, Gerald had visited a few times, but he always ended up embarrassing my mother in some way, like when he handed out five dollar bills to the nurses. She thought he, of all people, should be poor and miserable because he was morally bankrupt. She told me it didn’t matter how much money you had if you had no soul.

The one hope my mom had for the reunion was to see Aunt “Pet.” She had been Poppa’s favorite sister and had been with him in his hospital room as he died over the last year. My mother loved her.

We had been on the road for about 30 minutes when Mother pulled into a gas station with full service. She drove over the little tube that made a bell ring and the attendant came out to put gas in the car. He looked pretty tousled, like he hadn’t slept much the night before. There were dark circles under his eyes and he moved in slow motion to wash and wipe the windshield. When he squatted to the concrete to check the air pressure, I wasn’t sure he would be able to get back up again.

“Well, we’re out of Grayson County,” Mother said.

Opal swung her legs out of the car, but she couldn’t seem to lift herself off the seat. She made several heaving attempts, but all it did was make her sweaty.

“Karen, go help your aunt get out of the car!” said my Mother.

It was easier said than done, but after extreme effort, I managed to pull her to a standing position. She rocked back and forth a bit to catch her breath.

It was hard for my ten-year-old brain to wrap itself around my Aunt Opal’s figure. She was thin on top and wide, wide, wide at the hips. I tried not to stare when she came out of her bedroom at our house, but I just couldn’t understand it. When she walked down the hall, her whole body sort of swung to the left and then to the right. I never dared try to pass her in a hallway for fear of getting stuck to the wall on one side.

I marveled at her proportions–going from narrow up top to extra-wide in the middle, and tapering at the ankles and feet, until it looked like she might tip over should a strong wind blow by. I often wondered if she knew this about herself. I didn’t think she ever looked in a full-length mirror, and I couldn’t blame her. Perhaps this is why she always seemed very happy with her looks and confident of herself. She certainly didn’t have the personality of someone who had been beaten down by society for being fat.

In fact, she walked around unashamed in her bra and panties when she went to wash her face in the bathroom and get ready for the day. I just wondered if she special ordered her panties from somewhere. It looked like yards and yards of nylon had gone into making just one pair.

There were other things, too, that made me curious about my aunt. She never wore anything but Old Maine Trotter shoes. She was a religious woman–never cut her hair because she said the Bible had forbidden it. Her hair was long and, every morning, she braided it and wrapped it around her head a few times and held it in place with bobby pins. She could never recall the scriptures that forbid a woman cutting her hair, but she believed it and so I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a scripture about Old Maine Trotter shoes too.

My aunt wasn’t completely without vanity. In an impulsive moment, she had bought a wig that she thought might make her look more sophisticated and modern. Had she bought one that fit with her coloring and age, it might have made a little more sense. But it was platinum blonde and it made her look sallow and old. Mother made me promise not to say anything. She told me that if Opal wanted to wear the wig, we should just accept it, and not mention it.

Accept it we did, as we did with everything about Aunt Opal. She was a force to be reckoned with. And so, when it came time for her to use the restroom at the hole in the wall gas station, my mother and I exchanged glances knowing it was likely not going to end well.

“We ain’t got no ladies restroom,” said the attendant to my aunt when she asked for the key to the ladies room. “But you’re welcome to use the bathroom that everybody uses.”

My aunt frowned. She squared her shoulders and with a grim look, started toward the restroom.

It was worse than any of us could have expected. The toilet leaned precariously to the left and the sink had a trickle of orange rusty water drip, drip, dripping out of the faucet.   She looked around for paper covers for the toilet, but of course, there were none.

Finally, she turned and marched back to the car. “I can’t use the rest room here,” she said. “It’s awful. I feel so dirty just being in here. You’ll just have to stop somewhere else.”

So, we piled back in the car and continued down the road. Only a few minutes had passed–just long enough to watch my aunt start squirming again–when my mother said, “You know, there’s not a lot of traffic. You could just go in that field.”

Even from the back seat, I saw Opal roll her eyes like it was a ridiculous suggestion.

“Oh, you know that the minute I got started, there would be lots of traffic,” she said. But in less than a second a pang of pressure must have hit her because she blurted out, “Okay. Stop here, stop here. I’ll do it.”

I helped her out of the car again and watched her disappear into the trees. I wondered if she knew how bright her red dress stood out. Thankfully, no cars came by.

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

I remained silent. I knew better than to try to guess what my aunt was doing.

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Mother. “I should probably go check on her.”

“Do I have to stay here?” I asked, a little nervous.

“Our things are in the car. It will just be a minute.”

It was another 15 minutes before they returned to the car. They didn’t look right, especially Opal. Her face was dirty and her glasses sat at an odd angle on her nose. Her wig had slid to one side of her head.

She got back in the car without a word and Mother told me that Opal had taken a tumble in the woods when she stepped on a large grape vine.

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

Mother started the car and quietly moved back on the road.

Through her sniffs, my aunt finally spoke. “Hazel, would you let me out here in this next town? I can’t go to a family reunion looking like this, but you all keep going. There’s no reason for you and Karee not to go.”

If this had been a cartoon, I would have seen smoke coming out of my mother’s ears.

“No, Opal,” she said. “You planned this family reunion and you are going to enjoy seeing Poppa’s relatives today.”

That’s when Opal started sniffling in earnest. Between sobs, she said that she had always wanted Poppa’s side of the family to like her, but they didn’t. In fact, on bad days, she wondered if they made fun of her. I felt sorry for my aunt, but kept my head down focused on the Etch-a-Sketch I had brought along to pass the time.

“You know how they are,” said my aunt. “If they saw me like this, it would just make them think that they were right about me!”

Mother pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road and stopped. She knew her sister was right. It was also true that Opal did not look her best. No matter how much trouble she was and how much of a nuisance she could be, neither of us wanted to see her humiliated. Mother told Opal that they would stop for an early lunch in the next town and then turn around and go back home.

Opal would have to call the family from a pay phone to tell them that we couldn’t make it after all.

___________________________________

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.

Memories of Pete Everheart

By Karen Brode

“He was already a senior in high school when I first met him,” Mother said. She and I sat on the front steps of our house looking out into the warm, Texas night. I could tell by her voice and the faraway look she got that she still thought about him.

“I was 14 years old and nothing to write home about,” she continued. “Opal was married by then, so she wasn’t around to tell me how ugly I was, but I still knew. It was too much to hope that someone like Pete Everheart would fall for me.”

“Momma, don’t say that!” I said, grabbing her hand in mine. “You are so pretty! Whenever I look at that picture of you and Daddy on your dresser, I always think you could’ve been a movie star!”

Mother continued without comment.

“His family was well-off, but we weren’t. Going to a party at his house was almost like stepping into a fairy tale. They had Japanese lanterns all over the yards, and there was a punch bowl and all kinds of cookies. The girls were all dressed in formals and the boys wore suits. It was hard to think of these people being the kids I went to school with everyday.”

I leaned my head against her knee just picturing it. It sounded so glamorous.

“I didn’t go the first time Pete asked me to a party at his house. I thought I was too plain. I kept wondering what someone like him would see in me.”

“Oh, Mother!” I sat back up and squeezed her hand.

She smiled an apologetic smile and said, “I was afraid it was a joke. Every girl in that school had her eye on him. He had golden blonde hair and was tall and very smart. He played on the football team. He was always smiling with those perfect square, white teeth. I didn’t want him to look too closely at me.”

Heartache and longing pulled her eyes from me and into the distant past. I knew that in her mind she was seeing Pete Everheart again, as if he was standing right in front of her.

“When he finally persuaded me to go to his house for a party, old Mrs. Everheart stared out at everyone from the kitchen. She had to wonder which girl Pete would pick to bring home to her. She was so intimidating. She was heavyset at a time when not too many women were. She wore horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. Her dresses were sewed by a professional seamstress, and you could just tell that she didn’t feel as if she had to be nice to anyone. She was the main detraction to Pete, at least in my mind.”

“Besides that, though, there were all the other girls who wanted his attention. You know that I was the only freshman girl at his parties. That was enough to make me feel threatened in every way. Some of the senior girls wondered why he would even want me there. The measuring way they stared at me made me so uncomfortable. If I hadn’t really cared for him, I would not have gone to those parties.”

“So, I spent a good deal of time standing alone, watching the senior girls flirt with Pete. I always knew that there would be someone ahead of me, someone prettier, someone smarter, so I never had the nerve to approach him. But, he always sought me out and asked if I was having a good time. Sometimes, he would catch my eye from across the room. He made me feel as if I was the only girl there. Somehow, without ever saying anything out loud, I knew how much he cared for me. I don’t think I was just imagining and wishing this.”

“Did you and Daddy have that sort of connection?” I asked, thoroughly absorbed in what sounded like a storybook tale. My dad wasn’t Pete Everheart, so I had to know how Daddy had won Momma’s hand.

“Daddy just loved me outright,” Mother said. “I never had to wonder or guess how he felt about me.”

The mention of my father seemed to wake her up to present day. She shook her head and it was as if her old beau disappeared. But I wasn’t done yet. I still wanted to know what had happened that she hadn’t married him.

“Where does he live now?” I asked. “Does he have any children?”

Mother looked at me for just a moment and then back into the darkness. A tear rolled down her cheek and I wished I hadn’t asked.

“It was Labor Day weekend of his senior year,” she said. “He caught up with me that Friday after school and asked if I would join him and some friends for a picnic at the quarry the next day.”

“Did you go?” I asked, sitting on the edge of my seat.

She nodded. “There were about eight people that day at the quarry. My mother had fretted and worried that I was too young to go on a picnic, even if there were a bunch of people there. She reminded me that sometimes boys got ideas on picnics and wanted girls to go for a walk with them. ”

“Your mother didn’t want you to go for a walk with a boy?”

Mother looked at me with a tired smile and said, “Granny just wanted to avoid the appearance of evil. Our family had a reputation for being fine Southern folks, except for my brothers. They got to do whatever they wanted. Granny never did get her sons back into the fold at church after they went wild and left home. She stayed mad at Poppa the rest of their lives that he had let his boys run wild.”

I stared at Momma and tried to envision what “running wild” was. I decided that my brother, John, was probably like Mother’s brothers. John didn’t answer to anyone. Even his sergeant in the Army couldn’t make John good.

“The sun was shining so bright that day,” continued Momma. I’ll always remember that. And we were, all of us, in the mornings of our lives. It was one of those days that seemed perfect. The way I felt that day – if it could be bottled and sold – stores would sell out immediately. I was happy in every cell of my body. We spread our tablecloth on the ground, and each of the girls unpacked a picnic basket she had brought. The boys looked over the different foods and chose a girl to sit with.”

I saw another tear escape down Mother’s cheek. She took in a breath and I knew without being told that Pete Everheart had chosen to sit with her. It was so romantic! I could picture his smile and his dancing eyes as he let Mother feed him. I was certain that her hands were shaking and that her eyes were darting about to the other girls, hoping that Pete wouldn’t decide to go sit with one of them.

“After we ate,” Mother said, “Each girl put away the food and covered their picnic baskets so the flies wouldn’t come. Two of the girls pulled their dresses off over their heads. I looked away for fear of what they might have on underneath. They were wearing swimsuits that by today’s standards were quite conservative, but at the time, they were scandalous. I didn’t have a swimsuit. My mother probably didn’t even know they made swimsuits. I was glad I didn’t have to take my dress off in front of everyone. Even if I’d had something presentable on underneath, just the thought of taking my dress off was unthinkable.”

My poor mother, I thought.

“A black haired girl in a swimsuit came to take Pete’s hand. She wanted to race with him to the edge of the quarry. They had all been there before and knew the best places to dive and swim. Pete had the body of an athlete. He had on black swim trunks and a white undershirt. I will never forget the contrast of his pure white skin against the black swim trunks. He represented all happiness to me that day. I let my heart soar just a bit to think that such a wonderful, happy boy would even look at me.”

“Did you go swimming?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t have a swimsuit. I was happier than I had ever been just watching him have fun.”

“Did everyone else go swimming?” I asked.

“I can’t remember anyone but him. Isn’t that odd? There were other people there, but now it seems as if all their faces were blanks. Then George Stephens pitched a quarter in the air, and told Pete it was his call. Pete glanced back at me and called heads. George told him he could dive first.

“Pete backed up a ways to get a running start. Then he executed the most perfect dive I’ve ever seen. We all watched in happy anticipation of seeing his shining face burst through the surface of the water. But then time slowed, and we were in a sort of trance trying to make time run backward. All at once, George panicked and ran down the bank to get into the water where Pete had dived. Not long after, he yelled for the other boys to come help him.

“I watched in slow motion as they pulled his body out of the water. His eyes were open, but there was no longer any life in them. Several of the girls screamed and held onto each other. The boys carried him to a rock and laid him on it, but it was far too late.

“I remember George’s voice. It was confused, scared, and sad at once. He started to tell us that they had been there before and the water had been deeper, but his voice trailed off before he finished. None of it mattered anymore. There wasn’t anything else to say.”

“I kept thinking of a poem I had memorized for Mrs. Johnson’s English class. It was a Robert Frost poem:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Eventually, I looked away. I couldn’t watch any longer. People were screaming all around me, but I just shut down. I leaned against a tree and looked up at the bright cerulean sky.”

Asleep in Group Therapy

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


By Karen Brode

Every Tuesday afternoon we had group therapy. I dreaded it with all my heart.

At least it was better than individual therapy. There were other people there to fill in the silent places. People like Mrs. Travers who always wanted to tell her story over and over and over.

I had been in the loony bin for three months and I knew the whole story by heart. Any one of us in the group could have told it. Yet, for some reason, Dr. Henshaw let her tell it every time she wanted to. I wondered if I was the only person there who noticed this. I looked around but no one else seemed to notice we were hearing the same story every week.

Or maybe they were all just pretending. I learned early on that it was best to appear extremely stupid. To speak up with anything of intelligence might be interpreted as rebellious. It might lead to more medication, or worse, restraints.

So I sat there like the rest of them looking at the ceiling tile while Mrs. Travers dove into her story for the millionth time.

“They fired me!” she screamed. I jumped. I wasn’t expecting her to tell the story with such high volume. Sure, she always had a note of desperation in her voice, but this was a little different. I kept my eyes on the tiles above, but listened for any sign she might explode completely. 

“I gave my whole life to that company! When I started working there, my babies were little. I left both my babies in that baby prison so I could work and make our lives better!”

The first time I heard her mention baby prison, I had no idea what she meant. I learned later that she was talking about daycare.

“My babies had everything they wanted because of me! That horrible excuse for a father was only good at doing drugs and going to prison. I had to shoulder it all.”

She paused for a moment, almost panting. I dared a glance at her and saw that her eyes were wide. It was like she was reliving her life with her ex-husband. 

“He told me he was just barbecuing steaks. I couldn’t imagine why you’d barbecue inside the shed, but I never grilled anything in my life. When the shed went up in flames, he tore out of there and left the three of us to die in his fire.”

She squinted her eyes until tears came. “He was cooking meth, you know.” She shook her head. “No. Idiot. He wasn’t cooking meth. He was too stupid to cook anything. He just thought he could do it. Instead, he nearly cooked his whole family. Poor Joey and Donnie….”

I forgot the ceiling tiles and leaned forward toward Mrs. Travers. This was taking a little bit different turn from the weeks before. Normally she focused on the place she had worked for 35 years. She had been a bookkeeper at a roofing company. Everything had been great until they bought a computer and told her to keep records on it. She usually talked about how ridiculous she thought computers were and how she continued keeping books in the same way she always had, on paper. She didn’t think anybody at the company would notice or really care, as long as she got her work done. To this day she didn’t understand why she was fired.  

Nothing she said was funny, not even the fact that she had told her story so many hundreds of times before. Still, it never ceased to surprise me that she couldn’t understand why she had been fired from the roofing company. This woman had withstood so many things, but it was the firing that got her. She could never quite come to terms with it.   

All the sudden, her voice got even louder. She started rocking back and forth in her chair, wringing her hands. I looked over at Dr. Henshaw. His head was down, but I couldn’t tell if he was taking notes or sleeping. I hoped he wasn’t asleep because I didn’t think Mrs. Travers was going to make it through her story without some professional help.

“I got fired the year Donnie graduated from high school!” she continued. She stood up and paced the room. I clutched my arms to my chest, just in case she started throwing punches. “How was I supposed to buy him anything without a job? I couldn’t even make the payments on his braces!”

She walked around the room. Her eyes were wild. And was it me? Or did her hair look like it was standing on end?

“I didn’t care about my own teeth! My teeth were always in terrible shape.” She clenched her terrible teeth together and curled back her lips to show no one in particular just how horrible they were. There weren’t many left. “I was always glad when a tooth fell out because it saved me from having to pay a dentist! But they kept falling out!” She reached a finger up to her mouth and tapped on one or two. “I’m not sure how many I have left.”

Then her arms started flailing and her face went wild again. “Joey and Donnie’s father was in prison from the time they were little. They hardly remembered him. It was just me! All alone! I never had any help! And NO ONE CARED!”

I was getting seriously worried now. Her face was red and the veins at her temples were throbbing. It was then, too, that I realized Dr. Henshaw was asleep. How could he sleep during this? 

Mrs. Travers stopped talking. I looked over at her and saw she was staring at Dr. Henshaw. Her face was contorted like an angry bull. She leaned over the back of her empty chair and said, “Hey.”

She snapped her fingers and clapped her hands. “Not you, too,” she said in an eerily calm voice. “You don’t care either!”

She let out a crazy hyena scream and charged through the circle of chairs toward Dr. Henshaw. He woke up just as she slammed into him. His chair went backwards and his head hit the floor, knocking him unconscious. Mrs. Travers didn’t seem to notice that he was already out. She sat on top of him and punched him over and over.

“How dare you sleep through my story! What kind of doctor are you?” She cried and screamed at the same time. She was in a blind rage. Her whole body shook with anger. “You’re like all the rest of them! You don’t care!”

I’m not sure how long it was before the paramedics broke down the door. They pulled Mrs. Travers away and put her in a straight jacket. She fought valiantly, but there were more of them than there were of her. She kept screaming until they injected her with some sort of sedative.

The rest of us just sat there silently watching. It seemed no one wanted to be implicated in that moment of insanity. We were all curled up in different ways. Some had their feet up in their chairs with their arms around their legs. Others were crouched against the wall in a fetal position. I just sat there with my arms pulled to my chest, trying to pretend what was happening was absolutely normal. Even when the paramedics left to take Mrs. Travers away, I just sat there and looked at the bloodied, unconscious body of Dr. Henshaw. They were back soon enough with a stretcher to carry him out, but it was so strange to be left alone like that.

In the silence that followed, I wondered what we were supposed to do. I looked around the room and heard whimpers from different ones. Were we supposed to leave now? Were we supposed to wait? I never knew what I should do in that place.


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.