No Pit of Ashes for Me

By Karen Brode

The nursing home door was just across the parking lot from where I stood. There were no hills to go up or steps to climb. Even so, I felt as if I trudged through waist deep molasses to get there.

Mother had been in the nursing home seven years. Each year that passed, I wondered how much more I could take. I wanted her to die and be out of this misery. But then I felt terrible for having wished my own mother dead. Seeing her like she was, surely death was better?

I’ll admit there were times when I thought she might outlive me, when it seemed death was a disappointing friend—never there to relieve the suffering of my poor mother, never there to take me from the dread of seeing her suffer like that. It always hovered, always lingered somewhere in the shadows, but it never came. Maybe it was a blessing that at least one of us didn’t know what she had lost.

There were times when I arrived to find Mother in the dining room and she knew who I was. Little glimmers of the past, of the woman who had raised me, given me everything. Other times, she looked at me as if she had never seen me before. Every single time it hurt just like the first time it had happened.

Then there were the times when she saw me walking up to her and she would start crying.

“Where is Albert?” she’d ask, clutching and unclutching the arms of her chair with despair. “Why doesn’t he come visit me?”

The questions of my long-dead father always broke my heart almost as much as her not remembering who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t even try to tell her the truth that he had died when I was seven. It seemed cruel to tell her the truth. I would cry later, but not in front of her. In these times, I tended to tell her that he was out in west Texas, but he would be home at the end of the week and he would see her first thing. This is all she needed to hear.  She settled down after she knew where he was.

Other times, she asked me about her mom and dad. Somehow, even when she didn’t know who I was, she knew I represented her family.

“How are Momma and Daddy?” she’d ask.  “Are they okay?”

I tried to allay her worries and fears with little lies.

“They’re doing just fine,” I’d say, knowing they had long since passed on. “Why, just yesterday I ran into Granny at the grocery store and she was buying ingredients to buy a cake.”

This almost always made my mother’s face light up, as if she could see it clearly.

“They were planning to play dominoes that evening with some neighbors,” I’d continue to encourage her happiness.

I know you’re not supposed to lie, but it gave my mother peace of mind when that’s the one thing she hardly ever had. I discovered that my vivid imagination was an asset after all.

It surprised me that she never asked about my brother, John. I would like to have told her the truth about him if she ever mentioned him. He fled to Las Vegas to escape the nightmare she and I lived in. He left me to handle it all alone. I couldn’t tell if I was more angry or hurt that he had found a way not to be involved. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to be left holding the bag (again), but I was surprised. I think I expected him to rise to the occasion. What a foolish expectation.

The one thing I felt good about was that we could put her in the nice nursing home, the one with cheerful wallpaper and high end decorating. I took comfort in the fact that we put her in the best place possible. There wasn’t much else we could do for her. That was the most frustrating part.

I attended Christmas parties every year with my mother at the nursing home. Personally, I hoped to forget about the holiday. Seeing how  she deteriorated, I never felt as if there was anything to celebrate. The Christmas Carols sounded like funeral dirges. So many people sat in their wheelchairs asleep even as we clapped and sang around them. Mother was lost wherever the mind goes when it is deep with Alzheimer’s. She didn’t seem to realize it was Christmas.

Still, the nursing home tried to give all the folks something to enjoy. One year, someone dressed as Santa and went around the room ho-ho-hoing. When he stopped at our table with some goodies, he asked Mother what she wanted for Christmas. She just stared out somewhere in the distant past.

I glared at him and had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “What do you think she wants, Santa? A little piece of her mind back, maybe?”

It wasn’t his fault, of course, that we were in this place. It’s just that every Christmas since she had gone to the nursing home had been a reminder of what she had lost—what I had lost—and it got to be too much.

The first Christmas she was in there, it seemed that every store I entered immediately began playing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on their intercom system. I often had to leave my half-filled grocery cart in the aisle and walk out of the store crying.

After one particular Christmas party, I started to wheel Mother back toward her room, but felt a gentle grasp of someone’s hand on my arm. It was Harriett Mercer, a woman I had known in passing at church before her health had failed and she had to go to the nursing home. I didn’t know her well, but I could see her mind was still sharp, even if she was wheelchair bound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she knew the score. She knew she was in a nursing home. She knew she would never get out. She knew she would never go home again. Mother also would never go home again, but at least she didn’t know it.

When the nurse came by to push her down another hall, I waved goodbye and vowed to visit her next time.

True to my word, during my next visit I stood by her bed and held her hand while she told me about the life she had lived. Her husband, Floyd, had taught woodshop classes at the high school most their married life. He was killed in a car accident on a Sunday afternoon on the way home from a football game. She no longer cried as she spoke of that horrible day, but I could see the toll it had taken in the heaviness of her voice.

“He and his buddies had gone to see the Cowboys play,” she said, staring out into the difficult past. “Floyd drove. The others walked away with scratches. Floyd….” Her words drifted off with the pain that, even years later, came to the surface. “At least it had been a good day,” she said with more courage than I could imagine. “His friends, Merle and Bill, told me they’d had the time of their lives.”

I remembered then the accident that had killed her husband. He had been impaled by the steering column. I shuddered thinking about it and didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to think about it more than I had to.

Their only child, Floyd, Jr. had died of cancer when he was 45. No amount of time passing could keep the tears from leaking from her eyes as she told her son’s story of chemo and radiation and prayers that didn’t work.

“They gave him a 21 gun salute at the funeral,” she said. “But I hated it. My nerves were already gone. Hearing the guns go off finished me.”

I squeezed her hand a little harder as I listened. She stared at the ceiling for a while. I had the impression she was thinking back to more normal times, days when her family was intact.   “I never imagined things would end up the way they did,” she finally said. “I had a regular life once. And then I lost everything.”

I gasped at her words. Like Harriett, I had a husband and a son. And, although I have not known the pain of losing my husband, I came way too close to losing my son during his senior year of high school. He survived, but he lost his dream of being on the varsity track team and he nearly missed half of his school year. When he finally went back to school, it was with a walker and neck brace.

All this while my mother withered away under the influence of Alzheimer’s. The weight of it broke me down. I cringed when the phone rang. Was it the nursing home? Was my son in yet another wreck? Or maybe it was my husband who had met with disaster. I no longer expected things to go well.  Just getting through a day at work or a day at home seemed all I could do. I lost any hope of my life ever being normal again.

I looked at Harriett and felt a kinship with her. It seemed cruel that she still had her mind to remember all of that. It seemed oddly a blessing that my mother couldn’t remember the hard times she had experienced. Maybe she was better off not knowing where she was or what had happened to her.

Harriett’s eyes were magnified behind the thick glasses she wore. I asked her if I could get her something to read.

She shook her head. “I can’t see to read,” she said. Her voice broke over the words as if she mourned yet another loss. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”

She made a heavy wave with her curled up hand in the direction of the woman who shared her room. “She keeps that infernal television on night and day. Half the time I can’t even sleep.” She sighed and let her head drop back onto her pillow and closed her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in hell.”

I wanted to do something for Harriett. I tried to think of something, some measure of peace I could leave with her, but there wasn’t any. I looked to her bedside table, thinking I might read her a chapter from the Bible, anything to comfort her.

She saw me looking and guessed my thoughts. “I threw away my Bible years ago. I don’t have any use for a God who takes everyone I loved and everything I had and leaves me to languish in this place of complete misery.”

At first, I thought maybe I should defend God to her, remind her that He is good and has our lives in His hands, even when it feels that He doesn’t. But, to be honest, I could see her point. I sort of felt like she did and I wasn’t really happy with God either. I was becoming increasingly clear just how much she and I had in common and I was afraid of ending up just like her. It was a sobering thought.

Even so, my upbringing always brought me back to the Bible, searching for understanding and comfort. I thought of Job, the ultimate sufferer. I tried to remind myself what he said to his wife when he lost everything.

“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (I didn’t dare bring this up to Harriett.)

In the midst of his fiery pain Job was able to remember the many wonderful things from God before asking, “Should I expect to never have anything bad happen to me?”

I think Job was in better shape than I was. He seemed to take a lot of comfort in that pit he sat in with ashes on his head. I had no such pit, no ashes to give me peace. I had to keep going and try to make the most of what was left of my life. Somehow I envied him getting to give up and grieve. I didn’t have time to grieve!

Almost overnight, I felt as if everything in my life as I had known it was over. And it was. I was broken and I didn’t know how to put myself back together. And yet, standing there, holding Harriett’s hand, I realized something else. I could walk out of the nursing home anytime. I could go to my home and cook supper and take the trash out and mop the floor. These were activities that she would never do again.

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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.

Snakebite, Part I

By Karen Brode

Mother and I sat on the front porch steps contemplating the inky night sky pierced with stars that looked like pin pricks in fabric overhead. I wondered if heaven was just on the other side of the sky shining down on us in the form of stars.

My father had taught me many of the constellations. We had often watched the night sky together.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” he would say.

And then I would bounce up and down pointing. “And there’s the Little Dipper!”

“This night reminds me of the night Cleo got bit by the rattlesnake,” Mother said. She made it sound so normal, like it was a rite of passage for everyone.

“It was a quiet, still summer night, not the kind of night that you would think something bad would happen.”

Instinctively, I raised my feet up a step, just in case.

“How old was Cleo?” I asked. In my childish eight-year-old mind, it was hard for me to grasp the idea that old people had once been children. Even though I had seen pictures of my mother when she was young, it still didn’t quite register that she had been a child at one time. And yet, I knew on the other side of that coin, I would someday be old. Still, I couldn’t imagine being that old.

All my life I had heard about my mother’s childhood. It was something of a myth to me. She had all the things I longed for—three brothers and three sisters. And she had to share a bed with her sisters. My childhood was lonely. I thought it would be such fun to blend into a large family.

Mother stared up into the sky, her eyes seeming to calculate the heavens. “I believe that was the summer Cleo was eleven,” she said. Then she nodded and pressed her lips together. “Yes, she would have been eleven because I was nine.”

“I’m almost nine,” I said. I tried to look past the lines on my mother’s face and see the smallness of a child, but I still couldn’t see her as a kid.

“We were playing hide and seek just about this time of night,” she went on. “It was that in-between time between sunset and full dark. There were lightning bugs all over the place back then.”

In my mind, I could see lightning bugs everywhere. I knew we had lightning bugs too, but the way Mother told it, there were so many in her day that you didn’t need a flashlight to see in the dark.

She paused and looked out beyond our house, beyond our street. I did the same, sure we were both looking for the onslaught of lightning bugs to light up the night.

Finally, she continued. “It was Cleo’s turn to hide and she went out by the well and crouched down. I don’t think she was out there but a second or two when we heard her scream!”

I felt my chest tighten at the thought of this. Even though I knew Cleo had survived—she lived just over a few streets from us in the same town—I still had to ask, “Then what happened?”

“Well, Poppa went running to the sound of her screaming. He grabbed her up and ran to the house with her. We knew right away it was a snake that had bit her. Blood was oozing out of two little holes on her ankle and it was swelling fast.”

My stomach felt a little queasy thinking about it, but I leaned forward anyway.

“My brother Leon was fourteen at the time. Being the oldest, he took the coal oil lamp out by the well to try to see what kind of snake it had been.”

She closed her eyes then and seemed to transport back in time as she continued.

“I remember Cleo was completely white even in the dimly lit parlor. Her heart was beating so fast and she was having trouble breathing. Poppa laid her out on the divan.

“Mama just screamed, ‘Get the doctor, get the doctor!’ over and over. She wasn’t very good in a crisis. No matter how many times Poppa told her to calm down, she never did.

“I don’t know how long it took the doctor to arrive, but he got there and immediately put a tourniquet around Cleo’s ankle to try to keep the poison from going past her ankle. Of course, by then, some of it had probably already traveled all over her body.”

I shivered. The idea of poison going all through my body terrified me.

“Before long, Leon brought up the dead snake. The doctor and Poppa looked at each other with dread when they saw the rattler still rattling.”

A neighbor walked by just then, crunching through some gravel. I jumped at the sound of it, but was relieved to see it was a person and not a snake.

Mother continued. “Cleo writhed in pain like that for what seemed like forever. She was out of her head. Our momma cradled her and rocked her back and forth. Cleo was somewhere between life and death. She kept telling Momma that she saw Jesus, and Momma looked at Poppa with such fright.

“All us kids gathered in the parlor to see what was going to happen. Leon held on to the coal oil lantern like he couldn’t let it go. Opal and Jewel stood like they couldn’t breathe. James and Walter, the younger boys, cowered in one corner of the room. And I sat with my back to the piano, trying not to think about all those times we had had together as a family, singing. I just started praying silently in my head. It was the only thing I knew to do.”

She nodded like she was agreeing with herself and then said, “It was the best thing to do.”

Want to find out what happens to Cleo?

Check back in tomorrow for more from Karen Brode!

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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.

Margaritas and Woe

By Karen Brode

I had not seen Wanda since high school forty years ago, except for a few awkward meetings in Wal-mart or the grocery store.  I didn’t know what to say to her, really. She and I had been inseparable in elementary school, but by middle school, just like that, we had nothing in common.

The older we got, the wider the gap between us. As teenagers, I overheard church matrons talk about how boy crazy Wanda was.

“That girl,” said the ever-righteous Mrs. Albright, “she’s gonna wind up in a world of trouble one day.”

The ever-pious Mrs. Carmichael agreed. “Her mother leaves for work and Wanda has a boy to the house until she goes to school.”

“She needs to be more like Jane here,” said the devout widow Mrs. Stewart. She leaned forward in her pew to pat me on the shoulder. “Janey here is a good girl.”

Nothing like three old ladies contrasting you with your worldly ex-best friend to make you feel ancient and undesirable. And I was only 13 at the time.

That didn’t bother me as much as knowing that Wanda’s mother held me as an example to her daughter as to how a girl should be at 13. Whenever they argued, Mrs. Rivers always ended with, “Why can’t you be more like Jane?”

It made me cringe.

Years later, in 1968, the old ladies’ predictions came true. It was our senior year and Wanda walked through the hallways holding her books in front of her, keeping her eyes cast down. She had gotten pregnant the summer before and been forced to marry her boyfriend. She finished high school, then, with a baby on the way and a new surname.

Whenever I saw her walking the halls in shame, I always wondered if she had wanted it to happen, or if it had been some horrible realization when she looked in the mirror one morning and saw the pregnancy beginning to bloom.

I’ll admit, there was some part of me that was a little jealous. There were mornings when I walked past Wanda’s car and she and her young husband would be locked into an embrace of passion and desire. No one had ever been that needy of me. No boy had ever clung to me as if I were the answer to all of life’s problems.

And now, all these years later, Wanda wanted to have lunch with me. We hadn’t really talked in over forty years, and yet, the same worries and concerns plagued me at 60 as they had in high school. I worried that she might think I looked down on her, but I didn’t. Instead, I hoped I could somehow seem as worldly as she was.

The last several years had been so hard for me. I had been through things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I wanted to show Wanda she wasn’t alone in all that she had suffered. I didn’t want her to think that she had been singled out to feel miserable and to make drastic mistakes. I wanted her to know all that had happened in my life, to somehow put things in perspective so she would know she wasn’t being punished for not “being like Jane.”

Or, maybe it was the awareness that I had been Jane and, in spite of following all the rules, I had still suffered horrible things and made bad choices. No one escapes unscathed in this world.

When I entered the restaurant, I saw her already sipping on a margarita in a booth. I approached the table and she stood up to hug me.

At first, we talked about our children and I learned what had become of her right after high school. Her first child was named for the young man she had clung to in the car all those years ago.

“God, I hate him,” she said, talking about her ex and taking a long sip on her margarita. “We had to go and have two more kids before we figured out we couldn’t stand each other.” At 21, she became a single mom with three kids.

I thought about that time in our lives when we were just kids. I remembered how so many of her choices were in direct defiance of her mother and the church we went to. It seemed an awful price to pay to have to raise three kids on her own just so she could get back at her mother, but I didn’t point that out.

I cleared my throat and told her about my son, Frank. “When they found the cancer, it was stage three,” I said about his brain tumor. “It nearly did me in.”

Rather than understanding, the conversation took a competitive turn.

“At least he’s still alive,” she said. “My grandson is only ten and has stage four brain cancer. He’s taking chemo and radiation as we speak.” Her voice was hard as she said, “Nobody knows if he’s going to make it.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. It was sad to think about a little boy going through what my son went through, and worse. Still, there had to be some way we could connect, some way I could show her we were similar.

When the waitress came to our table, Wanda ordered a chicken salad and another margarita. I looked across the table at her folded up menu and empty glass. Then I looked to the waitress who was standing above me, waiting for my order.

I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“A chicken salad and a margarita?” asked the waitress. She no longer looked at me, but wrote in her pad.

“Uh-huh,” I said. I didn’t think I could get the word margarita out of my mouth without my voice faltering.

I hated the taste of alcohol. After considering my genetic background, I realized this was a blessing. A recovering alcoholic had once told me never to take even a sip of alcohol. With a whole line of alcoholics in my family, he knew what I was up against.

“You’ll never be able to stop,” he had said.

So I trusted this advice and stayed as far away from it as I could. But then life caved in on me and I turned to tranquilizers, pills my doctor had prescribed in great quantities.

At the time, I told myself that was different. Pills prescribed by a doctor couldn’t be the same as drinking alcohol. A psychologist had explained to me later that the tranquilizers I was taking were from the benzodiazepine family; they hit the same receptors in the brain that alcohol did. I might as well have been drinking alcohol.

It made me feel duped somehow that in my weakest moment I had not escaped addiction. Looking back, I admit those tranquilizers were all that got me through the scary and sad times. But at the end of it, I was left with a nagging addiction to benzodiazepines. I no longer had a choice about taking them. My body wanted them even if I didn’t. And now I had to take them everyday, just to feel normal.

I had been warned about what might happen if I tried to stop taking tranquilizers too fast: nausea, body aches, palpitations of my heart, and a seizure. There was a chance I could die if I just stopped taking them cold turkey.

The waitress brought me my margarita and I stared at it a long time before taking a drink. I knew I would have to at least look like I was drinking it. I knew Wanda was watching me, wanting to convince herself that I was still too good to be like her.

Finally, I picked up the drink and took a small sip. I lingered on the straw to make it seem like I had taken a bigger swallow. The taste of the alcohol was awful. I tried not to gag.

Wanda was in the middle of telling me about her children, a boy and two girls. I kept my eyes on hers as I casually opened and dumped three packages of Sweet-n-Low into my margarita.

“My youngest is the only one who lives nearby,” she said. “The others have moved as far away as they can.”

I’m not sure how much time had passed when I ventured my next sip. Wanda was telling me in great detail about her mother-in-law who lived a few blocks from her and her second husband.

“That woman goes doctor shopping every few months, and she’s 88 years old. Can you believe it?”

I secretly felt sorry for Wanda’s mother-in-law. She was obviously a woman like me—she wanted her pills.

Wanda continued to regale me with stories of her life and her children’s lives. I listened as best I could while adding four more Sweet-n-Low packets to the margarita. Surely, I thought, this is how to make a margarita taste less like alcohol and more like an attractive drink.

I took another sip. Nope. It still tasted like alcohol.

I was somewhat relieved when the time came for me to share a little about my life. In spite of having to relive some of the worst moments of my life, at least I didn’t have to drink any more of that margarita while I was talking.

“He was 18 when we got the call,” I said about our son. “We got to the scene of the wreck just as they were cutting him out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Now, every time I hear a siren, my mind goes back to that night.”

Wanda nodded. “It’s a horrible thing,” she said. “My youngest was in an accident and they had taken him to a hospital in Dallas. My husband and I had that long drive through Dallas traffic, not knowing what we would find when we got there. Thank heavens he was still alive.”

Wanda had been married to her second husband for 30 years and she was full of praise for the kindness of this man who had come along to help her raise her three children. I thought it was wonderful, too, that she had found someone so devoted to her.

While she talked, I listened intently, making sure we had eye contact while I emptied four more Sweet-n-Low packets into my drink. Thinking that should have done the trick, I cheerfully took a rather long sip of the margarita through the straw. It felt like fire going down my throat. I started coughing and couldn’t seem to stop.

“Jane, are you alright, hon?” Wanda asked.

I nodded, but kept coughing. “I’ll be okay—cough—just give me a minute—cough.

Finally, I grabbed a glass of water and downed half of it in one swig. The coughing subsided and I was able to tell Wanda about my job woes.

“I had worked for that place for 30 years,” I said. “And, right in the middle of Frank’s illness—right when I needed support the most—they fired me.”

I thought for sure this would somehow bond us, that she would see we were alike underneath it all. But the eyes looking back at me had no sympathy, no understanding.

“Try being a single mother with three small children and being fired from two jobs in one year,” she said. “I thought I’d never recover after that.”

I looked down at my margarita and realized then it was the only thing that Wanda seemed to relate to. But then she said, “You know, I might drink some of your margarita if you hadn’t drowned it in Sweet-n-Low.”

I was hoping she hadn’t noticed.

“Oh,” I said, laughing awkwardly. “It won’t go to waste. I’ll just get a to-go cup and take it to my husband.”

“Are you kidding?” she asked. Her eyes were wide with surprise. She leaned over the table and said in a quiet voice, “Jane, honey, you can’t ask for a to-go cup for an alcoholic beverage.”

“Oh, yeah!”  I said, trying not to blush. “What was I thinking?”

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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.

Hazel on a Greyhound

By Karen Brode

Hazel stood in the tall grass and weeds on the side of the highway. Her suitcase was at her feet. The rest of the people who had been on the Greyhound bus were with her. She guessed there were about 20 people in all. She looked as far as she could down the access road one way and then the other way. There was no roadside cafe, no pay telephone, nothing.

She wished that she could call her son, Kenneth, in Houston. He was waiting for her to call him from the bus station so he could pick her up. She would feel better if she could tell him what had happened. But even if she could’ve called him, she wouldn’t have known where she was. She hadn’t paid any attention to the road signs since she wasn’t driving.

She had always driven the Old Flivver to Houston to visit Kenneth and his family. The Old Flivver was what she called her car. It had gotten her to Houston many times, but she had heard a knocking last week, and she was afraid it might break down on the way to Houston. And then what would she do? She didn’t trust anybody outside of General Jones, her mechanic at the Ford house in Denison. He always took good care of the Old Flivver and never made her feel silly for not knowing what a carburetor did. If her car broke down on the road, she would be at the mercy of some unknown mechanic to fix whatever it was and then he’d probably overcharge her. It was this thought that prompted her to buy a bus ticket.

The truth was, Hazel had never really adjusted to not having her husband Albert to take care of things like this. Life had been so much simpler when he was around. She could just tell him she needed to go to the grocery store and he would drive her there. He usually sat in the car with his paperback book while she shopped. He never complained about it much either.

She still thought of him everyday, even though it had been over twenty years since he died. Most mornings she had to stop herself from getting two coffee cups from the cupboard. No one told her that the emptiness and sadness would go on and on, even years later. Back when he died, she managed to get through the funeral and the ensuing hugs of sympathy. She had struggled, but had even managed to pull it together enough for their youngest child, Karen.

These days were hard in a different way. The urgent grieving had softened, but there were moments that caught her by surprise. She missed his companionship. And she had no one else in the house to keep her from thinking about these things. Sometimes when she looked in the mirror, not only did she see her 62-year-old reflection staring back at her, but she saw Albert, too. He would be standing behind her, saying, “I can’t believe my girl has grey hair.”

It was bad enough being alone in the house. Hazel did not like to be alone on a long trip. When Karen was younger, Hazel felt better just having another person with her. Now her youngest child was married and had her own little child to take care of. Hazel grew tired of all the adjustments she had to make to each set of changes in her life. She had no husband to help her, and her middle child, John, had never been a help to her. She tried to think well of John because she loved him dearly. He could make her laugh on her worst day. But he wasn’t dependable or reliable. She hardly ever asked him to do anything for her. It was just better that way.

Her oldest, Kenneth, was no angel, but he represented a part of her life that had made her so happy. He had been her first baby, the apple of his grandmother Hawk’s eyes, the only baby in the family for so long. He was the fruit of their young love, and even now when he was around, she took on a certain glow. She could look at him and be transported back to that time of her life. She and Albert were as poor as Job’s turkey back in those days. But now, when she thought of those days it seemed that they were the happiest of her life.

Her oldest son was so much like her husband. Kenneth worked very hard and took pride in his work. She never had to worry about him.

She looked around at the other passengers from the bus and shuddered a little with worry for herself right then. Everyone was in various stages of anger and disbelief. Most of them complained about the situation to the other people who stood next to them. Two men standing over by a fence talked angrily about what this was costing them.

Hazel overheard one of them say, “If I lose my account because of this, I’m gonna sue the pants off these people.”

Things had gone all right up to this point. But then the bus driver got on his microphone and announced that the engine was overheating. He had been instructed to stop and let another bus come to pick up the passengers. He kept his head down as the passengers filed past him to disembark. No one was happy about it.

Hazel was glad there were some other women around, but when she looked closer at them, she saw they had a hardened look about them. Cigarettes hung out of their mouths and, for all Hazel knew, they might have just gotten out of prison that morning.

She cleared her throat, straightened her back, and stood as close as possible to her suitcase. Her purse had been hanging from her right hand when she first got off the bus, but soon she shifted it in front of her, so she could hold onto it with both hands.

The idea of prisons and prisoners brought to mind the recent news she had seen on television about two convicts who had broken out of prison in McAlester, Oklahoma. This made Hazel very mad because it seemed to her that prisoners broke out of that prison on a regular basis. She didn’t understand how it could happen over and over. It was clear that someone wasn’t doing their job.

After she saw that, she got on the phone with Kenneth and told him that she was scared those convicts would come to her house.

“Mom,” he said. She remembered his voice had such exasperation in it. Why did he always get so exasperated by her concerns? “Your house is almost 100 miles from McAlester. What are the odds they’ll go anywhere near your house?”

“But they could,” she said. “Why not?”

He sighed, or so she thought she had heard him sigh. It bothered her that he wasn’t as concerned about this as she was.

“Look, Mom, you’ve got houses on all sides of you. The criminals would be stupid to come to your house.”

She wasn’t convinced.

In fact, she wasn’t convinced that the other people in those houses around her weren’t criminals themselves. When her children were younger, that neighborhood had been a nice area. Now, though, lots of the older people were dying and leaving their houses to young rabble-rousers. These people rode motorcycles and stayed up all night listening to loud music and no telling what all else they did that she didn’t even know about. She didn’t even feel safe to sit out in her yard anymore.

Albert had built the house for them when they were young. It was just what she wanted, although she had really wanted the house to be wider across in the front. Her husband had explained that the lot they bought did not permit that, so she shrugged it off. She knew everything couldn’t be her way. At least she got a new house. It had the most beautiful hardwood floors, which she kept shiny in those early years.

Albert had often told people that they lived out on Dago Hill. Hazel didn’t think he should say that, but in the beginning, most of the neighbors had been Italian. The supper smells emanating from their kitchens were so enticing and all the neighbors were so friendly. Hazel recalled Mrs. Siragusa, the old woman across the street. Her casseroles were to die for and, on occasion, she brought one over to share. Her English wasn’t that good, but her intentions were.

She would knock on the door, and say, “Missy Hawkie, casserole from Italy!”

It smelled so good and filled the house with hearty aromas. In the next day or two, Hazel would reciprocate by making a chess pie or a peach cobbler for Mrs. Siragusa.

These were the ways of neighbors back in those days. People depended on each other. If one person ran out of sugar in the middle of a recipe they would send one of their children to a neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. Hazel knew all the families who lived up and down the street and even around the block. She remembered with fondness how much fun it had been to invite all the neighbor ladies to a Stanley party in the afternoons. The Stanley representative almost always arrived late, but always had something so wonderful for everyone to ooh and ahh over. At her last Stanley party, she and all of her neighbors bought a Nifty-Jifty Bottle Cap Opener. She still had hers somewhere.

They had Stanley parties and Avon parties, and everyone dressed up a bit for them with heels and pearls. It gave them an afternoon together to discuss their flowerbeds and children. None of them talked about what was really going on in their lives. It was more fun to pretend to be television housewives whose worst problem was how to remove soap scum from their bathtubs.

Hazel enjoyed the company of the other women on those afternoons. She often showed them what sort of sewing project she was working on. She made all of Karen’s dresses and most of John’s shirts.

Hazel wasn’t sure how long it was before the new bus arrived. She looked up and down the access road a hundred times to see if it was coming. The sun beat down on her head until it hurt. She desperately wanted to take an aspirin, but she had nothing with which to swallow it.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, the new bus pulled up. Everyone cheered. All the anger and talk of lawsuits sputtered out and turned into relaxed conversation. Even so, Hazel kept a polite distance.

Kenneth was already at the bus station when her bus got there. He was the first person she saw. The bus company must’ve called to tell him that there would be a delay. She’d had to fill out a form at the Denison bus station saying who should be contacted in case of emergency. She never knew what to put on those questionnaires. Finally, she decided it might be good to put Kenneth’s name in that place since she was going to his house.

She looked out her bus window and saw his worried confusion and giggled. He was such a worrier. She thought about John then, too, and couldn’t get over how different her sons were.

She stepped off the bus and the smell of diesel fuel and smoke filled her lungs. It was the smell of despair to her. She didn’t like being in the bus loading area. Her headache worsened at the smell.

“Are you okay, Mom?” Kenneth came running to her.

She nodded and said she was fine, but she rubbed her head a little and squinted from the headache.

“Let’s get your suitcases and then we’ll head home. Helen has a good supper cooking, and you can rest or do whatever you want.” Kenneth always tried to make the best of things.

Once they got to his house, Kenneth said, “Go on in the house and get cool, Mom. I’ll get the bags.”

She had forgotten about their faulty septic system but remembered just as her left shoe got buried in the sopping yard. She stifled a groan. There wasn’t anything she could do about it, so she’d rather not complain.

Wincing with each step, she waded as quickly as she could across the backyard into the utility room. She sighed looking at her sopping shoes. They would probably never be quite the same color they had been. She trying to figure out what she should do with her shoes when her daughter-in-law, Helen, opened the door and gave Hazel a big bear hug.

“The bus company called us,” she said in alarm. “What on earth happened?”

“We had to stand out in the hot sun for what seemed like hours. I think I have a migraine.”

Helen took her shoes and put them on top of the dryer. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Come on in and get yourself something to eat.”

“I hope you haven’t gone to a lot of trouble cooking,” said Hazel, taking note of Helen’s weight gain. “I don’t think I could eat a thing.” On the trip, Hazel had worn a conservative black and white plaid dress that was belted, showing off her slim figure. She had attributed her relatively good health to keeping her weight down. She did have high blood pressure, but she said that was because of the worry John had put her through.

Helen, on the other hand, might have hard times ahead of her, thought Hazel. She had long dispensed with belts and waistlines. Her fashion leaned more toward Expandomatic stretch pants and long tops.

Plus, thought Hazel, she has her own version of John to deal with.

Terry was Kenneth and Helen’s 12-year-old son. From all counts, he should have been John’s son. They were cut from the same cloth. It broke Kenneth’s spirit to have such a worrying child. And, whenever he came up in conversation, it was sure to hurt Helen’s feelings and cause a rift between the two parents. Hazel didn’t want to get anything like that started, so she didn’t ask about him right away.

Instead, she took a wet washcloth into Kenneth and Helen’s bedroom and lied down. She must’ve fallen asleep hard because when she woke, it was dark outside.

Hazel turned on the hall light. It illuminated part of Terry’s bedroom. She noticed he was asleep in his bed.

At least, he’s still alive, thought Hazel.

She watched him sleep from the hallway and was glad she didn’t have to make conversation with him. She never quite knew what to say to him. She remembered when he was younger, she would tell him she was going to count his ribs. It always resulted in Terry screaming and giggling. But now, she didn’t even know how to talk to him.

She went into the den where Kenneth was asleep in his recliner. The television was tuned to the news where they were talking about a massive manhunt in Grayson County, where she lived.

“The convicts escaped from McAlester penitentiary yesterday and apparently made their way to Lake Texoma, where they have robbed a sporting goods store and killed the owners. They are still at large and are currently being hunted in northeast Denison.”

Hazel’s heart quickened. “Kenneth, Kenneth, wake up! Look at this!”

“What is it?” he said. His voice was muddied with sleep.

Hazel pointed to the screen. “Look!”

“Sheriff’s Reserve Deputies were using every means necessary to capture the fugitives.” The camera swooped past the deputies riding on horseback, across a row of houses down a street.

“That’s my neighborhood!” said Hazel. Then she stood up and nearly fainted. There, on national television was her house—at the center of a manhunt for two dangerous criminals.

“Oh my word!” she cried. “There’s my house, Kenneth! Do you see that?” She fell back onto the couch. “You didn’t believe me when I said I thought they were coming to my house, but look! That’s exactly where they went!”

There was nothing for Kenneth to say.

___________________________________

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.

Death by Hubcap

By Karen Brode

As soon as Mother opened the front door, she sent me to my room. Aunt Winnie stood on our porch, clutching her handbag in one hand and holding a handkerchief to her nose with the other. Her red eyes were wide and unblinking. Her face was sopped with tears she had already shed. At ten, I didn’t have to be told that something bad had happened, but it must have been really bad if I wasn’t supposed to hear it.

I did as I was told at first, but left my door open a crack so I could hear something. It was hard not to hear Winnie’s sobs as Mother led her to the kitchen. It wasn’t long, though, before my curiosity got the best of me and I crawled out into the hall on my hands and knees, trying to be as quiet as possible.

“How could this happen?” I heard Winnie sputter through her tears.

I poked my head around the corner as slowly as I could and saw Aunt Winnie at the table with her head in her hands. Tears ran down her arms onto the table. I could only see the back of Mother’s head and her own arms outstretched on the table, as if trying to reach out and comfort Winnie.

“I don’t understand,” said Mother. “Harold is dead?”

This brought on a wail from Aunt Winnie, who nodded and soaked up her tears with her handkerchief. The only Harold I knew was Aunt Winnie’s cousin from Amarillo.

“He was…” started Winnie. “He was driving home from school and…OH, it’s just terrible.” She threw her head on her arms and cried.

“He was driving home from school,” said my mother. “Was he in a car accident?”

With her head still down on her arms, Winnie nodded. She looked up, took a deep breath, and with determination in her eyes, she blurted, “He was decapitated, Hazel!” Then she threw her head down again and sobbed.

Decapitated! I sat up against the wall and felt for my throat, as if it had happened to me. My heart beat hard in my chest. It was the worst word to hear, the worst kind of thing to happen.

“Oh my word,” Mother said. Her voice cracked with what I was sure was the same kind of fear I was feeling. “How could this have happened?”

“I just don’t know!” said Aunt Winnie. She seemed to take comfort in rattling Mother as much as she was rattled. Her words were still swilling in sobs, but she was able to go into more detail. “They say someone’s hubcap came shooting off their car from the other lane. It went right through Harold’s windshield and….” She trailed off in a wail.

Even I teared up thinking about what had happened. I cringed and wiggled on my spot in the hall. Mother was right. I should have stayed in my room. What made it worse was that I remembered meeting cousin Harold and his wife not a month before. They were visiting Aunt Winnie and I remembered her saying they were planning trips they wanted to make when Harold retired at the end of the school year.

I felt a little nauseous and started to crawl back to my room when I heard Aunt Winnie say, “There’s no point in doing anything, is there? How can anyone get up in the morning and get dressed and make plans for the day when something like this could happen at any moment?”

“Any moment,” I echoed. My throat closed up thinking about other deaths I had heard about that were unforeseen.

Mike, a boy in my fifth grade class, had been playing by the railroad tracks after school one day, and somehow gotten hit by a train, and killed. I knew that this would never happen to me because I would look carefully both ways before I even stepped onto a railroad track. I had often wondered if Mike had been tired of living, even though he was only ten years old. He didn’t have many friends and he was going home to an empty house because his parents both worked. Maybe he just didn’t want to go on. It was easier for me to think that than to imagine a train sneaking up on him and killing him.

What Aunt Winnie said was true and I knew it in my heart. Terrible, irrevocable things could happen without warning at any moment. Why would anyone even leave their house?

Finally, Winnie stopped crying. I leaned back around the corner to get a glimpse of her. She was sitting up looking out into the nothingness in front of her. Mother, too, was quiet. There wasn’t anything to say. Words would have been useless.

“Maybe he was tired that day,” whispered Winnie, who was hoarse from crying. “He was probably thinking of getting home, sitting in his recliner with a cold glass of tea. He wouldn’t have any papers to grade since it was Friday. Maybe he would have nodded off in the recliner for a nap.”

Winnie and I both knew that people died everyday. My own dad had died not four years earlier. There were all kinds of deaths, and usually, it was after some lingering, some hospital visit, and maybe after a surgical procedure when the doctors just sewed everything up and told the person to enjoy what little life they had left. But they all had a warning: Death is coming. Soon.

Death wasn’t supposed to just just fly through the air and decapitate someone.

As Winnie talked about Harold’s last moments, I listened, imagining everything she said.

“There he was,” she said. “Sitting at the wheel of his car. He was probably squinting into the late afternoon sun.” She blew her nose in her handkerchief. “Oh, Hazel. He had taught for so long. His whole life was held together with habits and character and being careful.”

She took a napkin from the holder on the table and mopped her tears from her arms. “He was not a risky person, you know. We were cut from the same cloth about these things, but even I thought he was a little crazy for using his seatbelt every time he got in the car.”

Winnie usually didn’t wear her seatbelt because it bothered her to think she might be trapped by the seatbelt if there was a wreck. Even so, she still threw her right arm out to catch me if she had to stop suddenly.

She stared off again and winced as if seeing everything unfold for her in person.

I sat there thinking about cousin Harold. It occurred to me that he and Winnie were a lot alike. I remembered her telling me how important it was to work hard and put myself through college like she and cousin Harold had.

“There are no free rides for people like us,” she’d say. She and Harold both seemed to expect to have to work hard everyday to make the best of life.

My thoughts were interrupted when I heard Winnie talk about one of Harold’s students.

“I know this is ridiculous, but I thought of a student Harold told me about as soon as I heard the news. This boy was scary, probably a psychopath. He’s taller than Harold and, apparently, he used to just glower as he wrote math problems on the chalkboard.” Winnie’s lips tightened. I could tell she had wanted to blame the boy for Harold’s death, but even I knew it was a crazy accident.

“It is just unthinkable,” I heard my mother say and I saw her clutching the necklace at her neck.

For years later, Winnie would talk about what had happened to Harold, as if it might happen to her too. “They say he hadn’t even seen it coming,” she would say. “That he was probably fiddling with the radio or adjusting the sun visor.”

Even as she sat at the table with my mother, she contemplated whether it was better if he had seen it coming or not.

“He must have been surprised to realize he was dead,” she said, dabbing her balled up napkin at a spot on the table. “Or maybe he didn’t even know he was dead.” Then she shrugged. “I can’t imagine any of it.”

She was silent for a while, as was Mother, who got up to get them both glasses of iced tea. When Mother returned, Winnie continued.

“What do you suppose he was thinking just before he died?” she asked.

“Probably not death,” said Mother.

Winnie nodded. “He had just put in another week teaching and he was going home to Juanita. They had talked about visiting their son, Mark, in Abilene. Harold was certainly not thinking about death.”

I knew that Winnie would’ve been upset no matter how Harold had died. Seeing him just a few weeks ago with his cheeks aglow with health and vitality made his death seem ridiculous and unnecessary. But this way of dying, this was almost too much for any of us.

“Do you think it would have been different if he had just stopped to check his teacher mailbox after school?” she asked. “Or maybe if he had forgotten something from his classroom and gone back to get it? Do you think that would have changed all of this?”

Mother shrugged and shook her head. “It’s hard to say.”

“We were so much alike,” Winnie said. “Harold went to work everyday and taught math, just like I do.” She blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill over her lids. “Hazel, he was such a good man.”

“I know,” said my mother, handing her another napkin.

“He went to church on Sundays and taught a Men’s Bible class on Wednesday evening.” She blew her nose into the napkin and balled it into her hand.

“There were no black marks by his name,” she continued. “This isn’t supposed to happen to good people.” And as she said this, she looked up at the ceiling and clutched her throat as if she too, who had devoted her life to being good, was doomed to the same fate.

________________________________

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.

Jars of Money

By Karen Brode

My brother, John, had moved back to our hometown in north Texas after ten years of living in Las Vegas. He was sixty-one years old, and his appearance had changed so much that it was hard for me to think it was really him. Corpulent was a word that described him when he fled our hometown. Now he was almost too thin. We had been estranged for such a long time that it was a challenge to know what to say to him. He came back with a new wife. I couldn’t help wondering if there had been other wives in those years.

In some dark corner of my mind, I knew he had come back to die. But when he called to ask me to visit him one sunny Saturday afternoon, I tried not to think about it.

“We’ll sit in the backyard and shoot the bull,” he said. He was much better at that than I, but I went because I thought the time we had left together would be short.

After I got there, we sat across from each other at a wooden table. The table was old enough to have been bleached by the sun, but the umbrella over our heads was festive and new.

The smell of chlorine from his pool brought back memories of summers when I was a child. I had never learned to swim exactly, but I prided myself on thinking that I could float. I probably couldn’t float if I was panicking, though. It would be important not to panic.

John tapped out another cigarette from the pack on the table and then lit it, blowing the smoke upwards. He squinted into the sun.

“Would you get me an ashtray?” he asked. “They’re inside the house.”

The house was dark after being in the bright sunshine, but then I spotted several to on a table in the living room. Some still had ash and butts in them. I wasn’t sure which one he’d want, so I took the closest one.

When I sat back down, I pulled my chair to the side in hopes of avoiding as much cigarette smoke as possible.

“Do you remember Uncle Charlie?” John asked, almost immediately.

My mind flipped through a rolodex of faces of people I had known as a child. Uncle Charlie’s swam up to my conscious mind. It occurred to me that he had had skin cancer all over his face, but back when I was a child, I wouldn’t have known that.

“I can’t believe I remember him, but I do,” I said. “Seems I only saw him a couple of times in my whole life. He was very thin and wore a cowboy hat.” I recalled how Uncle Charlie and Aunt Emma had had cattle, and how he always stayed out in the fields. “He may have been one of the last cowboys to walk the earth.”

John smiled, “Oh he was a cowboy alright. I always liked him.” He looked sideways at me and continued, “You know, he never went to church, but he was a good man.”

I had heard this song many times, and I stayed silent. Uncle Charlie was someone John identified with, except for the good part. My brother was not a particularly good person, but he probably thought he was. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get him started on an argument about the Bible.

Whenever we argued about these things, John’s favorite argument was “Who did Cain marry?” And every time, I told him that I didn’t care who Cain married. It wasn’t something I had to know. Still, whenever we talked about religion or faith, John steered it right back to Cain.

“Do you remember where Charlie and Emma’s house was?” he asked. His voice was conspiring.

“They’ve all been dead for years,” I said. “The last time I drove by there, the only thing left of the house was filled with bales of hay and there were cows on the front porch.”

John laughed. “Those cows may have been an improvement over Aunt Emma!” he said. “She used to sit out there, too!”

This got me to giggling. “Oh yeah, you know those cows were better looking than Aunt Emma!”

“Did you know,” I said, cracking up, “she won a beauty contest at the Fannin County state fair when she was young?”

John looked at me incredulously. “Nah. That’s impossible,” he said.

“Aunt Winnie told me. She had been a child hiding in the shadows as Emma looked at herself in the mirror,” I told him. “She watched Emma eating peanuts as she celebrated her newfound beauty.” The image of this in my mind got me to giggling again.

“I never heard anything like that,” said John, his grinchy grin curling up on his face. “If she did win a beauty contest, it’s because no one else entered! The only way she could’ve won is if she was the only contestant!”

I doubled over in my chair laughing at poor Aunt Emma. I could never have imagined her winning a beauty contest either.

Just as my side started hurting from laughing so hard, John got a serious look on his face.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

My laughter came to a complete halt. It was never good when John got to thinking. I felt my shoulders tighten as my guard went up. Whenever he got to thinking, it usually meant danger for my body or soul.

He leaned across the table and in a low voice said, “You know Charlie and Emma didn’t believe in banks.”

I nodded. “You couldn’t blame them. All those people who lived through the Depression and saw what happened to the stock market were wary of banks.”

In the back of my mind, I knew where this story was going. Both of us had heard many times how our uncle and aunt had buried their money in the field in mason jars with metal lids. I had always imaged Uncle Charlie had made some sort of map where the jars were buried. Then I remembered how he kept a wad of $100 bills in his shirt pocket. They were safety pinned to his pocket, probably because the money had fallen out several times. Even as a child I had wondered why he would carry that kind of money so visibly. It seemed like a robbery waiting to happen.

John leaned even further across the table. He looked both ways as if to make sure no one could overhear.

“How would you like to help me find that money?” he asked.

My stomach lurched. Just the thought of being an accessory to such a thing made me nauseous.

“John, someone owns that land now,” I said. “You can’t just go on someone’s property and start digging!”

“Gary has a pretty high tech metal detector, doesn’t he?”

I wanted to say that Gary had given it away because he didn’t find things with it like he thought he would, but the truth was that he still had it.

“I don’t…you can’t….” I tried to think quickly for protests to John’s plan, but my breath was failing me. Finally, I said in a flurry of words, “There’s a house across the road from there. They’re probably the owners and, if not, they probably know who the owners are. Don’t you think they’d call the police to tell them someone was in the field with a metal detector?”

“What if it was 2 in the morning when everyone was asleep?” asked John.

“I…I…” I stuttered. “I don’t know for certain that I would be able to find where the house was,” I said.

My ears were ringing and my neck felt suddenly hot. I shifted in my seat, knowing how close I was getting to telling a lie. The truth was, I had visited Aunt Emma enough as a child that I was fairly sure I could find my way back there if I had to, but with every word out of John’s mouth, I wanted less and less to do with it.

John leaned back in his chair. He took the cigarette from his mouth and held his arm away from his body like Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone. I half expected him to say, “Imagine if you will….an enormous field in the middle of the night.” But he didn’t. He just sat there, strategizing.

I knew my brother. He only wanted me there to help him locate the money. If he found anything in the field, he would’ve feigned defeat and pretended to give up. Then, after I had gone home, he would’ve gone back to get the money. He had no intention of sharing it with me. I was useless to him except to help him find what he was looking for.

It’s hard to know these things about a brother, but I knew that is exactly what he would do.

As we sat in silence, my thoughts went to Aunt Emma’s old place. Uncle Charlie died, then Emma, and finally Winnie, even though she never lived there. Still, generations passed and over the years, the house began to disappear with them. I was struck by the memory that the outhouse somehow outlived the house. It leaned way over before it met its demise, but it stood there for years. I remembered it had a sliver of wood cut out near the top of the door to resemble a sliver of moon. A lot of outhouses back then had that. I wondered if it was a utilitarian thing, or if it was merely a decorating touch.

John’s voice brought me out of my thoughts when he asked, “Do you remember that there was a cellar on one side of the house?” His eyebrows were knitted together, like he was trying to bring it all back to living memory.

“I wouldn’t have thought of that, but yes, there was a cellar.” I remembered running up and down the cellar door as a child. It wasn’t the kind of door that you could slide on, like my Aunt Winnie’s. Hers was angled, like a slide. If I gave myself a good push to get started, I could slide a few feet down it.

“Was it a concrete cellar?” asked John.

By now, I knew that he was putting his plan together in his mind as we talked. I could not remember. Winnie’s cellar had been concrete, and it was still there even now. It was the only reminder of the way things had been when I was a child. I knew if I could stand on that cellar, I would know where the house had been, where the shed was, where the garage had stood.

My Grandfather Morrison’s cellar had been a dirt one. I only looked in it once, and even if I had seen a tornado bearing down on me, I wouldn’t have gone in there.

“If it was a dirt one,” I said, hoping to sway John from his plan, “I’m sure it’s been plowed under by now.”

John narrowed his eyes and said, “I’ve thought of it all. Here’s what we’ll do.” I hated that he was still on this and that he was including me in on it.

“John, You can’t do this!” I said. “Even if you went in the night, someone would see the vehicle, the flashlight bobbing in the field.”

“We’ll rent a boat and go down the river until we are right behind Aunt Emma’s field. If we come from that direction, no one would know we were there.”

“How far is it to the river from Emma’s back field?” I asked, hoping he would see how foolish this was.

“Oh, I don’t know. A mile, maybe two.” He said this as if it was a block or two.

I sighed.

“And we’d have to tie the boat up somehow, climb up the slippery riverbank, and walk in the dark through unknown places,” I said, growing impatient.

“Yeah, I’ve thought of that. I think we should try to do a trial run during the day.

I stared at my brother. I wanted to shout at him how I didn’t handle the heat well, and how I certainly couldn’t climb up a slippery riverbank any time of the night or day, for that matter. But then he had this look on his face that reminded me of my dad and I stopped.

There were times, like then, when John’s face became my father’s. John was nothing like our father in so many ways, but he put me in mind of him when he was telling stories and cracking jokes. He didn’t look exactly like my dad, but enough to make me think of him. His eyes were like my dad’s, just like mine were. I had not seen him since I was seven years old, but looking at John made me remember the face I had loved so much as a child.

John put his head on his arms and looked up at me like a little boy, as if he were a supplicant. “Pretend you are Aunt Emma. Where would you bury jars of money?”

I looked into the distance. There was a park across from John’s house. Children were chasing each other while mothers sat on benches keeping a careful watch.

“Emma was cautious. She probably would’ve buried it near the house, maybe even under the house. She would’ve felt more secure to have it under the house.”

I remembered the dogs that lay in the cool dirt under her house. When Winnie and I walked toward the porch, the dogs growled low in their throats. Emma always appeared with her walker before anything happened.

“Don’t you worry about them dogs any,” she’d say. “They won’t hurt you none.”

I remember looking at her leaning on her walker. I couldn’t imagine what she could have done if the dogs had attacked me.

John had leaned back in his chair. The spark in his eyes had faded and he suddenly looked older than his years. His hair was gray, but for the parts of it that had become completely white. The young man he had been bore no resemblance to this man who seemed to be aging before my eyes.

“You’re not feeling good, are you John?” I asked with genuine concern.

“Karen, I don’t ever feel good anymore.” He stood up, but the look of him seemed saggy, tired. “I think I probably need to go take a nap.”

I stood up to leave and John put out his last cigarette in the ashtray. Something about him at that moment made me love him despite all the ways he had hurt me. I walked over to him and hugged him, and he hugged me back.

“I love you, John,” I said.

“I love you too, Karen.”

__________________________________

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.

Different in My Soul

By Karen Brode

Wanda Rivers had been my church friend since we were in grade school. We attended the Church of the Everlasting and our parents made sure we never missed a service. If the church doors were open, Mother and I were there.

When Wanda and I got old enough to go to the junior high Bible class, I noticed that she had somehow outgrown me overnight. She wanted to sit with the older kids in class and with the teenagers on the front row during church service. There was no way I wanted to do that. The more, let’s just say, worldly Wanda became, the more she fit in at church. And the more she fit in, the more her mother pressed her to be more like me, which is to say, not in the least worldly.

I missed the days when Wanda and I made each other laugh and had sleepovers and told ghost stories into the night. Once she started sitting with the other kids, I felt alone at church. I sat with my mother and, as time went by, we grew apart.

The last time Wanda visited my house, she spent the whole time calling boys. I sat and watched in amazement. She was so at ease talking with them and they seemed intrigued by her. When she finally lowered the receiver to her chest, I thought she was going to hang up and start talking with me.

Instead, she asked, “Is it okay if Bobby comes over?”

The thought of a boy coming to my house sent me in total panic. I nearly fell off the edge of the chair.

“No!” I said in a voice that sounded more like a squeak than a real voice. I had to think fast because my reason had to be good. “My mother has very strict rules about boys,” I said, barely breathing. I crossed my arms over my chest with hopes she wouldn’t see me shaking.

It was true, kind of. My mom would have been furious if Bobby had come over when she wasn’t home. But it was also true she might never have known he had been there. My refusal had more to do with being terrified than anything else. I simply wouldn’t have known what to say to a boy.

Wanda squinted her eyes as if she could read my real thoughts then she turned away and whispered into the phone, “Sorry. She says you can’t.” She shot me a look and then said, “She’s just being childish.”

I sighed and went to my room so I wouldn’t have to hear anything else.

***

Church was where things really changed for Wanda and me. When we were in grade school, the Bible classrooms all had windows. I could look outside and see the parking lot. The congregation was growing a lot back then, so they built a new wing to accommodate larger crowds. The new classrooms were for junior high and high school classes. They were built out of concrete blocks and didn’t have any windows.

I remember the first time I sat in the new classroom. Wanda and I were thirteen and had just graduated to that section of the building. I began to panic that I couldn’t see anything but the walls. I fanned myself and hoped someone would ask to keep the door open. I wouldn’t do it. Even if I passed out, I’d sit there and stop breathing inside the concrete box before asking to prop open the door.

It wasn’t just the lack of windows either. There was nothing to break up the monotony of the mint green walls–no pictures of Jesus walking on the water, not even a Bible verse on the walls. In fact, the walls were completely blank.

I felt myself hyperventilating. If the walls were made out of concrete blocks and the door was closed, how could we breathe? And what if there was a fire?

I looked at the circle of teenagers and realized no one would ever ask to prop the door open. No one else was having a problem. Wanda was across the room with some of the older kids, chatting as if she had been their age all along, as if the concrete box wasn’t a death trap. I remember looking toward the closed brown door, longing to go back to the classrooms with windows. I knew then that I was the different one. I was the one who didn’t belong.

When the teacher started talking, he spoke of how important it was not to go to the school prom. He warned us of the dangers of dancing and the bad influence it would have.

At one point in his classroom sermon, one of the beautiful high school girls raised her hand.

“I don’t think going to the prom is wrong,” she said.

I held my breath and looked at her, my eyes nearly popping out of my head. I would never have been able to voice my opinion in such a blatant way in a group that might or might not agree with me.

“Young lady,” said the teacher, his neck and ears turning red, “You seem to think you know better than I do. It’s clear to me you have no respect for me or the Church of the Everlasting.”

He stood up and paced, his short-sleeve button-down shirt showing wet stains under his arms where he was sweating. He pointed around the room and jabbed his finger directly at the girl who had spoken up.

“I can predict which of you girls will be pregnant by the time you graduate. It’s you girls who toss aside my warnings like they were nothing. Oh, the prom itself might not be an evil place, but just wait! Someone will no doubt spike the punch with no telling what and,” he paused and shook his head, “I remember what it was like to be a teenager. You get caught up in high spirits.”

“Just you wait. Nine months from that prom date,” he snapped his fingers over the heads of each girl sitting near the one who had spoken up. “Nine months from then, there’ll be a whole crop of babies born to you unsuspecting girls.”

When the bell rang, I was the first one out of that classroom. I could barely breathe—both from the closed-in room, and the fire-and-brimstone speech. The whole thing had just exhausted me and I was only 13!

I didn’t really want to go to worship but I had to unless I wanted to go sit in my mother’s car. I imagined skipping church and going to sleep in her car without telling anyone. The whole church would organize a search party. The police might be called. They might bring in the hound dogs to sniff for my scent. My mother would weep until they found me, curled up in the backseat of her car asleep.

It was just better if I went to worship.

On my way to the auditorium, I stopped by the tract rack and tried to find something that would help pass the time during the sermon. I chose a tract published by a church-affiliated publishing company with the ominous title of “Almost, But Lost!”

When the worship service began, everyone stood for the opening song. I watched Wanda with the older teenagers on the front pew looking as innocent and interested as possible. In one day, she had somehow been accepted into a group that I knew I would never be a part of.

Mother and I sat in our regular spot on the pew. When the sermon began, I opened the religious tract and started reading.

Almost, But Lost!

The story was about a milk deliveryman who watched his wife and daughter go to church. They went every Sunday morning and night, and also on Wednesday night. There were also extra activities at church as well. Vacation Bible School lasted for a week in the heat of summer. On most Sunday afternoons, there were wedding showers, baby showers, and the occasional men’s business meetings. The milkman had the impression that the men’s business meetings were code for “How can we make people give us more money?”

But he was too tired to go to church. He just wanted to rest on the weekends because he worked hard during the week. His wife and daughter wanted him to go to church. He never did, though, because he knew if he took one step inside a church building, they would hound him forever. And they wouldn’t be satisfied with just Sunday mornings. If he went to Sunday morning worship, they would complain that he didn’t go back on Sunday night. There would be no end to their expectations of him.

He never told his wife this, but he often prayed to God, and at times he felt that he and God were pretty good friends. He couldn’t imagine himself in front of a church praying. He was a private person.

His well-meaning wife had asked one of the church leaders to talk to her husband and try to save his soul from hell while there was still time. When the church leader came to the door, the milkman ran out the back, climbed a fence, and walked to a store in a nearby neighborhood. When he returned home, his wife’s cold gaze let him know that, not only was he destined for hell, he wasn’t going to have much fun on earth either.

After a few days of silence, the milkman told his wife he was thinking he might go to church with her sometime. If he only had to go to worship on Sunday mornings he might could stand that.

The next Sunday morning, his wife rose to cook breakfast while the milkman stayed in bed with the newspaper. She didn’t say a word to him, but he knew she expected him to go with her to church. He stared at the ceiling and wished he could be the man his wife wanted him to be.

After his wife and daughter left for church, he went to the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs and toast for himself. He knew his wife had only cooked enough for herself and the little girl. It was her way of letting him know of her disappointment in him.

Suddenly, there was a loud noise outside, and the milkman ran out into the backyard. He saw Jesus descending on a cloud with his arms stretched out to welcome his people to eternal life. The milkman looked on as he watched people rising to meet their Savior in the sky.

Jesus looked down at the milkman in disgust as he gathered his true followers to him. Then, as fast as he had come, Jesus turned his back and headed on back to heaven with his band of angels.

The milkman sat stunned on his back steps. The sky turned black and the sun began to fade.

He fell on his knees and screamed for Jesus to come back and get him, but it was too late. He realized he would be separated from his wife and daughter forever. He fell on the ground and wept.

***

Upon finishing the story, I threw the tract into the songbook rack on the back of the pew like it was on fire. I didn’t want to take that home! I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

I looked over at Wanda and her new friends and wondered if heaven was going to be like earth—the cool kids on the front row, while the rest of us sat with our moms. I pressed my eyes shut and shook my head. I didn’t want to think about that either.

As soon as church was over, I walked quickly and quietly to the car and waited for Mother. While I waited, I thought about how the tract and watching Wanda with her new friends reminded me a little of the night I had been baptized at a Gospel meeting.

A regular meeting usually ran for four nights, but the more ambitious ones lasted a week. This particular meeting was held at the football stadium because the preacher was well known and followed by so many. A church auditorium would never have held all the people. I had listened intently as the preacher talked about how sad it would be for someone to leave this meeting and go home unsaved.

“Who knows if tomorrow will ever come?” he asked with concerned gravity. “What if Christ comes this very night? It might very well be the last chance.”

The the song leader ran up the steps to the podium and the preacher stepped aside as the audience began singing:

Oh do not let the word depart

And close thine eyes against the light

Poor sinner harden not your heart,

Be saved Oh tonight

Tomorrow’s sun may never rise

To meet thy long deluded sight

This is the time, oh then be wise,

Be saved Oh tonight!

Normally, I would have been too terrified to stand up in front of so many people, but I was more frightened at the thought of being left behind by Jesus should he come anytime soon. I was ten and could no longer ignore the state of my soul. I got in line with the other people who could not risk another day of sin and degradation. I felt hyper alive. I was a part of something bigger, accepted by God and his church.

All the people in the stadium continued to sing another verse of Oh Do Not Let The Word Depart. On the last verse, the preacher stopped the song to give out a final plea:

“Brothers and sisters, I cannot stress to you enough how important this one step is in your life! Maybe you are scared. Maybe you are embarrassed. It doesn’t matter. God sees your heart and will accept any and all who come to claim the free gift of salvation. Get up now, and come as we sing the last verse.”

From my place near the front of the stadium, I scanned the bleachers and noticed they were only half full. A lot of people were up front to rededicate their lives to God. These only required prayer, not baptism.

When it was my turn, the preacher asked me if I believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

“Yes!” I almost screamed.

The preacher pushed me under the water and lifted me up. As soon as I climbed up the steps of the baptistery, someone else was coming from the other side to be baptized. I remember thinking that it seemed like an assembly line.

As I warmed myself with a towel and changed into dry clothes, I looked in the mirror. I didn’t look any different. I didn’t even feel any different. But I knew I must be different in my soul.

__________________________________

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.

 

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.”

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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.

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….

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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.