John’s Papers

By Karen Brode

In the aftermath of my father’s death, I spent a good deal of time trying to blend into the wallpaper, especially whenever big conversations happened between the adults. The rug had been pulled out from under me when he died. Nothing felt safe or real. Being unseen gave me the advantage of hearing things most eight-year-olds wouldn’t get to hear. If the adults didn’t notice me, I could learn what was really going on.

“Momma, all you would have to do is sign the papers!” My brother John had been ranting all through dinner about papers he wanted our mother to sign so he could be released from the Army. “I don’t think I can stand it anymore and now I have a real shot of getting out, thanks to Daddy dying. If you sign these papers, I’m free!”

I felt cold hearing my brother talk about Daddy that way. It was like he was happy our father had died. I couldn’t risk moving, though, to feel the actual shudder that crept into my shoulders. They might see me and send me out of the room.

I looked over at Mother. She was at the kitchen sink working away on the cast iron skillet she had used to make fried potatoes for dinner. Her shoulders slumped at the same time mine felt frozen.

John leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. He was only 18 but he was like a bull in every way – broad chest, stubborn nature. He was also full of mischief and if there was one thing he bucked against the hardest it was rule and regulations. Even I knew the army was full of those.

It was like watching a tennis match in a way. John sitting there waiting for Mother to cave, Mother leaning her body further over the sink, as if she might crawl into that greasy, soapy water and get lost in it. Who would crack first?

John brought his heavy fist down on the table so hard it made the spoons jump. Momma and I jumped too. She dropped the skillet into the sink. I held my breath.

“So I guess you’re not even going to look at these papers, then?” John asked. His voice was irritated but I saw a little curl on one side of his mouth. He saw me watching him and his face changed completely.

I heard Momma sniff before she lifted the corner of her apron to her eyes. My stomach hurt wondering why she was crying. Was it because of John? Or because Daddy wasn’t here to help her deal with John anymore?

I looked back at my brother and imagined what it would be like if Daddy had been here. There would be no talk of leaving the army, that’s for sure. I might have been Daddy’s Little Girl, but I knew things were different for John. He had felt the harsh side of our father’s moods more than anyone and it always seemed my Mother was there to try to make up for those moods.

Right after Daddy had died, I had overheard Momma tell my Aunt Opal it was the tumor that made my father so angry at John. My aunt nearly choked on the blueberry pie she had been eating, but she tried to cover it up by taking a swig of sweet tea.

“Well, he loved him once,” Momma said sounding defensive. “It was only as John got older that it got harder.”

My aunt nodded. It was her patronizing nod, the one that was meant to be comforting but it always came off insincere.

“Albert wasn’t himself,” Opal said. “He had that…that….” She made a motion with her hand over her head.

“The neurosurgeon said the tumor almost sprouted through his skull.” Mother sobbed into a handkerchief.

That’s when I had started crying too and the two women shooed me out of the room so I wouldn’t hear any more of the horrible details about my father’s illness and death. But I was left on my own to imagine the pain my father had been through, and a child’s imagination can be worse than listening to the conversation of adults.

Back in the kitchen with Mother and John, I felt myself blinking back tears. I didn’t want to be discovered and sent out of the room by myself again. I pretended to be a statue and forced myself not to cry.

By now, Mother had fished the skillet out of the sink and she was drying it off. I caught her looking at John from the mirror above the sink. I could see in her eyes she was weighing what was best and I could tell from the way John sat up in his chair that he thought he was making headway with his case.

He looked back at Momma in the reflection of the mirror and his mouth made a smirk so quickly I’m pretty sure I was the only one to see it.

“Momma, did I tell you about the poor guy I had to sit with out in the desert?” John lit up another cigarette and took a deep drag. His fingers fiddled with the papers in front of him. “He was only one year older than me. We were doing maneuvers out in the desert. The sand blew in our faces every minute and it felt like needles piercing our skin.”

John looked back at Momma’s reflection. She wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was wiping down the countertops. Her brow was furrowed with forced concentration.

“The kid had a fever I think,” John continued. “He was just so out of it those last few days. Maybe he had a heat stroke. I tried to contact the sergeant with my walkie-talkie, but I couldn’t reach him.”

John looked over at me then. He flashed a grinchy grin and then he went on with his story. I jumped because I didn’t think he knew I was there.

“And then some knucklehead cut him right in half with a tank! Can you imagine? His intestines were sprawled out everywhere! All I could do was light a cigarette for him and help him smoke his last one. He died right out there in the sand.”

Without meaning to, I squeaked. It was all too gruesome to imagine. There was a look in John’s eyes that told me he was making up the whole thing, but the way he told the story made me believe him.

“John!” My mother spun around and stared at him for the first time since the conversation started. “Your sister is eight years old. Don’t you think she has seen enough horror for awhile?”

John’s eyes glittered with mischief and I knew his story wasn’t over yet. I wanted so badly to close my ears, but if I did that I’d prove I wasn’t ready to be in the room with the adults and I’d be sent away again. I sat stock still and looked at my brother with pleading eyes.

“Just imagine,” John said, his voice low and conniving, “I was asleep just a few feet away when it happened. It could just as easily have been me cut in half and bleeding to death in the desert.”

I looked away from John then. I couldn’t take it anymore but I knew better than to jump up and run to Mother. I couldn’t risk being sent to my room now.

Mother closed her eyes. Big tears rolled out of her eyes.

“That poor boy,” she said. She turned back to the sink and wiped her eyes. “Somewhere his mother is crying. So senseless.”

John smiled. I couldn’t believe he could smile after telling such a terrible story. And poor Momma. It upset her so much. John had a way of doing that whenever he was around.

“Momma, look,” John said. His voice was calm now and easy, like someone soothing a wild horse. “None of this army stuff is going to help me. How can making my bed perfectly and shining my shoes until my face shines in them make any difference to anybody?”

Momma shook her head and sighed. It looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. She seemed so tired.

John stood up. He stubbed out his cigarette and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“I’m going out for awhile,” he said. He slid the papers he wanted Momma to sign over to her side of the table. Without another word, he walked out the door and into the night to who knows where.

The quiet that followed was almost too loud. John’s large presence—and his horrible stories—still rang in my ears. I was relieved when Mother took notice of me.

“Go get your bath, Karen,” she said. “It’s time for you to get ready for bed.”

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

Sister, Thy Name is Soot

By Karen Brode
Opal sat tense with her eyes closed in her sister’s kitchen. It was impossible to relax. Before she had closed her eyes to block out the mess, she had counted eight cats who seemed far more at home than she felt.
It wasn’t like her to stay quiet about these things, but the state of her sister’s home–the way she was living–was a greater shock than even she could have anticipated. For the first time since Opal could remember, she was speechless.
She was about to take a deep, cleansing breath, when her nose prickled again from the fumes of cat pee, rotting leftovers, and mildew. She decided then that it was probably best not to close her eyes either. There’s no telling what might crawl out from under the table and up her leg.
So it was in silence that she watched Cleo scuttling around the kitchen. Not once did her sister actually lift her feet off the ground. Opal decided it was because if she lifted a foot and set it back down again, she might step on something and break it or hurt it or kill it, depending on what it was. Shuffling just scooted it out of the way.
“Opal, did you light the oven?” Cleo asked.
Opal was almost relieved to hear Cleo speak. At least it gave her something else to think about besides the mess around her. But the question itself was odd and it made Opal wonder if she had heard correctly.
“Did I what?” she asked.
Cleo didn’t respond. She was suddenly preoccupied with unwedging a baking sheet from the bottom of a pile of newspapers and dirty dishes. Opal looked over at what would normally be a countertop, but it too was stacked with empty cereal boxes, a few dirty rags, and of course, a cat. Sitting next to the cat was the clump of frozen corn dogs Cleo was bent on making them for dinner.
Opal’s mouth went dry. A little knot of nausea dropped down into her stomach. The idea of serving frozen corn dogs to an out of town guest was bad enough, but those corn dogs in that condition sitting next to a cat and a stack of filth — it was almost too much to bear. The knot of nausea moved up her throat.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d have before whatever lunch was left in her body would join the mess around the kitchen. She stood up, thinking through the route she would need to take to get to the filthy bathroom.
But then Cleo pulled a box of matches from who knows where. Opal couldn’t guess what her sister was up to, but it was enough of a distraction to settle the sickness she had been feeling.
Cleo took a match out of the box and opened the door to the oven. She squatted down and lit one of the matches.
“Cleo, what are you doing?” Opal started to take a step toward her sister, but then she heard a whoosh and a great cloud of fire and black smoke blasted from the oven.
Opal screamed. She and several of the cats ran out the back door and into the backyard. She was halfway to the gate when worry and panic made her turn around. Her sister was still inside.
“Cleo!” she hollered. “Are you okay?”
She assumed the worst when didn’t hear anything and she made a beeline back to the house.
She was just about to step foot on the back step when Cleo came running out the back door. They almost ran into each other.
When Opal saw her sister alive, she grabbed her and hugged her tight.
“I’m so glad you’re okay!” she said.
All the horrible things she had been thinking moments before passed out of her mind. She was glad to have her sister, no matter what.
Seconds later, though, she smelled the scent of burnt hair. She pulled away to get a good look. It was then that she saw how Cleo’s eyebrows were curling up, her hairline was singed, and her face was covered in soot.
Opal nearly fell off the steps with laughter. The ridiculousness of the day and her soot-covered sister overcame her. She figured it was better to laugh than cry.
“What are you laughing about?” Cleo asked with a suspicious grin that etched the charcoal color deeper into the lines on her face.
Opal laughed again and then grabbed her sister and hugged her tight. She couldn’t help but be grateful Cleo didn’t put much stock in her looks because if she could see what Opal saw, she might never leave the house again.
“I’m just so glad you’re okay,” Opal said.
She pulled away and wiped some of the soot off Cleo’s face with the handkerchief she always kept close at hand.
Cleo blinked as if realizing for the first time what had happened. Without a word, she turned and ran back to the kitchen. Opal followed.
The kitchen was covered in soot and Opal wasn’t sure but maybe it was an improvement. At least now, she hoped, Cleo might see how dirty it was.
She looked over at her sister and tried to read her thoughts, but as usual, Opal couldn’t fathom what might be going on in her mind.
“The corn dogs,” Cleo finally said with the kind of grave disappointment someone might have over a failed soufflé.
“Don’t you worry about dinner tonight,” Opal said with her old familiar confidence. She reached over and patted her sister on the hand. “I’m going to go get us some hamburgers and maybe a malt. What flavor would you like?”
(To be continued)

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

Salt, Pepper, Garlic, and Chicken Eggs

By Karen Brode

My Aunt Jewel’s lap was the best lap to sit in when all my mother’s sisters visited at once. She tended to sit furthest away from Aunt Opal, which meant I was less likely to come under her scrutiny. Plus, she had a way of cooing over Mother and me that made me feel comfortable and safe.

She held me a little tighter when my other two aunts started laughing at something Aunt Opal had said about Mother. I had just come in from playing outside and had only overheard a part of it. I looked up at my mom. She was standing at the stovetop stirring the soup. A bead of sweat just barely covered her forehead. She had been cooking up a storm since that morning. There was cornbread in the oven and she had a cake ready to go as soon as that came out.

Opal bellowed something about chicken eggs. She sat in the chair my father would have sat in had he still been living. Aunt Cleo sat next to her cackling away. My mother shot a look their way that told me she didn’t give a plug nickel for either of them. All I knew was whatever story Aunt Opal had been telling was not one of my mother’s favorites.

“Both of you stop that right now,” said Aunt Jewel, leaning forward and clutching me to her protectively. “You’re upsetting Hazel.”

Hazel was my mother. I had the feeling Aunt Jewel would have hugged Mother to her in the same way that she did me if she could have.

Before everyone arrived, I had asked Mother why she was going to so much trouble fixing up such a nice supper. I knew Opal expected the royal treatment, but I also didn’t think she deserved it. She could be such a bully sometimes.

Mother had stopped peeling the potatoes and looked almost past me.

“I don’t really know, Karen,” she said. “It’s not like they really appreciate it.”

“Aunt Jewel does,” I said.

Mother nodded and smiled. “That’s true. Then I’m doing it for her.”

By the time she put the soup on the table, she had made up her mind about something. I couldn’t tell what it was until she sat down and took up saying the blessing over the meal herself. Aunt Opal always had that duty, but this time when the sisters held hands, it was Mother who started praying. Normally, I closed my eyes for prayer, but when I heard Mother’s voice, I looked up.

Opal blatantly stared at Mother while she prayed. Opal was the eldest and we all knew she thought herself to be a better Christian than anyone else in the family. I was only nine but even then I had heard a million times how she had never missed a church service, how she had baked hams for people who were sick or bereaved, how she sang solos at funerals or paid for a child to go to church camp last summer.

“Dear Father in Heaven,” my mother said. “Look down on us with mercy and not justice. Help us all to realize how human we are; how we have all disappointed you at times.”

She paused for a moment. My aunt took a breath, as if she might be about to take up the prayer, but my mother continued before she could.

“You know our hearts, Dear Lord. You know how judgmental and condemning we all can be at times. Help us to see the good in those around us. Help us to appreciate the kindnesses offered to us from other people. In the name of Your Son and our Redeemer, amen.”

The entire table sat like statues for several breaths. No one touched the food. Aunt Opal seemed to be replaying the prayer in her mind, mentally scanning it for hidden slights aimed at her.

Aunt Jewel was the first to break the silence. She helped herself to some soup and started chirping away about how nice all that food looked and how much trouble my mother went to for everyone. But even with her voice, you could almost hear a pin drop.

She just carried on, though. She sipped her soup and announced, “This is some of the best soup I have ever had!”

I watched Aunt Opal. She had dished some into her bowl in silence, but she didn’t even taste it before she stood up and asked, “Where do you keep your salt, pepper, and garlic, Hazel. That soup tastes like warmed up water!”

I wanted to crawl under the table rather than witness the anger the flashed across my mother’s face. She didn’t get upset often, but Opal had just pushed the one button that could cause World War III. It seemed to take everything in my mother to keep her mouth shut. She just pointed to the cabinet where she kept the spices.

Opal poked around looking but she didn’t find anything. Deep creases etched into my mother’s forehead between her eyes. She was quiet, but I could tell that in her mind she was counting to ten — maybe even twenty.

Opal moved all of the spices and flavorings around. “I can’t find it,” she said.

And then, “Hazel, I don’t know why you have your canned goods up here. You are going to get knocked out one of these days when a can falls on your head. Remind me before I leave to reorganize your cabinets for you.”

Mother could not have steamed more if she had been on fire. The effort it took for her to just sit there and not say a word was saint like, but I wasn’t sure how long she could keep it up.

Cleo must have sensed the tension because she jumped up and said, “Get out of the way, Opal. Go sit down. I’ll get your salt and pepper.”

There was something different about Cleo’s tone of voice that made me jump a little. It must have made Opal a little wary too because she sat back down and looked at her bowl of soup.

Before Cleo could locate the salt, though, Opal collapsed in tears. Mother and Jewel looked at each other.

“Opal, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” my mother said. She sounded tired. “All I wanted was for us to sit down together and enjoy each other’s company. We are all we have left! Our husbands are dead, our children have their own lives, and Momma and Poppa have both been gone so long.”

Mother’s voice broke off at the mention of Poppa’s name. He had been such a good father.

Jewel grabbed my mother’s hand and spoke to her.

“Hazel, you have outdone yourself for us with this meal. You even made us a cake on a weekday! I rarely make cakes, even on the weekend.”

She patted her stomach. “If I ate like this all the time, I would be as big as…” She rolled her eyes toward Opal. “I would be as big as a house!”

Opal didn’t say a word. She refolded the napkin in her lap and she stared out the window as if she might find something out there to change the subject.


Opal could never understand why they were all so mean to her! She had never brought shame on the family like Cleo did by marrying that stupid Neal in the Baptist church! She wouldn’t have done anything like that. She married the nicest man in town because she deserved a nice husband.

She looked over at Jewel. She had tried to talk her sister out of marrying that awful Homer who did nothing but drink and cheat. Sure enough, he left her bereft of all dignity and niceties of life because he had to chase after other women. Jewel did make the best of it, but she’d had a hard life. Opal had been there for all of them. She often gave Jewel five dollars just because. She knew it wasn’t easy raising a child alone.

She glanced over at Hazel, her youngest sister. She had even tried to help her with John, that rebel of a child, but Hazel would never follow through in disciplining him. Now he was wild as a March hare. Opal would’ve never allowed any of that to happen. Her sons went to church and they had jobs. They knew better than to show up on her front porch expecting a handout.

Hazel didn’t talk to Opal much about John anymore. Opal figured she was embarrassed that her son was the way he was. She had never known what to do with him.

Opal never said a word.


Opal never said a word, but Hazel knew how her sister felt. Sometimes in the night when Hazel would lie awake hoping John would come home soon, she would think of Opal and wonder how some people just seemed to know how to do things and other people didn’t.

Being harsh with John would’ve gone against everything in Hazel’s soul. She wasn’t a mean person, but she probably should have been a little meaner to John. She should have held him to a higher standard. She had let things slide with him for so long that there wasn’t much that could be done now.

In Hazel’s middle of the night worries, she would think of her youngest, Karen.

“Karen would never worry me like this,” she would whisper. “Karen is the good child.”

Hazel often wondered what it would have been like if John had been the good child, made the straight A report cards, and read books. If she could have flipped things around she would have. Karen would be much more understandable if she could have been popular. Hazel would’ve understood a daughter who slammed her math book closed and said, “I just can’t do this!

Hazel’s friends would have been impressed if her daughter had been a cheerleader. She hated to admit even to herself that Karen wasn’t exactly how she had hoped her daughter would be. Hazel had imagined a little girl with curly–but not too curly–hair. She had made all of Karen’s clothes and dressed her in nice clothes for special occasions. She had hoped Karen would be like other little girls—not just good, but maybe more social.

On her fourth birthday, Karen had said she wanted a desk. Hazel couldn’t imagine a four-year-old who would want or need a desk. So she took her to Myles Variety Store on Main St. and steered her to the doll section. There were baby dolls, dolls almost as big as Karen, and even a doll that could walk.

But Hazel saw Karen glancing over at the desk. She walked over to it and rubbed her fingertips across the top.

“This is what I really really want Momma,” she had said.

Mother didn’t know what to do with Karen.

Karen got the desk, but Hazel realized then that, even at four, her daughter had never really been a child. She was born old with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Karen was bookish and she didn’t do much besides sit at that desk and color or draw pictures. The chalkboard desk had the alphabet written across the top of it, and before long, Karen was writing.

Karen’s father, Albert, had been so proud but his reasons were selfish. He said that, unlike John, he finally he had a child like himself!

Hazel begged him not to say that in front of John, but he continued to praise Karen with every breath. What could Hazel do? She adored that little girl, but someone had to love John!


Mother looked at Aunt Opal and sighed.

“You never told me why you did it, ” she said.

Opal smiled. My mother’s words were like a peace offering, apparently, because my aunt seemed to relax then.

“I was six,” Aunt Opal said. “These two were even younger than that.” She nodded with her head toward my other two aunts.

Her eyes glistened with youthful memories. “You were just a baby sitting in your carriage under that old oak tree in the front yard.”

“I remember it was a gorgeous spring day,” said Aunt Cleo. Her giggles threatened to erupt again, but she managed to calm them down again before Aunt Opal continued the story.

“I was six,” she said again, as if it was an apology. “And I did it because it was funny.”

She smiled and a little laughter rippled from Aunt Cleo’s side of the table.

Jewel grabbed my mother’s hand. “I’m so sorry we did that to you, Hazel. I would never have have participated if I had known how upsetting it was going to be to you.”

Cleo was laughing so hard by then that she had to wipe away tears. “I can see it so clearly,” she said doubling over. “Like it happened yesterday.”

“That chicken coop,” Aunt Opal continued, barely covering her own laughter. “Why on earth Momma made us go out there to gather eggs—that place scared me to death! I still wake up in the night flailing my arms trying to keep those chickens from flying at me.”

This made everyone laugh. Even Mother giggled a little.

Opal took a breath and said, “You were just sitting there, Hazel. And we had just come back from gathering the eggs. I had a whole basket of them. I was already thinking of how funny it would be, but it was Cleo who threw the first egg at you. You looked so shocked. It spurred all of us on to throw more eggs. It just got funnier and funnier.”

With great effort, Cleo said, “Poor Hazel was sitting in her baby carriage completely covered by egg shells and eggs running down her face. And then Momma came out on the front porch!”

Opal nodded, “We all ran in different directions!”

All of the sisters, even Mother, collapsed in a fit of laughter.

Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.

No More

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman looked over at the picture and nodded.

“Somebody you know?” she asked.

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

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

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

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


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

Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

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

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

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

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

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

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

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

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


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!


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?”


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.