Tension, Memories, and a Published Poem

By Karen Brode

“Do your windshield wipers not work?”  my brother asked as he lit yet another cigarette. I knew that my response to this would set the mood for the day and it didn’t look promising at best. Rain had been peppering ever since we started out at 5 AM, but it was so light that it hardly covered the windshield.

Then he said, “How long have your windshield wipers been broken?”  I sighed and turned on the wipers. As I stared out at the early morning rain, I wondered how we would ever get through this day.

John was nervous riding with me. I wondered why it was that he didn’t take one of his cars, but I didn’t say anything. Frankly, I was a little nervous with him sitting in the passenger seat fidgeting with the map and digging out cigarettes at increasingly frequent intervals. He had explained that he would crack the window and let the smoke out and it wouldn’t bother us.

My brother, John, was 45 years old and even though I was ten years younger, I felt older than him.

Mother sat in the backseat clutching her quilt and  two pillows. She asked if we were cold, and I knew this was a hint to turn the heat higher. I channeled the vents toward the backseat. The car was filled with cigarette smoke and the uneasy tension of close relatives being closed into a small space together.

“Momma, do you remember what Daddy named these three lanes of traffic down here?” asked John as I switched into the middle lane.

“I don’t guess I do honey,” she answered wearily from the backseat. She was facing eye surgery and I knew she wasn’t looking forward to it.

“Well,” he continued, “he named this first lane over here the fast lane, then the middle lane was the faster lane, and that lane over there by the median was the damn fast lane.” He laughed. “Don’t you remember that Momma?”

I smiled as I remembered my dad saying that. John could sometimes make my father come back to life with his stories.

Then he continued with a mocking tone. “Oh I forgot!  you only remember what you want to remember!”

Mother said if she remembered she’d say that she did.  She just didn’t remember it.

On and on he went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “Yeah, well do you remember that on the last day of school every year, Daddy would tell Kenneth and me that we either had to get a job starting the next day or we could go with him to the field and pick cotton? I was only 12 years old when I had to go get a job so I wouldn’t have to pick cotton! I guess you don’t remember that either.”

“Now honey,”  she started, “You know Daddy didn’t pick cotton everyday. He had to work at the fire station most of the time. He only went to the field on his days off from the fire station.”

John kept going. “I have never known anyone who enjoyed old hard hard work as much as he did! Why, he’d put a boat in the river ten miles downstream from where he wanted to be just so he could row upstream ten miles! And he expected me to be glad to help!” He shook his head. “I still don’t understand why I had to go pick cotton with him!” He turned in his seat to face Momma. “Why do you think Kenneth got a job at Ben Hillerman’s filling station making a dollar a day? We would have done anything to avoid that cotton patch! There’s no end to it. You pick and pick and look ahead and all you see are endless rows of more cotton! I believe a person could go crazy doing that everyday!”

Mother nodded. “I used to have to get up at four and go to the fields everyday,” she said. “Poppa would get us girls up to fix his breakfast, but he wouldn’t wake Momma up! If you think that didn’t make me mad! But it wouldn’t have done any good for me to say anything. He was my daddy, and I did what he said.”

Dawn had turned to morning as we entered Dallas. I had my doubts that John’s way was the was the  best or quickest way to get to the surgery center in Ft. Worth, but I didn’t say anything. Either way, we arrived uneventfully in Fort Worth and took Mother into the surgery center.

I felt so sorry for her because she had ingrown eyelashes. She didn’t have thick eyebrows or overly thick hair and she hardly had any eyelashes, but what she did have grew backwards into her eyes.

After she had been taken to surgery, John and I went to eat breakfast.

After he’d had enough to feel a little satisfied, he wiped his mouth on a paper napkin and said, “I used to work down here at the Palace Theater when I first left home. Me and two other guys came down here and got an apartment. I was fifteen. The  only job I could get was an usher at the theater. The whole time I worked there, they showed the same movie, Psycho with. Oh, what was that guy’s name?”

“Anthony Perkins,” I said.

John nodded. “I used to have the entire movie memorized,” he said.

I suppressed the urge to say something smart-alecky, but I was tempted ask sarcastically whether memorizing Psycho was better than going to school. Instead, I changed the subject.

“Why did you leave home when you were so young?”  I asked out of genuine curiosity.

“I couldn’t stay there no more,” he said shaking his head. “I remember Daddy back before he got sick. I guess you don’t remember him much at all, but he used to play baseball with me and sometimes on Sundays, if the preacher was gone, he would preach. That’s the dad I like to remember. Then, when he got sick, he changed.” He took another forkful of pancakes but he balanced them there on the fork as he continued. “I understand now that he couldn’t help what happened, but I was a kid back then. I couldn’t understand it at all that the man who loved me so much turned on me so suddenly. The brain tumor changed his personality. They told Momma that the tumor was very close to sprouting through his skull.” He took his bite of pancakes as I pushed my plate away and laid my fork down.

He chewed and then continued. “It seemed like my life turned into a nightmare overnight. I tried to stay out of his way, but it finally got so bad that I just couldn’t stay. I remember the day I left. He saw me walking out the door. I can still picture him sitting there in the corner chair hating my guts and I was fifteen years old. As I opened the door to go, he said, ‘Write if you get work.’ That has always stayed with me for some reason. Momma followed me out to the car begging me not to leave, but I just couldn’t stay.”

I felt a heavy weight descend on my chest as I listened to him talk. My pain had been of a different sort, but his pain no doubt, was worse.

I cleared my throat and I said, “I’ve always felt sorry for myself that Daddy died when I was so young before I really got a chance to know him, but maybe it was for the best.”

John shook his head. “No, you are wrong to say that. Daddy couldn’t help what happened to him. I wish you could have known him before he got sick. He was a real good dad. I think about those earlier times with him a lot.”

“At least you have some good memories,” I said, feeling the weight lift a little. “Something happened the other day that sort of surprised me. You know how I’ve always liked to write? No, it’s more than that–I have to write.  It’s a need more than something I just like to do.  I never knew where this came from. I don’t know anyone else like me in our family. The other day, Mother was reminiscing about Daddy and she just happened to mention that he had written a poem and it was published in McCalls magazine. She said that like she was talking about the weather. She told me that the poem was titled, ‘Cornfield on a Rainy Morning.’ I can just picture a farm boy walking to school and stopping to look at a cornfield.”

John laughed and said, “It sounds a little corny to me”, and then both of us were giggling.

“I asked her if she had a copy of the poem, but she didn’t have any idea where it was or if they’d even saved it.”

“Yeah, I wish we had that poem,” he nodded.

“Do you think your life would have been a lot different if Daddy hadn’t gotten sick and died?” I asked.

He looked out the window and seemed to go far away in his thoughts. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I can’t go back and do anything different. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference at all. There’s no way to ever know that.”

_________________________________

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

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