Effie’s Third Baby

By Karen Brode

I wouldn’t admit this to anyone, but I loved my youngest child so much more than the others. I tried to be fair, but it was so hard at times. When Winnie and Albert came along, I didn’t think I could love anyone any more than I loved them. And then Travis arrived and I realized he had been the child I had truly wanted all along.

I was 22 when Winnie was born. It was a laborious birth. I stayed exhausted mentally and physically for so long. My neighbors and the church ladies came often to give me time to nap or they would bring a casserole to the door. They assured me that things would get easier in time. I waited a long time and it never happened.

To say it bluntly and truthfully, Winnie was not a pretty little girl. Sometimes I looked at her and asked myself how this could’ve happened. When I found out I was going to have a baby, I was so happy. I didn’t really think that much about what the child would be like.

My daughter had soulful gray eyes that watched me constantly. She had my swarthy complexion and seemed to be frightened of something even as a baby. She didn’t cry much, though. She would just lie in her crib, wide awake, for hours. But she didn’t cry.

The closest I could come to describing her emotion was that she was worried. Always worried. I felt sorry for her even before she could crawl. I didn’t know what I could do with her.

I made her dresses of lace but she looked ridiculous in them. I tried everything. Her hair grew out to almost waist length. On any other little girl this would have been helpful. It just made Winnie look older. She was not like other children so there was no use in hoping that she would find a group of girlfriends at school.

My sister Dollie had a baby girl six months after Winnie was born. Dollie came all the way from Slaton, Texas to spend a few days with us right before the holidays. I didn’t understand how my sister had been able to travel with a baby that young. It wasn’t something I could do. She and I put Winnie and her daughter Christine in the same crib, but Christine crawled away from Winnie as fast as she could. Still Winnie just sat there and never complained.

My daughter was an old soul. As she grew, she began to be a good child. She was probably the best-behaved child anyone has ever met. People marveled at her social graces. She liked people to be happy with her, to appreciate her.

I could already imagine the life that she would have before she became a teenager. It made me sad. I didn’t know how to even talk about this with anyone. Winnie was four years old when I saw everything so clearly. It was about this same time that I found out that I was going to have another baby.

I gained over 50 pounds in my second pregnancy. I was so miserable the entire time. I couldn’t sleep, I was nauseated a great deal of the time, and I wondered how on earth I could gain so much weight.

At times it seemed that the baby that grew in my womb was already warring against me. The child did not rest peacefully inside me. I knew he would not be like Winnie. I secretly hoped that might be a good thing. I knew that he would have a lot more spirit and a lot more fight than Winnie ever did. By the last few months of my pregnancy, Winnie had taken over many of the household chores.

It was a torturous labor that started on a Sunday night and went on until Tuesday afternoon. I had wanted to die so many times during that labor that I could not fully appreciate the baby that had been born to me.

I slept for what seemed like days – a hard sleep without dreams. Then when I woke up, my husband brought in the new baby to greet me.

“It’s a little boy,” he said, so proud. “I’m not sure who he looks like.”

I took one look at him and immediately knew who he looked like! He was the spitting image of my father, John Gamble. People would remind me often of this – thinking that it made me happy that my child looked like my father. It did not make me happy.

From the very start, Albert was the opposite of Winnie. He demanded attention and wanted more of everything. He watched me with those dark brown eyes and I tried to feel something positive about him. I held him and changed his diapers and gave him food and took good care of him, but I could tell — he didn’t like me.

As Albert grew, he looked so much like my father that I almost couldn’t stand him. If it was just his appearance that bothered me, I might get past that. But he had the same blustery presence. Albert walked into a room and I was suddenly on edge. I got the prickly sense that he could see completely into my soul and I always looked away. Sometimes he didn’t say anything at all. He just looked at me with disgust.

It was always better if Albert and I didn’t spend much time together. We ate at the same supper table and bathed in the same washtub on Saturday nights, but beyond that Albert and I had nothing in common.

On numerous occasions, I asked my husband John if he thought we should discipline Albert in some way. As always, he chose to have no real opinion. He wasn’t even aware of the fractured relationship between Albert and me.

I’ve often wondered how my husband was able to go through life not making any enemies, not noticing the problems, the worries, the miseries. Everyone adored him and they feel sorry for him because I am his wife.

I loved John with all my heart, but we stopped talking like we used to. We didn’t even talk at all most days. Everybody just wanted to get away from me. It was hard to know these things and not understand how to change them.

I can remember how much my husband and I loved each other in the beginning. Nothing made me happier than to see him coming toward the house after work knowing that he wanted to come home to me. When he saw me standing at the stove cooking our supper, he would stand behind me and put his arms around me, and tell me how happy he was with his little wife. I was little back then. He could almost encircle my waist with his hands. It wasn’t long before I wasn’t little anymore.

I didn’t see any of it coming. The change in my appearance happened gradually over the years. Suddenly I had to extend my dress patterns to accommodate my widening girth. I saw the other women at church looking at me, noticing, wondering why I had let myself go.

All of my sisters and my one brother managed to take life in stride so much better than I did. I don’t know why that is, but it is. If I had not had my sister Emma to laugh with in my childhood, I don’t know what I would have done. Emma could make me laugh in the midst of the worst times of our lives. She could somehow turn things around and make me feel so much better.

When Emma lost her baby girl, though, she was never the same. I didn’t know what to say to her during this time. She did not cry hysterically. She just got very quiet. Her husband didn’t help much either. He had always been the strong silent type. I could imagine the silence in their house being almost palpable.

That’s about the same time Emma began to think of her cats as if they were her children. No one dared to say anything to her about this. We were all very happy that she could find solace in the company of devoted cats.

I wanted to tell my sister that she might be better off not having children. But there was no way to say that without sounding ungrateful for the children I had.

I often wondered if other mothers and wives felt like I did. I never broached the subject with anyone, though, because people didn’t do that. Any one of those church ladies who sit by me at the fellowship dinners and showers at church would stare at me in shock if I had asked if she really liked her children. It was a social necessity to at least pretend you liked your own children.

My sister, Dollie, seemed completely taken by her baby, Christine. Dollie always looked pleasant and seemed positive about everything in general. I wanted to ask her how she did that, but I didn’t ask her. When I thought of Dollie, I thought of her face lit up with a smile. I knew that wasn’t what people remembered about me.

There were days when I woke in panic and an icy cold fear in the pit of my stomach. I knew this wasn’t normal. I was hemmed in on all sides by fear, but I could see in other people’s eyes that things would go a lot better if I didn’t mention any of this.

I didn’t think that we would have any more children. Albert was seven and had grown even colder toward me than he had as a young tot. Sometimes my father came to see Albert and take him fishing or he invited him to the domino hall. I didn’t want my son to be around my father but my husband thought that having his granddaddy around was good for our son.

Besides, my husband said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen John Gamble do something besides think of himself.”

I had to agree, but I didn’t like it. I pictured my father turning my son further away from me.

Then I found out that there was going to be another child. Winnie was so excited. I think she might have been more excited than me. She was eleven years old.

I was 33 years old when my third child was born. I didn’t know if my body would let me carry another baby. I was young when the other two were born and neither of their births were easy. I envied the women who talked about giving birth as if it was like breathing. Especially after the first one, it was all supposed to be easier. But it was never easier for me.

Travis was born after four days of hard labor. When I was going through this experience, it was the first time I got angry with my husband. How dare he get pleasure at the price of my pain. Even if it did result in a sweet little baby, I swore I would never go through that ever again.

My husband sat by the bed and kept a wet washcloth on my face to help distract me from the pain. I thought it would never end. When the third day of labor dawned, I began to feel desperate. I thought something should be done but I didn’t know what. Winnie stood in the corner of the room watching me with those gray eyes. They were as big as saucers.

Then early in the morning of the fourth day my third baby arrived in a mighty swoosh. For just a moment, I could relax. My husband put the baby on my chest, while he helped clean up. I thought Winnie might be in shock because she didn’t move – even after the baby was born.

The new baby rooted around on my chest and settled in nursing. That is when I fell in love with him. He was a baby boy but already I could tell that I loved him in a way I had never loved Winnie or Albert.

My husband came to take him and let me rest, and I said, “No, I want him here with me.”


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.

Harold’s Boots

By Karen Brode

Marjorie and Joe were in bed late for a Sunday morning. Any other time, it would have been unthinkable, but today all they could do was stare at the blank ceiling and try to feel something other than the numbness.

“Why did we let him go to that rodeo?” Marjorie asked, her voice cracking over the words.

Joe was silent for a long time. She thought for a moment he had fallen asleep and it made her angry in a way. How could he sleep when their oldest son had just died?

Joe wasn’t asleep, though. In a monotone voice she could barely hear, he said, “He was 19. What were we supposed to do?”

They both broke down again, Joe turning away from Marjorie. She knew he didn’t want her to see him so broken. He was a cop. He had seen the worst of things. He was always the strong one.

Meanwhile, Marjorie just lay on her back and cried into the empty air. The world she had thought she had such great control over yesterday spun out of control when the phone rang at two in the morning. She didn’t have to be told something had happened. She knew. She had been out on the porch waiting for their son Harold to drive around the corner. He was never late. He was a good son.

She managed to smile then, thinking about her child. Harold wasn’t like so many of the young people they saw with long hair and a general air of rebellion. He kept his hair short and well groomed. He was especially handsome that summer he had a buzz-cut. She couldn’t remember for sure which summer it was. They all blurred together now.

Harold had always been thin, almost too thin. Marjorie thought about how he lifted weights every night in his bedroom to try to build up his arms and look bigger. She almost laughed remembering him take on a boxer’s pose to show them how much his muscles had grown.

Up until yesterday, their lives had all been so good. Marjorie and Joe had good kids – three of them, though now there were only two, she remembered. She tried to remind herself that the other two were good kids too.

Bonnie was so smart. It seemed especially cruel that her daughter was so successful in school but she didn’t have any real friends. Up until yesterday, the greatest heartbreak Marjorie had experienced was seeing how cruel other girls were to her Bonnie. She had tried to help her daughter deal with the weight that caused her so much grief, but it always came out wrong. It always seemed to make Bonnie think that Marjorie saw her in the same way those mean girls at school did.

Harold and Bonnie looked a lot like Joe, but their youngest, Jerry, looked like Marjorie. She smiled when she watched him playing out in the backyard as she cooked. He truly was a beautiful boy. Her heart was lighter when he was in the room with her. He reminded her of her older brother who had died of pneumonia when he was in the army.

Being a mother of three, Marjorie thought she had seen it all. There were days of chicken pox and measles. Jerry had to have a tonsillectomy one winter when he stayed sick for months. And she had come very close to tragedy on other occasions with her children. A car had hit Jerry when he was nine.

Marjorie recited the story to the other policemen’s wives more than once. She had heard the squealing tires, the yelling, and she knew. Mothers just know sometimes. She knew something had happened to Jerry, and she rushed down only to find his body on the pavement a few feet from the car.

She had run to comfort her son, but a man standing nearby grabbed her and held her back and told her that she could hurt him worse if she moved him. The ambulance arrived and she had climbed on board to go with him. She prayed and begged God not to take her Jerry away. And he hadn’t. Jerry recovered with only a tiny scar across his forehead as a reminder of that awful day.

She thought she had seen it all by then, but as another wave of sobs rattled through her she started to think that all the other days before had just been part of the routine. Yesterday might have been the last truly normal day she would ever have. Harold had not been spared as Jerry had before. He had simply been walking his girlfriend to his car across the parking lot when a drunk driver spun out of control and slammed into him, sending him flying 30 feet. There’s no way he would have survived.

Marjorie played out in her mind every detail of that last day she had with her son. In some way it seemed like it had happened years ago already. Maybe that was what shock did. It made time twirl and tilt until you weren’t sure what was real and what wasn’t.

Harold had been home all day. He had been working on his car. He got his clothes all greasy and then he got all spiffed up to go out with Susan, his girlfriend.

“Do I look like a cowboy, Mom?” he had asked as he tipped his cowboy hat in her direction while she washed a plate in soapy water.

She turned and smiled at her son. The warmth of that moment felt so real to her.

“You sure do,” she had said. She dried her hands on a towel and turned full around to get a better look at him. He had on a short sleeve cowboy shirt and jeans that she had ironed with great care to get the creases in the front just like he liked. And he wore his black cowboy boots.

“You worked hard for those boots,” she told him. She had felt so proud of him for working so hard on a paper route to earn the money for those boots. “You and Susan are going to have a good time at the rodeo, I think.”

She walked over to him, adjusted his bolo tie, and gave him a tight hug. She had started to ask if he and Susan had talked any about getting married, but Harold had bent down and kissed her on the cheek before she could say anything more.

“Don’t wait up for me,” he said.

She laughed and shook her head before walking back to the sink. It was a joke between the two of them. He knew she always waited up and she knew he would always come home. He had before.

Harold had gone out the back door then and Marjorie went back to the dishes as if nothing could ever happen to take her child away from her.

Marjorie thought of her mother then. She had been gone for several years, but Marjorie’s heart ached now to have her mother hold her. They could cry together.

Harold had been the first grandchild. She had ridden a bus all the way from Pascagoula to spend a week with them and help out with the new baby. It had been such a special and happy time for all of them.

It was in this moment, in the midst of all this pain, that she realized she had no one to turn to like she would her mother. She felt lonely. There were no real women friends she felt close to. She had had friends in high school, but they had all drifted apart.

Church didn’t offer much in the way of comfort then either. They went to church every Sunday, but people there didn’t really say much to each other about daily sadness, much less horrific tragedy. They smiled and waved and clapped each other on the back and pretended everything was fine. Sometimes Marjorie wanted to call one of the ladies in her church circle. She wanted to ask her if she ever felt depressed or lonely for no reason. But Marjorie never did that.

The only other social activity she had was the Policeman’s Wives Auxiliary meetings every other Monday night at the community center. There were folding chairs set up in rows and the wives listened to someone talk about budgets and city ordinances for about twenty minutes. Then they’d eat tiny pieces of coffee cake and drink coffee while the children rushed to a table set just for them to get a cookie.

Usually after the lecture, the women would scoot their chairs around a bit so they were in a circle and they could discuss recipes and wallpaper and dress patterns. Anything more personal than that was not even considered by any of them.

Joe’s movement pulled Marjorie back from her thoughts. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He didn’t look at Marjorie or say anything for a while. He looked like he might be holding his breath.

“Where you going?” She whispered through tears and a stuffed up nose.

He shook his head and looked down at the floor.

“I need some air,” he finally said. His voice squeaked on the last word and, before she could say anything else, he hopped off the bed and slammed his way through the house to the back door.

A chill ran through Marjorie as she watched and listened. Was he leaving? Was he going somewhere without her? What if something happened to him too?

She forced herself to sit up and get out of bed. She shuffled to the kitchen where she could look out the back window to the garage. Joe was there. He was just standing in the middle of the yard looking at the spot where Harold always parked the car.

Watching her husband hurt like that and seeing the evidence of Harold’s death in front of her felt like a horse kicked her in the stomach. She bent over and slid to the floor crying.

She had ended up in that spot the night before after the phone rang. Joe had taken the call. She had watched his face turn white and she knew. Her heart had stopped and she had screamed until Joe had come and folded her in her arms and told her their son had died.

She barely heard anything after that. She knew someone had told her that Harold’s girlfriend was okay. She knew that someone had said Harold had been a hero to push Susan out of the way at the last minute, but she could not really hear or see or feel anything after she had been told her son was dead.

And then someone knocked on the door. She woke out of her misery and she pushed Joe from her and stood to run to the door.

“Harold!” She said, opening the door. “I knew it was a mistake! I knew you’d come….”

Her voice trailed off when she saw the police officers standing in front of her. Their eyes were puffy and red and she wondered why they should be crying when it was her son. But then she remembered – they were Joe’s friends. They were men she had known since she married Joe. They loved Harold almost as much as she did.

Joe came up behind her and nodded to the officers standing in their doorway.

“Come on in,” he said, gently tugging Marjorie to one side.

“We didn’t want anyone else to bring these,” one man said.

Marjorie looked up. There were tears in each man’s eyes. Then she looked at what they held out to her.

Harold’s boots.

“We’re so sorry,” one of them said, choking on his words. “We’re so sorry.”

Marjorie figured she fainted then. She may have screamed before as well. She woke up who knows how long after. She was on the bed and Joe was next to her. She looked him in the eyes and wept as she prayed out loud that it had just been a nightmare.


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.

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.

No Return Until the Fruit Flies Die

By Karen Brode

 

Hazel’s neighborhood had been asleep a long time when Opal pulled up behind the car in the driveway. Opal was in a fix. Even so, she knew what she could do and what she couldn’t do. There is no way on God’s green earth she could ever sleep in a rat bed.

Opal stared for a second or two at her sister’s house. The bushes outside were trimmed, the grass mowed. There was no table propped up against the side of the house or boxes of dirty toys spilling off of the porch. Relief washed over her. She took a deep, cleansing breath.

With renewed purpose, she took to the front porch steps and peered into the darkened house. Hazel’s room was just off the porch. The curtains were closed, but Opal persevered.

“Hazel!” she whispered as loudly as she deemed appropriate. She tapped her fingernail against the screen until it hit the glass of the window. “Hazel, it’s me!”

Opal put her ear to the window and listened. When she heard no movement, she tapped harder with her knuckle and spoke a little louder.

“Hazel! Get up and let me in!”

A light flickered on inside the room. Moments later, the front door opened a crack.

“Opal,” Hazel said, her voice groggy with sleep. “What time is it?”

Opal pushed her way through the open door using her wedge pillow and suitcase as a battering ram. As soon as she was in the living room, she sank into the nearest chair and sighed.

“I thought you were staying at Cleo’s” Hazel said. She pulled her robe tighter and shuffled over to a lamp on the end table nearest the chair where her sister sat. “Is everything okay?”

Opal leaned her head back and shook her head. “It’s worse than I ever imagined.”

Hazel walked to the chair opposite and sat down.

“I couldn’t stay there,” Opal continued. “You understand, don’t you? You’ve seen how Cleo is living.” She paused for a moment and shuddered. “I don’t know why you didn’t warn me. That house should be condemned. No human being should be allowed to live there.”

“Does Cleo know you’re here?” Hazel finally asked.

“No and you’ve got to help me think of a reason why I left there at this time of the night when Cleo was asleep!”

“I don’t know that I feel comfortable…,” Hazel started to say.

“Well it was because of you that I said I’d stay there in the first place. Cleo obviously doesn’t realize what state she’s living in. You’re the only one who could’ve warned me. So now you need to help me soothe Cleo when she wakes up tomorrow to find me gone.”

“You didn’t leave a note or anything?” Hazel asked. She looked down at her robe and picked off a couple of balls of fuzz.

“If I had stayed there one more second, I am sure I would have caught my death. Are you going to help me or not?”

Opal felt the heat rise in her face and suddenly she was hungry.

“Do you have anything to eat? I don’t think I ever ate after everything that happened. I could tell you stories about Cleo’s kitchen and the awful corndogs she wanted to fix for us, but not on an empty stomach.”

Hazel grimaced at the mention of corndogs, which gave Opal a sense of satisfaction.

Hazel nodded then. “I think I have something you could have.” She rose and shuffled toward the kitchen.

It took Opal a few tries, but she finally got out of the chair she had been sitting in. When she entered the kitchen, Hazel had already started warming pork chops in an iron skillet.

“That is a sight for sore eyes,” Opal said. She smiled for the first time since arriving in Denison.

When the pork chops were ready, the two sisters sat at Hazel’s table while Opal told her the entire story about the house, the fire, Cleo’s face covered in soot, bird cages in the bathtub, and finally, the dead rat in the guest bed.

“Oh my goodness,” Hazel said, covering her mouth. “I honestly didn’t realize it was that bad. I’ve never been past the living room.”

Opal nodded and swallowed another bite of pork chop. “It’s worse than bad.”

Hazel chewed on her bottom lip for a moment and then said, “What should we tell Cleo tomorrow? She’s definitely going to wonder why you left in the middle of the night.”

Opal felt a tug of guilt, which only made her eat faster. Soon she had nearly half a pork chop in her mouth and she couldn’t talk. It took some time before she could swallow all of that, but by then she had an idea.

“What if we tell her I had a horrible migraine headache and I knew you would have the right kind of medicine?”

Hazel looked down at the table and slowly looked back up at Opal.

“Do you…” she started. “Do you really have a headache?”

Opal felt certain that, even if she didn’t have a headache now, she would have had a horrible one had she stayed the whole night in Cleo’s house. Just thinking about it made her rub at her temples.

“I could,” she said. She squinted her eyes. “I do.”

Hazel cleared her throat. Opal knew that meant she hadn’t been very convincing. Still, it was all she could come up with to explain why she had gone.

“How about we get some sleep tonight and see how we feel in the morning?” Hazel asked.

Opal nodded. Her plate was clean and she felt certain Hazel was right. The light of the morning would provide answers that the dark of night never could.

***

Moments after Hazel had whispered goodnight to her sister, she heard Opal snoring.

It reminded her of how her husband Albert had snored all those years ago. He could snore louder than anyone. What she would give now to have him back lying beside her keeping her awake. It was kind of a comfort to hear Opal in the other bedroom bringing down the house with all that noise.

It seemed only moments that Hazel had drifted off to sleep before the phone rang. There was no chance that Opal was going to wake up to answer that call. Hazel shuffled down the hall toward the telephone. Even before she said hello, she heard Cleo yelling.

“Opal’s missing! She went to bed here last night and now she’s gone. Her car is gone. Her things are gone. I didn’t even hear her leave! Do you think someone came and got her in the night?”

“Cleo, it’s okay,” Hazel interrupted. She hesitated and looked down the hall toward the room where Opal was surely awake but too cowardly to come out and take her medicine. Hazel cleared her throat before continuing. “Opal came here because she got one of those old bad migraines. She knew I had medicine for it.”

There was an audible sigh over the phone. “Well why didn’t she tell me she was leaving?” Cleo asked.

“I’m sure she just didn’t want to bother you. It was late but it wasn’t worth waking you so that you’d worry.”

Cleo paused on the other end of the line and Hazel wondered what she was thinking.

After a while, she finally said, “Well, I guess that was nice of Opal. But I’m sorry she woke you up for something like that. I hope she’s feeling better.”

Hazel felt relieved that the worst was over, but she also felt a little worried about how the rest of the day might go.

Not long after she hung up the phone with Cleo, Hazel and Opal sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Neither seemed in a hurry to get through the meal. The activities waiting for them on the other side of breakfast were not ones either of them looked forward to. Still, when the last bite was taken, Hazel knew they had run out of reasons not to go visit their sister.

“Are you about ready to go to Cleo’s house?” she asked.

Color drained from Opal’s face. “Maybe you could tell her you had to take me to the hospital in the night and I’ve been quarantined in a special ward so no one can visit me.” She smiled sheepishly and then said, “Is there such an ailment as rat fever? You could say they’re suspecting I have some sort of rat disease.”

Hazel might have thought that was funny at another time when she had been able to sleep but she frowned at her sister and sighed.

“Alright,” Opal said. “I’ll go. But I won’t enjoy it.”

Cleo was in her robe when she opened the door to her house. She still had black soot all over her face. Hazel was glad Opal had warned her. It was a little shocking, though, even with the warning.

“How’s your migraine, Opal?” Cleo asked.

Opal rubbed her head. ” I got a few hours sleep and I’m feeling a little better.”

Cleo looked unconvinced. Hazel wondered if Opal saw Cleo’s look of suspicion. She didn’t seem to. She was smiling in that judgmental way she had. She guessed that Opal was convincing herself that her reasons for lying were merited because Cleo had not managed to wipe the soot off her face. Somehow, Opal being who she was, would see that as being less than upstanding, which would justify the lie she told her sister.

Hazel pressed her lips together and then pushed passed both women into the living room.

“We need to have a plan,” she said. “We need to start in one room and do one thing and then we’ll finish that and go on to the next chore.” She started toward the kitchen and continued. “I’m thinking that we should clean out the freezer and refrigerator.”

Cleo was hot on Hazel’s heels into the kitchen and Opal was not far behind. The look on Cleo’s sooty face was deep concern and, for a moment, Hazel felt sorry for her.

When Hazel opened the door to the freezer, several frozen items fell onto the floor. She picked up the first package. At one time it had been a small roast, but there was a hole in the plastic covering and it was freezer burnt. Hazel placed it on the edge of the countertop.

“Cleo, where are your trash bags? We need to separate out what we need to throw out and what we need to keep,” Hazel said.

Before Hazel could brace herself Cleo jumped in front of her and pointed a finger in her face.

“Now, you listen here. You think I’m going to just do what you and Opal want me to do, but this is my kitchen, and that is my meat. I happen to know someone in Sherman who wants this meat! I’m not throwing it away.”

Hazel looked over at Opal. She could see her sister ready to step in and blast Cleo with everything she hadn’t said the day before.

“Look, Cleo,” Hazel said holding the meat up so she could see it. “This has been in the freezer for four years. It can’t be good anymore.”

Cleo grabbed the meat out of her sister’s hands, shoved it into the freezer, and slammed the door before it could fall out again.

“It’s not like it’s been sitting out all this time,” Cleo said. “It’s been in the freezer, so it’s still good!”

Hazel looked at the closed freezer door and sighed. This was going to be more difficult than she thought.

“Let’s start in one of the other rooms, then,” she said. She gave Opal a look that told her to keep her mouth shut and then continued. “How about we do the guest bedroom first?”

Opal practically skipped to the bedroom, if you could call what she did skipping, given her physical impediments and all the junk crowding up the floors around them.

Hazel decided it would be too mean to start with the dead rat, so she suggested they take the trash bags to the street so they could be picked up.

Cleo looked like her head might explode then and there. Her face turned red. She picked up and clutched one of the dolls Opal had tossed on the floor the night before. She held it tightly to her chest like a little girl might do.

“There are very important things in those bags,” she said. “I set aside some of Neal’s shirts in one of them so I could give them to his friend Ralph. I just haven’t had time to call him to come get them.”

“Okay. We’ll leave the bags for now. How about this stack of magazines?” Hazel thumbed through them. “You’ve got Family Circle, McCalls, Redbook, Southern Living. Can we take these out to the street?”

“Why on earth would you throw those magazines away?” Cleo put the doll down on a box and grabbed the magazines out of Hazel’s arms. “There are all kinds of recipes and stories in those magazines that I want to clip out.”

Hazel jumped when Opal practically burst at the seams. She watched her older sister move faster than she ever thought possible. Opal grabbed as many trash bags as she could and ran out the door. She was putting them in the trunk of Hazel’s car before either of the other women knew exactly what was going on.

Cleo chased after her and yelled, “What are you doing? Those are my things!”

Hazel stayed hidden by the frame of the door. She watched as some of Cleo’s neighbors came out into their yards.

Cleo pointed at Opal and turned to them. “She is stealing my things! Citizen’s Arrest! Somebody call 911.”

Nobody moved. Hazel watched as Cleo grabbed all of the bags from the car and took them back to the house.

Opal was right. It was worse than she had thought. Clearly, Cleo was not going to let them get rid of anything. Hazel walked out on the porch and felt completely defeated.

Neither she nor Opal talked on the way back to Hazel’s house. There just wasn’t anything to say.

After a few hours, Hazel called Cleo. She wanted so badly to impress upon her sister that Opal would be going back to Arkansas soon.

“You know Opal was just trying to help. She came because you asked her to, but when she took some of those bags out to my car, you accused her of being a thief. Neither of us feel right coming back to help out if we’re going to be called a thief.”

Cleo listened to all that Hazel said. Then she said, “I can’t let Opal come back over here until the fruit flies die.”


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.

Even a Sister Has Her Limits

By Karen Brode

Opal shut the bedroom door behind her and leaned against it. She listened to her sister shuffling through her trash-piled hallway. Opal’s heart raced as if she was afraid, but she knew it wasn’t fear. It was revulsion.

“G’night, Opal!” Cleo chirped from somewhere else.

Opal took a deep breath to try to keep her tone from sounding anything other than content.

“Goodnight!” Her voice wavered. She thought for sure Cleo would be knocking to make sure everything was okay, but all she heard was more sounds of her sister getting ready for bed.

She closed her eyes and slowly counted to ten. In between each number, it became clearer what a disaster it was for her to think of staying with her sister. She knew for one thing that she could never have another meal in there. Thanks to the oven exploding, she had avoided eating corndogs which had been frozen since the dawn of time and were probably covered in cat fur. But she wasn’t sure if she’d have that same kind of luck in the morning.

Opal opened her eyes and looked around. It was yet another gathering place for all the items her sister had not yet priced for her perpetual porch sale.

Opal looked around the floor. She sought any kind of path to the bed, but there wasn’t one. She didn’t think she could get to the other side of the room without falling. The bed itself was covered with trash bags, suitcases, dolls, toys, and magazines. And that was just what she could see without getting closer to it. There was no telling what was underneath all of that.

Opal felt her chest tighten from panic. She realized that she was going to have to move all that if she was going to sleep there. The thought nearly made her black out. She couldn’t sleep there. Not in a room that was so busy with nothing.

But she had promised to help Cleo and she didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

“I’ll just go wash my face and brush my teeth,” she said to herself. “This’ll all look different once I feel cleaner myself.”

Before she could open the door, though, she remembered the state of the bathroom. She had forgotten to ask Cleo about how they were going to go about bathing. There were, after all, birds living in the bathtub of the only bathing facility in the house.

She eased the door to the bedroom open just a little, trying to decide which would be better, to stand in the filth of this room, or to go stand in the filth of the bathroom with the birds.

Cleo was already snoring. Opal rolled her eyes.

“Of course she’s sleeping,” she whispered

Cleo wasn’t worried about anything. Why, no. She went right on to sleep even though her hair was burnt off and her face was covered in soot.

Opal had the urge to go wake her sister up and force her then and there to clean off the bed, to clean out that room. Their mother had taught all of her daughters better than this. They had learned how to cook and keep a clean house and they were all expert seamstresses. In fact, Cleo’s sewing skills were more advanced than any of the other girls in the family. But if their mother could see her daughter’s house now.

Opal shook her head and sighed. There were times when she was glad Mother had already gone to her reward. To see all of this would kill her. Mother had prided herself on good manners and keeping everything spotless. Anyone could have stopped by her house on any day or hour and Mama’s house was always sparkling clean — and that was with seven children. There was no excuse for laziness in any of them. Opal looked around the room again. No. This was not their mother’s fault.

Opal wanted to cry. She longed to be at home at her house in Fort Smith. Why had she thought she could tackle this?

She shut the door again and picked her way to the bed.

She eyed the pile of bags on the top and couldn’t even guess what was in them. She wished she could at least find a place to lie down. But every space and room in Cleo’s house was packed and piled with who knows what.

Opal picked up a trash bag with one hand and held her arm stiffly out in front of her to keep the bag as far from her body as she could get it. She set it on top of other bags by the window. She did this for a good fifteen minutes, moving bags and boxes off the bed to somewhere else in the room.

Before long, she felt like she was crawling with whatever mess lived in garbage and she was angry. It didn’t even seem like she had made a dent in everything that was covering the bed.

“I asked her for one thing,” she muttered under her breath while moving a handful of dirty toys to the floor. “Just a place to sleep. That’s all. Is that too much to ask?”

She sneezed.

“Oh, good grief,” she said out loud. She slapped at the fabric of her dress to try to dust herself off. “I’m going to get a disease in this place before it’s over.”

She stopped working then to consider if there was somewhere else she could sleep, but she remembered that even the couch was so covered in trash there wouldn’t be a place for her to even sit, let alone lie down.

Finally, she decided she couldn’t take touching anything anymore. She found a broom in the corner and used it to clear a small space on the bed. It wasn’t big enough for her to sleep, but at least she could see the bedspread.

But then a smell wafted up from where she had just been working. It burned her nose with the fumes of decay. At first, she couldn’t place what exactly it was but then she saw it. A dead rat was lying on the bed.

Opal screamed. She tried to muffle it with the back of her hand, but then she heard Cleo stirring.

“Opal, are you still up?” Cleo asked from the other side of the door.

“Just going to bed now!” Opal spoke through gritted teeth and she only half-hoped Cleo didn’t hear the disgust and anger in her voice. But she didn’t have to worry. Before long, Cleo was back in her room snoring. That just made Opal angrier.

Opal had always known what to do in every situation, but this was too much. She didn’t have any idea what she should do. All she knew was that she could not stay the night in that rat bed.

A shiver ran up her back and gave her the sensation of critters crawling all over her skin. If there was a dead rat in her bed, that meant there were probably rats everywhere, and there’s no telling what else was living in that house.

That was enough for her. She knew then exactly what she had to do. She picked up her purse, her Bible, and her wedge pillow and tip-toed to the front door. She paused just for a moment to make sure she could hear Cleo’s measured breathing. As quietly as she could, she eased the front door open, and stepped out into the fresh air of night. She slipped off to her car, and started it. She didn’t turn on her headlights until she was backed out of the driveway.

A few blocks away, Opal realized that she really did feel bad about leaving, but she didn’t have a choice. She had to go stay with their other sister, Hazel. Hazel’s house was calm and peace. Her bedrooms had clean, fresh-smelling sheets that had dried on a clothesline.

Opal didn’t want to upset Cleo, so she tried to think of what she could tell her, but she couldn’t get the stench of the dead rat out of her head enough to think logically. Hazel would help Opal think of something. Maybe Hazel could talk to Cleo when the inevitable phone call came from their sister the next morning.


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.

The Duties of a Sister

By Karen Brode

Opal stared at the open suitcases on her bed. They were near full, but she wondered if she needed all of it for a trip meant to comfort her sister Cleo after the death of her husband.

The one item she questioned the most was the pair of yellow stretch pants she had bought the week before on impulse. She had thought they might be more practical to do the work of packing up Cleo’s house, even though she knew the church did not condone women wearing pants. She figured that perhaps in this situation, church folks might cut her some slack.

Still, she decided she should try them on before deciding to take them all the way to Denison, so she slipped out of her dress and proceeded to make the great effort of pulling on the pants.

Fifteen minutes later and dripping in sweat, Opal looked in the mirror.

“Oh, goodness no.” She clucked. “These look hideous.”

When she went to pull them back off, though, they were too tight. She started to panic as she pulled and pushed to get the blasphemous apparel off. In complete desperation she ran down the hall to her sewing room and cut them off. Once relieved of the pants, she took great pleasure tossing the pieces into the garbage bin.

Back in her bedroom, she buttoned up her dress and nodded in the mirror.

“That’s better,” she said.

The woman staring back at her was the woman she knew to be a pillar of the community and the church. She was a woman of substance, a woman who could probably endure anything.

She thought about Hazel, her sister who lived in the same town with Cleo. Right after Neal had died, Opal had wondered why Cleo hadn’t asked Hazel to help her. It didn’t take much thinking on Opal’s part, though to know why. Hazel was afraid of her own shadow. After her husband had passed away all those years ago, Hazel never recovered. She was barely equal to all the surprises life had handed her. She had nothing left to help Cleo stay afloat.

“Cleo,” she thought.

Opal frowned thinking about this sister whose husband had so recently passed. In her heart she had never liked Cleo’s husband, Neal. In all her memory, she couldn’t remember a single word he had uttered to her. For this, she could never forgive him. It was rude not to talk to your own sister-in-law. Besides that, he was just odd.

When the call came a month ago that he had passed, she had thought about not even going to the funeral, but her sister had wanted her there, so she went. Now, though, Cleo needed her to clean up the house and help her settle in as a widow. And when duty called, Opal was the first to answer.

The folks at the church in Fort Smith had been so accommodating when she told them about her family’s loss and her sense of duty. Brother Brown, the minister, had been especially kind to Opal during this time of need. He was a fire and brimstone preacher who delivered his sermons with a nasally Arkansas lilt. In times like these, he always found the right words of comfort.

“What a sad time for your family, Sister Taylor,” he had said squinting up at her with his dark brown eyes. “But what a great day for heaven.”

Opal had nodded at these kind words with furrowed her brow, clutching her watch necklace. It was a gesture she always did in sorrowful times. In that moment, though, she didn’t have the heart to tell Brother Brown that she was only half sure Neal was in heaven right then. She simply thanked the preacher and told him that she looked forward to joining her brother-in-law someday.

Now, though, it was time to join her sister and help her sort through the mess she liked to call a house.

“Three bags,” Opal said with decision at the suitcases. She sighed. “I just can’t know how long this will take.”

She bent over and latched each of the hardcover suitcases and carried them all at once out to her car. Someone with less heft might get a hernia carrying that many bags full-to-capacity, but Opal was was a sturdy woman, with a wide center of gravity, and not much phased her when it came to lifting things.

She had just slammed the trunk of her car when she remembered the wedge pillow she needed for sleeping. Even with all the junk Cleo collected, Opal knew her sister wouldn’t have a wedge pillow – at least not one that was clean.

She took one last walk through the house, going over in her mind anything she might have forgotten. Once she picked up the wedge pillow, though, she decided that was that and she headed out to the car.

The car dinged when she opened the door and she rolled her eyes. There was a time when the only noise a car made came from the engine. She decided she would like to go back to those days. She could do without the racket.

Behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile Cutlass, she looked out over the hood into the far distance of where she was heading. It made her tired when she thought of the long drive to Denison.

It was going to be a sunny day. She leaned over the wide berth of a front seat and dug her clip on sunglasses out of the glove box. She looked in the rearview mirror and decided it was a good thing she was doing. Besides being a help to her sister, she knew she, Cleo, and Hazel would have some high old times remembering their childhood.

Around 11:30am, Opal stopped at a roadside diner near Texarkana. All the booths and tables were filled with local farmers, businessmen, and several women with small children.

While she waited for a table, Opal noticed a family nearby whose children seemed better suited for the jungle than a public diner. Parents had no idea how to raise children these days, she thought. If those had been her children, they would’ve sat in their seats and been quiet and still. Now, though, people acted like they were afraid of their children, afraid to discipline them, afraid to even tell them no.

She shuddered when she heard the mother of the two boys sitting in the booth across from where she was standing bargain with her son.

“If you stop hitting your brother,” the woman said, “you can get a toy at the grocery store – okay?”

No child of hers would’ve ever heard her say that.

When it came her time to be seated, the restaurant hostess asked if she could sit at the bar to keep the tables open for groups of two or more. Opal was never one to make a scene so she agreed to sit at the bar.

What she hadn’t counted on, though, was how small the bar stools might be. She hefted herself up on the stool, but there was more of her hanging off to the sides than was on the stool. She shifted her body to the seat next to her and distributed everything across two stools.

It never occurred to her that her seating arrangement might be amusing to the other customers. She had stopped trying to explain her weight to anyone. Everyone who knew her knew that she ate like a bird. She often looked at her sisters, who were not fat, scarf down huge meals like wolves. Opal had just come to accept that her weight was just another injustice she had to endure.

Sitting there all alone, she had the impression that this trip seemed longer than it usually was. Maybe it was because on most of these trips to Texas her sister Jewel had been with her. Jewel wasn’t all that interesting, but she would’ve made the trip easier for Opal by just being someone to talk to.

Back in the car and satisfied from lunch, the car seemed to drive effortlessly. Opal turned on the radio, and heard the last part of a very important announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our president has been shot!”

“Not again,” Opal thought in despair, thinking immediately back to the day she heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As she listened, though, she was relieved to learn that President Reagan was alive in spite of being shot.

“Thank goodness,” she said out loud.

Ronald Reagan was too nice a man for something like that to happen. He was nice looking, too. Opal had seen all of his pictures.

She listened intently to the news stories as she continued toward Denison. She was thankful when she heard the shooting had taken place somewhere besides Texas. Once she knew this, she turned off the radio.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Opal drove up to Cleo’s house. She was surprised to see several cars parked outside with people milling about the lawn and porch.

Cleo didn’t notice Opal as she stood on the corner and watched her sister and all the people on her front lawn.

There was a sign on one of the porch posts that read “Big Porch Sale” in writing Opal recognized to be Cleo’s.

“No, no, now,” Opal heard Cleo say to someone on the other side of the yard. “I’ll have to get at least a dollar for that.”

Opal took in the scene of bargain hunters picking over the junk overtaking the whole front of Cleo’s house. She had forgotten how Cleo loved to haggle over things. She often wondered in these moments how she and Cleo could possibly be sisters.

This feeling alone made Opal want to get back in her car and drive down the road. But she watched Cleo and suddenly felt sorry for her. Cleo would never be the pillar of strength or the definition of cleanliness and organization that Opal was, but ultimately they were sisters and this bond alone kept Opal from leaving. She was there to help Cleo become stronger in her time of need and, if she could, teach her to be a little less cluttered, more organized – like she was.

With her resolve restored, Opal walked through the crowd of people and up onto Cleo’s front porch. She had already started calculating how they might get rid of all this junk without having to deal with all these people when she heard Cleo’s screech from the steps below.

“Opal! You made it!”

In seconds, Cleo had bounded up the steps and across the porch. She threw her long, skinny arms around Opal in a tight hug.

“Now that you’re here,” she said in Opal’s ear, “I can let myself cry.”

Opal didn’t even have to look at her sister to know tears were already streaming down her face. She could feel the sadness pour through her. She felt the pent up worry and fright that Cleo must have been enduring all this time.

Cleo pulled away and smiled at Opal. She sniffed and wiped her nose with the fatty part of her palm – if any part of Cleo could be called fat.

Much to Opal’s dismay, her sister then clutched Opal’s shoulders with the same hand she had just used to wipe her nose and said, “Let me send these people home.”

Before Opal could say anything, Cleo turned from her sister and, in an age-weary voice, said as loud as she could, “The sale is now over! Please leave!”

Some of her customers looked pouty they didn’t get to go through more of the boxes, but in just a few minutes, they had all meandered off to homes Opal could only imagine were cluttered with the kind of junk Cleo was selling.

It took them half an hour, but the two sisters worked together to get all the boxes, containers, and fold-up tables back into Cleo’s house. Opal bit her tongue to keep from making editorial comments on the items her sister felt proud to offer for sale. From what Opal could see, it was just a bunch of ridiculousness.

It wasn’t until they had gotten Opal’s things from her car and had started to settle in that she realized her sister had left off cleaning at all. She wanted to say something. She wanted to point out that Neal would never have liked living in these conditions, but she didn’t think it was the right time, so she kept her mouth shut.

When Cleo led Opal down the hall, she noticed that her sister’s bed was not made. It didn’t seem like anything had been swept or dusted or cleaned in who knew how long.

Opal began to wonder if Cleo had always wanted to live like this and, had it not been for Neal, she would have lived like an animal her whole adult life. Under her breath, she whispered, “At least he was good for something.”

Other than that, she kept her mouth shut out of respect for Cleo’s feelings. She almost lost it, though, when they came to the bathroom. Two birdcages sat in the only tub in the house. There was no shower–this is where Cleo would bathe. Opal had wondered when they had hugged earlier, when Cleo had last bathed. The birdcages confirmed her fears.

“Have you met my parakeets?” Cleo asked. She pointed to one cage and then the other saying, “This one is Toodles and this is Penny.”

“Is this where they stay all the time?” Opal asked. She took in shallow breaths to keep from breathing in the smell of bird dung that permeated the room.

“I can’t think of anywhere else they could be,” Cleo said, as if that was a perfect explanation.

“I could think of lots of places they could be,” Opal thought to herself. But again, she held her tongue. Cleo was still suffering, she thought. Give her time.

It was almost too much, though, when they came across their mother’s crocheted ecru tablecloth. It was torn all along the edges. Pieces were just dangling from it. Opal wanted to pull the tablecloth to her and cry. She remembered their mother working on it for hours with hopes that it would be cherished and passed down for generations – and now it was in tatters, beyond repair.

“Be careful on the rolled up carpet in the hall,” Cleo said when Opal left the dining room.

Sure enough, her foot slammed into a thick area rug that was rolled up and sitting on the floor in the hallway.

Opal felt her blood pressure rising. When she had agreed to help Cleo get settled, she didn’t imagine this level of disaster. Even with the contents of her three suitcases, she had not come prepared.

She thought of her suitcases and wanted to cry. All the clothes, all her belongings were going to be tainted with the smell that seemed to follow her everywhere she went in Cleo’s house. It was a combination of mold, rotting food, and bird or cat mess.

When she reached the kitchen, Opal found the source of at least two of those smells. Littered across the floor were dirty plates. There were several cats sitting on the countertops and the table. One was on the floor cleaning the leftovers off a plate.

“We don’t even have to wash,” Cleo said, coming into the kitchen, laughing. “We have our own little dishwashers!”

“Where did all these cats come from?” Opal asked, trying to sound more curious than disgusted.

“Oh, I just let them come and go. They’re neighborhood cats.” Cleo pointed to a hole in the screen door that led out to the back of the house.

Opal watched in horror when another cat squeezed through it and walked right in as if he owned the place. He meowed a couple times and Cleo bent down to pick him up.

“This is Fluffy,” Cleo said. “He’s my favorite.”

The cat purred in Cleo’s arms. Opal suddenly felt sick. This was a new feeling for her. She was the rock that held everything together. This, though, was too much.

“What should we have for supper?” Cleo asked Opal. She set the cat down next to a plate of picked-over chicken bones and then started rummaging through the cabinets.

Opal shook her head but didn’t answer right away.

“I, um, I saw a restaurant a few blocks away we could go to.” She surprised herself by the lack of conviction in her voice. She usually always knew what she wanted and was never reserved at saying so.

Cleo laughed. “We can’t go there. They close at five.” She opened the freezer and started rummaging through a thick block of frozen things that had been there for who knows how long. “I’ve got some corndogs in here somewhere. Would you turn on the oven?”

Opal tried hard to focus on her sister. It was a rare thing for her to be shaken like this. She kept reminding herself she was there to help, but she was just beginning to wonder if Cleo could be helped.

“Found ‘em!” Cleo said, holding up a flimsy box of corndogs. She turned and looked at Opal with a smile. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Opal tried to smile, but she couldn’t. In the smallest voice she had ever heard herself use, she whispered, “Me too.”

Not knowing what else to do, she went to the oven and turned it on. Then she went to the table and watched in disgust as her sister prepared the corndogs next to a cat sitting on the counter.

(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.

The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

My mother did not allow me to ride my bicycle around the block like the other children my age. I could only ride up and down Elm Street so that if she looked out the window at any given time, she would be able to see me.

She worried—a lot. And it was my job not to worry her. It seemed to me that I had to be good to make up for my brother and all of his shenanigans. So, I didn’t push limits and I kept to just the one street.

Up on the corner of my street was a small, two-bedroom house. I knew it had two bedrooms because I heard Mrs. Harris, one of our neighbors, whispering to my mother about it. Seeing that our house just had my mom and me, two bedrooms seemed plenty, but hearing how Mrs. Harris talked, I got the impression that meant it was extra small.

The size took on new meaning when a family of five moved into that house over the winter. The house was a rental, so people were moving into and out of it all the time. This time, the Higgins family moved in. Nobody knew about it until the weather got warmer and we started venturing out of our houses again—and, boy did Mrs. Harris and all the other neighbors have something to say then.

“Their lawn is just Johnson grass and weeds and dirt!” She said, emphasizing the last word as if it was the definition of everything she thought about that family.

“It’s just embarrassing,” she said. “The rest of us keep our lawns manicured. Why can’t they?”

It was true. Up and down the street I rode my bike past lawns that were bright green and precision-cut to two inches.

The house where the Higgins family lived, though, had no flowerbeds, no shrubbery, not even a tree. No matter how many people lived there, it always had the look of an abandoned house.

Mr. Higgins was a taxi driver but he often went days when no one needed a taxi ride. It was hard to tell what he was really like because he never spoke. He may have talked inside his house to Mrs. Higgins or the children, but he never spoke to or even looked at any of the neighbors.

He and Mrs. Higgins had three children and another was on the way. Now that I knew how many bedrooms their house had, I did wonder how they all fit in there. Did all the kids sleep in one bedroom? And where would the baby go when it was born? Truth was, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of such a large family in the tiny house. I wouldn’t have felt alone in their house. Maybe I could’ve just immersed myself into the family and not let things worry me so much.

The oldest child was Margaret. She was in third grade, two grades below me. People said she could’ve been very pretty, but her teeth were coming in crooked. These same people would say that there was something about her that set her apart.

“You can just look at her,” said the Mr. Harris. “She’s gonna live on handouts and charity the rest of her life.”

Margaret was often put in charge of her mentally challenged brother, Junior. She did everything for him that he couldn’t do because Mrs. Higgins already had her hands full with the littlest child, Waynie. When her mother deemed it necessary, Margaret was even pulled out of school to help out.

“What on earth is she going to do when she gives birth to that forth?” My mother asked one night when we sat on the porch together and listened to Mrs. Higgins yelling at her kids. We lived half a block away and could make out every word. I felt bad for Margaret.

At school, Margaret’s life wasn’t a picnic either. Kids made fun of her clothes and bullied her about how poor she was. I felt bad for not sticking up for her, but I wasn’t socially secure enough to stand up to anybody.

What impressed me was how she had a way of flipping her black hair. It made it look like she could care less what those other kids thought. A part of me wished I had hair like that to flip in just that way. But then, I wasn’t bullied like she was and I was glad not to be.

No matter where I went—school, home, or church—the Higgins family was the talk on everyone’s lips. Mrs. Green, one of the ladies from our church, stopped by our house one day after dropping off some donated groceries to the Higgins family. She was a florid-faced woman whose mouth was always set in a tight purse no matter what she did. When she delivered groceries to our neighbors, though, her mouth got so tight we thought it might pop right off.

“You would not believe the state of that house,” Mrs. Green said. Her nose scrunched up like she smelled something bad. “She had the audacity to see my visit as a social call.”

Mrs. Green wiped her hands on a handkerchief she had been carrying since she arrived at our door. She seemed to think she was dirty or something, but her dress was perfectly pressed and her heels were the shiniest I had ever seen.

“The smell was horrific,” she said, her nostrils flaring this time, as if trying to air them out. “You could smell it from my car.” She looked out the open door to her late-model Buick LeSabre. “I hope it didn’t permeate my car!”

“Well, was she happy about the donations we took up for her family?” my mother asked. I remembered then that we had taken some canned peaches and fruit cocktail to church with hopes Margaret might get to enjoy them.

Mrs. Green nodded. “You’d think we gave them caviar and champagne,” she said in a whisper, as if saying the word champagne was as much a sin as drinking it.

“I just do not know how that woman does it. There’s not a spot in the house to sit that isn’t covered in something.” Mrs. Green shivered. “To be polite, I pulled up an old wooden chair that seemed cleaner than the other things and watched her go through all the items like it was Christmas day.”

I wasn’t sure how to interpret Mrs. Green’s snobbery. On the one hand, she had been nice to deliver those things to the Higgins family, but the way she spoke about them was the way other people talked about cockroaches and that seemed kind of mean. It was very confusing. I didn’t understand why she cared about giving a poor family groceries if she thought they were so disgusting.

I won’t say it was easy being neighbors with the Higgins family. There were a couple of times that I rode my bike past their house and that’s what ultimately drove me away from any previous longings for a larger family in a small house and long black hair to toss in the face of bullies.

Throughout the summer, the family sat together on any given evening on the porch. I’m not sure what they did there other than what all the other families were doing—watching the kids play and ride their bikes, waving to the passing cars and pedestrians.

Since I only rode my bike up and down our street, I saw them often. One time I ventured to wave and say hi to Margaret. She looked down and half-waved back.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew she didn’t have a bike of her own and I had noticed she watched all the kids riding around the neighborhood.

I pulled over to the side and slid off the seat, straddling the lowered center bar of my bike.

“Wanna ride my bike for a while?” I asked her.

Margaret’s eyes lit up for only a second and then she looked over at her mom. Mrs. Higgins didn’t look at me or say a word but she shook her head slowly no. Margaret looked down at her hands and shook her head too.

I didn’t ask again. Based on what I had heard the adults on the block say, it did seem as if Mrs. Higgins wanted her children to understand early on that there would be no luxuries, no extras, and not to ever get their hopes up.

Later that summer, I took my bike out after dinner and, when I went to make the turn back down Elm Street, Mrs. Higgins called out to me.

“Don’t you get tired of riding that bike up and down the one street?”

After my previous experience, I was a little shy about talking with her, but being the child I was, I rode my bicycle into their yard and in a low voice explained how my mother worried more than she should.

“She doesn’t want me riding my bike where she can’t see me and I try not to worry her.”

Mrs. Higgins held her head up and looked down at me but she didn’t say anything. It reminded me of the way Mrs. Green looked when she talked about Mrs. Higgins.

Just then, Junior said something that I could not understand.

“He wants to know if he can ride your bike,” Margaret said in a monotone voice.

Mrs. Higgins turned her disapproval on Junior and said in a voice far louder than necessary, “Why on earth would you think you could ride a bike, Junior Higgins?”

“I…I don’t mind,” I said, getting off my bike to roll it over to him.

“Don’t you come around here with that shiny new bicycle trying to make us feel poorer than we are, young lady!” Mrs. Higgins yelled so loud I was sure everyone could hear her. “You get on out of our yard now! We don’t need people like you trying to make us feel worse!”

I was so stunned that all I could do was stand there and stare back for a minute. I know I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I trembled while I backed my bicycle out of their yard and rode back down the street toward my house.

I vowed to myself after that to never to ride my bike up the street by their house again. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d made my vow that I went from having just the one street to ride on to having half a block.


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.

A Love That Endures

By Karen Brode

It was one of the first days of summer; still cool enough to sit out on the front porch of my house. In a few days school would be out and I would officially be finished with fourth grade. I looked forward to summer, but I was a little sad that the school year was coming to an end. It had been a good year overall. I didn’t like endings. My heart yearned to hold to what I knew, and not keep changing things.

I saw Mr. Powers walking down the street in front of my house. He wore a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes and carried a fold-up stool in his left hand. There was something purposeful about his walk, something that suggested he wasn’t just walking around the block for exercise.

Years before, when I was very little, he had scared me because his bottom lip was gone from cancer. I soon learned that there was nothing scary about him. He liked to make me laugh and he always feigned surprise when he saw me, as if it had been a hundred years since our last meeting.

He and his wife, Hattie, had been a special part of my young years. She was a study in calmness, a beacon of kindness to everyone she knew. I remember dancing as a little girl through her garden. It reminded me of a fairy tale and I felt like a princess. There was even a rose arbor in the back with a place to sit inside. I loved the beauty and tranquility Mrs. Powers (as I called her) carried with her.

Inside the house they had photos of their children and their life together as a couple. Mr. Powers told me once over a plate of cookies how shy he had been to court Mrs. Powers when they were young. It made Mrs. Powers giggle to hear him tell it, but I could see in his eyes the real concern he had felt back then.

“I had to quit school,” he told me, leaning forward in his blue-upholstered rocking chair. “I hadn’t even gotten to the third grade.” He looked up and counted something on his fingers.

“How old are you now?” he asked.

“Ten,” I said.

His eyebrows shot up like he was surprised at my answer. “I was younger than you when I had to leave school,” he said.

I wondered what that would be like to not have school anymore. In my mind, it seemed wonderful to never have homework again. I loved the structure and the sameness of the school year, but it seemed so freeing to imagine never having to go there again.

Mr. Powers grinned over at me. “Before you get to thinking what a grand thing that would be, let me tell you something. I left school to pick cotton so my family could have just the basic necessities.” He looked at the plate of cookies Mrs. Powers had set in between us. “We couldn’t have those cookies. No ma’am. I forfeited my childhood so we could just have some potatoes and a bit of meat now and then.”

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

“What was it like?” I asked. “Picking cotton, I mean.”

He opened his eyes and shook his head. “I panicked sometimes. The rows of cotton went further than I could see. I felt stuck there in the middle of all these plants that needed tending. But I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to keep working.”

Mrs. Powers sat down next to me and patted my leg. “He had to be at the cotton field at five in the morning and by two in the afternoon he went home to help his mother with chores.”

Mr. Powers grinned. “But then I saw this one here,” he said, leaning forward and taking his wife’s fingers into his hand. “I couldn’t look at another girl. I was obsessed.”

“He was embarrassed,” Mrs. Powers said, squeezing his fingers.

“Why were you embarrassed?” I asked.

He laughed out loud. “I was poor as dirt. I was afraid my Hattie would find out how poor my family was and want somebody better.”

“There couldn’t be anybody better,” she whispered back.

Even at ten years old, I knew how devoted he was to her. I imagined my own life getting married, having kids some day and hoped whoever came along would be like Mr. Powers.

It wasn’t until much later, when Mrs. Powers started “going downhill,” as all the adults around me would say, that I learned just how much devotion Mr. Powers had for his wife and their family. I hadn’t known how much they had endured together until Mrs. Powers couldn’t remember any of it.

Over the months of Mrs. Powers’ decline, I learned about their son, Tad who had been killed in a car accident.

“No one should have to live with that kind of memory and misery,” my mother had said to Mrs. Wright, our next-door neighbor. They were watching Mrs. Powers from a distance. She stood on her back porch looking out at her beloved yard and she looked a little lost.

Mrs. Wright agreed. “It was such a tragedy. But it’s going to be just as much a tragedy to lose her memory of him. She had always lived with that sorrow and managed to find peace besides.”

Weeks passed and Mrs. Powers started forgetting bigger and bigger things. The few times she and Mr. Powers visited after her diagnosis, she would forget what she was talking about in mid-sentence and lower her eyes pitifully. I didn’t totally understand what was happening to her, but I felt sad anyway. After that, they didn’t come visit us anymore.

They didn’t visit us anymore, but my mom made sure we did what we could to help out our neighbors. One Saturday evening, we went to their house to drop off a casserole. One of their daughters answered the door. She thanked us for the food and invited us in.

“She’s just started watching Lawrence Welk,” Mr. Powers whispered, looking up from his chair.

Mrs. Powers was in a wheelchair dressed in a beautiful dress and her hair and makeup were done as if she was going to church.

“She wants to look her best for Lawerence,” he said, smiling.

Later, in the kitchen, I overheard Mr. Powers and my mother talking about his life with “Hattie,” as he called her. It seemed to help for him to talk about their years together, so my mother sat with him and listened while Mrs. Powers and their daughters watched her favorite show together.

Mr. Powers pulled open a photo album they had kept nearby to help Mrs. Powers with her memory of her family. He, my mother, and I looked through it together. When we came to their son Tad, Mr. Powers seemed happy and sad at the same time.

“He had a huge imagination,” he said. “And Hattie always believed him no matter what he told her.” He smiled and continued. “Made me love her even more….”

He leaned over to peer into the living room and then he leaned back and whispered, “My kids seem older than I am now. I still feel like that hopeful young man who was determined to woo Hattie.”

His finger traced along the edge of their wedding photo. He and Mrs. Powers looked so different. I didn’t recognize them until Mother complemented the dress Mrs. Powers was wearing.

“It’s hard to see her like this,” Mr. Powers said with a gentle nod toward the living room. “I try to give thanks for the years we’ve had. I try not to be bitter and angry at God for giving us this burden.”

Tears pearled up in his eyes and overflowed down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen an old person cry and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I shifted in my seat and accidentally knocked my glass of tea. It spilled all over the table, but my mother was quick enough to lift up the photo album before the liquid reached it.

One photo fell out of the book, though and landed right in the tea.

“I’m so sorry!” I said. I jumped up and ran to the sink for a handful of paper towels.

Mother shook the photo out and we did our best to dry it off. Then we cleaned up the table while Mr. Powers stared at the photo.

“Don’t worry, child,” he said. His voice had turned sour and, at first, I thought he was mad at me.

He flicked the picture back to the table and continued. “That there is my brother Pierce.” The photo showed a young man in a white t-shirt and partly rolled up jeans. His arm was slung over the door of an old car and he looked like he was singing at the top of his lungs.

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” I said, hoping he wasn’t mad at me about the photo. “I’m really sorry I got it all wet with my tea.”

Mr. Powers grunted. “I’m not upset about the picture,” he said. “I could just do without being reminded of Pierce.”

“You don’t get along?” my mother asked.

Mr. Powers leaned back in his chair. He had both hands on the cane he sometimes used to get around.

“You know that fella that lives in that abandoned boxcar in the woods?” His eyes were squinted. He seemed uncertain if he should tell us this.

My mother nodded.

“That’s my brother.”

We were both speechless. I had seen that man several times and was a little afraid of him, though he seemed nice in a way. He was always singing that song – When Irish Eyes are Smiling.

“He used to live with us,” Mr. Powers continued. “For years he did.” His face softened for a moment. “Hattie was so good to him. She cried when he left.”

“Why did he leave?” I asked barely above a whisper.

Mr. Powers looked right at me and I could see anguish in his eyes as he said, “Because I told him to. He wouldn’t stop drinking. I couldn’t let my children be around that.”

Several days later, I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Powers tried to get in the car to go somewhere. When she stepped out of her wheelchair to get into the car, she held onto his arm and took tiny, uncertain steps. Not once did Mr. Powers get irritated or impatient, not even when she took a long time to get in the car. He just seemed to be reassuring her every step of the way.

I didn’t see Mrs. Powers after watching her husband help her into the car. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to go visit. It’s just that I wasn’t invited by my mother when she would go. I never asked why, though I figured it was because of something she didn’t want me to see. She always seemed sad when she came home from her visits.

And then the day came that we learned Mrs. Powers had died.

It was the first funeral I had ever been to. Mrs. Powers looked like she was sleeping in a lacquered box stuffed with satin pillows. She looked smaller than I had remembered. I cried when I realized she would never wake up and there was no one to tend to the fairy tale garden or the rose arbor. It didn’t seem fair.

The neighborhood wasn’t the same after she died. Mr. Powers looked even older than before. It seemed like a piece of him had died when his wife did.

On that summer day before the end of my fourth grade year, I decided to follow Mr. Powers on his solitary walk. I hid behind a bush outside the cemetery and watched him walk to Mrs. Powers’ gravesite. He sighed. As frail as he looked, he also seemed weighted down. Something seemed to pressed down on his shoulders and make them sag.

He sat down on the fold-up stool he had carried with him. For a while he was silent. Then he put his head in his hands and cried.

I wanted to go comfort him. He had always been so nice to me. But I also didn’t want him to know I had been watching him. Before he could see me, I snuck back to the road and went home. I was sitting on the front porch when he walked up the street to go back to his house on the corner. His back was straighter. His face looked less drawn in sorrow. It seemed he had talked things over with his wife and she had helped him to carry on.


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.

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

It seemed like we had been waiting hours for my Aunt Opal to get ready to go. For a while, I had paced around the living room and kitchen like my mother. She spent the time cleaning up here and tidying there. Every now and then, she’d look down at her watch and frown. There were two little lines in between her eyebrows that were only visible when Aunt Opal visited. On this day, they etched more deeply with every minute that passed.

Finally, I got tired of standing around, so I flopped into an upholstered chair in the living room and closed my eyes. My stomach growled.

Mother gave me an apologetic look and hollered from the hallway, “Cleo is waiting for us, Opal! She’s probably got lunch on the table by now.”

Opal swung open the door and swished out of the bathroom. “Keep your skirt on, Hazel,” she said. “It’s not like Cleo’s gonna go hungry.”

Opal ambled down the hall. Her large hips curved out from her thin upper half, giving the impression that she had been sewn together from the parts of two different body types. If anyone was going to pull it off, though, it was my Aunt Opal.

All my life I had heard about how she had been the beautiful one in the family. It seemed that, even now, even though age had settled into her features and her hair had started to thin, she wasn’t going to give up on that title. That explained the expensive night cream and why she brushed her hair 100 strokes everyday, but as a ten-year-old girl with a growling stomach, I had a hard time understanding why somebody would need so long to get ready for lunch.

After what seemed like another eternity, we finally got in the car. Mother drove, I sat in back, and Opal settled into the passenger seat. The first thing she did was pull the windshield visor down to look at herself in the mirror. I had to keep from rolling my eyes at this. Hadn’t she just been doing that in the bathroom?

She grinned up into the mirror and examined her front-most teeth. “Lately, this lipstick’s been rubbing off on my teeth,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. I try to look my best and then things like this happen.”

She took her index finger and rubbed at the flakes of rose pink lipstick that swam along her teeth.

As Mother moved the car out of the driveway, Opal snapped the mirror closed and leaned back in her seat.

“I’m sure glad Neal won’t be there,” she said with an air of relief. “It was lucky for Cleo that he went quickly and didn’t linger.”

I felt the car jerk a little and looked over at Mother. Even from where I sat, I could tell she was angry. Her ears turned a little pink and her grip on the steering wheel tightented.

“How could you say that?” she asked. “Cleo is our sister. She loved Neal so much.”

“Well, it’s the truth,” Opal said. “That Neal was an odd duck. He just glared and glared. Never said a word.” She looked over at mother and made her eyes wide in a crazy stare.

Mother had always taught me to respect the dead, even if we didn’t like them when they were alive. I looked around the car, feeling uneasy about what it might mean for my aunt to talk this way about my dead uncle. It seemed to me like she was asking for trouble.

“Whether he was odd or not doesn’t matter,” Mother said after a moment. “Cleo loved him. She misses him and here you are going to lunch at her house happy about his death.”

“Oh good grief. Give me a little credit. I’m not going to say anything. Mother taught me manners, too!”

I could tell from my mother’s silence she was thinking the same thing I was—if Opal had manners, why didn’t she use them all the time?

“I never had one conversation with Neal,” Opal continued. “Lord knows, I tried! What kind of conversation can you have with someone who doesn’t talk back?”

The lines between my mother’s eyebrows deepened even more and her mouth tightened to a puckered line.

“So you’re mad at me now,” Opal said. “Just because I said how I felt about Neal? It’s not like you adored him. We both know how controlling he was. She couldn’t say a word without his permission and you know how much she loves to talk.”

Mother stayed quiet. She had always told me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all and I could tell she was doing her best to say something nice.

Opal seemed to get the hint. She stared out her passenger window and was blessedly quiet for a little while.

When she turned from the window, though, she started back up. “You remember that he lived with his mother, don’t you? What kind of grown man lives with his mother?”

“Opal, you need to stop thinking about anyone but yourself,” my mother finally said. “You are the only person in this world that you can control.”

Opal’s head turned so fast to face Mother, I thought it might snap off. Her face was disbelief and surprise.

“Hazel, I have never in my life tried to control anyone!” She shifted in her seat a little and wiped off some imaginary dust particles from her dress. “Sure, I’ve tried to make helpful suggestions, but that’s not the same as controlling people.”

She pulled the mirror open again and then shut it as if she had had an epiphany.

“Let’s just face it, Cleo was not pretty, not terribly smart, and she towered over most of the boys. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting her down. I’m simply saying what happened. By the time Neal came around, she was 18 and had never had a real boyfriend. If a few more months had gone by, she would have been declared a spinster. I mean, let’s just call a spade a spade. She was desperate.”

“Opal, Cleo has had a relatively happy life,” Mother said. “Just keep your opinions to yourself.”

“I’m a solid citizen of the United States,” Opal said. “I would like to know when my freedom of speech was taken away.”

Mother sighed. I knew that sigh. It was the one that meant she felt helpless to do or say more. Her next words were quiet, tired. “Just try to be nice, please.”

“I am the nicest person in the world,” my aunt said. But for just a moment, when she turned and looked out the window, I thought I saw doubt creep across her face.

We had gone several more blocks before Opal turned to face my mother. “Do you know that Cleo didn’t even know how to spell her second child’s name when she gave birth? Anybody in their right mind would have wondered or asked someone how the name Juanelle was spelled, but she obviously didn’t know or care because I saw the birth certificate. She had written it with a W, like the way it’s pronounced. But that’s not how you spell that name! I wanted to say something to her, but I decided to be nice. I didn’t want to cause trouble.”

My mother’s face was weary. I knew she had hoped this would be a happy occasion for Cleo to see her sister. She had been so lonely after Uncle Neal had died. She seemed to be rethinking the value in having Opal there as a way to boost Cleo’s morale.

“Opal,” she said. “Let’s think happy thoughts. Cleo needs us to brighten her day, not bring her down more.”

Opal blinked at Mother a few times and then she sat up straight, as if a jolt of electricity had come through the bottom of her seat.

“Oh, Hazel,” she said. “I just remembered what it was I have been wanting to tell you.”

Mother blinked at my aunt and then turned her eyes back to the road. The shift in tone seemed to surprise both of us. There was something in Opal’s urgency that made me lean forward and listen harder.

“You’re never going to guess,” she continued. “What is the strangest information you could hear about our sister Jewel?”

Opal and Jewel both lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They usually traveled together to visit the family, but on this occasion, Opal came alone because Jewel had to work. I can remember Mother’s disappointment in learning that her other sister couldn’t come. The truth was, Mother and Jewel were the best of friends and Opal was much more difficult to deal with when Jewel wasn’t there as a buffer.

Mother smiled. “I know she isn’t pregnant!”

“No, but it’s almost as bad,” Opal said. “She’s met someone at church.”

“That’s not a bad thing, I don’t think,” Mother said.

“His name is Tommy,” Opal continued. “What grown man calls himself Tommy?” Her smile spread across her face, but it wasn’t the kind of smile somebody gets when they’re happy for someone. It’s the kind of smile my aunt got when she had gossip to share. It was always mean gossip, too, and wasn’t something I liked that much. I turned to look out the window and forget about the conversation, but my aunt had a way of talking that was hard to ignore.

“Well, you know Jewel isn’t classically beautiful like I am, but she has a certain sweetness of spirit. He tried to sit by me at first, but I didn’t want some old guy hanging around, so I moved as far away as I could just as soon as he sat down. But our Jewel is so gullible. He just had to smile at her once and she smiled back. Needless to say, they’ve been sitting together in church for almost a month and he takes her out for dinner all the time.”

I didn’t know why it would be bad for my aunt to sit with a man from church, so I looked over at Mother. She seemed genuinely interested, if not outright concerned for Aunt Jewel.

“Where did he come from?” she asked. “Has she met any of the rest of his family?”

“No,” Aunt Opal said. Her eyes were wide with conspiracy. “Conveniently, they all seem to be dead. Our sister is acting like a teenager. She keeps asking me which dress she should wear to go out with him for supper or picnics on Saturdays.” Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed a finger at the curls along her temple. “It’s almost more than I can stand, to tell the truth.”

She was quiet for a breath or two, but Mother didn’t say anything, so she continued.

“The other church people are just horrified. Althea Morgan took an instant dislike to him, but I think it’s only because he didn’t try to take her out. I guess my standards are just too high. I’ll never find another Lloyd.”

She smiled over at Mother and then said, “You’ll get to see for yourself. He’s coming with Jewel next month when she comes to visit you.”

Mother gasped. “I hope you told Jewel that a man will not be sleeping under my roof under any circumstances. I have a little girl to think about.” Her eyes flashed up to the rearview mirror and we made eye contact. I suddenly had a feeling of dread at meeting this Tommy person. What if bad people did go to church?

Opal must have gotten the reaction she was looking for. She grinned from ear to ear. Her tone was more serious, though, when she said, “I’m just trying to give you some advanced warning. I don’t like to see people blind-sided.”

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

Finally, we arrived at Aunt Cleo’s house. I couldn’t have been more ready to eat and be rid of some of these conversations about terrible men. I loved Aunt Cleo. She had the most interesting collection of things on her front porch that were constantly for sale. If I hadn’t been starving, I would have stopped to look at all the toys and books she had out there. It was always changing. I never knew where she got the stuff she sold, but for a kid, it was fascinating to look through.

I could see that Aunt Opal didn’t agree, though. She canned the porch and then raised her eyebrows at my mother. Mother glared back at her with her warning eyes and anything my aunt might have said disappeared behind haughty eyes.

When we went into the living room, though, Opal couldn’t hide her disgust of all the piles of clothes and stacks of books and boxes filled with knickknacks.

After Cleo gave us all hugs, my aunt seemed apologetic when she said, “This is my inventory that I haven’t priced yet.” She reached to the couch and moved a large Raggedy Ann doll from the couch. “I’m going to try to get it priced and out on the front porch for tomorrow. If you see anything you want, Opal, I might could give you a special price.” She smiled warmly.

Opal pursed her lips, but my aunt didn’t seem to notice. She laid the doll down on a box filled with other toys and then picked up a pair of blue clip-on earrings.

“These would look so pretty on you, Opal. I know for a fact that a teacher here in town has a pair just like these.”

Opal shuddered and her face went pale. The earrings were cut glass and garish, even to me.

“No…” Opal started. Her voice sounded harsh. Then, more softly, “No, thank you. I don’t need any earrings.” Beneath the tightness of her voice, I heard the real meaning of her words. She didn’t want to wear earrings she thought that had been dug out of someone’s trash.

Aunt Cleo seemed undeterred, though. She went to another cardboard box and dug into it.

“I was saving this back for you, Opal, if you want it.” She pulled out what at first looked like a colorful caftan. “I know you are always looking for something comfortable to wear.”

We all leaned closer in to look at it. The caftan was a huge piece of fabric that had been folded over and had a neck hole cut in it.

“I have nice clothes, Cleo” Opal said sounding offended. “I wouldn’t ever wear something like that. In fact, I don’t know any kind of woman who would wear something like that.”

Cleo took a step back from her sister and looked at the cloth as if seeing it for the first time. The sides of her mouth dipped down. She seemed embarrassed and sad at the same time.

Before she could say anything, though, Mother stepped forward and offered her the bowl of beans she had brought for lunch. Aunt Cleo’s sadness brightened for a moment, but not to the level of excitement she had had when we first arrived.

She took the beans, then, and led us through the house, making some kind of small talk about the weather.

In the dining room, Opal noticed Cleo’s paint-by-number painting sitting on an easel.

Cleo had spent much of the summer working on the painting. It was called Pinkie and Blue Boy. If anyone asked her about them she was glad to tell people that they weren’t meant to be a pair, and were originally painted by two different artists. But like the rest of the artistic community, Cleo thought they were meant to be together.

When Cleo was painting she rarely looked up even to talk to people. There were such tiny spaces that needed to be filled in with a color, and then she had to wait for the oil paint to dry. She worked arduously for hours at a time on her new project.

Neal had only died a few months before, and Cleo’s grief was still fresh. My mother’s grief over the loss of my father had been plowed under more urgent matters years ago, but she knew what Cleo was going through. She was used to walking into a room and seeing only furniture, lamps, and a television where people used to laugh and talk. She knew the darkness of a day by herself in a house when no one called or came by.

So, Cleo had her painting of Pinkie and Blueboy. She had Pinkie over half done, but had not yet started on Blueboy. When Opal picked up the box the painting had come in, she looked at my mother and pointed to the writing on the box. “Appropriate for ages 8-12.”

My mother ignored her and kept following Cleo into the kitchen. Mother instructed me to set the table while she put the water on to boil for the macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, Aunt Opal walked around with flared nostrils, as if everything had a stench to it that was hard to place.

Sitting on the counter was a package of ground meat. Opal traced a finger over the sticker that read “Reduced for Quick Sale” and made a face. She tried to get my mother’s attention, but she was too busy helping get lunch prepared. I dared not make eye contact with Aunt Opal. I did not want to be seen in league with her opinions.

Finally, it was time to eat and Cleo asked Opal to say the blessing. For the first time ever, I heard my aunt falter. And then I realized she didn’t say a word about the food. Usually, when adults said grace, they were thankful for the food we were about to eat, but Aunt Opal left that part out.

It wasn’t until she kicked my mother under the table that things became clearer.

“Why on earth did you just kick me?” my mother asked.

Opal glared, as if Mother had revealed a secret she wasn’t supposed to tell.

“I was only trying to save your life,” she hissed. “Did you see that package of ground beef? It was warm and it was reduced for quick sale! You’d think you’d be grateful to me for trying to warn you about it!”

Cleo stood up and said, “I bought that meat at Kroger this morning! There is not a thing wrong with it!”

Opal stood up then too and threw her napkin on the table. Her face had the look of someone who had bitten into a lemon. “Think what you want, but I wouldn’t eat anything from this kitchen if you paid me to.”

Cleo drew herself up, shoulders back. When she stood like that, she was right at six feet tall. Any timidity she had had before completely dissolved. She was angry. “Nothing would be good enough for you, Opal.” She held out a hand which pointed to the front of the house. “So you can just leave.”

I looked over at Mother. She had her head in her hands and I could tell a migraine was coming on. I silently counted on my fingers how many more days until Aunt Opal left. No matter how long it was, it seemed like an eternity.

Opal stomped back through the house and Cleo followed behind. Opal picked up the caftan and held it before her sister. “Look at this. You think I want some prostitute’s cast off clothing? Even if I did, I wouldn’t buy it from your porch sale!”

Mother slid out from the table and motioned for me to join her. I had only gotten a couple of bites of macaroni and cheese, so I was still hungry. But I did as I was told, turning back only briefly to take in the table of food. I couldn’t see what Aunt Opal did. The food looked delicious.

By the time we got to the living room, Opal was in the car.

Mother sighed. “I had hoped we could have a nice visit,” she said, her voice sad and frail.

Cleo patted her on the arm and I remember thinking it odd that Cleo was comforting my mother after all the things Opal had said. “Don’t worry, Hazel. I’ve been dealing with Opal all my life. I can take care of myself.”

Before we got to the door, she continued, “You’re the one I feel sorry for. You’ve got to deal with her for several more days.”

Mother smiled sadly and nodded. “Sure wish Jewel had come. She always seems to know what to do.”

We were silent as we walked to the car, but as soon as we had the car doors open, Aunt Cleo yelled from her front porch, “Next time you come over Hazel, don’t bring that buffoon with you!”


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.