Julia’s Visit

By Karen Brode

The window air conditioner unit was turned up to “high” and if there had been a “very high” setting, Minnie would have turned it to that. It was only 10 AM, but in north Texas in June, window units ran continuously.

Minnie had put a chicken and a ham in her oven early that morning. She would serve this along with seasoned greens, potatoes, garden vegetables, cornbread and rolls, and several choices of desserts. And then there was always Neapolitan ice cream in her freezer. Minnie reassured herself that she had made a scrumptious and appetizing lunch for her special guest, her niece, Julia.

Minnie had several nieces from both brothers. Julia was one of them. She was 19 years old, the picture of youth and beauty. Minnie was so excited to have her niece visit for a week. Her visit was the closest Minnie could get to her beloved baby brother, Leon who had died suddenly a few years back when he had suffered his second and last heart attack at the age of 45. Minnie had no idea why both her brothers – who had children – were taken so young when she was left childless and alive. She resented the injustice of that.

It wasn’t that she had a death wish, exactly. It’s just that she had bothersome thoughts that she had let all her nieces down by allowing their fathers to die so young. She felt she was somehow responsible because she had outlived them. She would have gladly died instead of either one of them. But they were both gone and here she was was left to try and make their daughters as happy as possible.

With everything just about ready for Julia’s visit, Minnie felt content enough to take a few minutes to sit down and relax. That is, relax as much as Minnie ever felt safe enough to relax. She sat in her recliner in the corner of her living room and chugged back a Tab soft drink until the can was almost empty. She was like her father that way. She could almost drink an entire soft drink without stopping for breath. This was especially easy for her to do when she was nervous, and that was most of the time.

Julia arrived at the expected time and, after settling in, she planted herself in the cushioned chair by the front door. Minnie couldn’t help wonder if she chose that particular seat in case she couldn’t stand any more and had to rush out the door quickly.

Minnie watched her beautiful niece from the kitchen.

Gosh she was thin, Minnie thought.

Minnie looked at all the food she had prepared and looked back at her skinny niece. She wondered if she had prepared the kinds of things that Julia would eat. She didn’t want Julia to get skinnier!

Or maybe Julia was still grieving her father’s death. There were still many days when Minnie could not bear to think that Leon was gone from this earth, never to sit at her dining table again, never to keep everyone entertained by his stories, never to talk to her again in that special way that only he and Minnie had. He had been her touchstone, someone who would always understand.

Minnie dabbed at her eyes thinking back on these things. Leon had kept alive all of the family times they both remembered. He remembered her when she was young. He saw all of her and loved her anyway. He knew her secrets and her fears. He also remembered how impossible their mother had been.

Sometimes, Leon would hold Minnie’s hand while she poured her heart out to him about all of her sadness and he would listen attentively. She knew he was really listening; not pretending to listen like other people. She got relief and consolation from those visits. It was as if she could breathe again.

The night Minnie got the call about Leon’s death she had run up and down the road in front of her house screaming. She felt so alone, so frightened. She was not only scared. She was angry. She didn’t want to go on living in a world without Leon.

Minnie wiped her eyes and looked again at her niece. She was reading a book. Minnie squinted to make out the title – “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Minnie had never been much of a reader outside of the Bible and book in which someone overcame great adversity to win in the end. She had to read books like that. She had this hope about her own life – that maybe, if she was good enough, wise enough, and nice enough, her life would at least end well.

Minnie wanted people to love her. It was all she had ever really wanted. She had worked her fingers to the bone, said her prayers every night, went to church every Sunday, baked hams for bereaved families, lived a life that had no dark spots, and yet, she wasn’t a happy person.

When she lay down to sleep at night, her worry never stopped. She laid on her back with her head on the pillow and her hands on her belly. Her worry was visible in her thumbs as they went round and round each other. Sometimes, if the night was worse than most, she got up and went in the living room to read. She had had some kind of heart problem since she was 18. The doctor had told her to think twice about having children. She hadn’t said anything at the time, but in her mind, she was thinking – not much chance of that.

The first day of Julia’s visit had passed awkwardly, Minnie thought. She had done everything she could think of to feed and entertain her niece, but all Julia seemed interested in was sitting on the chair reading that book.

When she couldn’t take it anymore, Minnie put her Tab drink down and asked, “Would you like a piece of strawberry icebox pie, Julia? I made it especially for you.”

Julia looked up at Minnie in a blank way.

“No, I’m not hungry,” she said. “But thank you.”

Then she turned back to staring at the page in her book and Minnie’s worry-go-round ratcheted up to a new level.

She was relieved, then, when a knock came at the door. She was even more relieved to see her Kelly standing there. Kelly was another niece from her other brother. She was 16 years old and reminded Minnie of herself. She was so eager to please and didn’t want to let anyone down. Minnie thought for sure that everything would go well with Julia now that she had someone more her age to talk to.

It was clear after a few minutes, however, that Kelly felt just as self-conscious as Minnie did in front of Julia. Before long, they were all three silent in the little living room. The window air conditioner whirred on, its fan ticking away the excruciating minutes.

Minnie looked from Kelly to Julia and back to Kelly again. She tried to get Kelly to say something, anything, to entertain her guest. But Kelly shrugged and her eyes were wide with uncertainty.

How could this go on for a whole week, Minnie wondered.

Finally, Kelly spoke up.

“Uh, Julia, do you like crossword puzzles?” Kelly held out a book she had carried with her.

Julia looked up from her book. Her shiny black hair was flipped up at her shoulders in Marlo Thomas fashion and it bounced as she shook her head.

“Not really,” she said. She sounded bored.

Kelly nodded and seemed to take this as a cue to work on her crosswords by herself. She pulled out a pencil and sat staring down at a page she had turned to, her tongue sticking out on one side in concentration.

Even so, Minnie detected Kelly’s own discomfort. Or maybe she was just uncomfortable enough for the both of them. She watched Kelly shift in her seat, look up at Julia, and then look back down at her book.

Then Minnie looked over at Julia and wondered for the first time how long she had been reading that same page. She worried they had disturbed her too much. Maybe she couldn’t concentrate because of them.

Finally, though, it was too much. Minnie couldn’t take the silence anymore. Julia could read her book any time, but she was in Minnie’s care now and Minnie wanted her to enjoy herself.

“Kelly, why don’t you and Julia go for a walk?” Minnie said. The words tumbled out of her mouth in a burst of impatience with the whole situation. Sweat ran down her face at having spent the last few minutes racking her brain trying to come up with something. By the time an idea finally occurred, she had crossed the line from worry into complete misery. She felt no choice but to blurt it out.

Kelly looked up from her book. Minnie knew that look. She was restraining herself from rolling her eyes. Kelly knew better than to roll her eyes.

Instead, her dear niece stood up and asked, “Julia, would you like to go on a walk?”

Minnie knew Kelly would be just as miserable out in the Texas heat with a silent cousin as they all were inside the little room that was cool for more reasons than just the air conditioner.

Julia nodded and Minnie nearly squealed in delight! She was doing something! Julia would not be miserable after all!

Minnie watched her two nieces walk out of her yard and down the gravel road. It was a road Minnie walked almost every day. Despite her weight problem and inability to follow a diet more than a day, she did try to offset the damage to her heart by walking a little each day. There was a tree about half a mile down the road that she would walk to and then she’d turn and walk back.

She knew—or hoped—the girls would walk farther than that. She worried for them, though. What if a pack of dogs or a car full of boys or a hunter with a gun came along and threatened them somehow?

Minnie took a few tentative steps off her front porch. She thought about following the girls on their walk, but she knew she would never be able to keep up. Instead, she stood on the porch and waited for them to come home.

***

Kelly couldn’t believe Aunt Minnie had stuck her alone with her cousin. Besides being intimidatingly beautiful, Julia was practically silent all the time.

The two cousins walked down the gravel road to the tree Minnie walked to each day. The only sound between them was the crunch of the gravel beneath their feet. Kelly’s earlier attempts to engage her cousin had been met with shrugs and more silence, so she decided it would be on Julia to break the silence.

With each step it became more difficult for Kelly to keep to her resolution. She had noticed they were wearing similar sandals and would normally have mentioned it as a way of bonding, but she bit her lip and walked on.

Kelly took the time, then, to think about their Aunt Minnie. She looked back toward the house and saw their old aunt standing on the front porch. She looked so earnest and kind of pitiful, even from a distance.

Kelly looked back at her cousin and wondered why she was always so quiet. She was pretty sure that her mother had told Julia how to feel about their aunt – maybe she had told her how to feel about the whole family, even Kelly. She wondered if Julia realized how much Julia’s mother had sabotaged her relationship with everyone. She wondered if she knew how much their aunt loved her and how much she wanted to please her.

In the past, before Julia became so silent about everything, she had told Kelly how brainwashed people could be. Kelly had wondered if this was a way to break her out of her own Minnie-imposed prison, to save Kelly from the same worries and pressures that Minnie put on herself. At the time, she admired Julia for saying these things and trying to help her not be like Minnie, but now she wondered if Julia knew how much she, too, had been brainwashed by people like her own mother.

It’s not that Julia’s mother was mean, especially not to Kelly, but she had always kept an arm’s distance, just like Julia was doing. Minnie loved all of them, especially Julia’s mother, Kate, if for no other reason than because Kate was Leon’s wife. Kelly didn’t think the love was reciprocated on the part of Kate, but she would never say that to her Aunt Minnie.

During one of the visits Kate and Julia made to Minnie’s house after Leon had died, Aunt Kate had sat in Minnie’s living room knitting. Kate was beautiful, just like her daughter, and very accomplished. She was so different from anyone Kelly had been around, including Minnie and her own mother. Kate was a principal at a grade school. Her evenings were taken up with all kinds of activities and classes that would further her education.

If that weren’t enough, Kate was elegant in appearance. She wore her hair in a style that would’ve been impossible for Minnie. There were combs and pins involved in her hair-do, whereas Minnie had curly, unforgiving hair. She had given up on such a style long ago.

During their visit to Aunt Minnie’s house, other relatives had been called by Minnie to celebrate their visit. The living room was filled with family. Minnie had invited all the nearby relatives and even some from further away. She was never happier than when she could get a bunch of relatives together.

During this visit, Kate put her knitting down and looked at Kelly in a way that made her nervous.

“You will be graduating high school in a couple of years,” Kate said. “You should come to Knoxville and stay with me and go to the university there.”

Kelly looked from her Aunt Kate to her Aunt Minnie. Minnie was beaming, but Kelly knew she would never take her aunt up on such an offer. She suspected her aunt knew this as well—that the offer was merely to win points with Minnie and not genuine. And of course, Minnie would never suspect such manipulation. She was completely innocent of guile or duplicity.

Uncle Leon had taught at the university in Knoxville. Kelly tried to imagine how it would be to be able to say her last name in a place where that last name was a good name, a respected name, an important name. She wouldn’t have to stammer and be bashful about her last name because of what her brother had done to their name. Kelly thought about all the times people looked at her when they realized who her brother was. There was always a look of judgment, always a sense that they had put her in the same box with him. It was a hard row to hoe, as Minnie would have said.

Kelly never went to Knoxville for university. Until she was married and took another man’s name, she never knew what it was like to be proud of her last name.

In the meantime, there she was walking in silence with her cousin Julia, not really sure what the future held, only knowing that she didn’t want to be the one to break the great silence.

As Julia and she came to the first turn, Kelly looked ahead and saw the sunlight dappling through the shade of the trees on either side of the road.

She had just about decided to break the silence to point out such beauty when a snake fell from a tree about six feet in front of them.

Kelly jumped and screamed. Even in her panic she felt embarrassed doing all this in front of her cousin who, predictably, remained calm.

Without thinking, Kelly picked up a large piece of gravel and threw it at the snake. Amazingly, it hit the snake right in the head and killed it.

“I…I don’t know how I did that,” Kelly said, completely forgetting her pact with herself about the silence.

“It’s impressive,” Julia said, nodding.

Kelly looked over at her cousin and felt something like pride and bashfulness wash over her.

“I don’t think I could do that again in a million years,” she said, stammering a little.

She looked back at the dead snake and rubbed her arms at the shudder of adrenaline and fear pumping through her.

“Mind if we head back?” Kelly said, turning before Julia agreed.

Julia nodded and they started back to the house.

Kelly thought of Minnie then. Maybe they weren’t so alike after all. Whenever Minnie had come across a snake, she went into some kind of trance. Her husband had always had to rescue her whenever it happened – and, living in the country, it happened at least a couple of times a year. She would stand in the yard and scream, but she couldn’t move.

Kelly felt distantly responsible for Minnie’s fear of snakes. After all, it had been her father who had terrorized Minnie with them. If Minnie could be at fault for not having died in the place of Kelly’s father, it stood to reason that Kelly was at fault for Minnie’s phobia.

Kelly shook her head and sighed as she and her cousin walked toward the house. But for the fear of snakes, she and her aunt were exactly alike!


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.

Aunt Emma

By Karen Brode

By the time I was ten years old, I felt the responsibility to be a good church-going, God-fearing person. The summer before, when I was still nine, I had been baptized at the big gospel meeting held at the Sheraton football stadium.

No church in Liberal County could hold the crowd that filled the football stadium each night. The theme of the meeting was “Three Days of Decision.”

I succumbed to the spiritual pressure to be baptized on the first night. I didn’t trust waiting until the next night. A lot of things could happen in a day. I didn’t want to take any chances.

Back at the little church in Appleton, though, it was like seeing the same movie over and over. It was always the same. I knew what would happen next, but still I watched.

For instance, every Sunday, Geraldine Morton sat in front of Aunt Winnie, my mom, and i. No sooner did we file into our regular pew than Mrs. Morton turned to hold Winnie’s hand while the two talked.

“You know Beulah’s funeral is tomorrow,” said Mrs. Morton. “Could you bring a pie to my house? I’ll have Frank take it over to her.”

There was always a funeral and always a pie needing to be made. Aunt Winnie always agreed to make it or whatever food was necessary to help out the grieving, hurting families. She also went to every funeral service. It’s what people did.

It was pretty much the same every Sunday, some version of that anyway. But one Sunday, Mrs. Morton turned around quickly, before the men had set up the communion table and decided who would say the first prayer.

“I meant to tell you, Winnie,” she said. “I saw Emma down at the Bonham Farmers Market yesterday.”

Aunt Winnie’s head jerked back a little and she tilted her head like she hadn’t heard right.

“My Aunt Emma?” she asked.

Mrs. Morton nodded. “She was looking so much better than last time I saw her. I’m so glad she doesn’t need that walker anymore.”

Aunt Winnie’s mouth dropped open like she was trying to get the words out but she couldn’t. Finally, she whispered, “Are you sure it wasn’t someone who looked like my aunt? Maybe someone far away?”

Mrs. Morton didn’t seem to notice Winnie’s surprise. “No, it was her,” she said. “We talked a bit when we were looking at the plums.”

Winnie nodded and smiled a weak, confused smile, but she said nothing more. Her husband was walking up to the podium just then, so time for talk was over. Still, she seemed so shocked to hear that Aunt Emma was walking without a walker that she leaned forward to look over me to my mother.

They made eye contact and Winnie’s eyes widened, as if to say, “Did you hear that?

Mother shook her head and motioned with her hand something suggesting they talk later. I knew that gesture well because I had been taught from a very young age that once the minister stands to speak, it’s time to hush and listen.

“Let us pray,” my uncle said. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Dear Lord, may the speaker of your word have a ready recollection of thoughts. May those thoughts move someone today to turn their life over to you. And please bless the hands of the women who are cooking for our bereaved family….”

I took a chance to open my eyes and look over at Winnie then. She was the one who was always pitching in and helping. My uncle had to be talking about her. I wanted to see if I could tell that she was proud of what he had said. But she didn’t seem to be listening. Her head was bowed, but her eyes were opened. She was looking down at her hands and she seemed troubled about something.

My uncle finished his prayer. He repeated his concern for the lost souls of the congregation. When he said “Amen,” I looked around at the few dozen people and wondered who he thought was lost because we had all turned our lives over to God, even me. Did he know someone’s inner miseries that the rest of us didn’t? Was he trying to reach them?

It was time to sing then and we were asked to stand. Most of the congregants were past sixty. They groaned as they forced themselves from the comfort of the wooden pews.

“Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting Lord. What have I to fear, what have I to dread… leaning on the everlasting Lord.”

While we sang, I noticed my aunt watching the cows in the field out the window. She continued to do this throughout the sermon. I looked at the back of Mrs. Morton’s head and wondered if Winnie was upset about what Mrs. Morton had said about Aunt Emma’s walker. I didn’t completely understand, but I knew she was worried about my other aunt for some reason.

A few days later, Winnie came for a visit. She sat at my mother’s kitchen table, and she told her what Mrs. Morton had said. Mother seemed shocked as well.

“Emma’s needed that walker for forever,” my mother said. “It takes her ages to get to the door when someone goes to visit.”

Winnie nodded. “It’s pitiful to watch.”

They sipped tea in silence for a few minutes and then Winnie asked, “You don’t think she’s just pretending, do you?”

Mother shrugged and shook her head. “I can’t imagine. I’ve never seen her without that walker. To go this long just pretending?”

“Have you noticed her hair?” Winnie asked.

Mother shook her head again. “I don’t visit Emma like I should. What I know of her is what you tell me.”

“She’s put something in it!”

I’m not sure what Mother thought of when she heard this, but I had to put my cookie down because I was imagining Aunt Emma with gum or peanut butter or some other sticky substance all over her head. The thought of it made me want to laugh, but Aunt Winnie was so serious that I knew better. So I picked up my cookie and stuffed it in my mouth to keep from giggling.

“Her hair is jet black now!” Winnie said. She seemed almost angry, but I knew the look on her face was more about worry. “Hazel, I think she used shoe polish on her hair!”

I wasn’t expecting that. I burst out laughing. Cookie crumbs went everywhere.

“Karen!” Both Mother and Aunt Winnie hollered at me before I could compose myself.

“Sorry,” I said, still chewing what cookie remained. I stood up and immediately started cleaning up the mess.

My offense didn’t last long, apparently, because Aunt Winnie continued.

“I don’t know why she did it or why she does anything! She’s crazy!”

“It’s not just old age?” Mother asked.

“It is old age and we’re going to have to put her in a nursing home soon. I can’t keep going to her house everyday after I’ve worked a full day. “

Mother wiped a few of the crumbs I missed off the table into her hand. She looked like she wanted to say something but she was biting her tongue.

Finally, she said, “Do you think she’d be better off in a nursing home?”

Winnie sighed. She put her hands to her face and wiped her eyes. She seemed tired all the sudden.

“Even if she goes into a nursing home, she’ll expect me to visit everyday. I guess a home isn’t going to change that. But there’s a limit to what I can do, Hazel.”

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.