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.

The Weight of Worry

By Grace Washington

My legs bounced with impatience while I sat on the couch in the middle of the night waiting for Pearl to come home. I was the only one awake in the house, but then, I was the only one who knew Pearl wasn’t there. While my life was trudging slowly by, people I had known at college seemed to be on fast tracks to all kinds of success. And Pearl was on the fast track to trouble.

I didn’t want to be up waiting for my little sister, but it seemed like somebody ought to be looking out for her, worrying about her.

I stood up and peered out the front window. I closed my eyes tightly and wished for Pearl to appear. When I opened my eyes, she was nowhere to be seen.

It was cold outside. The moon was so bright I could see frost glistening on car windows and stubborn clumps of grass that had grown up through the concrete over the summer.

I guessed that Pearl was probably somewhere out in the middle of that freeze – always one to only think of herself, not even caring about the baby that she carried inside her. What if she caught cold and it became something worse?

I looked up at the radium clock that sat on a wall shelf in the living room. It was three in the morning. The bar was about four blocks from where we lived. Before I could talk myself out of it, I had my coat on and I was out walking in the cold.

I resented every step I took. The winter wind blew in my face and I blamed my little sister. By the time I reached the parking lot of the bar, I was angry and winded. I was caught up short, though, when I realized I’d have to walk through a half-dozen couples kissing in that cold parking lot to reach the door of the bar. It made me feel sick.

From outside the bar window, I saw Pearl. Even at that distance I could see her pregnancy glowing on her face. And then she tipped up another drink from some kind of dark bottle and she laughed at something the young man across the table said to her.

Pearl turned the bottle up to drink the last few drops from it and I shivered. I’m still not certain if I felt the chill from being outside in the cold or from watching my baby sister down the last drops of whiskey like someone with nothing to lose.

But she did have something to lose. She had that baby growing inside her and she wasn’t doing a thing to take care of herself and make sure it was healthy when it arrived. I hadn’t wanted that baby any more than anyone else, but in the last few weeks, I had begun to think of him or her as a part of our family.

With courage I didn’t know I had, I pulled my coat tighter and marched through the thicket of kissing couples in through the door of the bar. Before Pearl could even register who I was, I was standing in front of her table. I pulled the bottle from her hands and grabbed her arm, forcing her to stand up.

She squealed and the man with her stood up as if to defend her.

“You know she’s pregnant, don’t you?” I asked him.

His face changed in an instant and he looked slowly from me to my sister.

“She just wants to trap you so you’ll marry her and give her baby a name.”

Pearl’s eyes on me were murderous but I continued.

I raised my voice and turned to the entire bar and said, “That goes for all you. My baby sister is pregnant!”

You would have thought I had said she had the plague. Every single man in that room simultaneously leaned away. Some of them even slumped off to the darker regions of the bar, as if they might be accused of getting Pearl pregnant.

I pulled my sister by the arm and shoved her out into the night. She was drunk. She could barely walk, but I refused to give her any help. She’d brought this on herself.

“Why’d you go and do that?” she asked. Her tone was angry and bitter, but her words were so slurred I could barely understand her.

She looked at me for an answer, but I was too fed up to say anything now. I had done what I set out to do – get Pearl out of that bar. Even so, I was guarded. I kept one eye on her and felt my heart twist with disappointment and suspicion.

“That guy was nice,” she continued. Then she stumbled a couple of paces and giggled.

“I have half a mind to put you on a bus to nowhere just to get you out from under Mama’s worry.”

Pearl stopped in the middle of the road and stared at me. Her mouth opened to an ugly sob and tears sprung out of her eyes.

“I would be alone,” she cried through her drunken stupor. “I don’t know how to be alone!”

I shook my head and sighed.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” I asked. “You don’t care about anyone but yourself. Look at you! You’re pregnant! Don’t you want to be a good mother?”

She nodded and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her sweater.

“Then get it together – or you’re getting on a bus to anywhere but here.”

A few hours later, I rose from a muddied sleep and looked over at Pearl. She was sleeping peacefully. I shook my head and pulled back the covers to get out of bed. As I shuffled off to the bathroom, I kept telling myself that all this stuff I did for my little sister was really for my mother. Her peace of mind meant so much to me that I was willing to stay home from college for a year just to help her out.

Without meaning to, I wished Pearl had never been born. Without her there would be fewer worries, even with all the other kids Mama had to contend with. Then I chided myself. Pastor would look harshly upon me for the things that were in my heart when I thought of that selfish girl.

Looking into the mirror in the bathroom, I asked Jesus for forgiveness for my mean thoughts. I asked him to take away my mean thoughts toward Pearl and help me to be a better person. And then I leaned my forehead on the mirror and prayed I would get through the day without falling asleep. I had a cleaning job to get through.

I knew it was going to be a hard day when I saw Mr. Butler’s car in the driveway. I wondered why he was home on a Tuesday morning. His wife’s car was gone, though. With her there, at least I’d have a buffer, but now I’d have to keep my eyes down and pretend to be deaf, dumb, and mute. He was one of the meanest men in town and everybody knew it.

I was loading the laundry into the washing machine when Mr. Butler came into the kitchen wearing his yellow striped pajamas. I felt myself blush from embarrassment and uneasiness, but I simply kept my eyes down and kept working.

“How ‘bout I help you do that laundry,” he said sidling up next to me. He placed a hand on my back like we were old, intimate friends and leaned over as if to grab one of the pieces of laundry.

I was terrified. Without thinking, I jumped away from him. That was the worst thing I could have done.

I tried to soothe everything by laughing and saying, “Oh my! You gave me quite a surprise. I didn’t realize you had come in the room! I’m so sorry.” But it came out high pitched and completely unbelievable.

Mr. Butcher’s eyes were two dark stones and his face burned red with fury.

“You little bitch!” he spat through clenched teeth. Then he paused and listened. There was a car door that slammed and heels clacked on the pavement outside.

Mrs. Butler walked in seconds later. Even before she got through the door, she was chirping on about a good buy on porterhouse steaks. She and Mr. Butler were hosting a cookout for all their friends and she went on and on about what it was going to be like.

She didn’t seem to notice her husband standing there in his pajamas. Very casually, he picked up one of the clean towels I had just folded and draped it over his arm.

“Honey?” Mrs. Butler said, “Why are you still in your p-j’s?” Her voice sounded worried and she stepped forward with a hand raised, like she might try to feel his forehead for a fever.

He ducked away, though, and held up the towel.

“The maid here didn’t supply me with a towel for my shower,” he said nodding his head toward me. “And she still hasn’t made me breakfast.”

Mrs. Butler looked over at me and smiled, but it was one of those two-faced smiles that Southern white women are so good at pulling off. It was civilized betrayal when it boiled down to it.

“Why don’t you run along and make Mr. Butler some breakfast?” She flicked her fingers toward the kitchen.

I was relieved to get out of there and continue my work. I just had to get through four more hours of cooking and cleaning before I could go home. By the end of it all, I was exhausted and I felt like I might just break down right there on the sidewalk, but I kept thinking about why I was doing this kind of work – for Mama – and I kept going.

It was worth it, too. When I walked through the back door of our house, I took a deep breath. Mama had made hot beans and rice with bacon and cornbread. It smelled so good after such a long day.

And how wonderful it was to sit down and eat and enjoy the family. I listened to all my little siblings tell about their days at school and I secretly whispered a prayer of thanks that there was only one Pearl in our family.

“Where is Pearl?” I asked, realizing just then that she had not joined us.

“She’s not feeling so good,” Mama said. “Think she may have that stomach bug going around.”

It took a miracle that I didn’t roll my eyes imagining Pearl’s troubles to be due to a stomach bug. I didn’t want to disrespect Mama but I also knew that girl had brought her illness – whatever it was – on herself.

Mama seemed keen to change the subject. Even though I tried to keep my disappointment in my little sister a secret from my mother, she knew how I really felt.

“Did I ever tell you about my first Christmas with your daddy?” she asked. Her face lit up and she leaned back in her chair.

I shook my head. “I don’t think so, Mama.”

“I was 17. Your father was so happy I had married him!” Her eyes were distant, as if she was being transported to that time when she and Daddy were so young. “He was so happy I had married him!” She giggled and slapped the table with her fingertips. “You know, he was so eager to make us official that he went down to the bank and added my name to his checking account? It wasn’t just Ernest Washington, Jr. anymore. It was Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Washington, Jr.!”

The thought of this warmed my heart and, although it was often weighted with worries for our family, in that moment I forgot them and enjoyed being with my family.

“We had a little Christmas tree by the window,” Mama continued. “His mother had given us one string of lights to wrap around it. They blinked off and on, and we would lie in the dark and watch those blinky lights for hours at a time. Ernest had already put a present under the tree for me. It was a long sort of flat box that he had wrapped himself. He made me promise not to peek, not to ruin the Christmas surprise. I spent lots of time wondering what that box held. Then on Christmas Eve, when both of our families were at our apartment, we each opened one present. Ernest got up and handed me the long-awaited present. I was almost afraid to open it, but when I did I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t want to believe it.”

“What was it?” I asked.

“An ironing board!” she said, laughing until tears came into her eyes. “Oh, I was so mad, I pushed it away from me and threw it on the floor!”

“Wow, Mama – I can’t imagine you doing that, even if the present was an ironing board.”

“The worst part,” she said, wiping her eyes on her napkin, “was that he tried to make it better with a smaller package. It was an ironing board cover to go with it!”

Mama laughed like I hadn’t heard her laugh in years. This made me laugh too. I stood up to grab a handkerchief from a drawer just outside the kitchen and that’s when I saw Pearl. Her face was ashen and her eyes were hollow.

“Help!” she said clutching her belly. “I think I’m losing the baby!”


Grace Washington is a part-time contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. Her stories often uncover the realities and courage of those who fight for justice. 

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.