Opal’s War of the Worlds

By Karen Brode

It had been a particularly long Sunday afternoon for Opal. Bells Baptist Church had had a luncheon after worship. She usually loved after church meals with the entire congregation. Her church family felt almost like her immediate family, although truth be told, she never really felt she was much like any of them. Now, back at home, the day just dragged on.

Opal walked through the house to see if there might be anyone who could distract her from the drudge of the day. Her young sisters, Cleo and Jewel, busied themselves brushing and fixing their doll’s hair in different ways. Opal was twelve, only a year older than Jewel, but Opal already knew that Jewel was not going to be her intellectual equal. She watched her sister playing with dolls like a little girl. If she said the words “intellectual equal” to Jewel, her sister wouldn’t have a clue what she was saying. 

The youngest sister, Hazel, was asleep. Opal peered over the sleeping girl and sighed in the dramatic way she was known for. She begrudged her baby sister being able to fall asleep and not have to think about anything.

Opal left her sisters to play and sleep. She wondered where her brothers were. There was no telling. The boys were required to stay on the property, but there was a whole 160 acres the boys could roam around in without going off the property. There was no way to tell if they were on or off their land from the kitchen window. Opal bet a dollar that her brothers were in the farthest reaches of the acreage smoking. 

Finally she came to Poppa and Momma’s bedroom door. It was closed and she could hear her father snoring. It was their custom to come home from church, strip out of their church clothes, and take a nap before going back to church that night. Opal didn’t understand why anyone would want to take their clothes off just to have to put them back on again an hour or two later. What was the point of getting dressed and undressed and dressed again?

Come to think of it, she wondered why on earth there was even a need to double back to church on Sunday night. Why couldn’t they just say what they needed to say on Sunday morning? She could understand if they wanted to preach a little longer on Sunday morning and be done with it. She traced a finger along the ledge of a windowsill and sighed. It didn’t matter what she thought about these things, though. She’d been been told enough times that her opinion and a nickel might buy someone a cup of coffee. 

And speaking of opinions—Opal stared out the window and shook her head as she thought about the woman who had gone forward during the invitation song that morning. Each Sunday Pastor Bill stood in front of the congregation. His forehead glistened with sweat. His suit drooped as if he’d been in the trenches saving souls. And the only thing he seemed certain about was that someone in that room needed Jesus. 

The hymn wrapped up and the pastor held up his Bible to stop the singing. “Hell is still hot and Jesus wants to save you from hell.” His tone had a reverberation of urgency. “Remember Lazarus and the rich man. There is a great, uncrossable divide between the saved and the unsaved.”    

Opal was familiar with the end-of-services ritual. She knew Pastor Bill wanted everyone to repent of their sins and move forward into a new life. But standing up and walking down that aisle meant a lot more than just feeling guilty about something. It told the world you were less of a Christian than all the others who stayed in their seats. And those in their seats had the right to see themselves as better than those that went forward. Whenever someone came forward, there was a lot more judgment than forgiveness.

Opal thought about Hedley Miller, the woman who had finally come forward. She was tall and thin wearing the same dress she wore every Sunday. Her shoulders hunched forward and she walked as if afraid of taking another step. From where Opal stood, it seemed as if Hedley might just curl up into a ball and disappear completely. Opal thought even her dress seemed more worn than usual.

“I didn’t know he was married,” Hedley sobbed into her handkerchief.

“Sure you didn’t,” Opal thought to herself. She could see that everyone agreed with her. No one believed that someone would marry a man without checking if he was already married over in the next county. Opal crossed her arms for good measure and glared back at the woman without feeling an ounce of sympathy or forgiveness. It was the least she could do to help Hedley toward a more Christian life.

It usually made Opal feel superior to think back over the shortcomings of others, but for some reason this morning’s revelation did nothing to combat her afternoon restlessness. It worried her to feel so anxious about nothing. She prided herself on being the calm in the storm, the voice of reason. She was not given to emotional outbursts, not like her sisters. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and tugged the front of her dress a little to readjust it.

From where she stood in the parlor, she could see the dining room. It filled her with a kind of peace the way the sunlight came in the window and lit up the old oak table that stood in the middle. It had been a wedding gift from her mother’s grandmother. 

She walked to the table and laid the palm of her hand on the wood. She knew every line of grain in that table. She was in charge of polishing it at least once a week. There were times when she didn’t want to polish it or be in charge of anything, but her grumblings only provoked severe reprimands from her mother.

“Opal if you want to move out and live somewhere else, go right ahead!”    

Opal cringed at this memory and she lifted her hand from the table. She knew her mother had not meant it. She only wanted Opal to appreciate the finer things in her home and the embellishments that many of her classmates did not have. Opal had never been hungry and not fed, she had never had to wear the same dress to school two days in a row. Mother thought Opal should meditate on the niceties that were offered to her and to be grateful for what she had. It was a lesson few people ever learned. But Opal learned it. She knew her mother was right.

Just then, Opal heard shuffling in the kitchen. She went to see who it was and saw it was just the person on her mind. Momma didn’t look well, though. 

“You need anything, Momma?” Opal asked. “Maybe a cup of coffee?” 

Her mother nodded and waved as she pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. Opal went to the stove and set up the percolator to make some coffee.

“You okay?” she asked.

Momma looked up, her face pale and tired. “I need you to pray that I am not pregnant again,” she said.

Opal felt sick. Surely her mother didn’t want her to actually pray about this. It would be like throwing away a gift from God. Still, her mother looked like the shell of herself slumped at the table.

The two were silent for some time. Opal fixed the coffee and set it before her mother.   

“I’m not going to church tonight,” Momma said. “I just don’t feel up to it.” 

Opal nodded. “Me neither.” 

“I reckon missing one Sunday night service won’t land us in hell,” Poppa said as he walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. 

The moment Poppa sat down, Momma was on her feet shuffling around to get supper on the table. Sunday nights were a hodgepodge of the last several days’ meals. There was enough spaghetti for two or three people, roast beef for one, fried hamburger meat for several, baked potatoes, ham for sandwiches. The children were expected to put their own meals together.

Things warmed on the stove and Momma sat back down as if she couldn’t stand another minute.

“Opal, why don’t you turn on that radio,” Poppa said. He looked over at Momma and continued with a little glint in his eye, “It might improve the spirits around here.” 

Opal looked over at her mother. She waited for her to take the bait, but she didn’t. Usually that kind of remark would have started an argument. Opal flicked on the radio.

“Find a channel to put your mother in a better mood,” Poppa said. He smiled this time and winked. 

Opal saw Momma’s color turn from ash pale to dark pink. She cringed wondering what might come of the evening if Momma started arguing with Poppa, but then the color drained out of her face and she propped her head on her hand as if she couldn’t even hold that up anymore.

The radio blared on. The noise of it raked against Opal’s own nerves. She couldn’t imagine what how it might feel to Momma. It seemed like an intrusion into the quietness of the afternoon. 

“Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.

A large meteor crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.”

Poppa looked over at Momma, his face serious. “New Jersey is a long way from here.”

The radio was silent for almost a minute and then it continued.  

“Good heavens. Something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it…it…ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

The radio blared on with news about Martians mounting atop walking war machines and firing “heat-ray” weapons at the puny humans gathered around the crash site. They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon, it was announced that “Martian cylinders” had also landed in Chicago and St. Louis.

Momma’s head lifted from her arm. Her eyes had a patina of fear that Opal had never seen before. The look on her face terrified Opal.   

“We should have gone to church!” Momma said.

“What does church have to do with what’s happening on the radio?” Poppa asked. 

Momma shook her head and stood up. Opal noticed her mother’s hands were shaking. Her whole body seemed to shake. 

“We have to warn them,” Momma murmured. 

Poppa didn’t seem to hear his wife—he seemed intent on the radio program—but Opal watched as Momma went to the desk in the parlor. She pulled out a piece of her signature writing paper with the pale purple flower at the top and wrote something down.

“Opal, I need you to get this to the Pastor Bill at church,” she said, folding the paper and handing it over.

“Yes, ma’am.” Opal took the note without question and ran out the door. She didn’t pause to look at herself in the mirror or slip on a sweater, in spite of the early October chill in the late-afternoon. She had seen her mother frightened before—Momma always seemed frightened or nervous about something—but she had never seen her mother look that scared. Once out of sight from the house, though, Opal slowed down to read the note: 

“Pastor Bill and congregation, we have listened to the radio. We have heard the warnings that alien spacecraft have landed at various locations of the US. We are sending our eldest child, Opal, to warn the church. In Christian love, Mrs. Walter Morrison”

Opal shivered with fear. So, what the radio was saying was true. Aliens had arrived from Mars. 

What if one of those spaceships landed right beside her just then and tried to take her back to Mars with them? She did not want to live on Mars. She certainly didn’t want to be married up with one of those creatures described in the broadcast. 

Opal knew it was unladylike to run, but on this occasion, speed was of the essence. 

As she ran, Opal began to think of herself as a heroine. She saw herself saving her neighbors from utter doom, or at least letting them know it was coming. There might one day be a book about her someday, how she went out into the twilight fearlessly and selflessly to save her community. She wondered which school picture of her they would use in the book. Opal had never taken a bad picture really, so any one of them would be okay.

At the edge of the church yard, she slowed down and composed herself. She decided to walk down the aisle with the purpose and seriousness in which she was sent. She knew the congregation might be surprised at first, but then they would realize that she was saving them from the Martian’s death rays.

Opal opened the door and walked steadfastly up the aisle to the minister. She handed over the note and waited off to the side. Pastor Bill looked up and over at Opal. His face had the pallor of Momma’s. Opal felt heroic and nauseous at the same time.

“I’ve just received a note from Mrs. Morrison,” said the pastor. “According to the radio, Martians have landed on earth.” 

Gasps and whispers floated out from the pews. An electric sense of panic rippled around the room. 

Pastor Bill held up both his hands and said, “We are in the safest place on earth right now. God will take care of us. I have no doubt.”  

He laid the note on the podium and nodded to Opal. She had a sudden need to be home with her family, so without another word, she ran down the aisle and out the door.

Opal scanned the heavens as she ran. She was relieved not to see anything unusual in the sky. Closer to her house, she saw lights on through the windows. She also noted that Uncle Hiram’s car was parked by her house. Hiram and his wife, Lydia, didn’t visit often. She thought they must have heard about the Martian invasion, too.

Opal opened the back door and was surprised to hear hysterical laughter in the kitchen.  

She moved slowly into the kitchen and looked at her parents for signs of what was going on. Momma locked eyes with Opal and shook her head back and forth. 

“No” was what that meant. Opal felt confused.  

Uncle Hiram slapped his knee and roared with laughter. Even her mother smiled, although it was a weak smile, almost embarrassed looking. 

Momma cleared her throat and said, “How’s your friend, Jenny?” 

Opal looked back at her mother and then around the room. All eyes turned to her and she knew she had to play along or else Momma would have her hide later.

“Oh, um, Jenny was a little worried about the…news on the radio.” 

Uncle Hiram burst with laughter and the whole table rattled with the coffee cups and spoons. 

“Your friend believed it too?” he finally got out. “Poor girl.” He turned back to Poppa and said, “Can you all believe that people ran for their lives all over this country when they heard that radio broadcast?”  

When Uncle Hiram got revved up, Opal knew better than to ask questions, so she went to the counter and made herself a ham sandwich. 

“That Orson Wells is something else,” Hiram continued. “I feel sorry for the people who believed it was real.” He laughed and wiped his eyes with his fingers. 

Opal glanced at Momma but Momma kept her eyes on Uncle Hiram, as if avoiding Opal altogether. 

“Does anybody want something to eat?” Opal asked. She knew better than to fix herself something without asking about the others.

“No thanks, honey,” Aunt Lydia said. She fanned herself with the newspaper, her cheeks red from laughter. “We already ate.” 

“All those people taken in by such a stunt,” Uncle Hiram burst out laughing again.

“Well, I am sorry about the people who killed themselves afraid of the Martian invasion,” said Aunt Lydia, who became suddenly serious. “They were desperate souls who could not see a way out.”

With that, all the adults became serious. Even Hiram looked down at his lap in reverence. But before anything more could be said, Hiram got up from the table and pushed his chair back.

“It’s sure been fun, but I suppose we ought to be getting home,” he said. 

Lydia nodded and they all stood. “We have to get up early tomorrow.” 

Momma and Poppa followed them out the door and into the yard. Opal heard car doors slamming and, soon after, the sound of a car engine and tires rolling on the gravel road.

Opal, still slightly confused, waited for her mother to return to the kitchen so she could ask what had happened. But when Momma came back in, she leaned against a kitchen chair and whispered, “Not a word, Opal. Don’t you ever mention that note to anyone!” 

And with that, Momma went off to 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.

Lela’s Quiet Time

Lela Morrison went to sit in the dark parlor in her rocking chair. She could still see Walter and the children surrounding the kitchen table, though. Their voices were loud and demanding and unceasing. Lela closed her eyes and laid her head back against the chair. Oh, to be silent. To have time. To have peace.

Her life spun completely out of control the day she married Walter. She believed him to be the love of her life and she would have done anything to be with him. If only she could have seen what was down that road. Would she have still done it? She honestly didn’t know.

She was so tired. Nothing ever ended. She had done her part to keep her girls chaste little ladies. But Walter had dropped the discipline of his boys. He kept telling her they were good boys at heart. They would grow up, come back to the church. Nothing he said about those boys made her believe him. She had a bad feeling about all of them.

Lela knew that things could be much worse. She was reminded often about this whenever she complained about her life.

“Look at Mrs. Jacobs,” Mother would say, never looking up from her cooking or sewing. “Would you rather have Mr. Jacobs be your husband and never get sober? Would you be happier with no children?”

“Well, of course not,” Lela said in return. Still, it didn’t help her much. Just made her feel lonely. Whenever she had these conversations with her mother, she the walk back home seemed farther and what was waiting for her there felt heavier. But she always went back and put the bridle back on, and she tried to be thankful for a life that was wearing her down a little more each day.

Opal was the oldest of Lela’s and Walter’s kids. In the darkness of the parlor Lela heard Opal’s voice above all the others. Lela smiled weakly remembering how happy she had been when she learned her first child was coming. She wanted that baby. She could not wait to hold her in her arms and know that she and Walter, with God’s help, had made another human. And Opal had been such a treasure, such a pretty little girl. She had bouncing blonde curls and such a sweet personality. She was perfect.

Before Opal was weaned, though, Lela was in a family way again. This second baby was just the first of a long line of moments that felt overwhelming for Lela. At the news of this second child, she felt she might never get to just enjoy anything at all. Opal had been enough—at least for a little while—but now a new baby to care for was on the way and soon another and then another. Her life rolled out before her in an unending road of children needing something from her always.

Lela was praised far and wide for her needlepoint. It was one of the few things in her life that she enjoyed. Still, no matter how many hours she spent surrounded by women her own age at her sewing circle, she felt utterly alone. There wasn’t a soul there who would understand her exhaustion, her loneliness. Her world was bordered by the church, by Walter, by other women’s criticism, and the never-ending needs of her children.

Lela sighed in her rocking chair. She knew she couldn’t sit there for long. Life would not wait on her. She must run to keep up but it made her so tired.

She heard Opal trying to get her father’s attention. Walter never immediately acknowledged his daughter. That was the way he was. So Opal escalated the conversation until he did.

“Daddy this boy at school said he loves me!”

At this, the clamor around the table stopped. Lela pictured Walter looking at Opal in a new light. She has always been a little girl to him but now she was 15 and had just announced a boy loved her. Walter hated confrontation, but surely he would not be completely spineless

Walter cleared his throat. “Well, missy. Do you like this boy?”

“Not particularly,” Opal replied. Lela could hear the triumph in her daughter’s voice. “But it’s nice to have someone in love with me”

Lela sighed realizing that Walter was finished with his part of parenting Opal around this. He would ask her to handle it. She knew that when they were in bed he would turn toward her and ask if she had told Opal about men? He might even say that not all men were nice like him. If he said that, Lela thought she might have to hit him.

How on earth did Walter think it was nice to make her feel the way she felt? She so wished Walter, and all men, could walk through that dark valley of child labor. Lela was devoutly religious but in the worst of her labor pains, she would have gladly sold her soul to make it stop.

She wondered how it was that Walter managed to have the low tension inside himself to the point of almost being boring, and yet people always liked him. People, even the children, responded in a much different way to her. She was always on the edge of panic wondering when the next shoe would drop.

Walter had a good job as an accountant at the cotton gin. He went to college and did whatever college boys did. She was sure that he and his brothers had done things that she could never imagine Walter doing. Walter’s family had been wealthy. His brothers were still wealthy, but they were far out in West Texas in the oil fields, which suited her just fine.

Sometimes Lela tell Walter her fears and worries. Walter always reminded her that they could be very well off if he had joined his brothers in West Texas. Lela believed there was so much more to life than money, like the moral fiber of her children, but there were times that she wished they had more money.

She recalled the time she had to stop by the cotton gin to get some money from Walter. She had been overcome by the sound of the machinery, but in the center of it all was Walter, closed up in his glassed-in office working on the books. She was jealous of his peace and silence. It made her hate him more.

Mainly she hated him because he was a man. Men did not have to have their bodies split open in childbirth. Her womb had been opened seven times because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She had done these things for him, for their marriage and yet come breakfast time, she wasn’t good enough to talk to. All he wanted then was to sip his coffee and read the newspaper. And he always got what he wanted.

Lela groaned low so no one would hear her. She decided as she rocked in her chair that there must be something terribly wrong with her. She had completely lost her desire for Walter. There was a time in their lives when he had been so exciting. He came to the door of her childhood home armed with a dozen roses behind his back. He had taken her for drives in his Model T on Sunday afternoons. Lela was so happy back then.

Lela’s mother was not pushy as a rule but once Walter Morrison came calling, even her mother had stars in her eyes. All of her girlfriends were eaten up with jealousy that he had not chosen one of them. And the thing was, Lela had not gone looking for Walter. Maybe it was her lack of being impressed with him that drove him to try to impress her more.

Lela’s mother had warned her that married life was never easy.

“After the new wears off,” she’d say. “Just wait and see.”

But when it came to Walter, Mother’s tune changed.

“You couldn’t find a better one than Walter.”

Her mother constantly listed off his attributes as if Lela needed reminders. He was clean and had no rude habits. He was a churchgoer, a tither, he prayed before meals, even in Lela’s house. Even before they were married the church elders were considering him to be made a deacon. The only thing holding him back was his marital status. They preferred that deacons were married.

Walter was no fool either. He brought little niceties to Lela’s mother; a box of chocolates, a new package of needles, perhaps a bowl of fruit from his mother’s house. It didn’t take long for Lela’s mother to make up her mind about Walter.

Lela wondered how other families were. She had no idea if anyone else felt the way she did. No one ever talked about their home life at the sewing circle at church. All of her friends went to church at the same place. They all smiled the same smile. Sometimes Lela would be recruited to help on a committee or to join another group to hem the infant’s blankets for new mothers.

Mrs. Henry was one of the few women Lela connected to at church. She showed Lela how to make an applique quilt. It was the only time Lela could recall having so much fun. Mrs. Henry was so talented and she was so easy to talk to. Lela started to think that maybe one day she could actually open up to her, so she undertook a huge quilting project.

Lela had not attempted to do any such undertaking in the past, but working on the appliqued squares gave her an excuse to sit with Mrs. Henry and work together. But before she finished them all, Mrs. Henry and her family moved away and she was left to work on it all on her own.

Lela heard chairs being pushed away from the table. She knew her “quiet time” was almost over. It was the only time of day she could call her own.

“Mother!” Opal called, “Did you iron my blue skirt?”

Lela stood up and brushed her apron back into place. She took a deep breath before answering.

“Yes, Opal. I ironed your skirt earlier today. It’s hanging in your closet.”

Lela walked toward the kitchen but Opal met her at the threshold of the parlor.

“Oh, thank you, Mother!” Opal wrapped Lela in a warm hug and squeezed tight.

Lela had to admit she loved that girl. She hugged her oldest daughter back. Then she felt a pang of guilt for not liking her other children like that. She and Walter should have stopped having children after Opal, but they didn’t.

As she and Opal parted, she wondered to herself why the others were so different from this daughter. How happy she and Walter had been when they saw her for the first time. From the first moment to this last one, Opal was so sweet. She watched her daughter hum down the hallway and she smiled. Opal was happy.

Don Michael Killed My Brother

By Karen Brode

When I heard that my nephew, Don Michael, had gotten out of prison I immediately thought of the unfortunate Clutter Family who were massacred back in the 1960’s by psychopathic ex-convicts.

Truman Capote wrote a book about the Clutters called “In Cold Blood.” If I remember the story correctly–my memory is not what it used to be–the ex-convicts traveled cross country to access the Clutter family safe sheerly on information told to them in prison by another inmate who had worked at the Clutter Farm before he went to prison. The inmate had told them there was a safe inside the house with lots of money in it–there was no such safe. The Clutters all died for nothing. 

All of the television crime channel stories start out the same.  It’s a sleepy little town where nothing ever happens; people don’t even lock their doors!  

I have always been a locked door enthusiast. Sometimes when I am almost asleep, I get up to check all the doors, just one more time. 

In those dreamy moments after I’ve checked the doors “just once more,” I imagine Don Michael bragging in prison about his Uncle Barry’s gun collection. If Don Michael began to really think about things, he could probably even be able to tell the convicts where the guns were kept.

Don Michael’s father was my brother. His name was Don. Sure, he was a con man and a crooked used car salesman, but I don’t think he was ever involved in any big crimes. His son, on the other hand, started his criminal career not long after my brother and his first wife divorced. Sharon got the kids, but neither she nor Don were equipped to handle children.

I remember all the times I rode in the car with Sharon and the children. There were two older boys from a previous marriage and I don’t think they were ever in control. Sharon screamed and screamed and then tried to spank legs in the backseat while she drove. If I had a nickel for every time she threatened to stop the car…. Let’s just say, I really wanted her to stop the car and do whatever she might’ve done but she never did. The boys thought she was funny.

This made Don’s job as a stepdad so much harder because her total lack of discipline made Don have to be in charge of all disciplinary measures. I tried not to laugh when I saw him sitting in his recliner with a belt in his hands. I never saw him use the belt, but it was there to remind the boys that it could be used, if needed.

Don Michael was my brother’s long awaited dream son. He had daughters but daughters were not sons. He longed for a son and when Don Michael was born it was a happy day for everyone.

I was at the hospital the night Don Michael was born. Sharon and Don has asked me to come, and I wanted to be helpful. Just as Don Michael was beginning to be born I had to leave the room. I had to sit in a chair in the hallway and tremble in fear at my own ineptitude. Why on earth had I thought I could witness a birth? I was out there only a few minutes, though, when Don ran out of the delivery room looking happier than he ever had.

It was a boy! Don gave his son his own name and vowed to put checkered pants on him and have him selling cars the following week. It was a good time for the family.

Don Michael was thirteen when he went to juvie for the first time. Each of the boys had a turn in some sort of correctional facility by the time they were teenagers.

When Don Michael was fifteen, Sharon sent him to live with Don because she could no longer control him. Don lived in Tulsa at that time and Don Michael fell into a gang of other boys bent on criminal behavior. Don Michael held up a convenience store with a knife and the clerk later identified him as the boy who had threatened her. Don was so disappointed.  

Don and Sharon went to his court days and listened to lawyers talk about his youth, his  impressionability, the belief that with the right kind of help, Don Michael could turn his life around. In the end, they decided not to give him a harsh sentence.

I received letters from Don Michael while he was in the youth facility. He swore he wanted to go to church with me, start a new and better life, and make his parents happy. It made me happy to think we could be a big happy family again, like when he was first born. But then he got out and I never heard from him. It turns out, church was the last thing on his mind by then. He and his girlfriend were pregnant.

Don Michael was sixteen when his first child was born. By then he had other girlfriends and I tried not to think of him. I heard bits and pieces of information about him, and I really didn’t want to know anything about him. Still, you live in a family and you’re bound to hear about your brother’s kids.

Don Michael was rounded up in a meth-cooking mess. He had run and tried to get away but the cops were smart enough to surround the place where the meth was being manufactured. He faced serious jail time.

Don Michael and his family lived in a tent down by the river when all of this happened.  He called a lawyer while he was in the county jail and told him that he had a box of money buried at the river. He promised he would go get the box and bring it back if the lawyer would get him out of jail.

I really have to wonder about the intelligence of this lawyer. He did as Don Michael asked and waited for the money. That kid was halfway to Las Vegas by the time the lawyer realized he had been played. 

All of these stories make me tired when I think of it. There were so many more arrests, so many more years in jail, so much more heartache for my brother. Don Michael moved among the upper echelon of criminals in Las Vegas, and the last time he was arrested he went to the Clark County jail in Las Vegas. 

By then, I don’t think anyone expected Don Michael to be anything but a criminal. I watched my brother cry and finally admit his son wasn’t a good person. I never thought my brother could be broken, but he was. Don Michael was his waterloo.

Don moved back to Texas near to where we grew up. I think a part of me knew he was dying. He had lost his will to live then and stopped taking all of his medications. He had diabetes but he said he felt better when he didn’t take the medication. I look back now and wonder how I could have been so blind. My brother killed himself in plain sight with all of us watching. 

It was a sunny day in September when we gathered to remember my brother. No part of Don was at that funeral. There was a box of something in the front of the funeral chapel, but it wasn’t him. The funeral director assured us that people did this all the time. It wasn’t necessary to have the actual body or remains at the funeral.

I glanced around the crowd of attendees and saw so many people that I didn’t expect to be there. May Felton from my church was there. It surprised me to see her there. She didn’t know Don and we weren’t that close. But then it hit me. She thought she would get the scoop before anyone else. She thought she’d be able to take something back to the ladies tea hour at church.

When my brother died, his son was back where it all started, the Mason County jail. We had been told that Don Michael could be given special permission to attend his father’s funeral if the family was willing to pay for two deputies to escort him in chains and shackles to and from his father’s funeral.

This is why May Felton attended my brother’s funeral. I looked around the chapel some more and wondered if maybe that was the reasons others had, too. There was not usually such drama and excitement in our little town.

In the end, I refused to pay two cents for Don Michael to attend his father’s funeral. I  didn’t want to see him or hear about him ever again. He had killed my brother. There was no doubt in my mind.  


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.

You’ll Never Believe What Laurie Did

By Karen Brode

Hazel rushed to the front door as fast as her legs would let her get there. She was in good shape for a woman in her 60s, but her ankles and knees moved a lot more slowly than they used to.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” she called to the person who was banging on the front door.

“Hurry up!” Jewel cried from the other side.

Jewel was one of two sisters that lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Opal was the other. The two women were rarely seen without the other, so it was a surprise when Hazel heard only Jewel on the other side of the door. It was especially disconcerting because she was rarely demanding like that. That was usually a job left to Opal.

Hazel got the door opened, but before she could ask any questions, Jewel barged in with her suitcase, threw it on the floor, and hugged Hazel tight.

“I had to get here before Opal,” she said.

Hazel felt her sister breathing hard from the effort of the commotion.

When she pulled away from the hug, Hazel said, “It’s so good to see you, but you look as flustered as an old hen!”

Jewel let out a long breath, as if she’d been holding it for the entire six hours it took to drive to Denison.

“Opal’s not far behind me,” she said. “She brought her own car so she could stay a few days longer.” Jewel paused and raised her eyebrows with a look that said, “Sorry!”

Hazel laughed at the commiseration. They both knew how difficult Opal could be. They had known it their whole lives. You might say that having to deal with Opal gave them something in common. It had kept them close all these years.

Jewel put a hand on Hazel’s arm and looked straight into her eyes.

“I need to tell you something before Opal gets here,” she said. “That’s why I’m so flustered. I didn’t want Opal to hear me.”

Hazel nodded, waiting for the conspiratorial news.

“Whatever you do, don’t mention Laurie.”

“Opal’s granddaughter?” Hazel asked. “Is everything okay?”

Laurie was Opal’s favorite, above everyone else in the world. Up to this point, she had always been beyond reproach. In fact, most days, you couldn’t get a word in edgewise for all the talk about Laurie: Laurie had gotten a raise at her job. She had gone on a date with a medical student. She had attended the symphony with her church group. There was really no end to all the good work that Laurie was doing.

Hazel wondered what could be so bad that Jewel would race ahead of their sister in order to have a private conversation. Already, Laurie had stunned Opal by moving away to Dallas as soon as she graduated high school. Hazel couldn’t think of anything worse than that. She remembered watching Laurie grow up and Opal talking about her granddaughter’s future as if it were her own to decide. She would have a small house in Fort Smith and marry a Christian man who would emerge from the small house every morning with his briefcase with Laurie standing at the door with his coffee and a kiss. And then Laurie and her husband would have a sweet little great grandchild that Opal could cuddle in her arms. She had even talked of their living with Opal so Opal could be of assistance with the children. When Laurie moved away, it had stunned and hurt Opal deeply.

“It’s bad,” Jewel said, as if reading Hazel’s thoughts.

“My word,” Hazel said, putting her hand to her mouth. “Did she marry a Baptist?” Her eyes widened as her mind tried to guess what could be so bad. And then she gasped.

“Did she marry a…Catholic?” She could barely get out the last word and when she did, she whispered it. She knew that would be worse than anything in Opal’s mind.

Everyone knew how her sister felt about church and other churches. Hers was The One True Church, the church without instruments, the church without separate Bible classes. When anyone asked Opal about her beliefs about Bible classes, Hazel knew that Opal would consider those people as feeble minded. And she saw it as her duty to teach them.

“God did not say, ‘Go off and put yourselves in different places to worship me!’ He said, ‘Everyone must be together to praise me!’” She was quite passionate when she would relay this to anyone who challenged her on it. When pressed where in the Bible she got her information, she’d shrug and say she couldn’t remember exactly where it was, but she knew it was there and far be it from her to dispute the Word of God.

So, as her children had children, Opal made it clear that those grandchildren must marry within the church—her church. They should never even think about dating anyone outside the church. Marriage was hard enough without being unequally yoked, she’d say.

Jewel shook her head. “No. Laurie’s not married. It’s worse!“

A car drove by outside and both women jumped. They looked back through the front door as if expecting Opal to be standing there listening. Hazel was relieved to see that the car wasn’t Opal’s and she wasn’t standing there.

“Worse?” Hazel said. She stepped to the door and shut it, just to be on the safe side.

“It’s the awfullest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jewel said, tears springing to her eyes. “I knew Laurie wasn’t quite as white-washed as Opal always thought she was, but I don’t think I could ever imagined her doing what she did!”

Hazel felt the need to sit down. She guided Jewel over to the sofa and as they both sat, she grabbed a box of Kleenex from the end table and put it between them.

“Laurie called a while back and told Opal she had cancer,” Jewel said. She took a Kleenex from the box and dabbed at her eyes. “You can imagine how Opal received that news! It was terrible!”

Hazel thought back to all the loss her older sister had endured. First her son Bruce, whose death she somewhat blamed on her husband Lloyd, even though he hadn’t been within 50 miles of their son when the car accident took him.

Hazel remembered Opal recounting how, on the night of his death, he had called while he was on the road. She had wanted to say hello to her son, but she had been in the bath and, by the time she got out and dried off enough to go to the phone, Lloyd had hung up. She never got to say goodbye or anything. She had always wondered if Bruce had meant to confide something to his mother, something important that he’d never get to say. So she blamed Lloyd until he, too, died some years later.

Laurie was Bruce’s only child. When she came along, Opal took care of her on the auspices of helping out, but really she had wanted to be with her favorite son’s child. She could see Bruce in Laurie and that was as close as Opal would ever get to her son. It helped Opal cope with Bruce’s death, but Hazel knew that her sister had taken all the dreams she had for Bruce and pinned them on Laurie.

Hazel felt her own eyes misting up at the thought of Laurie having cancer. She knew how devastating this would be for her sister and, as hard as Opal was to have as a sister, she didn’t want her to suffer.

“Laurie started sending letters to the Fort Smith church last February,” Jewel said.

Hazel looked at Jewel quizzically. “To Opal’s church? But Laurie lives in Dallas, doesn’t she?”

Jewel nodded. “Opal went to Brother Bailey in tears and asked if the church could have a special drive to help Laurie with her cancer treatments. And he was quick to agree to it. He told Opal that’s what the church was for – to help in times of need!”

“That is so kind,” Hazel said. She warmed to the new minister’s generosity and thought maybe he had finally started filling the shoes of the previous minister. It had been hard on the congregation when Old Brother Leon had a stroke and it took a while for them to take to Brother Bailey.

“Opal was making plans to go to Dallas,” Jewel continued. “She wanted to take care of Laurie herself. They talked every night on the phone, so much so that Opal had to work out a payment plan with the phone company! Her phone bills went sky high!”

“Oh dear,” Hazel said. “She didn’t mention to me anything about Laurie’s cancer or going to Dallas.”

Jewel looked down at her hands. She seemed embarrassed or ashamed.

“Laurie didn’t want Opal to go,” she said looking up and blinking her eyes. “She said she’d rather call and give daily reports, which she did. It did such a number on Opal to not be there and know how to be helpful. She prayed, of course, but she was sick with worry.”

Hazel nodded. She could just imagine what that would be like.

Outside, they heard a car door slam and then the sound of a trunk slamming shut.

“That’s Opal,” said Jewel. “I have to tell you quick then. Opal found out last week that Laurie didn’t have cancer at all. Never had it! It was all a scam to get money!”

Hazel started to stand to go to the door, but she felt light-headed and had to sit back down again. The breath escaped her chest and she felt all the sadness, misery, and embarrassment that Opal must have felt this last week. She could barely believe that Opal’s own granddaughter would do such a thing!

“Poor Opal!” she said in a whisper because the doorbell had just rung. “How could Laurie do this?”

After the second ring, Hazel managed to get to her feet and shuffle to the door. Tears clouded her vision, so it took her a moment to get the door opened. Before Opal could even get over the threshold, Hazel pulled her into a big hug.

“I’m so sorry, Opal,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

Opal burst into tears herself and she practically melted into Hazel’s embrace. And then Jewel joined them. The three sisters stood in their familial triumvirate and wept in unison.


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 Cost of an Opal

By Karen Brode

Albert sat at his sister-in-law’s kitchen table reading the Fort Smith newspaper. His wife, Hazel was busy cleaning up the lunch dishes. He figured they had about another minute’s peace and quiet before Opal, his sis-in-law, started up again with her constant demands.

“Hazel!”

There it was. Opal couldn’t keep quiet longer than twenty minutes before she needed something new. For about a week she had been lying in bed nursing her gall bladder surgery for all it was worth. Albert had wished some other sister had been available to stay with her while she healed up, but Jewel had a job and Cleo was in Houston visiting the new grandbaby. That left his wife to do all the heavy lifting with their oldest sister.

“Hazel, can you come in here a minute?” Opal hollered again just a second after she had called out the first time.

“That woman,” Albert said under his breath. He watched Hazel dry her hands on a kitchen towel before heading down the hallway to Opal’s bedroom. His wife had this soft way about her. Even her steps were soft and gentle, though he also noticed they were always full of purpose. He knew whatever Opal wanted Hazel would give her. Sometimes he wished she’d just tell her sister to stuff it. But then, she wouldn’t be his Hazel if she did that.

Albert leaned back in his chair until it squeaked under protest of his weight.

“You okay, Opal?” He heard Hazel ask.

“Oh, I guess,” Opal said. “For the shape I’m in.”

“What can I get for you?”

“Nothing…nothing. It’s just, I noticed there’s a lot of dust up there on the door frame, above the door. I hadn’t noticed it before, but just lying here makes me see things from a different angle. Would you get a dish cloth and try to get all the dust off that frame?”

Albert’s face turned red at this request.

“Who does she think she is?” He whispered, leaning forward again. He had to resist the urge not to hit the table top with his fist.

Then he heard his wife speak, “Do you need anything else? Because I can bring it now and not have to make another trip back here to your bedroom.”

That was Hazel’s way of putting her foot down. He shook his head and took a deep breath.

“The pain is getting bad,” Opal said in a whiny voice. “But no, I am going to try to hold off on taking anything until after supper.”

Albert pretended to be reading the newspaper when Hazel entered the room again. He knew his marriage had always been a point of contention between his wife and Opal. It didn’t help that Opal knew what he thought of her marriage to her dead husband Lloyd.

Albert had liked Lloyd, but he thought he had always been a spineless jellyfish and let Opal walk all over him. One day he told this to Hazel and Opal overheard. You would have thought he had accused his sister-in-law of genocide. She laid into him like a cat chasing chickens. They had steered clear of each other ever since.

“Oh, Hazel!” It hadn’t even been five minutes since Opal called her sister back to the room. “I think the baseboards need cleaning too.”

Albert threw the paper down on the table.

“You didn’t come here to do her housework!” He said through his teeth. “Tell her to get her old fat butt out of bed if she wants anything else dusted.”

He stood up, ready to go tell Opal himself just what he thought of her. Hazel walked over to him and put a hand to his chest. She looked up at him with pleading eyes — the eyes he fell in love with.

A little bit of the wind went out of his sails but not enough for him to calm down completely.

“She has more nerve than anyone I have ever met,” he said. “How dare she think she can order you around like this!”

Hazel removed her hand from his chest and took a couple of steps back.

In a quiet voice she said, “I promised Opal I would stay to help her. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

Albert clinched his fists and tried to calm down but he was too angry. He was angry because of how Opal behaved and angry because his wife put up with it.

“I really want to leave her here to clean her own baseboards,” he said. He looked at his wife, who looked past him to some place she probably dreamed of–some place without a pushy older sister.

“I’m going for a walk,” he said, finally, stepping around his wife. In three strides he was out the door. He slammed it so hard the entire house shook.

He didn’t actually go for a walk right away. Instead, he sat on the front steps for awhile to try to calm down. He watched the birds skittering and chirping around the bushes in Opal’s front yard.

Under the windows along the front of Opal’s house, he noticed some shrubbery needed trimming. He would have already trimmed them if they were not Opal’s shrubs. He liked to stay busy. He was never happier than when he could stand back and look at a job well done. But he simply would not let himself do it. If he did that, it would open up all kinds of expectations from his sister-in-law. She would ask him to paint her house and put a new roof on and build a new shed. It would never end.

Opal’s house was the last house on a dead-end street. Albert looked around, thinking about the implications of that. It made him smile. He certainly felt like her house was a dead-end whenever he visited.

After a while, he stood up and took off, away from Opal’s dead end. Sometimes walking helped him clear his head.

He had walked past only two houses when he saw a man raking the leaves in his yard.

“It’s a nice day to get that done,” Albert said, nodding toward the rake. “I think it’s supposed to rain the next few days.”

The man looked up and smiled. He had a tan face that showed he liked working outside as much as Albert did.

“Yep–Heard that on the news. Thought I’d better get to it before the rain hit.”

Albert nodded and took a few steps into the yard.

“You Opal’s sister?” asked the man.

“Heck, no!” Albert bristled. “She’s my wife’s sister. Opal’s had some surgery and my wife doesn’t drive, so I had to bring her.”

The man leaned on his rake. “You all staying very long?”

Albert rubbed his big heavy hand through his hair. “If it was up to me, I’d already be gone back home. That woman wears on me like nobody else ever has.”

The man leaned closer to Albert. In a confidential tone he said, “That woman has been a sore spot to all us neighbors. Most of the men in the neighborhood won’t even go out in their front yards anymore. She’s always out there hollerin’ from her front porch. You can only pretend to be deaf so long! She doesn’t give up and she doesn’t take a hint.”

Albert cackled in commiseration. “Oh yeah. She would never take a hint. You’d have to scream it in her face. Even then she might not get the message.”

The neighbor chuckled, which made Albert laugh, too.

“Guess we’re in the boat together trying to avoid my sister-in-law!”

Opal’s neighbor pointed to a house further down the street. “See that house there with the flag pole? That’s Ralph Martin’s house. He’s been forbidden by his wife to go anywhere near Opal.”

Albert laughed again and said, “You don’t mean….”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed like Ralph was running to the house every other day to look at the faucet or the refrigerator or any little thing to get him over there. His wife Millie had enough and put her foot down.”

Albert nearly snorted in disbelief. He couldn’t imagine Opal in that way, not ever. “You don’t think she….”

The neighbor held his hands up and said, “I have no idea what her intentions were, but Ralph’s wife wouldn’t have any more of it.”

Both men looked at each other for half a second as the image of Opal the Seductress sunk in. Then they both started laughing at the same time. Tears sprung out of Albert’s eyes he was laughing so hard.

When they couldn’t laugh anymore, Albert shook the hand of Opal’s neighbor and thanked him for getting him out of the huff he had been in.

“Those clouds are gathering over there in the north,” he said. “You’ve still go your raking to do and I was planning on a walk before I’m expected back.”

“If you ever need an escape,” the man said winking, “you just come on over. We’ve always got something good in the fridge to share.”

Albert continued on his way and, while he walked, he wondered why God had even made people like Opal. It seemed to him that she served no real purpose, except to make the people around her miserable. Albert supposed that her husband Lloyd had loved her, but she was 16 when they married and he figured she was nicer back then. The thing that bothered Albert most of all about Opal is that she did not know unlikable she was. She could at least have a little humility.

Albert’s thoughts went further back in the past, then. He thought to the time when he had been courting Hazel. He got dressed up every time he went to a family supper over at her house and her parents gave him the once-over more than once.

He always felt claustrophobic when he visited. Hazel’s entire family was so proper and pious. He tended to like people who were more down to earth and didn’t think so much of themselves. Opal was by far the worst of the worst. She played the piano after suppers and the family would gather around and sing. Albert hated it, but he endured it because he loved Hazel.

Albert scratched his head trying to understand Hazel’s family. Hazel and another sister, Jewel, used to say that their mother would’ve been happier if she had had Opal as her only daughter. He never understood that. He never saw anything attractive about her. He almost hated her for the way she treated Hazel.

Opal was exactly the kind of girl he would never have looked at twice because she already thought she was so pretty. He would much rather be married to that sweet, kindhearted Hazel. Sure she sometimes wore her heart on her sleeve, but she always tried to do the right thing.

Albert figured it probably wasn’t easy to be Hazel. Sometimes he felt sorry for her. Once they were married, he didn’t plan to spend much time at her family home, if for no other reason than to give Hazel a break from trying to measure up and take care of everybody.

Albert was still full in thought when he started up the sidewalk to Opal’s house. He was surprised and delighted, then, when he looked up and saw Hazel standing on the porch.

“I thought you had run away,” she said in a stage whisper.

“I thought about it,” he replied, smiling.

“Opal is having a hard time,” Hazel said. She gave him a second look, like she was trying to figure out why he was smiling. “She, uh, needs you to go and get her some more pain pills and the pharmacy closes in about 30 minutes!”

Albert thought of Opal writhing in pain and he smiled even bigger.

Hazel tilted her head. “Do you want me to go with you?” she asked.

Albert looked at his wife’s plaintive face and his heart melted. He could never tell Hazel no about anything, even if it was to help that harridan, Opal. He knew that his wife was such a goodhearted person and that he didn’t really deserve her. She went out of her way to keep things calm, keep everyone happy, make sure he had what he needed.

“Come here,” he said, stepping up on the porch and pulling Hazel to him. He planted a big kiss right then and there for all the neighbors to see and then took the car keys from her limp fingers and turned back toward the driveway.

He didn’t say a word as he got in the car and drove away, but he did look in the rear-view mirror. As he drove up the road, he noticed that Hazel didn’t budge from the porch. He was pretty sure he’d never forget this moment, or that look of confused happiness she gave him just after he had kissed her.


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.

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.