No Return Until the Fruit Flies Die

By Karen Brode

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Hazel! Get up and let me in!”

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel walked to the chair opposite and sat down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Even a Sister Has Her Limits

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleo was already snoring. Opal rolled her eyes.

“Of course she’s sleeping,” she whispered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sneezed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sister, Thy Name is Soot

By Karen Brode
Opal sat tense with her eyes closed in her sister’s kitchen. It was impossible to relax. Before she had closed her eyes to block out the mess, she had counted eight cats who seemed far more at home than she felt.
It wasn’t like her to stay quiet about these things, but the state of her sister’s home–the way she was living–was a greater shock than even she could have anticipated. For the first time since Opal could remember, she was speechless.
She was about to take a deep, cleansing breath, when her nose prickled again from the fumes of cat pee, rotting leftovers, and mildew. She decided then that it was probably best not to close her eyes either. There’s no telling what might crawl out from under the table and up her leg.
So it was in silence that she watched Cleo scuttling around the kitchen. Not once did her sister actually lift her feet off the ground. Opal decided it was because if she lifted a foot and set it back down again, she might step on something and break it or hurt it or kill it, depending on what it was. Shuffling just scooted it out of the way.
“Opal, did you light the oven?” Cleo asked.
Opal was almost relieved to hear Cleo speak. At least it gave her something else to think about besides the mess around her. But the question itself was odd and it made Opal wonder if she had heard correctly.
“Did I what?” she asked.
Cleo didn’t respond. She was suddenly preoccupied with unwedging a baking sheet from the bottom of a pile of newspapers and dirty dishes. Opal looked over at what would normally be a countertop, but it too was stacked with empty cereal boxes, a few dirty rags, and of course, a cat. Sitting next to the cat was the clump of frozen corn dogs Cleo was bent on making them for dinner.
Opal’s mouth went dry. A little knot of nausea dropped down into her stomach. The idea of serving frozen corn dogs to an out of town guest was bad enough, but those corn dogs in that condition sitting next to a cat and a stack of filth — it was almost too much to bear. The knot of nausea moved up her throat.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d have before whatever lunch was left in her body would join the mess around the kitchen. She stood up, thinking through the route she would need to take to get to the filthy bathroom.
But then Cleo pulled a box of matches from who knows where. Opal couldn’t guess what her sister was up to, but it was enough of a distraction to settle the sickness she had been feeling.
Cleo took a match out of the box and opened the door to the oven. She squatted down and lit one of the matches.
“Cleo, what are you doing?” Opal started to take a step toward her sister, but then she heard a whoosh and a great cloud of fire and black smoke blasted from the oven.
Opal screamed. She and several of the cats ran out the back door and into the backyard. She was halfway to the gate when worry and panic made her turn around. Her sister was still inside.
“Cleo!” she hollered. “Are you okay?”
She assumed the worst when didn’t hear anything and she made a beeline back to the house.
She was just about to step foot on the back step when Cleo came running out the back door. They almost ran into each other.
When Opal saw her sister alive, she grabbed her and hugged her tight.
“I’m so glad you’re okay!” she said.
All the horrible things she had been thinking moments before passed out of her mind. She was glad to have her sister, no matter what.
Seconds later, though, she smelled the scent of burnt hair. She pulled away to get a good look. It was then that she saw how Cleo’s eyebrows were curling up, her hairline was singed, and her face was covered in soot.
Opal nearly fell off the steps with laughter. The ridiculousness of the day and her soot-covered sister overcame her. She figured it was better to laugh than cry.
“What are you laughing about?” Cleo asked with a suspicious grin that etched the charcoal color deeper into the lines on her face.
Opal laughed again and then grabbed her sister and hugged her tight. She couldn’t help but be grateful Cleo didn’t put much stock in her looks because if she could see what Opal saw, she might never leave the house again.
“I’m just so glad you’re okay,” Opal said.
She pulled away and wiped some of the soot off Cleo’s face with the handkerchief she always kept close at hand.
Cleo blinked as if realizing for the first time what had happened. Without a word, she turned and ran back to the kitchen. Opal followed.
The kitchen was covered in soot and Opal wasn’t sure but maybe it was an improvement. At least now, she hoped, Cleo might see how dirty it was.
She looked over at her sister and tried to read her thoughts, but as usual, Opal couldn’t fathom what might be going on in her mind.
“The corn dogs,” Cleo finally said with the kind of grave disappointment someone might have over a failed soufflé.
“Don’t you worry about dinner tonight,” Opal said with her old familiar confidence. She reached over and patted her sister on the hand. “I’m going to go get us some hamburgers and maybe a malt. What flavor would you like?”
(To be continued)

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

The Duties of a Sister

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s better,” she said.

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

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

“Cleo,” she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank goodness,” she said out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Opal! You made it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To Be Continued.)


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

Confronting Pearl

By Grace Washington

I tried not to think of how things were going to turn out. Many nights I sat in the dark in my mother’s rocking chair in the front room praying, crying, asking for divine intervention. My sister, Pearl, was a mindless creature lurking about in the night – trying to find some hapless man to marry her. I didn’t say anything to her when I heard her crawling out the back window. What could I have said? Truth was, I was half-hoping she would find someone to marry her so she could be someone else’s problem.

That might sound harsh, but Pearl would always find some way to go on, someone to cheat, someone to pay her bills. I was fine with all of this as long as that someone wasn’t our poor mother.

It was the beginning of August, and I was supposed to go back to Fisk University in Nashville at the end of the month. It was the one thing I could do that made sense, but when I thought of Mother having to deal with Pearl and the other children, all sense went out the window.

Sometime around dawn I woke to the sound of Pearl trying to get back in the house through the bedroom window we shared with our siblings. Most nights I ended up sleeping on the couch. It just wasn’t ideal for me to sleep in the same room with so many people. On this night, though, I stayed put because I had heard my sister slip out around two in the morning and I wanted to be there when she got back.

She looked shocked when she saw my face in the window. I glared so hard I knew she’d be able to see my anger glowing in the dark. Before she could say a word, I pointed out toward the front of the house.

“Front porch! Now!” I whisper-yelled.

Her eyes grew two sizes larger and, without protest, she made a beeline in the direction I had pointed. I don’t think I had ever scared her as much as I did right then. It was a heady experience. She was so strong-headed; not much upset her.

Under the yellow light of the porch, my younger sister looked like something you might find in the gutter. Her dress had dirt on one side of it as if she had been rolling around in the mud. In one hand were her high heels, in the other, a cheap bottle of wine.

She stared at me in silence and I saw the old Pearl I was used to — all obstinance and entitlement.

I shook my head. “Don’t you go acting like you don’t deserve a good switch against your backside. I know about everything.”

Her eyes widened for just the glimpse of a moment and then her face became a mask of secrets.

“You can go on pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about but I heard you. I heard you whining and crying the other night, begging that boy to marry you!”

Pearl’s mouth dropped open but no words came out. She didn’t even seem to be breathing.

“Yeah, I know your secret.” I shook my head and sighed. “It’s unbelievable, even for you.”

I looked out into the night that was starting to pale into dawn and crossed my arms over my chest. “How far along you think that baby is? ”

All the spunk she was building up to moments before washed right out of her. She slouched and then stumbled to the steps of the porch. She plopped down and sat quiet for awhile.

“I already have a name picked out.” She finally said. She was looking down at her bare toes and she wiggled them.

“What?” Now it was my turn to be gut-punched. I shuffled to the steps and stood behind her. “That baby doesn’t need a name! It needs a family!”

Pearl blinked up at me, tears in her eyes. “You know I love him. He’s part of me!”

If it had been anybody else, I would have crumbled and cried beside them. But this was my sister, a girl who had never shown love for anyone but herself. She had never once offered to help Momma with the children or taken on odd jobs to help pay the bills. Times were tough with our father dead and our mother struggling to make ends meet.

I squinted at my little sister and said, “You will not bring that baby under this roof. You understand me? It would finish Momma off if she knew this had happened.”

My ears burned with anger and it took a lot for me not to kick her off the porch and send her out into the night. But I also knew that would kill Momma as much as the news that Pearl was pregnant, so I refrained.

“Look, you can give birth to that baby, but we’re going to talk to Reverend Busby next week and get you set up with a family that can adopt the one you’re carrying.”

Pearl shook her head and sobbed. “No! I can take care of him! We can take care of him!”

Pearl stared at the inky sky and then her shoulders slumped and she began to cry. I watched her and I tried not to feel sorry for her.

I thought of our mother sleeping peacefully in her bed. I had helped her all summer with her cleaning jobs, and for the first time since Daddy died, she was beginning to look rested. I tried to take stress off her, but Pearl only added to it. She was so different from me. She didn’t think through things. She certainly didn’t give much thought to all the pain she had caused Momma.

But there she was sitting on the step crying hysterically now. She lived so completely in the moment, so absorbed in her own wants. All she ever thought about was the next drink, the next cigarette, the next man. I looked at her sobbing and knew she had not a clue what having a baby meant – not only to her, but to her momma and all the rest of us.

In the end, it broke my heart. I knew what was going to happen next. I hurt for Momma, I hurt for what this would mean for me and, to be honest, I hurt for Pearl too. She was only 15. From all outward appearances, she was a woman, but on the inside, she was just a kid.

After watching her for another minute, I did the only thing left to do. I scrunched down and sat next to her on the step. I put my arm around her and rocked her back and forth until she calmed down.

When she was quiet, I wiped the tears from her eyes and said, “Alright now. You are my sister and I love you. I don’t like you, but I love you. I will be here for you.”

She put her head in my lap and sobbed again while I rubbed her back. I looked out at the road in front of our house and saw all of my dreams collapsing. My place would be here to help Momma and Pearl and the rest of them.


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. 

A Love That Endures

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you now?” he asked.

“Ten,” I said.

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

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

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

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why were you embarrassed?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother nodded.

“That’s my brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tarnished Pearl

By Grace Washington

My sister Pearl was the biggest waste of humanity I had ever seen.  Most everything she did bothered me and I knew I couldn’t make her do better. Momma was too tired to make her do better and Daddy had gone to his reward last year.

Pearl was the type of girl most people would point out to their children and say, “Don’t you ever be like that!”

She didn’t seem to notice that the shack we lived in on the edge of town was falling down around us. She just sat at her mirror and tried on different lipsticks and pomanders. She had slicked her hair back. I wanted to tell her it looked awful but my opinion mattered not at all to Pearl.

I often wondered how it was that she and I could even be related, much less sisters. I had never had even the possibility of luxuries that Pearl took for granted.

Momma looked so tired lately. She seemed to age a whole year in 24 hours. So I made her stay in bed until she got some good rest.

I tried to reassure her, let her know I would keep up her cleaning jobs for her. If it got around our little town of Milledgeville, Georgia she couldn’t keep up her work, there’d be no work to have. This was small-town Georgia in the sixties. If it weren’t for her cleaning jobs, I wouldn’t have a job either. It’s not for lack of trying, though.

I saw a “cook wanted” sign on the window of a diner recently, but when I asked around, nobody seemed to know about it. I waited out back for somebody to go empty the trash or something. Finally, a woman came out and tried to shoo me away like I was a dog or something.

“Go on, now,” she said. “We don’t need you all hanging around here .”

“I…just.” I couldn’t find the words fast enough. I was angry and scared at the same time.

“Go on and git,” she said, flapping a kitchen towel at me.

“The cook’s position,” I finally blurted out. “I want to cook.”

Here I was heading toward my third year in college and I sounded like I couldn’t talk my way out of a paper bag.

“I don’t care what you want to do,” the woman said, finally looking me in the eyes. “You can’t do it here.”

“But my momma cooks for lots of folks,” I said. “And I cook when she’s sick or something.”

The woman shook her head.

“Mm-mm. Not gonna happen. Not here. My husband would have my head on the silver platter his daddy passed on to him from Stonewall Jackson. Now, go on.”

All the way home, I fought back tears. All I wanted to do was give Momma a good life. She gave me everything she had and she was getting old. I would leave school and work my fingers to the bone if she needed me to. But if I couldn’t get my own work, I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen.

This was the way of life that I knew. I knew how to abide by the rules. But sometimes the rules just didn’t make sense. Before I stopped at that diner, I had cooked two meals for two different white families and made cookies for their children.

Whenever I caught myself daydreaming of running off to New York or something, I thought of Momma. I would do anything if it would help her.

Toward the end of June, Momma seemed more rested. There were times she’d even sit on the front porch when I walked up to the house after cooking and cleaning all day. This made me so happy.

And then there was Pearl.

Some nights I needed to just sit in the dark by myself when everyone else had gone off to bed. It was quiet and peaceful. I’d sit in the kitchen where it still smelled of dinner and family. It was in these moments I felt my soul resting after it had tossed and turned all day in a hateful world.

On this night, my peace was interrupted when I heard the floorboards creaking from the room I shared with my siblings. At first I thought she was just going to go to the bathroom. I heard the shuffle of her feet and then the squeak of the door closing.

I don’t know what made me look out the kitchen window. It was on the same side of the house as the bathroom. When I did I saw a man—or what looked like a man—standing at the edge of the yard. Moments later, I heard the bathroom window slide open and a thump against the ground outside.

There went Pearl, tiptoeing in bare feet toward the man. She was wearing a dress and had a pair of heels dangling from one hand.

I just froze. All the work Momma did—all the work I was doing—and this is how Pearl behaves? I was livid.

And yet, watching her walk off hand-in-hand with this man who, in the dark, seemed twice her age, I knew I couldn’t tell Momma. It would break her heart. Momma had all those other children coming up to take care of.

I whispered a prayer. “Please don’t let any of them be like Pearl.” I spoke each of their names. “Take care of the twins, Tom and John. They’re only nine. And Maribelle she’s just a little girl. Keep her sweet and good.”

By four in the morning, Pearl was back. She smelled of cigarettes and whiskey and something else I couldn’t quite place, but I could guess what it was.

I sat up and whispered so the other kids couldn’t hear me. “Where have you been?”

Pearl had just about gotten into bed next to me when she stopped. Even in the dark I could hear her back tense.

“I was just in the bathroom,” she lied.

“I saw you leave at midnight.”

“Shush!” she said, lifting the covers and slipping into bed. “Now’s not the time!”

Her tone sounded more grown up than she was. She was only fifteen. “I guess you think if you can go do adult things now you can talk to me like you’re an adult, huh?”

“You’re just jealous,” she said. She put her head down and pulled the covers up to her chin.

Maybe she was right.

Except, a few months later, I saw her sneak out again, only this time, she grabbed the man by the hand and led him to the front of the house. As quietly as I could, I walked to the front window and listened.

“Oh no, honey,” said the man. “You got to do something about that. I can’t be giving up the rest of my life to go work in the coal mines. You’re a fine woman, but even you aren’t worth that.”

I heard Pearl start crying. It was hard to know what she was saying, but the truth sunk in quickly. She was pregnant.

“You think about it, baby,” said the man. “Let me know what you want to do. I can get some money together somehow. I’m willing to help you…do something.”

I heard the sound of a hand slapping skin. It must have been Pearl slapping the man because he seemed to get angry then.

“I am not going to have a baby at 17,” he said. “You got to get over it, Pearl.”

So he wasn’t quite a man. And, from the sounds of it, he wasn’t going to step up like one either.

“I gave everything to you,” she said. “Now, you need to get a job. We need to get married.”

“That ain’t happening,” he said. Then he laughed a mean sort of laugh that only men seem to know how to do when they’re trying to put blame on somebody. “I know lots of boys you been with. That baby could be anybody’s baby.”

I closed my eyes. It was all I could do not to run outside and throw them both on the street for good. Pearl only thought of herself in everything she did and the rest of us paid for it, especially Momma.

Oh, Momma! I thought. I leaned against the wall next to the window. I knew how this was going to end.

Outside, things were quiet except for the muffled sobs coming from Pearl. I pulled the curtain back. The moon was bright. There was my young sister standing by herself. Her head was in her hands and her shoulders were curled over in grief. The young man was nowhere to be seen.


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. 

Hometown But Not Home

By Eliot Gregory

After so many years away, I was back in my hometown. I didn’t know if anyone would remember me. I sort of hoped they wouldn’t. I liked the idea of being a bit invisible.

This was where Bradley and I had grown up. We were fraternal twins and there could not have been two people in the world who were less alike than my brother and I. It often seemed like our birth and childhood had been a cosmic joke.

Bradley had been a football player in high school and he looked like it. At six foot two with eyes of blue he was the stereotypical heartthrob quarterback that everyone worshipped.

No one worshipped me. I was almost the exact opposite of my brother. I was tall, but not as tall as Bradley. I had a ruddy complexion with dishwater blonde hair. While Bradley was the picture of American masculinity, I was wispy and thin. Perhaps the biggest difference of all, at least to our parents, was that I was gay and he wasn’t.

As you might imagine, high school was not something I wished to prolong, whereas Bradley’s glory days were those between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was king of the varsity team. At the time, I was jealous of him for all the admiration he had, but as time went by, I watched how fervently he clung to those memories, as if time might possibly stand still and he could relive them again one day.

That never happened, of course, and everything else that came after it paled by comparison. None of his wives lived up to the girls he had dated in high school, even though at least two of them had been girls he had dated in high school. Eventually, even his children left him as he slipped into middle age and held on to the dreams of a boy.

Even though I had been only a shadow in his life when we were kids, it still hurt me in a primal way to see Bradley suffer as an adult. His failures led to addictions and, before it was all over, the failures won. They were larger and heavier than the few victories he’d had in his youth. I watched my brother give up. He stumbled down life’s road and stopped caring anymore about anything.

I would never have wanted that for him, not ever. But I’ll admit that, after all I had been through—none of which Bradley noticed or acknowledged—a part of me initially felt a bit justified when he came to me for money or needed help sobering up. I admit to feeling a twinge of justice that he had not had a completely charmed life.

The cool autumn air forced me back into the present. I felt a chill walking down the sidewalk. I was in my old neighborhood. The sun was just starting to set but the old-growth trees blocked what warmth might have lingered. I pulled my cardigan tighter across my chest and folded my arms to keep it there. It wasn’t lost on me that this might also be a way of protecting myself from the past.

The neighborhood hadn’t changed much in thirty years. The old homes were stately with beautiful lawns. Some even had the proverbial white picket fence. It was so perfect in some people’s view of perfection, but even as a small child I knew I would never fit into that particular view. I used to think that it was only me who was different, but I have lived long enough now to know that the lives of people – anywhere – are often not what they seemed to be.

Finally, I came to the house where Bradley and I had grown up. It had been repainted probably a half a dozen times since we had lived there and some of the trees had been replaced over the years, but otherwise, it was the same. Or, at least, it felt the same.

I thought back to the sign my dad had pounded into the front lawn boasting his son’s status as an all-star quarterback on the football team. How many Friday nights had we traveled to Bradley’s games and cheered him on?

My eyes lingered on the window that used to be my room. There were shutters now where there had once been curtains. My mother had sewn them by hand. I wondered if the built-in desk was still there. I had logged so many hours at that desk, studying for tests and memorizing lines for the plays I was in. It’s how I earned a scholarship to the school that set me on the path I had followed for the last 25 years. I tried not to think about the disappointment of the boy who had sat at that desk, hoping that maybe this time his parents would show up to the play he was lead in, hoping for the kind of celebration Bradley got when he brought home another victory.

These days I was proud of what I had accomplished, proud of the love and acceptance I had in my life. I could see, though, why Bradley had clung so much to his time living in that house. He had the love and acceptance then that it took me a lifetime to discover. There was never any doubt in my mind that my parents might have been happier if I had not been a member of their family. So, while Bradley stayed locked in the past, I ran as fast as I could toward a future that might be different from what I had known as a child.

A car pulled into the drive across the street and it woke me from my thoughts. I moved on. I didn’t care to be questioned by one of the residents of the neighborhood.

I’m not sure why my feet took me past the old church I had attended as a child, but I did feel drawn there. Church was no longer a part of my life. I came out when I was in my twenties and was told I no longer had a place there. By then, it wasn’t much of a shock and, in some ways, was a little bit of a relief. I was released to go find community with people who would love me for who I was. In my heart, I knew what drew me there now wasn’t the church. It was the cemetery where my parents and Bradley were buried.

I walked under the archway at the entrance to the cemetery, and headed down a small pathway to the family plot. My parents lay side by side under the double gravestone. I ran my fingers over the chiseled names and dates. My mother had purchased the tombstone after my father died not long after Bradley and I had graduated high school. Mother’s gravestone sat for over twenty years unclaimed. Her name and birthdate had been there but there was nothing after the little dash.

Mother died less than a year after Bradley killed himself. Even standing there alone, I wanted to use euphemisms when I thought about Bradley’s death, but the truth was the truth.

All the years of hard living took a toll on him. He hadn’t thought about what he might do after high school. I guess he thought it would always be like that.

He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when he was in his thirties and it was like nothing to him. I can still see him sitting at Mom’s thanksgiving feast asking if he could have another piece of pecan pie. Then the drugs and alcohol caught up to him. He had a stroke at forty that miraculously didn’t take his life but it left him limping and one side of his face was always a little slower to react than the other.

A few years back, he had confided that he had stopped taking all of his medications. He wasn’t going to the doctor anymore. He was tired of it all. I tried to rally him, to give him reasons to live, but nothing worked.

Now – when I think about it – I wonder why I didn’t jump up and go find his medications and make him swallow them. The truth is, he wouldn’t have done it, and, toward the end, he was just unhinged enough to say I tried to kill him.

By the summer after his stroke, he was in a wheelchair, but not the one he wanted. He was so angry about everything by then, and I can’t say that I blame him. But he wanted to blame me.

“If only I had the motorized wheelchair,” I heard him saying. “I wouldn’t have to rely on you.”

He had ordered one in the spring and by summer it still hadn’t come. He was convinced that was the only thing that would keep him going, and he blamed me because I had not yet called the company to find out what was going on.

I couldn’t get the company to move any faster on the wheelchair, so I tried to be there in other ways. It was no use. When I took him for a leisurely stroll in a park near his house, he screamed the entire time. He accused me of trying to dump him out of his wheelchair and kill him. I’ll be honest. The more he kept on about this, the harder it was for me not to just dump him out of his wheelchair and go on with things.

And then there was the diagnosis of cancer. His dentist found the tumor under his tongue. By then, though, it had invaded his jawbone. I tried not to imagine what he might look like after that surgery.

Surgery couldn’t happen, though. The doctors called Mother and I as next of kin to be present when they broke the news.

“This is the worst case of cirrhosis of the liver I have ever seen,” they said. “His heart is enlarged and the cancer has spread to his lungs.” They couldn’t do surgery, not with all of that.

We sat there in that little room after the doctors left. I remember searching my mind for something to say that would be comforting, but there was nothing. I just looked up at him, into those bloodshot, empty eyes. He was broken.

He had enough pills and things to keep the pain at bay that it would have killed a horse to take them all at once. As it was, Bradley was halfway gone already, so I can’t imagine that it took long for him to go after he swallowed the whole bottle. I try not to think of it, what his last moments were like, but when I do, I realize that it was really his last years that were the worst. He hated his life.

There are questions I could never answer. My poor mother followed Bradley to the grave soon after his death. She just didn’t have the will to go on and I was definitely not enough to keep her here.

First Summer Home

By Grace Washington

Sunday mornings were always busy in Momma’s house. All five of us kids knew church attendance was mandatory. Even I, who had been off at college over the last year, knew not to question that.

Being the oldest, it was my job to help the younger ones get ready. I had just stood up from buckling my baby sister’s shoes when I caught my mother looking in the mirror in her bedroom. Outside that room I felt the chaos of five young people getting their hair pinned back or worrying about where they put their gloves. Inside Momma’s bedroom, it was completely still.

“What you looking at, child?” my mother asked, her eyes still turned toward the mirror while she adjusted her hat.

“It’s just so quiet in there,” I said. I walked forward to the doorway and leaned against the frame.

It had been months since my father had passed away. The last time I had been home, he had been confined to the bed that was now perfectly made, without the hint of a wrinkle. He had shriveled up to nothing by then, but his presence was anything but quiet. He was in such pain and misery and so very helpless. I was at college when he died, but Momma told me to stay put. She didn’t want me to miss a day of schooling.

“I’ve got church folks who can help out,” she had said over the phone. Her voice had sounded so tired, so worn.

So I had stayed at school and finished my semester there, telling myself that it was only a couple of weeks, trying to believe that she would need my help more once the reality of things set in.

Momma turned from the mirror and smiled. That weariness I had heard in her voice on the phone showed up in the wrinkles that tugged at her eyes. She was forty-five, but she looked sixty. She had the same expression on her face that I had seen on other black people as they aged. It was the look of resignation.

“We all ready for church?” she asked. She walked past me and patted me on the shoulder.

“Yes ma’am,” I said. I walked to the table and put my own hat on. “We’re ready.

All of us moved toward the door and I noticed as Momma walked through, her shoulders relaxed and her posture grew more confident. We were going to church as we had done every Sunday since before I was born, but it was the first time I realized what it gave my mother. It was a way for her to feel more hopeful and secure about her life and the world in which she lived.

The walk to the church was not far and we met up with others along the way. I had grown up around all of them. We were like extended family, really.

I watched Momma greeting the other families. She was so graceful, so much more alive than any other time. Her smiles were effortless with her lady friends at church. I thought about the many times I had seen them gather at one another’s homes after worship and how everyone raved about my momma’s bread pudding

No wonder she loved it so. It gave her so much and helped her keep going. As happy as it made me to know she was well loved and respected, my year at college had opened my eyes to a life different than this. It was a hoped-for life, but it was a life without the weary ways of hard labor and racial injustice. I felt sad when I realized that there were borders in every part of my Momma’s life, lines not to be crossed. She had accepted her lot in life a long time ago, but I couldn’t let go of the possibilities of something different.

Walking with those families to church for the first time since returning from school, I couldn’t help but feel a world apart. I think they felt similarly. Sure, they smiled and were kind, but they looked at me differently, as if I had crossed one of those borders, as if I had betrayed them somehow.

My sister Pearl seemed to believe I had and she told me so.

“What you think you’re doing?” she had said before I left for college. “You just going to make life harder for all of us!”

I remember then struggling to keep my mouth shut. What did she know? She was 15, beautiful, and boy crazy. With all the boys who flocked around her, she was headed toward babies and marriage before she was 17. I didn’t think she had a lick of sense. But since returning from school, I was starting to think maybe others felt the same way.

Still, I did my best that summer to fit back in and to help out Momma. I put on a uniform, just like Momma’s, and I accompanied her to her cleaning jobs. When she wasn’t at the nursing home taking care of old white folks, she was cleaning their families’ houses. She worked so hard. I wanted to take some of the burden off her if I could.

No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t shut out the year of college under my belt. It had opened my mind, raised my consciousness. Momma never questioned her existence. She didn’t have the luxury to think about it, I guessed. And she didn’t understand why I did. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help. I especially wanted to make Momma’s life better, but as the weeks passed, I didn’t think change would come in time to save her.

That first morning of work together, she and I left before the sun was over the rooftops. The early summer air was fresh, not yet sticky like it would be later in the day.

A few minutes passed before either of us said anything. It was enough to be together, to listen to the birds busy in the trees and bushes.

It was Momma who broke the silence. When she spoke, I realized that she had been holding whatever it was in. Her words came out awkward and hurried.

“Gracey, there’s something you need to know.”

I stopped walking and turned to look at her. She stopped too, but she looked off in the direction we were headed. I had the sensation that she was afraid to go on but also afraid not to.

“We’ve got a job to do today,” she said. Her fingers dug into the pockets on the front of her apron, which was part of her uniform.

“Yes, ma’am.” I held my breath and dared not rush her. She seemed skittish as an old hen.

“It’s just,” she said and then paused for too long. She was searching for something. “Maybe you oughtn’t to come with me.”

I felt my shoulders stiffen. Was Pearl right? Had I made things harder for our family by going to college? Is that what this was about?

Before I could protest, Momma raised a hand to my arm. “There’s a man at this first job,” she said. “He’s…he’s not a good man.”

My cheeks burned hot with anger at the thought that someone had hurt my mother. I wanted to scream, but I knew it would do no good to anyone.

Instead, I took a deep breath. My lips trembled as I said, “Momma, has he hurt you?”

She looked down and then off again toward the place where we had been heading. “His wife is usually there,” she said.

She didn’t answer my question directly, but she didn’t have to. I tried not to hate anyone. Being vindictive and resentful never did anyone any good. But sometimes, I just wanted to take matters into my own hands and hurt those who hurt the ones I loved, especially Momma.

“You can’t go there, Momma,” I said. I heard the pleading in my voice and I couldn’t control it. “Please. Let’s find something else.”

She shook her head. “If I don’t go, there won’t be anything else. Word gets out that I’ve up and quit for no good reason I won’t get another job anywhere. Gracey, I need the money.”

I looked into her dark eyes and I felt all her weariness weighing into my shoulders. Survival was why she put up with this life. She just needed to get through another day, get her kids fed and grown. I wanted to take all that from her and give her a good life. I wanted her to have respect and ease and comfort. And then I felt the resignation I had seen in her. It crept up into my shoulders and neck. She had no other choice. There were hungry mouths to fill and no other way of making do.

“I’ll go with you, Momma,” I said. I tried to speak evenly so she wouldn’t hear the heartbreak in my voice. “Maybe with two of us there….”

I didn’t finish the sentence. I wouldn’t have been able to without being honest. The truth was that I hoped with us both there he wouldn’t try anything and I wouldn’t have to kill him.

Momma nodded. She held out her hand and I took it. She wrapped my arm in with hers and we walked the rest of the way in silence.

_______________________

Grace Washington is a new 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 More

By Grace Washington

“Momma, don’t look so worried,” I said. I patted her arm and walked past her to the room I shared with my sisters.

“I ain’t worried!” she said in a huff. “You just ain’t got no sense is all.”

It took restraint for me not to roll my eyes. It would do no good to be disrespectful. It didn’t matter that I was a grown woman now, a college graduate. Momma could still remind me of her place in our house.

“As long as I lived under her roof,” she’d said time and again.

But now I was moving out from her roof and she was scared. With every piece of clothing I packed, her hands plunged deeper into the pockets of her uniform. I knew her heart was breaking, but it was time for me to go, even if where I was headed was scary and dangerous, even to me.

It had been two years since the Freedom March in 1962 when I had heard Doctor King speak. My heart swelled with pride when I listened to his speech. He gave such an impassioned plea for help with the civil rights movement. It had stirred something deep within my soul.

I knew then I wouldn’t be able to stay in my little town of Milledgeville, Georgia. If I did, I had only one choice, and that was to become a service worker like my momma.

I looked over at her, her hair graying at her temples already. My going to college was hard enough on her, but she was proud I had graduated, and magna cum laude, no less. The whole neighborhood got an earful about that. But the people Momma worked for didn’t even know she had a daughter that had gone to school. In fact, she hid that fact from most white folks. If they knew, it might make life very difficult for all of us.

No, if I stayed in Milledgeville, I’d end up walking with Momma every morning to Rosehill Lane where all the society matrons lived. I’d spend my days minding their children and doing someone else’s dirty laundry. They would give me those measuring looks when they wondered if I had taken some of their silver after I spent the afternoon polishing it. They would choose to treat me as if I were a pet, and pretend we were friends. Or they might scream and yelI if I didn’t stay in my place.

Staying in my place meant different things to different people. In Milledgeville, it would always be my job to know what my place was in any social setting.

I saw the writing on the wall. I could see how it would always be. I wouldn’t survive in Momma’s world. I needed things to change.

In Momma’s world, she was “Girl” and she had to jump whenever anybody told her to. The only place she could be just herself was at the Immanuel Baptist Church around the corner. They called her Mrs. Washington there. I’m not sure how she did it, but somehow, every Sunday, she managed to get all five of us kids washed up and down to the church. We went during the summer’s heat or winter’s ice. It didn’t matter.

My momma had made a name for herself at church. Even after working long hours at the nursing home, she was there for any family who needed her. She was known for always showing up on the doorstep of bereaved families with a baked ham or a caramel cake. Some days, her oven didn’t get turned off until late at night. In addition to looking after the white folks at the nursing home and the heartsick people at church, she tended to her houseful of kids and a sick husband, too.

Was it wrong that I wanted something different than that? It was 1964, and change was in the air. I wanted to be a part of that.

“Now don’t forget to bathe everyday,” Momma said, as if I might forget. “And don’t draw any attention to yourself. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Her eyes glazed over then. I could tell she didn’t hear me when I told her I would be okay and would do all that she told me. I watched her face for a minute. She seemed lost in another time.

When she looked back at me, her eyes were clouded with tears.

It’s just…so much can go wrong. And some things never change,” she said. Her voice trembled.

There was something different about what she said, a tone I had never heard before. It surprised me, so I just stood there and listened.

“There’s always going to be white people and you ain’t ever gonna change their ways no matter what you do.”

She reached in the pocket of her uniform and pulled out a worn out photograph.

“That was my brother,” she said. “Ben. I don’t even know how he got that picture made. He was always a charmer. He had his ways. And it’s what got him in trouble.”

“What happened to him?” I asked, even though I had my suspicions. Even these days it happened often enough that I didn’t really have to guess.

“I was just a girl,” she said. “It was after midnight. We lived in a two-room shack out in the woods.” She pointed somewhere in the distance, a place I had never heard of or been to.

“The hooded white men in sheets came up on our front steps. They banged on the door and hollered for Ben to come out. The whole family was terrified.” Even so many years later, her eyes were wide with fear.

“Daddy asked what business the man had with his son. Ben was only fourteen. But the man just fired a pistol in the air and said, ‘Bring us Ben or you’ll all get some of this. You got ‘til Three.’ And he started counting.”

“It didn’t take but one word for my brother to walk out onto that porch with the rest of us. We didn’t even blink twice before those men had him off the porch and strapped up in an oak tree right next to our house. They had the noose made already and they tied his hands behind his back.”

Momma shook as she told this story. I realized I was shaking too. I guided her to the bed and we sat down, both crying hard tears.

“Every one of those men grabbed some part of the rope and hoisted Ben into the air. He put up such a struggle. And then one of them yelled up to him. ‘You gonna whistle at another white woman, you nigga?’ But Ben couldn’t answer.”

Momma gasped at the memory. “His head lolled onto his chest and the only sound left was the creaking of the branch he was swinging on.”

She grabbed my hands tight and said through gritted teeth, “And now you’re going off as if you can change anything. Why in heaven’s name you got to put yourself in harm’s way? Where did you get this from? Ain’t nobody in our family got the gumption you got. Why’d you have to grow up and be like this?”

Tears blurred my vision. “Momma,” I said. “I got to do this for Ben. I got to do this so we don’t have to grieve like this anymore.”

She grabbed me and pulled me to her, sobbing into my neck. “But why you?” she asked.

Not an hour later, I had a moment asking myself the same question.

I boarded the bus and the driver simply looked past me like I didn’t exist.

All around me were empty seats, but my place was in the back. I felt angry all the sudden, sad and angry. I hesitated for only a moment at an empty aisle seat and the white woman sitting next to the window put her purse down, daring me with her eyes to just try to sit there. If I had, she would’ve caused some sort of ruckus. I might be kicked off the bus before I left my own town!

I moved on toward the back and tried not to show my anger. An old black woman on the next to last seat in the bus patted the seat next to her. She seemed upset about something and I assumed she was angry about the same thing I was. Her dark eyes flashed and her lips were pursed together tightly. She was dressed much like my momma, in a service uniform, but I couldn’t tell where she might have worked or why she was on the bus.

Once I got settled in, she leaned in close to my ear and whispered, “Did you really think you could sit next to that white woman? Who do you think you are?”

It didn’t much surprise me to hear her say those things. Momma probably would have said the same thing. But I said what I would have said to Momma, “Nothing will change until someone makes it.”

She stared at me as if I had slapped her and it nearly made me smile. She did remind me of Momma. And something about that gave me comfort.

“Now, you listen here!” The woman said. “You don’t know what you’re playing at.”

I looked down at the worn picture of Ben my momma had given me. It was true that my heart beat with fear for what lay ahead, but I couldn’t just sit still anymore.

The woman looked over at the picture and nodded.

“Somebody you know?” she asked.

I shook my head. “He died before I was born.”

“Oh yeah,” she said, her voice cracking. “We’ve all got one of those.”

The bus driver announced the next town ahead on my journey to Mississippi and any fear I’d had before disappeared. It was happening. It was really happening.

I reached out and took both of the woman’s hard, work-roughened hands. “Don’t you understand? Everything I do from now on is so we don’t have anymore of those.”

_______________________

Grace Washington is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. Like many of our writers, she is from Texas with roots all around the South. We look forward to hearing more from her!