The Good Doctor

By Karen Brode

Opal traipsed ahead of her sisters in her white night-gown. She glanced back at Cleo and Jewel, who followed reluctantly.

“C’mon, slow pokes,” Opal whispered. She glanced up at the full moon and then back to the uncertain faces of her sisters. “It’s almost midnight and I’m not telling this story if we’re not at the cemetery by then.”

Opal had insisted that her story should take place in the local cemetery at midnight. She was 13 and almost an adult. She knew better than either of her sisters how to tell a good story. Jewel was only 11 years old and had lived in Opal’s shadow all her life. It was easy to get her to follow orders, but Cleo was her own person and she rarely let Opal – or anyone else – make her feel inadequate.

Come to think of it, Cleo was a tough nut all the way around. Of all the sisters, Cleo acted the most like a boy. She could climb trees and run faster than most of the boys at school. Although Opal tried to explain that boys weren’t attracted to girls who climbed trees and ran fast, Cleo insisted on doing it anyway. Her independence drove Opal a little nuts, but for now she knew she had both Cleo and Jewel right where she wanted.

“I’m so glad the moon is full tonight,” she told her sisters. “Why, it’s almost as bright as daylight.”

In Opal’s mind, the conditions were perfect for a story at the cemetery. Not only was it scarier because of what time it was, she could see the fear on Jewel’s face, as well as the annoyance on Cleo’s. Opal knew Cleo resented her needing to tell her story at the cemetery. She could see Cleo wasn’t afraid, but she also knew Cleo just didn’t like the whole idea and that was satisfying enough.

Opal leaned over to look more closely at Cleo’s face. Cleo pulled back and frowned. Opal saw the scratches where tree branches had scratched her sister’s face in several places. This made Opal feel even better. She knew Cleo and Jewel would have a time of it with their mother at breakfast when they tried to explain how they got scratched up, but Opal never had to explain a thing.

Just then an owl flew low and hooted, as if it thought the glow of Jewel’s blonde hair was a meal. Jewel grabbed onto Cleo’s arm and made a little squeal.

“They sound like women screaming,” she said. Her voice quivered as she spoke. Opal knew Jewel was near to tears but there was no going back now. They had reached the clearing right outside the cemetery where she would tell the story.

Opal sat down on the grass and, together, the girls formed a circle when Cleo and Jewel sat down facing each other. Opal’s eyes danced in anticipation of telling the long-awaited story.

She sat in silence taking it all in, building the suspense, until Cleo said in her deadpan voice, “Come on, Opal. Get on with it.”

Opal knew Cleo was just as curious as Jewel, so she said, “If you say one more thing, you are going to have to walk home by yourself and not hear my story!”   

Jewel grabbed onto Cleo’s arm. “No! I promise Cleo won’t say anything else.” Jewel’s big round eyes pleaded at Cleo. Her younger sister sighed and nodded.

And so Opal began.

“Do you remember the couple who lived over by the church for awhile?” 

Cleo shrugged. “Kind of. Didn’t something happen to them?”

Opal nodded. “Their names were Sarah and Tom.” Opal pointed in the direction of the church which sat on the other side of the cemetery. “They lived just past there.” 

“Sarah was pregnant that fall, but it didn’t slow her down in her canning and quilting and housework. She was happier than anyone had ever seen her! She felt the beginnings of life in her belly and nothing could make her sad.

“Her husband, Tom, worked all day at the rail yard. He came home at the end of the day so tired and hungry. Sarah often made a pie to celebrate how happy they were. It was fun to celebrate little milestones in Sarah’s pregnancy: the first time the baby kicked, the first time Tom was able to feel the movements of the baby through his wife’s skin. It brought them so close together that they almost seemed like one person. They finished each other’s sentences, they always knew what the other was thinking. It was an unusual relationship in that way.

“Sarah waltzed around their little house scrubbing everything until it glowed. A happy home and a happy husband, and a baby on the way! She felt as if she alone had been singled out to feel the cup of her life running over with love.”

Jewel let go of Cleo’s arm and seemed to relax.

“She sounds so happy,” she said. “I hope I have a husband like Tom one day.”

Opal nodded and continued.

“The town doctor then was Dr. Pendergrast. He came by and asked Sarah to lie on the bed while he listened to her stomach area with his stethoscope.

“He smiled and said, ‘That heartbeat is strong! The baby is going to be a winner, for sure!’ 

“Tom shook Dr. Pendergrast’s hand and even hugged the doctor at at the thought of what was coming soon into his already happy life.

“How long do ladies have to be pregnant to have a baby?” Jewel asked.

Opal frowned at the interruption but she enjoyed being the source of all information for Jewel, so she simply said, “Usually around 9 months.”

Jewel sat up straight and pressed her hands to her belly as if trying to imagine how it would feel to have another human inside her body. A few seconds later her face squinted into confusion and she shook her head. Opal, the knowledgable big sister, allowed her to have this moment before continuing on.

On a cold, January night, Sarah woke in great pain. She tried hard not to be loud and wake Tom up, but the pain became too much and she finally yelled out to him.

“What’s wrong honey?” he asked. 

Sarah looked at him in the dark. Her eyes were wide and full of fear.

Without hesitation, Tom jumped up and ran to get Doc Pendergrast. The snow was falling hard and thick, but Tom didn’t even notice.

Doc Pendergrast threw on his robe, grabbed his black bag, and headed back to Tom’s house with him. The doctor shivered along the way. It was so cold, but being cold took a backseat to saving Tom’s wife and baby. 

By the time they got back to the house, Sarah had fallen onto the floor and was bleeding. Tom ran to her. He cradled her in his arms and rocked her back and forth.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he said, stroking his wife’s hair. “The doctor’s here now. It’s gonna be okay.”

Doc Pendergrast got out his stethoscope. He listened to Sarah’s heart rate and felt of her swollen abdomen. Things were not good. He motioned for Tom to go into the next room.

“The baby is breech,” he said. “I’ll need your help. We have to get the baby turned around.” 

Tom fell to his knees and wept. The only thing he knew about breeched babies was what he had heard about others, and not a single one had survived that he knew of.

Doc Pendergrast bent down and shook Tom’s shoulders.

“You can’t do this right now,” he said. “Your wife is in the other room in pain. She needs your help now.”

The two men went back to Sarah. She groaned and cried out in pain. Tom ran to her and held her upper body but he felt completely useless and scared.

Sarah’s cries and writhing went on for about an hour. Dr. Pendergrast tried and tried to get that baby turned around. But after a while, Sarah stopped crying. Her body went limp in Tom’s arms. Slowly, Dr. Pendergrast looked up into Tom’s eyes. He reached for one of Sarah’s hands and felt for a pulse. He stood and pressed his fingers to her neck, willing her heart to keep beating. But he felt nothing.

The doctor placed a hand on Tom’s shoulder and he shook his head.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “She’s gone.”

Tom’s eyes became wild like an animal’s. How could his wife be gone? She was just here, moaning in pain.

He sat up and gently laid Sarah back on the bed, but he refused to believe she was dead. He kissed her on the lips. He shook her shoulders. He lifted her hand to his chest and begged her to wake up. He looked from his wife to Dr. Pendergrast and then he knelt beside her. 

“Please come back, Sarah,” he said. “I can’t live without you.”

Dr. Pendergrast knew Tom needed some time to get used to the idea that his wife and unborn child were dead, but it was early January and it was colder than usual. They had two more months of winter ahead. This meant that it was only going to get colder. The ground was only going to become harder. They needed to bury Sarah as soon as possible.

The doctor cleared his throat and tried to be as gentle as possible when he said, “Tom, I’m sorry to say this but we need to get Sarah buried as soon as possible.”

Tom looked up from Sarah’s body, his eyes red from crying. They looked even wilder than before.

“Buried?” He said, his voice rough with emotion. “No. I need more time.” He reached across his wife as if to protect her, to keep her from going anywhere.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “You can’t wait to do this. We’ve got a hard freeze coming. The ground’s going to freeze, too. No one would try to dig a grave in frozen ground.”

“A grave?” Tom stood up so fast that Dr. Pendergrast braced himself for a punch in the jaw, but just as quickly, Tom sank back and fell into the chair nearest him.

“You don’t worry about that right now, Tom. I’ll go talk with Demetrius and see if he can get started on a grave. You stay here. Rest a bit. I’ll be back soon.”

Tom put his head in his hands and wept.

Demetrius was the prime grave-digger in town. He was the only man who could dig a grave completely perfect in an eight-by-four rectangle in a short amount of time. He was was a rough and lonely kind of man. He lived alone in a box car out in the woods not far from town. The only company he kept there was the wooden caskets he built and stored in one end of his box car. Death and the business of death was what he knew best. It is also what put alcohol on his table.

The grave digger could usually be found at the seedy bar over on the east side of town around mid-afternoon. Any other time he was at home sleeping off whatever he drank at the bar. Rumor had it that Demetrius had ten children with a nice lady in the next town but they all hated him because of how he behaved when he drank.

Dr. Pendergrast had never been to Demetrius’ box car but he knew the general direction. He had hoped he could go his whole life without ever needing to visit the man, but now he was forced to go in the middle of a cold winter night. He took a deep breath and banged on the box car, yelling as loud as he could to try to wake Demetrius from his alcohol-fueled coma. 

It was a long time before Demetrius came to the door. When he finally did, his eyes were red and bloodshot. Dr. Pendergrast thought briefly about running away. The man looked like a demon in the night.

The doctor forced himself to stay put on Demetrius’s steps and he shivered—out of fear as much as cold—as he told Demetrius what had happened.

The grave digger nodded. His words were slurred and slow. “Yeah. Yeah. I understand you.”

He leaned to one said and, for a minute, Dr. Pendergrast thought the man might fall over. When he came back upright, though, he had a shovel in his hand. “Show me where you want it dug.”

As they walked through the snow, Dr. Pendergrast wondered how many drinks Demetrius had had before he went to bed. Not that he judged the man. No one managed to get through life without a little help. Knowing he was in good company, Dr. Pendergrast took a whiskey flask out of his coat pocket and took several swigs.

He led Demetrius to the spot near Tom’s house where the grave should be dug and then he told the grave digger about Sarah so he could pull a coffin from his boxcar to fit her. Demetrius started digging and Dr. Pendergrast turned to go help Tom prepare is wife for burial.

He fell in the snow twice on his way back to see about Tom. All of his extremities felt frozen solid but at least he had some warmth in his stomach from the whiskey. 

Walking along in silence, Dr. Pendergrast’s thoughts fell to Tom and Sarah and then on to his own marriage. His wife wasn’t anything like Sarah. She was judgmental and disappointed in him. But it hadn’t always been like that.

Lily had been the belle of the ball when he met her. Every boy in the county wanted to dance with her and escort her to parties. She looked at him sometimes with fluttering eyelashes as she was whisked off on some other guy’s arm. It had taken him a long time to get his courage up to ask her out, but when he did he realized that he was always the one she wanted. It had made him feel so good, so happy to know that a woman of such high social standing would want anything to do with him.

Things had been so good in the beginning. Lily stayed with him through all the hard years when he barely eked out a living while he was in school to become a doctor. Over time, though, she had come to see him differently.  She often looked at him like she didn’t recognize him. In his mind, all she did was judge and resent him.

His family was not wealthy like many of the other guys from medical school. He never took Lily or anyone else home to meet his family. They were all crazy, every single one of them. Everybody but him.

He thought back to his home. He hadn’t been back in decades. Back into his whiskey-muddled mind tumbled thoughts of his life back home. His poor daddy worked other men’s fields to try to put food on the table. His momma sat by a window in the parlor with a wad of snuff in her mouth. She kept a can nearby to spit in, but she didn’t always hit the target and she didn’t care either.

His younger sister really wasn’t right in the head. When he left home, she was 19 and still played with dolls, drooling food out of her mouth as she conversed with people only she could see. His parents tried to ignore it because there was no alternative. In school, he had learned about mental illness. It was then that he decided that they were all mentally ill, so he stopped going home.

When he got to Tom and Sarah’s house, Tom was sitting near his wife. He wasn’t crying anymore but he seemed to be in a state of utter disbelief.   

“Doc, I think I saw her move a little bit,” he said, his voice hopeful.

The doctor shook his head and put his hand on Tom’s arm to help him up. He needed to get the man away from his wife’s body.

“I’m sorry, Tom. That can’t be. Sometimes we want things so bad, our mind plays tricks on us.”

The doctor led Tom into the parlor and had him sit on the sofa.

“Listen, I know this is hard. I’ve asked Demetrius to dig a grave and prepare a casket. That snow out there is falling hard. We need to get Sarah to her final resting place before the ground is frozen solid.”

“She was just here, Doc,” Tom said. “We went to bed like nothing was ever gonna be wrong. We had our whole lives ahead of us. You saying you want me to just toss her in the ground now?” Tom stood up and paced to the other side of the room. “I need more time to say goodbye!”

Hours went by and the sun was beginning to crest the horizon. The doctor spent that entire time talking Tom into what was going to happen next. It wasn’t easy. At times, Tom was belligerent and angry. But by the time, Doc heard Demetrius outside kicking snow off his boots on the front porch, he was pretty sure Tom understood what needed to happen. 

“It’s time now, Tom. Nothing we do is going to bring her back and nothing good will come from you hanging onto her now.”

Before Demetrius could knock on the door, Doc went to it and opened it to let him in.

”I couldn’t get it dug more’n five feet down,” the grave digger said coming into the parlor.  He seemed somehow invigorated by the job he had just done, but when he caught sight of Tom, he bowed his head in respect. “Sorry, sir. I have the coffin waiting right near the grave, ready when you are.”

Tom wailed and fell to his knees. The doctor led Demetrius to Sarah’s body and, together, they wrapped her in blankets and a small rug. Tom couldn’t leave Sarah to go to her grave alone, so he followed behind.

As the doctor and Demetrius laid Sarah into the coffin, Tom tried to keep the men from putting the lid on top. To the doctor’s relief, Demetrius stepped in and gently lured the grieving husband back. Then he went to nailing the coffin shut and as the last nail was hammered, Tom turned away and sobbed.

It took less than half an hour for the burial to take place. When it was all over, Tom stared blindly at the mounded grave.

“Come along, Tom,” the doctor said. He patted Tom’s arm to try to wake him out of his shock. “Let’s go home and get you a hot cup of coffee.”

Tom shook his head and looked directly into Doc Pendergrast’s eyes.

“You don’t…,” he choked on this words and then cleared his throat. “You don’t have anything that could help me join her, do you?”

Dr. Pendergrast pulled away from Tom and shook his head. “Oh no, son. You don’t want to do that. You’ve got years ahead of you yet and you’ll feel better soon.” 

Dr. Pendergrast turned away to take a swig of his whiskey so he didn’t see Demetrius nod as if to tell Tom he had just the thing to take all his sorrows away.

Tom nodded and reached for Demetrius’ hand. “Thank you. I’ll get you your payment as soon as I can.”

Demetrius nodded with an extra knowing glint in his eyes. Then he turned and walked back toward his boxcar.

The doctor went back with Tom to help him get settled in. He stayed as Tom slept fitfully.  Eventually, Dr. Pendergrast fell asleep on the sofa but he awoke when he heard Tom screaming.

“Sarah!” He said, coming out of his bedroom. “I heard her calling to me!”

He ran to the chair where his coat had been laid and he started putting it on. “I need to go to her. I need to go get her!”

“No, Tom!” The doctor blocked him from the door and gently pushed him back toward the kitchen. “Sit down for a minute. It was just a dream.”

He went through the cupboards and found a bottle of brandy Sarah must have used in her cooking. He poured a glass for Tom and half a glass for himself.

“Here, drink this. You’ll feel better after.”

Thankfully, Tom was more tired than agitated, so it wasn’t long before the brandy had him sleeping again.

Tom woke up several more times, sure Sarah was calling to him and, each time, Dr. Pendergrast tried to convince him otherwise.

“Look, Tom, Sarah is too far away. Even if she was screaming, you wouldn’t be able to hear her unless you stood right next to her grave.” 

This went on for two days and Dr. Pendergrast was so worried for his friend that he stayed with him the entire time. Finally, though, Tom said he was going to the grave and he took the shovel.

Dr. Pendergrast knew the only way to convince Tom that his wife was indeed gone for good was to let him do what he needed to do. He followed Tom out into the bitter cold and watched as Tom dug through the foot of snow and the dirt.

“I just have to see, Doc,” he said as he worked. “I’ll never rest if I don’t do this.”

When he dug to the top of the coffin he pried off the top with the tip of his shovel. There, unraveled from the rug and blankets was his dead wife. Tufts of hair lay all around her, as if she had gone mad in the struggle to get out. The bottom half of the coffin was covered in blood and between his wife’s legs lay the baby, blue and frozen.

“Oh my God,” he said. “They were alive.”

Before Tom could say anything more, Dr. Pendergrast grabbed the shovel and hit Tom in the back of his head as hard as he could. Tom fell into the coffin on top of Sarah and the baby.  The doctor kept hitting Tom until he was certain he was dead.

Methodically, Dr. Pendergrast piled the dirt back on top of the coffin, and then continued to fill the space above with snow.  He bent down to make sure nothing looked out of place.  Then he went to Demetrius’s box car, and leaned the blood covered shovel against it.

He only fell once on the way back to Tom’s house, but he would have a tall one when he got there. Then he would sleep on Tom’s sofa as long as he wanted.

Don Michael Killed My Brother

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Finding Life When It’s Over

By Karen Brode

Stephen Garner felt a lot older than he thought he should. The years and the failures had caught up to him. He looked down at his work-worn hands. At 56 years old, his body was broken and his spirit wasn’t too far behind. If he had just been 10 years younger, he would have rallied. Once upon a time, those hands could have saved the farm. But nothing could help him now. He had lost the farm, lost everything he had worked for. And now his wife was dying.

The best he could do was to stay alive to take care of Ella. He was unselfish in his prayer for continued breaths. He knew his wife depended on him so much. She depended on him to say their morning prayers because she had forgotten them. She depended on him to bring her meals to the little room where they now lived in their daughter’s house. He fed her because she had forgotten how to eat. She depended on him to keep her warm in the night and to understand so many things that she could no longer understand.

And Stephen did understand. He loved Ella through all of it. He felt himself being used up, consumed by the situation, but he never wavered in his love for her. She had been that beautiful young girl who had just glanced across the church aisle at him when he was young and vibrant and well. She had waked in him all the love and devotion a young girl could cause a young man to have. They had been young and happy and their children had had enough to eat and life was good. Their life together had never been rich but they weren’t poor either. The Lord had always provided. By the sweat of his brow, he had helped the Lord provide for his family. And on Sundays, he and Ella and their three children took up most of a pew at church.

He rubbed the tight pain between his eyes and looked over at his wife. She was sleeping. She had forgotten all of those times but he remembered them. Sometimes he wished he could forget too so he wouldn’t really know how much they had lost.

Stephen and Ella were penniless. They had lost the farm. Stephen ached remembering the day the bank came and took the farm away. They just weren’t able to keep up on their payments. Now, he and his wife were at the mercy of whichever of child would take them in. Thank God for the generosity of their oldest daughter Lela and her steadfast husband Walter.

Stephen smiled at the thought of their kindness. It was a bittersweet smile. He would have rather been in his own home and not tucked in the corner of his daughter’s house. But his children were good to him and Ella. Walter took care of the roof over their heads and Lela made sure they ate. Stephen was sure there was never a better pair than those two.

Stephen’s thoughts were interrupted by a tiny knock at the door. He knew it was little Hazel, even before she turned the knob and peeked in.

“What you doin’, little girl?” Stephen asked, opening his arms and inviting her into his lap. She smiled and ran to him, giggling quietly.

She was only five, the youngest of seven children. Stephen could see her little heart, and it was as big as the earth itself. Unlike the other children, Hazel had a restless spirit. She longed to go to school with her sisters, but since the time wasn’t right yet, she always found her way to Grandpa’s lap with stories she had seen around her.

Sometimes in a sad moment, it would be enough for him to hold this little granddaughter in his lap and feel her hope and love. It gave him the strength to go on a little while longer.

“Mama’s in a fluster,” Hazel said after she was settled on Grandpa’s lap in the crook of his arm.

“What about this time?” He asked. With seven children and a husband who refused to get involved, his daughter was rarely not in a fluster.

“Opal’s got a date. She’s worried she’ll sit too close to a boy in a buggy.”

“Heavens,” said Stephen, “Is Opal old enough to date?”

Hazel looked up at her grandfather like she was shocked. “Well, she is 15,” she said. “She’s gotta get married soon so she can have babies!”

“Oh my word,” Stephen said laughing. “Where on earth did you hear that, my little girl?”

“Opal told me. She said she was the prettiest out of all of us and that she had to get married first.”

Hazel sat up in Stephen’s lap and pretended to brush her hair in front of a mirror. Stephen knew without her telling him that she had seen her older sister do this a hundred times.

“Heaven help that boy, then,” Stephen said. He knew what kind of woman Opal was going to be. She would be insufferable, but whatever boy would have her would never know it until after he had married her.

Stephen didn’t like to get into the parenting affairs of Lela and Walter, but he knew they struggled sometimes. For one, Lela spoiled Opal and gave her whatever she wanted. And on the other hand, Walter had a weak spot when it came to disciplining his children, especially the boys. He left everything to Lela.

Stephen knew, then that it was better for him and Ella to take their meals in their little room by themselves. Ella didn’t feel like eating much of the time, but Stephen knew that she just didn’t feel like talking or being a part of the chaos in the main house. So, they stayed in their room much of the time when the entire family was together.

There were times, though when Stephen went to the kitchen to sit with his daughter while she prepared the meal for the day. They talked often about the trials and tribulations of raising such a large family. Lela never relaxed. She made Stephen tired to watch her dart about her kitchen looking for ingredients to make a new meal each day. Lela was only 37, but she looked 50.

Stephen thought about her husband Walter and wondered if he might still be mad at Lela for not moving to West Texas when they were young. He had brothers out there who were successful oil barons and he had oven mentioned how much better off they might have been if they had lived there.

Stephen thought they had made the right decision by staying in East Texas, though. He didn’t think his daughter would fit well into Walter’s family. His brothers were fast talkers, fast dealers, and there was nothing Christian about them. It worried Stephen that his daughter and her children might be unduly influenced by these people and turn out to be infidels.

Stephen blinked into the darkness of the room and squeezed his little granddaughter to him. He was so thankful for that room and that little girl, who took after Ella in sweetness and smarts.

“Wanna go get the mail?” he asked her.

She nodded and slid off his lap. She waited patiently for him to rise out of his chair and then she took his hand.

“Let’s go, Grandpa,” she said softly.

As they walked down the dirt road together, Stephen felt the sun on his face and decided he should get outside more often. Hazel chattered away about the flowers and dropped his hand just long enough to stoop down and pick one.

“For you,” she said standing back up and holding a little flower up to her grandfather. “It was the prettiest one of the bunch.”

He was humbled and love filled his heart. “Thank you, Miss Hazel,” he said. He would later take the flower to Ella, but for now he stuck it in his pants pocket.

At the mailbox, Stephen went through the letters. His sister had written, but he would give that letter to Lela. Lela handled all of the family communication. Truth was, Stephen wasn’t too good at writing. He could never write down all that had happened to him. It was better not to talk about it or think about it.

He did open a letter from Washington, DC, though. He didn’t know anyone in Washington. Hazel leaned on him, tired from the walk, so he bent down and picked her up as he opened the letter.

“Well, Hazel, this letter is from the social security department, whatever that is.”

Stephen opened the letter and shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know it, Hazel? Those fat cats in Washington are asking me for money! That president in with all the money in the world is asking me for money!”

“What’s it for?” Hazel asked and leaned her head on her grandfather’s shoulder.

Stephen looked at his granddaughter and then back at the letter. It talked about some new program that was meant to help people get on their feet when they couldn’t work anymore. The idea of it struck home, made him wish something like that had been in place when he had been forced to leave his farm and livelihood.

“It’s meant to help people,” he said in a whisper.

“That can’t be bad,” said Hazel, looking at the words in the letter.

Stephen squatted down in the road and slipped Hazel down to his knee. He dug a dime out of his pocket and dropped it into the stamped envelope that had come with the letter.

“Wanna lick the envelope?” he asked.

Hazel nodded and took the envelope from him.

Stephen looked out into the distance to a future he would never know and he wondered if that dime might help some old soul like himself.

“It might not help Ella and me,” he said, taking the closed envelope back from Hazel, “but maybe it’ll help some other poor old feller at the end of his life.”

With that, he took Hazel’s hand and they started back to the farmhouse. They kicked at the dirt as they walked and the September sun shined hard on their backs as they laughed together.


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 Story of My Father

By Grace Washington

Reverend Samuels let me out of his car at the edge of the road by my house. I leaned against the catalpa tree and watched him drive off.

I listened to the magical sound of the rain dripping off the leaves. The big rainstorm was over, but there were still clouds scudding across the moon.

I stood there for a long time trying to absorb what I had been told by my pastor. In a way, I wished he hadn’t told me anything. A part of me wished I would’ve never known that Ernest Washington, Jr. was not my father. If I had never known, I wouldn’t have to think about it. I wouldn’t have to look at myself and know that I was different.

But Ernest Washington, Jr. had been good to me. I had called him “Daddy” and now I felt like the biggest fool in the county.

I ran a list through my head of friends and acquaintances at church and in the community. They probably all knew.

The sound of the screen door squeaking and slamming against the wood frame broke my thoughts. Momma came running out of the house.

“Grace, why are you standing out here? Why didn’t you come inside first thing and tell me about Pearl?”

I couldn’t speak. Not yet. I watched Mother come down the steps and walk toward me with a purpose I hadn’t seen in her in years.

“Don’t you know I’ve been worried sick about all of you?”

I smiled, but it was more out of the sad realization that my mother worried so much about some things and cared so little about so many other things—like telling me the truth about my father.

“Why are you smiling? Is Pearl gonna be okay?”

Mother fussed with a handkerchief tucked into her sleeve. She started to pull it out and then shoved it back in again. She didn’t seem to know whether to blow her nose or wind her watch.

Finally, she stopped in front of me and sighed.

“Why didn’t you tell me Pearl was pregnant? You know how I hate secrets.”

I leaned my head against the tree and closed my eyes.

“Secrets,” I said, my voice cracking. “You talk to me about secrets, Mother?”

I opened my eyes and saw Mother’s looking right at me like I was crazy. In a flash, though, I saw her see my meaning. Fear brushed across her face and she bit her lip.

Just as quickly, though, she dismissed the thought with a shake of her head and a wave of her hand.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Grace Washington.” Her voice was weaker, less full of anger and purpose. Less confident.

“I…I’ve been worried sick,” she repeated, wringing the handkerchief she finally pulled from her sleeve. “I…Is Pearl okay?”

I nodded. “She’s okay. She’ll be okay. She’s got some healing to do. She lost the baby.”

Mother shook her head again and looked over at me like a shy child.

“Why didn’t you all tell me about her condition, Grace? I feel like such a fool not knowing.” She paused to blow her nose and then in a whisper, “I bet everyone in Milledgeville knows.”

“Like they knew about you?” I asked. The words left my mouth with a bitter taste.

Mother looked at the ground and all around her, but not at me.

“You talk about secrets,” I said, the anger and sadness churning up into my chest. “You never told me that you and Ernest had been married for only two months when I came along. I called him ‘Daddy’! I never knew that you were pregnant with me before you even met him. Talk about looking like a fool!”

Tears poured from my eyes at these last words. Now it was my turn to not know what to do. I felt like running screaming down the street but years of always being the responsible one rooted me to the ground. I bent over and sobbed.

Momma reached out a hand and placed it on my shoulder. I could feel her shaking through my coat.

“Oh Gracie, honey.” She was crying too. “I just wanted you to be happy. I never wanted to hurt you.”

I looked up at her and she dropped her hand to mine.

“Come along now,” she said, her voice quiet and trembling. She wiped her eyes and pulled me gently down the walkway to our porch. When she got there, she patted the top step for me to sit down and then she sat. We must have looked a picture of sorrow sitting there slumped together.

After some minutes, she said, “I thought it was best to do what I did, to not tell you. Life is complicated enough without all of this kind of thing.” She reached a hand to dab at my tears and then she lifted my chin. “You have been such a good girl, a fine girl. I’m so proud of you.”

“Momma,” I said, “Tell me about my father.”

Mother looked off and squinted, as if the past lived somewhere on the horizon.

“I was 16 years old.” She smiled weakly. “My Momma told me I had to quit school and help the family make a living. But I didn’t want to quit school. Still, I knew my Momma was tired and needed help. She was a domestic worker in one of the finest houses in Macon. She kept their silver polished to a gleam and nothing in their house was anything but the finest.”

Momma lowered her head and a fat tear splashed down onto the step below her.

“The people living there weren’t so fine.” She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes. “Even so, everyone envied me getting to work there because it was the home of the richest people in that town. I lived in their house Sunday through Thursday. They were that kind of rich. They denied themselves and their children nothing, but I couldn’t expect no favors. If I ever had any time that wasn’t taken up with polishing or washing or scrubbing, I was allowed to sit at the kitchen table for short periods of time and read the Bible.”

Mother sighed. “Mr. James Edward Peyton was the name of the man I worked for. He was not only a lawyer, but also a judge. He sat at the head of every table anywhere he went. People were always wanting him to come for supper, do favors for him. All the white folks in Macon thought it was good to have him for a friend. I didn’t pay no attention to him but I made sure his coffee was just the way he wanted it. He usually scanned the local newspaper as he drank his coffee and ate his eggs.

“I never thought he noticed me much either until the day he came up behind me while I was washing the dishes. He leaned against me and told me what a woman I had become. I tried to keep working, but he took the things out of my hands and dropped them back into the water. Then he turned me toward him and….”

Mother had a hard time going on. She sobbed into her handkerchief and I leaned over and hugged her.

“I never knew, Mother,” I said, rubbing her back. “I never knew.”

“I was so scared, Grace. In so many ways. He could have made my life miserable or even had me killed, so I did whatever he wanted.”

I pulled Momma to me and held her in my arms while we both cried. I was so heartbroken.

I didn’t need her to tell me more. I knew where things had gone.

But now that she was talking about it, it seemed she needed to purge it somehow. In a voice I barely recognized, she went on.

“It was every Monday night after that. He’d come to my closet of a room and do what men do to make themselves happy and then he would leave without a word.”

The shock of what my mother had endured sunk in and replaced any thought I had had about my real father. It wasn’t until we had both cried ourselves dry that I realized her story was over. She had told me about my father. My father was a monster. Hatred for the man who had caused my mother such pain burned deep within me.

“Now you know, Gracie,” my mother said. “I’m sorry.”

I wanted to scream. “Momma, how can you apologize to me? You did nothing wrong.”

Momma smiled and wiped her tears. “I’m sorry I never told you,” she said. “I wanted things to be simple. I wanted you to blend in and be like all the others.” She took my hand again and patted it. “But you’re not like all the others. You are sometimes so different. Sometimes so much like him.”

I didn’t want to be like him. I wanted nothing to do with him. But I knew she was right. I hadn’t been much like anyone in my family. I always thought it was because I was just different in general. I never knew that the difference I felt was because of a man who raped my mother.

Mother must have sensed the fear and sorrow boiling up inside me because she put her hands on my face, looked me straight in the eyes, and shook her head. “I don’t want you to ever doubt that you’re my daughter. You hear? You came from a different place than the other kids, but you belong to me. You got all the good things from your real father and none of the bad.”

Her earnest words calmed my soul. This was the first time in a while that I felt at home in my family. I took one of her hands and kissed it.

We sat in silence for a while, each of us sniffling old tears.

After a while I said, “Did Ernest know who my real father was?”

“Ernest was the best of men,” Momma said through more tears. “But I never told him where you came from.”

She flashed an anxious look up into my eyes. “Men can get crazy at times and I didn’t want to put any more burden on him.”

I nodded in understanding. If she had told Ernest, what could he have done about it that would have done any good? The man who hurt my mother was powerful and rich. Ernest was just a poor black man whose only recourse would have been violence—and that wouldn’t have done any of us any good.

I looked out toward the eastern sky and saw the beginnings of a new day dawning. I pulled Mother tightly to me. She leaned her head on my shoulder. After awhile, she went to sleep in my arms. It was what I wanted her to do. I would sit there with my arms wrapped around her until she woke. I loved my mother so much. I had always loved her, but I now I loved her more.


Grace Washington is a 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.

Julia’s Visit

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnie watched her beautiful niece from the kitchen.

Gosh she was thin, Minnie thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia looked up at Minnie in a blank way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Kelly spoke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia nodded and they started back to the house.

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

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

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


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

Aunt Emma

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Aunt Emma?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you noticed her hair?” Winnie asked.

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

“She’s put something in it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold’s Boots

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t wait up for me,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head and looked down at the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold’s boots.

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

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


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