By Karen Brode
Albert sat at his sister-in-law’s kitchen table reading the Fort Smith newspaper. His wife, Hazel was busy cleaning up the lunch dishes. He figured they had about another minute’s peace and quiet before Opal, his sis-in-law, started up again with her constant demands.
There it was. Opal couldn’t keep quiet longer than twenty minutes before she needed something new. For about a week she had been lying in bed nursing her gall bladder surgery for all it was worth. Albert had wished some other sister had been available to stay with her while she healed up, but Jewel had a job and Cleo was in Houston visiting the new grandbaby. That left his wife to do all the heavy lifting with their oldest sister.
“Hazel, can you come in here a minute?” Opal hollered again just a second after she had called out the first time.
“That woman,” Albert said under his breath. He watched Hazel dry her hands on a kitchen towel before heading down the hallway to Opal’s bedroom. His wife had this soft way about her. Even her steps were soft and gentle, though he also noticed they were always full of purpose. He knew whatever Opal wanted Hazel would give her. Sometimes he wished she’d just tell her sister to stuff it. But then, she wouldn’t be his Hazel if she did that.
Albert leaned back in his chair until it squeaked under protest of his weight.
“You okay, Opal?” He heard Hazel ask.
“Oh, I guess,” Opal said. “For the shape I’m in.”
“What can I get for you?”
“Nothing…nothing. It’s just, I noticed there’s a lot of dust up there on the door frame, above the door. I hadn’t noticed it before, but just lying here makes me see things from a different angle. Would you get a dish cloth and try to get all the dust off that frame?”
Albert’s face turned red at this request.
“Who does she think she is?” He whispered, leaning forward again. He had to resist the urge not to hit the table top with his fist.
Then he heard his wife speak, “Do you need anything else? Because I can bring it now and not have to make another trip back here to your bedroom.”
That was Hazel’s way of putting her foot down. He shook his head and took a deep breath.
“The pain is getting bad,” Opal said in a whiny voice. “But no, I am going to try to hold off on taking anything until after supper.”
Albert pretended to be reading the newspaper when Hazel entered the room again. He knew his marriage had always been a point of contention between his wife and Opal. It didn’t help that Opal knew what he thought of her marriage to her dead husband Lloyd.
Albert had liked Lloyd, but he thought he had always been a spineless jellyfish and let Opal walk all over him. One day he told this to Hazel and Opal overheard. You would have thought he had accused his sister-in-law of genocide. She laid into him like a cat chasing chickens. They had steered clear of each other ever since.
“Oh, Hazel!” It hadn’t even been five minutes since Opal called her sister back to the room. “I think the baseboards need cleaning too.”
Albert threw the paper down on the table.
“You didn’t come here to do her housework!” He said through his teeth. “Tell her to get her old fat butt out of bed if she wants anything else dusted.”
He stood up, ready to go tell Opal himself just what he thought of her. Hazel walked over to him and put a hand to his chest. She looked up at him with pleading eyes — the eyes he fell in love with.
A little bit of the wind went out of his sails but not enough for him to calm down completely.
“She has more nerve than anyone I have ever met,” he said. “How dare she think she can order you around like this!”
Hazel removed her hand from his chest and took a couple of steps back.
In a quiet voice she said, “I promised Opal I would stay to help her. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
Albert clinched his fists and tried to calm down but he was too angry. He was angry because of how Opal behaved and angry because his wife put up with it.
“I really want to leave her here to clean her own baseboards,” he said. He looked at his wife, who looked past him to some place she probably dreamed of–some place without a pushy older sister.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said, finally, stepping around his wife. In three strides he was out the door. He slammed it so hard the entire house shook.
He didn’t actually go for a walk right away. Instead, he sat on the front steps for awhile to try to calm down. He watched the birds skittering and chirping around the bushes in Opal’s front yard.
Under the windows along the front of Opal’s house, he noticed some shrubbery needed trimming. He would have already trimmed them if they were not Opal’s shrubs. He liked to stay busy. He was never happier than when he could stand back and look at a job well done. But he simply would not let himself do it. If he did that, it would open up all kinds of expectations from his sister-in-law. She would ask him to paint her house and put a new roof on and build a new shed. It would never end.
Opal’s house was the last house on a dead-end street. Albert looked around, thinking about the implications of that. It made him smile. He certainly felt like her house was a dead-end whenever he visited.
After a while, he stood up and took off, away from Opal’s dead end. Sometimes walking helped him clear his head.
He had walked past only two houses when he saw a man raking the leaves in his yard.
“It’s a nice day to get that done,” Albert said, nodding toward the rake. “I think it’s supposed to rain the next few days.”
The man looked up and smiled. He had a tan face that showed he liked working outside as much as Albert did.
“Yep–Heard that on the news. Thought I’d better get to it before the rain hit.”
Albert nodded and took a few steps into the yard.
“You Opal’s sister?” asked the man.
“Heck, no!” Albert bristled. “She’s my wife’s sister. Opal’s had some surgery and my wife doesn’t drive, so I had to bring her.”
The man leaned on his rake. “You all staying very long?”
Albert rubbed his big heavy hand through his hair. “If it was up to me, I’d already be gone back home. That woman wears on me like nobody else ever has.”
The man leaned closer to Albert. In a confidential tone he said, “That woman has been a sore spot to all us neighbors. Most of the men in the neighborhood won’t even go out in their front yards anymore. She’s always out there hollerin’ from her front porch. You can only pretend to be deaf so long! She doesn’t give up and she doesn’t take a hint.”
Albert cackled in commiseration. “Oh yeah. She would never take a hint. You’d have to scream it in her face. Even then she might not get the message.”
The neighbor chuckled, which made Albert laugh, too.
“Guess we’re in the boat together trying to avoid my sister-in-law!”
Opal’s neighbor pointed to a house further down the street. “See that house there with the flag pole? That’s Ralph Martin’s house. He’s been forbidden by his wife to go anywhere near Opal.”
Albert laughed again and said, “You don’t mean….”
The man shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed like Ralph was running to the house every other day to look at the faucet or the refrigerator or any little thing to get him over there. His wife Millie had enough and put her foot down.”
Albert nearly snorted in disbelief. He couldn’t imagine Opal in that way, not ever. “You don’t think she….”
The neighbor held his hands up and said, “I have no idea what her intentions were, but Ralph’s wife wouldn’t have any more of it.”
Both men looked at each other for half a second as the image of Opal the Seductress sunk in. Then they both started laughing at the same time. Tears sprung out of Albert’s eyes he was laughing so hard.
When they couldn’t laugh anymore, Albert shook the hand of Opal’s neighbor and thanked him for getting him out of the huff he had been in.
“Those clouds are gathering over there in the north,” he said. “You’ve still go your raking to do and I was planning on a walk before I’m expected back.”
“If you ever need an escape,” the man said winking, “you just come on over. We’ve always got something good in the fridge to share.”
Albert continued on his way and, while he walked, he wondered why God had even made people like Opal. It seemed to him that she served no real purpose, except to make the people around her miserable. Albert supposed that her husband Lloyd had loved her, but she was 16 when they married and he figured she was nicer back then. The thing that bothered Albert most of all about Opal is that she did not know unlikable she was. She could at least have a little humility.
Albert’s thoughts went further back in the past, then. He thought to the time when he had been courting Hazel. He got dressed up every time he went to a family supper over at her house and her parents gave him the once-over more than once.
He always felt claustrophobic when he visited. Hazel’s entire family was so proper and pious. He tended to like people who were more down to earth and didn’t think so much of themselves. Opal was by far the worst of the worst. She played the piano after suppers and the family would gather around and sing. Albert hated it, but he endured it because he loved Hazel.
Albert scratched his head trying to understand Hazel’s family. Hazel and another sister, Jewel, used to say that their mother would’ve been happier if she had had Opal as her only daughter. He never understood that. He never saw anything attractive about her. He almost hated her for the way she treated Hazel.
Opal was exactly the kind of girl he would never have looked at twice because she already thought she was so pretty. He would much rather be married to that sweet, kindhearted Hazel. Sure she sometimes wore her heart on her sleeve, but she always tried to do the right thing.
Albert figured it probably wasn’t easy to be Hazel. Sometimes he felt sorry for her. Once they were married, he didn’t plan to spend much time at her family home, if for no other reason than to give Hazel a break from trying to measure up and take care of everybody.
Albert was still full in thought when he started up the sidewalk to Opal’s house. He was surprised and delighted, then, when he looked up and saw Hazel standing on the porch.
“I thought you had run away,” she said in a stage whisper.
“I thought about it,” he replied, smiling.
“Opal is having a hard time,” Hazel said. She gave him a second look, like she was trying to figure out why he was smiling. “She, uh, needs you to go and get her some more pain pills and the pharmacy closes in about 30 minutes!”
Albert thought of Opal writhing in pain and he smiled even bigger.
Hazel tilted her head. “Do you want me to go with you?” she asked.
Albert looked at his wife’s plaintive face and his heart melted. He could never tell Hazel no about anything, even if it was to help that harridan, Opal. He knew that his wife was such a goodhearted person and that he didn’t really deserve her. She went out of her way to keep things calm, keep everyone happy, make sure he had what he needed.
“Come here,” he said, stepping up on the porch and pulling Hazel to him. He planted a big kiss right then and there for all the neighbors to see and then took the car keys from her limp fingers and turned back toward the driveway.
He didn’t say a word as he got in the car and drove away, but he did look in the rear-view mirror. As he drove up the road, he noticed that Hazel didn’t budge from the porch. He was pretty sure he’d never forget this moment, or that look of confused happiness she gave him just after he had kissed her.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.