The Letter from Maria

By Luis Martin

“Here comes that white nigger.” My older brother Miguel kept his dark piercing eyes trained on the woman who walked past our car as we sat parked on Main St. by the courthouse.

I watched the woman walk by. She was white from what I could tell, but I now I wouldn’t be able to look at her without thinking that she was also black. In our little town of Neasbitt, Texas, right on the border of Mexico, I had only ever really known Mexican people and white kids at school. At 13, I couldn’t imagine what mixed race really meant. I wondered if she was white everywhere or if the skin we didn’t see might be black as night. She was beautiful and there was something about her that I felt drawn to; like neither of us fit in exactly. Like maybe she would understand how lonely I felt sometimes.

But then she looked up. Her car was parked next to ours and she caught me staring. I looked away. My face flushed with heat. I felt ashamed that she might think I was staring for the same reason my brother stared. I made a point to look straight ahead through the windshield. I prayed she hadn’t actually seen me.

Miquel leaned across me and whistled through the open window. “Hey, lady! You want to meet me later tonight?”

I wanted to crawl under the seat but I was practically pinned under Miguel’s arm. I wanted to tell the woman I wasn’t like him, but all I could do was look away.

When the woman ignored him, Miguel cocked his head and looked at me with his mischievous smile.

“You think you’re all that, don’t you?” Miguel asked.

I didn’t say anything.

“Just you wait, little brother. You’re going to mess up big time and when you do, I’m going to sit back and watch you suffer.”

He slid back to the driver’s side and leaned his elbow up on the side of the door. “Your day will come.”

I didn’t understand why Miguel said these things to me all the time. I don’t know why he would want to see me mess up and suffer. I was just a kid trying to get through middle school.

Miguel had been all over the world already. He was 21 and he had been in the army since he graduated high school. He had seen places and things I would probably never see. I could already see that my life wasn’t going to be nearly as exciting as his had been.

I braved a quick glance at the woman who had finished loading her groceries and had gotten into her car to drive away. I thought about how she had managed to ignore my brother when it seemed like no one else could. Silently I wondered how many children he had. I knew he had two sons who lived with their mother in the next town over. Miquel refused to pay child support and the consequence was that part of what he made as a Walmart warehouse stocker went straight to the mother of those kids. I knew this because he complained about it all the time—like it was the woman’s fault she got pregnant with those kids, so why should he have to pay her?

Miquel never worried so our mother did it for him. Ever since I could remember she seemed resigned when it came to my brother. He did what he wanted and other people had to adjust to him. This was a fact of our lives.

Mama told me that Miquel had never wanted to be held even as a baby. As he got older, his emotions grew colder. He would never come to Mama and tell her he was sorry for anything. She had to go to him and try to work things out.

Miguel’s warning rang in my ears. Did he know about the letter? If I could go back, I would not have opened it. It was addressed to him and I shouldn’t have even looked at it.

It came from the small town in Oklahoma where Miguel had been living before he came to live with us after another failed marriage. I tried to ignore it when I saw Miguel’s name written in feminine handwriting on the front. I knew I should not read other people’s mail. But it practically begged to be read.

I put it on Mama’s old television set in her bedroom. I thought I could ignore it, but it kept calling out to me. Miguel was at work and I knew he wouldn’t be home for some time.

Finally, I decided it was best for all of us if I knew what was inside. I knew Mama would never look and maybe she needed to know. Whatever the letter said, it might affect her too.

I held it in my hands and flipped it over to look at the back. Whoever had written it had kissed it with red lipstick and written SWAK—Sealed With A Kiss—next to the lip marks.

If I was honest, I knew nothing noble is what urged me to open that note. Curiosity was what drove me to it. It’s what pushed my conscience to one side. I thought because it wasn’t actually sealed well that I might be able to get it out, read it, and then put it back like nothing had happened. But it tore at the point where the woman had kissed it. There was no hiding what I had done and I was already in too deep, so I read the letter.

It was from a woman named Maria. She went on about how much she loved Miguel, as if he had somehow convinced her she was the only woman in his life. It was heart wrenching because she was so happy. She was pregnant with Miguel’s child. She was certain it would be a boy. She wanted to name it after his father, after Miguel. Then she wrote with sincerity of her hopes that he would come back to her soon. She was in love with Miguel. She hadn’t yet learned how he treated those that loved him.

I folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. I sat for a while and tried to picture this woman in Oklahoma. I imagined her alone and maybe a little scared. I saw her as sweet and kind, like the Virgin María. By the time my mother came home from work, I had decided Maria would be a great mother and that Miguel had to go to her and make things work.

But then I saw my mother’s face when I handed her the letter.

“Qué hiciste, mijo? What did you do?” Mama asked me.

All my courage flew out of my stomach and I lied. “Nothing. I…I didn’t mean to open it. I was just opening everything like I do for you sometimes. I didn’t notice it was to Miguel.”

Mama stared at me for a long time. She had to know I was lying. She always knew when I didn’t tell the truth. She took the letter from me—her lips pressed together—but she said nothing.

I had never known what happened to the letter. I figured Mama had known what to do. I also knew that if she chided Miguel, it would be pointless. Even as we sat together in the car that late afternoon, I knew he would never care about Maria.

He leaned his head out of the driver’s side window and whistled at a señorita walking by.

“Mamacita!” He hollered with a smile.

The woman gave Miguel a sideways glance and a coy smile. She walked effortlessly in her high heels and touched her perfect hair as she walked by.

I wanted to jump out of the car and warn her that my brother was not a good man, tell her about the innocent woman in Oklahoma who was pregnant with his child.

But she was caught up in the attention of my brother.

She giggled and nodded when he winked at her and said, “See you later, baby?”

“How can that woman be white?” I asked.

Miguel looked at me like I was crazy. “That woman? She was Latina, man. What are you talking about?”

“The woman before with the groceries,” I said, tilting my head in the direction of the woman who had just driven away moments before.

Miguel nodded then shrugged. “The half nigger? That’s cuz she’s got more white than black. Dude, I don’t know.”

He sat looking out over the hood of the car. A serious, angry look came over his face and he said, “You know them niggers are trying to ruin all of us.”

I just rolled my eyes and looked the other way.

It surprised me when we got home to see the letter from Maria sitting on the kitchen table. It had been a couple of weeks since it arrived and I thought for sure Mama had thrown it away. I guess she was just waiting for what she thought was the right time, though.

“This came for you,” she said, handing the letter to Miguel while setting the table for dinner. She had made Miguel’s favorite enchilada casserole.

Miguel took one look at the envelope and threw it down on the table.

“That’s not for me,” he said. “Must be some other Miguel Sanchez.”

“You didn’t even read it,” Mama said, picking it up again and holding it out.

Miguel took two steps back, like the letter was toxic.

“I’m going out with Ace,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be home.”

Mama and I stood in silence in the kitchen. The front door slammed and moments later, I heard the sound of the car peeling out in the gravel driveway.

“You’ll have to help yourself to the casserole,” Mama said, rubbing her temples. “I’m going to bed.”


 

Luis Martin is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. He says he incorporates true stories from his life into his fiction so, “to protect the innocent,” he has dropped his last name.

The Reason for All the Misery

By Grace Washington

Reverend Samuels’ car was quiet but for Pearl’s weak moans and the tread of the tires against the road. It started raining as soon as we left Milledgeville. The rhythm of the raindrops on the windshield would have been soothing another time, but right now all I could think about was getting Pearl to the hospital.

In the dark quiet, I thought about Momma. She would surely be pacing the floor until she heard some news. I went over in my mind how I could have made this situation better, but I couldn’t.

I looked at the back of the reverend’s head and thought about his words to Momma before we left. I needed to accept that we were all doing the best we could. Still, I shivered thinking about Momma. I wasn’t sure she would be able to get past any of this.

“Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels cleared his throat and looked back at me from the rearview mirror. “I know your Momma was upset about all this, but she a good woman and she been through a lot.”

I nodded, curious about why the pastor chose now to say that. Could he read my thoughts? Could he see the worry on my face for both my sister and my mother?

He stumbled over the next words, his eyes flickering from the road to the mirror where he could see me.

“Some the other ladies…” he said. “…In, in the congregation….” He paused like he was holding his breath, nervous about something. “Well…we’ve been worried about her. She just ain’t able to stand much since Ernest died.”

I looked out the window and gave thanks for the darkness. From the heat I felt in my neck and ears, I knew my face had to ten shades of red. Here I’d been working all these weeks to help Momma get a break, to keep other people’s noses out of our business, and here the reverend says the one thing Momma feared the most – that she was being talked about by the pastor and the church women.

Reverend Samuels cleared his throat again and I met his eyes in the mirror.

He spoke more softly now, as if he knew he had embarrassed me. “She got those young’uns to raise, you know. And now…this. “ He whispered the last part and glanced quickly over his shoulder at my sister who had stopped moaning and started shivering.

The heat from my embarrassment flipped over in my stomach and turned to resentment. I know the pastor meant well, but it felt more like judgment and, with everything else I had dealt with recently, I didn’t need nobody looking down their nose at my family.

“Reverend, I thank you for your concern and I thank you for helping us out tonight.” I bit my tongue and tried to remember my manners. “We’re…Momma’s doing alright.”

The rain came down heavy then, so much so that even if I had wanted to continue our conversation, neither would have been able to hear the other. I took comfort in the back and forth of the windshield wipers and tried to reign in my shame.

We were just a few miles out of Tilton when the rain let up.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Miss Grace,” Reverend Samuels said. “All I meant to say was…your Momma is in a mighty fragile mental state and….” He glanced back over his shoulder at Pearl. “She got plenty of reason.”

I looked down at my sister who seemed so small just then and I felt so weak all the sudden.

“What’re you sayin’, Reverend?” My voice was barely above a whisper. It was all I could manage. “I take good care of Momma. Don’t I? I look after her and the little ones.” I squeezed Pearl’s hand. “We ain’t got money for anything more.”

The car slowed as we neared the hospital. Reverend Samuels pulled up as close as he could to the door and got out of the car. I wasn’t exactly sure how old he was, but until that day he had always just been old. Watching how fast he moved and how easily he lifted Pearl into his arms, I wondered just how old he really was.

We hadn’t gotten halfway down the sidewalk before two orderlies came running out with a gurney. While Pearl was loaded onto it, I tried to avoid the blood staining her entire lower half. I shut my eyes and tried to tell myself that my sister was so young, so healthy, and oh so stubborn. Surely she would be okay.

“Surely, God,” I said out loud.

When I opened my eyes, Pearl was already inside the building. Reverend Samuels had his head down. When he saw I was ready, without a word, he bowed and held the door open.

I’m not sure how much time had passed by the time the doctor came out to see us. When I saw him coming, I stood up and walked toward him.

“I’ve got good news and bad news about your sister,” the doctor said.

I hated it when people said this. Why couldn’t they just get to the point?

The doctor must have sensed my lack of patience. He just dove headlong into the bad news first.

“We couldn’t save the baby,” he said.

This hit me harder than I thought it would. My knees went weak and I had to reach for the nearest chair so they wouldn’t buckle completely.

“And the good news?” I asked, tears choking my voice.

“We can save Pearl,” he said.

“Oh, thank God!” I wanted to stand up and shake the doctor’s hand, but he took a step back from me and crossed his arms over his white coat.

“There’s a cost you all need to understand,” he said.

I thought immediately of how many houses I would have to clean and realized that none of that mattered.

“What is it? I can pay. I can get the money,” I said.

The doctor held up his hands and shook his head. “No, no. No, you need to understand what’s happened here. Pearl’s lost a lot of blood and it looks like the pregnancy did some damage to her reproductive organs. She can’t ever have kids now. We need to remove those organs so she can’t ever get hurt like this again.”

The blood rushed to my feet and I felt like I might be sick.

“No children?”

The doctor shook his head again. “I’m sorry, Miss Washington.”

I couldn’t say anything back. Tears ran down my face. I was thankful to know Pearl would be okay, but to think of her losing her chance at being a mother made me ache inside.

Reverend Samuels handed me a handkerchief and I wiped my eyes.

“Thank you, doctor,” I finally managed to say. “Please do whatever needs done to save my sister.”

“We’ll take care of her from here,” he said. “If you want to go home and get some rest, you can see her tomorrow.”

The rain had almost stopped as we got back into Reverend Samuels’s car. It had turned cold while we were in the hospital, and my teeth began to chatter. My body started shaking.

Reverend Samuels pulled a blanket from out of the trunk and offered it to me. I draped it over my shoulders and covered myself with it all the way to my toes.

We drove for a while in the darkness without a word. I thought over the whole awful night. For the first time in hours, I thought of Momma and remembered she was probably still up pacing the floor.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said out loud. “I was planning on going back to college next fall, but Momma and Pearl…. Who’s going to look after them?”

I wasn’t sure what I expected the reverend to say, but when he finally spoke he said, “There’s something you need to know.”

“Oh, Reverend,” I said, my voice sad and sleepy. “Nothing good ever comes from those words.”

“It pertains to your momma,” he said. “And it’s something you need to know while you figure out your future.”

This made me sit up a little bit. I didn’t realize it then, but it was the first time in a long time that somebody besides me had mentioned my future.

“I was a young man when I came to minister to the people in Milledgeville. Not long after I arrived, a young woman came to talk to me. She was in a similar way that Pearl was. Even though the father of the child was still around, they weren’t married and she was afraid if she told him, he’d run out on her. She was so scared. I’d never seen anything like it and I worried she might do something desperate.”

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“I asked her to bring in the baby’s father and we would tell him together. I thought maybe some prayer and Bible study might help.”

“What happened? Did he come?”

The reverend nodded. “He was such an angry young man. They were both miserable, truth be told. He said he had to leave to get some air. Said he couldn’t breathe inside a church. As he walked away, I knew he wouldn’t be back. I never felt sorrier for anyone more than I did that girl. She was all alone.”

“What happened to her?” In my mind’s eye I saw Pearl’s face as the woman in the story and I wanted to know that she ended up okay.

“As it turns out, I had some friends over in Willoughby where I did some preaching now and then before I came to Milledgeville. I took the woman with me to a revival and she met Ernest Washington, Jr.”

He was silent for a moment after that. It took his words that long to sink in.

“But Ernest Washington, Jr. was my father.”

Reverend Samuels grimaced. Your momma and Ernest fell in love by Christmas. They got married in January and, if I remember right, you were born in February.”

“The girl was my momma and Daddy wasn’t my real father?” Big tears fell from my eyes and I didn’t even try to wipe them away. “Whatever happened to my real dad?”

“I have no idea who he was or where he went,” Reverend Samuels said. “I’m sorry to tell you all this now. You’ve been carrying a heavy burden and I just thought you ought to know.”

After everything I done to be a good daughter and sister, none of it really mattered. None of it had been really real. I was the reason for Momma’s shame. I was the reason that Momma didn’t expect anything to ever work out for her. Just as I had always suspected, I was the reason for all the misery.


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.

A Side to Momma I’d Never Known

By Grace Washington

I didn’t have time to worry about Momma’s shock and her sudden discovery of Pearl’s condition. Momma looked so odd sitting at the table with her mouth open trying to absorb what all had just happened. The three younger children had put their forks down completely ignoring the meal Momma had made, even though it was everyone’s favorite.

I put my arm around Pearl and walked her back to the bedroom. Pearl was barely in bed when Momma came charging into the room. She was hysterical.

“Grace,” she cried. “We got to call the amblance people! Run across the field to Lillibelle’s and see if she can call them!”

“Momma, ain’t no ambulance comin’ to this part of town after dark,” I reminded her while trying to get more towels to cover the blood that seemed to be everywhere on my sister. “They might not even come during the day!”

Momma screamed and fell to her knees.

“Oh Lordy, help us now in our hour of need,” she said. Tears were streaming down her face. The hands she lifted into the air were shaking. “I call upon the Great God of heaven to come and save this…my errant child.”

I ran to the bathroom and wrung out a wash cloth with some water. When I got back, Pearl was moaning. Her face was so pale.

“Only one person might help us,” I said to Momma. “But you’re not gonna like it.”

Momma looked up. “Who would help us now?” Her face was covered in tears like nothing I had ever seen before.

“Go to Lillibelle’s,” I said. “Call Reverend Samuels. He’s the only one with a car that might take mercy on us and drive us to the colored hospital over in Tilton.”

Mother stared at me as if I had grown horns. “What you mean, girl? I ain’t gonna call my reverend for something like this! You think I want the church people knowing what’s happened here?”

It took a couple of seconds for the impact of Momma’s words to sink in. When they did, I had to sit down next to Pearl on the bed. I felt gutted. Was my own sweet mother more concerned about what church folks thought than her own daughter’s life?

“You know Zinnia and Millie get ahold of this, and we’ll never be able to hold our heads up anywhere in this town again. ”

I turned back to Pearl. She was still moaning, but the sounds grew quieter.

“Momma, forget the church people,” I heard myself hissing at my own mother. “This is your daughter! We need Reverend Samuels’ car. If he has any soul at all he’ll see us as we are. We’re all sinners–he knows that! He’s our only hope, Momma.”

Mother slid to the floor and started rocking back and forth.

I ran to the kitchen.

“Tom, John, you all need to get to Miss Lillibelle’s house and use her telephone to call Reverend Samuels.”

They just stared at me, their eyes wider than the saucers sitting on the table in front of them.

“Is Pearl dyin’?” John asked.

Their innocent, frightened faces made me ache inside. They were getting an education and fast.

“Yes, Pearl is very sick. I need you to help her. Go on, now! And tell Reverend Samuels hurry!”

It seemed like an eternity before I heard Reverend Samuels car in the front yard. Pearl had somehow rallied long enough to scream through a shock of pain and then the fell limp on the bed.

To my shock, Mother left us only to reappear just before the reverend arrived. Her hair had been combed out and she had lipstick on. But no amount of makeup would hide her hysteria. She shook like a leaf and, before Pearl passed out, she wailed with Pearl’s every sound.

The boys led the reverend to our bedroom. He had taken off his coat and hat before he got there as if he was there for a prayer meeting. His face told me he hadn’t expected what he got.

“Reverend Samuels,” I said. “My sister’s got herself in the family way. Something is terribly wrong.”

The reverend nodded. His face was solemn and sad.

“We’re so sorry to take you out of your house tonight,” my mother said shuffling quickly to our pastor. Her words seemed meant for more civil times but her voice was screechy and wild.

To my great relief, Reverend Samuels took my mother’s hand and patted it.

“We got to help little Pearl over there,” he said. “We’re gonna do the best we can and the rest in in God’s hands.”

Momma nodded. Her face and body relaxed and, for the first time since all this happened, she went to Pearl’s side and took her hand.

“You hear that, young lady?” Momma said, her voice a little shaky but not hysterical. “We got to do the best we can. That means you too.”

“Do you know how far along she was?” Reverend Samuel’s asked while he put his coat back on.

“I think she’s about four months along,” I said. Now I understood the shame Mother had felt moments before. Speaking it out loud like that to someone of Reverend Samuel’s stature made me feel so ashamed.

“Alright then,” he said. “I already took the liberty of calling Mercy hospital to let them know we’re coming. I didn’t know how bad it was–just thought it might be pneumonia or some such.”

Without blinking an eye, he gently wedged his way between me and my sister. He scooped her up in his arms like a baby and started walking to the car.

“It’ll take us half an hour to get there,” he continued, as if he wasn’t carrying my unconscious sister in his arms. “Miss Grace, will you be so kind as to ride along with us?”

I grabbed the blankets off the other bed and hurried out with the reverend. Before I got in the car, though, Momma grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

“When all this is over,” she said, her voice filled with anger, “You got a lot of explaining to do, young lady.”

I wanted to tell her how I hadn’t tried to hide anything, that I just didn’t want her to worry, but there wasn’t time. If we wanted Pearl to live, we had to go now.

“I gotta go, Momma.”


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

John’s Papers

By Karen Brode

In the aftermath of my father’s death, I spent a good deal of time trying to blend into the wallpaper, especially whenever big conversations happened between the adults. The rug had been pulled out from under me when he died. Nothing felt safe or real. Being unseen gave me the advantage of hearing things most eight-year-olds wouldn’t get to hear. If the adults didn’t notice me, I could learn what was really going on.

“Momma, all you would have to do is sign the papers!” My brother John had been ranting all through dinner about papers he wanted our mother to sign so he could be released from the Army. “I don’t think I can stand it anymore and now I have a real shot of getting out, thanks to Daddy dying. If you sign these papers, I’m free!”

I felt cold hearing my brother talk about Daddy that way. It was like he was happy our father had died. I couldn’t risk moving, though, to feel the actual shudder that crept into my shoulders. They might see me and send me out of the room.

I looked over at Mother. She was at the kitchen sink working away on the cast iron skillet she had used to make fried potatoes for dinner. Her shoulders slumped at the same time mine felt frozen.

John leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. He was only 18 but he was like a bull in every way – broad chest, stubborn nature. He was also full of mischief and if there was one thing he bucked against the hardest it was rule and regulations. Even I knew the army was full of those.

It was like watching a tennis match in a way. John sitting there waiting for Mother to cave, Mother leaning her body further over the sink, as if she might crawl into that greasy, soapy water and get lost in it. Who would crack first?

John brought his heavy fist down on the table so hard it made the spoons jump. Momma and I jumped too. She dropped the skillet into the sink. I held my breath.

“So I guess you’re not even going to look at these papers, then?” John asked. His voice was irritated but I saw a little curl on one side of his mouth. He saw me watching him and his face changed completely.

I heard Momma sniff before she lifted the corner of her apron to her eyes. My stomach hurt wondering why she was crying. Was it because of John? Or because Daddy wasn’t here to help her deal with John anymore?

I looked back at my brother and imagined what it would be like if Daddy had been here. There would be no talk of leaving the army, that’s for sure. I might have been Daddy’s Little Girl, but I knew things were different for John. He had felt the harsh side of our father’s moods more than anyone and it always seemed my Mother was there to try to make up for those moods.

Right after Daddy had died, I had overheard Momma tell my Aunt Opal it was the tumor that made my father so angry at John. My aunt nearly choked on the blueberry pie she had been eating, but she tried to cover it up by taking a swig of sweet tea.

“Well, he loved him once,” Momma said sounding defensive. “It was only as John got older that it got harder.”

My aunt nodded. It was her patronizing nod, the one that was meant to be comforting but it always came off insincere.

“Albert wasn’t himself,” Opal said. “He had that…that….” She made a motion with her hand over her head.

“The neurosurgeon said the tumor almost sprouted through his skull.” Mother sobbed into a handkerchief.

That’s when I had started crying too and the two women shooed me out of the room so I wouldn’t hear any more of the horrible details about my father’s illness and death. But I was left on my own to imagine the pain my father had been through, and a child’s imagination can be worse than listening to the conversation of adults.

Back in the kitchen with Mother and John, I felt myself blinking back tears. I didn’t want to be discovered and sent out of the room by myself again. I pretended to be a statue and forced myself not to cry.

By now, Mother had fished the skillet out of the sink and she was drying it off. I caught her looking at John from the mirror above the sink. I could see in her eyes she was weighing what was best and I could tell from the way John sat up in his chair that he thought he was making headway with his case.

He looked back at Momma in the reflection of the mirror and his mouth made a smirk so quickly I’m pretty sure I was the only one to see it.

“Momma, did I tell you about the poor guy I had to sit with out in the desert?” John lit up another cigarette and took a deep drag. His fingers fiddled with the papers in front of him. “He was only one year older than me. We were doing maneuvers out in the desert. The sand blew in our faces every minute and it felt like needles piercing our skin.”

John looked back at Momma’s reflection. She wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was wiping down the countertops. Her brow was furrowed with forced concentration.

“The kid had a fever I think,” John continued. “He was just so out of it those last few days. Maybe he had a heat stroke. I tried to contact the sergeant with my walkie-talkie, but I couldn’t reach him.”

John looked over at me then. He flashed a grinchy grin and then he went on with his story. I jumped because I didn’t think he knew I was there.

“And then some knucklehead cut him right in half with a tank! Can you imagine? His intestines were sprawled out everywhere! All I could do was light a cigarette for him and help him smoke his last one. He died right out there in the sand.”

Without meaning to, I squeaked. It was all too gruesome to imagine. There was a look in John’s eyes that told me he was making up the whole thing, but the way he told the story made me believe him.

“John!” My mother spun around and stared at him for the first time since the conversation started. “Your sister is eight years old. Don’t you think she has seen enough horror for awhile?”

John’s eyes glittered with mischief and I knew his story wasn’t over yet. I wanted so badly to close my ears, but if I did that I’d prove I wasn’t ready to be in the room with the adults and I’d be sent away again. I sat stock still and looked at my brother with pleading eyes.

“Just imagine,” John said, his voice low and conniving, “I was asleep just a few feet away when it happened. It could just as easily have been me cut in half and bleeding to death in the desert.”

I looked away from John then. I couldn’t take it anymore but I knew better than to jump up and run to Mother. I couldn’t risk being sent to my room now.

Mother closed her eyes. Big tears rolled out of her eyes.

“That poor boy,” she said. She turned back to the sink and wiped her eyes. “Somewhere his mother is crying. So senseless.”

John smiled. I couldn’t believe he could smile after telling such a terrible story. And poor Momma. It upset her so much. John had a way of doing that whenever he was around.

“Momma, look,” John said. His voice was calm now and easy, like someone soothing a wild horse. “None of this army stuff is going to help me. How can making my bed perfectly and shining my shoes until my face shines in them make any difference to anybody?”

Momma shook her head and sighed. It looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. She seemed so tired.

John stood up. He stubbed out his cigarette and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“I’m going out for awhile,” he said. He slid the papers he wanted Momma to sign over to her side of the table. Without another word, he walked out the door and into the night to who knows where.

The quiet that followed was almost too loud. John’s large presence—and his horrible stories—still rang in my ears. I was relieved when Mother took notice of me.

“Go get your bath, Karen,” she said. “It’s time for you to get ready for bed.”


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

The Weight of Worry

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head and sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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


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

No Return Until the Fruit Flies Die

By Karen Brode

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Hazel! Get up and let me in!”

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel walked to the chair opposite and sat down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Even a Sister Has Her Limits

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleo was already snoring. Opal rolled her eyes.

“Of course she’s sleeping,” she whispered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sneezed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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