You’ll Never Believe What Laurie Did

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel nodded, waiting for the conspiratorial news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of an Opal

By Karen Brode

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


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.

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. 

Even a Sister Has Her Limits

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleo was already snoring. Opal rolled her eyes.

“Of course she’s sleeping,” she whispered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sneezed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister, Thy Name is Soot

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

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

The Duties of a Sister

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s better,” she said.

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

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

“Cleo,” she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank goodness,” she said out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Opal! You made it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To Be Continued.)

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

Confronting Pearl

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

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

“Front porch! Now!” I whisper-yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

My mother did not allow me to ride my bicycle around the block like the other children my age. I could only ride up and down Elm Street so that if she looked out the window at any given time, she would be able to see me.

She worried—a lot. And it was my job not to worry her. It seemed to me that I had to be good to make up for my brother and all of his shenanigans. So, I didn’t push limits and I kept to just the one street.

Up on the corner of my street was a small, two-bedroom house. I knew it had two bedrooms because I heard Mrs. Harris, one of our neighbors, whispering to my mother about it. Seeing that our house just had my mom and me, two bedrooms seemed plenty, but hearing how Mrs. Harris talked, I got the impression that meant it was extra small.

The size took on new meaning when a family of five moved into that house over the winter. The house was a rental, so people were moving into and out of it all the time. This time, the Higgins family moved in. Nobody knew about it until the weather got warmer and we started venturing out of our houses again—and, boy did Mrs. Harris and all the other neighbors have something to say then.

“Their lawn is just Johnson grass and weeds and dirt!” She said, emphasizing the last word as if it was the definition of everything she thought about that family.

“It’s just embarrassing,” she said. “The rest of us keep our lawns manicured. Why can’t they?”

It was true. Up and down the street I rode my bike past lawns that were bright green and precision-cut to two inches.

The house where the Higgins family lived, though, had no flowerbeds, no shrubbery, not even a tree. No matter how many people lived there, it always had the look of an abandoned house.

Mr. Higgins was a taxi driver but he often went days when no one needed a taxi ride. It was hard to tell what he was really like because he never spoke. He may have talked inside his house to Mrs. Higgins or the children, but he never spoke to or even looked at any of the neighbors.

He and Mrs. Higgins had three children and another was on the way. Now that I knew how many bedrooms their house had, I did wonder how they all fit in there. Did all the kids sleep in one bedroom? And where would the baby go when it was born? Truth was, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of such a large family in the tiny house. I wouldn’t have felt alone in their house. Maybe I could’ve just immersed myself into the family and not let things worry me so much.

The oldest child was Margaret. She was in third grade, two grades below me. People said she could’ve been very pretty, but her teeth were coming in crooked. These same people would say that there was something about her that set her apart.

“You can just look at her,” said the Mr. Harris. “She’s gonna live on handouts and charity the rest of her life.”

Margaret was often put in charge of her mentally challenged brother, Junior. She did everything for him that he couldn’t do because Mrs. Higgins already had her hands full with the littlest child, Waynie. When her mother deemed it necessary, Margaret was even pulled out of school to help out.

“What on earth is she going to do when she gives birth to that forth?” My mother asked one night when we sat on the porch together and listened to Mrs. Higgins yelling at her kids. We lived half a block away and could make out every word. I felt bad for Margaret.

At school, Margaret’s life wasn’t a picnic either. Kids made fun of her clothes and bullied her about how poor she was. I felt bad for not sticking up for her, but I wasn’t socially secure enough to stand up to anybody.

What impressed me was how she had a way of flipping her black hair. It made it look like she could care less what those other kids thought. A part of me wished I had hair like that to flip in just that way. But then, I wasn’t bullied like she was and I was glad not to be.

No matter where I went—school, home, or church—the Higgins family was the talk on everyone’s lips. Mrs. Green, one of the ladies from our church, stopped by our house one day after dropping off some donated groceries to the Higgins family. She was a florid-faced woman whose mouth was always set in a tight purse no matter what she did. When she delivered groceries to our neighbors, though, her mouth got so tight we thought it might pop right off.

“You would not believe the state of that house,” Mrs. Green said. Her nose scrunched up like she smelled something bad. “She had the audacity to see my visit as a social call.”

Mrs. Green wiped her hands on a handkerchief she had been carrying since she arrived at our door. She seemed to think she was dirty or something, but her dress was perfectly pressed and her heels were the shiniest I had ever seen.

“The smell was horrific,” she said, her nostrils flaring this time, as if trying to air them out. “You could smell it from my car.” She looked out the open door to her late-model Buick LeSabre. “I hope it didn’t permeate my car!”

“Well, was she happy about the donations we took up for her family?” my mother asked. I remembered then that we had taken some canned peaches and fruit cocktail to church with hopes Margaret might get to enjoy them.

Mrs. Green nodded. “You’d think we gave them caviar and champagne,” she said in a whisper, as if saying the word champagne was as much a sin as drinking it.

“I just do not know how that woman does it. There’s not a spot in the house to sit that isn’t covered in something.” Mrs. Green shivered. “To be polite, I pulled up an old wooden chair that seemed cleaner than the other things and watched her go through all the items like it was Christmas day.”

I wasn’t sure how to interpret Mrs. Green’s snobbery. On the one hand, she had been nice to deliver those things to the Higgins family, but the way she spoke about them was the way other people talked about cockroaches and that seemed kind of mean. It was very confusing. I didn’t understand why she cared about giving a poor family groceries if she thought they were so disgusting.

I won’t say it was easy being neighbors with the Higgins family. There were a couple of times that I rode my bike past their house and that’s what ultimately drove me away from any previous longings for a larger family in a small house and long black hair to toss in the face of bullies.

Throughout the summer, the family sat together on any given evening on the porch. I’m not sure what they did there other than what all the other families were doing—watching the kids play and ride their bikes, waving to the passing cars and pedestrians.

Since I only rode my bike up and down our street, I saw them often. One time I ventured to wave and say hi to Margaret. She looked down and half-waved back.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew she didn’t have a bike of her own and I had noticed she watched all the kids riding around the neighborhood.

I pulled over to the side and slid off the seat, straddling the lowered center bar of my bike.

“Wanna ride my bike for a while?” I asked her.

Margaret’s eyes lit up for only a second and then she looked over at her mom. Mrs. Higgins didn’t look at me or say a word but she shook her head slowly no. Margaret looked down at her hands and shook her head too.

I didn’t ask again. Based on what I had heard the adults on the block say, it did seem as if Mrs. Higgins wanted her children to understand early on that there would be no luxuries, no extras, and not to ever get their hopes up.

Later that summer, I took my bike out after dinner and, when I went to make the turn back down Elm Street, Mrs. Higgins called out to me.

“Don’t you get tired of riding that bike up and down the one street?”

After my previous experience, I was a little shy about talking with her, but being the child I was, I rode my bicycle into their yard and in a low voice explained how my mother worried more than she should.

“She doesn’t want me riding my bike where she can’t see me and I try not to worry her.”

Mrs. Higgins held her head up and looked down at me but she didn’t say anything. It reminded me of the way Mrs. Green looked when she talked about Mrs. Higgins.

Just then, Junior said something that I could not understand.

“He wants to know if he can ride your bike,” Margaret said in a monotone voice.

Mrs. Higgins turned her disapproval on Junior and said in a voice far louder than necessary, “Why on earth would you think you could ride a bike, Junior Higgins?”

“I…I don’t mind,” I said, getting off my bike to roll it over to him.

“Don’t you come around here with that shiny new bicycle trying to make us feel poorer than we are, young lady!” Mrs. Higgins yelled so loud I was sure everyone could hear her. “You get on out of our yard now! We don’t need people like you trying to make us feel worse!”

I was so stunned that all I could do was stand there and stare back for a minute. I know I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I trembled while I backed my bicycle out of their yard and rode back down the street toward my house.

I vowed to myself after that to never to ride my bike up the street by their house again. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d made my vow that I went from having just the one street to ride on to having half a block.

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.

A Love That Endures

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How old are you now?” he asked.

“Ten,” I said.

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

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

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

He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why were you embarrassed?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother nodded.

“That’s my brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

It seemed like we had been waiting hours for my Aunt Opal to get ready to go. For a while, I had paced around the living room and kitchen like my mother. She spent the time cleaning up here and tidying there. Every now and then, she’d look down at her watch and frown. There were two little lines in between her eyebrows that were only visible when Aunt Opal visited. On this day, they etched more deeply with every minute that passed.

Finally, I got tired of standing around, so I flopped into an upholstered chair in the living room and closed my eyes. My stomach growled.

Mother gave me an apologetic look and hollered from the hallway, “Cleo is waiting for us, Opal! She’s probably got lunch on the table by now.”

Opal swung open the door and swished out of the bathroom. “Keep your skirt on, Hazel,” she said. “It’s not like Cleo’s gonna go hungry.”

Opal ambled down the hall. Her large hips curved out from her thin upper half, giving the impression that she had been sewn together from the parts of two different body types. If anyone was going to pull it off, though, it was my Aunt Opal.

All my life I had heard about how she had been the beautiful one in the family. It seemed that, even now, even though age had settled into her features and her hair had started to thin, she wasn’t going to give up on that title. That explained the expensive night cream and why she brushed her hair 100 strokes everyday, but as a ten-year-old girl with a growling stomach, I had a hard time understanding why somebody would need so long to get ready for lunch.

After what seemed like another eternity, we finally got in the car. Mother drove, I sat in back, and Opal settled into the passenger seat. The first thing she did was pull the windshield visor down to look at herself in the mirror. I had to keep from rolling my eyes at this. Hadn’t she just been doing that in the bathroom?

She grinned up into the mirror and examined her front-most teeth. “Lately, this lipstick’s been rubbing off on my teeth,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. I try to look my best and then things like this happen.”

She took her index finger and rubbed at the flakes of rose pink lipstick that swam along her teeth.

As Mother moved the car out of the driveway, Opal snapped the mirror closed and leaned back in her seat.

“I’m sure glad Neal won’t be there,” she said with an air of relief. “It was lucky for Cleo that he went quickly and didn’t linger.”

I felt the car jerk a little and looked over at Mother. Even from where I sat, I could tell she was angry. Her ears turned a little pink and her grip on the steering wheel tightented.

“How could you say that?” she asked. “Cleo is our sister. She loved Neal so much.”

“Well, it’s the truth,” Opal said. “That Neal was an odd duck. He just glared and glared. Never said a word.” She looked over at mother and made her eyes wide in a crazy stare.

Mother had always taught me to respect the dead, even if we didn’t like them when they were alive. I looked around the car, feeling uneasy about what it might mean for my aunt to talk this way about my dead uncle. It seemed to me like she was asking for trouble.

“Whether he was odd or not doesn’t matter,” Mother said after a moment. “Cleo loved him. She misses him and here you are going to lunch at her house happy about his death.”

“Oh good grief. Give me a little credit. I’m not going to say anything. Mother taught me manners, too!”

I could tell from my mother’s silence she was thinking the same thing I was—if Opal had manners, why didn’t she use them all the time?

“I never had one conversation with Neal,” Opal continued. “Lord knows, I tried! What kind of conversation can you have with someone who doesn’t talk back?”

The lines between my mother’s eyebrows deepened even more and her mouth tightened to a puckered line.

“So you’re mad at me now,” Opal said. “Just because I said how I felt about Neal? It’s not like you adored him. We both know how controlling he was. She couldn’t say a word without his permission and you know how much she loves to talk.”

Mother stayed quiet. She had always told me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all and I could tell she was doing her best to say something nice.

Opal seemed to get the hint. She stared out her passenger window and was blessedly quiet for a little while.

When she turned from the window, though, she started back up. “You remember that he lived with his mother, don’t you? What kind of grown man lives with his mother?”

“Opal, you need to stop thinking about anyone but yourself,” my mother finally said. “You are the only person in this world that you can control.”

Opal’s head turned so fast to face Mother, I thought it might snap off. Her face was disbelief and surprise.

“Hazel, I have never in my life tried to control anyone!” She shifted in her seat a little and wiped off some imaginary dust particles from her dress. “Sure, I’ve tried to make helpful suggestions, but that’s not the same as controlling people.”

She pulled the mirror open again and then shut it as if she had had an epiphany.

“Let’s just face it, Cleo was not pretty, not terribly smart, and she towered over most of the boys. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting her down. I’m simply saying what happened. By the time Neal came around, she was 18 and had never had a real boyfriend. If a few more months had gone by, she would have been declared a spinster. I mean, let’s just call a spade a spade. She was desperate.”

“Opal, Cleo has had a relatively happy life,” Mother said. “Just keep your opinions to yourself.”

“I’m a solid citizen of the United States,” Opal said. “I would like to know when my freedom of speech was taken away.”

Mother sighed. I knew that sigh. It was the one that meant she felt helpless to do or say more. Her next words were quiet, tired. “Just try to be nice, please.”

“I am the nicest person in the world,” my aunt said. But for just a moment, when she turned and looked out the window, I thought I saw doubt creep across her face.

We had gone several more blocks before Opal turned to face my mother. “Do you know that Cleo didn’t even know how to spell her second child’s name when she gave birth? Anybody in their right mind would have wondered or asked someone how the name Juanelle was spelled, but she obviously didn’t know or care because I saw the birth certificate. She had written it with a W, like the way it’s pronounced. But that’s not how you spell that name! I wanted to say something to her, but I decided to be nice. I didn’t want to cause trouble.”

My mother’s face was weary. I knew she had hoped this would be a happy occasion for Cleo to see her sister. She had been so lonely after Uncle Neal had died. She seemed to be rethinking the value in having Opal there as a way to boost Cleo’s morale.

“Opal,” she said. “Let’s think happy thoughts. Cleo needs us to brighten her day, not bring her down more.”

Opal blinked at Mother a few times and then she sat up straight, as if a jolt of electricity had come through the bottom of her seat.

“Oh, Hazel,” she said. “I just remembered what it was I have been wanting to tell you.”

Mother blinked at my aunt and then turned her eyes back to the road. The shift in tone seemed to surprise both of us. There was something in Opal’s urgency that made me lean forward and listen harder.

“You’re never going to guess,” she continued. “What is the strangest information you could hear about our sister Jewel?”

Opal and Jewel both lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They usually traveled together to visit the family, but on this occasion, Opal came alone because Jewel had to work. I can remember Mother’s disappointment in learning that her other sister couldn’t come. The truth was, Mother and Jewel were the best of friends and Opal was much more difficult to deal with when Jewel wasn’t there as a buffer.

Mother smiled. “I know she isn’t pregnant!”

“No, but it’s almost as bad,” Opal said. “She’s met someone at church.”

“That’s not a bad thing, I don’t think,” Mother said.

“His name is Tommy,” Opal continued. “What grown man calls himself Tommy?” Her smile spread across her face, but it wasn’t the kind of smile somebody gets when they’re happy for someone. It’s the kind of smile my aunt got when she had gossip to share. It was always mean gossip, too, and wasn’t something I liked that much. I turned to look out the window and forget about the conversation, but my aunt had a way of talking that was hard to ignore.

“Well, you know Jewel isn’t classically beautiful like I am, but she has a certain sweetness of spirit. He tried to sit by me at first, but I didn’t want some old guy hanging around, so I moved as far away as I could just as soon as he sat down. But our Jewel is so gullible. He just had to smile at her once and she smiled back. Needless to say, they’ve been sitting together in church for almost a month and he takes her out for dinner all the time.”

I didn’t know why it would be bad for my aunt to sit with a man from church, so I looked over at Mother. She seemed genuinely interested, if not outright concerned for Aunt Jewel.

“Where did he come from?” she asked. “Has she met any of the rest of his family?”

“No,” Aunt Opal said. Her eyes were wide with conspiracy. “Conveniently, they all seem to be dead. Our sister is acting like a teenager. She keeps asking me which dress she should wear to go out with him for supper or picnics on Saturdays.” Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed a finger at the curls along her temple. “It’s almost more than I can stand, to tell the truth.”

She was quiet for a breath or two, but Mother didn’t say anything, so she continued.

“The other church people are just horrified. Althea Morgan took an instant dislike to him, but I think it’s only because he didn’t try to take her out. I guess my standards are just too high. I’ll never find another Lloyd.”

She smiled over at Mother and then said, “You’ll get to see for yourself. He’s coming with Jewel next month when she comes to visit you.”

Mother gasped. “I hope you told Jewel that a man will not be sleeping under my roof under any circumstances. I have a little girl to think about.” Her eyes flashed up to the rearview mirror and we made eye contact. I suddenly had a feeling of dread at meeting this Tommy person. What if bad people did go to church?

Opal must have gotten the reaction she was looking for. She grinned from ear to ear. Her tone was more serious, though, when she said, “I’m just trying to give you some advanced warning. I don’t like to see people blind-sided.”

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

Finally, we arrived at Aunt Cleo’s house. I couldn’t have been more ready to eat and be rid of some of these conversations about terrible men. I loved Aunt Cleo. She had the most interesting collection of things on her front porch that were constantly for sale. If I hadn’t been starving, I would have stopped to look at all the toys and books she had out there. It was always changing. I never knew where she got the stuff she sold, but for a kid, it was fascinating to look through.

I could see that Aunt Opal didn’t agree, though. She canned the porch and then raised her eyebrows at my mother. Mother glared back at her with her warning eyes and anything my aunt might have said disappeared behind haughty eyes.

When we went into the living room, though, Opal couldn’t hide her disgust of all the piles of clothes and stacks of books and boxes filled with knickknacks.

After Cleo gave us all hugs, my aunt seemed apologetic when she said, “This is my inventory that I haven’t priced yet.” She reached to the couch and moved a large Raggedy Ann doll from the couch. “I’m going to try to get it priced and out on the front porch for tomorrow. If you see anything you want, Opal, I might could give you a special price.” She smiled warmly.

Opal pursed her lips, but my aunt didn’t seem to notice. She laid the doll down on a box filled with other toys and then picked up a pair of blue clip-on earrings.

“These would look so pretty on you, Opal. I know for a fact that a teacher here in town has a pair just like these.”

Opal shuddered and her face went pale. The earrings were cut glass and garish, even to me.

“No…” Opal started. Her voice sounded harsh. Then, more softly, “No, thank you. I don’t need any earrings.” Beneath the tightness of her voice, I heard the real meaning of her words. She didn’t want to wear earrings she thought that had been dug out of someone’s trash.

Aunt Cleo seemed undeterred, though. She went to another cardboard box and dug into it.

“I was saving this back for you, Opal, if you want it.” She pulled out what at first looked like a colorful caftan. “I know you are always looking for something comfortable to wear.”

We all leaned closer in to look at it. The caftan was a huge piece of fabric that had been folded over and had a neck hole cut in it.

“I have nice clothes, Cleo” Opal said sounding offended. “I wouldn’t ever wear something like that. In fact, I don’t know any kind of woman who would wear something like that.”

Cleo took a step back from her sister and looked at the cloth as if seeing it for the first time. The sides of her mouth dipped down. She seemed embarrassed and sad at the same time.

Before she could say anything, though, Mother stepped forward and offered her the bowl of beans she had brought for lunch. Aunt Cleo’s sadness brightened for a moment, but not to the level of excitement she had had when we first arrived.

She took the beans, then, and led us through the house, making some kind of small talk about the weather.

In the dining room, Opal noticed Cleo’s paint-by-number painting sitting on an easel.

Cleo had spent much of the summer working on the painting. It was called Pinkie and Blue Boy. If anyone asked her about them she was glad to tell people that they weren’t meant to be a pair, and were originally painted by two different artists. But like the rest of the artistic community, Cleo thought they were meant to be together.

When Cleo was painting she rarely looked up even to talk to people. There were such tiny spaces that needed to be filled in with a color, and then she had to wait for the oil paint to dry. She worked arduously for hours at a time on her new project.

Neal had only died a few months before, and Cleo’s grief was still fresh. My mother’s grief over the loss of my father had been plowed under more urgent matters years ago, but she knew what Cleo was going through. She was used to walking into a room and seeing only furniture, lamps, and a television where people used to laugh and talk. She knew the darkness of a day by herself in a house when no one called or came by.

So, Cleo had her painting of Pinkie and Blueboy. She had Pinkie over half done, but had not yet started on Blueboy. When Opal picked up the box the painting had come in, she looked at my mother and pointed to the writing on the box. “Appropriate for ages 8-12.”

My mother ignored her and kept following Cleo into the kitchen. Mother instructed me to set the table while she put the water on to boil for the macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, Aunt Opal walked around with flared nostrils, as if everything had a stench to it that was hard to place.

Sitting on the counter was a package of ground meat. Opal traced a finger over the sticker that read “Reduced for Quick Sale” and made a face. She tried to get my mother’s attention, but she was too busy helping get lunch prepared. I dared not make eye contact with Aunt Opal. I did not want to be seen in league with her opinions.

Finally, it was time to eat and Cleo asked Opal to say the blessing. For the first time ever, I heard my aunt falter. And then I realized she didn’t say a word about the food. Usually, when adults said grace, they were thankful for the food we were about to eat, but Aunt Opal left that part out.

It wasn’t until she kicked my mother under the table that things became clearer.

“Why on earth did you just kick me?” my mother asked.

Opal glared, as if Mother had revealed a secret she wasn’t supposed to tell.

“I was only trying to save your life,” she hissed. “Did you see that package of ground beef? It was warm and it was reduced for quick sale! You’d think you’d be grateful to me for trying to warn you about it!”

Cleo stood up and said, “I bought that meat at Kroger this morning! There is not a thing wrong with it!”

Opal stood up then too and threw her napkin on the table. Her face had the look of someone who had bitten into a lemon. “Think what you want, but I wouldn’t eat anything from this kitchen if you paid me to.”

Cleo drew herself up, shoulders back. When she stood like that, she was right at six feet tall. Any timidity she had had before completely dissolved. She was angry. “Nothing would be good enough for you, Opal.” She held out a hand which pointed to the front of the house. “So you can just leave.”

I looked over at Mother. She had her head in her hands and I could tell a migraine was coming on. I silently counted on my fingers how many more days until Aunt Opal left. No matter how long it was, it seemed like an eternity.

Opal stomped back through the house and Cleo followed behind. Opal picked up the caftan and held it before her sister. “Look at this. You think I want some prostitute’s cast off clothing? Even if I did, I wouldn’t buy it from your porch sale!”

Mother slid out from the table and motioned for me to join her. I had only gotten a couple of bites of macaroni and cheese, so I was still hungry. But I did as I was told, turning back only briefly to take in the table of food. I couldn’t see what Aunt Opal did. The food looked delicious.

By the time we got to the living room, Opal was in the car.

Mother sighed. “I had hoped we could have a nice visit,” she said, her voice sad and frail.

Cleo patted her on the arm and I remember thinking it odd that Cleo was comforting my mother after all the things Opal had said. “Don’t worry, Hazel. I’ve been dealing with Opal all my life. I can take care of myself.”

Before we got to the door, she continued, “You’re the one I feel sorry for. You’ve got to deal with her for several more days.”

Mother smiled sadly and nodded. “Sure wish Jewel had come. She always seems to know what to do.”

We were silent as we walked to the car, but as soon as we had the car doors open, Aunt Cleo yelled from her front porch, “Next time you come over Hazel, don’t bring that buffoon with you!”

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.