Spirits In The Wind

By Karen Brode

“Karen,” said the strained voice on the other end of the line. “I need to see you.”

I knew the voice well. It was my brother, John, but the urgency and fear in his voice made me shudder. Before I said anything, my thoughts immediately jumped to the worst conclusions—cancer, accident, death.

“What is it?” I asked. “Are you okay? How’s Jan? Is she hurt?”

“It’s nothing like that,” he said, resuming his usual gruff tone. “It’s…it’s something I can’t talk about on the phone.”

I could almost feel him looking around to see if someone was watching. Now I wondered if he had committed some horrid crime. My hands broke out into a sweat and the earpiece of the phone receiver stuck to my ear from perspiration.

“What did you do, John?” I asked. My voice trembled imagining what he had done.

“Nothing!” he said. “I just…it’s just…I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

I paced a hole in the floor in the time it took my brother to get to my house. When he banged on the door, I jumped. By then, I was a complete wreck. I had told myself that I would demand him to tell me what had happened before letting him in my house. If he had committed a crime, he could be endangering me or my husband by making us accessories. And I didn’t want to go to jail.

But when I opened the door, the shell of my brother stood before me. His face was pale and clammy. I couldn’t utter a single word looking at him.

He didn’t wait for an invitation, either. He pushed past me into the living room and sat down in the green chair he always favored when he visited. He leaned his head back and let out a long sigh.

“They were all in that wind,” he said.

“What wind?” I asked. “Who?” I was at a complete loss where he was going with this.

“Look outside!” he said.

I pulled the curtain from the picture window that looked out onto the street.

“I don’t see any wind,” I said. I was beginning to think maybe John had lost it. Or maybe he was on something?

“Exactly,” he said. “And what month is it?”

“John, this is ridiculous. Just tell me what’s going on.”

He bolted up in his chair and said, “It’s August!”

I just stared at him. I didn’t know where this was going and why he was so upset.

“August in North Texas isn’t exactly known for its cold wind, is it?” He leaned back in the chair as if he had just clarified everything.

“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” I said.

He nodded and closed his eyes.

“You know that property I bought from you?” he asked.

I nodded, but didn’t say anything.

How could I forget? It was my share of the old homestead our grandparents had left us in their wills. And John had essentially badgered me out of my share for a price I would never have taken from anyone else. He knew no one wanted to fight with him. He was so blustery and his threats seemed real when he made them. So, everyone in the family just gave in before things got ugly, even if it meant giving up a piece of good land at a bad price.

My silence made him open his eyes and he glared at me, thinking I hadn’t answered his question.

“Yes, John, I know the property you bought.”

“Our grandparents’ homestead,” he said, as if I needed reminding.

“Yes.”

“Well, did you know that the old home place burned last night?”

“I heard something about it, yes,” I said. I had also heard that John had arranged for the house to be burned down. It was just too coincidental that the house burned almost immediately after he assumed ownership. It seemed clear to me that he didn’t want the house. He wanted the proceeds from the insurance company.

John leaned forward in his chair. “The whole place is gone,” he said. “All those family times we had…now all that’s left is a pile of smoldering ashes and the old chimney.”

His voice shook a little when he talked.

“I thought I was going to cry when I saw it,” he continued. I noticed his hands were shaking when he lowered his head and covered his eyes with them.

I pictured it as he described, a chimney just standing there like a sentinel in the remains of the house. I remembered when they had built a sidewalk from the front porch steps to the road, and I thought of what the sidewalk must look like now, a sidewalk to nowhere. I supposed the storm cellar was still there, also. I could picture in my mind how desolate it must look.

John had raised his head and shook out a cigarette from his pack. He looked around for an ashtray.

“I don’t have one.” I reminded him.

He sat with the cigarette between his fingers and his eyes seemed to lose focus, like they were looking at something distant, some memory.

“When I drove up in front of what was left of the house,” he said, “I couldn’t believe it! This was the house they loved.”

I nodded. “They had loved that home,” I said.

“I cried, Karen!” He seemed almost in tears now, which was enough of a shock by itself. “I don’t think I can go back down there ever again!”

“I might go down there later,” I told him, just trying to calm him down. I had no desire to see the way it looked now, but I didn’t want him to know that, so I added, “I don’t want to see it right now, though.”

John fell back against the back of the chair and looked up at the ceiling.

“I got out of the car,” he went on. His voice sounded dry. “I stood there at the edge of the road, but I couldn’t make myself go any closer.”

“I understand all this, John, but you seemed urgent on the phone. Was it about the fire?”

He turned his head and looked at me. “Then the wind came.”

“What wind?” I was starting to get impatient.

He turned his face away from me. He was crying. He was never one to show emotion, at least nothing like fear or sadness. I thought about how our mother used to fret over the fact that he wasn’t like other kids. His emotions were so buried inside him—all except anger. He didn’t want the kind of hugs and cuddles I adored from our mother. And he definitely didn’t care if anyone approved of him—not like me. It upset me terribly if our mother was mad at me. John, though, he would do the most horrible things and never apologize for them. So, to see him crying now worried me.

I waited for him to answer, but he didn’t right away. He wouldn’t look at me. He stood up, walked to the window, and looked outside. He seemed to be checking if someone was coming for him.

Finally, he dropped the curtain and looked over at me. The tears had all but dried from his eyes.

“That wind came out of nowhere,” he said. “It was cold and it completely surrounded me.” He lifted his arms out and made a motion to demonstrate how the wind circled around him.

“It enveloped me and then,” he snapped his fingers. “As fast as it had come, it was gone.”

He leaned in closer and said in a low voice, “Karen I think they were all in that wind.”

I blinked back at him and tried not to smile. What he said sounded crazy.

“You think Granddaddy and Grandmother were in the wind?” I managed to keep the giggles from bubbling to my mouth.

The look John gave me made me hiccup. He was completely serious, almost terrified.

“All of them, Karen. Every last one of them who had lived and loved in that house. They were all in that wind.”

I took a deep breath. It was only wind, I thought. As nervous as John was making me, I reminded myself that at least he hadn’t robbed a bank or killed somebody. It was just the wind.

But John wasn’t finished.

“I’m telling you, it wasn’t just a normal wind,” he said. “There were presences in that wind. And…and they are all mad at me!” He looked away from me, back outside, and whispered, “They think I am a fool.”

First Summer Home

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________

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

John’s Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

In the summer of 2005, my brother John, moved back to Grayson County in Texas where we had grown up. He was wrinkled and worn, and for the first time, I noticed that he seemed tired. I tried not to think about all the situations that had driven us apart for so long. The list was endless, and I didn’t have a lot of fight left in me.

The truth too was, no matter what had happened, I had missed him. I often wondered how it could be possible to detest and love someone at the same time. But I did. And I sensed that he wanted to try to be a family again, so I gave it my best shot.

He had been gone for ten years, living in Las Vegas. I wondered how he could live in the entertainment capital of the world one day, and then the next day live in Pottsboro, Texas, the epitome of a tiny Texas town with only one red light.

He had only been back for a week when my husband Gary and I met up with him and his new wife, Jan, at a Mexican restuarant for supper. I hoped and prayed that things would go well, that maybe we could salvage some kind of relationship from the ruins.

He looked old and so small compared to the larger than life man I had known just ten years before. There were no black hairs left on his head, just gray and white. Inside, though, he was still John. He regaled us with some of his favorite stories during supper. They were stories I had heard before, but I wanted to hear them again. I hung onto his words as he wove his stories and I watched the cigarette smoke rising from his mouth.

“I was working at an air conditioning and heating place in Fredericksburg,” he said. “We went out early in the mornings to install new units. That day, we had just climbed up into the attic of a house  when I heard a man’s voice down below asking us how things were going.”

“Well, what was I supposed to say? That it was as cool as an April morning? Hell no. I looked down toward the voice and simply told him the truth–it was hotter ‘n hell up there.”

“You actually said that?” I asked, laughing. I knew this story. I knew he had actually said it, but it had been so long since we had had times like these that I relished hearing it again.

John nodded. “Sure did. And wouldn’t you know, when I looked down through the ceiling air vent, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson opening his morning mail.”

I laughed again. “Did he say anything back? Get onto you or something?”

“Naw. He just stared down at his mail and smiled.”

Sometimes, I wondered how true any of these stories were, but I didn’t really care. It really made them more exciting and interesting.

John had always been more at home in the world than most people I knew. Even as his old age crept up behind him, he still had the confidence and demeanor of the handsome young man he had once been. He even flirted with the waitresses at the restaurant and it didn’t seem to surprise him a bit when the young girls flirted back.

From about the time his feet touched the green grass of Texas, John started talking about having a family reunion. I wasn’t against it exactly, but wasn’t exactly up to it either. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And if I couldn’t explain it to myself, I certainly couldn’t explain it to my brother.

So, soon he was calling me several times a week to go over his list of invitees.

He kept saying “Have I forgotten somebody?”

With every name he added to the list, I felt a deeper sense of dread. So the plans marched on and one day he told me he wanted to have the reunion in July, the hottest month in Texas.

July. Sometimes the entire month went by without a cloud in the sky. The month always made me think of Momma and the song we had sung at her graveside service, “Uncloudy Day.”

Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
Oh, they tell me of a home far away
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, the land of cloudless day
Oh, the land of an unclouded day
Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

Oh, they tell me of a home where my friends have gone
Oh, they tell me of that land far away
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day.

Months went by and John kept making plans. I tried to distance myself from all of it for a while. Something told me that he wanted me to cook all the food, just like our mother would have done when she was alive. I really didn’t want that kind of responsibility, so I kept the reunion conversations at arm’s length. Still, I didn’t want to walk into some kind of John-created chaos on the day of the reunion, so I got up the courage to ask him about it.

“Oh, I’m going to rent a boat and ferry people across the lake to the islands,” he said.

He sounded like a little kid, to be honest, and like most kids, he never really thought all his plans fully through. I felt panic rising in my chest. I still couldn’t explain why, but it was there.

“Then what?” I asked, hoping that might prompt more in-depth thought to his plans.

But he heard my worry and got irritated. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ll have fun no matter what we do.”

I sat there on the other end of the line wishing I could understand why I was so reluctant about all of this so I could explain it to him without him getting angry.

Maybe it was my age, I thought. Maybe I’m just getting too old for things like this. So I told him that.

He snorted. “You’re still just a kid,” he said. “You always will be.”

He had always felt like I had been shielded from life’s harsh realities.

I pictured Aunt Jane riding in a boat going across a large expanse of lake in 110 degree heat. Old people would be dropping like flies on that boat and John hadn’t thought about any way to keep them from overheating, keeping everybody hydrated. Did he expect me to come along and pick up the slack?

“You can’t worry about all that right now,” I heard him say into the phone. He had gone from irritated older brother to snaky salesman. “Just think of sitting under the shade of those big trees on the islands. How long’s it been since you played a good game of dominoes? Wouldn’t that be fun to sit outside with our family and play dominoes?”

The week before the family reunion, I felt as if something catastrophic was bearing down on me, and there was no getting out of the way. How could I have stopped it? I had rarely seen John this excited.

I comforted myself by thinking that maybe the world would end before it happened. Or maybe an asteroid would hit the earth and I wouldn’t have to worry about the family reunion. I tried to appear excited when John was around.

He had contacted every member of each side of our family that he could hunt down. He had asked me a thousand questions about people we hadn’t seen in decades.

“You think Clyde is still alive?” he’d ask.

I hadn’t thought about Clyde in a month of Sundays, so I just shrugged and said I didn’t know.

Each day leading up to the reunion was hotter and drier than the one before. No cloud graced the North Texas sky. I wouldn’t watch the weather forecast because it was always the same–sunny and hot! It was the same every summer–a high pressure ridge sat over us and any possible precipitation went around us.

A few days before the reunion, the phone rang. John’s voice was muted on the other end. He sounded tired and sad.

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think we are going to have that family reunion.”

“What?” I asked. I was glad I had been sitting down when he called because otherwise, you could have knocked me over with a feather. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s Tammy,” he said, talking about his oldest daughter. “She’s been taken to drug rehab in California.”

And that’s when I realized it. He had planned the whole thing for Tammy. She was the real reason he wanted to get the family together.

Never would I have wanted his daughter to have the problems she had and I certainly would never have wished for her problems to be the reason we couldn’t have a family reunion. But there was a part of me that was relieved.

Still, I couldn’t show my brother that. So, I commiserated with him and did my best to sound disappointed.

And then I said, “You know, John, we can have it another time.”

__________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX 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.

Family Reunion

By Karen Brode

Mother got into the driver’s seat of our car,  and Opal took the passenger seat.  Thankfully I had a quilt and a pillow in the backseat. I liked to watch the trees zoom past the back window. We had to drive 100 miles to get to Marble Falls.

It seemed odd to see my mother driving Opal around. My aunt usually commandeered any situation. But, in a burst of unusually rebellious energy, Mother had hurried to the car and got behind the wheel. That left Opal no choice but to sit in the front passenger seat.

I was proud of Mother for taking charge. It was something she rarely did.

We had only been in the car for about thirty minutes when my aunt began squirming.   Mother cut her eyes to watch each time she changed positions in her seat.

Finally, Opal said, “Hazel, I have to find a bathroom!”

Mother’s face blanched. “Oh no. You didn’t take your water pill this morning, did you?”

Aunt Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed her brow with a handkerchief. “You know I have to take that pill every morning! It’s prescribed by my doctor. I don’t have a choice.”

“Couldn’t you have waited to take it after we get there?” My mother’s rebelliousness petered out into a whisper.

Opal glared at her before grabbing her belly and sucking fast air through pinched lips. She seemed miserable.

Mother sighed and looked out the window. I noticed that her hands, placed always at “ten and two,” had a hold of the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles were white. I knew she had not wanted to go to this family reunion, but Opal had planned it and insisted we participate. She had spent the fall and winter contacting all of the relatives on their father’s side of the family.

Neither my mother nor my aunt had had much to do with Poppa’s side of the family. For one thing, there was Uncle Gerald. It was rumored that he had made a killing in the stock market early in his life and now lived in luxury. When Poppa was in the hospital, Gerald had visited a few times, but he always ended up embarrassing my mother in some way, like when he handed out five dollar bills to the nurses. She thought he, of all people, should be poor and miserable because he was morally bankrupt. She told me it didn’t matter how much money you had if you had no soul.

The one hope my mom had for the reunion was to see Aunt “Pet.” She had been Poppa’s favorite sister and had been with him in his hospital room as he died over the last year. My mother loved her.

We had been on the road for about 30 minutes when Mother pulled into a gas station with full service. She drove over the little tube that made a bell ring and the attendant came out to put gas in the car. He looked pretty tousled, like he hadn’t slept much the night before. There were dark circles under his eyes and he moved in slow motion to wash and wipe the windshield. When he squatted to the concrete to check the air pressure, I wasn’t sure he would be able to get back up again.

“Well, we’re out of Grayson County,” Mother said.

Opal swung her legs out of the car, but she couldn’t seem to lift herself off the seat. She made several heaving attempts, but all it did was make her sweaty.

“Karen, go help your aunt get out of the car!” said my Mother.

It was easier said than done, but after extreme effort, I managed to pull her to a standing position. She rocked back and forth a bit to catch her breath.

It was hard for my ten-year-old brain to wrap itself around my Aunt Opal’s figure. She was thin on top and wide, wide, wide at the hips. I tried not to stare when she came out of her bedroom at our house, but I just couldn’t understand it. When she walked down the hall, her whole body sort of swung to the left and then to the right. I never dared try to pass her in a hallway for fear of getting stuck to the wall on one side.

I marveled at her proportions–going from narrow up top to extra-wide in the middle, and tapering at the ankles and feet, until it looked like she might tip over should a strong wind blow by. I often wondered if she knew this about herself. I didn’t think she ever looked in a full-length mirror, and I couldn’t blame her. Perhaps this is why she always seemed very happy with her looks and confident of herself. She certainly didn’t have the personality of someone who had been beaten down by society for being fat.

In fact, she walked around unashamed in her bra and panties when she went to wash her face in the bathroom and get ready for the day. I just wondered if she special ordered her panties from somewhere. It looked like yards and yards of nylon had gone into making just one pair.

There were other things, too, that made me curious about my aunt. She never wore anything but Old Maine Trotter shoes. She was a religious woman–never cut her hair because she said the Bible had forbidden it. Her hair was long and, every morning, she braided it and wrapped it around her head a few times and held it in place with bobby pins. She could never recall the scriptures that forbid a woman cutting her hair, but she believed it and so I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a scripture about Old Maine Trotter shoes too.

My aunt wasn’t completely without vanity. In an impulsive moment, she had bought a wig that she thought might make her look more sophisticated and modern. Had she bought one that fit with her coloring and age, it might have made a little more sense. But it was platinum blonde and it made her look sallow and old. Mother made me promise not to say anything. She told me that if Opal wanted to wear the wig, we should just accept it, and not mention it.

Accept it we did, as we did with everything about Aunt Opal. She was a force to be reckoned with. And so, when it came time for her to use the restroom at the hole in the wall gas station, my mother and I exchanged glances knowing it was likely not going to end well.

“We ain’t got no ladies restroom,” said the attendant to my aunt when she asked for the key to the ladies room. “But you’re welcome to use the bathroom that everybody uses.”

My aunt frowned. She squared her shoulders and with a grim look, started toward the restroom.

It was worse than any of us could have expected. The toilet leaned precariously to the left and the sink had a trickle of orange rusty water drip, drip, dripping out of the faucet.   She looked around for paper covers for the toilet, but of course, there were none.

Finally, she turned and marched back to the car. “I can’t use the rest room here,” she said. “It’s awful. I feel so dirty just being in here. You’ll just have to stop somewhere else.”

So, we piled back in the car and continued down the road. Only a few minutes had passed–just long enough to watch my aunt start squirming again–when my mother said, “You know, there’s not a lot of traffic. You could just go in that field.”

Even from the back seat, I saw Opal roll her eyes like it was a ridiculous suggestion.

“Oh, you know that the minute I got started, there would be lots of traffic,” she said. But in less than a second a pang of pressure must have hit her because she blurted out, “Okay. Stop here, stop here. I’ll do it.”

I helped her out of the car again and watched her disappear into the trees. I wondered if she knew how bright her red dress stood out. Thankfully, no cars came by.

Five minutes passed before Mother started looking irritated.

“What on earth is she doing over there?”

I remained silent. I knew better than to try to guess what my aunt was doing.

Another few minutes passed, but still no Opal.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Mother. “I should probably go check on her.”

“Do I have to stay here?” I asked, a little nervous.

“Our things are in the car. It will just be a minute.”

It was another 15 minutes before they returned to the car. They didn’t look right, especially Opal. Her face was dirty and her glasses sat at an odd angle on her nose. Her wig had slid to one side of her head.

She got back in the car without a word and Mother told me that Opal had taken a tumble in the woods when she stepped on a large grape vine.

Opal sniffed from the front seat. She was crying.

Mother started the car and quietly moved back on the road.

Through her sniffs, my aunt finally spoke. “Hazel, would you let me out here in this next town? I can’t go to a family reunion looking like this, but you all keep going. There’s no reason for you and Karee not to go.”

If this had been a cartoon, I would have seen smoke coming out of my mother’s ears.

“No, Opal,” she said. “You planned this family reunion and you are going to enjoy seeing Poppa’s relatives today.”

That’s when Opal started sniffling in earnest. Between sobs, she said that she had always wanted Poppa’s side of the family to like her, but they didn’t. In fact, on bad days, she wondered if they made fun of her. I felt sorry for my aunt, but kept my head down focused on the Etch-a-Sketch I had brought along to pass the time.

“You know how they are,” said my aunt. “If they saw me like this, it would just make them think that they were right about me!”

Mother pulled the car over on the shoulder of the road and stopped. She knew her sister was right. It was also true that Opal did not look her best. No matter how much trouble she was and how much of a nuisance she could be, neither of us wanted to see her humiliated. Mother told Opal that they would stop for an early lunch in the next town and then turn around and go back home.

Opal would have to call the family from a pay phone to tell them that we couldn’t make it after all.

___________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX 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.

Asleep in Group Therapy

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


By Karen Brode

Every Tuesday afternoon we had group therapy. I dreaded it with all my heart.

At least it was better than individual therapy. There were other people there to fill in the silent places. People like Mrs. Travers who always wanted to tell her story over and over and over.

I had been in the loony bin for three months and I knew the whole story by heart. Any one of us in the group could have told it. Yet, for some reason, Dr. Henshaw let her tell it every time she wanted to. I wondered if I was the only person there who noticed this. I looked around but no one else seemed to notice we were hearing the same story every week.

Or maybe they were all just pretending. I learned early on that it was best to appear extremely stupid. To speak up with anything of intelligence might be interpreted as rebellious. It might lead to more medication, or worse, restraints.

So I sat there like the rest of them looking at the ceiling tile while Mrs. Travers dove into her story for the millionth time.

“They fired me!” she screamed. I jumped. I wasn’t expecting her to tell the story with such high volume. Sure, she always had a note of desperation in her voice, but this was a little different. I kept my eyes on the tiles above, but listened for any sign she might explode completely. 

“I gave my whole life to that company! When I started working there, my babies were little. I left both my babies in that baby prison so I could work and make our lives better!”

The first time I heard her mention baby prison, I had no idea what she meant. I learned later that she was talking about daycare.

“My babies had everything they wanted because of me! That horrible excuse for a father was only good at doing drugs and going to prison. I had to shoulder it all.”

She paused for a moment, almost panting. I dared a glance at her and saw that her eyes were wide. It was like she was reliving her life with her ex-husband. 

“He told me he was just barbecuing steaks. I couldn’t imagine why you’d barbecue inside the shed, but I never grilled anything in my life. When the shed went up in flames, he tore out of there and left the three of us to die in his fire.”

She squinted her eyes until tears came. “He was cooking meth, you know.” She shook her head. “No. Idiot. He wasn’t cooking meth. He was too stupid to cook anything. He just thought he could do it. Instead, he nearly cooked his whole family. Poor Joey and Donnie….”

I forgot the ceiling tiles and leaned forward toward Mrs. Travers. This was taking a little bit different turn from the weeks before. Normally she focused on the place she had worked for 35 years. She had been a bookkeeper at a roofing company. Everything had been great until they bought a computer and told her to keep records on it. She usually talked about how ridiculous she thought computers were and how she continued keeping books in the same way she always had, on paper. She didn’t think anybody at the company would notice or really care, as long as she got her work done. To this day she didn’t understand why she was fired.  

Nothing she said was funny, not even the fact that she had told her story so many hundreds of times before. Still, it never ceased to surprise me that she couldn’t understand why she had been fired from the roofing company. This woman had withstood so many things, but it was the firing that got her. She could never quite come to terms with it.   

All the sudden, her voice got even louder. She started rocking back and forth in her chair, wringing her hands. I looked over at Dr. Henshaw. His head was down, but I couldn’t tell if he was taking notes or sleeping. I hoped he wasn’t asleep because I didn’t think Mrs. Travers was going to make it through her story without some professional help.

“I got fired the year Donnie graduated from high school!” she continued. She stood up and paced the room. I clutched my arms to my chest, just in case she started throwing punches. “How was I supposed to buy him anything without a job? I couldn’t even make the payments on his braces!”

She walked around the room. Her eyes were wild. And was it me? Or did her hair look like it was standing on end?

“I didn’t care about my own teeth! My teeth were always in terrible shape.” She clenched her terrible teeth together and curled back her lips to show no one in particular just how horrible they were. There weren’t many left. “I was always glad when a tooth fell out because it saved me from having to pay a dentist! But they kept falling out!” She reached a finger up to her mouth and tapped on one or two. “I’m not sure how many I have left.”

Then her arms started flailing and her face went wild again. “Joey and Donnie’s father was in prison from the time they were little. They hardly remembered him. It was just me! All alone! I never had any help! And NO ONE CARED!”

I was getting seriously worried now. Her face was red and the veins at her temples were throbbing. It was then, too, that I realized Dr. Henshaw was asleep. How could he sleep during this? 

Mrs. Travers stopped talking. I looked over at her and saw she was staring at Dr. Henshaw. Her face was contorted like an angry bull. She leaned over the back of her empty chair and said, “Hey.”

She snapped her fingers and clapped her hands. “Not you, too,” she said in an eerily calm voice. “You don’t care either!”

She let out a crazy hyena scream and charged through the circle of chairs toward Dr. Henshaw. He woke up just as she slammed into him. His chair went backwards and his head hit the floor, knocking him unconscious. Mrs. Travers didn’t seem to notice that he was already out. She sat on top of him and punched him over and over.

“How dare you sleep through my story! What kind of doctor are you?” She cried and screamed at the same time. She was in a blind rage. Her whole body shook with anger. “You’re like all the rest of them! You don’t care!”

I’m not sure how long it was before the paramedics broke down the door. They pulled Mrs. Travers away and put her in a straight jacket. She fought valiantly, but there were more of them than there were of her. She kept screaming until they injected her with some sort of sedative.

The rest of us just sat there silently watching. It seemed no one wanted to be implicated in that moment of insanity. We were all curled up in different ways. Some had their feet up in their chairs with their arms around their legs. Others were crouched against the wall in a fetal position. I just sat there with my arms pulled to my chest, trying to pretend what was happening was absolutely normal. Even when the paramedics left to take Mrs. Travers away, I just sat there and looked at the bloodied, unconscious body of Dr. Henshaw. They were back soon enough with a stretcher to carry him out, but it was so strange to be left alone like that.

In the silence that followed, I wondered what we were supposed to do. I looked around the room and heard whimpers from different ones. Were we supposed to leave now? Were we supposed to wait? I never knew what I should do in that place.


Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX 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. 

Flashes of the Future or Crazy?

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


 

By Karen Brode

This was the part of the day I hated most of all. It was social time. I sat alone at a table in the corner. The top of it was covered in some sort of worn laminate that was supposed to look like wood grain. I smudged my finger into a worn spot, so bored I thought maybe I could make the spot bigger if I did it long enough. But then I stopped. Someone was watching, somebody who could make me take more pills. I didn’t need any more pills.

The worn spot on the table was just another reminder of the quality I was living in. I’d seen pictures of other places. Some of them even had real wood tables and chairs, but that would be too fancy here. This place was the bottom of the barrel cheap.

The walls were painted pale yellow. I wondered if it was that color so we’d stay calm. Or maybe so we’d chipper up somehow. It was hard to be chipper knowing I’d probably never see what the walls were made of on the outside. I was locked in and there was no way out. I’d already thought about escape on several occasions. There were too many nurses who probably knew what we were thinking before we did. They were too observant.

There weren’t any books to read. It would have helped me pass the time if there were books. I thought of my bookshelves back home. I once had whole walls lined with books I loved. I wondered what had happened to all those books, to all my things. A tear slipped out of my left eye. I wiped it away quickly so as not to appear vulnerable. That would be the last thing I’d need.

The radio crackled from a thunderstorm moving through. It grated my nerves a little, but at least it was some kind of distraction from the infernal boredom.

I scanned the room for the hundredth time, hoping I had somehow missed seeing a window before. But there were no windows so I couldn’t be certain whether there was a thunderstorm. It sounded like it.

I tuned my ear to what I thought was thunder. Between the scratchiness of the radio and all the other women making noises in the room, I couldn’t be certain. I wished I could just get a peek outside, just to be sure. A thunderstorm is exciting if nothing else. I would have felt better knowing if it was raining hard outside.

It was a mistake for me to be there, but there was no convincing the others of that. Most everyone in the room could appear normal for short periods. The first day I arrived, a blonde-haired woman came to sit by me at the table. She looked to be in her forties. She could’ve been much younger than I thought. Age didn’t really exist in this place. I probably looked much older than I was after all the medication they gave me, but I had no idea what I looked like anymore because there were no mirrors.

The blonde shook a cigarette out of her pack and asked if I wanted one. I told her I didn’t smoke. She lit up her cigarette and blew out the smoke in a slow, methodical exhale. She looked as normal as anyone I’d ever met.

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, hoping it came out friendly.

“I killed my family.” She said this as if she was talking about the weather, then she flicked the ashes of her cigarette into the ashtray sitting on the table between us.

It felt like such a regular conversation, she seemed so nonchalant and bored, that I momentarily forgot where we were. So I asked, “Why?”

For a split second she locked eyes with me. Hers were blue and they went steely in a flash. She jumped from her chair and overturned the table on top of me. I screamed and hit the ground, landing on my back. People came running, but before they got there, she was on top of me, snorting like a bull and pounding me with her fists. I held my hands over my head to keep her from slamming into my face and head.

The staff managed to wrestle her away. After that, I never saw her again. I don’t know what happened to her, but I was relieved to say the least. I learned a lesson that day: Don’t talk to anyone.

Still, when I looked around the room watching the other women, I wondered if anyone else was like me—there by mistake.

Many of them danced, pretending to be ballerinas. Some shuffled forward, never quite lifting their feet off the ground. They seemed so out of it, their heads empty. I had read about the thorazine shuffle before, but it wasn’t until I “social hour” my first week that I actually got to see it. I wondered if any of them knew where they were, who they were before the windowless walls. It didn’t seem to matter to them. If they took all the pills given to them, they were sure to forget.

I closed my hand around the pills I had saved from breakfast and lunch. I couldn’t tell what they had me taking these days. I couldn’t trust any of the doctors or nurses to tell me what they were giving me. All I knew was that these were not the same pills I had been taking before.

I looked over at the nurses’ station. It was a little box of an office with a large window that looked into our social room. The nurses were safely ensconced behind that window. The glass was thick and it had wire criss-crossing through it. It was no use to approach the window. They didn’t acknowledge anyone unless you banged long enough. They wanted to make us feel like we didn’t exist. They wanted us to believe we were invisible. But I wasn’t invisible!

I felt a little shiver go down my back when the doctor walked in. He walked through the room with his clipboard and a nurse following him. He watched each of us in turn like we were zoo animals and then scribbled notes onto his pad. He never said anything to us—just scribbled and walked away.

There were so many things I needed to tell him—for his own sake! I closed my eyes and watched the scene play out on the back of my eyelids. I didn’t know when it would happen, but I knew the car crash would happen on a stormy night in a secluded area when he was on his way home from work. I also knew that he drove to that area for the express purpose of meeting his mistress. And I knew that the accident would prove fatal for him.

If he would just listen to me, he wouldn’t have to die. But no one believed me. I was just a crazy woman in a loony bin.

When I was a child, I had not realized what I had was a gift. I’d used it for entertainment when I was trying to go to sleep, but now I’d seen too much. After what happened to those people in that terrorist attack, I knew that all the things I saw were things that eventually came true. It was only when I started talking about what I saw that I ended up in a mental institution.

Doctors didn’t believe me that I was just trying to be a good citizen. I begged them to get the President on the phone. I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been a matter of national security. All they did was take their glasses off and look at me, like I was some sort of alien species. I was beginning to think maybe they were right. And yet, if they had listened to me, they would have caught those men before they boarded the planes and used them to kill thousands of innocent people.

I guess I can’t blame them. If I had known then what I knew now, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble. I might not be locked like a hamster in a cage. I saw my future long before it happened. I had seen this place on the backs of my eyelids. At the time, I didn’t understand how it related to me. I wish I had.

Now I understood it everyday. I was marched to different parts of the hospital in single file with all the other crazy people. I knew this place by heart. I knew it was Monday and I knew that there would be Chicken al a King for lunch, along with some canned vegetables. If Gertie was working, there might be squares of cornbread. Otherwise, we just got a piece of white bread from a store-bought loaf. Martha stood by the bread and kept tabs to make sure we only took one piece each.

“People misjudge their appetites,” she had said to us on the day of orientation. She paced back and forth in her thick cafeteria shoes. They squeaked across the linoleum tile floor. Her eyes burned with anger and her hairnet slipped down on her forehead. “When I see even a little piece of bread get thrown out, it just ticks me off!”

I remember watching her and wondering how it was she was allowed to roam free when the rest of us were being locked up. I didn’t know any sane person who would go mental over a piece of bread. Still, her tactic worked. None of us took more than one piece each. And we all made sure to eat the one we took. Nobody wanted to make Martha mad.

I kept my head down and tried not to make eye contact with Martha. It seemed wiser that way. In fact, I kept my head down a lot now and tried not to talk at all. It seemed talking got me in trouble. Telling people what I had seen on the back of my eyelids made people nervous. And I usually ended up having to take more pills.

I stared down at the pills in my hand and closed my eyes, feeling them lie there against my skin. I pushed back the scenes crawling up in front of me. It was no use to pay attention to them. It didn’t matter that I had seen things before that ended up on the news months later. No one would listen.

The first time it happened, I ran screaming around the room pointing to the television, telling anyone within earshot that that is what I had been talking about. That plane crash. I had tried to warn them before it had happened. I had even written down the numbers that were on the plane and given them to my doctor. But like everyone else, he had ignored my warnings and, as payment, I got two more pills added to my prescriptions.

That’s when I stopped talking. That’s when I gave up. None of them wanted to know the truth behind what I said. And, really, why would they want to know? Even I thought it was too much. I didn’t want to know about the wars that would happen or the murders. I didn’t want to see the crashes and the fires.

I squeezed my eyes tight until all I saw were flashes of abstract lights. Then I threw the handful of pills in my mouth and swallowed them all without water. Maybe it was better not to know.

____________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX 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 Visit with Aunt Mavis

By Karen Brode

“Here ya go, Betty.” Aunt Mavis had just vacuumed the shag carpet in the living room and handed me what looked like a small rake. “Take this and make all the little shaggy pieces go in the same direction. Do you think you can do that?”

It didn’t matter that I was 10. My mother’s oldest sister always spoke to me like I was a toddler.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said pretending enthusiasm. Aunt Mavis had a rule in her house that we couldn’t watch television during the day. I thought if I helped out, though, she might bend the rules a little.

“Do you think after I’m done here I could watch The Mickey Mouse Club? Please?” I asked with as much politeness as I could.

“Oh, honey, no,” said Aunt Mavis. “We can’t turn the television on during the day.” And with no further explanation, she turned and walked back into the kitchen.

I sighed and set about the work of raking the threads of carpet until they looked like brushed hair. Since arriving at Aunt Mavis’s house in Beaumont, I had been bored to the extreme. I knew going into it she was strict about pretty much everything, but the rule about not watching TV during the day just about killed me. At home, I never missed an episode of Mickey Mouse, and for the last couple of days, I hadn’t even gotten to sing along with the opening song.

The thought crossed my mind that this no-television-during-the-day might be a religious rule I had missed out on. Aunt Mavis was the most religious person I knew. I wondered with fear if I had somehow sinned by watching it everyday. And then I worried that I might have to give up TV in order to go to heaven.

“It was raining, dear when I met you,” sang my aunt from the kitchen. “You smiled, the sun shone through.”

For all her rules and restrictions, she had a beautiful voice. But she stopped mid-verse and came barreling back into the living room.

“Oh, Betty,” she said. “I just remembered I’ve invited Althea Morgan to dinner, along with our other guests from church.”

I stopped raking and stared at her. It was probably the first time she had spoken to me like I was halfway grown up.

“I don’t know if I’m going to have enough food,” she continued. She counted on her fingers. “Let’s see. There’s your mother and you. That’s two. Plus Brother and Sister DeMent. They’ve never been here before.” She held up four fingers. “Then Sister Morgan and myself. That’s six!” Without another look at me, she turned back to the kitchen and said, “I know I’m not going to have enough food.”

I listened for a moment while Aunt Mavis’s thick-soled shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor. She mumbled to herself about salt for the ice cream maker and more green beans. She probably didn’t realize I was listening because I heard her say, “That Althea can eat as much as two people.”

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing. Aunt Mavis was no skinny minnie herself. In fact, as I meandered through the dining room to join her in the kitchen, I noticed the treadmill that sat in the corner. I couldn’t imagine that she had ever used it. She certainly didn’t look it, at least not from the waist down.

“Aunt Mavis,” I said. “Could I go to the park?” I looked out the kitchen window to the kids playing and chasing each other just beyond. If I couldn’t watch TV, maybe I could at least go have some fun with kids my age.

She stopped her muttering and looked at me with what came across as a warning. “No, you may not, young lady. Your mother is asleep and I don’t want to have to explain to her that you went to the park and got yourself kidnapped. You have no idea what kind of people hang out there, just waiting for little girls like you to go there by themselves.”

Outside the window, a couple of little girls giggled on a swing set. They seemed to be having a race to see who could go the highest. They squealed every time they flew a little higher. I didn’t see any of the bad people Aunt Mavis warned me about. It took everything in me not to make a run for it.

“When was the last time you brushed your hair?” she asked.

Just then, Mother wandered into the kitchen yawning. “I slept too hard” she said. “That bus trip yesterday just wore me out!”

“If you and Betty would just get in your car and come here rather than taking the bus, it would be a lot easier on you,” Aunt Mavis scolded.

Mother had many reasons for not driving on long trips. Usually it had something to do with drunk drivers running us off the road, but she didn’t say anything in response to my aunt. She knew better than to argue with her older sister.

“We’re going to have to make another run to the grocery store,” said Aunt Mavis. “I forgot that I invited Althea Morgan. She eats as much as two. Besides I forgot the rock salt for the ice cream maker.”

“Betty, go get your shoes on,” Mother said.

Before I could move, Aunt Mavis stopped me with a touch on my shoulder.

“I’ve got a cake in the oven,” she said. “I need Betty to stay here and watch it.”

“But Mavis,” said Mother. “Leave her here alone? After what happened to you?”

The tone in my mother’s voice sent shivers down my spine, but that was nothing compared to what it did to my aunt. She swayed and leaned heavily on my shoulder. The blood ran out of her face and her eyes glistened.

“I’m sorry,” my mother said. “I shouldn’t have….”

Aunt Mavis moved to a chair and plopped into it with a thud.

I looked at my mom and whispered, “What happened.” She shook her head and put a finger to her lips.

“She’ll hear about it one day, Mildred,” said my aunt, her voice sounding milky and sad. “She might as well hear about it now.”

“She’s too young,” said my mother, but Aunt Mavis held up her hand and my mother bit her lip. When it came to my aunt, her rule was law.

“Betty, you need to know,” said Aunt Mavis. “Come sit.” She pointed to a chair next to her. When I sat down, she grabbed my hand and closed her eyes.

“There are bad people out there,” she said. “One of those bad people crawled through a window one night and robbed me.”

My hand tightened in hers. I looked around at the windows that I could see in her house and wondered which one he came through.

“But that’s not all, honey,” she continued. “I came home before he got out of the house.” She exhaled a rattled breath. “And he…he forced me onto the floor in the dining room and…raped me.”

The word rang in my ears. I had heard it before, but I didn’t know yet what it meant. Even without the meaning, I knew it was more horrifying than anything I could imagine. I felt sweat drip down my back and I shuddered.

Aunt Mavis squeezed my hand while my mother picked up a napkin and blew her nose.

I shut my eyes and tried to block it all out, to forget about it. But it was no use. Now everything in the house was tainted with this horror.

“Where was….” I could hardly breathe, much less speak. “Where was Uncle Lloyd?” I finally squeaked.

“Oh, honey,” Aunt Mavis sobbed. “He and your cousin Bruce were already gone.” She pulled a napkin from the table and wept into it.

“I’m sorry,” she said pulling herself upright. “I just never get past losing my son.”

Her son? I thought. What about that man and being…. I couldn’t even think the word.

“If only Lloyd would’ve handed me the phone that night,” Aunt Mavis continued. “I would have gotten to talk to Bruce one more time, but by the time I got there.”

No family ever admits that one child is more loved than the others, but everyone can see in all families that there’s the favorite one and there’s the not so favorite one. No parent would ever admit to loving one child over another, but it is a fact. And in Aunt Mavis’s family everyone knew that she worshipped Bruce while she only tolerated her other children. Even I knew that and I had never met him.

“What happened to him?” I asked. I had heard the story before and it didn’t scare me as much as the other one, so I asked, hoping it might take away some of my fear.

“He was a traveling salesman,” Aunt Mavis said with a sniff. “He died taking a corner too fast. His car slid off the road and he hit a utility pole.” She trembled while she dabbed at her eyes. “I never got to say goodbye.”

Mother took Aunt Mavis’s hand and gave me a look that told me to keep quiet.

“Come, now, Mavis. You’ve got guests coming. Let’s get to the store before it’s too late.”

“But somebody’s got to stay with the cake,” Aunt Mavis said, her voice still shaky.

“I’ll do that,” Mother said. “You take Betty with you. She’ll be good company and won’t ask you any questions about bad things. Will you, Betty?”

“No, Mother,” I said, relieved to hear I wouldn’t have to stay in the house by myself.

Aunt Mavis stood and lumbered to the oven with the napkin still crumpled in her hand. When she got there, she pulled open the door and jiggled the pans inside. Not satisfied with how done they were, she closed the door and turned back to face Mother and me. Her face was stony, like she was trying to lock all those memories back in the shadows of her mind.

Her voice was far away when she said. “I learned long ago that life isn’t fair and there’s nothing I can do about it.” She looked at Mother and then at me. Her eyes didn’t really focus, though. I felt like she was talking to ghosts instead of real people. “I can’t let these things bother me. I’ve got to pick up and move on.”

“Betty, go get your shoes on,” she said. I jumped to hear her say my name. She just seemed so distant. I halfway didn’t expect her to know I was standing in front of her, let alone to know I needed to put my shoes on. “Maybe change your dress while you’re at it,” she continued. “You look like you’ve been living in that one.”

Somehow I took comfort in hearing my aunt tell me what to do. I was more used to that than to the woman who stood in front of me, vulnerable and sad.

It didn’t occur to me until after we got on the road that Mother was left behind in the house by herself. My worry for her increased until Aunt Mavis had checked out with all her groceries and we started back.

But my worries began again as my aunt wove her way through streets I didn’t recognize. I had taken the route to and from the grocery store enough to be familiar with certain landmarks. As we went along, though, residential streets gave way to strip malls, fast food joints, and seedy motels.

My heart hammered. I knew we were getting lost. We were getting further and further from Mother and that tainted house. I didn’t dare say a word, though. I was too young to tell my aunt what to do.

Finally, she looked at the local businesses we were passing and must have realized we weren’t where we were supposed to be.

“Oh, now, Betty,” she said looking over at me and smiling. “We’ll make our way back in time. Don’t you worry.”

But I was worried. I knew that look. As much as she tried to hide it, she was confused. I was afraid we’d never get home and that some horrible man was in Aunt Mavis’s house hurting Mother. Still, I had been brought up respect my elders, so I nodded and attempted a smile.

It wasn’t long before Aunt Mavis pulled the car over to the side of the road. She looked out of her window toward a river we had followed for several miles. The sun was starting to set in the distance. The sky was orange and purple. After a few minutes in complete silence, she turned and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time.

“Do you know where my house is?” she asked.

_________________________________

Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX 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.