Snakebite, Part I

By Karen Brode

Mother and I sat on the front porch steps contemplating the inky night sky pierced with stars that looked like pin pricks in fabric overhead. I wondered if heaven was just on the other side of the sky shining down on us in the form of stars.

My father had taught me many of the constellations. We had often watched the night sky together.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” he would say.

And then I would bounce up and down pointing. “And there’s the Little Dipper!”

“This night reminds me of the night Cleo got bit by the rattlesnake,” Mother said. She made it sound so normal, like it was a rite of passage for everyone.

“It was a quiet, still summer night, not the kind of night that you would think something bad would happen.”

Instinctively, I raised my feet up a step, just in case.

“How old was Cleo?” I asked. In my childish eight-year-old mind, it was hard for me to grasp the idea that old people had once been children. Even though I had seen pictures of my mother when she was young, it still didn’t quite register that she had been a child at one time. And yet, I knew on the other side of that coin, I would someday be old. Still, I couldn’t imagine being that old.

All my life I had heard about my mother’s childhood. It was something of a myth to me. She had all the things I longed for—three brothers and three sisters. And she had to share a bed with her sisters. My childhood was lonely. I thought it would be such fun to blend into a large family.

Mother stared up into the sky, her eyes seeming to calculate the heavens. “I believe that was the summer Cleo was eleven,” she said. Then she nodded and pressed her lips together. “Yes, she would have been eleven because I was nine.”

“I’m almost nine,” I said. I tried to look past the lines on my mother’s face and see the smallness of a child, but I still couldn’t see her as a kid.

“We were playing hide and seek just about this time of night,” she went on. “It was that in-between time between sunset and full dark. There were lightning bugs all over the place back then.”

In my mind, I could see lightning bugs everywhere. I knew we had lightning bugs too, but the way Mother told it, there were so many in her day that you didn’t need a flashlight to see in the dark.

She paused and looked out beyond our house, beyond our street. I did the same, sure we were both looking for the onslaught of lightning bugs to light up the night.

Finally, she continued. “It was Cleo’s turn to hide and she went out by the well and crouched down. I don’t think she was out there but a second or two when we heard her scream!”

I felt my chest tighten at the thought of this. Even though I knew Cleo had survived—she lived just over a few streets from us in the same town—I still had to ask, “Then what happened?”

“Well, Poppa went running to the sound of her screaming. He grabbed her up and ran to the house with her. We knew right away it was a snake that had bit her. Blood was oozing out of two little holes on her ankle and it was swelling fast.”

My stomach felt a little queasy thinking about it, but I leaned forward anyway.

“My brother Leon was fourteen at the time. Being the oldest, he took the coal oil lamp out by the well to try to see what kind of snake it had been.”

She closed her eyes then and seemed to transport back in time as she continued.

“I remember Cleo was completely white even in the dimly lit parlor. Her heart was beating so fast and she was having trouble breathing. Poppa laid her out on the divan.

“Mama just screamed, ‘Get the doctor, get the doctor!’ over and over. She wasn’t very good in a crisis. No matter how many times Poppa told her to calm down, she never did.

“I don’t know how long it took the doctor to arrive, but he got there and immediately put a tourniquet around Cleo’s ankle to try to keep the poison from going past her ankle. Of course, by then, some of it had probably already traveled all over her body.”

I shivered. The idea of poison going all through my body terrified me.

“Before long, Leon brought up the dead snake. The doctor and Poppa looked at each other with dread when they saw the rattler still rattling.”

A neighbor walked by just then, crunching through some gravel. I jumped at the sound of it, but was relieved to see it was a person and not a snake.

Mother continued. “Cleo writhed in pain like that for what seemed like forever. She was out of her head. Our momma cradled her and rocked her back and forth. Cleo was somewhere between life and death. She kept telling Momma that she saw Jesus, and Momma looked at Poppa with such fright.

“All us kids gathered in the parlor to see what was going to happen. Leon held on to the coal oil lantern like he couldn’t let it go. Opal and Jewel stood like they couldn’t breathe. James and Walter, the younger boys, cowered in one corner of the room. And I sat with my back to the piano, trying not to think about all those times we had had together as a family, singing. I just started praying silently in my head. It was the only thing I knew to do.”

She nodded like she was agreeing with herself and then said, “It was the best thing to do.”

Want to find out what happens to Cleo?

Check back in tomorrow for more from Karen Brode!


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.

Nobody Likes the Spanish Armada…Twice

It was September 3, 1971, the first day of my senior year at Denison High School. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I knew I’d make it through the year and come out on the other side a high school graduate, but I was more or less ambivalent. The only feeling I might have had was a feeling of being different. I was so different from my brothers in so many ways, one of which was graduating high school.

My father had been so disappointed in both his sons. Neither turned out to be anything like him. He must have held each of them as babies and read bedtime stories to them just as he had read stories to me. But neither of them liked to read. For that matter, they never showed any interest in anything my father enjoyed.

I, on the other hand, did my level best to be the child my father had been waiting for. I was the child who reflected everything that he was. I was born very late in my parent’s marriage, when they were both almost 40. He taught me to read when I was three and I was his constant shadow. Even when he tried to get away from me, I would grab onto his leg and sit on his shoe and he would have to drag me along wherever he went. Unfortunately, my attempts to hold onto him had not kept him from dying when I was seven years old.

And now, so many years later, I was a senior in high school. So many of the memories had faded over the last ten years. I couldn’t  remember a lot about him, nothing concrete, anyway. I knew he loved me a lot and I knew he was proud of me. Sometimes I wondered what he would think of me as a teenager. He’d be proud I was still in school, about to reach the finish line.

There was only one thing, though. I got Miss Bledsoe for Civics Class.

I stared in horror at the card listing off my scheduled classes for the year. There, in handwritten print, was Room 217. That room represented nothing but torture for me. The year before, I had suffered through American History at the hands of Miss Bledsoe and her beloved Spanish Armada. She had written her thesis on the topic and apparently thought it a great idea to spend an entire semester having her students learn every detail about it as well. Forget about the Civil War or the American Revolution. The class should have been called “Spanish Armada History.” And now I was destined to spend another semester hearing how it related to civics, apparently.

I couldn’t believe it.

The first chance I got, I flagged down my friend Melanie in the halls. It took a while to get her attention. The halls were crowded and Melanie’s eyesight wasn’t so good. She had worn glasses since we were little girls and had tried a couple of times to wear contacts, but that hadn’t turned out so well. I waved at her through the crowds and, squinting, she finally saw me.

Once I caught up, I showed her my schedule card.

“I’m quitting school,” I said with a whimper. I knew I wouldn’t really do it, but the idea of getting away from Miss Bledsoe and her armed Spaniards made me consider the possibilities of being a car-hop at the local drive-in. “I’ll just…go be a car-hop.”

Melanie snorted. “You’d never make it as a car-hop. They wear skates to carry food.” She looked down at my feet. “We both know how that would turn out.”

So much for trying to have a dream.

“You should come to class with me,” she continued. “Mr. Donowho is a whole lot more interesting.”

I nodded. “That’s who I was hoping to get, but whoever makes these schedules thought I needed another year of persecution.”

We were pushed along by the crowd in the hallway and I stayed by Melanie’s side expecting her to do something.

“I can’t go through another semester with Miss Bledsoe! I’m sorry, but I just can’t!” I screamed to be heard above the bustling crowd of students.

“I’m serious,” she said. “Come on!” She gestured for me to follow her into Room 214, Mr. Donowho’s class.

“I can’t go in there!” I said. “I’m not in his class!” But my will was stronger than my words and I followed her into Room 214.

We sat down. I looked around the room and gulped. I just knew someone was going to find me out. I always obeyed the rules and never questioned authority, even if it was on a three-by-five index card.

“Let me see your schedule again,” Melanie said.

I handed her my card, thinking she just wanted to have evidence when they convicted me of being in the wrong class. The thought of it made me second guess my decision. I started to get up from the desk, but Mr. Donowho walked in right at that moment and sat down at his own desk.

“Here, give me my card back,” I told Melanie. “I’ll just go now and no one will get in trouble.” I could feel my heart beating in my throat. If I didn’t get out soon, I was going to cry.

Melanie handed the card back to me. “Stay put. Now you are in this class.” She pointed to the class assignments. She had changed the room number from 217 to 214. I nearly screamed.

“Oh no!  This will never work, Melanie. Now you’ve done it! How am I ever going to explain this?”

In what felt like record time, Mr. Donowho went through the roster of names. “Is there anyone else I haven’t called?”

I sat still. My first instinct was to be like a rabbit–just blend in and stay quiet, no one would know I was there.

“I don’t think you called Karen’s name,” said Melanie. I detected a little bit of know-it-all in her tone.

“Where is Karen?” asked the teacher, searching through the faces of students.

Melanie turned around and looked at me. I was pretty sure there was a gloating look on her face when she said,  “There she is.”

Mr. Donowho motioned for me to approach his desk with my schedule. It was the longest walk I’d ever taken. I was pretty sure I was going to pass out before I got up there. I just didn’t do things like this. I was good and honest and no one would ever believe that I had had anything to do with this.

I tried not to hyperventilate while I stood at the teacher’s desk. Instead, I poured all my energy into glaring at Melanie who got me into this. She spent the time trying to appear very interested in her new civics textbook, but her twitching lips gave her away. She would really think it was funny if I was sent packing to the civics class across the hall in Miss Bledsoe’s room.

In my head, I worked through the semantics of the situation. It wouldn’t exactly be lying if Mr. Donowho asked me if I had changed that room number and I said no. I peered down at the card sitting on his desk. You would have to look really close to tell that the room number had been changed, but to me, it practically screamed “KAREN IS IN THE WRONG ROOM.”

Finally, Mr. Donowho turned his head to look at me. This was it. I knew it was coming. I held my breath and tried to prepare myself. I’d heard all about Mr. Donowho and I knew he could ruin my entire senior year if he wanted to.

Mr. Donowho ran his finger down the list of students registered in this class, and he said, “I don’t see your name here.”

All I could muster in response was a shrug of my shoulders. Speech was no longer an option for me. There was no explanation.

The thought flashed through my mind just then, Maybe I’m more like my brothers than I thought. Maybe I won’t finish high school! Maybe my dad would be just as disappointed in me as he was in them!

But then Mr. Donowho did the unthinkable. He wrote my name in the class register. He made me an official student of his class!

“They probably made a mistake at the office,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first time!” And he chuckled. He literally made a soft, forgiving little laugh that reassured me and sent me back to my seat with relief.

This was a new feeling. It was an awakening of possibilities outside the box I had lived in all my life. My heart began to beat faster and stronger. I no longer felt as if I might faint. Instead, every nerve in my body trilled at the thought that this might actually work.

Margaritas and Woe

By Karen Brode

I had not seen Wanda since high school forty years ago, except for a few awkward meetings in Wal-mart or the grocery store.  I didn’t know what to say to her, really. She and I had been inseparable in elementary school, but by middle school, just like that, we had nothing in common.

The older we got, the wider the gap between us. As teenagers, I overheard church matrons talk about how boy crazy Wanda was.

“That girl,” said the ever-righteous Mrs. Albright, “she’s gonna wind up in a world of trouble one day.”

The ever-pious Mrs. Carmichael agreed. “Her mother leaves for work and Wanda has a boy to the house until she goes to school.”

“She needs to be more like Jane here,” said the devout widow Mrs. Stewart. She leaned forward in her pew to pat me on the shoulder. “Janey here is a good girl.”

Nothing like three old ladies contrasting you with your worldly ex-best friend to make you feel ancient and undesirable. And I was only 13 at the time.

That didn’t bother me as much as knowing that Wanda’s mother held me as an example to her daughter as to how a girl should be at 13. Whenever they argued, Mrs. Rivers always ended with, “Why can’t you be more like Jane?”

It made me cringe.

Years later, in 1968, the old ladies’ predictions came true. It was our senior year and Wanda walked through the hallways holding her books in front of her, keeping her eyes cast down. She had gotten pregnant the summer before and been forced to marry her boyfriend. She finished high school, then, with a baby on the way and a new surname.

Whenever I saw her walking the halls in shame, I always wondered if she had wanted it to happen, or if it had been some horrible realization when she looked in the mirror one morning and saw the pregnancy beginning to bloom.

I’ll admit, there was some part of me that was a little jealous. There were mornings when I walked past Wanda’s car and she and her young husband would be locked into an embrace of passion and desire. No one had ever been that needy of me. No boy had ever clung to me as if I were the answer to all of life’s problems.

And now, all these years later, Wanda wanted to have lunch with me. We hadn’t really talked in over forty years, and yet, the same worries and concerns plagued me at 60 as they had in high school. I worried that she might think I looked down on her, but I didn’t. Instead, I hoped I could somehow seem as worldly as she was.

The last several years had been so hard for me. I had been through things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I wanted to show Wanda she wasn’t alone in all that she had suffered. I didn’t want her to think that she had been singled out to feel miserable and to make drastic mistakes. I wanted her to know all that had happened in my life, to somehow put things in perspective so she would know she wasn’t being punished for not “being like Jane.”

Or, maybe it was the awareness that I had been Jane and, in spite of following all the rules, I had still suffered horrible things and made bad choices. No one escapes unscathed in this world.

When I entered the restaurant, I saw her already sipping on a margarita in a booth. I approached the table and she stood up to hug me.

At first, we talked about our children and I learned what had become of her right after high school. Her first child was named for the young man she had clung to in the car all those years ago.

“God, I hate him,” she said, talking about her ex and taking a long sip on her margarita. “We had to go and have two more kids before we figured out we couldn’t stand each other.” At 21, she became a single mom with three kids.

I thought about that time in our lives when we were just kids. I remembered how so many of her choices were in direct defiance of her mother and the church we went to. It seemed an awful price to pay to have to raise three kids on her own just so she could get back at her mother, but I didn’t point that out.

I cleared my throat and told her about my son, Frank. “When they found the cancer, it was stage three,” I said about his brain tumor. “It nearly did me in.”

Rather than understanding, the conversation took a competitive turn.

“At least he’s still alive,” she said. “My grandson is only ten and has stage four brain cancer. He’s taking chemo and radiation as we speak.” Her voice was hard as she said, “Nobody knows if he’s going to make it.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. It was sad to think about a little boy going through what my son went through, and worse. Still, there had to be some way we could connect, some way I could show her we were similar.

When the waitress came to our table, Wanda ordered a chicken salad and another margarita. I looked across the table at her folded up menu and empty glass. Then I looked to the waitress who was standing above me, waiting for my order.

I cleared my throat and said, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“A chicken salad and a margarita?” asked the waitress. She no longer looked at me, but wrote in her pad.

“Uh-huh,” I said. I didn’t think I could get the word margarita out of my mouth without my voice faltering.

I hated the taste of alcohol. After considering my genetic background, I realized this was a blessing. A recovering alcoholic had once told me never to take even a sip of alcohol. With a whole line of alcoholics in my family, he knew what I was up against.

“You’ll never be able to stop,” he had said.

So I trusted this advice and stayed as far away from it as I could. But then life caved in on me and I turned to tranquilizers, pills my doctor had prescribed in great quantities.

At the time, I told myself that was different. Pills prescribed by a doctor couldn’t be the same as drinking alcohol. A psychologist had explained to me later that the tranquilizers I was taking were from the benzodiazepine family; they hit the same receptors in the brain that alcohol did. I might as well have been drinking alcohol.

It made me feel duped somehow that in my weakest moment I had not escaped addiction. Looking back, I admit those tranquilizers were all that got me through the scary and sad times. But at the end of it, I was left with a nagging addiction to benzodiazepines. I no longer had a choice about taking them. My body wanted them even if I didn’t. And now I had to take them everyday, just to feel normal.

I had been warned about what might happen if I tried to stop taking tranquilizers too fast: nausea, body aches, palpitations of my heart, and a seizure. There was a chance I could die if I just stopped taking them cold turkey.

The waitress brought me my margarita and I stared at it a long time before taking a drink. I knew I would have to at least look like I was drinking it. I knew Wanda was watching me, wanting to convince herself that I was still too good to be like her.

Finally, I picked up the drink and took a small sip. I lingered on the straw to make it seem like I had taken a bigger swallow. The taste of the alcohol was awful. I tried not to gag.

Wanda was in the middle of telling me about her children, a boy and two girls. I kept my eyes on hers as I casually opened and dumped three packages of Sweet-n-Low into my margarita.

“My youngest is the only one who lives nearby,” she said. “The others have moved as far away as they can.”

I’m not sure how much time had passed when I ventured my next sip. Wanda was telling me in great detail about her mother-in-law who lived a few blocks from her and her second husband.

“That woman goes doctor shopping every few months, and she’s 88 years old. Can you believe it?”

I secretly felt sorry for Wanda’s mother-in-law. She was obviously a woman like me—she wanted her pills.

Wanda continued to regale me with stories of her life and her children’s lives. I listened as best I could while adding four more Sweet-n-Low packets to the margarita. Surely, I thought, this is how to make a margarita taste less like alcohol and more like an attractive drink.

I took another sip. Nope. It still tasted like alcohol.

I was somewhat relieved when the time came for me to share a little about my life. In spite of having to relive some of the worst moments of my life, at least I didn’t have to drink any more of that margarita while I was talking.

“He was 18 when we got the call,” I said about our son. “We got to the scene of the wreck just as they were cutting him out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Now, every time I hear a siren, my mind goes back to that night.”

Wanda nodded. “It’s a horrible thing,” she said. “My youngest was in an accident and they had taken him to a hospital in Dallas. My husband and I had that long drive through Dallas traffic, not knowing what we would find when we got there. Thank heavens he was still alive.”

Wanda had been married to her second husband for 30 years and she was full of praise for the kindness of this man who had come along to help her raise her three children. I thought it was wonderful, too, that she had found someone so devoted to her.

While she talked, I listened intently, making sure we had eye contact while I emptied four more Sweet-n-Low packets into my drink. Thinking that should have done the trick, I cheerfully took a rather long sip of the margarita through the straw. It felt like fire going down my throat. I started coughing and couldn’t seem to stop.

“Jane, are you alright, hon?” Wanda asked.

I nodded, but kept coughing. “I’ll be okay—cough—just give me a minute—cough.

Finally, I grabbed a glass of water and downed half of it in one swig. The coughing subsided and I was able to tell Wanda about my job woes.

“I had worked for that place for 30 years,” I said. “And, right in the middle of Frank’s illness—right when I needed support the most—they fired me.”

I thought for sure this would somehow bond us, that she would see we were alike underneath it all. But the eyes looking back at me had no sympathy, no understanding.

“Try being a single mother with three small children and being fired from two jobs in one year,” she said. “I thought I’d never recover after that.”

I looked down at my margarita and realized then it was the only thing that Wanda seemed to relate to. But then she said, “You know, I might drink some of your margarita if you hadn’t drowned it in Sweet-n-Low.”

I was hoping she hadn’t noticed.

“Oh,” I said, laughing awkwardly. “It won’t go to waste. I’ll just get a to-go cup and take it to my husband.”

“Are you kidding?” she asked. Her eyes were wide with surprise. She leaned over the table and said in a quiet voice, “Jane, honey, you can’t ask for a to-go cup for an alcoholic beverage.”

“Oh, yeah!”  I said, trying not to blush. “What was I thinking?”


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.

Hazel on a Greyhound

By Karen Brode

Hazel stood in the tall grass and weeds on the side of the highway. Her suitcase was at her feet. The rest of the people who had been on the Greyhound bus were with her. She guessed there were about 20 people in all. She looked as far as she could down the access road one way and then the other way. There was no roadside cafe, no pay telephone, nothing.

She wished that she could call her son, Kenneth, in Houston. He was waiting for her to call him from the bus station so he could pick her up. She would feel better if she could tell him what had happened. But even if she could’ve called him, she wouldn’t have known where she was. She hadn’t paid any attention to the road signs since she wasn’t driving.

She had always driven the Old Flivver to Houston to visit Kenneth and his family. The Old Flivver was what she called her car. It had gotten her to Houston many times, but she had heard a knocking last week, and she was afraid it might break down on the way to Houston. And then what would she do? She didn’t trust anybody outside of General Jones, her mechanic at the Ford house in Denison. He always took good care of the Old Flivver and never made her feel silly for not knowing what a carburetor did. If her car broke down on the road, she would be at the mercy of some unknown mechanic to fix whatever it was and then he’d probably overcharge her. It was this thought that prompted her to buy a bus ticket.

The truth was, Hazel had never really adjusted to not having her husband Albert to take care of things like this. Life had been so much simpler when he was around. She could just tell him she needed to go to the grocery store and he would drive her there. He usually sat in the car with his paperback book while she shopped. He never complained about it much either.

She still thought of him everyday, even though it had been over twenty years since he died. Most mornings she had to stop herself from getting two coffee cups from the cupboard. No one told her that the emptiness and sadness would go on and on, even years later. Back when he died, she managed to get through the funeral and the ensuing hugs of sympathy. She had struggled, but had even managed to pull it together enough for their youngest child, Karen.

These days were hard in a different way. The urgent grieving had softened, but there were moments that caught her by surprise. She missed his companionship. And she had no one else in the house to keep her from thinking about these things. Sometimes when she looked in the mirror, not only did she see her 62-year-old reflection staring back at her, but she saw Albert, too. He would be standing behind her, saying, “I can’t believe my girl has grey hair.”

It was bad enough being alone in the house. Hazel did not like to be alone on a long trip. When Karen was younger, Hazel felt better just having another person with her. Now her youngest child was married and had her own little child to take care of. Hazel grew tired of all the adjustments she had to make to each set of changes in her life. She had no husband to help her, and her middle child, John, had never been a help to her. She tried to think well of John because she loved him dearly. He could make her laugh on her worst day. But he wasn’t dependable or reliable. She hardly ever asked him to do anything for her. It was just better that way.

Her oldest, Kenneth, was no angel, but he represented a part of her life that had made her so happy. He had been her first baby, the apple of his grandmother Hawk’s eyes, the only baby in the family for so long. He was the fruit of their young love, and even now when he was around, she took on a certain glow. She could look at him and be transported back to that time of her life. She and Albert were as poor as Job’s turkey back in those days. But now, when she thought of those days it seemed that they were the happiest of her life.

Her oldest son was so much like her husband. Kenneth worked very hard and took pride in his work. She never had to worry about him.

She looked around at the other passengers from the bus and shuddered a little with worry for herself right then. Everyone was in various stages of anger and disbelief. Most of them complained about the situation to the other people who stood next to them. Two men standing over by a fence talked angrily about what this was costing them.

Hazel overheard one of them say, “If I lose my account because of this, I’m gonna sue the pants off these people.”

Things had gone all right up to this point. But then the bus driver got on his microphone and announced that the engine was overheating. He had been instructed to stop and let another bus come to pick up the passengers. He kept his head down as the passengers filed past him to disembark. No one was happy about it.

Hazel was glad there were some other women around, but when she looked closer at them, she saw they had a hardened look about them. Cigarettes hung out of their mouths and, for all Hazel knew, they might have just gotten out of prison that morning.

She cleared her throat, straightened her back, and stood as close as possible to her suitcase. Her purse had been hanging from her right hand when she first got off the bus, but soon she shifted it in front of her, so she could hold onto it with both hands.

The idea of prisons and prisoners brought to mind the recent news she had seen on television about two convicts who had broken out of prison in McAlester, Oklahoma. This made Hazel very mad because it seemed to her that prisoners broke out of that prison on a regular basis. She didn’t understand how it could happen over and over. It was clear that someone wasn’t doing their job.

After she saw that, she got on the phone with Kenneth and told him that she was scared those convicts would come to her house.

“Mom,” he said. She remembered his voice had such exasperation in it. Why did he always get so exasperated by her concerns? “Your house is almost 100 miles from McAlester. What are the odds they’ll go anywhere near your house?”

“But they could,” she said. “Why not?”

He sighed, or so she thought she had heard him sigh. It bothered her that he wasn’t as concerned about this as she was.

“Look, Mom, you’ve got houses on all sides of you. The criminals would be stupid to come to your house.”

She wasn’t convinced.

In fact, she wasn’t convinced that the other people in those houses around her weren’t criminals themselves. When her children were younger, that neighborhood had been a nice area. Now, though, lots of the older people were dying and leaving their houses to young rabble-rousers. These people rode motorcycles and stayed up all night listening to loud music and no telling what all else they did that she didn’t even know about. She didn’t even feel safe to sit out in her yard anymore.

Albert had built the house for them when they were young. It was just what she wanted, although she had really wanted the house to be wider across in the front. Her husband had explained that the lot they bought did not permit that, so she shrugged it off. She knew everything couldn’t be her way. At least she got a new house. It had the most beautiful hardwood floors, which she kept shiny in those early years.

Albert had often told people that they lived out on Dago Hill. Hazel didn’t think he should say that, but in the beginning, most of the neighbors had been Italian. The supper smells emanating from their kitchens were so enticing and all the neighbors were so friendly. Hazel recalled Mrs. Siragusa, the old woman across the street. Her casseroles were to die for and, on occasion, she brought one over to share. Her English wasn’t that good, but her intentions were.

She would knock on the door, and say, “Missy Hawkie, casserole from Italy!”

It smelled so good and filled the house with hearty aromas. In the next day or two, Hazel would reciprocate by making a chess pie or a peach cobbler for Mrs. Siragusa.

These were the ways of neighbors back in those days. People depended on each other. If one person ran out of sugar in the middle of a recipe they would send one of their children to a neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. Hazel knew all the families who lived up and down the street and even around the block. She remembered with fondness how much fun it had been to invite all the neighbor ladies to a Stanley party in the afternoons. The Stanley representative almost always arrived late, but always had something so wonderful for everyone to ooh and ahh over. At her last Stanley party, she and all of her neighbors bought a Nifty-Jifty Bottle Cap Opener. She still had hers somewhere.

They had Stanley parties and Avon parties, and everyone dressed up a bit for them with heels and pearls. It gave them an afternoon together to discuss their flowerbeds and children. None of them talked about what was really going on in their lives. It was more fun to pretend to be television housewives whose worst problem was how to remove soap scum from their bathtubs.

Hazel enjoyed the company of the other women on those afternoons. She often showed them what sort of sewing project she was working on. She made all of Karen’s dresses and most of John’s shirts.

Hazel wasn’t sure how long it was before the new bus arrived. She looked up and down the access road a hundred times to see if it was coming. The sun beat down on her head until it hurt. She desperately wanted to take an aspirin, but she had nothing with which to swallow it.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, the new bus pulled up. Everyone cheered. All the anger and talk of lawsuits sputtered out and turned into relaxed conversation. Even so, Hazel kept a polite distance.

Kenneth was already at the bus station when her bus got there. He was the first person she saw. The bus company must’ve called to tell him that there would be a delay. She’d had to fill out a form at the Denison bus station saying who should be contacted in case of emergency. She never knew what to put on those questionnaires. Finally, she decided it might be good to put Kenneth’s name in that place since she was going to his house.

She looked out her bus window and saw his worried confusion and giggled. He was such a worrier. She thought about John then, too, and couldn’t get over how different her sons were.

She stepped off the bus and the smell of diesel fuel and smoke filled her lungs. It was the smell of despair to her. She didn’t like being in the bus loading area. Her headache worsened at the smell.

“Are you okay, Mom?” Kenneth came running to her.

She nodded and said she was fine, but she rubbed her head a little and squinted from the headache.

“Let’s get your suitcases and then we’ll head home. Helen has a good supper cooking, and you can rest or do whatever you want.” Kenneth always tried to make the best of things.

Once they got to his house, Kenneth said, “Go on in the house and get cool, Mom. I’ll get the bags.”

She had forgotten about their faulty septic system but remembered just as her left shoe got buried in the sopping yard. She stifled a groan. There wasn’t anything she could do about it, so she’d rather not complain.

Wincing with each step, she waded as quickly as she could across the backyard into the utility room. She sighed looking at her sopping shoes. They would probably never be quite the same color they had been. She trying to figure out what she should do with her shoes when her daughter-in-law, Helen, opened the door and gave Hazel a big bear hug.

“The bus company called us,” she said in alarm. “What on earth happened?”

“We had to stand out in the hot sun for what seemed like hours. I think I have a migraine.”

Helen took her shoes and put them on top of the dryer. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Come on in and get yourself something to eat.”

“I hope you haven’t gone to a lot of trouble cooking,” said Hazel, taking note of Helen’s weight gain. “I don’t think I could eat a thing.” On the trip, Hazel had worn a conservative black and white plaid dress that was belted, showing off her slim figure. She had attributed her relatively good health to keeping her weight down. She did have high blood pressure, but she said that was because of the worry John had put her through.

Helen, on the other hand, might have hard times ahead of her, thought Hazel. She had long dispensed with belts and waistlines. Her fashion leaned more toward Expandomatic stretch pants and long tops.

Plus, thought Hazel, she has her own version of John to deal with.

Terry was Kenneth and Helen’s 12-year-old son. From all counts, he should have been John’s son. They were cut from the same cloth. It broke Kenneth’s spirit to have such a worrying child. And, whenever he came up in conversation, it was sure to hurt Helen’s feelings and cause a rift between the two parents. Hazel didn’t want to get anything like that started, so she didn’t ask about him right away.

Instead, she took a wet washcloth into Kenneth and Helen’s bedroom and lied down. She must’ve fallen asleep hard because when she woke, it was dark outside.

Hazel turned on the hall light. It illuminated part of Terry’s bedroom. She noticed he was asleep in his bed.

At least, he’s still alive, thought Hazel.

She watched him sleep from the hallway and was glad she didn’t have to make conversation with him. She never quite knew what to say to him. She remembered when he was younger, she would tell him she was going to count his ribs. It always resulted in Terry screaming and giggling. But now, she didn’t even know how to talk to him.

She went into the den where Kenneth was asleep in his recliner. The television was tuned to the news where they were talking about a massive manhunt in Grayson County, where she lived.

“The convicts escaped from McAlester penitentiary yesterday and apparently made their way to Lake Texoma, where they have robbed a sporting goods store and killed the owners. They are still at large and are currently being hunted in northeast Denison.”

Hazel’s heart quickened. “Kenneth, Kenneth, wake up! Look at this!”

“What is it?” he said. His voice was muddied with sleep.

Hazel pointed to the screen. “Look!”

“Sheriff’s Reserve Deputies were using every means necessary to capture the fugitives.” The camera swooped past the deputies riding on horseback, across a row of houses down a street.

“That’s my neighborhood!” said Hazel. Then she stood up and nearly fainted. There, on national television was her house—at the center of a manhunt for two dangerous criminals.

“Oh my word!” she cried. “There’s my house, Kenneth! Do you see that?” She fell back onto the couch. “You didn’t believe me when I said I thought they were coming to my house, but look! That’s exactly where they went!”

There was nothing for Kenneth to say.


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.

Death by Hubcap

By Karen Brode

As soon as Mother opened the front door, she sent me to my room. Aunt Winnie stood on our porch, clutching her handbag in one hand and holding a handkerchief to her nose with the other. Her red eyes were wide and unblinking. Her face was sopped with tears she had already shed. At ten, I didn’t have to be told that something bad had happened, but it must have been really bad if I wasn’t supposed to hear it.

I did as I was told at first, but left my door open a crack so I could hear something. It was hard not to hear Winnie’s sobs as Mother led her to the kitchen. It wasn’t long, though, before my curiosity got the best of me and I crawled out into the hall on my hands and knees, trying to be as quiet as possible.

“How could this happen?” I heard Winnie sputter through her tears.

I poked my head around the corner as slowly as I could and saw Aunt Winnie at the table with her head in her hands. Tears ran down her arms onto the table. I could only see the back of Mother’s head and her own arms outstretched on the table, as if trying to reach out and comfort Winnie.

“I don’t understand,” said Mother. “Harold is dead?”

This brought on a wail from Aunt Winnie, who nodded and soaked up her tears with her handkerchief. The only Harold I knew was Aunt Winnie’s cousin from Amarillo.

“He was…” started Winnie. “He was driving home from school and…OH, it’s just terrible.” She threw her head on her arms and cried.

“He was driving home from school,” said my mother. “Was he in a car accident?”

With her head still down on her arms, Winnie nodded. She looked up, took a deep breath, and with determination in her eyes, she blurted, “He was decapitated, Hazel!” Then she threw her head down again and sobbed.

Decapitated! I sat up against the wall and felt for my throat, as if it had happened to me. My heart beat hard in my chest. It was the worst word to hear, the worst kind of thing to happen.

“Oh my word,” Mother said. Her voice cracked with what I was sure was the same kind of fear I was feeling. “How could this have happened?”

“I just don’t know!” said Aunt Winnie. She seemed to take comfort in rattling Mother as much as she was rattled. Her words were still swilling in sobs, but she was able to go into more detail. “They say someone’s hubcap came shooting off their car from the other lane. It went right through Harold’s windshield and….” She trailed off in a wail.

Even I teared up thinking about what had happened. I cringed and wiggled on my spot in the hall. Mother was right. I should have stayed in my room. What made it worse was that I remembered meeting cousin Harold and his wife not a month before. They were visiting Aunt Winnie and I remembered her saying they were planning trips they wanted to make when Harold retired at the end of the school year.

I felt a little nauseous and started to crawl back to my room when I heard Aunt Winnie say, “There’s no point in doing anything, is there? How can anyone get up in the morning and get dressed and make plans for the day when something like this could happen at any moment?”

“Any moment,” I echoed. My throat closed up thinking about other deaths I had heard about that were unforeseen.

Mike, a boy in my fifth grade class, had been playing by the railroad tracks after school one day, and somehow gotten hit by a train, and killed. I knew that this would never happen to me because I would look carefully both ways before I even stepped onto a railroad track. I had often wondered if Mike had been tired of living, even though he was only ten years old. He didn’t have many friends and he was going home to an empty house because his parents both worked. Maybe he just didn’t want to go on. It was easier for me to think that than to imagine a train sneaking up on him and killing him.

What Aunt Winnie said was true and I knew it in my heart. Terrible, irrevocable things could happen without warning at any moment. Why would anyone even leave their house?

Finally, Winnie stopped crying. I leaned back around the corner to get a glimpse of her. She was sitting up looking out into the nothingness in front of her. Mother, too, was quiet. There wasn’t anything to say. Words would have been useless.

“Maybe he was tired that day,” whispered Winnie, who was hoarse from crying. “He was probably thinking of getting home, sitting in his recliner with a cold glass of tea. He wouldn’t have any papers to grade since it was Friday. Maybe he would have nodded off in the recliner for a nap.”

Winnie and I both knew that people died everyday. My own dad had died not four years earlier. There were all kinds of deaths, and usually, it was after some lingering, some hospital visit, and maybe after a surgical procedure when the doctors just sewed everything up and told the person to enjoy what little life they had left. But they all had a warning: Death is coming. Soon.

Death wasn’t supposed to just just fly through the air and decapitate someone.

As Winnie talked about Harold’s last moments, I listened, imagining everything she said.

“There he was,” she said. “Sitting at the wheel of his car. He was probably squinting into the late afternoon sun.” She blew her nose in her handkerchief. “Oh, Hazel. He had taught for so long. His whole life was held together with habits and character and being careful.”

She took a napkin from the holder on the table and mopped her tears from her arms. “He was not a risky person, you know. We were cut from the same cloth about these things, but even I thought he was a little crazy for using his seatbelt every time he got in the car.”

Winnie usually didn’t wear her seatbelt because it bothered her to think she might be trapped by the seatbelt if there was a wreck. Even so, she still threw her right arm out to catch me if she had to stop suddenly.

She stared off again and winced as if seeing everything unfold for her in person.

I sat there thinking about cousin Harold. It occurred to me that he and Winnie were a lot alike. I remembered her telling me how important it was to work hard and put myself through college like she and cousin Harold had.

“There are no free rides for people like us,” she’d say. She and Harold both seemed to expect to have to work hard everyday to make the best of life.

My thoughts were interrupted when I heard Winnie talk about one of Harold’s students.

“I know this is ridiculous, but I thought of a student Harold told me about as soon as I heard the news. This boy was scary, probably a psychopath. He’s taller than Harold and, apparently, he used to just glower as he wrote math problems on the chalkboard.” Winnie’s lips tightened. I could tell she had wanted to blame the boy for Harold’s death, but even I knew it was a crazy accident.

“It is just unthinkable,” I heard my mother say and I saw her clutching the necklace at her neck.

For years later, Winnie would talk about what had happened to Harold, as if it might happen to her too. “They say he hadn’t even seen it coming,” she would say. “That he was probably fiddling with the radio or adjusting the sun visor.”

Even as she sat at the table with my mother, she contemplated whether it was better if he had seen it coming or not.

“He must have been surprised to realize he was dead,” she said, dabbing her balled up napkin at a spot on the table. “Or maybe he didn’t even know he was dead.” Then she shrugged. “I can’t imagine any of it.”

She was silent for a while, as was Mother, who got up to get them both glasses of iced tea. When Mother returned, Winnie continued.

“What do you suppose he was thinking just before he died?” she asked.

“Probably not death,” said Mother.

Winnie nodded. “He had just put in another week teaching and he was going home to Juanita. They had talked about visiting their son, Mark, in Abilene. Harold was certainly not thinking about death.”

I knew that Winnie would’ve been upset no matter how Harold had died. Seeing him just a few weeks ago with his cheeks aglow with health and vitality made his death seem ridiculous and unnecessary. But this way of dying, this was almost too much for any of us.

“Do you think it would have been different if he had just stopped to check his teacher mailbox after school?” she asked. “Or maybe if he had forgotten something from his classroom and gone back to get it? Do you think that would have changed all of this?”

Mother shrugged and shook her head. “It’s hard to say.”

“We were so much alike,” Winnie said. “Harold went to work everyday and taught math, just like I do.” She blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill over her lids. “Hazel, he was such a good man.”

“I know,” said my mother, handing her another napkin.

“He went to church on Sundays and taught a Men’s Bible class on Wednesday evening.” She blew her nose into the napkin and balled it into her hand.

“There were no black marks by his name,” she continued. “This isn’t supposed to happen to good people.” And as she said this, she looked up at the ceiling and clutched her throat as if she too, who had devoted her life to being good, was doomed to the same fate.


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.

Different in My Soul

By Karen Brode

Wanda Rivers had been my church friend since we were in grade school. We attended the Church of the Everlasting and our parents made sure we never missed a service. If the church doors were open, Mother and I were there.

When Wanda and I got old enough to go to the junior high Bible class, I noticed that she had somehow outgrown me overnight. She wanted to sit with the older kids in class and with the teenagers on the front row during church service. There was no way I wanted to do that. The more, let’s just say, worldly Wanda became, the more she fit in at church. And the more she fit in, the more her mother pressed her to be more like me, which is to say, not in the least worldly.

I missed the days when Wanda and I made each other laugh and had sleepovers and told ghost stories into the night. Once she started sitting with the other kids, I felt alone at church. I sat with my mother and, as time went by, we grew apart.

The last time Wanda visited my house, she spent the whole time calling boys. I sat and watched in amazement. She was so at ease talking with them and they seemed intrigued by her. When she finally lowered the receiver to her chest, I thought she was going to hang up and start talking with me.

Instead, she asked, “Is it okay if Bobby comes over?”

The thought of a boy coming to my house sent me in total panic. I nearly fell off the edge of the chair.

“No!” I said in a voice that sounded more like a squeak than a real voice. I had to think fast because my reason had to be good. “My mother has very strict rules about boys,” I said, barely breathing. I crossed my arms over my chest with hopes she wouldn’t see me shaking.

It was true, kind of. My mom would have been furious if Bobby had come over when she wasn’t home. But it was also true she might never have known he had been there. My refusal had more to do with being terrified than anything else. I simply wouldn’t have known what to say to a boy.

Wanda squinted her eyes as if she could read my real thoughts then she turned away and whispered into the phone, “Sorry. She says you can’t.” She shot me a look and then said, “She’s just being childish.”

I sighed and went to my room so I wouldn’t have to hear anything else.


Church was where things really changed for Wanda and me. When we were in grade school, the Bible classrooms all had windows. I could look outside and see the parking lot. The congregation was growing a lot back then, so they built a new wing to accommodate larger crowds. The new classrooms were for junior high and high school classes. They were built out of concrete blocks and didn’t have any windows.

I remember the first time I sat in the new classroom. Wanda and I were thirteen and had just graduated to that section of the building. I began to panic that I couldn’t see anything but the walls. I fanned myself and hoped someone would ask to keep the door open. I wouldn’t do it. Even if I passed out, I’d sit there and stop breathing inside the concrete box before asking to prop open the door.

It wasn’t just the lack of windows either. There was nothing to break up the monotony of the mint green walls–no pictures of Jesus walking on the water, not even a Bible verse on the walls. In fact, the walls were completely blank.

I felt myself hyperventilating. If the walls were made out of concrete blocks and the door was closed, how could we breathe? And what if there was a fire?

I looked at the circle of teenagers and realized no one would ever ask to prop the door open. No one else was having a problem. Wanda was across the room with some of the older kids, chatting as if she had been their age all along, as if the concrete box wasn’t a death trap. I remember looking toward the closed brown door, longing to go back to the classrooms with windows. I knew then that I was the different one. I was the one who didn’t belong.

When the teacher started talking, he spoke of how important it was not to go to the school prom. He warned us of the dangers of dancing and the bad influence it would have.

At one point in his classroom sermon, one of the beautiful high school girls raised her hand.

“I don’t think going to the prom is wrong,” she said.

I held my breath and looked at her, my eyes nearly popping out of my head. I would never have been able to voice my opinion in such a blatant way in a group that might or might not agree with me.

“Young lady,” said the teacher, his neck and ears turning red, “You seem to think you know better than I do. It’s clear to me you have no respect for me or the Church of the Everlasting.”

He stood up and paced, his short-sleeve button-down shirt showing wet stains under his arms where he was sweating. He pointed around the room and jabbed his finger directly at the girl who had spoken up.

“I can predict which of you girls will be pregnant by the time you graduate. It’s you girls who toss aside my warnings like they were nothing. Oh, the prom itself might not be an evil place, but just wait! Someone will no doubt spike the punch with no telling what and,” he paused and shook his head, “I remember what it was like to be a teenager. You get caught up in high spirits.”

“Just you wait. Nine months from that prom date,” he snapped his fingers over the heads of each girl sitting near the one who had spoken up. “Nine months from then, there’ll be a whole crop of babies born to you unsuspecting girls.”

When the bell rang, I was the first one out of that classroom. I could barely breathe—both from the closed-in room, and the fire-and-brimstone speech. The whole thing had just exhausted me and I was only 13!

I didn’t really want to go to worship but I had to unless I wanted to go sit in my mother’s car. I imagined skipping church and going to sleep in her car without telling anyone. The whole church would organize a search party. The police might be called. They might bring in the hound dogs to sniff for my scent. My mother would weep until they found me, curled up in the backseat of her car asleep.

It was just better if I went to worship.

On my way to the auditorium, I stopped by the tract rack and tried to find something that would help pass the time during the sermon. I chose a tract published by a church-affiliated publishing company with the ominous title of “Almost, But Lost!”

When the worship service began, everyone stood for the opening song. I watched Wanda with the older teenagers on the front pew looking as innocent and interested as possible. In one day, she had somehow been accepted into a group that I knew I would never be a part of.

Mother and I sat in our regular spot on the pew. When the sermon began, I opened the religious tract and started reading.

Almost, But Lost!

The story was about a milk deliveryman who watched his wife and daughter go to church. They went every Sunday morning and night, and also on Wednesday night. There were also extra activities at church as well. Vacation Bible School lasted for a week in the heat of summer. On most Sunday afternoons, there were wedding showers, baby showers, and the occasional men’s business meetings. The milkman had the impression that the men’s business meetings were code for “How can we make people give us more money?”

But he was too tired to go to church. He just wanted to rest on the weekends because he worked hard during the week. His wife and daughter wanted him to go to church. He never did, though, because he knew if he took one step inside a church building, they would hound him forever. And they wouldn’t be satisfied with just Sunday mornings. If he went to Sunday morning worship, they would complain that he didn’t go back on Sunday night. There would be no end to their expectations of him.

He never told his wife this, but he often prayed to God, and at times he felt that he and God were pretty good friends. He couldn’t imagine himself in front of a church praying. He was a private person.

His well-meaning wife had asked one of the church leaders to talk to her husband and try to save his soul from hell while there was still time. When the church leader came to the door, the milkman ran out the back, climbed a fence, and walked to a store in a nearby neighborhood. When he returned home, his wife’s cold gaze let him know that, not only was he destined for hell, he wasn’t going to have much fun on earth either.

After a few days of silence, the milkman told his wife he was thinking he might go to church with her sometime. If he only had to go to worship on Sunday mornings he might could stand that.

The next Sunday morning, his wife rose to cook breakfast while the milkman stayed in bed with the newspaper. She didn’t say a word to him, but he knew she expected him to go with her to church. He stared at the ceiling and wished he could be the man his wife wanted him to be.

After his wife and daughter left for church, he went to the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs and toast for himself. He knew his wife had only cooked enough for herself and the little girl. It was her way of letting him know of her disappointment in him.

Suddenly, there was a loud noise outside, and the milkman ran out into the backyard. He saw Jesus descending on a cloud with his arms stretched out to welcome his people to eternal life. The milkman looked on as he watched people rising to meet their Savior in the sky.

Jesus looked down at the milkman in disgust as he gathered his true followers to him. Then, as fast as he had come, Jesus turned his back and headed on back to heaven with his band of angels.

The milkman sat stunned on his back steps. The sky turned black and the sun began to fade.

He fell on his knees and screamed for Jesus to come back and get him, but it was too late. He realized he would be separated from his wife and daughter forever. He fell on the ground and wept.


Upon finishing the story, I threw the tract into the songbook rack on the back of the pew like it was on fire. I didn’t want to take that home! I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

I looked over at Wanda and her new friends and wondered if heaven was going to be like earth—the cool kids on the front row, while the rest of us sat with our moms. I pressed my eyes shut and shook my head. I didn’t want to think about that either.

As soon as church was over, I walked quickly and quietly to the car and waited for Mother. While I waited, I thought about how the tract and watching Wanda with her new friends reminded me a little of the night I had been baptized at a Gospel meeting.

A regular meeting usually ran for four nights, but the more ambitious ones lasted a week. This particular meeting was held at the football stadium because the preacher was well known and followed by so many. A church auditorium would never have held all the people. I had listened intently as the preacher talked about how sad it would be for someone to leave this meeting and go home unsaved.

“Who knows if tomorrow will ever come?” he asked with concerned gravity. “What if Christ comes this very night? It might very well be the last chance.”

The the song leader ran up the steps to the podium and the preacher stepped aside as the audience began singing:

Oh do not let the word depart

And close thine eyes against the light

Poor sinner harden not your heart,

Be saved Oh tonight

Tomorrow’s sun may never rise

To meet thy long deluded sight

This is the time, oh then be wise,

Be saved Oh tonight!

Normally, I would have been too terrified to stand up in front of so many people, but I was more frightened at the thought of being left behind by Jesus should he come anytime soon. I was ten and could no longer ignore the state of my soul. I got in line with the other people who could not risk another day of sin and degradation. I felt hyper alive. I was a part of something bigger, accepted by God and his church.

All the people in the stadium continued to sing another verse of Oh Do Not Let The Word Depart. On the last verse, the preacher stopped the song to give out a final plea:

“Brothers and sisters, I cannot stress to you enough how important this one step is in your life! Maybe you are scared. Maybe you are embarrassed. It doesn’t matter. God sees your heart and will accept any and all who come to claim the free gift of salvation. Get up now, and come as we sing the last verse.”

From my place near the front of the stadium, I scanned the bleachers and noticed they were only half full. A lot of people were up front to rededicate their lives to God. These only required prayer, not baptism.

When it was my turn, the preacher asked me if I believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

“Yes!” I almost screamed.

The preacher pushed me under the water and lifted me up. As soon as I climbed up the steps of the baptistery, someone else was coming from the other side to be baptized. I remember thinking that it seemed like an assembly line.

As I warmed myself with a towel and changed into dry clothes, I looked in the mirror. I didn’t look any different. I didn’t even feel any different. But I knew I must be different in my soul.


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.

West Texas Wagon Trip

By Karen Brode

It was almost 11pm and Winnie was still up. She never had any trouble going to sleep because, even at 13 years old, her daily work schedule was so exhausting. If she could just get another pone of cornbread made, she would be able to lie down, and she knew she would go to sleep immediately.

She had fried two chickens and put some roasted corn on the cob into a dishcloth and wrapped them tightly. Her mother had asked her to make lemonade, which was Winnie’s specialty. She glanced at the clock and decided it might be better to make it before going to bed rather than counting on having time to do anything in the morning.

She thought over her list yet to do. She would have to get baby Travis ready in the morning, but that wasn’t really work. She took great pride in taking care of her baby brother. He was almost two. Sometimes, he looked at her with such love in his eyes. She loved her him so much. She loved Albert, too, but he was so different from her and this sweet baby. She had known from the beginning that little Travis would have a very special place in her heart.

Her father, John Hawk, would be up before dawn packing provisions in the covered wagon which would take them to West Texas where so many of their relatives lived. That was a long way from Ambrose, but they could make it in three or four days. She tried not to get too excited about seeing all the relatives until the time was closer.

Once they were there, they slept on their quilts in the yard or on the porch of the house where her relatives lived. If it rained, there was always the covered wagon.

She thought about the pilgrimage they made the year before. A downpour seemed to follow them the entire trip. She and Albert were inside the wagon while their mother held an umbrella above herself and Travis on the bench next to Daddy. Winnie cautioned Albert not to touch the inside of the cloth that covered the wagon. Rain would drip into the wagon wherever he touched it. She should have never told him this. She should have left well enough alone. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him reach up and poke at the cloth with his index finger. Sure enough, in came a steady drip. She looked for a bucket of some kind to catch the drops. It was no use being mad at Albert. He was like a force of nature.

One of her favorite parts of making the trip to West Texas was getting to see her favorite cousin and best friend, Christine Wells. Winnie was six months older than Christine, and they had written to each other since they could write.

Winnie put the fried chicken in the icebox and blew out the lantern. In the stillness of the house, she heard Albert snoring softly in the back bedroom. His sleep sounds were nothing compared to their father’s. He drowned out everything else with his snoring. Sometimes, he stopped snoring abruptly and she would sigh with relief, but then he snorted and snored with more gusto.

Sometimes, if he was very very tired, he yelled out his horses’s names in his sleep, “Gee haw, Kit and Rhody!”

He always seemed fine in the mornings, so she never mentioned his nocturnal noises.

Travis still slept in bed with their parents. Winnie suspected that her mother could not feel that he was safe sleeping anywhere else.

Winnie got the quilts down from the closet and went to bed.


There was a faint pink streak on the eastern horizon when Winnie woke up. She was very sleepy and she could not afford that. There was work to be done. Her mother was already inside the wagon holding Travis in her lap. Daddy and Albert sat on the bench seat to drive the horses. Winnie sat in the wagon with her mother and and the baby. Before long, the soft swaying of the wagon lured Winnie fast asleep.

She woke when the wagon stopped. It was time for their nooning. She spread a tablecloth on the ground and put out the chicken, cornbread, and corn on the cob. Then she remembered the lemonade.  It was in a well bucket, and there was only one dipper, but they all drank the lemonade. Even Albert commented on how good it was.

In no time, they were back on the road. She had brought a book to read to pass her time on the trip. Sometimes she got sick if she tried to read while the wagon was moving, but on this day she read through several chapters of a book she had borrowed from the school library. The book, Freckles, was  about a boy close to her age. As she progressed through it, she began to feel as if she knew the boy and was living his life for awhile, instead of her own.

The wagon stopped. Daddy jumped down from the bench seat and leaned backward with his hands akimbo trying to pop his back.

“Where are we?” Mother asked from inside the wagon.

“I think Gainesville is right over that next ridge,” he said.

Winnie got the quilts out to spread on the ground where they would sleep. Mother and Travis would stay in the wagon, but Winnie thought there was something magical about watching the stars light up the dark sky overhead.

It was almost dusk. Daddy ate a banana while everyone else had an apple. Winnie was surprised that her father did not ask for the peanut butter. She had packed it especially for him.

He turned around to look at the road behind them, and said, “Just look how far we’ve come in one day!”


Karen Brode 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.

Om My God

By Alexander Dominick

He’s embarrassed to admit the extent of his anger. Embarrassed and a bit bemused to admit to his writing group that he had visions of “accidentally” pushing his wife into the path of an oncoming bus. He’s bemused because he supposes he is not alone in this. Still, he has never imagined he could be so twisted up inside that such thoughts would gain a foothold in his mind.

He often senses how ridiculous it is to be so angry, but he can’t help going over and over the wrongs he has had to endure, the thoughtless and selfish individuals in his life, the genetics, the history–all the justifications for his righteous indignation, or the keen awareness of justice mishandled, or justice just missed.

The assignment for his writers group has roiled and gotten beneath the mostly peaceful eddies inside him. He is torn between finally being open about his rage and maintaining his image as the cool outsider above such human foibles. They’ve asked for a two-page essay that reveals some unknown quality of the author. It’s a valid assignment, given that true art is always an exercise of self-revelation.

His mind locks on to another of his unlearned life lessons: expectations. Maybe he could write about how that one word and all its power has perplexed and confounded him. Jesus, what a briar patch.

His father told him once, drunk after a Christmas party during which the hostess actually put a lampshade on her head, that the most important thing in life wasn’t what he did, but striving to be the best at whatever he chose, having the respect of his peers, and finally, whatever his choice, leaving the world a better place for his having done whatever it was.

Great. Just great, given that his father was a prominent national politician and public servant whose own father was a giant of Wall Street from its earliest existence, with a mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut, a huge apartment in Manhattan, a beach-front home in Honolulu and his own private island off the coast of North Carolina. If it weren’t for the fact that he was simply grateful that his father was talking to him man-to-man, for the first time in his young life, he might have realized how Herculean this simple credo would be to undertake.

He rolls the two ideas around in his mind like those Chinese meditation balls, conceding that they are intertwined and there’s nothing he can do about it. He has studied and knows the truth of the exhortations by great mystics and spiritual leaders to be in the Now, to live in the breath, to accept that the present moment is the only moment that matters. There is a part of him that yearns for the peace that would come by accepting their wisdom.

But goddamn it, there is so much to be angry about! And anyway, let’s be real, who wants to live like a mystic, for God’s sake? Who really wants to turn the other cheek, when the real satisfaction would be to respond with a backhand? What’s so great about living clean and sober, eschewing alcohol, or drugs, or food, or sex, or anger, or whatever happens to float your boat, just so you can get along? Fuck that noise.

He’s read the books, and briefly recalls the mantra, “Don’t sweat the petty stuff.” He can’t help but falling back on his sometimes sick sense of humor and thinking, “Yeah right, don’t pet the sweaty stuff.”

“Just be nice and fit in,” he can hear his mother saying so many years ago. “Don’t be so angry. Anger is bad.”

All those years of lectures and bedtime chats after “incidents” at school, or in the neighborhood, only to find out that she was as hypocritical and two-faced as anyone else, and that she stuffed her admittedly justifiable anger in the bottom of a bottle of vodka so she could still pretend that they had the “best family anyone could ever hope for.” It’s much easier not to be angry when you’re checked out, right?

It wasn’t until rehab that he learned that anger was just another emotion. It was institutionalized and structured at the Center: Got a problem with a brother or sister? Write it down, put it in the Group Box, and wait until the staff can put the two of you in a group together, so you can express “healthy” anger. (Right. Put two junkies in a room and watch them tear each other’s heads off over a perceived slight at the breakfast table.)

So he’s just supposed to live the lie, accept the faults of others, find peace in the sacrifice of Jesus, shuffle along, be happy, let go, and live happily ever after?

He’s found that it is impossible to ignore the Vesuvian inferno eating away at his gut. He remembers saying, not so long ago, that he’s one trauma away from a one-way ticket out. But he knows he won’t pull that trigger, because he’s still interested in what’s going on somewhere else, anywhere else. At the same time, he is aware too that the old saw, “wherever you go, there you are,” is waiting to waylay him in his quest for inner peace.

Still, the fantasy often overpowers the logic, and he finds some daydream solace in the notion of a life lived the way he wants to live it: free of the wife who seems to need him physically when the trash is full, or emotionally when her favorite contestant gets knocked off American Idol; free from the kids who seem to need him when their purses are empty, or they’re bored and need a road trip to the nearest Wendy’s; free of the constant nagging feeling that his life is living him, not the other way around, and he’s fast nearing the age when quantum shifts are going to be tough to come by.

“No,” he thinks. “If I give voice to this, it will have a power that is too frightening to envision. They’ll know something about me that I can’t share, even with strangers.”

What else, then? Maybe that thing from his earliest childhood.…

“Jesus,” he thinks. “How can I even think about talking about that when I can’t talk about something as mundane as an angry young man?”

Instead, he pushes back from his desk and calls out to his wife. “Let’s go, honey!  If we hurry we can make the bus.”


Alexander Dominick is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. He describes himself as a lover of words and language. “Writing has always been a beacon and a terror for me,” he writes. “What if I don’t succeed? What if I do? An ex-wife convinced me that writers were people who hid behind life rather than live it.” Thankfully for his readers, he has stories to tell and an undeniable urge to tell them. “My hope is that they will resonate with those who read them.” Alex has traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, and lived and worked in Paris for nearly ten years.

Brother Betrayed

By Eliot Gregory

My twin brother, Bradley, has always been a religious type. We didn’t go to church when we were growing up, so I don’t understand how that happened. I wasn’t religious at all. Usually, twins are more alike than different. We are fraternal twins, not identical. Maybe that could explain the differences in us. As I understood it, we just happened to be born at the same time. We have always been totally different, and, as life goes on, the differences become more pronounced.

For starters, Bradley was a football player in high school. Wild horses couldn’t have made me an athlete! I watched from the bleachers as he made touchdowns, and I cheered with the others who were screaming around me. This was Texas, where football is a religion all its own. I was afraid not to cheer! I didn’t understand the sports world, but I knew it could draw anger from others if I didn’t pretend to be excited by everything that happened on the field.

After high school and college, Bradley took his religion from the field and into church. He became a minister, of all things. He didn’t want me around much during those years. He married a girl he met on a mission trip to Italy. She could barely understand any of us, let alone Bradley. I could see after a year or so things weren’t going to work out, but there wasn’t anything I could do but watch his life implode.

That’s when he finally turned to me for help. He asked to live with George and me in our condo in Austin. We had the room, but to be honest, it really wasn’t comfortable with him there. At times, I saw the distaste on his face that he had for George and me. I tried not to let it bother me because I wanted to help him. So, I ignored the looks and became a sounding board for him.

Funny how it was me who let him into my life when he had once shunned me and put all his stock into his church. By the time chinks started showing in his armor, though, his Christian friends had completely deserted him. He realized too late that Christians aren’t always very nice. They might say they cared, and they all said they’d pray for him, but their actions spoke much louder, in my opinion.

For years, I kept my mouth shut about all of it. And I’ll admit that it gave me a tiny bit of satisfaction to know the church had turned on him. It didn’t make me happy to see my brother so sad and out of options, but there was a little piece of me that enjoyed hearing what all had happened to him at the hands of his beloved church family, especially when he had shunned his real family (me) because of his beliefs.

I wanted to say, “Well, Bradley, where are your church friends now?” Believe it or not, though, I don’t always say everything I think. I knew my words would twist the knife in his back. I didn’t want to add to his misery, so I tried to help him pick up the pieces and move forward.

Most days, he languished in his bedroom reading or watching TV. George and I bought  a TV for his room.  I knew he was taking pills of some sort but he had always been fairly responsible, so I didn’t worry too much. I didn’t realize the extent of the damage done to him, though.

He cried hysterically when he talked about the senior pastor yelling at him when everything fell apart. It must’ve been awful for him to go through that and then see the guy up in the pulpit on Sunday mornings talking about how Christians should encourage each other and bear each other’s burdens.

“Church is a haven; a place of rest,” the minister had told his congregation. That’s a fine thing to say in public. Too bad he couldn’t have practiced what he preached.

By the time he turned to me, Bradley’s wife had long divorced him. He was greatly diminished as a person and nearly annihilated as a minister. I never went to his church. I just couldn’t do it. I had thought to myself that he was so happy and anxious to do a good job, especially in those early days. I guess they thought that’s who he would always be.

He went through so much. I wanted to tell his church friends that, but I could already see the critical looks that would be on their faces if I tried to talk to them about their hypocrisy and unfairness to this man who gave his life to their service. But I would be wasting my breath because I know how church people are. They’re scared! Plus, I knew they would never admit they had been wrong to fire my brother at such an awful time in his life, even if they sort of believed it in their hearts.

Not long after he was fired, we found out he had a brain tumor. Stage three brain cancer. I don’t think I have ever felt so sorry for anyone in my life as I felt for Bradley during that time. Not one of the church leaders that he had looked up to all those years took the time to visit him or even call him. He had a broken heart along with that brain tumor.

Even after he came through that horrific disease, he was constantly pulled back to the torment of what had happened at church. I listened patiently to every story that tumbled from his lips. He explained just how petty things had gotten before he left, such as how he had left a message from one of the members for the senior pastor on a sticky note.

He put his head in his hands and sobbed.

“Well, tell me the rest, Bradley,” I said, because I couldn’t imagine how that had been wrong.

“He screamed at me for leaving messages on post-it notes!” This big man just crumpled in front of me. He dropped his head back in his hands and cried.

It took everything in me not to go give that pastor a piece of my mind, but it would’ve been pointless. I could see all the church people standing there against me; against poor Bradley. It was so senseless, all of it. The people who should have been there for my brother deserted him at the worst possible time. And they couldn’t ever be sorry because they couldn’t admit they were wrong.

So it was Bradley who had to change and accept things, and the church people would not be held accountable for their actions, at least not in this world. I tried to take deep breaths when I spoke with my brother so I didn’t explode. I wanted to keep my voice calm because he was already so visibly shaken much of the time. I watched him disintegrate and I didn’t know what to do.

After a while, I knew all of it backward and forward. Months went by, maybe a year. I heard the story over and over until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I knew it was time for him to move on, but he couldn’t.

One Saturday afternoon, I went in Bradley’s room and pulled up the blinds to let the sun shine in. He was still in bed. He groaned and rolled over, away from the light. I told him I wanted him to get up, get dressed, and go somewhere. I didn’t care where, just somewhere.

It was then I noticed the bottle of pills on his nightstand. He didn’t leave his room much, but when he finally went for a shower, I went in and looked at them. Whatever it was, he had 90 of them.

To see us standing next to each other, someone might think the athletically built Bradley was the strong one; the one who could handle the vicissitudes of life. And I would be seen as the opposite, with my thin bone structure, pale appearance, and shy demeanor. Bradley never had much of anything go wrong in his life, whereas I was bullied relentlessly in school. I watched him all throughout high school. Although I didn’t envy him, I did want to understand him, so I stood on the sidelines and paid attention. He and the other football players punched each other in the arms. They talked about which cheerleader they were going to take out on Friday night, and they chatted about the game the week before.

My brother is a people pleaser–always has been. When he had the beautiful wife from Italy on his arm, he looked like the picture of success. I think in his early adulthood, he thought he was still on that football field and he could still hear the cheering. Then it all went away and he crumbled.

I felt sorry for him at first, but after a while, it got old. I heard the story too many times. Finally, I just couldn’t listen to it anymore. I know he felt that there was no one left in the world who cared.

Last night, I had had too much. He followed me down the hall screaming, “They told me I could never make another mistake!” I looked at him with disgust. He was disgusting to me now.

“Get over it, Bradley,” I said as I closed the door in his face.

He yelled at the top of his lungs for what seemed like hours. He beat on my locked door and cried and begged me to not leave him alone. I tried to burrow more deeply into my bed. I couldn’t stand to hear any of it again. I ignored his pleas. And, finally, he cried himself out and went back to his room.

To be continued….


Eliot Gregory is a contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. For him, writing is an exploration in human emotion and action. He has been writing for his own enrichment for more than 20 years. Thankfully, upon gentle encouragement from others, he decided to share some of his favorites with us.

Overprotective Mother Series: In the Classroom

By Karen Brode

Brandon, your achievement tests are at school today. I’ve been planning to visit in your classroom and this is as good as any day.

I will sit here next to Brandon if it’s okay with you, Mrs. Johnson. I want to be a part of my son’s life. I want him to grow up knowing I care. I hope I won’t be a bother! You just go ahead with whatever you were doing.

Brandon, surely you know the answer to that!  Go back and change that answer right now!

She’s on number 5 now. You’re getting behind!

Mark number 3 for that one and we’ll talk about it later.

Here, just let me have the pencil, I’ll mark the answers for you.

Why, Mrs. Johnson, I wouldn’t think of interfering with this test! I think it speaks sadly of  America when a parent’s concern and involvement is mistaken for interference, don’t you? What happened to the days when parents were encouraged to work side by side with the school for the betterment of the children?  What has happened to America?

Okay. Yes, I understand. I will just sit here and observe. You don’t have to worry about me!

By the way, I think that you are doing an excellent job of giving this test, Mrs. Johnson. I do feel that I should tell you that there were some children over on the other side of the room who were trying to cheat.

Now Brandon, look at me. I’ll whisper the answers. No, I’ll hold up my fingers. All you have to do is count the fingers!  Can you do that? No! Don’t count my thumb!

What is that, Mrs. Johnson? You didn’t have to get the principal. I would have left if you’d asked me to. Would you like me to visit some other time? No?

Well! I guess I know what I’m not wanted!

This is what happens when you try to be a good mother.


Karen Brode 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.