You’ll Never Believe What Laurie Did

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel nodded, waiting for the conspiratorial news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Cost of an Opal

By Karen Brode

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

“Hazel!”

There it was. Opal couldn’t keep quiet longer than twenty minutes before she needed something new. For about a week she had been lying in bed nursing her gall bladder surgery for all it was worth. Albert had wished some other sister had been available to stay with her while she healed up, but Jewel had a job and Cleo was in Houston visiting the new grandbaby. That left his wife to do all the heavy lifting with their oldest sister.

“Hazel, can you come in here a minute?” Opal hollered again just a second after she had called out the first time.

“That woman,” Albert said under his breath. He watched Hazel dry her hands on a kitchen towel before heading down the hallway to Opal’s bedroom. His wife had this soft way about her. Even her steps were soft and gentle, though he also noticed they were always full of purpose. He knew whatever Opal wanted Hazel would give her. Sometimes he wished she’d just tell her sister to stuff it. But then, she wouldn’t be his Hazel if she did that.

Albert leaned back in his chair until it squeaked under protest of his weight.

“You okay, Opal?” He heard Hazel ask.

“Oh, I guess,” Opal said. “For the shape I’m in.”

“What can I get for you?”

“Nothing…nothing. It’s just, I noticed there’s a lot of dust up there on the door frame, above the door. I hadn’t noticed it before, but just lying here makes me see things from a different angle. Would you get a dish cloth and try to get all the dust off that frame?”

Albert’s face turned red at this request.

“Who does she think she is?” He whispered, leaning forward again. He had to resist the urge not to hit the table top with his fist.

Then he heard his wife speak, “Do you need anything else? Because I can bring it now and not have to make another trip back here to your bedroom.”

That was Hazel’s way of putting her foot down. He shook his head and took a deep breath.

“The pain is getting bad,” Opal said in a whiny voice. “But no, I am going to try to hold off on taking anything until after supper.”

Albert pretended to be reading the newspaper when Hazel entered the room again. He knew his marriage had always been a point of contention between his wife and Opal. It didn’t help that Opal knew what he thought of her marriage to her dead husband Lloyd.

Albert had liked Lloyd, but he thought he had always been a spineless jellyfish and let Opal walk all over him. One day he told this to Hazel and Opal overheard. You would have thought he had accused his sister-in-law of genocide. She laid into him like a cat chasing chickens. They had steered clear of each other ever since.

“Oh, Hazel!” It hadn’t even been five minutes since Opal called her sister back to the room. “I think the baseboards need cleaning too.”

Albert threw the paper down on the table.

“You didn’t come here to do her housework!” He said through his teeth. “Tell her to get her old fat butt out of bed if she wants anything else dusted.”

He stood up, ready to go tell Opal himself just what he thought of her. Hazel walked over to him and put a hand to his chest. She looked up at him with pleading eyes — the eyes he fell in love with.

A little bit of the wind went out of his sails but not enough for him to calm down completely.

“She has more nerve than anyone I have ever met,” he said. “How dare she think she can order you around like this!”

Hazel removed her hand from his chest and took a couple of steps back.

In a quiet voice she said, “I promised Opal I would stay to help her. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be.”

Albert clinched his fists and tried to calm down but he was too angry. He was angry because of how Opal behaved and angry because his wife put up with it.

“I really want to leave her here to clean her own baseboards,” he said. He looked at his wife, who looked past him to some place she probably dreamed of–some place without a pushy older sister.

“I’m going for a walk,” he said, finally, stepping around his wife. In three strides he was out the door. He slammed it so hard the entire house shook.

He didn’t actually go for a walk right away. Instead, he sat on the front steps for awhile to try to calm down. He watched the birds skittering and chirping around the bushes in Opal’s front yard.

Under the windows along the front of Opal’s house, he noticed some shrubbery needed trimming. He would have already trimmed them if they were not Opal’s shrubs. He liked to stay busy. He was never happier than when he could stand back and look at a job well done. But he simply would not let himself do it. If he did that, it would open up all kinds of expectations from his sister-in-law. She would ask him to paint her house and put a new roof on and build a new shed. It would never end.

Opal’s house was the last house on a dead-end street. Albert looked around, thinking about the implications of that. It made him smile. He certainly felt like her house was a dead-end whenever he visited.

After a while, he stood up and took off, away from Opal’s dead end. Sometimes walking helped him clear his head.

He had walked past only two houses when he saw a man raking the leaves in his yard.

“It’s a nice day to get that done,” Albert said, nodding toward the rake. “I think it’s supposed to rain the next few days.”

The man looked up and smiled. He had a tan face that showed he liked working outside as much as Albert did.

“Yep–Heard that on the news. Thought I’d better get to it before the rain hit.”

Albert nodded and took a few steps into the yard.

“You Opal’s sister?” asked the man.

“Heck, no!” Albert bristled. “She’s my wife’s sister. Opal’s had some surgery and my wife doesn’t drive, so I had to bring her.”

The man leaned on his rake. “You all staying very long?”

Albert rubbed his big heavy hand through his hair. “If it was up to me, I’d already be gone back home. That woman wears on me like nobody else ever has.”

The man leaned closer to Albert. In a confidential tone he said, “That woman has been a sore spot to all us neighbors. Most of the men in the neighborhood won’t even go out in their front yards anymore. She’s always out there hollerin’ from her front porch. You can only pretend to be deaf so long! She doesn’t give up and she doesn’t take a hint.”

Albert cackled in commiseration. “Oh yeah. She would never take a hint. You’d have to scream it in her face. Even then she might not get the message.”

The neighbor chuckled, which made Albert laugh, too.

“Guess we’re in the boat together trying to avoid my sister-in-law!”

Opal’s neighbor pointed to a house further down the street. “See that house there with the flag pole? That’s Ralph Martin’s house. He’s been forbidden by his wife to go anywhere near Opal.”

Albert laughed again and said, “You don’t mean….”

The man shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s true, but it seemed like Ralph was running to the house every other day to look at the faucet or the refrigerator or any little thing to get him over there. His wife Millie had enough and put her foot down.”

Albert nearly snorted in disbelief. He couldn’t imagine Opal in that way, not ever. “You don’t think she….”

The neighbor held his hands up and said, “I have no idea what her intentions were, but Ralph’s wife wouldn’t have any more of it.”

Both men looked at each other for half a second as the image of Opal the Seductress sunk in. Then they both started laughing at the same time. Tears sprung out of Albert’s eyes he was laughing so hard.

When they couldn’t laugh anymore, Albert shook the hand of Opal’s neighbor and thanked him for getting him out of the huff he had been in.

“Those clouds are gathering over there in the north,” he said. “You’ve still go your raking to do and I was planning on a walk before I’m expected back.”

“If you ever need an escape,” the man said winking, “you just come on over. We’ve always got something good in the fridge to share.”

Albert continued on his way and, while he walked, he wondered why God had even made people like Opal. It seemed to him that she served no real purpose, except to make the people around her miserable. Albert supposed that her husband Lloyd had loved her, but she was 16 when they married and he figured she was nicer back then. The thing that bothered Albert most of all about Opal is that she did not know unlikable she was. She could at least have a little humility.

Albert’s thoughts went further back in the past, then. He thought to the time when he had been courting Hazel. He got dressed up every time he went to a family supper over at her house and her parents gave him the once-over more than once.

He always felt claustrophobic when he visited. Hazel’s entire family was so proper and pious. He tended to like people who were more down to earth and didn’t think so much of themselves. Opal was by far the worst of the worst. She played the piano after suppers and the family would gather around and sing. Albert hated it, but he endured it because he loved Hazel.

Albert scratched his head trying to understand Hazel’s family. Hazel and another sister, Jewel, used to say that their mother would’ve been happier if she had had Opal as her only daughter. He never understood that. He never saw anything attractive about her. He almost hated her for the way she treated Hazel.

Opal was exactly the kind of girl he would never have looked at twice because she already thought she was so pretty. He would much rather be married to that sweet, kindhearted Hazel. Sure she sometimes wore her heart on her sleeve, but she always tried to do the right thing.

Albert figured it probably wasn’t easy to be Hazel. Sometimes he felt sorry for her. Once they were married, he didn’t plan to spend much time at her family home, if for no other reason than to give Hazel a break from trying to measure up and take care of everybody.

Albert was still full in thought when he started up the sidewalk to Opal’s house. He was surprised and delighted, then, when he looked up and saw Hazel standing on the porch.

“I thought you had run away,” she said in a stage whisper.

“I thought about it,” he replied, smiling.

“Opal is having a hard time,” Hazel said. She gave him a second look, like she was trying to figure out why he was smiling. “She, uh, needs you to go and get her some more pain pills and the pharmacy closes in about 30 minutes!”

Albert thought of Opal writhing in pain and he smiled even bigger.

Hazel tilted her head. “Do you want me to go with you?” she asked.

Albert looked at his wife’s plaintive face and his heart melted. He could never tell Hazel no about anything, even if it was to help that harridan, Opal. He knew that his wife was such a goodhearted person and that he didn’t really deserve her. She went out of her way to keep things calm, keep everyone happy, make sure he had what he needed.

“Come here,” he said, stepping up on the porch and pulling Hazel to him. He planted a big kiss right then and there for all the neighbors to see and then took the car keys from her limp fingers and turned back toward the driveway.

He didn’t say a word as he got in the car and drove away, but he did look in the rear-view mirror. As he drove up the road, he noticed that Hazel didn’t budge from the porch. He was pretty sure he’d never forget this moment, or that look of confused happiness she gave him just after he had kissed her.


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

Julia’s Visit

By Karen Brode

The window air conditioner unit was turned up to “high” and if there had been a “very high” setting, Minnie would have turned it to that. It was only 10 AM, but in north Texas in June, window units ran continuously.

Minnie had put a chicken and a ham in her oven early that morning. She would serve this along with seasoned greens, potatoes, garden vegetables, cornbread and rolls, and several choices of desserts. And then there was always Neapolitan ice cream in her freezer. Minnie reassured herself that she had made a scrumptious and appetizing lunch for her special guest, her niece, Julia.

Minnie had several nieces from both brothers. Julia was one of them. She was 19 years old, the picture of youth and beauty. Minnie was so excited to have her niece visit for a week. Her visit was the closest Minnie could get to her beloved baby brother, Leon who had died suddenly a few years back when he had suffered his second and last heart attack at the age of 45. Minnie had no idea why both her brothers – who had children – were taken so young when she was left childless and alive. She resented the injustice of that.

It wasn’t that she had a death wish, exactly. It’s just that she had bothersome thoughts that she had let all her nieces down by allowing their fathers to die so young. She felt she was somehow responsible because she had outlived them. She would have gladly died instead of either one of them. But they were both gone and here she was was left to try and make their daughters as happy as possible.

With everything just about ready for Julia’s visit, Minnie felt content enough to take a few minutes to sit down and relax. That is, relax as much as Minnie ever felt safe enough to relax. She sat in her recliner in the corner of her living room and chugged back a Tab soft drink until the can was almost empty. She was like her father that way. She could almost drink an entire soft drink without stopping for breath. This was especially easy for her to do when she was nervous, and that was most of the time.

Julia arrived at the expected time and, after settling in, she planted herself in the cushioned chair by the front door. Minnie couldn’t help wonder if she chose that particular seat in case she couldn’t stand any more and had to rush out the door quickly.

Minnie watched her beautiful niece from the kitchen.

Gosh she was thin, Minnie thought.

Minnie looked at all the food she had prepared and looked back at her skinny niece. She wondered if she had prepared the kinds of things that Julia would eat. She didn’t want Julia to get skinnier!

Or maybe Julia was still grieving her father’s death. There were still many days when Minnie could not bear to think that Leon was gone from this earth, never to sit at her dining table again, never to keep everyone entertained by his stories, never to talk to her again in that special way that only he and Minnie had. He had been her touchstone, someone who would always understand.

Minnie dabbed at her eyes thinking back on these things. Leon had kept alive all of the family times they both remembered. He remembered her when she was young. He saw all of her and loved her anyway. He knew her secrets and her fears. He also remembered how impossible their mother had been.

Sometimes, Leon would hold Minnie’s hand while she poured her heart out to him about all of her sadness and he would listen attentively. She knew he was really listening; not pretending to listen like other people. She got relief and consolation from those visits. It was as if she could breathe again.

The night Minnie got the call about Leon’s death she had run up and down the road in front of her house screaming. She felt so alone, so frightened. She was not only scared. She was angry. She didn’t want to go on living in a world without Leon.

Minnie wiped her eyes and looked again at her niece. She was reading a book. Minnie squinted to make out the title – “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Minnie had never been much of a reader outside of the Bible and book in which someone overcame great adversity to win in the end. She had to read books like that. She had this hope about her own life – that maybe, if she was good enough, wise enough, and nice enough, her life would at least end well.

Minnie wanted people to love her. It was all she had ever really wanted. She had worked her fingers to the bone, said her prayers every night, went to church every Sunday, baked hams for bereaved families, lived a life that had no dark spots, and yet, she wasn’t a happy person.

When she lay down to sleep at night, her worry never stopped. She laid on her back with her head on the pillow and her hands on her belly. Her worry was visible in her thumbs as they went round and round each other. Sometimes, if the night was worse than most, she got up and went in the living room to read. She had had some kind of heart problem since she was 18. The doctor had told her to think twice about having children. She hadn’t said anything at the time, but in her mind, she was thinking – not much chance of that.

The first day of Julia’s visit had passed awkwardly, Minnie thought. She had done everything she could think of to feed and entertain her niece, but all Julia seemed interested in was sitting on the chair reading that book.

When she couldn’t take it anymore, Minnie put her Tab drink down and asked, “Would you like a piece of strawberry icebox pie, Julia? I made it especially for you.”

Julia looked up at Minnie in a blank way.

“No, I’m not hungry,” she said. “But thank you.”

Then she turned back to staring at the page in her book and Minnie’s worry-go-round ratcheted up to a new level.

She was relieved, then, when a knock came at the door. She was even more relieved to see her Kelly standing there. Kelly was another niece from her other brother. She was 16 years old and reminded Minnie of herself. She was so eager to please and didn’t want to let anyone down. Minnie thought for sure that everything would go well with Julia now that she had someone more her age to talk to.

It was clear after a few minutes, however, that Kelly felt just as self-conscious as Minnie did in front of Julia. Before long, they were all three silent in the little living room. The window air conditioner whirred on, its fan ticking away the excruciating minutes.

Minnie looked from Kelly to Julia and back to Kelly again. She tried to get Kelly to say something, anything, to entertain her guest. But Kelly shrugged and her eyes were wide with uncertainty.

How could this go on for a whole week, Minnie wondered.

Finally, Kelly spoke up.

“Uh, Julia, do you like crossword puzzles?” Kelly held out a book she had carried with her.

Julia looked up from her book. Her shiny black hair was flipped up at her shoulders in Marlo Thomas fashion and it bounced as she shook her head.

“Not really,” she said. She sounded bored.

Kelly nodded and seemed to take this as a cue to work on her crosswords by herself. She pulled out a pencil and sat staring down at a page she had turned to, her tongue sticking out on one side in concentration.

Even so, Minnie detected Kelly’s own discomfort. Or maybe she was just uncomfortable enough for the both of them. She watched Kelly shift in her seat, look up at Julia, and then look back down at her book.

Then Minnie looked over at Julia and wondered for the first time how long she had been reading that same page. She worried they had disturbed her too much. Maybe she couldn’t concentrate because of them.

Finally, though, it was too much. Minnie couldn’t take the silence anymore. Julia could read her book any time, but she was in Minnie’s care now and Minnie wanted her to enjoy herself.

“Kelly, why don’t you and Julia go for a walk?” Minnie said. The words tumbled out of her mouth in a burst of impatience with the whole situation. Sweat ran down her face at having spent the last few minutes racking her brain trying to come up with something. By the time an idea finally occurred, she had crossed the line from worry into complete misery. She felt no choice but to blurt it out.

Kelly looked up from her book. Minnie knew that look. She was restraining herself from rolling her eyes. Kelly knew better than to roll her eyes.

Instead, her dear niece stood up and asked, “Julia, would you like to go on a walk?”

Minnie knew Kelly would be just as miserable out in the Texas heat with a silent cousin as they all were inside the little room that was cool for more reasons than just the air conditioner.

Julia nodded and Minnie nearly squealed in delight! She was doing something! Julia would not be miserable after all!

Minnie watched her two nieces walk out of her yard and down the gravel road. It was a road Minnie walked almost every day. Despite her weight problem and inability to follow a diet more than a day, she did try to offset the damage to her heart by walking a little each day. There was a tree about half a mile down the road that she would walk to and then she’d turn and walk back.

She knew—or hoped—the girls would walk farther than that. She worried for them, though. What if a pack of dogs or a car full of boys or a hunter with a gun came along and threatened them somehow?

Minnie took a few tentative steps off her front porch. She thought about following the girls on their walk, but she knew she would never be able to keep up. Instead, she stood on the porch and waited for them to come home.

***

Kelly couldn’t believe Aunt Minnie had stuck her alone with her cousin. Besides being intimidatingly beautiful, Julia was practically silent all the time.

The two cousins walked down the gravel road to the tree Minnie walked to each day. The only sound between them was the crunch of the gravel beneath their feet. Kelly’s earlier attempts to engage her cousin had been met with shrugs and more silence, so she decided it would be on Julia to break the silence.

With each step it became more difficult for Kelly to keep to her resolution. She had noticed they were wearing similar sandals and would normally have mentioned it as a way of bonding, but she bit her lip and walked on.

Kelly took the time, then, to think about their Aunt Minnie. She looked back toward the house and saw their old aunt standing on the front porch. She looked so earnest and kind of pitiful, even from a distance.

Kelly looked back at her cousin and wondered why she was always so quiet. She was pretty sure that her mother had told Julia how to feel about their aunt – maybe she had told her how to feel about the whole family, even Kelly. She wondered if Julia realized how much Julia’s mother had sabotaged her relationship with everyone. She wondered if she knew how much their aunt loved her and how much she wanted to please her.

In the past, before Julia became so silent about everything, she had told Kelly how brainwashed people could be. Kelly had wondered if this was a way to break her out of her own Minnie-imposed prison, to save Kelly from the same worries and pressures that Minnie put on herself. At the time, she admired Julia for saying these things and trying to help her not be like Minnie, but now she wondered if Julia knew how much she, too, had been brainwashed by people like her own mother.

It’s not that Julia’s mother was mean, especially not to Kelly, but she had always kept an arm’s distance, just like Julia was doing. Minnie loved all of them, especially Julia’s mother, Kate, if for no other reason than because Kate was Leon’s wife. Kelly didn’t think the love was reciprocated on the part of Kate, but she would never say that to her Aunt Minnie.

During one of the visits Kate and Julia made to Minnie’s house after Leon had died, Aunt Kate had sat in Minnie’s living room knitting. Kate was beautiful, just like her daughter, and very accomplished. She was so different from anyone Kelly had been around, including Minnie and her own mother. Kate was a principal at a grade school. Her evenings were taken up with all kinds of activities and classes that would further her education.

If that weren’t enough, Kate was elegant in appearance. She wore her hair in a style that would’ve been impossible for Minnie. There were combs and pins involved in her hair-do, whereas Minnie had curly, unforgiving hair. She had given up on such a style long ago.

During their visit to Aunt Minnie’s house, other relatives had been called by Minnie to celebrate their visit. The living room was filled with family. Minnie had invited all the nearby relatives and even some from further away. She was never happier than when she could get a bunch of relatives together.

During this visit, Kate put her knitting down and looked at Kelly in a way that made her nervous.

“You will be graduating high school in a couple of years,” Kate said. “You should come to Knoxville and stay with me and go to the university there.”

Kelly looked from her Aunt Kate to her Aunt Minnie. Minnie was beaming, but Kelly knew she would never take her aunt up on such an offer. She suspected her aunt knew this as well—that the offer was merely to win points with Minnie and not genuine. And of course, Minnie would never suspect such manipulation. She was completely innocent of guile or duplicity.

Uncle Leon had taught at the university in Knoxville. Kelly tried to imagine how it would be to be able to say her last name in a place where that last name was a good name, a respected name, an important name. She wouldn’t have to stammer and be bashful about her last name because of what her brother had done to their name. Kelly thought about all the times people looked at her when they realized who her brother was. There was always a look of judgment, always a sense that they had put her in the same box with him. It was a hard row to hoe, as Minnie would have said.

Kelly never went to Knoxville for university. Until she was married and took another man’s name, she never knew what it was like to be proud of her last name.

In the meantime, there she was walking in silence with her cousin Julia, not really sure what the future held, only knowing that she didn’t want to be the one to break the great silence.

As Julia and she came to the first turn, Kelly looked ahead and saw the sunlight dappling through the shade of the trees on either side of the road.

She had just about decided to break the silence to point out such beauty when a snake fell from a tree about six feet in front of them.

Kelly jumped and screamed. Even in her panic she felt embarrassed doing all this in front of her cousin who, predictably, remained calm.

Without thinking, Kelly picked up a large piece of gravel and threw it at the snake. Amazingly, it hit the snake right in the head and killed it.

“I…I don’t know how I did that,” Kelly said, completely forgetting her pact with herself about the silence.

“It’s impressive,” Julia said, nodding.

Kelly looked over at her cousin and felt something like pride and bashfulness wash over her.

“I don’t think I could do that again in a million years,” she said, stammering a little.

She looked back at the dead snake and rubbed her arms at the shudder of adrenaline and fear pumping through her.

“Mind if we head back?” Kelly said, turning before Julia agreed.

Julia nodded and they started back to the house.

Kelly thought of Minnie then. Maybe they weren’t so alike after all. Whenever Minnie had come across a snake, she went into some kind of trance. Her husband had always had to rescue her whenever it happened – and, living in the country, it happened at least a couple of times a year. She would stand in the yard and scream, but she couldn’t move.

Kelly felt distantly responsible for Minnie’s fear of snakes. After all, it had been her father who had terrorized Minnie with them. If Minnie could be at fault for not having died in the place of Kelly’s father, it stood to reason that Kelly was at fault for Minnie’s phobia.

Kelly shook her head and sighed as she and her cousin walked toward the house. But for the fear of snakes, she and her aunt were exactly alike!


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

Harold’s Boots

By Karen Brode

Marjorie and Joe were in bed late for a Sunday morning. Any other time, it would have been unthinkable, but today all they could do was stare at the blank ceiling and try to feel something other than the numbness.

“Why did we let him go to that rodeo?” Marjorie asked, her voice cracking over the words.

Joe was silent for a long time. She thought for a moment he had fallen asleep and it made her angry in a way. How could he sleep when their oldest son had just died?

Joe wasn’t asleep, though. In a monotone voice she could barely hear, he said, “He was 19. What were we supposed to do?”

They both broke down again, Joe turning away from Marjorie. She knew he didn’t want her to see him so broken. He was a cop. He had seen the worst of things. He was always the strong one.

Meanwhile, Marjorie just lay on her back and cried into the empty air. The world she had thought she had such great control over yesterday spun out of control when the phone rang at two in the morning. She didn’t have to be told something had happened. She knew. She had been out on the porch waiting for their son Harold to drive around the corner. He was never late. He was a good son.

She managed to smile then, thinking about her child. Harold wasn’t like so many of the young people they saw with long hair and a general air of rebellion. He kept his hair short and well groomed. He was especially handsome that summer he had a buzz-cut. She couldn’t remember for sure which summer it was. They all blurred together now.

Harold had always been thin, almost too thin. Marjorie thought about how he lifted weights every night in his bedroom to try to build up his arms and look bigger. She almost laughed remembering him take on a boxer’s pose to show them how much his muscles had grown.

Up until yesterday, their lives had all been so good. Marjorie and Joe had good kids – three of them, though now there were only two, she remembered. She tried to remind herself that the other two were good kids too.

Bonnie was so smart. It seemed especially cruel that her daughter was so successful in school but she didn’t have any real friends. Up until yesterday, the greatest heartbreak Marjorie had experienced was seeing how cruel other girls were to her Bonnie. She had tried to help her daughter deal with the weight that caused her so much grief, but it always came out wrong. It always seemed to make Bonnie think that Marjorie saw her in the same way those mean girls at school did.

Harold and Bonnie looked a lot like Joe, but their youngest, Jerry, looked like Marjorie. She smiled when she watched him playing out in the backyard as she cooked. He truly was a beautiful boy. Her heart was lighter when he was in the room with her. He reminded her of her older brother who had died of pneumonia when he was in the army.

Being a mother of three, Marjorie thought she had seen it all. There were days of chicken pox and measles. Jerry had to have a tonsillectomy one winter when he stayed sick for months. And she had come very close to tragedy on other occasions with her children. A car had hit Jerry when he was nine.

Marjorie recited the story to the other policemen’s wives more than once. She had heard the squealing tires, the yelling, and she knew. Mothers just know sometimes. She knew something had happened to Jerry, and she rushed down only to find his body on the pavement a few feet from the car.

She had run to comfort her son, but a man standing nearby grabbed her and held her back and told her that she could hurt him worse if she moved him. The ambulance arrived and she had climbed on board to go with him. She prayed and begged God not to take her Jerry away. And he hadn’t. Jerry recovered with only a tiny scar across his forehead as a reminder of that awful day.

She thought she had seen it all by then, but as another wave of sobs rattled through her she started to think that all the other days before had just been part of the routine. Yesterday might have been the last truly normal day she would ever have. Harold had not been spared as Jerry had before. He had simply been walking his girlfriend to his car across the parking lot when a drunk driver spun out of control and slammed into him, sending him flying 30 feet. There’s no way he would have survived.

Marjorie played out in her mind every detail of that last day she had with her son. In some way it seemed like it had happened years ago already. Maybe that was what shock did. It made time twirl and tilt until you weren’t sure what was real and what wasn’t.

Harold had been home all day. He had been working on his car. He got his clothes all greasy and then he got all spiffed up to go out with Susan, his girlfriend.

“Do I look like a cowboy, Mom?” he had asked as he tipped his cowboy hat in her direction while she washed a plate in soapy water.

She turned and smiled at her son. The warmth of that moment felt so real to her.

“You sure do,” she had said. She dried her hands on a towel and turned full around to get a better look at him. He had on a short sleeve cowboy shirt and jeans that she had ironed with great care to get the creases in the front just like he liked. And he wore his black cowboy boots.

“You worked hard for those boots,” she told him. She had felt so proud of him for working so hard on a paper route to earn the money for those boots. “You and Susan are going to have a good time at the rodeo, I think.”

She walked over to him, adjusted his bolo tie, and gave him a tight hug. She had started to ask if he and Susan had talked any about getting married, but Harold had bent down and kissed her on the cheek before she could say anything more.

“Don’t wait up for me,” he said.

She laughed and shook her head before walking back to the sink. It was a joke between the two of them. He knew she always waited up and she knew he would always come home. He had before.

Harold had gone out the back door then and Marjorie went back to the dishes as if nothing could ever happen to take her child away from her.

Marjorie thought of her mother then. She had been gone for several years, but Marjorie’s heart ached now to have her mother hold her. They could cry together.

Harold had been the first grandchild. She had ridden a bus all the way from Pascagoula to spend a week with them and help out with the new baby. It had been such a special and happy time for all of them.

It was in this moment, in the midst of all this pain, that she realized she had no one to turn to like she would her mother. She felt lonely. There were no real women friends she felt close to. She had had friends in high school, but they had all drifted apart.

Church didn’t offer much in the way of comfort then either. They went to church every Sunday, but people there didn’t really say much to each other about daily sadness, much less horrific tragedy. They smiled and waved and clapped each other on the back and pretended everything was fine. Sometimes Marjorie wanted to call one of the ladies in her church circle. She wanted to ask her if she ever felt depressed or lonely for no reason. But Marjorie never did that.

The only other social activity she had was the Policeman’s Wives Auxiliary meetings every other Monday night at the community center. There were folding chairs set up in rows and the wives listened to someone talk about budgets and city ordinances for about twenty minutes. Then they’d eat tiny pieces of coffee cake and drink coffee while the children rushed to a table set just for them to get a cookie.

Usually after the lecture, the women would scoot their chairs around a bit so they were in a circle and they could discuss recipes and wallpaper and dress patterns. Anything more personal than that was not even considered by any of them.

Joe’s movement pulled Marjorie back from her thoughts. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He didn’t look at Marjorie or say anything for a while. He looked like he might be holding his breath.

“Where you going?” She whispered through tears and a stuffed up nose.

He shook his head and looked down at the floor.

“I need some air,” he finally said. His voice squeaked on the last word and, before she could say anything else, he hopped off the bed and slammed his way through the house to the back door.

A chill ran through Marjorie as she watched and listened. Was he leaving? Was he going somewhere without her? What if something happened to him too?

She forced herself to sit up and get out of bed. She shuffled to the kitchen where she could look out the back window to the garage. Joe was there. He was just standing in the middle of the yard looking at the spot where Harold always parked the car.

Watching her husband hurt like that and seeing the evidence of Harold’s death in front of her felt like a horse kicked her in the stomach. She bent over and slid to the floor crying.

She had ended up in that spot the night before after the phone rang. Joe had taken the call. She had watched his face turn white and she knew. Her heart had stopped and she had screamed until Joe had come and folded her in her arms and told her their son had died.

She barely heard anything after that. She knew someone had told her that Harold’s girlfriend was okay. She knew that someone had said Harold had been a hero to push Susan out of the way at the last minute, but she could not really hear or see or feel anything after she had been told her son was dead.

And then someone knocked on the door. She woke out of her misery and she pushed Joe from her and stood to run to the door.

“Harold!” She said, opening the door. “I knew it was a mistake! I knew you’d come….”

Her voice trailed off when she saw the police officers standing in front of her. Their eyes were puffy and red and she wondered why they should be crying when it was her son. But then she remembered – they were Joe’s friends. They were men she had known since she married Joe. They loved Harold almost as much as she did.

Joe came up behind her and nodded to the officers standing in their doorway.

“Come on in,” he said, gently tugging Marjorie to one side.

“We didn’t want anyone else to bring these,” one man said.

Marjorie looked up. There were tears in each man’s eyes. Then she looked at what they held out to her.

Harold’s boots.

“We’re so sorry,” one of them said, choking on his words. “We’re so sorry.”

Marjorie figured she fainted then. She may have screamed before as well. She woke up who knows how long after. She was on the bed and Joe was next to her. She looked him in the eyes and wept as she prayed out loud that it had just been a nightmare.


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

The Reason for All the Misery

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surely, God,” I said out loud.

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

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

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

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

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

“We couldn’t save the baby,” he said.

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

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

“We can save Pearl,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No children?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’d you do?” I asked.

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

“What happened? Did he come?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Side to Momma I’d Never Known

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

Momma screamed and fell to her knees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ran to the kitchen.

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

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

“Is Pearl dyin’?” John asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reverend nodded. His face was solemn and sad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I gotta go, Momma.”


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

The Weight of Worry

By Grace Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head and sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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


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

No Return Until the Fruit Flies Die

By Karen Brode

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Hazel! Get up and let me in!”

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel walked to the chair opposite and sat down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Even a Sister Has Her Limits

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleo was already snoring. Opal rolled her eyes.

“Of course she’s sleeping,” she whispered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sneezed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sister, Thy Name is Soot

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

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