The Funniest Thing

By Karen Brode

For the first time that day I felt really happy. I had a plan. I had my suitcase packed with coloring books and my Barbie and Ken dolls. I was going to be with my Aunt Winnie and it was all going to be really funny when I told her the whole story.

Even though the suitcase was heavy, I couldn’t help but grin the entire time I walked down the road toward Winnie’s house. Winnie’s neighbor, Mrs. Whitman, stood outside her front door, clutching her folded apron. She watched to make sure I got to Winnie’s house okay, but for that moment, I felt like I was on my own. In some small way I was free. At seven years old, that was a big deal. Especially since I was heading away from a day being shuttled around like a dog toward the home of one of my favorite people. And since I walked from Mrs. Whitman’s house, I could surprise Aunt Winnie and she’d have no idea how I got there.

In my mind, I decided that this might be the funniest thing I had ever done. I giggled as I dragged the suitcase up the front steps to Winnie’s porch. Then I knocked on the door. 

The look on Winnie’s face was exactly what I hoped for. Her eyes grew wide and, before she said a word, she took a step onto her porch to look for the car that had brought me.

“Heavens, Karen, how on earth did you get here?” Her face grew pale and her hand shook as she reached out for my suitcase.

“I walked!” I said, but it came out all wrong. I had meant to sound certain, to pull off the greatest joke I had ever managed. But I felt bad for causing my aunt to worry. It seemed like I was always causing people to worry. 

Winnie pulled me into the house and squatted down as much as she could to get eye level with me. She tilted her head and looked into my eyes. “Karen, how did you really get here?”

Why is it that wherever I went I caused people to worry?

Mother used to get terrible migraines. She had to lie quietly in her bed with the shades pulled down. I would go to her with a cold, damp washcloth and lay it on her forehead.

“You’ll feel better soon,” I’d tell her. I was careful to be as quiet as I could be so she could rest. Still, I had that niggling thought that surely she was sick because of me.

Those times when Mother was so sick, I sat on the floor in her bedroom and cut out pictures from the Sears and Roebuck’s catalog. I wanted to be as close as I could be to her without being a bother. I was extra quiet turning the pages of the catalog to look for images I could cut out as paper dolls. 

That catalog had everything you could ever want and all the people in it were always happy. It made me happy to look at them. There was the mother who waltzed through her kitchen because she got a new washer. A few pages over, there was a man fishing with his buddies—that would be the dad. 

My own mother became still as I worked. I glanced up at her several times. At one point, she was so still I got nervous that she had died. I couldn’t help myself. I had to check. So I touched her arm and she startled awake. 

“I’m sorry, Momma,” I said. “I…um…wanted to see if you needed anything.” I didn’t want to tell her I thought she had died. That would only make things worse.

That day I walked to Winnie’s Momma was feeling okay, but she had outdone herself for a visit from my oldest brother, Kenneth, and his wife Helen. They were only there a couple of days but Momma made all my brother’s favorite pies. She was a lot like my Aunt Winnie in that way—always wanting to make her guests happy. That morning she had gone off to work content with how the weekend had gone, but so exhausted that she had forgotten to figure out what to do with me once Kenneth and Helen left. 

This was not the first time in my life I didn’t know what to do or say, but for a while I was the only one who realized that when Kenneth and Helen left, I would be on my own in the house. It was only when their car was packed and they were about to lock up the house that they realized I was there. 

“Karen, did Momma tell you where you should go?” Kenneth asked as he and Helen stood at the front door. I could see they were both eager to get on the road. Helen was on the front porch and Kenneth had his hand on the doorknob.

“I’ll be okay here,” I said, hoping I sounded older and convincing.

He and Helen exchanged worried glances. He rubbed a hand through his brown, slick-combed hair. His brow had those creases I came to know as worry, frustration, or impatience in adults.

“We can’t leave you here alone,” he said. “You’re only seven.”

“I’ll be okay.” I held the Barbie I had been playing with up in front of me and combed her hair with a tiny brush. I hoped by looking busy Kenneth would get the hint and go on home. I didn’t want to bother anybody, least of all Momma while she was at work.

Helen whispered something to Kenneth that I didn’t hear, but I knew it had to do with Mother because, moments later he was on the phone with her.

“Is there a neighbor or somebody we could leave her with?” he asked into the receiver. “No, we told you we needed to get on the road before this afternoon, don’t you remember? Helen has to get back to her job tomorrow and we don’t want to be on the road all night.” 

Kenneth looked over at me and held out the receiver of the phone. “She wants to talk with you,” he said.

I took it and then took a deep breath. When I put the receiver to my ear, I tried my best to sound as adult as possible. “Momma, I’m okay here. Don’t you worry.”

“Oh, Karen,” she said, worry flowing out of every letter of my name. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how the wires got crossed. Pack an overnight bag with some coloring books, your Barbie and Ken, and Kenneth will take you by Poppa Morrison’s house in Bells. I’ll pick you up as soon as I get off work.” 

At these words I felt a knot in my chest grow tight. I didn’t want to go to Poppa’s house. He, like my Aunt Opal, never remembered my name. He called me Carol or Karee. He had no idea who I was or what I was about. He had so many grandchildren and I was one of the younger ones. By the time I was born, he had so many of us that the novelty had worn off completely. 

But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t like visiting Poppa. The last time I went there, he had positioned his rocking chair so that he could see if Nurse Nita walked by. Nita worked at the hospital where Poppa had his last surgery, and Poppa surely wanted to know her better. If Nita was outside, Poppa found some excuse to be out in his yard, too. It was uncomfortable watching him fawn over her.

I thought about the doilies on his chair and the little glass bowl of sugar mints on the coffee table. But more than anything else, I didn’t want to be in the same house with someone who used a spittoon. I gagged at the thought of it.

“Karen, let’s get going,” Kenneth said. My brother was nice enough but he always had an edge of impatience in his voice when it came to me. 

Reluctantly, I finished packing my little suitcase and handed it over to my brother. Helen took my hand and we walked to their car where I got in the back seat. 

The knot in my chest grew bigger with each mile we drove toward Poppa’s house. By the time we got there, Kenneth had to practically drag me out of the car and up the steps to Poppa’s front door. More than anything else I wanted to run far away, but I knew if I did I’d be causing even more worry than I already was, so I stayed put. Still, when Poppa opened the screen door, I froze.

“C’mon, Karen,” Kenneth said. “Go on inside with Poppa.” 

I looked up at Poppa whose tobacco lumped smile appeared more like a grimace.

“I can’t stay here!” I finally blurted out.

Kenneth glared at me. “Where is it you want to stay, then?” He looked over at Helen who was still in the car and shrugged his arms.

“I want to go to Winnie’s house,” I said. The words were so soft, he had to bend toward me a little to hear them.

“Winnie’s house,” he said with a sigh, staring out toward the endless road ahead of him. 

Poppa nodded. “Winnie’s house is good,” he said. He reached out and patted me on the head as if to thank me for saving us both. “You’ll be in good hands with Winnie.” 

Before we even turned to step off the porch, Poppa had closed the door and locked it. I imagined him wiping his brow with relief before shuffling off to a nap or sitting in his chair by the window looking for Nita and spitting snuff.

I felt the tension in the car as we made our way to Winnie’s house. It was just a 15 minute drive from Poppa’s, but it was clear that Kenneth and Helen were both weary of dealing with me. So, when we pulled up in Winnie’s driveway and saw the empty garage, Kenneth slapped his hand on the steering wheel and his face turned pink with frustration. 

“I can…I bet Winnie’ll be back soon. I can just go sit on her front porch,” I said.

Kenneth looked back at me and rolled his eyes. “You know I’m not going to let you just go sit on Aunt Winnie’s front porch,” he said. 

I bent my head down and looked at my thumbnails. They were ragged and worn from me biting them. It took great effort not to chew on one now but I knew adults didn’t like it when I bit my nails so I kept very still as Kenneth looked up and down the street for an answer.

“Mrs. Whitman,” he said, clearly pleased with an idea.

Mrs. Whitman was Aunt Winnie’s nearest neighbor. She and my aunt were very good friends. Her first name was Irene and her husband was called “Fat.” I don’t know why anyone called Mr. Whitman by the name “Fat” but I never asked. 

Mrs. Whitman had given up going to church years before. I had heard bits and pieces why she didn’t go—something to do with her son Andy dying of meningitis when he was 15 years old. I remembered going to the hospital with Aunt Winnie when Andy was there. He had all kinds of tubes coming out of him. Winnie held Irene as she cried in her arms. Andy wasn’t going to make it but the doctors had placed the decision for when to pull the plug on Mr. and Mrs. Whitman.

She cried hysterically to Winnie. I couldn’t remember ever seeing someone so upset. She screamed with anger and sadness, “How can I decide when I want my son to die?” 

Even then I knew that was not a choice any parent should have to make.

After that, Winnie baked a ham and a turkey and some pies for the Whitman family so they’d have something to feed everyone who came out for the funeral. It was a sad time, but as usual, my aunt ran to help make it a little easier to bear.

We pulled up into the Whitman’s driveway and Kenneth held my hand as we walked up to her front porch. He knocked and smiled down at me, his lips tight over his teeth, as if to say, “This had better work or we’re leaving you on the side of the road.” His smile melted into a genuine look of relief when Mrs. Whitman came to the door.

“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Whitman,” he said. “I’ve been in town visiting Momma with my wife Helen,” he pointed over to the car and Helen waved hello. “We’ve got to get on back to Houston now but we need to make sure Karen is okay. Mom didn’t realize we were leaving so soon and Winnie’s not home right now. Can she stay with you until Winnie gets back?” 

Mrs. Whitman wiped her hands on her apron and smiled broadly. “Why, of course she can stay here!” she said. “She can come play with kiddoes.” She looked over her shoulder at five of her six remaining kids all playing happily in the living room behind her.

I looked over at her kids and felt the pang of jealousy I always felt when I was around the Whitman children. They had each other and two sweet parents and they never seemed to worry about a thing. 

“Oh, thank you,” my brother said, pushing me a little too eagerly toward the door. 

Mrs. Whitman put a hand on my shoulder and hugged me toward her. I clumsily followed over the threshold and into her arms. “You come on, now,” she said. “We’ll get you something to eat.” 

“Thank you, again,” my brother said. He hopped off the porch, not even touching the steps in front of him. Helen rolled down her window and waved thanks to Mrs. Whitman. She didn’t look at me as they drove off.

As gently as I could I pulled away from Mrs. Whitman and said, “Thank you, but I’m not hungry right now.” 

“Alright then, you can just to play with the others.” She waved a hand toward her kids who were involved in some sort of board game.

I smiled and tried to appear appreciative, but the truth was I couldn’t wait to leave. It’s not that I didn’t like the Whitman family, I was just ready to get to the comfort of Winnie’s house. It had been a long morning.

So, I sat on the floor and stared out the window, sitting taller with every passing car, hopeful it was my Aunt Winnie.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Winnie drove by.

“There she is!” I yelled while getting to my feet. I had my hands on my suitcase and was at the door before Mrs. Whitman could get into the room from the kitchen.

Mrs. Whitman took off her apron and folded it neatly. “Just a minute and I’ll walk with you.” 

She started to walk back toward the kitchen, which made me panic. It was going to take too long for her to walk with me. 

“It’s okay. I can walk by myself,” I said. “It’s not that far.” 

I didn’t want to give her a chance to say no, so I turned the knob on the front door and rushed out onto the porch. 

Mrs. Whitman came to the door with her apron still in her hand. She had those creases in her forehead that I had seen on Kenneth earlier.

Suddenly I had it in my head how to make everything lighter. “It’ll be funny,” I said, smiling. “To tell Aunt Winnie that I walked there.” 

Much to my relief, Mrs. Whitman smiled back. She understood me. “Well, okay. but I’ll be down there in a few minutes.” 

I nodded and turned then stopped and said, “Thank you for letting me stay with you.” 

“Anytime, Karen,” she said, waving her apron at me.

I began walking toward Winnie’s house, smiling from ear to ear. It was going to be fun to see Aunt Winnie’s face when I just appeared out of nowhere. The suitcase was a little heavier but the excitement kept me moving toward her door. 

This might be the funniest thing I had ever done, I thought. 


Karen Brode is the 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 for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

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.

Aunt Emma

By Karen Brode

By the time I was ten years old, I felt the responsibility to be a good church-going, God-fearing person. The summer before, when I was still nine, I had been baptized at the big gospel meeting held at the Sheraton football stadium.

No church in Liberal County could hold the crowd that filled the football stadium each night. The theme of the meeting was “Three Days of Decision.”

I succumbed to the spiritual pressure to be baptized on the first night. I didn’t trust waiting until the next night. A lot of things could happen in a day. I didn’t want to take any chances.

Back at the little church in Appleton, though, it was like seeing the same movie over and over. It was always the same. I knew what would happen next, but still I watched.

For instance, every Sunday, Geraldine Morton sat in front of Aunt Winnie, my mom, and i. No sooner did we file into our regular pew than Mrs. Morton turned to hold Winnie’s hand while the two talked.

“You know Beulah’s funeral is tomorrow,” said Mrs. Morton. “Could you bring a pie to my house? I’ll have Frank take it over to her.”

There was always a funeral and always a pie needing to be made. Aunt Winnie always agreed to make it or whatever food was necessary to help out the grieving, hurting families. She also went to every funeral service. It’s what people did.

It was pretty much the same every Sunday, some version of that anyway. But one Sunday, Mrs. Morton turned around quickly, before the men had set up the communion table and decided who would say the first prayer.

“I meant to tell you, Winnie,” she said. “I saw Emma down at the Bonham Farmers Market yesterday.”

Aunt Winnie’s head jerked back a little and she tilted her head like she hadn’t heard right.

“My Aunt Emma?” she asked.

Mrs. Morton nodded. “She was looking so much better than last time I saw her. I’m so glad she doesn’t need that walker anymore.”

Aunt Winnie’s mouth dropped open like she was trying to get the words out but she couldn’t. Finally, she whispered, “Are you sure it wasn’t someone who looked like my aunt? Maybe someone far away?”

Mrs. Morton didn’t seem to notice Winnie’s surprise. “No, it was her,” she said. “We talked a bit when we were looking at the plums.”

Winnie nodded and smiled a weak, confused smile, but she said nothing more. Her husband was walking up to the podium just then, so time for talk was over. Still, she seemed so shocked to hear that Aunt Emma was walking without a walker that she leaned forward to look over me to my mother.

They made eye contact and Winnie’s eyes widened, as if to say, “Did you hear that?

Mother shook her head and motioned with her hand something suggesting they talk later. I knew that gesture well because I had been taught from a very young age that once the minister stands to speak, it’s time to hush and listen.

“Let us pray,” my uncle said. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “Dear Lord, may the speaker of your word have a ready recollection of thoughts. May those thoughts move someone today to turn their life over to you. And please bless the hands of the women who are cooking for our bereaved family….”

I took a chance to open my eyes and look over at Winnie then. She was the one who was always pitching in and helping. My uncle had to be talking about her. I wanted to see if I could tell that she was proud of what he had said. But she didn’t seem to be listening. Her head was bowed, but her eyes were opened. She was looking down at her hands and she seemed troubled about something.

My uncle finished his prayer. He repeated his concern for the lost souls of the congregation. When he said “Amen,” I looked around at the few dozen people and wondered who he thought was lost because we had all turned our lives over to God, even me. Did he know someone’s inner miseries that the rest of us didn’t? Was he trying to reach them?

It was time to sing then and we were asked to stand. Most of the congregants were past sixty. They groaned as they forced themselves from the comfort of the wooden pews.

“Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting Lord. What have I to fear, what have I to dread… leaning on the everlasting Lord.”

While we sang, I noticed my aunt watching the cows in the field out the window. She continued to do this throughout the sermon. I looked at the back of Mrs. Morton’s head and wondered if Winnie was upset about what Mrs. Morton had said about Aunt Emma’s walker. I didn’t completely understand, but I knew she was worried about my other aunt for some reason.

A few days later, Winnie came for a visit. She sat at my mother’s kitchen table, and she told her what Mrs. Morton had said. Mother seemed shocked as well.

“Emma’s needed that walker for forever,” my mother said. “It takes her ages to get to the door when someone goes to visit.”

Winnie nodded. “It’s pitiful to watch.”

They sipped tea in silence for a few minutes and then Winnie asked, “You don’t think she’s just pretending, do you?”

Mother shrugged and shook her head. “I can’t imagine. I’ve never seen her without that walker. To go this long just pretending?”

“Have you noticed her hair?” Winnie asked.

Mother shook her head again. “I don’t visit Emma like I should. What I know of her is what you tell me.”

“She’s put something in it!”

I’m not sure what Mother thought of when she heard this, but I had to put my cookie down because I was imagining Aunt Emma with gum or peanut butter or some other sticky substance all over her head. The thought of it made me want to laugh, but Aunt Winnie was so serious that I knew better. So I picked up my cookie and stuffed it in my mouth to keep from giggling.

“Her hair is jet black now!” Winnie said. She seemed almost angry, but I knew the look on her face was more about worry. “Hazel, I think she used shoe polish on her hair!”

I wasn’t expecting that. I burst out laughing. Cookie crumbs went everywhere.

“Karen!” Both Mother and Aunt Winnie hollered at me before I could compose myself.

“Sorry,” I said, still chewing what cookie remained. I stood up and immediately started cleaning up the mess.

My offense didn’t last long, apparently, because Aunt Winnie continued.

“I don’t know why she did it or why she does anything! She’s crazy!”

“It’s not just old age?” Mother asked.

“It is old age and we’re going to have to put her in a nursing home soon. I can’t keep going to her house everyday after I’ve worked a full day. “

Mother wiped a few of the crumbs I missed off the table into her hand. She looked like she wanted to say something but she was biting her tongue.

Finally, she said, “Do you think she’d be better off in a nursing home?”

Winnie sighed. She put her hands to her face and wiped her eyes. She seemed tired all the sudden.

“Even if she goes into a nursing home, she’ll expect me to visit everyday. I guess a home isn’t going to change that. But there’s a limit to what I can do, Hazel.”

The Higgins Family Move to Elm Street

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Opal Strikes Again

By Karen Brode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good old Opal. Always there to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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