Life Lessons

sink

Her classmate’s shriek and frightened reaction surprised Kelsey, and she wrinkled up her forehead in feigned disgust. “You oughtn’t to be afraid of a little spider. You think you’re gonna be a nurse, and that scares you?”

The other student exaggerated, “It’s not little … that thing’s huge!” She’d plastered herself against the opposite wall, hands splayed against it as if the bricks could provide protection, and obvious fear showed in her expression. Kelsey asked the girl, “You remember that old song about spiders and snakes from the 70s? My aunt used to sing it when she’d chop a snake in half with a hoe out in the tall grass.”

She continued mockingly, “You’re going to have to renounce your womanhood if you can’t even squash a bug.” She shook her head. “It’s just a garden spider. Hell, they eat the rest of the bugs, the ones that actually bite. You should say ‘thanks’ instead of running from it.” Kelsey had the benefit of growing up on her Aunt Augstine and Uncle Albert’s farm. Something this innocuous didn’t bother her much.

She witnessed much more graphic incidences, especially at slaughter time. Cattle going to their final demise to put food on the table ranked higher on a scale of gruesome acts than killing a spider. Kelsey took off her sandal and smacked it against the porcelain, eyeing her classmate all the while, and missed seeing the brown and yellow mess she made. ”You’ll find out when you have to help remove one from a patient’s bum someday,” she laughed condescendingly.

Both took Anatomy I and dissected a sheep’s brain in class only that week prior. Several of the girls reluctantly watched as a braver number of them sliced into the small organs, with some complexions turning as gray as their specimens. Kelsey loved the experiment and delved into it with no qualms.

Helping with geldings and breech calf deliveries hardly bothered Kelsey. She learned to overcome a squeamish stomach during such procedures over time, as she followed Augustine’s courageous example. The woman served as her mentor, and Kelsey looked up to her more than anyone she knew. Maybe even more than Uncle Albert. Taking care of livestock was a necessity and meant survival on the farm. “Brace up, girl,” Augustine admonished. “You ain’t gonna get very far in life if you let everything bother you.”

Kelsey overcame a miasma of sights, sounds and smells few other girls could withstand at such a young age. A small spider in a sink at school felt relatively miniscule in comparison to her. She may not make a 4.0 this semester but grew more confident when she tackled each new academic feat that came along.

Glancing down at the mushy arachnid remnants, some of which mixed with water pouring from the faucet to swirl it down the drain. Kelsey stared at the circling water, lost in reverie, and thought of all the fluids she saw on her aunt and uncle’s farm. She thought of how Augustine could saddle break a horse or dehorn a cow right alongside Albert or any other man. She remembered watching her aunt perform rectal palpations on many a heifer to check for pregnancy.

Augustine had to think of the “bottom line” (no pun intended) and did what needed to be done, especially after her husband died of a heart attack one planting season. She learned from experience, not at a college, and kept the farm going years after he was gone. Her aunt was paying for Kelsey’s tuition, and she owed her everything. She hoped to live up to Augustine’s expectations. “I think that was a Jim Stafford song she used to sing,” she said musingly.

A voice behind her questioned, “Are you going to turn off the water?” Kelsey came back from her daydream and pushed down on the tap. The last little spindly leg washed down the drain, and Kelsey turned to face her classmate. She said, “I got this one. You help me study for the next exam, okay?”

***

Studio 30+ writing prompt – renounce Studio30

Image: Jana on Flickr

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
Maya Angelou

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Back-to-school Blues

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Bright magenta peonies with a tall sprig of ornamental grass sprouting from their center graced the corner of their neighbor’s lawn. Such a lush grouping never hinted a seasonal onslaught loomed so close in the distance. The assortment would dry and wither as autumn sucked away the nutrients supplying that color.

Cleve followed his big brother’s school bus all the way down the street as it passed the flora and left their neighborhood. He hated to see summer end and his older brother go back to school. His legs couldn’t pedal fast enough to keep up with the vehicle, as it turned the corner and accelerated down the block. Marvin turned to wave through the back window.

The kid watched the bus fade into the distance and began to lose his balance from the sobs that began to rack his slim shoulders, their freckles barely starting to fade. Cleve put a bare foot down on the pavement before he wrecked and tumbled to the street. A crash of the aluminum frame joined the sound of Cleve’s crying as the bike fell to the ground. He lost himself to sadness and sat down heavily. Still wearing his thin summer pajamas, he shuddered in the chilled morning air.

Recent memories flashed through his young mind as he longed to be back at the swimming pool playing Marco Polo. Lakeshore rocks under his bottom while his fished with his brother felt better than the smooth concrete beneath him now. Sweltering games at the baseball diamond where Marvin made a double play only a few weeks ago differed greatly from the cooler temperatures already descending each evening. It all ended so quickly, and now the boy sat on the damp pavement of their quiet street with only a few birds trilling from treetops.

Cleve resented their cheerful music. “Shush,” he muttered half-heartedly.

He looked up from where he’d crumpled and saw his mother strolling up the block toward him, having watched her youngest son follow the yellow bus Marvin climbed aboard minutes prior. Kleenex appeared from her right pocket and a chocolate Pop-Tart from the other as she reached him. The boy never realized his mother’s power to produce a magical elixir when the situation called for it, but its soothing effect was not lost on him.

“Mom, I don’t want Marvin to be in second grade,” he told her and grabbed the woman around her calves, tears coming in a new torrent. “And I never want to go to school either – it’s stupid,” he declared. “I want to stay with you.”

She looked down into the well of his brown eyes and shook her head in pity, not wanting to quibble the details requiring this little one to join his brother on that bus next year. Her heart breaking for her son and with a sorrow she knew all too well herself, she replied, “I know, honey. I’ll keep you at home with me as long as I can.”

*Studio 30+ writing prompt – quibble

Studio30(photo: Eric E. Johnson via Flickr)

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Taking a Shot

pool“That fella ought to know the law. He is the Sheriff, after all,” Jamie said. They’d been given carte blanche to drive to the next bar, even though the authority figure in question knew how much they’d had to drink. They’d even confessed to it. The hour was late, and they’d gotten plenty liquored-up already, but the Sheriff himself had just practically given Odell and Jamie an engraved invitation to keep the party going.

Everyone knew Jamie as The Iceman, a nickname he’d earned with his occupation, and nobody in town called him anything but The Iceman. Only a few people paid much attention to the poor Schmo — particularly those who ran low on stock at their convenience store, restaurant or bar. He was, in fact, quite popular at the bar. Plenty of room temperature Jack-n-Coke if it weren’t for Jamie.

The Iceman became Odell’s hero. He told anyone who’d listen what a great guy he found his buddy Jamie to be. The night Odell came to idolize Jamie, he’d watched Odell and a young woman play one another in pool for over an hour.

Odell noticed her when she ran the table earlier in the evening. Her name was Cami, but Jamie didn’t know if that was a moniker for the skimpy tank top she wore or her actual name. Jamie had a daughter about her age who tended bar down at the Salty Dog, or Jamie would never have recognized the word as a piece of clothing.

Cami was a good pool player and beat all her friends, but they grew aggravated with her increasingly obnoxious behavior the drunker the woman became and proportionately annoyed with Odell’s ogling their bodies as each one reached over the billiard table to take aim at the cue ball. In her inebriation, Odell’s final partner didn’t seem to mind and almost seemed to welcome his attention.

“Nice bank shot, honey,” he told her. Wearing sunglasses inside the dark bar obscured Odell’s glance up and down her young torso and limbs, lingering long on her breasts and much longer on her ass when she stretched across the felt to aim at a particularly difficult long shot. She offered him an old-fashioned curtsy and a tip of her straw cowgirl hat, one spaghetti strap dipping down over her shoulder as she did. Odell about shot his wad right then and there.

Jamie watched the pair from the opposite side of the Budweiser Clydesdales on an oblong tableau lamp dimly lighting the smoky room, in disbelief someone like her hadn’t yet slapped Odell, and hoped the man wouldn’t make a fool of himself. He overhead Odell extend an invitation to take Cami down to the Salty Dog where a band played and they could dance some more.

Long story short, the woman’s friends broke the girlfriend code of “leave no woman behind” and left her at bar. All the cajoling in the world couldn’t get her to go with all the ill-fated attention she was getting at eight ball. Odell offered her a ride home, which she obliviously accepted after only having casually been acquainted with the man a couple hours.

Light spilled in a circle under the street light of the town’s lone intersection with Odell’s old Chevy Luv pickup rattling at idle in its illumination. Cami, long gone, must’ve set off for on foot when she couldn’t get Odell to come to at the wheel. He sat slumped in the driver’s seat when Jamie drove up and found him. He’d have lain there for posterity, sunglasses askew, if The Iceman hadn’t happened along the road. Even though the Sheriff claimed the night was a free-for-all after the street dance let out, he’d have surely hauled Odell down to County if he’d spied the truck instead of Jamie.

“You sure are the best,” Odell told him after Jamie parked his vehicle and drove Odell on home. “I love you, man,” he said emphatically, his voice slurring and head bobbing before it careened to rest on the roll bar of The Iceman’s little side-by-side. He’d driven all the ice to the dance at the beginning of the evening but never imagined he’d deliver a person to his door later on that night.

Jamie shook his head hoping that girl Cami made it back to her friends. Odell’s antics never ceased to surprise him. At least this time Odell never made it down to the Salty Dog, a relief to Jamie. His daughter was safe from Odell’s lecherous looks and the Sheriff’s wife wouldn’t have to watch out for him when she got done playing her set. She wouldn’t have to call her husband on Odell this time and have him sleep it off overnight in jail … again.

Studio 30+ writing prompt – nickname            (photo courtesy: Mary Dobbs)

Studio30

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Girl Guides Gone

butterfly Their absentmindedness had gotten them into “quite a pickle,” as Blythe’s grandmother was wont to say. Realizing their folly, the girls began to shout for the rest of the group when they noticed no one else about. A search for the elusive blue butterfly the pair spied took them on a side jaunt with no wooden cross in sight to mark a foot path. Usually quite conscientious on a journey such as this one, the girls had ventured off trail and into an unfamiliar territory despite their leader’s warnings against doing so.

Troop Troubadour was a newly-organized group of Girl Guides and only meant to take a day trip exploring nature. Ten-year old Blythe and her compatriot, Molly, ended up in an Amber Alert bulletin and the subjects of a county-wide search by that evening.

A dense stand of forest encompassed the girls and gave them a total sense of loss. Twenty minutes prior the two wandered along without a care in the world before the thick cover of trees encircled them with impending doom. Blythe had first spotted the mariposa and goaded her friend to follow as they tried to identify it for badge points, entomology being the latest project.

Her gaze once straight ahead in her quest, she stopped to look backward toward their origin and pondered aloud, “Hey, where’d everybody go? Before they knew it, the plucky pair had trampled into unknown territory.

Gigantic leaves filtered sunlight  overhead into sparse illumination that grew dimmer as minutes ticked by and turned into hours. Turning around to double-back proved fruitless and side treks confused them even more than when they began. Not to be discouraged, though, they followed their troop’s motto and “Ventured on to their daring destination.”

Despite imminent darkness, growing hunger and mosquitos nipping at flesh, insect repellent long since divested of its effectiveness, they sipped on water bottles as a sole source of energy. Molly spoke, if not in true desire, at least to hear her own voice instead of the sounds of the oncoming night. “I wish we’d thought to bring t.p.” They tramped onward, hand-in-hand, intent to find a way out of the trees.

Blythe reached across her friend’s chest and stopped her in her tracks, much like her mother did when suddenly braking the car. She asked, “Do you hear that?” A familiar sound of trickling water drew the girls’ attention and gave them hope of finding something familiar.

They wouldn’t be hopelessly lost in the woods if they could find the stream, babbling brook, or whatever the source of the running water they heard. “I think we should find it and get the heck outta here,” Molly said.

Several hundred yards in front of them, the tall Chinquapins began to part. Picking up the pace, the girls started toward the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It was as if the moon waited where the path had seemingly opened up for them. A small, fast-moving river ran along a gravel bar not far from the woods’ end, and a filling of sweet relief washed over them both.

N. Tonelli

“Look at the bank over there, Blythe,” Molly exclaimed. They’d reached the water via sound and smell, not by sight, and discovered a cairn along its edge. “I’ve read about these rock pilings in my badge book,” she explained. The Girl Guides’ credo to “leave no trace behind” in the wilderness led the youngsters to know the stack of stones was built by people … intruders, imposters on that water, no matter the negative label naysayers gave them … and not of natural origin.

There the two waited until searchers found them in a few hours huddled together by the rock tower, only a slight chill in the night air bringing any discomfort. A song missing from her lips and usual happy demeanor, Molly burst into tears when discovered wrapped in the arms of her consoling friend.

The author of a previous article in the town’s newspaper redacted an original premise about adverse effects of constructing man-made structures in parks and natural areas. With citing several credible sources, including wildlife experts and park administrators, she found no other notable worth in building rock structures beyond official marking of trails. Blythe and Molly found the purpose that particular stack of river stones served much more than simply beauty.

Troop Troubadour and their leader greeted Blythe and Molly, elated, at the ranger station. The girls materialized from the moonlight to bathe at home that night, pull ticks from around their sock cuffs, and plaster more itch cream on their arms and legs than they’d like, but remained fairly unscathed. A bit of scratching such a small price to pay.

In the case of the missing Girl Guides, the anonymous outdoor enthusiasts who balanced those stones became the families’ unknown heroes. The newspaper writer quoted Blythe’s grandmother as stating, “Whoever defied the rules of park administration, if not Isaac Newton’s theory, saved Blythe and Molly as far as I’m concerned. They’d wandered even further off the beaten path into certain danger had it not been for that little stack of grandeur.” A smiling trio stood next to the artistic piece in a picture accompanying the write-up – and even changed the author’s mind a bit.

Studio 30+ prompt – absentmindedness

(photo: N. Tonelli on Flickr)Studio30

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Lonesome Blues

He had a bum knee from a long-ago car wreck that caused him to walk with a stitch in his gait. That limp kept him from doing much of anything, least ways gave him an excuse from fixing or cleaning anything around the house. Carpet hadn’t been hoovered since Charlotte left him several months prior. Didn’t matter anyway with all the leavings from his boot heels. Traipsing all over muddy back lot left them pretty nasty and hard to scrape with that bad leg and all.

boot scraper

Those things never bothered him and Ol’ Buck, the dog his sole compatriot these days. The Setter stood to be about all he’d get in the dispersal of his marriage as well. They slept in a mutual bed and shared the same measure of filth throughout the abode.

Lawrence’s self-esteem left with Charlotte, so the state of his dwelling became the least of his worries. Personal hygiene certainly moved down the priority list, too, exacerbating his loneliness as well. Buck didn’t mind the stench of recycled tube socks and week-old drawers turned inside out. “That’s why you canines are called ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ ain’t it, Ol’ Buck?” He smiled down at the dog’s speckled face and admired his oblivious loyalty.

He envied that matt not having a worry in world and considered his lot in life. The kids gone off on their own, and his wife gone now, too, considering her job down raising up the little ones. She found no other reason to stay with his lazy self, she said, and kept talking about how he’d soon have the goats living inside if he had his way about it. Just like that mean man on that purple movie with Whoopie Goldberg. Least he’d never have to watch such nonsense again, much less have a chick flick thrown up in his face.

Lawrence reached down to pet the dog’s shoulder and choked back a sob. “Damn, my luck,” he gasped. “How’d we end up here, boy?” His knees suddenly went weak and toppled him down onto the crusty, stained carpeting. The man fought desperately to be optimistic about his situation but lost that inner struggle more often than not.

He came to the next morning in that same crumpled spot, a rubber-soled toe of Charlotte’s shoe nudging him in the ribs, a slew of empty PBR cans scattered across the dirty floor around him. “Good to know I’d find you in about the exact spot as I last seen you, Lawrence,” she said. “Just came to pick up my mail. I’m expecting something.”

His head pounded like someone beat on the inside of his skull with a hundred tiny ball-peen hammers, and he watched his soon-to-be-ex-wife step over his body and walk to the messy kitchen counter to search for her letter. Used to be Charlotte would’ve had a conniption to find him in this condition. The woman’s face showed neither anger nor surprise. Just resolve.

Lawrence rolled over to one side and tried to slowly push himself up to a sitting position to watch as Charlotte simply trod toward the door to leave. She glanced back over her shoulder to address him. “You might wanna get up and take Buck out ‘fore long. He took a big shit right inside the door.”

She stretched her arm out to turn the knob and took one last great stride over the pile and across the threshold. Turning away from Lawrence, she said, “It’s not right to trap him inside so long, you know.”

Studio 30+ writing prompt – optimistic  Studio30

(photo: kansassampler.org)

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Soul Stirring

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Before her aunt became sick, Ava had sworn she’d never go back to Horton. The older woman had no other family, so a heavy dose of guilt brought her to Aunt Enid’s bedside until she recovered. Her late mother’s shaming voice would have otherwise haunted Ava’s sleepless nights full of fitful dreams.

Five years passed since her mother’s death with no other reason to return to her hometown. Old friends with whom she still cared to know stayed in touch, but she had little in common with their stay-at-home Mom experiences of dirty diapers and soap opera storylines. Ava’s calendar didn’t include the upcoming high school reunion, as she’d long ago stopped following those classmates’ pretentious social media updates. She didn’t care to ever visit Horton again except for seeing her mother’s aging sister at holidays.

A few days after Enid’s cheeks pinked up gain, she made a special request of Ava. “I’ve been feelin’ so poorly, I been out of church for two weeks. So I’d like you to take me to the revival tonight,” she told her. Ava’s stomach sunk, and she spun from her place at the kitchen sink in shock to face the woman seated behind her at the table.

“Aunt Enid, are you sure you’re up to that?” Ava failed to mask her reluctance with concern for her elder’s health, and the lady eyed her skeptically. Youthful summers spent within such religious confines rushed back to Ava, and her senses filled with pungent perfume drowning out body odor in a tent’s thick, humid air, sweating bodies pressed together amidst a preacher’s bark and mourners’ wails, the repentance of their sin bringing many to tears. Ava felt her own neck perspire, and it began to trickle down her spine at the visceral memory.

Even wearing a light cotton sundress provided no relief in the similarly damp dusk that greeted them as they made their way to ancient wooden folding chairs lining the revival’s makeshift sanctuary that evening. Ava braced Enid’s arm and shoulder as she escorted her precariously down the center aisle to seats near the front. She could feel their inquisitive gazes upon them, whispering old looky-loos discussing her reappearance among them. Had she not been so preoccupied with the task at hand, she’d liked to scornfully glare right back at those busy-bodies.

All manner of jubilant hymns kicked off the service and whipped the crowd into a spirited throng before the sermon began. Ava tried to stare forward to avoid getting a bird’s-eye view of the overwrought parishioners surrounding her. Seeing the preacher in a cream-colored linen suit walk in and take his place at the pulpit stupefied her. Her high-school boyfriend, Langley, stood confidently at the front of the crowd. He cast an image of calm coolness as his confident smile cast its gleaming brightness upon his flock.

As surprised as her niece, Aunt Enid asked, “Is that who I think it is?” They both sat shocked as he broke into a loud sermon full of all the fire and brimstone Ava remembered from long ago days of childhood. His sermon possessed a passion absent from what Ava remembered of their courtship. They’d gone to Sunday school together mornings after lustful Saturday night dates spent making out in his basement bedroom. She blushed in spite of herself thinking back to how Langley’s mother once almost caught them half-naked. Luckily for them both, she stopped short of the threshold as the girl scrambled to redress.

“I don’t know if I can sit through this,” she replied, but Enid patted her hand reassuringly and nodded at the young woman. She tried to reassure her with, “It will be all right, dear.”

The evening’s heat only stoked her core temperature, as memories flooded over her throughout the duration of Langley’s rousing speech. While he rambled on about the wages of sin, people succumbing to the ways of the world, and repentance for secular living, Ava could only think of taking him to the Sadie Hawkins’ dance and wearing his idiotic yet favorite “Hey, Koolaid” t-shirt to school that week as part of the festivities. She also remembered how they’d once occupied Lovers’ Lane when a police officer knocked on the window to admonish them for not using the car’s parking lights while they once again scrambled for clothing.

She couldn’t believe Langley served as such a believing crowd’s moral leader. Trying to shake off the flashback as simple youthful folly, she struggled to separate their past from the present moment and just get through the final minutes. A spirit-filled call to the altar served as the sermon’s climax. Realizing they could finally leave, Ava felt relief wash over her like the baptismal waters of the River Jordan itself.

She rushed her aunt to the center aisle, hurrying past the other attendees whose socializing stood in their way. One final obstacle also blocked her path – the reverend stood at the exit shaking hands with his faithful and blindly trusting followers. Ava mentally coached herself, “You can do this, girl. Just keep walking. Maybe he won’t even recognize you.” She pasted a wan smile on her face, hoping to escape easily.

No such luck. “Ms. Enid, so glad to see you this evening,” Langley greeted the then turned his syrupy smile on her niece. “And you, Ava. It’s been so long. How did Horton Third Baptist ever earn your presence here tonight?”

Langley and his platitudes proved as insincere as his earlier message to the congregation. Her suspicions about the preacher’s false witness confirmed, Ava swallowed her pride and croaked, “Good to see you, too.” She reached to quickly shake his hand and go, but Langley gripped her shoulder instead.

He dealt a final blow with saying, “I hope my message tonight revived your soul and finally shined a light on your past ways.” Ava fought to hide her angry astonishment. She started, “Why you …”

Enid interrupted her, “Don’t worry about her, Langley.” She removed the pastor’s hand from her niece’s shoulder and said, “You know, she wasn’t the only one in the back of that Pinto. Good night, young man.”

She turned to Ava, “Let’s go, dear. I’m sure you can’t wait to leave Horton.”

Studio 30+ prompt – visceral Studio30

photo: oinonio on Flickr

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Oasis

oak_tree__1569823363_She could see the big oak tree from across the lake like a distant beacon drawing her attention to the opposite shore. A concrete grain silo stood behind it, a structural backdrop that looked to a five-year old much like a fixture keeping the Tootsiepop-shaped tree standing. The girl spent hours contemplating how she could cross the water to that distant shore and reach the shelter of those limbs.

She dreamed the limbs a delicate lime flavor of the lollipop and could almost taste a tartness in her mouth. Sometimes she sat on the front porch looking from the lake’s opposite rocky shore until it became too dark to see, and she fell asleep there dreaming of the boughs’ cover. Sitting under that green canopy might hide her from notice, especially from that of Buster and her momma, and she’d finally be safe.

Even though Buster wasn’t her daddy, she had to do as he said. His demands became more hateful if her mother left the house and wasn’t witness to his ministrations. Momma never noticed the bruises. She would see them on her legs and bottom at bath time if she took the time with the little girl, but she missed lots of things. Something she did behind the closed door of her bedroom kept the woman from paying much attention to her daughter at all.

OasisThe girl studied that distant tree to consider how she might actually climb up into those wooden arms. That’s how she planned her escape. Leaning into the dirty face of her rag doll as she fell asleep using its stuffing as a pillow, she told it, “It’s time to go. I feel like I’m dying.” And she hadn’t even yet lived. Its owner’s tears streaked the grimy doll baby’s cheek, which gave a few hours respite before morning’s light greeted her on the hard wooden slats of the porch swing.

With no herpetological expertise of her short 1850 days of life, she didn’t realize snakes traversed those waters. The recent heavy rain churned them up to the surface as they themselves swam for refuge. One bite to a 30-pound swimmer could mean she’d never make it to the other bank.

She took a life vest from Buster’s layout boat and tucked her doll between the straps and her chest, apologizing for the wetness her friend would experience during the crossing. They’d sort out the drying later she thought and waded into the water, her feet swirling up a muddy mess below as she did. Worried about getting whooped for stealing that jacket made her dog paddle out fast before anyone saw her leave.

Momma didn’t realize she’d gone. Didn’t know anything until a woman from Family Services knocked on the door the next night. It took quite a ruckus banging to rouse her from the bedroom. A couple having a picnic under that oak’s shade spotted the little one up nestled up in a crook of two branches. An afternoon of questioning made the girl finally confess where she’d come from, why she sat on a damp life jacket up in a tree cradling her doll with no parent or sibling around to watch her.

She thought that tree saved her life, protected her until the authorities found her and brought her to a new family. One with nobody like Buster around to give her bruises ever again. Her new family had both a momma and a daddy, and they lived in a nice house in town. One with its own small oak tree in the back yard.

They said lightning struck that tree a few years before and broke a few branches, so it wasn’t as round as a Tootsiepop. But she could reach its branches just fine.

*Studio 30+ writing prompt – dying Studio30image – Wikimedia Commons

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Local legend

8th_Place_-_Mountain_Lion_(7487178290)Darnell meant to prove the naysayers wrong. They called him crazy, told him he was mistaken, ought to get his eyes checked. Some called him an idiot flat out. But he knew the truth.

He’d actually seen a mountain lion in that vicinity, and he swore to find the indisputable evidence of such. “Weren’t no wampus cat and weren’t no deer,” he claimed. Collecting scat to prove it turned out to be a tricky business, though. Either DNA from that mess or plaster casts of tracks would serve as testimony.

To search the dense forest was like finding that old needle in the haystack, but he plundered through the thick expanse of trees anyway. Poison ivy grew thick through the area, and he practically swam in Calamine lotion afterward to cover his welts and ward off itching. Darnell watched droplets of blood ooze up through the pink crust and coat the underneath of his fingernails from all the scratching. His wife scoffed, “That’s what you get for being so stupid. Everybody knows there’s no panther back in them trees.”

“Hell, yes, there is,” he refuted. “And I mean to prove it to everybody, including the authorities. ‘Specially after that one got hit down in Laclede County that Johnny Law had to take down and give to them Revenuers. ‘Member, in the paper?” he asked her.

She nodded in recollection but still thought her husband crazy as a loon. They’d heard tell of cats once roaming those hills before being effaced from the region by gunshot. Too many people still claimed to spot them, though, for Darnell to completely doubt it. His cousin swore to seeing them on his land over by Longmont more than once.

Right after Darnell stopped hanging out with his old friend, Harry, he thought he saw one for himself. Had he not sworn off going fishing with him because of all the Bigfoot shenanigans, Darnell would’ve asked that so-and-so to go squirrel hunting with him that day. Old Harry coulda been a witness to the woodland sighting, but Darnell didn’t want Harry’s lunatic reputation taking away from his own credibility. Nobody believed that one crossed County Line Road right in front of his headlights on the way home. He saw its size and recognized the fat tail. Fawn-colored coat be damned — it was no deer, and it was no dog.

Even Harry brushed off Darnell’s claim and said if as many pumas roamed their part of the country as people said, all their farms would be overrun by now. Said that must be some kind of virile male out there siring such a brood and he’d sure like to weigh in on the bet against that possibility. He didn’t care that Widow Williams attributed the scars down her mare’s hindquarters to a cougar attack and took no heed to her living by that riverbank with rock face and caves on the opposite side. “Big cats live out by the desert,” he professed, “not here in this farmland. And they’re certainly not huntin’ down that widda’s livestock.”

Darnell begged to differ. He asked him, “What about all them dead armadillas, huh? They used to live but down South. They been movin’ further up all these years, and now they’re squooshed all over highway. Makes it look like scute road pizza everywhere.”

The buddies ceased debating the presence of hillbilly speed-bumps once Darnell had his own experience with a cat. He got permission from Mrs. Williams, as any conscientious poacher would, to lay in wait for a mountain lion on her land.  Rifle slung over his shoulder, he slunk below some low-lying cedar branches for three nights that autumn in hopes of spotting one of those mountain screamers. Preferably from a good distance. Family and friends considered him nuts.

He promised his wife he’d be careful. Darnell had no desire to be mistaken for a raccoon and become a cougar’s last meal before Widow Williams could hear his cries for help and shoot the animal from her back door. Surely she’d come to his rescue, her being the only one who ultimately believed him.

On that overcast day, the fall wind cooling the temperature down enough to necessitate extra clothing, Darnell lay in the underbrush wearing coveralls. Lulled to sleep in his warmth, he rolled over on his back and woke to see a scraggly evergreen canopy above him. A brown and gray beast rested in the higher branches that resembled his daughter’s silver tabby housecat so much he first thought it to be Tiger Lilly herself.

The size of the bobcat’s paws in comparison, jogged Darnell to full awakening at the realization of what looked down on him from its treetop perch. The animal flexed its phalanges to reveal gigantic claws from within its feet pads, and Darnell almost wet his camouflage.

Widow Williams heard the screams all right. She actually thought the neighbor’s peacock wailed in the evening gloom until she looked out the side window to spy Darnell running to his pickup parked in her gravel drive. Standing alone in her kitchen, she commented aloud to no one in particular, “I didn’t think he could move so fast on such short little legs.” The woman shook her head and said, “Didn’t hear a shot, but he mighten have seen something after all.”

*image via Wikipedia Commons

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Mending Walls

Welcome mat with walking shoes Cheryl stood in the living room doorway to her neighbor’s kitchen, shocked at what lie before her on the floor. Vexed, she asked, “What are you doing down there, Marty?”

The neighborhood women knew each other but only pretended to when it was convenient to them. Familiarity didn’t make them friends, but she regarded Marty fondly enough. She urged her, “Come on, get up from there.” Tugging on the woman’s arm didn’t goad her into standing. She remained stretched across the dirt-and-tear-streaked linoleum, limp and inconsolable.

Keeping caught up with the needs of her own children tied Cheryl down to her household most of the time, no matter how much she felt like socializing with any of the other mothers down the block. Some of the girls played Barbies together, listened to the Grease soundtrack on continual repeat, and threw dirt clods at the boys on the street. The moms, however, remained acquaintances.

Marty’s daughter crossed the street to ask for Cheryl’s help after her mother hadn’t made breakfast or lunch that day. She realized the need for help but didn’t know what to do other than summon an adult. “Do you mind to talk to my momma, ma’am? She won’t answer me when I ask her what’s wrong,” the girl told her friend’s mother. Worry hung on her face heavier than if the neighbor boys aimed to retaliate for rock-filled lumps of earth flung at them in the past.

Marty, usually a loquacious woman, sat sobbing within a jumble of words. She uttered no discernible sentences, only sniffs and grunts, and a single line of drool ran from her bottom lip to her baby’s fontanel below. The little boy scrambled to escape his mother’s steel grip, none too happy atop her lap, his diaper leaking at its stretched leg opening.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on?” Cheryl prodded.

She stepped forward into the room and crouched down to grip the woman by both arms while her shoulders shook in great heaves as she cried. She couldn’t discern the baby’s weeping from his mother’s. Marty mumbled something about her house, her husband, a migraine, and lunch. The odd stream of consciousness, couched in heart-wrenching sobs, came out as a half-hearted plea for help combined with desperate complaint. The only comment Cheryl could make out about the ‘baby not letting me close my eyes’’ led her to conclude Marty lacked some much-needed sleep.

Years prior she’d suffered her own bout with postpartum depression, memories of which might never leave her mind. Doctors waved it off and offered her no relief other than a suggested night cap. She doubted their advice and competence at the same time.

“You need to go to bed, Marty,” she told her.

“Let me take the baby so you can get up.”

Handing over the sticky, stinky newborn, Marty grappled to her knees and half-crawled to the living room sofa. “That’ll work, too, I guess,” Cheryl said and turned the spindle to close the front window blinds and shut out the light. She jostled the baby on her hip to sooth his whimpering while his mother fell asleep the moment her head hit the yogurt-covered pillow. At least that’s what the dried yellow substance in its woven plaid fiber looked to be. “She must be exhausted,” Cheryl thought, “to choose that scratchy-looking perch.”

When Marty awoke hours later, she looked around a different living room. Baskets of clean and folded laundry sat by the coffee table, and she heard dishwasher running accompanied by the sound of grease popping. A wonderful aroma of toasted bread filled the air. She rubbed at her still slightly-swollen eyelids as she tread cautiously to the kitchen, afraid of what may greet her there. A vision of her 12-year old burning bacon in a skillet flashed through her mind just before she crossed the threshold.

Instead, she reveled in the surprising scene before her. The baby slumbered dreamily in his swing, and her daughter sat at the table with a library book. Cheryl glanced up from her stance in front of the stove. Her eyes widened in greeting, and she offered, “We thought grilled cheese sandwiches sounded good. I hope you don’t mind that I kind of took over in here.” Marty smiled and shook her head. “Gosh, no. How long was I asleep?”

Cheryl only shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We were having fun.”

“Seems like he’s been sawing logs, too,” Marty laughed and sat down beside her daughter. “I must’ve looked a fright when you came in the front door.” Her eyes finally met those of her neighbor. “How can I thank you, Cheryl?” The other woman only blushed in return. “I haven’t been the best neighbor to you, Marty,” she confessed. “You’ve been under a lot of pressure and could’ve used a friend. I’m just sorry it took me this long to cross the street and offer some help.”

**

Studio 30+ prompt – loquacious Studio30

Image:  http://stockarch.com/images/objects/signs/welcome-mat-walking-shoes-4140 (Title inspired by the poem by “Robert Frost“)

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Consequence of Time

a houseTen children were born in the two-bedroom house over the years, with indoor plumbing installed only after the youngest became a teenager. They were all born and grew up in that tiny place their father built. Talmadge, Iris, Talbot, Ernie, Loretta, Pearl, James, Frank, Myrna, and little Minnie.

Mother kept house as well as she could, in between having babies, and tried to put meals on the table with the meager means her sporadically-employed husband provided. Ernest, a sullen man, began to bald early. His worries of finding work as an uneducated laborer and supporting his growing brood aged the man sooner than his time. Mother birthed children for so long she looked like a grandmother by the last baby’s arrival.

Their ages spanned so many years that Iris, much an adult herself by then, was left to name Minnie, choosing the moniker from Disney’s famous character of the time. Their parents’ preferences ran dry by then. Some cried themselves to sleep at night without enough to eat.

Iris resented her father for making Mother have so many children. “You’d think she was a dog with that many puppies in a lifetime litter,” she said. “Worked like one, too, caring for us all.” She remembered the want all too well.

She told, “Aunt Mertie sent us a few staples. Things we could use. We’d pull our wagon up to her house a couple blocks away when the water got shut off. Musta had the utilities come due and couldn’t pay ‘em. Had to fill lard cans with water and haul it on home to cook and wash with it.”

That’s what families did, helped during the hard times. No amount of ridicule from neighbor kids riled them much. Iris recounted, “We was just kids. Didn’t know any different.”

She relayed stories of siblings dropping out of school, some of the boys joining the military, other brothers following their father into menial labor. Only little Minnie ever graduated from high school. “With no money, us girls had to go to work right away or else get married. Couldn’t stay with Mother and Daddy in that ol’ house with all those kids piled on toppa each other. Too many mouths to feed.”

Iris grew wistful and looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought. Finally, she said, “Talmadge disappeared after a spell. Nobody saw him for ages, so we were left to believe he either went to jail or got killed. Broke my mother’s heart to not know what happened to her boy.” His name couldn’t be repeated at home, either because of the grief of his absence or their father’s anger at him leaving them all guessing.

“My mother cried when telling me how James left for the rails, though,” said Iris. Her hands twisted around upon each other, and she picked at her cuticles in nervousness. “I already married by that time but still loved my little brother,” she explained. “He weren’t worthless like Ernie, who couldn’t put his mind to hard work and ended up in a den of thieves. Not an ambitious bone in his body.”

Iris sniffed back a sob, pulled a tissue from its box, and continued. “I miss that James the most. He wanted to see the world and figured jumpin’ freight cars to be the easiest way to go about it. We got a telegram from a hospital in Pennsylvania to let us know he’d died. Nurse found a note in his pocket to notify us of his whereabouts. We all mourned.” The woman’s weary face resembled her mother’s in later years, eyes still wearing their mutual sorrow. It’s hard to tell truth from what’s imagined.

The staff refer to her demeanor late in the day as “Sundowner Syndrome.” Iris gets agitated at the remembering, and her mind wanders when she re-tells family stories. Details hint at actuality, but the dementia often brings out more fanciful tales.

“Yes, little Minnie.” She shook her head slowly back and forth. “Minnie didn’t know James like I did, was too young when he left. The girl only knew from what we told her. Just like I’m telling you now.” Iris fidgeted in her faded blue glider, the seat’s padding molded where her backside rested most of the day.

She’d once been quite a looker, fully coiffed at the beauty parlor every week, nails freshly painted – the epitome of a kempt woman. Brushing her short-cropped gray hair back from her face, she turned toward the dining hall. “About suppertime, ain’t it? I can tell you more later if you still wanna listen.”

Upon returning to her room, she wouldn’t remember where she left off.

***

s30pStudio 30+ writing prompt – ridicule Image: US National Archives

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