Mother’s Helper

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She hit the t.v. remote volume button thinking she heard a faint sound from the hallway and jumped up from the couch. Her instinct proved true.

“Hey, Tea! Tea, come here!” Her father sat atop the toilet, bluejeans pooled around his ankles, his right arm in a sling. His voice was low-pitched and barely audible, so she was glad she had heard it.  

Marty lived on her own but stayed overnight on weekends at her parents’ home to help keep an eye on things when her mom had to work. Make sure he didn’t burn the house down with an errant cigarette, a lit match on short-shag kindling. Smoking had started it all, so his lungs were the impetus but inoperable by that point.

Phillip called her “Tea Bag” ever since she was a baby with tiny drooping eyelids he claimed looked like saturated linen packets. Her father’s pet name for the youngest girl seemed to fit, so the moniker stuck.

Her birth certificate read Martha in honor of her paternal grandmother, but it was days before they settled on calling the baby Marty instead. By age 13 her mother insisted he use the diminutive instead of Phil’s pet name for her. “Come on, Phil. Other kids are going to tease her about it at school if they hear that. I’m surprised they haven’t already done it,” Mom practically begged.  

“I can’t reach the holder there. Grab me some t.p., would ya kid?” Phillip scratched out the question and jerked his head sideways to point toward the wall. Its close proximity meant nothing without a working appendage, the ulna vulnerable from a childhood break and recent radiation that rendered the arm useless. It hung limp without support, the now brown skin turned to leather, as if burned by 1000 suns.

His voice sounded like it dragged through gravel. Doctors blamed an electrolyte imbalance, so she almost hadn’t heard his weak call from the other room. Guilt feelings rose up from Marty’s imagined shirking of duties. Mother counted on her diligence. Somebody had to pay the bills. Dad’s early retirement sprang out of disability and employer insistence. He’d never work again.

“No problem, Daddy,” Marty answered and tore a strip of tissue from the roll dispenser while looking elsewhere. “That had to be embarrassing,” she thought. “Adds insult to injury, as if everything else wasn’t enough.”

Having cancer must be humbling.

Marty left him to finish business with tissue in his non-dominant hand in private. She stared out the living room window at dried Johnson grass rimming an adjacent field in a singular row that a mower must’ve missed. Its pale yellow hue resembled her father’s skin color, his liver affected among sundry body parts. The row, lit by a bright full moon, waved lazily in an early Spring breeze. Its motion lulled Marty’s anxiety. She couldn’t help mentally ruminating. “I’m glad Grandma doesn’t have to see her son like this.”

His mother came to see Phillip a day before he passed when his body resembled that of an Auschwitz prisoner, cheeks sunken and sallow, the disease having ravaged his body. When a mother outlives her child, an image of her beloved on his deathbed stays emblazoned on her mind’s eye until she reaches her own. The figurative retina remains forever scarred.

Noisy static and the television test pattern buzz disturbed Marty’s reverie. She followed the breaking story all night of a terrorist car bombing in an underground parking garage at the World Trade Center, what seemed millions of miles away from their farm but with damage relatively close to her aching heart. That national catastrophe seemed to parallel Daddy’s medical tragedy, personal calamity mirroring a relatively bigger catastrophe. The news day’s end meant she had to finally shut off the set and resolve herself to restless slumber on the couch.   

When the Twin Towers’ fell in 2011, longer after he was gone, she’d reminisce how that night spent with her father seemed so prescient in retrospect. The two NYC events co-mingled in a way that almost felt identical. She’d even later muse, “Was that in ‘93 or the “9-11” bombings?” Memory blurred by then.

Days later, loud barking outside startled Marty back to reality. Their beagle usually warned if someone pulled in the driveway, but she found no one there upon inspection. “Hush, Tyrone,” she admonished. “Daddy’s asleep. He needs his rest.” An epiphany later convinced her that had been when Phillip’s spirit took a last tour of his beloved farm and said goodbye to his dogs as he left. They bellowed in reply, bidding their master, “Salut … we’ll see you over the rainbow bridge, friend.”

All his kids called Phillip “Daddy,” at the risk of their peers thinking it weird and razzing them about it. Maybe it was a southern endearment or simple country slang. Marty thought how pride over the likes of that seemed so unimportant when her father asked for help with such an intimate task that night.

But the previous undertaking paled in comparison to a chore Mother demanded she assist with doing later when Phillip became comatose. A dying person’s body expels its last bit of waste before the lungs perform final functions.

“I can’t do it,” Marty begged her through tears and sniffed-back snot. “Don’t make me. His pants … I don’t want to see him that way.” The smell didn’t bother her as much as seeing her father’s nakedness.

Mother replied, “Well, we can’t clean him with his pajamas on. You don’t have to look. Just get over here and help me lift. Brace up, girl!” Daddy would’ve been mortified to know Marty helped with that job.

Tough love is a bitch. Dying is worse. Being there when to witness her father takes his last breath proved more personal than either of those duties.

He’d wanted to die at home, though, on the farm for which he still owed the bank, but in the house he’d helped build. His home, nonetheless. He died the next day on a hospital bed hospice workers set up in the dining room. A nurse warned it was just a matter of time, maybe hours.

Marty remembered the raspy, “Hey, Tea. Come here  a minute.” But Daddy wasn’t in the bathroom any more, and he’d never call for her help again. He’d never again sleep in front of the VCR tape’s 100th-plus “Smokey and The Bandit” viewing with “Eastbound and Down” lyrics blasting but never rousing him.  

Sometime prior she recalled learning about a “death rattle,” but had never heard one before. The nurse informed her, “That’s just his last breath being expelled, honey.” The elucidation didn’t soothe her.

The prognosis had been six months, but Phillip lived for only six weeks. His son was on one coast following in Phillip’s military footsteps while the oldest daughter lived on the opposite coast when he slipped into death. All his children had visited as he rested in that makeshift hospital room in the last month, though. They spent very few family meals in that room except at a birthday or Christmastime. The kids staged a dance party for him with James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” trying to coax the lyrical into becoming truth. A self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

“Turn that off, girls. You’re making him nervous,” Mother admonished.

They kissed him as he lay on those sterile sheets where he’d withered away to nothing, cancer having eaten away at his already slim frame. He died in that house as he’d wished, the hospital bed soon afterward removed from the dining room.

Phillip’s family never ate in there again.

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I Feel Fine

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Sherrell bid the year adieu at midnight with a resounding, “Good riddance!” as she gulped the dregs of her gin-and-tonic in a final act of defiance against the year now finished. Gripping the highball glass in her hand, she resisted throwing it against the wall to drive home the point. Surviving the prior 365 days, regardless of its physical and emotional difficulties wracked upon her, required all the willpower she’d been able to muster.  

All other party-goers around the room raised their drinks to toast the incoming new year, circled noisemakers in the air, and blew paper horns in celebration. She silently envied their jubilation and wished she shared such a sense of optimism. The next 12 months surely held a more positive outcome, if only she could imagine it.

Her friend, Frank, grabbed Sherrell’s hand to swing her around. “Come on, Sher, let’s dance! ”

Frank talked her into coming to the party regardless of all her excuses meant to avoid it. “No, thanks,” she told him. “I’m going to just grab a drink.” She turned her empty glass upside down to emphasize the point, suddenly glad she hadn’t catapulted it into the wall after all.

He wouldn’t let go of her hand, though. “You’re divorced now. It’s time you had some fun!”

If that springtime change hadn’t been enough, a car accident in late June caused so many lost days at work they let Sherrell go. “I’m too exhausted, Frank. My new job has me worn out. I just want another drink.” 

Frank’s arms swung akimbo while his pelvis gyrated violently and eyebrows also pranced quickly up and down, as if those motions might convince her to join the fray of other people in relative expressions of excitement. He waggled a finger enticingly toward where she stood on the sideline listless and brooding. 

Sherrell couldn’t help chuckling at Frank’s dorky invitation. He could’ve asked someone else to come with him who, most likely, would be a much funner companion. This was one night in the earth’s last full rotation of the sun that allows complete abandon of all seriousness. Life provided her enough seriousness in that time frame. 

“Oh, shiiiiit, girl! That’s my jam!” Frank bellowed when REM’s “End of the World As We Know It” blasted through the speakers. His body went into a wild spin, head whirling on the axis of his neck, arms now floated askew.

Sherrell recognized those old chords and Michael Stipe’s voice from the past, what seemed like a lifetime ago, when she had far fewer serious concerns than now. The portent of those lyrics mirrored the past period of existence, a stage now — thank God — behind her.

Her shoulders collapsed in capitulation, and her feet moved forward, seemingly of their own volition. “Screw it! Let’s go, Frank. I wanna dance!” 

→→→→→ Here’s to a better 2019! ÷←←←←←

Day 1 photo courtesy of Matt Preston via Flickr through Creative Commons license

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A Mother’s Guilt

Kindergarten

Peer pressure could dictate what happened within those classroom walls every day, what she couldn’t see and dare not imagine. She feared what happened in those hallways, in the locker room.

Secure entrances obscured what potential danger threatened to hurt the child she sent on a yellow bus every morning, away from her loving care and protection. He might get in trouble, get suspended, but nothing weighed heavier than the everyday threat of lockdown, sending  kids scrambling to hide if one of them sought revenge on another.

Who would stop them from inside?

 

100 Word Challenge – writing prompt: trouble

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Restitution

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Leaves had yet to turn when the deer blind went up long before rifle season. Preparing kept him from dwelling on grief.

Mother’s passing months prior stayed his mind only on loss. “Concentrate on good times,” people advised. They said, “She’s in a better place.” All that tripe made not a damn bit of difference.

Hunting provided the only mental respite. Readying his stand, cleaning his rifle, and sighting in the scope all saved him from himself. Redirected with thought of the kill.

Looking skyward, he mumbled, “Figure it’s one fer one, Lord. You take one, and I take one, too.”

 

100 Word Challenge – save

Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service via Flickr

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Hanging Way Over

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Those bloodshot eyes hinted at what short-term memory couldn’t recapture. The puffy reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror confirmed it must have been one hell of a time. She opened the door and rattled around with shaking hands in search of a fast-acting pain reliever. Maybe a razor to shave the fur off her tongue. Elves must have knitted a tiny sweater and placed it there for warmth during her spinning slumber.

A glass bottle fell to the porcelain sink and shattered, startling her. This hammering headache was bound to linger longer than the temporary fun from the night before.

 

100 Word Challenge:  Fun

Photo:  Image Catalog via Flickr

 

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The Day’s Catch

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His concentration went all to hell when that first lightning bolt flashed toward the horizon. It’s hard to pay attention to anything else when your butt is floating atop a plastic boat at risk of the next spark actually hitting the water beneath you. Finding a place to go ashore immediately became Tommy’s priority.

Warnings from his mother to watch for pop-up storms didn’t keep him from going out that morning. She didn’t want her son fishing alone in the first place.

Mom had cautioned, “There’s no fooling around with bad weather. Nature always wins. I’ve told you what happened to us on a float trip when I was young.” Using metal canoes meant a friend got hurt when lightning struck the surface somewhere upriver. They made it home feeling plenty scared but lucky.

With gear quickly stored, Tommy paddled for safety. Strong wind spiked waves that rocked the small kayak as rain began to fall, but heightened senses seemed to aid his rowing speed regardless. He thought, “Who woulda guessed these sticks could make me move this fast?” Boulders along the lake’s bank made for a formidable landing spot, though.

Both fast-moving dark clouds and Mom’s harping on bad stuff clouded the kid’s judgement when alighting shore. His inexpensive little boat found the sharpest rock possible, which shoved a hole in its flimsy hull. “Noooo,” Tommy hollered on impact. He had stood up at just that same moment and toppled forward to sprawl his thin limbs across the jagged shoreline.

Regardless of the pain, the boy’s first thought was, “Oh, man. I’m going to be in so much trouble!” He lay there on the rocks hurting but only dreading how he’d have to tell his mother about the damaged kayak.

Radiant beams shown into his eyes and broke that distraction at the abrupt arrival of a car on a berm adjacent the strand. He wiped rain from his face and blinked into the headlights’ glare. Relief washed over him to see his mother alight from the Honda and start toward him. She yelled, “Tommy, I’m so glad to see you’re off the water!”

“Me, too, Mom,” he mumbled. “Me, too.”

Two Word Tuesday writing prompt – radiant

 

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No Place Like Home

“We should get there by nightfall, Shelbina,” the woman told her sleeping daughter, the susurrus of the road having lulled a sense of calm. She always used the little one’s full name, unlike her father. He refused to recognize the namesake, yet another way to maintain his control, so everyone else knew her as Shelly..

Shelbina was the tiny place where her mother grew up. That town and the girl represented everything the woman truly loved, which only fueled her husband’s resentment. But his predictable delivery room absence left her a chance signing of the birth certificate without him. Someone wise might have warned that lack of parental participation as a foreshadowing.

She glanced over her shoulder at the girl’s limp form slumped in the backseat, eyes fluttering in a disturbed REM cycle. A big row earlier in the evening must have played part in such fitful slumber.

The woman reckoned all that nonsense had to come to a head before she finally split up their family. A glimpse in the rear-view mirror as she returned her gaze to the road convinced her that fateful decision was the right one. Proof in fresh bruising around her left eye.

Just lightly fingering the puffiness brought a sudden flinch. That kind of pain proved she’d done the right thing to hit him over the head with the floor lamp and gain enough escape time to get to the car. Even if her brother ended up beating the man half to death in retaliation when he saw her face later.

It was only a matter of time before her husband’s anger turned to Shelbina instead of herself. “He ain’t never gonna touch you, honey. Not if I can help it,” she whispered, not wanting to wake the girl. Maybe saying the words out loud would mean she could believe she’d actually left him.

Shelbina’s untidy hair glistened in the golden hour glow of gathering dusk. The closer they got to the western horizon, the closer they were to home. “Just a little while longer now,” the woman said softly. “We’re almost to Shelbina.”

 

Two Word Tuesday prompt – adumbrate and/or foreshadow

http://ourwriteside.com/28742-2/

video: Samantha Fish – “Go Home” via Local 909 in Studio

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Not a creature was stirring

Prison Bars

Something collided with the cell bars above him and reverberated against the crown of his head. Paulie scurried away from the sound and covered his now aching skull with crossed arms to protect it from further damage.

“Get your lazy ass on your feet if you want anything to eat,” the blurry man in uniform yelled at him. “There’s a cup of coffee and oatmeal there by the door.” The baton that rang out the metal tune on his head moments ago pointed in the opposite direction. “Serve yourself. This ain’t the Holiday Inn.”

Waking up on a cold slab that hung from a concrete wall at Jefferson County jail was a helluva way to spend Christmas morning. The bed felt as flat against his back as the empty wallet in his pocket. Paulie knew good and well his kids were at home expecting to open presents Santa Claus hadn’t brought from the North Pole this year. The coward in him was glad to not witness their disappointment.

Growing up, Paulie’s family ofttimes had its own lean years. His mom would find a way, some kind of hustle, to get his sisters and him a little something. Even if she had to stoop to making them all angels on some charity’s tree. The siblings enjoyed plenty of welfare dinners none the wiser.

Paulie would not only perpetuate the stereotype this year but do it one better. No money for gifts should’ve meant no cash for drinks, but he spent what he had regardless. All the bender did was land him an overnight stay in lockup. Not the best place to be when he should have been putting out cookies and milk for the fat man and carrots for some flying reindeer.

The tree he’d chopped down after dark at the nature preserve would still be there when he got out three days later, dried out and bound to start a house fire. A single strand of tinsel hung listless from a parched branch, and the ornaments still remained, but the sparse presents were all gone. Along with his kids and wife. She must’ve taken them to her mother’s before Paulie got released. He figured as much would happen.

He opened the otherwise empty refrigerator and retrieved a beer before collapsing into the threadbare recliner. No cheerful carols rung out or kids’ laughter greeted him. Paulie reached over and plugged the cord for the Christmas tree lights into the outlet anyway.

*Our Write Side writing prompt – ofttimes

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Taking In the Scenery

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That gray day obscured visibility and led to Mrs. Tolson’s accident but also reflected the farmer’s mood upon learning his heifer broke through the fence. The cow in the road caused a wreck that risked everything Mose Riley worked many hard years to earn. A legal battle still simmered over who held the liability for fault.

Mose swung a hammer to drive in the next nail for fence repair and caught a sidelong glimpse at crows that pecked debris left on the pavement. The specks of brain matter and intestine scattered across the blacktop reminded him of the mess he had ahead of him in court. “Damn that Clara,” he murmured to himself. “Why did she choose that stretch of wood to topple? A hundred yards down the row and she’d have just gone over into the neighbor’s field. Damn her all to hell.”

Mrs. Tolson’s lawyer later criticized the farmer’s negligence in not seeing a hole during the prior feeding time when he’d last checked his cattle. “Had the defendant repaired the perimeter fence, my client would never have met the fatal end to her Sunday evening drive,” the attorney contended.

Mose cursed the insurance adjuster who warned him to not say a defensive word about it. “Let’s not rile them. Keep the damages to a minimum,” the man cautioned.

Farming had always been a financial risk, but Riley lamented seeing all that money metaphorically splayed in a ditch beside the road. The carcass rested in a mangled mass just across the pavement since the Sheriff refused to let him take the cow away to slaughter. It needed to stay there as evidence until their fatality investigation concluded.

“Not only will my rates go up, but I gotta see Clara laying there and not even be able to turn her into burger. Lost her as a producer AND steaks, too,” he thought. One broken brown leg twisted around behind her haunch in a supremely painful-looking position. All the cow’s inner fluids had leaked through the boundaries of her body, and an incredible stench emitted from her bloated form. No future calves from Clara, and not even a rib-eye for dinner.

Spitting a long sluice of tobacco in the direction of the remains, Mose decided to leave the calculation of lost money to another day. “Dammit if she don’t stink, too,” he swore aloud. “I just wish she’d have landed on the insurance man instead of Mrs. Tolson.” Maybe the coyotes would scavenge enough in the night to take care of that stench.

Riley looked away and went back to his mending. “This blasted fence won’t fix itself neither,” he mumbled and gave the post a swift kick.

*Our Write Side prompt – supremely or very

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Silenced Song

trumpet

Norman actually bragged on his body’s ability to create such an incredible level of stench. “I damn near ran everybody outta the bathroom at a bar in Dallas,” he laughed and hooked both thumbs in belt loops to hike up the waist of jeans trapped under his burgeoning girth. “That’s what they get on burrito night!” The man had no shame.

People joked about those generous bodily functions, even when they were canvassing the shoulder of the road for trash along a stretch emblazoned with a highway cleanup sign that read, “Sponsored by the Friends of Norman Blevins.” When the fellas down at the MFA heard about his passing, one commented, “That ornery ol’ cuss had a heart of gold. We all just loved him.” They’d slap him on the shoulder and laugh at his bad jokes. Many people felt the same way and ignored his flaws in favor of his endearing, if not slovenly, charm. He’d help anybody if their dead battery needed a jump or give them a hand with livestock.

Norm’s entrance at the tavern seemed an episode of that old show Cheers, with people calling his name when he walked through the door. He’d holler, “Lemme buy you a beer,” upon seeing a friend. Someone else would show up, so they’d have a few more. Most patrons thought the world of Norman and thought nothing at all of his getting behind the wheel to drive himself home.

They couldn’t believe the tragic newspaper headline announcing the accidental deaths of Norman Blevins and Brian Johnson..

Mrs. Johnson didn’t know Norman. She never met him since they lived in different parts of town, she on the opposite side where mostly black folks lived. The white patrolman who told came to deliver the news of her son’s death didn’t know her either. He’d only been in that neighborhood on past calls. If not for a few boys from there playing high school ball, cops only knew the ones who caused trouble.

Brian was a shy kid who made good grades. He hadn’t arrived home from band practice when his mother opened the door to find a state trooper who asked, “Are you Mrs. Johnson?” She didn’t hear anything else he said after he first uttered those words every parent dreads they might. They felt like a blow to her stomach.

Brian died at the hospital after being hit by a truck on his way home after school. A witness going in the other direction saw Norman Blevins’ truck tires drop off the shoulder and him swerve across the road and over-correct. A black teenager walking on the opposite grass shoulder got struck, thrown into the air, and propelled into the ditch. Much like the discarded bottles thrown out of vehicle windows and strewn along the road. The boy’s trumpet case lay hidden in the tall weeds until his younger brother found it while searching a few days after the funeral.

Norman had been headed back to town, set out for home from a bar he frequented out on the highway. His friends said with the twilight at that time of day he may not have realized he hit anything. The man they knew would never even hurt a fly. Blevins’ friends had the highway department put up a memorial sign within just a few weeks.

It disappeared in a couple days, though. Blades of foxtail later grew up through holes in the metal “Friends of Norman Blevins” signpost that stayed there in the ditch where Brian’s brother threw it in desperate anger and grief. His brother replaced it with a cross made of sticks, wound together with handles torn from Brian’s backpack he would never carry again. The boy meant the marker as a clarion so people might notice his brother’s absence from the world.

Brian didn’t hold a position like Blevins or his friends, but Brian’s brother wanted to show that he’d still been there. He just didn’t have the time to make as big an impression as the man who killed him. Only his teachers and their neighbors knew Brian, but his brother wanted everyone else to remember him, too. Although he would never play his trumpet again, it would still be heard.

*Writing prompt – ornery from Our Write Side

photo: Karen via Flickr

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