Category Archives: creative non-fiction

Relics

suitcases

“That man brought the log cabin all the way from Missouri, piece by piece, to rebuild the whole damn thing,” he told us, “right here in Arkansas.” The antique store where we shopped had ceiling struts with notched out places connecting beam to beam above our heads. The building was the real deal, and we looked up, gawking at its craftsmanship. Even the musty smell permeating the place lent to the authenticity.

“Do you know where it came from in Missouri?” He looked at me funny when I asked him. He exhaled to make a point, maybe perturbed at the interruption.

“Well, I don’t know. But, as I was saying, this guy had it rebuilt here and used it as an antique store. Built this one and the station next door. His wife sold antiques, but her stuff was too overpriced for people around these parts. Nobody would buy anything.”

We glanced over the bric-a-brac displayed on surrounding walls. The new proprietor’s wares encompassing these rooms were labeled “mid-century vintage” but hinted more at “old crap” instead. Dingy taffeta of a stained ivory wedding gown hung loosely on an androgynous mannequin next to my friend. Cracked Naugahyde covered the luggage pieces aligning the floor’s baseboard. The spout of an old Raggedy Ann and Andy watering can pointed me in the face, as I turned back to the storyteller. He seemed to revel in our rapt attention.

Our narrator rubbed his carefully-manicured Fu Manchu. Regardless of its resemblance to long, white Brillo pads on either side of the man’s face, he massaged the hair he must’ve spent considerable time working into its desired shape. All I could imagine was how scratchy it would feel, although I’d never deign to touch it. Maybe it was popular in that region.

“That ol’ fella got sick of not making any money. One day he finally taped his wife’s hands together and tied cement blocks around her. ‘Sgonna go down and throw her in the river.” He paused for dramatic effect and flipped his gaze between the two of us to gauge our reaction. We gave each other the side-eye when he quit looking.

My friend shook her head and said, “Must’ve gone off his nut.” The conclusion was obvious enough but perhaps not to him. He just shrugged, disappointed at our lack of bedazzlement, and continued.

“She didn’t fight back, nor nothin.’ She’s a little bitty thing.” He pursed his lips up and reclined his cane-back chair against the wall behind him. “Some other guy happened along and caught him in the act, though.”

The raconteur then pointed to his crotch, which gave me a jolt at what might come next, and weaved his fingers around in a figure-eight motion. “He tied those cinder blocks all around her waist. Six of ‘em! ‘Sgonna go down and throw her in the river.”

We nodded quickly, still gawking around the walls at such a strange assortment of objects, if not in bullshit disbelief. He went on. “So this fella called the law, and they came and hauled him away.”

He circled his index finger around his lap again and used the short break in his diatribe to draw attention to the action. “‘Sgonna go down and throw her in the river!” We got it.

Both of us finally looked at him straight on and emphatically wagged our heads and up down. “That’s nuts,” I finally conceded. “I hope that dude does a long time.”

We left the building, and my friend whispered, “It must’ve been a slow day for business. I don’t know if he just wanted somebody to talk to or what.” She nudged me toward the car. “Come on. We need to get some gas.”

Once inside the convenience store, my friend proceeded to pay the cashier who looked so bored he could sleep standing up behind the counter. Maybe we were the only customers all day.

He yawned and pushed some register buttons. “Ya’ll come from shopping next door?” My friend handed him the money and replied, “Yeah. Odd place.”

“Huh. Surprised he’s open back up already. Just got outta the pen for tryin’ to kill his wife.” He shook his head. “Kinda funny, huh?”

We didn’t hear the last of what the guy said. We were already out the door and halfway to the car.

 

Image: Rebecca Matthews via Flicker

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And So It Begins

diving-board

That red blob looked more like a flat kidney bean than gum someone spit out next to the metal trashcan. Vertical lines running across it marked where someone’s shoe leveled the originally gelatinous mass post-chew. Shawna shuddered to think of the saliva and germs encompassing the wad before it fell from the child’s mouth to hit the pavement. Imagining the bacteria triggered her gag reflex so badly she could barely look.

She practically faded into the waffle weave of the fence behind her. The temperature made everything too hot to touch, so she dared not lean back on the metal and just sat staring at the ABC gum regardless of the nausea it induced. Some loudmouthed kids ran around Shawna sitting atop a beach towel and0 nearly fading into the swimming pool sidewalk. No one acknowledged her positioned there, even the boys who leaped over her body in a clumsy game of chase.

“Look out!” a boy yelled, but Shawna didn’t notice. She was oblivious to all the chaos around her, fixated on that nasty clump there by the bin. Angled toward the parking lot, this was the best vantage point to spot their family station wagon when it finally arrived. Otherwise, she’d have waited elsewhere.

Shawna finally glanced up to check the street. “Where is she? I’ve got to get out of here.” Jumping back in the water sounded great, but Mom had a thing about getting the car seat wet with a swimming suit. “Come on, come on.” The minutes ticked by in slow motion.

A dented-up car caught her attention in the search. A long one with four doors and a man sitting behind the wheel who watched the kids through the chain-link. She’d seen the bumper almost hanging off when she entered the pool gate two hours beforehand but didn’t notice the man. Maybe his children were swimming.

Maybe not. The girl got an uneasy feeling when his gaze moved in her direction. Hairs on her arms prickled as if static dried them to rise from beneath a layer of sweat. His eyes locked on hers, and he raised one hand in an undulating finger wave. Shawna could’ve sworn an unnatural smile crossed his face – not at all like one from last year’s teacher, Mr. Swan, or from the man who checked her season pass at the desk. She looked down quickly to avoid his stare.

Just then, one of the obnoxious kids came racing by and tripped across her outstretched limbs. Another boy had pushed him and caused the punk to fall over her legs and onto the concrete, which shocked Shawna back to the moment. “Whoa, watch what you’re doing!” She pushed the kid away, not caring about his skinned knee or the blood dripping from it.

A sharp whistle blast drew their attention to the lifeguard stand. “No running or pushing!” A guy in Speedos and a visor shading his face pointed a finger down at them. “You’re outta here!”

Unsure if the command was aimed at her, Shawna’s fight-or-flight response kicked in anyway. Regardless of her mother being there or not, she was getting away from those jerks and that creepy man’s ogling. To balance herself to stand, she put a hand down on the sidewalk … right on top of the gum splat.

Shawna shrieked, scrambled to her feet, and knocked over the trashcan in the process. It began to roll in a path paralleling her own as she ran to the bathroom and immediately wash her hand. She peeked around the gate afterward to find the station wagon idling in a parking space. Her mother honked the horn to hurry her along.

Fortunately, the saggy-bumpered car and its perverted driver were nowhere to be seen. She loosened the towel wrapped tightly around all the bare skin she could cover, pulled it off to slip under her on the seat, and moved swiftly to the car.

* Two Word Tuesday writing prompt – vociferous or loudmouthed

image: Markus Spiske via Flickr

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Fresh Wounds

IMG_0923.JPGAn azure sky promised a blistering hot day as the first canoe broke the water’s surface that morning. The women knew the temperature and humidity would be soothed by the icy-cold river and rushed to get their float underway – 15 miles being the goal for the day.

“Let’s get this show on the road, ladies. I’ve got a cooler full of beer to drink,” Casey belted out, always ready to pop that first tab. “I lost my watch, but it’s happy hour somewhere,” she said. Used to her brand of merriment, the others laughed and joined in her toast with drinks raised in the air.

They got together for such adventures as often as possible, maybe from some strongly-held friendships over the years since high school, or perhaps simply from a collective longing to rekindle the nostalgia of their shared past. Whatever the impetus, they enjoyed escaping the responsibilities of everyday life, and for a few short days other adult commitments be damned.

All fairly adept at navigating either a canoe or a kayak, the group went at the oars with great vigor and followed the current between deep green deciduous forest lining both banks. Most had some background in outdoor expeditions from growing up in the Midwest region. The beauty of such a place sometimes still got taken for granted, but plush reminders surrounded them on either side of the waterway. Rushing rivulets beneath their boats replaced the concrete confines of work and traffic, drudgery of lawn-mowing and trips to the grocery store, and the monotony of laundry and checking kids’ homework. Laughter became an elixir for any lingering worries about life.

“There’s no way you girls are gonna finish off that mess,” the van driver from the outfitter company warned them at drop-off. Their unanimous laughter scoffed his prediction, as drinking on the river practically became an art in their youth, and their big jug of Kansas City Iced Water already  began to diminish by lunchtime. Denise commented how much lighter the container already felt when she lugged it onto a sandbar where they pulled off to eat.

Smaller coolers of sandwiches sat on rocky nest of the riverbank — a tapestry of gray, tan, some darker brown, and even pink quartzite among the riprap there keeping the shores from eroding away. Schools of tiny minnows nibbled at toes left dangling in the water as the women ate potato chips crushed in the dry bags stowed aboard. Kay threw the small fish some crumbs to keep them from nipping at her feet.

She tossed a few fragments downstream hoping to draw them away when an airborne scuffle there caught her eye. “Whoa .. you guys look at that,” she exclaimed, pointing to the opposite bank.

Their attention shifted to two birds that swooped at each other in a swift but embittered battle, with a long-necked heron getting a beating along the way. A smaller bird resembling a hawk yanked at the other’s wing with its sharp beak, tearing away feathers in the process. The larger one’s long neck stretched away in a desperate attempt to escape the slighter but mighty predator.

Their flying fight ended with the more aggressive bird, an osprey, taking to the air after when the rowdy group of women whooped in shock with varying shrieks loud enough to scare off any animal. The heron’s right wing flapped clumsily to flee them as well, although it only scuffed the water’s surface, fresh wounds impairing the ability to flee any other potential danger.

Its injuries kept the majestic bird from escaping the group of boaters, or perhaps the animal instinctively sensed no humans there meant it harm. Marie clambered toward the bird, thinking something could be done for it, practically capsizing her canoe. The woman then realized her own helplessness. She lost a whole beer in the process, and the half-submerged can sailed past the heron’s resting place beside a water-logged walnut bough. What did she know about helping an injured wild bird?

A bale of turtles sat sunning themselves on the downed tree limb but scattered off in different directions when the heron settled near them. Kay said, “What a unique-looking bird. It’s beautiful in it own way, huh?” The women sat ruminating on the notion until she commented, “Surely there’s something we can do for it.”

“You better leave that thing alone,” Casey warned. “It’s hurt and scared … and might hurt you, too.” The others either sat atop beverage coolers or rested on their own rocky nests by the water’s edge, the bunch studying the heron, a sudden pall cast over their otherwise exuberant day.

Marie made her way back to the others on the shore and joined them to reverently study the silently suffering bird. They watched as it hid behind the big limb, wings ruffling, almost trying to shake off its wounds. Kay broke the silence. “My husband hates those things. He says herons always bug him when he goes fishing. They try to steal all the fish,” she said.

Casey shook her head and countered, “Well, that’s just them doing what they do. You know — eat. Everything’s gotta eat. That’s natural.” She usually made a lot of sense even though she might drink too much on occasion.

“It’s beautiful,” said Marie. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something act so graceful under the circumstances. Can’t imagine how much pain it’s in.”

A distant shriek echoed off a cliff bank further down the river, perhaps even from that same osprey that caused the damage. Maybe it meant to remind them of its power. At the sound, the heron stretched its wings and launched itself from the water. A few of the women gasped at the sight.

“No way,” remarked Denise as a wistful smile crossed her face. “I wondered if maybe it might give up … but look!” They watched it soar off into the air, graceful regardless of the harmed appendage.

Casey popped open another beer and held it aloft. “Here’s to you, bird. Keep flyin’.”

A few jaws still agape, the group lifted their drinks in salute. A tear slid down Kay’s cheek, her being the softest-hearted of the bunch, and she swiped at it with her empty hand. “Some wild things are just too much for this world,” she whispered.

Casey grasped her around the shoulder and motioned toward the canoes. “Come on, now, girl. We’ve got beers left to drink.”

___

Studio 30+ writing prompt – aggressive Studio30

Thank you, Mary, for always reading and commenting on my writing. You will be forever missed.

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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 about spiders and snakes 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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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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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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If the Shoe Fits

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He held the lead rope in his hand and asked, “You want me to guide you around the yard for a little while you get used to her?” Casey sat atop the chestnut mare and looked down on him incredulously. Her familiarity might be somewhat limited, but she certainly didn’t need his help finding her way around a saddle.

“I think I can handle it,” she sarcastically replied. Maybe he was just trying to be nice to his guest, but she wasn’t 12 years old for Pete’s sake. The quickness with which she snatched the reins surely clued him in on her exasperation. He shrugged his shoulders, one raised eyebrow hinting his surprised reaction to her haughty remark.

The equestrian art might be arcane to some, she thought, but she knew the basics. Casey didn’t need help mounting to ride, even with the animal at 14 hands’ height, and she wouldn’t ask for it even if she did. Pride got in the way of appreciation for being invited on the ride.

She’d driven in from the city for the day but had grown up around livestock and knew what to do and not do around large animals. Maybe a total newbie wouldn’t see a difference between a halter and a bridle or know a cinch strap from a bit. Casey didn’t claim to be a caballera, but she knew that much.

A horse warns of its anger by pressing its ears back. Only an idiot would walk behind one and its potentially lethal back legs. Some common sense measures like that stood out in her mind. Perhaps the man insinuated nothing with his remark, but she took offense to it anyway. He had no idea how much she knew, but she still got perturbed at him assuming her ignorant.

“So, then why am I getting so defensive?” she asked herself. Her host walked away across the paddock, dust from his boots rising up behind him, a brown cloud in his wake. Maybe he wanted to kick that chip off her shoulder with his scuffed Tony Lamas, manure encrusted in the heels.

Lost in her own inner monologue, Casey jumped when a dog’s yip brought her suddenly back to the present. She shook away the daydream and spied a terrier mix prancing around in circles on the ground below.

The dog’s short spotted legs propelled it upward to nip at her feet, surprisingly high considering the location of the stirrups. Casey drew up her toes, with their brightly-polished magenta nails detailed in tiny white daisies at her recent pedicure. Looking down to ponder her flip flops, she muttered, “Huh, no wonder.”

**

Studio30+ writing prompt – arcane

Studio30Meet a younger Casey in The Fence Post and find out why she started getting sassy.

Image: Paw Nation

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The Price of Pain

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It smelled as if a janitor tried to clean up someone’s sickness in a school hallway and only managed to mix the stench with Pine Sol to a harsher concentration. The odor overwhelmed them upon entering the gray waiting room.

Jewel asked the receptionist, “You take walk-in appointments, right?” As a mother, she was torn. Her daughter’s illness made going to the doctor a necessity. Their lack of health insurance and no expendable income, however, drew that same old feeling of dread from her center. She had no choice but to take Marissa to the free clinic.

This was the first, and she hoped only, time she had to enter the building. She’d seen the sign outside before but thought it a mystical conclave with which she hoped to never become acquainted. Once when Marissa asked her about the place as they passed it on the street, she told her, “That’s where poor people go when they’re sick.” Now, they were the proverbial poor among whose ranks she’d previously never imagined being.

“Yes, the doctor will see you without an appointment,” the woman behind the desk told her. Jewel shook her head, stating, “Actually it’s my daughter who needs to be seen.” She pulled the girl closer to her, hugging Marissa around the shoulders in a grasp of protection.

The receptionist leaned closer to Jewel, nodded toward the young girl, and asked sheepishly, “Does she need a pregnancy test?” Marissa was appalled and blurted out, “NO, she doesn’t need a pregnancy test! She’s 12 years old, and she’s sick! It’s probably the flu.” Jewel didn’t try to disguise her indignant tone.

The woman simply raised an eyebrow in reply. She waved a clipboard toward the waiting room and said, “You can fill out this form and have a seat over there until we call your name.”

Jewel snatched the paperwork away from her and led Marissa toward the scantily-furnished area. Plastic chairs that may have once been white offered little welcome, and she hoped their uncomfortable stay there proved as short as possible. A faded landscape framed on the wall looked as lonely as their surroundings.

While filling in the required information, Jewel looked at the other people around the room. An older couple sat silently in the next line of seats looking downtrodden and serious, their gnarled hands clasped in each other’s grasp. Further down the row, a mother scolded the toddler circling her seat clad only in a t-shirt and diaper. Jewel noticed a brown streak running down the child’s leg and onto the linoleum floor and wondered if it the liquid might only be melted chocolate.

An elbow nudge in her ribs brought her back to the moment. “Mom,” Marissa whispered to her. “Why did the lady ask about a pregnancy test?” The confusion in her daughter’s face saddened her even more than their environment.

She brushed Marissa’s warm forehead lightly with the back of her hand and told her, “I don’t know, sweetheart. Some people just take certain things for granted. Don’t worry about that now. I just want you to feel better.”

**

Studio 30+ writing prompt – conclave Studio30

Image via Erich Ferdinand – Flickr Creative Commons

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Reverance

untitled (4) She kept her head bowed in what she hoped was an acceptable fashion in the congregation, especially to her mother and Brother Welks. Eleven-year old Angelique felt caviled by adults and relegated to silence during the service. The pastor’s deep baritone blasting from the pulpit almost demanded respect and adherence. Such high expectations meant the girl could expect a sound thump on her head if she dared utter a peep during the prayer.

Her eyes cast downward, she glanced to her right where Mr. Lundgren sat with his leg twitching a mile a minute. “He must be as bored as I am,” thought Angelique, pondering the nervous jitter. The polyester of his gray perma-press pant legs jumped up and down, the solid seams pointing in the direction of the hymnal rack attached to the pew in front of him. Lundgren’s wife sat beside him, her hands lay splayed across her lap and open in upturned supplication. The elderly couple bemused Angelique, and she emitted a tiny snort of ponder before she could stop herself.

A sharp flick of her mother’s middle digit and thumb shocked her back into submission quick as a wink. All it took was a quip of “Ssst,” just like a snake, to quiet Angelique, who quickly looked back down at her own legs. As the preacher’s words continued, the girl clenched her fingers more tightly around each other.

Walnut creaked under the heavy load of parishioners in the pew, and they shuffled in their uncomfortable seats. Angelique’s little body fidgeted for a minute, her bottom wiggling for a new position. She agonized, “How many more minutes? How many more minutes?”

The girl sensed a whiff of vegetable soup and wondered if the church ladies fixed an after-service meal. An acrid mix of Campbell’s tomato base laced with a toxic sodium level invaded her nostrils and took her thoughts back to their kitchen at home. She so longed to return to her new Shaun Cassidy album and whatever lunch her mother had in store there.

A woman beside her mother sniffed audibly, so Angelique opened her eyes again to steal a sideways peek. Miss Harriet sat stock still with spindly fingers cupped in prayer, ropy blue veins bulging out from the pressure of her grip. A splash of water dropped onto them, and Angelique’s curiosity outweighed her better judgment. She spied a tear rolling down Miss Harriet’s age-spotted cheek, and it saddened her.

She nudged her mother and whispered, “Momma, somethin’ is wrong with Miss Harriet.” The surly woman’s quick snap and disapproving look were all it took for her daughter to realize her error. Such admonishment spurred Angelique to dread waking up on Sunday mornings. Now witnessing someone cry in church reinforced that desire to instead be home in her bed reading a Nancy Drew mystery or perched on the sofa watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. She’d much rather hear Marlin Perkins talk about lion cubs than someone drone on about the wages of sin.

A hard slap of Brother Welks’ hand against the speaker stand made Angelique jump in the pew. She gasped for breath, tightened the squeeze of her fingers, and asked God for release from the church’s sanctuary. They’d all be set free upon utterance of the morning’s final “Amen.” The pastor prayed and persuaded all he could, but no one took the invitation to come forward, so his job remained unfinished.

Another whiff of soup blew past Angelique’s face. Imagining the taste of Saltines in her mouth made the girl lick her lips in anticipation, and a hungry grumble stirred in her stomach. She knew all the words to Hey, Deanie and couldn’t wait to get to her record player to hear them again. Her mother grasped Angelique’s hand and tugged her to standing so they could finally follow everyone else out.

Miss Harriet had already left the row and made it to the exit by then. She even beat the pastor to the door where he always greeted parishioners upon their exodus from the building. The poor woman wouldn’t have a chance to shake his hand in passing.

**

This week’s Studio 30+ writing prompt was quip.

Studio30 Image Credit: lenwilson.us via Creative Commons

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