Crimes of Passion

            When I was a child, my family was poor. We always had food, clothes and a place to live, so we weren’t destitute. Much of what we did have came from relatives. This included everything from furniture to food.

            I don’t recall ever being extremely hungry, but I was never full. Apply this to not just the physical sense of lacking food, but to the emotional. I missed something that was wholly mine. Yearned for something that had never been owned, worn, felt by someone before coming to me.

            At the time I lacked the words to describe the feeling. There was an emptiness that was never filled. As a consequence, my eyes sought objects that were small, so insignificant that they would not be missed.

            My mom frequented the Five and Dime, a general merchandise store that catered to people like us. My mom loved to roam the aisles, feeling this, holding that, occasionally buying the things she came there for: a spool of thread, buttons, a swath of fabric.

            Perhaps I learned from her that it was okay to pick up and hold things that you weren’t going to buy. Maybe I was taught to slip things in your purse when the owner wasn’t looking. In later years I learned that my mom often left stores with hidden items. If that was true, then I was an observant understudy.

            My sister’s birthday was approaching and on this trip to the Five and Dime my mom needed candles for the cake. In that section there were tiny pink dolls, plastic cribs to match, and paper umbrellas on thin sticks. I wanted them all. One of each size, shape and color.

            Something inside of me must have known that it was not okay to pocket too many items, at least not on one trip. My hand reached for a plastic baby on its own accord. It felt smooth and easy to touch. It weighed nothing. It fit perfectly in my small hand and even better in the pocket of my jacket.

            I wanted more. The crib, the umbrellas. I trembled and sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t talk. When we approached the register I knew I was going to get caught. My eyes looked down. I feared that the owner could see guilt, could see the inside of my pocket. He said nothing.

            On the way home my fingers held that baby, still inside the pocket. At home I buried it in the backyard, hiding the evidence.

            One plastic baby didn’t satisfy the want inside me.

            The next visit to the store I pocketed a box of six crayons. The problem, I realized once home, was that I couldn’t use them without my mm knowing that she had not paid for them. The crayons joined the plastic baby in the backyard.

            By now I was a seasoned thief. I planned my outfit, making sure I had at least one pocket. I knew I had to roam the aisles like my mother did, feeling this, picking up that, examining something else. When mom led us to the trinket aisle I knew what I was going to take: an umbrella. The problem was, which one. I chose the blue. It slid into my pocket just as the other things had done.

            By now I wasn’t afraid of looking at the owner. After all, I had stolen before and not gotten caught. With the umbrella secure, I accompanied my mom to the register, stood complacently while she paid, then walked out. Except something different happened.

            The owner asked my mom to wait, but not until after I was outside. I don’t know what was said, but when my mom stormed outside and grabbed me by the sleeve, I knew I was in trouble. She dug in my pocket and produced the umbrella. With it held aloft, she pulled me back inside the store. She handed over the umbrella which was now broken thanks to her tight grip.

            I was told to apologize. I refused. I had done nothing wrong in my mind. I had seen my mom slip things in her purse over and over. If I had to apologize, then so should she. I didn’t say it, thankfully.

            After much prodding I mumbled an apology. The owner then forbade me from ever entering his store again. I thought his punishment was excessive considering it was only a tiny umbrella.

            My parents decided I need moral guidance so they enrolled me in a Brownie troop that was being formed at the Catholic School I attended. I didn’t know anyone and had no intentions of making friends with them.

            I don’t know how I knew, but I understood that the girls and mothers who ran the troop came from wealthier families. It might have been the newness of the girls’ uniforms versus my faded one from a thrift store. Perhaps it was because the mothers wore necklaces and earrings, something my mother didn’t have. Maybe it was the way they treated me: like an idiot who didn’t understand English.

            It wasn’t on the first meeting, but maybe the third, that the mothers had planned a craft activity. It involved the use of colorful rubber bands. I don’t remember what I made, if I made anything at all. What I do recall in vivid clarity was the desire to own the bag of rubber bands.

            My palms began to sweat. My heart beat wildly. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bag. Whenever a girl took a rubber band from the bag I cringed inside. I wanted that bag so badly that my stomach hurt.

            I had to have it. I had to take it home. But how? How could I sneak it home without being caught?

            The solution came when it was time to clean up. The bag still sat on the table, all alone. It called my name. I moved closer to it. The desire intensified. I checked to see where the others were. The girls were giggling off to the side. The mothers were in a circle, talking. No one was near me. No one was watching.

            The entire bag of rubber bands slid into my school bag. I latched it shut then hurriedly left without saying goodbye.

            My mom was waiting outside. We drove the long way home in silence. At home I took my school bag into my bedroom as I always did. I removed the rubber bands and hid them in my underwear drawer. Moved them to under my mattress. Stuffed them in a shoe. Found a hole in the back of my closet and stuck them in there.

            When my mom finally asked how the Brownie meeting went, I told her it was dumb and I never wanted to go back. That was a lie. I had had fun. The mothers were kind. I felt safe there, at a time when I needed safety. I feared that the girls and mothers knew I had taken the rubber bands. That was the reason I couldn’t return.

            My crime of passion ruined what might have been a good thing.

A Valentine’s Dilemma

Part Two:

Just as he remembered, there was an old leather trunk in the corner, covered with a layer of dust.  He lovingly rubbed his hand across the top.  He opened the lid, revealing Nightingale’s treasures.

On top was a red velvet shirt with a beaded yoke, a string of yellow flowers attached to a white vine, all hand sown by Nightingale herself.  Next was a tiny pair of beaded moccasins, so small that he couldn’t fit his whole hand inside.  He found a bandolier of china tubes interspersed with blue glass beads and a pair of white buckskin leggings with a fringed tunic.

“This was her weddin’ outfit,” he thought as he held them up to the light. “She sure looked pretty in these.”  He held the tunic to his nose and inhaled, then cradled it to his chest.  For many minutes Grandpa sat on his haunches, rocking with eyes closed, remembering the beautiful girl who stole his heart so many years ago.  “This won’t do,” he chastised himself as he placed the outfit back in the trunk.  He rummaged around some more until he found the item that he had had in mind.  After taking it out, he closed the trunk, locked the door, and went back down the ladder.

About the same time Stan came in, leading Sally by the halter.  “Guess what I saw up on the ridge?”

“A beaver?”

“No.  Guess again,” Stan said as he led Sally into her stall. 

“Little Bear?” Grandpa chuckled at the thought of the creature from lore being spotted at the top of the hill.

“You know better than that,” Stan said. “Give me a real guess.  Something that lives up there, but you seldom see any more.”  Stan pulled off the saddle and the blanket and hung them over a rail.  He picked up a soft cloth and wiped Sally’s damp sides until she glowed.

“You saw a porcupine.”

“That’s it!  How did you guess that?  I haven’t seen one up there since I was a little boy.” Stan brushed Sally, removing the matted hair from her mane and tail.

“Well,” Grandpa drawled, “I was thinking of a porcupine that crossed my path when I was about your age.”

“Another story, Grandpa?”

“Yep.  You keep workin’ and I’ll talk,” he said as he settled onto a three-legged stool just outside the stall.  “Years ago, shortly after I met Nightingale, I wanted to give her something that showed how special she was.  I had little money to spend, so I figured I’d make something.  Now your grandmother always dressed in her traditional clothes.  Somehow it felt right to her.  None of that modern stuff.

“So I rode up on that ridge, just like you did, thinking maybe I’d see a nice piece of wood for carving.  Instead I ran across a dead porcupine.  Looked fresh.  Maybe died of old age, as I didn’t see any wounds anywhere.  Anyway, I got the idea to pull off the quills and make something out of them.  The quills are hollow, you know, so it is easy to lace them together to make a necklace or breastplate.  Plus they can be died different colors by using berries, roots, or mosses. 

“Red was Nightingale’s favorite color, so after getting as many quills as I could, I searched around until I found some nice berries.  I took it all back home, boiled the berries in some hot water, making a nice thick juice.  Then I dropped in about half of the quills.  While they were cooking, I found some rawhide scraps and cut them into very thin strips. 

“Once everything was ready, I prayed to the gods to guide my work.  The Blackfoot believe that the quills have religious powers, so I was extra careful not to offend anyone.  I had some blue glass beads left over from a necklace I made her as a wedding gift, so I used them too.

“Every evening I came out here to the barn and worked while Nightingale took care of the mother.  My fingers were too big and clumsy to make anything real fine, so I concentrated on the larger pieces of quill and the beads with the biggest holes.  It took me nearly two weeks, but when I presented her with a sash for her waist, she smiled so big I thought her cheeks would split.

“So, here it is,” he said as he held it up for Stan to see. “I found it in her chest.”

“Grandpa, that’s beautiful!”

“The colors have faded a bit, but Rose might like it anyway.”

“She’ll love it.  But won’t her father think we’re engaged?”

“Maybe yes to both.  But if you notice, I made a design like antelopes.  Blackfoot warriors place a lot of significance in the antelope.    Because they run fast, the antelope escape capture more times than not.  Curly Bear will remember that and know that this gift isn’t meant to tie Rose to you.”

Stan reverently held the sash up to the light, then ran his fingers along the lines of quills and beads.  “This is perfect.  Rose doesn’t have a sash nearly this nice.”

“Well, let’s go inside.  It’s nigh on to dark.  Soon it will be bedtime.”

Stan closed Sally’s stall door, turned off the light, closed the big barn door, then walked with his grandfather back to the house.  “One question, Grandpa.”

“Sure.”

“If this was Grandmother’s, don’t you want to keep it?”

Grandpa stopped at the top step and turned to face the now dark front lawn. He turned his eyes up to the sky, sighed, and then said, “The materials that went to make that came from the earth.  Yes, it was a special gift.  A way for me to tell my wife that I loved her.  But it holds no power over my memories.  Keeping it in that trunk is of no use to anyone.  If’n you give it to Rose, every time she wears it, Nightingale will smile.  Nope. It’s yours to give.”

Stan laid his right hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. “I don’t know what to say, except thanks.  This will make the best Valentine’s Day gift.  All I need now is a box and red wrapping paper.”

Grandpa nodded. “I just might have some of that upstairs.” With that, he opened the door and led the way inside. “Why don’t you get some studying done while I gather what you need.”

Stan pulled his Government textbook out of his backpack and settled at the wooden desk his grandfather had recently made. The surface was smooth even though it was a bit uneven.

He loved the care that had gone into its construction. In fact, he even knew which tree his grandfather had used. Not too long ago, during a rare windstorm, a walnut tree had blown down. He had helped cut the tree into usable pieces that he had stacked under an overhang on the backside of the barn.

He opened to the chapter on socialism and was just starting to read when his grandfather reappeared, his arms full.

“I found ever’thin’ you need.”

            Stan smiled when he saw the red Christmas paper. Rose would laugh when she saw dancing Santas and skipping reindeer. “That’s perfect. Thanks.”

            “So,” Grandpa said as he got out his pipe. “Happy?”

            Stan nodded. “Once again you solved my dilemma.”

            Grandpa opened the front door and just before he stepped through, he said, “Valentine’s is about love. I’d do anything for you because I love you. You know that, right?”

            “That I do.” Stan moved the paper and ribbon off to the side of the desk. “So what can I get you for Valentine’s?”

            “Every day you gift me with your love.” Grandpa closed the screen door behind him. “That’s all I need.”

A Valentine’s Day Dilemma

Part One:

            Stan Ellis sat before his computer, furiously searching the Internet for a gift for his girlfriend, Rose.  He wanted to get her something for Valentine’s Day that said he cared about her, but nothing more.  After all, they were both seniors in high school headed for college in the fall.

            “That won’t do,” he thought as he looked at diamond necklaces.  “I don’t have that kind of money, and something like that spells L-O-V-E.”  He checked out watches, rings, hats, and various types clothing, but nothing seemed to fit what Stan thought were in Rose Tailfeather’s taste.

            Grandfather Ellis, looking on from the kitchen as he fixed dinner, smiled.  He remembered going through the same thing when he wanted to give his wife Nightingale a special gift on their anniversary.  He understood how hard it was to find just the right gift.

After putting the casserole in the oven to bake, he stepped into the living room. “Whatcha doing?”

            “Oh!  Grandpa, don’t sneak up on me like that, please.”

            “It’s good to know I can still sneak.  I thought these ol’ bones made enough racket to wake your long-dead uncles.”  Grandpa pulled his pipe from his shirt pocket, stuffed it with tobacco from a hand-tooled pouch hanging from a nearby shelf, tampered it down with his finger, lit it, then inhaled.  As he exhaled, he made perfect clouds of smoke rise toward the ceiling.  “I asked what you were doin’.”

            “Valentine’s Day is coming up and I want to get something special for Rose,” Stan said.

            “Go to Draper’s in town and pick up somethin’ there.  The old man carries a good variety of things to please a woman.” Grandpa settled into his old, worn recliner, put up the foot rest and got himself comfortable.

            After turning off the computer, Stan said, “You don’t understand.  Rose comes from a traditional Blackfoot family.  If I give her something too valuable, then her father will think I’m proposing.  If it’s not something Rose wants, then she will think I don’t care.  I’m stuck.”

            “Is Rose a nice girl?”

            “Of course.  You met her before the Winter Dance.  I brought her over, right?”

            “Is she the one that wore the old-fashioned buckskin dress with blue and white pony beads down the sleeves?”

            “That’s the one.  Rose is proud of her heritage and wears native regalia almost every day.  She’s in my Chemistry and English classes and her grades are always the highest,” Stan said as he fidgeted with his hands.

            “Doesn’t her family live outside of town on Little Creek Ranch?”

            “Yes.”

            “I remember her ol’ man, Curly Bear Tailfeather.  He believes the people’ll rise and take back the land.  He goes to Ghost Dances and parades about like he’s a medicine man. He’s kind of nuts, if’n you ast me,” Grandpa said, inhaling and puffing once more.  “You sure chose the wrong girl, Stan.”

            A look of shock swept over the young man’s face.  “Why do you say that?”

            “Because no matter what you do, you’re in trouble.  Curly Bear believes in all that ritual stuff.  Anything you give Rose is an engagement promise.”

            “That’s my problem, Grandpa.  Rose may come from a traditional family, but she has modern ideas.  She expects a boyfriend to remember her on Valentine’s Day. And not just with a cheap card, either.  She wants something in a box covered with bright red paper.”

            Just then the oven timer rang.  “Go check dinner, Stan, and I’ll think on it for a spell.”

            When Stan checked on the casserole, it wasn’t quite done. While it continued cooking, he put together a tossed green salad, set the table, and poured two tall glasses of ice water.  His grandfather had some diced potatoes in the frying skillet, so Stan turned on the heat, put in a little oil, onion, salt and pepper, and cooked them until the potatoes had a nice brown color and the onion slices were translucent.  After putting the potatoes in a serving bowl and placing them on the table, he pulled out the noodle casserole and centered it on the hot pads his grandfather had spread in the center of the table.

            “Dinner’s ready, Grandpa.  Come on in.”

            “Thanks, Stan.  I was so busy figurin’ I forgot about food.  I think I solved your problem,” he said as he walked into the kitchen and sat at the head of the table.  “Say the blessin’ for us.”

            They bowed their heads as the nuns at St. Matthew’s Episcopal had taught both.  “God, our Creator and Heavenly Father,” Stan intoned.  “Bless our meal and all the people who helped create it.  Watch over us as we go through our days.  We thank you for all the gifts you have given.  Amen.”

            “Amen,” echoed his grandfather.  “Pass the potatoes.  Got to eat ‘em afore they get cold.”

            As Stan ate he remembered Grandma Nightingale’s rules about chewing slowly and eating quietly in reverence to the animals and plants that gave their lives in order to sustain the people.  When he was finished, Stan said, “So, what idea did you get?”

            “Well, if you give Rose jewelry from a store, she might like it, but her father won’t.  He hates anything store bought and thinks old man Draper cheats the people.”

            “That’s what I was thinking.  Plus Rose might read engagement into it, and I don’t want that to happen.  We’re still too young.”

            “You can’t give her flowers, as Curly Bear’s anger would rise at destroying plants for no purpose.  That leaves clothing or food,” Grandpa said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his full belly.

Stan got up, picked up the dirty dishes and carried them over to the counter.  He rinsed them off and then placed them in the dishwasher.  The leftover casserole went into a refrigerator container.  He dampened a paper towel and washed off the table, careful not to disturb his grandfather.

“I’ve got to take Sally out for a ride before it gets too dark,” Stan said.  “Want to walk out to the stable with me?”

“Sure,” Grandpa said.  “What I was thinkin’ was that what you could give Rose is out there anyway.”

Together they walked across the lush front lawn to the barn.  Stan pushed open the large door while his grandfather turned on the lights. 

Stan looked around and saw only hay, harnesses, bridles and horseshoes. “What’s out here that I could give Rose?”

“Nightingale’s trunk is up in the rafters.  If I recall correctly, there’s something in there that would make Rose smile and keep her father happy as well.  You go out for a ride while I climb up and get it.”

“Sure, Grandpa.  I’ll be back in an hour.” Stan saddled Sally and headed out toward the distant hills.

After his grandson left, Grandpa climbed up the ladder to the rafters.  He walked to the far side where there was a locked door.  Pulling out a ring of keys, he found a small, old-fashioned one that fit the hasp lock.  Once the door creaked open, he allowed his eyes a moment to adjust before stepping into the dark storage area. 

Just as he remembered, there was an old leather trunk in the corner, covered with a layer of dust.  He lovingly rubbed his hand across the top.  He opened the lid, revealing Nightingale’s treasures.

Georgia Peach

Georgia, a peachy little girl

One fine day wandered far from her home.

With mammoth twist and a single twirl,

Lost the dirt path on which she did roam.

 

No worries, though, for this saucy child

Did spot a cottage deep in the wood.

The sun shone down on roses gone wild,

Made Georgia forget to be good.

 

She knocked upon the ancient door,

Then flounced her golden, curly hair:

Listened for footsteps soft on the floor,

Thought of whom might live in tiny lair.

 

When no one came to see her inside,

She turned the small knob with trembling hand,

Opened the door wearing a smile wide.

Alas, no one there to take a stand.

 

Georgia stepped into kitchen small,

Noticed three platters brimming full,

And glasses barely two fingers tall,

In which was liquid brown and dull.

 

She took a taste from the biggest one.

Georgia gagged: fought to keep it down.

“This stuff stinks,” she burbled. “I am done.”

Her face now covered with ugly frown.

 

Next she spied the family’s stuffed chairs

Crimson and gold, with tassels of blue.

Nestled under the circular stairs.

Georgia sat, fell.  “This was not new!”

 

With achy bones, she climbed the first step,

Heard nary a sound from man nor beast.

Up she went; where the family slept.

Miniature beds spaced most to least.

 

Exhausted from her explorations,

Georgia moved them all together.

Soon she forgot all aspirations

And dreamt of sunny, pleasant weather.

 

While adrift on misty isle of cloud,

Georgia snored and tossed all about.

She didn’t hear voices clear and loud.

“Someone’s here,” said Dad, “there is no doubt.”

 

The family of three, with startled eyes,

Noticed empty glass and broken chair.

“Who’s in the house?” said the mother wise.

“I’ll find out,” Father said.  “I’ll take great care.”

 

Father first, Mother and then the Son

Crept up the stairs and looked all around.

“There she is,” said Father. “That’s the one!”

“She must have thought she wouldn’t be found.”

 

“Let the child sleep,” said Mother dear.

“She seems to be sweet and innocent.”

“But Mom,” said young son, “I do but fear

my bed’s broke.  For this she must repent.”

 

Father smiled, “She’s but a girl, no harm done.”

“Now come, let’s go and let her dream on.”

After they ate, outside they did run

And played the silly game, Name That Pun.

 

Georgia awoke, stretched, and then stood,

Fluffed her gold hair and straightened her dress.

Down she walked, and into the big wood.

Thought, I’ll remember this fine address.

 

Found the dirt path on which she did roam.

With a single twist and mammoth twirl,

She luckily found her way home.

Georgia, a peachy little girl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night Terrors

            The large dun horse runs full tilt down a rock-strewn hill, its hooves sliding, slipping, searching for purchase which it finds, then loses then finds again as it runs harder, faster, its eyes huge, lather forming on its withers, its sides and foam dripping from its mouth, its tongue dangling to one side as its sides heave and heave. The headlong descent to the swiftly moving river below doesn’t slow its run, doesn’t ease its fears but rather amplifies them for the roar is deafening as the current bangs against tree limbs hanging so low their branches dip into the melee.

            She tries to stop, but her forward momentum is so strong, so impulsive, so rushed that her hooves slide through the muddy banks and into the river she jumps with a mighty splash. The water is too deep and she flails, legs trying valiantly to swim, to coordinate, to come up with a rhythm that will keep her afloat, but its all in vain as she is swept downriver along with branches and other debris.

            Her head is barely above water and her breathing is ragged but still she fights, her hooves hoping to touch bottom despite knowing that they will not, they cannot for the river is deep and the current keeps sucking her under. Downriver she goes, crashing against huge boulders that suck her breath away, that hurt her legs, her ribs, her neck.

            Kicking and kicking she never gives us, never succumbs to despair that would pull her under even when her mighty head dips below the surface and all she sees is a muddy swirl. Sides heaving she fights the fight of her life, not giving in for a minute, a second.

            In front of her, all around her a roar begins. Quiet at first if a roar could be called quiet but as she fights, it intensifies as she nears a bend in the river, a turn she hopes will allow her weary legs to strike mud, sand, gravel anything.

            No more boulders ahead. She has hope. Her spirits life, until she notices that the roar is so loud that she hears no bird, no insect, no bubble or quiet gurgle. Roar and more roar. Growing louder as the current pulls her forward toward an end. A drop-off. A precipice inot which she knows she will fall.

            And so she gives up. Her exhausted legs stop churning. Her head slumps. Her heart stills. She is prepared to die and million deaths for she knows what comes next. She’s seen if before. Heard it before. Lost companions before. But with one last burst of energy she screams signaling her acceptance of death as she plunges over the edge.

            Down and down she falls carried by the torrent, deep into the mist, the swirl, tossed over and under until she does not know which way is up or down or sideways. So deep that there is no sun, no light, no joy until there is peace. She quits fighting knowing that her life is no more.

            A sudden overwhelming peace fills her. A lightness of spirit. She has come to her afterlife. She will run with her ancestors. Romp across stubbly fields in joyous rapture.

            Until she opens her massive eyes and realizes the she is being carried along with a mild current, heading toward a sandy shore. She fights just enough to get her head out of the water, just enough to be able to breathe, to see a blue sky. To feel the sun on her shoulders, to hear birds singing softly overhead. In and out she breathes. In and out.

            With effort she struggles to her feet and stands for fear of collapse. She raises her weary head and sees grasses just a few steps ahead. She knows she must eat. Must restore energy lost and so she makes her way to the first patch and nibbles gingerly as if it might not be real. Nibbles more and more as she moves away from the river.

            Natural instincts take over and she grazes calmly, naturally as she’s done all her life. As her ancestors have done. Ripping out one nourishing morsel after another as the roar of the terrifying falls slowly recedes into the distance.

            Satisfied, she shakes her head removing the last of the water and she neighs calling for her kind. Nothing at first so she heads toward a sand dune, a tiny hill and makes her way to the top being careful, ever so careful where each hoof goes.

            At the crest a beam of light falls across her back and it warms her inside and out. With a sigh she plods forward, one step after another. She nibbles the choicest bits now that her hunger is satisfied. She neighs again and waits for something. She knows what it is, but will an answering call come?

            Far to the west she hears a faint call. With the sun going with her she heads toward what she hopes will be a welcome. Serenity fills her for she has survived. The tragedy will soon move to the recesses of her mind, but will never be forgotten. Not entirely. Not for many years.

Mama’s Voice

Low and sweet Mama called, “Honey Bee,” and when Collette arrived, Mam wrapped her with a smile and glittering green eyes. “Can I have some cold water?”

“Of course, Mama. Want anything else?”

“We have any lemon bars? I’d love a piece.” Mama resumed rocking, eyes closed, mind most likely drifting somewhere in the past.

Collette nodded knowing that Mama was happy. It didn’t matter that names got mixed up. Collette didn’t bother asking anymore if Mama remembered who she was. Suzanne, Maria or Abigail. Or rare occasions when Mama’s eyes were wide open she knew Collette. Maybe today was one of them, but if pressed, Mama grew upset.

“I got your water,” Collette said as she placed the glass in Mama’s hands and a small paper plate with a tiny bite of lemon bar on a rickety wooden table next to Mama’s chair. Collette then sat in the empty rocker, the one Papa used way back when.

“This is nice,” Mama practically sang in that not-quite-southern twang of hers. “I love me some cold water when it’s hot like this.” She closed her eyes and resumed rocking, humming a church song that Collette barely remembered.

“Is that “The Old Wooden Cross”?”

“Nope. Rugged. It’s Rugged Cross. Much more meaning to it.” Mama began singing, “I love that old Cross, but then she stopped and tears filled her eyes. “Darn I forget the words.” Her knees started bouncing, a sure sign of distress. “I forget everything these days. Half the time I don’t even know your name.”

“Collette. I’m Collette, your surprise baby daughter.”

Mama stared at her as if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I didn’t have no surprise baby daughter.”

Collette patted her mama’s right knee, just enough to add comfort. “It’s alright. Not important. Have some lemon bar.” Collette put the plat in Mama’s hand. “Just a piece. No more right now.”

“I haven’t been to church in ages. Not since Matthew died. I just can’t bear walking the same places he walked.”

Mama said in that sweet, persuasive voice of hers, “Maybe it’s time you and I go. Sunday’s tomorrow. Preacher Davis will be leading the service. Oh, my, I love the way that man calls on the Lord.” She set the plate on the little table and leaning on her cane a little too much for Collette’s comfort, headed inside.

“Where you going?” Collette grabbed glass and plate. Can’t leave nothing outside unless ou want birds and raccoons and stray cats coming around.

Mama’s words floated over her shoulder as she turned to go down the hall. “Got to pick a dress for tomorrow. Folks haven’t seen me in a while. Want to make a good impression.”

Collette frowned. She didn’t want to go to that church any more than she wanted to go to the one at home. Matthew loved the Church of Christ chapel in downtown Chillicothe because he felt more comfortable with the merchant families that came to his five-and-dime store. Collette grew up in First Baptist in Sterling Crossings, the church her Mama still loved, but it was a thirty mile drive from home.

Collette pulled a whole chicken out of the refrigerator and washed it off in warm water. Using the butcher knife she cut it in pieces. Froze half. Rubbed the rest in a mesquite marinade. Zipped it up and put it in the fridge for cooking later. Next came shucking corn and peeling potatoes. She didn’t like potatoes, but Mama said it wasn’t a proper meal with spuds of some kind on the table. Tonight she’d bake them so she could control how much sour cream and butter landed on Mama’s half.

“I found me a dress,” Mama said. “Lookee here.”

It was an old yellow cotton dress that Mama last wore to the Fourth of July Picnic four years ago. It hung a bit loose, but the pride in Mama’s voice kept Collette’s mouth shut. “Pretty color. Perfect for summer.”

“Hm, hm. I know. Your daddy bought this for me on one of his trips out of town. I think it’s from North Dakota, but I’m not sure. Every time he went away he brought home something. Sometimes a bolt of cloth. Once he gave me a pretty necklace. When I asked where he got the money, he wrapped me in his arms so tight I could barely breathe.”

“Nice memory.” Collette lead Mama down the hall to change back into her every day clothes. “Lift your arms.” She pulled the dress over Mama’s head and hung it on the closet door.

“That’s what caused me to kick him out. Smelled perfume on him. A kind I never wore. Knew he was cheating. He didn’t deny it. Just picked up his traveling bag and left. When that door slammed shut I yelled to never come back. He didn’t.”

Collette brushed her mama’s hair. She had to be gentle as there wasn’t much left. Mama had what they call female pattern hair loss. She’d asked her hair dresser last time she’s had a trim. Paula, that was her name, said there wasn’t anything to do about it except keep it clean and use a soft brush.

“Why you using that soft thing?” Mama said.

“Paula said it’d be better on your scalp. Like a massage.” Finished, Collette pulled hairs from between the bristles and dropped them in a nearby garbage can. “Let’s get your clothes on so as to be ready for dinner.”

Mama started humming again, this time a song Collette knew and loved. She sang up high in her soprano voice while Mama hummed the alto line. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”

By the end of the song they’d returned to the porch, Mama in her rocker and Collette heading down the metal steps to pull the laundry off the line. She hated that Mama’s clothes hung out front for the world to see, but everybody in the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park did the same. At least Mama’s house wasn’t worse off than the others’. Joe Maxwell’s siding was peeling off and Pete Smith’s windows were covered with plastic to keep out insects, wind and rain.

Matthew had kept up the place, hosing down the outside and replacing any windows that cracked. He’d kept the appliances working and even when he was feeling sorry for something he’d said, installed two room air conditioners, one if the front room and one in Mama’s bedroom. He’d done all that even though it wasn’t his parent’s house and without Collette asking.

Mama was asleep when Collette finished folding and putting the laundry away. She got out the chicken and placed it on a plate for carrying outside. She fired up the gas barbeque she’d given Mama back when her mama still cooked. Thank goodness she’d brought a new tank or she would have had to cook if in the oven.

Her cooking skills were limited. Mam had tried to teach her, but Collette’s head was in books. She was always reading. Most of the time for school, but she’d read just about everything she could get out of the town library. Then she’d gone off to college where she’d shared an apartment with three girls she didn’t know. They rotated cooking duties so she checked out a Campbell’s Soup Cook Book because the recipes were simple.

Potatoes in the oven. Chicken cooking. “Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. You need anything?”

Thinking maybe her mama was asleep, Collette stepped as lightly as her two hundred pound body would let her. Mama’s floor creaked and groaned anyway.

At first glance, she thought Mama was asleep. She often slept ten or more hours a day. That’s why Collette had come home. Someone needed to be with Mama night and day and there was no one else to do it. No money to pay for help and even if there had been, Mama was too embarrassed about the condition of her house to let people inside.

Nobody with money lived out here, far from the center of town. It wasn’t on the wrong side of the tracks as no train came through, but it was the neighborhood that even the police didn’t like to enter. Not because of gangs, but because everything was so run down and dingy that it broke hearts to think that people actually lived there.

The tilt of Mama’s head wasn’t right. It leaned too far to the left at a crazy angle that made it appear as if someone’d snapped it. And her left arm hung limply over the chair’s arm, fingers too loose for comfort.

“Mama,” Collette said as she touched her mama’s shoulder. “You okay?”

She wasn’t and Collette knew it when she first saw her leaning like that. Mama had grace, even asleep. It didn’t matter how ragged the hem of her dress was, that dress was spotless and freshly ironed. A wide-brimmed fancy hat sat on that head everywhere she went, but her best ones only came out for church. She had ones with feathers, some with ribbons, a few with both. Mama knew which hat matched which dress and nobody ever changed her mind.

And when Mama walked about town with her head high and back straight as steel, people thought maybe she’d come from money. One of them debutante girls who’d fallen from grace.

Truth is, her family was dirt poor. Her daddy had been a tenant farmer who moved the family wherever he could find a bit of work. One time they lived in the barn with the horses. In summer it stank of moldy hay and manure. In winter their breath froze in midair.

The woman in the porch, this person leaning over the chair, was not her Mama. No pretty tune emanated from her lips, no humming “Precious Lord” in that sultry sound of hers.

Collette sat in her rocker and picked up her mother’s hand. She turned it over and rubbed the palm, over and over in gentle circles. “Mama, I guess your time has come. Too bad we’ll miss church tomorrow.”

Sobs broke loose, the loud racking kind that indicates a hurt so deep that it’s hard coming back. Just as in a movie, Collette felt a ray of sun warm her tear-streaked face. She looked up and noticed a flock of starlings high above, swirling in massive ever-changing streaks of black. They’d been Mama’s favorite birds because, as she’d said, “Them birds are like some people. They run in crazy circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Ain’t gonna happen.”

Mama’s voice was the sweetest thing Collette had ever heard. In times of trouble Mama sang to her soft, gentle songs of love and redemption, “Jesus Loves Me” a favorite of both of them. Collette closed her eyes and listened for the words:

Jesus loves me! He will stay,
Close beside me all the way;
He’s prepared a home for me,
And some day His face I’ll see

Even though Mama was gone to a better place, that home that Jesus has waiting for her, Collette would miss her Mama. No more late night bathroom runs. No more stories about the granddad she’d never known. No more cleaning this rickety home. No more humming in her precious Mama’s voice.

 

 

 

 

The Teacher’s Report

Mrs. Adams gripped a math test, correcting mistake after mistake.  Her oversized glasses slipped down her nose making it difficult for her to see the backwards numbers. Even after pushing them back into place, the child’s writing didn’t become any clearer.

She picked up another paper, placed marks here and there, sighing as she worked. The next paper, that of Shelly Winters, was one hundred percent correct. Mrs. Adams wrote a giant Excellent at the top in purple ink.

A smile crossed her face until she saw the next paper in the pile: Billy Chalmers. Something about that boy made her curly gray hair stand on end. She tried to like him, but it was difficult.

With furrowed brow she found Billy slumped in his desk chair. She sighed, knowing that his paper would be riddled with errors. She hated using all that red ink. No matter how many corrections she made, Billy made no improvement.

Mrs. Adams was not known to be kind. Her reputation was one of distributing cruel remarks and harsh with punishment toward those who offended her sensibilities. This was not a good quality in a second grade teacher. In fact, her personality worked in reverse: her students did not prosper and none of them developed a love of learning while in her classroom.

Students learned because they were terrified of the scathing words that signified Mrs. Adams’ displeasure.  She never smiled, never offered praise or compliments on work well done.  There was never any laughter in her classroom: students were to be seated quietly, at all times.

The only student who seemed to escape criticism was little Shelly. She was a bright, pleasant child, always clean and neatly dressed. Her mother was also the School Board President which was probably why Mrs. Adams never directed her wrath at the child.

Billy was not so lucky. His nose poured no matter the season. His clothes were torn and faded, his shoes had holes in the soles. His hair was greasy tangles that fell below his ears. Breath? Repulsive. There was nothing about Billy that motivated her to want to teach him. In fact, he repelled and disgusted her.

So when Mrs. Adams looked about the classroom and finding the student she sought, she commanded, “William Chalmers, come here immediately!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy said as he shuffled to the front of the room.  As he stood next to his teacher’s desk, his downcast eyes begged for kindness..

“The answer to question number three is incorrect.  Go back and fix it,” Mrs. Adams rumbled.  She thrust Billy’s paper into his face, then without a word of encouragement waved him off and then returned to correcting the remaining tests.

Billy did not leave the side of her desk.  Despite his fear of angering her, Billy mumbled, “But I don’t know the answer.”

“What did you say, young man?”

“I don’t know the answer, Mrs. Adams.”

She stared at Billy as she put down the pile of tests and picked up her spanking ruler in one svelte move. His eyes widened as the ruler rose far over his head, then came down with lightning speed on his left shoulder, striking with so much force that Billy fell to the floor.

“Get up off that floor, Mr. Chalmers, and quit sniveling.” She watched as a tearful Billy pushed himself into a standing position, picked up his now wrinkled paper, and turned toward his desk.  “Do not approach this desk until you have completed the assignment.”

She did not see the tears coursing down his face, or the embarrassed flush to his cheeks.  Her focus had returned to the remaining tests, resuming her glower as she scanned each one.

By the time Billy was seated his tears of pain had turned to tears of anger. “I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams,” Billy mumbled over and over.  He could barely see the numbers on the paper through his tears, but he picked up his pencil and erased his previous calculations.  He reworked the problems, getting the same wrong answers.  So he did them again, and again, and again, checking the clock now and then hoping that the time to go home would soon arrive.

After the fifth attempt Billy was pretty sure he had the right answer, so he sheepishly walked to his teacher’s desk and handed her the paper.  She said not a word as she took the paper from his outstretched hand. Not expecting anything other than an insult, he simply returned to his desk and sat silently, like all his classmates.

“Students,” Mrs. Adams screeched, interrupting the strained silence.  “Please put away your pencils and books.”  In unison all desktops opened, materials were put away, and tops were gently closed.  “Stand.”  Mrs. Adams pushed her bulky body out of her chair, stood, and walked slowly down Billy’s row until she stood next to his desk.  “Give this note to your parents when you get home,” she barked as she handed Billy an envelope.

“Yes, Mrs. Adams,” Billy sniveled.

“Class dismissed.”

Billy streamed out of the room as his classmates joined the throngs pouring into the hall, and out the front door.  He walked the blocks home behind a couple of boys who lived on the same block.

When he got to his house, without saying goodbye, Billy walked in the door.  His dad was in the kitchen, cutting celery into tiny pieces.  He smiled when he saw his son.

“Hi, Billy.  Did you have a good day today?”

“No. Mrs. Adams doesn’t like me.”

“I’m sure Mrs. Adams likes all her students,” he said as he scraped the pieces into a bowl.

“Then why was I the only one she yelled at?”

As he added in cream of celery soup, his dad said, “Maybe she’s trying to help you learn.”

“If she wanted me to learn, she’d be nicer,” Billy said, brightening for the first time that day. “I liked First grade a lot.  I did real well because my teacher made things fun.”

“School isn’t supposed to be fun.”

“But if Mrs. Adams smiled it would be better.”

“That’s the way it is, Billy.  You don’t always get nice teachers.  Mrs. Adams is a good teacher.  Her students always get the best awards.”

“Oh,” Billy said as he handed his dad the envelope. “She sent this note home.  I think she wants you to call.” Billy stood nervously rubbing his left shoe on top of his right one while his dad opened the envelope.

Mr. Chalmers pulled out a folded piece of binder paper.  He looked it over carefully.  A huge smile lit his eyes as he said, “Congratulations!  You got an A+ on this Math test! You should hang this on the refrigerator for your mom to see when she gets home.”

Disbelievingly, Billy took the paper from his dad.  Written in purple ink at the top of the page was not only the grade, but also a huge happy face.  Billy held his paper as if it were made of fine china, pulled a magnet from off the refrigerator door, and pinned his paper in place.

He skipped outside to the back yard where he ran in circles screaming, “Yes!” as he pumped his fists into the air.

 

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began in the fall. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples walking hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces, while others sat on benches, walls and lawns, with arms and legs entwined. A few leaned against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster? All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. Years ago she had reconciled herself that, because she wasn’t pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster, she would be single for the rest of her life.

Jessie learned the names of her classmates. The easiest to know were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. The most challenging were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. She thought about joining them, but realized that even at her current age you were still defined by your friends. She was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught sewing skills she created more fashionable clothes, nothing changed in her social status. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some quiet alcove. While her life was unaltered, that of her classmates changed. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester a George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note like kids did in high school. When Jessie opened hers she discovered a quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George arrived the next day  Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes, struggling to contain a fountain of tears. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. It’s a picnic and a hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would be horrendous.

When Saturday arrived, she put on her best jeans and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, convinced that when she was finished, it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes, pickles, and a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

Jessie stood by the window, hiding behind the sheer curtains that were supposed to keep prying eyes from spying inside. As the time grew nearer for George to arrive, beads of sweat popped out on her forehead. When ten o’clock arrived and he wasn’t there, Jessie sighed, believing she had been stood up. Just as she turned to go to her room and change into her sweats, a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata parked in front of her house. George emerged with neatly combed hair, a Chabot College sweatshirt and clean black jeans.

He wasn’t handsome, but pleasant-looking. Jessie’s heart began beating rapidly and she found it hard to breath.

Just as George was reaching for the bell, Jessie opened the door with a smile on her face and then escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead they glowered as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you taking her on a date?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and that’s not going to happen.  If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led her out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I was afraid he would act like that, but I hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, we can call this off. I’ll take you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap and stared at her fingers. “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before.”

His smile was so perfect, so beautiful that Jessie knew she had made the right choice. “It’s going to be alright,” he said as he paid the fee at the toll booth. “We’re going to have a great time. As friends. Right?’

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, and discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird as Jessie’d never talked about schoolwork with a guy before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see deer.”

The trail encircled a little pond where dragonflies hovered, their wings gossamer pastel colors. They wound their way into the hills, talking about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that in bloom, typical for California. The giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

The further away from the parking lot they got, the fewer people they saw. The branches of trees formed a canopy overhead, cooling the warming air and silencing sounds of insects. When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie deep into a copse of trees. He leaned against a sturdy trunk and he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life, calling her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  There had never been a boyfriend who held her tight and whispered in her ear. Never even a pet cat or dog to cuddle with on long, lonely nights.

George was the first and his words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. His breath hinted of chocolate chip cookies, a bit sweet but also bitter. His arms enfolded her waist, pulling her into his chest.

She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation, nestled in this hidden cove.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George pulled her tight against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “I don’t like this.”

George increased his grip around her waist until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra and then moved to her chest.

“Stop. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His tongue made her insides warm, but at the same time she was repulsed. When his hands went under the waistband of her jeans and began rubbing back and forth, back and forth, she tried again to disengage.

“Stop,” she yelled. Salty tears streamed down her cheeks and along the edges of their compressed lips. Her sobs escaped despite the increased pressure he applied as she planted her hands on his chest and pushed.

A sound from the trail caught his attention and his grip relaxed so that Jessie could step far enough away to pull down her sweatshirt and run toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake: she had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want her body, not her as a wife.

She ran past George’s car and toward the ranger booth, hoping someone would be inside to rescue her. But it was empty.

Her only choice was to walk down the long hill, but it was a street with no sidewalks, no way to get out of the way of passing cars. She headed that way, hoping that one of the  fast-moving vehicles would sense her plight and stop. None did. In a way, Jessie was relieved because one of those drivers might be as dangerous, if not more so, than George.

His car pulled alongside her and through the open widow, he said, “Get in. I’ll take you home.”

Jessie stepped off the road, backing into a barbed-wire fence.

He got out of the car and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I knew you liked me,” he said  He kissed her, fondled her, all while ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George was long gone, the ranger led her back up the hill to the booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He had her stay inside the booth until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun as they’d done as she was growing up. This time would be worse, though, because George has proven them right, that no man would want her except for her body.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes as she fought to keep tears from flooding her eyes. George was yet another example of her failure to find the love that she so desperately yearned for.

When the professor stopped to turn on the projector, Jessie looked about the room, hoping that no one had noticed her distress. Everyone in front of her sat facing forward. For that she was grateful. No one behind her looked her way. To her left pairs of students were conversing quietly.. To her right an average-looking young man winked at her, shrugged his shoulders and then turned away.

Jessie’s eyes couldn’t pull away from him. His hair stuck out in crazy angles. His t-shirt was faded and a bit loose. When the man looked at her a second time, she smiled.

He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across the table that separated them. It simply said, “Meet me after class.”

Jessie’s heart soared. Maybe this rumpled, faded guy with a sweet, crooked smile was the guy she’d been waiting her whole life for.

 

Elias’ Ride

After a summer of camping trips all around California, Utah, and Nevada, the stuff on the shelves in the storage shed out back looked more like leftovers at a thrift store.  Keefe Kegan, a born-again “neatnik,” decided to tackle the mess, but not wanting to do it himself, Keefe invited his wife Daira to participate in the fun event. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “Think of all the treasures we’ll find out there.”

“This is what I’m thinking,” Daira said as she stepped into the family room dressed in paint-stained jeans and a faded blue t-shirt.  “I’ll help, but only is you turn off the game.”

“After one more play.”

“Nope.” She grabbed the remote from his right hand.  “You’re the one who wanted to do the cleaning.  I agreed only because you promised I’d be free to go shopping when we finished.”  She turned off the television and opened the door to the back yard. “Come on. Times’ wasting.”

Keefe followed.  She looks good even in her worst clothes, he thought as his eyes drifted down his wife’s well-built body.

“Where should we begin?”  Daira’s eyes scanned the garage.  From rafters to the floor, detritus took up space.

“Top down.” Keefe set up the ladder.  He zipped up the rungs and opened the first box to inspect the contents.  “Winter boots, gloves, hats.”

“Leave it.”

“Photo albums.”

“Nope. Don’t want them.”

Keefe held one up. “This is our wedding book. Shouldn’t we keep it?”

“You can if you want.”

“Okay,” he said as he placed it back in the box. “How about baby clothes?  Why in the heck do we have them anyway?  We don’t have any kids.”

“Remember when we thought I was pregnant?  There was a baby shower.” Daira whispered.  “Give them away.”

Keefe scooted the box to one side. “Maybe you’ll get pregnant again. Better keep them.”

Daira wiped tears from her eyes. “Whatever.”

And so the day went. One box after another, one pile gone, another kept. Keefe parted with some camping gear that he hadn’t used in years, some old fishing poles of his dad’s, and a down jacket that no longer fit.  Daira got rid of clothes that were out of style, a carton of garish dishes her mother thought Daria might like, and some paintings that she started in her teen years, but never finished.

By late afternoon, they were filthy with dust, drenched in sweat and exhausted, but the garage was back to its pre-summer state.  They washed their hands in the garage sink.

“What should we do about dinner?” Keefe asked.

“I’ll get the phone while you figure out dinner,”  Daira said as the garage door creaked shut.

“Sure.”  Keefe brushed his dust-covered hands on his jeans and then his fingers through his hair, removing leaves and dirt that had fallen.

“It’s for you,” Daira handed him the phone as he entered the house.

“Who is it?”

“Elias.”

While Keefe talked to his friend, Daira searched through the freezer and pulled out some hamburgers and buns. Keefe would barbeque them later. Just as she began shucking an ear of corn, Keefe returned.

“Elias is starting a limo business. He’s out front with one he says is a good deal.  He wants us to check it out.”

“Is he looking for money?”

“Probably.  What do you think?”

“I’m dirty and tired,” she said as she leaned against the sink.  “You go.”

“Just a minute.”  Keefe’s forehead wrinkled as he listened to Elias. Daira heard blah, blah, blah, straight from a children’s cartoon.  “He says he values your opinion.  He doesn’t care what you look like.”

Daira learned long ago that Elias was as tenacious as a shark, so there was no point in arguing.  She took off toward the front door, wriggling her fingers in a “let’s go” sign at her husband.

As Keefe passed the computer desk, he dropped the phone in its cradle.

In front of the house sat a bright red stretch limo.  Elias stood beside an open door dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform.  Giggling like a little girl, Daira scooted into the dark interior.  After slapping his friend’s hand, Keefe did the same.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” Elias said.  “Check out the refrigerator.”

“The leather is so soft I could fall asleep and take a long nap.” Daira slid toward the front of the passenger space.

Keefe found a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator and held it up. “should we open it?”

“I guess. But don’t give any to Eias.”

After popping the cork and pouring champagne into two glasses, Keefe offered a toast. “To us.”

They tapped glasses and sipped simultaneously. “How much money does he want?” Daira asked.

“Don’t know. Darn, this stuff tastes good.”

As exhausted as they were, it didn’t take long for a buzz to set in.  Daira nestled close to her husband, finding that special spot in which her body fit nicely with his.  With Keefe’s arm draped over her shoulder, it wasn’t long before romantic notions trooped through her head.  “Have you ever done it in a limo?” she asked.

“Nope.  You?”

“No.  Can  Elias see through that glass?”

“Who cares,” Keefe said as he kissed his wife.

As the limo glided along a road that neither of them cared about, the kissing deepened and the temperature rose.  Clothing pieces fell off, hands groped, and lips swelled.  They were oblivious to anything but themselves, and so they failed to notice when the limo stopped.

“Slide over,” Elias’ cheerful voice sounded.

Daria pushed away and held her t-shirt across her chest.  Keefe, intent on the object of his desire hadn’t heard his friend. He thought she was playing a game, and so tore the shirt from her hands and flung it to the far end of the limo.

“Idiot!” Daira hissed.  “Go get it.”

“Why?”  Keefe gazed into her eyes.  Shocked by the glare coming his way, he leaned back.  Only then did he hear the muffled sounds of movement, “What’s happening?”

“Surprise!”  A chorus rang out.  Now seated around them were their best friends:  Josh and his wife Nancy, Pete and Marisol, Kimi and her partner Spirit, and Elias’s wife Helene.

“Happy anniversary,” Elias said.  “It’s a come-as-you-are party.  I just didn’t realize that you two would be the entertainment.”

“What are you talking about?”  Keefe said as he zipped his jeans.  “Our anniversary was six months ago.”

“I know, I know,” Elias said.  “The thing is, back then I couldn’t figure out a way to make it special.  Ten years together is worth celebrating.  When I got a chance to take the limo for a test drive, I got this great idea and called out friends.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Daria’s eyes traveled from one friend’s face to another.

“I know you hate people making a fuss, Daria.  Once we decided to have a party, we all swore to keep it a secret,” Elias said.  “When Keefe told me you were cleaning the garage, I called everyone and told them to wear jeans. If you notice, none of us are dressed up, except for me, but I’m the chauffeur.   See?”

 

It was hard to stay angry as Elias.  Daria smiled, as did Keefe.  “You could at least have warned us before you opened the door,” Keefe said.  “That was hecka embarrassing.”

“I called over the intercom, but you two were way too busy back here to notice,” Elias said.  “Now it’s time to party!  Champagne, everyone!”

Keefe opened the refrigerator, and took out another bottle of bubbly. He opened it and poured glasses for everyone.  Toasts were offered and laughter filled the limo. Elias dropped a CD into the stereo and soft music floated in the air.

Elias’ wife unwrapped a basket filled with cheese, crackers, and salami.   Deviled eggs appeared, as did lumpia, veggies and dip, and shrimp cocktail.  There was even a pre-sliced cake with tiny candles.

Stories of embarrassing moments were shared, with one friend attempting to outdo another.  Laughter filled the crowded limo.

As dawn broke, Keefe offered one last toast.  “To my wife, to my friends, and to Elias, for his bizarre party idea.  This has been one terrific evening!”  After clinking his glass with his wife’s, he bent over and said, “To my come-as-you- are wife.  I’ll love you forever.”

 

 

 

Life Lesson

“The gods were pissed off.  That’s all there was to it,” said Grandpa Ellis.  “Once’t your grandma sold off the last blue plate china, all hell broke loose.”

“Why do you say that?” his grandson Stan said.

“Because that summer was broilin’ hot. Nary a cloud passed over head and seldom did we feel so much as a breeze.”

“Come on, Grandpa,” Stan said.  “You know that was right at the beginning of the Dust Bowl years.  It had nothing to do with china.”

After taking a puff of his favorite corncob pipe and blowing a series of well-formed smoke circles, Grandpa said, “That china arrived in a rainstorm.  Just after your Aunt Sara Sue was born.  Your grandma ordered it once’t she had enough egg money saved.”

“You’ve told that story a million times.”

“And you’ve never listened, neither.  If’n you had, you’d understand why the gods got angry.” Grandpa tamped out his pipe, shoved it in its pouch, then walked down the front porch steps..

“I don’t believe all that hocus-pocus stuff.”

“You should, because if you did, you’d pay attention when the gods speak.”

Stan stepped to the rail.  Looking out over the Montana horizon, he caught the almost imperceptible sound of a cowbell, the louder caw of a crow floating overhead, and the distant barking of a dog.

“Do you want to hear the story, or not?” Grandpa called over his shoulder as he headed toward the barn.

“Sure, why not? I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Complainin’ again? I don’t want to hear another word about the benefits of the Internet,” Grandpa said, “as I’ve heard it all before.  I’ve plenty to do with things the way they are.” He slid open the door and stepped into the comfortable darkness.

Stan picked up a shovel and headed toward his mare’s stall, ready to muck it out. As he scooped out the soiled straw, Grandpa slipped into the oft-repeated story.

“Grandma got that china just afore we stepped into marriage. Some of her cousins stayed back east after graduating from the Indian school. Your grandmother moved back here as soon as she could slip away from them missionaries and rejoined what little was left of the tribe.

“The cousins, hearing that she was marryin’ sent that china packed in a barrel.  Shipped by train. All the way from ‘souri. Grandma, who had taken back her name, Nightingale, thought that blue china was the purtiest stuff she’d ever seen. So she packed it back in the barrel and hoisted it up to the top of her dad’s barn. By then her parents were ranchers, high up in the hills of Montana. Big Sky Country.

“Almost oncet a week Nightingale checked on that china, making sure it was safe.  She’d take out a plate or two, dust ‘em off, hold ‘em up to the light, thank the gods for ‘em, then pack ‘em back away. Until I came along.” Grandpa stroke his stallions’ nose. Joe blew into his hand, then nuzzled his pocket looking for a treat.

“I’m no Indian, as you well know, but I know a thing or two ‘bout Indian ways. I could smoke a pipe real good and knew some of the language. Having done some scouting when I was a youngster, those hills were like my second home. Being just a teenager myself, I was in town when the stagecoach pulled in carrying this beautiful Indian maiden. Although she was dressed like an eastern gal, her high cheekbones and raven-black hair gave her away. Nightingale walked with her head held high and her eyes looking over the roofs. Like a goddess come to earth. I fell in love with her right then and there, and decided to marry her.

“So I followed her up into the hills, far enough away that she was just a speck on the horizon. Well, that makes it sound as if she was by herself, but that’s not it at all. Her folks, what was left of ‘em, greeted the stagecoach with a rickety wagon pulled by two of the most beautiful draft horses known to man. So here I am following her and thinking about touching that hair, when all of a sudden I feel a prickling sensation running up my neck. I turns around, and right next to me was a man with the same cheekbones and hair. He rode next to me all the way to their ranch.

“When we pulled up in front of the house, he indicated that I was to stay in the saddle. Of course I did. The wild-west days were long gone, but you can never be sure up in the hills whose laws are in place.

“After what felt like an hour, a white-haired elder stepped out on the porch. With just a nod, he indicated that I should come inside. So I did. When I stepped through the doorway, the younger man said I was to smoke to the four gods. I faced each direction in turn, puffed out a perfect circle (thanks goodness I knew how to do that!), nodding in respect as I did, then bowed to the elder, who now sat in an old overstuffed chair in the center of the room. Behind his back stood the woman.

“Well, to shorten the story, he agreed that I could marry the girl if I’d stay on the ranch and help with the work. We married that afternoon without ever sharing one word betwixt us.”

Grandpa picked up a harness that needed polishing. He ran a rag over and over the silver until it shone.

“All went well for the longest time. Nightingale was the best thing that ever had come my way, and she seemed satisfied with me. But times changed. More and more ranches sprung up, and the nearest village became a town. Socializing became part of doing business, and so Nightingale and me had people up to dinner now and then.

“Each time, she climbed up into the barn and got out her blue china, one piece at a time. Holding it like a baby, she carried those pieces to the big house, which was now ours, and set the purtiest table I’d ever seen. Blue china, pewter cups, and hand-me-down silver from my great-aunt who had passed with no relatives but me.

“Then the mayor and his wife came over. That wife had a reputation for a sharp mouth and evil spirit. She took a look at that china and laughed. Not a happy-for-you kind of laugh, but one that said the china was old-fashioned and backwards.”

“What did Grandma do?” Stan asked as he filled a wheelbarrow with the dirty straw.

“She was so embarrassed she ran from the room and wouldn’t come out until the company disappeared over the horizon. Then, without a word, she repacked the china and never got it out until the day she sold it to a traveling salesman.

“Now things had been going great at the ranch. Our horses were the best stock around, and folks lined up to get at one of our fouls. The cattle were prime Texas longhorns, the best to be had. Fat on good grass and alfalfa, they were plump in all the right places. Meat delicious. We were coming up in the world. I had just paid for telephone poles and lines to be run out to the ranch, and was saving for electricity.”

“Wait, you didn’t have electricity all that time?”

“No. But that was okay because only townsfolk had it.”

Stan pushed the wheelbarrow out the door, dumped the straw in a heap, then returned to the barn to find Grandpa mending a bit of an old saddle. “What happened next?’

“Nightingale’s actions ruined everything. No sooner had that salesman pulled off our land than the sun came up as big as a yellow ball. It hung in that sky all day. Day after day that ball came up. No clouds. Not a drop of rain. The hay baked and the cattle suffered. The nearby spring dried up and so I had to haul barrels over to the river and cart water to the ranch.  It got hotter and hotter.

“The ground turned into hard-baked clay. Huge cracks crossed the ground, creating a crazy patchwork pattern of death. I sold off the cattle to anyone that offered a decent price. Got rid of all but two of the horses, too.  Had trouble feeding them.

“Sounds awful,” Stan said as he sat on a bale of hay near Grandpa.

“It was bad. When the winds came up in what should have been fall, dirt blew up in our faces and covered everything. Things were a real mess with no hope of getting better.  I was just trying to hang on to the ranch.  That’s all.

“Finally I’d had it.  I marched up to Nightingale and told her to start praying. To make amends with the gods. To offer whatever she could to make peace. She took up the pipe just like that, blessed the four corners, then fell to her knees and prayed. The gods told her that she had to cut her knee-length hair and weave it through the rafters of the barn.”
“Wow. I remember Grandma’s hair being short.”

“After things got better, she decided to let it grow out. But it never grew from then on. It was a big price to pay, but that afternoon clouds rolled over the horizon and rain fell.  Within hours the well was full, the springs overflowed, and dormant sprung from the ground.  From that day forward, this ranch has prospered.”

Grandpa returned to the porch and refilled his pipe. He took a big puff, then looked out over the horizon. As far as he could see, an undulating wave of grass spread golden in the lazy late afternoon sun. Foals played in the pasture, and longhorns meandered about the open fields. It was a serene scene beyond words.

“So it was the gods fault.”

“Yep,” Grandpa said. “If’n Nightingale had ignored the mayor’s wife, she would still have that china and her long hair. That’s why you have to listen to the gods, Stan.”

“That’s why you want me to study agriculture when I go to the university, right?”

“Nope.  I want you to see what the gods want, because if you don’t listen, the price they may ask later may be huge. Ask and you’ll know. Nightingale and I learned our lesson. Now I want you to learn yours.”

“Can we have dinner now?  I’m starved,” Stan said as he headed into the house.  As he entered the door, he picked up the ceremonial pipe kept on Grandma’s favorite table, lit it, blessed the four directions, then fell to his knees and prayed. He didn’t want the gods to get pissed off at him.