Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Old, Old Story, Part 1

March 21, 2013

By way of introduction: Admittedly, this story is a bit of a departure from the stated theme of this site. But it is fiction (at least, mostly), and I guess it could be set somewhere in a metropolitan area of southeast Missouri … if you can find one. So … Enjoy!  

The Old, Old Story

It was definitely the best gimmick I’d ever used; better than the time when I sat in an abandoned department store display window in front of a hand-lettered sign that said, “Suffering from Writer’s Block—Won’t You Help?” Another time, I used to hang out at Wal-Mart, trying to make up stories using all the items people had purchased. junkOne guy had a commode plunger, a case of motor oil, and a sack of birdseed. You don’t even want to think about what I did with that.

But this latest trick was great. I’d take my laptop someplace downtown with lots of foot traffic. They’d see my sign, stare at me a couple of seconds, then either walk on past or slow down for a better look. It got so I could tell pretty quick who would actually sit down and talk.

My sign said, “Get a Life. $5.00.”

I figured out pretty quick that anybody can tell some goofy fairy tale. But I’m thinking it needs to be plausible, but still better than they can do for themselves.

“First off, I don’t do futures,” I’d tell them. “I get you up to this point in time and that’s it. If you don’t like the life I give you, you don’t pay. Got it?” But I never had anybody take back the money—except one. Just that one. God help me.

I’d talk them through it while I polished up the grammar. I’d run a spell-check, copy the whole thing to a CD, and hand it to them. “Anybody with a current version of WordPerfect can print this out for you,” I’d tell them. “Hope you enjoy your new life.” They’d get this cock-eyed grin, maybe shake their heads a little, like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. But I had them, see? They knew as well as I did they wanted that disk more than they wanted the five bucks.

So one day I’m sitting at my usual place. I see him coming from a block away; a homeless guy, dressed in the latest layered look from the Salvation Army. As soon as I spot him, I get this sinking feeling. Sure enough, he makes for me like a ragged chicken coming home to roost. He takes a quick look at my sign and flops into the seat across from me. To my surprise, he fishes around in a pocket and flips a greasy, stained five onto the table.homeless

Making eye contact with him is like staring at the taillights on the last cab leaving a bad part of town. His sun- and wind-scoured face has a raw, caved-in look, like a freshly healed scab. He’s wearing a cap that had maybe been green in a previous life. The tufts of frayed hair sticking out from under it all around are some indeterminate blondish-brown, to match the four-day stubble all over his face. His eyes are a faded blue, and I notice they’re clear and focused. He stares straight at me, like I’m a TV and he’s the remote.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Larry, Moe, and Curly. Nice to meet you.”

“You got a form I need to fill out?” he said. “Most people I work with, they got some kinda form.”

“No, not really. You been around here long?”

“Long enough.”talk

“What’s your name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. You’re the one with the sign.”

As I’m giving him my opening spiel, he leans over and rummages around in his garbage sack, comes out with half a pair of silver kid’s scissors; the kind with the sharp ends, not rounded. He turns sideways in the chair and starts cleaning his fingernails. There is something so ineffably sad about this loser doing his manicure with a broken pair of school scissors that I have a twinge of bourgeois guilt.

“Look, can I get you something? I mean …  are you hungry or anything?”

He gives me a sly grin and shakes his head. “I have food that you know not of.”

Back to the keyboard.

You are the illegitimate son of a wealthy East Coast industrialist, the result of his weekend encounter with a high school senior who placed you for adoption and subsequently went on to graduate from college, marry a banker, have three children and get elected president of the elementary school PTA. Just after your sixteenth birthday, your loving and supportive adoptive parents acceded to your persistent demands to know the truth of your origins. laptopUsing the adoption agency’s records as a springboard for years of determined sleuthing, you finally discovered your father’s identity. You dropped out of college and traveled across the country, working a succession of menial jobs to earn bus fare and meals. When, after months of arduous travel, you finally reached your biological father’s last known residence—a convalescent home in upstate New York—you were told that he had died a week prior to your arrival. Shattered by this tragic circumstance and robbed of your raison d’etre, you began drifting west again, trying desperately to forget the many losses in your life.

The wealthy, dying father loans the whole package a very attractive and plausible sense of pathos, I’m thinking. I save it to a disk and hand it to him. “Here you go. Enjoy.”

He stares at the disk for a couple of seconds. “Can I read it?”

“Well, no. You gotta find somebody to print this out for you.”

He looks at me like, who are you kidding. The guilt cranks up again.

“Okay, okay. Come around here and I’ll put it on the screen.”

As he leans over my shoulder, I can smell the complex and disagreeable ambiance of his existence. I can hear him softly whispering the words on the screen, hear him quietly scratching his cheek.

He stares down at me, his forehead wrinkled with a question. “I don’t get it.”

“What?”

He points at the screen. “I mean—where’s the rest?”

“Uh, that’s it—that’s the whole thing, right there.”

“No, I—” He shakes his head. “What you’ve got is good, okay? But … Well … what happens next?”

“Look, I don’t do futures, remember? I only get you up to this point in time—”walkaway

He looks at me as if I have just spoken in Sanskrit.

“No way.” He snatches the five off the table and stuffs it deep into his pocket. Shouldering the garbage bag, he says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” He starts to walk off, then stops. “Here,” he says, tossing the disk at me. Then he’s gone.

(To be continued … )
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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

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The Home Place — Conclusion

February 22, 2013

It was Christmas Eve, and around mid-morning, Gail took the kids to town to get some last-minute gifts to exchange with the Sloan kids, just down the road. Hal stayed in the tool shed most of the day, welding or tinkering with the machinery scattered around the yard. He gave the outward appearance of a busy farmer trying to get machinery ready for spring. But in the indrawn slump of his shoulders, the tightness around his eyes, I could tell he was just trying to hold back the helpless wail of despondency threatening to break the dam of his self-control. I watched from the house as he scurried from one chore to the next, desperately trying to outrace the bitter tide of despair.

By late afternoon, it made me sick to my stomach, and I had to get away. I backed out of the driveway and drove west, away from the house, down the narrow blacktop road, across the drainage ditches crosshatching the countryside. I found myself turning left onto a small gravel road running down the east side of the acreage we had always referred to as the Wilson Place, after the people from whom my grandfather rented and Dad subsequently purchased it. It was the first farm, after the home farm, that my family had owned. I drove slowly past the dormant fields, corn stubble pointing randomly this way and that, jutting from the dark-grey, lumpy surface. These fields were rich, fertile—and Dad had them cut to grade, so they were easy to irrigate. They could be counted on to produce, year after year. Somebody would get a bargain with the Wilson Place.

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As I looked out over the level expanse I realized that still within me there was a fragment of disbelief in the loss of the farm. How could it be that my family would not be here anymore? What would move in to occupy the place within my soul reserved for the farm? It had always been my starting point for self-definition. But someone was buying the North Pole, moving it to Venus. I felt like a salmon returning to its birth-stream, only to find a dam built across the way. And Hal, what of him? I still felt the scalding shame of his futile anger as he lashed out at me, and through me, the forces of uncaring economics that offered solutions without feelings, a life with no heartbeat, survival with nothing to live for. I was not sure my brother had the necessary emotional equipment to survive in the no-name world to which I had inured myself. It struck me that I had learned to live in such a world largely because I knew that always behind the faceless masses, above the ever-shifting heads of the crowd, beyond the manufactured, plastic skyline of my daily grind, there existed a place where people connected with each other, a place where roots ran deep and each person counted. A resting-place from the impassive onrush of the urgent. A home place.

In another moment of epiphany, it came to me that I carried this home place inside me. It had been growing there since my childhood, awaiting a day like this, and I just now realized it. It was born of my love for the farm, nurtured by the love its people shared in good times and bad, tempered by trial and disappointment, strengthened by the dogged faith in God that ran throughout, like the theme of a fugue. The home place lived within me now, separate from the geographical and legal facts about the farm, and no person, no court of law, could ever take it away from me. This place had shaped me, placed its stamp on me, and I would forever remain, for good or ill, a testament, a declaration of its influence.

The sun flickered weakly through the gray, overcast dome of the sky as it settled toward Crowley’s ridge. The air grew cooler with more than nightfall as I drove back to the house. I pulled into the driveway, and I could see, through the foggy windows, gauzy hints of the frantic activity mandatory for households with children on Christmas Eve. Packages were being wrapped for the evening’s exchanging of gifts with the Sloans. The two younger kids were hopping about like manic fleas, unable to contain their excitement.

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Gail scurried between the wrapping of gifts and the warming of leftovers in the kitchen. Only Hal sat still, staring into the fireplace in the den, a raft of loneliness adrift in a sea of activity. I went into the house, tossed my coat on the back of a chair, and squatted before the fire, warming my hands. For a long time Hal and I stayed that way; in the same room and worlds apart.

Every now and then, one of the kids would race up the stairs behind us, but they didn’t approach either their father or me. I suppose they were aware of the fragility of the bubble of good cheer surrounding them, and knew better than to risk bursting it by coming too near us.

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Finally I turned to face him and cleared my throat, just as he looked up at me and opened his mouth to speak. “Frank, I …”

“No, you go ahead.”

“Well, I was just going to say that I know I came across sort of high-and-mighty this morning, and I didn’t mean to. It’s just that … ”

“Yeah, I know … and I kind of lost it, too, there, and … and I’m sorry as hell, Frank, really I am. You didn’t deserve that load of garbage I laid on you this morning.”

I started to reply, felt my words jamming up behind the baseball in my throat, felt the hot tears spill down my cheeks. “Hal, I … you’re all the family I’ve got. Don’t give up, is all I want to say. Just don’t give up, okay?” I wanted to say more, so much more, but I couldn’t control my voice. I dropped my head, kneading my eyes uselessly as the tears spilled over my fingers. He looked away, into the fire. Still rubbing my eyes, I faced him again.

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“Hal,” I said, my lips curling uncontrollably around my words, “I think you’ve got to face the fact that, no matter how much you love the farm, no matter how much history our family has with this place, no matter how hard you’ve tried, you’re going to have to leave here.” Still staring into the fire, his chest began to heave in silent emotion. “I hope you come to the place where you can see your life as something apart from this farm. It’s been good to you, and it’s part of you, but you still have to choose between dying with it and living with your family. Do you hear what I’m trying to say?” No answer. I plunged ahead, into the minefield, not knowing what else to do. “You made some errors in judgment, and you probably took some bad advice along the way, but, Hal, none of us gets to go back. You did what you thought was best, and it didn’t work. Cut your losses. Hal,” I pleaded, “decide to live! Live for Gail, for the kids. There’s something, someone out there bigger than you and your grief. I … I just hope to God you can learn to accept that.”

Gail came to the doorway, saw us there, and hesitated, looking back and forth between us. “Everything okay in here?” she called uncertainly.

“Well, Hon,” said Hal after a long pause, “that sort of remains to be seen.” He looked at me, for the first time since I had begun speaking to him, and a wistful smile was toying with the corners of his mouth.

After several swallows and blinks, Gail managed to say, “Supper’s ready. We’d better eat so we won’t be late.”

Hal and I started toward the kitchen. I felt his rough hand on the back of my neck. I looked outside, where the first few stray snowflakes were drifting aimlessly to the ground.

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The Home Place, Part 2

September 13, 2011


I had seen beaten men before, and it was plain that one sat beside me now.
Exactly what Hal had lost, I wasn’t sure, but it chilled me to the bone to see this anvil of a man beaten into impotent grief.

“Hey, what’s the matter? You’re not leveling with me,” I said, gripping his upper arm and trying to look him in the eye. I had not seen Hal cry half dozen times in all our growing-up years: it was scaring the hell out of me.

“I … I don’t want to go into it now, in front of the kids,” he managed to stammer in a poorly-controlled voice. Kip stood stock-still in the hall, his face a scared, stark question mark.

“Yeah … I understand. Hey, Kipper,” I said, turning to him, “do you think you could go in the den and look under the tree for a red package tied up with bright green ribbon? Get it and take it to Kris, so she can read the label and make sure your name is spelled right. Could you do that for me, partner?” Kip wandered doubtfully into the den, glancing back now and then at us as his dad and I sat beside each other, silently groping for words.

I cleared my throat. “So … maybe we should save this until after dinner?”

“Yeah, when we get the kids down for the night we’ll have some time to talk.”

“Just tell me this: is it you and Gail?”

“Oh, no, we’re … at least I think our marriage is okay.”

I felt the vise in my throat loosen a notch. I loved Gail like a sister. In fact, I guess she was the sister I had never had. She had seen me through the morass of puberty, giving big-sisterly advice about things Mom didn’t live long enough to tell me. I knew if it came down to it, I would have to put my emotional chips on my brother; I was just glad I didn’t have to make the choice.

“Okay, Hal, we’ll save it till later. But no more hedging. I want to know what’s going on. Got it?”
He nodded his head as he swiped a massive forearm across his eyes. “Yeah … it’ll be good to get it off my chest.”

We stood there for a couple of minutes while Hal got his face straight. I listened to the sounds of the household: Gail bustling in the kitchen, clanging pans and utensils; two of the kids fighting noisily about some inconsequential catastrophe; the sound of a game show on the television no one was watching. And I thought maybe I didn’t want to know whatever it was I would find out after dinner. I wasn’t sure I could deal with a tragedy striking so close to the center of what was precious to me. Hal was a sort of gravity for me. He was the farm and my childhood distilled into flesh—a human lodestone.

He sniffed and blinked rapidly, struggling to regain a façade of control. He straightened up and we walked into the den, arms around each others’ shoulders. We talked around the lumps in our throats until Gail called us to the table.

Dinner was a minuet of harmless conversation, accompanied by the uninhibited obbligato of the kids’ stream-of-consciousness jabber. Jimmy, the oldest, wanted to know how long I’d had the sports car, how fast would it run, did I get any tickets on the way here, and he made all A’s this quarter. Kris, the classic middle child, picked at her food, giggled, and got repeatedly grossed out by Kip’s clowning with his entree. Gail alternately dealt discipline and glanced back and forth between Hal and me, sensing the silences between words, feeling the presence of the invisible guest at the table.

It announced its presence in unanswered glances, in half-sighs falling feebly into silences which should have been filled by robust, chaotic, vigorous talk of family and the season and the crops. Not for the world would I broach any subject which might spill the wrenching pain of my brother’s grief out onto the table. But how could I know what raw nerve I might strike with the most innocuous reference? It was like walking on glass shards, barefooted and at night and without a flashlight.

So I answered questions, talked to the kids, and complimented the food that I barely tasted. For some reason, a line from a song kept running through my head like a litany. It was a song we used to sing in church: “Troublesome times are here / filling men’s hearts with fear … ”

With dinner eaten, and the children shooed down the hall to begin stalling bedtime, we shuttled the dishes by degrees to the side of the sink, then went into the den and sat down in the glow of a dying fire. Hal and I looked at each other with bleeding eyes until he glanced down, looked at Gail, cleared his throat and, after several false starts, hoarsely gasped, “I’m losing the farm, Frank.”

(To be continued)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

The Doll Clothes, Conclusion

November 20, 2009

Annabelle was so surprised and angry that she couldn’t move; hot tears stung the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t fair at all! Kate had promised. She would go tell Mama; Mama would make Kate keep her part of the deal.

Mama was in the kitchen, flour up to her elbows, kneading and rolling out dough for pie crust.

“Mama, Kate broke her promise! She said if I washed dishes for her she would—”

bowl

Mama spun around to look at her. Perspiration was beaded all along her forehead. “Honey, I don’t have time to listen to this right now. I’m right in the middle of making pies for the singing school this week, and I’ve got to get this done. Now run on and play, and we’ll talk about this later. Run on, now.” Mama turned quickly back to her task. Annabelle felt her words catching in her throat as she looked at Mama, her back turned to Annabelle, working the dough as if it were the only thing she could ever think about.

A sob burst from her as Annabelle raced outside. She went down to the creek behind the pasture and sat for a long time on a smooth rock under a large black oak, sobbing into her hands and feeling like her heart was about to break. Over and over again, she pounded her small fist against the unyielding stone on which she sat. Between sobs, she said, over and over again, “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair…” The words came out of her like some kind of angry song she was singing to nobody but herself.

creek

Finally, drained of tears, she stared blankly into the ripples of the creek and considered what she should do. She was sure about one thing: Kate was going to be sorry.

Later that morning, Annabelle found Kate seated in the shade of the big horse chestnut tree behind the house, frowning and biting her lip as she tried on Jenny a new scarf she had just snipped from a bit of chintz she had found. Annabelle had scrubbed all traces of tears from her cheeks, and she carried Susan jauntily by the waist, smiling as she strode up to Kate.

“Say, Kate, why don’t you and me go get a board out of the barn and make us a teeter-totter with one of Papa’s saw-horses? We could really have fun seesawing, don’t you think?”

Kate gave Annabelle a wary look. “You’re not still mad at me?”

“Shucks, no, I’m not mad. I’ll get Mama to make me some doll clothes sometime. Come on, let’s take Jenny and Susan and play on the teeter-totter. It’ll be fun.”

Gus wandered over from where he and Teddy had been playing with toy soldiers in the dirt by the back steps. “Can we play too, Annabelle? Me ‘n Teddy want to seesaw too.”

“No, Gus. This is girls only; no boys allowed. Me and Kate are going to seesaw, aren’t we, Kate?” She looked at Kate expectantly.

“Yes. That’s right, Gus,” said Kate, instinctively siding with Annabelle against their little brothers. “It’s gir1s on1y. Me and Annabelle are going to play seesaw with our dolls, and when we’re through, you and Teddy can play. Let’s go, Annabelle,” she said, rising and dusting the grass off the back of her cotton shift.

“Okay, let’s go.” They ran to the barn, where Papa had stacked a large pile of rough-cut oak and hickory boards, and selected a ten-foot length of one-by-twelve that suited their purpose perfectly. Each carrying one end of the board, they hauled it between them to a nearby section of split-rail fence.

“Here, Kate,” said Annabelle, handing Susan to her sister. “You hold the dolls while I get the board fixed up.” Annabelle laid the board across the lowest rail of the fence and scooted it back and forth until it seemed centered.
fence

“All right. Kate. You can hand me Susan now, and we can see-saw.”

“Here,” said Kate, handing over the doll, “but let’s not go too high; it scares me.”

“All right.”

They began to go up and down. “This is fun, isn’t it. Kate? Don’t you like this?”

Kate smiled as if she thought so, but wasn’t real sure. “Yes, it’s… it’s fun.”

“Wouldn’t you like to go just a little higher? Not much. just a little bit. We could put the board on the middle rail and make the board go faster. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Well… I guess… I guess it would be okay.”

They got off the board, and Annabelle handed her doll to Kate again. She dragged the heavy, rough board off the rail, then picked up one end and set it on the middle rail. She slid it to the center and retrieved Susan. They got back on the board and started seesawing.

“Oh, this is just so much fun, Kate. I’m glad we decided to do this. Let’s go a little faster, all right? Don’t you think that would be fun?”

“All right,” Kate said, but her face said she wasn’t too sure about it. Annabelle pushed hard off the ground anyway, sending Kate’s end of the board thumping down. Annabelle soared into the air higher than before.

“Whee! That’s really fun! Push hard, Kate, and let’s go really fast.”

Gradually, Kate started to get more into the spirit of it, laughing and grinning as the seesaw lifted her up and set her back down again.
PrairieCgoodMBo

When Annabelle judged the time was right, she said, “Oh, Kate, this is so much fun, what if we put the board all the way on the top rail?”

By now, Kate had forgotten her earlier hesitation. She scooted off her end of the board and held out her hand to Annabelle to take Susan so Kate could make the adjustment. When Annabelle had hefted the board onto the top rail and retrieved Susan, she raised her end of the board so Kate could climb on. By now, though, the plank’s opposite end was too high for Kate to mount from the ground, so she had to clamber up the fence and make a careful, backward-scooting journey out to her end of the board. The coarse, unfinished surface of the wood snagged her pantaloons and Kate had to be really careful to keep from getting splinters in her behind, but she made it.

Soon she and Kate were levering each other up and down, the added height giving Annabelle a giddy, tumbling feeling in her belly with each quick ascent and drop. Annabelle watched her older sister, now with the sky at her back, now the grass of the pasture. She was smiling at Jenny, cradled in the crook of her arm.

And then, as Kate launched herself into the air and reached the upper limit of her ascent. Annabelle quickly hopped off her end of the board. Kate came crashing to the ground. She screamed and threw out her arms in an attempt to maintain her balance. Jenny flew, skirts fluttering. through the air, and landed against a rock. Her beautiful china face shattered into tiny shards. Kate landed hard on her backside. She let out a howl that made it sound like she was being skinned alive, and her cry doubled in volume when she realized that Jenny was no more.

Annabelle stood off to one side and watched, eyes slightly squinted. She felt a little bit bad, now that things had happened the way they had—but not too much, since Kate had it coming.

Mama came dashing out of the house, clutching a can of soda to treat the bee sting or whatever other hurt had prompted Kate’s howl of pain. She rushed up to the girls. Kate was yelping like a scalded dog; Annabelle was watching and waiting.

“What happened, honey? What’s the matter?”

“Annabelle… she … she made me fall … she … she did it on purpose … and … and I fell and hurt myself … and … and now Jenny’s broken!”

When she said the last part, Kate lost what little bit of control she had left; it dissolved into a gushing cry of grief and anger that sounded like it was never going to stop.

Mama looked hard at Annabelle. “Is this true? You did this to Kate on purpose?”

Annabelle looked at Mama, then away. The words came out of her in a rush.

“Yes, ma’am, because Kate promised me if I washed dishes for her last week, she would make me some doll clothes for Susan, and I did the dishes all week, and then Kate broke her promise, and … and I tried to tell you so, but you…” She began to run out of steam as she felt twinges of guilt threatening to spill in burning droplets from her eyes.

Mama stood, her hands on her hips, looking from Annabelle to where Jenny lay, her face a jagged, dark cavity surrounded by shiny brunette curls. Tight-lipped, she pondered how to remedy the situation, when a crash from inside the house reminded her she had left Teddy and Gus playing in the kitchen where she was working. Quickly she reached down and snatched Susan from Annabelle’s arms and placed her in Kate’s hands. “Since you made Kate break her doll, you‘ll just have to give her yours.” Mama wheeled about and strode quickly back to the house.

For the second time that morning, Annabelle felt a knot closing her throat. She turned and raced away, leaving Kate sniffling on the ground. She spent the rest of the day beside the creek, grieving for the loss of her beloved Susan; she felt as though Mama had ripped away a piece of her chest when she took Susan from her. She did not return to the house even for lunch, so great was the ache in her heart. She decided she’d rather stay in the woods and starve than go to the house and see Kate dressing Susan in the clothes that had belonged to Jenny.

As the evening sun came slanting through the trees and the air cooled with the breath of coming night, Annabelle decided to appeal to the only other authority she knew; she would go and talk to Papa.

******

“Whoa, there. Whoa,” called Papa in a low voice as the team reached the pasture gate. As Papa put his hard hands gently around Annabelle’s waist to place her on Sally’s back, he said, “What’s the matter, honey? You been crying?”

horsessepia

Annabelle spilled the story of the dolls in a teary-voiced torrent. By the time she finished, she was sobbing again; just telling the story made her remember how she had felt when Mama yanked Susan away from her and gave her to Kate.

Papa, the muscles working in his jaws, was looking down at the ground. After a little while, he raised his eyes, took a deep breath, and lightly flicked Tom’s flank with the end of the reins. “Giddup.” The team resumed ambling toward the barn.

When Papa and Annabelle, hand in hand, came into the kitchen, Papa said, “Clara, I want you to make sure Annabelle gets a bath tonight. Tomorrow morning she’s going into Manchester with you and me.”

Mama stared, uncomprehending. “What do you mean? Tomorrow’s Tuesday, and you’re right in the middle of plowing the corn. We can’t take half a day in the middle of the week to go into town and back.”

“Well, we’re going anyway. We’re going to get Annabelle a new doll and some cloth for you to make her some doll clothes.”

“Do what? We can’t afford that! I don’t have time … and—” Mama glanced around at Annabelle and Kate, standing wide-eyed, listening. “You girls go outside and wash your hands. Go on.”

As they left the kitchen, they could hear Papa’s low voice begin, “Clara, you get down that sugar jar and get some of your sewing money out, because we’re going to do just what I said…”

When the children, a few moments later, trooped into the kitchen for supper, Mama and Papa were already seated at the table. Papa had a hard look about his eyes, and the muscles in his jaws were working in and out. Mama was staring down at her plate, a resigned, angry look on her face. No more was said about dolls, or much of anything else, that evening.

******

Early the next morning, Papa came into Annabelle and Kate’s room and called out, “Annabelle! Roll out of bed and get dressed, honey. It’s time to go!” She needed no further admonition; she had scarcely slept that night. A few minutes later, she went into the kitchen where Pete, the oldest of the five children, sat at the table, yawning and rubbing his bleary eyes. Papa was giving him instructions.

“Mama’s got eggs fixed for you and the others. Make sure the little boys get something to eat, then get your hoe and start weeding the cotton along the fencerow beside the barn. Tell Kate to watch the boys and not let them get into mischief. We’ll be back by mid-afternoon. All right?” Pete nodded sleepily.

Papa held out his hand to Annabelle. “Come on, sugar. Mama’s got you some breakfast, and she’s already on the wagon. Let’s go.” Annabelle and Papa went out into the yard where Tom and Sally stood stamping and champing at their bits, hitched to the flatbed wagon. Mama sat primly on the seat, looking straight ahead and nowhere else.

Papa gave Annabelle a hand up into the wagon bed. Mama turned and handed her a Mason jar filled with cornbread crumbled into milk, a teaspoon protruding from it. Papa climbed onto the seat, picked up the reins, and flipped them. “Giddup. Let’s go.” They slowly rolled out of the yard and down the lane toward the Manchester road.
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Annabelle’s mind was running around in circles for the whole ten-mile drive into town. Part of her was a little bit afraid: Mama and Papa never disagreed in front of the children. For Papa to override Mama in this way was, to Annabelle, scarcely short of a miracle. And then, she remembered why Papa had done what he’d done, and her heart felt as if it might break wide open with gratefulness.

They stopped the wagon in front of Henderson’s Dry Goods, on the dusty little main street of Manchester. Mr. Henderson, with his bushy, white beard and wearing his shopkeeper’s apron, carne out to greet them with a somewhat puzzled smile on his face.

“Howdy there. Leland. Good morning, Clara. What can we help you with today?” Mr. Henderson’s voice sounded like he was thinking of another question, but deciding not to ask it.

Mama dismounted from the wagon without a word and stomped into the store past Mr. Henderson without saying anything to anybody.

The storekeeper turned his head to watch her, then looked a question at Papa, who gave a sad little smile and a half-shrug. Mr. Henderson went back into the store .

Papa helped Annabelle down from the wagon. “You best go in there and tell Mama what you want. I’ll wait out here with the horses.” Annabelle floated into the store.

******

That night, Annabelle sat on the bed, still unable to think of sleep. Once again, just to make sure, she leaned over, reaching under the head of her side of the bed, and felt around in the darkness of her hiding place until her fingers traced the shape of Mary, her new doll. As Annabelle’s fingertips brushed the lacy outlines of Mary’s beautiful yellow gown, Kate, lying on her side with her face turned away from Annabelle, spoke.

“Annabelle? I was just thinking… Maybe sometimes we could trade clothes for our dolls. You know, like I could let you put some of … some of Susan’s clothes on Mary, and you could let Susan try on some of the things Mama made for Mary. What do you say?”
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There was a long pause in the flickering near-darkness. Annabelle smiled to herself. “Maybe so, Kate.” Another long, quiet spell. “Maybe if you would do some of my chores…”

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

The Doll Clothes, Part 1

October 20, 2009

A story my grandmother told me…
**********

Annabelle could hardly believe her eyes. She was afraid to close them, in fact, for fear that she might be dreaming.

She cradled in her arms a china doll with rouged cheeks. beautiful blue eyes, and silky blond hair just about the identical shade of her own. “Susan,” Annabelle said to her doll in almost the same voice she used when she was saying her prayers. “Your name is Susan.” The dolls were the only things she and Kate had wanted for Christmas this year. Mama had said, “I don’t know… we’ll see” they way she did when she was trying to say yes without letting them get their hopes up. But somehow it had been done, and to Annabelle it seemed like a miracle.
“What’ll you call your doll, Kate?” she said to her sister.

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“I think I’ll name her Jenny,” Kate said, when she could tug her eyes away from her own doll. “Yes, I believe I’ll name her Jenny and she’ll have the most beautiful clothes anywhere. Since her hair is the same brown as mine, I’ll make her a dress just like my blue gingham one.”

Annabelle eyed Kate and her doll, a wish trying to get started somewhere inside her. It was true; Kate could sew all by herself, and she would make Jenny a dress that would make everyone forget the plain muslin shifts the dolls had worn home from the store. Annabelle looked hopefully at Mama, hoping she would notice, hoping she would offer to make a trousseau for Susan, but Gus had gotten into a quarrel with Teddy over one of their barely unwrapped toys, and Mama was busy handing out thumps and jerks to make the little boys stop squabbling amid the wrapping paper.

Maybe a little later, I can ask her, Annabelle thought, and as she held Susan in her arms and gently stroked her shiny blonde hair, she forgot about everything except how much fun she and Kate were going to have, playing with their dolls.

As winter began to yield grudgingly to spring, the bare switches of the trees standing in the soggy bottoms and along the steep hillsides began to swell at their tips with buds straining to burst. The ash, hickory, oak, and sassafras started to show the hints of green so faint that Annabelle thought they were only her imagination. By the time the tender, new leaves were big enough to flutter in the cool breezes of spring, Papa had started leaving the house with the sunrise, turning the soil of the bottoms in four-foot widths as he followed Tom and Sally up and back, up and back.

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Each day, when the morning’s chores were done, Kate and Annabelle would play dolls. Kate was the older and usually dictated the terms of the day’s play, but Annabelle didn’t mind that so much. Sometimes they would climb with Susan and Jenny into the apple trees behind the barn and play at having a millinery shop. Jenny and Susan would be their customers and the girls, proper, attentive shopkeepers, would assist the ladies in choosing the perfect apple-leaf-and-morning-glory hats to set off their outfits to best advantage. Other times, they would shop for groceries, helping Jenny and Susan select the supplies they needed to cook meals for their families.
True to her word, Kate had made several outfits for Jenny, using the same material Mama bought for her to make her own clothes. Jenny had a blue gingham sundress and a lovely blue-and-white polka dot skirt with a matching jacket. She even had a little white bonnet Kate had fashioned from a scrap of silk Mama had left over from making a wedding dress for a neighbor girl. Susan had nothing to compare with Jenny’s wardrobe. She still wore the plain white muslin frock, now grimy from frequent handling, that she had worn the day Annabelle unwrapped her.

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Each time Annabelle tried to approach Mama about sewing Susan some nicer clothes, something pulled Mama away. She was always busy, it seemed. Nor could Annabelle convince Kate of the necessity of clothing the doll. Kate was wrapped up in Jenny, and when she did have some spare time, she could always find something more important to do than work on a dress for Susan. “I don’t have time to do that right now,” she’d say. “Mama says I have to help her finish the quilt she’s making for Gus’s bed, so don’t bother me with that now, because I don’t have time for it.”

Except for when she and Kate had finished their chores and could start playing dolls, Annabelle’s favorite time of day was in the evening, when she waited by the pasture gate for Papa to bring in the team. The horses would be walking slow, their heads down as they dragged their trace chains with Papa walking behind them. He would reach her, softly call out “Whoa” to Tom and Sally, then pick Annabelle up and put her on Tom or Sally’s broad, sweaty back. She could talk to Papa without having to share him with anyone else. Bathed in the salty, warm smell of the lathered horses, she could almost forget about Kate bossing her around and Mama never paying her any mind.

One day, swaying atop Sally on the way to the barn with Papa walking along beside, she decided to say something about the doll clothes.

“Papa, you know Kate’s doll has lots of nice clothes.”
“Yes, honey, she does, I guess.”
“And you know I can’t sew like Kate.”
“Yes.” Papa was using his slow, thinking voice.
“Could you talk to Mama and get her to make me some clothes for my doll?”
“Well, now, sugar.”

For a minute, Annabelle thought Papa had forgotten she was there.

“I don’t rightly know,” he said, finally. “Your mama has an awful lot of things to do right now, and I’m not too sure. We’ll see…”

When Papa said “We’ll see” it was different than when Mama said it. Annabelle did her best to be patient, though; she waited all through supper that night, listening carefully to see if Papa would say anything to Mama. But he didn’t, and Annabelle knew better than to ask Mama directly at the supper table. Besides, when Mama was busy, which was all the time, her patience was in short supply.

The next day was Sunday, and what with going to church and Sunday school and visiting, there wasn’t time to talk to Mama or Papa. But sitting on the quilt in the wagon on the way home, Annabelle decided to make a deal with Kate. That night, as they dressed for bed by the flickering light of their coal-oil lamp, Annabelle said, “Isn’t it your turn to wash dishes this week?”

“Yes. I guess so. Why?”
“Well, I was just thinking. If you’d sew me some doll clothes for Susan, I’d wash dishes for you all week, and you’d have more time to play.”
“Then when would you do your chores?”
“I’d get my work done, and wash the dishes too. And you wouldn’t have hardly anything to do. Come on, what do you say, Kate?”
“Well… I guess it would be all right. As long as everything got done… and I do hate washing dishes so. I’d rather do almost anything than wash dishes… All right. I’ll do it. But you have to wash after every meal, and for the whole week.”
“I know it. So … do we have a deal?”
“Yes. I guess so.”
“You promise?”
“All right. I promise.”

Annabelle went to bed that night with visions of beautiful doll clothes dancing in her head.
The next morning after breakfast as Mama was clearing the table, Kate skipped toward the door, cradling Jenny in the bend of her elbow.

“Mama, Annabelle said she’d do the dishes for me,” she said over her shoulder as she ran outside. Mama looked at Annabelle, saw her quick nod, and turned back to her work.
Annabelle, a dish cloth wrapped around each hand, dipped hot water from the stove reservoir into the tin pail, then carefully carried it to the kitchen table, where the two dishpans sat side by side. She had to stand on a chair so she could raise the pail up high enough to empty it carefully into first one pan, then the other, trying to keep from splashing herself with the near-boiling water.

When the dish pans had water in them, she began stacking the breakfast dishes beside the pans. She put the dishes, a few at a time, into the left-hand pan to begin soaking. After rubbing lye soap onto a wet dishrag, Annabelle carefully scrubbed the plates, saucers, and cups from breakfast, rinsed them in the right-hand pan, and set them aside on the table. After all the dishes had been washed and rinsed, she dried them and replaced them in the cupboard.

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When this was done. she paused a moment to push the sweaty strands out of her eyes, then poured the hot, soapy water from the dish- pans into the tin pail and lugged it out behind the smokehouse. She set it heavily on the ground and tipped it over, letting the steamy, greasy dishwater soak slowly into the soil, leaving a residue of bacon rinds. bread crumbs, and the brown, lacy edges of fried eggs. Puffing out her cheeks and wiping her face again, she carried the pail to the cistern and refilled it, took it back into the kitchen and , heaving with all the muscles in her arms and shoulders, poured its contents into the stove reservoir. She wiped the table and swept the floor.

Now that she had finished Kate’s chores, she could take up her own assigned task for the morning, which was to scatter the grain-and-table-leavings mixture for the chickens. In the evening, she would go into the henhouse to gather the day’s eggs. Egg-gathering had to be done only after supper, but for the other two meals of the day, Annabelle would have to haul water from the cistern to refill the stove reservoir after dish-washing, besides making sure the stove had adequate fuel to keep the water hot. Right now, though, her work finished until shortly before noon, Annabelle was free to join Kate in play.

This pattern repeated at each mealtime for a week. Along about Thursday, Annabelle, while wearily struggling with the heavy pail full of water on her way to the house from the cistern, happened to glance toward the barn to see Kate chattering at Jenny under one of the apple trees. For a moment she doubted the wisdom of the bargain she had made. Kate had practically had a week’s vacation from chores and had not failed to make sure Annabelle knew just how much she was enjoying the extra time she had to play. Each evening at bedtime Annabelle had to listen to Kate’s account of that day’s adventures with Jenny.

As much as Kate’s ways annoyed Annabelle, she knew her older sister too well to act put out; Kate might change her mind about the deal they’d made. So Annabelle quietly bided her time, swallowed the words she felt like saying to Kate, and kept on doing her work and Kate’s, too.

At last, the end of the week came. Annabelle reminded Kate, as they dressed for church, that she had held up her side of the bargain. Although Annabelle still had to wash dishes for the corning week in her normal turn, Kate would again share the chores. And besides, Kate now owed her some doll clothes.

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Kate said nothing. She wore a sulking look as she finished brushing her hair and slouched outside to board the wagon.

That morning at church, when the sermon was finally over, the congregation rose and began to sing: “ Beautiful robe so white, beautiful crown of light…” All Annabelle could think of were the lovely dress and bonnet she had planned for Susan.

After lunch, as they lay on their feather-stuffed ticking mattress, where they were supposed to be napping, Annabelle, whispering so Mama and Papa couldn’t hear, reminded Kate again about the doll clothes.
“When you make the dress for Susan—”

“Oh, for goodness sakes, Annabelle! It’s Sunday! We’re supposed to rest on Sunday. Can’t you leave me alone about your doll clothes at least until tomorrow?” Kate turned her face away from Annabelle and tried to act like she was asleep.

When Annabelle finished sweeping the kitchen the next morning after breakfast, she ran outside to find Kate sitting on the fence beside the henhouse, fiddling with Jenny’s hair and staring down the slope behind the house toward the tree-lined creek.

“Kate, I did what I said I would do, and now it’s your turn. I want you to make Susan a dress and bonnet out of that scrap of yellow Mama saved for me.”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind,” Kate said. “I’ve decided I don’t have time to make your silly old doll clothes.”
Annabelle stared at Kate. “But you promised! And I washed dishes for you a whole week besides doing my own chores. You promised.”
“I told you I changed my mind, and besides that, you can’t make me do it, ‘cause I’m the oldest, so there!” Kate jumped off the fence and ran away.

Creative Commons License
So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.