Izza scratched at the scab on her knee. “Man was a stranger here. Looked out of place, all wide-eyed and knees knocking as he walked down the rutted street in his suit and tie.”
Nora nodded, encouraging her grandmother to go on.
“Children in torn jeans played on tilting front porches. Dingy whites clung to backyard clotheslines. His father had refused us sidewalks; in a way trapping us permanently in this ramshackle development.”
“The Estates,” Nora said.
“Man sold promises and dreams.”
“But he didn’t sell houses.”
“Lord, we’d waited for years for affordable housing; for homes we could call our own; for a place we could pay off slow-like until we eventually owned it outright. Didn’t own a thing until his son came to town. I remember how he walked down the street, glancing at the addresses spray-painted on the rusted-out mailboxes. Thirty. Thirty-two. Thirty-four. Thirty-eight.”
“Supposed to be yellow, but black with rot.”
“Nope. Not anymore. He raised his fist to our door. Yet his knock was barely a whisper.”
Nora smiled and took a sip of her lemonade.
“Your granddad opened the door a tiny slit, slipped his eyes right through the crack to have a look-see.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Makes a better story. Who’re you? Your granddad wanted to know.”
“Daniel Johnson. The man stood tall. He began taking shape, filling out his form a little.”
“How you know that? Were you nibbing?”
“I have been known to take a peek out my front windows from time to time. Got to know what’s going on in my neighborhood, don’t I?”
“Granddad let him in?”
“Lord no. Asked him flat out of he was the son of Mr. Johnson, the owner of this-here estate. I am, Daniel replied. Look, will you let me in? But your granddad was having none of it. Told Daniel that his parents had done enough harm here. And they had. For sure, they had.” Izzy fell silent, in the remembering.
“What happened then?”
“I am not my parents, Daniel said, and I swear Nora, as that man distanced himself from his parents, defining himself as not, he took on a new dimension right before my eyes. It’s like someone had taken a flat old pillow and shaken some life back into it.” She laughed. “Course your granddad still didn’t believe his song and dance. You’ve come for the back rent, he said. As if your parents didn’t bleed enough out of us, doubling the cost of this two-bit place every four years.“
“I have money, Daniel said, and that upped your granddad’s interest a bit. I heard you needed grocery money. And your granddad said, Ain’t your concern.”
“Granddad was right.”
“I disagree with you there, Nora. Anyone’s troubles, serious troubles, mind, ought to be everyone’s concern. And, thank God, Daniel disagreed, too. I want to help, he said. And all a sudden, Daniel Johnson, rather than being not-something, not his parents, not selfish, not a bum of a landlord, Daniel Lawrence Johnson became a person in his own right. I swear the man birthed himself right there on my front stoop.”
A child rolled past on her shiny bicycle, her mother chasing behind, cheering her on.
“Can’t birth yourself, Grandma.”
“You can. You choose what you will become, Nora. Daniel Johnson spent his entire life trying to correct the mistake of his parents’ lives.”
“You saying my momma’s life was a mistake?” Nora stood, brushed the dirt from her shorts.
“Sit down, child. I’m saying your Momma made mistakes. Mistakes you can learn from. Mistakes that don’t have to be repeated. Lord knows, I love Janine. But sometimes,” Izza clenched her fists. “I just want to shake that child of mine. Getting messed up the wrong sorts. That’s what did her in.”
Izza sighed and scratched the scab on her leg, wondering if all children perceived the lives of their parents as a series of mistakes to be corrected, and if parents perceived the same in the lives of their children.
This was written for this week’s Master Class. We were to use this sentence–this entire sentence!–somewhere in our piece.
”He was the only one left to fulfill that contract and try to justify the labor and the harshness and the mistakes of his parents’ lives, and that responsibility was so clearly his, was so great an obligation, that it made unimportant and unreal the sight of the motley collection of pall-bearers staggering under the weight of his father’s body, and the back door of the hearse closing quietly upon the casket and the flowers.”
Whoever picked this lengthy prompt ought to have realized that it’s nigh impossible to incorporate this into a story. I picked out six words and used those instead. I hope I’m not disqualified.
As to who picked this crazy prompt?
The prompt is the last line in a wonderfully lengthy book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner. I highly recommend it.