Cancelled

“You can just cancel my order for this week, Jonathan Fowler.”  Bitsy stood before Jonathan, hands on hips.  Her face was red.  Her eyes were narrow. 

Jonathan stood there with four boxes of cherry pies in his arms.  “Bitsy, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying to cancel my order.”

Jonathan looked at Howard, who shrugged.

“Are you in some sort of trouble, Bitsy? I can help you along as best I can.  You know I’d do that.”

“I’m not in trouble.  I’m just fine, but thank you for asking.”

“Well, you can’t cancel your order when it’s being delivered.”

“I just did, didn’t I?”

“But…what am I going to do with these pies and the chickens?  I’ve got eight dozen eggs in the truck waiting for me to bring them in to you.”

“I got my eggs at the IGA this morning.”

 Jonathan set his pies on the breakfast bar.  “Why are you doing this, Bitsy?”

“I just found out that you offered Ellie your farm.  What the hell are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that Ellie needs a place to call home.  I’m thinking that Ellie loves the farm.  I’m thinking that it will give her certain guarantees.”

“Well I’m thinking that it will give you and Annie certain guarantees: A guaranteed place to live.  Andit’ll guarantee that Ellie won’t go to college.”

“Ellie can still go to college.”

“And come back to what?  A two-bit farm in a dying town?  She’s languishing here.”

“She can’t go to college on hope alone.”

“Howard will be paying for her education.”  Bitsy smiled at Howard.

“Ellie told me he stared her on a fund.”

“He more than started it, Jonathan Fowler.  The man just cashed in five CDs and deposited sixty thousand dollars in her account.”

“He what?”  Jonathan turned towards Howard.  “How did you manage that, Howard?”

Howard’s face reddened. 

“I think he feels some sort of…obligation to the child,” Bitsy says, “which is more than I can say of you.  You go through with giving this farm to Ellie, you can kiss your orders from Bitsy’s Diner goodbye forever.”

“I need you, Bitsy.  Without your orders, the farm…”  Jonathan shook his head.  “You’ve put me in a bind here.  If you stop ordering from me, I may as well sell the farm.”

“I’m not stopping you from doing that, Jonathan.”

“I’d say you’re pushing me into it.  Hell, I’d say you want me to sell the farm.”  Jonathan frowned.  “You’ve never been happy here, Bitsy.  Maybe this is just an excuse for you to get out.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“I don’t know what’s true anymore, Bitsy.  Seems the whole town has gone crazy every since Wheezy died.  Come on, Howard.  We’ve got some chickens to freeze.”  And Jonathan turned and headed out the front door of Bitsy’s Diner, leaving the pies behind him. 

“Annie will be furious,” he said to Howard.  And Jonathan knew never to make Annie furious.  Ever.

Once before he’d suffered Annie’s anger.  And she’d left him.  She packed her bags and packed the car and headed straight for her sister’s house in Indiana.  Jonathan shook his head, remembering.  Annie’d stayed away for four months.  Not calling.  Not writing.  Howard showed up right about that time.  And he and Howard worked the farm together.  Jonathan used to joke that he and Howard were playing the bachelors.  But Jonathan’s laugh always felt hollow.  Annie’s absence had sucked the joy out of Jonathan.  The farmhouse seemed to sag on its foundation.  The windows seemed to tilt.  The barn needed a paint job and the wagon needed mending.  But Jonathan couldn’t find it within himself to care.

Then, all of a sudden, when she got wind—through Bitsy, Jonathan suspected—that there was to be a baby born upon the premises, Annie showed up.  She stood there on the porch, her bags beside her.  And Annie, his wife, his partner, his lover…Annie rang the doorbell. 

It had pained Jonathan to open the door and see his wife standing there, as if she was unsure whether she still belonged to the farm; unsure whether it still belonged to her.  Jonathan opened the screen door wide.  He let it slam behind him.  He stood there before Annie.  Because he was unsure whether they still belonged to each other. 

Annie lifted her chin.  “I’m sorry, Jonathan.”

Jonathan took Annie in his arms and held her close, kissing the top of her head and weeping tears of joy and sorrow.  “Don’t ever leave me again, Mrs. Fowler.”

She shook her head.  “I was lost.”

“I know.”

And they’d held on to each other tightly, standing upon the porch.  And the night air fell cool and soft around them and their love was gentle and kind; apologetic and new.

The next morning, Annie was back in the kitchen, as if she’d never left. 

She’d been there ever since.   

Withdrawn

Lilly Jean sat on the couch outside the branch manager’s office.  She’d been waiting for the past fifteen minutes, staring at the sign on the office door.  Frank Liebowics, Branch Manager.  What the hell was the man doing back there all that time was what Lilly Jean wanted to know.  Likely taking a nap, she mused, crossing her legs and drumming her fingernails on the arm of the chair. 

A woman entered the bank and strode to the manager’s door.  “Frank, I’m kind of in a hurry here.”

Lilly Jean looked up.  Frowned.  Nobody barged in front of Lilly Jean Jacobs.  She opened her mouth to speak.  Closed it just as quick.  Lilly Jean suddenly regretted her decision to stop putting on makeup; to stop doing her hair of a morning.  This woman was drop dead gorgeous. She wore a wool suit, red.  An ivory scoop neck shirt beneath.  Gray pumps.  A pearl necklace and matching earrings.  Her nails—fingers and toes—wore shiny red polish.  Her long blonde hair was pulled back into a casual but neat bun.  “What’re you starin’ at?”

Lilly Jean felt her skin grow hot; she looked at the floor.  She felt awkward in her postal uniform.  She felt ugly and unbalanced and uncoordinated.  She wished she’d at least put on a spot of lipstick that morning.

The woman opened the manager’s office and stepped in.

“Good morning, Miss Jackson.”



Jackson?  Ellie’s name was Jackson.  Lilly Jean tilted her head.  Pretended not to listen. 

“You used to call me Neala, Frank.”  The woman gave a sultry laugh.  “Remember that?”

“May I help you, Miss Jackson?”

This was getting interesting.  Lilly Jean pulled a book from her purse—some science fiction thing Howard had loaned to her.  She held the book to her face and strained her ears. 

“I’d like to make a withdrawal from my account.”

“Did you fill out the proper paperwork?”

“I have all the paperwork I need.  Remember these?  I saved every last one of your letters, Frank.”

“You said you destroyed them.”  The man was whispering now.

 “I say a lot of things, Frank.”

A drawer opened and then closed.  “This account is in your daughter’s name, Neala.  Are you the custodian?”

“Well I ought to be, don’t you think?  I am her mother, after all.”

Lilly Jean heard some keys being pressed on the computer.  “You’re not listed.”

“Why don’t you just list me then, Frank?”

“I can’t do that…”

“Ellie needs to make a deposit at OhioState.  If she doesn’t, she’ll lose her place.”

“Bring her in.  I’ll be happy to help her with that.”

“I want to surprise her, Frank.  I’m trying to turn my life around; do something right for once.”

“Neala, I can’t.  It’s against bank policy.  I could lose my job.  I’m sorry, but I just can’t…”

“Frank, I’m telling you, if you don’t put my name on this account, the entire town will know about us.”

 “Please, Neala.  I’m a married man. I have children.”

“You were married then.  And your wife was pregnant.  I saved more than the letters, Frank.  I never destroy anything.  You don’t help me out, I’ll cook your ass.  You’ll lose your job.  And your family.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

She laughed again.  “Try me.”

The manager sighed. 

“All you have to do is list me as the custodian, Frank.  I’ll take care of the rest.”

“The letters?”

“You can have ‘em.”

 “The other stuff?”

“Good as gone.”

Lilly Jean squirmed in her seat.  She brought the book closer to her face.  She listened harder than she’d ever listened in her life. 

 “You’re now the custodian of Ellie’s account.  I hope you’re not screwing with me.”

“Oh, I’m not screwing around with you Frank.  You are a married man, after all.  Here are you letters.  Don’t worry.  I’ve got copies at home.” 

The woman emerged from the office and walked up to the counter.  “I’d like to make a withdrawal.”

Lilly Jean turned a page.  Looked up over the top of the book.  Yes.  She could definitely see the resemblance.  This was the famed Neala Jackson. 

“How much?”

“All of it.”

The teller looked up.  “That’s quite a sum.”

“Five hundred dollars is nothing.”

“Miss Jackson.”

“Ms.”

“Ms. Jackson, there’s over sixty-five thousand dollars in this account.”

Ellie’s mother gasped.  “What?”

Lilly Jean grasped the edges of her book tightly.

 “Still want to take it all out?”

Lilly Jean watched Neala Jackson consider.  “All but five hundred.  I want to transfer the rest to a new account.  In my name only.”

Frank Liebowics, Branch Manager finally decided to haul his ass out of his chair and make an appearance at the door.  “May I help you?”  The man looked about as bad as road kill.  His face was red and sweaty.  His hair stood up in the front.  His tie was loosened and his suit jacket was rumpled. 

Lilly Jean paused.  She’d wanted to see how this played out.  But…She glanced at her watch.  “I’d like to open an account, please.”  Reluctantly she stood and followed Frank Liebowics, Branch Manager into his office. 

Unshared Memories

In late fall, work slowed for Jonathan.  In the winter, it practically stopped.  Jonathan was in his winter, he knew.  A winter without springs.  Without summers to look forward to.  Without falls to gather in the harvest and settle in.  He pulled the tractor into the barn and shut it off, wondered what this place would look like without the barn, without the farmhouse.  Full of house after house after house full of people who wanted to escape the city, who claimed to want the land, then did nothing with it except call a lawn care company in to blast it with chemicals once a week.  He glanced at the trailer.  Where would the little silver trailer go? 

God, he loved that child.  He loved her more than she knew.  More, probably, than he was entitled to.  But not more than he ought.  Lord knew she needed as much love as she could get. 


One Saturday night in May, the story went, long after her stomach had begun to bulge, Neala Jackson went to the drive-in with a girlfriend. She returned to the apartment she shared with her mother and four younger brothers, each produced in quick succession, one every year until Neala’s father skipped town.  The front door was wide open, swinging on rusted hinges.  There was no furniture left behind; no sheets or blankets or towels.  Only a note, taped to the refrigerator, written in her mother’s unsure hand: “I’m sorry, but I’m just too tired to raise up any more babies.”  Her mother had left Neala nothing but an old Chevy truck and a bank account—probably long forgotten—with a few thousand dollars in it. Neala slept on the floor of the apartment that night, with nothing but her sadness to cover herself—or maybe her anger.  The first thing the next day, she drove right over to Vincent’s Vintage Vehicles and paid cash for a reconditioned trailer.  She hitched it up to the back of the Chevy and drove it right onto the farm, smack-dab in the middle of the alfalfa field.

Jonathan couldn’t turn her away: Neala Jackson reminded him of an animal in a trap.  Helpless and afraid.  Rabid.  The neighbors said he was crazy, at first.  Said he was too nice for his own good.  Said that Neala Jackson was nothing but trouble.  Then they just stopped talking.

A shallow creek cut the farm in half.  Years ago, Jonathan caught Ellie standing stark naked, knee deep in cold water.  Ellie must’ve been no more than two. 

“This where you bathe every day?”

Shamelessly, almost defiantly she looked him in the eye.  “Yeah.”

“Well, then.” Jonathan had scratched at his jaw.  “Where do you go to the bathroom?”

 “In a little pot.  Momma tosses it in the weeds by the track.”

Jonathan shook his head and pursed his lips and thought about what the neighbors would say next.  First thing the following day, he plumbed in a water line and a small septic system. 

In time, Jonathan plowed around the trailer and seeded a tiny lawn.  Annie planted some of her perennials in a little flowerbed near the front door. 

And, eventually, after it looked like we were going to stay for good, Jonathan put in a gravel driveway leading to the trailer. 

Jonathan looked at the trailer.  Neala Jackson never uttered one word of thanks.  But despite her apparent ingratitude, he wouldn’t have done it any other way.  Because she had given him—and Annie—the child. 

The house smelled of furniture oil and cinnamon and contentment. 

“Annie?”

“In the back.” 

The door slammed shut as Jonathan followed his nose down a hallway lined with discolored family photographs in dusty frames.  There was his Annie, at her usual post in the kitchen.  She’d kept her looks, grown more beautiful, in fact, with each passing year.  As thin as Jonathan and nearly as tall.  He smiled at her outfit.  While most women her age tended toward flowered dresses and blue hair, Annie wore holey jeans and Jonathan’s old tee shirts.  And when her hair needed a trim, she’d take a chair to the back porch, tie a sheet around her neck and hand the scissors to Jonathan.  Jonathan would never get a job in a beauty parlor.  But he did a decent enough job.  Enough to keep Annie happy.  And that was all he’d ever wanted.  To keep Annie happy.

She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to him.

 “Jonathan, when the Good Lord decides to take you, he’ll have to take that old Ford as well.”  She smiled and kissed his cheek.  “Hungry?”

He took her in his arms and rested his head against the top of her chest.  He looked out the window.  Beyond

Beyond the barn and the chicken coop; past Annie’s vegetable garden and the muddy field lay a set of railroad tracks.  When he was a kid, Jonathan spent hours on those tracks.  He’d place an ear on the rails and imagine he could hear the train approaching.  He’d jump off at the last second and watch the train passing through the farm, chugging its heart out and chanting progress, progress under its breath as it puffed along and disappeared around the bend. 

But it was always a dream: The last train left town years ago, taking progress right along with it, leaving only the tall weeds that grew between those abandoned rails; weeds where, Johanthan knew, Ellie would hide for hours waiting for her mother to finish up with her current boyfriend.  He smiled.  Ellie found treasure in those weeds: Endless balls of iron ore and heavy spikes that she’d lug home to Annie.  Every time Ellie brought his wife something, Annie would stop what she was doing immediately.  She’d sit down.  Examine the treasure carefully and exclaim over it like that piece of rusted out iron was the highlight of her day.  Annie’d kept them, too.  Kept them in a shoebox underneath her bed, along with all the other memories she couldn’t bear to divorce herself from, no matter how happy.  No matter how painful.

“Annie?”

“Hmmm?”  She pulled away.  Smiled.  God, how he loved those eyes.

“Where do unshared memories go, when someone dies?”

She closed her eyes, thought for a moment.  He loved the way Annie took his questions seriously, ridiculous as they may sound.  “Some memories, Jonathan, aren’t meant to be shared.  Those must die.”  She grew thoughtful for a moment.  “Depressing, isn’t it?”

“Does place have memories?  Does this place,” he gestured around the kitchen.  “…have memories?”

“Yes.  It does.”  She smiled.  “The people who move in after us will feel our memories, will feel our love and our history.  Our pain and, yes,” she nodded sadly.  “Our loss.”

“But what if this place—after we’re gone, I mean—is no more?”

She frowned.  “A place can’t be no more.”

“What if someone tore down the barn and the house?  Would the memory of place still be here?”

“This place will never be torn down, Jonathan.  You’d never let that happen.”

“Humor me…”

 “Memories.”  She leaned against the oven, arms crossed.  “I believe that when a place is torn down, destroyed, then the memories of that place are destroyed as well.”

“What about the trees?  The soil?  The plants?”

“Jonathan, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, there will be no trees left on this farm.”  She frowned.  “This is hypothetical, isn’t it?”

“I’m getting a lot of pressure to sell.”

“No one can force you to do what you don’t want to do, Jonathan.  I ought to know that.”
“They keep telling me that there are no heirs to the place; that sooner or later I will be gone, and you will be gone, and there will be no one holding on.”  He stared out the window.  Blinked back tears.

“Ellie,” Annie says. “Give the farm to Ellie.”

“Her mother…”

“Doesn’t need to know.  Jonathan, you love that child just as much as you love this farm.  Give the farm to Ellie.”

On the Head of a Pin…

The entrance to the diner opened, sending in a blast of cold air.  Bitsy frowned.  “Lilly Jean, you know we don’t open until six o’clock.  I can’t keep letting you in or everyone else will be coming in for their morning coffee before we get it brewed.”

 “Bitsy, I…”

“I know you and Spank are sweet on each other now.  But that doesn’t give you special privileges.” 

Lilly Jean walked behind the breakfast bar.  She reached underneath the bar and grabbed a filter.  “Regular or decaf, Bitsy?”

Bitsy stiffened.  Of all the nerve.  But the call for coffee was stronger than her indignation.   “Regular.”  Lord, she needed a jolt.  And decaf wasn’t going to do it.    

Lilly Jean tore open the packet of coffee and poured it into the filter.  She nodded to the kitchen.  “I hear Spank’s got his music on again.  How he can listen to that shit is beyond me.” 

Bitsy sighed. She’d have to talk to Spank; tell him to keep his girlfriend in line.  She studied Lilly Jean as she took out two coffee cups from beneath the counter.  Seemed to Bitsy that Lilly Jean was acting pretty fast; hooking up with Spank when she was still married to Daddy Sheriff.  Coming into the diner like she owned the place.  “Lilly Jean…”

“Cream?”

“Why do I feel like a guest in my own diner, Lilly Jean?”

“Cream?”

“Please.”

Lilly Jean tore open a creamer and poured it into one of the cups.

“Sugar?”

“No.”

Lilly Jean emptied three packets of sugar into the other cup.   “I come to help, Bitsy.”

“I don’t need help.”

“You lose your best waitress, you need help.” 

“And how will people get their stamps today?”

“Not my problem.  I quit.”

“Why?”

“Daddy Sheriff got me that job.”  Lilly Jean shivered.  “I’ve washed my hands of that man.”  She picked up the coffee pot and poured out two cups.

“So you just burst in here, looking for a job?   I’m losing customers right and left.”  She’d been a fool to end her business relationship with Jonathan.  She’d never expected it to backfire the way it had.  “I can’t afford to hire you, Lilly Jean.” 

Lilly Jean shook her head.  “I ain’t lookin’ for a job, Bitsy.  I’m here to help you.  As a friend.  Now where do you keep your aprons?”

“In the kitchen, with your boyfriend.”  Bitsy sighed.  The last thing she needed was Lilly Jean mooning over Spank, keeping him from his work. 

Lilly Jean pushed through the swinging door and returned a second later, trying an apron around her waist.  “Put me to work, Bitsy.”

“Lilly Jean, I…”

“Tell me everything that needs done before opening.”

Bitsy began counting on her fingers.  “Tables need to be set.  Water glasses filled with ice.  More coffee made.  Baskets lined with napkins and filled with sweet rolls…”

“Holy, shit, Bitsy.  How many things you got to do every morning?”

Bitsy sighed.  “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?”

“Oh, don’t go getting all spiritual on me, Bitsy.  I’ll start with the tables.”  Lilly Jean grabbed a stack of placemats and began setting them neatly upon the tables.  “Well, go on,” Lilly Jean said, casting a glance over her shoulder.  “I reckon a woman knows how to set a table without a body watching over her.”

Bitsy nodded and pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. 

A moment later, she returned to the dining room.  “Hey, Lilly Jean?”

Lilly Jean looked up.  “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

Lilly Jean nodded.  “Happy to do it, Bitsy.”  And she returned to her tables, humming along to Spank’s music drifting in from the kitchen.

And for the first time since Ellie left, Bitsy allowed herself to smile.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Kurt challenged me with “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and I challenged Jay Andrew Allen with “I’ve just made a horrible mistake…”

Made Up

Howard looked at her, wide-eyed.  He pointed to the door.

 

“I ain’t going nowhere, Howard.  Your daddy don’t scare me.”  She gathered up glasses and plates and set them in the kitchen sink, humming a little as she did so to steady her nerves.  When she saw Daddy Sheriff standing in the hallway, she startled.  “Well, speak of the devil.  Where you headed with that big ole’ suitcase?”

“I’m going hunting.”

She looked at the oversized suitcase, the zipper gasping and straining.  “How many articles of clothing does a man require to go romping through the woods after helpless animals?”  And where were his guns, anyway?

“Don’t expect me for some time.”  The door slammed. 

“Enjoy yourself, asshole.”  Lilly Jean returned to the kitchen and ran water in the sink. 

Howard switched off the television set and got the vacuum from the closet.  Lilly Jean smiled.  “Why thank you, Howard.  I wish I’d met you before I met your daddy.  Lord knows, you’re more considerate of other people’s emotionals.”

And then, since it was dark and since Daddy Sheriff wouldn’t be looking for dinner, Lilly Jean went to bed.   

She woke refreshed and felt oddly pleased with herself.  She found, without Daddy Sheriff beside her, that she’d slept well.  She washed her hair then deep conditioned it.  She shaved and exfoliated and moisturized.  She wrapped a towel around herself and sat at her vanity.  She opened her makeup bag and looked in the mirror.  She spoke to her reflection.  “Why are you doing this, Lilly Jean Jacobs?”

Her reflection gazed back passively. 

She thought back to Mrs. Murphy’s classroom.  She must have been a sixth grader then.  She counted back the years.  Her daddy had moved them to Memphis that year.  He became a musician.  Lilly Jean became one of them latchkey kids. 

In latchkey she fell in love.

She tried everything to get Bobby’s attention: She helped him with his homework.  He wasn’t impressed.  She laughed at his stupid jokes.  He smiled at her in the hallway.  She curled her hair.  He brushed her hand against hers.  She moisturized and painted her nails and bought all manner of cosmetics.  He asked her on a date. 

They agreed to go steady.

Two weeks later, he dumped her to pursue a more popular, prettier girl.

The following morning, Lilly Jean went to school dressed to kill.

All the boys noticed.

She’d thought at the time she enjoyed it. 

“What a waste,” she told her reflection.  “Men just ain’t worth it.”  And she imagined her sixth grade self nodding back in agreement. 

“I suppose mistakes are building blocks.”  She laughed then and her reflection laughed, too.  “Hell, with all my mistakes, I got a whole construction company of my own.”

Lilly Jean studied herself.  “Why do you paint all this shit on your face every morning?  For some dumb-assed man?  They all end up screwing you over, Lilly Jean.  They either find someone with bigger boobs or a perkier caboose.  Or someone just a shade younger or prettier or smarter.  All this makeup, Lilly Jean?  It’s like putting gravy on one of Spank’s shoe-leather pork chops.  You can’t disguise what’s underneath.”

Her reflection grinned.

Lilly Jean put the makeup bag aside.  She stood.  And for the first time in years, Lilly Jean went to meet the world without a speck of makeup on.

This was writen in response to Story Dam’s prompt. 

Sinners and Saints

“Well, ain’t just you the little saint, Howard Heacock?” Daddy Sheriff sneered.  “Always doing the right thing, the good thing.  Paying for the child’s education.  Working your ass off for Jonathan Fowler and never spending a dime of it.  And always obeying your father, just like I asked you to.  You ever do anything bad in your life, boy?”

Howard nodded, once and neatly.  Daddy Sheriff knew he had.

“You think you’re proving some kind of point with all your goodness?  Well, I got news for you, Howard: You need me.”

No.  Howard had no need of his father.  He remained with Daddy Sheriff to punish him.  To remind him, every single day, of what he’d done.  Every time he looked upon his face, Howard knew, Daddy Sheriff was taken back to that night.  Every day that Howard kept his mouth closed, he shouted guilty.

 “You and all them other do-gooders in this world need people to do bad.  Sinners need saints, Howard.  Good needs evil.”  Daddy Sheriff lit a cigarette.   “It’s a balance, y’see.  Sinners screw up.  Saints scurry around behind ‘em with their little dustpans of goodness, sweeping up the mess, counting on their rosary beads; saying their prayers; shaking their heads and thanking their lucky stars for the lives they’ve been blessed to lead.  Makes you saints feel good, you know.  Gives you a purpose to life.”

“Stop talking nonsense, Daddy Sheriff,” Lilly Jean shouted.  “The weather’s on.”

“Shut up, woman.”  Daddy Sheriff waved his cigarette in the air.  The ash threatened to spill onto Lilly Jean’s new shag rug.  Howard watched warily. 

“Where would all you saints be, Howard, if there was no evil in this world?  What would all you little bright spots of sunshine do, if there were no more shadows?” Daddy Sheriff grinned.  “What in the world would you do, Howard, if I was a good man?”  He laughed.  “You may think saints are helping the sinners, Howard, but you know what?  I think you got it backwards.”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Sir challenged me with ““What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” ? Mikhail Bulgakov” and I challenged Janey with “A million drops of water.”

Chicken Legs

“Now you jest come on back here, Lilly Jean, and I’ll rassle up something for you to eat.”  Spank helped Lilly Jean into a chair before tying on an apron.
 “I don’t know that I could eat, Spank.  I hurt too much.”
 “You’ll eat my special soup.  Wonton.  Cures everything.” 
“You’re shittin’ me, Spank.  You bin cooking in this here diner all these years making greasy shit food and you kin cook Chinese?”
Spank beamed.  “Yep.”  He took a bunch of green onions from the refrigerator and began to wash them.
“Where’d y’all learn how to cook fancy?”

“Cable television.  Bitsy lets me experiment after the diner’s closed.”  Spank cut the roots from the onion and began slicing them.
“I can’t believe you’re making me wonton soup.” 
“I’m making you more than that, Lilly Jean.  I’m making you a feast.  You just rest now.  OK if I turn on the radio?”  His hand hovered over the dial.  “I won’t put on my oldies.  I know you don’t like ‘em.”
“No, Spank.  You listen to whatever you want to.”  Lilly Jean leaned her head against the wall, closed her eyes and allowed herself to fall asleep to the sounds of the Lawrence Welk band.
* * *
“Lilly Jean?”  A hand on her shoulder. 
“Leave me alone, Daddy Sheriff.”
“Dinner’s ready.” 
“You don’t cook, Daddy Sheriff.”
“I ain’t Daddy Sheriff.  I’m Spank.” 
“Oh, thank God.”  Lilly Jean opened her eyes.   Spank had set a table before her with a white cloth; a vase of flowers in the center.  She took a slow, tentative breath: Her ribs still hurt.  “Oh my Lord, does that smell good, Spank.  I can’t recollect the last time someone cooked for me.” 
“Lemme’ get your soup.”
Lilly Jean watched Spank bustle about the kitchen, dishing up soup into pretty bowls.  Arranging egg rolls on a plate.   Dishing up rice and shrimp.  The man had energy, Lilly Jean had to credit him that.  And skinny?  “Hey, Spank are them your legs or are you riding a chicken?”  Lilly Jean laughed.  She instantly regretted it: Spank was the only person who’d visited her in the hospital.
Spank walked over on his skinny legs and set two bowls of soup of the table.  He sat across from Lilly Jean and took her hand.  And Spank laughed, too.  “You’re beautiful, Lilly Jean, anyone ever tell you that?”

The Contours of a Man’s Heart

Wheezy Hart lay there in his coffin, waxen hands clutching a shiny black Bible, proof of his belief in God, as if, Jonathan thought, God needed any more proof than what was bound up within the contours of a man’s heart.  Jonathan imagined his friend reaching up and hooking an index finger beneath the knot of the red tie encircling his neck.  Wheezy always claimed he couldn’t wear a tie too tight, claimed it aggravated the asthma that had plagued him his entire life.  Jonathan shook his head at the waste.  That asthma had forced the Harts to sell their farm to Jonathan’s parents and move to town, sentencing Wheezy to a life of books, a life that would better have been spent working the land. 

“He’s missing his cane.”  Jonathan pictured Wheezy, picking his way down

Main Street

, sucking at his inhaler like a calf on a teat.

“He doesn’t need it anymore, Jonathan,” Annie said.

More faithful than any woman had ever been to Wheezy, that cane had been Wheezy’s constant companion for decades.  When he wore the polish off the handle, the old cheapskate refused to buy a new one, claiming he wouldn’t divorce his wife just because she’d gotten a little ugly over the years, now would he?  Wheezy might have joked about not having found a wife, but deep down, Jonathan knew, he was lonely.  It wasn’t just God who could see into the heart of a man.

“He looks good,” Annie murmured. 

Jonathan frowned.  “He looks like hell. 



Annie laughed.  “You’re right.” She patted Wheezy’s hand.  “William was a good man.”  Jonathan looked at her.  “Who decides if a life—when it reaches its end—is good?”

She stared.  Blinked.  “God.”  Annie was as sure of God as she was of the sunrise.

“No.”  He shook his head.  “It’s the judgment of others.  The judgment of friends and family and neighbors and children.  That’s what makes a life good or bad.” 

Annie looked at him with clear, beautiful eyes.  “Any life is good, Jonathan.  Life, by its very nature is good.”

“Even when not one person can point to one good thing about it?” 

“I believe that every person has good in them, Jonathan.  But sometimes the good gets misplaced.”

“Even with Neala?  What good has come from her?”

Annie put a hand on Jonathan’s.  “She gave us Ellie, Jonathan.  Neala gave us a whole lot of good.”

“But Neala, herself.  She’s no good.”

“I think you’re wrong there, Jonathan.  You’ve been too long away from the church.”  Annie squeezed Jonathan’s arm before moving away to take a seat in one of the chairs placed at various angles around the room, in what Annie called conversational style.  Jonathan didn’t understand it: Who could converse at a time like this?  Again, he pictured Wheezy, this time in heaven, laughing at the gathering beneath him.  

Old Wheezy.  Getting the last word in, the last laugh as usual.  For one brief moment, Jonathan allowed his heart to soften, looking at his old friend laid out before him.  He recalled their times together, on adjacent farms, the two of them perpetually side by side, almost as if they were twins. 

After Wheezy moved to town, their friendship continued, of course.  Only years later, did Wheezy take that fatal step that lead to the destruction of their friendship, separating them as surely, as cleanly as a surgeon’s scalpel.  For years, Jonathan longed to feel that closeness again, longed to fill the aching void left by Wheezy’s absence.  Jonathan mourned him, the way he might mourn a missing limb or an absent twin.  But still…Jonathan wiped a tear from his eye.  He leaned over Wheezy’s inert body.  Brought his mouth to his ear, feeling oddly ridiculous as he did so, knowing that if Wheezy were able to hear, he wouldn’t be using his ears.  Jonathan cleared his throat, heard the sudden silence of the room all around him.  He resisted the urge to smack the old man’s cheek, so fresh and raw was his anger at this latest injustice.  “Should’ve left well enough alone, old man.” 

Then he straightened and turned towards the room.  All eyes were on him, pinning him to the spot. Had they heard?  No, there was Lilly Jean, gigantic purse on her lap, grinning inanely at him, as was her way.  Next to her, the sheriff, eyes respectfully in his lap.  And Bitsy, a bit of flour dusting her brow.  To her left Old Spank.  He wondered idly who was managing the diner, what with the owner and the head cook at the calling hours.  Then he allowed his eyes to take in the rest of the people in the room and realized that all of Medford must’ve been in that room.  There was Andee Miller, the manager at the IGA.  Ellie, of course, sitting next to Annie, looking miserable.  Well of course she would: She’d loved Wheezy.  Even Neala, a new sleazebag beside her, had come, most likely for the free food to be served at the diner after the funeral.  And there, far off in the corner of the room, all alone and looking miserable in a baggy suit that must’ve come from the Goodwill, Howard.  Jonathan glared at the crowd staring at him expectantly.  Everyone in Medford knew his business, knew everyone’s business.  That was the trouble with small towns.  But perhaps, Jonathan thought, as he walked away from Wheezy without a proper goodbye, that was their beauty as well.

Jonathan stalked from the room.  As he passed, the funeral director quickly rearranged his face into a mournful expression.  “Are you OK, Mr…”  He put a hand on Jonathan’s arm.  Jonathan didn’t bother to stop.  “I’m fine.”  The lobby was filled with giant vases of dusty silk flowers.  There were a couple of wing chairs in the corner of the room.  Jonathan could hide there. 

Light footsteps.  Quiet, funeral parlor footsteps.  Then…

Lilly Jean Jacobs took a seat in the matching chair.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Fowler.  Mr. Hart was a real nice man.”

Jonathan gave a slight nod. 

“I hate these things.  They make me nervous.”  She laughed lightly and crossed her legs, tapping her foot to some invisible sound only she could hear.  She leaned forward suddenly, examined the table between them.  “What does a table in a funeral parlor need a drawer for, do you think?” 

He shrugged.  Perhaps it was better in with Annie.

 Lilly Jean looked around before grabbing the pull and sliding the drawer open.  Jonathan glanced inside.  “Look at these old gloves!”  Lilly Jean slipped a glove onto her left hand and pulled it all the way to her elbow.  “I wonder how long…”  Lilly Jean spotted something else in the drawer.  “Oh, my Lord, do you think this is a real pearl?”  Lilly Jean held a dangling earring to her lobe. 

“I’m not up to date on jewelry, Lilly Jean.”  He sighed.  He’d wanted this time alone.   

“What’s this?”  She set the earring on the table and picked up an envelope, yellowed with age, from the drawer. 

“No,” Jonathan said.  “Put it back, Lilly Jean.”

“Don’t you want to know what’s inside?  Sealed envelopes are my especiality.”

“No.”

“Some secrets are better left locked away,” Jonathan said.  Wheezy Hart of all people should have understood that.

He stood and left the funeral home.  Annie would be angry, he knew, that he’d be missing the church.  But he also knew that she’d understand.  Jonathan hadn’t stepped foot in a church in eighteen years.  And a man, especially one as full of anger as Jonathan, was surely slow to change his ways. 

If There were Dreams

“Hey, Howie!” 

 

Howard jumped.  Now that Daddy Sheriff had taken off to go hunting, he’d grown accustomed to the silences of the house.  He liked the quiet, after a day of noise at the farm and the diner.  But Lilly Jean had a way of letting the entire world know when she was entering a room.  Lilly Jean Jacobs’s goal in life, Howard suspected, was to get noticed. 

Whatcha’ reading?” 

Howard closed the book, keeping his thumb inside to mark his place.  He showed Lilly Jean the cover.

“Steven Hawking?  You understand that?”

Howard grinned.  Nodded. 

“You’re shittin’ me.”

He shook his head. 

“I ain’t never seen you read that stuff when you’re daddy’s around.”

Howard shrugged.  His father didn’t approve.  Never had. 

Lilly Jean plopped down on the couch beside Howard.  “You know what your daddy told me about you?”

Howard nodded.  Of course he knew.  It was the same story Daddy Sheriff had been telling for years: Football injury.  Likely concussion.  Never the same again.  Had to drop out of school.  Not even a GED to his name.  Goddamn waste of a life. 

“You ain’t as stupid as your daddy makes you out to be.” 

Howard shook his head.  No.  He wasn’t stupid.  He’d had a full college scholarship lined up.  But against Daddy Sheriff’s wishes, Howard had wanted to study astronomy.  He sighed now, remembering the conversation they’d had nearly twenty years ago: ”What in God’s name will you do with that major?  No, Howard,” his father had said.  “You’re going to Ohio State on a football scholarship.  You need to play ball.”

“But he doesn’t like ball,” his mother’d protested.

“Course he does.  Boy’s been playing football since he was four.”

His mother had been right of course: Howard had never liked football.  When he was reading or studying or setting up his telescope in the back yard, Daddy Sheriff would mock him.  “Think you so smart, don’t you?”  And then he’d get the football from the garage and force Howard into a game of catch.

“You like reading that?”

Howard nodded.  

 L

illy Jean shuddered.  “Give me a romance novel any day, Howard and I’ll be jest fine.”

S

ince his father’d left, Lilly Jean had stopped fussing with herself so much.  She pulled her hair back in a ponytail.  She stopped wearing all that perfume.  And she no longer slathered her face with all that makeup.  She looked…Howard felt himself blush…more attractive without makeup.  He didn’t understand why his father liked Lilly Jean all painted over.

Lilly Jean picked up the remote.  She pointed it at the television.  “Mind if I?”

No.

Lilly Jean clicked on the news. 

Howard returned to his book.

“Howard?”

Again he turned his attention to Lilly Jean.

“Who is Henry Ware?”

Howard shrugged.  Some romance writer?

“Henry Ware,” Lilly Jean insisted.  “From Chicago.”

Lilly Jean obviously expected him to know the name.  In the background, the television reporter gave the weather for tomorrow.  A snowstorm was headed their way.  Several inches were expected.  He made a mental note to head to the Fowler place earlier than usual.

You telling me you never before heard that name, Howard?”

Howard stared at Lilly Jean.  He felt stupid and dull.  He shook his head. 

“Henry Ware is Ellie’s father, Howard.”

Howard stared.  He shook his head.  Daddy Sheriff was up to his usual bullshit.

“You telling me your daddy made that up?”

Howard nodded.

“Well, then, Howard, if you know Henry Ware isn’t Ellie’s daddy, you know who is.  Am I right?”

Howard dropped his eyes.  Damn that Lilly Jean.  Sneaker than a snake in the grass.

“Who is it, Howard?”

Howard shrugged.

“You can play the dumb boy with your daddy, Howard, but you can’t play dumb with me.”

He wasn’t playing dumb with his daddy.  Daddy Sheriff knew exactly what Howard was up to. 

“Can’t fool me, Howard.  I got me a sense about these types of things.  I always figured you had more upstairs than you let on.  You know something.  I can feel it.”

Howard opened his book.  Tried to focus, but the words swam before his eyes.  In the background, the news droned on and on.  House fire.  Hit and run accident.  Uprisings in distant lands.

“It’s for the child, Howard.  The child needs love.”

The child had more love than most people around here, Howard thought.  She was surrounded in love.  Why was Lilly Jean so focused on finding Ellie’s daddy? 

“Hey, Howie?”

 

He set down his book.  Looked at Lilly Jean.

“If there were dreams for sale, what would you buy?”

The woman was talking nonsense now.

“Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  English writer.  1803–1849.”

Howard stared.

 “Y

eah, I’m not so stupid, either, Howard.  I actually studied literature in college.”

 

Lilly Jean?  College?

 

“Surprising, I know.  A lot of men don’t like smart women.  It’s easier to play the game.”  She smiled.  “I was lying when I said I liked romance.”  Lilly Jean switched off the television.  “I guess you and me, we both got a secret now, don’t we?  But you didn’t answer my question.  I guess you never will.  Me?  I’m too late for dreams.  But Ellie’s not, Howard.  You can help me, or you can stand in my way, but I am gonna’ find Ellie’s daddy and haul his ass here to Medford myself, if I have to.  A girl needs to know who her people are, don’t you think?”

 Lilly Jean wasn’t 

going to find Ellie’s father. 

I can help you, Howard.  I can help you talk again.”  Lilly Jean’s eyes were animated.  “I can help you get your GED.  Hell, I can help you get into college, if that’s what you’re looking to do.  Think of it, Howard.”  Lilly Jean looked at the ceiling.  “Think of all them stars out there in the sky, just waiting for you to notice them.  They’re waiting for you to find ‘em, Howard.  Just like Ellie’s waiting to find her father.”

Howard stood and left the room.  Lilly Jean had a point, he had to give her that.  Ellie deserved to know who her father.  But Howard wasn’t the one to help her find him. 

It was too late for Howard to go to college.  It was too late for Howard to finish high school.  It was too late for Ellie to find her father.  And it was, most certainly, too late for Howard to speak.

He should have spoken up years ago.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Tara Roberts challenged me with “”If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?” – Thomas Lovell Beddoes” and I challenged trencher with ““Everywhere we went, when school was not in session, the children were at the barns, helping with the work, watching, listening, learning to farm in the best way it is learned. Wilbur told us that his eleven-year-old son had cultivated twenty-three acres of corn last year with a team and a riding cultivator.” –Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table”

The Beast

Annie once said that babies grew on trees.  Told me I sprouted from a pink blossom in the apple orchard over yonder hill.  Told me she watched me grow fat and red before plucking me from the branch to bring me home.
Jonathan once told me that babies came from potatoes.  “Cut one into pieces and you got babies.  Just be sure an’ plant ‘em with their eyes looking towards the sky.  The life is in their eyes, Ellie.”
 Bitsy said that Annie and Jonathan were full of shit; said a girl oughta’ know her birds from her bees.   But I took their meaning:  Life surrounds me on the farm.
Besides, I’d known early enough where babies came from: Seems every day my mother told me babies came from mistakes. 
“Ellie, hurry up, we’re gonna’ be late.”
I opened the door, stepped into the kitchen and stopped: A man I didn’t recognize stood and extended his hand.  “You must be Ellie.”
“I am.”  I didn’t return the gesture: I’d shaken the hands of too many of Neala’s boyfriends.
“Ellie, be nice to Duane.”
 “Don’t need to be nice.  He’ll be gone within the week.”
Duane raised his eyebrows at my mother.  “Wild little beast you’ve got here, Neala.”  He poured a cup of coffee and leaned against the counter eyeing me.  “What grade you in?”
I lifted my chin.  “Twelfth.”
“You look older.”
I shrugged.
“Figure out your plans for after graduation?”
“Ellie’s staying right here with me after she finishes high school,” Neala said.
            “Bitsy thinks I could get a scholarship.”
            “Bitsy doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”  My mother smiled.  “Ellie’s going to stay here and take care of her old mother.”
            And I knew then that I would never get out of Medford, because my mother—the real monster of this story—would do everything in her power to prevent it, in the same way that I, by virtue of having been conceived, had prevented her from doing the same.
This post was written in response to this week’s Trifecta Writing Challenge.  The word was beast.