Anything But Science Fiction

Howard put the broom into the shed at the back of the diner and tossed the bag of leaves into the dumpster before heading for the IGA.  What the hell was Bitsy thinking, sending a man down to the store to buy plants?  Couldn’t she have sent Ellie?  Or did Bitsy believe, like many of the residents of Medford, that he’d gone soft in the head?  Howard frowned at the thought.  Just because a man didn’t talk didn’t make him stupid.  Bitsy of all people ought to have understood that. 
Inside the Laundromat, one of the Ransom boys stuck a finger into the coin door of the pay phone, looking for change.  His brother stuck a hanger inside the cigarette machine and worked it around furiously.  Their father Travis sat on the washing machine, looking exhausted and defeated.  Raising those boys would take the life out of anyone, Howard thought. 
Travis raised a hand in greeting, which Howard returned.   Many times Travis had sat beside Howard at the breakfast bar, chewing on tobacco and jawing about the difficulty of raising boys without a mother.  “Count yerself lucky, Howard Heacock,” Travis would always say, shaking his head.  But Howard would have given his eyeteeth for children of his own, even if they were like the Travis boys.
“Morning, Howard.”  Eloise Dimkowitcz stepped out of the pharmacy, clutching a lottery ticket in her left hand.  Howard nodded and continued down Main. That pharmacy had driven Tank Jones out of business.  When they were in high school, Tank’s reputation as a nose tackle spread throughout all of Ohio.  Tank went to college on a football scholarship, got his degree in pharmacy and set up shop.  Less than ten years later, one of the big guys came in and took him down.  Tank knew he couldn’t compete with that.  He sold the store and put on one of the company badges and put himself behind the counter, dolling out prescriptions but surrendering the day-to-day operations of the business to a young manager who apparently knew better.  Every day that Tank worked behind the counter of another man’s business, he appeared to get a little smaller.
Andee Miller better have those plants all picked out, that much was for certain, Howard thought, as he found himself standing at the entrance to the IGA.  The doors slid open and he stepped inside.
            “Hey, Howie.” Andee Miller looked up from the store’s sole cash register where she was ringing up Hank Delacroix, the town barber.  “You here for them plants?”
Howard nodded.
“I got them wrapped up.  Just bring your truck round back.” 
Truck?  How many plants was she expecting him to take?  No, Howard would just carry them up the hill and if he couldn’t carry all of them, he could just borrow a cart from Andee and wheel them there.
“You got your Bible verse memorized, Hank?”  Andee Miller firmly believed she was in charge of single-handedly saving all of the lost souls of Medford.
“You know I don’t, Andee.”
“Save ten percent, Hank, if you can just give me your verse.”
“I got my coupons, Andee.  That’ll save me just as much.”
“Hank, it’s right there on the sign.  Just read it aloud to me.”
Hank patted his shirt pocket.  “Damn.  Forgot my glasses again.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Hank.”  Andee closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  “’For wherever your treasure is, there also will your heart be.’” 
“I ain’t got no treasure, Andee.”  Hank thumped his chest.  “And my heart’s right here, where the doctor tells me it’s supposed to be.”
Andee frowned.  “I’ll give you the discount anyway.  But this is the last…”
“Thank you, Andee.”
Howard sighed and headed down an aisle to kill time.  He found himself in the baking aisle: flour, sugar, cocoa and chocolate chips and dusty jars of maraschino cherries lined up on the shelf.  There was a little display of Halloween cookie cutters and tubes of orange and black frosting.  Howard didn’t understand how people like Annie Fowler and Bitsy could take all these independent ingredients and combine them into something better than they were alone.  What was it they did that other women couldn’t do? 
“Now where did that Howard get to?  Did you see him leave the store?”  Andee said.
“No, ma’am,” Hank replied. 
“Well he sure ain’t here anymore.”
“Howard’s a strange one, that’s for sure.  Beam me up, Scotty,” Hank said.
“You hush yourself, Hank.  There ain’t nothing wrong with Howard.  ‘Sides,” she continued, “some of us like the silent type.”
The doors slid open   Another customer entered.  “Hey, Wally,” Hank called.  “I ain’t seen you in weeks.  What brings you to town?”
“Come to pay my respects to a dear friend.  Town’ll never see a teacher the likes of Wheezy Hart again.”
“It’s a real shame,” Andee said.  “No wife.  No family.” 
“Remember when he used to live outside of town?”  Hank said.  “Whatever happened to that property?”
“His daddy sold it to the Fowlers, after they learned about Wheezy’s asthma,” Wally said.
“And now,” Andee said, “someone’s trying to buy the farm off of Jonathan.” 
Howard was surprised by this news: He hadn’t heard it before.
“You ask me, he ought to sell out.  Lord knows we could use the influx of people.  On a good day I have eight clients,” Hank said.  “That’s not enough to keep a man in bread.”
“Jonathan loves that place,” Andee said.
“Yes,” Wally said.  “But we love this place too.  That farm is land we could build on.  The developer wants to put up thirty houses and a couple of nice stores, too.”
“Stores that will likely put me out of business.  Fancy houses bring fancy people who want prettified stores,” Andee said.  “Besides, what a man does with his own land is his own business.”
“Not when it affects more than the man.  Jonathan’s sitting on a gold mine,” Wally said.
“Jonathan Fowler never has two cents to rub together, Wally and you know it.”
“He sells that place and he’ll have more than two cents.  Hell, he doesn’t even pay Howard Heacock a decent wage.  Howard’s on the far side of thirty and he still can’t afford a place of his own.  And that girl what works down at Bitsy’s.  He’s got her working her fingers to the bone on the farm.  Probably doesn’t pay her a dime neither.”
“Jonathan’s a fair man, Wally.  And Howard…Where is Howard, anyhow?” Andee asked.  “He was supposed to take his truck out back and pick up those plants Bitsy ordered.  Oh, Lord.”  She walked to the window and peered out.  “I promised ‘em to Bitsy before the funeral.”
“Me and Wally will run ‘em up, Andee,” Hank said.  “It’s not as if I have any customers waiting for me back at the shop.”
“Thank you, Hank.  Could you help us load up, Wally?”
Howard watched while the three headed to the back of the store.  And after they’d left, their arms full of plants, he sneaked out the entrance.  He knew what Bitsy’s and Annie’s secret was: Both the women cooked the way they lived their lives: with love and not malice.  Howard swore he could taste the love in their food.  And Jonathan Fowler cared for the land in the same way—with a heart full of love; a love that no builder would extend to the farm, should he get his hands on it.  No.  Howard shook his head.  The only thing a builder would love about the farm is the money it would generate.  He hoped—for the sake of the Fowlers and Ellie and, yes, for himself—that Jonathan wouldn’t sell the farm that had been Howard’s true home for the past eighteen years.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Dili challenged me with “take a good quote you like from something sci-fi, and use it to make something that’s anything but sci-fi” and I challenged Chaos Mandy with “The sun winked out and the skies went black. What happens next?”

October

October was a fitting time to die, Bitsy thought, smoothing a gold tablecloth over a table.  October leached the color out of everything.  October brought the cold and stole the leaves from the trees.  October preceded the time of reckoning; when the people of Medford gathered themselves in and began to take stock of their lives.  Next to her, Ellie spread another table with a rust cloth.  Wheezy would have liked the alternating colors that Ellie had suggested.  “Feels strange,” Bitsy said, “having you in here on a Friday before dinner.”
“Feels strange being here.”  Ellie glanced at the clock hanging behind the breakfast bar.  “I’d be in English now.”
By nature, the girl was quiet.  But today, she was quieter still.  Bitsy set the table carefully, placing each piece of silverware neatly and quietly in its place; a fitting testimony to a meal eaten in the memory of lonely old Mr. Hart.  “Shame about Mr. Hart.”
Ellie nodded.
“You miss him, don’t you?”  Bitsy buffed a spoon on a napkin and watched the child.
“He was a good teacher.”
“He loved you.  You were the apple of his eye.”
“Why?” Ellie set the wineglasses on the table harder than was necessary.
“You’re going to crack my stemware.”

“Why did he like me?” 
Were those tears in the child’s eyes?  “Well, he…”
“Why didn’t he like Dink Sass or Ransom O’Neill?”
“Oh, he liked those boy just fine.”
“But…”
“Dink and Ransom gave up on themselves a long time ago.  And it’s hard, I suppose, even for a teacher who’s supposed to be impartial, to support people who’ve given up.  Hey, you OK?”  Bitsy reached a hand and tucked a stray hair behind the child’s ear.
She pulled away and nodded towards the window.  “Howard’ and Jonathan are here.”
“Spank’ll let them in.  Lord, I hope those chickens were good to us.  We can’t run out of eggs tonight.”  Bitsy had planned for fried chicken and Salisbury steak for the main dishes.  But for sure there would be people wanting Spank’s famous scrambled eggs and sausage. 
Bitsy looked around the diner with satisfaction.  People needed a place to gather, a place to mourn collectively; to celebrate; to talk.   Some people, she knew, could do all that in the church.  But some, herself included, could not.  The church confined Bitsy, what with those four walls holding her in so tight she thought she would explode from the weight of the prayers dangling in the air.  No, Bitsy’s religion came from feeding the people.  People needed Bitsy’s Diner.  And right now, Bitsy needed people. 
She finished setting the table then went to the breakfast bar to pour out coffee for Howard and Jonathan.  Jonathan would take three sips of coffee, Bitsy knew, before taking his leave.  Howard, though, his morning chores done at the farm, would sit awhile on his spinning stool, watching the world go by but not saying a word. 
“We were sweethearts once upon a time if you can believe that.”
“Who?  You and Jonathan?”
“No, not Jonathan,” Bitsy scoffed.  “The man’s old enough to be my father.  Howard.”
“Howard?  But I thought.”  Ellie’s voice faltered.  “Everyone says something’s wrong with him.”
 “Nothing’s wrong with Howard.”
“He never talks.”
“Maybe he can’t get a word in edgewise, what with Lilly Jean yapping all the time.”
“But he’s never spoken, even before Lilly Jean.  He just sits there, watching.”
“Seems we could learn something from Howard.  Maybe if we kept our mouths quiet and watched half the time Howard did, the world would be a better place.”
“Was he born that way?”
“No.  Howard wasn’t born that way.”
“What happened?”
Bitsy shook her head.  She’d already said too much.  “I don’t know, Ellie.”  She set out two sweet rolls and a little pitcher of cream and watched as the swinging door leading from the kitchen opened towards them.
“Morning, Bitsy.”
“Jonathan.  Howard.  I’ve got your coffee right here.”
“Thank you, Bitsy.”
“If you hand me my bill, I’ll write out your check.”
“No charge, Bitsy.  You donate the diner, I donate the food.” 
“But…”
“Those oaks are dropping their leaves all over the sidewalk, Bitsy.  Someone’s going to slip on them.” 
“I’ll take care of it.”
Jonathan took a final sip of his coffee before setting the cup back on the breakfast bar.  He pulled his folded John Deere hat from his back pocket and settled it back on his head. 
“See you at the church, then?”  Bitsy asked.
Jonathan paused, hand on the swinging door.  “See you later,” he said without turning around.
Bitsy refilled Howard’s coffee cup.  “Well that wasn’t much of an answer now, was it?”  She picked up Jonathan’s cup and took it into the kitchen.  But at least, she thought, it was a response.
“How’s it coming out there, Bitsy?”  
“You think it’s too dark out there, Spank?”
Spank cupped a hand behind his ear. “Beg pardon?”
“The diner.  Is it too dark?  Does it need plants?”
Spank shrugged and scratched his head.  “Well, I dunno, Bitsy.  I guess I’ve grown accustomed to things the way is right now.”
“Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe we need to shake things up a bit around here.”
Spank put down his spatula.  “What’s gotten into you, Bitsy Barnes?  All these years, all you’ve talked about is how much you hate this place.  Now you want to redecorate?”
Bitsy felt herself blush.  “I didn’t say anything about redecorating.  I just thought some plants…You know, for Wheezy.”
Spank shook his head; took up his spatula again.  “Women,” he grunted.
When Bitsy pushed her way back into the dining room, she found the breakfast bar empty.  Howard’s cup was empty.  Both sweet rolls were gone.  “Where’s Howard?”
Ellie pointed to the window.  “Seems like Howard’s still a little bit sweet on you.”
Outside, Bitsy saw, Howard was sweeping the sidewalk; gathering up the fallen leaves and putting them into a plastic garbage bag.  “No.  Howard Heacock gave up on me a long time ago.  He’s pining for someone else now.”  She went to the door and opened it.  “Thank you, Howard.”
He nodded.
 “You think you could run down to the IGA, pick up some plants for me?  I’d go myself but…”
            He stood there holding onto the broom tightly. 
            “Lilly Jean was just mentioning that the diner’s a bit dark.  I want to make it nice for Wheezy.  I could call down to Andee and give her an idea of what I’m looking for.  Please, Howard?”
            He nodded and returned to his sweeping.
            She smiled.  “Thank you, Howard.”  Lilly Jean Jacobs wasn’t going to criticize Bitsy’s Diner.  She returned to the dining room and began setting water glasses on the tables, humming softly to herself.  From the kitchen she heard Ellie speak. 
            “Can I ask you something, Spank?”
            “Shoot.”
            “Right before Mr. Hart died, he told me something.”
            Bitsy stopped humming.
            “He told me my father was here.  Here in Medford.”
            “I suppose he was, Ellie, at one point in time.  But now, I expect only the Good Lord knows where your daddy is, Ellie.  And your daddy hisself, a course.”
            Bitsy felt herself stiffen. 
“But Mr. Hart told me he is here.  Here.  Now.”
 “Is that right?”
“That’s what he told me.”
You think Mr. Hart was my father, Spank?”
“Naw, Ellie.  I don’t think so.” 
“But…”
Bitsy rushed back outside, withdrew her cell phone from her pocket and began to dial.


Coming out of Retirement

“What’s wrong, Daddy Sheriff?”  Lilly Jean sat on the edge of the bed and watched her husband even out the straps of his Bolo tie.  The stone was green turquoise and, truth be told, was what had initially attracted Lilly Jean to her future husband.  She liked a man with an interesting past and Daddy Sheriff claimed he could trace his family back to the Navaho.  Naturally, she’d believed him.  She sighed.  She’d always been a sucker for a good tale.
Daddy Sheriff glanced at her.  “I could ask you the same question.  You’ve been setting there sighing for ten minutes.  You didn’t even know Wheezy Hart all that well.  What are you so sad-faced for?”  He shook his head. 
Those first months with Daddy Sheriff, before he’d brought out that diamond solitaire and ruined it all, those had been the best months of her life.  She looked at that ring on her finger, now joined for eternity by a thin elegant band.  The rings were beautiful.  But she found them too tight upon her hand. 
She found they strangled the life out of her.

“Are you going like that?”  Daddy Sheriff nodded at her outfit; an outfit she’d picked with care to honor the memory of a man she did not know outside of her dealings with him at the post office.  She’d selected a modest skirt and a tasteful sweater.  She knew the outfit hid too much for Daddy Sheriff.  Her husband liked to parade her around like a prized possession. 
“I think so.”  She lifted her chin slightly.  
She’d given him her finger.  She’d given him her vow.  She refused to give him her pride.
He raised an eyebrow and returned his attention to the mirror.
She was glad she’d also refused to give him her name.  At the very least, Lilly Jean intended to keep a small sliver of herself apart from her husband, a man she found she despised just a little more every day.
 “That kid.  Ellie.”  Daddy Sheriff spoke to his reflection.  Smoothed down his hair with a comb.  “You know her?”
“I see her around from time to time.  Mostly at Bitsy’s.  Sometimes at the Post Office.  What about her?”
“Just before he kicked off, Wheezy Hart told her that her daddy was here.”
Lilly Jean looked around the room.  “Where?”
“Here in town.  In Medford.”
“So?”
He turned and glared at her.  “For being the town crier, you don’t know much, do you?”
“Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Her father skipped town just as soon as he learned his girlfriend was pregnant.  And her mother is useless.  Just sits around all day watching soap operas while Ellie works at the diner to pay the bills.”
Lilly Jean felt her heart sink.  She leaned against the headboard of the bed.  Ellie.  She was alone in this world.  And Lilly Jean knew what that was like: All her life, she’d been jostled about; moved from place to place by her father, who always seemed dissatisfied with his lot in life. He was convinced that there was always something better out there, just out of reach.  He could smell it, taste it.  He’d ignore the call, resist it as long as he could.  But eventually the pull would be too strong to resist and he’d pack up the family in the old Ford Fairmont and speed away on balding tires and the cycle of new jobs, new schools, new everything would begin again. 
People said moving builds character; makes you a better person.  Interesting.  Intelligent.  Strong.  Ha, Lilly Jean thought, striking a match and bringing it to her cigarette.  The tip glowed red and satisfying.  She sighed.  People who thought moving built character hadn’t gone through the process.  At least not as many times as she had.   
It’s strange, moving, Lilly Jean thought.  Unsettling.  Just when you’ve got your life rearranged in some semblance of order, just when you’ve learned the rules of a place and set out tentative shoots, you’re grabbed and yanked and shoved into new dirt.  Unfamiliar dirt.  Dirt that’s too dry or too sandy.  Too weedy or too wet.  Dirt that just doesn’t feel right.  Yeah, you adjust.  Eventually.  You look at someone on the street and recognize them.  And just when you work out how you know them and you’re headed up to speak to them, to extend a hand and say, My Lord, it’s been years, you realize, no.  No.  I knew that person in another time; in another place.  The person before me is not who I was thinking of, not who I once knew.
After the fifth move, Lilly Jean’s mother had had enough.  She ran off with an Army deserter to Mexico.  The moves came quicker, then, rapid-fire.  Lilly Jean would just figure out the kitchen of the little apartment and her father would be packing her up and taking her to a new place.  Sometimes he didn’t even bother to enroll her in school. 
Lilly Jean had learned not to settle, not to trust in the truth of a place.  Lilly Jean Jacobs had learned to create her own truths.
She took a drag on her cigarette and coughed lightly.  Talk.  Big talk.  That was the sum of Lilly Jean’s existence.  Her eyes filled with tears.  She was eight years old when her mother left her.  Even now, years later, she felt the pain of that absence.  That hole in her life.  That missing piece that would never close up.  All she’d ever wanted was to talk with her mother.  My Lord, the questions she would ask.
“What’s your problem, Lilly Jean?”
She shook her head, wiped those damn tears from her eyes.  She understood Ellie’s pain; her aloneness.  There was so much history that she didn’t know.  So much history she was entitled to.  No one would bother filling in the blanks, Lilly Jean knew that much.  Maybe, she thought, crushing out her cigarette, maybe every time she thought she recognized someone on the street, what she was really hoping was to recognize her mother.  Or maybe, when she recognized someone, it was just another lonely soul.  Maybe it wasn’t the person she recognized.  Maybe it was the pain.  “That poor child.”  All Lilly Jean had ever wanted was a child of her own.  But she knew that she’d never had Daddy Sheriff’s child.  Not in a million years,
“Are you kidding me?  She’s got it made, living off the charity of the entire town.”
She looked at Daddy Sheriff with disgust.  Lilly Jean Jacobs was alone.  Just like the child.  All her life, Lilly Jean had seen herself as merely an outline, a person to be filled in, fluffed out, by the expectations and definitions of others.  Now, she pictured Ellie ten years hence, lying next to a man in a loveless marriage, a man she’d hitched herself to in order to give herself some definition, to fill in the empty spaces in her heart and soul.  Pictured her pretending to everyone else—even the husband she despised—that she was happy.  Pictured her crying herself to sleep at night with the realization that, once the veneer had been lifted, the shell of herself contained only emptiness. 
Lilly Jean wouldn’t allow that to happen to Ellie.  If her life was to be worth anything, she had to do something to make the child’s life better than her own had been.  Lilly Jean ashtray, rose from the bed, and planned her next move.  Ellie’s life would be a good one.  Ellie would find a husband—a good one.  They’d have a nice little house and scads of children.  Ellie would be happy.
“Shake a leg, woman.  If we don’t step on it, we’ll miss the calling hours.” 
“Be right there.”  Lilly Jean watched her husband leave their bedroom before getting up off the bed and closing the door behind him.  When she’d married Daddy Sheriff, Lilly Jean had promised him that her meddling days were over; that she’d quit trying to fix people’s problems and just let them solve things on her own.  Well, Daddy Sheriff had made promises too, and he hadn’t kept them had he?
Lilly Jean stretched out her lower lip with her teeth and applied a generous portion of lipstick.  She rubbed her lips together then blotted away the extra lipstick on a tissue.  She smiled at herself.  “Daddy Sheriff,” she whispered.  “I’m coming out of retirement.”
For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Amanda challenged me with “I’m coming out of retirement.”  I challenged The Drama Mama with “I’m on thin ice.”

Jonathan

The barn was warm and filled with the gentle sounds of the animals awakening.  This was the time of the day Jonathan loved best.  It was a peaceful time.  A quiet time.  A time when the animals he knew and loved and trusted greeted him.  The plow horses nickered their hellos from their stalls.  Jonathan rubbed their velvet muzzles and pulled a couple of sugar cubes from his pocket.  He held his hand flat and waited for each horse to take a cube before moving on to the cows.  They nagged at him, mooing intently, reminding them that their bags were full.  The cats rubbed up against his ankles, eager not to see Jonathan, but for the milk that they knew was forthcoming.  Howard was there, already lifting the basket of eggs to the counter.  Jonathan smiled.  Of all the animals, Jonathan found he could never warm up to the chickens. He couldn’t stand their wild eyes and their cockscombs flopping about; the way they all ganged up on the weak ones.  The way they high-stepped on those dinosaur legs and then sat upon the shells of their own offspring and cracked them.  “Those hens like that wind, Howard?”

Howard grinned and shook his head: No.  Years ago, Howard Heacock would talk the leg off of a chair.  He was always going on about stars and planets and the galaxy, things Jonathan didn’t understand.  Jonathan’s work was here, in the small, close world of the farm.  He understood the farm; understood when to plow and start the crops.  He understood how to gather eggs and milk the cows.  He knew the perfect time to pick apples and peaches. 
Jonathan didn’t understand out there; didn’t understand why people had to look outside to find what they needed; didn’t understand why the Howards of this world had to look elsewhere for their satisfaction.  God planted you where he planted you for a reason, Jonathan believed.  And an apple tree sure as sure can’t survive in Manhattan. 
But eighteen years ago, Howard had stopped talking about the stars.  Eighteen years ago, Howard had stopped talking altogether.  And one morning, shortly after he’d sealed his mouth shut, Jonathan found him gathering eggs in the henhouse; tears streaming down his cheeks.  Jonathan hadn’t questioned him then: Everyone’s lives had been turned upside down and you were as likely to find Howard in the henhouse as you were to see Andee Miller break out in tears at her cash register.
“Annie’s working on breakfast.  Why don’t you start the milking while I clean these eggs?”
Howard nodded and turned to the cows. 
That first day, Howard had followed Jonathan around the farm like a stray pup.  Of course he and Annie let him stay on, paying him as much as they could scrape together.  And in time, Howard learned to farm.  In time, Howard became a valued member of the farm.  Jonathan paid him a regular salary—paid him enough to be able to afford to buy a small house, yet Howard still insisted on staying at home with Daddy Sheriff.   “Don’t know what I’d do without you, Howard,” Jonathan called.
Howard turned and smiled; lifted his arm in what Jonathan took to be thanks.  But Howard’s smiles never reached his eyes.  Howard’s heart wasn’t in the farm.  Deep inside, Jonathan knew, Howard still dreamed of stars and planets and galaxies far distant.
He wondered why Howard didn’t get away; why he didn’t up and leave the way his mother did.  Why did Howard stay with his father?
Jonathan took an egg and ran it under warm water.  Birthing was messy, and many of Jonathan’s customers preferred to ignore that end of the business.  He held the egg to the light, examining it carefully for cracks before nestling it carefully in the carton and reaching for the next one.  When he had finished, he had ten dozen eggs.  He would repeat the job again that evening. 
Once he got the eggs away from the chickens, he liked this job. He liked the perfection of an egg—practically the same every time.  He liked watching a just-laid egg shimmering on the straw harden and thicken and solidify.  He liked the repetition of cleaning eggs; the reliability of it:  You could count on a chicken laying an egg as much as you could count on the corn sprouting in the spring and the apple trees bearing fruit.  “Howard, I’m heading in,” he called and he walked back to the house, one carton of eggs tucked beneath his arm.
Annie met him at the door, smiling, her blue eyes radiant, their argument for a time forgotten.  She took the eggs.  “Wash up.  Breakfast in five minutes.”
God he loved her.  He wished…well, where to begin wishing in a life, in a love as fragile as theirs?  Occasionally, he held their love to the light, examined it for fractures, the way he had the eggs just moments ago.  It wouldn’t take much, he thought, to shatter it. 
“How’d the chickens treat you this morning?”  She asked, once he’d returned to the kitchen.
“Howard got to them before me, thank the good Lord.”  He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table.
“Can’t stand all those women squawking without a male to set them straight?”  She raised her eyebrows, amused. 
He chuckled.  “I’ve grown used to the squawking of women.” 
“Is it the shit?  Childbirth is messy, Jonathan.”
He knew.  Good Lord, he knew.  He looked at Annie, now sitting across from him.  “No, it’s just…Hell, I’ve dealt in shit my whole life.  It’s…”  He fell silent for a moment, rubbed at his brow.  How to explain?  “I just hate that pecking order business.  The way one always has to be on top all the time.”
She nodded.  “It’s their nature, Jonathan.  Maybe it’s nature’s way of keeping order.”
“But… Why can’t they all be equal?  They remind me…”
She smiled and took his hand.  “They remind you of humans.  Those humans who so deeply disappoint you that you decided long ago never to have more to do with them than was absolutely necessary.  I know why you farm, Jonathan Fowler.  You trust those animals more than you trust people.”
“Annie, you know that’s not true.”
“And now, you find out that humans are simply animals and that animals, perhaps, are a tiny bit human.”
He felt his frown deepen.  He stirred cream into his coffee.  “You’re reading too much into it, Annie.  I just don’t like gathering eggs.”
“It’s a woman’s job, right?”
The woman was merciless.  “I was thinking more like a child’s.” 
They fell silent at this, each immersed in their own thoughts.  Jonathan longed to have a child following him around the farm learning the ropes, starting with the simple jobs, of course; weeding, feeding, gathering eggs.  But there were no children here to learn farming.  Jonathan reached into his pocket and felt the piece of paper there, folded over multiple times, as if, by folding, he could reduce it to nothing and pretend it didn’t exist.  But the smaller it got, the larger it loomed in his mind.  “I am an old man, Annie.”
“And I am an old woman.  And look at what we have done with our lives, in spite of everything.”
The lace curtains billowed inward.  The October wind was laced with ice.  “My God, Annie, this place is beautiful.  Look in any direction and all you see is the land.” 
“No humans in sight, except for us.  Just the way you like it.  And all those generations of Fowler men.” 
And none, Jonathan thought, coming after me.   
 “It’s sad, Jonathan.  Frightening even, to know that you’re the last.  When we’re gone, there’s nobody.  No children.  No grandchildren.  Nothing.  Old Matthew must be rolling in his grave, to see that the line ends with us,” Annie continued.  A rare sadness crossed her face, a shadow Jonathan knew he couldn’t penetrate.  He could only wait until the shadow had passed. 
He looked outside again. 
“You love it here, Jonathan.”
He did.  He loved the remoteness of it.  He loved the fact that it was his and Annie’s to work.  No, that was wrong, he thought, because he didn’t work the land, it was more that they and the land worked together.  A partnership, if you will.  He sighed.  Partnerships come to an end when one party dies.  And Jonathan wasn’t getting any younger.
“I’m afraid, Annie.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Pretty soon, I’ll be buying milk and eggs down at the IGA just like everyone else in Medford.”
Her eyes softened.  “That’s a long time off, Jonathan.  We can work this farm a good while yet.”
“How long, Annie?  What comes after we can’t work it?  Soon enough, I’ll be in a wheelchair, wide-eyed and bloodied, cocking my stupid pecked head to the side to ward off the blows of the health care workers.  I’ll be worthless, Annie, producing nothing.  Taking up space.”  He’d sooner die than live like that. 
“Why must you produce something to be worth something?”  She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb.
“What is the point of living otherwise?”
She shook her head.  A disappointed look crossed her face.  “I think you’ve missed the point of life entirely if you can’t answer that question.”
“What is the point of life, Annie?  To produce.  To re-produce.”
She fell silent at this and he regretted his words immediately.  “I’m sorry, Annie.”
She pulled her hand away, shook her heads.  “I’ve got to tend to the pies.”  And she pushed away from the table and returned to her kitchen to produce her daily quota: fifteen pies and a couple dozen cookies for Bitsy’s Diner.  Even Annie, although she refused to admit it, had to produce something to feel valuable. 
“Ah, hell.”  He drained his cup and left it on the table.  He went to his wife and hugged her from behind.  She turned and entered his embrace.  They stood that way, husband and wife, for a long time, each of them afraid of letting go.  Each of them afraid of holding on too tight, of breaking one another with the fragility of their love.


Lucky Orange Sock

“You bin driving my Chevette again, Daddy Sheriff.”  Lilly Jean stood before her husband, hands on hips.
Howard settled back on the couch.  This ought to make for an interesting argument.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that thing, woman.  Now move aside, you’re blocking the TV.”
“Daddy Sheriff…”
“Town Sheriff don’t drive no Chevette.  It ain’t dignified.”
“How do you explain this, then?”  She held up a sock—an orange sock.  Howard immediately recognized it as his father’s.  Score one Lilly Jean.  “I bin looking for this sock for three weeks, Daddy Sheriff.  I finally throwed its partner away.”
“You trashed my lucky sock?”
“Can’t get lucky when you’re all alone, Daddy Sheriff.”
“Lilly Jean, I…”
“How ‘m I supposed to match up your socks when you put one on the bathroom floor and the other in my glove box?  I swear you’re messing with my brain.”  She shook her head.
Daddy Sheriff shrugged.  “I didn’t put it there.”
“It’s stinking up my car to high heaven.  Making me queasy.  I think I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, Lord woman, leave it already.  You’ve been announcing your pregnancy every month since we married.”  That was true, Howard thought.  Score one Daddy Sheriff.  Then he thought how strange it would be to have a sibling thirty-seven years younger than himself.  “Do me a favor, Daddy Sheriff,” Lilly Jean said.  “Just put the sock in the hamper next time.  Your underdrawers too.  Bad enough I gotta wash all you men’s skivvies, now I gotta round ‘em up, too.  Hell, I feel like a cowboy running round this house on laundry day, lassoing up your attire.”
“You made your point, Lilly Jean.”
“I ain’t done, Daddy Sheriff.”
He sighed and ran a hand across his eyebrows.  “What now?”
Lilly Jean withdrew something from the pocket of her sweatshirt and held it out to her husband.  “What exactly is this?”
“I can’t tell, woman.  It’s all wrapped up in a napkin.”
“It’s a cupcake.  Half a cupcake, to be exact.”  She pinched off a piece and stuck it in her mouth.  “Spice.  What, my cupcakes ain’t good enough for you, you gotta go somewhere else for your dessert?”  She tossed the cupcake into Daddy Sheriff’s lap.  Two points Lilly Jean.
Daddy Sheriff leaned back in his chair.  His face reddened.  “Lilly Jean, that ain’t mine.”
“Found it in the glove box, Daddy Sheriff.  Right next to the sock.  You telling me I put it there?”
“Lilly Jean I didn’t put anything in your car.  I didn’t drive your car.  I went nowhere near your car this entire week.”
“Oh?  So who put this piece of paper in my glove box?”  Lilly Jean fished in her back pocket and withdrew a torn slip of paper.  “Let’s see here.   A37-2.”
Daddy Sheriff leapt from his seat and snatched the paper from her hand.  “Where did you find this, woman?”
“I bin telling you this all night, Daddy Sheriff.  In my car.  There better be a good reason for all this shit bein’ in my glove box.”
Daddy Sheriff crumpled the paper into a tight ball and stuffed it into his front pocket.  “Lilly Jean, you can just forget about what you saw on that paper, you got it?”
“Why should I?”  Hands on hips again.  The woman hadn’t yet learned, apparently.
Daddy Sheriff grabbed his wife of eight months by her shirt and pulled her to him.  Pulled her in so close, Howard knew, that Lilly Jean could see every one of Daddy Sheriff’s little yellow pointy teeth.  “Humor me, woman,” Daddy Sheriff whispered.  “All right?”
Lilly Jean nodded.  Her face whitened.  “OK, Daddy Sheriff.  I was just funning with you.  You can drive my…”
Daddy Sheriff released his wife and stormed from the house, slamming the front door behind him.
Lilly Jean looked at Howard.  “What was that all about, do you think?”
And that was when Howard remembered: You just can’t win with Daddy Sheriff.

For the previous chapter, click here.

For this week’s Indie Ink Writing ChallengeGUS challenged me with: “There better be a good reason for a half eaten cupcake, an orange sock and a torn paper with A37-2 to be in my car’s glovebox.”  I challenged Head Ant with: “This place looks familiar.  Have I been here before?”

Wheezy Hart

The thin red second hand of the clock swept along without pause, discarded moments urging it forward, forward, forward as if time itself couldn’t wait to get along to the future.  But everyone knew there was no future in Medford, Ohio.  There was only the weight of the past holding everything down; a past that was heavy and dull and oppressive.  And yet the clock pressed on: The minute hand waited for the right instant before leaping and landing squarely on the center of the nine. 
The bell rang.
Nine o’clock English and Wheezy Hart was late.
I imagined him in the empty hallway, brittle bones hunched over his worn cane, one hand pressed up against the cool bank of gray lockers, sucking hard on his inhaler before gimping down the hall to the dusty classroom he’s presided over for forty years.  Some would call it dedication, I suppose.

To my left, Cynthia Harris painted her nails. 
To my right, Dink Saas slept, his head on the desk, his mouth slightly open.
Two minutes after the bell rang, Wheezy Hart walked in wearing his usual wool jacket with the leather elbows; an unfilled pipe clutched in his hand.  “Quiet down,” he rasped, as he entered the room.  He took a book from his shelf and dropped it with a thud upon his desk. 
“What the hell was that?”  Dink’s head shot up. 
“That, ladies and gentlemen,” Wheezy said, “was Shakespeare.”
“Oh, man,” Dink said.  “That stuff’s for girls.  What do we have to learn that shit for anyway?  Don’t need Shakespeare down in the mines.”
“A man without the friendship of literature is a friendless man indeed.”
“What dope said that?”
“The dope who said that was Wheezy Hart.”  He smiled.  “Yes, I am aware of my nickname and don’t be under the mistaken impression that your class invented it.  Befriend books, Dink.  They will always take care of you.”
“Can’t eat books.” 
“Books feed the mind where resides a much deeper hunger than the temporary hunger in your belly.”
“That’s just bullshit, Mr. Hart.  ‘Sides, a man with mining muscles don’t need no friends.”  Dink grinned at me and flexed his biceps. 
“The mines will not always be there and you, Dink, will not always have those bulging muscles.  Alas.” Wheezy removed his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair before sitting.  “Time has a way of stripping away our pretense.  You lose your muscles.  Your eyesight begins to fade.  The color is taken from your hair and your eyebrows.  And once the props are all stripped away, you have to look in that mirror and confront who you really are.”
“You scared to die, Mr. Hart?”  Dink whispered.   
 “I find, Dink, that as I get older, death frightens me less.  Or perhaps I’ve just resigned myself to it.  I don’t have much more life in these old bones.”
“But Mr…”  Cynthia capped her nail polish.
Mr. Hart put up a hand.  “It’s true, Cynthia.  Can’t sugar-coat life.  Hearing my words, my elders would protest indignantly that they wish they were my age again.  The youth, however, would be indifferent: Look at my life from the perspective of a teenager, and the road looks long indeed.  But the young don’t realize that the old and the middle aged wish for life as much as they.”  He looked out the window.  “So much I wish I could have done.  I wish…”
“What do you wish?”  Cynthia whispered.
A gentle breeze came in through the open window.  I could smell the leaves, dry and musty, that gathered in great piles beneath the oak tree that grew outside the classroom.  On nice days, in spite of his asthma, Wheezy took us outside to sit beneath that tree and read us the classics.
He snapped his eyes forward, smiled again.  “Regrets are inevitable, Cynthia.  As are wishes that won’t come true.”  He glanced outside again.  “We were supposed to go outside today, but it appears as if the weather isn’t going to cooperate.”  He grinned and raised his eyebrows.  “Shall we go and bother Mrs. Dimkowitcz?  Re-arrange her library books?” 
Mrs. Dimkowitcz was no librarian.  She was a frustrated designer.  She organized the fiction by color rather than by title.  When Mr. Hart pointed out her mistake, Mrs. Dimkowitcz told her the kids didn’t bother reading anyway, so what did it matter.
The class cheered and began gathering their things, stuffing their backpacks with iPods and cell phones and notebooks.
“Miss Jackson, I’d like to see you for a moment.”
Cynthia glanced at me; I shrugged my shoulders and stayed in my seat while the rest of the students stood and filed out the door.  When the classroom was empty, I brought my eyes to his. 
“Ellie, why is it so difficult to get things across to your colleagues?”
“We’re like rubber bands, Mr. Hart.  You can only fit so much in before we snap.”
“Assuredly so.”  He nodded.  “But a little bit of stretching cannot hurt them.”
“Maybe they don’t want to stretch.”
“Have I wasted my time, Ellie?”
“Mr. Hart?”
“Insisting my students know the classics.  Teaching them to speak correctly.  Has it all been a colossal waste of time?”
“No, I…”
 “A man wants to know that his life has counted for something.  And yet, what do I leave behind? No wife.  No children.  No books written.  No articles.  No songs.  No awards.  Just hundreds…no, thousands of bored students, staring out the window, wishing they were elsewhere.  I always wanted my life to mean something.  I wanted my having been here to have meant something to somebody.”  He stood suddenly and put his suit jacket back on.  “I want to make a difference to somebody, Ellie Jackson.” 
“You have.”
“To whom, Ellie?  To the kids working down at the gas station after graduation?  To the ones setting off dynamite to blast out a new mine?  The ones who wait tables at Bitsy’s Diner?”
“I wait tables at Bitsy’s Diner.”
“If I could do it again, I would change everything.”  He stared into space, stroking his beard.  Then he returned his eyes to mine.  “But I can’t do it again, can I?  There are no second chances.”  He shuffled to the door and paused there.  “I’m either doing the best thing I’ve ever done for a student or I’m doing the worst.”  Then he turned back to me.  “Ellie?” 
“Yes?”
“Your father is here.”
And he turned and walked out the door.
Then there was a crash and a scream and a running of feet.
And Wheezy Hart died before I got a chance to ask his meaning.

Dancing with the Devil

“Damn that wind,” Lilly Jean muttered to herself, slamming the door of her Chevette and then pausing for a moment to make sure the door wouldn’t fall off of the old rattletrap.  “Messing with my hair again.”  Lilly Jean wasn’t used to living at the bottom of a valley.  She didn’t like it.  Didn’t like it at all.  The wind whipped her hair across her face; it made her eyes stream; it made her mascara run.  Lilly Jean didn’t understand how people could enjoy living here: Rather than walking purposefully to their destinations, they were blown there, heads held down against the wind.  The wind gave everyone a rumpled look—like towels left to dry on the clothesline to save a bit on the electric bill.  The wind drew squint lines on every face and the skin of the residents of this valley was ruddy and pocked.  Or perhaps it was just the harshness of their lives that decorated their skin that way.  No.  Lilly Jean shook her head.  If that were the case, her skin would be as ruddy as the rest of them, despite the moisturizer she slathered on every night before bed.  Watching her one night, Daddy Sheriff complained about the cost of her moisturizer.  Told her he was saving up for a new truck and couldn’t she use something more cost-effective?  She caught his eye in the mirror.  Held it there.  “You certainly wasn’t complaining about my moisturizer when you first met me.  Your skin is so soft, baby.”  Daddy Sheriff had the decency to blush then.  “’Sides, it ain’t as if you’re shellin’ out the cash for my creams.  I’m paying for it my own self, just the way I always have done.”  And just to spite him, she applied an extra generous amount of moisturizer to her neck.

Lilly Jean was at odds, and the weather did little to improve her mood:  Just after she’d set dinner on the table last night, Daddy Sheriff had called and said he wouldn’t be making it home.  Something about a drug stakeout.  “Your daddy’s bin too long a bachelor,” she’d told her son-in-law.  “He needs to get used to having a wife again.  Needs to learn himself some mannerisms.”  But, as usual, Howard didn’t reply. 
            People must think it strange, Lilly Jean mused, that she had a son-in-law who was three months older than herself.  She’d heard the whisperings: Daddy Sheriff robbed the cradle.  Daddy Sheriff liked them young.  Daddy Sheriff wanted a daughter.  She shook her head.  Ever since he’d slipped that ring on her finger and said “I do,” he seemed just a bit less interested in Lilly Jean.  She felt like one of them deers he was always talking about sacking or bagging or whatever it was that someone did with a deer.  Lilly Jean wouldn’t know.  She would never eat deer meat, even if you did fancify it up by calling it venison.  Lilly Jean had seen Bambi.  She wasn’t going to eat nobody’s mamma, no matter how much Daddy Sheriff pleaded with her to just try it.
            It was too early to open up the post office.  If Lilly Jean opened at six o’clock today, sure shooting they’d be lined up at the door by five o’clock tomorrow.  Why the devil had she left the house at five forty-five this morning?
            Truth was, she was lonely.  And she had nowhere to go.  Daddy Sheriff was still gone, probably wouldn’t be home until suppertime.  And Howard—not that he was any company at all—he’d headed out to the Fowler place at five.  She glanced at the diner.  The lights were on.  She could see Bitsy bustling around inside.  It would be warm inside.  It would be cozy inside.  Inside, she knew, the swirling—both the swirling of the wind and the swirling inside her head—would be momentarily silenced.
            The wind blew the door out of her hand and sent it crashing against the wall.  For a moment, Lilly Jean thought she’d broken it.  “Oh, my Lord, they need to fire that pretty face they call a weatherman.  Hell, I can predict the weather better ‘n he can and I won’t charge you a dime for the trouble.”  She wrestled the door shut then leaned against it.
            “You alright out there, Bitsy?”  Spank’s voice, from the kitchen, Lilly Jean knew.  The man was about as old as time and had awful taste in music.
            “I’m alright, Spank.  The wind blew Lilly Jean Jacobs right into the diner.”  Bitsy nodded to Lilly Jean.  “We’re not open yet.”
            “Why you got them lights on?”  Couldn’t Bitsy see she just needed a bit of company?
            “So we can see what we’re doing here.”
            “Why you got the front door unlocked, then?”
            “Everyone in this town knows our hours, Lilly Jean, and visitors can read the sign.”
            “You saying I’m a visitor?”
            “I’m saying we’re not open.  I haven’t even set the tables yet.”
            “Can’t I just sit a spell; have a cup of that coffee to warm up my hands afore I head over to the post office?”  She shivered.  “In Tennessee we never had this kind of weather.”
Bitsy nodded.  “Mmm  hmm.”
Lilly Jean took a seat at one of the four-tops in the center of the room.  “Did I ever tell you I was runner up for Miss Tennessee?”
“Yup.” Bitsy began setting the tables slowly and deliberately; a behemoth lumbering from table to table.
“And that I won Miss Sweet Pea, the year before that?”
“Told me that, too, Lilly Jean.”
“And that I…?”
“Heard about that one, too.”
            Lilly Jean frowned.  Nothing happened in this two-bit town.  That was precisely why she’d agreed to marry Daddy Sheriff and move to Medford.  Everyone would be so bored, she’d be a bit of interest to them; a spark of liveliness.  But no one wanted to hear Lilly Jean’s stories.  No one wanted to hear stories of an aging beauty queen.  No, she shook her head.  They wanted to hear about the weather and the crops and the coal mines.  They wanted to hear about jobs and the welfare checks and whether or not the Lincoln Hotel was going to be torn down.  “Sure smells good.  Didn’t even have my coffee yet this morning, what with Daddy Sheriff on his stakeout.  Daddy Sheriff says them Ellis boys have always been dancing with the devil.  Seems now, they’ve jumped right into bed with him.”
“I’ll get you some coffee, Lilly Jean.”  Bitsy handed her a menu.  “And you may as well have a look, now that you’re here.”
Lilly Jean opened it.  “Got anything new?”
“Menu hasn’t changed in fifty years, Lilly Jean,” Bitsy said.  “You looking for something different, you’re not going to find it on there, no matter how long you look.”
Lilly Jean frowned.  “Can’t hurt to keep hoping.” 
“Don’t change what works, Lilly Jean,” Bitsy said.   “I haven’t changed this diner since my mamma opened it in ’57.”
“I can tell.”
Bitsy looked around.  She softened her voice.  “I can’t believe we’ve been open that long.”
 “Well I can.  You need to freshen up this place.  You wouldn’t see this in the city no more.  Dark and dreary is out, Bitsy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, them floors, for starters.”
“Those floors hide the dirt.  Do you know how much…?”
“Chipped at the edges, too, like your customers have been gnawing on them while waiting for their dinners.”  Lilly Jean laughed.  “Then waxed and polished by the feet of so many patrons shuffling to their tables.  If I owned this place, I’d brighten it up a bit, Bitsy.  Ceramic tile, for instance.  And antique chairs, all mishmashed, ‘stead of this red vinyl shit that’s bin taped up here and there.  Someone’s liable to get their ass stuck to one of them seats.”
“Mmm hmm.”
“You even listening to me, Bitsy?  And them booths, what are there, six of them on each side of the room?  Tear ‘em out.”  Lilly Jean swept her arm around the room.  “Open the place up a bit.  You need airy.  Light and airy.  You need plants.”
 “No time to water plants, Lilly Jean.  Besides, some people like those booths.  Believe it or not, some people like a bit of quiet while they have their dinner.”
“They should eat at their own home, if it’s quiet they seek.  And what the hell is with this paneling on the walls, Bitsy?  It really darkens the place up.”
Bitsy paused and turned around.  “You got anything positive to say about this place, Lilly Jean?”
“Well, I do like the breakfast bar.”  It stood just to the right of the entrance and was no more than a long stainless steel counter.  It had eight stools that spun all the way round.  Lilly Jean had watched all manner of people—children, boys with their dates, hell, she’d even seen Howard spinning on them.  “Them stools bring out the child in a body.”  Lilly Jean wanted to try it herself. 
“Well, why don’t you sit there, then?”  Bitsy shook her head and sighed.
“Them seats is for the locals.”  People like Jonathan Fowler and Wheezy Hart and Andee Miller liked to sit at the bar, lingering over a last cup of coffee and jawing while Bitsy wiped down counters and rang up customers.
“You’re local now, Lilly Jean.”
“No, I ain’t.”  She laughed to cover her embarrassment.  “Don’t think I’ll ever be quite at home here.”
“Give it time, Lilly Jean.  Come on.”  Bitsy patted the counter of the breakfast bar.  “Come up and keep me company.  I’ll get you a sweet roll.”
Lilly Jean shook her head.  “Nah.  Them seats isn’t for me.”  Besides, she thought.  Howard sat there.  “I’m fine here.”
Here was a set of four-top tables in the center of the room.  As far as Lilly Jean could tell, no one in town much cared for these seats, situated as they were in the middle of everything.  “These seats remind me of Ellie.”
“What do you mean?”  Bitsy looked puzzled.
            “They ain’t attached to nothing.  Them booths are…”  She looked at Bitsy.  “You know all the right words to say, Bitsy.  What’s the word I’m looking for?  When a boat is left to drift hither and yon down the river because…”
            “Unmoored?”
            Lilly Jean shook her head.  “No that ain’t it.  Less fancy.”
            “Unanchored?”  Bitsy suggested.
            Lilly Jean slapped the table.  “That’s the word.  You’re so smart, Bitsy.  What are you doing in this town?”
            “I’m not smart, Lilly Jean.”
            “I beg to defer, Bitsy.”  Lilly Jean pointed to the wall.  “Them booths are anchored to a wall or a window.  And that breakfast bar is anchored by you.”  Lilly Jean was afraid Bitsy would take offence to her comment.  “I mean that in a positive way, Bitsy.  You hold this place together.  But these tables…They belong to no one.”
“They belong to everyone,” Bitsy said.  “They’ve got nothing to do with Ellie.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“You’ve been here just a couple of months, Lilly Jean.  Don’t assume you understand everything you see.”
“Why, Bitsy, I was just…”
“Keep yourself out of Ellie’s business, you hear me?”
Lilly Jean nodded.  But Lilly Jean had been nodding all her life.  She’d had years to practice the art of deception.  She opened her menu and pretended to study it intently, knowing full well that she’d order the bacon and eggs as usual.

For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week,Chris White Writes challenged me with “Dancing with the Devil” and I challenged transplantedx3 with “Exactly why did the dish run away with the spoon?”

Phenomenal

Phenomenal,” Daddy Sheriff leapt to his feet and pumped his fist in the air.  “Didja see that pass, Lilly Jean?”

Lilly Jean smiled up at her husband.  “That was a pretty…”

He waved his hand at her.  “Hush yourself, now.”  He leaned towards the television, hands seemingly folded in prayer.  As the ball headed downfield, Daddy Sheriff leaned to the left so far, that eventually he was left standing on one leg, reminding Howard of a pelican.

 “Watch that drink on my new shag rug, Daddy Sheriff,” Lilly Jean said.  “Can’t get pop stain out of rug no matter how hard you scrub at it.”

“I said hush up, woman.”  Daddy Sheriff didn’t bother turning around.

Lilly Jean glanced at Howard before returning her attention to the rug she’d had installed two weeks after moving in.  For six weeks straight, Lilly Jean worked to make the place hers.  She scrubbed the ring from the bathtub; installed a new toilet paper holder.  She sewed curtains and painted walls and painstakingly scraped old wallpaper from the living room.  Lilly Jean had thought she could make this place her home.

Lilly Jean was wrong.

“Touchdown!”  Daddy Sheriff snatched the Terrible Towel from the top of the television set and began swinging it around his head.

“Trying to lasso up all that happiness and bring it on through the television set, Daddy Sheriff?”  Lilly Jean winked at Howard.

Howard knew the house couldn’t contain that much euphoria.

The kicker made the extra point and the game switched to a commercial break.  Daddy Sheriff arranged the Terrible Towel back on the television, smoothing it carefully and scooting it just back enough so that the edge just hung over the top of the screen. 

 “I got to see a man about a horse,” Daddy Sheriff said.

 “Mind my figurines.”  Lilly Jean said.

But Daddy Sheriff paid no mind to anyone but himself.  On his way out of the room his boot caught one and sent it skittering across the carpet.  She picked it up and held it close to her face, examining it carefully.  She held it out to him and shook her head.  “It’s my very best one and he’s gone and chipped its nose clean off.  Got it offa’ eBay two years ago when they was going cheap.”

There was a flush and the door opened.  “Man can’t even bother to put the lid down, let alone wash his hands when he’s done in there, I guess he can’t be expected to take care of other people’s fine decoratives.”

Daddy Sheriff took up his place again on the couch.  He grabbed a nacho and drove it around on the plate of Lilly Jean’s dip: picking up some lettuce here, some olives there, some ground beef over there.  He lifted it to his mouth.  A replay of the touchdown pass played on the television screen.  The television announcers, fickle men with their pretty white teeth and their perfect hair and their memories of glory days resurrected once a week during football season, suddenly set their sights on a Steelers win. 

“That coulda’ been you, Howard.”  Daddy Sheriff spoke with his mouth full.  Specks of nachos flew from his mouth as he spoke.  “Instead of watching these guys, I could have been watching my son.”  He shook his head.  “But you’re not phenomenal, are you.  Hell, you’re not even average.  No wonder your mother left me.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with Howard, Daddy Sheriff.” 

“Oh, so you’re a doctor now, too?”

“Don’t take no medical degree to tell that Howard’s mind’s just fine.  Least he recollects to put down the toilet seat when he’s finished the job.  I’d reckon he washes his hands when he’s through, too.”

“Panty-waist.”

“No more than you, Theodore.”

Daddy Sheriff started.  His eyes grew wide.  “How did you…?”

“Don’t take a medical degree to figure out that one, neither.”  Lilly Jean giggled.  “Big bad Daddy Sheriff.  You think them cowboy boots you stomp about in constitutionalize manhood?  I seen you strap on that gun and stand sideways to admire yourself in the mirror.  But you ain’t no daddy, not in the real sense, anyway.  A real father wouldn’t mock his own flesh and blood the way you do Howard”

Daddy Sheriff pointed to the front door.  “Get out of my house.”

On the television screen, the Steelers scored another touchdown.

“Oh no you don’t.  This here’s my house too.  And Howard’s.”  Lilly Jean walked up to the television and switched it off before yanking the Terrible Towel from the top.  She threw it on her orange shag rug and ground it beneath her heel.  “You took your own dreams and tried to install them into your son when it didn’t work out for you.”

“I’m telling you to leave, Lilly Jean…”

“I ain’t going nowhere,Theodore.”  Lilly Jean picked up her figurines from the floor and set them back on her television set.    “I don’t care if you is the sheriff, you can’t just make me disappear.”   

Oh, but he can, Howard wanted to say, but as usual, his mouth refused to form the words.

For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Kensho G challenged me with “starting with the word ‘phenomenal,’ write whatever comes into your head without stopping.  I challenged Carrie with “they sat beside the ocean boiling water upon the beach hoping for a bit of salt to take home to their children.”

Fanatic

Howard sat shivering in a lawn chair beneath the giant oak that grew in the yard.  The wind sent maple leaves cart-wheeling down the lonely dirt road that passed in front of the house he and Daddy Sheriff—and now Lilly Jean Jacobs—shared.  Yellow locust leaves clung to the patrol car and Lilly Jean’s rusted Chevette, both parked outside of the garage that each year leaned a little bit more to the left.
The rain had drawn the worms from the dirt.  They lay curled up and swollen upon the brick walk that led from the garage to the house.  Pearls of rain pooled in the cupped hands of the clovers and dotted the grass like crystals.
“Howie.”  Lilly Jean propped open the screen door and held it open with her foot.  “Game’s on.” 
He nodded.  No doubt Daddy Sheriff scared his new wife, what with his yelling at the TV.

“I made you some nachos.  Come inside out of that rain.”  There was a look of pleading in Lilly Jean’s eyes.  Lilly Jean, Howard knew, didn’t want his company so much as she needed it.  She needed a buffer between Daddy Sheriff and herself; a barrier to prevent their talking or arguing or acknowledging the width of the chasm that divided them.  “Please, Howie?”  She stepped out of the house and onto the back porch.  “I could put on a pot of coffee.  Decaf if you like.”   She went down the sidewalk, the swollen maple seed pods popping beneath her feet, and sat in the chair beside his.
The clouds were thick and black and oppressive.  The wind picked up and foretold of the snow that would soon blanket the ground.
“I don’t understand what all the fuss is about a stupid football game anyhow.  I got myself better things to do than sit there massaging your father’s smelly feet while he hollers at the television.”
A flock of starlings took off in unison and whirled around the tops of the trees before settling again.
“Daddy Sheriff says you use to play.”
As did his father.
“Told me you was pretty good, once upon a time.”
Any boy would be good whose father had beat football into him; who’d driven his own dreams into his son until the son didn’t know his own mind.  Howard remembered Daddy Sheriff waking him at six o’clock in the morning to run practice drills; remembered his father screaming from the sidelines of the flag football games while all the other parents looked on, wide-eyed; remembered the first time his father had hit him after he’d dropped a pass.
“Coulda’ got yourself into college and hightailed it out of here.”
Howard shook his head.  No.
“That’s what he said, Daddy Sheriff.”  Lilly Jean laughed and nudged Howard.  She cleared her throat.  Combed her hair with her fingers.  Stared straight ahead.  “Never be ashamed of your abilities, Howard.”
“Lilly Jean!”  Daddy Sheriff’s voice came from the house. 
“Lord, how I hate that game. No, that’s not quite right.  I hate watching your father watch it.  He’s possessed by the game, consumed by it.  Every yard run, every pass completed, every tackle, every touchdown, every sack, Daddy Sheriff laughs and cries and jumps up and down like they’re his own personal successes.  Didja’ ever watch him lean when a ball is thrown?  Like by the leaning, he could control where that ball landed?”
A car approached.  The driver slowed and waved.  Jonathan.  One of the few who wouldn’t be watching the game afternoon.
“And you know what I hate most, Howie?  That stupid yellow towel.  What do you call that thing?”
Howard returned the wave and Jonathan continued on his way.
“Terrible towel.”  She snapped her fingers.  “That’s it.  Terrible is right.”  She shuddered.  “He puts that thing on my television set; the TV I bought with my own two cents.  He takes my Precious Moments figures right off the top and spreads that yellow rug out in their place like it’s some shrine to the Steelers.  Then, all of a sudden, just when I’m nodding off to sleep, he’ll yell and leap up from the couch and dance all around the living room waving that towel in celebration.”
Howard glanced at his watch.
“Who knows what-all he’s spilled on it throughout all them years he’s had it.  Smells like shit, it does.”  Lilly Jean leaned towards Howard; she lowered her voice.  “You know he sleeps with that thing.”
The rain fell heavier.  Howard drew his coat about himself more tightly.
“If it wasn’t for that towel, I’d be OK.”  Lilly Jean shook her head.  “No, that ain’t it.  Truth is, Howard, that even if your daddy was to get rid of that old yellow blanket, I’d still hate him.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Truth is, I can’t stand your father.”
“Lilly Jean?”  Daddy Sheriff again.
“What’s the point, anyway?  It’s just a stupid game.”  Lilly Jean glanced at the house.  “I know a town needs something to believe in, Howie.  Hell, yes.  I get that.”  She looked around the yard, gestured at the sagging garage, the paint peeling from the house, the Mustang that had been up on blocks so long it seemed to be a permanent part of the yard.  “A place this hopeless needs something to believe in.  But football ain’t fulfillin’ my hopes.  And I suspect it ain’t fulfilling yours neither.”
She stood.  “I guess I’d best get in there.  You know if them Steelers lose, he’s going to be in a awful mood, Howie.  No telling what he’ll do.”  She turned towards the house; walked up the sidewalk and went inside.
Howard stood too. 
He opened up the door, wiped the maple seeds from his feet and entered the living room. 
“What do you want, Dumbass?” Lilly Jean said, when she saw Howard standing there.  “Finally occur to you to come in out of that weather?”  She sighed deeply.  “I suppose you want some coffee now.”  And she turned and went into the kitchen.
Howard sat on the couch next to Daddy Sheriff.
And from the kitchen, Lilly Jean caught Howard’s eye and winked.

For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week,Kay challenged me with “Write about an obsessive fan.  You must include an outside perspective.”  I challenged RLW with “That was the day no one bothered to make her tea.”

Hand in Hand

“Daddy Sheriff and me?  We knew the second we met that we were perfect for each other.”  Lilly Jean took a straw and tapped it against the counter until it burst through the paper like a  butterfly emerging from its cocoon; reminding Lilly Jean of the way she felt when she first met Daddy Sheriff.  She grabbed another straw and opened it the same way before putting both in her milkshake.
Bitsy raised her eyebrows.  “How do you think Connie felt about that?” 
“Connie shouda’ paid Daddy Sheriff more mind when they were together, ‘stead of hounding him now that she’s lost him.”
“Seems to me Daddy Sheriff shouldn’t have been going to the fair without his wife.  Connie loved the fair.”

“She can still go,” Lilly Jean said, rolling her eyes at Ellie.  “The woman ain’t helpless, from what I understand.”  She took a sip of her milkshake and continued.  “He came up to me when I was standing in line at the Ferris wheel, Ellie; all in that uniform of his, clean and fresh pressed…”
“…by his wife,” Bitsy put in.
“… told me I was in danger.”  Lilly Jean put a hand to her chest.  “Told me that I was too beautiful to be alone at the fair.”
Bitsy laughed.   “Was he speaking to your face or your other assets, Lilly Jean?  You bottle all that hot air we’d have ourselves a new natural resource.  Put everyone back to work and build this town up to what it used to be.”
“You hush yourself, Bitsy, you’re just jealous.”  Lilly Jean’s eyes took on a faraway look.  “He took my arm and led me to the front of the line.  The very front!  Ain’t that sweet?”
Ellie nodded and continued buffing the spoons before her.
“Don’t you all get tired of that buffing, child?”
Ellie looked up.  “I like it.”
“Why?”
“I like routine.”
“Buffing that silver kind of breaks up the monotony of having to listen to you ramble on about your relationship with Connie’s husband, Lilly Jean.  Hand me a towel, Ellie.  If I buff hard enough, maybe I can drown out Lilly Jean’s stories.”
“Everyone needs stories, Bitsy.  It’s what we hang on to, those stories of our lives.”
 “But nobody needs to listen to your tall tales, Lilly Jean.”  Bitsy took up a handful of spoons and began polishing them, rubbing so hard, Lilly Jean wondered if she might rub away the surface. 
“It’s a good thing you never had kids, Bitsy.  You’d wipe their faces clean off at bath time.”
Bitsy’s face reddened, she polished even harder before setting the towel and the spoons on the breakfast bar.  “I’ll just see how Spank’s doing with that sausage.”
“I haven’t finished my story…”
“I’ve got a business to run, Lilly Jean.”  And Bitsy pushed her way through the swinging double doors back into the kitchen.
“Fool,” Lilly Jean said.  “She left spots on all them spoons.  Here.”  Lilly Jean took up Bitsy’s abandoned cloth and dipped it in her water glass, avoiding the print her lipstick had made on the side.
 “Lilly Jean, I don’t think…”
“Never you mind, Ellie.  I don’t mind earning my keep once in awhile.  Apparently some people ‘round here think that paying customers ain’t allowed to talk.  What’s the purpose of a diner if not for people to get together and socialize once in awhile?”  She raised her voice.  “It certainly ain’t for the food.”
“I heard that, Lilly Jean.”  Spank’s voice emerged from the kitchen over the noise of his blasted oldies.
Lilly Jean shook her head.  “He’s another one.  What’s his story?  Old man, never married, working at the diner.  Is he…”  She raised her eyebrows at Ellie.
Ellie grabbed more silverware and resumed her incessant buffing.  The girl certainly was efficient even if she didn’t have the gift for gab.
Lilly Jean settled back into her story.  It was comfortable, this story.  It was like settling onto her armchair and putting up her feet after a long day of sorting mail.  “We rode the Ferris wheel three times in a row.  Didn’t even bother getting off the ride!  And then, after I told Daddy Sheriff I was feeling sickish, we got off.  Daddy Sheriff took me to a beverage stand and ordered one lemonade with two straws.  That’s when I knew, Ellie.”  She nodded, and wondered if that nod was to convince herself.  “That’s when I knew.”
She took another sip from her milkshake but it tasted bitter; the way lemonade tasted to her now.  “And then, Connie showed up.  She ranted and raged at him.  Told him she’d given him the very best years of her life; told him that she’d put up with him for too long.  Daddy Sheriff took my hand then.  And we walked away, hand in hand.  He chose me, Ellie.  Daddy Sheriff chose me.”  She resumed buffing the spoons, rubbing harder than necessary, the way she’d just seen Bitsy do.  She wished she could rub the smirks off the faces of people who’d heard; wished she could just rub away the stain of the truth.  But she knew.  She knew.
Daddy Sheriff was holding someone else’s hand now.  Daddy Sheriff was walking away hand in hand with another woman.

And Lilly Jean was just telling stories. 

For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Jules challenged me with “and we walked away, hand in hand” and I challenged Random Girl with “bricks in a sand patio.”