Archive for June, 2011

Father’s Day

A nutshell story.

We all knew Daddy wanted an ice cream freezer for Father’s Day. He’d been talking about it since Memorial Day. We heard about how nice it would be to make homemade ice cream like he had growing up. How he loved to help pack the churn with ice and salt and would personally sit on top while my granddaddy turned the hand crank. Couldn’t quite say what his favorite flavor was—peach was good if it had been a good season for peaches, and strawberry was a feast for the senses. Then again, there were times when pure vanilla was all that any man could ask for.

So I was hardly astounded when Mama says at supper on the Friday prior to Father’s Day, “Frank, I’ve got your Father’s Day ice cream freezer if you want to try it out tomorrow.”

Daddy stopped chewing ham, says, “Why are you telling me about my Father’s Day present on a Friday night? Don’t you know Father’s Day is Sunday?”

“Yes, Frank, I know that, but I thought you’d like to try the ice cream freezer before Sunday afternoon.” Mama’s voice rose in pitch until the “noon” in “afternoon” sounded like angels blowing the trumpets for Armageddon. Time for Daddy to retreat, but he couldn’t do it.

“Just one of these Father’s Days I’d like to get a damn surprise,” he grumbled low.

Mama heard him perfectly well. She said, “One of these Father’s Days you’re gonna get a damn surprise,” and they finished supper in cold politeness, with exaggerated good manners and a silent passing of the ham, potato salad, and sliced cantaloupe. They only pretend to get mad, though, and they were chatting in a friendly way as Mama cleared the table and Daddy collected ham scraps for our dog, Sarge.  

On Father’s Day I gave Daddy a card from me and baby Bethany, then Mama gave him his ice cream freezer—a slick electric model she had picked out from Consumer Reports.

You don’t have to make a mess with ice and salt,” she explained. “You freeze the tub for 24 hours, add your ingredients, and let ‘er rip.”

“Well,” Daddy said, and I noticed his upper lip curled as he said it, “then I guess in 24 hours maybe we can enjoy a bowl of ice cream.”

“Suit yourself,” Mama said. “I’m going to enjoy mine in 20 minutes. I’ve had the tub in the freezer since Thursday.”

Daddy explained that he had wanted a White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream freezer like the one from his childhood. “This requires electricity from start to finish,” he said. “And Dixie won’t get to sit on it while I crank.”

This is the 21st century, Frank. Anyway, this marvel of efficiency was one-third the cost of the four-quart White Mountain hand-cranked freezer with the triple gear action.” She said that so Daddy would know she’d done her research. Mama is a great one for research. She added, “And who was it once said, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has’?”

“I don’t know, but I expect whoever said it is dead,” Daddy replied.

We made a batch of strawberry ice cream and ate it on the back patio with Sarge watching every bite. Daddy says it would be folly to speculate on Sarge’s parentage, but if he had to guess he would say Sarge is either a teacup Doberman or a new strain of pocket beagle.

Mama went inside to get more napkins. “You like this, don’t you, girls?” Daddy said, savoring his ice cream. “So do I. Now, Dixie, don’t tell Mama, but I believe ice cream tastes better when you don’t have to turn a crank forever to get it.”

“You’re welcome,” Mama said through the kitchen window.

Sarge edged closer to Bethany. He knew she was the family member most likely to lose a grip on her food. Sure enough, before long Bethany sent nearly a full scoop tumbling onto the grass. Sarge lapped up that ice cream as quick as he could lick. Then he stopped, went stiff, staggered a few steps sideways, shook his head, and stretched out.

“Brain freeze!” Daddy said. “He’ll be all right, Dixie. Mama, look at your dog.”

Mama approached Sarge to rub his head, but he rolled his eyes and showed her his teeth. “Well, he’s not yet over it,” she said. “Leave him alone.” She and Daddy thought it was funny, and Daddy did an imitation of Sarge getting brain freeze until I thought they’d both pass out from laughing.

We stayed outside until the lightning bugs came out. When Sarge recovered from his brain freeze, I threw a ball for him to chase until both of us were panting. I flopped onto the grass at the far end of the yard, and Sarge climbed in my lap to chew on his ball. In the dim light I could see Mama holding Bethany; she and Daddy talked and laughed softly. They looked like people in a dream.

Daddy called out, “Dixie, what are y’all doing out there in the gloaming?”

I wasn’t sure what gloaming was, but I knew what I was doing so I called back, “I’m rejoicing for the things I have!”


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Often referred to as the ‘Kingdom’, Calhoun County is sparsely populated with only 5 incorporated towns. … The lack of easy transportation into Calhoun County has meant that the county [retains] the feeling of a small but active agricultural community of the late 19th and early 20th century and has allowed four ferries to prosper. – “Visitors Guide to Calhoun County, Illinois

Calhoun County is practically an island. Bounded on the east by the Illinois River and on the west by the Mississippi, it is narrowly connected to the rest of the state at the north. From St. Louis we took the Winfield Ferry across the Mississippi. (The normal ferry, the Golden Eagle, closes when the river is high, and the Winfield Ferry opens.) Some of the houses on the Missouri side of the river were surrounded by water, and the owners’ cars were parked on high ground near the ferry dock. Not that there was a dock; on both sides of the river the ferry simply nudges into the sandy, gravelly shoreline.

From the ferry we drove about a mile through the woods on a single-lane dirt road lined with the prettiest Queen Anne’s Lace I’ve ever seen. The landscape is charming, with quirky sights around every corner, like a barn with a quilt pattern painted on the side. Road signs are scarce, and we nearly ran a stop sign because it was so faded and askew.

We were only able to navigate this route at all because of my friend Rachel. Most of her family lives in Batchtown, where her uncle presides as mayor. Rachel’s parents lost their home in the 1993 Mississippi flood. Rachel said that for some time after the flood they could fish in her father’s fields for catfish; they were pulling them in as fast as they could cast a line. Rachel’s parents rebuilt on higher land across from the house where Rachel’s father was born, so we drove from there to a flooded field by the Mississippi to do a little field-fishing of our own.

What I didn’t know is that you apparently fish for catfish with something called  “stinkbait.” It came in a white bucket and looked like dark brown mud (to be nice about it). And it stinks. So what happens is you tie a little old artificial worm onto your line and then you have Rachel’s brother-in-law mold a glob of stinkbait around it. The difficulty is that if you pull your worm through the water too much the stinkbait comes off, so it has to be reapplied fairly frequently.

Alex, the brother-in-law, got his children set up first. His 7-year-old daughter, Lexie, and the 3-year-old twins, Layla and Levi, were pretty revved up about the whole idea of stinkbait. They were less interested in keeping their bobbers still in the water, though, and they were constantly trolling their lines and then getting hung up on plants that in normal times would not have been in the water. This led to an unusually high rate of stinkbait loss. In fact, Alex never did get his own line in the water.

I did my part by helping unsnag lines and re-cast tiny plastic fishing rods. In the process I accidentally got stinkbait on my right thumbnail. Throwing up seemed like a reasonable response, but instead I closed my eyes and wished for a 55-gallon drum of Purel. Finally I wiped the stinkbait off with a leaf.

Late in the afternoon we had a cookout—barbecued pork chops on the grill, fried chicken, Justine’s grilled cabbage, Suzanne’s corn pudding, bratwurst, potato salad, beets, cole slaw, Aunt Jane’s Italian cream cake, my pound cake, and brownies. Aunt Jane and Uncle B’s home is on a hill with peach orchards beyond and a wonderful view of the countryside from every angle. (Note: Calhoun County is famous for its peaches. I had no idea.)

Near sunset, we headed out to take the ferry back to Missouri. Layla (the 3-year old twin) waved good-bye. Her mouth was full.

“What are you eating, Layla?” I asked her.

“Brownie.” She opened her mouth to show me.

“Looks like stinkbait to me,” I told her.

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Writing in a Nutshell

Fanny Brennan: Balloon Moon

Writing a very short story requires a degree of fearlessness. – Meredith Pignon

In Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes the exotic cities he has explored over a game of chess with Kublai Khan. Each city has its own short chapter, often less than a page long, which serves as a tiny, magical window into that city’s unique characteristics.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata, is a book of very short stories. I found them less compelling than Calvino’s cities, because I am a literal person and these were mostly over my head. But what a marvelous title! Between them, these two books inspired me to try writing some tiny stories of my own.

 But sitting down and writing stories is not really my style. No, it’s more fun to try to decide what to call my nonexistent stories. I wanted a name like palm-of-the-hand stories, but a name that would be my own. I came up with several options: snow-globe stories, postage-stamp stories, teacup stories, postcard stories.

 Postcard stories had definite possibilities, both as a name for my collection and as a writing tool. I cut a piece of paper into four postcard-sized pieces, then tried to write one entire tiny story within the confines of each page. The Highest Point started out as “A Postcard from Japan,” before it grew past its boundaries.

 My second story was called “Postcard from the Theatre” and was based on a mini-drama I once witnessed before seeing a play. I don’t remember the name of the actual play, but I arrived early and sat in the middle of a long row of empty seats. An elderly couple sat in front of me and to the left; the woman was closest to me. Soon after that a middle-aged couple arrived and began sidling down my row. As the wife took her seat next to mine, she checked behind her as if to make sure of a safe landing and kept her eyes on the seat while lowering herself carefully into it. She gripped her purse along the top edge, which allowed the double handles to fall forward. Surprisingly, the handles dropped neatly over the forehead of the seated woman in front of her. 

 The purse’s owner continued to sit, which drew the handles back, pulling the innocent woman’s head back, too, but quite gently. Another movement caused the purse handles to flop backwards, freeing the captive forehead. The woman beside me stowed her purse on the floor and continued chatting with her husband as if nothing had happened. Indeed, she had no idea that anything had.

As for the elderly victim, she never even turned her head to see what had caused the sensation of having her head pulled back by leather straps. She merely batted at her hair in a manner that implied confusion and a desire not to spoil the pleasure of a night out. 

Once I had written this story onto a postcard I noticed something rather obvious: It’s not a story. In fact it’s the type of thing that, once written, sounds like it couldn’t possibly be true. If you’re telling it to friends over lunch, well, then it sounds plausible. Plus you have the advantage of being able to demonstrate what happened with your own purse and a friend’s forehead.

I tore up my postcards and decided to call my little fictional and semi-fictional pieces nutshell stories in honor of the painting Balloon Moon by Fanny Brennan (above). Now I all I have to do is write them.

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It is not known precisely where angels dwell – whether in the air, the void, or the planets. It has not been God’s pleasure that we should be informed of their abode.  ~ Voltaire 

Photo: Linda Allardice

Lesley drove her dad’s ’96 Thunderbird LX to a place called the Auto Store off Airport Road.  She had called ahead about selling the car. In fact she had called ahead twice, but the first time she’d hung up the phone before it was answered, feeling an absurd level of trepidation. It had taken everything she had to call back and actually talk to a guy there, Mike, who said sure, bring it on in and he’d take a look. 

Lesley had tried to sell the car once already, to a similar dealer who specialized in buying cars from sailors as they shipped out then sold them to sailors just  returned to port. That had been a fiasco. She had felt feeble and helpless in the face of the domineering manager who told her with a cold stare that the Thunderbird was too rich for his clientele, making it worthless to him and by implication of no interest to anyone. 

That experience had infected her with the killing dread that caused her to nearly hang up on Mike. Having failed so miserably to sell the car the first time, she felt that the stakes had now risen to nearly impossible heights.

The Auto Store was nothing but a two-room mobile home on a block of fenced-in gravel. Mike was only in his mid-20s, but the business card he handed her said he was the General Manager.  He smiled a charming, crooked smile at her, and said he’d be with her in a snap.

Lesley watched Mike complete the sale of a Chevy Caprice. He kept up an easy stream of chatter with the buyer, telling him, “You have a cool last name.  That was the brand of the very first surfboard I ever bought.”

She began to relax, finding herself wondering what the buyer’s last name was. Lucas? Aloha?

Mike went outside to see the customer off in his new car, and when he returned Lesley felt ill again. “Let’s take her for a ride!” Mike said enthusiastically.

They climbed into the Thunderbird, Mike behind the wheel, and he pulled out of the lot and headed toward the airport.

“Paint looked really good,” he said, “and she drives nice. How come you want to sell?”

“It belonged to my father,” Lesley said, looking out the side window at the airport property, surrounded by fence and razor wire. She added, “He died.”

Mike turned toward her abruptly, and said, “Really? My dad died three years ago,” like that was the biggest coincidence in the world. “And none of my friends will talk to me about it.  Every time I bring it up, they clam up. Look, here comes Southwest.” 

They both watched as the jet eased down toward the runway. Lesley sighed.

“Ever feel like your dad is still close by?” Mike asked, his eyes still on the plane.

“I sure do. Every day.” Lesley sighed again, and something possessed her to add, “Part of me feels like he’s in the back seat right now, and all I have to do is turn around to see him again.”

“Yeah! Sometimes, you know, I stop at a fish camp or a little old restaurant, some out-of-the-way kind of place, not one of my usual spots, right? Well, when I first walk through the door and my eyes are getting adjusted from coming out of the sun, I almost think I see him sitting at one of the tables, like he’s waiting for me to come in and sit down and have a little meal. Just have a little dinner, sit and talk. You know.”

When they returned to the car lot, Lesley climbed out and Mike left the Thunderbird running while he looked under the hood.  Another young man came out of the trailer and joined them.  “Meet Slater,” Mike said.

Slater had a blond ponytail under a Jacksonville Suns cap, and a golden brown goatee. Lesley smiled, and received a casual wave in return.

Mike slammed the car hood down, but it failed to catch.  He tried again, and again. He fiddled with the mechanism, and tried it again. The hood bounced back up. Lesley tightened her grip on her purse. Mike squinted at the mechanism, fiddled with it one more time, slammed it, and it held. 

Slater gave Lesley a thumb’s up. She smiled, and took a deep breath that smelled faintly of salt air and smoke.

All three of them returned to the trailer, where Mike consulted the Blue Book and made a phone call. “Calling Gerry,” he explained. “He’s the boss.”

Lesley assumed Gerry would nix the sale, and she would be forced to return home with this task still hanging over her head. But when Mike hung up he said, “Here’s the scoop. If it were a V-8 we could do a lot better, but since it’s not we can offer you $3,000.”

Lesley looked up at the ceiling fan to keep tears from leaking out of her eyes. “All right,” she said.  “That seems fair.”

“Awesome. Let’s get crackin’ on that paperwork.”

They got cracking, and as Mike stacked up the signed documents, Lesley looked at them in wonder. The process had felt natural and easy.

Mike asked, “Do you have a ride home?”

“No, but that’s okay. I’ll call a cab.” 

Slater piped up, “I can take her home.”

Mike cocked his head questioningly at her, and Lesley said, “Thanks. That’d be fine.”

“Cool!” Mike said. “I’m going to call upstairs to get your check. You can wait in here.” He led Lesley into the other room of the trailer, which was outfitted with another couch, two chairs, and a large color TV.  He handed her the remote and said, “I’ve got HBO and Cinemax, so make yourself at home. HBO is channel 2, Cinemax is 14, and MTV is channel 75. But you knew that.” 

Lesley sat on the fake leather couch, behind a coffee table covered with car magazines.

Mike put his finger on the top magazine.  “There’s some phat cars in that one,” he said, and then he spun around and went outside with Slater.

Lesley wondered what on earth he’d meant about calling “upstairs.” She had time to watch two videos on MTV; at the beginning of the second one, Mike popped his head in the door of the trailer and said, “Gerry’s here.” He disappeared again. 

Soon, Mike and Slater reentered the trailer. “It’s cash, not a check,” Mike warned. “Gerry couldn’t get a check cut.”  He counted out several 100s, several 50s, and a very large number of 20s on the coffee table. 

“Three thousand,” he concluded triumphantly, scraping the money into a thick stack. Solicitously, he added, “Would you like a rubber band for that?”

Lesley nodded. “Please.”

Mike ducked into the front room and rummaged through his desk. Instead of a rubber band, he came out with an envelope. “Even better,” he said, handing the envelope of cash to Lesley with a flourish.

Slater said, “Invest wisely.” 

Lesley smiled. Both young men smiled happily back.

“Anything in the ‘Bird you need to retrieve?” Mike asked.

Lesley had already cleaned the car, removing the umbrellas, maps, shopping bags, and miscellaneous gear from the trunk, but she went outside for one final check. The only remaining items in the glove compartment were the owner’s manual and a pen. She was about to close it when a Post-it note came unstuck and fluttered to the floor. She glanced down and read a notation in her father’s handwriting: “Sat 6 p. meet Lesley – Singleton’s!”

“All set?” Mike asked.

Lesley put the note in her pocket as she backed out of the car and slammed the door. “All set,” she said.

Slater idled nearby in a black Eclipse with the windows down. He now wore aviator sunglasses. “Ride home’ll cost you $300,” he said. He peered over the glasses and grinned. “Nah. Just kiddin’.”

Lesley climbed into the passenger’s seat, and Mike closed the door for her. “Thanks for talking to me about my dad,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.” 

She touched his hand lightly. “Thank you,” she said. “Listen, if you’re free this Saturday, I want to take you out to one of those fish camps, one of those out-of-the-way type places.”

“Awesome. I’m there.”

Slater peeled out of the car lot, pinning Lesley’s head against the head rest. She felt light, and the Eclipse seemed to fly. She would take Mike—and Slater, too—to Singleton’s Fish Camp. It was out of the way, and the shrimp were super fresh.


(For Kathy & Dennis — may you find angels in all the out-of-the-way places you go!)

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