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Posts Tagged ‘nutshell story’

House and gardenIt appeared to June Ellis that her Easter vacation was about to be ruined in several different directions and on sundry levels.

“It’s going to be a spectacular Easter,” her daddy declared several weeks in advance. Then he casually delivered Easter’s death-blow: “Your aunt and uncle from up Cincinnati way are coming to spend spring break and Easter weekend. You’ll get to meet your only cousin, Ethan!” He held up his palm for a victory slap, but June ignored it.

Distance had been her only cousin Ethan’s single attractive quality. Four months her senior, throughout the eight years of their nearly consecutive lives he had naturally reached many important milestones before June could. He had talked, walked, and sprouted a tooth first, then he had taken up piano lessons and soccer. June was sick of hearing about his achievements.

Now he was coming here, to her part of the world, and at the season that she most loved. She knew his coming would add nothing and could only diminish the pleasure she took in egg-dyeing, egg-hunting, and having her picture taken in a new dress in front of the lilacs. Sharing these things would turn all her joy sour.

“I don’t want company at Easter,” June said. “I love Easter the way it is, by myself.”

“You’ll love Easter even more with a little company,” Daddy said. “You and Ethan can dye eggs, and have a real egg hunt. Won’t it be nice, having someone to find eggs with? A one-girl egg hunt is a mighty lonesome thing. In fact, it’s pitiful.”

“I thought I might do my egg-dyeing early this year,” June said. “Maybe this weekend.”

‘You’ll wait for your cousin Ethan,” Mama said flatly. “Now finish your supper.” Where Daddy would cajole, employ sweet-talk, and tease, Mama forged iron rules and regulations that came down hard and left a mark.

After supper June climbed up the tier of logs inside the old tobacco barn at the edge of the woods. The barn had not been used in decades except to shelter the lawnmower and garden tools, but it still smelled faintly of sweet golden leaves. At the top of the tall, narrow barn was a tiny window, a fine observation post. Daddy had fastened a sturdy board across two of the upper logs to give June a platform. He knew she loved to look out that window, so it made sense to give her a more secure perch and save her from leaning over to the window from one of the side tiers. Even with this improvement June’s mother was lobbying furiously to have the barn torn down before someone got hurt.

But June relished her view over the house to Weddlesville Road. When she looked to the right, the road ran straight and true for three miles, ending at State Road 79, a mostly rural  byway that meandered from the town of Ark to the south until it reached the more bustling city of Grantham, 75 miles north.

To the east, Weddlesville Road curved into green woodlands and disappeared. Presumably, the road led to Weddlesville. June had never gone in that direction in her entire life. Church, school, commerce—everything of value was located somewhere on or near State Road 79.

State Road 79 also brought Ethan and his parents. June sized him up in a day and a half. He may have been four months older, but he was no taller than June and not one bit bossy or arrogant despite his four months’ advantage. He did not offer to play a tune on the piano, and June got her own way during the egg-dyeing and decorating project. She kept her management low-key so as not to arouse adult displeasure, but Ethan proved agreeably compliant. He had strong lungs and turned red with blowing out the raw eggs—always a difficult task. Besides this, he revealed himself to have excellent taste.

” Now, that’s a real egg,” he said, holding up an egg that June had decorated with glued-on bits of tissue paper and metallic gold pen. “If you’ll let me have that one, I’m going to put it in a jar and keep it.”

Flattered, June said he could have it. Her mother found him a wide-mouthed Ball jar with a two-piece lid. Ethan padded the bottom of the jar with a little grass from an Easter basket and nestled the egg inside.

“But why in a jar?” June asked. “Why not put it in your Easter basket?”

“I always want to preserve things that I like where I can see them.”

Ethan’s voice was husky and low. June imagined that he sounded like the state of Ohio. He seemed exotic, somehow, though he dressed the same as anybody. There was something about the light in his clear gray eyes, the life in his dark bristly hair, that reminded her of Weddlesville Road—a mystery, unknown and unknowable. She found her animosity toward him unsustainable. After their egg-dyeing and a riotous three days of hiding, finding, and sometimes crushing eggs, she had shown him her platform at the top of the tobacco barn. They were there now, having finished Easter dinner and changed into their regular clothes.

“Where do you reckon that road really goes?” Ethan asked. He was crammed uncomfortably into the window with June, but she couldn’t push him out of the way without risking both their lives, since their platform was thin and a slip would take one or both down a good 25 feet into the dirt below. Not that the fall would kill them, but it would surely hurt and Mama would pitch a fit and no doubt have the barn sealed shut.

“Goes to Weddlesville, I guess. That’s why it’s called Weddlesville Road. Stop moving, Ethan. This window is too small for you to be twisting around like that.”

“You ever been?”

“No.”

“Wonder what it’s like.” He turned toward her, and she noticed again that his gray eyes had a strange light in the back, as if stars in a distant galaxy shone there. “Let’s go find it,” he said.

The minute they turned the corner and were out of sight of the house, the air felt cooler and foreign. The abundant greenness of the woods pressed at them from both sides; tendrils crept toward the asphalt and climbed the road sign posts. June chose to walk down the center line of the road.

“We’ll hear a car coming from a mile off,” she promised.

“What if it’s an electric car?” Ethan wondered. June moved toward the shoulder, and they walked on the painted line at its edge.

“We ought to build a summer camp out here,” Ethan said. “Have you ever been to camp? I’d like to run my own place. We’d have nothing but fishing and boats, swimming and horses. You could run the arts and crafts part. We might have to dig a pond.” He spotted something in a thick tangle of deadwood and weeds near the ditch, and down he went to see about it.

“It’s a balloon!” he said. “Who’d be having a birthday party out here in the woods?”

“Probably it just blew here from somewhere else,” June said. “From Weddlesville, I guess. Maybe there’s tons of kids down there that I could be playing with. Maybe I’ll go to the next birthday party they have, if I ever meet them.”

Ethan extracted the balloon from the ditch, a procedure that ate up a bit of time and required careful untangling of the long blue ribbon that was snarled among the deadwood. Finally the balloon popped up into the air, only slightly low on helium, and Ethan’s eyes glowed with triumph. The balloon bobbed and dipped on the ribbon, and then a light gust of air seemed to raise it up, and up it stayed.

June expected Ethan to release the ribbon and let the balloon fly free, as if it were a live wild thing. Instead, he tucked the end of the blue ribbon firmly into his front jeans pocket and let the balloon jerk along beside him.

“You don’t have many neighbors, do you?” he said. “I guess it’s not much fun during the summer, being all alone most days. But I’ll come back when school’s out, and we’ll get started on our camp. Don’t worry. Having a cousin is better than having a next-door neighbor, because we’ll always be kin.”

The road wound up a good-sized hill, and the cousins felt more hope with every step that at the top they would finally see their destination. But when they reached the summit, they saw only more woods and some abandoned fields further ahead.

Ethan began to generate explanations. “Maybe Weddlesville doesn’t really exist,” he said. “Maybe it got swallowed up in a sinkhole, like in Florida, or a tar pit. Maybe it got vacuumed up by a UFO. Maybe all this kudzu and mess covered it up and strangled the life out of all the people. I bet—”

June stopped walking and held up her hand. “Stop rattling, Ethan. Be quiet for two minutes.”

Ethan stood still and was quiet for thirty seconds before the silence ended.

“Good afternoon, sir!”

June and Ethan lifted their heads like bird dogs. They realized that they stood at the corner of a yard. The front lawn was nearly indiscernible for a riot of growth at the corner—periwinkle and creeping phlox; loose-limbed forsythia; thick, wild azaleas; ungroomed beds of past-blooming daffodils and hyacinths—all of it mixed in with an encroaching green-woods growth that blurred the edges and threatened the stability of a small section of driftwood-gray fence. June peeked through a gap in the waving arms of forsythia and discerned the corner of a small white house. She detected movement, heard a creak, and realized that a man must be sitting on a porch swing. 

She looked at Ethan, who stared back at her. They were entirely concealed by the shrubbery and overgrowth—how could he have known they were there?

“Hey!” Ethan said, uncertainly. He hiked up his hand and waved, causing his captive balloon to dip its broad, silvery head in a clumsy bow.

“Where you headed?” the man called.  He sounded grandfatherish and perhaps a bit deaf. “And what you got there on your face? Tattoos?”

He had mistaken the balloon for a passer-by. June sat on the ground and chewed her sleeve to keep from hooting. Ethan grinned but remained composed. June admired him and wondered if there might be a decided advantage to an extra four months of maturity.

“Yes, sir,” Ethan said, in his most gravelly Ohio voice. “I’m working for the circus. We’re… I’m trying to find Weddlesville. Am I about to Weddlesville?”

The porch swing stopped creaking. “Mister, you’re up to your assbone in Weddlesville! The town limits run right through there. Now, the center of town is about two miles further up, but you won’t find no circus there, nor nobody to buy a ticket.”

June snorted wetly into her sleeve, and Ethan coughed, loud and hoarse, to cover it up.

“Well, reckon I’ll head on back, then,” he said. “Thank you, now.”

“Don’t you want to come up here on the porch and have a cold drink before you start?” the man asked. June imagined that the man had to hide and find his own Easter eggs, too.

The sound of a car coming up the road made Ethan and June look back. It was Daddy, with Uncle Scotty. The car slowed as it approached.

“Thank you,” Ethan said, in a hurry. “Best be getting on,” and to June’s wonder and eternal delight he pulled the ribbon from his pocket and loosed the balloon.  It drifted up slowly and bobbed drunkenly below the redbud tree. They heard the man on the porch swing exclaim, “Gah!” before the swing creaked crazily as he thumped into the house.

June and Ethan ran back to meet the car, and jumped in the back.

Daddy tried to look stony. “What in the world are the two of you doing? And why, when you’ve been caught in a flagrant act of truancy, are you grinning like possums?”

“I don’t think we’re grinning like possums,” Ethan said. “How do possums grin? We just wanted to see Weddlesville.”

“Weddlesville, is it?” and Daddy kept straight, finished the two miles, and they saw that Weddlesville was mainly an abandoned country store and a broken-down, decrepit grist mill near a pond of thick oily water. Across the road from these features was a tangle of wild woods. A slice had been carved into the trees, a section of shoulder mowed, and within this alcove a large sign read:  “Rustic Meadows. Home lots from $30,000.”

“Oh, me, I should say it’s rustic,” Daddy remarked. “Nothing but rust and ticks for miles.” He looked at the children in the rearview mirror. “What have you all been doing? Taking laughing gas? You sure do have the sillies today. Too much Easter candy, I expect.”

Up to your assbone in Weddlesville, June mouthed at Ethan, and the two stripes of color in his cheeks turned a deeper red and his eyes closed as he surrendered to the hilarity.

Monday morning, Ethan and his family were to begin their drive back to Cincinnati. Ethan had a jar with June’s egg in it in the backseat with him, and another jar that June hadn’t seen before. “What you got in that one?” she asked, and he held it up for her to see an old Atlas mason jar with a heavy screw-on lid. Inside was a copy of the photo that Mama had taken of the two of them in their Easter clothes in front of the lilacs. June felt something strange inside her lungs, like she needed more air.

“I’m going to go to the barn to watch your car go up Weddlesville Road,” she whispered.

By the time she got up to the window, the car had pulled out of the driveway and turned right toward State Road 79. Ethan had unsnapped his seat belt and leaned out the passenger-side window to wave.

“Bye!” he hollered, leaning out as far as he could to see her. “Didn’t we have a time?”

“Bye!” June yelled back. “We sure did!” She saw Ethan’s mama turned around in the front seat, trying to get him back inside and buckled up. Then all she saw was the back of his dark, bristly head and the gleam of a jar in his right hand.

“Bye,” she said, again. She stood alone at the tobacco barn window, and when she could no longer see the car she looked to the left, toward Weddlesville. She stood there dreaming, wishing that she had a jar that she could keep Ethan in. Maybe she would get a copy of that picture, too. But she wouldn’t put it straight into a jar, as Ethan had. No, she would cut out their figures, letting the lilacs fall. She would get a square of fresh white paper and draw her own background of greenery and flowers, a section of driftwood fence, and put in a silver balloon rising up toward a redbud. Then she would paste the June and Ethan figures in that new setting, place the picture in a jar, and preserve their trip to Weddlesville forever.

June looked toward State Road 79. It was empty now. Her tobacco barn window seemed mighty big. June rattled in it like a loose tooth, grieved and aching, and certain to end up lost.

END

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The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov, 1899

The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov, 1899

A nutshell story.

“I’m thirsting for a little cultural refreshment, Mel,” Daddy said. “I feel like we’ve gone through a long, hard drought with regard to the higher arts.”

Mama looked wary. “What did you have in mind, Frank?” she asked.

“A string orchestra is playing this Sunday afternoon at the Tillbury,” he said. “Why don’t we take the girls and expose them to what I feel sure will be an uplifting experience for us all?”

“They’re forecasting snow this weekend,” Mama warned, but Daddy assured her that it never snowed to amount to anything in January and anyway the car had excellent tires—as she should know, since she had insisted he buy the expensive, high-performance brand that could carry us through fire, deep water, or glacial ice without incident.

That is how we came to be sitting in the Tillbury Theatre just before 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon, with a light snow falling on a day of cold so bitter that only a clutch of folk had gathered for an afternoon of Bach and Tchaikovsky. 

“Cold and snow are ideal for Tchaikovsky,” Daddy said. “It will make us feel like we are there in Russia with him, don’t you think? We should be wearing bearskin hats and coats. Only we don’t have any. Which is just as well, because it’s hot as a match inside here.”

It was warm inside the Tillbury, which is the prettiest theatre in the world. Sitting in it is like sitting inside a red-enameled jewelry box with diamond earring chandeliers. While we waited for the concert to begin, Daddy read to us from the program. This is a habit of his, one that makes Mama clench her jaw.

“Tchaikovsky has said of this particular selection, ‘I am violently in love with it.’ He also referred to it as a ‘piece from the heart,’ and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic merit. Always remember, Dixie, that if it comes from your heart, it is a true and beautiful thing.”

The conductor came on stage, and soon the theatre filled with music like warm silver water, until we were all swimming in it, oblivious of the cold and the snow outside. The conductor led us through Bach, then showed us Tchaikovsky as if he were revealing a magnificent dream. Then, In the last Walzer, which was lively, the conductor lost his grip and flung his baton across the room.

Every person in that tiny audience rose, clapping with such vigor that the diamond chandeliers trembled and quaked.  “We were warned there could be violence,” Daddy whispered. “Dixie, go see if you can find that baton.” 

Mama looked as if she intended to contradict this directive, but I slipped out and went to the side of the theatre where the baton had last been seen cartwheeling over the second row. I found it against the wall—a thin gleam of light-colored wood, I thought, with a darker wooden bulb on the end. It felt alive in my hand, and I wondered if it had flown of its own will out of the conductor’s hand, a sort of magic wand.

I crept back to my seat and showed the baton to Daddy as the orchestra completed its encore, a reprise of the Walzer portion of Tchaikovsky. The tiny audience once again stood and roared its approval, as Daddy whispered that I should take the baton up to the stage and give it back to the conductor, who had turned to take his bows.  “I don’t think it’s like a foul ball that you get to keep if you catch it,” Daddy added, with an air of regret.

At first the conductor didn’t see me, and I knew that I would not be heard in the tumult of the ovation. But then he caught sight of his baton, which from his perspective must have appeared to rise from the edge of the stage on its own power, and he smiled as he reached down and took it from me. He tapped me with it, first on my left shoulder, then on my right, and we all went out into the soft white world, lifted up, and shining.

END

For more nutshell stories about Dixie and her family, see: “Father’s Day,” “A Mad Tea Party,” “Ode to Autumn,” “Bearing Witness,” “Collectors of Ice,” and “There Is No End.”

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A Mad Tea Party

On Saturday morning Mama and Daddy were sitting drinking coffee when Mama disturbed the peace by mentioning gutters. This was an old, old story that I had lost interest in some time back, but Mama had become fervent about the need to get the gutters cleaned so that water would not build up and drip down her neck when she walked out the back door.

Daddy had no interest in cleaning gutters. He is not light on a ladder, nor is he particularly deft at height. For weeks he had put Mama off, advising caution and the need for expertise. Now Mama was fed up and wanted action.

“I’ve found your expertise,” she announced. “I saw a wiry little man cleaning Miss Elton’s gutters last week. Name’s Weatherby, if you can believe it. Weatherby Soames. Anyway, he leaned a ladder on that east side where the ground drops off kind of steep, so it’s a good three stories on that side, and he scrambled up that ladder just as pretty as you please. It was a marvel.”

“Was it, now?” Daddy asked. I could tell by the set of his mouth that he didn’t think much of a man who was nimble on a ladder. Daddy hates to come up short in any competition.

“I’ve already placed a call to Mr. Soames, and he’s coming this afternoon. All you have to do is get the ladder out for him and pay him $35.”

“I bet I don’t,” Daddy said. “I’m not paying any man $35 to clean a gutter. Lord have mercy, that sounds like doctors’ wages. Cleaning a gutter does not require an advanced degree.”

“No,” Mama shot back, “you don’t need an advanced degree. All you need is a dime’s worth of initiative, but evidently there’s not a nickel’s worth around this house. Now I’m going to make the baby’s birthday cake, and I suggest you dig up $35 in cash.”

Daddy is peacock-proud of Mama’s fiery spirit, right up until the minute when he is on the receiving end of it. Then he finds it offensive, and says so. I noticed that he went out to fetch the ladder though, and he even leaned it against the side of the house.

Weatherby Soames arrived in due time. He pulled up in a small red pick-up truck, and behind him came a large woman with interesting hair in a silver Mercury. Daddy met them in the yard, but once he had seen Mr. Soames safely up the ladder he ushered the woman into the kitchen to visit with Mama.

“Mel,” he said, and his eyes danced with mischief, “this is Mrs. Soames. She has escorted Mr. Weatherby Soames here this afternoon. Wasn’t that nice?”

Mrs. Soames sat down on one of the kitchen chairs with the air of a woman who intended to take her time and soak in whatever passed by. “I did that,” she said, smoothing down her wild, graying hair. “I came to keep an eye on him. Had to follow him in the car because he wouldn’t say exactly where he was going. The man just got out of the hospital day before last with his heart! My, that’s a beautiful cake. I don’t reckon you’re ready to slice it?”

Mama’s Southern hospitality and naturally excellent manners fought briefly with her desire to present Bethany with a fresh cake for her second birthday. “Would you like a piece?” she asked, somewhat unnecessarily. I saw her hand shake a tiny bit as she took the dome off the cake, but then she raised her head high and cut a good-sized piece for Mrs. Soames and smaller slices for the rest of us. Bethany was napping, so she didn’t know.

“Anyway, I followed him out here to make sure he didn’t try to do too much,” Mrs. Soames continued. “That man will scramble onto a roof and he does not care how high it is or how hard the wind may blow. I told him, said, ‘Weatherby, if you get up on a high roof 48 hours out of intensive care I’m going to have something to say about it.’ Told him if I caught him up on the roof of a two-story house I would throw rocks at him until he came down peacefully. But I got here and I could see that your roof isn’t high at all, so I don’t think there’s a thing to worry about here. He needn’t even climb onto the roof, just has to go midway up that ladder and my granddaddy could still handle that.”

Daddy was delighted. He suggested that Mama put on a pot of tea to go with the cake, and when Mrs. Soames admired the blue willow tea pot and cups he went and fetched the camera and took a picture of her drinking tea. “I’ll send you a copy to keep,” he promised.

“Would you do that? I would enjoy that above all things. My, this is some good fresh cake. Y’all are the nicest folks. I’m going to have to go ’round with Weatherby more often! Now, talk about nice? He is a man will do anything that somebody asks him to do, purely does not know how to say no. He’s all, ‘Yes, ma’am, I’ll bust up that chiffarobe for a nickel’ whether he’s got an axe to bust with or not. It’s no wonder his heart isn’t right. When he first came up with symptoms I thought it was nothing but a bout of bad gas. Turns out it wasn’t.”

Mrs. Soames didn’t say no to a second slice of cake, and then she caught sight of Mama’s little wool felt tea pot ornament that sits on the shelf with the blue willow tea things. She got up from her chair to look closely at it, and went wild over it—pretty much exactly the way Mama had fussed over it when she first got it.

“Isn’t that the cunningest thing?” Mrs. Soames exclaimed. “It’s so darling—just the cutest little thing I ever saw! Wherever did you get it? I sure would like one of those for my kitchen.”

Mama explained that her childhood friend had made it for her and sent it at Christmas time for a tree ornament, but Mama loved it so that she wanted to keep it out all the time.

“I would, too. I would, too. That is darling as it can be.”

Mr. Weatherby Soames appeared at the back door, looking in, and Mrs. Soames made him come in and have his share of the cake and tea.

Daddy paid Mr. Soames, and to his disappointment Mrs. Soames almost immediately set down her tea cup and announced that they must go.

“Good grief,” Mama said, after the door had closed behind them, “I thought we were probably going to have her here all day, or at least until after dinner.” She stopped and stared at her shelf with the blue willow cups and saucers on it.

I told Mama that when Mrs. Soames walked past me on her way out the door I saw that she had the little wool felt tea pot in her dress pocket. I wished I had the nerve to say something before it walked out, because I knew that Mama thought a lot of that little tea pot.

“You did the right thing, Dixie,” she told me. “I wouldn’t want you to embarrass a guest.” But she sighed when she said it.

“It was worth it,” Daddy said. “It was worth the $35 and half of Bethany’s cake and the handmade tea pot to listen to that woman for three-quarters of an hour. Shoot, I wish to goodness we had a chiffarobe that Mr. Soames could bust up. Wouldn’t that be a treat?”

He was deeply content. Mama was wistful.

“Never mind, Mel,” Daddy said, patting her hand. He raised the camera and showed her the picture he’d taken of Mrs. Soames with her wild hair, drinking tea from the blue willow cup. “Look at this. And don’t forget the most important thing.” 

“What’s that?” Mama asked. Wearily, she began to collect the dirty cups and plates and put them in the sink.

“Why, the most important thing of all!” Daddy said. “The gutters are clean, Mel. The gutters are clean.”

END

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''Eine Kleine Schnee-Musik'' (''A Little Snow Music''), ca. 1962, box construction by Joseph Cornell.

My brother, Hank, showed up at lunchtime so I took him down the block for oysters and chicken wings. Hank had been out of work for about six weeks. I was trying to be patient and kind—an uphill battle. Part of me suspected his main problem was that he was 23, beer-sodden, and a bit lazy. But I also knew that Hank was smart if not overly ambitious. I resolved to be positive and supportive and everything.

The oysters were small and icy cold, exactly the way I liked them. As we ate, Hank hinted around that he could use another advance on the money he expected from our parents’ estate. “You’ve already gotten one advance,” I said, pointing an empty shell at him, “and there is not a vast amount of money involved here. You know that. Come on, Hank.”

“Well, until I can find another job I think it makes sense to use the money I’m expecting rather than go further into debt,” he said, all wide-eyed and hurt. “Mom and Dad would have preferred that, Laura, don’t you think?”

“Here’s what I think,” I said, scrubbing my fingers with a lemon-scented wipe. Patient and kind and positive, I thought to myself, but I couldn’t help but say what I did think:  “When you get an advance, it’s coming out of my pocket because I don’t have access to that money yet, either. You’re going to have to start making more of an effort, Hank. I can’t carry you forever.”

Hank turned away as if embarrassed by my lack of sisterly feeling. He looked scruffy—poorly shaven, in need of some more robust personal grooming. A clean shirt. He’d look really nice if he made more of an effort. I have tons of friends who would love to date him. Well, they would if he had a car.

Finally he said, “I’m going to help Clanahan clean pools starting Monday, but it’s going to be a week before I’ll get paid. I just need a little cash to tide me over until then.”

Of course I’d give him the money—after all, I was the strong elder sister. “I’ll spot you a loan. But look, cleaning swimming pools is not a career path. Is it? You need to pull away from the Clanahans in your life and get yourself on track, Hank. Why don’t you move here to the island and stay with me awhile? You can have the guest room. I promise I won’t nag.” 

He raised an eyebrow at that, but said he’d developed a preference for Clanahan’s couch. He thanked me for the offer, though, before walking with me to an ATM and then heading off on his bike to catch a ferry back to the mainland. I watched him pedal off, his blond hair glinting in the sun. A golden boy—a pool boy—who needed a haircut.

Whenever my finances took a hit and I felt poor and depressed, I got an inexplicable itch to go shopping and buy something. This had been happening a lot lately. I drove to the mainland the long way around, by the bridge, and felt better the minute I parked in front of SteinMart.

SteinMart was one of my happy places, where the price tag revealed how much money I was saving. I loved that. But today when I went through the automatic doors it only took about 30 seconds for me to feel a strange discomfort. It hit me as I strode down the aisle that normally took me past the cocktail dresses. As I walked further into the store, I thought perhaps I was experiencing an allergic reaction to the oysters I’d eaten at lunch. Then I realized the true cause of my unease: SteinMart had been disconcertingly rearranged.

I stopped walking. An older woman several yards to my left (where the sweaters should have been but weren’t) caught my eye. Her hand rose, then fell to her side. “I don’t know where anything is anymore!” She flung the words across the aisle.

Her words stung with the bitter salt of profound truth. I didn’t even know where Clanahan lived, or how to get in touch with my own brother in an emergency. Defeated, I lost the urge to shop and went home without the satisfaction of buying anything.

I had trouble falling asleep that night, and around two o’clock in the morning I was awakened by blue flashing lights on my ceiling and some sort of commotion in the front yard. I pulled a sweatshirt over my t-shirt and pajama pants and tentatively opened the front door to see what the fuss was about.

My neighbor, Doug, was out front, so I walked over to find out what he knew. “They’ve got a guy cornered in your yard,” Doug explained. “Helen’s sister is here from Mobile,” he jerked his thumb back toward the house, and I saw Helen and another woman on the front porch. “She came to stay here awhile because she was all terrified about that Mobile Sniper shooting people out there. Anyway, she’s sleeping downstairs on the sofa bed, and she hears this guy trying to come in the front door. What does she do? She goes to the door and lets him in!”

“I thought he was one of your friends!” the woman on the porch called out.

Doug shook his head. “Terrified of a random sniper, but she’ll let anybody in through the front door. So Helen came down because she heard the noise and she says, ‘Who’s that?’ and hollered for me. I came down and said, ‘Get out of my house.’ Helen called the police. Guy’s probably stoned or something. See him over there? Anybody you know?”

I looked over at my side yard and saw two police officers standing over a guy sitting on the grass with his arms crossed on his knees and his blond head on his arms. I hurried toward them. 

“Is this your boyfriend?” one of the officers asked. 

“No! He’s my brother.” I knelt next to him. Hank didn’t lift his head, he simply sat there quietly, obviously confused and distraught. I put my arm across his shoulders, awkwardly, and talked to him. I tried really hard to be soothing and loving and sweet. Finally, his utter sadness soaked into me, and I started to cry.

The policemen waited patiently as I cried and told Hank that everything would be fine—he’d get a real job soon, and in the meantime he’d be making enough money to get by and Mom and Dad would have loved the fact that he was going to be a pool boy—how they would have laughed! And it was only a temporary thing and soon we would feel less pain over them being gone and we’d be able to share all the memories of the good times. The only good thing left, I said, squeezing his shoulder, the one thing that I held onto was that we still had each other. It was all we needed, now. It was all there was, because goodness knows there was nothing we could smoke or drink or buy that would make things better.

Hank remained silent, with his head on his arms. “I’m so glad you came here tonight,” I told him. “You absolutely did the right thing, even if you did try to go into Doug’s house by mistake. But it doesn’t matter. We’ll sort this out, and everything will be fine. I’m glad you’re here. I got really worried this afternoon, thinking  that I didn’t know where Clanahan’s place is, or how to find you.” I thought about SteinMart again, and laughed shakily. “Thank you for coming back. You’re my compass, Hank. I need you to help me stay oriented.”

I put my hand under his chin and lifted his head up so I could tell him, face to face, that I could help him stay oriented, too. I looked deep into his eyes.

“Oh, crap, you’re not my brother!” I said. The minute I said it, the cops flipped the guy over, handcuffed him, and stuffed him into the waiting patrol car.

I stood up and brushed off the seat of my pajama pants. Doug was doubled over, he was laughing so hard at the collapse of the high drama.

I used my sweatshirt sleeve to scrub off the tears. Maybe it would seem funny tomorrow. Once I found him, I could tell Hank about it, and he would hoot.

END

Author’s note: Any ideas for a title would be gratefully received. I couldn’t come up with one to save my life. Also, I apologize for the illustration being so completely unrelated to the story, but I am reading a lot about Joseph Cornell right now, I love his shadow boxes, and guess what? Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow night! So it all makes sense. In a way.

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Daddy declared it a fine time to search out our autumn pumpkins, given the glorious display of changing leaves and the fact that soon he would be obliged to spend his Saturdays raking the glory out of the yard.

Mama said that she would enjoy an outing, and perhaps we could take in one or two of the pottery shops in Seagrove, which despite the name lay within rolling waves of green hills and nowhere near the ocean. All of us in complete accord, we headed out on a bright Saturday morning with sunlight tangled in the red and yellow leaves of the tree-tops.

At our favorite pumpkin farm, we took our leisurely time picking out two fat pumpkins and enjoying the farm’s cold apple cider. Mama bought a jar of lavender honey and a half gallon of the cider to take home. Then we drove further out in the country as if pulled by the lure of Autumn, until we came by way of the back roads to the pottery village of Seagrove. Mama sat up and became considerably more alert.

She directed Daddy to stop at Pleasance Pottery, which she deemed a likely place to satisfy her yearning for art. I liked it even better than the pumpkin farm. The shop was tucked back from the road in its own world. Cats stretched out in every sunny patch, and pottery toad houses and bird feeders further brightened the edges of a small pond ringed by purple and golden asters. Three massive cedar trees crowded against one side of the shop, and I saw more toad houses tucked among their roots like a village in a magic forest. Daddy put Bethany in her stroller and we walked around to examine it all while Mama went inside. Daddy pointed out a sassafras tree, with its leaves of two entirely different shapes fast turning a deep orangey red.

When we joined Mama inside the shop, Daddy advised Bethany, “Stifle your Shiva tendencies, dear heart, and touch nothing.”

Mama was trying to choose between two vases. “What do you think, Dixie?” she asked. She lifted them both to the light.

The first was a beautiful creamy white, with a crystal pattern that looked as if whiter pansies had been pressed into the surface of the clay before firing. It made me think of ice crystals and frosted windows. The other had a similar crystal pattern, but it was two colors: butternut and deep, bright blue, like a wondrous globe of some different Earth.

“I know,” Mama said, looking at my face. “It’s impossible to pick.”

She finally decided on the blue-and-butternut vase, and while Ms. Pleasance wrapped it in layers of paper and tucked it inside a box, Daddy left the stroller with Mama and walked through the rest of the shop. I followed him to see what he’d do.

The shop had three small rooms. The main room had been filled with light, and contained displays of the crystalline pottery in all sizes and shapes, all of them beautiful. The second room had a half-gate across the door, and inside we could see a work area, with two pottery wheels and an air of industry. The predominant color in there was the flat, chalky gray of the clay. Finally, there was a room that nestled like a cave among the large cedar trees we had seen outside. The trees cut off the light from the room’s one window.

“Well, well, well,” Daddy said. “What have we here?”

It was like a different time inside that room, with its rough wooden shelves, an old Hoosier cabinet for displaying pots, and a pine slab table in the center. Even the floor was different—rolling, packed dirt. The pottery was rougher, too, in keeping with this environment: plain golden-brown plates, crimp-edged pie pans, sturdy crocks in dull Quaker grays and blues. But Daddy had fixed his sight on something even more interesting—a green jug with a face molded into the side, with great crooked teeth and staring blue eyes. He picked up the jug and before long he was talking to it easily, like a friend.

“Dixie, come say hello to Brother Carl. What’s that?” He placed his ear next to the jug’s open top and listened intently. “Dixie, put your ear at the top of Brother Carl’s head, here, and listen.”

All I heard was a faint sound like trapped breezes. I told Daddy that Brother Carl was whispering, and I couldn’t make it out. “He’s pleased to make your acquaintance,” Daddy interpreted. “He wants to go home with us. I believe Brother Carl to be my foster kin, and I say we owe him a permanent residence.”

I asked him what he thought Mama might feel about offering Brother Carl permanent residence, and Daddy advised me that we would soon find out. He hooked his finger in Brother Carl’s handle and hoisted him onto one shoulder, as if he wished not to miss a word that the jug might let slip. 

Sure enough, Mama was appalled. “Frank, where on earth are you going to put that hideous thing?” she asked, as we returned to the car. Her tone held a familiar note of despair laced with amusement.

“I’ll make us a deep walnut shelf,” he said. “We can put your piece and mine, side by side for the world to look at and wonder. ‘Truth and beauty,’ folks will muse, ‘are they one and the same, as Keats would have us believe, or do they diverge and lead to entirely different destinations?’ Visitors will leave our house better people. A satellite picture from the depths of space would reveal a stream of curious light emanating from our door as the newly enlightened depart our home.”

“No,” Mama said. “Yours is not going to sit on a shelf next to mine.”

“Don’t be like that, Mel. You’re standing in the way of enlightenment and that is not a comfortable place to be.”

Daddy placed Brother Carl snugly between me and Bethany’s car seat in the back, and put the seat belt over him for added security. As we drove home, Daddy declaimed about the value of plain truth, rugged simplicity, and homespun wisdom. He grew excitable. “You know what we should do, girls? We should carve our pumpkins to look like Brother Carl’s family. Won’t that be nice for him?”

“You are not going to hijack the girls’ pumpkins, Frank,” Mama said. She turned in the seat. “Dixie, you can carve your pumpkin any way you like.”

“Oh, she can, she can,” Daddy said. He raised his eyes to the rearview mirror and grinned at me.

I said that my pumpkin could be Mrs. Carl, and Mama mock-wept into her hands.

Daddy patted Mama’s knee. “Never mind, Mel; this thing is bigger than we are. Truly a bountiful harvest. Put your ear to Brother Carl’s spout again, Dixie, and see if he has any words of wisdom for you. I’ve got a feeling he’s about to say something profound. Go ahead, now.”

Daddy watched me with quick upward glances in the rearview mirror, so I leaned to my right and put my head next to Brother Carl’s mouth. The ring of fired clay settled cool against my ear, and I listened again for the low hum of miniature wind currents circling the jug’s interior, knocking against its sides.

The jug spoke. A deep, nasal voice—loud and authoritative, but seemingly affected by an overabundance of teeth—filled the car:

Love is a funny thing
Beauty is a blossom.
If you want to get your finger bit
Stick it at a possum.

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Salon Monologue

Broadsheet Melbourne, 11/22/10

I walked into the hair salon with a long-standing, confirmed appointment and was greeted by my stylist, Heidi, telling me that she would be with me as soon as she had placed a call to the police. I’m sure I looked surprised, because she added, “It’s a long story, but since your highlights are going to take awhile, you’ve got time to hear the whole thing. Give me a minute.”

(Note to self: Find a hair salon that greets clients with a glass of sparkling water, not an announcement that the police are being called.)

Still, I sat in the chair and uttered not one word of complaint while Heidi disappeared to make her call. Instead I turned my mind to beautiful things, like the T. S. Eliot poem I had come across, La figlia che piange, that had seemed like an auspicious sign indeed for my salon day with its directive, “weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.” Yes, I would weave golden sunlight in my hair. At least Heidi would, once she finished calling the police.

Heidi returned and pumped the chair up in spasmodic bursts, without regard for my personal comfort. And without so much as a “How are you today?” she launched into her tale.

It seemed her chocolate Labrador, Sam, had learned he could jump one particular low spot in the back fence and get out. Usually he just walked around to the front yard and sat on the step waiting for someone to get home, but the neighbors had reported that sometimes Sam got into people’s garbage cans and made a mess, strowing it around.

“There have been afternoons,” Heidi said, briskly painting strands of my hair and wrapping them in silver foil, “when I have actually put plastic bags on my hands and gone out and picked up strange people’s trash. I kid you not. I’ve done that several times.”

I shuddered. Heidi wore wrinkled plastic gloves now; I had to trust that they were clean. 

“Well, one afternoon I get close to home, and I see a garbage can over on its side, and I see the rear end of a chocolate Lab sticking out, and I said to myself, ‘Sam! I’m going to kick your butt.’ I pulled the car over, jumped out, and went to grab his collar. That’s when I realized it wasn’t Sam. It was somebody else’s chocolate Lab. I don’t know whose. And who knows if it was actually Sam I’d been cleaning up after all that time? But that’s all in the past.

“What happened this week was my husband was home with the kids and the woman from next door comes over and bangs on the front door. I don’t know her nationality, but she’s banging on the front door and yelling in some language, and all Bryan understands is ‘help’ and ‘dog.’  He follows her to their back yard, where they have an inground pool. There’s a chocolate Lab that’s jumped in the pool, and now the dog can’t get out because all there is to get out is a ladder, and dogs don’t climb ladders.

“‘That’s not my dog,’ my husband tells her, but he’s a good guy and he goes into the pool—can you believe it?—and hauls the dog out.” Heidi paused, laughing.

“Do you know what I just remembered?  Couple of years ago my friend, Christy, who lives over near Bradenton—her husband worked at Tropicana, and Christy said he smelled sticky all the time—anyway, she called me, says, ‘There’s a baby manatee in my pool!’ ‘What?’ I said, ‘There ain’t no possible way there’s a manatee in your pool, baby or not. It’s not like Christy and them even lived close to where a manatee might be. But she insisted that yes, there was, and finally she went out there and took a picture and sent it to me. Laugh? I thought I’d die. Turns out a mole had fallen into her pool, drowned, and ended up in the filter.

“But back to my story, the point is that my neighbor has a fence around the pool, but the fence doesn’t have a gate, which is how the dog got in and ended up in her pool and the next thing will be one of my children wandering over there and falling in the pool, so I thought I better call the police.”

Heidi led me to the hairdryers and lowered a beehive over my head. My ears filled with the soothing buzz of wordless air, its heat activating the sunlight woven in my hair. She stuck a Lucky magazine in my hand, but I gazed straight ahead at the lavender walls and tried to meditate away the images of loose garbage, unruly dogs, dead moles in pool filters, and drowned children that Heidi had conjured for my entertainment.

(Note to self: Loyalty to a gifted stylist could only be carried so far. Heidi was a magician with the highlight wand, but these horrid monologues on ordinary life were not to be suffered. I needed a salon where I felt surrounded by the beauty I deserved.)

I closed my eyes and smiled. It was settled. This would be my last visit to Heidi’s salon, and I would not be leaving a tip.

 

Photo: “Oxhey & Bushey Relocate,” Broadsheet Melbourne, 11/22/2010.

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There Is No End

Mary Newcomb: "There is no end"

A nutshell story.

Mama always says that she doesn’t want a lot of fuss made over her birthday, and Daddy always tries to raise as much fuss as he possibly can. Says he figures the more fuss he can stir up in honor of Mama, the more it distracts her from his faults, which are plentiful and of long standing.

Weeks in advance I asked Mama how many candles we needed for her cake this year, and she would only say, “Too many.” 

“Aw, Mel, it’s not the end of the world, especially considering the alternative,” Daddy teased. 

“It may not be the end of the world,” Mama sighed, “but I can see it from here.”

Daddy pulled me aside later and advised me to go easy; this was a birthday Mama found difficult to face. It appeared to me that I was not the one who needed counsel, but I decided to bide my time and see how he intended to navigate these treacherous waters.

I didn’t have long to wait. Daddy announced that had planned an entertainment worthy of Mama’s birthday: a picnic on Chappell Mountain followed by an outdoor jazz concert. I was not impressed by the depth of his planning. We had received a flyer in the mail that same day announcing the concert, and he actually used it to make his pitch.

“Look, Mel—it’s the Chappell Mountain Toastmasters Scholarship Benefit Concert Under the Stars!  Held on the very date of your birth! You will notice that the Toastmasters have captured the cheerfulness of this event by using bright yellow paper, two exclamation points, and a font that waves at you from the page! Now, I propose that we enjoy a delicious picnic on the mountain, then attend this festive and civic-minded event. What do you say?” He rolled the flyer into a spyglass and regarded Mama through it.

“All right,” she said. She sounded more resigned than interested. “What do you want to take to eat, chicken or sandwiches?”

“It’s your birthday, and you will not be permitted to lift a finger. I’ll pack us a basket.”

Mama still seemed dubious. “I don’t want to see any candles on a cake,” she warned. “That truly would look like the end of the world, and I simply can’t face it.”

“Leave everything to me.” Daddy unfurled the flyer and pointed to it again. “Look here. I know you’re not greeting this particular birthday with your usual delight, but isn’t there something uplifting about a concert that includes the Upper Piedmont High School Mini-Big Band? By the way, what do you reckon a mini-big band is?”

The day of Mama’s birthday outing Daddy produced a heavy picnic basket, a cooler, a blanket, two camp chairs, and an unidentified white bundle. We loaded the car and drove up the switchback road to Chappell Mountain.

“Let’s get a picture of the birthday girl at the scenic overlook,” Daddy said. He eased the car onto a gravel parking area edged by a low stone wall. A long, heavy wooden sign in front of the wall welcomed us to Bee Hive Overlook, elevation 2,418 feet.

Mama carried Bethany to the walled overlook, holding her tight as if she feared Beth might tumble over the side. Before I could run after them, Daddy beckoned for me to follow him to the trunk of the car, where he removed white bundle. “Grab this end,” he whispered, and the plastic began to unfold as he walked away from me. When we reached the overlook, Mama turned to see what was going on.

“Happy birthday, Mel!” Daddy said. We held the banner between us. I had no idea what it said, but I saw Mama read it. She looked at it for a good long time, then busted out crying.

Daddy and I looked at each other in open-mouthed horror. “Oh, now, Mel,” Daddy said, torn between holding up his end of the banner and going to pat her shoulder. He decided to do both, and he walked quickly to her, still holding the banner, me trotting to keep up. “Are you mad, honey?” he asked anxiously.

“No!” Mama said. She laughed, and mopped her face with her free hand. “Let’s take a picture.”

So Daddy strung the banner across the overlook sign, securing it with wire loops fastened to its top corners. I saw that it read, “Welcome to the end of the world! Here’s where the beauty begins.” Mama and I stood supporting Bethany between us on the elevation sign. In that photo we three are linked together tight, and behind us the edge of the earth seemed to drop away into a patchwork quilt of forest and meadow and lake.

Daddy had packed the picnic basket full of sardines, crackers, olives, cheese, peanut butter and banana sandwiches on raisin bread with honey, apples, potato chips, and half a dozen cupcakes. Each white-frosted cake had a favorite Mama quote written on it in thin dark icing, such as: “I did my research,” “Stop it, Frank!” and “Call me when the bleeding stops.” There was also a card. Inside it Daddy had written, “You can’t possibly have enough birthdays to suit us, because there is no end to our love for you!” 

Daddy remarked that he had overlooked no detail in planning this birthday feast, and Mama threw an apple core at him.

Afterwards we drove to the amphitheatre on the east side of the mountain, where a crowd had already gathered. “It is my fervent hope that the Upper Piedmont High School Mini-Big Band is composed of tiny musicians,” Daddy remarked, once we were all comfortable. “The size of garden gnomes sounds about right. Wouldn’t that make for a memorable evening?”

Mama smiled and squeezed his arm. Then the music flared up like a hot air balloon, carrying the four of us above the meadow and over the mountain.

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