Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Finders Keepers

"Write a story about someone who finds something and doesn't give it back."

That's the writing prompt that inspired the following piece.  I originally wrote this several years ago but have made some changes and additions that I think work better.  

She had just answered Final Jeopardy when her terrier jumped from the couch and scrambled to the front door, his tiny bark alerting Dolores of someone's presence.  She assumed it was the postman preparing to deposit today's stack of bills, catalogs, and magazines into the mail slot.  Instead of the familiar sound of swishing envelopes, however, she heard the dog emit a low growl.  Maybe a cat or another dog, Dolores thought.

"Hush, Tipsy.  Mama's coming."

Dolores grunted as she pushed herself off of the sofa.  She wasn't an especially old woman or even an especially large woman, but life had weighed heavily on her shoulders for many years and had taken a toll on her both physically and mentally.

Since Dolores hit puberty, there had rarely been a moment in her life in which she hadn't been responsible for the care of another person.  

The Convalescent Woman by Henri Matisse
As a teenager, she'd tended to her younger siblings as her mother slowly succumbed to cancer.  In the final months of sickness, Dolores took on the role of both parent and nurse.  Her insomnia could be traced back to those nights of lying in bed, awaiting the sound of her mother's moan or of her siblings' cries.  She would rock her younger brother as he struggled against her thin body, reminding her over and over through his sobs that she wasn't his Mama.  She would cover his ears as their mother howled in pain, demanding Dolores to put the child down and come to her aid. 

Though it had been 47 years, Dolores still carried the secret shame of her initial feelings the morning she reached for her mother's hand and found it stiff and cold:  relief. 

Her mother had insisted that she not be embalmed, pointing out that her insides had rotted so there was no need to preserve what was left of her outsides.  Dolores knew that her mother's decision could also be attributed to the modest woman's loathing of the thought of being naked on the table of the local mortician.  Dolores still cringed when she thought of bathing her dead mother’s body for the last time.

Tipsy was dancing a four-legged jig by the time Dolores reached the door, his nails tap-tap-tapping on the hardwood floor.  There still hadn’t been a knock.  Dolores pulled back the curtains beside the door.  There was a man sitting on her front porch steps.  His back was to Dolores, but his gray hair and posture indicated he was of advanced age.  His head was cradled in his hands.   Dolores couldn’t help but think of her father.

Jonas Wilbanks was not a bad man, but he had handled his wife’s illness very poorly.  Mrs. Wilbanks had always handled the children and household responsibilities. Unable to stop his wife’s pain and ill equipped to handle his children’s emotional needs, he felt completely useless and, eventually, hopeless.  Instead of digging in and stepping up for his family, he generally came home only to sleep and eat. Even then he said very little and did nothing to relieve Dolores of her newfound parental duties.   He justified the neglect in his own mind by increasing the financial provisions which he provided, requesting first consideration for any overtime at the factory where he was employed.  People around town criticized the man for practically abandoning his children and ailing wife, but Jonas kept his head down, his mouth shut and just worked harder.  In those days, even Dolores resented her father for what she perceived as running away from his problems.  Looking back later in life, she realized her father had been in denial about his wife’s impending death.  The long hours away from home were a distraction that occupied his time and mind and allowed him to avoid accepting the blow that fate would deliver.  The morning Dolores met her father on the front porch with the news of his wife’s death, the poor man seemed shocked.  He wailed and wept as if she had been ripped from this life unexpectedly.

Young Dolores’s guilt increased ten-fold.  She already held her secret shame of relief; now she wondered why she wasn’t more upset.  But the girl had watched her mother die slowly, wasting away each day.  There was no shock, no sobbing.   She’d spent weeks preparing for this day.

Dolores’s father was drunk for an entire week following her burial.  And the next week.  And then pretty much every day following, especially once the foreman’s sympathy waned and he fired Jonas Wilbanks. 

Jonas was a broken man and would never figure out how to put the pieces back together.  While her friends began their adult lives, Dolores remained at home, mothering both her younger siblings and her father.  Just shy of her 26th birthday, her youngest brother quit school, found work, and left home.  Though still a young woman, Dolores already felt very old, and she felt older every time her Daddy would stumble home, often bloody and bruised.   She would lie awake as she had over a decade before, only this time it was her father who cried in the night.  When he’d grow quiet, she’d tiptoe down the hallway and find him sitting in her mother’s favorite chair, asleep with his head in his hands. 

After two years, she finally walked away with nothing but a suitcase and her guilt.  Dolores began a new life on her own.

Dolores unchained and opened the door but did not cross the threshold.  Tipsy ran to the man and began giving him a once over with his tiny nose. 


The man didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge her or the dog.  She noticed hearing aids on the backs of his ears.

“Sir?” she said, a little louder this time. 

The man turned and looked up at her.  His face was friendly but heavy with sadness.  He put his hands down onto the steps and carefully hoisted himself into a standing—yet stooped—position.
He was dressed in a short sleeved button up shirt and grey pants.  His hair was silver but barely thinning as with most men of a certain age.  Behind his glasses were striking blue eyes. 
Holding the hand rail, he made his way to the top step of the porch.  Dolores made no attempt to reenter the house or put any type of distance between herself and the man.  She was generally cautious around strangers, but she knew this man meant her no harm.

“Is there something I can help you with, hon?  Are you looking for someone?  Are you lost?  I have a phone—“ 

“They told me you died, Bea.”

“I’m sorry?”

“They told me but I didn’t believe it.  I knew you’d be here waiting if I could just get to you.  But all those doors, those locks, those damned locks. I couldn’t get to you.”

“Sir, I think you are mistaking me for someone else.   My name is Do—“

But before she could finish, the old man covered the few feet between them much more swiftly than she imagined possible. 

He wrapped his arms around her.  She could feel his body tremble as he quietly sobbed into her shoulder.  Instinctively, her arms embraced his body.  She patted his back and soothed him, shushed him. 

It had been so long since anyone had touched her, much less held her.  Her husband had been dead for almost six years, and she had no interest in dating or starting over with someone else.   She had been blessed with almost three decades of marriage, but the relationship had not provided the escape she so desperately sought from her childhood.  She had hoped to find a man who would take care of her, someone with whom she didn’t always have to be brave and strong and responsible. 
But she instead fell in love with Erwin Mayes.

Dolores and Erwin met after he returned home from Vietnam.  He was her first real boyfriend, and it didn’t take long before she became Mrs. Mayes.  Dolores left her job at the small diner where she worked and became a full-time wife.  They bought a house and made a home together.  Neither of them wanted children, though they never actually discussed It. There was no point in explaining their reasoning since they were in agreement, especially when the “whys” were too painful to put into words.

Weary by Cindy Suter
Erwin was a kind man, an honest man with integrity.  And he loved Dolores.  But she often wondered if his love stemmed mostly from his dependence on her.  Did he cling to her out of admiration or necessity?  Did he fear a life without her or just a life alone?  

Erwin never spoke of what he’d done or witnessed while he served his country, but Dolores knew that whatever happened during his tour had broken something inside of him.  Throughout their marriage, there were periods of days, sometimes weeks, that Erwin would “go into himself” as Dolores called it.  He wouldn’t leave the bedroom, wouldn’t eat, often wouldn’t even speak or acknowledge that Dolores was in the room.  She would endure these days of living with a shell of her husband by keeping busy as her father had all those years before—cleaning the entire house top to bottom, planting a new garden, baking pies and cakes for all of the neighbors.  She would only stop to bathe, sleep, eat, and tend to the few needs Erwin allowed to be met.

Each time Erwin went away from her, Dolores waited patiently for the door to open and for her husband to emerge, to hold her, to live again.  She would make the most of the time they had together, forcing herself to focus on the life they were living and not the imminent threat of withdrawal that always loomed in the not so distant future. 

Then one day, the door never opened.

Two hours later, Dolores found herself still entertaining—or rather being entertained by— the older gentleman whose name was Robert Tatum.  She had made coffee and found two honey buns in the pantry for them to eat.  He wore a bracelet with the name of a nursing facility only three-quarters of a mile from her own home.  Or, as she had discovered, Robert’s former home where he’d lived years before with his wife.

Dolores had not encouraged him to call her Bea, but she hadn’t corrected either.  Though he was obviously suffering from sort of dementia, he still possessed wit and charm.  He was currently reliving the early 80s and asking Dolores if she remembered the name of this chalet or that quaint cafe.  

The afternoon passed quickly.  Dolores made grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for dinner.  She hid a grin when Robert mentioned that her cooking had improved.   

Tom by Ray Agius
They ate mostly in silence, broken up by Tipsy’s occasional whine for a bite of bread crust.  About a half hour later, as Dolores carried the dishes to the sink, she found herself humming a song under her breath.  When she returned to the dining room, Robert was staring at her.  He didn’t look especially upset or alarmed, but he wore the sad expression she’d first seen on his face, now mixed with confusion.

“You aren’t Bea,” he said, very quietly.

“No, Mr. Robert, I’m not Bea.  I’m Dolores.  I live in this house now.”

“And Bea—“

“I’m not exactly sure, but I think she passed away.  I… I can try to find out.  My neighbor has a computer with the internet.  Maybe I could look it up? Or is there someone I can call?  A family member?"

“No,“ he whispered,  “there’s no need.  My Bea is gone.”

He slowly stood, tremors in his hands and tears in his eyes. 

“Are you leaving?”

He dropped his head and lowered himself back into the chair. 

“I don’t know how to get back to… that place.” 

Dolores had grown accustomed over the years to seeing men cry, to watching them crumble.  She had carefully, so carefully, swept up the broken pieces over and over.  She had gently, so gently, tried to paste them back together, using bits and pieces of herself to fill in the cracks in those she loved.  
Watching the tears stream down Robert’s face opened a door inside her heart that had closed the day her husband’s body had been carried from their bedroom. 

After a lifetime of meeting the needs of everyone around her, she had convinced herself that her senior years would be her time, a time of rest and solitude could be the silver lining to the dark cloud that had followed her for so many years. 

Dolores had filled the past six years with weekend trips to visit nieces and nephews, with reading groups and ladies’ bowling league.  She had adopted Tipsy from the local shelter and nursed him back to health, both physically and mentally.  She passed her days with crossword puzzles and subscriptions to a dozen different magazines. She tended her flowers and tried new recipes from the cooking shows she watched. 

If anyone asked, Dolores was doing just fine.  Some might say she had even flourished following Erwin’s death. 

But Dolores was lonely. 

No, not just lonely.  She was alone.

And Dolores didn’t know how to be alone.  She hated coming home to an empty house.  She hated eating most meals by herself.  She hated having no one with whom to share the insignificant tidbits of her day that don’t justify a phone call to a friend. 

Most of all—and she had never admitted it to herself until this very moment—she hated having no one in her life who needed her.  She dreaded the next however many years she lived solely meeting her own needs.  How terribly unfulfilling it would be.

She thought about Mr. Robert returning back to his room at the nursing facility. She wondered if he anyone ever visited him.  She thought about how his face lit up when he thought he had found his precious Bea and how despite the changes in decor, how comfortable he seemed inside his old home.

Some people need to feel loved.  Some people need to feel wanted.  Dolores Wilbanks Tatum needed to feel needed. 

She crossed the room to where the old man sat quietly wept and placed her hand on his shoulder. 
“Let me help you,” she told him.

She had never been so certain of anything in her entire life. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Southern Sunday

“Bethany Lynn Miller, you either get out of that bed in the next 10 seconds, or I will drag you to church in your nightgown!”

I roll over, my back to her, and let out a combination snort and grunt.

“Young lady, I am not kidding. You're gonna make us all late again. Don’t make me get your daddy in here.”

I flip my pillow to the cool side and pull my quilt further up over my head. 

Like Daddy’s gonna do anything, I think.  He’s sitting in the den, drinking coffee and getting his Sunday School lesson ready.

Open Bible by Patricia Ducher 
Momma knows I’ve called her bluff.

“Now why you gotta make me act all un-Christian on Sunday? Why can’t we just have a nice, normal Sunday and go to church without a big fuss?”

From under my quilt I answer, “I don’t know, Momma, you tell me. You’re the one doing all the fussin.'”

No sooner are the words out of my mouth than I know what is about to happen. In one swoop, my sheet and quilt are in the floor, and Momma has jerked my pillow from underneath my head. I try to brace myself, but it’s too late. Morning has arrived, and it’s cold and bright and loud in only the way Momma can make it.

“Alright, smart-mouth, we are leaving in half an hour. I want you showered and dressed and presentable. You have new pantyhose in your dresser. And pin your hair back out of your face. You’re going to the Lord’s house.”

I mouth these last words with her. It’s a bit of a Sunday morning ritual.

When she clomps off to the bathroom to take the hot rollers out of her hair, I make my way to the edge of the bed. Why can’t I praise Jesus from here? I’d make a much more joyful noise from under my blanket. Instead of “Rock Springs Baptist Church,” I’ll go to “Box Springs Baptist Church.” I smile to myself, wondering how I’ll work that in on Momma. She just hates when I make jokes about the church.

I walk down the hall to the kitchen. After pouring a glass of chocolate milk, I head to the living room to see how Daddy’s lesson is coming. Daddy’s the Sunday School teacher for the “Single, Separated or Divorced Young Men” class. He always waits until the last minute to do his lessons. He says that God works best with a deadline, which explains why He created the universe in six days.

Mornin’, Daddy.”

“Morning, Miss Prissy Britches. You sure got your Momma riled up this morning."

“Yeah, yeah.  What’s your lesson about?”
“The fruits of the Spirit.”

“Sounds tasty.”

 He peers over his glasses, raising his  eyebrows at me.

“Sorry. So which one are you on this week?”

 “One of the hard ones—patience.”

“Can Momma sit in on your class?”

“Very funny. Now go get ready. And hurry, I can’t be late.”

I walk back down the hall to the bathroom, finishing my chocolate milk along the way and trying to decide what I should wear. I don’t understand why I have to dress up. Momma says that we should give our best to God and that includes our appearance. I figure Jesus wore tunics and sandals, so He probably doesn’t care if I wear pantyhose or not.

“Beth, why aren’t you in the shower?”

Momma appears in front of me. She’s in her slip and has a toothbrush in one hand and my little brother’s clothes in the other. Half of her hair is still in curlers.

“I’m headed that way, Momma. I was thirsty.”

“Well, you should have thought of that when you were layin’ in bed.”

“I’m sorry, Momma. I'm tired.”

“Don't want to hear it.  I’ve been up and down with your brother all night,” she says as she brushes by me. “Now hurry, I’ll need help getting him dressed.” She tosses his clothes on my bed.

“Why doesn’t Daddy help get him dressed?”

Momma spins on her heel and takes a deep breath. I know I’ve hit a sore spot with her.

“Because your Daddy is too busy drinking his coffee and doing his Sunday School lesson. Now go!”

I grab a towel from the closet and head toward the bathroom. I turn the water on in the shower and wait for it to heat up.

And I wait. And wait. After a good three minutes I turn the water off.


I stand and wait, determined she will have to come to me.


The door of the bathroom flies open.

“What, Bethany, what?”

“There ain’t any hot water.”

“Well, that’s what you get when you’re the last one up.”

“But I can’t take a cold shower!"

“Bethany, you have 20 minutes. Figure something out.”

Bathroom Sink 1991 by Larry Preston
And off she goes, leaving me standing there in nothing but a shower cap.

I wrap a towel around me and walk to the sink where I proceed to take what my grandmother would delicately call a “whore’s bath.” I can at least handle the cold water on one part of me at a time. 

I peel off the shower cap and brush out my hair, scanning the counter for a scrunchie. Today will definitely be a ponytail day. Jesus will just have to deal with it.

I flip my head over and use a blow dryer to fluff it up. As I stand up straight and turn the dryer off, I hear Momma’s voice from across the house.

“…help me do something this wouldn’t happen!”

“Are you saying that I shouldn’t be preparing my Sunday School lesson?”

“I’m just saying that I can’t get the kids ready and me ready, too!”

“Well that’s your job so you’re just going to have to find a way to do it!”

I tiptoe down the hall. Momma and Daddy are standing in the kitchen. He has his coat on and is waving his Bible in the air at Momma.

“Just go on to church without us. We’ll be there after while.”

“That will look really good, Barbara, us coming separate to church. You already missed last Sunday!”

“Just tell everybody that the baby threw up or something. We’ll be there later.”

“So you want me to lie?”

“Fine, Glen, then tell them you’re a selfish jackass who won’t help me do anything!”

My parents usually get along pretty well. There’s something about Sunday morning, though, that brings out the worst in all of us. This morning is no exception.

I hurry back to my room before I get pulled into the argument or yelled at for not getting ready. I rummage through my closet in an attempt to find something to wear. My father slams the front door as Momma slams his chair back under the table.

After going through every possible piece of clothing in my closet, I stick my head out the door and holler down the hall.

“Momma, have you seen my denim skirt?”

No answer.


“I heard you. It’s in the dirty clothes.” 

“Why didn’t you wash it?”

“Bethany, I’m behind on laundry.”

“But I need it.”

“Then you should have washed it yourself!”

The tone in her voice makes me decide not to push the issue. 

Why, why, why don’t I have more church clothes? Why do I spend all of my allowance on new jeans and makeup? 

I accept that I will have to wear what I wore on the previous Sunday and say a silent prayer that no one notices.

After hopping around my room doing the pantyhose dance, I pull on my dress and slip my feet into a pair of black flats. I sit down at my vanity and start putting on my face. At least something is will look good today.

No sooner than I have my foundation on than Momma is standing in my doorway. 

“I went ahead and dressed Jed. He hasn’t had breakfast yet. I need your help.”

“But Mommaaaaaa, I’m not ready yet.”

“Bethany, we are already late as it is. I cannot tolerate your whining right now. You can do your makeup in the hand-mirror while he eats his cereal."

I sigh and grab my cosmetic bag. In the kitchen, Jed is throwing a ball against the refrigerator.

Hayes by Kay Crain
“Jed, can you not do that right now?”


“Yes, I’m Bethany. We’ve established that. Now, do you want Cheerios or Rice Krispies?”


“What Jed? I’m right here. What?”

“I gotta go to potty.”


He nods and smiles, sheepishly.

I begin to undress him, wondering why in the world mom dresses him in jon jons when he's potty training. 

"I gotta gooooo..."

"I'm working on it, buddy.  Just hold--" 

The floor around him grows wet, and he begins to wail.

“I sorry, Beffie. I sorry.”

I can feel it welling up in my throat—the urge to holler “Momma” and let her deal with it. But I don’t. I’ve seen my mother at her proverbial wits end, and I know she’s headed toward the edge this morning.

“Stay here, okay? I’ll be back in a minute. I’m going to get you some clothes.”

I jog down the hall to my parents’ bedroom. My mother, still in her slip, is standing in her closet, leaning face first into the clothes.



“Um, Jed spilled grape juice all over himself. Does he have anything else to wear?”

Wh grjus?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.”

She leans back from the clothes.

“Why grape juice?”

“He wanted it. Nevermind, though, I'll find him something.  We'll be ready soon."  

I leave the room before she can protest. I grab a little pantsuit out of Jed’s bureau and a towel from the linen closet in the hall.

Thankfully, Jed is still standing where I left him. After drying and dressing him, as well as hastily mopping up the floor, I hand him a chocolate Poptart from the pantry.  

"Momma said no Pop for brehfust."

"Then we won't tell her.  Go eat and stay clean."  

I grab my cosmetic bag head back to my room to finish getting ready.

Overwhelmed by Elena Oleniuc
Momma is sitting at my vanity, looking in the mirror. Her curlers are out, her still wound up like link sausages. She doesn’t seem to realize I’m in the room.

“Momma, are you okay?”

“Yes, honey, I just needed to sit down for a minute.”

I walk over to her, feeling awkward and unsure as to what I should say. She’s always so in control, handling fourteen things at once without breaking a sweat. Suddenly she looks very tired—and much older.  We're always rushing around, and I guess I don't notice things like the grey hair around her temples or the small lines around her mouth.  

“Is something the matter?”

“I just remembered that we’re having a potluck 
after church today, and I forgot to make anything.”

With her final two words, her voice breaks. 
Tears stream down her cheek, carrying her liquid eyeliner with them. I have no idea what to do except to put my arms around her. She sobs into my chest. I feel a strange tightness in my chest.  

Think, think, think.  What would Momma do if she was...well, normal Momma?

“I know what to do.  Look, Jed’s ready to go, and I can do my makeup in the car. Take your Tupperware thing.  We’ll stop at the store and I'll run in and grab a cake or pie from the bakery. We'll take it out of the container and put it in yours. No one will know.  It’s no big deal. 

Momma leans back and looks me in the eye. It’s a look I haven’t seen before, a strange mixture of curiosity and pride. It only lasts for a moment.  Suddenly, she regains her composure and stands.

“Where’s your brother?”

“He’s in the den finishing breakfast.”

“Let’s get a move on then. We’re going to miss Sunday School, but we can’t be late for preaching.”

She heads toward my door, leaving me a bit stunned in the wake of her sudden shift in mood. When she gets to the hall, she stops but doesn't turn around.

"I know right now you think I'm crazy, but this will all make sense to you someday."

And she’s gone.

Our last 15 minutes in the house are a whirlwind. Momma disappears to her bathroom. I finish slathering on my makeup and smooth out my ponytail. I even dig out a pair little pearl earrings from my jewelry box. Something extra for the Lord—and Momma.

Country Church by Jai Johnson
Momma emerges from the bathroom, somehow completely pulled together. She's managed to remove every trace of her ruined makeup and her fresh eyeliner is perfectly straight. She grabs her purse and our Bibles, and I grab Jed. She locks up as I buckle him into the car and wipe chocolate from his face.

Twenty minutes later, we are pulling into the Rock Springs parking lot, a day-old Sock It To Me cake in the cake carrier with the evidence of our little white lie stashed under the seat. Momma parks and runs Jed to children's church while I deliver the cake to the fellowship hall.

She's waiting for me outside the sanctuary door.  The usher hands me a church bulletin and shakes Momma’s hand. Momma and I make our way to up front. Daddy is already sitting in our pew. He stands up and steps into the aisle.  I pray that he chooses his words carefully before he speaks to Momma.  I could never show my face here again if she smacks him with the Baptist Hymnal.  

“Glad you could join me.  Everything okay, hon?” he says, a smile plastered to his face.

“Yes, we’re just fine,” Momma replies, through her teeth as she returns his smile. She enters the pew before me, which means I will be in the middle in every way possible.

Once we're seated, Daddy leans over me and whispers, “I'll bet you forgot the potluck.”

I hold my breath as Momma takes a deep one.

“Of course not, dear.  It's all under control."

Her smile never wavers as she turns to Sister Johnson, sitting in the pew behind us.

Maylene, I just love blouse.  That's such a good color on you."

“Why thank you, Barbara.  You're sweet to say so.  It's always good to see your smiling face."

“I'm just happy to be starting my week in the Lord's House." 

The organist finishes her song, and the preacher takes the pulpit to greet the congregation. 

My mother sits beside me, her back straight, hands folded in her lap.  She smiles as she listens to the preacher read announcements from the bulletin. I can't find a trace of the morning's troubles on her face. As the preacher prays, she takes my hand and squeezes.  I open one eye.  Her eyes are closed but she silently mouths the words--

Thank you.

The sermon is from Acts, about Stephen the Martyr.  The preacher reads, "Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power performed great wonders..."

And so does Barbara Miller, I think.

Yes, by the Grace of God we are saved. But it's by the Grace of Momma we somehow make it to church every Sunday morning.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Eyes Sewn Shut (4)

That afternoon, armed with fresh cookies and bottles of Cheerwine, the girls barricaded themselves in Lora’s room.

“Now listen, you can’t repeat what I’m gonna tell you. My mom likes to keep family stuff private.”

“I promise I won’t say a word.”

"Okay.  I'm trusting you as my friend."

Lora felt her heart flutter.

Over the next hour, Celeste revealed the reason her family had left Kentucky; her dad had been having an affair with a woman at work. Since they lived in a small town, it didn’t take long before he and the mistress were spotted together.  Word traveled fast and then made a beeline straight to Mrs. Brighton.  She was understandably furious and, upon a reluctant confirmation from Mr. Brighton, she told him that she wanted him out of the house. For the next 48 hours, Celeste’s father begged to stay, promising that the woman meant nothing and that he would tell her it was over.  After two days of crying, yelling, and arguing, Mrs. Brighton reluctantly agreed to stay with him, but she insisted that they had to move. She would not be the talk of the town or risk the embarrassment of seeing her husband’s lover at a social gathering. They had moved to Middlebrook to start over. It seemed that Mr. Brighton had indeed started over, finding another woman at his new job in record time. This time, however, he had revealed the affair himself after coming home one afternoon and packing a suitcase.

Friends by kazel-lim
“So he’s divorcing your mom?”

“Looks that way,” Celeste said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he’s divorcing me, too. I’m through with him. First I have to leave my entire life behind in Kentucky to move to this stupid town and then he leaves us anyway. He’s a selfish bastard.”

“I’m so sorry, Celeste. This really sucks.  For both of you.  I wish I knew what to do."

Lora reached out and embraced her friend.  At first she just cried with her head on Lora's shoulder.  Then as a sob escaped from her throat, she also wrapped her arms around Lora.

The two remained that way for a few moments and Celeste pulled away.  Lora hoped she hadn't seen the small smile on her face.  She wouldn't want it to be misconstrued.  Celeste took a deep breath and regained her composure a bit.

“My poor mama.  I’m all she has here. That’s why I wanted to come to your house today. I mean, I want to be there for her, but she’s wearing me out. She doesn't think about how pissed off and upset I am, too.  She just cries all the time and doesn't want to do anything but lay in bed.”

”So you get to be the grown up?"

“Yeah, but without all the fun stuff they get to do."

Lora truly felt sorry for her friend, but deep down she was rather thankful for the opportunity to console her, to make herself needed.

“Look, Cee, I know that you didn’t want to move here and I know how much this stupid town blows.  I've always been here.  But at least we got to meet. And I’m always here if you need to talk or yell or eat cookies or whatever. You aren’t alone.”  Celeste smiled.

"Will you help me bust out my dad's car windows?"

"I'll set the damn thing on fire for you."

Celeste giggled.  She tried to stop it, as if it wasn't appropriate, but she hadn't laughed in days.  Pretty soon, both girls were laughing and plotting hypothetical revenge on the shady Mr. Brighton.

Suddenly, in the midst of their silliness, Celeste took Lora's hand.

“Lora, I’m sorry I acted like I hate being here.  I just miss my old friends and home so much."

Lora felt her chest tighten at the mention of old friends.

"But," Celeste continued, "I am so glad I met you. I think you're the best friend I've ever had."

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Eyes Sewn Shut (3)

(Part 3)

"Shopping Rain or Shine" by Andre Kohn
Celeste missed school again the following day, but by Thursday morning she was waiting in front of the house when Lora approached.

"Hey," she said as she fell in step.

"Hi," replied Lora. "You okay?"

“Yeah.  Look, I’m sorry ‘bout the other day--”

”No, it’s fine. Don’t be sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you, but I told your mom I’d pick up your work. And I was a little worried about you.”

“You didn’t bother me at all. I just wasn’t ready to talk about anything.”

They walked for a few moments in silence.  Lora hesitated but decided it would be rude not to at least ask.

”So can you tell me what happened?”

Celeste took a breath and cleared her throat.

“Well, no one died or anything, but I feel like he should be. My dad… he…" she trailed off.  "Look, I don’t want to get into it now. There’s too much to tell you between here and school, and I don’t feel like walking into class with mascara running down my face. How about we hang out at your place this afternoon and I'll fill you in on all the stupid details. Can I still take you up on those cookies?”

“Of course,” Lora said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.

She thought the 6th period bell would never ring.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Eyes Sewn Shut (2)

Part One of the story is here

Celeste Brighton had moved to Middlebrook from Kentucky.  She was blonde and willowy and fair complected.   Everything about her was light and bright and beautiful.   Lora was enchanted by this girl with the quick wit and slow manner of speaking.

After their initial meeting, the girls began spending time together each day: walking to and from school, eating lunch together, hanging out on Saturdays.  Lora would walk out of her way between classes just to run into Celeste in the hallway.  And though Celeste seemed to be genuinely excited about the budding friendship as well, Lora felt that they just weren't moving quickly enough toward being the best of friends.  She needed more than passing a note in class, more than even a friendship bracelet.  She needed matching Trapper Keepers.

Painting by Heatherlee Chan

How do I make myself more important to her than her other friends, thought Lora.

On a Tuesday morning in March, Lora made her way to Celeste’s house so that they could walk to school together. Celeste wasn’t waiting outside as she usually did, so Lora sat on the Brighton’s porch swing and waited. Ten minutes later, Celeste’s mother opened to the door.  Mrs. Brighton’s eyes were red, her hair disheveled.

“Oh, hi,  Hi, Mrs. B. Is Celeste ready?”

“Hon, Celeste won’t be going to school today. She’s feeling… a bit sick.”

Celeste had seemed fine when they had parted ways the previous afternoon.  Lora wondered what was wrong with her.

”Sick? Like a fever or something?"

"No, dear, no, not a fever.  Nothing catching."

"Oh," said Lora, "Like cramps or something?"

 "She's just under the weather, Lora.  She needs to rest."

"Well, is there anything I can do for her? Pick up her work or something?”

”That would be nice, hon. I’m sure she’d appreciate that. We both would actually. That's very thoughtful of you.”

”No prob. Tell her I hope she feels better, and I'll see her later.”

Mrs. Brighton began to close the door.

“And Mrs. B?”

Mrs. Brighton sighed. “Yes, dear?”

“I hope you feel better, too.”

Mrs. Brighton smiled weakly and gently closed the door.

All day long, Lora worried about Celeste. Why was her mom so weird about her being sick?  And why was Mrs. Brighton crying?

After 6th period, she gathered her belongings and hurried from the school, clutching Celeste’s work to her chest.   When she arrived at the Brighton’s front door and knocked, she was surprised to be greeted by Celeste.  Her friend was still in pajamas and had very obviously been crying.

“Oh my God, what’s wrong?”

“Lora, is it okay if I just talk to you later. I’m…we’re having a bad day.”

”Um, yeah, sure. I mean, did something happen? Did someone die? Your mom said you’re sick, so I brought your work. I just thought…”

“I’m not sick. Just… upset.”


Both girls stood in awkward silence.

“Well, if you feel better later, come over to my house. I’ll fill you in on what you missed today. And I can get mom to make us some brownies or something.”

“I may. I just don’t want to leave mom right now. That cool?”

”Yeah.  Yeah, it's cool. Sooo, just let me know,” Lora said, handing Celeste the books and turning toward the steps to leave.

“Thanks for the work, Celeste.”

”It’s no problem,” Lora said without turning around.

“No, really, thank you."  Lora felt Celeste's hand on her shoulder. " It's so sweet of you.  You’re such a great friend, Lora."

Lora turned and smiled at Celeste.  "Thank you."

 As she walked home, Lora's smile grew.  And grew.  Until Lora had all but forgotten about her friend's sickness or tears.

I'm a great friend.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Eyes Sewn Shut (1)

Thank you to everyone who gave me feedback on my Facebook page about the first story in my series I'm calling "Saligia."  I started this series about a decade ago and only completed two of the seven stories.  This next story is a bit longer than the first, so I'm going to post it a section at a time.  This one is a bit more straightforward than the last. 

Let me know what you think.  Feel free to be brutally honest.   

(If you didn't read the first story, "Asmodeus," you will find it here)

Eyes Sewn Shut

All she had wanted since first grade was a best friend. Each girl in Middlebrook Elementary School seemed to have one. She’d see them in the lunchroom, heads together, giggling over their lunches as they shared whatever desserts had been packed that day. She’d watch them on the playground, swinging side by side and talking in their own secret languages. She listened as they planned sleepovers and trips to the movies, as they coordinated their matching outfits, right down to their impeccably white Keds.
Painting by Sascalia

It’s not that she was terribly unpopular. Whenever the class split into teams for kickball, she was never chosen last. She was invited to birthday parties at least once a month. On Valentines Day, when the students in class would exchange little cards, Lora would always receive a dozen or more.
But Lora Barton was never satisfied with being noticed or chosen or remembered.  She didn't just want friends.  Lora wanted a best friend.

As Lora grew older, things didn’t change much. She was asked to dances, invited to study groups. She was even on the homecoming court one year. But Lora still didn’t have what she desired. Girls were generally nice to her and she occasionally attended their parties and sleepovers, but there wasn’t a girl that she could call her best friend.

Each day in Algebra, Lora would watch the girl beside her doodle on the back of a notebook. She’d write her name, her boyfriend’s name, her name with her boyfriend’s last name. Lora found it all quite silly.  She burned inside, though, when she saw the girl doodle those big blocky letters:


Lora stiffened as those last three letters appeared on the notebook, a bitter reminder in purple glitter. She had never written those letters herself, had never called anyone her “BFF.” She’d certainly not had a friend she wished to keep forever! Courtney glanced up and noticed Lora staring. She shuffled her notebook under a folder and pretended to listen to the lesson. Lora turned red and for a moment fantasized about snatching the notebook away and ripping it to shreds, as if tearing those names would break some magical bond that she herself so intensely desired.

As Lora walked home that afternoon, she wondered if she’d ever attain the elusive best friend she’d so wanted since childhood.

Three blocks from her house, she heard someone scream. Turning around, Lora saw a small puppy running down the street. Chasing the dog was a girl about Lora’s age, red-faced and screaming.


Noticing Lora, the girl yelled, “Grab him! Please grab him!”

The little mutt was about four driveways from Lora. Across the street, Mr. Wilkinson was backing onto the street in his light blue Honda. Lora knew she had to act fast. She ran toward the car, waving her arms above her head.

“Mr. Wilkinson! Stop! STOP!”

About the time his brake lights turned red, Lora caught sight of the puppy out of the corner of her eye. She turned around and scooped him up in her arms.

The dog's owner jogged up to Lora, speaking in bursts between short, labored breaths.

“Oh my God... thank you so much. I...I thought he was in his crate, so I left the front door open while I unloaded the car.”

The little puppy squirmed as Lora handed him over to his owner.

“Um, no problem,” Lora answered.

“No, really, you don’t understand. I couldn’t bear to lose Rudy. He was my sixteenth birthday present and I sleep with him every night. He’s my best friend.”

“Your best…?”

“Well, not really, but sometimes I feel like he's the only one who gets me.”  The girl smiled at Lora, her entire face lighting up. Lora couldn't think of a response and replied with only a nervous laugh.

“Look, why don’t you come by my house. It’s a mess ‘cause we just moved in, but my mom just went and bought pizza.”

”That’s okay, I really…”

“C’mon, you have to let me repay you somehow. You’re my hero!” She hugged the puppy to her chest. “Our hero.  Isn't that right, Rudy?"

The girl smiled at Lora and said, "What a way to meet my first friend here."

End of Part One


I wrote this about a decade ago when I was keeping a blog called "No Shoes Allowed" on Myspace (remember that???). 

This was the first installment of a series called "Saligia," which included stories inspired by the so-called "Seven Deadly Sins."  

Never wavering, the preacher's voice leapt from the speakers and sauntered across the dashboard. Each word wagged its long finger of shame in her face.

Run, my brothers and sisters, run from the sin of lust, the sin of the flesh.

She reached to change the station, her eyes drifting toward the rear view mirror. Her mother glared at her from the back seat, the look of constant disappointment staining her pinched face. Withdrawing her hand from the radio, she grimaced as a smile of triumph fastened to the corners of her mother's mouth. She quickly averted her eyes from the backseat.

"You can't stop me. You know that don't you? Dr. Perkins told me I don't have to listen to you, that I don't have to worry what you think anymore."

Even without looking, she knew her mother was shaking her head, so she turned the mirror down and focused on the green mile-marker sign ahead.

"Just because you spent forty years being ignored by daddy does not mean that you can guilt me into putting myself through the same. Don't pretend this is a moral issue, Mama. You're just jealous."

Church, I tell you to remember Joseph and forget not his example when the whore wife of Potiphar threw herself at that young man of God. Did he hesitate? No. Did he falter? No. What did he do church? He ran. Say it with me now. He RAN!

She had been running for years now. It seemed everywhere she went she was running. Running to pick up the kids. Running to get supper on the table. Running to this meeting and that choir practice. But she was mostly running out of excuses for the man she'd called husband for sixteen years.

Run, I tell you. Husbands and fathers, run from the smut, from the pornography that fills your minds with evil thoughts. Burn your dirty magazines. Crush your filthy videos. Turn off your computers--no, toss them out with the garbage. And with them, toss out the pollution that is rotting your hearts and homes.

It had been over two years since he'd touched her, with the exception one or two rare occasions when he'd come home drinking after a night out with the guys from work. At first, she had blamed herself. She had gained more than a few pounds during her pregnancies and had struggled with losing the last twenty. She was convinced that he was just no longer attracted to her, repulsed by her soft body and stretch marks. But after six or seven months, she decided it couldn't be only her fault. It wasn't normal for a man to deprive himself so long, even if he was no longer turned on by his wife. She was a woman, wasn't she, and better than no woman at all?

Run, I say, run from those who tempt you. Men, do not find yourself alone with your young secretary. Women, do not be lured into flirtation with your male coworkers. Pray to God for strength to resist those who would join you in the sin of adultery. Resist them and flee as you flee the Devil. Run. Flee. Run.

She had met Ted eight weeks earlier. He was hired to perform upgrades on the office computers. In those first days, their interactions were innocuous enough: drinking coffee together in the break room, discussing the recent elections or laughing over the previous night's episode of their favorite show. Within two weeks, though, she was meeting him outside of work for coffee, making excuses for working late. Eventually, there were subtle signs of what her mother would call "wooing"—a brush of the hand on her lower back, their knees touching beneath the table during staff meetings. Still, she hadn't put much thought into their dalliances. She was married and he was almost ten years her junior.

Run from the lies society and the media will tell you. They would have you believe that you should do what feels good, what makes you happy. Ignore what the Good Book says. Ignore the consequences of your actions. Ignore your neglected children, your shunned wives and husbands. But I'm telling you, church, what you are born to want is sin. What makes your flesh happy is as black as your hearts without the blood of the Christ. So run from your soap operas and your romance novels. Run from those who laugh in the face of what God has joined together. Say it church: run!

She readjusted her mirror.

"Hear that Mama? What God joined together. Even you couldn't find God in my marriage."

The familiar green eyes in the backseat narrowed. She braced herself for a slap that never came. With new determination, she continued. "You know, it'd be different if he were one of those paraplegics or something or if he was suffering with cancer. If he had some reason that he couldn't have… be intimate. A woman needs touching, Mama. He may be just fine touching himself, but that's not enough for me."


She was running, running from a life that she didn't sign up for. And though she knew she'd have to return—while there was no love left for her husband, she could not abandon her two children—she took solace in knowing she could run away for a little while.


When Ted had kissed her the day before, she felt like she was sixteen again. She could still feel his hands on her face and taste him on her lips. Her husband had never kissed her like that, not even on their wedding day. Or wedding night. Up against the wall, pressed against his body, she felt something inside her awaken.  
Illustration by Yury Darash


They had decided to meet two towns over, at a small hotel that was off the main road. Ted told her she deserved better than a cheap, by-the-hour motel. She had spent the afternoon in her tiny bathroom, surrounded by old copies of Cosmo, as she paid meticulous, rather ridiculous attention to each detail of her body. She was scrubbed, shaved, trimmed, lotioned and groomed—her body was different after having the children but she still knew how to accentuate her best features.

I know that some of you do not struggle with this temptation like your brothers and sisters. I know that there are some of you right now who feel I am wasting precious pulpit time with this sermon I have been given. But I also know that some of you are struggling with temptation. Pray, my children, pray for God to remove this temptation. Pray that He give you feet to run away from those who would lead you astray. Pray for your Nikes to be blessed by the Holy Ghost and that they will carry you in the right direction.

When she pulled into the parking lot of the Magnolia Inn, she scanned the parking lot for Ted's car. Pulling into a spot at the far end of the row, she adjusted her mirror to check her makeup. Fire burned in the green eyes over her shoulder as she reapplied her Truly Toffee lipstick.

"Mama, you are not going inside with me, understand? I'm a grown woman and I can make my own decisions. I don't need your input or supervision." She capped the lipstick and bent the mirror toward the passenger seat just as her mother opened her mouth to speak.

And if you find yourself mired too deeply in the black sticky tar of your sin, then pray for your fellow sinner to run from you. Pray that the opportunity to fornicate, to defile your temple, to sin against your God, will escape from you. Pray that the harlot will flee, that the lecher will take flight. If you aren't strong enough to run, pray that you will be run from! God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear! In the first chapter of…

Turning the radio off, she pulled the keys from the ignition and tossed them into her handbag. The gravel in the parking lot crunched and shifted under her heels as she walked toward the lobby. She still didn't see Ted's car, but she assured herself that he was just running late. Bells tinkled as she opened the door to the lobby, the air conditioning raising chill bumps on her bare legs. A man in a yellow shirt sat behind the counter, absorbed in the newest John Grisham novel. He put his hand up to indicate he needed another moment, then finished the chapter and placed the book face down on the counter.

"Yes, ma'am, may I help you?"

"I'm meeting… we…well, I'm not sure what to tell you."

"Do you have reservations?"

"I believe so. Do you have a room for Ted Wyatt?"

The man wrinkled his brow, shaking his head.

"Um, what about under Ma—"

"Wait, what was his name? Tom?"


"Yes, Ted. I believe he was in here earlier. Left this."

He handed her an envelope with her name scrawled across the front.

"What is it?"

"I don't rightly know. He just asked me to give it to you if you showed up."

She sat down in a high-backed chair and opened the envelope. She read the enclosed letter—the very brief letter—three times before standing up, smoothing her skirt and walking toward the door.

"Ma'am, will you be needing a room?"

Her composure began to crumble. Without turning to face him, she shook her head, unable to speak. He made a soft clicking sound in his throat.

"Don't worry, hon. You aren't the first."

As soon as she crossed the threshold of the lobby door, she felt the tears burning her eyes. She kicked off her shoes and snatched them up as she broke into a dead run toward her car. The gravel dug into her pedicured feet but she didn't stop. She didn't stop running until she opened the door of her blue sedan, threw her shoes in the passenger-side floorboard and slid behind the wheel. The same gravel that had torn her feet now sprayed from beneath her rear tires. She was back on the highway in less than a minute; it was then she heard a low snicker from the backseat.

"Do not start, Mama."

But the laughter continued, escalating from a snicker to a chuckle.

"Don't you dare laugh at me, you mean old crow. So help me, God—"

The chuckle subsided, replaced by a full-blown cackle. She could picture her mother's face, the lines around her mouth grotesque, her eyes open so that she could see the affect of her vicious mirth. Her mother had always looked her most malevolent when laughing, since she only did so when it came at the expense of others.

She fumbled for the radio, pushing the knob several times before she realized it was already on. The sermon was over and a choir solemnly warbled out the words to a hymn she remembered from her childhood.

"Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home…"

Though it seemed her mother was lost in the throes of glee, she had obviously been restraining herself in some way. By the time the choir reached "softy and tenderly," the laughter grew louder and shriller, punctuated with gasps for air.

Desperately, she took both hands from the wheel. She fumbled for the button that would change the station while simultaneously turning the volume up until her ears throbbed.  Both hands back on the wheel, she recognized the voice, a voice that she had received a whipping for as a teenager when her mother had snatched away her headphones.

The laughter from the backseat began to subside.

"Yeah, Mama, it's your favorite. Remember? I sure do. You took a belt to me over this."

She felt her shoulders begin to relax, her grip on the steering wheel loosen.

"I'm sure you're as pleased as punch about this, but it's not over. Ted said I make him feel electric. Electric, Mama. You'll see. This isn't over."

The backseat was silent again, save for the music blaring from the speakers. She forced herself to smile and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. It was a lie. Deep down she knew it was over. It had taken  years for her to work up the courage—and swallow the shame—to open herself up to another man. And she knew she would never forgive him for making a fool of her.

She had lied to her mother but it tasted so much better in her mouth than the truth did.

She adjusted the volume to a more bearable level, but still kept it louder than her speakers were accustomed. She rolled her window down, allowing the warm wind to make her wet face sticky. The anger and embarrassment peeled from her skin, settling outside in the tall grass beside Highway 129. She had run. And she knew that eventually she'd have the chance to run again. Next time would be different. Next time would be truly… electric.

She pushed her hand through her hair as the familiar voice sang her home.

"Everybody needs somebody, you're not the only one."