April 29, 2015

Wednesday, April 29

This week has been dedicated to cleaning and organizing my office. When we moved into this older, cottage style house nearly three years ago, the room I chose to be my office had a teeny, tiny closet. (How in the world was it EVER used for clothes storage?) I had deadlines to meet during that move, and after, so I shoved things into the closet until such time I had the nerve to tackle it.  At this moment, my neat little office isn’t so neat.

I’ve found so much old stuff. Old ideas jotted in old notebooks or on old scraps of paper, old short stories (some completed, some left undone for a good reason). A file folder bulging with carbon copies (yes, carbon copies) of query letters. Oh, my, I wish someone would have taught me how to write one back then. They are truly awful, but I’ll keep them to show new writers I made the same mistakes they make now. Maybe they’ll derive some comfort and hope. I have also unearthed enough writing tips to fill a book, discovered several packages of manilla envelopes, new and used file folders, and plenty of dust.

Then there are all those early book manuscripts. The ones where I was just beginning to crawl as a writer. The ones where I was finally able to walk as a writer were marginally better. By books five and six, I more or less knew what I was doing but still needed a lot of work and practice before I could even consider of entering any marathons.

I’m not finished with this cleaning/organizing task, but I know one thing for sure. Never, ever throw away book or story manuscripts. They might be old and dusty, yellowed with age, but they hold a lot of gold. Some of it can be mined. The first April Grace book, In Front of God and Everybody, proves that. It was an old book, chucked away for years.

I have a book coming out soon that was written nearly twenty years ago. It’s been polished and revised, brought up to date, but still, it’s a story salvaged from my desk drawer. Dare I say, it’s really good. I think so, anyway. I hope so.

Flowers For Isabel

If you know our neighbor Isabel St. James at all, then you realize she’s the most whiny, gripey person in the whole entire world. Honestly, if you gave her 18 dozen red roses growing on stems of pure gold, she’d complain about the thorns made of diamonds. She thinks she’s the Queen of Egypt or something. queen isabel

And speaking of roses, ol’ Isabel decided she wanted a flower garden. You see, she’s from California, and when she lived there she “had fresh flowers galore, absolutely everywhere in my house, darling, not one room without them.”

Here’s the thing. Flowers grow pretty much all year round somewhere in California. At least that’s what I learned when we studied geography. We live in north Arkansas, in the mountains, where flowers grow plenty, but only in certain seasons, and not in the middle of February, which was when Isabel was going on and on and on about how “perfectly dreadful” life could be sometimes. If she wants to know dreadful, she should live where the sun hardly ever shines and ice covers the ground all year round. That would be dreadful. Perfectly.icy image
“I’ll dig you a flower garden, lambkins,” said her husband Ian, who is a transplanted banker and now a goat farmer. (Isabel doesn’t like farming. Or goats. Or even Ian, sometimes. Also, she wants to live in a Big City.)

“Oh, will you, darling?” She gave him this mushy-smoochie look.Not five minutes ago, when he was talking about getting another pair of goats, her eyes got all red and fiery, and I was pretty sure I saw steam oozing out of her earholes.

Now she sighed and looked around at everyone, smiling all over her face. Which is nice, because her face will never win her any awards, believe you me, but when she smiles, it’s like someone turns on a light.

“Sure. You just tell me where you want it, and I’ll fix you up.”

“I have some seasoned barnyard fertilizer that will make those flowers grow like crazy,” my daddy added. We have a dairy farm and always have lots and lots of barnyard fertilizer. barnyard dirt
Well, ol’ Isabel’s eyeballs got bigger than the plates on which we were eating our supper. You see, she’s a Miss Priss. She’s almost as bad as my sister, Myra Sue, who is the Biggest Priss in the known universe.

“I…I…I …” Isabel laid one scrawny hand on her scrawny chest and declared, “I couldn’t possibly … I’ll use Miracle Grow, thank you very much.”

Now a few months ago, when this woman first came into our lives, she wouldn’t have been so polite. You see, she and her mister lost everything they owned out in California and bought this awful little farm just down Rough Creek Road from us. The old house on that place wasn’t fit for anything but spiders and rodents, so my mama, who lives her life the way Jesus said to, invited them right into our home and let them live here for a few months. It was not pleasant, let me tell you, but we all got through it. Somehow Mama’s kindness and gentleness rubbed some of the sharp edges off Isabel, who’d never really known anyone like my mother and father, and by now, she’s softened up considerably. But let me assure you, she’s still a pain.

So good ol’ Ian, who has had a much easier time becoming a country person than his wife, dug her up some flower beds. Grandma and Mama helped her order seeds from Gurney’s big spring catalog.seeds
One Saturday morning in mid-spring, I was in the old rocking chair in the living room reading Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Myra Sue sat on the floor in front of the coffee table painting her fingernails—for the seventeenth time that week. Isabel burst through the front door without knocking, wailing like she’d fallen off the monkey bars at the playground.

Without so much as a howdy-do to Myra or me, she streaked straight into the kitchen, crying out, “Lily! Grace! Look, oh, look at this!”

I dropped my book, Myra Sue dropped her nail polish, and we both dashed into the kitchen.

Isabel stood in the middle of the room, her hands spread out in front of her, as wide as duck feet.

“Look!” she shrieked again.

Mama and Grandma were gazing at those skinny hands. They looked at each other, clearly puzzled.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Grandma said.

Isabel blinked about twenty-five times all in a row.

“Don’t you see?” she gasped.

Myra Sue gawked at Isabel’s hands, then screeched like a pickled owl. “Isabel-dearest! Your nails. Your gorgeous fingernails!” Myra Sue thinks Isabel hung the moon and painted all the stars, that’s how much she admires her.

Then I saw what had set the woman to howling. Her long red fingernails of which she was so proud and so protective were now dirty and chipped and broken, as uneven and snaggly as Billybob Teeth.dirty hand

“Mercy sakes!” Grandma said, reaching into the pocket of her slacks. “Here. I keep these handy all the time, especially when I’m working outside. You never know when you’re gonna need ‘em. Keep these. I have more.”

Isabel shrank back.You’d think Grandma had just offered her a toad on toast instead of a pair of fingernail clippers.

“Grandma!” Myra Sue hollered. “You cannot use clippers on your nails!”

Isabel moaned, waving her hands back and forth in front of her face like they were windshield wipers.Mama went out to the service porch just off the kitchen and came back with a brand new pair of gardening gloves.

“Here you go, Isabel. They won’t do much to stop your nails from breaking when you’re working in dirt, but they’ll keep your hands clean and maybe you won’t get blisters and callouses.”

“Blisters?” Isabel looked Utterly Horrified. “Callouses?”

I’m only 11 years old, but I have learned a few things in my life. One of which is this: when Isabel St. James gets in a state, you have to take care of her and calm her down because, believe me, if you don’t, she gets worse. And right then, Isabel was fixin’ to get in a state. I gave this whole situation a good think. AG gardening
“Come here,” I said, taking her hand. It was actually shaking. Poor ol’ Isabel. I led her to the kitchen table and pulled out one of the chairs.“Sit down before you fall down,” I said, and she sat.

I poured her a nice tall glass of iced tea. We always keep a small pitcher of unsweetened iced tea available for Isabel because she usually pops in once a day or so. All the rest of us want sweet tea or coffee.
“Here you go, Isabel,” I said, putting the tea on the table in front of her. “This all isn’t as tragic as you might think.”

That woman gave me an odd look then she picked up that glass and guzzled like she thought drinking iced tea was the latest fashion trend and she had to get in on it.

Grandma patted Isabel’s shoulder and sat down nearby. Mama filled her glass, then poured sweet tea for the rest of us. Isabel looked at her hands silently for a long time. We waited, and let me tell you, when you’re waiting for Isabel to react it can be scary because you never know what she’ll do.

“You should know …” she said, finally, “besides ruining my manicure … in that dirt at my house … I actually saw … worms. Wriggly, squirmy, slimy worms!” She raised a wretched gaze and passed it around like she thought we’d all scream in horror or maybe faint dead away.

When we didn’t, she said, “Well? Well?”

“Sounds like you got some good dirt for your flowers then,” Grandma said.

Isabel jerked like she’d been poked with a sharp stick.

“Oh, Grace, how can you say that? Worm-infested dirt?”

Oh brother.

“Isabel, worms are good for the soil,” Mama said. “They keep it from getting hard-packed and unusable.”

“And they keep it fertilized,” Grandma added. Which probably wasn’t the best thing she could have said, knowing Isabel’s view on natural fertilizers.

“Oh my goodness!” she said faintly. “It isn’t enough that I break my nails scratching around like a rodent, but I also had my hands in … in worm fertilizer.” wormsShe rested her forehead against one hand.

“Well, good gravy, Isabel,” I finally hollered. “All winter you’ve said how much you wanted fresh flowers, and now here’s your chance to have ’em. What do you want, clean hands and long fingernails or fresh flowers? You’re gonna have to decide because it’s mighty hard to have both at the same time around here.” flowers for isabel

“April Grace,” Mama said, reprovingly, and I hushed. Mama knows how I just blurt things out sometimes without thinking, but this time it needed to be said. Of course, I could have said it in a softer voice and in a nicer way, and if I’d thought about it, I probably would’ve.

“I think what April Grace meant to say,” Mama said in a soothing tone, “is that—”

Isabel held up one hand. “Don’t scold her, Lily. And I know what she meant to say.” She looked at me, and I saw a soft light in her eyes. She didn’t look quite as upset and wild as she had a little bit ago. In fact, she sat quietly for a long minute or two, and you could see she was thinking.

She gazed down at her snaggle-toothed fingernails and shook her head, wriggling her fingers.

“These nails get in my way so much of the time, and they keep me from doing things I’d like to do,” she murmured. She looked at Grandma and held out her right hand, palm up. “Grace, may I borrow those clippers?”

Myra Sue gasped in pure-dee horror, but Isabel smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Myra-darling. I have what I need at home to smooth out the rough edges.” She gave us all a smile, brightening the room. “Just think how lovely those flowers are going to look in my house this summer!” mason jar flowers
-the end-

What Hattie Corrine Wanted

Previously published in The Storyteller magazine.

WHAT HATTIE CORRINE WANTED

As the Reverend Holcombe Witt towel-dried his hair that morning, he neglected his habit of running fingers through it to check the increasing thinness or measure the amount of pink scalp showing near the top. While he shaved, he forgot to grimace at the lines around his mouth and at the definite beginning of a double chin.  In fact, regret for his faded youth found no hold in the good reverend’s mind that day.  Instead, his thoughts swarmed with single-minded purpose around the funeral he was to preach at 10 o’clock.  He was not fully prepared.  If truth be told, he would never be prepared, and almost resented that he had to conduct the thing.

The subject of the funeral, Hattie Corrine, as everyone called her, had spoken to him about it less than two weeks ago in her tiny, suffocatingly hot house.

“I don’t see why we have to talk about this now,” he had said to her. “Your health is…well, good, isn’t it?”

She glared at him.  “I’m ninety-two, for God’s sake.”  Eighty years of Lucky Strikes consumption gave her the voice of a bullfrog. “It’s a wonder I’ve made it this far.”

She stubbed out the microscopic amount of ash left on the filter, then switched on the oxygen tank next to her faded red chair.

Reverend Witt leaned forward.  “But, really, wouldn’t you rather–”

She flipped one scrawny hand, cutting him off.

“I’ve thought about it, and here’s what I want.” She held out a sheet of lined stationery, yellowed from age or smoke, or both.

He took the paper and read it, then looked up.

“You want these songs?”

“Yep.” She reached for the Lucky Strikes, shook one out, and picked up her lighter.

“Turn off the oxygen, for crying out loud!”  How many times did the old woman light up with her tank cranking out the gas? He had to remind her at least twice every time he visited. It was a miracle she hadn’t blown herself into eternity before now.

She favored him with a dirty look from keen brown eyes but reached out and switched it off with the brownish-yellow tip of her index finger. That finger matched the center of her lips, the end of her nose, and the color of her walls. She spoke around the cigarette as she fired it up.

“Something wrong with my songs?  Not religious enough for you?”

Reverend Witt blinked as fresh smoke invaded his corneas.  He read her selection list aloud: “‘In the Mood’, ‘Mairzy Doats’, and ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’.”

Meeting his gaze, she blew out a plume of smoke with noise and gusto.

“They aren’t religious at all,” he replied, “but of course, neither are you.”

“Damned right! And never will be, so don’t you even start with me.”

He held up one hand. “I’m not starting anything. But at most funerals–”

“We’re not talking about most funerals. We’re talking about my funeral, and I want what I want.” She dipped her head toward the list. “Read on.”

She wanted to be buried in the red flapper costume she wore when she first met Billy Guy.

“Who’s Billy Guy? You’ve never mentioned him.”

She took a deep draw.  “None of your bees wax, but the dress is in a white box under my bed.  Keep readin’.”

“‘Serve all my guests gin, if they want it.’” Being a tee-totaler who preached temperance, the preacher winced at this, but he read the next item. “‘Have the picture of me and Willie Nelson displayed so everyone can see that we were friends.’”  He glanced at said photo on the table next to the ashtray. The frame and glass were dusky from years of smoke.  “‘Read that poem from Alice in Wonderland that I like so much.’”

“‘The time has come to speak of things, duh da duh da duh da….”

He nodded.  “ ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.”

“That’s the one.” She crushed out and consigned the latest butt to the overflowing ashtray. “Keep your talk short, and don’t you dare Godify it, either.  If you do, I’ll crawl out of Hell and haunt you to the end of your days, I swear to God I will.”

Reverend Witt stared down at her list of wants and rubbed a place just above his eyebrows that felt like his brain was trying to ooze out. How in the world would he ever pull this off?

He folded the paper carefully in quarters and stowed it in his shirt pocket.

“Well,” he said, finally, “we don’t have to worry about this for a long, long time. I mean, you’re fine…and you’re feeling good, right? Aren’t you?”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Good God, if you haven’t got something better to worry about than an old woman, you must have it pretty good.”

Ten days later, when Reverend Witt made his regular visit, he let himself into the house calling, as always, “It’s just me.”

He walked into the living room to find the old woman in her faded red chair, head tipped forward, a fresh, unlit cigarette between her fingers and her lighter in the other hand.  He figured she’d been dead an hour or two.

Through the surprise and sorrow that began to filter into his consciousness, the undercurrent of taking care of her funeral tugged at him.  And today, as he knotted his black tie then slipped his arms into sleeves of his suit jacket, the preacher felt sick to his stomach.  How could he preach this funeral?

When he had said as much to Hattie Corinne before he left her for the last time, she’d pinned a hard stare on him through a thin stream of rising smoke.

“I’ll swear, Holcombe Witt, you are the oddest preacher I ever knew. You get up there in front of everybody and just do it. Why should I have to tell you how to do your job?”

Somehow, he stumbled through it, every item on her list, even down to having a bottle of gin and glasses for the ones who wanted it.  A couple of the deacons surprised him. He stood near the bronze casket and shook hands with the ones who’d come to send off the old woman who’d made their lives merry and miserable by turns.

“Well,” said one woman, “this has been an experience.”

To which her husband added, “I never been to a funeral service quite like this one.”

The preacher could only nod.

“You done good, pastor,” said Doris Flanders.  “Don’t know as anyone coulda done better.  I know it was hard for you.”

Tears filled his eyes as the woman squeezed his hand.

When the final mourner passed him and went out of the chapel, he turned and looked down at the remains of Hattie Corinne. Her limp, gray hair had been styled, and a touch of pink bloomed on her lips and cheeks. Every trace of nicotine stain was covered by cosmetics, even on her fingers. She looked younger than he’d seen her in a long time.

He placed his hand over her small cold one.

“I followed your list and did everything you wanted.  I hope I did it all right.”  A lump closed his throat for a moment before he could swallow it down. He blinked hard then gently kissed her forehead.

“Good-bye, Mom. I love you.”

 

copyright 2008, K.D. McCrite

 

Miss Nora’s Premonition

This story was published in The Storyteller a few years ago, and won 2nd place for Reader’s Choice.

MISS NORA’S PREMONITION

When Miss Nora woke on Saturday morning, the impression she was going to die that day sat as heavily on her chest as last night’s onion sandwich.

Miss Nora had had a great many premonitions in her forty-five years, but several years had passed since the last one.   In fact, she’d almost forgotten the gift of second sight inherited from her grandmother.  Nana could foretell up a storm, but failed to predict her own demise.  If she had, maybe she would have washed her feet and combed her hair that day.

Miss Nora’s premonition filled her mind so much she could actually see herself lying in a pink satin-lined casket with frolicking kittens embossed on the fabric.  Oh, this dreadful presentiment would surely come true!  Clearly an accident would do her in because she was in relative good health for someone her age and weight.  She must take extreme care all day and give no mishap an open opportunity.

At precisely seven a.m., she eased out of bed.  It seemed prudent to check her home for intruders of murderous intent.  She hefted the massive hardbound Bible she kept next to the bed and held it ready to connect with any skull not her own.  When her search yielded no prowler, she sighed with relief, double-checked the locks then went have her shower.

As usual, while her water warmed up, she set out her toiletries, towels and the underwear she assigned for Tuesdays.  Miss Nora prided herself on her hygiene and grooming. If she were going to die today, she would not have dirty feet and frowsy hair like Nana.  She plugged in the hot rollers that had belonged to her mother who had died in 1972 and which Miss Nora had used exactly twice, preferring to wear her hair back in a clasp.

One could say Miss Nora’s showers were the only aspect of her days she approached with exuberance.  She splashed and sang and giggled while sudsing her hair and body to a fare-thee-well.  The slippery yellow Dial soap slid off the soap dish and onto the floor, unobserved.  When she stepped from the shower, her foot missed the slick, wet bar by a quarter of an inch.  She failed to notice the soap on the floor as she ran  water to brush her teeth.  Miss Nora always ran the water full blast during this ritual since her teeth never felt clean unless at least five gallons of water gushed down the drain while she scrubbed molars and bicuspids.

By nine o’clock, Miss Nora had finished her toilette. As she cleaned her bathroom  she discovered the errant bar of Dial on the floor.  She washed and rinsed it in hot water and never realized how close she came to sliding into the hereafter.

At exactly 9:15 Miss Nora got in her 1985 Dodge Aries with 22,483 miles on the odometer.  She sat for a moment.  Since a car wreck seemed to be a reliable way to expire when one really did not want to, Miss Nora got out of the car to check the tires, the oil and to stare at the engine as if she might recognize any defect.  Satisfied by the apparent safety of her vehicle she got in and drove to the bakery.  Her plan: to buy and consume one glazed doughnut and coffee on site then bring two doughnuts home to eat in the privacy of her kitchen, just as she did every day. It was no one’s business if she ate three doughnuts daily (and four on Sunday).

As she drove, she gripped the steering wheel, stiffly leaned forward and fixed her gaze straight ahead.  Perhaps she should stay home, but doing so would have broken her routine and spoiled her day.  Like her mother before her, Miss Nora resisted any break in her routine.

Joe Bill Madison, on his red Schwinn, streaked across Vine Street not ten feet in front of her and stopped on the sidewalk.  He pointed and laughed as she passed; Miss Nora gaped at him.

“You…you…boy!” she managed to holler, shaking her finger.

The blast of an airhorn shocked her into facing forward and witnessing the rapid approach of a Heath & Sons’ feed truck.  Miss Nora’s frozen wits barely allowed her to yank the Dodge into the right lane a split second before she might have splattered herself on the truck grill.

“Oh, my.  Oh, dear!”

Sailing through a red light with her mind on the two accidents she had narrowly avoided, she did not hear the scream of brakes on pavement, the blare of Roscoe Billings’ pickup horn or the subsequent and protracted cussing Roscoe shouted after her.

Bearing in mind her two near-misses, Miss Nora parked as near to the door of the bakery as possible.  She sat for several minutes to calm herself before gingerly slipping from the car to creep feebly inside.

Two teenage girls in jeans sat at her usual table.

Oh, how unsettling.  How discombobulating!  Everyone knew she sat at that very table every day at this time.  And today of all days to have her table usurped by persons with…tattoos!  She glared at the girls; they ignored her.  She ought to give them a piece of her mind.  Instead, she groped her way to the nearest table and sank into an unfamiliar chair.

While other customers got their doughnuts in a sack and their Stryfoam cups of coffee at the counter, Miss Nora insisted on being served her doughnut on a china plate with a knife and fork, and coffee in a real cup.  Miss Nora was sure Styrofoam caused cancer, infertility and plantar’s warts.

Such an upsetting day from so many quarters. Enough to ruin one’s appetite. She forced herself to eat her doughnut, chewing each bite thirty-two times so she wouldn’t choke to death.

As she left, Miss Nora again glared at the two girls who failed to take notice.  She approached her car with caution, got in with care, backed out with prudence and drove home no faster than fifteen miles an hour—just in case that foolish Joe Bill was trying to get himself run over again.

At home, as she arranged both doughnuts on their plate to warm them in the microwave, she smelled burning plastic. Sniffing, she followed the odor to the bathroom.  The ancient hot rollers and their holder smoldered on the counter.

“Oh, my.  Oh, dear.”  She helplessly fluttered her hands as she viewed the thin line of smoke beginning to rise.  “Oh my.”

She turned on the faucet and cupped water in her hands to fling it on the primordial appliance.  The curlers sizzled and popped.  Miss Nora squealed with fright and fell backward.  If her old cat, Patty Jean, hadn’t been behind her, Miss Nora would have cracked her head on the toilet bowl.  As it was the cat yeowled beneath her and bit Miss Nora hard on the left tricep as she wriggled free.

Miss Nora lay on the floor and looked up at the ceiling.

“Oh, dear,” she said.

As she lay there contemplating accidents that seemed to run amuck today, she decided would be safer in her bed until tomorrow.

With considerable effort, Miss Nora rolled her copious body into sitting position then, wheezing, hauled herself to her feet.  She unplugged the dying, sizzling roller unit then crept into her bedroom where she undressed.

Her Tuesday nightgown had slipped off its hanger in the closet.  She picked it up off the floor and shook out the wrinkles.  She could always feel wrinkles against her skin.  The shaking dislodged a brown recluse spider that scuttled his way into the dark corner of the closet.  Miss Nora, ignorant of his presence, slid on her nightie.

She brushed her teeth while water gushed down the drain, brushed her graying hair one hundred times then crawled into bed.

How exasperating to lie in bed at ten-thirty in the morning, her routine muddled and broken!  The morning’s events had tired her, though, and her heart pounded like a runaway horse.  She’d just take a nice nap and maybe read a magazine when she woke up.

Miss Nora closed her eyes and sighed.  She was safe now.

The next morning, when Maybelle Crowley came to mop the floors, she found Miss Nora still in bed, cold and stiff, dead as last week’s fish.

“That’s the way t’go,” Maybelle told the paramedics when they showed up.  “Nice and peaceful in your sleep without a worry in the world.”