4 Stories or Excerpts
Most names have been changed--just because.
Excerpt from the LONG short story "Switch"
Also included in my Autobiographical Novel (Currently, still in process)
I was the Tomboy of my sisters. Making up for my dad’s lack of a son, I rode shotgun to countless scrap yards, hardware stores, and the occasional cafe. I handed him tools and held flashlights, sat in the driver’s seat pumping the breaks, and watched him bring old rusted farm machinery back to life.
I took pride in the fact that I was different from sissy girls who were afraid to get their hands dirty. I imagined how surprised the boys would be if they knew that the smart, quiet girl they knew in school spent her summers climbing trees, swimming in creeks, wrestling her dog, and sinking basketball free throws. I often wished they knew that I could drive a tractor and that I knew a pipe wrench from a socket wrench, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you dropped into casual conversations like “Take one and pass ‘em back.”
The person I showed to my peers was the super quiet, highly religious girl who always wore dresses and very little makeup. I walked the halls between classes with my books held tightly in front of me and my eyes focused ahead, certain that everyone was pointing at me and whispering. I was not unattractive, and there was nothing laughable about me; but no matter how confident I was in my learning or how well I was thought of by my teachers, I felt inferior and vulnerable around my peers.
I can’t say that I was an exceptional student; but I was in the Honor Society and graduated in the top ten percent of my class. I took and excelled in mostly business classes as my goal in life at that time was to be a business-suit-and-high-heals wearing, no-nonsense, way-dependable secretary. A student office assistant and all-around teacher’s pet, I was a perfect example of a non-smoking, non-drinking, non-dancing, non-pretty much-anything-but-serious student.
It was in high school that I discovered a real aptitude in art. I participated in a few art shows and at one point had a school display cabinet feature my work. Afraid of being thought vain, I often downplayed the compliments I got which, unfortunately, only reinforced the stuck-up image that my shy and clean-cut behavior had created in the minds of some of my classmates.
In those four years of high school, I made only a few good friends. Most of the students knew me, and we exchanged the appropriate pleasantries; but very few saw past my wall of weird and tried to meet the real me. I wasn’t any better, though. I only reached out to people who I felt sure would not embarrass me by their lack of interest—or worse—their disdain. So I, largely, stayed to myself, drawing pictures that a few people saw and writing sappy stories and poetry that I showed to no one; and I told myself it was okay. I didn’t go to school to make friends and meet boys anyway; I went there to learn. All the while, I watched for the super popular, super cute, honor student/star athlete who secretly admired me to step forward Sixteen Candles style and reveal himself. But…alas…he did not.
Following the graduation ceremony of the Wilmington High School “Hurryin’ Hurricaines” Class of 1986, I was resignedly making my way through the crowded auditorium—past several groups of shrieking and embracing students—when I heard my name called. I turned to find one of the most popular boys in my class approaching. Without a moment’s hesitation, he threw his arms around me in a warm embrace and then led me over to his parents, “Doctor and Mrs.” for introductions as though he and I were the best of friends. Standard hallway greetings had been the extent of my contact with this boy, although he did fit the “super popular, super cute, honor student/athlete thing.” I saw recognition in his parents’ eyes when he told them my name, and that both surprised and confused me. They didn’t mention it but I, later, decided they must have seen some of my artwork. Unaccustomed to making small talk, I smiled, gave some inane responses, and then excused myself after a few awkward moments.
I cried silently the entire way to the graduation party at my friend’s house. That one thoughtful gesture by one of my school’s most accomplished and widely admired boys had made me realize that the entire alienation I felt throughout school was probably my own fault. None of those popular kids had ever said or done anything particularly unfriendly to me. They might all have been my friends if I hadn’t been so afraid to put myself out there.
I don’t know. Maybe that boy’s kindness was just some kind of last ditch “geek outreach program.” Wow, that would be embarrassing to learn after all this time.
My life since high school has, actually, been pretty good. I met my husband the following year. He, it turns out, was very popular at his school, being smart and also well liked by teachers and students of all social levels. He was on the football and tennis teams and was--in my humble opinion--super cute; so I married a popular boy after all. He, by the way, has found it quite handy that I know a pipe wrench from a socket wrench.
Right after graduation, I became a no-nonsense, way-dependable secretary. Eventually--thanks to a lot of hard work and the help and encouragement of a local businessman who saw real potential in me--I came to own my own business in the real estate industry. I am not a financial success story by any means; but I am happily married, and my husband and I have several “irons in the fire” trying to live the American Dream. I am a lot more confident and outgoing than I used to be, but I still have those insecure tendencies. I know that I am dependable and capable; but there are way too many days when I feel inferior and vulnerable.
I have been spending more time lately painting and--as you see--writing. I am only now starting to risk going more public with my work. I’ve had some small success—enough to boost my confidence some. Nevertheless, when I see the work of artists and writers who are way more talented than I am, I can’t help but feel that if I even tried to be in the same room with them, they would point at me and whisper.
I sure hope I grow out of that…some day.
Most likely the youngest of the residents, she is here because of a stroke which has left her unable to adequately care for herself. Her left side was originally paralyzed, but with time she has regained partial usage. She moves slowly, stepping with her right foot and then pulling her unwilling left leg along. Most of the time, her left arm—slightly shrunken from muscle loss—is bent at the elbow as if in a sling, and her right hand hugs the almost useless limb clasped to her stomach.
On a few occasions her chin-length reddish brown hair is washed, dried, and spritzed into a high bouffant style from the 60’s, but most days it hangs straight around her face in greasy lackluster locks. Her skin is pale—as is to be expected from living most of her life indoors now—and her eyes appear perpetually unfocused behind large brown plastic frames. It would seem that the stroke also affected the muscles in her left eye, making it as unruly as the rest of her left side.
When her spirits are high, Kathy sits at the old piano in the cafeteria and demands requests of passersby so that she can demonstrate her ability to play almost any song with her right index finger. It’s not concert piano and is too slow to sing to, but she does seem to be able to pick out the tune with a minimum of sour notes.
Kathy is a teaser. She’s like an old-time stand-up comedian whose act consists of making jokes at the expense of an audience member and then, without skipping a beat, moving on to say “No I’m only teasing. You thought I was serious, didn’t you?” At first, she’s unsettling to be around like the teasing uncle who, instead of talking softly and encouraging affection from a child, ruffles the hair and says things like “Thanks for playing with my toys while I was gone. I’ll take them now” as he reaches for the child’s favorite new toy.
Until you know what Kathy’s about, you don’t know how to react to her. She’ll hold out her hand and say “Gimme five!” But when you reach out to slap her hand, she’ll pull it back and say “No I mean five dollars! Gimme five dollars! No I’m only teasing. You thought I was serious, didn’t you?”
Yesterday, Kathy was sitting quietly at a table with a cup of coffee steaming in front of her. As I walked by, I caught her eye to say goodbye when she stopped me.
“Hey, come here a minute.” She said. “Are you real busy? I mean are you in a real hurry? Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Well, I have to go home soon and fix some dinner for my husband, but I can talk a few minutes.” I answered. I prefaced the conversation with this remark because she is difficult to get away from when she is in the middle of her stand-up routine, and I wasn’t sure if that was what she was in the mood for now.
“Can we go over here where it’s more private?” She asked, motioning to a little visiting room across the hall. Now I was a little concerned because I was wondering if she was going to “blow the lid” off some rest home abuse about which I would feel obligated to take some action. She followed me across the hall and into the eight foot square visiting room where we sat in opposing wing-backed chairs. When she stood back up and closed the door for “privacy” I was fully concerned.
“Can I get you to do me a very big favor?” Kathy asked.
“Well, honey, if it’s something I can do, I’ll sure try.” I responded.
My mother had seen Kathy and me go into this room, and I knew she would be worried about what was going on. My mother was uncomfortable around Kathy and, therefore, did not trust her. I was torn between listening politely to Kathy and worrying about my mother’s almost certain emotional turmoil at the moment.
Kathy must have seen a look on my face that showed my discomfort.
“I’m sorry. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m just lonely. I just need someone to talk to.” She said.
“Sure, honey, I’ll talk to ya.” I answered. “What do you need?”
“I need you to pray for my family.” She said.
Kathy’s mother died over a year ago, she said, and it had hit her hard. As she sat, constantly rocking her body backwards and forwards in the stationery chair, she told me a rather long story about how she got the news and how she had been hysterical because she and her mother had just reconciled after some falling out. She told me that her mother had been planning to come from Lubbuck, Texas, for a visit and she had been planning to take her mother over to Wal-mart and buy her a bunch of little things.
I had not planned to take this time out of my busy day and it was taking longer than I had hoped; but when Kathy’s story came around for the fourth time to her “planning to take her mother to Wal-mart and buy her a bunch of little things”, my heart went out to her. I hadn’t seen the sad and lonely side of Kathy before in my visits here, and I decided that my husband would understand if I stayed a bit longer.
“Don’t you think when someone close to you dies, a part of your heart goes with them?” Kathy asked me.
“Well, Kathy, I have been blessed so far. I haven’t had anyone that close to me die yet. But I imagine it would be very hard.” I said.
“I couldn’t go to the funeral because I was in this place and I didn’t have no way to get to Lubbuck, Texas, where she was. Now I’m all alone. All I got is my three kids, but they only show up once in a blue moon.”
“I know, honey.” I said. “I know that happens a lot when people come to live in a rest home. Even though their family members still love them, they get so busy with their lives, they don’t think to come visit like they should.”
“They don’t write either.” Kathy said. “They could write. They have the address here. But they don’t write. Don’t you think when a person dies that a part of your heart goes with them?”
“Well I sure imagine so, but I haven’t had someone that close to me die yet.” I said. “But I know it’s going to happen some day. My parents are getting older.”
“How old are they?” she asked.
“Well, my mom is 65 and my dad is 70.” I said. “They both have diabetes.”
“Oh, they have to take insulin, huh?” She asked, concerned.
“My dad has to take it a lot and they give it to my mom here in the home.”
“Oh, what home is your mom in?” Kathy asked. She had seen me with my mother before but had obviously not remembered.
“She’s in this one” I told her.
Kathy’s face brightened.
“Who is your mother?”
“Martha Johnson.” I said, and she burst into a grin.
“Oh I know Martha! I’ve talked to her! Now I know who to talk to about you.” She said. “I’ve seen you walking up and down the halls here being nice, but I’ll tell her how you really are. When you’re not here, you’re a real wild child aren’t ya? No I’m only teasing. You thought I was serious, didn’t you? Gimme five!”
My ringing cell phone freed me from the return of the comedy act. I said goodbye to Kathy and told her again that I would surely pray for her family. While the two of us had been talking, her dinner had appeared on the table beside her cold coffee. I answered my phone call and returned to my life as she hobbled back to hers.
FIFTY NINE YEARS AND THREE MONTHS
It took her 59 years to live down to her low expectations in life and only 3 months to starve herself to death. Once she learned about the extent of the cancer growing within her belly, she made up her mind to go ahead and die; so she lay down on her living room sofa and that’s exactly what she did. Why should she fight to live? The doctors told her that even after blood transfusions and chemotherapy, she would have only a 25 percent chance of survival.
What should she fight for? Somewhere out there, she might have two sisters, but she had never known them. Her mother—who never wanted her—and her father—who showed her love but never believed she was his daughter—were both dead along with her grandparents. She gave birth to four babies, but she raised only one of them; and he died the previous year at the age of 28. She still believed her son’s wife murdered him, but it could not be proven; so the “black widow” crawled away taking the three grandchildren forever.
The rest of her blood relatives were successfully alienated years before by one means or another; so virtual strangers waited on her during the last three months of her life. Her husband of the last eighteen years was entrusted with only small glimpses of the “demons” that caused her daily drinking and her growing bitterness. His four adult daughters never desired to get close to her because of her unpredictable mood swings accompanied by unfriendly behavior toward their father—my father.
My stepmother’s skeletal hand was cool and just beginning to stiffen as I removed her wrist watch as respectfully as I could. There was a bruise on her knuckle afterwards that I was afraid I had made; so I pointed it out to the Hospice worker who seemed unconcerned by it. My dad had been trying to matter-of-factly remove the watch himself but had succeeded in only patting Calinda’s hand and wailing; so I stepped up and held him for a moment. His own body was sickly thin and boney in my embrace. His fitful marriage to Calinda had caused him to withdraw from our family except for rare special occasions and holidays when he came—alone—for a visit. For that reason as well as the commencement of my own marriage, the past eighteen years seemed to have flown by. I became an overweight and tired middle-aged woman; and my strong capable father became an arthritic, diabetic, frail old man.
The Hospice workers were thoughtful and caring—coming several times a day during the past few months and posting a 24-hour watch in the last days. It startled me, though, how quickly they were gone afterwards; but then, I suppose when the job is done, the job is done. Within two hours of Calinda’s final breath, her body was removed to the mortuary and her rented hospital bed, oxygen machine, and linens were reclaimed. This is not meant to be a judgment of the Hospice workers. We, her “family,” did not show much more emotional investment; because Calinda had been little more than a stranger to us. We were like hospital workers feeling typical compassion for any dying person rather than extreme grief over the loss of someone close to us.
We had never had a real conversation with Calinda about her life, her dreams, her regrets, or her feelings for Dad. We only heard about hateful things she said when she was drinking; so even though she was dying, we girls did not know what she really thought of us. Did she even want us around or would she rather just lie there and be left alone? We made many offers to take care of anything she wanted or needed in her final days, but she declared there was nothing weighing on her mind. As she got weaker, and I realized that, soon, she would be unable to speak at all, I asked her if she wanted someone to read to her at times. She shook her head “no” without hesitation. She was completely resigned to death and seemed only to be waiting it out. We changed her bed clothes when she became too weak to get to the bathroom. We gave her water through a syringe when she was too weak to raise her head. We were careful to turn on the air conditioning as the mid-day sun warmed the doublewide trailer that was her home. And we all waited with her.
When Calinda was strong, she was formidable. None of us would have even thought about cleaning her house—without being asked—or rifling through her business papers and old photographs. But when she lost consciousness, and the last two days were only about waiting for the final breaths, we girls began to sort and to prepare for the business of burial. There would be visitors to Dad’s home, and there was too much of Calinda’s personal clutter for our father to sort through in his weakened physical and emotional state.
Every hour or so I stopped what I was doing and went to Calinda’s side to touch her hand or her forehead. I had never spent that much time around someone who was dying. I did feel compassion for her, but I didn’t know how to make the last few moments of her life meaningful when it seemed that so many years had not been. I had no shared memories to recount to her; no idea what her favorite book was; no knowledge of her spiritual relationship with God—or lack thereof. Kissing her on the forehead or saying that I loved her would have been a lie; and although I could have done that to make myself feel better, I half believed it would be a repellant intrusion upon her.
I was still sorting through photographs and looking into Calinda’s eyes as a child, teenager, and young woman when my sister summoned me to the bedside the final time. Looking through those photographs was the most meaningful tribute I could pay to Calinda in her last few minutes; because in doing so, I was acknowledging that she had once been a child and daughter; that she had been a lover…a wife…a mother; that she had been on boat trips that made her smile and had grandchildren that made her laugh.
There were so many faces that I didn’t know and had, until that moment, not cared to know anything about. There were pictures of my dad that I had never seen; pictures of him planting trees on their property; pictures of him clowning for the camera; pictures of him holding step-grandchildren who I had only heard a few stories about but had never seen personally.
Looking at those pictures, a realization came to me. All along I had carried the notion that it wasn’t important to get to know my stepmother because even if she didn’t kill my dad in a drunken stupor, they would eventually divorce and she would be on to the next man. This realization brought some regrets and made me take a much belated interest in getting to know Calinda. I knew that it was way too late to bond with the woman, but I needed some type of closure. We all did—even my dad who had lived with her for eighteen years but had never felt as if he knew her.
I didn’t need to know everything about Calinda, but I did want some insight into why she had been so unhappy and volatile even while living with someone as decent and unconditionally accepting as my dad. What life choices ultimately brought her to a lonely death among virtual strangers? And what was the real story behind our new stepsister, who had recently resurfaced after being presumed dead for thirty years? The need for those answers was why I just couldn’t bring myself to discard the stack of printed emails that I found in Calinda’s desk drawer.
CHRISTMAS AT SIX
Each Christmas of my early childhood, I allowed myself only a brief flutter of uncertain excitement at the idea that there might really be a Santa Claus. Because my family was poor, our house had always shown a marked absence of the games and toys that I knew other children had. I would consider briefly the possibility that on one magical night of the year a jolly old man would fly through the sky and bring toys to my sisters and me; but I knew it was not true. I knew this because by the time I was six years old, I could remember at least three previous Christmases which had come and gone with no early morning frenzy involving presents or stuffed stockings.
To my sisters and me, Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and even birthdays were just like any other day of the year with the exception of a different morning greeting. There were no star-topped trees or stockings hung by the chimney. There were no candle-lit cakes or heart-shaped cards. There was certainly no begging for treats at the houses of strangers.
We had come to accept this as reality. We knew that Christmas was really about celebrating the birth of Jesus and that Thanksgiving was about thanking God for our blessings. As for Halloween, we knew that our mother did not trust the candy given by strangers on that night. My sisters and I were well aware of our family’s lack of money for costumes, decorations, and gifts; so it was no big deal, really. That was just the way it was. So when my mother called me to the living room one day that winter to meet some strangers, I was puzzled and skeptical about what I heard.
They showed me a magazine filled with pictures of brand new toys. I could pick whatever I wanted, they said, and Santa Claus would get it for me. Yeah. Right.
“Santa Claus” isn’t real, I proclaimed; but they continued to coax and assure me that anything I picked out of this entire magazine, “Santa Claus” would get for me.
Just what were they trying to pull? That magazine was filled with beautiful toys, and I knew that some of them had to be really expensive. Surely they didn’t mean that I could have ANYTHING. Surely the whole thing was some kind of joke. I continued to argue until I sensed they were starting to get tired of my stubbornness.
“Well…” I said pointing to a picture of an easel-type chalkboard that also came with a set of magnetic letters and numbers. “I still don’t believe you, but I guess if I was going to pick ANYTHING, it would be this.”
Because my choice was surely expensive, I expected the strangers to admit that they had been exaggerating when they said that I could have ANYTHING that I picked out. I was ready to gloat about having been right about them all along; but nothing negative was said about my choice. Instead, the strangers looked at the picture in the magazine and wrote something down on a notebook.
As I ambled from the room, I added once more for the sake of my six-year-old pride,“But I don’t believe you.”
* * *
I had long forgotten about our visitors by the time a few weeks later when my mother insisted that we all get dressed for what she called a “Christmas dinner.” My sisters and I exchanged bewildered glances and shrugged our shoulders in response to each other’s questions. After a long ride in a van that came to pick us up, we were dropped off in front of a large brick building. Inside we found Christmas lights strung all around and several rows of tables filled with other children. At the front of the room was a stage with a giant decorated Christmas tree surrounded by hundreds of wrapped presents.
I don’t remember what we had to eat that day, but I recall it as being one of the biggest meals I had ever had. I also remember a clown who made his way around the room pulling pennies out of our ears. He even pulled one out of my ear; although I knew it was some kind of trick, because I was sure that it wasn’t in there before. Just the same, I checked my ears every few minutes to be sure.
After the meal, the other children cheered as a man came out dressed up like Santa Claus. He waved enthusiastically to everyone and gave a few kids hugs before stepping onto the stage and sitting in a rocking chair.
A woman on the stage began to call out names, and one by one the children around me went up and sat on the man’s knee. The fake Santa asked each child some questions and then sent them to another part of the stage where they received a wrapped present. I began to fidget as I studied the stacks of presents on the stage. I was not comfortable about the idea of sitting on a strange man’s knee or about what question he might ask; but could there possibly be something up there for me?
Before long my name was called, and I cautiously made my way up onto the stage and allowed myself to be lifted onto the man’s knee.
“Ho-Ho-Ho! Merry Christmas! What’s your name, little girl?”
“Pam” I answered, almost whispering.
“And have you been a good girl this year?”
“I…guess so.” I fumbled, uncertain of the proper way to answer this sort of question. It would have been bragging to answer “yes”; but if I had answered “no” I might not get a gift.
“Santa has something very nice for you, Pam!” he announced to the room as he lifted me to the floor. “Now go see that nice woman, and she will give you your present.”
I headed for “Santa’s Helper”, anxious to see what my present would be. I remembered the people who had come to my house and promised that Santa would get me anything I picked out of that magazine. But it wouldn’t be that, I thought. It would be something else…something smaller...something cheaper. It was still nice of them; so I determined that I would take whatever it was and thank them for it.
As I got closer, I saw that the lady was reaching for the biggest wrapped present on the stage. It was the very one that had captivated me from the moment we were all told that the gifts were for us kids. To my amazement, when I pulled the paper away, I found the very chalkboard and magnet set that I picked out that day in my living room.
* * *
I later learned that our hosts that day were several local business people who had formed a group called the Hillsboro Jaycees. Each year, the Jaycees raised money for food, clothes, and toys and presented it to the less fortunate children of Highland County, Ohio, where my family lived. In the years that followed, my sisters and I continued to be invited to gatherings hosted by the Jaycees; and although my Christmas at six didn't make me believe in Santa Claus, more and more I came to believe in the kindness of strangers.