Category Archives: Story

Opal

johnny franklin terry 3

 

1960

Opal was doing as she always did during the early hours of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. She was walking up and down the rows of uneven headstones in Piney Cemetery. From time to time she’d encounter a snake slithering about, but she never got startled when one got under her feet. Most creatures, animal and human alike, seldom bother you if you allow them to do whatever it is they do.

She and her husband of forty years lived in a small house off Rich Road, near where it intersected with Mopac Road and 39. The roof was tin and most of the sides of the house were covered in tar paper disguised as bricks. Opal kept a line of rose bushes across the back of the house. She insisted that Earl let them grow wild, a demand that often caused Opal to laugh as she heard her husband cursing at the thorns as he got too close. She often reminded him that her garden’s size more than compensated for the hassle of dealing with the roses.

After her husband Earl retired from police work, they moved from Little Rock back to Monroe County. They got the place Earl’s brother Frank inherited from their eccentric parents. Frank took off for Mississippi when he found out Earl and Opal wanted the old place. He claimed it was because the mosquitoes were so bad here. “Like birds,” Frank would say, over and over. It made little sense, either, because the mosquitoes on that side of the Mississippi were worse. Earl opined that perhaps the generous availability of good barbeque and moonshine might have contributed to his brother’s enthusiasm for a move. Frank liked to associate with people who might otherwise catch his brother’s attention. He loved saying things like, “Bad apples still make good wine.”

Earl had donated most of the extra land around the house for the farmers who owned property nearby. Not only did it save him having to pretend to keep it presentable, but the farmer would drop by and give him beans or corn from another crop in repayment. When the crops were in full bloom, their house would be rimmed by cotton or beans. Earl swore he’d never farm, unlike many of his family. Earl didn’t ask for signatures or handshakes; he expected people to honor their word.

As for the Rich community of Monroe County, it was mostly a place of good souls. There were a couple of mean drunks and a pair of men who enjoying hitting their wives. Most of the angry drunks learned their lesson a few years ago while Opal lived in Little Rock. Melvina Mull came home one night after church to find her husband sitting on the porch with a shotgun and drinking whiskey. Though the details are still argued about, the little community woke up Thursday morning to the news that Melvina had enough beatings and opted to put an ax in the forehead of her husband. She was arrested and charged. The trial was held a week later. The jury acquitted her after 2 minutes of deliberation. Judge Bryant just shook his head and said, “Justice is swift in these parts.” The judge did take a moment and recommend that Melvina might reconsider getting remarried if the urge to do so arose.

Many people in the Rich community lived such private lives that they didn’t see how oddly they often behaved. As for loyal neighbors to be counted on, all of them were fiercely willing to lend a hand to anyone, anytime. The austere farm life often demanded precisely that. Many of the locals had no indoor bathrooms. Almost all used wood heat and left their screened-in windows open day and night.

Away from the prying eyes of her infernal husband, Opal could partake of a bit of dry snuff. She could spit wherever she wanted to that way. Her neighbors snickered behind her back. The idea of walking sounded bonkers to everyone she knew, especially once she turned sixty. Opal walked to Brinkley more than once, which was eleven miles. Monroe was closer, but the mercantile wasn’t always open. Opal was in great shape despite her taste for both snuff and alcohol. She kept a big garden and built chicken coops or a storm shelter for anyone who needed one. While living in Little Rock, she had challenged several men to arm wrestling. All but one left with a new outlook on feminine toughness.

She skipped her walk on Wednesdays because her Wednesday night gospel duties included providing at least one dish and one dessert. She took great pride in preparing for the church meals, much to the chagrin of her husband, Earl. He’d sit on the porch and complain about starving away to skin and bones. As far as Opal could tell, it would take a grand bout of going without a bite to eat to starve him out. Anyway, Earl thought she’d given up her snuff. He hadn’t found the supply of strawberry liquor, either. Opal kept it in a bleach jug, one she’d washed until it had no bleach smell. She carefully drank a cup of it each night after supper. That liquor had saved her marriage frequently. It also helped her to sleep during the nightly ritual of Earl snoring so loudly that even the dogs would howl for a few minutes. The mutts weren’t hers, though. They belonged to that no-account neighbor about a half-mile down the road. They spent more time under her porch and in the shade at her house than they ever did at Cousin Spendly’s tin-roofed house. Everyone called him Cousin, which was odd because as far as she could tell, no one much claimed to be his kin.

Some mornings, Opal would see Old Lady Elvertie riding her three-wheeled contraption down the road, her long skirt making it look like she was moving along by magic. Opal had encountered a drunk or two sleeping it off in the cemetery over the years. They’d mostly been coming back from Monroe or Blackton after drinking too much. Ever since the railroad spur from the lumber mill had been closed, the drunks were becoming less frequent. The spur line was falling out of repair; in some places, bushes and grass were growing wild. Sometimes a tractor would go by a little too fast, creating a dust storm that left nonsense in her teeth for an hour after it had passed. Opal would make a note of it was and make sure to get on the party line and mention it, so word would get out that someone’s husband was speeding and causing a commotion.

After so many years of marriage, Earl didn’t require much maintenance. He’d drink at least 6 cups of coffee and eat toast. Sometimes he’d eat biscuits from the day before. He’d eat bacon, eggs, and sausage too, like any good Southerner, but he preferred to wait until lunch to un-notch his belt and stuff himself senseless. Opal would always make a tin of biscuits.

Last night’s church service had been particularly lively. Reverend Samuel pounded the pulpit as if he were calling Satan himself to come to have a word with him. The congregation had been worked to a frenzy, resulting in them drinking a record number of glasses of iced tea after the service.

Most Wednesday night services in the summer were sparsely attended due to the crops but last night was a surprise. Even Jasper, the area’s only known atheist, showed up at the service. He told everyone that it was his job to keep the pastor honest. Everyone loved Jasper and his dry sense of humor. Jasper also had almost all of the New Testament of the King James Bible memorized, and on a couple of occasions had been used as a Bible when one wasn’t available. Jasper’s wife Emelda was a devout Methodist, which was strange, as she’s been attending the Baptist Church around the bend for twenty years. “I’m Methodist,” she’d say, almost without thinking. She was just about the most Baptist Methodist anyone could ever meet.

As Opal neared the eastern end of the cemetery, she shielded her eyes against the sun, which had been up for about forty-five minutes. With no warning, she fell into an open grave without realizing she was approaching a hole in the ground. There was no mound of dirt piled carelessly to one side to draw attention. Her straw hat tumbled to the side while she tumbled headfirst into the freshly dug grave.

On the way down, she thought it would be the death of her. As she braced herself to hit the soil on the bottom of the pit, she found herself instead falling on top of a body.

The person under her didn’t jump or push away, which she found to be strange. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like icicles as she realized that the person under her was dead.

Being practical, Opal stood up in the grave. Opal had seen many bodies during her husband’s career. Truth be told, she was less skittish about it than he was. Her head was still a foot under the rim of soil. Most graves weren’t dug six feet under. This one seemed to be deeper. Since the person was dead, it wasn’t going to do her any harm. Not unless she couldn’t get herself out of the grave. Likely, no one would visit the back of the cemetery for a full day. Shouting like she’d chopped a finger off wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention either unless someone was going by slowly. No one on a tractor would be able to hear her. She resisted the urge to look down at her companion in the grave.

She stood on top of the body and jumped with as much force as she could muster. Her arms cleared the edge of the grave, and she pulled and scratched at the grass to get leverage and crawl out. Just as she was beginning to slide back down in the grave, a pair of hands grabbed hers. Opal screamed like a squirrel had jumped from her drawer of unmentionables.

She felt herself being dragged from the grave. She fell face-first in the grass and then rolled over to see who had helped her out of the grave. The sun was behind her rescuer, and all she could see was a blinding silhouette without much form.

“Mrs. Opal, what are you doing in the bottom of a grave?” Pastor Samuel asked. His voice was unmistakable. For a pastor, his voice sounded like that of someone who’d spent a lifetime in the coal mines. To the horror of more than one of his church members, the Pastor loved smoking. He preached many sermons about the benefits of the vice. Opal wouldn’t be surprised if Lucky Strikes didn’t pay to have their logo placed on the steeple of the church.

“I ain’t practicing, if that’s what you’re getting at, Reverend.” Opal continued to lay in the grass, shielding her eyes.

“I came by to put flowers on Ivey George’s grave for his wife. She was feeling poorly last night and asked me for the favor. I’m on my way to Henderson’s Corner to see Emma Lou.” As Pastor Samuel talked, he leaned down to offer a hand to Opal. She grabbed his hand and yanked herself up much more quickly than the Reverend expected. For a moment, he wondered if he might topple over into the grave.

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear my old Ford as I pulled in over there,” the Reverend said as he waved vaguely toward the entrance marked by an overhead arch. “I saw you dive into the hole just as I pulled in.”

As Opal looked over toward the Reverend’s ugly old car, she stopped. Pastor Samuel noticed that her eyes went a little wide and looked around too. “I didn’t dive in there…” she started to say, her voice trailing off. Opal curiously looked around the grave and wondered where all the excavated dirt from the hole went.

On the edge of the road, Old Lady Elvertie stood, both feet planted on either side of her three-wheel bicycle. She had her hand over her mouth and looked like she was in shock.

Opal waved toward her.  The Reverend took a couple of steps toward her to give her a shout to let her know that all was well.

No sooner than he had moved toward her that Old Lady Elvertie jumped up on her pedals and began to madly push up and down on them. She was fleeing the scene like she’d seen a familiar ghost.

Opal and the Reverend laughed as they watched her scramble away from them. They stood by the grave trying to decipher where all the dirt from the grave had gone.

“It just beats all,” the Reverend decided. Opal declined the Reverend’s offer to drive her back to the house as he walked back to his ugly Ford to get the flowers.

Thirty minutes later, Opal walked back up the dirt and gravel driveway in front of her house. It didn’t occur to her that she hadn’t mentioned the dead body in the grave to Reverend Samuel. It seemed to be relevant now that it crossed her mind again, especially since he hadn’t mentioned one, either.

Earl was waiting, his legs hanging off the closest end of the wooden plank porch. Two of Cousin Spendly’s mutts were underneath him, beneath the porch, both lazily watching Opal approach.

“Did you have a commotion, Opal?” Earl was grinning and full of himself.

“Whatever on Earth do you mean? Have you gone soft in the head?” Opal was a little sore from doing gymnastics into the boneyard.

“Mildred called in a tizzy. She said Old Lady Elvertie stopped in at her house, babbling about seeing Pastor Samuel bring someone back from the dead, straight from the grave. Mildred couldn’t get much sense out of her. She said Old Lady Elvertie drank a hot cup of coffee in one swallow and took off again.” For Earl, that was a speech.

“Like all rumors, part of that’s true. I ain’t dead yet, but the Reverend did yank me out of a peculiar grave. And there was a dead body in it.” Opal was flustered. Earl was going to pick and poke at her for forgetting to mention that the grave had a body in it.

At the mention of the dead body, Earl’s right eyebrow shot up like a startled bird. Opal could see ten years of wrinkles disappear from her husband’s face. His day would be filled with questions as his old skills and days investigating people doing stupid things came flooding back.

Expecting Earl’s attempt at humor, Opal scolded him. “Yes, I know graves are supposed to have bodies in them!”

“I’ll give Sheriff Bryant a call, if Mildred will get off the line. He might be interested in a body.” Earl stood up and started stamping his feet. The edge of the porch had put the back of his legs to sleep. His nimble mind was already racing though.

 

*

Sheriff Bryant stood near the grave that Opal discovered earlier. As always, he was dressed in overalls and a cowboy hat. His star was pinned on the shoulder of his overalls. He didn’t wear a uniform. “I’m one of y’all,” he was fond of saying. If he carried a gun, it was often shoved into one of his pockets as an afterthought.  Earl stood next to him, shaking his head in disbelief. “Where did the dirt go?” had been uttered at least a dozen times. The dirt’s disappearance seemed more perplexing than the body at the bottom of the grave.

“I called Deputy Win to bring a ladder and his sons over here. There’s no use in one of us jumping down there and getting stuck until they get here.” Sheriff Bryant never hurried. His dad was the same way. People joked that the old Sheriff Bryant took a week just to get to his own retirement and would be late arriving at his own death.

*

I’m seventy years old now. I can’t believe sixty years have passed since Opal found the unidentified body of a woman in that grave. Her husband Earl got deputized to investigate the alleged murders. After he decided that Pastor Samuel had killed the woman, the quiet community almost erupted in a civil war. Although I was just ten when it happened, I can still smell Opal’s roses blooming behind her house, even though those roses were plowed under in 1993 when the farmer who owned the land grew tired of renting the house to a series of poor occupants.

That time and place has vanished, but not a day passes that I don’t wish I could go back and relive 1960 in Rich. I could have saved Opal and her retired husband from the disruption in their lives.

If you’ll give me a few minutes to consider how I can tell this story and do it justice, I’ll collect my thoughts and get back to you…

I’ll leave with a picture I have of Opal and Earl. I can look at this picture and feel the excitement for life that Opal radiated. She wasn’t my kin, but she was my kind of person. I’d love to live in her world again. I’d trade all the money I’ve made to walk in that world and sit on her porch.

Ransom’s World

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Ransom stood at the kitchen sink, the book folded open in front of him, the fingers of his tired right hand forcefully holding the pages down so he could see them. Minutes before, he casually opened the book and skimmed the first paragraph. Minutes later, he was on page six and his mind was in the new world created by the book he underestimated.

He briefly looked up, across the wide living room, and out into the rainy street, trying to extricate himself from the clutches of the book. He failed to note it wasn’t raining when he started the book or that the cup of coffee next to him on the counter by the coffeepot had long cooled. He began devouring the thickly layered plot. Each word seemed interminable as his eyes flashed across them, vivisecting the complexities of language and people inhabiting the pages. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the words were somehow written in a foreign language.
*

Last Saturday afternoon, Ransom went to Birdsong Books in a town over from him. It was his little secret place, one filled with books of both beauty and content. Minutes seeped past him at an alarming rate while he walked the shelves inside. It was the embodiment of how he felt while discovering new worlds inside of books.

“What are you looking for?” a small voice asked him. Ransom looked up from his shelf to see a young girl standing about five feet away from him. In her hands, she held a sloppily bound book.

“Everything,” he replied, with a smile and mischievous wink. He could already tell that the girl was interesting. Her hair was pulled away from her face and the ponytail was stuck haphazardly along the right side of her head.

“It’s a good thing I found you here. I’ve been waiting to give you this.” Upon pronouncing the words in her little musical voice, she stepped forward and extended the book toward Ransom. Without thinking, Ransom reached out and accepted it. It weighed much more than he expected. His hands cradled the sides of the book as he took it, as the pages seemed slightly loose inside it. It reminded him of the sensation of being handed a cage with a restless animal inside it.

Behind him, a book fell from a shelf. Ransom momentarily turned to see what had fallen. When he turned back toward the girl, she was gone.

“Hey!” Ransom weakly shouted. He quickly went around the shelves, only to see the owner looking at him with an odd glance.

“Yes?” asked the owner.

“Oh. Did you see the girl who went by? She handed me this book by mistake.” Ransom was certain he was being pranked. The girl certainly seemed capable of such an endeavor. The owner, although witty and personable, wasn’t the type to participate in shenanigans, however.

“If she handed it to you, it was no mistake.” The owner peered at Ransom knowingly over the rim of his glasses. The edges of his eyes belied a slight smile forming on his face.

Ransom handed him the book, and the owner skimmed through it. “It’s not mine. That much I can tell you for sure.”

The girl was nowhere to be found inside the bookstore.

After a few minutes, Ransom took the book home with him. He placed it absentmindedly on the table adjacent to the front door and forgot he had done so. Until this morning, when he awoke, certain that he had been dreaming about the girl he’d met at Birdsong Books.

In the dream, the ponytail girl sat on a bench next to him, pronouncing each word as she lovingly read a page from the book open in her lap. Ransom heard himself say in the dream that the girl sounded like she was reading out loud in italics.

The girl turned to lock eyes with Ransom. “You must finish the book! Time is escaping.” She grabbed his arm with her small fingers. In the distance, someone played a xylophone with keys tuned to be slightly off.

Ransom woke up fully energized as he started his morning routine. While starting coffee, he looked across the kitchen bar counter and to the front door. Next to the door sat the book. As the coffee brewed, he could hear xylophones, ones which sounded familiar and provocative. Without realizing he’d done so, Ransom went to the book, picked it up, and returned to the kitchen. He poured a cup of coffee and flipped open the cover of the odd book.

As he began to read, the xylophones filled his ears, and the world slipped away.

It All Started at Taco Tico

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“It all started at Taco Tico,” is perhaps the best opening line for a personal story that’s ever been written.

When I was younger, I was a band geek. It probably saved my life – and not just in the sense it gave me relief from an otherwise certain depression and the ability to get away from my house.
On one occasion, it helped me avoid a beating.

Because my parents were negligent to a degree almost unequalled, I walked more than the average student. Until near the end of 9th grade, you would have undoubtedly failed to believe this, as I was fat, and not in the humorous Weird Al way.

After some event after school, my mom and aunt failed to materialize to pick me up. They were probably worshipping on Budweiser’s altar. I had two choices: invent Uber or start walking. On the way across the practice field, I found someone’s trumpet mouthpiece and put it in my pocket. For those souls denied exposure to band, such a mouthpiece is made of solid metal and a few inches long. I put it in my pocket so I could try to return it to the owner the next day. Unlike me, trumpeters had to pay for their own mouthpieces and instruments.

I walked up to highway 68 (now 412) and westward. By some miracle, I had two dollars in my pocket. I  went to Taco Tico, a restaurant that once was legendary among some of us in the community. The building is across from Susan’s restaurant. Everyone in Northwest Arkansas has stories about events and food at Taco Tico. I could get 4 rice tacos for a dollar. I sat and ate the tacos. This sort of thing was a luxury for me. I left to walk the rest of the way to my cousin’s house on Ann Street.

As I crossed in front of Taco Tico, something whizzed past my head and hit the pavement with a thud. I turned to see some sports car (they were all the same to me) go past, with an arm and upraised middle finger for my inspection. By the time I was crossing Carley Road across from K-Mart and in the area where Walgreens now stands, I heard someone revving an engine loudly. The corner was a gas station for years, a cracker crust pizza place, and a gaming business that seemed to be in trouble constantly.

The same reddish-colored sports car that had greeted me earlier was in the parking lot. Two idiots sat in the front with the windows down, both shouting clever insults at me. Both of them were upperclassmen. I didn’t know their names, but both were football players for Springdale.

It was obvious they weren’t on their way to a Mensa meeting. They looked like a happy couple.
I walked as close to the edge of the lot as I could. The driver gunned his engine and rolled ahead of me to block me. As I started to walk around, the driver jumped out and called me a f*g. If I were in that place and time again, I would undoubtedly tell him it was more likely he and his passenger were, given they drove around randomly at all hours, and that they looked like a happy couple. When I didn’t answer him, he took a couple of steps and punched me in the stomach and then shoved me as hard as he could. I fell backward and to the ground. I had learned through my Dad’s violence that sometimes faking a more severe reaction might save me a punch or twenty. The driver spit in my direction and headed back to his car. Not that it was important at the time, but I wondered why so many males thought that spitting added any machismo to their personality.
I started to grab a rock but instead remembered the mouthpiece in my pocket. I took it out and threw it as hard as I could manage. My terrible aim somehow disappeared in that split second as the mouthpiece left my hand and arced with incredible speed toward the car. It thunked against the small rear passenger window. The glass immediately splintered. Admittedly, I threw the mouthpiece with the intent of hitting the bully driver directly in the face.

The driver froze, and his mouth fell open. “What the…,” he started to say. Without thinking and without hesitation, I ran directly toward him. It surprised him, and as he reached out to grab me, I ducked sideways and darted around the front of the car and kept running. The driver ran after me instead of jumping into the car. I could hear the passenger yelling. Within a few seconds, I was outpacing the football player by a huge distance. I turned, running backward, and told him he should run his legs more and his mouth less.  I knew the area well and ran directly to the barbed wire fence and hurled myself over it.. I turned to see that the driver had abandoned his pursuit. He had to run back to the car before he could pursue me. I ran through the field, angling away from Carley road. It took me quite a while to run back to my aunt’s house, as I couldn’t be sure that the two idiots weren’t going to follow the roads and find me.

Despite me fearing for my life the next day at school, I had no options. Bullies were a big part of school life for students. It was pointless to tell anyone. Football players were mostly untouchable. I’d made the mistake a couple of times in junior high and then during high school of trying to “tell on” football players for some fairly dangerous behavior. It didn’t go well for me. It is part of the reason I don’t hold any of the coaches in high esteem, even those with huge scoreboards or statues with their names emblazoned on them. I don’t care that everyone seems to have other, higher opinions about the people we shared in common.
At the end of the year, the driver of the car pretended to lunge at me in the hallway. Although I flinched, I immediately and regrettably said, “I’m not your type,” as I dodged away. He wasn’t amused. The other droolers with him looked at him in almost shock. I walked away,  certain I was going to be tackled in the hallway.

More Than A Goodbye

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The April day grew long and the sunlight now angled across the buildings awkwardly, blinding anyone with their head held erect. The alleys of this small town held their secrets. I watched the sun’s prisms of light for a moment, even as I pulled the door closed. Though I thought I was devoid of the ability to command my foot to press the gas pedal and depart, my body treasonously did its part.

Despite the certainty that glancing back might rend me into two unholy halves, I peered into the rearview mirror.

Behind me, he raised his arm, tentatively waving toward me as I drove away.

It was more than a goodbye.

A Case of Identity (Chapter 1)

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As the second client left the office with a grin of satisfaction, Clive slowly leaned back in the antique office chair, his feet splayed out in front of him, partially hidden by the ornate desk. At age forty-three, he had never expected to realize his dream of becoming a lawyer, even if it finally happened in a small place outside Walmart’s hometown. The modest storefront and all the trappings that accompanied it had cost only $2,300 for six months, not a bad price to start one’s dream. Ms. Elber, a lady between sixty and two hundred years old, offered to have the place cleaned and all the clutter removed, but Clive insisted on doing it all himself. She dropped all her concerns when he counted out twenty-three one hundred-dollar bills. Ms. Elber was accustomed to some strange tenants along main street.

Today, he made over six hundred dollars by agreeing to execute two wills. Tomorrow he would visit the county probate office and match his new clients against existing wills. Clive understood that most wills were needless and predatory. One of the client’s nephews drove his uncle to Clive’s office for the appointment that finished his day. When he asked about a will for himself, Clive handed him a simple will and told him to write it out himself and sign it with witnesses, and save himself a few hundred dollars. “Is that legal,” the younger man asked. Clive grinned. “As legal as my right to practice law. Arkansas allows for holographic wills. There are simple notes on the back of the form. Come back to me when you have an issue that’s more complicated.” Clive could see the look of appreciation on his client’s face.

Two years ago, when the idea that he might actually achieve his dream occurred to him, he had been a gas station attendant at one of the flashy convenience stores off the interstate on the west side of Mississippi. At that job, like all others, people found him to be quick-witted and inevitably tried to motivate him to be in charge or to show ambition. For Clive, none of it mattered to him. An office, a nice car, a huge group of friends; none of these drew his interest. Over the decades, he had amassed over four hundred credit hours of college under three different identities, learned five other languages, and could discuss any subject reasonably well, no matter how arcane it might seem. Clive had once pretended to attend the University of Memphis so he could be a member of the Collegiate TriviaBowl Team. He had to drop out of the team after they defeated the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 52-to-7 in their first TriviaBowl. The Arkansas team was undefeated until that contest. Even the judges at the competition seemed convinced that the Memphis team was cheating. The older judge of the two assigned to the TriviaBowl challenged Clive directly by asking him four rapid-fire questions regarding WWII. To the judge’s surprise and embarrassment, Clive easily answered the questions without hesitating. Clive controlled his urge to answer in more than one language.

Clive’s fellow Mississippians often did a double-take when Clive would answer a question with both humor and brevity. One customer who often stopped at the convenience store where Clive worked was a lawyer named John Bannon. More than once he told Clive, “You should be a lawyer!” Clive inevitably said something clever in return, such as, “Point me to the Ethics Removal office, and I’ll do it.” John always laughed at whatever Clive said in response. John told Clive that he had written a letter of recommendation for him if he ever wished to pursue a law degree.

More than once, Clive had considered moving to Virginia or Washington, both states which allowed someone to take the state bar exam without attending law school. To determine whether he could pass, Clive read several dozen law books from the State of Virginia. Using a questionable contact who worked in ‘security’ at one casino, Clive took the bar in February by posing as a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. Much to the joy of the real graduate, Clive passed the bar exam on the first try. He seemed crestfallen when told that the test was easier than expected. Clive couldn’t convince himself to do it on his own and finish with an apprentice program in Virginia. It seemed like a waste of time to possess all the knowledge but yet needlessly be required to work for free under another attorney for three years.

Clive was involved in petty crimes throughout his life. He tried shoplifting just to determine if he could get by with it (yes, he could – over and over), stealing cars and then returning them, hacking into low-level databases, impersonating bank officers, teachers, real estate agents, and undercover detectives. After a few years, he discovered that the reality of life was that anyone could do anything with a little preparation, a dash of confidence, and the right appearance. There were many times when Clive would shake his head in disbelief at how easily people saw what they wanted to and ignored anything that violated their expectations. Not once had he been caught or held accountable, even when he tried something with no preparation.

On a blistering and humid August day two years ago, Clive opened his mail and discovered a jury summons from the Desoto County, Mississippi clerk’s office. Unlike everyone else, he welcomed the opportunity to serve. He had spent many days throughout the years sitting in observation of trials, listening, watching, and learning the vocabulary and movement of the participants. Twelve days later, he was chosen to sit on the jury panel for a homicide case involving ex-police officer Curtis Burrow. Clive made it to the jury by pretending not to know much of anything and by adding a deep accent to his usual speech patterns. Clive noted that people who spoke more slowly and seemed a little dim were astronomically more likely to be picked by the prosecutor. There was no doubt that the police officer had killed his brother; both the evidence and the defendant’s face trumpeted his guilt. Nevertheless, as an experiment, Clive swayed his counterparts on the jury not to convict Curtis Burrow. When the impatient jury first voted, it was 11-to-1 to convict, with Clive being the sole juror voting “not guilty.” By lunch, it was 7-to-5. And by supper, it was 1-to-11, with the jury foreman threatening to boycott any further discussions. The foreman was the manager at a local farm equipment supplier. He felt it was his duty to protect “common sense and decency.”

The next morning, Judge Louis Jordan called the jury back to the humid, musky courtroom to talk to them about the necessity of being unanimous. Clive watched as the red-faced foreman, the last holdout for finding the ex-cop innocent, stood up and said, “We’ve decided your honor.” The judge’s face could not have registered more surprise as he sent the jurors back to register their verdict. 15 minutes later, the courtroom went silent as the foreman stood and announced, “Not guilty.” Even the defendant’s lawyer Everet Stacks seemed to have stepped into an alternate reality that bore no resemblance to the world he had expected that morning.  Everet had already wasted ten minutes telling his client to expect a guilty verdict, followed by life in prison. Both client and lawyer stood, mouths open in surprise as the judge’s gavel banged twice at the bench.

“You are free to go after processing, Mr. Burrow,” Judge Jordan told the surprised defendant. “Thank you, jurors, for your time served and your civic service.” As he banged the gavel, everyone could see him shaking his head in disbelief. The prosecutor seemed like he was struggling to find words to voice as he shakily rose from his end of the table. It was his first loss as a prosecutor in a murder case. He had already paid for campaign signs for the next election. The idea of working as a criminal defense lawyer in Desoto County frightened him. Clive approached the tables and shook both the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s hand. The ex-policeman just stared at him when he said, “You owe me one. And don’t look so guilty after you kill the next guy.”

Clive’s secret had been one he had learned over and over as an adult: listen carefully to people and plant small seeds of doubt; water them a little and the predictability of what they would do next was rarely in question. A truth bathed in multiple small lies always met more acceptance. If he could convince a jury to let a murderer walk away, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine he could become a lawyer by merely deciding to do so. As things become more complicated, most people tune out. Clive owed this cynical lesson to a series of stepfathers his mom dragged home on alternate weekends. Most of them were sociopaths with little to teach him, except for the harsh lesson about gullibility.

As Clive got up to leave his office on his first day of work in Northwest Arkansas, he turned and winked toward the back wall where both purported his law license and a framed picture of Joe Pesci from “My Cousin Vinny” were on display. It seemed too obvious, even to Clive. “Too on the nose” was the common expression. He believed in giving people a fair shot at figuring things out, even despite the risk. People would see what they wanted to, and most people assumed it was a lawyer in-joke to see Joe Pesci’s picture in a lawyer’s office.

Deciding to impersonate a lawyer was the best decision of his life, and he couldn’t wait to discover what day two might hold for him. As he turned off the lights and turned the lock to close his little storefront office, Clive had no way of knowing that he would soon find himself in the middle of a conspiracy. Against the backdrop of the small town he had chosen, it didn’t seem possible. In a year, six people would be dead. He would have a story to tell, if he lived long enough to tell it. If Clive could see the future, he’d wonder whether the headline would indicate he was a lawyer or not. Being dead had never seemed much of an inconvenience to Clive.

 

A Moment Before

storm, outside, window

 

Euell sat facing the long picture window, his eyes lazily tracing the rain as it cascaded from the roof. His book lay folded open and face down on his lap. How long he’d been absent-mindedly watching the rain was an unanswerable question. Time slows to a crawl on such cold, rainy afternoons. Euell enjoyed allowing the tiredness to overcome him. An hour stretched to two or three if he allowed himself the luxury of such mindless pleasure.

Behind him, the man coughed, reminding Euell that his special request was drawing to a close. Euell closed the book in his lap, admiring the book cover, remembering how much joy the book had brought him through multiple readings.

The man stood and placed his coffee cup on the small antique table next to the chair he’d just vacated.  He carefully straightened his long black jacket.  “It was an unusual last request, sir, but one of considerable pleasure for me. Most people request something a bit more exotic for their last request.”

Euell nodded, uncertain how to answer him. The man had unexpectedly come to gather the sum of Euell’s life, regardless of whether Euell was ready to depart.

The man gestured for Euell to lead the way. As Euell’s hand grasped the glass doorknob of the front door, he looked back toward his chair one last time. He was sitting there, slumped over and leaning slightly to the right. His book still lay open across his lap. Euell could barely tell that he was no longer breathing.

The man placed his thin fingers across Euell’s shoulder, as if to console him even as he moved him along.

“Thanks,” Euell uttered to no one in particular, as he opened the door to discover what waited for him on the other side.

 

Open The Door, Richard!

open the door richard

 

“Open the door, Richard!”

It was the last thing his wife Sara said to him, as she lay on the edge of the bed, the light in her brown eyes fading. Her open copy of “The Last Picture Show” was flat on the quilt next to her. The two paramedics who had just arrived looked at Sara in helplessness, unsure what her last words meant. Pete waved his hand toward the paramedics to indicate that she didn’t want any extraordinary measures to prolong her life. Sara had mentioned more than once that she wanted to live a full life until she could no longer do so independently. Pete and Sara had shared a long life together. Despite his promise not to call 9-1-1 if the time came, he had reflexively panicked for a moment when Sara’s headache painfully blossomed and half of her body went numb.

“Who is Richard, sir?” One paramedic asked Pete as he leaned over to place a hand on Sara’s neck, already certain that she was gone. Behind him, the clock indicated 11:59, a minute short of the new day.

No one would understand that this was their private and intimate joke, representing a short-hand to entire conversations and connected moments. “Open the door, Richard,” Pete whispered.

As he looked down at Sara’s silver hair, Pete suffered a stroke of his own as his thoughts retreated in time. As his mouth contorted, and he became slack, the paramedic motioned for his partner to help him with Pete. It was going to be a long night. They took their time, instinctively giving Pete’s body time to take him elsewhere. Pete never made it back to the home he shared for so long with Sara, nor was he awake or aware of his beloved Sara’s funeral. Since they’d made arrangements years ago, Sara was laid to rest in the cemetery of the church where her father had once preached.

Soon after, Pete began a quiet life in Shady Glen Nursing Home. He moved in the day the facility opened. His picture was on the front page of the local newspaper. He didn’t speak a word after the stroke. He would learn to smile again, and the vast repertoire of facial expressions he demonstrated was evidence that emotionally he was intact. As happens with so many nursing homes, after the grand opening, the staff slowly turned over, moving on to other jobs or to other homes with better pay and benefits. By the time he was eighty-five, none of the staff employed there remembered Pete’s original story, other than he was unable to talk.

Often, he would prop himself up in bed and shuffle through the pages of his journals. Sometimes, staff would find him in his room listening to his shortwave radio in a variety of languages. His ability to freely move returned and he began to bathe himself, eat infrequent meals, and dress. He hadn’t spoken a word in his 15 years at Shady Glen. Residents and family became accustomed to Pete’s presence on the periphery of things. He seemed to drink in every word uttered nearby.

Sometimes, he would sit by the outside door and scribble in his journal, hour after hour, a relentless torrent of nonsensical scrawling. Near his tv stand, you could see his stack of journals, each filled with his handwriting. Several nosy housekeepers, nurses, and CNAs had opened them, trying to make sense of the thousands of pages of writing. They shook their heads in sadness, wondering about Pete and how badly his stroke had hurt him. A rotating cast of staff would occasionally bring him a new journal for him to later fill with his mindless scrawling. It never occurred to a single soul that perhaps Pete’s scribbled writing was something other than gibberish.

People would speak to Pete, often at length. He would sit patiently, head turned to face them. Because he was otherwise in good enough health, the doctors who would visit less and less frequently advised the staff to not pressure him toward a response. Through the years, some of the residents visited him and shared the stories of their lives with him. Often, it appeared as if he were taking notes as they spoke to him.

Other than his journals, he had one possession remaining: a picture of a lovely young woman with a sly smile, holding a smiling baby. Everyone who saw the picture stopped to admire her in permanent repose there.

Each day, Pete would take his red pen and make a large “X” across the previous day’s block on the calendar. Each “X” represented another defeated day behind him. His battle was to return to Sara when it was finally his time. The days flew past like startled birds.

A few Saturdays after his 85th birthday, Pete was still in bed after an early supper of beans and cornbread, staring at the sunlight cascading across the ceiling as it marched its way toward the evening. In the distance, he could hear a loud voice almost singing. “Hey, young fellow! Good evening!” The voice seemed to be on the prowl, its greeting changing slightly based on the sex of the listener or apparent temperament. It continued its approach and then went silent.

Knock, knock. A fist bumped against Pete’s door. Silence.

“Open the door, Richard!” the voice boomed.

Stunned, Pete lay there in silence, holding his breath, trying to imagine how a stranger was using his wife’s secret words, so many years after her passing. He hadn’t heard it spoken since the night his Sara passed away, except in a few vintage radio shows. Both the phrase and style of music had all but vanished from the American consciousness. Pete marvelled at the constant ebb and flow of music, language, and culture in the United States.

As if the stranger read his mind, he said, “Don’t make me bring Count Basie in there, sir. Time to get acquainted with your new social director! I’ve been here a month and I’m not taking another ‘No’ for an answer today.” The man’s voice boomed. Pete remained motionless and quiet, hoping this strategy would send the visitor on his way in the same way it had during previous visits. Pete learned many strategies in his long tenure at Shady Glen.

Without waiting for Pete to answer, the stranger opened the door and said, “Hi there. I’m Crosby. We’re going to meet in the main area in 30 minutes, so drag it out of that cocoon you’re in and get down there. I know you can’t talk, so see ya.” He turned and departed. Pete barely had time to notice the young man’s outlandish mustache or the bright blue suit he was wearing.

Pete stayed in bed, aggravated that Crosby would barge in, but also intrigued how such a young man might be familiar with Count Basie. His wife’s memory and their shared catchphrase compelled him to investigate reluctantly. Pete had never taken part in any of the contrived social activities at the nursing home, although he had been an involuntary spectator for many of them. Given the acoustics of the building, he had no choice but to listen to much of their gatherings, too, regardless of where he found himself inside its confines. The previous social director was very old and evidently thought that lifeless bingo and watching the television in the common area was enough socializing. Occasionally, one or two mediocre musicians would visit them. Pete could discern whether the visiting musicians were enthusiastic about their visits; their music conveyed a sense of delight and energy.

Forty-five minutes later, there was a sizable turnout in the common area. As Pete shuffled into the room, he could see Crosby standing near a record player, a reproduction of one of the older models of his youth. Crosby still wore a blue suit and had an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He looked ridiculous, and Pete knew without a doubt that he liked him.

“As many of you know,” Crosby began, “I’m the social director. My mom named me Crosby, after the infamous Bing Crosby, because she was a standards singer when she was younger. She didn’t like Bing, so she decided to give me his surname as a first name. We’re going to start by listening to a song that is often overlooked. This record was one of my mom’s, so let’s get started.” He motioned for everyone to sit or find a comfortable spot. Many were in wheelchairs. Crosby didn’t wait for everyone to be quiet, as he knew from experience it was almost impossible to convince a group of seniors to stop talking completely. Some talked to one another, and some talked to themselves, regardless of setting.

Pete, being near the wide entrance, carefully plopped onto an oversized ottoman. There were six of them along the nearest wall, designed to both seat and catch someone with uncertain stability.

The needle hovering over the record descended and after a hiss, voices began speaking. Within seconds, Pete lost the ability to remember that sixty years had passed since he and Sara had stood in the nightclub, laughing and shouting “Open the door, Richard!” at one another until they had forgotten what was funny to begin with.

2005 faded as 1940-something coalesced in Pete’s imagination.

Sara stood in front of him, close to the gaudy jukebox, the dress her mom made for her shining a bright yellow despite the smoke-infused light in the nightclub.

Just 7 hours earlier, they were married, with Sara’s father Reverend Thomas Burns officiating the ceremony. They had chosen a place near the river by Sara’s childhood home to have the wedding, even though the Reverend’s church was only a quarter-mile from his house. About 15 family and friends attended. Sara insisted on wearing a yellow dress instead of a traditional white one and after some bashful objection, her mother joyfully made it for her. She told Pete that he had to wear black slacks, a white shirt, and a blue tie.

After the wedding ceremony, Pete changed into slacks and white long-sleeved shirt so that Reverend Burns could baptize Pete in the river. Much to Pete’s surprise, both Sara and her mother Lucy had a plan to run and jump into the river after the baptism was finished. Even Reverend Burns had no idea what they were up to until he heard them whoop and jump into the river. As they came out laughing, Mrs. Burns shouted, “You’re never too old for a refresher baptism!”

Reverend Burns tried to act irritated, but even he burst out laughing at the spectacle. “It’s a good thing that you’re an only child, Sara,” he shouted. “Otherwise, it would be the death of me.”

After the wedding and baptism, everyone came to the Reverend’s house to enjoy a communal meal. Pete asked Thelma Pinkins to make enough Lady Baltimore Cake for everyone. Her sisters, all seven of them, cooked enough fried chicken to fill three bathtubs. A friend of the Reverend, someone you’d never find inside his church, managed to provide a sizable assortment of wine, beer, and moonshine. Others brought soda and sweet tea, of course. There was enough food to satisfy a hundred people. It was a celebration unlike any Pete had witnessed in his life. John Hoskins, along with his brothers and cousins, brought their guitars and fiddles and provided the music. Rumors said they’d memorized thousands of songs just by hearing them on the radio. Anyone foolish enough to skip the celebration would undoubtedly hear both the music and the frivolity through their screen windows, anyway. At Reverend Burn’s church, everyone was welcome to be married there and for a meal to be provided. Members of other congregations often chose his church to celebrate. Because of Reverend Burn’s reputation, other pastors seldom became upset about it. Those with jealousy in their hearts knew to keep their criticisms private.

Sara’s parents, though religious, loved to socialize, dance, and share a good drink. They were well known in their small community for having open invitations for people to come to share their supper or sit outside as the fireflies approached. Often, they’d sing songs and share a drink as the night deepened. All were welcome. Reverend Burns was ahead of his time and didn’t overly concern himself with appearances. He worked the fields when needed, helped chop wood, and built furniture for those needing it. He constantly reminded everyone that the world was a short place to stay and to get one’s fill while the good Lord provided. Pete could think of no better way to express his views on life now that he was once again with Sara. “Live now, then live forever,” he’d say as if it were a prayer, exactly like his father-in-law had done. “Praying is done best with dirty hands,” the Reverent often reminded people. “Just like washing your hands removes the dirty, prayer and reflection help us get past the wrongs we’ve done.”

Sara’s parents died in a fire five years later. Over a thousand people came by the Reverend’s church to pay their respects. John Hoskins sang several hymns for the funeral and finished with the Peerless Quartet’s “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a song both the pastor and his wife loved.

After the Reverend’s death, Pete sold his managing interest in the lumber company his dad started and operated with a paternal cousin. He became a public school teacher, just as Sara had. Both he and Sara spent their lives in the small school district. No one knew that Pete’s share of the business had become worth a small fortune.

As Pete stood near the wall, laughing almost uncontrollably to the musings of Count Basie being played at the nightclub, he couldn’t imagine how life had brought him back to Sara. War and the wide world had conspired to separate them for a time. He’d survived being shot 4 times and as he bled, he thought only of coming home to Sara. Even among his German captors, he shared stories of his girl back home. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he bore no hatred toward the soldiers themselves; each of them found himself trapped by decisions made by strangers with titles or rank. Pete was discharged forty pounds lighter than when he had enlisted. Unlike many others, however, he spent his time in captivity listening to everyone’s stories, even those the Germans sometimes shared. He learned German, Italian, and a great deal of Spanish while they held him captive.

He knew that several men in the nightclub were stealing glances at Sara, attempting to gauge her beauty and measure her smile, weighing their chances of a dance with her. When she laughed, everyone seemed to forget that life was filled with troubles.

Each time Count Basie or those around them would say, “Open the door, Richard!” Sara would throw her head back and laugh like humor had just been invented for her. The phrase was a fad, one which was everywhere until it disappeared like an early morning mist. For that night, though, it was hers.

For the moment, both Sara and Lucy accepted offers of a dance from eager strangers. They swished and twirled on the dance floor as Pete and his father-in-law watched in wonder as the women in their lives demonstrated their graceful and carefree approach to dancing. As another record dropped to play, both Pete and Reverend Thomas approached their respective wives to claim the next dance.

Sara and Pete spent their honeymoon night under the stars, in a field near the Reverend’s church. After that night, the first of their long marriage, both of them used the phrase “Open the door, Richard!” to signal “hello,” or “goodbye,” or even “I love you,” and all manner of meaning residing between them. Family and friends grew accustomed to hearing the phrase as the years passed. As time took its toll and friends and family departed, almost no one remembered the origin of their catchphrase, much less what had inspired it.

Like all great stories, it was born in intimacy and laughter.

Pete felt himself being shaken. It shattered his connection to the recollections of the past. His head felt both light and foggy at the same time.

“Are you okay, Pete? Pete! Can you hear me? Nod if you can!” He felt hands near his shoulders, shaking him.

He opened his eyes and he could see the faces of a few fellow residents hovering over him, and behind them, the ceiling. It occurred to him that he was on the floor.

Crosby’s face came into focus above him, the absurd cigar now dangling toward him. Crosby seemed concerned. He probably thought Pete had a stroke or had shattered a hip in the fall.

From within Pete’s own throat, an alien sound burst out. For a moment, Pete didn’t understand what had happened.

“Crosby, are you going to help me up, or not?” Pete’s voice sounded perfectly normal, as if he hadn’t been mute for more than a decade.

The cigar fell out of Crosby’s mouth and struck Pete across the forehead. A few of the residents gasped in shock at hearing Pete’s voice. Many were convinced his brain had been scrambled years ago.

After a few moments of conducting an inventory of Pete’s general well-being, Crosby helped him sit up and then shakily stand.

“Let’s go outside,” he told Pete, as he led him outside and away from prying eyes and ears.

A few minutes later, Pete sat outside below the driveway canopy. The sun was finally receding below the distant treeline across the road. Crosby sat next to him, still with a concerned look on his face. His blue suit seemed other-worldly in the remaining sunlight.

“Pete, are you really okay? You were smiling and just fainted dead away.” Crosby patted him on the knee.

As if he had not spent years unable to speak, Pete said, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m okay now. That song broke something loose inside me, Crosby. It was our song, my dear Sara and mine. I was remembering our wedding day.” Pete shook his head as if something were still loose.

“I love that song, Pete, and Count Basie in particular. It’s a coincidence, that’s for sure.”

Pete and Crosby sat in silence for a minute, neither of them certain it was a coincidence at all.

“Crosby, can I tell you a secret?” Pete whispered the words.

“Yes, of course!” Crosby couldn’t contain his curiosity. He knew the other residents were inside repeating the miraculous first words of Pete’s a few minutes ago.

“Those journals of mine? The ones everyone thinks are full of scribblings? Those are my stories.” Pete laughed.”There are probably 10,000 pages of the stuff. Everything in my life is in there and at least a third of it is about my precious Sara and our life together.”

“Oh?” Crosby asked. He was suddenly at a loss for words, an unusual predicament for him. His mother used to pretend to faint from a lack of oxygen when Crosby would excitedly tell a story.

“The real kicker is that the stroke only affected me for a few weeks. Everyone just assumed that I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to, though. After a time, I think even I forgot.” Pete laughed at the absurdity of his long prank. Crosby didn’t know what to say. The staff had told him several wild and speculative stories about Pete’s journals and life.

Ten infinite minutes passes as both Crosby and Pete sat with their own thoughts.

“Let’s go back inside and listen to that record again, Crosby, before I think this is all a dream.”

As Crosby reached for the door pull, Pete laughed and said, “Open the door, Richard!” They both laughed like old friends. Like all good friends, they had recognized something essential in each other.

As Crosby readied the record player and prepared the needle, Pete stared at Crosby. Only a couple of the people from the previous playing were still in the common room. Most had gone back to their own rooms, to the expansive dining and activity area nearby.

“I want you to take the journals, Crosby. Do with them what you will.” Pete’s voice was now vibrant and strong.

“I can’t take them…” Crosby began to object but stopped as Pete held up his right hand.

“Okay, okay.” Crosby realized how awkward his voice now sounded. “If it will keep you off the floor, I’ll agree to anything.”

“Ha!” Pete barked. “Now put on the song before I croak.”

Crosby dropped the needle. The song began to play for the second time as he sat down a few feet away from Pete in the darkening room. When the song ended, Crosby rose to turn the record over and play the B-side.

A chill rose up his spine.

As he leaned over to look more closely, he knew with certainty that Pete was dead, well on his way to find his Sara.

“Open the door Richard!” would be their eternal greeting.

Crosby smiled. Witnessing an honest life and death were both a rarity in the world. Of the hundred thousand people who died that day all over the world, Crosby predicted that Pete would linger in his mind for a long time.

After a few minutes of sitting in silence, Crosby made his way to the nursing center to inform them of Pete’s death and to start the machinery tied to someone’s demise. To his further surprise, he found that Pete had all the arrangements made.

Once Crosby deciphered Pete’s handwriting, he spent his waking moments reading the stories of Pete’s life.

A year later, Crosby walked along the edge of a barren cotton field and felt the pull of an early-October wind. The river was nearby, and the smell of earth and water washed over him. After reading all Pete’s journals, he felt compelled to visit the places Pete, Sara, and Mr. and Mrs. Burns called home. To his surprise, the small community still stood, even as so many others faded. People had come and gone, to be sure, but the spirit of the little town was intact. So much of Pete’s journals were meticulously detailed, and each place was mentioned with care. It was difficult to imagine that everything he’d written in them was true.

A hundred yards further, Crosby saw that a white church and its sharp steeple stood against the treeline. On the other side, an expansive cemetery occupied the landscape. The gravel parking lot ran all the way up to the front of the double doors in front of the church. On the front, a small sign indicated, “Perkins Gospel.”

To the right, a marker stood a few feet from the wall of the church. A copper-colored plaque was attached to the upright chunk of shaped rock. “Perkins Gospel, founded 1899. Generously funded in perpetuity by an anonymous donor, in memory of the most humble of God’s servants, Reverend Thomas Burns.”

After Crosby composed himself, he dared to walk the remaining steps and stand in front of the graves of Pete and Sara. An hour passed before he could pull himself away, both from the gravestones and the overlapping memories of this place so lovingly described by Pete.

He would never again hear Count Basie without picturing Sara in her yellow dress and Pete’s admiring eyes following her.

A place, a time, a love, all in equal measure.

Say it with me, friends, even if you don’t know the original song: “Open the door, Richard!”

May a song of your own choosing forever propel you forward, in this life and the next.

 

 

Avara Rising: A Story of Beginnings

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Eleanor’s hands trembled slightly as she flicked the end of her cigarette on the edge of the porcelain ashtray. Her other hand nervously clutched the locket around her neck. Ashes from her cigarette fell from the overflowing ashtray onto the expensive table. Her eyes followed mine as I watched the ashes fall. She laughed nervously and waved dismissively at them. “No one knows I smoke. It’s the same brand my mother once smoked. There’s a lot people don’t know. I think you know that now, don’t you?”

We were both dancing around the central question of her life: how did she survive and flourish in the midst of such chaos. My editor wanted me to lob softball questions for the 6000-word piece I had been assigned. To my surprise, I had immediately felt a kinship with Eleanor. Her features reminded me of princesses from the Disney stories of my childhood. I wanted nothing more than to simply sit and talk to her for a lifetime of minutes. Her celebrity status seemed to fit awkwardly on her.

I’d followed her career for the last fifteen years and watched all of her movies. When my editor initially asked me to work on a special story about Eleanor, I had to conceal my enthusiasm. Seeing her first movie evoked something inquisitive in me. I noticed that Eleanor had a small diagonal scar on her neck, below her left ear. Later, I heard her tell an interviewer that the scar was a reminder of her childhood. When she said the words, I watched almost imperceptible clouds pass over her face. I recognized those clouds of trauma. Like me, she had survived a violent childhood, one seemingly hidden from her public life.

On a whim, I turned off the digital recorder on the table in front of me.

Pushing aside my misgivings, I laid a photo on the table. I heard an audible gasp as Eleanor took in the photo. I looked to her face and noted that her expression retreated into itself. I knew the look well from my countless interviews. The photo had pushed her to retreat far past her public veneer. Eleanor was once again the wistful girl in the photo. I wasn’t sure if she’d seen the photo in the 50 years since it was taken.

Eleanor looked up at me, locking my gaze. Tears formed in her eyes as she attempted to blink them into submission.

“So, you know? That day and my story?” Her voice trailed off in a sigh. “Where did you get the photo?”

I sat quietly, out of respect. I nodded. “Yes,” I said, needlessly. “One of the children of your neighbor had a box of keepsakes. I found it there. Finding things and people is what I do. It’s unquestionably you in the photo.”

Both of Eleanor’s hands reached for her locket as the tears poured from her eyes. I could see that her white blouse caught the droplets as they rolled down her wrinkled face. Strangely, she said, “It’s almost me, that’s true.”

“Can I see the picture, Eleanor?” I whispered. “The one inside the locket? I’ve noticed you wear the locket anytime you’re not working.”

She shook her head, a little violently.

I waited.

After a minute, Eleanor reached behind her head and fumbled with the clasp of her locket. She managed to unclasp it and pulled the gold necklace away.

She gracefully piled the necklace on the table near the ashtray, waiting. I noticed that her hand returned briefly and touched the small scar there.

I reached over and touched the locket. I lifted it and brought it closer to my gaze and opened it. Inside, I discovered the face of a beautiful, smiling little girl, one who shared the features of young Eleanor.

“Her name was Avara, a name my mother saw on a tin of cooking oil. She was my twin. As you may have guessed, she left me on the day that picture was taken.” She pointed to the picture of young Eleanor that I had placed face up on the table. “The other picture is of my maternal grandmother.”

“Tell me more, Eleanor, in any way you can express it.” I had forgotten all professional pretense at this point.

Eleanor adopted the faraway look once more as she began to speak:

“It was the early 1980s. My mother had found herself in a life she’d never have imagined, one defined by the birth of two twin girls she hadn’t planned. She shared the lives of these two girls with the most unlikely of husbands, one unlike any she had imagined. She was born in a very small town on the fringes of the state. He had courted her with the most gentlemanly manners. Once she was pregnant, my mother had to accompany my father to the place we called home, away from everything and everyone she’d known. He ruled their lives with a range of abuse. He had studied human psychology through the prism of violence and artfully applied its domesticating techniques with curled fists and cloistered shouts. Day after day of fierce application resulted in my mother surrendering all of her abilities to the whims of this man dedicated to anger.

Each time my mother attempted to put life in its proper place, her husband would remind her of her diminished value. The taste and stain of blood served as a reminder that escape was an illusion. As her twin girls aged, she noted that her husband realized that no greater bargaining chip or amulet of fear existed.

It was on one of my father’s good days that he gave me the scar. My mother was outside talking to one of the neighbors who needed someone to watch his two kids on Saturday. My father overheard voices and exited our trailer. Without taking a moment to listen, he grabbed my mother by the neck and hauled her inside the trailer. He told the neighbor, “Mind your own g-damned business, Robert!” Once inside, he had us all sit on the couch in the tiny living room. Once his rant started, his jealous words became louder and more incoherent. He grabbed one of the four framed pictures on the paneled wall to break it. My mom raised her hand to ask him to please stop. He threw the frame with as much force as he could manage. It flew sideways and shattered on the side of my face. A piece of the glass stuck in my throat. Blood went everywhere. Even as I thought I might die, I welcomed it. My mother was forbidden to take me anywhere to be treated. She used a decorative towel to stop the blood until my father fell asleep in his recliner. Another neighbor, Sheila, put three stitches in my neck using a sewing needle.

For the day in question, my mother awoke on Easter with the idea that if Jesus could sacrifice himself to save mankind, she could at least do something to save her girls. I’m not sure what convinced her that particular day was the day, so to speak. Nevertheless, she rose early enough to use the eggs from the fridge to make colored Easter eggs for her precious girls. She ignored the possibility that her husband might exact his vengeance upon her for wasting the eggs. She carefully placed each dyed eggs back in the egg carton. Before anyone awoke, she crept around the perimeter of the trailer to hide the eggs where her two daughters could find them. No one else was outside that morning. Most of her neighbors had burned the midnight oil. Saturday night was the one night they could all forget their mundane, repetitive lives for the week.

When everyone woke up, my mother dodged the verbal barbs of her husband as she coaxed him to drink his coffee and eat biscuits and sausage. He didn’t seem to notice the absence of eggs on his cracked plate.

While he begrudgingly ate his breakfast, my mother helped us get dressed in our dresses and brushed our hair. We assumed we were dressing to wait for the church bus that made its way around the trailer park each Sunday morning.

“Let’s go outside, girls, and find the Easter eggs!”

My mother camouflaged the fright in her voice. No one except her knew that either she or her husband would not survive the day. She hoped in her secret heart that Jesus and his message of forgiveness would absolve of her of the harsh necessity of that day’s choices. Only she knew that her husband’s pistol, the one he’d held against her head several times, would finally help her.

Avara and I stepped carefully down the old iron and wood-plank steps onto the sparse grass surrounding the trailer. I held the empty egg carton and Avara clutched the single basket we owned. Both of us were dressed in our finest summer church dresses.

As I began to gather the eggs, my mother took a picture of me as I searched the ground with my eyes. She was proud of the camera, even though it was used.  My mother took pictures as if they were made of gold.

Immediately after she snapped the picture, the back door of the trailer flew open. There were no steps there. Anyone wanting to exit had to double back to the front or simply jump the three feet to the ground.

My father chose the second option. His anger propelled him. He jumped the distance without hesitating. He balanced the pistol in his right hand as he landed. Somehow, he found it under my mother’s clothes in the dresser where she’d hid it last night. How he had come to the conclusion that his wife was planning something nefarious is still a mystery. Avara came up behind me as I looked up. My father lifted the pistol to fire it at my mother. Instead, the bullet hit my precious Avara and killed her instantly. My mother screamed in agony and anger and hurled herself at my father. They struggled for a few moments. I think my father was shocked to find himself needing to defend himself against his wife. That hadn’t happened since the second time he had beaten her. My mom seemed to have found new strength as she fought him. Moments later, another shot reverberated between the row of trailers. Since it was a Sunday morning, the deafening roar once again filled the air. My mother froze in shock as my father’s face shattered and a bullet passed from under his chin through the top of his head. He fell to the ground. My mother laughed, a high-pitched and untethered scream of laughter.

My mother grabbed me and pulled me close. She slumped against the underskirt of the trailer, next to Avara. I don’t know how long we sat there. We both watched as my father gurgled blood, trying to speak. Finally, he felt still and silent. At some point, my mother had taken off her locket and put it in my hand. After a long minute, a curious neighbor poked his head around the trailer’s edge to find us. We heard a shout, followed later by more shouts. Much later, a police car slowly pulled up over the curb with its lights flashing. I remember that it didn’t arrive in a hurry. I think the officer knew that being in a hurry in our neighborhood was a waste. The police had come by several times in the last year. They’d note the broken furniture, the beer cans, the bloody faces, said a few words, and depart. It was a story all too common in the South. Even on the night my mother had the courage to tell one of the officers, “Please don’t leave me with him,” the officer took my father aside and asked him to take it easy.

I don’t remember looking at my dear sister. I recall a neighbor picking me up like a doll and talking to me in a low voice. I saw Avara’s Easter basket on the ground, holding four or five dyed eggs. My mother was taken away in a patrol car. Though she was defending herself when she killed my father, the police decided that because she admitted she was planning to kill him, it wasn’t self-defense. I lived the rest of my childhood with my neighbors. That’s how it came to pass that my mother spent the rest of her short life in prison for murder. She convinced herself that prison was appropriate for staying too long within the reach of her violent husband. She missed Avara’s funeral. I never saw her again after the police shoved her in the back of the patrol car.”

Eleanor finished talking and simply sat in her chair. Her regal features seemed to be resigned to the sadness that the story held for her. “I’ve never spoken the names of my parents since that day, either. My mother’s name was Kimber and my father was named Gerald. I took the last name of the kind neighbors who raised me as their own. My real last name was Holloway.”

She leaned in and whispered to me. “Gabriel, do you know the real secret, the one that no one alive knows?” She hesitated.

I couldn’t believe that she held more secrets. It felt like she was in a confessional and I was her confessor. I nodded.

“That day? It wasn’t Avara who was killed. It was Eleanor. When my neighbor pulled me away, I told him that my name was Eleanor, my dear sister’s name. I don’t know why I blurted out my sister’s name. I’ve lived my entire life and career using her name. I’m Avara. I think the only reason I survived was by adopting her name and promising that I’d rise above the thing that killed her.” Once again, tears rolled down her face.

I stood up and walked around the table. Eleanor didn’t resist as I pulled her close and we both cried until time slowed. I knew that Eleanor, or Avara, was transported back to the trailer park all those years ago. In some ways, despite people not knowing it, Eleanor had spent a great deal of her life buried in the past.

Three weeks later, my editor demanded the 6000-word piece for the magazine. Instead, I handed him a full draft of the book that Eleanor had authorized: “Avara Rising.” She had decided to finally come out to the world and reveal the story of the crucible which had formed her. Her sister’s name had found fame in the world. It was time for the other little girl to find her real voice and speak to the world. Like her mother, she’d find the courage to plant her feet and insist that the reckoning commence.

It all started with a picture, an oath given freely by a mother, and a young life consumed by violence. Gabriel could only hope that the little girl picking up her Easter eggs was still frolicking in a nondescript yard somewhere, with her sister laughing joyfully behind her.

Amen, Avara. Godspeed, Eleanor.

 

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