Launch of The Lighkeeper's Daughters

Launch of The Lighkeeper's Daughters
by Jean Pendziwol

Elvis the Mountie Dog Steals the Show at the Book Signing

Elvis the Mountie Dog Steals the Show at the Book Signing
Elvis, Joan M. Baril, customer poet Rob Lem

Monday, November 5, 2012

One Mississippi. Short Fiction

A writers' colony is full of stories, some written and some told.   I found this story by Texas writer Talya Boerner poignant and unforgettable.  Talya's very interesting blog is found at www.gracegritsgarden.blogspot.com.


Talya Boerner



One Mississippi
By Talya Boerner

Daddy was in a bad mood again. I knew by the sound of his truck turning onto the long driveway in front of our house. The speed of his turn and the sounds of gravel slinging and crunching underneath his tires were dead giveaways. Plus, I could determine his mood based on the number of One Mississippi’s, Two Mississippi’s I counted in my head between the moment he parked the truck until the instant the screen door slapped shut on the back porch. He was predictable.

 Just like my life so far.

The ignition went silent leaving only the song of cicadas. Dusk is the loneliest time of day when the sky darkens into purple and all sorts of worries creep into my mind.

Seven Mississippi, Eight MississippiHe was still outside, sitting in his truck. Doing what, I wondered? Resting? Thinking? Deciding whether or not to just turn around and leave for good?  What was the point in working so hard if there was never time for fun? When I grew up, I was not going to be a farmer. This much I knew.   
 

The sounds of supper were repeated nightly, burned into my mind like a favorite old church hymn sung every Sunday morning. If I wandered into the kitchen from my inconspicuous spot on the couch, I knew Daddy’s plate would already be filled with a giant scoop of fried potatoes, cooked only seconds before, along with salt pork, slices of fresh onion from the garden, and a thick wedge of hot cornbread. Cornbread is the best part of supper, with butter dripping down the sides, hot from the black iron skillet. The kitchen smells nearly interrupted my counting, but I was good at doing more than one thing at a time. I learned that from Momma. Thirteen Mississippi, Fourteen Mississippi

Her heavy iron skillet, passed from generation to generation, was an extension of her arm, used to cook every meal. It was well seasoned from greasy bacon drippings that flavored each dish and laced the warm air with delicious aromas. Between meals, it rested on the stovetop like a prized kitchen decoration. Momma had the hardest job. Walking on eggshells was exhausting. I was exhausted. Tucking Barbie out of sight underneath a throw pillow on my lap, I waited and counted, staring at a television show but not really seeing. Twenty-One Mississippi, Twenty-Two Mississippi

There was nothing good to watch on television. Really, there never was. Other than the morning farm report and the noon weather forecast, Daddy thought it a complete waste of time. If left up to him, he would chain it behind his truck, set it on fire like an old tire, and drag it through the wheat fields when he burns the dry stalks after harvest.

Luckily, it was not up to him.

My little sister slept on the couch beside me. She could sleep through anything.  

Thirty Mississippi… and the screen door slammed. Daddy nodded and grunted my direction. I half-smiled back. He was spent and grimy, still carrying his dirty thermos, now empty. His face and arms were tanned deep brown from a life spent outside and sweat stains outlined the back of his shirt where he leaned against the hot truck seat. Underneath his arm, he balanced a stack of ledger papers used to track every dollar spent and earned. He was a ‘numbers man’ and helped me with math word problems when time allowed.

I was not a ‘numbers girl’. I hated word problems. Why would I ever need to know the precise time two trains would meet, if one leaves Chicago traveling 60 mph and another leaves New York traveling 80 mph? I had never been to either city, and I certainly didn’t plan to work on the railroad. Grown-ups designed those ridiculous questions to torture us in school. If I ever really needed to know about those trains, I could ask Daddy, he could figure it in his head. He was very smart, the smartest person I knew.

I reminded myself to breathe, twirling Barbie’s silky hair underneath the throw pillow. Barbie was lucky. She was thin and beautiful, and she had Ken. Ken was happy.

As Daddy dumped the stack of papers on the bar and hung his sweaty John Deere cap on the nearby rack, I thought it was unfortunate he never had a son to help on the farm, to help lighten his load. I’m sure he wished for this too, although he never said as much. The house was stuffy, blanketed in heat from the kitchen oven.

A summer storm brewed west of the river making the air heavy and stagnant. The crops needed rain. We needed rain. The humidity weighed on everyone.

“What’s that?” he grumbled at Momma from the kitchen. He sounded tired, and expressed little interest in the supper she had prepared. With only a few words to say, he certainly made sure not to use too many of them at once, as if he was allotted only so many words per month, per year.

“Supper,” Momma offered, sounding a bit too cheery. What did he think it was? I tried to watch television but could not really focus. His favorite meal was spread like a feast night after night before he even stepped one muddy boot on the linoleum floor, and suddenly tonight it was unrecognizable.

“Not hungry,” he murmured as he wandered off into the bathroom to shower away his weary day.

Why did he have to be so mean? My cheeks warmed as tears stung my eyes, but squeezing Barbie tightly underneath the pillow I did not cry. I never cried. I wonder what would happen if I grabbed his supper plate and slung it against the icebox? Would anyone notice? I often wondered how Momma kept from hurling that iron skillet at him. I was never getting married. Barbie got the last good man.

I heard him in the bathroom, the water running. Momma disappeared. He used harsh smelly soap to scrub the grime from his hands, but his palms remained rough and yellowed, stained from years of handling crop defoliant.

I studied my hands, soft and slender and unblemished with a long sweeping lifeline running one side of my palm to the other. Where am I on this thin line right now? Freeing Barbie from her hiding place, I smoothed her purple shimmery dress, retying the ribbon at her tiny waist. Even squished underneath the pillow, her hair was perfect. I poked my sleeping little sister with Barbie’s feet, permanently in tiptoe position, “You should go to bed.”

 Hours later I awoke on the couch to a silent house, the television broadcasting an annoying end-of-day test pattern. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Rain would come before morning offering some relief. The kitchen was tidy and dark except for the dim glow of the light above the oven. Daddy’s untouched plate rested on the stovetop covered in foil in case he wanted it later. Exhausted, already sleeping, he wouldn’t want it later. I touched the top of the foil. It was cold. Wasted. I re-considered throwing it across the room, but didn’t much feel like it anymore.

In the bedroom, the soft whirring of the fan made drifting off to sleep possible, blurring thoughts and blocking sounds of the house. The fan was old and the cord was worn, and Momma often threatened to throw it in the trash fearing it was a fire hazard. But I couldn’t sleep without it. For nearly eleven years, it was my security blanket. Oscillating back and forth in the bedroom, it lightly moved my sister’s hair and swayed the pink ruffled curtains, the shade underneath tapping rhythmically against the pane. Our bedroom was small, with space only for twin beds, a dresser and a nightstand Daddy made in high school shop class. Despite its size, we had always shared the bedroom, which was sometimes annoying, but mostly it was okay. Bonded by disquiet, we were best friends.

Wedged under the mattress, I found my diary, my deepest secrets, along with a half-empty, crumpled package of Vantage cigarettes stolen from Momma’s purse a while back. Mainly, I wanted to keep her from smoking them, but I thought I might smoke them at the movies with my friends next weekend. They smelled oddly pleasant to me, unlike the lit cigarettes that often filled the house with stale smoke. Thumbing through the journal, I admired my handwriting, some words adorned with curlicue letters and hearts and tiny sketches. The first page warned, “This is personal property - Keep out! This means you.” A page near the middle of the book said, “I.L.R.W.W.A.M.H” I didn’t remember the significance of these initials that were once so important I devoted two pages to the large neatly printed block letters. Thinking of nothing clever to record, I returned the diary and cigarettes to my secret place.

It had been hours since my sister and I ate supper, yesterday really. I was hungry. Lying on the bedroom floor after tidying Barbie’s Dream House, I nibbled a piece of candy bar from my stash in the nightstand, taking tiny bites to make it last longer. I was talented at making chocolate last, sometimes for months. Christmas candy lasted until Valentine’s Day when Momma replenished it with a red heart-shaped box decorated with ribbon or satin, always beautiful. Valentine’s candy kept until Easter, if I was careful. Pacing myself, I always had a stash of candy concealed away in my bedroom. My sister ate hers fast. Then she wanted mine.  

The chocolate melted in my mouth as I studied the back of the torn silver wrapper, reading the strange ingredients, wondering where these amazing candies were made. Licking a bit of sticky caramel from the tip of each finger, I anxiously thought about the upcoming school year. My cousin thought in a couple of years I might be good enough to be a cheerleader, unless I ate too much candy I supposed. I picked at a flake of chocolate from my nightgown leaving a tiny stain near the eyelet trim, only noticeable to me.

Finishing the last bite, I changed Barbie into her nightgown. We were ready for bed. Silently, I inched over to my sister’s twin bed and carefully poked the torn wrapper underneath her feather pillow. How long would it take for her to find it? She made a little birdlike peep but continued to sleep, her eyes fluttering beneath her lids as if dreaming. She resembled Laura Ingalls on Little House, with the same long auburn hair and a sprinkling of dark freckles across her nose. She hated to hear people make that comparison. But it was true.

“Are you still up?” Momma whispered, standing in the doorway, her cotton robe dusting the floor. Startled, I flinched. I had not heard her footsteps.

“Just getting ready for bed.” I blurted, probably looking guilty, sounding nervous. Did she see me poke the wrapper under my sister’s pillow? Did I have melted chocolate smeared on my lips?

Momma looked tired. She smiled, “Don’t stay up too late.”

Lying in the dark, the fan stirred the air slightly. Beyond, the trucks on the nearby interstate hummed, driving someplace else, sounding distant and detached. Sleep never came easily. Worries crept into my mind. Twirling Barbie’s silken hair I counted and waited.

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi

 

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