The Smoking Poet

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A Good Cause
Feature Author: Bonnie Jo Campbell
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"Red Barn," watercolor by Viestarts Aistars






“Who’s he?”

That’s the first question everyone asked when they heard Eskie Sims had been killed. When the question was answered, the lines in their faces relaxed and turned a curve up.

“Oh! One of that bunch. Well, how in the world did it happen?”

It’s peculiar how some folks are nothing more than amusement for others. From the first breath to the last roll of the eyes and shudder of the body, some individuals are never more than card table curiosities at which others can laugh with no real sense of guilt. So, it was natural for folks to think that if Eskie Sims had managed to die in a manner anywhere near to how he had lived, it was bound to be worth a second cup of coffee before trudging through the rest of a long day’s monotony.

Eskie and his family were peculiar. No one in town ever knew where they came from.  They simply appeared one day, the way toadstools spring up overnight. They had disappeared in much the same manner. No one from where they had been searched for them, and no one in the place they had come to welcomed them.

They took up residence in the wheel-less corpse of a school bus at the town dump: old man Sims, a sliver of brown, horn-like substance with a voice like the bleat of a goat; his wife, a wraith swathed in shapeless drabs of cotton, staring in endless search through the strands of dirty hair that straggled about her face; the boys, Eskie and Clett, of indeterminable agestubbined, nobbined, grainy creatures with tufts of orange hair shocked upon their heads, always skittering about belching nasal sounds at one another in apparent communication. The entire group resembled the misbegotten offspring of some goblin-raped May Fairy.

Word of their arrival made its usual meandering circuit about the town and, within a month, anyone with more curiosity than business had made the trek out to the dump and observed the Sims family prowling the mounds of refuse by day, brushing through stinging clouds of black flies, undeterred by sun or stench, and bolting only from the scuttle of rats that inhabited the dump in hordes.

There were some who didn’t want the Sims around. From time to time, one or another of the leading citizens, sitting in a padded chair at the town’s conference table, would lean forwardspreading his legs as he did so to allow safe passage for an ample bellyand speaking earnestly would say, “We can’t allow those folks to stay out there. It’s not in the town’s best interest. They’re ignorant and damn near half-crazy. Why, they might even be dangerous.”

But the naysayers never won and never even pressed too hard. Mostly, it was good politics.

What finally happened was that the Sims got to be considered permanent fixtures at the dump and even became informally responsible for keeping the place shipshape. The city never paid any salary, but individuals hauling garbage used to give them a bit of money for lending a hand in the unloading. Furthermore, knowing the Sims would pilfer castoffs, some folks threw in still usable items, which were snatched up and carried into the bus body.

I managed to befriend the family and, eventually, learned to make sense of all the nasal honking and general oral dithering that passed for language among them.

When I would arrive at the dump in my pickup, old man Sims would jerk and strut along, leading me with whirling motions of his arms and those high-pitched bleating sounds, to a place appropriate for dumping; then we’d meet at the back of the truck. The ritual was simple. He’d reach out and snatch the dollar bill from my hand.

“That’s for dumping and sweeping out the bed,” I’d say.

He’d bleat at me and go to work.

While he busied himself in the truck, I’d knock about the dump and usually spend some time with Eskie, who was the most sociable of all the Sims.  Clett was dour and introverted. The mother was a fragmented and lost character wandering in a silent agony all her own. Eskie, on the other hand, was warm and open.

“Rats,” he told me one day. “Hate ‘em. Rats come an’ take it all someday, but I be killin’ ‘em for now till then.”

He punctuated the statement by hurling a rock in the general direction of an enormous trash heap. The missile thudded solidly against something, and a portion of the garbage sailed into the air and spun aboutsquealing and thrashinguntil it fell out of sight on the other side of the garbage pile.

“Rat,” Eskie said, turning his prehistoric little face up to peer into mine. “Didn’t kill ‘im though. Mostly never do. . . . Damn!”

Eskie fixed his face in the direction he had thrown, another rock at the ready in his hand. He waited for a long time, but the rat was gone. He dropped the rock to the ground.

“Rat,” he said again, as though confirming the fact. As he spoke, his tiny body shivered but not in fear or even disgust, rather it was a spasm of the nerves, a visceral shiver such as occurs at death when spirit is gone and only the muscles function fitfully and mindlessly.

Eskie sat simply on the ground, his back against the same pile of garbage that had harbored the rat. He looked earnestly up at me, his eyes squinted and his lips drawn back in a grimace. His teeth were tiny yellow points, and with his grubby hands with their dwarfed fingers resting across his knees, he looked like a rodent himself.

I offered him a cigarette, knowing from past experience he loved tobacco about as much as anything on earth. He always smoked cigarettes eagerlydrawing strongly, inhaling deeply, and even holding the smoke near his nose when he wasn’t puffing. When he could no longer hold the butt between thumb and index finger, he would rake off the coals, chew and swallow it, paper and all.

“You need a rifle,” I told him that day.

“Rifle.” He imitated the word. I don’t think he knew it.

“Yes. You need a rifle to kill rats. Maybe a .22.”

Eskie’s face brightened and his eyes glittered. “Oh! Yeah. Twenty-two’d kill rats all right.”

I left him dreaming of the weapon and all the rats he could kill with it. Neither the rifle nor Eskie entered my thoughts again until I saw him a few months later on a Sunday morning hunkered in the middle of the sidewalk before the most prestigious church in town, a bundle of newspapers stacked before him.

 “Earnin’ money,” he told me, and proudly patted the pockets of the carpenter’s apron tied about his middle. “Jingles here. Paper here,” he intoned, gesturing to show the orderly scheme by which he arranged his finances.

Eskie sold papers only on Sunday morning. How he got anyone to set him up was something I never discovered. He hardly inspired confidence, but, apparently, had certain resources of character.

His method of selling papers was direct and aggressive. He simply put himself in the path of as many people as possible, thrust his newspapers at them, and honked the word “BUY.” He had memorized the pieces of money that made up the price of a paper and, if the buyer presented him the proper amount, the transaction was completed. However, if he received paper money, he fished into the pockets of his apron. Solemnly, he would hold out a handful of silver and a handful of bills and allow the customer to make his own change.

It wasn’t the best system in the world, but it worked. If he was ever cheated, I never heard of it. People being what they are, he’s bound to have been cheated a few times. Generally speaking, though, people enjoy using minor instances such as these transactions to shore up the illusion of their honors when they really do cheat, as in their businesses or marriages.

Eskie’s regular route on Sunday mornings carried him to the front doors of every major church in town just at the moments of their dismissals: the Catholics at 8:30, 9:30, and 11:45, Episcopalians at 11:15, Methodists at 11:00, Baptists at 12:00 and so forth. Sometimes he had only a few minutes to cover several blocks, but, as far as I knew, always kept his schedule andrain or shineblundered into every churchyard and vestibule gathering of the town’s brethren, hawking his wares and raking in the coins.

Actually, most of the town’s clergy didn’t like Eskie selling papers church door to church door. The brethren, themselves, didn’t take too kindly to it, even though they bought his papersas a gesture of Christian charity I gathered. As one church member put it, “Hell! I buy the damned papers from him because he’s so pathetic, but I wish he’d stay out at the dump. It’s embarrassing to find the little SOB squatting in the middle of the sidewalk in front of church. Besides, he’s rude, and I can’t understand a word he says.”

Eskie would have endeared himself greatly and been tolerated with an abundance of kindness had he only attached himself to one church and sold papers exclusively to that congregation.  Such denominational loyalty would have given at least one group a partisan pride at being so chosen. It would, in fact, have set Eskie apart as possessing some sort of God-touched instinct and reassured them of their own importance in the eyes of the deity.

But Eskie didn't do that, and he certainly didn’t care to engage in conversations dealing with God, salvation, or any other amenities. Take the money and run was his philosophy. Thoroughly disquieting for Sunday after services!

Eskie’s business venture finally ended when, in between church schedules, he discovered he could command business merely by leaping in front of passing cars. He sold a few papers in that way, but the irate motorists, in coalition with the church members, finally succeeded in having him run back to the dump. I didn’t waste any tears on Eskie though, for by then he had earned enough for his .22 and a large quantity of shells with cash to spare.

I heard from the youth of the town, who themselves went to the dump to shoot rats at night, that Eskie’s favorite nocturnal recreation was to sit atop the yellow bus body, a large flashlight taped to the barrel of his .22, a hot Coke ensconced between his legs, a cigarette in his mouth, and a box of shells at his side. Patiently, he would sweep over the mounds of garbage until he caught the red glitter of rat’s eyes, at which point he would bang away. When he heard an answering shriek of pain, he rewarded himself with a swig of Coke.

His drink lasted a long time, for the town boys also reported he was a notoriously bad marksman, not nearly as good as Clett, who sometimes filched the rifle and went on sorties of his own. He, they said, could snap shoot a scampering rat seven out of ten times.

Eskie was jealous of his .22 though, and his brother didn’t get to use it much, although he did covet the weapon.

Apparently, Clett was somewhat more of a ladies’ man, and he became involved with Anna Rose Dawson, a sweet girl who never said a cross word in her life and was without a vexatious bone in her body. Tranquil and tractable she waslarge, dirty, bovine, and stupid.

Scarcely anyone knew she existed, and, if they did, it was because they had heard of her brother, Sonny, a deranged adolescent who was kicked in the head by a mule. Rushed to the hospital, he lay in a deep coma for three days. Late on the third day, he roused enough to inquire about the mule. Informed it had broken its leg and been destroyed, Sonny grinned good-naturedly and lapsed back into sleep. A few days later he was sent home to finish recuperatingno more daft after the accident than he had been prior to it.

That whole episode was a marvel about the town for days, and some longtime residents had an extensive repertory of Dawson family stories, but the important thing is that Anna Rose was Sonny’s genetic equal in every respect, save gender. Somehow she met and accepted the dour blandishments of Clett Sims.

I cannot help but wonder about the union of that cowish girl and her elfin lover. Did he appear near her home at dusk andstanding in the apron of trees that fringed the meadowpipe her to himself? Did shealone in that rattle board housequiver with emotions and desires such as she had never known before? Did she run from the house, bound by the spell of pan-like notes from Clett’s rural pipes? Did they meet on the margin of moonlight and midnight and stand togethertransfixed for a moment in some eternal now and plight their troths on greensward carpet among the columbine while the nightingale wove a liquid hymn to ancient goddesses of love?

I doubt it.

Much as I would like to believe in enchantment, the weight of sordid, circumstantial evidence falls in favor of squalid summer nights at the roller rinkor rather behind itthe two of them sharing a sticky bottle of orange soda near the trash bins, while from within came the cacophony of country and western music dinning through tinny speakers and mingling with the thunder of roller skate wheels, the hoots and whoops of boys, and the shrill screams of pursued girls.

I cannot imagine Clett’s proposal. I am certain there were no tender murmurings, no exchange of lover’s tokens, no gallantries, and few words. I suspect there was a simple relinquishing of separateness, a primitive willingness to travel together, and so, one night, the two merely walked from the rink to the bus body at the dump, where she took up residence as Clett’s womanthat is to say, his property.

From the moment he saw her, Eskie burned with the healthy lust of a young goat.

It surely must have been agony for him to lie awake at night listening to the mutterings and meaty sounds of his brother and Anna Rose thrashing about in carnal jointure only a few feet from his solitary disquietude.

The transformation in the lad was dramatic. He still sat for long hours with his .22, but the rifle rested more often than not across his knees while Eskie, his face cupped in his torturously short and dirty fingers, stared across the vista of filth in a private rapture, captured by a vision so new to him he could only puzzle over it endlessly.

The other part of the transformation was the periods of manic animation during which he rollicked up mounds of garbage, sported along their crests and tumbled down their sides, landing on his hands and somersaulting. All the while, he accompanied his cavorting with raucous shouts, honking exclamations, piercing whistles, and the clapping of his mummy-like hands.

“Hit’s spirit business,” his father told me once. “He’s been hexed. Sometimes he thinks he’s an animal.” The man stared nervously into a breeze as though trying to see the spirits in evil, lolling, languid drifting.

Eskie’s behavior was not mysterious at all. When Anna Rose appeared, he became transported and vied for her attention with his squalling assaults on the mountains of litter. When her cow eyes settled on his antics, he drove himself into a frenzy. When the corners of her slack mouth curved up and she moved her head slowly back and forth, clicking her tongue in amused recognition and mock dismay, Eskie exploded in bursts of frenetic energy.

“I’m a bear,” he would honk. “A dog . . . a deer . . . a squirrel,” accompanying his statement with the proper imitation until Anna Rose would grin in a grotesque manner with her head jutted forward and her blunt, square teeth bared.

But if Clett appeared, she would bow her head and cover her mouth with a fleshy hand. When she brought the hand away, the smile would be gone as though she had plucked it off. Then Eskie would trudge away, and she would plod in a docile manner to stand beside Clett, who might ignore her, or cuff her if he felt really angry.

Probably I am the only person aware of Eskie’s plan in advance. I knew his passion had grown beyond the limits of endurance when he spoke to me in guarded tones one afternoon as we unloaded a heap of branches and bags of lawn cuttings from my pickup. If his similes were absurd, the sincerity with which he uttered them prevented my laughing.

“Anna Rose got udders,” he said seriously, embracing a green plastic bag of grass and heaving it over the side of the truck, “big as pillers. She’s soft lookin’ as’n old feather mattress an’ as smooth as grease in her withers. And she’s company . . . an’ I know how to git ‘er too.”

Then he confided his scheme to me. When he did, I could only nod my head, for it was clear Anna Rose was Eskie’s pearl of great price.

Later, when the town folks heard how he bought Anna Rose from Clett for the rifle and all the shells and twenty-five dollars to boot, they indulged themselves in scandalized snickering for weeks, but aside from the curiosity of it all, no one cared.

Eskie and Anna Rose slipped through those latter days of summer in an absolute bliss of games, pranks, honking adulation, and carnal grapplings so epic in nature they took on the dimensions of legend among the town boys, who still safaried out to the dump for rat shoots. Only now, with the skillful but sour Clett, the hunts were no longer the celebrations they had been.

And so, as autumn trembled in on northern winds, the boys retreated into town and Clett, alone now, shot and killed rats in a cruel, brooding manner.

For the lovers, the shrinking hours of sunlight and the lengthening periods of darkness held no alarm. “I’m a duck . . . a goat . . . a cow . . . a squirrel . . .” And all the animal games were merely preludes to a continuance of the most prodigious rutting imaginable. Anna Rose and Eskie spooned, bunched, and coupled in the yellow bus body while Clett, ominously alone, squeezed off rapid, popping shots. Under the graying skies, the report of the rifle was the breaking of something vital, the unleashing of some alarming, awful thing that cracked its jaws with the sound of a .22 and which, once unleashed, would not be satisfied until it had ground bone in its teeth. But Anna Rose and Eskie did not hear the beast.

When Clett asked for the girl to be returned, Eskie, of course, denounced him. The deal was done, and if the winter stretched in months of lonely gloom for his brother, that was not his problem. Nevertheless, Clett persisted, and when he ceased to ask and began to demand, Anna Rose’s eyes brimmed with tears, and Eskie, seeing that, touched his own eyes and found them wet also.

Clett retreated into a vengeful isolation.

When the first snow fell, it came heavily, piling itself throughout the long December night a foot or more in drifts, giving even the town dump some semblance of beauty. The newly created world may have been warmer and more hospitable, but it could hardly have been more beautiful than this present sad planet under a guise of new fallen snow.

At dawn of such a day, there is a translucence to the air and a light crispness. An ineffable thrill of pleasure, almost painful it is so beautiful, rings the human spirit like a bell, and there is an answering chime from the undulant purity of earth and sky. It is a renewal and a becoming and a belonging and a promise of something better yet which pierces to the center of the human soul and draws it outward in a way that exceeds even the sweet, green fusion of spring, for now there is a clarity of vision unaffected by passion.

The couple entered into just such a world. As Anna Rose told it later. “At first, Eskie jus’ stood there holdin’ to my arm, an’ nen he walked on ahead of me into kind of a clearin’ in the snow. He was actin’ like he was jus’ dumb struck. An’ nen he flung out his arms, an’ reared back his head, an’ I could hear ‘im drawin’ in big breaths like as if he couldn’t breathe enough.

“He commenced to turn in circles but standin’ in one spot, an’ his eyes was bright an’ clear, an’ he was grinnin’ like Christmas. Well, that made me laugh. He always made me laugh, you know.

“Then he begun to yip an’ hop aroun’, real frisky-like, an’ I fig’red he was settin’ out to play one of them animal games like he done, ‘cause he stopped an’ looked at me, an’ he said, real low, ‘Anna Rose . . . I am . . . I AM . . . I AM!’

“An’ that was when Clett shot ‘im. I never did know what he was fixin’ to say he was.”

The town folks made lots of jokes about Eskie’s “I Am” speech, finishing the sentence for him in funny ways, like folks will do. Once the jokes grew old, they forgot.

I found no humor in the jokes at all, and I didn’t forget. To this day, I hold the image of Eskie thrown back darkly against the white snow, his eyes open but filmed over and that terrible black-rimmed hole low in the middle of his forehead, like the third eye on an Indian mystic. God bless that hard won vision.

Old man Sims wanted to bury him at the dump; the law wouldn’t let him. He didn’t understand and the town folk didn’t care.

I paid for his burial and a small monument inscribed with his name, dates and two simple words: I AM.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Born in Conway, Arkansas, Dr. Dan Skelton graduated the University of Central Arkansas then received a graduate degree from the University of Arkansas and his EdD from the University of Mississippi.  He taught English and theater at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas from 1967 to 2002.  He is now an adjunct professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and Arkansas State University, Beebe.  He is also an award-winning play director at the Conway Community Arts Association.  His three books include Boojum, Out of Innocence and The Human Element.  Light and Shadow is his new poetry chapbook.   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


SECOND PLACE—Emily Burns Ross


Good Luck Charm



“I’m a can-do sort of guy. If you can get it done, things between us will be just fine,” Ray said, leaning a little closer than expected. Annie nodded like one of those plastic bobblehead dogs that people put in the rear windows of cars and wondered what she was getting into.

“Quite a view I have.” He gestured toward the picture window behind him, through which she could see a ballet class in the building next door. “It’s a wonder I get anything done, but I do like the young fillies. You don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, do you?” She fidgeted with the handle of her portfolio. She had just started working for him and she’d brought it along in case he wanted to see some of her work. He smiled warmly, “Don’t be afraid. I don’t bite. Sooner or later someone will tell you about how I made some poor schmuck cry, but that will never happen to you.” He paused, his brown eyes drinking her in. “I have a good feeling about you. And trust me, I’m a gambler. My hunches are usually right.”

“You’re a gambler?” She struggled to clear her throat.

 “I bet on the races now and then.”

“Wow,” she said, “Degas is my favorite artist, and he’s known for his paintings of ballet dancers and of horse races.” Ray appeared confused. She glanced toward the window and added, “Dancers, horse races, you’ve got to admit it’s a little strange.”

“Well what do you know, I guess we have something in common,” Ray replied, looking at her with an expression that was either derision or amusement.


When she returned to her desk, her co-worker Lenore remarked, “So how do you like working for Ray so far?”

She thought of his wrinkled suit, his tasteless tie. “He’s a little sloppy. And I can’t believe he wears fitted shirts with that belly.”

“Aren’t we the fashion critic,” Lenore said. She was tall and thin with a knowing air that made Annie nervous. She explained that even though Ray didn’t look like a typical ad executive, he had a reputation for getting things done, and clients loved him. “If you do good work, he’ll stand behind you. And if you don’t,” she paused, “He’ll make you cry.”

 “So I’ve heard, but I’m not made of glass,” she said though she wasn’t so sure about that. Sometimes she felt as though life were a great wave that had washed right over her. She was twenty-two and this job at a small advertising firm was her first real job since graduating from art school. She told herself she was just doing it to pay the rent while she painted at night. Someday she would be as good as Degas.

 Her first assignment was to work on an ad campaign for Cheerful Crust and Crumb baked goods. Ray assembled the team in a conference room and told them that the previous concept of tap-dancing slices of white bread wasn’t good enough. As the team stared at him with expressions ranging from indifference to annoyance, he said, “We - and by we, I mean you - need to do whatever it takes to find a way to make white bread sexy.” He picked up a cellophane-wrapped loaf from the table and said, “Pretend this is a Porsche, or a hooker, or a blow up doll if you have to. Just make it so.” He tossed it in the air and upon catching it, turned his steady gaze on her and added, “And we’re all counting on Annie to help us do just that.” She nodded in shock as he clapped her on the shoulder (she felt the warmth of his hand), and said to the man next to him, “Annie won’t let us down.” She gave Ray a questioning look. He winked at her and whispered, “Do it like that Degas-guy would.”

As they left the room Lenore leaned toward her and said, “The tap-dancing bread was my idea. Figures he didn’t like it.”

“I’m sorry,” Annie said.

Lenore smirked. “It’s Ok. We’re all counting on you to do it better.”

 I’m doomed, she thought as she left the conference room. Not only was she incapable of doing what he suggested but now Lenore probably hated her. Back at her desk she swiveled round and round in her chair thinking. She told herself white bread wasn’t sexy, but… She stopped the chair. Dough was. Dough was soft, stretchy, squeezable, irresistible when it was rising in the bowl, satiny as the skin of a Degas dancer. She began sketching rapidly: dough machines, mounds of the white stuff swirling in a metal bowl (batter whipped), and a ballet dancer sensuously kneading the dough, punching it, pulling it and finally gently shaping it into a loaf as she purrs, “We knead our bread. You need our bread,” before pirouetting away in a cloud of flour.

When she presented her ideas at the next meeting, Ray said, “A dancer, unbelievable. I’m calling Pete right now.” Pete was his boss. Annie wondered if this was the sort of moment when he made employees cry, but he looked at her and added, “Turn that frown upside down. You did real good.”

Then he picked up the phone at one end of the mahogany table, and left a message on Pete’s voicemail, “Hot news flash. The campaign is fucking toast. We have a new beginning.”


That night she dreamt of Ray. It was raining and as they sat across from each other he said quite clearly, “My marriage is dead.” The dream intrigued her. Perhaps, she thought, though it hardly seemed possible, she was interested in Ray. Perhaps he was interested in her. It didn’t seem likely. He was so different from the moody self-absorbed guys at art school and he wasn’t exactly handsome though he radiated excitement right down to his fingertips.

The next day she scrutinized him for signs that his marriage was in fact dead. He wore a wedding ring. His phone calls to his wife, which he often made with his office door ajar, were punctuated with, “Love ya.”

At a project touch-point meeting, she overheard a colleague say to him, “I’ve been through a divorce, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”

He replied, “That’s too bad. I thought divorce was my only hope,” then glanced Annie’s way and winked. As she smiled shyly, embarrassed to have been caught listening, he walked over, knelt down next to her chair so that his face was level with hers and said, “Don’t listen to me. I’m evil.”

She smiled and mumbled something about him not being evil. Lenore was staring at him as if he really were evil, but Annie ignored this. As the weeks and project touch-points progressed, she collected more data on the death of his marriage. His wife Elsie was going on a trip to Bermuda. He was glad to see her go. She was spending all his money. He would rather gamble it away. Her biological clock was ticking. He didn’t want to stop time. As Annie assimilated these facts she felt little sympathy for his wife or for him. It was the sort of life for which, in the past, she had felt only disdain - people who were not artists, doing ordinary suburban things. And she wasn’t sure that he was unhappy. There were still those days when he took off early with a smile on his face, all set to throw a steak on the grill and have a few drinks with Elsie. And he still said ‘Love ya,’ when he hung up the phone.

 The stranger thing was that Annie couldn’t be near him anymore without feeling that she was about to die. The blood would rush to her cheeks. Her heart would pound. Every cell would melt. All this happening and they would talk calmly of whatever it was she was working on. All this and he would stand behind her chair, talking to someone else and she would feel his hands on the back of her chair, just barely touching her shoulders and he would stand there and not move his hands.

If it weren’t for the office Christmas party things probably would have continued on like this, Annie secretly melting, secretly investigating the death of his marriage, dreaming of trysts with Ray in places that didn’t make sense. In one dream he was following her in the supermarket. As she stood in front of the frozen dough, he stood behind her, ran his finger down her spine, over each vertebra, and said, “This is what you do when you’re in love.” In another they were in a drive-through car wash, making love on the front seat while huge brushes soaped up the windows.

 The party was held at a nearby bar. She’d gotten a permanent and her hair fell in soft curls to her shoulders. That and the desperate gaiety that the impending holiday made her feel made her less cautious with her sombreros. She was on her fourth when Lenore sat down next to her and said something nice about the bread ad.

“Your tap-dancers were my inspiration,” Annie said sweetly. She began babbling about Degas and how much the dancer in the ad meant to her.

Lenore smiled, looking over her shoulder. Annie was so worried that she was boring her that she was relieved when Lenore slipped away saying, “Got to get some shrimp before they run out.”

Ray had been talking to just about every female in the place and Annie had done her best to avoid him. ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ was playing when he approached. She licked the foam off her sombrero as he stared at her.

She was wearing a low-cut angora sweater with a wide border of pink and green sequins. He said, “You’re all lit up, like a Christmas tree.”

“I guess I am lit,” she mumbled, starting to slip off her bar stool.

“Looks like you need a little help there.” He propped her up in a fatherly way.

She blushed. “I wish I could just curl up in a hole and die.”

“Don’t do that. You’re the sparkliest one here.” He reached out, lightly touched one of her curls. As she sat stone still, he let his hand slip down the side of her face and said, “I like it, your hair.” She looked at him, unable to speak and then he leaned over and kissed her. She stared up at the circle of white lights in a cheap chandelier and felt a warm commanding sweetness. Then Lenore returned, shrimp in hand, and said to her, “Don’t listen to him. Don’t like him, and for god sakes don’t kiss him.”

Ray smiled, “It’s a little too late for that.” Ignoring Lenore’s eye-roll, he turned to Annie and said, “Don’t leave that stool. I’ll be back.”

 When he finally returned, he leaned his lips close to her ear and whispered, “Hey, how about coming to the track with me on Friday night? Be my little good luck charm.”

She was so flustered, she barely remembered saying OK.


On Friday Ray was even more disheveled than usual, his suit jacket stretched too tightly across his back, his shirt tail hanging out. Lenore told her that he’d fought with his wife the night before about his gambling. Annie couldn’t imagine being angry at Ray for anything. She was wearing a dress made of blue silky material printed with galloping horses, their tails unfurled, tiny nostrils flared, hooves raised. It was gathered at the back by narrow blue ribbons and clung softly to her. She thought that Ray would like it, but so far he hadn’t noticed. Just before lunch she overheard him in his office talking to Mike, another new hire.  

“If you can’t cut the mustard, you’re out of here,” Ray said coldly, “I’m warning you, we can’t afford to carry anyone.” In a few minutes, Mike emerged and walked past them with his head down, eyes averted.

When Ray stepped out of his office, he shook his head, and said, “Tell me, Annie, tell me that there’s a better way.” She didn’t say anything. She wondered if they were still going to the track. But that night, after everyone else had left, he appeared by her desk, briefcase in hand.

In the car, he rolled up his tie and put it in the glove compartment. He unbuttoned the top button of his pink shirt. Even though it was cold outside, his face was a warm salmon color, redder at his cheekbones. She could see the fan of lines around his eyes, the deeper ones alongside his nose and the flecks of gray in his hair.

“Tired?” she asked.

He nodded, “Sometimes I’m glad I don’t have to work for myself.” He rubbed her upper arm gently, then took some of the silky fabric of her dress between his fingers and said, “I can’t believe it. Horses.”

She laughed,” I love horses.”

“Because Degas painted them?”

“Yes, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the horses at the track compare to his paintings.”

Ray laughed, “We’re going to see the puppies not the ponies, sweetheart.” Her face fell and he added, “But I’m ready for an artistic experience, really.”


The track was not what she had expected it to be. People stood around watching race results on computer monitors. The cement floor was littered with betting slips. The actual track, visible through a plate glass window, was so brightly lit that it seemed hazy and unreal. There were no horseshoes of roses, no women holding white parasols, no jockeys in orange satin jackets, no horses whose russet flanks gleamed with sweat. It was nothing like a Degas.

Ray got her a plastic cup full of white wine and himself a seven and seven. He downed it in almost one gulp and leaned over his racing sheet with an unbreakable concentration, which she dared not interrupt. Then he took her by the hand and they went outside to watch the dogs as they were marched out just before the race.

“I like to get a peek at them,” he explained, “Sometimes I get a hunch just from looking.” It was chilly outside. The light was like smoke hanging over the dark circular track. The first dog that was led out had a thin blanket draped across the silver curve of its back. Someone tugged on its leash and it raised its long slender startled face Annie’s way. She felt for a moment, though she knew it wasn’t so, that they had looked each other in the eye. A dark electricity passed through her. “That one’s a winner,” she said.

“That one?” Ray took a roll of hundreds out of his pocket. He peeled one off and handed it to her. “Here bet this. We’ll split the winnings. She’s called The Silver Ghost.”

When The Silver Ghost won, Ray was irrepressible. “You can bet for me any time, babe,” he said pulling her close.

“I don’t think I could do that again,” she said.

“Just ride your luck, and when it’s over let it go,” he said with sudden seriousness.

 She won a few more times, including a Quiniela, which thrilled her, but the way Ray went through money made her uneasy. She didn’t want to see him when he was losing. Finally she folded up the betting sheet and waited for him to be through. The insight she had felt at first was gone. They had moved to a slightly more upscale section, where there was a bar and you could watch the races on a TV screen. Every so often Ray would raise his eyes and glance at her furtively. His gaze was more tentative than she expected. At one point he said, “You know Elsie and I, we haven’t,” and without thinking she put her fingers to his lips and he kissed them.

When they were up by about five hundred dollars, Ray decided to stop. As they were walking out to the car, she asked him why he liked gambling so much. He paused as though he had just been asked the meaning of life, then said, “I see it as this contest between the universe and me. Nothing else gets in the way. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose it all, but I’d never trade that feeling of not knowing right up to the very last second for anything. I love it.” He looked up at the charcoal gray sky. There were no stars, just a hard bitter cold and Annie was both touched by his earnestness and a little sorry for him.

Ray walked into her apartment as though he had been there many times before and sat down on the couch.

“Want some coffee?” she asked.

He looked up at her. “Come here.”

She sat down next to him, and he pushed her hair out her face, “You know I’ve been trying to figure out what you look like and now I’ve got it. You look kind of French in that little blue dress of yours.” He pulled her close, kissed her hair, her face, her shoulders. “I can’t believe this,” he whispered in her ear. He untied the ribbons of her dress, slid his hands over her breasts. He lingered, leaning her back. She felt his tongue in her mouth, the slow sweet ache of what was only their second kiss. Then he unbuttoned his shirt, and as she pressed her face against his chest, she felt that she loved every honey-toned square inch of him - the soft hazel of his eyes, his large hands, his smooth flushed skin, his sagging stomach.

She was drifting off to sleep when he got up, apologizing that he had to get home. She followed him to the door. He said, “Thank you.”

After he left, she sat there reeling, like an object that has been knocked hard and keeps rocking back and forth before coming to rest. Images of his face, memories of his touch slipped through her mind, as though he were still there. The next morning, as she reached to adjust the strap of her shoe, she saw the polished firmness of her calf, the delicate curve of her instep, through his eyes. As she bent her head to one side to brush her red-gold hair she paused, like one of Degas’ dancers, caught in layers of soft pastel.

In the following weeks, Ray gave her perfume, lipstick, lingerie, a Degas calendar. There seemed to be no end to his surprising gratitude. They met once or twice a week after work and went to the track or had dinner at her apartment. He showed her how to grill steak on her hibachi, and how to make cocktails with names like Sex on the Beach or Slippery Nipple. Her luck held at the track, though she didn’t like not knowing how she picked the winners. It was like she was being carried on a wave, higher and higher, further and further with no idea where she would end up.

No one at work let on if they knew what was going on, except for once when Lenore took her aside and said, “What’s with Ray lately? He’s way too happy. Somebody shoot him with a tranquilizer dart, please.” And Annie knew better than to say anything. She continued helping out in team meetings for the bread ad, careful not to assume any advantage over the others. She didn’t complain when her ideas were changed. It was, she knew, all for the greater good, and she liked being part of a team. It was less lonely than painting at night.

The team presented the ad at a final design walk-thru on a Friday morning. Annie’s original concept had been greatly changed, but the dancer remained. Sex, dough, grace, it was all there, and Annie was proud of it. When they were through, just as Ray put his hands together to clap, Lenore spoke up.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said. Everyone turned to her. “It’s very impressive but I’m worried that the dancer will be a turn-off to Moms, our main demographic. I mean they’re either going to think, if I eat this bread I’ll never be that thin, or I hate women who look like that. Lose, lose no matter how you slice it.”

“Remove the dancer, hmm,” Ray said, coughing. There was a nervous smile on his face as he looked out over the room. “Is everyone OK with that?” He was met by silence. Annie tried to catch his eye but she couldn’t. He paused, then said, “I’ll take that as a yes. Feel free to use the rest of the day or the rest of your lives if necessary to fix things, just make it so.”

Annie felt sick. The dancer was her best idea ever. Still she threw herself into working with the team, because that’s what Ray wanted her to do. They worked into the night. The dancer was erased, absorbed into the whiteness, replaced by monochrome Mom hands softly shaping, kneading, and patting the dough. The team was happy with the result. Annie tried hard to be fine with it. As they were leaving the room, she even complimented Lenore on her suggestion, but Lenore merely turned and said, “He has a wife you know,” before hurrying away.


Ray and Annie had planned to go to the track that night to celebrate the completion of the ad. It was late when they finished and she didn’t want to go any more but he insisted. When they arrived, Annie placed no bets. She had no hunches. She sat at a table, slowly shredding her racing form.

Finally Ray said. “You know, in this business you can’t always have it your way.”

“I know that,” she replied, “I just don’t feel lucky tonight.”

Ray reached his arm around her shoulder. “Maybe it’s time for me to teach you to bet the way I do. This just pulling things out of thin air has to end.”

“But isn’t that what you do sometimes?”

He cocked his head, “Yes, but it’s different. I start with a strategy.” As he proceeded to go on about different betting strategies, she looked away. He became angry and said, “If you want to be a winner, you’ve got to give this all of your attention.” His eyes sparkled with frightening ferocity.

She folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t believe you have to have a strategy in order to win. I believe in art, in intuition, that if your heart’s in the right place, everything will turn out all right.”

He sighed. “That’s great, but news flash, a real gambler never puts all his cards on the table unless he has to, hon. That’s my cardinal rule.”

She frowned, wishing that just once he would see the world as she saw it, that he would know how sometimes at the races, she could feel the dogs’ toenails touching the ground, the pearly dampness of their coats, that she could feel his pounding excitement when he slammed his fist down on the barrier that separated them from the track and shouted, “We won. We won.” She could feel all these things, but none of these feelings belonged to her. Even her occasional dead-on knowledge of which dog was going to win seemed to come from outside of herself. It was as if all these feelings were just passing through her and sometimes she worried that maybe Ray was a feeling that was just passing through her.

“I’m going to spend some money,” he said, heading over to the betting windows. In a few minutes he returned and told her that he’d lost. He got them more drinks, and bet and lost again. He kept drinking and losing more and more money even when it was obvious his luck was gone.

Finally she said, “Why don’t you just stop?”

He turned to her harshly, “No one tells me when to stop. I stop when I want to.” The cold look in his eyes frightened her. It was like she wasn’t there. He didn’t even notice as she walked away.

As she stood under one of the TV monitors, watching people milling around in the fluorescent light, she thought of how as Degas got older and his eyesight failed, his paintings became less precise. He built up thick layers of pastel, lost the details, but captured the motion in a beautiful blur. Everything around her was blurring but it wasn’t beautiful. She felt dizzy and sick. Maybe it was the drinks she’d had. She looked around for something, anything, to make her feel good again. Degas would find the beauty here, she thought, but she couldn’t, not anymore. Her Degas dream was as far away as the moon behind a cloud.

“You can’t just walk off. Something could happen to you.”

She turned to see Ray standing behind her, smiling. “What’s the happy face for?” she asked.

“I won it all back on the last Trifecta. Let’s go some place special to eat.”


It was sleeting outside. As they drove to the restaurant, Ray hunched tensely over the wheel. Finally he said, “Those other idiots don’t get it. You don’t stop for ice. You just keep going.” As they flew over the slick road, part of her wanted to keep driving faster and faster forever and part of her wanted to get out of the car and walk away.

“What’s wrong?” he finally asked.

She didn’t want to say anything but she found herself blurting out, “I know you don’t love me and you’ll never leave your wife.”

Ray sighed. She knew that she’d broken his cardinal rule, given away too much, too soon, but she didn’t care. He said, “You know I can’t leave Elsie.” Then he opened the window, tossed out his cigarette. As the burning sparks scattered against the darkness, tears streamed down her face.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said through sobs. He didn’t answer. She’d never felt so far away from him. She pressed herself against the seat as he drove even faster. Suddenly he swerved off the road onto the shoulder and stopped the car.

 “We need to settle this once and for all,” he said.

Annie looked at him. As their eyes met, she felt the same electrical surge of recognition that she felt sometimes watching the dogs at the track. Please, just this once, she thought, feel how I feel. He seemed to hesitate, then said. “Got a quarter?”

She dug into her purse and handed him one. He placed the coin on the palm of his hand. With a funny sort of smile he said, “You call it, heads or tails.”

“Heads,” she replied, wondering what he was about.

“OK,” he said, “Heads I love you. Tails I don’t.” He tossed the coin high in the air, caught it with one hand, slapped the other down over it, raised his hand just a little to have look, and said with complete certainty, “I do.”

She waited for him to say more but all he did was place his hand over hers. For a moment she saw it as satin-smooth, salmon-pink, like something from a Degas. She remembered how he’d said, “I’d never trade that feeling of not knowing right up to the very last second for anything.” Then he turned the car back out onto the road and they kept driving through the darkness toward wherever it was they were going.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Emily Burns Ross is a writer, a mother and a Web developer. Her short stories have appeared in Menda City Review, and an article was published in Boston Magazine (Home and Garden edition). She is currently working on a novel. Emily lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.


THIRD PLACE—J. Louise Larson


Mum in Decline



Our mother is in decline, I tell people. That’s the easiest thing to say. And certainly it evokes sympathy among people who fearor rememberlosing their elder parents. What I don’t say is that my earliest memories, in fact, are of Mum in mental decline.

When I called to tell her I was coming up for a visit, I said “I’m coming to see you!” Startled, she echoed back, hearing bad as ever: “You’re coming to live with me???” Not in a million freaking years, I thought. Not if the sky falls in on every square inch of the world except for your house.

Generally, her inappropriate behavior’s carefully medicated down to a dull white noise, thanks to a cupful of pills packed in bubbles, administered twice daily by visiting nurses who have finally figured out after a few wild misadventures that if they didn’t watch Mum swallow them, all hell might unfold.

Some boxes should stay closed. Forrest Gump’s mother was wrong. Life’s not like a box of chocolates. Life is like a can of worms. Leave the lid on.


In 1967, when my mother’s brother smashed his leg in a bad drunken driving accident, he came to stay, bringing a big laugh and warm brown eyes and Grandpa’s male pattern baldness. The life of the party, Uncle Harris was basically cheerful despite being bed-bound and at risk of losing his leg. I loved to sit with him and read the paper, movie reviews, comics, and light news articles about animals and things that interested me.

One day while walking home from school on the deserted back road, I was approached by a stranger in a car, asking for directions in a heavily accented voice. My sister Jennifer, a hundred yards behind me, saw the odd angle I was gazing into the car. Staring at the unfamiliar fleshy thing nestled in black hair in his lap, I assumed it was some sort of baby animal, bald at birth. Jennifer ran as fast as she could, screaming my name.

Could I identify him? The police wanted to know. He had a crew cut, a funny accent, a hairy black lap, a red car with a black roof. Really hadn’t noticed his face much. Very helpful.

The incident on the back road triggered something in Mum. As I read the funnies with my uncle, happy for a little attention and someone to read with, my mother, ever more distraught, decided my broken Uncle Harris was molesting me. This time, wild-eyed and despite everyone’s protestations, she said she was going to do something about IT. This time, she spat out, she was going to get IT right.

I got my first honest-to-God, knees-up, stinging gynecological exam at the age of seven, the doc probing my tiny tissues with instruments. In a red-faced screaming fit, my disoriented mother called me Heather, insisting I was lying to her. She had, my Aunt Lois would say later, “dropped her basket.”

Uncle Harris was ousted, crushed leg and all, after begging my mother to let him stay and swearing on their mother’s grave he had done nothing. I believe that until his dying day, he thought I was the one who made up the outrageous accusations against him. The doctor found no evidence of abuse, but on Mum’s word, the entire extended family knew Harris for a molester from then on.

After that, my mother’s lucid moment were more rare. Eventually, she decided to build a house of her own on the land she bought with three thousand dollars her father left her. That was what I think of as my Really Bad Hair Year. She pitched a tent, and then added a tiny trailer. That was where we lived, in the tent, and then in the trailer, while she built her weird house.

She could be wildly innovative. Pleased as if she’d found a twenty-dollar bill in her jeans, she’d say, “This is Paco. I found him hitch-hiking. He said he knows how to make stairs.” And Paco would live with my mother and her two adolescent daughters for a day or a week, until the stairs were done or it turned out that he was a bum. As if all mothers brought hitchers home.

As far as we knew, they did.


In the summer of 1972, my mother boarded a commercial fishing vessel, supposedly as cook. My sister saw her kissing the boat’s captain. My mother assured me I was with in good hands with the elderly couple who worked at the floating fish house.

I cried myself to sleep on their couch that smelled, like everything there, of stale fish and cigarette smoke. I got my Dickensian “chores” the next day. After the silver salmon came spilling out of the massive scale, working in the dark freezer under a single light bulb, I filled their coral-pink bellies with ice, stacking them in rows in the crates, bound for fancy restaurant tables.

My hands were too small for the bulky gloves, so I used bare, numb fingersmerciful, in one wayI couldn’t feel the cuts as the sharp gills pricked my hands.

Cinderella in salmon scales. Sequins still look like salmon scales to me. And I can still smell that couch.


The three of us women born to Mum don’t talk of half-siblings. Even though Heather was sired by Frank, who looked like Sinatra and deserted his family for better prospects, and Jennifer and me came from Jack, whose mercurial temperament and fondness for alcohol left him extraordinarily unequipped to parent.

Of course, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, although it turns out that’s not always as comforting as it sort of sounds. Not for us girls the downward spirals, addiction, mental illness, tents in the rain. We joke about being raised by wolves, and watch each other intently with sidelong glances, lest any of the long laundry list of the sins of our two lousy fathers, God rest ‘em, and our addled mother are visited on yet another generation.

Heather stays insulated on her island, where she’s a retail manager. She can barely stand to be in the same room with Mum for more than five minutes, although she dutifully manages her finances from a distance. Jennifer is busy with her travel nursing career, but she helps to pay for caregivers to care for our mother, who has redefined a way to look at dementia and aging. Like the Seven Dwarves rolled into one, only utterly un-Disneyesque. Sometimes Mum’s Grumpy, sometimes she’s Sleepy, sometimes she’s Dopey, sometimes she’s Happy. And although I don’t recall these names in the Disney classic, sometimes she’s Cheap and sometimes she’s Paranoid and sometimes she’s just Freakin’ Weird.

Mum’s diagnosis, like her bubbled card of pharmaceutical prescriptions, is complex. Depression. Anxiety. Arthritis, Diverticular disease. Paranoid delusional disorder.

Mum’s red caregiver chart is incomplete, I think. After the many signatures from the women who have come to check on her, hand her meds, make her some tea, the words “All’s Well” are penned in bloody overstatement. Blatant lies.

If she can’t see her purse, she’s lost it. If she can’t see the watch, someone has taken it. She really has no idea where they could be. Maybe, I think to myself, maybe it’s a blessing in deep disguise, this impermanence of objects. Maybe she has been doing this all her life. A sort of ostrich-head-in-sand thing. If she can’t see it or remember it, she won’t have to think about it. Forgetfulness, to misquote Erich Segal, is never having to say you’re sorry.

Some of her delusions are not paranoid, per se. It becomes a sort of game to figure out which are true, which are false but nice, and which are genuinely and wickedly slanderous.

“Your bridesmaids from your wedding are lesbians raising seventeen children between them.”

The doc says Mum’s illness has always had a sexual component to it. Like the aspersions she cast on my dear, extremely straight and now departed stepfather. “He brings men in the house for sex,” she said, leveling such outrageous charges as calmly as if she was saying brown sugar would be good on this oatmeal. She seems quite unaware of the drop-jawed looks of hurt her outrageous assertions put on the faces of family members.

In part, the miracle of modern medicine is responsible. Fried by years of lithium when no other drug would keep her out of what I call the Screaming Meemies, the part of her brain that handles self-control is mush.


We’re shopping for a bra. Who cares if my mother’s “girls” are perky? She’s eighty-three, for Pete’s sake. Distracted from my mission by a sale on cotton undies, I swivel back and stare in disbelief as Mum slips a large women’s lacy battleship of a thing, a grotesque misfit, a forty-four double D, over her arms, on top of her clothes. “It’s a bra-see-air. There, Sheila, that fits,” Mum says, pleased.

It does not.

She does not.

Patrons and staff stare, dumbfounded, at this unholy vision.

She no longer possesses the social awareness to be embarrassed, but she knows I am. Her network of wrinkles deepens into creases of a scowl. I feel badly; I have made her feel badly. She fidgets, her right hand stroking the bra she is wearing on top of her dress, lips pursing and grimacing, eyes downcast. Beyond my reach.


When Mum’s awake, an endless string of percussive World Music rhythms escape her.

 Oh-boy-oh-boy. Chick, chick. The sound of a stalled car, rrrrrrrr. Ayaaa, ayaaa. That’s the Inuit Throat Singer one. Gutteral. Creepy.

She’s a human jukebox, but whatever ancient forty-five rpm record is playing in her head has a gash in it.

I think I can make it for two more weeks with my mum. I think I can. I think I can.

Mum clips out a picture of a transvestite dolled up in over-the-top clothes, trims it and glues it to the top of a piece of felt to create a bookmark. She loves to make bookmarks.

“There!” she presents it like pearls for my birthday.

For me? How maternally thoughtful.

I think I can.


The hearing thing is a problem. Of course, the good news is you can talk about her with impunity while she’s in the same room and she won’t know.

I find cards and literature on her coffee table for hearing aids. She has been to the doctor about this.

“There was a man came in before I did and he said he couldn’t afford it and the doctor said it would be cared for and he winked at him and the guy winked back and I think they meant that I would be paying for it.”

“Mum, I don’t think so,” I say. Reality therapy, anyone?

“Yup. One-hundred thousand dollars. A lot of money. Twelve thousand and two dollars, to be exact. And I haven’t even got a hearing aid yet.”


Maybe it will help, the ear doc’s assistant Kimberly says, if she reads my mum’s chart to me.

“You mother visited the clinic five times in October, which included the creation of two ear molds, recycling a donated hearing aid twice, complaints that she didn’t like the COLOR of the hearing aid produced … She seemed confused. She brought the hearing aid back, and said she didn’t want one.

“She still owes the office one hundred dollars for our trouble.”

I assure Kimberly we’re good for it.

I explain that my mother is PERMANENTLY confused, she has dementia. I try to say it quickly and not too loud. Kimberly assures me Mum can’t hear me anyway.

The light goes on at the other end of the line. A Pockettalker’s simple, operates much like a Walkman, costs precisely a tenth of what a hearing aid does.

All the misperceptions, ideas that come out upside down, the weird, mental behavior. Could that just be a hearing problem? My inner daughter clutches at the straw.

We go to the bank to take out cash for the Pockettalker.

Mum hands the teller a compliment. The queen dispensing a knighthood. “You’re the best one. I always go straight to the top. No fooling around.” The teller chuckles. He has Mum’s number. “I still have the bookmark you gave me,” he says. God knows what was on that.

The teller is still in earshot and Mum has barely turned around when she says, in a loud stage whisper, “He’s an easy little bitch. I can have him anytime I want.”


There are two models. A complicated, newfangled Pockettalker with an excess of features that resembles a TV remote control.

Mum’s TV is set on one channel because of an excess of features on the remote. So we opt for the PockettalkerLite. Lightweight, with a lanyard for around her neck. A little microphone that works like a charm. We turn on the TV, and immediately she’s engaged.


Charlotte Downs, the lady Mum sat in front of in church is dead. Mum is shocked.

“Well, she had been poorly for years. I know she’d had a number of strokes. And she had been in a coma for two weeks,” I remind her.

“But this is so sudden!” Mum says.

“Goodbye, little friend,” she says. “No more pats on the head. She would say, ‘Hello, there,’ just like that.”

Charlotte Downs is being buried tomorrow.

I flinch at the thought of my mother, bellowing in sorrow or just being rude at the service.

“Nobody knew how old she was, because she wouldn’t tell them,” Mum improvises. “I bet she was a hundred.”

“She was eighty-two,” I say.

“How old am I?” she asks, looking a bit alarmed.

“Eighty-three in January,” I tell her.

As she retreats to her bedroom, I hear her sniffle a bit at the thought of death, looming. Coming for Charlotte, coming for her.

In the dark quiet, she launches into what sounds like a prayer.

“Dear God. Why haven’t I been to church lately? Here, here, what have we here? Dear, dear, what have we here? Ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-BOOM.”

The ka-BOOM thing bears looking into.



I am being summoned. To the throne.

“I should have an Aspirin. I should take some night-time pills or something.”

“You already took them.”

“I did? Four little ones,” she says, as if to jog my memory.

The Nazis, the Communists, teenagers, now Mumall of them known to use sleep deprivation as one of the most effective tortures of all.

“I need two pillsa brown one and a white one, before I go to bed.”

I eye the bubble pack laying on the table with dawning comprehension.

This could be so bad.

“Did you take more medicine?” I’m hoarse with fear.

She practices repeating a name she heard on TV. “George Strombo-LOP-olous. George STROM-bolopolous. GEORGE Strombolopo-LOUS.”

 She’s defiant now.

“I’ve been laying in there, trying to sleep, and it was because I haven’t taken my medicine. So I took the one I was supposed to take.”

It’s the middle of Thursday night, and the Friday bubble is now empty.

Her water jug is completely empty.

I start to sweat.

“Don’t take medicine somebody doesn’t hand you.” Someone is bellowing. It’s me.

“You don’t have to yell.”

How would you know? You don’t even have your Ears on.

I’m up, I’m angry.

I call My Sister the Nurse, who tells me what to look for in case of a bad overdose. She says Mum will probably be okay, just to keep an eye on her, and call the doc in the morning. And for Heaven’s sake, put the meds out of reach.

I know it’s wrong to be angry with someone who’s mentally ill. I think I’m mad because I had hoped that a big part of her problem was that she couldn’t hear.

If that were the case, a one-hundred-eighty-eight dollar set of new electronic ears would set things right.

It didn’t.

As with her purse, as with the can opener, as with her sweater, she loses her new Ears, for one thing. “On the tablealways leave them on the kitchen table,” I tell her. Again.

I’ve told people in Texas I will be taking care of my mother while I’m here, looking after things for her. They envision, I think, a sweet white-haired lady with maybe pearl earrings who needs her checkbook balanced, fragile as a lovely old bone china teacup.

If only.

I have to remind myself that she hasn’t chosen dementia, she is afflicted with it. It’s not her fault. I remember this in a moment when I’m feeling a little more compassion than frustration and I think I better say it out loud before the moment goes away. Like my mother’s purse. Like her wits.

“I love you. I’m glad I’m visiting you, Mum.”

“I get a lot of funny ideas,” she warns. “Now who took my book?”


Morning comes, foggy and cool, I dig through my mother’s shelves for something to write the list of what’s left to accomplish on my visit. Remarkably, the pad I retrieve is yellowed foolscap, apparently from when Heather was a little girl, before I was born. I read the housewifely shopping list: “Shoes for Heather, two dollars.”

Then I shake my head as a distant emotional claxon rings out, first an echo, then louder.

“Elephants, all children vanished, nothing left but little white carvings in ladies’ jewel boxes … The dust and the must, the fighting and mating, urgent songs of fertile females, the males frozen with trunks lifted to hear … The brute, the little victims, the little sluts. Don’t tell. Heather must forget what he did. And so must I. We’ll all be punished indeed.”

And finally: “You should not suffer through the past, you should wear it like a loose garment, take it off and let it drop.”

If only.


My sister’s island is hard to get to. Nobody goes there by accident, takes a wrong turn somewhere. You really have to want to get thereor to leave it, for that matter, and I find myself in both positions.


“Are you sure you want to hear this?” Heather asks, staring at me, when I tell her I need to know what happened when she was a little girl. “I have never told anyone this whole story besides my husband.”

I nod and sit, transfixed and cemented to an oak chair as the Olympic Mountains loom in the picture window. Over a pot of Earl Grey, she recounts her tale.

“You must understand I was a little girl of seven,” Heather says. “You know how much you know at seven.”


Heather recalls the last beautiful moment when she knew she was getting a step-dad, in 1957. “What should I call you?” she piped up in the back of the big Chevy. “Well, how about if you call me Pops?” Jack replied. The beneficent stepdad, no sign that all the rage that had been poured into him from his dad, aimed at dismantling the confidence and self-esteem of the dangerous oldest boy doted on by his angelic mother, was waiting in the wings.

As for the pregnancy that prompted his shotgun wedding to my mother, one look at that mop of black curly hair, that square-chinned intelligent gaze and those determined eyebrows, and everyone knew my sister, baby Jennifer was his. The gene pool had been kind. Jack wouldn’t be.


Sitting and coloring at the kitchen table. Sunday afternoon. Mum was out for a walk with a friend along the muddy logging road.

She felt two arms go around her from behind, and she thought it was a fatherly hug. Heather looked forward to having her own Pops.

But then it was different, and she felt her stepfather’s rough, work-hewn hand slip under her dress, into her panties, into her most private parts.

He dragged her then, into the bedroom he shared with her mother. He tore her pink panties off and threw her onto the bed, and in one swift motion he pulled out his own penis, approaching her, his face contorted into a leering grin.

Only then did she start to scream, she bounded off the bed, her little heart pounding in her little chest. She was ready to run out, out the door, down the road, but he grabbed at her little arms, and threw her back on the bed again.


She ran screaming down the road. And when she caught up with Mum, she said, she tugged at her hand. Startled to see her little girl wailing incoherently with deep, wracking sobs, Mum sharply told Heather to slow down.

“Pops POKED me,” was all the girl could manage to get out. She didn’t understand all that had transpired. She had never seen a grown man’s private parts before, so she wasn’t sure of what she saw.

“Where did he touch you?”

A massive fork in the road yawned ahead for my mother. She could attend to her daughter, evict the pervert, and be back where she startedplus onewith no roof, no status. Or she could warn the bastard, make a conscious decision not to believe the daughter, and hope for better days ahead.

“Don’t lie to your mother,” she said, averting her gaze from Heather’s tear-stained face now glazed with a second shock: the combined trauma of fear and disbelief.

There were no more questions. No police visit, no teary-eyed confrontation. For Jack, I suppose it was a dream come true: the voiceless victim.

That night Mum climbed into bed with her husband. Years later, she told my sister that she warned him, then, that if he touched her daughter again, she would go to police.

For his part, he told his wife what his sick mind justified as true: it was attraction and seduction, a story as old as Adam and Eve. His daughter was an unnaturally seductive little girl.


And that might have ended it, but for Jack, his incompliant little stepdaughter was now a risk, a girl who knew his awful secret. When her pale blue eyes couldn’t meet his steely blue ones, he knew he was in trouble.

After that, Heather was his special target. Once, Jack threw her against a pantry door jamb so hard that he broke two of her ribs. She fell down the stairs, he told my mother. Knowing what he could do if he was really angry, Heather kept silent then, at the lie.

No one believed her, anyway. Not even her own mother.

Trapped. Stuck. No White Knight, not even her own father, Frank, riding in to save the day, to save her from beatings and bullying and fear of another attack. No prosecution.


Six years after this pivotal incident, I was the last child born into this tragi-comic union. No bronzing of the baby shoes. A debate would arise later about my actual birthday. We were off by eight days. By that time it was no surprise to me that the day of my birth wasn’t etched in glorious memory.


At the tender age of thirteen, she told me, Heather had her first “go out” date. It was a double, and she got a sedate kiss.

Heather’s sweater had little pearl buttons in the back that would slip open, and when she came in before curfew, she didn’t know it gaped. Her stepfather grabbed her arm when he saw this, yanking her into the master bedroom. “See, I told you she was a slut!” he crowed to my mother.

The next day, Mum sat her down in the living room and gave her a cool, level look. “Has Jack been after you again?” she wanted to know.

Heather’s first thought was that her mother wasn’t getting any.

From that moment, rage rose in the pit of her stomach, rage where there had been fear. That was when Heather realized her mother had, in fact, believed her all along and had done nothing to get rid of Jack or even to defend Heather or promise to protect her.


And Mum knew.


Heather got pregnant by the good-looking boy next door at sixteen and married him, utterly relieved to get out of Jack’s house, pleased to have a door to lock that he wouldn’t have the key to.

In her forties, Heather’s anxiety re-surfaced. One summer, she was house-bound, too fragile to venture beyond the walls of her home. Her husband would beg her to go out for walks, and finally she would, wrapped up and wearing sunglasses, just a block. She despaired of ever feeling safe again, a feeling she hadn’t known since she was seven.

Then one day, as she watched Oprah Winfrey, an author and psychiatrist came on. Heather sat up, feeling a tingling sensation up and down her spine as he told her to picture her inner child, and then to comfort that little child, and tell the child it was safe now, that she would protect the younger version of herself.

She did it right then. Closing her eyes, she saw little Heather, coloring at the table. In her mind’s eye, she hugged the specter of her childhood self. “I love you, I’m going to protect you now, you’ll be safe now,” she whispered aloud.

A flood of relief washed over her body, from her toes to the top of her head. She felt the tears begin to flow. Tears for that little girl, coloring at the table, her innocence robbedand then tears of joy as she realized that finally, at forty-six, she was free. Jack couldn’t hurt her anymore. She could, and would, look after herself.

And she did.


In her guest room, above the closet door, Heather hung two ribbon angels. Between them, an oval picture of herself when she was six and innocent, round-cheeked, laughing blue eyes, wide, innocent smile. Cracked during one of the many moves that marred her childhood, the glass will never be replaced. It’s a reminder, she tells me, of a broken girl she herself had the power to restore to wholeness.

“The angels will protect her, and I will protect her,” Heather says to me as I look at the angelic little girl with the fractured glass, the angels beside her.

I weep then, apologizing for my father’s sins.

She’s startled. It’s never occurred to her to blame Jack’s two biological daughters, the small and innocent forces that propelled our parents together in a union that spawned tragedy.

Was that all? I ask Heather gently.

There is always more, she says with a small, rueful smile.


Decades ago, sexually speaking, apparently Mum could be insatiable. Was this her illness showing up, much earlier than anyone every noticedor was she just a libidinous gal? Do I want to know the answer to that question?

Apparently, everyone Mum said was gay was someone she had either slept with or hit on and been rejected by.

Mum had an affair with her best friend’s husband.

Mum had an affair with her husband’s best friend.

Then one day, when her son-in-law was home and all the rest of the family was out, Mum asked Heather’s husband if he had some magazines around the house.

Yes, he said. He did. He rustled around and fetched a handful, mostly Family Circle and Redbook, Heather’s favorite.

“I got your magazines,” he said, knocking on the door.

“Come in,” she said languidly. He was shocked to find his mother-in-law naked, draped seductively over the guest room bed like Potiphar’s wife. Her body was still athletic, still trim. Eerily, she was built like her daughterhis wife.

“Magazines,” he managed to stutter out, averting his eyes and beating a hasty retreat.


The cozy feeling, if ever there was even a flicker of one, is pretty much played out of my visit with Mum. I make a hearty chicken soup and freeze individual portions, and prepare her lunchtime tea. All will to compel her into conversation and interaction has vanished. I feel an unabridged hostility with each act of carefully tending someone who surely can’t do anything about her condition.

About her transgressions.

We will all be punished.

When she emerges from the bathroom with red and green and blue lines penciled in with felt markers where transparent silver eyebrows no longer define hazel eyes that once snapped and brimmed with life, it spooks me, almost piercing the armor that has encased my heart.

Somewhere inside, she misses her former self, the illusion that she had control over her life.

So do I.

“Natural is best, you have such pretty bone structure,” I tell her as I mop the lines away with baby oil. I must sound much like she did when I wanted to plaster on the makeup as a teen. I feel moved to kiss her doughy cheek.

We’re full circle.

And as I look over my shoulder at two weeks with my mother, over a lifetime of being the daughter of someone who was mentally ill almost certainly every step of the way, I realize she made me what I am and I despise what she has become.

Mum takes her teeth out and examines them, wiping them with her Kleenex.

“Derrrr. Yeth, I know, yeth I know, yeth I know. Ohhh.” This one, lisped without her teeth, seems to be the end of Jesus Loves Me.

Instead of throwing up, I lug my suitcase to the car.

I think about Mum’s chart hanging by the stove, what it doesn’t say that helps me understand her. New Ears won’t help. And while confession may be good for the soul, even if she made one, it probably wouldn’t do squat for dementia.

“Te-Exas,” she says, staring at the ceiling. She looks at the fingers of her left hand and then her right as she says it again. “Te-Exas.”

She’s probably wishing I would just leave.

So I do.



J. Louise Larson is the managing editor of Ennis Journal. As a writer, her work has appeared in a number of publications, including mortgage industry magazines, Texas School Business magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and in-flight magazines for Midwest Airlines and AirTran. She received a first place in the Texas Associated Press Managing Editor awards for feature series writing, for a series of articles about an Ellis County hospice patient. She is blogmistress for The Writing Porch. She co-authored a career guide for FabJob Publishing in 2006. Her novel At High Tide is in revisions.


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