Julius

  When I was twelve, Uncle Billy told us to steal a load of corn out of Mr. Aspenwall’s field. “I’m going to unlock the trunk on your Aunt Jack’s cadillac.   Now here's what I want you to do. I want you to drive down to the turnaround, park the car, get out, and then pick me some corn out of Aspenwall’s field. Then come on back.  I mean a whole trunk full now, not just a few ears, you hear?” “What if they catch us?” I asked “Then they’ll put you in jail and throw away the key, so you’d better move fast”, he said.  He, like all of my family, believed the best way to control children was to keep them scared. My little sister looked like she was going to cry. “Julius?”, said my cousin. Julius was the gardener for Uncle Billy and sometimes for Mr. Aspenwall. He was a dark-black, skinny, man and the story was that he’d killed his wife with a butcher knife.  He liked to hide in the corn on hot afternoons and drink paregoric. He didn’t like children “fretting him”. “Don’t worry about Julius.  You can out run him barefooted”. Uncle Billy wasn’t going to give up, so we got in the car and went after the corn. We took Aunt Jack’s pink Cadillac.  Aunt Jack was an invalid due to a stroke and stayed in bed mostly.  I’d been driving her car around the grounds for a while because Uncle Billy didn’t like it to sit idle for too long, bad for the motor he said.  I was the oldest at twelve, the only one who could see through the windshield while holding my foot to the gas pedal so I drove. I rocked down the road by pressing the accelerator down so that the car jumped forward, and then taking my foot off the pedal to let the car glide. I would then step on the brake  before stepping on the accelerator again. My sister looked like she was going to throw up on the white leather seats.  She had car sickness, because she was so sensitive. “If you are going to throw up.  I am going to make you get out of the car, and walk home”, I said.  She just got … [Read more...]

Blue Christmas Lights

  Hearts were what the two sisters drew in the car. They pushed and crawled over each other to get to the window. They blew steam on the glass and then wiped it away with their fingers, making crooked figures that melted away slowly, leaving the window, with ghost images, a poorly erased chalkboard. Their father drove though the holiday traffic in Norfolk, looking for a Christmas tree lot. The smoke from his Lucky Strike made the car smell like a bonfire on the beach. Their mother was beside him, her dark curls bouncing on the back of the seat. “Don’t push me anymore, it hurts,” said Bridgett, the younger one. “Stop messing it up then. Use the other window,” said Anna Lee. “Their mother looked around and said, “Move back to your side, Bridgett, and you, Anna Lee, stop getting finger prints all over the windows. Both of you still and stay on your side.” Anna Lee and Bridgett liked to sing and watch the moon run along when they rode in the car after dark, but it was cloudy, and drizzling that evening, and there was no moon. They got to the tree lot and walked in the wet chill through aisles of firs and pines. Anna Lee leaned up against the trees so she could smell the evergreen. Bridgett was tired. Their mother grabbed her up and carried her, leaving Anna Lee alone in the cedar scented corridor. Anna Lee thought about Jesus in his cradle in the desert, with the magi standing before him holding tangerines and mistletoe and holly.   Holy-holly, holy-holly, oh holy-holly she sang to herself as she brushed against the trees. On the way home, they went down Chesapeake Street, and as soon as Anna Lee saw the house with the plaster Santa and elves she knew they were on the street where the blue light house waited.  The plaster elves wore red velvet bows at their necks. They stayed their all year, along with some plaster chickens that were painted black, and were invisible at night.  Their mother once told them that the plaster figures were … [Read more...]

Chicken Bride

  Fuchsia crepe myrtle blossoms float on rainwater held by two large terra-cotta saucers. A Wyandotte chicken pecks at the water. Her feathers are white edged in black. She’s a chicken dressed in lace, a chicken bride. Dale sits cross-legged on the porch, in a plastic chair, with metal legs, a sketch pad in her lap, a colored pencil in her hand, deciding what to draw. The farm is a jumble of broken things, cars, refrigerators, a bathtub, assorted boards, and pieces of siding. Ivy and honeysuckle grow over and through the junk, but new junk always appears. An arch of ivy grows over a trail that leads that away from the house. She sees her daughter, Mary, there in a wedding dress beside her bride. Her little girl and another, who is also like a daughter, are kind gentle souls, who love to sing and dance. They will marry under the trees because no one will have them in town. The wedding will be in summer. The winter here, when the junk skeletons are visible, is too depressing, and she wonders what will be summer and winter for them, those two young ones? How will they get through? What will their years on earth look like. She worries. To the far right, a garden of marigolds and rock roses mark the grave of an old gun dog who guarded the farm for his lifetime. His father guarded the farm before him.  We buried them with ceremony and with the idea that the new dog would carry on. Carry on the job of watching, guarding, and attacking intruders if necessary. Dale wants to draw the scene or part of it because she wants to remember the great beauty here, that comes in summer to cover the rusted, grey discarded things on the old farm. She lifts the pencil again. She feels inadequate to the task. The hen pecks at the water in the saucers. The new dog watches her. It killed five chickens a few years back. “You can’t keep dogs like that with chickens,” Dale told her husband.“Once a dog kills a chicken it will kill more, no matter how … [Read more...]

Aunt Helen’s Funeral

East Ocean View Avenue, Norfolk 1938. There’s a house by the bay that has been there for over a hundred years. It once had a rose bower over the front door, and black, wooden shutters with crescent moon silhouettes cut into them.  The house stood in a sandy fenced-in yard, surrounded by live oaks, trumpet vine, and sea grass. The cottage line bus went past once a day, headed for downtown Norfolk. Now it’s sad, with it’s stucco falling off, and it’s window frames rotting. It’s packed in between new houses, cheap houses, houses with cracked driveways that are patched with tar, and blown over with sand. There are no trees in the yard anymore. There’s still a bus. We are assembled to see my Aunt’s ashes thrown into the bay in front of this house. It’s where she and my father were raised, where lots of our family stories were born, which is to say, our home, although none of us present on this funeral day have ever lived in the house, and only one, Uncle Buddy, has even been inside it. Two little boys, one red-headed and one blonde, are given the bag of ashes and told what to do. It’s bright, and sunny, and windy. They wade out into the frothy, green water. Their hair gleams in the sun like ours once did. I’m holding their shoes. They put their hands in the bag, take out a handful and toss them in. Their hands get ashy, so they rinse them in the knee-deep water. When they reach back into the bag for another handful, the remaining ashes get damp and clump. The little one frowns and squints over his shoulder, looking for direction from the rest of us, the grown-ups, the ones who are supposed to know what they’re doing. No one moves. The surf plops against the shore, a killdeer whistles. Then one cousin walks out to them, takes the bag and turns it inside-out in the water. She’s gentle with the boys. It’s been too much for them. They aren’t sad, since they didn’t know Aunt Helen well, but they are confused. They come back to the rest of us with my … [Read more...]

First I heard the stories that my mother and father told me.

This is where the core of my stories came  from to begin with, this little girl who loved stories so much. I remember the AA Milne books and the Book House book. There was the story about the dog in the manger which Mama read to me over and over (I think I must have been very stingy with my little sisters), and the poem about the Sandman who was scary, bending over the children when they were asleep and sprinkling dreams into their eyes.  In one of our AA Milne books there was a poem about bad King John who was not a good man, but wanted a big, red, India rubber ball for Christmas.  I felt kind of sorry for that bad king.  I remember even when I was that young thinking about how long ago people had believed in God and being reassured by "the grownups'" beliefs.  I pictured a peasant in the snow with ivy and holly above his head at Christmas.  He stood waiting outside a tall door.  I'm not sure what he was waiting for. I think this memory must have come  from Christmas songs about people trudging through the snow and the greens of the season.  My parents imparted the idea that the old tales held all the promise and all the guidance that I or anyone else needed.  That was not entirely true but when I look back now, I don't think I've learned much that those stories didn't tell me one way or the other. So it's not just the writing of the stories that's important. The reading is just as much so if not more.  Enjoy what's here all you want. I usually enjoyed writing them, most of them.  Thanks - Marianne   … [Read more...]

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