The Dead of Winter

by Christopher Walder

I was headed home from work, my head reeling from the day’s events that had transpired. The cold winter sun hovered in the empty pale sky as I paced to my vehicle. My boss’s unsympathetic words continued to ring in my ears: “Connor, we’re going to have to let you go.” Over the last year, my hours had been gradually cut due to the state of the economy and outsourcing of the company. They had been getting rid of all employees with seniority, or those who were on the brink of getting their pension. I happened to be one of those people. I had been with the company since I was eighteen years old, and I was only a couple of years away from receiving an annuity. Now at forty, I was being forced to start over.

The engine of my ninety-six Ford Explorer droned down the deserted stretch of highway as I thought about what I was going to tell my wife, Monica. Staring through the grimy windshield at endless frozen barren fields, I tried to find anything to keep my mind occupied. Reaching into the pocket of my denim shirt, I grabbed my soft pack of Marlboro 100’s and brass Zippo, pulled out a cigarette and placed it between my lips, and with one flick of my wrist lit the stogie. Ronsonol and the stale stench of smoke wafted throughout the vehicle, as good ol’ Johnny Cash’s voice kept me company. With every puff of my cancer stick, I found myself becoming more relaxed. Although my body was becoming comfortable, my mind was uneasy. Thoughts stuttered through my mind as they choked on the smoke.

I couldn’t help but think about the house and my children. My home was on the verge of foreclosure, since we were behind on payments, and with Christmas just around the corner I wondered what Monica and I were going to do for our children—and whether or not we would have a home to celebrate it in. My thoughts became more frantic. I lit up one smoke after another, hoping it would asphyxiate them.

After an hour drive and ten cigarettes, I found myself less than a few minutes from home. The thick haze of smoke burned my eyes as I turned into the driveway. The force of the turn jerked the death stick from my mouth and sent it tumbling down the front of my shirt. With every bump of the cherry, fiery rain sprayed across my jeans and poured onto the cracked leather seats. Eventually the dense vermillion ember became wedged underneath my crotch and foam cushion. My eyes darted from the windshield to the worn seat, while I desperately fumbled to find it.

In my momentary lapse of judgment my foot slipped off the brake and slammed onto the accelerator. The engine roared and was immediately followed by a sickening thud and plastic shattering, as the SUV abruptly jolted. Without hesitation I stomped on the brake and the tires skidded across the gravel, bringing the vehicle to a sudden halt. Uncertain of what had just happened, I scowled over my shoulder to see what I had hit, but dust and smoke consumed the weathered SUV, making it impossible to see.

My frustration hit its flashpoint and turned to anger. In a fit of rage I flung the door open.  “Goddamn kids better not have left their bikes in the driveway,” I grumbled. “How many times do I have to tell them?”

The loose gravel crunched beneath my work boots as I made my way to the front of the vehicle to assess the damage. When I arrived, a gulf of frigid air lifted the veil of darkness that surrounded the Explorer. Chunks of gravel pierced my hands and knees as I got down on all four to search for what I had struck. Expecting to find a bike wedged in the undercarriage, I was shocked when I found nothing. Hesitantly I began to back up, when I noticed the broken headlight on the passenger side. Slowly I inched forward until I noticed something hanging from the single shard of plastic. There, swaying on the jagged sliver was a piece of pink fatty flesh with stray blonde hairs thrashing in the wind.

I reluctantly peered around the side of the vehicle. My heart crept into my throat. Goosebumps crawled up my flesh, causing every hair on my body to stand on end. Fear overtook me; I was afraid of what I would see. Then I noticed her mangled body lying motionless on the cold winter ground. It was my oldest girl, Katrina.

My heart pounded as I raced over to her nine-year-old body. Memories flooded my mind like the tears in my eyes. I thought about how Monica and I adopted Kat, when she was just a year old. She had perfect blonde hair and big brown eyes, and the first time I held her I felt what unconditional love was. Although we didn’t share the same blood, she was my precious baby girl. Now as I cradled Kat’s limp body, her once vibrant eyes remained shut and scuffled beneath her eyelids. Her golden hair appeared maroon in the fading sunlight. Tread marks were visible across her distended belly. I knew what I had to do. I had to get her to the nearest hospital two hours away.

I rushed to the hatch of my SUV, flung it open, and urgently searched for the winter emergency kit. Probing through the debris of crumpled cigarette packs and empty pop bottles, I eventually spotted the red duffle bag. Hastily I hurled the contents of the bag toward the passenger seat. Clothes, water bottles, and flares rained throughout the vehicle until I found a blanket to wrap her fragile body.

The beating of my heart brutally pounded against my sternum with every weary step I took towards Kat. Her body remained motionless. Every breath she drew became more desperate. The crevasses of my face became a riverbed for salted shame as I knelt by her side and began bandaging her tiny frame with the soft blanket. She remained still like a newborn while I carried her to the hatch of the beat-up Explorer and gently placed her in the bed of the vehicle. Before I snapped the door shut, I bent over and softly kissed her forehead.

Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I hopped into the driver’s seat. The ignition whined and squealed with every torque of the key. Frustration mounted my shoulders. “Goddammit! Start!” I slammed my fist into the steering wheel. “Please!”

Just as I said it, the engine turned over and began to sputter and whine. Placing my hand on the gear shift I threw it into drive. I made a U-turn, tires slipping on the loose gravel. A cloud of dust lingered in the rearview mirror as I headed down the rural roads.

A seemingly never-ending barbed-wire fence raced alongside my SUV. I only had mile markers and memories to help pass the time. With every second that passed, my eyes became fixed on the Timex clock in the center of the dash. The faded green numbers seemed to hesitate to change. I had to force myself to keep my eyes on the two-lane road ahead of me; the silence was driving me mad.

Amid the quietness came a sudden noise.

What is that?

Thump. . . thump.

I checked each of my side mirrors and only smooth asphalt was rapidly rushing by. Thump, thump, thump. Do I have a flat? My foot eased on the brake and I merged onto the dirt shoulder.

When I exited the vehicle, I immediately checked the tires on the driver’s side, only to see they were full. As I made my way to the passenger side, I noticed the noise again, but more rapid and frequent. THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP.  The Explorer began to severely shake, and I darted to the hatch. I slowly reached for the handle and twisted it. The door gradually opened and unveiled Kat’s body shaking uncontrollably, while coffee-ground colored foam spilled from her mouth. I became frozen in fear.

As I stood there in horror, the vibration of my cell phone startled me. I ripped it from my pocket. “Monica” flashed across the screen. I quickly placed the phone back in my pocket and slammed the hatch shut. Within a matter of seconds, my phone buzzed again. This time I decided to listen to the voicemail.

“Connor,” she said with worry in her voice. “There’s a severe winter warning going on and—well I just wanted to let you know. Jack and Layla haven’t seen Kat, since they went over to play with the neighbors. I know—how she likes to go exploring, but—but I’m just worried.” The phone trembled in my palm. I debated what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to call her back and confess, so I got back into the vehicle and headed toward the hospital.

With the accelerator mashed to the floor, the Explorer screamed down the highway into the waning daylight. After a few miles of desolated land, there stood a lonely sign with bold white letters:Angel Falls National Park – 10 Miles.” As we approached the exit, Kat started to regain consciousness. Whimpers and cries of agony filled the vehicle and began permanently etching themselves into my mind.  Her screams pierced my eardrums. Ten feet from the exit I pulled over to the shoulder. I needed out of the vehicle immediately.

The cold air burned my lungs as I clasped my hands together and pleaded for an answer to what I should do.  I knew it was more than an hour to get to the hospital. With my prayers unanswered, I found myself at the back of the vehicle examining Kat’s condition. As I looked at her beautiful face, she opened her eyes and stared into my soul. She attempted to speak and couldn’t, but her eyes spoke for her. They begged for mercy as I shut the hatch.

My hand traced the steel exterior of the SUV.  Every dent, paint chip, and piece of rust marked my time around the vehicle, until I found myself hunched over in the driver’s seat. Tears began to free-fall from my eyes. I became overwhelmed and found myself lying over the center console weeping uncontrollably on the passenger seat. Reluctantly I raised my head, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a dull black case among the mound of clothes I had hurled to the front of the vehicle earlier. I snatched it up and unzipped the bulky case. The contents were rapidly revealed as the Smith and Wesson .38 special flopped onto the passenger seat. My eyes ascended from the wooden grips of the weapon to the rearview mirror.  As I watched her labored breathing, my only option became more evident.

The Unwritten Rules

by Sarah Wagner

Ever since she could communicate, even before she could first walk and talk, the whole extended family had known that Anne was terrified of bugs. And just as every insect was attracted to her, she was just as equally repelled by them. She was also much attuned to the mystical power of language. She had such a literal grasp of expressions, she missed the most obvious plays on words. Jokes and mere folklore phrases brought her instantly to tears. One minute she was playing happily with her stuffed animals and the next she overheard her grandmother mutter that she was “coming apart at the seams.” This scared the child as her vivid imagination took off and she visualized her grandmother fragmenting into chunks, an arm, a leg, a breast, right before her eyes. She would then examine her stuffed toys warily, searching for rips or any other signs of weakness. Even though she had a healthy respect for Patsy Cline, she dreaded hearing “I Fall to Pieces” on the radio. She just didn’t get the irony. She hadn’t yet learned to read between the lines. Still, Anne understood the sanctity of words.

Once, her mother had sent her into a panic that had taken her weeks to recover from. She’d been playing in her mother’s room as her mother was readying herself for the evening. Anne loved these moments. She loved watching her mother applying her makeup or fixing her luxurious mane of auburn hair. Her mother often sang Billie Holiday or Etta James as she busied herself in front of her mirror. That night she was preparing to attend a play. As she pulled on her pantyhose, Anne’s mother noticed a tiny run that ended in a small hole on the back of her left thigh. Flesh was bulging through it neatly in an almost perfectly round lump.

“Look, Anne!” her mother exclaimed in mock horror. “A tumor!”

And then her mother laughed and smiled.

Anne didn’t know exactly what a tumor was, but she knew it was something bad, almost certainly lethal. Hadn’t Uncle Ray died of a tumor only three months ago? Anne was frantic and refused to be mollified. She sobbed for hours. Her mother apologized profusely, but the child’s sense of trust was injured. She loved her mother more than anything, but this one act had left her mistrustful. She had an extremely sensitive nature.

It wasn’t that Anne was a “girly-girl” or a baby, although she was known to be somewhat squeamish. Blood didn’t overly frighten her, for instance. Neither did mud and dirt. She didn’t like wearing dresses and on more than one occasion she’d come home late from school, her dress torn and wet, her shoes abandoned behind on the banks of her favorite creek. She loathed having her aunts braid her long hair. In fact, once she had cut off one of her braids in protest. She’d done it at nursery school with those impossibly dull, round-ended scissors. She had suffered the humility of going through the rest of the morning with only one braid. Her mother had never gotten to the truth of how a four-year-old had managed to get hold of such a dangerous weapon. And although the details weren’t clear to her, Anne realized that on some level, she had won. After that incident, she’d been allowed to have short hair. In most instances, she was the personification of a tomboy.

She spent the summer days at her grandparents’ home and often ran wild with a pack of cousins. Every spare moment was spent outside the big ramshackle house. The whole gang was tanned brown by mid-June. Their bare feet were toughened from prowling the streets of Lawton and the soles of those feet were stained purple from the plump droppings of the mulberry bushes that lined their grandmother’s alley. The throng of children also roamed the neighborhood’s drainage ditches and vacant buildings. Anne was as keen as anyone during these escapades. She loved adventures. Rats didn’t scare her and neither did Old Rand, the grumpy, elderly widower, who lived at the end of her grandparents’ street. But mention any sort of bug and Anne was likely to run home screaming in a fit of hysteria.

Her cousins teased her without mercy and dared her into the most outlandish situations. They were older, of course, and had the wisdom.

“Anne, ring Mr. Rand’s doorbell!”

“Anne, come into the crawl space. There’s a ghost down here!”

Out of a sense of decency she ignored Mr. Rand and merely watched from the safety of the front porch. She hid in the shadows and spied as her cousin Henry, who was eleven and the bravest yet most rakish of the bunch, placed a paper sack on Old Rand’s front stoop and then lit it. Henry rang the bell before proceeding to run like a prairie fire. Mr. Rand hadn’t been home that afternoon. No one got the switch. The crawl space however, was another matter; it was a double-dare. Actually, she’d liked the crawl space, at first. There was something secret about it. It was quiet and warm there, the earth smelled fresh and clean and she’d felt safe, until a cousin had pointed out all of the spiders and worms. That revelation had sent her caterwauling into the house like a cat in heat.

Her grandparents owned a shiny, new Chevrolet Impala four door, light blue with a white roof. Her grandmother had won it in a lottery the previous year and kept it parked out behind the shed, in the alley. It was often left unlocked and the children would play in it, although they’d been warned not to with the threat of the switch.

“Hey, Anne. Push in that knob. See the red glow? Dare you to touch it with your finger!”

She had fallen for that twice. She just couldn’t resist it. It burned her finger both times, leaving a nasty blister. One would think she’d remember. Where was the justice in this world? Still, despite her fears of bugs and words, she would usually rise to a dare. When she finally broke down and cried and the adults found out the cause, someone else almost always received the punishment. Maybe that was justice.

Southern lore was a part of the family tradition. She’d grown up hearing her relatives proclaim that the “Devil was beating his wife” every time the sun was shining while it rained. A few of these myths dealt with insects. Her grandfather often warned her not to let a dragonfly land on her hand. When she asked him why, she was informed that it would sew one’s fingers together. She was told that if she lied, the dragonfly would sew her mouth shut. The mental picture this tale evoked caused horrific nightmares in which she saw her face, wrapped in shadows. Only her lips stood out in these dreams, stitched crudely closed with a thick yarn-like web. No dragonflies were visible, but she knew they were there on the periphery of her vision. She could hear the frenetic buzzing drone of their wings. On more than one occasion, when she tried to wake up, she found herself frozen, unable to move, and had promptly wet the bed. Still, despite these prudish streaks, she was a tough little Okie girl. Red dirt ran in her veins. And with her summer tan, she was brown as a berry.

Some days she was the only child at the house. No cousins were around to chide her or dare her or even to look after her. These times she stayed in the yard. The promise of the ever-present switch kept her in line. Still, there were plenty of things to pique her imagination within the perimeters of the yard. There was the garden, with its lush rows of okra, beans, tomatoes and peppers. There was the Chevy. She often sat behind the steering wheel and pretended she was driving to all sorts of distant destinations. She could barely see over the dash. When she was alone, she never touched anything but the steering wheel itself. That was magic enough. And then there was the ancient cedar tree. The massive tree loomed up over the house. It was in the front yard and was considered a landmark of refuge. Anne had climbed this tree often enough, usually on a dare, but it was an old tree and when alone, she kept to the lower branches because even she could recognize the potential dangers of climbing up too high. Besides, the lower branches were worn smooth as a highly polished saddle. They held the safety and history of dozens of children’s experiences.

On this particular day, Anne was alone. She’d already made a tour of the garden. She was too anxious and suspicious to go into the crawl space. The car was locked up. She’d decided on the tree, though she made sure to stay within the boundaries of the lower boughs. She surveyed her surroundings from her perch in the tree. She looked out over the yard and could see a ways down the street. Mr. Rand’s doorway was just visible. There were no cars in his driveway. Nothing much seemed to be happening on the street. Everyone was indoors, seeking shelter from the oppressive midday humidity. She decided to concentrate on objects closer at hand. Grandmother had always advised her that one could see a lot more up close if one just took the time to look. Take time to enjoy the journey, she counseled, not just the destination.

Right as she pondered this thought she saw a praying mantis. It was maybe seven inches from her nose, less than a foot away at least. Its triangular head was cocked slightly sideways; its spiny front legs were bent in the typical pose that gave it its name. Its eyes immediately locked into hers as she assumed a position of genuflection. Of all the earth’s creatures, this one insect terrified her the most. The mantis was a predator, known for eating not just other insects, but small birds and animals as well as reptiles. What the hell did he have to pray for, she wondered? She froze for a moment in trepidation. She then attempted to back up, but discovered that her dress was caught on a twig from the tree branch beneath her. There were no cousins at hand to help her out of her predicament. She was overcome with blind fear as the praying mantis advanced. She felt herself slipping; her vision was blurry. It seemed just like the dream she’d had about the dragonfly. She was trapped and couldn’t move.

Please don’t let me wet myself, she thought as she looked around desperately for a second. What would happen? Would the mantis attack? Grandmother had always told her about the unwritten rules; make sure you have on clean underwear, just in case you’re in an accident. Was this one of those cases? Silently, she held tight to the branch as she watched the praying mantis’s march towards her. Maybe it would be better to just fall out of the tree. She felt a scream rising in her throat.

Suddenly a strange man approached her. He was coming up into the yard.

“Hey, little one,” he said. “What’s up? You stuck in that tree?”

Anne glanced quickly at the man before turning her attention back to the mantis; it had momentarily ceased its advance. Her bottom lip was starting to tremble. She felt the tears welling up in her big green eyes.

“What’s the matter, girl? Cat got your tongue? Here, I’ll help you down.” The stranger raised his arms up to Anne in a gesture of welcome.

Anne wasn’t sure what to do. She had been told time and again not to speak to strangers, especially men. She must never accept anything from an unfamiliar person and never get into a strange car. Every summer there was a tale or two about how some child had been discovered dead in a ditch. These children were typically girls, though not always. Usually unspeakable things had been done to their bodies; the news people speculated about mutilation and rape. Anne didn’t know what these things were but she could detect the shock and outrage in the newscasters’ voices.

For seconds she remained as still as a statue and then she began to shake in earnest as one fat tear slid down her right cheek. The praying mantis regarded her coldly as it resumed its approach. That settled things. She reached for the stranger and clung to his neck. He held her with one arm while he gently disentangled her dress with his free hand. Anne promptly burst into tears and turned her face into his shoulder. She held tightly to the man as she breathed in his scent. He smelled like sweat and smoke, mingled with fresh mown grass. He held her for a moment, stroking her hair, attempting to soothe her.

“There, there,” he murmured calmly as he knelt to set her down. “It’s okay now.”

Anne cried harder. She didn’t want to let go. Just as her feet hit the ground, she heard the sound of a screen door slam shut. She ceased crying abruptly.

“Lord, child! What’s going on here?” It was her grandmother.

“Just helping the little girl here, ma’am,” the stranger replied as he let go of Anne’s hand.

“Well, thank you kindly, then,” her grandmother answered, a little uncertainly. “Anne, come here,” she ordered sternly as she beckoned the child to the front steps.

Anne gazed up at the stranger’s face. Her own face looked back at her, reflecting out of his aviator sunglasses. He smiled and gave her a gentle encouraging push towards the porch. He turned away and started back to the street. Anne’s flood of tears suddenly returned as she ran to her grandmother.

She was questioned at length. What, exactly had occurred? Why was the man in the yard? Didn’t she know better than to talk to strangers? Had he done anything, touched her inappropriately? Why was there a tear in her dress? Why had she been up in that tree? Didn’t she know she could fall and break her neck? What did she have to say for herself? Anne continued to alternately sob and sniffle, but offered no clear explanation for the events that had unfolded in the yard.

“Oh, child,” the old woman scolded. “Sometimes I worry you kids will be the death of me. Sure you’ve got nothing to say? I’ll give you a good reason to cry. Now you go on and pick a switch and make it a good one!”

Anne wiped her tears and her snot away with the hem of her torn dress and began the descent into the yard. She had seen Henry dance to the tune of a switch many times. But her grandmother had only switched her twice, both times for leaving the yard without permission, and those times she had howled like a banshee, right in front of the neighbors and God and all. This time she wasn’t sure what her real transgression was. She hadn’t spoken to the man; she hadn’t even thanked him. And could she really cause her grandmother’s death? The burden of this idea was too much to fathom and she almost began to cry again as she bent to pick the switch from the Forsythia bush at the side of the house. She felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. She resolved not to cry through the remainder of this ordeal.

After selecting her switch, she returned slowly to where her grandmother waited at the top of the stairs. She moved with a dignified, stately grace as she mounted the steps and presented her trophy in silence. Seeing the stoicism in the girl’s eyes, the old woman was somewhat shaken. She administered the whipping in a half-hearted and resigned manner.

Anne stayed close to her grandmother all afternoon. That evening, when the cousins came over and her mother returned from work, Anne still remained on the porch. She listened as her grandmother relayed the afternoon incident to her mother, but again offered no comments.

“But who was the young man?” her mother asked.

“Likely just another soldier boy, waiting to get shipped off to die in Vietnam.” That was her grandmother’s reply.

The long summer day was coming to an end. The cicadas sang their frenzied paean of desire. The cousins raced about the yard. They were catching fireflies. Henry ran up, brandishing a jar that was already a third full.

“Look Anne, a lantern!” He set the jar next to her and ran off into the gathering darkness.

Anne leaned forward and examined Henry’s catch. The tiny insects crawled restlessly over one another, blinking and glowing, blinking and glowing. They were magical. Fireflies were the one kind of bug that didn’t frighten Anne. Her mother had told her they were fairies. Her grandmother said they were lost souls. Anne only knew they were alive. She again had that sense of injustice. She took the jar into the yard, opened it and began to empty the tiny fireflies out into the grass.

“Anne!” her mother called. “What are you doing? Those are Henry’s!”

“They ain’t Henry’s,” she announced in a tone of solemn finality. “They belong to the world.”

“You’re free,” she whispered, as she finished releasing the insects. At first they glowed in a mass, seething on the ground. Gradually, they dispersed out into the night.

Anne returned to the porch. As she approached her grandmother, her face broke into a radiant smile. It was the first time she’d smiled since she’d climbed the tree. Silently, her grandmother reached out her arms and took the girl onto her lap. Anne hugged her with the fierce force of joy. All was forgiven. She was loved. It was an unwritten rule.

The Guy for That

by Becky Eagleton

On Christmas Eve, Edgar stood outside his neighbor’s house. He often stood there, on Christine’s flagstone patio, armed with a box or carton or package. Yesterday, he brought five pounds of peppered bacon. The day before, a case of generic allergy tablets. Though Christine had moved in three years ago, she’d not yet invited him inside. But Edgar, too, in his latest epic poem, could not pen any verse that would lead his hero through her door, though he was armed to the teeth and chasing a dragon.

Edgar was a bulk man. He bought in mass. On any given day, there was a case of yellow mustard in his pantry. When he decided to experiment with brining, he mail-ordered fifty pounds of black olives. The day after the ice storm, he bought two chainsaws, and a case of oil. When he needed new underwear, he ordered twenty boxes of white briefs off the Internet.

Edgar hired in bulk as well. He had a yard guy, a wood guy, a welder guy, a steaks guy, a haul-off guy and a haul-in guy. He had a computer guy, a furniture guy, a tax guy, a car guy and a trailer guy.

He even had good health in bulk. Twenty years without a dental check-up had yielded no cavities. Seven nights a week of red meat dinners left him with a below-average cholesterol count. His bowel movements were frequent and plentiful. He had a full head of black hair, and age had added only more to his nose, ears and back. After fifty years, his fingers were still nimble and could play any one of his eight guitars and two drum sets or his mandolin, banjo, or three keyboards. But music was only a hobby, along with fishing, train sets, sausage making, triathlons, coin collecting, taxidermy, roses and writing epic poetry.

Christine stood on a ladder, stringing lights in the young dogwood next to her kitchen window.

“I got a pole for that,” Edgar said. He was eating pistachios, which he pulled by the handful from a coat pocket. “I’ll get it.”

“Got it!” Christine said quickly. “And three more just like it in the garage. You sure you won’t take them back?”

“You might need ‘em.”

Christine climbed down the ladder, folded it and leaned it against the side of the house. The ladder looked rickety, and Edgar was glad she was down safely. He decided Christine’s thin form and fragility were a lot like the ladder’s, though hers was not the result of cheap manufacturing or too much rain. More like neglect, he thought, and his eyes scanned the bricks, the roofline, the drooping gutter over her bedroom window. He pointed at the metal’s dip that spilled leaves and twigs.

“I got a gutter guy,” he said. “I’ll get his number.”

Edgar hurried across their adjoining yards to his house. The exterior was like all the other small, brick structures on the street, but the interior was a Southwestern landscape, a maze of canyons, where the walls were not rock, but boxes and packages and sacks and crates and stacked pallets and bags. Edgar expertly negotiated a path that led to a large wood-working saw; beyond that was a foldable card table that held a rock tumbler, and under the table was a plastic bin with a sticky note: “feathers.” Across the table sat a refrigerator and a sink, and between them, a drum set. Behind the set was a cardboard filing drawer from which Edgar grabbed a business card for his guttering man. On his way out, he deftly snagged a case of jars from under the sink.

He ran back across the yards, hoping not to be too late. Christine was still there, kicking pistachio shells under her juniper bushes. She hugged herself and stared at the setting sun. She might be cold. He had a coyote fur from a botched taxidermy sitting right inside his front door. But maybe it was too big for her. There was that box of beaver furs in the hall he was sending off to get stitched together…

Christine faced him, her arched eyebrows pulling together as she stared at the case of jars he thrust out.

“Cheese Whizzo,” he said. “Got another case in the house. Take ‘em.”

Christine did not take the box. “How about just one jar?”

“Perry might need ‘em. Melt some on a cracker in the microwave,” he said. “Or just eat it straight up. Kids like the stuff.”

Perry was Christine’s fourteen-year-old son. Her mouth drooped when Edgar mentioned him.

“He’s spending the holidays with his Dad,” she said and turned a fierce glare to the orange and yellow horizon.

Edgar nodded. He knew that. Yesterday, from between the sawhorses in his bedroom where he was planing down the swollen edge of a closet door, he’d watched the boy trudge out to the idling Mercedes with a duffle bag. The driver drummed the steering wheel with gloved fingers as Christine hugged Perry’s unyielding body. Taking off his safety goggles, Edgar had stared at Christine standing and waving in the street, like a tattered banner in the wind, long after the car had disappeared around the curve.

Christine was still now, and Edgar put the case of Cheese Whizzo at her feet and then held out the business card he’d promised.

“My gutter guy. Fix you right up.”

She took it wordlessly. He pulled an orange from his pocket this time.

“Got a guy mails me these from Florida every Christmas.”

Christine looked at the orange.

“It’s a navel,” he said. “No seeds. Keep it.”

Christine sighed and with her other hand took the orange, slid it and the card in her coat. She had not yet moved to go back inside, and Edgar felt a little giddy and knew he needed to offer her something more.

“You got a Christmas tree?”

“Not this year.”

Edgar was relieved. “Got an extra. Artificial. Comes with the lights on it already.” He turned, picturing the tree in the storage of his stairwell.

“I don’t want the tree.”

“Gotta have a tree. It’s just under the stairs,” he called over his shoulder, “in easy reach.” Once inside, Edgar marched through columns of stacked crates towards the stairwell’s low storage door. The tree was in a black plastic bag, toward the back. He wrestled it out and lugged it to the front door, and across the yards, breathing hard. He’d toppled a precarious pile of potting soil bags on the way out but could restack it later.

Christine’s small body was still visible, huddled against the deepening afternoon, and Edgar felt a growing excitement. She’d never waited twice for him before. The tree was the right thing.

“I don’t want the tree,” she said.

“I got it right here,” he said and patted the sack slung over his shoulder. Edgar was undaunted. She had waited for the tree.

Christine straightened. “I will not take the tree.”

He’d heard that tone only once before from Christine, when she and Perry were struggling with their lawnmower, last summer. Edgar had itched to go to them as they turned the mower on its side and examined it. The boy threw up his arms and stomped to the street, kicked the curb. Christine fiddled with the undercarriage, the starter cable, the spark plug, all the while talking to the boy, reaching for him. Edgar could stand it no longer; he grabbed a toolbox and charged across the yards. She noticed him at the last second, whipped her head around where she crouched at the base of the mower.

“I’ve got something for that,” Edgar had said, unloading his tools in a neat line on the grass.

The boy, Perry, walked past them in slouching strides.

“Just call Dad,” he threw over his shoulder before storming into the house.

Christine watched her son leave, and then turned a stony face to Edgar.

“No thank you,” she said.

Edgar bent down and began repacking his tools. “I gotta guy can fix that right up. I’ll get his number.”

“I don’t want the number.” Christine had straightened, her arms dangling, hands empty.

Like the tools and his attempt to fix the mower those months earlier, the artificial tree was not the right thing. Edgar lowered the sack and let it rest against the case of Cheese Whizzo on the flagstone patio.

“You like praline ice cream? Got a couple of gallons in the garage freezer.”

Christine pulled her brown hair back in a single fluid motion and fastened it with a band she took from her wrist. The action was a beautiful economy of movement, and Edgar was impressed. A narrow shock of white hair streaked back from her right temple like a contrail. She crossed her arms again, nodded at the bagged tree.

“What do you not have?” she asked lightly and pushed at the sack with her toe.

Edgar ducked his head and smiled. For the first time, Christine joked with him. He knew it was a joke for he did have everything, didn’t he?

Christine stepped backwards, toward the house, and Edgar panicked. She rubbed her hands quickly together and blew on them in short bursts, her breath coming in little streaming mists that smelled of sugar. Edgar’s chest tightened, for he sensed that this was the right time to bring the roses. Because she had waited, twice, because she’d made a joke, because the rakes and the doorknobs and the pecans and the Reader’s Digest collection and everything else that had traveled in his arms for three years across their yards had not been the right things.

“You like roses,” he said matter-of-factly.

Her eyes widened and she placed her palms on her red cheeks. “Yes,” she said softly. “I do.”

Edgar sprinted across their yards and through his door, through the cargo piled against the walls, along the floor, and stacked like crooked pillars throughout, some piles even reaching the ceiling, toward the sweet scent of roses in his back room and the thirty-six, five-gallon tubs of potted roses that stood in a rough semi-circle around a low stool. Clasping a pair of pruning shears that lay on a stalagmite of packaged cake mix, Edgar sat and frantically began cutting stems.

Rose blooms of pink, salmon, crimson, peach, lemon, ivory, and magenta, some drooping, others straining upward, filled the clearing and draped across Edgar’s stooped back as he clipped blossom after blossom.

He knew Christine liked roses because she smelled of them. Often, when he handed her something after carrying it to her house, the scent would waft out from her neck or hands or when she turned to close the door behind her. He’d started raising the roses three years ago. Kept them on the back porch most of the year but moved them in every winter where he forced blooms year round.

He panted, shallow fearful breaths.

The room was getting dark, and Edgar donned a headband with an attached flashlight to continue his work. Moonlight played through a large picture window and threw the spiky rose stems in silhouette. Edgar could see Perry’s bedroom window and the reading light that burned brightly from where it was clamped to the boy’s bunk bed. A single beacon that Christine’d left on, Edgar realized. The rest of her house was dark. He’d decided against turning on his own lights because Christine liked the dark. He’d noticed that her house often seemed to sit in a shadow, the same gloom that sometimes hovered over her soft features. The boy, now his bedroom light would burn long into the night, but the glow from Christine’s front bedroom was usually out by nine.

Edgar had worried she didn’t have enough light bulbs and had delivered a carton to her house the week after she’d moved in. He remembered the curious stare she’d given him. Her bedroom and the whole front of the house still went dark at nine.

He’d bought the roses the day after that.

Edgar finished his stem cutting and then hesitated only briefly before also beginning the task of snipping off the thorns. His heart pounded, but she had waited on her patio and he had hope. Quickly scooping up the mass of blooms, he clutched them to his chest, and leaping over a capsized tub of tambourines, he lurched from the house. When he saw Christine’s petite form leaning against her house, he slowed and crushed the blooms to his chest to stave off a sudden bout of dizziness.

Still catching his breath, he stood before her, her face awash in the blueness of the moonlight. She squinted at something behind him, and he turned, could barely make out the trail of roses across their yards. That was all right, he still had plenty in his arms, and held them out to her. She covered her mouth. Her eyes watered.

“I got something for that,” he said and balanced the load of blossoms in one arm so as to retrieve the handkerchief from his back pocket.

Keeping one hand over her mouth, she gingerly took the white linen and balled it in her fist.

“Why so many?” she whispered.

“You might need ‘em.”

She dabbed at her eyes and shook her head slowly.

“But there’s only one of me.”

Her voice was like a puff of spring dandelion, wisping by him, and he wanted to reach out and cup it in his hand. But his arms were full.

She had waited and was still waiting, but the mass of roses was not the right thing, as he had feared, in his worst moments, tending the pots in his backroom. Edgar slowly placed the bundle of roses on top of the case of Cheese Whizzo. His mind ransacked his house and all its contents, searching futilely. Roses for Christine had been his savings, his fallback, his nest egg in case of dire need.

The wind whipped through the trees and whisked seedpods through the air, stirred the leaves into a whipping, snapping circle on her lawn.

Christine sank deeper in her coat, and Edgar knew he was running out of something and it seemed to him that it was time, minutes and seconds rushing past him carried on the points of sycamore leaves. He imagined standing in their formless wake with a large net or tub or crate and diving for them, trying to trap them to stack them in his garage. But now Christine was turning toward her door, pistachio shells and wind-tossed rose stems about her feet, errant petals in her hair.

He couldn’t leave and followed her right up to the storm door. She looked at him over her shoulder. His empty hands trembled in his pockets. Her face softened and her lips parted slightly. Edgar felt suddenly suspended in the winter air and realized he’d never been so close to her before.

“You have something?” she asked and smiled slightly. It was just a minute tug at the corners of her mouth, but he noticed it, as small and singular as it was. He recognized how complete her face was, how one extra pore or eyelash might mar the perfection of her features.

“You don’t need anything,” he whispered.

Edgar held his breath, for it seemed to him that the yards and the street and his ponderous house, all stuffed like a gorged snake, slithered away behind him. He was left weightless and naked at the vessel of Christine’s sparkling face.

She turned to him, held the storm door open with one hand and brushed her fingertips against his arm. He floated in a stillness, in a bubble devoid of everything save hope and himself.

“I have you,” she said quietly and moved aside.

Edgar stepped across the doorsill.

The Long Road Home

by Carol Johnson

In the dirt of the scraggly front yard, a small boy ran a metal dump truck up a small mound of dirt and back down again. “Ud-n, ud-n,” he murmured. Lightning bugs flickered yellow against the growing blackness, and tree frogs chirped from hidden perches.

Suddenly a girl’s voice split the summer air. “Josh, I told you a million times, there’s ticks out here, and if you don’t get up off that ground you’ll have tick fever.”

“I wasn’t,” protested the child. “I wasn’t on the ground, only my knees was---”

“Well,” Shirley said from the squeaking swing, “it don’t matter what part of you’s on the ground. Last I heard, ticks wasn’t picky.” She hid a smile. Josh was a Connelly, all right. He could think up a better argument at five than she could at seventeen.

She turned to the elderly man on the swing beside her. “You tired, Grandpa?”

“Guess if I was, I’d go to bed, wouldn’t I? I ain’t stupid, just old.”

“I just asked.”

“Well, I’m not, all right?”

She sighed and slowed the swing, stopped it, and stood. Stretching, she spoke to the old man without looking at him. “Will you keep an eye on Josh for a little while? I’m gonna go see what happened to Lena and them.” She waited a few seconds, and then took his silence for a yes. It was as close to an answer as she was likely to get.

She picked her way across the darkened porch and down the crumbling concrete steps, then around to the back of the house. Her brothers and sister stood in a knot in the backyard. When she cleared her throat, Don looked up and smiled, teeth bright in the moonlit night. Dennis and Lena turned too, and Dennis motioned her over with a lit cigarette.

“We were just talking about Grandpa,” Don said when Shirley had come within speaking distance. “He needs a whole lot of letting alone if you ask me. Bitch, bitch, bitch. He’d gripe if he was hung with a new rope.”

“Man, I don’t see how you stand it, being out here all the time, Shirl. I mean, you ought to be going to proms and stuff instead of stuck out here with that old coot.”

“She’s the one said she wanted to do it,” Lena said, avoiding Shirley’s eyes.

Not that it mattered, but Shirley knew why Lena wouldn’t look at her. It was because if Shirley didn’t stay out here, Lena might have to.

“You’re right,” Shirley said. “I did make the choice.” She hesitated. She had promised her grandfather she wouldn’t tell. Still. “He’s dying. That’s how I stand it.” A slight feeling of satisfaction came over her as she watched the varying degrees of discomfort on the faces of the other three.

Finally, Dennis cleared his throat as if to say something, but did not. Lena stared at the ground like there was some big secret being revealed there and wound a golden lock of hair around her forefinger.

Don found his voice first. “Well,” he said slowly. “Grandpa’s old, you know, and sometimes death’s a bless—”

“Donald Ray Connelly, don’t you say it, don’t you dare say it!” Shirley said. “He’s not too old to loan you money when you get your butt in a sling at that casino, is he?” When Don didn’t answer, she turned her gaze on Dennis. “He’s not too old to drive all the way to Joplin to bail you out of jail when you got that last DUI, is he? Paid the lawyer, too.”

Lena held up a perfectly manicured hand. “All right, all right. You don’t have to tell me what all he’s done for me. But Don’s right. Not that we want Grandpa to die, but he’s almost 84, Not like he’s going to live forever.” She looked at her brothers for backup, but it was their turn to study the ground.

Shirley looked at her older siblings. “Ya’ll make me sick, you know it? You just don’t want to be bothered with him.” She glanced behind her to make sure Grandpa hadn’t come out to see where they’d gone. “He raised us. Raised us. And now you want to treat him like this.”

Don toed the ground with a shiny boot and Dennis shuffled his feet in the sparse grass, while Lena wound her hair, and looked from Dennis to Don and back to Dennis.

Dennis cleared his throat. “Look, Shirley. There’s a lot of things you don’t understand yet—”

Shirley sighed. Seemed like all she ever did when they were out here was sigh. “You guys make me sick,” she repeated, then fell silent. She took a deep breath and held it, and let it out slowly. “You’ve got to stay. He’s not got long, and having us all together means everything to him.” Looking at them was like looking into the faces of strangers. Desperation rolled over her and her voice became raspy. “We’re all he’s got, all he’s had, ever since Mama and Daddy got killed. Please stay. I’m sorry I yelled at you. Just please stay. Please.”

She waited for a response, but none came. She touched Lena’s arm. “Don’t you want Josh to know his great-grandpa? To have happy memories of him, like we do?”

“Oh, Honey,” Lena said, pulling Shirley close. “It’s just not that easy. We’ve got jobs, homes to take care of. You’ll see when you’re grown.”

Shirley stared at her sister. “I think I’m more grown than any of you will ever be.”

Lena backed toward the house. “I better get Josh in bed.”

As Lena headed toward the back steps, Josh tore around the house, nearly knocking his mother down.

“Look, Mama!” he cried, holding a Mason jar in his chubby hands. “I got a whole bunch of lightning bugs. It’s a flashlight. Now when I have to go pee at night I won’t stub my toe on the stove no more.”

“Say ‘anymore,’ honey. Not ‘no more.’” Lena bent and hugged him. “Mama loves you, you know that?”

“Quit!” His voice was muffled against her chest. “You’re huggin’ my guts out!”

Lena laughed as she released him. “Well, I surely wouldn’t want to do that! Come on, let’s get some of this good red dirt off you and get you into bed.”

Shirley watched them go, then looked at Dennis and Don. I will not cry. I am seventeen years old and I will not cry. “You guys think about it, ok? If you stay, Lena will, too.” Her brothers exchanged an uneasy look before looking in opposite directions, heads cocked, like bird dogs hearing a duck call. They didn’t look like twins, but they were—to the core.

She sighed and went back to the front porch where the old man still sat. “Grandpa, you about ready for bed?”

“I ain’t tired yet.” He spat a stream of tobacco juice over the side of the porch then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Well, I am. I’ll see you in the morning.” And she was tired, and not just in body. She was tired of always being the one doing the asking, never getting the satisfaction of getting what she wanted, even needed. And there wasn’t a blessed thing she could do about it. Even knowing that, she laid on her back in her tiny room off the kitchen, searching the cracked ceiling for something that would convince the others to stay, just for a while. Stroud wasn’t that far from Oklahoma City. They could drive back and forth if they just would.

After a half hour, she tossed off the sticky sheets and went to the window. Leaning on the sill, chin propped on the palm of one hand, she looked out at the moon hanging over the pasture, full and pale.

Why couldn’t they understand, Don and Dennis and Lena? Her grandfather had taken them in when nobody else would, kept them together these last fifteen years.

Kept us together all this time, and that’s all he wants now. Us together. And they wouldn’t even give him that.

She padded back to the bed and flopped down, pulling the sheet up over her, letting one leg stay uncovered. It always seemed that she was cooler that way, even though Grandpa said it was all in her head. And maybe it was. There was a lot in her head anymore.

“Growing up sure stinks sometimes,” she said aloud. It did. She was too old to throw a fit because she wasn’t getting her way and too young to make anybody really listen to her. It wasn’t fair. She turned on her side. She guessed getting old wasn’t any better. “I sure hope I can get us all through it.”

By six the next morning she was in the kitchen, cooking a huge breakfast of sausage, eggs, biscuits, gravy, and fried potatoes. Don came in just as she was putting the meal on the table, and Dennis and Lena soon followed.

“Where’s Josh?” Lena asked, stretching, arms over her head.

“He was up before me,” Shirley said, draining the bacon grease from the cast iron skillet into a tin can. “Him and Grandpa are on the porch.”

“Uh, Shirl?” Don said.

When she turned to face him, his face went all blotchy like it did and a muscle in his jaw tightened, released, tightened again.

“Let me guess, Don,” she said, gesturing at him with a greasy spatula. “You’re sorry, but you all just can’t see your way clear to stay, and you’ll have to go back to Oklahoma City and I can call if I need you.” She turned her head to include Lena and Dennis. Both looked uncomfortable, but no less defiant for that.

“Oh, come on, Sissy,” Lena said. “We’ll come back real soon, honest we will. We love Grandpa, too, you know. It’s just that we all have lives of our own. We’ll call every single day. We will . . . really.” Lena’s voice trailed off, and she looked away.

“You guys are the most selfish, self-centered—” She groped for words. “Dumb asses,” she finished. “And do me a favor. Don’t call me Sissy.”

“Now, just a minute, young lady,” Don said. “You’re not but seventeen years old. You’re not going to talk to us like—”

“You don’t tell me how to talk. I’m old enough to stay out here and ease your conscience, right?” He didn’t answer. “And pull in your lower lip before you step on it,” she said. Her heart pounded with sickening thuds. She gave them all the most withering look she could muster, but she was close to crying. “Just go. All of you. That’s what you do best.”

She ran from the room, outside to the hackberry near the barn. Sliding down the trunk, she welcomed the scraping of the bark against her back. It didn’t hurt nearly like thinking about Grandpa and the selfishness of her brothers and sisters and the awful unfairness of it all. She drew up her knees and rested her head on her crossed arms. She didn’t want to cry, she didn’t, but here she sat, blubbering like a baby.

Finally, she stopped, wiped her eyes and nose on her T-shirt, trying to calm the hitching breaths that followed the outburst.

“Aunt Shirley! Aunt Shirley!” Josh’s voice came closer and Shirley knew she’d have to get up and go face everybody. She stood and dusted off the rear of her shorts, then scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“Back here,” she called, and went to meet her nephew.

In the front, Dennis and Don were loading the car to go home. Lena sat on the porch with Josh and Grandpa while Shirley sat on a step, pulling the petals off a Shasta daisy from the bed nearby.

When the car was loaded, Don and Dennis returned to the porch.

“I guess we’ll see you next time, Grandpa. It’s been nice visiting with you. Right, Dennis?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure has. Maybe we could get back next weekend—fish ought to be biting then, don’t you think, Grandpa?”

Grandpa nodded. “Most likely.”

Lena jumped off the porch and picked up Josh, her hands under his arms, and swung him to the ground. “Maybe I can’t get off work and come, too.” She looked at Josh. “Tell Great-Grandpa ‘bye.”

“I forgot something,” Josh said. He raced off around the side of the house.

“Josh!” Lena yelled. “For Pete’s sake.”

Josh was back before his mother could say much more. He carried a mason jar in both hands, the lid of the jar punctured with holes.

He ran up to Grandpa and shoved the jar at him. “It’s my lightning bugs,” he said. “You can keep my keep ‘em till I come back.”

“I’ll take good care of them for you,” Grandpa said, and accepted a hug from the little boy.

The four climbed into the loaded car, and Don backed out of the driveway. Shirley watched her grandfather as his gaze follow the car for as long as it was in sight. He settled back on the swing and sighed. “I sure hate to see them go,” he said, “but I’m glad you didn’t tell them about me. They’d just have a fit to stay out here and run me crazy in what little time I got left.” He cast a wistful look up the road, where the dust had now settled. ”I hope they come back before too long, though.”

Shirley turned her face and tried hard to speak over the hard lump in her chest.

“Me, too, Grandpa. Me, too.”

Just Around the Corner: A Comedy in One Act

by Mark Frank


Actor 1: PENNY HALE, Jeff’s daughter. A ten-year-old little girl.

Note: Actor 1 should be played by a male actor.

Actor 2: JEFF HALE, Penny’s father. Once a prosperous architect, now a janitor.

             MILTON RAMSBY, Nephew of Samuel Henshaw. Ten years old. Penny’s playmate.



Actor 3: GUS, the chauffer

             CORPORAL, the doorman



             POLICE OFFICER



Note: Actor 3 should be played by an African-American actor.

Actor 4: WATERS, A pompous, flamboyant hotel concierge

               SAMUEL HENSHAW, a billionaire tycoon banker who Penny sees as Uncle Sam.

               MUGSY, friend of Penny’s.



Actor 5: LOLA HENSHAW, Jeff’s sweetheart and daughter of Samuel Henshaw

             AUNT JULIA RAMSBY, Milton’s mother.

             MRS. DINET, Head of the Miss Vincent’s School for Girls,

             KITTY, the maid.


Note: Actor 5 should be played by a female actor.

TIME: 1938, The Great Depression.

SETTING: Various places with simple sets and costume pieces. Actors can be dressed in black except Penny who should be dressed in the typical Shirley Temple dress and blonde wig. The cast should use costume pieces and wigs for quick changes to become other characters. The production should move quickly with dramatic moments played over the top. Any music of the period can be used for musical numbers and dramatic scenes can be underscored for more dramatic comic effect. The play is a parody of the motion picture, Just Around the Corner.

AT RISE: (A MAN walks onto a bare stage with a cigarette hanging out of HIS mouth. HE carries a sign with the 20th Century logo on it and then hums the 20th Century theme song very unenthused.)


Just Around the Corner, in color. Starring Shirley Temple.

(HE exits and then enters back on.)

In ten minutes… maybe fifteen.

(HE exits as a WOMAN enters and blows a whistle as four little GIRLS run on stage and line up in front of HER. The MAN returns with a sign that says, Miss Vincent’s School for Girls. HE holds it up, drops it on the ground and then exits off. The GIRLS giggle and run off.)


Penny, just a minute. I have some sad news for you. You’ll be a brave little girl won’t you?


(Wearing a bolo hat and carrying a riding crop.)

Is it about my daddy?


Yes. He’s sent for you, and you’re going to leave us.


I’m going to go live with my daddy at River View…for keeps?


(GUS enters carrying PENNY’S bags.)



Oh Gus!

(SHE hugs GUS and the three actors run offstage. A MAN comes on with a sign that says, River View Penthouse. HE exits. MILTON enters. HE wears nerdy glasses and runs into PENNY running on. HIS hair is disheveled.)


Who are you?


I live here, my daddy and me.


This is my uncle’s apartment, now kindly vacant these premises.


(Holding up HER fists.)

Unless you want trouble with my daddy you better get out of here!

(SHE starts to wrestle with HIM on the ground. WATERS, a flamboyant concierge, runs in and separates THEM and takes PENNY off as MILTON runs off. PENNY comes running back on with KITTY and crosses the stage with the other actors becoming barking DOGS. PENNY and KITTY chase the DOGS around the stage laughing and exit off. PENNY comes back on stage and notices a MAN who enters from the opposite side of the stage.)


Daddy! Daddy!



(SHE runs to HIM. HE tries to pick HER up but after many failed attempts HE gives up.)

Oh Penny, I sold our car, I have no job, and no money in our pocketbooks which means we can spend more time together.


It’s time I look after you. A man without a woman around the house is quite a problem.

(THEY share a smile with each other in an awkward frozen pose and then hug. THEY run off stage. PENNY runs onstage carrying a stuffed dog with LOLA and GUS. GUS should sound like Burt Lahr.)


Hi Ms. Lola!


Hi Penny!


Hi Gus!


Hi Penny!

(PENNY starts to sing and tap dance in iconic Shirley Temple fashion. SHE rips apart the stuffed dog while she sings and tap dances. LOLA and GUS tap dance very badly behind HER.)


This is a happy little diddy

I know the music isn’t pretty

You know the words are not witty

Anyone can sing this song.

Change keys it really doesn’t matter

Sit still a lot is just chatter

Hoe Hum we’re coming to the patter

Anyone can sing this song.

(LOLA and GUS run off and CORPORAL, the doorman comes running on stage and does a very quick bad tap dance with PENNY. WATERS enters.)


Retreat now and explain later!

(PENNY and CORPORAL quickly tap dance off stage. WATERS follows in pursuit and exits. WATERS enters holding JEFF by the arm. )


You cannot reside here at the River View any longer! Your daughter is causing everyone to go berserk. Control her or you’re out!

(HE storms off. PENNY runs on with a head-kerchief on, similar to one Aunt Jeremiah wears. SHE comes on stirring fudge. SHE has it all over HER mouth and face.)


Oh, hi, Daddy. I was working so hard I didn’t hear you. Isn’t that funny?

(SHE laughs nervously.)


What have you been doing Penny!!


(Pulls out a rolling pin.)

Well, Daddy, I guess you better let me have it.

(SHE bends over.)


No, no! If you don’t behave Waters is going to throw us out. Now I’m going to see a man about a money job and everything will be fixed.

(THEY hug, and JEFF has trouble letting go of HER as the hug ends. THEY both exit off in opposite directions. JEFF re-enters in the opposite direction with LOLA. THEY meet center, kissing and tearing THEIR clothes off of each other.)


Oh Jeff!


Oh Lola!

(THEY run off. JEFF runs back on and sees SAMUEL HENSHAW across the stage, who has tons of money sticking out of his pocket. HE is VERY old and walks with a cane.)


Mr. Henshaw? It’s Mr. Hale I worked for you for two years!


Mr. Hale the expensive? The architect? The dreamer? You cost me and my bank ten million dollars! Look at your vision!

(A MAN comes out holding a drawing in crayon of a half built skyscraper. HE looks at both men, laughs, and exits.)


Lola believes in me. I love her!


Using my niece to get in here, feeding her your schemes! Now get out!

(HE exits as LOLA runs in)


I know how to get around my uncle, let’s get married!

(SHE tries to kiss him, but HE retreats.)


What about pride Lola? You’d make up with the old geezer just to move up to the penthouse alone.

(LOLA slaps HIM across the face dramatically.)


You could have been proud once that building was built but now you’re a failure. Just because you’re a quitter, you think I’m a quitter?

(SHE slaps again and HE slaps HER back. THEY both slap each other again.)


I’m quitting right now!

(LOLA and JEFF storm offstage in opposite directions. PENNY runs downstage to the audience)


(In a very sad, pouting little baby girl voice to the audience.)

You couldn’t stand anymore good news today!

(PENNY and MILTON come onstage chasing each other as WATERS grabs PENNY.)


She stays if I want her to!

(HE kicks WATERS in the behind)


I never!

(HE runs off. PENNY runs off crying as MILTON chases her off. PENNY comes back on and collapses to the floor crying. CORPORAL runs on and tries to cheer HER up with a tap dance number. PENNY looks at HIM and in a very scary deep male voice screams, “NOT NOW!” CORPORAL runs off at the same time JEFF comes running on and tries to pick HER up but can’t so HE sits next to HER.)


What’s the matter Penny?


Got something in my eye.


I’ll get it.


(Hugging HIM as HE hugs HER and smells HER hair and rubs HER back.)

Oh, Daddy, Mr. Waters caught me in the penthouse and now he’s going to throw us out. He said I shouldn’t be there because I was only a janitor’s daughter. Why daddy why?

(SHE starts to cry.)


(HE stands and faces the audience.)

Because people pull on Uncle Sam, even though he tries to make everything right.


Maybe I could help Uncle Sam! Thanks Daddy!

(SHE kisses a long kiss on the lips and runs off. JEFF runs off as GUS chases KITTY on stage eating a dog biscuit wearing a Cowardly Lion mask. THEY both laugh and run off. Reporters come on chasing SAMUEL. PENNY attacks and brutally beats up the reporters as THEY run off.)


Come on Uncle Sam, I’ll protect you!


Here’s a penny. Thank you little girl!


No, I couldn’t take money from Uncle Sam!

(THEY both exit in opposite directions. PENNY comes back on cutting MILTON’S hair. A BOY enters.)

Mugsy, give Milton your man clothes and he will give you a dollar.

(MILTON gives MUGSY a dollar, but HE takes off with it. MILTON tackles MUGSY before HE gets offstage. MUGSY punches MILTON in the face. PENNY beats the hell out of MUGSY and chases HIM offstage with MILTON. PENNY comes back on with MILTON. THEY run into MILTON’S mother, AUNT JULIA RAMSBY who enters and screams seeing MILTON disheveled, and runs off. PENNY draws a black eye on MILTON. SAMUEL enters and looks at MILTON.)


Well upon my soul, here’s a silver dollar for every black eye you get. Now get!

(SAMUEL exits. LOLA runs on wearing a white dress not zipped up in the back.)


(Upstage whispering to MILTON.)

First she walks and gives a sigh.


That’s love for you!


I’ll tell her how much my daddy loves her!

(SHE crosses to LOLA.)


What have you been doing Penny?


Taking care of my daddy. He’s not so cheerful inside.


Probably worried about his buildings.

(SHE sighs.)


I think he’s worried about you, just like you’re worried about him.


Oh Penny!

(THEY hug. PENNY and MILTON exit as JEFF enters.)


You called for me?


I didn’t call you but I’m glad you’re here. I was (looks at audience) just around the corner.

(THEY kiss and start tearing each other’s clothes off while WATERS enters wearing a handkerchief over his face trying to figure where he is going as PENNY and MILTON follow behind laughing. The ACTOR playing JEFF must break away from LOLA to become MILTON until MILTON exits off with WATERS and PENNY. HE then needs to quickly enter back on to become JEFF and run downstage to continue to make out with LOLA. There is a loud noise offstage like someone falling into a swimming pool and WATERS enters soaking wet chasing PENNY and MILTON. Again the ACTOR playing JEFF must break away from LOLA to become MILTON who is chased offstage with PENNY. The actor returns onstage to resume HIS role as JEFF making out with LOLA downstage. SAMUEL enters. HE grabs LOLA away from JEFF.)


You here again. Get out! I forbid you to see him!


I’m going to marry him!



Where’s my son?

(SAMUEL becoming WATERS. JEFF becomes MILTON as PENNY enters.)


It was your son’s and Mr. Hale’s daughter’s fault!

(HE quickly runs offstage and pours more water on himself and then enters back on only to slip and fall. AUNT JULIA RAMSBY turns into LOLA and WATERS turns back into SAMUEL. MILTON runs off stage scared with PENNY but then runs back on to become JEFF again. CORPORAL runs onstage and starts to tap dance downstage as music plays. All the ACTORS stop and yell at him, “NOT NOW!” HE runs offstage.)


Over my dead body will you marry my daughter!


Daddy, just listen to Jeff about the building project!


(Studies JEFF.)

Well…go ahead and marry him. Maybe there is something I can do for him.


Oh, Uncle Sam. You’re a peach!

(SHE hugs HER uncle as THEY all exit as a MAN enters with a sign that says, Now Boarding Borneo, Alaska. HE exits. The following dialogue is done in spots of light that flash on and off downstage with each CHARACTER in a spot of light.)


You can’t go Jeff!


He’s going up north with the polar bears and icebergs.


Will he come back alive in two years?


(Still wearing the Cowardly Lion mask)

Not a chance!


(Unpacking JEFF’S suitcase crying.)



(Laughing manically)



Listen everyone, I must go!


What if Uncle Sam did something? Then you wouldn’t have to go!

(Lights return to normal. A MAN enters on with numerous signs that he holds up towards the audience, Ten Star Act for Uncle Sam, Extra! Extra! Poor Children Raise Money for Richest Man! Financier Gets Children’s Penny’s! HE exits as SAMUEL enters with PENNY.)


It’s a plot against me! Why would you do a benefit for me?


Well, Uncle Sam…so my daddy wouldn’t have to go away.


Did you tell this child I was responsible for all the troubles in America?! I look like the biggest laughing stock.


(Runs in.)

I can explain, Mr. Henshaw!


Didn’t you say, Daddy everyone should help Uncle Sam and not pull on him? Isn’t he Uncle Sam, Daddy?


Uncle Sam! (THEY both look at audience.) Ah ha!


(Handing SAMUEL two giant money bags.)

Here’s the money. I’ll have a benefit for you every week Uncle Sam to help you out! The shows beginning, got to go! Thanks Uncle Sam!

(PENNY exits followed by JEFF and SAMUEL. CORPORAL enters tap dancing and singing.)


We the boys who meet you

The boys who greet you

Cream of cream

stone cadets

It’s the brass buttons and epaulettes…

(PENNY comes on in a raincoat, hat and umbrella and interrupts CORPORALS song. SHE pushes HIM off stage and starts to sing and dance.)

Oh Mr. weather man

Where is the rain you promised me?

Oh Mr. weather man

I’ve been waiting patiently

Mr. can you spare a drop

Here a drop

There a drop

Two drops

Four drops…more drops

Now it’s all around me, gosh I’m glad you found me

I love to walk in the rain, look for me when it’s stormy

I may be late but I’ll be there

I love to walk in the rain, the lightning might be frightening but I don’t care

I feel wonderful, I don’t complain

I love to walk in the rain

(SHE starts to tap dance but CORPORAL comes on and tries to upstage HER by tap dancing in front of her until they get into a fight. The POLICE come in and pull corporal off HER beating HIM and exit off stage with HIM.)


What’s going on here?


What’s the big idea breaking up my show? You can read, can’t you? This is a benefit for Uncle Sam!



Sorry, sir, this has all been a mistake.


A mistake! We should take you in for this!


(Very flamboyant and dramatic.)

All right, take me, lock me up, and throw away the key! Away, solitary confinement! Take me away!


Take him away!

(HE notices he’s the only POLICE OFFICER so HE takes WATERS offstage. JEFF and LOLA enter with a REPORTER.)


Are you closing down the industry? Give us a statement!


No! I’m going to triple my payroll! We need that big American spirit. I’m starting the East Gate building project with this young man right now.

(SAMUEL puts on an Uncle Sam hat and then puts HIS arm around JEFF and smiles. The REPORTER runs off stage after snapping a photo of the two shaking hands. JEFF grabs LOLA and starts to make out with HER as THEY tear at each other’s clothes and go to the ground in front of SAMUEL and PENNY who watch smiling.)


It’s good old American Spirit Uncle Sam!

(SAMUEL and PENNY start laughing until SAMUEL has a massive heart attack and drops to the ground. PENNY tries CPR by slamming on HIS chest but still smiling towards the audience while JEFF and LOLA continue to make out behind THEM. CORPORAL comes out and starts to tap dance frantically as the lights fade to black and the play ends. The curtain call should involve a bad tap dance number with all characters.)

Bean Night

by Harold Battenfield

“Harold, close the front door,” my mother yelled one winter, fifty years ago. “You’re letting out the heat.” The night before, the problems had included too much running water in the tub and holding the refrigerator door open too long.

“Mary, turn off those lights behind you,” Mary’s mother said, in another part of the same town and at about the same time.

I closed the door and Mary turned off the lights, because our mothers said so, but not because we really understood.  Because I didn’t pay the bills, I didn’t understand the relationship between flipping a light switch and paying an unknown person in a distant place.

In a like manner a generation later, my wife Mary and I dutifully harangued our daughters, Lori and Amy, with the same lesson about energy conservation. And then, as Lori’s and Amy’s children grew, I watched my grandchildren ignore the same lesson Mary and I had ignored as children.

Was this a ritual of childhood, I asked myself, where we blindly follow rules we don’t really understand until we leave home, and then discard them, until we begin paying our own utility bills? What action could Mary and I take to bring the lesson home to our grandchildren? Maybe, I thought, just maybe, we could make a difference.

The history of bean night is this:

As grandparents, Mary and I had always looked for excuses to have our grandchildren come to our house.  Our obvious goal was to have fun, but the hidden agenda concerned what we could teach the kids as a supplement to school, as in a lesson of day-to-day living.  We excluded any project from a toy store, especially if they ran on batteries, or did not offer interaction with the kids.

The evening events did not turn on what we ate, but what we did.  Bean Night meals were always quick, easy to prepare, and involved minimal clean up.

Mary selected the age-old, dependable, garden-variety pinto beans.  They were good enough for company.  She soaked them overnight, picked out any stones, and the next day cooked the beans by bringing the pot a boil.  She drained off the water in a colander, poured the beans back into the pot, covered them with water and boiled them down again (to decrease, she claimed, any potential bodily gas the day after). With the heat turned down, she added ham, chopped onion, chili powder, Liquid Smoke, and small amounts of cumin and salt.  A lid prevented the water cooking off, and she continued cooking the beans at low heat for several hours. Jiffy Cornbread Mix, with added egg and milk, provided the side dish. As per Mary, every meal also included a leafy green (it was heresy without it)—spinach, lettuce, or cabbage.  The specific green did not matter.

For the six grandchildren and their parents, Mary and I ladled the beans into paper bowls and scooped cornbread along the rims.  Our conversation during this time included taking turns around the table, each of us telling one good event and one bad event that had happened to them that day. Everyone at the table listened while, one by one, we told about our day.

This particular Friday evening in August, the crickets clicked while the air hung hot and muggy. On such an evening, my butt would stick to the car seat before the air conditioning took effect. The grandkids had returned to their first week of school from their summer vacation.

Decades had passed since my visit to the farm with my own stolid grandparents, Oscar and Eller, and as grandparent myself I was afraid of being boring to my grandchildren. I pledged that I would carve out more time—more quality time—with them, than had been carved out for me.

“Okay, kids, here’s the plan,” I said, as I leaned forward on the table with my elbows, clearing my throat to get their attention. “Wipe your mouths, and then tell Nana thanks for the beans and cornbread.  Take your spoons, glasses, and bowls to the sink and come back to the table.”

Stumbling over each other, they returned quickly and sat quietly, staring at me in anticipation.  Their silence was scary.  With theatrics of a magician, I waved my hand back and forth above my head and reached into a Walmart shopping bag, whereupon I pulled out six sandwich bags, each filled with coins.

“I’m giving each of you six sacred quarters in a bag,” I said. “Don’t lose them.”

“Hey, this is cool,” Sam responded. “A dollar-and-a-half just for eating.”

“Follow me out by the trash cans,” I said, giving him the stink eye to be quiet and listen. “I have something to show you.”

I wanted to move along with the plan; late August in Tulsa discourages anyone from lingering outside.  The sun moved toward the west and stole the shade from the electric meter box, as well as the sitting area around it. The humidity magnified the discomfort, exemplified in the daily newspaper reports of death from dehydration and heat.  Those who worked for hourly wages did not have the luxury to retreat inside.  The best that they could hope for was shade—even intermittent shade.  At that time of year, I watched roofers, landscapers, and construction workers toil into the late afternoon, all of them moving in slow motion.

Our girls and their spouses knew my plan, and they watched with curiosity to see how their kids would react to my experiment.  The grandkids followed me, their parents trailing along, to the side of our house to a wood fence that camouflaged two trashcans and an air conditioner. I wanted each of them to have a good view of the electric meter.  The meter hung on the outside wall of our house, just above and to the side of the fence.  The meter had been secured to the wall high enough to be under the shelter of the overhanging roof—low enough for an adult to read, but too high for children to see.  In order for the kids to get a good view of the meter, I had arranged an aluminum stepladder and a folding step stool next to the wooden rail surrounding the trashcans.  With the smaller kids standing on the top steps and the older ones on the lower steps, all could see the electric meter.

The oldest of the kids, the twins Max and Sam, had characteristics as different as Mary and me.  Sam had dark brown hair and blue eyes, while Max had almost blond hair and brown eyes.  The twins were the oldest and climbed the ladder first, which screwed up my plans.  Sam had stuffed his bag of coins in his pants pocket and Max climbed with one hand, squeezing the coin bag with the other hand.

“Max, you and Sam back off and make room for the smaller ones to climb up and see see,” I scolded.

The twins allowed the younger ones up first, but everyone jostled for a step to get the best view of the electric meter, a low-tech glass bowl with wheels and gears inside.  Wires ran out the top and bottom, all disappearing mysteriously into the wall.  Keegan climbed the ladder, tripping over his untied shoes, while Max, Jack, and Lauren, the only girl, peered from the ladder.  Lauren struggled, turning her head left and right trying to see through hair hanging over her eyes.  Her mother, Amy, had tried to get her to cut her hair or pull it back in a pony tail, but Lauren refused because she thought she looked more feminine with her hair hanging long.  Jack, bothered by his allergies, needed to blow his nose. Sam held his four-year-old cousin, Grant, on his own hip, while standing on the stool.

Computer games had programmed the kids to take control and interact with any machine, but this simple, silent device baffled them. They did not understand the significance of the turning wheel, especially if the gadget did not have any buttons to push or knobs to twist.  This rotating wheel could not compete with Nintendo, Game Boy, or any game downloadable on a computer.  Where was the rocker switch to activate this game?  I assumed they thought in terms of “let’s get on with crashing a space ship, or beheading a gladiator with a magic sword!” Where were the flashing lights, the icons, or the buttons to be activated? Maybe the six double-A batteries need to be changed.  They watched the meter wheel tuning, their heads and eyes rotating in sync.

“What do you think you’re watching?” I asked.

The younger ones deferred to the twins, who were the oldest.

“I think that it’s called an electric meter,” responded Max, following a long pause.

“What’s it do?” I questioned.

“Makes electricity,” blurted Jack, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and then tapping his finger on the glass.

“That thing’s turning,” said Keegan. He grasped both sides of the bowl, then pulled himself forward and pressed his nose right against the glass, his eyes still in focus up close as only a child can do.

“No, stupid!” snarled Sam, with condescending sibling talk, putting down to his younger brother. “It measures the electricity used.”

“Max,” I said, “count out loud how many times that wheel rotates past the black mark at the top. I’ll look at my watch for one minute and tell you when to stop. Ready? Go.”

“One, two, three, four . . . ”

“Stop,” I said at one minute.

“Thirty-two,” announced Max.

“What does that mean?” I asked, as they continued to watch the wheel rotate.

“How much electricity is being used?” Sam guessed.

“Okay! Now how can we make it spin faster?”

They all shouted more guesses.

“Turn on more lights!” said Sam.

“Turn on the TV!” added Max.

“Turn on the computer!” said Lauren.

“Then let’s go do it,” I said.

The kids bolted from the ladder like their feet were on fire.  They exploded into the house, vying to see who could flip the most switches the fastest.  I could have held my breath between the time their feet first engaged the ground and when they again resumed their perches to stare at the spinning wheel.

“Sam, it’s your turn to count the revolutions,” I said. “Start now.”

The turning of the wheel quickened.

Sam responded with a faster count. “One, two, three, four . . .”

“Stop,” I announced. “One minute’s up.”

“Wow, did you see that?” bragged Sam. “We did fifty-four turns!”

“Who made this meter spin faster?” I questioned.

“We did,” they proudly proclaimed.

“Then who do you think should pay for this increased electricity?”

Their dismay was just as dramatic. “We should.”

I extended my hand, palm up, to each blank-faced kid.  “You owe me seventy-five cents.”

They each understood the purpose of the dollar-and-a-half in a baggie.  One would have thought that I was asking to amputate a finger.  Disgusted sighs followed, as they reached into their bag to pay me seventy-five cents.

“Okay,” I said.  “Let’s see if we can make the wheel turn faster.”

They stumbled over each other to race inside.  The second foraging trip in the house exposed previously overlooked gadgets that sucked electricity.  They turned on the electric stove, as well as the hair dryer, clothes dryer, closet lights, and bathroom heater, an apparent unlimited store of electrical switches.  This time they required about four minutes to do the damage.

They returned outside, scrambled up the ladder and stood as if their eyeballs were being sucked into the turning wheel.

“Lauren’s turn to count,” I announced.

“One, two, three, four. . .”

Again, the wheel’s pace quickened.

“Hey, hey, sixty-seven!” she yelled.

“That will be another seventy-five five cents from each of you,” I said, holding out my hand.  Now their bags were empty and I had all the money.

“That’s no fun!” said Lauren with a pouting lower lip.

As they milled about, I gave them time to digest the events. Then I broke the silence. “I’ll make a deal with you,” I said. “If you can slow that meter below thirty-two revolutions, like it was when we started, I’ll give fifty cents back to each of you.”

Their first reactions had been glacier slow compared to their response to this new challenge.  All six of them clogged the back door.  They shoved, shouted, and accused, until the body jam broke and spilled across the floor. The hyper-charged gang spread through the house and flipped off the familiar switches: table lamps, wall switches, and nightlights.

I followed them inside, looking for more change in Mary’s and my coin dish, but I had trouble distinguishing the coins because of the darkness. Sam witnessed me turning on a lamp. “Papa, turn out that light!” he said. “You’re burning up my money.”

The kids became more concerned that their siblings and cousins might beat them back to the ladder than they were at locating more switches. Promptly, they resumed their positions on the ladder, all eyes fixated on the meter wheel.

“Jack’s turn to count,” I said.

“One, two, three, four . . .”

This time the slower rotations were obvious.

“Eighteen,” shouted Jack. “You owe us fifty cents.”

I paid, hiding my grin.

“There is another fifty cents in it if you can lower the number below fifteen,” I said.

They knew the routine and spread through the house with military precision, searching for new targets, looking behind chairs, tables, and beds.

“Can we include the garage?” asked Max. “I saw a battery charger for your drill and that little thing that sucks up dust from your workbench.”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s part of the house.”

They claimed their prior positions at the ladder. No one waited for a turn to count.  They counted in unison: “One, two, three, four . . .”

“Papa, do you see that?” announced Sam. “Ten! You owe us fifty cents!”

“Yeah, you owe us fifty cents!”  Lauren repeated.

Now, each had all but fifty cents of their original money returned. I was satisfied, but I just couldn’t leave the process alone. I decided to push forward.

“If you can get the revolutions under ten,” I announced with self-imposed authority, “I’ll give you the remaining fifty cents.”

Silently in my cockiness, I congratulated myself. I was sure it couldn’t be done.

The kids searched the house again. I watched through the window as they held a conference amongst themselves, and sent Lauren out.

“Can we turn off the air conditioner?” she asked.

Mary and I huddled on that question. We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We concluded that we couldn’t ask them to decrease electrical use by tying their hands.  Mary and I broke out the lawns chairs in the shade for the adults, while waiting for the kids to return and scramble up to the meter.

One last time, the kids swept the house like FBI agents looking for any lights, however small Confusion reigned when they returned and stared together, six pairs of children’s eyes, to see whether or not the wheel had stopped. We adults became caught up in the drama of the exercise and surrounded the kids, straining on our toes to see the results.

“What’s it say?” Amy asked, trying to see over the kids.

“Yeah, what’s it say?” said Lori.

A breathless moment passed, and then Max softly announced, “Two.”

Two?” whispered Mary.  “I didn’t think it was possible.”

I dispensed the final fifty cents in silence.  The kids scurried off, satisfied with their victory.

They listened, I learned, if the project was fun. If they were actively involved, and if I didn’t repeat myself, which was the most difficult point for me to remember.

Two weeks later, Lori called me. “Hi, Daddy,” she said. “I thought you’d like to know that I saw Jack explaining our electric meter to a neighbor friend.”

Now, I am drawn to glance at the speed of our meter as I pass, and if at a friend’s home I may sneak a peak at the speed of their wheel.

I suppose I learned the most when my mama wasn’t even there.