November

winterIt’s November, the between month. Between leaves tumbling in sun-warmed colors and snowflakes feathering from a slate sky. Between roaring combines churning dust clouds and dazzling white blanketing latent fields. November. Cold, gray.

I was born in a dreary November more than 80 years ago. In the same old farmhouse that cradles my weary bones and bleary memories. I am cold and gray. I am November.

Shrieks pierce my mind. My heart thumps in my throat as the ambulance careens around the corner and lurches into our pasture.

My eyes flutter open and focus on the book in my lap. The sound is only the phone. And like the old fool I am, I’ve left it in the kitchen again.

I grasp the sides of my walker and hoist myself out of the recliner. It will probably stop ringing by the time I get there. “Don’t you dare do that to this old lady.”

My slippers shuffle across the linoleum to the table, where I’d left the cordless phone after Charlie called during breakfast. I pick it up and press talk. “Hello?”

“Maggie, that you?”

“You were expecting Marilyn Monroe?”

Elizabeth chortles, and I wait for her snort, but she cuts it short. “You okay?”

“Of course, I’m okay. I’m standing here talking to you, aren’t I?”

“You weren’t in church yesterday, so I just wondered.”

“You and half the county.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, honey.” She chuckles.

I ease into a chair. “Well, maybe only Charlie.”

“Checking up on the old lady?”

“Just like you.”

“You mean I’m an old lady too, or I’m checking up on you like Charlie?”

“Both.” I grin, even though she can’t see it. “When are you coming over for Scrabble?”

“You up to it this afternoon?”

“Sure, I’m always ready to trounce you.”

“Ha!” She laughs like a crowing rooster. “Look up last time’s score.”

“Can’t. I threw that paper away.”

Now her laugh ends in the familiar little snort. “See you at two.”

“Wear your asbestos pants.”

She doesn’t reply because she’s already hung up.

I guide my walker to the desk and replace the phone in its charger. No sense letting the battery go down before something happens and I really need it.

The ambulance vision flashes in my mind, and I take a deep breath, dancing around the other images vying to be seen. I stretch out both hands in front of me and focus on the gnarled knuckles. The indented finger around my wedding band.

When William slipped on the ring, he looked into my eyes and the corners of his lips rose in that slow smile. If not for his smile, I wouldn’t be here today. In the decrepit old house where I spent most of my life, except for those college years in Iowa City. My brother, Charles, worked beside Dad every day and was obviously cut out to be a farmer, but that wasn’t the life for me. I was going to be a teacher, move out east or maybe to the west coast. Anywhere far from hogs and corn.

Then during Christmas break of my junior year, William Briggs from down the road came calling. And his slow smile stole my heart. His brother wanted to take over their family farm, which was fine by him because he planned to become a doctor. I easily envisioned myself as a doctor’s wife. I could teach while he was in medical school.

But by the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma and teaching certificate, things had changed. Charles had been killed in action in Korea. Dad came in from scooping a heavy spring snow out of a feed lot, laid down to rest, and never woke.

Neighbors rallied to put in the crops and do the chores, but my mother didn’t have a head for business and needed someone with brains—someone like William. We moved up our wedding, and then we moved in with Mom.

I shake my head in a vain effort to dispel those memories. Adjusting to married life and the first year of teaching had been difficult enough, but complicating things by living with my mother while William learned to farm the place had been insane.

I take a deep breath. What I needed was some exercise. On the enclosed porch, I slip on my hooded sweatshirt and zip it up. I wrestle the walker through the door, and the cold air startles my lungs.

The walker slides along the smooth path into the pasture. A wisp of morning mist rises from the pond in the hollow like an unsettled spirit. I bow my head. The moment stretches into minutes. Then I turn away.

I stand and survey the land, feeling like a tiny figure frozen in a Grant Woods landscape. Acres of corn stubble spread like dunes of raked sand. Bean fields that lay covered with gold and russet velour blankets only a few weeks ago, now rest like shaved gray heads.

Clouds scud above, and a gust of wind invades my jacket. Time to turn around.

As I near the house, the LP truck rumbles down the road and pulls into my driveway. A man hops out, gives an energetic wave, and dashes around the back of his truck. By the time I’m within talking distance, he’s already fastened the hose onto the nozzle and another five hundred dollars flows into the tank.

The driver is Harold and Lucile Stanhope’s boy. He grins. “Should you be walking clear out there by yourself, Mrs. Briggs?”

“You offering to come walk with me every day?” Why can’t I remember this guy’s name? He was in Margaret’s class.

He laughs. “I wish.” He makes a note on his clipboard so the Co-op doesn’t neglect to send me the bill. “Nothing I’d like better than to walk with you on a fine day like this.”

I raise my eyebrows. “What’s so fine about it?”

“It’s not raining, and it’s not snowing. Yet.” He checks the tank’s gauge. “The roads are clear and dry.” He looks at me and grins again. “Yep. It’s a fine day.”

His name still eludes me, but I remember he has a daughter getting married soon.

“How are the wedding plans going?”

“Oh, the planning’s done. Jennifer got married in October.” He patted the pulsing hose. “Now I just have to work my tail off to pay for the blessed event.”

My legs and arms are turning to jelly, so I head for the back door. “Well, best wishes to the happy couple.”

“Thanks.” He waves.

“See you later.” I maneuver through the door, and he has the good sense not to offer to help me. Why can’t I remember his name?

My hood hung up, I push into the kitchen. What’s for lunch? The daily question. The refrigerator contains some wilted lettuce in a baggie, a few cheese sticks, and Rubbermaid containers I don’t want to open for fear of what might be growing in them.

Soup’s always good. I open a can of chunky chicken and dump it into a pan.

The phone blares, and my heart leaps. But it’s probably only Margaret.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mom.” It is Margaret. “How’re you doing today?”

“Fine. You?”

“Fine, too.”

My daughter and I have scintillating conversations.

I decide to ratchet it up. “What’s on your agenda for the afternoon?”

“Paperwork. Then leading bingo in the activity room at 3:00. Want to come into town for it?”

“No, thanks. Elizabeth is coming over for Scrabble this afternoon.”

“Oh, good deal. Keeps the Alzheimer’s at bay.”

“We can only hope.”

She laughs. “Mom, I work with elderly people all day, every day, and you’re the sharpest pencil in the box.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Glad I’m sharp enough to write, since I can’t dance anymore.”

“Who are you kidding? You never could dance.”

I chuckle. “You got that right.”

“Have you had lunch yet?”

She’d moved into hovering daughter mode. And her question reminds me of the soup on the stove. “I’m heating some soup, which looks like it’s boiling. I’d better take care of it.”

“Don’t forget to turn the burner off.”

Definitely hovering. “I won’t.”

As soon as I hang up, I shut off the burner and put the pan on a cold one. I check again to make sure the knob is turned to off. One time the oven was on all night. I shudder to think what that did to the REC bill.

I eat from the pan to save dishes and dump the extra in a container, which joins the others in the fridge. I slide my walker into the living room and sink into the recliner. As I reach for the open book lying on the table, my fingers brush Emily’s picture.

The book feels heavy as I pick it up, but I hang onto it like a lifeline. I smooth the page and stare at the words, which blur. My mind wanders shadowy paths.

A baby’s face smiles at me, drool dripping from her lips. She giggles and grows into a leggy teen, bouncing on Blackie’s back as he bursts from the barn and pelts toward the pasture. I run outside, yelling for him to stop. But Emily tugs the reins and spins him around, laughing. “It’s okay, Mom. I have everything under control.”

Only she didn’t. She couldn’t control the demons in her mind. The demons that drove her to tie a gunny sack full of heavy rocks to her waist and wade into the pond. She tied knots well, and her body stayed submerged until Charlie glimpsed her red shirt shimmering beneath the surface. By the time William and Charlie dragged her out, it was already too late. William cleared her airway and performed CPR during all the years before the ambulance screamed down the road. He kept at it, until the EMT pulled him away and told us she was gone.

So many gone before me! Charles, Dad, and Mom. My precious Emily. Two little grandbabies who never saw the light of day. And William. That dear man with his slow smile and his warm heart.

He would have been a wonderful doctor. He loved people. But he loved the land too, and he was a great farmer. He taught me to see beauty not only in breathtaking sunsets, but also in the deep sheen of corn leaves. The myriad hues of green in the trees and grasses covering the rolling hills.

And I taught. Other people’s children off and on, but mostly my own. Teaching Emily to sound out words as she cuddled on my lap. Teaching Charlie to count apples and subtract the ones we peeled. Teaching Margaret to form letters on the blank backs of desk calendar sheets. Good times. Special moments with my children who had grown up so fast. Now their children were adults, some married with kids of their own.

“Yoo-hoo! Anybody home?”

Elizabeth waltzes through the kitchen and into the living room as if she owns the place. “Oh, sorry. Did I wake you?”

“No.” I blink. “Well, maybe I dozed off for a minute. What time is it?”

“It’s 2:00 on the nose, honey.” She gets the Scrabble game out of the hall closet and brings it to the kitchen table. “I said I’d be here at two, and I am.”

My body seems heavy as I struggle to stand. “Sorry I’m not ready. I haven’t even made coffee.”

“I’m not drinking coffee lately anyway.” She opens the board. “It bothers my gallbladder.”

I ease myself onto a chair. “You ought to have that thing yanked.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Easy for you to say. I don’t want to have surgery if I can avoid it.” She shakes the bag of tiles and holds it out to me. “Go ahead and take one. Let’s see who starts.”

I examine my tile and smile. An A.

She glances at hers. “Aha! I got a C.”

I show her my tile. “Looks like I make the first move.”

“Oh, shoot.”

As I place my seven tiles on the rack, I keep smiling. This game is off to a great start.

Elizabeth loses gracefully as always and puts away the game. She goes to her car and brings back a small casserole in a disposable pan that she puts in the oven on timed bake.

She pauses on her way out. “Now, remember. Supper will be ready at 6:00.”

“I know.” You’d think I hadn’t just beaten her pants off.

Her car shoots down the road, leaving a comet trail of gravel dust. The sun has dropped behind the barn and casts long shadows.

I slip on my sweatshirt and head outside. The morning’s gray sky has broken into white clouds that sail across intense blue. The humidity must be low for once.

I pause by the pond. No mist rises now, and I allow the images to wash over me.

Emily’s pale face surrounded by her darkened hair, streaming dank water onto my shirt and pants as I cradle her head in my lap. William bending over her face, pressing his mouth to hers. Charlie pressing her chest with his crossed hands. Water bubbles between her parted lips like suffocating baby drool. I will her to gasp. I beg God to make her breathe again. But she doesn’t.

I lean on my walker and look at the hills. That’s where my help comes from.

Bent and broken corn stalks gleam in the light of the low sun. Tall grass stems glow like bronze reeds. It’s a fine day for a walk on the farm. Especially for November.

Time for this old lady to go home.

The above short story by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-9 of the December 14, 2017, issue of Christian Renewal.

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The Nutcracker

On this fiction Friday, I’m posting a short story I wrote several years ago since it’s appropriate for the season.

The Nutcracker

by Glenda Mathes

 

With “Silent Night” playing in the background, Marti rubber-stamped paper lunch bags to proclaim, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” Pints of strawberry jelly sparkled in straight rows beside the sink, like Redcoats in formation, waiting for the attack signal.

Marti hummed with the music. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, she’d risen early for personal devotions before feeding the kids and bundling them out to meet the bus. Christmas stockings hung from a dusted mantle. Coordinating ornaments and lights glittered on the tree’s evenly-spaced artificial branches, while artistically arranged gifts waited expectantly beneath.

Marti congratulated herself on finding gifts on sale throughout the year and nabbing four rolls of Santa-free wrapping paper the day after Christmas. “No Santa-splashed paper in my house,” she thought. “And with fifteen days left until Christmas all I have to do is put together these little gifts.”

The “little gifts” were for her children’s piano, Sunday school, and classroom teachers, for the mail carrier who bucked the road’s snowdrifts, and for the cosmetologist who could make even Joey sit still long enough for a haircut.

The telephone rang.

With only two bags left, Marti reluctantly put down the stamp and answered.

“Hello, Marti? It’s Deb.”

“Oh, Deb. I haven’t heard from you in a long time.”

“I know. I’ve been pretty busy the last few months, but I always see you at church, talking to the other Bible study leaders.”

“Well, we have a lot in common.”

“Marti, I’m calling to ask you a big favor. The other ladies who visit the correctional facility are planning to attend the high school Christmas concert so none of them can make it next week. Would you be able to go with me on Tuesday evening?”

“Tuesday evening? I don’t think that will work, Deb. I’ll have to prepare for Wednesday’s Bible study.” Marti paused. “We miss you there.”

“I just haven’t had time to attend since I became involved with the prison ministry. And I realize you need to lead Bible study, but I thought if I called now you might be able to prepare ahead this week.”

Marti shifted her slippered feet. “I don’t know.”

“I’m the only woman who can go next time and it’s our policy to go in pairs. I know how organized you are and I was sure you’d be able to make time for this important ministry.”

Marty sighed. “I guess I can go.”

“Great! Pastor Johnson has to leave early so he’s going to drive separately. I’ll pick you up about 6:15, okay?”

“Okay.” Marty gulped. “Deb?”

“Yes?”

“How should I prepare?”

“Just pray.” Marti could hear the smile in Deb’s voice. “That’s what I do every week. Thanks so much, Marti. See you Tuesday!”

Marti looked at the phone in her hand. She wondered if she should call Deb back. Maybe she could tell her the kids would need help with homework that night. Maybe she could say that Paul didn’t like her going out two evenings in a row. Maybe she should ask more questions. What would they be doing? She looked at the bags and jars. Maybe she should just finish this project before lunch.

Marti was waiting by the door and looking at her watch when Deb drove up at 6:17 the next Tuesday evening.

“Hi, Marti!” Deb smiled as Marti slipped into the passenger seat and closed her door. “I really appreciate your willingness to come along tonight.”

“That’s okay.” Marti sat up straight and buckled her seat belt. The car radio was tuned to a station playing Christmas carols. She cleared her throat. “You know, after you called I thought of some questions.”

“Shoot!”
“Can you tell me a little more about what we’ll be doing?”

“Sure. Pastor Johnson leads the service and I play the keyboard for singing, so you don’t have to do anything then. After the service, we just sort of mill around with the inmates and strike up conversations.”

Marti felt an icy fist closing around her heart.

“Mill around with the prisoners? We’ll be right there in the same room with them?”

“Yes. Just stay in the chapel. Don’t go anywhere else without me.” Deb glanced at Marti. “It will probably be a small group. Notice of the service is posted and any general population inmate is allowed to attend, but there are usually only about five or ten men.”

“What if someone gets violent?”

“Don’t worry.” Deb reached over and patted Marti’s knee. “They search the men before they come in as well as when they go out. Most of them have had some experience with church, so they usually listen to the sermon and sing along. A few are real brothers in Christ. Of course,” she added as she turned a corner, “we know that our sovereign God is in control of everything that happens.”

“Oh, of course.” Marti looked out the window at a church with light shining through its stained glass windows. A choir on the radio was singing, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”

Marti turned her head back. “But, Deb, what do you say to the men?”

“I mostly just try to be a good listener. You never know what questions might arise or what opportunities God will open up for sharing the gospel. If they ask a difficult question or I don’t know what to say, I pray a Nehemiah prayer.”

“A Nehemiah prayer?”

“A really quick prayer.” Deb laughed. “Like Nehemiah prayed when the king asked him why he looked so sad.”

“Oh.” Marti recognized the tune on the radio as “Christians, Awake,” but she couldn’t remember the rest of the words.

At the facility, her heart sunk with every door that clanged shut behind them. In the chapel, things went as Deb had said. Pastor Johnson asked everyone to stand to sing. Then he read from Isaiah and spoke on, “Emmanuel Comes to Bring Freedom.” Marti had never had so much difficulty concentrating on a sermon. She kept glancing out of the corners of her eyes in case any of the men made a sudden move.

The final song was, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The man next to Marti really belted out, “Rejoice, rejoice!” each time he sang the chorus.

After the service, Marti edged toward the door. She saw Deb talking to a tattooed young man by the keyboard and Pastor Johnson patting the shoulder of a man with a gray beard and ponytail. The hearty singer turned toward Marti.

“Hello.” He extended his hand. “Thanks for coming tonight.”

“Ah, you’re welcome.” Marti dropped his hand as quickly as she believed socially acceptable.

“You have no idea how much some of us appreciate this. It’s a blessing to worship with other believers and learn from Pastor Johnson.”

“I’m sure it is.” Marti tried to remember Nehemiah’s prayer. She glanced up at the tall man’s face. “You seem to enjoy the singing.”

“And why shouldn’t I sing loud?” He moved closer. She noticed that his large frame now stood between her and the door.

“Why not?” Marti inched sideways around him.

He revolved slowly with her, keeping his face directly in front of hers.

“You know why I sing so loud?” He leaned in.

Marty swallowed. “No.”

“I sing so loud, because I have a mandate.” He thumped his chest with a beefy forefinger.

“Yes?” Marti found it difficult to breathe.

“Yes, a mandate.” The finger pointed at her. “And so do you!”

Marti placed her hand on her chest. “Me?”

“Yes, you, Ma’am. A mandate to glorify God and tell the world how the Almighty rescues us from the clutches of the devil.”

Marti felt as if her lungs were being squeezed in a vise.

“Yes, Ma’am.” He straightened up. “I used to be a slave.”

“A slave?” Marti was confused. Was he from another country?

“A slave to sin, a captive to my own addictions. But Jesus Christ set me free.” He spread his long, strong arms. “How can I not rejoice with a loud voice and praise Emmanuel, the Redeemer who ransoms the captives mourning here in lonely exile?”

“Quite so.” Marti felt faint.

His voice softened. “Ma’am, if I were to tell you half of what I’ve done in my life, you couldn’t sleep tonight. I didn’t care about nothin’ or nobody. I was hard-hearted, that’s what I was. But the Holy Spirit cracked the hard shell of my heart. I’m a new man. That’s what I am, a new man.”

Just then Deb came up. “Hello, Bill. Telling Marti what the Lord’s done for you?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Bill grinned widely at Deb. “He rescued me from my slavery and adopted me as his own son.”

Deb turned toward Marti. “Bill leads a Bible study here.” She smiled at Bill. “He and some other inmates meet every day, don’t you, Bill?”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am. We know we have a lot to learn. We want to spread the Word here and, when we get out, wherever the Most High sends us.”

Marti took a step toward the door. She saw Pastor Johnson shake hands with the ponytailed man and leave. She took another step. The ponytailed man and two other inmates joined Deb and Bill. The rest drifted out. Marti walked the rest of the way to the door and waited. Deb’s little group talked for a long time.

Finally, Deb walked toward her and smiled. “Time to go.”

Marti led the way out the door.

When Deb started the car, an orchestra on the radio was playing, “Joy to the World.”

“Well?” Deb backed out of the parking space. “What did you think? Do you think you’d be able to come another time?”

“I don’t know, Deb. I’m just not sure if I can make the time to do this.” Marti paused. “I’ve got my ministry to my family and to the Bible study ladies.”

“Our service to our families and our church is important.” Deb looked both ways for oncoming traffic before pulling onto the street. “But God also calls us to minister to the lost. We need to give our faith feet.”

On the radio, a male soloist sang, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” just as robustly as Bill. As the car passed the church, Marti noticed the lights gleaming through its windows on the fresh, white snow. Listening to the radio carol, Marti realized that she was really hearing the words for the first time.

The above short story is the property of Glenda Mathes and may not be republished without permission. Feel free, however, to link this URL to your blog or share it on social media with proper credit.