FICTION: Words Said In Confidence

Christmas on Fifth Avenue by Alice Barber Stephens
Christmas on Fifth Avenue by Alice Barber Stephens

After learning that Fred has taken his girl, Buck Crenshaw advises his sister Thankful against marriage.

Buck and Thankful could hear their parents bickering below them in the parlor.

“I wish they would just divorce!” Thankful complained.

“Marriage is foolish,” Buck said, feeling even more hopeless. “I won’t consider it again.”

“You say that now, but one day . . .” Thankful began.

“It’s impossible,” Buck insisted, closing the subject. “And what about you, sis? Anyone in town who strikes your fancy?”

Thankful played with her curls and rolled her eyes. “No, no one who’s in town.”

“So someone who’s gone out of town then?” Buck laughed. “Someone I know?”

“Yes, but he hasn’t noticed me and he’s in the West.”

“Not William?”

“I know you don’t like him, but. . .” Thankful began.

“He’s a moron!” Buck moaned. “No, Willy won’t do.”

“William is not a moron. He knows about art and other things too– if only you got to know him you’d see. And he’s so kind to his parents—the way he helps his father—it’s so—chivalrous. And he helped me out of a puddle and took it so seriously,” Thankful said as if she might swoon.

“So you want someone who can splash around in puddles with his morphine-addicted father? Very high standards you have, sis. And how would Willy earn his keep? It’s so like him to become an artist of all things. Maybe Father could bankroll the bastard,” Buck said, getting to his feet.

“Stop it, Buck,” Thankful replied, holding out her hand for Buck to help her up. “Why are you so jealous?”

“I’m not. It’s only I don’t understand why women and even Father are so impressed with a morose, coddled little cripple.”

“I suppose we should all be impressed with a thin, violet-eyed cadet who gets in heaps of trouble,” Thankful teased. “Was it his fault that he fell from a horse? I might go and visit William sometime.”

Buck laughed. “Good luck getting permission for that. You’re such a dreamer.”

“Why shouldn’t I go?” Thankful asked, hands on hips. “You boys go wherever and all I do is watch babies. I wish Father and Mama would stop it. I don’t see how they still do it with all that fighting.”

“They’re idiots.”

Thankful laughed. “Land sakes, you have a kind word for everyone this Christmas.”

“Well, I like you, Thankful.”

“Thanks, Buckie, I’m honored.”

Buck took her by the chin. “You don’t want to go west. If a man wants you, let him come.”

“Maybe William has already met a nice girl.”

“In the West? I doubt it. But maybe he doesn’t want a nice girl.” Buck meant to insult William, but saw it hurt Thankful. “Stay home till I graduate and we’ll take a bully trip together.”

Thankful embraced Buck with her eyes on the door. She had her own plans.

 

***FOR MORE ALICE BARBER STEPHENS: AMERICAN GALLERY

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw and his misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”

PART ONE HERE

PART TWO HERE

PART THREE HERE

PART FOUR HERE

PART FIVE HERE

PART SIX HERE

PART SEVEN HERE

PART EIGHT HERE

PART NINE HERE

PART TEN HERE

PART ELEVEN HERE

PART TWELVE HERE

PART THIRTEEN HERE

PART FOURTEEN HERE

PART FIFTEEN HERE

PART SIXTEEN HERE

PART SEVENTEEN HERE

PART EIGHTEEN HERE

PART NINETEEN HERE

PART TWENTY HERE

PART TWENTY ONE HERE

Reunion with the Dead

008Family relations in a one room schoolhouse, stuffy with the smell of mildew and dishes to pass round, enlivens a part of me that never seeks simplicity. I thrive on the complexity of DNA. A tall, thin man in his late 60’s, dressed impeccably after a morning barbecuing chicken for veterans greets me as if for the first time, but I’ve known him forever.

There in his eyes is that friendly detachment so common to people in the country–my country. Intimacy may be too much a risk, but I see in the way this man talks about his daughter that heartbreaking mix of embarrassment, worry and love one has for a disabled adult child and I fall in love, claiming him as one of my own. On rare occasions under old trees by a glorious pond, this family gives you a quick look into their soul and you’re hooked. This push and pull between detachment and openness lives on in my mother who only in movies and novels enjoys the pastoral.

As I road between mountains I wondered about the farmers eking a living  on the green but sloping terrain. I don’t believe my forefathers ever stood still long enough to watch grass grow. They fought at Lexington and were captured in Quebec and the men picked quiet, stoic women. This man who is my not-so-distant cousin doesn’t go  against type in marriage. His German wife gladly followed him around the world from one army post to another before settling down in this beautifully remote and forgotten region of New York State.  For every thriving farm there are three or four tumbled down buildings, some on wheels in weed-choked lots.

What do people do here? I ask myself as the clouds cast quickly moving shadows over yet another abandoned hay field? The answer is that most move. My great-grandfather Orson made cabinets in New Jersey after leaving Cortland County. He and his twin drove Cadillacs and nothing else. Orson lost his wife to cancer. Back then some people still believed a person caught the disease by living a dirty life.  I wonder if he blamed my rebel grandmother (his daughter) like my great-aunt did.

My cousin retired from the army and knew for certain that he’d move to his DNA territory. He shepherds what’s left of the family like a good pastor. He’s a keeper of memories–always so many memories of Solon Pond. How did students at the school ever pay attention when the windows overlooked men cutting ice from the pond? One day a horse fell into the icy water. Another horse was sent to drag it out. The men covered the horse with stinky wool blankets briefly before sending the animal back to the heavy labor of ice harvesting.

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Do we save old school houses and churches as a reminder of a simpler life? Or do we hold onto these crumbling buildings as the only simple things in any time period. For brief moments we all stand erect with our intricate DNA combinations leading the way.

And what of our soul memories? We see another with our blood. Do we imagine a spiritual connection? Ten years ago I visited the cemetery in Virgil, NY and traced my fingers over the name of my great-great grandfather on his limestone marker, the weather having softened the letters to near extinction. This weekend his name was gone. A sudden exhilaration mixed with my disappointment. My fear of death briefly lifted. The names did not need to be there for me to feel my kindred bond to the others. The wind kicked up and I left. If I died tomorrow I would meet them face to face.

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PASTORAL

Inducement: A Bedtime Story

“I was thinking about killing you. With a knife,” the little girl says.

“Really. Hmm,” I reply.

“NO, I mean I’m not really going to kill you. You’re a sweet person, but if I did kill you (with a knife) would you be in the hospital or dead?” she asks, flipping the pages of the story book we were reading.

“Well, first off, I’d never let you kill me, but let’s just say you did. I don’t know where I’d be, but you’d be in jail.”

Her eyes widen. “But kids don’t go to jail.”

“Yeah, they do. Juvenile detention is one place they go. So it’s really your choice. You could live with us where everyone loves each other or you could become a killer every time someone doesn’t give you a 5th brownie and land in jail with other kid killers.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, I would never kill you anyway.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so because then we couldn’t be friends–obviously. And you’d have no chance with Grant from Kid’s Bop because he seriously wouldn’t date a killer,” I point out.

The little girl mulls it over. “Adrienne, I think I see what your saying. Can we go to the library tomorrow and  maybe to Starbucks and I can get one of those cupcakes–you know the red ones . . .”

“Red velvet?”

“Yeah, because I really love them. Didn’t we have fun the last time?”

“Yes.”

The little girl flips the pages again (we’d need to work on her handling of library books). “My mom tried to kill my sisters and I had to protect them. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I heard something about it.”

“She kept our heads underwater in the bath tub and once she taped me to a chair and covered my mouth with silver tape and left me for days. I had to break free to go to the bathroom in the closet.”

I have nothing to say.

“So Adrienne, you know I love you and I would never hurt you. Did I upset you?”

“No, not really. I think I get where you’re coming from. But it’s safe here. See, we covered the windows so the wolves won’t get you, and there’s the dog lying there to protect you. Now what do you do if you’re scared during the night?”

The little girl sighs, plugs in her mp3 player and says, “I’ll knock on your door.”

 

**INDUCEMENT: With no words required, one person sets up a situation to make another person feel just what that first person feels.

Reasons I’m Still Not Writing

Oh, what a beautiful morning . . .
Oh, what a beautiful morning . . .

When I wake up to this I tend to linger a little longer in the yard. Even the turkeys spend more time on their “deck.”

They gobble in excitement as I walk up to feed them.
They gobble in excitement as I walk up to feed them.

Before it gets too hot and guests arrive I pickle and can beets (my sister loves them so I grow and preserve them for her visits).

Pickled beets are pretty, don't you think?
Pickled beets are pretty, don’t you think?

The guests arrive and want to do farmy things. I’m all for help finding potatoes with my nieces.

The girls meet Clare, the crippled chicken and fall in love with her.

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They love riding on the back of the truck,too.

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We decided to get a few lambs and the day comes to pick them up. Goats don’t pee when in minivans, but sheep do. A lesson learned. Does anyone know a good way to get the smell of sheep urine out of carpeting?

Lila, Tyra and Becky lambs.
Lila, Tyra and Becky.

We also build a house for our new ram, Smash Williams. So while I’d like to say I write no matter what, every day without fail I really can’t. The sun sets and another Upstate New York evening enthralls me and my visitors.

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We sit in the yard. Buck Crenshaw and his world wait for me to return, but for now I just enjoy reality.

What Is Your Aural History?

What have you heard?
What have you heard?

For Northerners in Antebellum America the shouts of commerce rang out everywhere in their big cities; police whistles, horse hooves over cobblestone, workers yelling after hours at taverns and children–hoards of them hawking papers while calling out the latest headlines. Progress and wealth had a booming noise to it and with it a sense that things were getting done.

Southerners had their bells and their quietude.* When the slaves ran away the owners stayed in bed waiting for the morning bells that never came. But before that they heard the cicadas and the quiet (though not silent) sounds of servitude. Silence was stark and worrisome–were the dark-eyed fieldworkers readying themselves for rebellion? Quietude was different–a hum of rural bliss, a fairytale of peace and plenty.

When the noisy Union forces tramped into this fairytale of quietude the slaves listened hard. The sounds of big guns and wagon-wheels thrilled their hearts to bursting though they must remain in waiting, lips tightly closed around their excitement, for the right moment to escape to enemy lines.

Church bells were some of the first things to go. Some were melted down into cannons and some were hidden from the locust-like Union men. Bells held memories; the celebrations and mourning services of the Southern people were called out with bells. The heady air of  early war was crowded with the ringing. And then came the mournful bells of death before the bells went away.

No declaring, no owning of sounds any longer. Silence, waiting and defeat. Crass Northern noise moving in jolted Southern sensibilities. Many planters and slaves remembered the intonation of the words spoken from the front yards of lush plantations: “You are free to leave us now.”

And some went and some stayed and all wondered at the changing sounds of life.

As a child I remember the freight trains at 3 am rumbling through the next town. I’d lie awake wondering about cargo and places I’d never been. On sunny afternoons in late summer I’d be carried away by the sound of small plane engines overhead as I swung high on my swing. My father’s laughter and the screen door banging endlessly–these are some of my first aural memories. I live in a quiet place now and sometimes miss those screen doors.

What are some of your aural memories and how have they changed over the years?

*Thoughts inspired by: The War Was You and Me

Generational Curses

Charles Foster my great, great, great grandfather (yes, he was that great) led a drunken life after a childhood of chilling abuse. And here stands his house--a bit drunk looking itself. What a foundation for a family of storytellers.
Charles Foster my great, great, great grandfather (yes, he was that great) suffered a childhood of chilling abuse. And here stands his house. What a foundation for a family of storytellers.

This is our family home. The family that runs in my blood through my mother’s side of the tree. Curses and gifts intermingle, don’t they? When I looked upon this house I knew I was home. I could have stayed for hours listening to the spirits moving the tall grass. I could have stayed for days seeing out of the corner of my eye a young, strong Charles Foster building this house for his mother.

If I’m remembering right, the curse was liquor. Daniel Foster was  a cooper  (barrel- maker) who couldn’t support his family. By the time Charles was six (in 1815) he was sent  off to live and work for others, first a Mr. Clemens–the idea was that he’d be gone for good. Think of a six-year-old for a moment. Think of a six-year-old crying for his mother. At the time he had three older siblings and a little sister, Savannah.

Charles worked for a Mr. Clemens for just one summer. One frosty morning he was sent to a neighbor’s to borrow a flail (an instrument used for threshing grain by hand). The neighbor, seeing the barefoot little boy, told Charles to go inside the house by the fire while the neighbor put a new leather string on the flail before sending the boy back to Clemens:

“When he got back to Clemens he accused him of stopping to play but Charles said he didn’t.

“Clemens tied him to an apple tree by his thumbs, so he could just touch his toes to the ground and then cut whips from the tree and whipped him. Clemens went to digging potatoes nearby and each time he came by the tree, whipped him again. At last Charles, aged 6, told him ‘If you leave a breath of life in me and I live to grow up, you’ll pay for this. The flail string shows itself that it was newly cut.”

“Clemens let Charles down and that very night his parents sent for him to come home–for his little sister’s funeral. Once home Charles got sick and was sent to bed. When Clemens came to take him Charles told his mother, ‘If you love me you won’t let me go back.'”* (Sketch of the Life of Charles Foster, Ruth Kibbe)

Is there a gift here? Yes. One day you’ll meet Charles, because he’s mine. He’s me. He’s in my blood and he built my family. He was thrown off again and again, but he kept coming back. He made silly mistakes and enormous blunders, but despite the forlorn look of his once sturdy homestead on the hill, his blood courses the veins of the generations that have followed.

Every generation since then feels the pull of the orphaned and abused. He could have kept his story a shameful secret (and there’s lots more to tell), but he told it. He spoke of his love and shame and sadness, but also of the time he met with Clemens again in adulthood. God stepped in, he said, because if Clemens had not hidden away in a friend’s wagon, Charles may have killed him.

Submitted as a challenge on http://www.nostorytoosmall.com/

Defective, Dependent, & Delinquent

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Do We Really Like Homemade Gifts At Christmas?

She looks talented, but I don't know . . .
She looks talented, but I don’t know . . .

There’s always someone at Christmas who says the real spirit of the holidays is lost on shopping and killing each other in stampedes at the malls. I think if people continue to line up on Black Friday year after year, they must get some kick out of the near-death experience and warfare. I go to sleep each night fending off the fear of being buried alive during a dystopian apocalypse so I stay away from malls after Thanksgiving.

My childhood friend used to get a bottle of cheap shampoo every year from her awful grandmother, but I’m not sure a handmade gift would have been any better. While the grandmother was closely related to John Singer Sargent, you could tell by her hair and make-up that she’d have no talent.

Someone always says, “Let’s keep things simple this year. How about only homemade gifts?” Maybe during the Civil War that was a good idea. People whittled back then. I still have my grandmother’s whittled figurines and tiny sword (she was post-Civil War, but still whittled and knit). I wonder why she whittled a tiny sword?

Anyway, the point is I wouldn’t want a homemade gift from my brother. While I’m not impressed with a New York Jets ski mask, I can’t imagine anything good that could come of him crafting something for me.

I bet these women knew how to knit a good turtleneck.
I bet these women knew how to knit a good turtleneck.

When I was super broke I did the homemade thing because I was fairly good at sewing and painting, but I still got the sense that people were like, “I spent good money on her and she makes me this weird tree ornament with a creepy painted face on it?” I was going for weird and primitive. I thought my weight-lifting, UFO obsessed brother would like that!

Lest we beat ourselves up too much about what Christmas has become, we should remember that in Europe partying hard at Christmas was the tradition for centuries. We only gave all that up as Puritans. Finally as the Civil War progressed we decided we needed a good lift out of the misery of death, doom and destruction. Yes, the gifts were mere tokens compared to the electronic extravaganzas and blood diamonds of today, but people back then were no saints and probably some of their homemade gifts were less than stellar.

Do you really like homemade gifts?