Queen’s Letter: My Country is on Fire

Writers Forum President and Queen Laura Hernandez submitted a short piece on supporting the protests in the middle of COVID-19 on the day the one demonstration was to assemble in the Kohl’s parking lot. Before I could get it posted, that plan had been postponed. And then merely changed locations. And then another one added.

It was a chaotic weekend, and between the breaking events chaos and my day job, it didn’t get posted right away, and events quickly moved past the content of most of Laura’s message .

Because this seems to be an ongoing event, we decided to post the still-relevant parts of her piece.

We welcome any piece submitted by members that helps us navigate these difficult times. That’s what writers do. See below for submission guidelines.


My Country is on Fire

For many of us, it’s too dangerous to be in a public gathering right now. Chingona.
 
There are still ways for you to be safe and supportive. Yup, it’s money where your mouth is.

 

As protests continue across the country, police continue to make arrests of those exercising their constitutional rights to fight injustice. Here are a few places you can donate to bail funds to support protestors who have been arrested:

Make it count.
Because Black Lives Matter and Justice for All must be made real.

Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.


Short Story Contest Entry: DEPRESSION REFUGEES

Today we have another entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest.

Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.


Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

 

DEPRESSION REFUGEES

 

Refugees are migrating world wide.

History of the last depression made hopelessness a common companion. Homes were lost with no place to go; the economic crisis affected every one. Hope offered possibilities in the West. Mom and Dad sat in the front seat and sang, harmonizing their voices. I rode in the back seat with my brother and two sisters fighting among ourselves, until Dad stopped and put us out just before dark and drove off. We rounded the curve screaming; they were a few feet away out of sight waiting. It created instant peace. We were going to California where oranges grow and there were plenty of jobs.

The highway had many old rusty farm trucks and old vehicles piled high with wash tubs and bedsteads; sometimes people rode on top. After a few days of passing people pumping up tires with what looked like a bicycle tire pump, we waved to them as we went by.  They waved to us when we were broke down.

Sometimes early in the day, we pulled off the highway at a camping place near water. The men took out their rifles and went hunting for rabbits and pheasants. The women cooked and washed laundry in a tub with a rub board and dried the wash on bushes. Strangers made friends along the way by stopping to help wire the broken mechanical parts to get a few more miles out of it. It was said “a Model A could be repaired with wire and a pair of pliers”. The men bent over motors to try and find why it wouldn’t start and talked about their farm horses that were dependable…tears were hidden.

We left town before Dad could be put in jail. He left us sitting in the car as he filled a sack of groceries while Mom was walking the baby to keep him from crying. Dad walked out through the door with a bell on it, without paying. Watching through the back seat window, the clerk tried to stop Dad, who grabbed a can of pork and beans and threw it at him. The police skidded around the corner and bumped the baby; his scream stopped everything. Mom grabbed him, running hysterically to the car. The baby wasn’t hurt, just scared. The clerk was wiping his head, Dad put the groceries in the back seat while the police were  trying to calm everyone while checking the police car for blood or damages. I was still looking through the back window as we drove away.  A farmer may have found his cow was short on milk that night; we had gravy with liver from the grocery store and biscuits for supper. Dad called Mom’s biscuits “Cat Heads”.

The desert was difficult. We were tired, gas stations were far apart, our radiator was demanding water. Things not tied down tight blew off, landing on cactus full of thorns. Mom and Dad didn’t sing anymore. The Yuma bridge we expected to be magnificent was a little metal disappointment. The words at the end of the bridge read “California”, there were many vehicles pulled off the road with lots of activity. I understood they didn’t want the refugees; there was no work. I heard Dad and Mom talk about some families who shared the same money to show the authorities they had enough to travel on. Worse, there were no orange trees.

Someone told someone else there were signs along the road up the highway: “Cotton Pickers Wanted”, depression refugees filled up the tents. We moved into a tent with a wooden floor. It smelled like oil, it was wonderfully warm with faucets nearby. The tents were in long rows with community bathrooms. The tents had little windows with canvas covers and cords to tie them up for air. Early mornings the cold fog wrapped around us. Mom and Dad pulled cotton out of its sharp fingers and stuffed it in a sack. We traveled from one crop to the next, year to year. There was always something that needed harvesting, we followed the seasons.

Then war came. Convoys moved down the coast highway at night, headlights were covered. Young men stood on military vehicles with big guns pointed toward the sky; we could hear planes overhead. Our vocabulary included the word “japs”. Our tent was set up next to the fence of prisoners of war in an apple orchard.  A new vineyard needed workers to cut grapes and place bunches on paper to dry for raisins. Dad had health problems from breathing dust from the dust bowl. Mom was weary.

Dad had no ration card for a car called a Hupmobil. He put kerosene in it and the smoke brought the traffic to a serious stop all the way to Oakland; he pulled the car out of town by night. School was voluntary, we learned to read from Burma Shave signs along the highway and how to add what was owed from how much we earned. A hamper of peas had to weigh thirty two pounds; we received a fifty cent piece and one dime per hamper. We handed it to Mom and she dropped it in a sock. We went back and began another basket as DDT drifted in the air when we disturbed the plants to find the hidden peas.

Driving up two lane highway 99 we traveled very slow; traffic backed up behind was as far as you could see. A policeman on a motorcycle pulled up to Dad’s window and shouted “rev ‘er up or get off the road!” The speedometer moved to twenty eight. Looking out my window a tire was rolling along with us, the bump of the wheel hitting the highway forced us to pull off. There were big trees with a camping place near a pond.  King Louie and his Gypsy Band greeted us with an invitation. They were preparing for a wedding. Dad built trailers for King Louies’ Caravan. That evening I hid in the car; I thought they stole little children. They were gone the next morning but Mom and Dad whispered  about burying a baby there. I overheard them but never told them. Every year in the fall as we passed that place on the way to gather nuts, olives, or apples, I looked at the late summer grass where the Gypsy baby was sleeping; I threw kisses.

Dad must have passed the trading gene to my brother. He traded his bicycle for a little goat then traded that for a fighting rooster. He may have been eight or ten, keeping company with people who practiced cock fighting. Dad felt we needed to move before he got put in the reform school. He had to leave his rooster behind, it had claws. I had serious grudges against my brother. One Christmas I got a china doll, my brother got a cowboy holster, guns, and a hatchet. I carried around a headless doll.

We loved camp fires. The stars were so close Dad would point out the Big Dipper, the North Star, and The Milky Way. The next night he would ask us to point them out. He said “you will never get lost if you know the stars”. Once I got lost in Yuma’s one street, the neon lights were all on and I couldn’t find the stars. Dad delivered another baby.

Most of California Oranges were our front yard as was every vegetable and fruit and nuts and olives and berries and hops and peaches, oranges and strawberries. Occasionally, Dad stopped and left the fields and showed us how to build kites, including large homemade box kites one could hardly hold on with both hands that flew over the sea.

On our way to pick potatoes we drove over miles of migrating black trantulas all moving in the same direction. The Gypsies were already gathering potatoes, their familiar smiles greeted us. The beautiful women worked in pretty dresses with jewelry on both arms that jingled like music.

We had no place, but migrating refugees were always welcome to gather crops. Our car quit in New Mexico; so did Mom and Dad.

Desert winds blew hot making our lips crack and bleed. Our eyes were full of blowing sand. We were crammed in the open rumble seat, my brother, our little sister, and I looking through the back window. In the front seat was a man driving, his very pregnant wife, and my father. It was Dad’s way of getting to Oregon from New Mexico. Dad talked the young couple into going to Oregon promising work. Dad furnished the gas, they furnished the transportation. A disagreement occurred over a can of peaches. The pregnant woman wanted them. We wanted them. It developed into a full fledged hostile standoff. The woman cried to go home. The intense desert heat moved my dad to buy us a soda. This was so rare to spend money on orange soda but it helped us yield the peaches. Miles across the desert and mountains we traveled with the distressed woman. Anger erupted in Boise. We slept in the park on the ground that night. While we slept, they drove off and left us.

Opening my eyes the next morning, Dad was sitting with his back against a tree waiting for us to wake up. Gathering up our canvas water bag they had thrown out, we shook out our coats we had slept on and started walking, looking for food. The local charity at first refused us. Dad argued and argued and insisted we had to eat. At length we were given some scraps of paper and sent to a place where they fed us pancakes. I refused to look at anyone; to feel people’s disapproval, tears came easy.

No one knew how we came to be in that situation. That last winter Dad had fallen off a roof where he had been working. His injuries were a long time healing, adding distress to my parent’s marriage that had been unraveling for some time; it came unglued. Where we find ourselves now is better than before, where I watched my Dad caress the trigger on his twenty two rifle, as it lay across his arm resting on the car window pointed at the shadows behind the curtains.

Back out on the street walking to nowhere full of pancakes and desperation, Dad decided we would ride a freight train to Oregon. This delicate skill he had learned many years ago during his  orphaned youth; he roamed the country looking for work. We walked and walked until we found train tracks. It was a train yard; there were many sets of tracks. Us kids hid in the bushes waiting as Dad scouted for the railroad police known as the Bull, who watches for people like us. We caught an empty refrigeration car and rode in the top compartment; the part where ice is kept .  We lifted the hatch, scrunched up and folded inside, the hatch closed. Since we all couldn’t get in, my brother and dad slid in the other compartment at the other end of the box car. All day we rolled and bounced, we pitched and bumped and slammed, at some distant time we quit moving, I thought we were in Oregon. Dad opened the hatch. We crawled out and ran down the ladder and went to use the bushes. We were only a few feet away from where we began. The car had been moved to the next set of  tracks over. We were beat up with dirt, frustration, and emotional pain mostly because we were asked to choose who we wanted to go with: Mom or Dad. We couldn’t choose.

One couldn’t be unhappy while in the company of my Dad. It is possible to be in distress yet the possibilities were many in his mind. We only had to grab hold of them. Unhealthy worry was not to be entertained. Dad always carried a piece of soap, a fine tooth comb, a pocket knife, and a Buckeye: a round shiny brown seed about the size of a fifty cent piece was to stave off rheumatism. We went to the river to bathe using the piece of soap that made our hair all sticky and gluey in the cold water. Greasy black soot rimmed our eyes; it just smeared around. The thought of delicious pancakes was too much not to pursue. We slept in the Park.

Early next morning we caught a freight train….no breakfast. I was so glad not to go back to those people. The world flew past, the sky was so clean, the sage brush smelled so fresh, Dad would point out the lavenders and grays and shades of blue in the distant mountains. He praised the clean air and taste of sweet water. He mentioned that the sun was in the wrong place. I didn’t know what he meant.

The train slowly huffed and puffed to a stop under a tower with a spout hanging over the engine for water. We jumped off and hid in the brush. We were at a section hands shack. After the train pulled out of sight we went up to the kitchen and asked for food. Dignity, respect and kindness, with large delicious sandwiches were served with gracious smiles. We had taken the wrong train; it was going east; we wanted to go west.

We filled our water bag and started down the road toward the highway. Dad tried to teach us not to put our mouth on the spout but to trickle the water into our throat but we lost most of the water practicing. It was a long hot gravel road with the crunching sound of each step. We took turns carrying the dry water bag wishing we had been more careful with the precious water. At evening it felt good to feel our feet touch the hardtop. There were too many of us as we thumbed and waited, hoping each car would stop and pick us up; no one did. Finally everyone hid in the brush. I stood out on the road alone. The very next car stopped; everyone came running out to climb in but it zoomed away.

As the evening shadows crept across the brush and cold high desert air brought the night, the stars began to appear. I searched the sky for the familiar Milky Way. Moving across the landscape the mountains never change. Some stars I couldn’t always find, but the Milky Way was always there. It was warm and comforting to feel its presence; it was always with us. Standing on the road side scanning the starry heavens, restrained anger seeped out, peace replaced fears.

An old farm truck with weak headlights stopped, all ran fast and laid claim to a ride into town. Dad rode in the front with the farmer. We slept among bales of hay all the way into town. We visited pancakes again; I accepted pancakes. A bold spirit emerged when I met probing disrespectful eyes. I lost my inferior feelings that now flirted with defiance. The strength that came from inside was as though an iron rod had been inserted in my mind. This new power, this cousin to rebelliousness gave me courage with no war within. After we ate, the park lawn felt good, sleep was sweet.

Just before light the next morning we climbed over into the deep sides of an empty ore car that is shaped like a bathtub; we settle in the bottom and sit quietly. No one has any reason to check it for passengers, no one in their right mind would use it. As the engine gathers speed it gets too bumpy to sit, we try standing up as it rumbles and sways. The wind blew loose mine tailings in our eyes. It’s impossible to balance by holding our hands against the sides; it is too wide. We are not able to see, breathing thick dirt that swirled around us. We all tried to hold each other up in a storm of debris. We bury our faces in each other’s arms. After some time the engine began to slow down, these are steep mountains, slower and slower, it barely moves. We scramble over the sides down the ladder and run along sides and select an empty boxcar. There are others that travel too, who my father called “Bindlestiffs”. Dad was particular about our own private accommodations as evening descends; our train again slows to a crawl as we pass miles and miles of bales of alfalfa. I jump off to help Dad tear apart the bales and throw armloads through the boxcar door. These clean sweet bundles make a good place to sleep. We will cover up for warmth with them. Dad jumps back up inside. Running along side I stumble trying to catch the ladder; he grabs me just as I was about to fall under the wheels.

Next morning we could see flat cars loaded with government trailers, they were for victims of a flood. We climbed inside one of them; it was comfortable in the tiny kitchen looking out at people on the highway as we moved along. In the cars sat moms and dads. My mom and dad used to sit in the front seat and sing together, blending their voices. I tried to remember the words to the song, “on a hill far away” was all I could remember. I hummed the first few bars of melody under my breath.

Recovered confidence made our tomorrows fearless. The train slowed, barely moving, our destination came in sight. We never met the railroad Bull. Our worst problem was trying to scrub the soot out of our hair and from around our eyes as we washed in a beautiful river in Oregon, the starry Milky Way lives here too. Desperation still moves Migrant Refugees.

 


 

Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Short Story Contest Entry: Bedpans and Walther P38s

Today we have another entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest.

Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.

So far our Member Monday Short Story feature is looking pretty good!


 

 

Bedpans and Walther P38s

(A Christmas to Remember) 

 

Many people escape via expensive out-of-the-country vacations or by weekend get-a-ways.  Some escape by watching movies or by playing games. Me? I Amazon. I am addicted to seeing that brown box (the box with a questionable phallic logo) resting on my front porch as if to say, “Pick me! Open me!”

Amazon’s intrusion began several years ago. My “old-school” wariness would not release me to commit such sin as shopping online. The realization that I could stay in my pajamas and get the all the grandkids their Christmas presents convinced me to risk everything.

True joy begins from that moment I see a screen-full of possibilities on my lap-top or iPhone, items to feed my addiction. The beautiful (sometimes ruinous) journey is afoot.

It didn’t take Amazon long before they offered the best marketing scheme ever: Buy Now With 1-Click?   If ever a sentence could be described as delectable, this would qualify.  But they didn’t stop there––Prime delivery––why, you can have this in two days for “free.”  Free for an annual fee––ingenious.  A recent addition is the “buy again” button––extremely convenient. What will they think of next?

As I sat pondering potential deliveries, I remembered past disastrous purchases: the Christmas ornaments that looked huge on-screen but arrived a mere one-quarter inch diameter; the children’s animal book that failed to pique interest from the four-year-old; weirdly (and putrid) colored shoes; wall décor sized completely wrong for my walls. I have learned to read with care and read between the lines as my hand hovers over the keyboard ENTER key, I think twice– three times–before making the final click.

I choose my items, and proceed through the steps: would you like the arrival date to be this Tuesday, postage-free; for $3.99 more you could have this on Monday; add to your dash button? It would be ever so easy to reorder.  Thank you, Amazon.

I’m always eager to help family find just what they are looking for.

“Gramma, did you say you need a bedpan? Let me look for you.” I am giddy.

If only hindsight had been my guide.  I now have a bedpan in my Face Book feed; subject lines of countless emails read: because you bought a bedpan; just press “click” to buy again; people who have purchased a bedpan have also purchased the following items; and finally (although, I’m sure it won’t be) I have a picture of Gram’s bright, shiny––thankfully still unused––bedpan in that blasted buy again? button.

* * *

It was seven days before Christmas, and I still had to purchase gifts for 21 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and 10 adults. Technically, Christmas was eight days away, but our family gathers for dinner on Christmas Eve, opening gifts after the grandchildren wash the dishes.

Ho! Ho! Ho! Oh, here I go. I snuggled into my favorite love-seat position: blanket; feather-pillow; pajamas; steaming mug of coffee latte at the ready, with the Amazon page brightly shining and resting on my lap. Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24 by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra transmitted via Apple TV; it was so loud that I thought I heard the neighbors singing along.

I read that Amazon Prime members were extended an offer-of-the-day to have purchases gift- wrapped for free. I started to clap my hands. I had forgotten I was holding the latte, and nearly doused my shopping cart.

The doorbell rang. I was greeted by a small crowd; my third-born daughter, Angela, her six-month-old twin daughters, Annakate and Adeline, and her ten-year-old son, Dylan. I welcomed them in, and as they were seated, Dylan spied my computer and asked if he could play Minecraft on it.

“Of course,” I said with a wink at the platinum-haired boy, “That’s why I downloaded it, silly Dilly.” He carried the laptop to the dining table, and I set my attention to oohing and awing over the twins.

They left. I returned to my Amazon shopping, made my selections and set about washing dishes, making the bed, and tossing clothes into the washing machine.  As I cleaned, I made a mental grocery list for the big dinner. Then, it came to me; a jolting revelation, so jolting I swear I heard the angels sing. I could order all my groceries on Amazon.

***

I opened the door to the UPS delivery truck driver asking for my signature and I happily signed, although I wasn’t sure why this particular delivery required a signature; she didn’t look happy. She must have made 12 jaunts––truck to doorstep, using a dolly–– getting more red-faced each time, as I stood gawping. Her parting words were something about why I thought I needed 42 Christmas hams and concluded with a caustic Merry Christmas.

I smiled, dripping with saccharine to shield my consternation, I called out something about her job security. I ogled (my face as frozen as the hams) for a few minutes at the mass covering the front porch and decided the Amazon SNAFU could be dealt with in the morning and began dragging the boxes inside.

The new day arrived; the sun shining in a clear blue sky despite putting my order with the Big Guy for snow. I wondered if I should have checked with Amazon Prime.  I hoped and prayed that the one special gift would arrive before dinner as I baked all day for the expectant, hungry horde.  The gift was delivered at last, and I placed it upon the swollen mound that exceeded the “under the tree” notion.

I rang the Amazon office contact number only to reach an automated response: closed for the holidays, please try again December 26, 2017

***

The moment the kids had waited 365 days arrived. I beamed at my family–– mostly for the expectant joy on all faces. I donned my Santa hat and began dispersing gifts. The family rule was to wait until everyone had all their gifts piled at their side. The teenagers offered to play Santa’s elves to speed things up.

I gave the traditional secret Santa signal and madness ensued. The neat freak son-in-law trailed behind, best he could, crumbling shreds of wrapping paper into large, black trash bags.

Holliss, seven, shrieked, “How did Santa know I like red foxes?”

Her mother, Rebecca, the family baby, gave me the look that she was famous for and I asked what was wrong.

“Really, Mom? You gave my daughter a water bottle that reads “‘What the Fox’?’’

I couldn’t answer.

“Mother!”

It was Christa, my second-born and mother to seventeen-year-old Janessa, who screamed, “What are you thinking? The Kama Sutra? A book on sex?”

Oh boy, I thought, I know I’m in BIG trouble. Still, I said nothing.

“Gram-Gram.”

I turned toward Nathan, his face as white as Christmas snow.  He told the room that Cohen had just opened his present. As he spoke, he twirled what looked like a toy gun in his hands. Nathan, 15, was a sharpshooter whose goal was to become a Special Ops sniper.

“Did you know this gun is real? It’s a Walther P38. You bought a five-year-old a gun?”

The room was still, not-a-creature-was-stirring, not-even-a-mouse kind of still. And quiet.

I felt the blood drain from my face as I stammered, “I-I-I.” I proffered a weak defense that I knew nothing.

“This is a mistake, Amazon doesn’t sell guns,” I yelled, and I snatched the gun away, “You all know how Amazon is, remember the fuzzy elf slipper incident?” Details best unknown.

Dylan started blubbering. His mother clutched him at the elbow and escorted him into a bedroom.

Everyone began gathering their things. The grandkids begged to stay and be entertained by the annual reading of The Night Before Christmas, and the parents acquiesced. They helped themselves to a glass full of my home-brewed eggnog. I was thankful this year’s batch was alcohol light. (The cook may –– or may not have––consumed the 16 ounces of rum the recipe called for.)  I noticed a flask being extracted from Rebecca’s pocket.

I was called into the bedroom and Dylan tearfully told me the tale. He noticed my Amazon page open and thought he was being helpful. When questioned about the book he said he added that to the cart because Janessa likes to exercise, and the book cover looked like people were exercising. He admitted he looked at toy guns for his cousin because he knew Cohen wanted to be a policeman.

“How did you order?”

“Easy. Buy now with one-click, Gram-Gram.”

“What about your mother’s stack of ten road signs that read ‘Drive like your kids live here’?”

“I have little sisters.”  I was thankful he didn’t order a sleigh full of toys. Or an Oozie.

“Gram,” Dylan added, “When I was playing Minecraft, you got an email attachment that I clicked on. They might have downloaded spyware.”

“It’s O.K., Dylan. I’m not mad and you’re not in trouble,” I comforted, “I’ll get to the bottom of this after Christmas.”

I remembered getting a package that didn’t quite look like it came from Amazon, but the gift inside was in wrapped in Santa Claus paper so I shrugged it off.  My imagination exploded like gas on flames and visions of ruthless arms dealers in Nigeria popped into my mind.

As I turned to the hopeful crowd waiting for their story, memories of my own childhood prank streamed like an Amazon Prime movie. When I was nine, my little sister, Lisa, and I walked across the field to Gramma’s house. She was outside hanging clothes on the line and unaware of our presence. I had a flash of brilliance and coerced Lisa (so she claims) into making the house appear ransacked. Then we hid while waiting for Gramma’s reaction. No one laughed at that either.

***

The families were leaving, and I was informed by unanimous consensus I was to send a screenshot prior to all purchases for their children. My four-year-old self’s inner monologue screamed, “You’re not the boss of me.” Instead, I shouted that I wasn’t in an assisted living home yet and asked, “What’s next? Taking car keys away?  Don’t forget who will be having to taxi me around town, if that’s what you’re thinking!”

I stopped just short of threatening to have an appointment every day when I remembered the party scheduled the next day and abruptly changed my tone to be as sweet as Royal Icing on a sugar cookie. I reminded them to drop the littles off at 4:00 p.m. They weren’t sure if that would happen.

“But we always have a Mad Hatter’s Tea party on Christmas Day,” I implored, “Since you were knee high to a grasshopper. It’s a thirty-something-year tradition.”

They weren’t convinced. I slammed the door. I heard engines roar and tires squeal.

Four o’clock Christmas Day came, and grandkids filed into the house, all in smiles and costumes appropriate for the Mad Hatter. But I suspected their attendance had more to do with quiet time and free babysitting––their parents looked quite disgruntled and no one spoke.

“Don’t mind them,” Holliss, a precocious child, piped up and hugged me with the strength of a baboon and within a split second I was cocooned in a group hug, “You’re the best Gram ever–– parents just don’t understand.”

 


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.

Queen’s Letter: Notsobrighterday

Writers Forum President and Queen shares her take on the covid-19 restrictions as we enter the Memorial Day weekend.


May people are optimistic that places are opening up. I remain crabby.

Redding City Council meeting was bullied and bull-horned by a mob this week, demanding things open up further. They also want churches to re-open because, God.  The federal government wrote a letter to our governor to re-open churches because, First Amendment.

I know it wasn’t any of you who went to the Mother’s Day church service in Butte County where an old guy had Chingona and infected others there. I’m pretty sure none of you went to the Cottonwood Rodeo that same weekend. Both in violation of state orders. And no one was wearing a mask, ‘cause, where’s the fun in that?! Happy Mother’s Day. Way to celebrate.

Churches are the places that have infected more people than any other gathering spots besides nursing homes. It’s not the touching and the hugging. It’s the breathing and the singing. Physical distancing is negated by raising your voice.  This is why we can’t have a nice Quarantine.

And it’s not enough that you don’t go to church.  It’s that after exposure to people from many neighborhoods who have gathered at the church, people go to the store. Your store, your take-out restaurant, and expose those people. So, Butte County’s church becomes your store’s infection point.

I’ve argued and negotiated distance and 30-minute timers with people coming into the law liberry without masks in violation of the posted policy on my door.  I’m gonna use a squirt gun next. I’m tired of wiping staplers, counter tops, desks, chairs and door knobs after each person uses them. And that’s just the stress at my workplace.

This staying the ‘eff at home has been hard on all of us. Some more than others. There are some Writers Forum members who own their own small business who have had to shut down. There are those who own professional solo practices who have had to close up. Essential First Responders who work at grocery stores, and families who live with nurses and are caregivers to First Responders’ grandchildren are trying to stay safe from infection while trapped together.  There is even someone who works the 911 phones. Imagine how hard that is.

There are now cases in all counties but one up here. Know what that means? It means that someone from Trinity County went somewhere and got Chingona and came back with it, or let someone visit from somewhere else who gave it to him. We know that because for two months, there were no reported cases in Trinity County. This was not an Immaculate Infection. It came there from a person carrying it inside them who wouldn’t stay the ‘eff at home. Cases are not rising in Shasta County, but they are everywhere else in California.

This is Memorial Day Weekend and people want to get out and remember the war dead, and to blow off steam. I’ve heard celebratory gunshots and fireworks at night this week in my neighborhood. Assholes abound. Please don’t go to Walmart or Costco. Masks are not enough to protect you from the crowds there who are buying party supplies for this weekend.  Go on Tuesday.  If you have to go there at all. A smaller market is best. During the earliest hours. With your damn mask on.

If you think being outside is just fine, think again. If you’re in a crowd this weekend, it won’t help you to be outside where people are not wearing masks. Even walking past them won’t help. They’ll be shouting, laughing and spreading Chingona far and wide if they have it, making a cloud of droplets that will linger for several minutes while you walk under it. Fresh air doesn’t kill this Chingona.  And you can’t tell if they have it. That’s the thing, isn’t it? You can’t tell by looking at people. They may know they have it, they may not know for sure. And some people don’t care enough about you. Stealthy Assholes.

I’m going to be occupying myself at the ‘eff home, doing yard work with my online supplies from Home Depot delivered directly to my door; reading, and viewing classes on Udemy.com. I’m taking Sell Your Novel to a Major Publisher, Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 steps, and The Foundations of Fiction Writing Mastery.  Really these are so good! And it’s not reading which takes concentration and comprehension! They are video lectures with prompts and examples and exercises! And you can make them repeat!

I have writer friends in New Jersey who are having trouble concentrating one day and then getting a burst of creative energy another day only to be felled by no-energy the next. None of them have Chingona, they are just getting Quarantini Blues. They joke about gaining the 19 pounds of Covid-19 stress eating. They are also trying to keep young children educated and alive at their houses. I have writer friends in San Diego, CA; and St. Augustine, Florida who are being intimidated in the street for wearing their masks. I have writer friends in the Bay Area who were laid off and are about losing their minds trying to get the Unemployment Office to answer the damn phone after writing out online applications and receiving nothing. For days and hours each day. They have mortgages and small children who need to eat. And these are all published writers who have agents and everything.  This is really hard.

What I want to do is stay the ‘eff at home in preparation for the next wave coming in two weeks from this weekend. The Asshole Factor for Memorial Day Weekend will infect people and start making new Chingona cases within 14 days. It may come in day 2 or day 13.  We don’t know. But we can stay home this weekend and not be spit on, or shouted at, or sung to.

I love you. Stay safe. Stay the ‘eff at home.


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.

 

Short Story Contest Entry: Let Freedom Ring

plantation

Today we have another entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest.

Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.

Let’s see if we can make our old Member Monday feature our Short Story feature!


 

plantation

Photo by Ron Dauphin on Unsplash

 

Let Freedom Ring

 

I wasn’t terribly surprised to be summoned to the bedside of my dying Granny. Rumor had it that she was getting ready to croak, and the vultures were starting to gather. My second cousin, once removed, and her bratty kids were flocking around trying to kiss up to me, and relatives I’d never heard of were coming out of the woodwork. I had a pretty good idea that I would be Gran’s heir and beneficiary, being her only grandkid and all. Mom was in a nursing home, probably never to recover from that stroke, so that left me, semi-famous writer living off the residuals of a few lucky books, as the one to whom good things were about to befall.

I drove the curves of the country road as fast as the Mustang would comfortably take them. With the windows down and the radio turned up, I lazily spun the wheel with one hand while I mused about what I’d find when I got there. I’d visited her mansion before—huge, Southern Plantation style thing—when I was a kid. I always felt like I was stepping back in time, just like the books I liked to read, when I’d cross the wide veranda and step over the threshold into her house. Old brocade drapes hung down over the tall windows, and worn velvet stretched across the seats and backs of antebellum furniture. Probably highly valuable.

The monstrosity had been in the family forever, at least since before the Civil War, but not many of the many distant relatives had actually been inside to behold its fusty grandeur. Few were invited in. But I was. This time I wondered what I would find.

“Ghost walked over my grave,” I said under my breath as an unexpected shudder twitched my shoulders. That was one of Mom’s old sayings, and looking around, I wished I hadn’t given in to the habit. I’d just passed under the wrought-iron entrance arch, and a cold dimness seemed to settle over the overgrown driveway. I peered through the hanging Spanish moss and tried not to wince with every pothole as my Mustang scraped bottom.

The car rolled to a stop in front of the entrance. I killed the engine. Dead silence and the humid Southern air closed in around me as I walked up the steps. I wiped my forehead with a pocket handkerchief.

“Granny?” I called. A square stained glass inset depicting plantation life was set high on the heavy wooden door. I tapped on it and peered through the translucent glass panes trying to see movement. I leaned back, lit a Camel, and waited a bit.

“Hello?” I called again, tapping this time right on the glass balls of the white plantation owner, the benevolent god, standing over the smaller colored shards of his slaves. It gave me a perverse pleasure, and I rapped on the glass again.

“Neil, is that you?” A faint voice drifted through the open casement window nearby. “Come on in. The door’s open.”

I opened the door into the dimly lit sepia foyer, pausing while my vision adjusted. In the cool darkness, something brushed my arm. I jumped and almost dropped my cigarette as a dark figure was suddenly standing beside me.

“Geez, Calpurnia!” I said. “Give a guy a little warning! You startled me.”

“Madam is in the parlor,” she said. “This way.” As usual, her deep mahogany features were calm and unruffled. The several times I’d met Granny’s live-in help, she had never been anything but polite and reserved towards me, in spite of my efforts to get her to loosen up, to laugh a little, get a joke, or even become offended by my Aunt Jemima cracks. Silently she led the way to the parlor.

I looked around me, at the grand staircase, as we rounded the corner to the sitting room. I wasn’t counting my chickens yet, but I was inspecting the basket of eggs. Although badly outdated and peeling a bit, the old girl—house, that is—wasn’t in too bad of a shape. Lordy, who’d want to LIVE here? But in this part of the genteel south, it would be prime real estate for someone to come in with a do-over and turn it into a bed and breakfast. I could take a year to go through the antiques, getting the best prices out of the good stuff, and maybe let the other stuff go with the house, sort of “value added.” Hell, I might even want to turn it around myself, sort of a second career.

Granny isn’t gone yet, I cautioned myself, shutting down the excitement that might be showing in my face. But when we entered the parlor, and I saw her lying on the sofa, a little form of bones, parchment stretched over her frame, barely moving with each breath, I thought, Not yet, but not long. Calpurnia turned, her eyes glittering, and I thought she could read me. I lowered my eyes.

“I’ll leave you two alone now,” she said, and drifted off into some other dim room in the mansion.

Granny turned her head to look at me. Her pale blue eyes burned into mine. “Sit here,” she motioned to a frail red velvet chair beside the sofa. I obeyed, easing my body into the broken-down cushion, hoping the perch would hold up to my weight.

“I’ve called you here because I need to settle my affairs. I haven’t long, you know.” Her voice was not thin and weak, as I had expected. It was strong, as I remembered from before, but hoarse and rusty.

I nodded, trying for the best expression of sympathy and affection that I could put on my face. It wasn’t totally faked. I did carry fond memories of her special attention to me when Mom would take me there for occasional visits. She would offer me gingerbread cookies, baked by Calpurnia, and she seemed genuinely interested in my life and my dreams.

“My will is drawn up and filed. There’s a copy for you on the table over there.” She gestured. “You might have guessed, and I’ll go ahead and say it. The whole estate is going to you.”

My chickens immediately began to hatch.

“And don’t worry, it’s ironclad,” she continued. “There are things… legal things, and other safeguards that, well, insure it goes to you.”

“Oh Gran,” I said, “How kind and thoughtful of you to think of me so.” I was sincere, but trying to keep the glee from rising to the top of my smile.

She paused, and it seemed she was struggling over what to say next. “I am not sure I would have chosen you to inherit,” she finally said, “But then, it wasn’t really my choice.”

I was confused.

“So don’t blame me,” Granny finally forced out.

I tried to mollify her.

“Don’t worry, Gran,” I said, “I can handle the place. I’ll make you proud. And the ancestors watching over will be proud too. I’ll do right by the family heirloom.”

She moved her head from side to side, obviously exasperated. “Where’s Calpurnia?” she furtively whispered.

“It sounded like she went upstairs,” I said.

“I haven’t got much time, maybe only minutes. I can sense my spirit drifting, floating out of this world.  Maybe that’s why I feel like I can get these few words out.” She pulled out a much-folded piece of paper. “Take it. It’s about Calpurnia. She isn’t what you think.”

I skimmed over the pertinent details.

“This is a manumission paper for a female slave,” I murmured. “Except it’s been copied over, since this actual piece of paper isn’t from the 1860’s.”

“I copied it over, from another copy, which was probably copied from another copy. I have forgotten the count. But the original was from 1843, when Calpurnia was twenty-eight.” Gran looked at me closely, and I gave a little laugh, trying to lighten the intense mood that had settled over the room.

“You mean, Calpurnia’s ancestor.” I said.

“No. Calpurnia was offered her freedom at the death of her former master, OUR ancestor, but the new master refused to honor it, and instead of filing the manumission, he tucked it away in his papers.” Granny paused, “She was the best house slave in the county, they say.”

I couldn’t help a chuckle. “Are you saying Calpurnia’s a ghost?”

But Granny was serious, and she shot a dark look at me. “I don’t have time for this; just listen. You can decide whether you believe it later.” She continued in her raspy voice.

“The new master tried to honor the manumission upon his deathbed also, but his offspring was as greedy for the always-efficient and perfect house slave as his father had been, and he also refused the manumission. Until his deathbed. And so it goes. But you, you have a chance, a chance to make it right. I… I can’t say more. I…” she coughed and struggled to speak. “I just pray you to take this, sign your own name, and before you step over the threshold as the new owner, take this in and have it filed, officially.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “What if I can’t find some county official to take it seriously and file this… thing? So I’m not supposed to even go in the house until I file it? How’s that supposed to work, if I’m the executor or something?”

“Don’t be an idiot. You aren’t the owner until you have the deed in your name. That takes a long time.”

I paused several seconds, thinking. “What happens if I don’t file it?”

Her pale eyes, washed-out denim, pinned me to the rickety chair like a bug on a pin. Uncomfortable, I tucked the creased paper into my suit pocket. Granny tried to speak again, but no sound came from her cracked lips. She stared at me as her throat spasmed while she swallowed. I put aside my distaste for touching her and picked up one frail hand, afraid the bones might split her papery skin.

“Don’t worry, Gran. I’ll file it.”

Her eyes shut, and her head dropped.

The coma lasted three days, and the probate lasted a year.

Funny how you think you know people, until they find out they get left out of the will, and then sweet Cousin Emily turns into a banshee, and self-proclaimed “Uncle” Bedford tries his hand at a little extortion. But sure enough, in spite of the lawyers, Granny was right—her will was ironclad. The estate was mine, all mine.

I thought a lot about Granny’s last words concerning her servant. I had a lot of occasions to ponder what she said, and also to observe Calpurnia at work during the long probate period. I wasn’t convinced that she was a ghost slave, and I found it hard to consider her as anything but the best live-in caretaker and help that a body could wish for. I spent some long weekends at the place, making notations for the court and taking measurements of the rooms. Thanks to Calpurnia, the house was cared for, a hot meal was always waiting in quiet peace upon the long dining room table at dinner time, and the linens were always crisp and clean. Once I asked her about her pay, and she just gave one of her rare smiles and said, “Don’t worry, Suh, that’s taken care of already.” I tried other ways to get her to open up about herself, but she didn’t reveal much, just continued to make herself indispensable to the running of the mansion.

Was Calpurnia a ghost? She seemed solid enough, but what did I know about ghosts? Was she a slave? A ghost slave? She never left the premises, and mostly kept to herself when visitors were over. Everyone but me only had a vague sense of her even being there.

If she were a ghost, well, so what? If I had lived back in those days, I would certainly sign off any inherited slaves I received from an ancestor! But did ghosts even suffer? Ghosts weren’t people. They didn’t get sold and have to give up their children and spouses at the whim of a master, or be beaten. I would never beat a slave! Hell, I would never beat a ghost!

I had signed my name to the folded paper Granny had given me, but I was curiously reluctant to fulfill the second part of her last request. I finally admitted the truth to myself; Calpurnia had become too important to me to give up. If she were a ghost, then surely it couldn’t matter by now, and if she weren’t, then she was free to come or go if she pleased. And for now, it seemed to please her to stay, I said to myself. I was being sensitive, I told myself. It really seemed as if she liked being there, that it gave her pleasure to serve and to tend the house. What would happen to her if I “set her free?” Perhaps she would have to hit the streets, if she weren’t a ghost, that is. Or lose her identity in the big dark place wherever ghosts go when they check out. And yes, I played the “What would happen to me?” scenario if I let her go.

She would be impossible to replace.

So there. I decided.

Final deed papers in hand, I stepped out of my mustang in front of the gaudy old mansion—MY mansion—and looked around, inhaling the rich humid air, redolent with gardenia blossoms and mossy aromas.  I hadn’t decided yet whether to sell it or turn the mansion into a business, but first thing, those potholes had to go. They were way too hard on my poor little car, and I wanted a good first impression for the investors and realtors. I climbed onto the veranda and stood a moment in front of the door. As before, I followed the gaze of the stained glass white master, benevolent, yet stern, as he looked upon his black property. There was one stained glass woman who could have been Calpurnia, but honestly, most of them looked alike to me. I pulled the much-folded manumission document out of my breast pocket and looked it over yet again. According to my Dear Granny, this was the last moment to change my decision. Why was I hesitating to open the door and go in? This was ridiculous! A grown man getting getting wiggy over a kid’s ghost story!

A little shudder twitched my shoulders and spine. I kept my lips clamped, and the phrase that rose in my mouth stayed there, sour and old. I shoved the document back in my pocket, opened the door, and stepped over the threshold.

Calpurnia met me in the parlor.

“You still got them documents the Missus gave you, ain’t that right, Suh?”

I didn’t ask how she knew about the paper, nor how she knew I had not recorded them.

“Well, yes, Miss Calpurnia,” I began. “And I know that I probably should have done that, and forgive me, I am truly sorry that I did not handle that just exactly like my grandma requested me to. But I just thought it would be best to, you know, have a little chat with you before I made a big decision on that. Because, you see, I’ve sort of noticed how you seem to like your job, and stuff, and you seem pretty happy, or I guess I could say, content, about being here and… stuff…”

This wasn’t exactly how I’d planned my conversation to go. I had some comforting phrases rehearsed, like, “You will always have a home here, Calpurnia, never fear,” but I was getting distracted by the look in her eyes. It was not the calm, neutral look I was used to. It was not a disappointed look that said, Oh Dearie Me! Now I has got to wait for the next massa to get me out of this place! Her black eyes were intense, sort of fiery. Actually, I guess I’d call her demeanor gleeful. Triumphant, even.

I’d been kidding myself when I played around with the idea she might be a ghost. For the first time, I actually believed to my soul that she was a ghost.

Calpurnia leaned back into the red velvet chair. Her proud chin rose, and her eyelids closed to slits as she glanced sidelong at me.

“Ah, Young Suh, I thanks you! Does I feel sorry for you? Hmm, let me think on that.”

Three seconds passed while her lips curled into a sneer. I could not look away. I wanted to. I stared at her, so solid, so commanding.

“NO!” Calpurnia spat, and then she began to snicker. I felt my legs go weak, and suddenly I had to use the bathroom.

“Oh, poor man, you think you got you a slave to make your life nice. But truth is, now I got me my new slave. You mine now!
She went on. “Yup, I shore like it here, ‘specially with the tables turned and all. ‘Cept I need me an anchor, not being true flesh and all. And you the latest one to oblige me in that.”

I was still having trouble understanding.

“Now, first thing. There ain’t goin’ to be no selling, so get that out of your head. No strangers comin’ in. I tell you who can come in. You got a girlfriend? Forget that. You leave it to me who you goin’ to pass this place on to. You think you’ll tell someone what’s up? Try it.”

I attempted to form the words to describe the horror I was feeling, but they were stuck. My throat heaved, and I felt like I was choking. I had to quit trying so I could breathe.

“No, we got lots of years together, Boy. A lifetime.”

Lifetime.

Lifetime.

Lifetime.

The words tolled in my head, a muffled bell that only I could hear.


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.