When It Comes in Threes/Chapter 5: “You Never Know When You Might Come Up Short”

BuglerMama’s mood altered and shifted as quickly as the thunderstorm clouds wafted across an Oklahoman-rainy-day-sky for weeks after Daddy left her lyin’ in a pool of her own blood on the trailer floor. It’s like he snuffed the light clean outta her steel-blue eyes, leaving her perpetually dazed from the blow when he stumbled home drunk that God-forsaken night, walloping her over the head with that Amish chair Mama picked-up at a yard sale. Ain’t nothin’ me and Bartlett and Graham could do to make our Mama laugh no more, no matter how much we all tried.

“Let’s get her!” Bartlett exclaimed, as she poured herself on top of Mama laid stretched out on the couch watchin’ a Bonanza rerun. Opportunely, I took the cue and jumped on top of Bartlett and reached around her waist to find Mama’s armpit and started ticklin’ her good and hard tryin’ to get her to emote or laugh or somethin’.

When Graham came wanderin’ in fresh from a nap in his footed pajamas and saw us piled high on top of Mama like that, he squealed just like a pig in heat with pure adolescent delight. “Yertle the Turtle!” he exclaimed. I realized what he meant and I do reckon we must’ve looked just like all them turtles piled-up high from that picture book written by Mr. Theodor Seuss Geisel hisself. But, Mama, glanced up and took one look at Graham’s intentions on gettin’ in on all our fun and quickly wiggled her way out from under me and Bartlett. She stood up so fast it caused me and my sister to fall into a tangled heap of arms, skinny legs and long hair and all, right onto the carpeted floor directly at Graham’s feet. Immediately takin’ Mama’s sour mood out on me, Bartlett stood up too and quickly jabbed her elbow deep into my side and then stamped on my foot good and hard while Mama’s back was turned.

“Yeowwww!” I cried, as Bartlett turned to look me straight in the face with that don’t-fuck-with-me look of hers that somehow always managed to instantly numb my pain and stifle any waterworks that threatened to gallop like wild horses down my cheeks. Obstinately, I pursed my lips and stared right back at her in a showdown that I already knowed I was destined to lose so it weren’t worth even tryin’.

Mama sighed and said, “Don’t go startin’ in with your damned cryin’ now, Barley. You ain’t a baby anymore. You’re almost fifteen years old for Christ’s sake,” she lectured when she caught me wipin’ one lone, errant tear from my pained face. “You kids go on and git outside now and leave me be for a spell. And be sure to shut that door on the way out. We ain’t heatin’ the outside!”

On the way to grab my coat, I stopped and picked-up a glass swan ornament engraved with “Harvey-Douglas Funeral Home” that had fallen beneath the unlit Christmas tree set all cockamamie on its stand in the corner of the living room. I turned the novelty around and around in my hands, workin’ over the smooth glass with my fingers as if that could summon up Grandpa reincarnated right before my very eyes. It’s true though, that if I closed ‘em nice and tight, and squinted my forehead in deep thought and fond remembrance, I could pertinear smell the scent of Old Spice and Copenhagen, and could see Grandpa rubbin’ his bald head as he bent over to pick up a penny he found on the ground.

“Keep it for another time and place, Barley, you never know when you might come up short,” Grandpa said with a toothless grin. And poof, just like that—the image of my Grandpa was gone along with the telltale aroma of his aftershave and snuff-in-a-can, and was instantly replaced by the smell of outdoors and the Loblolly Pine Christmas tree Daddy and Graham chopped down and hauled inside last week.

As I placed the ornament gently back on a branch of the stubby tree, and twirled it around on its string, I recalled the day the tall, solemn Funeral Director, dressed in a navy blue suit, walked over and handed it to my Mama. She opened the black velvet box and began to shudder and cry. One. And then he told Mama that he’d be closin’ up Grandpa’s casket soon. Two. “It’s time to pay your last respects before we take him away,” he said. Three. I told you everything bad happens when it comes in threes like that.

As the Funeral Director walked away, Mama turned to me and Bartlett and said, “Go on now. Both of you. Give your Grandpa a kiss.” I couldn’t believe what Mama was askin’ of us as I watched in downright horror as Bartlett tentatively worked her way to the edge of the casket, peered in and worked hard to conjure up some nerve. Just as my sister leaned in towards my Grandpa, a now wrinkled, ghostly, pallor of a man I no longer recognized; I turned on my heels and ran fast—bursting outside and into the sunlight where Daddy and several other pallbearers stood smokin’ and snuffin’ out cigarettes with their shiny dress shoes.

And, I kept goin’. I ran as hard and as fast as I could down the flagstone steps and out to the curb where a black hearse was already parked ready to haul my Grandpa’s lifeless and limp body out to the cemetery, and then I continued on down the walkway and out onto the sidewalk and past rows and rows of houses and barkin’ dogs and cars whizzin’ by me along the street, and past fire hydrants and picket fences and summer gardens filled with peonies and pansies. I ran beneath a clear blue sky blemished only by legions of puffy white clouds that trailed my steps and kept up with my wild pace. I ran with tears streamin’ wanton from my eyes, and until my sides hurt so bad I thought I was gonna die too, but I kept runnin’–until finally, from out of nowhere, I felt a hand on my shoulder that yanked me clear around stoppin’ me dead in my tracks.

“Where ya off to, Barley?” Daddy panted, bending over to catch his breath from sprintin’ as fast as he had tryin’ to catch-up to my mad dash away from the finality of death that awaited me back at the funeral home. When I didn’t have an answer, Daddy grinned a giant, sheepish smile and said breathlessly, “Now you know I ain’t got my runnin’ shoes on.”

And then I fell into him and cried and cried, intoxicated by the smell of man, sweat and the temperature of his body heat, and it was there, buried deep in Daddy’s chest, that I finally succumbed to my grief. It felt foreign and awkward when Daddy cradled my head in his hands and drew me in closer. Daddy and me stood there on that sidewalk together for what seemed like an awful long time before he finally pulled me away from the safety of his body, smirked, and then reached into his pants pocket and produced a white cotton hankie embroidered with an “S” for Sullivan in the corner.

“Clean yourself up. It’s best we be gettin’ back now” Daddy said, turning on his heels to face the direction of the funeral home. He was clearly as embarrassed as I was from the raw emotion that we both exhibited out on that sidewalk and so I turned away from him too, and blew my nose. I was ready to pay my respects to my Grandpa. I tried to give Daddy back his hankie, but he just laughed, “Keep it; I ain’t puttin’ all those tears and snot back into my pocket,” he said, as he ruffled my hair.

Mama was standin’ at the top of them steps, stampin’ her foot and waitin’ for us along with all them pallbearers and the rest of the guests lookin’ to start the procession out to the cemetary. It’s like the memorial had come to a dead halt without us and I reckon I did feel real bad about that. When I got close enough, she took one good look at me and saw that I had been cryin’ and knew I had been off throwin’ a fit somewhere. In five seconds flat, she marched right up to me and grabbed my arm and slapped me solid across the face, sending me reeling back on my feet.

“Today ain’t about you, Barley. Get that through your God-damned thick skull,” she said as she turned to face the crowd of people waitin’ to get Grandpa’s body into the ground. Each person in the band of people before us turned uneasily away from the spectacle goin’ on before them, some of them lookin’ down at their shoes uncomfortably. And just like that, Daddy pulled away from me too and joined his place in line with the other men, while I stood there fightin’ new tears along with the harsh sting of Mama’s handprint which I knew was indelible across my cheek.

Out at the cemetery, the flat granite gravestone marker was already in place bearin’ my Grandpa’s Paul’s name: Private Paul Doyle, 1918-1981. Below that it read, “Loving husband and father who served his family and country well.” Next to his name was my Grandma Anita’s and the year she was born—1922, but she was still alive so she didn’t get no final restin’ date next to hers yet. I tried real hard not to think about Grandma’s dyin’ too. The thought of that was almost more than I could take on at the moment.

The hot, August sun permeated clear through my polyester clothes as I stood there tuggin’ onto my skirt that was clingin’ to the sweat beadin’ down my legs. All of a sudden, the crowd migratin’ around us hushed and I seen the most amazin’ sight I ever did see with my own two eyes. Out there in that eerie cemetery, dotted with trees and gravestones and flowers everywhere; an Army soldier in full uniform appeared amid us where he produced a bugle and stood there for a moment like he was collectin’ his thoughts or somethin’. And, then he raised his instrument to his mouth and blew out a beautiful, lonesome tune I knowed I heard some place else before.

Two other soldiers also appeared, stretched a flag out between them and then folded it lengthwise, and then lengthwise again. Eventually, somehow or another, as if by magic, they formed the flag into a perfect triangle while managin’ to keep the stars facin’ outwards. With a somber, regretful look on their faces, they handed the flag to Grandma Anita who was decked out head-to-toe in black. Upon receivin’ their gift, she finally began to wail. And, as if that were their cue, the soldiers slowly backed away. Suddenly, seven more uniformed men appeared out in the clearing nearby, armed with rifles, and each fired three shots into the air.

Mama and Bartlett was wailin’ right alongside Grandma, as well as were various other female relatives on my Mama’s side. As for me, I was all cried out with no more tears left to shed by the time them soldiers lowered their rifles in perfect timin’ with my treasured Grandpa and his flag-draped coffin bein’ hoisted deep into the ground.

Rising to the #NaNoWriMo Challenge

Image“What’s that,” you say?  No, NaNoWriMo is not something out of Mork and Mindy.  And, yes, I did date myself by referencing that quirky sitcom piloted wayyyyy wayyyy back in 1982, but ultimately I digress.  #NaNoWriMo is a challenge to pen a 50,000 word novel throughout the entire month of November.  Call it what you will, but I love a good a challenge and a challenge is precisely what I needed to finally hammer out my novel, When it Comes in Threes.  This story has rested dormant on my computer for a long while because a literary manager friend implored me to change the narrative voice of my original book from an adult to a child for the YA market.  If you are a writer, you know changing the whole “voice” of an entire novel is not a simple request.  You also know that ultimately changing the voice means a full rewrite, despite what your friend tells you.  So, rewriting I am and I’m having one heck of time doing it.  Truth is, I prefer this new voice and my new main character, Barley, over the older character I first concocted, and that means I can’t wait to get back to her every night to mold her and shape her to be anything I want her to be.

#NaNoWriMo and everything about it, appeals to my competitive spirit and my ability to thrive on chaos.  Why the chaos you ask?  Well, silly, one chapter takes me somewhere around 4-6 hours to write, hone and edit, and all that equates to writing into the wee hours of the night when daily parenting, business obligations, phone calls and texts don’t nag and pull at my heartstrings.  I’m working from my home office and spending some days an unshowered, make-up-less mess, but I think I can manage to get it all done.  If you are competing in the challenge too, and are someone managing to stay somewhat afloat with everything else that comes up during any given day, drop me a line.  I’d love to hear from you.  Happy Noveling!


When it Comes in Threes: Chapter 2 “You Ain’t Nothin’ Unless You’re Something”

Chapter 2 “You Ain’t Nothin’ Unless You’re Something”

Mama always said, “You ain’t nothin’ unless you think somethin’ of your own self.” When I was younger, I once asked her how some people got to be rich while others went without. “Well,” Mama said, “A long time ago, well over a hundred years ago or so; a great tornado came to Oklahoma and picked up all them homes spread across our great state and plopped them down haphazardly where God best saw the people in them fitting in. It was sort of like the story of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. All them houses were just plunked down in the middle of nowhere in some cases,” she said. “Some people started out rich and went poor because they was placed near the railroad tracks, or the other way around when a poor man suddenly found hisself living on a giant plot of land out by Lake Murray,” she said. “You don’t get to choose anymore, Barley, where you’s gonna live or how much money you’s gonna have one day. You was born without a pot to piss in because God did all the choosin’ for you by placin’ you here with me, right where ya belong. He did all that long before you was born by picking your parents, and our parents before us, and so on. There ain’t even a God-damned thing anyone can do about it. You just gotta be thankful ya just got a roof over your head and plumbin’ to wash the dirt off your hands when you come in from work, and clothes on your back to protect you from the sun and to ward off the cold. No one needs anything much more than that, Barley,” she said.

“You forgot love,” I whispered under my breath, so low and barely audible that I was certain she couldn’t hear it. But, Mama’s hearing was sharp, just like her tongue. “Love ain’t gonna get you through but one single, solitary winter. Don’t you ever forget that,” she said, casting her eyes away from me and dropping the conversation entirely by dismissing it with a wave of her calloused hands. “But, you love Daddy, right?” I said. Still, Mama would have no more of it and I knew it was best to leave the conversation alone.

I had to hand it to Mama’s imagination about that tornado, and for making excuses for her and Daddy like that about where we lived, in our tiny trailer spread out along with all them other trailers and government-owned houses that dotted the landscape in the very armpit of Oklahoma society. I guess some of what she said, did make sense, even though it weren’t all entirely true.

Maybe she’s right. Maybe you are what you are born into, and there ain’t nothing you can ever do to fight off Old Man Destiny. I wished it weren’t my true, but people would look at us and our dirty hands and feet from runnin’ around in the yard and from being barefoot all day, and I just knowed they was making assumptions about who we was and where we came from, and pro’bly rightly so. If a rich man walked into a store and he was covered in sweat and had dirt under his nails, there was no other explanation for that except that maybe he was out playing in a soccer game or workin’ in his backyard, planting a flower garden or something, and all it took for you to know he had money was by takin’ one good look at the clothes on his back. Take a poor man, under those same circumstances, and place him in that same store and you’d either take pity on him or be embarrassed for him for showing up in public, all soiled-up like that, and you’d thank your lucky stars you didn’t wind-up standing in the Welfare line and eating government cheese in your macaroni, right along with him.

The only thing is, no one else but me in my family seemed to notice all them rich people stopping and staring at us all the time and casting their judgments on us like they was God Hisself-reincarnated in a living, breathing human soul standing next to us in the cashier line at the Affiliated Food Stores. Believe it or not, poor people have a great deal of pride, and that pride just kept them browsin’ the aisles until it was time to hand their food stamps to the cashier, and pride kept them walking right out the front door, stompin’ the dirt off their boots the whole way. But, from where I sat, pride and ignorance went hand-in-hand. In our two-bedroom trailer, down at the Cloverleaf Trailer Park, deposited neatly under the bypass, Pride’s name was Earl and Ignorance’s name was Franny, and I secretly hoped that one day I wouldn’t turn out just like them.

It’s not that my Mama was stupid really, even though she didn’t have nothing more than a seventh grade education. She was smart enough, she just didn’t have a lick of common sense. She told me she had to drop out of junior high school to help take care of her baby sister, Mabel, while her Mama and Daddy went to work providing for her nine other brothers and sisters. Mama wasn’t much of a student anyway; she could barely read and write and it wasn’t until she was twenty years old that Doc Patton at the medical clinic, told her he thought she had Dyslexia, given her struggle fillin’ out paperwork all the time. When Mama first said she had a disease, I imagined twenty different ways she was gonna die right in front of me, and straightaway big old tears welled-up in my eyes. When Mama saw the terrified look on my face she immediately dismissed my fears, “Nah, Barley, it ain’t nothing like that! What I have is the sort of disease that makes your brain tell your eyes to see things backwards, that’s all. That’s why I’m none to good at readin’ and writin’.” And there it was. That “Ah-ha! Moment” I had been waiting for my whole life, that one explanation for why my mother was the way she was. One singular sentence described my mother’s condition perfectly and I knew Doc Patton had given her the proper diagnosis. I had always questioned the way my Mama saw things, in all fourteen years of my young life. But that day, when Mama came home plagued with the Dyslexia, it all suddenly began to make sense. Mama was just backwards.

When it Comes in Threes: Chapter 1 “Babies Making Babies”

Chapter 1: Babies Making Babies

Babies making babies. Pfft…I ain’t never heard a good story about two teenagers setting out, ready to conquer the world, only come to find out they got themselves already knocked-up after just one night’s fit of passion, leaving all their fancy ideas of what life was gonna be like, rolled-out like toilet paper under their heels behind them. Mama said that’s precisely what happened to her and Daddy, and they was nothing more than just babies making babies when they gave birth to that stubborn, curly-headed, terror-of-a-sister-of mine, Bartlett.

The way Mama tells it, she met daddy out at the Southern Speedway, the race car track down off Highway 77 in Ardmore, Oklahoma, one glorious summer’s night. Mama says that whole night long, Daddy kept trying to kiss her, telling her she sure was the prettiest thing he ever did saw, but Mama told him she was a lady and she was raised better than that. She’d smack his hands each time Daddy got to wandering, and pushed him away each time he leaned in for a kiss. Daddy must have known she wasn’t gonna let any man touch her before she got married, so he up and asked her, straight-away, to marry him on a teenaged boy’s foolish impulse. Shoot, they didn’t even know each other but more than a few hours when my flattered, exasperated mother laughed and looked up at him with her shiny, steel blue eyes and finally gave-in to him, “Yes, I’ll marry you, Earl, but not before you go out to my house and ask my Mama and Daddy for permission.”

Mama turned to me, more staring through me than anything, because she was lost in some faraway place. As she slowly recanted that evening so long ago. I watched as something within stirred and fluttered and reared its head deep inside her as she began talking about how they sat on the cool bleachers and watched those loud, colorful race cars zoom by them at breakneck speeds while Daddy struggled to fondle and flirt and hear her timid voice above the crowd and the noise. I could almost smell the exhaust and the asphalt and rubber, and feel the sweltering hot, humid Oklahoma air, she told the story so well. She said that night she believed she could love my daddy forever. “Barley, your father was the handsomest man in all of Carter County,” she began. “It’s true, don’t laugh,” she said, eyeing me thoughtfully as I giggled nervously. “Everyone thought he looked just like a young Elvis Presley back then, all dark-haired, tall and tan and thin and so ding dang confident, your Daddy was. Why, all them girls out at that race track just wished they was me that night,” Mama said, as her smile slowly began to fade. Suddenly, she began rummaging around in her own thoughts, picking them up and sorting through them one-by-one, ruminating about her shy, teenaged self, a different person in a different body at a different time. For a moment, I thought I had lost her completely to her memories. “Oh Mama, hurry up already. Tell me more,” I pleaded, bringing her back to the here and now.

That next Monday morning, Mama told me Grandpa had his first serious talk with Daddy, the groom-to-be, and gave him what mama called, The Three Nevers Talk. “Never hit her, ever,” my Grandpa said slowly, looking him straight in the eye, taking a long pause for effect, while spitting his tobacco in the Folgers Coffee can he used as a spittoon sitting next to him. “I ain’t never hit her and you ain’t gonna neither,” he said plaintively. Then he grimaced, contemplating his next words as he slowly sucked the tobacco from his teeth. Finally he said, “Never let her go hungry, and never stray from her and find yourself another woman, because she’s the best you’re ever gonna find. Ya hear me? If you can promise me these three things, Anita and me, well…we will give y’all our blessings, and you can marry our Franny,” Grandpa said in a foreboding voice.

Later that morning, my Mama, just fifteen-years-old at the time, powdered her pale skin and got all dressed-up in her Sunday finery, kissed her Mama on the nose, and left the only home she ever knew, all giddy and excited, ambling down a dirt road, heading towards her destiny with a man she barely knew in a dilapidated Chevy truck. Feeling hopeful and reckless, summoning her heart’s out-and-out abandon, she later stood solemnly, thinking about what it would be like being married to the elusive stranger standing next to her. In front of the Justice of the Peace in the Carter County Courthouse, Fanny Faye Doyle, married my Daddy while my mother’s brother, Uncle John, and his wife, June, looked on. Mama never liked old June much, and I could see just mentioning her name now gave her the worst case of the willies and that in turn caused the goose pimples to surface on my arm. I brushed them away and finished listening to Mama tell me more about the day she pledged her life away to my daddy.

Nine months after Mama said I do, she gave birth to Bartlett, named after the pear fruit, ‘cause Mama was green with the flu when she went into labor and threw up all over her doctor, just two years and a month before I was born. Mama always did have a penchant for food, and so she named me Barley, like the waves of golden grain that rolled through the John Deere combines from the dry fields of Oklahoma. Seven years later, my baby brother, Graham, like the cracker, came. Mama didn’t have no real good explanation for his name, except that she liked to crush up graham crackers in milk in the mornings and eat ’em like that for breakfast. Us three, Bartlett and Graham and me, we never knew what hit us being born a Sullivan. One of my elementary school teachers, Miss Espich, once told me that never knowing what hits you is an idiom relating to very bad consequences in which the people involved were totally unsuspecting. That’s us, the Sullivan Three, totally unsuspecting people named after food.