Prose Selections

Last Drop

On the day when I learned that Sadie died, I hung up the phone, took a few paces, and shook myself before returning to the kitchen to wash the dishes. As warm water ran over my hands, I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that Sadie was gone.

I hardly had seen Sadie since we kids had left home; on occasion I spoke to her by phone while she sat in her Denver mansion and I, in my Philadelphia twin house. Distance and years had long separated us among other things that are more complicated than words. But her death meant a disappearance, an evaporation, a permanent silencing of a person. I squirted soap on the sponge and gazed through the kitchen window at the lemon color forsythia bush. The chore of washing dish after dish helped me process the message given over the phone by Sadie’s friend. The idea of death floated through my mind like a mist - where was I supposed to hang my thoughts? How was I to respond - when would I cry - were my feelings as frozen as those stiff statues I’d seen in museums?

I leaned on one foot as I rinsed my mother’s china, painted with delicate roses. The rhythm of circular scrubbing, the employment of my hands, the task of scrutinizing the cleanliness of each plate, became my parallel focus, as I waited for my emotions to surface. I should have been devastated. After all, I had known Sadie all my life; she was my mother’s only sister and some of my siblings’ favorite aunt. A thought formed and I stopped washing a cracked plate - Sadie was not my favorite aunt. And actually I wasn’t that fond of Sadie, and Sadie was not that fond of me. In fact, Sadie picked on me. At an early age I already knew that she resented me while she adored my older siblings, Robert, and Karen. I wondered if her enmity towards me was her way of showing allegiance to her favorite nephew and niece. Perhaps she rejected me because I, the youngest of five, was the “unexpected” child.

My behavior about Sadie’s death perplexed me, and in this moment I could only label my grief as a form of respect. Respect for family, respect for my mother’s sister, respect for Sadie’s life, itself. I shook the water from my hands before drying them on my favorite embroidered towel. Thoughts poured through my brain like molasses as I moved in slow-motion. Perhaps I missed the idea of Sadie being gone, more than I missed Sadie, herself. I imagined whenever her name would surface, others would avert their eyes, shake their heads, whisper her name as if she were realms away. Upon seeing a photo of Sadie, someone’s throat might tighten into a ball and mumble - “God Bless Sadie”, taking out a handkerchief, dabbing the sides of their eyes. Certainly there were others who had grieved Sadie in the way I imagined was expected.

Years after Sadie died, my adult life has been marked by births, graduations, awards, anniversaries, misunderstandings, deaths - a blur of events attached to a sequence of time. For some 30 years the forsythia has witnessed the whirl of activity that has passed through our house, now emptied, and hollow of children. But lately, the forsythia has been losing its flowers more readily. From afar, it sends a faint, delicate fragrance through the kitchen window, and. instantly, I’m back to that day, gripping the phone receiver as Sadie’s death was announced. I suddenly hear Sadie’s coy laugh, the rattle of her bracelet-clad arm, and see her moon-shaped chestnut eyes, full of life. My heart contracts; my matured soul understands that a long-buried grief has come to visit.

I watch the wind as it swirls and commands the movement of trees through our yard. The grass bristles, leaves tremble, the sun disappears behind the fast moving clouds while birds suddenly seem frantic. A blast of cold rushes through the window and as quickly as the weather has changed, my thoughts turn unhumored. I sigh, pushing myself through the task of washing my mother’s favorite green glass bowl. My mood darkens as I carefully buff and shine the glass piece, wishing my mother were here, annoyed by the sudden chill in the air and imposing grey sky.

In the corner of the yard, the wind beats the forsythia into a drooped melancholic gesture. I rinse the sponge with warm water as I watch the sky become a slate colored mass, casting a sudden shadow over the house. Between dense clouds and the piercing sun rays, light and shadow highlight the forsythia in various grades of yellow.

My grief arrives on the tail of the northward storm. Suddenly I realize that Sadie is swallowed somewhere in that deep grey sky. My heart catches, my eyes fill, and I disappear into thoughts with no measure of time. I conclude that I no longer know myself nor understand the power of loss. Perhaps it is in the sequence of one’s day, where one is standing, or when the clock strikes, that conjures a response to death; for years later, I find myself deeply mourning Sadie for the first time.

I push the darkness from my mind, focusing on the thinned forsythia's branches that still radiate its forever presence in my yard. I hang the dish towel to dry so that the embroidered side shows, and stack the dishes by color. This small act makes me feel orderly for the moment. I dry the sink, soaking up every little droplet that clings to its stainless steel finish. The sink is as dry and shiny as it can possibly be, which gives me great satisfaction. Before I leave, I check that the kitchen is picture perfect and turn off the light. Just as I exit, I hear the plunk of an escaped water drop from the polished faucet, splatter my spotlessly shined sink.

--Patricia King Haddad

Bus Ride Home

by Michael Senkowsky

The SEPTA bus stopped in front of the outpatient building, as it did every Tuesday, at fifteen past two. Seventy-eight-year-old Janet got up and walked toward the exit. It was time for her weekly chemo appointment. The usual driver, a forty-something slightly heavyset black woman, smiled and greeted her as she walked by.

"You have a blessed afternoon dear, see you next trip."

The five-foot-one-inch, petite, gray-haired Janet smiled back. The front of the bus dropped down a little, and carefully she stepped off onto the waiting sidewalk.

As both feet hit the ground, she felt a strange sensation. She looked at herself, and she saw the features of a young Janet. She hurried, quite quickly, to a storefront a few hundred feet away to check her reflection in the window, and when she got there, the sight took her back. There she was, a younger version of herself. Oh my God, she thought, I'm young again, I'm not sick. She giggled a happy laugh and felt no embarrassment.

What was in the window gave her an exciting chill for a second. In plain sight was Woolworth’s lunch counter. Quickly, she went inside; she couldn't believe it was real.

The little round stool spun Janet around, and in a few minutes, the tastiest root beer float of her life was in front of her. Looking up, she focused on a calendar. No, no, it can't be—my God's May ninth, 1961.

Upon finishing her float, Janet, feeling recharged and full of zeal, decided to walk over to Speares and maybe Weinbergs, too, and look at some clothes. She strolled along Market Street in a Chester that she hadn't seen for many years. So many memories went through her mind as her journey continued. On to the seventh street, she turned the corner; coming toward her were two young men dressed in U.S. Army uniforms. Suddenly her spirit went dark as she thought about Rick, her younger brother, who was killed in Vietnam. Sadness overtook her even more as she thought of her mom and all the grief she went through. Soon her mom became the main stage in her thoughts. The only young Janet she knew had her mom in it. Everything seemed so much different than she expected it would be.

She stopped for a minute and sat on a bench taking in the beautiful weather, still thinking about her mom and how important she had been in her life. No matter how tough things got, somehow, Mom always found a way to be there for her and the rest of the family, and friends too.

She thought about the flood of nineteen seventy-one and how it destroyed her childhood home in Eyre Park, about how she helped Mom and Dad out by having them stay with her and her new family until they found a different house.

As she sat there thinking and reflecting, a funny feeling began to come over Janet. It began to occur to her that her visit wasn't going to last forever. She just sat watching the world of yesteryear go by for a few more minutes. The cars and people dressed in nineteen sixty-one clothes, but mostly, the city around her. A vibrant place that was still in its prime.

Suddenly Janet decided to go to her happy place, to Chester Park, and sit on the rocks next to Ridley Creek. She got up and walked a few blocks to the bus stop to catch a ride to the park entrance.

The smell of diesel exhaust filled the air as the Red Arrow bus pulled up at the corner stop to pick up Janet. She boarded, anxious to be back to where she and her friends spent so much time as kids. Before the coins ever made it to the farebox, Janet awoke to a gentle nudging on her right shoulder.

"Mom, Mom. How are you doing?" asked Jackie, Janet's daughter. "Are you ready to go now? Is your stomach O K?"

"Hello, dear, I feel fine. I'm ready to go now. How are you feeling, Jackie? How's Tom? How are you two getting along?"

"Thanks for asking Mom, I've had a bit of a stressful day at work, but I'm good. Tom and I are good too." Jackie took Janet by the arm, and they walked past the desk at the oncology outpatient center.

"You two have a good evening," said the woman at the desk. J and J walked out into the hallway toward the elevator.

"Thanks, you too," replied Jackie

"You know Jackie, have I told you lately how lucky I am to have a daughter like you?"

"Mom, you haven't in a while."

"I am so blessed. I want to take you and Tom out for dinner after we leave here."

"Are you sure, Mom? Is your stomach up to it?"

The elevator opened to the parking garage, and Janet took Jackie's arm as they walked toward the car.

"I'm OK; if I get a little nauseous, maybe I'll have a ginger ale and something small."

Jackie shut the passenger door and walked around, and got into the driver's seat.

"What's going on Mom, why the sudden kindness? Did you get a bad prognosis?"

"No, Dr. Amin says I'm doing great. I want to treat you and Tom to dinner tonight. I know I've been a little difficult lately. It's not that I want to make it up to you; I want you to know I love you and appreciate you and everything you do for me'"

Jackie turned towards Janet quickly and turned back to focus on the road and then spoke a little emotional sounding.

"Thanks for that, Mom. I'd like that, and I'm sure Tom would too, you know, I could get used to this."

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Anne the first day

by Becky Martin-Scull

Following my arrival at my classroom on that first day of school, I was just hanging up my jacket when I heard a hiccup behind me. I turned to find a grimy, blue-eyed, delicate waif with thin golden curls. She stared wide-eyed at me as she consumed the second half of a very runny jelly donut. Strawberry jam decorated not only her chin and upper lip but trickled slowly down one side of the hand that clasped the donut. She was busily sucking her way down that extremity to catch the escaping jelly.

“Good morning, Anne. Is that your breakfast?”

She did not answer aloud. Without ever taking her eyes off me she nodded in the affirmative.

I reached out a hand to her and smiled, “Come here, dear, and let’s get your hands and face unstickied.” (Not the most elegant word to come out of my mouth!)

Anne’s eyes grew wider. As she reluctantly walked toward me, she hastily crammed the entire rest of the donut into her mouth and began chewing rapidly. Her cheeks bulged and her throat struggled with the effort of swallowing her food, presumably before I could take it from her. As she tried to swallow the gooey lump, she suddenly clasped both hands to her abdomen, dashed for the wastebasket, and promptly threw up! She caught her breath and began to sob uncontrollably. I hurried to the sink, moistened paper towels with warm water, and hurried to her side. What a way to start my teaching career - by terrifying one of my fragile little charges!

“Oh, Sweetheart,” I murmured.

I pulled a chair up to the scene of the mess, gently drew Anne to me, and began to bathe her tear-stained face and sticky hands, “It will be ok. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

She allowed my ministrations but continued to sob uncontrollably, “Hurts! Hurts!”

“Your tummy? Does your tummy hurt?”

To my surprise she shook her head, “No.”

Between further sobs she managed to gasp out, “Teef! Teef hurt!”

I gently put my hand under her chin and raised her head so I could see her face, “May I see your teeth?”

A look of horror crossed the poor child’s face, and she began to pull back.

“I promise I won’t touch your teeth or hurt you in any way. Please, dear, just open your mouth and let me see your teeth.”

She still eyed me fearfully. Never-the-less Anne slowly opened her mouth and what I saw turned my stomach. Instead of the expected sight of small white milk teeth, I was confronted by a mouthful of blackened stumps of rotting baby teeth! No wonder she was in such pain! I gently led her to the sink, filled a paper cup with lukewarm water, and instructed her how to rinse out her mouth. As she swished and spat, I had the chance to observe her clothing.

Her outfit was a limp cotton sun dress, thin cotton anklets, and ancient white patent leather sandals. The patent was stained and cracked, and the shoe straps seemed about to break. Over time I learned that such would be her outfit, no matter what the temperature. In very cold weather she might add a thin, misshapen sweater, from which her raw, chapped wrists extended. As the year progressed, I made numerous attempts to outfit Anne and her family in warm clothes. However, after a few days, the new clothes would disappear, most likely sold to pay for her parents’ ‘liquid refreshments.’ I eventually learned to keep clothes and grooming supplies in my classroom so Anne could come to school early and fix herself up for the day.

As her tears and hiccups subsided, I helped Anne dry her face and hands. Then I asked her, “Anne, would you like to help me by getting the toys out of the toy boxes and setting them out around on the carpet?”

The first smile I had seen from her lit up her face and she almost skipped over to take up the task. Watching her I recalled my first encounter with her, and the surroundings from which she emerged to make her daily trek to school. Given the flimsy nature of her costume, it was fortunate that her home was just across the street from the school. That street, in this little rural village, was only a few yards wide, and in most cities and towns would be considered no more than an alley.

In late August, I made home visits to all my prospective students before the start of school. I walked that short distance one morning to meet Annie and her family. They were one of the town’s poorer English-speaking families. The house I approached was so ramshackle that the County Board of Health probably should have condemned it. It was a two-story, turn-of-the-century, wood-frame structure. In its day it may have been a fine, gingerbread-edged, middle-class dwelling. But its day was long passed. I consulted the address on my class roster and confirmed that this was indeed the home of Anne Shaw, one of my new first graders.

As I approached the house, I noticed a painfully thin, very dirty, blonde cherub humming tunelessly to herself and wheeling a decrepit baby carriage round and round the postage stamp back yard. She was having some difficulty accomplishing this task because the yard was more like a trash dump, full of stones, crumpled and rusting chicken wire, and all sorts of apparent rubbish. I thought about approaching her, but I did not want to encourage a child to speak to a stranger, so I quietly moved on toward the house.

The rickety wooden steps required cautious navigation. When I tried to twist the handle on the rusty, old-fashioned, mechanical doorbell it was so badly rusted that the knob would not budge. I knocked on the peeling wooden door. As I waited for someone to answer, I took a good look at the house. A few small bits of the unpainted Victorian gingerbread dangled from the sagging roof of the front porch which seemed drunkenly determined to detach itself from the rest of the house. Some proud owners had once covered the house with imitation gray stone asphalt siding. Years of weathering, neglect and abuse had worn many patches of the gray coating down to the black tar paper. In other places the siding was torn away altogether, revealing termite-ridden gray wood. In total, the exterior of the house looked leprous.

I waited a few moments, and then knocked more firmly. This time a bedraggled, tired-looking woman clutching a housecoat about her opened the door and peered out.

“What?” she queried in an irritated voice.

“Mrs. Shaw? I am Miss Martin, Anne’s new teacher. I sent you a letter saying I would be visiting you today unless I heard from you that it would not be convenient. Since I did not hear from you, here I am. I won’t take much of your time, but I would like to meet Anne and answer any questions you may have about what she’ll need for school this year.”

“Never had no home visits from the other kids’ teachers! Don’t really know why Annie should be no special case, but since you’re here you might ‘s well come in! I’ll get the girl.”

She left me standing inside the front door wondering how on earth this interview was going to go! As I waited, I looked around the murky interior. The inside of the house was as ugly and unkempt as the outside. Patches of faded, water-stained wallpaper hung tenuously from walls and ceilings. More often, the walls were dirty bare plaster or wooden lath where plaster had once been. There was no central heating. The downstairs front room had an old, unshielded gas heater. I later learned that Anne’s older brother carried scars across his back and shoulders from falling against the heater’s ceramic grill one winter. By some miracle, his hair did not catch fire in the accident.

Mrs. Shaw, her housecoat now buttoned, appeared, and hauled forward the tiny blond I had seen in the back yard.

“This is your new teacher. Mind you do what she says. You get into trouble at school, it’ll be bigger trouble for you when you get home! I gotta’ go get ready for work now. You talk nice to your teacher, you hear?”

With that introduction she shoved Anne in my direction and made a hasty exit. We did not see her again.

I was called back to the present and my classroom by a gentle tug on my skirt. Anne had finished setting up the toys and stood proudly looking up at me for approval of her efforts. At that moment another student, Catherine James, and her mother appeared at the door.

I smiled down at Anne, “Would you like to show Catherine the toys you just set out?”

Both girls’ eyes widened brightly. As I watched them go happily, if shyly, off to the play area, my heart sang, “This is going to be a VERY good year!”