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How I Met Her Forever

In Responses on July 13, 2012 at 3:19 am

by Jennifer Phifer Strange

We were few at her funeral as she had outlived almost everyone she ever knew. Except me. I had grown up with her—my mama was her daddy’s sister, and we lived down the road until the house burned down. She came to live with us when we started school, but she went home after a few weeks. Horses put their heads through the broken windows to watch us eat, and she hadn’t ever seen anyone act like my daddy. So her daddy bought her a pony and that was that.

Skip over the decades, and there I was—the only one older than her at her funeral. Her tall brothers sat tall in the pews while her son hung his head, hoping he’d done right in the end. Listened to her granddaughter say a few words, heard the preacher say some things from John, passed by the casket, and we were out to the cemetery for a few hours of Texas-style standing around.

Every morning for the next week, I found myself thinking about her at breakfast, always suddenly realizing my eggs were cold because I’d been staring out the windows, hoping to see a nosy horse. But it had been years since a horse visited me. My daughter Lorna came every day to help me write a letter—I keep up—and every day I wanted to write to my friend (we called each other sisters even though we were just cousins). She hadn’t written me in years, what for the tremors in her hands, but I still sent her news. If you don’t have news from home in Texas, you don’t have news.

Then one week after the funeral, I got mail. Few letters came for me, so when Lorna arrived at my door with full hands, I expected her to have a half gallon of milk or maybe a bar of chocolate, but certainly not mail. Instead, handed me a postcard and asked if I needed help reading it.

“Well, sure, now. What’s on the back there?”

Lorna turned the postcard around, and I could see several brown head of steer poking through a fence. She interpreted for me: “Looks like Lubbock. Cows.”

“Don’t know anyone in Lubbock. What’s it say?”

She turned it back again and read, “I’m not dead. Meet me tonight at Guido’s Pizzeria. Tell no one.”

Lorna had combed my hair countless times like I had her own when she was young. The press of the bristles through the thin hair and against your own palm. By the time she turned sixty, she had learned just my right balance of salt in peas to make me sit back and groan. But now she looked around my room like she had walked into a joke. “This isn’t . . . what is this? You’re playing me now, mother. Okay, now.”

I just sat a spell. Maybe dementia had suddenly come in full dress and taken its place at my table. We would start a five-course meal and never finish, enjoying repeat helpings of the dessert until we just fell asleep. Or maybe my hearing played out. Lorna and I stared at each other because neither of us dared to look at that steer head again. I played the dementia card and said, “Sure could use some apple juice.” Read the rest of this entry »


In Uncategorized, Writing Prompts on June 7, 2012 at 4:39 pm

by Jen Strange

Nagged him about that kitchen: “Replace the cabinet doors, paint the walls, hang the blinds, order more tile for the backsplash, install cork floor (through the hallways while you’re at it), put up more cabinets and countertop. And when you’re done, let’s make the garage into an office!” He moved at a characteristically slow pace, which is why the nagging seemed more like occasional reminders than actual irritation. We waited.

I spent a lot of time during those months wishing for a kind of veldt to appear in our kitchen. If the walls couldn’t be completely tiled, I wanted a Bradburian magic there. Give the days a little excitement. Of course, things didn’t go too well in that story, and it’s not like I wanted the children eaten by tigers, so the daydreams didn’t last very long—the logic of the longing unraveled so quickly.

Meanwhile, the kids had an idea to bang out a wall. In that way that children do, they pulled down the closet rod and smacked a wall before they even realized they had taken a step on the road toward home demolition. Perhaps they had overheard my reminders to their father and thought they would help, if in another room and in a previously undescribed way. Perhaps they knew subconsciously that I was ready for change.

Laundry duties had me on the other side of the house one morning when I heard a wall-thwack from the back of the house. No one wailed, so I hoped that didn’t mean anyone had been knocked unconscious. No feet came padding down the hallway. I finished folding the towel in my hands and headed back, calling the boys’ names. Nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

Sit on a Wall

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm

by Jennifer Strange

He watches from his window, his garden, his horse. Every morning, we prepare the horse for a ride to the riverfront and back, and he watches; I know he thinks he has spotted him when he finally pushes to gallop. Just before tea every afternoon, he takes a walk through the garden and peers around every break of hedge to find him. And anyone meeting him for business would assume he had had enough or needed some fresh air to clear his mind for decision, but he has only been sitting distracted so long and must retreat to the window for the real business: has he now set himself at the fountain? The king’s organizes his daily calendar around the great oaf.

But he is gone now.

They say he was once a man of letters who never wrote a false word about the human heart, for he understood it all—the greed, the fear, the love. He managed all the king’s books and all the king’s lies, and he made them all true by visiting the wronged ones and paying everything even. He hosted dinner parties that no one ever wanted to leave, for the company was so rare and the host so gracious: he was responsible for introducing to each other the most unlikely of friends from all corners of the city. He wore shoes no one noticed and lifted his eyebrows just so you knew he had heard you.

But they all say different things about how he fell. The expert in crookneck squash who farms across the cemetery from St. Mark’s says he saw him walk into church one day with his head down and not emerge until the next day, his head lower still. The queen’s farrier says he had long loved the wife of a friend, and that he had confessed only to be spurned. One of the housemaids said he had never been true—that all his good had been a ruse to make the king notice him, to earn fame, and when the king turned out mad after all, he suddenly looked a bit mad himself.

Whatever it was, he turned his face to pie and drink. An excuse to be with friends, an escape from guilt, something to prove he was wheat and not chaff? Perhaps all, but he became an expert in the stuff. Meat pies, berry cobblers, peach pie in season, chicken pot pies, single-crust and double-crust, flakey or with biscuits, sweet or savory. And he knew the right brew for each one. And when he had drunk, he wrote no words whatsoever (though we understand this is uncommon) and forgot whatever company he had kept or abused them terribly with his wit—after only a drink or two, his words revealed clearly all his fear and fawning.

The king had lost sense years before and remembered him as he had been, bless his soul. But we had to remove him from the king’s presence. He had become utterly useless. Couldn’t even read a map anymore, and he added the strangest volumes to the library—a handwritten biography of one of the king’s horses, for example. When he sat for tea, he clattered his cup about the saucer and spilled copious amounts of cream on the carpet. When he walked the gardens, he crouched behind the king and clipped leaves from bushes, emptying his pockets into the fountain while he whistled a minuet.

We gave him a cottage well appointed with books, a globe, a desk with enough paper, a butler with orders to keep a full pantry and never want for pies or beer, and a guard. He was invited to walk about as he wished, though one of the king’s men was to go with him always.

Over those months (or was it just weeks?), the pies and brew pushed out his sides so that we called him again the greatest man in the city. He walked very little and sat very often, with the cook delivering pies and a glass at regular intervals wherever he would go, which wasn’t ever far from his cottage. Sometimes while he ate, he would fall asleep where he sat and not pull to his mouth the spoon he had just filled anew.

One day, his guard called for help—the oaf wished to climb the city wall. So they hoisted him up and he sat. For two days or more, he sat on the wall. His cook brought pies enough for a large family, and he drank barrels. He forgot all that he had ever tried to do. He could not recall a single name of a single person he had ever invited to dinner. He moaned as he looked out from the city.

And then you know the story: he had a great fall. You would not have recognized him if you had seen him. In fact, you would have wondered if he had ever been a man. No horse or man could have healed him: he had a great fall.

The king mourned him, so we too had to as well. He too tried to remember him as he had been, but we could not help remembering what he had become, which was what he really had been all along. The greatest man, the largest man, and so the most pieces we ever found fallen.

War Within Me

In Responses on March 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm

“He kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god.” — Isaiah 44:15

Evening falls fast now. At the brightest moment, I jump as a tin can falls and pounds the ice, and my martini soaks through the tablecloth. Looking up again, the ochre lets me stare it down into darkness. How quickly the stars take their places and make every shadow grow long as a terror’s fingernails.

Where’s my helper? Where’s some comfort? My knees creak down to the hard ice. Here’s a match, fire, heat, glow. Honey will bring the twigs and we’ll make it right.

It’s a hard edge we picked, but maybe the last one with a view. Spruce, hemlock, cottonwood—a successful canopy. With our binoculars, we spy on the grizzlies and blue grouse, his sac hooting its echoes off the ice. We could sit at this crevice forever. To camp, to set our flag on the wilderness, to dominate. Just to dominate.

Here he gives a brief glance. So many years ago, I looked across a room to look into him. We studied—his left hip (his hand rests there) sits lower than his right, he sneaks a bite of brownie and makes sure I see, he starts a load of whites and thinks I am too busy to mark it. Just a passing word would do then. But when there is no time for more than a passing word, you resent knowing each other so well. We share this house on wheels, this bed and table and shower. We terrorize each other with every polite smile.

I’ll tell it again: he burned that pie I made from scratch. I stirred it up—his daddy’s pecans, and that deep chocolate to make them sweet for him—and it burned while we watched some meaningless show because he heard the beeper but didn’t ask why it was set. Just one of those things you laugh about and let go.

We talked about this RV for years before we bought it. The sales lady told us all the middle-agers say that, but it’s true. Longing for something more than canned noodles with the kids, we set our eyes on the drive and hoped everything would hurry up. We didn’t have any other ideas. Recreation would be our mission field, and 300 square feet our sanctuary. Polished wood, a quick clean, and time.

So where is he now with those twigs? Hunting the glacier, that’s where. Killing a squirrel or two, if he can. The fire will die without his small offering, his twigs. Could I drive this holy habitation away from this godforsaken skating rink? The blue grouse hoots again.

“Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.” One Sunday morning, a boys choir sang that on the radio, the big drums and high young voices echoing through the cathedral where they made the recording. The crowd applauded the performance of the death masque, but I figured they didn’t know much about the song itself, seeing as they were still alive. Seems easy to applaud a song about comfortable death until you go to die.

But here comes my covenant husband, no dead meat in tow but a stack of twigs in his arms. His errand almost complete, he walks to the fire and dutifully places the wood. He stokes our fire on ice. I take another sip of my martini and explain, “The tablecloth.” He nods.

This place is boring, what with its “Would you look at that?” every five seconds. We don’t say it anymore; we just sit in our chairs and stare into the glacier, etched with a gargantuan finger into a Cubist nightmare. Its tumult comes from within, those passions so deep within the ice that erupt in slow but mighty cracks.

One day we’ll miss the children, I suppose. One day we’ll get sick of squirrel. One day we will have learned to make fire and won’t be able to survive with it everywhere. We’ll go to some other habitat and the whitebark pine will take our place in the flames.

How She Ended It

In Responses on February 10, 2012 at 2:39 pm

By Jennifer Strange

Inside the box of stale breakfast cereal, she found her marriage. Not in a metaphorical way, now. I mean she found her wedding ring right there in the corn flakes with the dried strawberries and such. She couldn’t remember when it got there, but it must have been that last time that she poured the cereal from the box into that airtight plastic container. Trouble is, the plastic tub isn’t as big as the box, so the bites left in the box are a craps shoot: either they’ll still be good after she eats a few bowls and remembers to top off the tub, or they’ll have become breakfast, lunch, dinner, and grave for weevils.

So there’s her marriage, all dusty with sugar and corn bits, fallen down in a bag in a box in the pantry in the dark. By the time she’d missed her ring, she couldn’t imagine how long it had been gone. What with the dusting and cooking and taking out the dirty cat litter days without end, it could have been last year for all she knew. His always sat on a shelf in his closet, and she never took hers off. Must had fallen somewhere. She figured it would turn up. Read the rest of this entry »

Still Life: Old Woman Alone in Her House

In Responses on January 5, 2012 at 7:21 pm

by Jennifer Strange

The birds insist on themselves outside the window this temperate day in January, until the air conditioner kicks on and hums itself into first place. Will the annual ice storm come? Swinging won’t make us stay as ice storms do. We light the fire, breathe the ash, make another cup of tea, and wait until summer.

Here, it won’t be a long wait. Summer may come again tomorrow. Then, I will take my walker and pace the block again. Wave to the young boys next door and tell their mother I’m 92. Make the dog at Holly’s house bark a small, serious bark. Peer into the pilot’s windows. Thank that young man with the old dog again for every day moving my newspaper to the front porch. And turn around back home.

The teapot has started to whisper at that pitch only I can hear. “Husband, the water is about to boil,” I would say, but instead, I stir my own honey in the hot water and dip my own tea bag.

Read the rest of this entry »


In Responses on December 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm

By Jennifer Strange

Walk to her front porch and you can smell the season: sugar cookies, cardamom bread, gingersnaps, beef stew like her mother made, peanut brittle, fudge sans nuts, divinity for her father-in-law, pumpkin bread, fruitcake with generous amounts of brandy poured over it for days. Walk in and she won’t let you touch a thing. Not until it is time.

Melded recipes from the distaff and the spear, and some of her own creation: her mind is quiet when she bakes.

Remember how white-haired Grandma taught us the beauty of a well-set table. Hers is the fruitcake. Remember how gray-haired Grandma taught us the tenderness and tenseness of family gathered. Hers is the peanut brittle. Remember how Pa learned to bake in his retirement. His is the cardamom.

Maybe one year we will learn to bake only and not to give so many gifts, but we do love giving the gifts. Go from person to person and keep the ritual of caring for the paper. We delight in the imaginations and the individual attentions. All of the gifts are for all of us.

The stockings, which our grandfather needlepointed, will hang around like so many well-crafted witnesses. The angels so sing their chorus. The nativities birth new Christs every year and fill more shelves and corners. Garland, ornaments, candles that smell of pine: it’s everywhere.

“Cold hands, warm hearts,” Grandma would say with conviction. We have the hearths, the pockets, the central heat, and what of those who do not? Yet our hands always seemed cold reaching to the dough, the gift, the deck of cards, the stranger. Read the rest of this entry »