Seventeen Year Itch

A Short Story by Donal Mahoney

Marcia was 17 the first time thousands of locusts rose from the fields of her father’s farm and filled the air, sounding like zithers unable to stop. Her father was angry but Marcia loved the music the locusts made. She was in high school then and chose to make locusts the focus of her senior paper.

At the town library she learned locusts spend 17 years deep in the soil, feeding on fluids from roots of trees that make them strong enough to emerge at the proper time to court and reproduce. Courtship requires the males to gather in a circle and sing until the females agree to make them fathers.

Courtship and mating and laying of eggs takes almost two months and then the locusts fall from the air and die. Marcia remembers the iridescent shells on the ground shining, She was always careful not to step on them. She cried when the rain and the wind took them away.

Now 17 years later Marcia is 34 and the locusts are back again. Her dead father can’t hear them and Marcia no longer loves the music the way she did in high school. Now she stays in the house and keeps the windows closed and relies on the air-conditioner to drown out the locusts. Marcia has patience, however. She knows what will happen. She reads her Bible and sucks on lemon drops, knowing the locusts will die.

In the seventh week, the locusts fall from the air in raindrops, then torrents. “It is finished,” Marcia says. She pulls on her father’s boots and goes out in the fields and stomps on the shells covering the ground but she stomps carefully.

At 34 Marcia’s in no hurry. Before each stomp, she names each shell Billy, John, Chuck, Terrence or Lester, the names of men who have courted her during the 17 years since high school. They all made promises Marcia loved to hear, promises she can recite like a favorite prayer. She made each man happy as best she could. They would grunt like swine the first night, some of them for many nights. But then like locusts they would disappear.

I Can’t See What She Sees

A Short Story by Suzanne Comer

“Miss Marianne, Miss Marianne—Miss Gerrie is dying,” Felicia says, out of breath, as she bursts through my half-open door without knocking.

“Whoa, hold on, what do you mean? We know she’s near the end. Hospice comes in to see her every day now.” I reassure, as I set my coffee cup in its saucer, move my newspaper over, and push away some administrative documents in need of my signature.

“Lord—Honey, you know I can’t stay in a room with no one so close to passing over.” Falincia is standing square in front of my desk. Her designer scrubs are starched and ironed with a crease. Deep furrows separate her eye brows. Her feet are spread apart. She is swaying side-to-side like a kid wading through a mud puddle wearing a pair of galoshes three sizes too big. From her stylish up-do hang two black braids that swing to-and-fro like up-side-down miniature metronomes, keeping the beat.

“What happened, she was fine an hour ago?” I question. It’s my way of buying time until I can figure things out. No need to rush to judgement.

“You see, Miss Gerrie says the Lord is in her room, over in the corner, and she thinks she sees me too over there with Jesus. She believes I’m a saint! Lord knows, I ain’t no saint. You know that about me. I try to be a good person, but I ain’t no saint.

“Maybe she wants to compliment you. Did you help her with something special? Possibly, it’s her way of bragging on you—saying thank you.” I suggest.

“No, Ma’am, nothin’ special; all I do is helps her dress and do her shower. I folds her clothes, and do her toileting and all. You know I try to be a good caregiver, but I can’t help her pass.” She stops swaying and gets a couple of Hershey’s Kisses out of my candy dish, knowing chocolate is the best elixir for relieving stress—that’s why it’s there. Then she continues, “Miss Gerri says Jesus has come to take her home, and I’m the saint he’s sent to help her pass on over. You know me, Miss Marianne. I ain’t lyin’.” Afraid of what I might say next, she places her hands at the sides of her face in dismay. Her mouth, full of chocolate, is ajar.

“Let’s go to her room and see.” I suggest.

“You go, Miss Marianne! I done told you, I ain’t goin’ into Miss Gerrie’s room ‘less I have to. Because I can’t see what she sees!”

I get up, move away from my desk, and walk through the door. “What are you scared of?” I ask.

“Oh, Lordy. What if He really is there and I am a saint—at least right then—and He takes me along with Miss Gerrie to help her pass over. I don’t wanta pass TOO!”

My administrator’s second sense tells me it’s time to let Falencia be. “Ok, I’ll go check on her myself.” I suggest. “Why don’t you go work in the laundry-room for a while.” Moments later, I press the code on the key pad to enter Memory Lane, the dementia unit. I watch to make sure no one escapes, then saunter toward 410—Miss Gerrie’s room.

“Good morning Gerrie. You look chipper this morning.” I exaggerate.

“Oh, cut the crap, will ya! I look like warmed over death because that’s what a ninety-eight year old women looks like. Now tell me, what’s the boss coming around here so early for?” Gerri quips.

I’ve known Gerri for eons so I get straight to the point because that’s what she appreciates about me. “Gerrie, has Jesus given you a visit lately?”

“Hell no, has he you?” She’s adamant.

“He does come around here every now and then.” I remind.

“Oh, now you’re beginning to sound like that pious ol’ hospice chaplain, soooo comforting!” Gerri dramatizes.

“Did you tell Falincia that Jesus was in you room, and you were about to die?” I refresh her ninety-eight-year-old selective memory.

“Oh, that!” Gerrie understands.

“Yes, that! She thinks you’re hallucinating. She thinks you see her as a saint.”

Gerrie’s brown eyes twinkle and she smiles a knowing smile. She holds up a knotty index finger and points up. “Yes, that girl is a saint. She was telling me how sometimes her husband treats her with disrespect. I told her she shouldn’t have to live that way, because she’s a wonderful young lady; so helpful, kind, and sincere. She feeds me when I’m hungry, gives me something to drink when I’m thirsty, and wipes my ass when I shit.”

“Yes, she does,” I agree with a chuckle.

“I can see her heart. It’s a caregiver’s heart, a consecrated heart.” She stops and thrusts her right hand into the pocket of her worn pink house dress. Retrieving a wadded-up Kleenex, she wipes her nose for no apparent reason, and then continues. “Yes, she is a saint. And yes, I am dying—but not today!”

I stand there and ponder Gerrie’s lucid moment for a while. Then I say, “You’re right. She works hard and needs your encouragement. So keep up your good work because—Falincia said it best. She can’t see what you see.”

There’s knocking on the door, then Falencia peeks in. Her eyes meet mine, and I give her the nod. The one that says everything is okay. See takes her cue and scurries past me—all smiles. “Hi, Miss Gerrie, looks like you are feelin’ better now. You ready for me to do your nails?”

“Yes, darlin. I want hot pink today— to match my dress.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

I get up to leave, my mission accomplished. I pull the door open and turn to look back at the two. While Falencia is busy digging through her manicure kit, Gerri looks up and gives me a discreet wink as a bright smile dawns over her face.

In Break Formation

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

The indications used to come
like movie fighter planes in break
formation, one by one, the perfect
plummet, down and out. This time they’re
slower. But after supper, when I hear her
in the kitchen hum again, hum higher,
higher, till my ears are numb,
I remember how it was
the last time: how she hummed
to Aramaic peaks, flung
supper plates across the kitchen
till I brought her by the shoulders
humming to the chair.
I remember how the final days
her eyelids, operating on their own,
rose and fell, how she strolled
among the children, winding tractors,
hugging dolls, how finally
I phoned and had them come again,
how I walked behind them
as they took her by the shoulders,
house dress in the breeze, slowly
down the walk and to the curbing,
how I watched them bend her
in the back seat of the squad again,
how I watched them pull away
and heard again the parliament
of neighbors talking.

“In Break Formation” was first published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Vol. 19 No. 2, Winter 1968-69, Box 151, Farmington, ME 04938.

Coming Home at Midnight to the Farm

A Short Story by Donal Mahoney

Driving down the hill I see the same bend in the road the school bus took me around for years. I can see in the headlights the wildflowers ringing the curve like a necklace–goldenrod, cornflower, Queen Anne’s Lace, God’s gift to country roads in the fall. You don’t see anything like that in the city but I’m getting used to living there.

I see the house ahead, one light on, upstairs. It’s midnight and my father’s dead and my mother’s in that room praying and maybe crying, waiting for me to pull in. She knows it’s a six-hour drive from the city.

The wake will be tomorrow night at Egan’s mortuary. There will be 15 decades of the rosary to say and I still have trouble getting through five. Then there will be three hours of listening to my mother’s friends console her, ancient ladies all, many of them widowed long before her.

Many times my mother has been in their place so she knows what they will say but she will find some comfort in it anyway. The old farmers still alive will simply say “sorry for your troubles” which serves as both a condolence and a prayer.

Mass will be at 10 in the morning with Father Murphy in the pulpit sounding like Bishop Sheen. My dad told me long ago that when he finally died Father Murphy would confer sainthood on him at the funeral, no need for any miracles. Father Murphy has a long history of canonizing every farmer who dies unless he committed one of the seven deadly sins in public. My father said he hoped Father Murphy would talk loud enough for God to hear.

After the procession to the graveyard and the consignment of the casket, everyone will drive back to the church hall for the funeral meal–wonderful food prepared by good women and arranged in a long buffet.

The farmers will assure my mother they will be out to her place tomorrow and the next day to put up the hay. After the hay is taken care of, they will take turns coming to feed the cattle and they’ll go to town to pick up whatever she needs. Things will work out, they will tell her. Not to worry.

After everyone has eaten, the ladies, one by one, will rise and bow to my mother and tell her to go home now and get some rest.

The men will shake hands with me and ask how long before I have to go back to the city. I’ll say I have a week, maybe two, uncertain as to what night I’ll have to leave. I know it will be around midnight. And the same light will be on, upstairs.

Tuesday Morning

A Poem by James Diaz

I found you on my way
to the foundry
a symbol of deer
radiant
like hoof of time
or smell of rain
that jar with ‘love’ writ
on its shell of bone
across the two aching
low hung hills
one could never enter

my morning in your pocket
of river
tar and elm mixed by blood
and body knowing the world
is reborn in less than an instant
a quiver
your eye
is word lit with mended olive root
how the sting sat with only one shoot
in its open mess
a ground made by no one

by everyone.

The Ladling of Agent Orange

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Anything can set him off.
Been that way for 40 years
since he came back from Nam.

He got spooked at dawn today
by a spider web dripping from a tree
he walked into when his dog

took him for his morning walk.
After lunch he brushed his teeth
and cried about a doctor

who died the other day.
He reads the obits every day
for names of men he served with.

His therapist believes his stress
may be magnified by contact
with Monsanto’s Agent Orange.

To win the war, America ladled it
in layers thick all over Vietnam.
He managed to avoid the Cong

but never knew about Monsanto
and the ladling of Agent Orange.
He may have stepped in it at times.

Back home, he’s shaky and unsure
but determined now to find the gook
who dropped that spider web.

He’ll take his pistol tomorrow morning.
He and the dog will watch the trees.
There’s always more than one.

Madman in Remission

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

Does he remember?
Jenny, how could he forget?
Thirty years ago you roared
into his office and raged
about your cousin’s
decision to marry him.
He had never met you.
Your cousin had told him
you were in town
and suggested he
take you to lunch,
show you Chicago.
She didn’t know
you were angry.
You were just Jenny,
her cousin, her playmate
from childhood
down on the farm.
You didn’t want her
to marry anyone
and leave you the last
cousin still single,
something odd
in those days
when nobody knew.
You mocked him
and he couldn’t respond
with people around.
But, Jenny,
you could have died
that day in his office.
Thirty years later,
he’s still a madman
in remission.
No apology will do.

Kinship

A Poem by Stefanie Bennett

Still the lamp burns. The lights
Of the other houses
Are asleep at this hour.

We are not set apart. It\’s just
That fire
Has a job to do.

Like philanthropists, we\’re
Awake most nights
Because

We have this longing
To see
The greys and yellows mingle.

Bachelorette for Life

A Short Story by Donal Mahoney

It started in eighth grade, much to the chagrin of her parents. Boys in high school started asking Roslyn for dates. And Roslyn would tell them they would have to ask her father. And he always said no.

“You’re too young to go out with boys, Roslyn,” he would say. “On that subject, your mother and I completely agree. Wait till you’re older.”

In high school, young men in college discovered Roslyn and they too asked her out. She would tell them that although she was allowed to date boys in high school now, her parents wouldn’t let her go out with college “men,” as her mother called them.

“College men are too old for you, Roslyn,” her mother said more than once and twice her father chimed in with his one-word agreement.

“Amen!”

When Roslyn went to college, some of the graduate assistants and young assistant professors wanted to date her but she was a pre-medical student and she hit the books hard. When she did go on a date, it was usually for pizza and a movie with some young man in the same year as she, someone she liked as a person but had no mad crush on.

Roslyn wanted to be a doctor, an eye specialist, with a concentration on retinal diseases because her father once came home from an eye examination to report that his eye doctor had discovered two tears in his right retina and had used a laser to repair them. Roslyn was impressed by the good the doctor had accomplished and she wanted to make the same difference in other people’s lives.

In medical school she had to study very hard. Roslyn was as bright as she was beautiful but medical school was the first time she had to buckle down academically. Previously she had earned good grades without working too hard. There was very little time in medical school to date although once again some younger professors tried hard to take her out. She always hoped her refusals wouldn’t affect her grades and she felt that her grades invariably were those she had earned. She had a knack for telling aspiring suitors “no” without offending them.

After medical school, she had to serve an internship that required long, unpredictable hours. Again, many doctors, single and otherwise, wanted to date her but Roslyn would have nothing to do with married men and she didn’t meet a single doctor she really liked. She explained this to her parents on trips home as well as to her girl friends from high school, many of whom were now married with children, who had thought Roslyn would be the first among them to marry and settle down.

When she went on to graduate work in the study of the eye, Roslyn found she had to study even harder. She didn’t date at all for fear of falling behind. What free time she had she spent watching television and eating pizza delivered from a nearby restaurant. She felt closer to her television set than she did to any man she had met so far. No question she liked men. But the right one had so far failed to distract her from her studies and goals in life.

Back home, her parents, once very concerned their daughter would date the wrong boy at too young an age, began now to worry they might never become grandparents. And her girl friends started questioning her as to when she was going to settle down. Some of them were downright nosy. Others wanted to fix her up. She politely refused all the help she was offered.

“First,” she told them, “I have to establish my practice and then I’ll have time to concentrate on finding the right guy. He’s out there, I’m sure. I’m 27 now and I want to have at least three children so I better get a move on.”

In two years Roslyn had quickly established an excellent practice. She had appointments booked months in advance. Other doctors referred especially difficult retina problems to her because she excelled in using the laser for making repairs. She was now a successful doctor but still as single as ever with no potential husband in sight.

The years went by and Roslyn became more and more successful and even dated decent men now and then. She found one man very interesting but he did not share her interest in public television and classical movies. Like many men he had an interest in sports events and was always changing the channel to some game. Roslyn liked sports and had played volleyball in high school and college but watching sports on TV held little interest for her. She liked to compete and she was too old now to play in any games.

Her father was the first to die without becoming a grandparent and two years later her mother passed away without any grandchildren. Roslyn was still steadfastly practicing medicine and was again ordering pizza in and watching television in her few hours of spare time. She had almost stopped dating because at age 48 she knew children were likely out of the question and she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life watching the Game of the Week.

She took time out, however, to return to her hometown for the 30th anniversary of her high school graduation. She was surprised to see how many of her old classmates now had either a little or a lot of gray hair. Some men had paunches and many of the women were bigger than they had ever thought they would be. Bearing children can do that to a woman. Roslyn, however, was still slim and beautiful and gray hairs had yet to appear.

Most of her old girl friends had given up quizzing her as to why she had never married. But on the night of their class reunion she shared a table and a few bottles of wine with her three closest friends. One of them was a bit tipsy and leaned forward and looked Roslyn in the eye and asked,

“Roz, why the hell are you still single. Men forever have been chasing you. You’ve had a chance to meet some of the nicest men out there. And you’re still a bachelorette. Why?”

Roslyn was very sober as always and she took a minute to formulate her answer. She wanted to settle the issue once and for all. Finally she laid it on the table between the wine bottles and glasses.

“Ladies, I have met a lot of nice men but I have studied too hard and worked too hard to give up my remote.”

Two of the women laughed and one of them raised her glass and proposed a toast to liberation and possessing one’s own remote. Her husband had been in charge of their remote now for 26 years. He put it down, however, to father six wonderful children. She’d like to have her own remote but she preferred her children by a long shot.

The tipsy girlfriend who had asked the question just shook her head in fake despair and gave Roslyn a skosh of too-late advice that had worked for her.

“By now you can afford to buy another one. I bought two in case my husband loses his between the cushions and wants to borrow mine.”

Roslyn knew she could afford to buy a second remote. But that wouldn’t have helped her find the right man. He simply never appeared. At the moment, however, she was happy because now the quiz about why she was a bachelorette was finally over. And, frankly, she couldn’t wait to get home and watch “Gone with the Wind” for perhaps the 14th time. She certainly would have lent Clark Gable her remote for an evening or two at least.