Lookin’ for Number Three

By the time Jimmy Lee’s grandmother rode to Florida with him, she was working on her third husband. She felt that it was another chance to get the husband thing right. But Jimmy Lee knew that his Gran was the kind of woman who would fall for anything in pants if the man threw a smile her way.

Her wandering eye was how she lost her two husbands. If another man smiled at her just right, she could not resist. As soon as they did, she took off after them. Come hell or high water she was going to enjoy the pleasure of that man. In Moslem culture, she’d have lost her head for looking the wrong way at a man who wasn’t her husband. Thank Allah she wasn’t a follower of Islam. She belonged to that congregation known as barely a Christian.

Husband Numero Uno was a jackass anyway. That is a Jack with a capital J, Ass with a capital A. So she didn’t mind foolin’ around on the side. Served him right. Thing was he took her for everything worth taking her for. Jimmy Lee’s mom was the only good thing to come out of that marriage.

Husband Numero Segundo was a preacher she met when finalizing her divorce from Uno. The Reverend Lyle Taggart counseled her right into bed, then into marriage. That was where she got the Barely-Christian from. As she recalled, this husband was as good in bed as he was a-preaching. Unfortunately she got bored in her role as Mrs. Perfect Sunday School. So her eyes began  wondering in the wilderness. But it was a mighty long dry spell. There weren’t that many men in the small congregation of two hundred folks who would give her the smile she was craving. Pretty soon she was craving it something bad.

Then the church got itself a new deacon. Before you know it, she was diddle-dadling with that Deacon. When she took a liking to the Deacon and the Deacon took a liking to her, all hades broke loose in that church she was barely the Christian of. One Sunday that preacher husband of hers looked down from his pulpit like God must look from On High. It was a couple of weeks into her adultery. He pointed his finger right at her and said, “Repent, Woman, or thy name is Jezebel.”

Right then and there she decided Jezebel might be a good name to have. It rolled off the tongue something easy and it was downright Biblical. She stood herself up in that pew, the special one that was reserved for the preacher’s wife and other VIPs. She gave that husband of hers the finger, you know the finger I’m talking about, then she grabbed the hand of her eight-year-old daughter. With that child in tow, she sashayed herself right out of that church. There would be no more praying or Bible studying or singing the praises for her.

Last she’d heard of that second husband of hers he went and married one of the good sisters of that church six months after that marriage was dead and buried. Good riddance to the both of them.

On the trip south to Florida in her grandson’s automobile, she smiled, thinking of the what-for she’d given to those hypocrites that day. It was a real hallelujah, five-star perfect day.

From that time to this, she’d spent running from man to man, looking for Mr. Perfect and mostly settling for less. It was like her mother used to say, “A good man’s hard to find.” Nobody could say she hadn’t tried though. Thing was her wandering eye was ready to settle down on one man if’n he was the right man.

She was sure her luck had changed. Her astrologer told her it was written in the stars. He ought to know. He’d laid her life out for her so many times before. She was absolutely certain, as certain as a being can be, that Florida was the place she was about to find a jim dandy of a husband. She’d heard that the Sunshine State was the place a lot of men hightailed it to when their wives passed on to the other side. They went there for a good tan and a new lease on life. She was the very one to give one of them that lease. She wasn’t even going to pass up a younger man if he’s a good ‘un with a fat wallet.

She took a good look at herself in the rearview mirror. She looked ten years younger at least than her true age. And she still had a damned fine figure. She could cougar with the best of ’em. One thing was for sure. She wasn’t about to spend her last days in the poorhouse. She had done that way too much.

There had been a time she’d thought she’d just give up. She’d about given up hope. Finding her a husband she’d be pleased as punch with was almost as impossible as a smarty ass Yankee saying a proper y’all. It couldn’t be done. Then Jimmy Lee came back up from a semester of his cooking school. Cordon Bleu Something-or-Other he called it. He offered to take her to the Promised Land. As they say in church, she was reborn and ready to give that old demon Discouragement a kick in the backside.

Jimmy Lee crossed the Florida-Georgia line on I75 and continued southward. Then he looked Gran’s way and said, “You’re going to love my fiancée, Gran.”

Gran knew she would. Gran was the only family Jimmy Lee had left, his mama and his daddy killed in an accident five years earlier. Going to Florida and school there had been the only way the twenty-year-old could escape his grief. And she knew that he knew how to pick ’em. He’d never go for a girl that didn’t have a good heart. He was a good boy like that.

“And you’re going to like her dad too. Emmy Jo’s dad raised her all by hisself. His wife. the one he calls his one-and-only, she died in a car accident ten years ago. Drunk driver hit her.”

“Sounds like he is a good man,” Gran said.

“The best,” Jimmy Lee said.

How ’bout we stop for some refreshments?” she said. “My legs could use a good stretch.”

So they stopped at a Cracker Barrel. Had themselves a fine meal. Besides the food, it gave Gran a chance to brag on her grandson. And one thing she loved to do was brag on the boy which she did to the waitress.

“You do have a fine looking grandson there,” the waitress responded to her praises. “I’m sure I’d be proud if’n he was mine.”

On the way back to the car, Gran said to the boy, “I sure do like this Florida hospitality.”

Jimmy Lee opened the door for her, then he said, “I knew you would.”

Before she knew it she was in Orlando. There was so much sun out she swore she had never seen so much sun. After a couple of nights settling in at Jimmy Lee’s apartment, it was time for him to take Gran to meet his girl.

The two of them drove up in front of a two-story house with a white picket fence. The kind she’d always dreamed. Jimmy Lee straightened his tie in the rear-view mirror, turned to his Gran and asked, “Do I look okay?” He was as nervous as all get-out in that suit and tie of his.

“You sure do, ” Gran said.

The two got out of the car and walked to the door. Jimmy Lee pressed the doorbell. Before you could say “Hallelujah. Praise the Lord” three times, a tall, gray-haired man answered the door.

“Well, hello, Jimmy Lee,” he said, then asked, “Melissa Sue Maryann?”

“I’ll be,” Gran said and laughed. “If it ain’t the Reverend Lyle Taggart.”

“Jezebel, may you rot in hell,” Tall-and-Gray said, then slammed the door behind him.

Jimmy Lee stood there in front of that door, surprise all over his face. “What was that?” Then his voice turned to anger. “How dare him call my Gran that name.”

“Didn’t I tell you it’s my second name. He give it to me a long time ago. He’s my second husband, and he always was a son of a bitch.”

Getting Jimmy Lee away from that door was like pulling a thing glued with crazy glue from another thing. But she did.

Jimmy Lee reluctantly started the car and turned to his Gran and said, regret in his voice, “Guess that’s one girl that won’t be marrying me.”

“I’m sorry,” Gran said. And she was. She really was.

“You know I always thought there was something about that man. He seemed just too good to be true. Seemed to not have one fault.” Jimmy Lee pulled away from the street parking and drove straight toward the stop. When he stopped, he took a deep breath and said, not so much to his Gran but to himself, “Well, there’s more fish in the ocean. I’m sure I can catch a good ‘un sooner or later.” Too bad thing’s had turned out the way they did. He sure liked that girl.

“One thing is for sure. There goes another of my not-so-Mr.-Rights.”

She laughed and laughed and laughed like she hadn’t laughed in years. And Jimmy Lee laughed right alongside of her. They didn’t stop laughing till they were back at his apartment.

The Last Summer of a Carpenter

The man’s feet had callouses from all the walking he had done. The man’s legs had scars from all the times a two-by-four had crashed against them. The man’s hands had endured splinters. Though large, they were tender when he picked up his baby boy and held him close, whispering to the boy how special he was. The man’s arms had muscles acquired from a life time of work, and more work. The man’s beard spiraled out onto his chest. The man’s lips easily folded into a smile but said little. Only his dark eyes and the wrinkles on his brow revealed the concern and worry he had carried through the years. His long dark brown hair fell onto his shoulders with a small bald spot capped on the top of his head. This was a man who worked long hours to keep wife and son free from the wolves.

His shop on the side of a dusty road was simply supplied with the needs of his trade. There were no extras. If he needed, he made do. His neighbors brought their woodwork requests to him, and he delivered them well-made yokes for their oxen and ploughs. He was the man they came to whenever any public woodworking was needed. He carved the wood as well. So many of the locals had tables with the history of the village carved into their legs.

When his son was ready to apprentice, the boy came into the shop to work with the man he called Dad. The man showed his son how to turn a piece of wood on a lathe to make a perfect leg. He showed the boy how not to hit his finger when he drove a nail into the wood. He taught his son how to pick and choose just the right wood for the shop. How to watch out for bad splotches in the texture of the grain. How to speak to the wood so that the wood would not be afraid when his ax felled a tree.

The man knew his son had expressed dreams of other work. The man wanted a happy son so he agreed, that when the time came, the boy would pursue his dream. First he urged the boy to learn a trade. Then he would always have something to fall back on. Besides the man found great pleasure working with his son at his side. Showing him the secrets of his trade. Revealing the mysteries of the wood. Gently caressing the love out of the wood so that it would surrender to his mastery. And the boy learned well. He had a great teacher.

The man was at least thirty years older than his young wife. He married her when she had a great need for a husband. He made sure she had all the comforts of home. She was a good wife, making his house a home filled with good food, laughter and the joy of a good home. Everybody in the village said, “What a great match these two made.”

As the end of his years approached, the man made sure that his wife was provided for. He knew his son would go off and pursue his dreams. And the couple loved the dream the boy had. Not to pursue that dream would be such a something they could never allow.

On the waning days of that final summer, the man closed up shop early and walked the hills around his home. By this time, his long hair had grayed but still it was thick. He reflected on his years that had passed through his life. Of his time watching over his wife as she grew fat with child. Of his time on the road, and in exile. Of his days in the shop, giving extra special care to the woodwork he delivered to those who needed his trade. Of his time at his hearth, his wife and his son at his side, passing on the stories of those who came before him. So that his son would always have pride in who he was and treasure his people’s past. Though they were poor, they sprang from greatness.

As he walked, he came upon a spring he loved. He sat down beside it and dipped his hand into the water. The water reflected an old man, staring back at him. How did he become an old man? he wondered. Why only yesterday he was just a boy, chasing the birds through these very fields. He dropped off to sleep. The afternoon slipped into evening. The skies were sprinkled with thousands of stars.

A woman and a man came to look for him. They found the man by the side of that spring he had loved all his life. He opened his eyes one final time. His last words, “Mary, Jesus.” Then the angels carried him away.

The Boy Who Loved To Read

Short Story Prompt: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

Thor, not the god, the man. Actually he was a teenager. Thor loved to read. Reading was a favorite thing for him to do. Oh sure, he liked the girls. And they liked him. Liked him a lot. Can’t blame them. His blue eyes and blonde hair, and those rugged Scandinavian looks he inherited from his dad.

Like I said, Thor liked to read. It was okay when he was younger, but he was expected to put the books down once he went into puberty. His dad knew the kid had talent. He had the potential to go all the way to the pros. He had an arm on him that would make him a great quarterback.

Thor was not the kind of kid to put up a fight. He was a Libra and Libras are people who like their peace. Will go out of their way, and sometimes against their own best interest, for peace. So, in the tenth grade, he went out for football. Since he was a natural, the coach made him quarterback. First string too. He was the youngest quarterback in the history of the high school.

Between practice and schoolwork and dating, it didn’t leave much time for reading. Then there was the job on the side. His dad brought him in to work in his garage on Saturdays during off-season. Said it was good for him. Would give him a work ethic.

But reading wasn’t something Thor could just give up. He had gotten through all seven of the Harry Potters. He went on to “Treasure Island” and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. All fun reads. Then there were the Norse myths. When he found out that his dad had named him after the god Thor, he had to know who this god was. So he poured over Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch. Their books had sections on the Norses. He even read some of the Norse sagas, especially the ones that featured the god, Thor.

Thor had a hammer. A big hammer. It even had a name. Mjolnir. It was Thor’s best friend. Other heroes got a sidekick. Thor got a hammer. Was it a real hammer? Or was that hammer symbolic? His high school English teacher taught her students about symbolism in literature. One day he asked his teacher about Mjolnir. She said that it was indeed symbolic. But he wasn’t so sure. Maybe one day he could get a hammer like Thor’s. He’d put off going after it now, but one of these days he was going to have that hammer.

Lately he had taken to reading “The Lord of the Rings”. He read under the covers and by flashlight. But, before he could get a page read, he dropped off into sleep. He wanted to know what happened to Frodo. He wanted to know bad. He just had to know.

He started visiting the bathroom regularly, not for a one or a twosy, but for what he termed a threesy. It was the only place in the house where he could read in peace. At first, it was only five minutes. Then it became longer and longer. When it turned into an hour, his mother became very concerned. The rest of the family, his younger brother and his dad, were not happy either. When they had to go, they had to go. Though they knocked on the door furiously, it was hard for them to get him out.

What happened next is family lore. His mother stood at the bathroom door and knocked.

“Why are you in the bathroom?” his mother asked through the door. “You sick?”

“No,” he replied.

“Then what are you doing in there?” she wanted to know.

“Nada.” Then he realized that would be the name of his hammer.

“Are you playing with yourself?”

“No,” he answered. “I don’t do that. I don’t want to go blind.”

“Good,” she said. “Don’t forget the rest of us have to use the bathroom too.”

He shook his head and mumbled that he understood.

“Then what? What are you doing in there? Are you reading in there?”

He didn’t answer.

“Why do you keep spending so much time in that bathroom?” She was yelling through the door now.

“It’s a clean well-lighted place.”

Lost

Amber’s period came early, during the summer when she was twelve going on thirteen. That same summer her breasts filled out. The end of school that May she was a tall, gawky kid, and shy as all get out. By the dog days of summer, her body developed curves. She and her mom went shopping for a new wardrobe for her new body. They ended up purchasing several dresses that did not accentuate her body. They figured that would take care of what they saw as a problem. But it didn’t.

Amber had never been a popular girl. The first day of school the boys swamped her with their attention. Especially the older ones. This scared her. The worse part was the other girls, girls she had hung out with the previous year. They wanted nothing to do with her. She felt that they were secretly accusing her of a crime, and she didn’t know what it was.

At lunch in the school cafeteria, she took her tray over to a group of four girls she knew. They immediately got up and left her alone, ostracized. One of the older boys, a kid in the ninth grade, all the girls thought was God’s gift to girls, he came over and sat down next to her.

“How ’bout you and me,” he said, “we go out sometime. Maybe Saturday afternoon.” Then he shoved some food into his mouth, thinking she’d already accepted his invitation and glad to get it. After all, every girl in school wanted to date him.

“I’ll have to check with my mom,” she said after several minutes of hesitation, not knowing what the socially acceptable thing to do was.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said. “Just tell your mom you’re going to the mall with some friends. Maybe we’ll go to a movie.”

“Well, okay,” she said, not knowing how to get out of the date.

“Oh,” he said, standing up, “and any other guy asks you out. You tell them no. You’re my girl now. ‘k?”

Not knowing anything else to say, she nodded her head and agreed.

She got home that first day and she ran to her room and she cried. She cried and cried. She didn’t even like the guy who’d asked her to the movie. But all the other girls did.

Saturday afternoon, and the two met at the mall in front of the movie theater. “You got any money?” he asked.

She nervously nodded her head yes.

“Good,” he said, taking her hand and pulling her over to the ticket counter. “‘Cause I figure it’s a date, you’d be paying.”

“But I thought–,” she stuttered.

“We going to the movie or what?,” the boy said.

“Yes,” she said, discouragement in her voice. She reached into her purse and pulled out the money and gave it to him. He got the tickets. They gave them to the ticket taker. “Want some popcorn?” he asked. “‘Course you do. What’s a date without popcorn and a coke. Right?”

Amber bought the treats, then they walked into the darkness of the movie theater. The trailers had already begun. The boy pulled her to the last row of seats and they sat down. “You’re going to love this movie,” he leaned over and whispered in her ear.

The movie began, two men in metal suits shooting at each other with lasers. The boy reached into the bag of popcorn and took out a handful. She settled into her seat to watch a movie she did not think she was going to like. During the first third of the movie, he went through his popcorn and hers. Every so often he’d whisper a loud “Yes” when one of the metal suits shot a robot.

When the credits appeared at the end of the movie, Boy turned to her and said, “Wasn’t that awesome?” Then he asked, “Want to do something?”

She thought about saying, “I thought we had.” Instead she said, “Sure.” It was still early and she had told her mom that she wouldn’t be getting home till later.

“‘k,” he said. “We’re gonna do something I think you’re going to like.”

It was late afternoon. He led her down one of the side streets. They came to an empty baseball diamond. He ran up one of the bleachers and called out to her, “C’mon up here.”

She climbed the bleacher steps. He sat down and pulled her to his side. For the first time that day, he looked at her. It was the first time she had really looked at his face. He had a handsome face. More than handsome, it was angelic.

“This is my favorite spot,” he said. “You have a favorite spot? ‘Course you do.” Then he went all quiet.

Finally he said, “I’m sorry ’bout today. Sometimes I just get carried away with a thing.”

She took a chance, afraid she would upset him. “You are a little pushy.”

“A little pushy? I must be slipping. I thought I was a lot pushy.”

His humor made her smile. “You were a lot pushy,” she agreed. “I was trying to be nice.”

“I know. It’s just that…well. I get nervous when I am alone with a girl.” Then she felt like he let a wall between the two of them come down . Then he said, “Can you keep a secret?”

She said, “Yes. I think so.”

“If I tell you, you can’t tell nobody. Not even your mom. Moms can be the worst at keeping secrets.You understand?”

“I promise I won’t tell anybody,” she said. “Not even my mom.”

“I’m gay,” he said. “And I need you to be my girlfriend so nobody will find out. Can you do that for me?”

She thought about it a little. Then she said, “Only if you treat me special. Not like today.”

“I will,” he said. “I promise.” He breathed a huge sigh of relief.

For the first time since she had returned to school, she felt like she had a friend. A real friend. And she would keep his secret forever. She promised him.

“Not till forever,” he said. “Just till I can figure things out.”

The two hugged each other. As he walked her home, neither of them said anything. He escorted Amber to her door, then said, “Good night, Amber. And thank you.”

She returned his goodnight. “Good night, David.”

A New Lease on Life

Jackson came home from Iraq with one leg. He also came home with a changed attitude. He was happy. He was carefree. Instead of the worrywart that went off to war. He and his brother sat in The Laughing Pony in a quiet corner booth, drinking their beers.

“It’s like the world has been lifted from my shoulders,” he told his brother. “I feel lighter than air.”

Montgomery was the older of the two. “When are you going to see Mom and Dad?”

“I’m not,” Jacks said. “At least, not anytime soon. I just can’t face the Night of the Sad-eyes.”

“What?” Montgomery couldn’t believe what his brother was telling him.

“I just can’t face the Night of the Sad-eyes.” Then Jacks called out to the waitress for another pitcher of beer.

Monty poured the last of the beer from the pitcher on the table. “The Night of the Sad-eyes?” There was anger in his voice. He knew how much his parents’ had worried about Jacks. When they got the call that he was going to live, they were so relieved. Then they turned their relieve into worrying some more about how Jacks would get along with only one leg.

When Monty saw Jacks walk into the bar, he knew their concern was all for naught. The VA had fitted Jackson with a prosthesis. After six months of therapy, there was little reason to suspect that he had a fake right leg. His gait was a little stiff as he walked over to Monty’s booth. But it wasn’t noticeable if you weren’t watching the walk closely. Sure, Jacks leaned a little more on his left leg but most of us favor one leg over the other.

“Guess what?” Jacks said when he got to the booth and took his seat. “I grew a new leg.” A boyish grin appeared on his face. He stuck his right leg out and pulled his beige khakis up to show off his prosthetic leg.

The waitress brought a new pitcher over and took their empty one. Jacks smiled at the waitress and touched her hand. “Too bad you’re already taken,” he said.

“I’m not taken,” she said and smiled.

“What time do you get off?” Jacks asked.

“Around eleven,” the waitress answered and carried the empty pitcher back to the bar.

Turning to his brother, Jacks said, “I think she likes me. Think it will matter when she finds out.” He tapped his fake leg.

“What do you mean ‘the Night of the Sad-eyes’?” Monty asked, frustration in his voice. He downed his beer. Then he slammed the mug onto the table.

Filling his mug, the smile dropped from Jacks’ face. “Careful there, bro. You know, those looks people give you when they’re feeling sorry for you. I saw a lot of that when I was in the hospital. I swore I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.”

Monty grabbed Jacks wrist. “You have to go see Mom and Dad. At least, for a few hours. They will be so upset.”

Jacks pried his brother’s hand loose. “I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. And, I’m telling you, I am not going to see them. At least, not now. That’s why I asked you to meet me here. To tell them.” He dropped his brother’s hand onto the table.

“Are you kidding?” Monty’s hand hurt from his brother’s grip. “I can’t tell them.”

“Well, then they won’t be told. Now excuse me, I have to go take a whiz.”

Jackson stood up and made for the restrooms in the back, his slow waddle not calling attention to itself.

Monty stretched out the fingers of his hurt hand and massaged them to make the ache go away. “Shit,” he said and filled his mug again. He made up his mind to get drunk. When he received the call from his brother earlier that day, he hadn’t expected the meet to go this way. This just wasn’t like his brother.

He looked up at his brother across from him. He was back in his seat and he was smiling again.

“Boy, you sure are changed,” he said to the stranger across the table from him.

“Yes, I know. For the better I hope.”

There was a lack of understanding on Monty’s face.

Jackson took a big gulp of beer, then sat the mug back on the table and his face went serious. “I got to Iraq and then they sent me to Fallujah. I was so lost. Very disoriented. Every day on pins and needles. Guess that is when I screwed up.”

“Screwed up?”

“Yeah, you let down your guard once and suddenly an IED is blowing the shit out of you. I lay in the dirt, unconscious. All the time I am laying there, I am hearing this voice and it’s singing, ‘Rejoice, rejoice. Live each day and love.’ It sounded just like that old Beatles tune. You know the one?”

Monty’s face was a question.

“You know the one. ‘Love is all you need.’ I remember Dad used to play it for us when we were kids. Only the words were different. You know what I did when I woke up?”

Monty couldn’t imagine. So he didn’t answer.

Jacks took a drink of his beer, then, “I was laughing. I must have laughed for at least an hour. I was alive. I could not believe it. Right then and there I decided I was going to live my life as full as I could. And I wasn’t going to hang out with no Frowning Nellies. No sirree. Not me.”

He took one final drink. Then he stood up. He looked down at the surprise on his brother’s face. “So tell Mom and Dad I will be in touch. In the meantime, I plan to get myself laid tonight. And who knows I might just marry that waitress.”

Jackson walked over to the waitress and said a few words to her. She shook her head, said something to the bartender and followed him out the door.

Monty called over to a second waitress, “Janice, another pitcher please.”