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The Test … and furthermore continued …

8 Jun

Previous installment

◊◊◊

 

Sheila Dumphreys sat on a chair facing the three adult children in the ICU waiting area. Each was in a state of shock and disbelief. Dawn reviewed her father’s Advanced Directives slowly, while Sean sat back in his chair, head bowed and chin on chest. Tink fidgeted with an unlit cigarette and stared out into the room.

In the background were the now-familiar noises of the machinery bent on sustaining Timothy Cardiff ad infinitum.

She read from the document aloud to the group.

I, Timothy Elliot Cardiff, being of sound mind, hereby appoint the following person(s) to serve as my health care agent(s) to act for me and in my name (in any way I could act in person) to make health care decisions for me as authorized in this document. My designated health care agent(s) shall serve alone, in the order named.

“My name is listed first. Sean’s is first alternative, and Tink, yours is the second.”

“Yeah?” Tink looked up as she rolled the cigarette between her thumb and forefinger, “Always last. Always the black sheep.”

“That’s not it, Tink!” Sean inserted. “Obviously it’s by age. And obviously Dad chose Dawn because she lives in town, and because she was the one who took care of Mom before she died.”

“Right. She did it the old-fashioned way — she earned it!” Tink responded sarcastically.

“Hey — I am more than glad to turn the responsibility over to you if you want it that badly,” Dawn shot back.

“No. No, I’m just tired. Sorry. Don’t pay any attention to me.”

Dawn continued to read.

Subject to any restrictions set forth in Section 5 below, I grant to my health care agent full power and authority to make and carry out all health care decisions for me. These decisions include, but are not limited to:

  1. Requesting, reviewing, and receiving any information, verbal or written, regarding my physical or mental health, including, but not limited to, medical and hospital records, and to consent to the disclosure of this information.
  2. Employing or discharging my health care providers.
  3. Consenting to and authorizing my admission to and discharge from a hospital, nursing or convalescent home, hospice, long-term care facility, or other health care facility.
  4. Consenting to and authorizing my admission to and retention in a facility for the care or treatment of mental illness.
  5. Consenting to and authorizing the administration of medications for mental health treatment and electroconvulsive treatment (ECT), commonly referred to as “shock treatment.”
  6. Giving consent for, withdrawing consent for, or withholding consent for, X-ray, anesthesia, medication, surgery, and all other diagnostic and treatment procedures ordered by or under the authorization of a licensed physician, dentist, podiatrist, or other health care provider. This authorization specifically includes the power to consent to measures for relief of pain.
  7. Authorizing the withholding or withdrawal of life-prolonging measures.

“Yeah — that’s a shitload to carry,” piped Tink, shifting in her chair and shaking her head. “You are definitely welcome to it.”

“I’m going to do whatever we — the three of us — decide is best for Dad. Obviously we want him to fully recover and to live another twenty years. But if he doesn’t recover? If he’s only alive because of the machines?”

“I’ve heard of people who’ve been comatose for years only to suddenly wake up!” Tink said.

“Look — Dad watched Mom fade away in this very hospital. Seven months! No way he wants to go that way. He used to say ‘By God, take me out and shoot me!’”

Tink objected, “He was joking about that …”

“I’m not so sure. Remember Tom Hawkins? He sneezed three times and was dead. In a restaurant, for God’s sake! Dad said that’s the way he wants to go out. Looks like he won’t get that chance.”

“Hey, I need a cigarette and some fresh air,” Tink spurted.

“Wait a few minutes, please,” coaxed Dawn. She continued to read on.

Providing my medical information at the request of any individual acting as my attorney-in-fact under a durable power of attorney or as a Trustee or successor Trustee under any Trust Agreement of … blah, blah, blah … I authorize my health care agent to take any and all legal steps necessary to ensure compliance with my instructions providing access to my protected health information.

 “So what are Dad’s instructions?” Sean butted in.

“Basically, if there is little or no hope? Pull the plugs and let him go.”

“Don’t we have any say? Ms. Dumphries — are our hands tied? Can we get into some kind of legal trouble if we choose something else for Dad?”

“The only trouble would come about if someone filed a legal complaint. You three, plus Dawn’s husband, I guess — but primarily you guys decide. Dawn has the ultimate responsibility. Again, if there’s consensus, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Yeah, shouldn’t be … but that doesn’t sound absolute,” Dawn commented.

“Right. There are no real absolutes … or guarantees. And your dad knew that when he completed this Advance Directives. He knew you guys might actually choose not to follow his wishes.”

“So, did he put something in the will about that?” asked Sean.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Like if we digressed from his wishes, the will would change in some way.”

“No, he didn’t. And we talked about that. He felt you would all want to honor his wishes.”

“Shit!” erupted Tink.

“What? You think he should stay hooked up if there’s no hope?” Dawn turned to her sister.

“What I think is that who knows for sure when something is hopeless? I mean, there are hopeless situations that suddenly turn for the better. They happen every day all over the world!”

“Well then I suppose that’s what Dad wants me to determine.”

And Sean and me!”

“Not legally,” interjected Dumphreys. “Dawn has final say. And I assume she will follow her dad’s wishes, right Dawn?”

Dawn moved in her chair and looked down.

“Are we at that point yet?” she finally said. “The doctor said she wanted to run more testing in order to give us as definitive a medical condition on Dad as possible. I’d like to wait for those results.”

Tink sighed, “Yes! Don’t do anything knee-jerk right now. Let’s see how it plays out for awhile.”

“Tink, we’re all willing to wait and not to make a hasty decision — but there’s got to be a … I hate to say this … deadline. Dawn, you should go home and rest if you can. Tink and I will hang out with Dad. We can call you if anything changes.”

“Wednesday. If we have the test results and if things have not progressed, and if there are no promising changes, I’d like that to be the deadline.”

“Wow, three days? Remind me not to make you my health power of attorney, Sis,” Tink snarked.

“Stop it, Tink,” ordered Sean. “C’mon, guys … we’re family.” He stood up and spread his arms. Dawn and Tink stood, as did Dumphreys.

The three closed in and hugged awkwardly while the attorney looked on.

 

◊◊◊

 

 

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 8 June, 2015

The Test … further continued

6 Jun

Continued from last post

◊◊◊

The noise of the life-support machinery bothered Dawn the most. Not how her dad looked prone on the  ICU hospital bed. Contrary to her expectation, his skin tone looked good — nearly normal. A crinkled plastic tube extended from his mouth to a ventilator next to the bed. A thin, clear tube ran from one nostril to a bag of liquid hanging among many. His hair was combed neatly. His eyes peacefully shut, flickering back and forth under the lids in REM sleep. Reading a book, she thought.

The ventilator — ka-puff … wheeze … ka-puff – wheeze — combined with the beep-beep-beep of the heart monitor that graphed his heartbeats in jagged green mountains against a black background — reminded her of the Stomp concert she and Jared saw on their last anniversary. Dad gave them the tickets. It was loud. Not her cup of tea. Just like the noisy hospital room.

“He’s stabilized,” said the cardiology. Dawn was reminded of a pet peeve of her dad’s.

“Stable is not a goddamn condition!” he would rail at the TV or radio whenever the term was used. He hated those who should know better continued to abuse the terminology. “Even the network anchors — and PBS!”

“Critical condition,” the cardiologist had correctly said.

It was a wait-and-see situation.

With all of the hook-ups, all the indicators were slightly south of normal. Blood pressure on the low side. A slight recurring arrhythmia blipping on the heart monitor. Elevated temp, just under 100.5 degrees. Even respiration with regular, sonorous breaths, his chest rising and falling.

IV fluids and meds. Hanging to the side of the bed, a flat vinyl pouch with some yellow liquid — a tube running from it under the covers. Catheter, thought Dawn. She had been hospitalized as a child and had one. It embarrassed her when visitors noticed it and asked her, “What’s that?” “Pee,” she would answer, blushing.

“He’s on pain meds and others that will help him sleep. I don’t imagine he will come out of it for another eighteen hours or so,” the doc explained.

“Is he comatose, then?”

“No. Not at this point.”

“What would bring that on?” she asked.

“We are hopeful stroke won’t be a problem. Or another myocardial infarction — heart attack,” she explained.

“Is that a likelihood?”

“Well, in the way that after-shocks can be expected after an earthquake — sure. You will probably want someone with him twenty-four seven.”

“I’ll stay tonight, and I’m sure one of my other siblings will spell me. Both are on their way and should arrive tomorrow sometime.”

“And you have medical power of attorney?”

“Yeah. Are we at that point?”

“No. But I’m glad you’re local. I’ve looked his Advanced Directives over. He’s not keen on vegetating on life support.”

“Not him. He hates hospitals. His mom lingered on life support for more than seven months before she went.”

“God.”

“Yeah. So it’s not the way he wants to go.”

“Are you prepared, then?”

“Who can ever be prepared?”

“Right.”

“I’m gonna have to rely heavily on your medical opinion.”

“I understand. Well, we’re not there yet. But that could change — actually either way — in the snap of a finger,” and he snapped his fingers.

“Sounds awfully iffy . . .”

“Nothing is a sure bet, Ms. …”

“Ellington. Dawn Ellington. I’m the eldest daughter. I have an older brother and younger sister. Like I said, they’re on their way.”

“I’ll try to give you enough information in a timely fashion for you and your siblings to make an informed decision.”

“Appreciate that. Problem is it’s me who has the final say. According to the POA.”

“Yeah, but you know that’s not legally binding.”

“Oh?”

“Sure. Plenty of time next of kin have influenced medical decisions contrary to the patient’s desires. Probably more likely where there is no Advanced Directive or POA. But even when those are in place, things change.”

“Great! And if I don’t agree with my siblings?”

“I’d advise consensus.”

“Even if it goes contrary to my dad’s wishes?”

“The survivors are the people you have to live with when and if your father goes.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not an enviable position to occupy.”

“Tell me about it.”

◊◊◊

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 6 June, 2015

The Test … continued

6 Jun

Continued from yesterday

◊◊◊

The night was cool for mid-June, chilled by three days of slow, misty rain with persistent clouds that blocked the near-summer sun. As the ambulance sped down the slick street, its emergency lights struck out like bolts of lightning. The wail of the siren echoed along empty side streets and caught the dimming attention of sleepers on soft pillows.

The ambulance turned down one of the side streets and the driveway of the emergency department drive, its howl dying and the jabs of white, red and blue bolts of light suddenly extinguished. Attendants at the ready rushed to the back of the ambulance, and a human-laden gurney snapped to out its doors, one EMT holding a saline bag aloft. The small group disappeared into the maw of the ED, and through a swivel doored corridor to disappear into another room. The doors snapped shut behind, and the patient was swallowed up.

Dawn Cardish Ellington’s deep sleep was aborted at the ring of her cell phone on the night stand. Her husband Jared rolled over and pulled the covers over her head as she switched on the bedside lamp and felt for her phone.

“Hello? . . . What? . . . When? . . . Oh, God! How is he? . . . Is anyone down there? . . . I mean from the rest of the family?

. . . Yes, I’m coming! Yes, I understand!”

She clicked off the call and buried her face in her hands.

“Dammit! Dammitdammitdammit!”

Jared uncovered his head and rolled over.

“Your dad?”

“He’s had another heart attack!”

“Is he okay?”

“I don’t know, dammit! I just got the friggin’ call, Jared!”

“Okay! I’m sorry! We should go down there. Frye?”

She was already up and changing.

“Yeah. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It’s Father’s Day, and the kids wanted to take you out.”

“No, of course not! It’s your dad … I’ll go with you.”

“Then hurry up.”

◊◊◊

He drove. She sat quietly in the passenger seat, rocking slightly back and forth. He reached out and touched her hand. She instinctively withdrew her hand. Things were not right between them.

“He’s going to be okay, Honey,” Jared said in what he thought was a reassuring tone.

“Maybe … maybe not … I’m medical power of attorney,” she said slowly, as if half-thinking it aloud.

“When did that happen?” Jared asked, surprised.

“Two weeks ago. Dad asked me to keep it quiet. It was Mom, but when she passed … Well, he only just now got around to fixing it.”

“Jeesh.”

“Yeah. Jeesh. So what do I do if he’s like in a coma or something? Or brain dead and unconscious?”

“Wow … yeah. Well, you follow his wishes.”

“Follow his wishes. Sounds simple.”

“What else can you do? You do what he wants you to do. God knows he’s always done what others want. Lousy time to finally doing something for him that he wants.”

“See? That’s why he loved you more than his own kids.”

“I doubt that’s true. Anyway, he isn’t dead yet. So correct what you said.”

“What’d I say?”

“You said he loved me. Past tense. Like he’s already gone. Look, he’s survived a lot … Vietnam, two business failures … the man has chutzpah. Take more than a heart attack to do him in. Besides, all the medical technology today? He’ll probably be sitting up in his hospital room cracking jokes and trying to pinch the nurses’ butts.”

“The doctor said it’s serious.”

“What doctor?”

“Cardiologist. They had to call him in. He told me not to expect too much.”

They pulled into the emergency department parking area and hurried in. The receptionist directed them to a waiting area and said she would call back.

Jared grabbed an old Sports Illustrated magazine while Dawn started texting on her cell phone. It was late. Two in the morning. Rain drizzled down, shrouding the outdoor streetlights in grays, blues which diffused into the dark night.

Dawn’s phone soon came alive with calls and vibrations.

“Yes, we’re at the hospital. About an hour and a half ago. No, we haven’t seen the cardiologist. I talked on the phone with one of the emergency docs. No, not good. He said not to have raised expectations. No, Dad was not conscious when he came in. Well I assumed Diane called it in. I don’t know anything for sure. Yes. I’ll keep you posted. Just check my Facebook page for updates. Right. Thanks, we can use them right now. Yes, I will.”

The conversation repeated in various fashion for the next hour. Frustrated, Dawn put her phone away and walked back to the reception window.

“Is there not any news on my father?”

“Honey, I let the doctors know. When they can, someone will come get you. It is a Saturday night, you know.”

For the first time Dawn became aware of others in the waiting room, and that the emergency department seemed to be very busy.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m just worried.”

“I know you are, Sweetie,” the receptionist nodded in sympathy.

◊◊◊

Want to see more …?

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 6 June, 2015

The Test

5 Jun

The Test

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Sheila Dumphreys leaned back in her leather-bound Victorian chair and looked at her client with incredulity.

“Timothy, you’re nuts!”

“Yeah, well I’ve been told that before.”

“Why would you do something like that?”

“Sheila,” — he pronounced it Shei-ler — “I’ve always lived my life doing for others. My wife, my kids, my neighbors, my employees — so, by God, one time I want things done for me. Now tell me the fault in that, will you?”

“I don’t fault you anything, Timothy. Your advanced directives are pretty clear. All that has to happen is that they are followed.”

“Ex-actly! And that’s the sticker, isn’t it? I’ve no way of knowing if they in fact will be followed. I mean, when my father was unconscious and on all sorts of breathing apparatus and tubes and things, I knew what his wishes were. So did we all! But the conversation with the doc really could have gone the other way. If we wanted, we could have left him connected. Which was the very thing he didn’t want.”

“Well, when you are in that situation — in the moment — it’s very difficult to be the one to say pull the plug …”

“Again, exactly right! So that’s why I want to do the test.”

Sheila let his words hang in the air. The late-afternoon conversation was the last appointment on her calendar on a very busy Friday of a very busy week. All hell had broken out, and the newly divorced attorney had been busy putting out a multitude of fires. The worst of which was her ex-husband Roland, who was in trouble with the police.

“Okay. But I want you to know I’m agreeing to this idea with utmost reluctance. I’ll help you.”

Timothy Cardish jumped up from his chair before her large maple desk.

“THAT’s the spirit! Walk on the wild side! Think and behave out of the box!” he grinned, his large Irish face flushed with excitement and his enthusiasm untenable.

“When are you going to do this?”

“Immediately! Well, actually probably Sunday. It will take me that long to confirm with my other conspirators. Yes, Sunday will be the perfect day to begin the test!”

“But that’s —“

“— Father’s Day! Ironic, yes? The day a man’s children are supposed to shower him will love and appreciation — and, respect for what he wants!”

Timothy rubbed his hands together eagerly, then reached his right out to Sheila.

“Thank you, Sheila! You won’t regret this!”

She shook his hand. “Yeah, I keep hearing that lately. So far the jury is still out.”

“Ha, ha! Jury! Good one!” he chuckled as he turned for the door to leave. “I’ll keep you in the loop. Honest, Sheila, this is going to be one helluva test for my kids.”

“I don’t doubt that. I just hope nothing goes wrong.”

“Wrong? What could go wrong?” he threw back as he closed the door.

That’s what’s bothering me, she said to herself.

(… want to read more?)

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Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 5 June, 2015

The Old Wives Tale

9 Apr

 

The Old Wives Tale

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

The story goes two old wives — biological sisters who were both widowed — lived up on a southern slope just east of Table Rock in Linville Gorge. It also goes the two were distant relatives of the Linvil family who had settled in the area sometime in the 1700s. The two were seldom seen away from their cabin which overlooked the gorge from its perch. Therefore they were seldom seen at all.

An approach road snaked back and forth along the northern face of the Flat Rock ridge and ended in a dirt turnaround where few visitors parked. The last mile had to be made by foot.

Pastor Handley of Three Forks Baptist Church made the trek twice a year — in the fall to make sure the old women had enough provisions to carry them through the winter, and to split cord wood for their cast-iron stove — and again in the spring to make sure they were still alive.

He would stay several days splitting the wood, which had been hauled up earlier by locals who used rickety flat wagons and mules. The sisters always paid in cash. Rumor was they were fabulously wealthy despite their choice to live modestly.

The sisters had bequeathed a tin metal box with unknown contents to the church and it was generally accepted that Pastor Handley’s trips were to ensure that happened when the two finally died. Old as they were it could be anytime.

That metal box was also the source of much speculation amongst the area mountain folk. Only Handley and his predecessors had seen it. And the wood haulers on one occasion. It was where the sisters kept a lot of cash, and was stored under one of their beds. Did it contain anything other than cash?  Lumps of gold? A rare coin? Or perhaps a stamp from the 1800s? Un-muttered were opinions why should the church get the tin box and its contents. Some thought they were as worthy as the church of the box contents.

Two who held the opinion were Caleb Hilliard and his friend Dwayne Settles. Both hapless ne’er-do-wells always complained about their strings of bad luck. Each had pretty well determined their nonfortuitous futures through a series of bad choices fueled by hooch and weed.

It was during one of these inspirational meetings at the Dog Skin Café the two landed a scheme to find out just what was in that tin box of the old wives. And if the contents was valuable, how they might relieve the women of its possession.

“All alone! Them biddies is all alone up there, Dwight!” Caleb slammed his mug of beer on the table, slopping some onto the table. “It would be so easy! I wonder it ain’t been done before this?”

Dwight picked carefully though a plate of fried pickles on the table between the men.

“How you know there’s a tin box at all? Or if it has anything of value in it?” asked Dwayne wearily, grabbing a fried pickle slice and crunching down on it. “They could be just a couple old white chicks with nuthin’ to their name!” He dragged on the nearly smoked Camel pinched between his fingers, blowing a cloud of death to the side.

“Dude — I personally know someone whose cousin knew someone who was once a member of the church the old bats used to go to. She told me that person knew a guy who helped the previous pastor go up and chop wood for them. Now, if a pastor goes to all that trouble to help somebody, there’s got to be somethin’ in it for him!”

“Yeah,” agreed Dwayne. “God do help them what helps themselves.”

He took the salt shaker and generously sprinkled the platter of fried pickles, spilling some on the table.

“Don’t spill the salt, dude!” Caleb spurted, pinching the salt and tossing it over his left shoulder.

“God, man! You a trip! Talk about superstitious!”

“Yeah? Well the other day you walked completely the other way when you saw that black cat coming out of the alley.”

“That’s different. Cats are evil. Black cats? Of the devil!

“Hmmm. Okay — we’ll hike up this Friday night. I got a pop-up tent we’ll pitch for the night and catch them by surprise in the morning.”

“Why not go ahead and do it at night?”

“You crazy? No telling what they got up there — could have guns, even. Daylight. When we can see ever-thang proper.”

“So we gonna pop ‘em?”

“What —? Naw, man! Finding the tin box is plenty enough. They don’t know us, anyhow — and it’ll be months before anyone finds out about it.”

“Won’t they call the law?”

“Doubt if they have a phone. We’ll cut the line if they do.”

“Will we tie them up? Gag ‘em?”

“They’re so old I don’t think we’ll need to do that. And besides if we did that and they didn’t get loose, they’d probably die. I don’t want murder on my conscience.”

“But won’t they go for help?”

“Last I heard they are in their eighties — maybe nineties. They go for help it’ll take ‘em two days just to get down the trail to the road, and another day to the nearest house!”

The men laughed together, and Dwayne rose from the table and drunkenly mimicked a decrepitly old person walking. He sat, and they clinked beer mugs to seal the deal.

Caleb reached in his pocket and pulled out two acorns. He slid one on the table to Dwight.

“Put this in your pocket.”

“Why?”

“Good luck. Not that we’ll need it — but why risk it?”

Dwight grabbed the acorn and rolled it between his fingers. He grinned broadly at his friend.

***

Which is how Caleb and Dwayne ended up trudging to the old wives’ house on a moonlit Friday in August. The moon had a waxy pallor and was not robustly yellow or reddish as with a harvest moon.

“Hope you brought your rain gear,” said Caleb, nodding toward the orb. “It’s gonna rain tomorrow. Pale moon.”

The two traveled in silence most the way. The area was a popular hiking spot, and Table Rock a great vantage point from which to view the Linville Gorge. They had to be careful on account with the full moon they could run into several hikers. A moonlit gorge was a great temptation to photographers, and Caleb did not want to show up in the background of a picture in a magazine.

Half-way up the trail the two began to relax. Caleb pulled a silver flask from his pocket and took a long swig when they stopped to rest. He pointed at the moon above them.

“Ya know a full moon’ll cause a man to go crazy.”

“Not to mention bring out the werewolves,” responded Dwayne, taking the offered flask from Caleb and tilting it back for a drink. At that moment a distant dog howled. “That’s bad luck, right? Someone’ll die before morning?”

Caleb snickered. “Pure superstition, Bud.”

“My dad said if you plant your high crops during a full moon, it’ll pull ‘em out rich and full. And if you plant your taters and carrots during the new moon? It pushes them deeper and they grow bigger,” said Dwayne, wiping his lips.

“And your dad was crazy,” laughed Caleb.

“Maybe he went crazy during a full moon,” returned Dwayne, adding and eerie sounding oooh-weeeee-ooooh.

“More’n likely from the moonshine.”

They climbed until they could see the top of the ridge. A thin ribbony strand of smoke wisped up from the other side of the mountain, illumined by the moonlight. Caleb searched and found a cleared area off the trail large enough for their tent. In a few minutes the nylon tent popped up like a half bubble, and the two threw their backpacks inside.

“I’ll build a fire,” offered Dwayne, bending to find twigs and brush to burn.

“No fire,” snapped Caleb. He pulled a decaying log from the underbrush and sat down, pulling out a bag of weed, and rolled a joint.

“Ahhhh!” he said with a satisfied puff. “Tomorrow our luck is going to change!”

“Definitely,” agreed Dwayne, taking the smoke from his friend and sucking on it. “Definitely.”

***

As Caleb predicted, the morning was misty and cool because the prevailing winds were from the north and west. The morning light, the hard ground and a nearby murder of crows interrupted their deep sleep. Hungry, they cracked open packages of beef jerky and gnawed the tough meat in silence, then repacked their gear. The summit of the ridge was only yards away, and the trail led back down the southern slope a few hundred yards before the cabin came into view.

To say the cabin was old was an understatement. It seemed rooted into the side of the steep drop, with just barely enough leveled earth cut from the ridge. The logs the cabin was built of were dark with splotches of green moss and lichen tucked down into the rolled niches. No window was cut on the north side facing them, but a galvanized pipe protruded from the tin roof just above the wall. It was the source of the trickle of smoke they had seen during the night’s ascent.

As they made their way carefully down the muddy and rutted pathway, a shape jumped from the near gable of the cabin with a loud “screeeeeee!”

“Owl,” Caleb whispered. “Not a good sign, owl in the morning.”

Dwight reached in his pocket to withdraw his acorn. “Not to worry.”

A porch extended out from the front of the cabin, which looked south toward the gorge. The edge of the porch extended nearly a foot out over the edge of the hill. Years of wind and rain had eroded the earth supporting the porch underneath. The gorge itself was masked in thick fog, and the rising sun struggled just above the rise of the eastward ridge, dulling it to a feint roundish glow.

Caleb stepped up on the porch cautiously, as though his weight might send the entire cabin down into the gorge. He motioned to Dwight, who followed at warily.

The front of the cabin was long, and a single door with a battered screened door was its only entrance. Dirty multi-paned double-sashed windows bordered the door on either side. Two granny rockers, long since washed of their original coats of paints, graying on the far side of the porch. One of the chairs rocked gently with the wind.

“Hope no one was sitting there just now,” Caleb murmured.

“Why?”

“Evil spirits will sit in a chair if you leave it rocking,” he said, one eyebrow raised.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhht!”

Caleb opened the rickety screen door, then knocked on the door.

Nothing.

He knocked again little louder.

“Patience is a virtue!” came a response from within. “I’m a comin’.”

The door opened back toward the inside of the cabin, and a very old and feeble-looking woman peeked around its backside.

“Whatcha want?”

“Mrs. Childress? Emma Childress?”

“That’s my sister. Didn’tcha see the sign?”

She pointed to the outside wall next to the door. A seran-wrapped note card was tacked to one of the front logs with a rusted and bent thumbtack.

“No Solicitation!” was scrawled in faded red marker.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Caleb as politely as he could muster. “I truly did not see that sign. So you are Mrs. Johnson, then?”

“Don’t matter who I am. I live here, and you don’t. Read the damn sign agin!” she ordered and began to close the door. Caleb nudged his foot forward to stop the door from shutting.

“Yes, you are absolutely right, ma’am. I do not live here. But I am not here to solicit you or your sister.”

“Then what are you here for?” she cracked back.

“Nothing much, Miss Nadine.”

“How is it you know my and sister’s name?”

“If you let me in, I’ll be glad to tell you.”

“That’ll happen when pigs fly!” she sneered, and opened the door wider and slammed it shut, the heavy door crushing Caleb’s tennis-shoed foot.

“Ow! Goddamn it!” he shouted, pulling his wounded foot out and hopping on the other. Dwight burst out laughing. “What the hell are you laughing at?”

“Let me do this,” he grinned, pushing Caleb aside. He knocked as politely as he could.

“Go away!” came the response from inside.

“Ma’am,” said Dwight sweetly, “I’m from Three Forks Baptist Church. I’m one of the deacons, and I have some bad news about Pastor Handley. I’d have called you before we came up, but I did not have your telephone number.”

“Ain’t got a telephone,” came the muffled reply. “What about Pastor?”

“Could you just open the door, please ma’am? It’s not the kind of thing I want to shout about.”

A bolt drew back from inside, and the door latch clicked and the door opened, this time with a short chain restraint evident at the old woman’s eye level.

“So?” she eyed Dwight. “You a black man?”

“Um — well, uh, yes I am, Ma’am.”

“They let a black man be deacon at the church now?”

“Well, yes Ma’am. They do,” he continued to lie. Certainly not at Three Forks Baptist, that is.

“That other man a deacon? ‘Cause ifn’ he is, he just took the Lord’s name in vain,” she said sharply.

“No, ma’am. He is actually a new convert. So he slips into the old ways a little. You know how that is. The New Man struggles with the Old Man.”

“Amen to that.”

“May I come in? Please?”

She hesitated, then unlatched the door chain and opened the door wide. Dwight looked back at Caleb and winked.

Dwight and Caleb eased carefully into the dark front room. Beside the two windows on the front, a side window on the east wall allowed the hazy morning light into the space. A flower pattern linoleum floor covered the entire front room, with a green shag throw rug under a shaker style coffee table that fronted two high-back Victorian chairs. It was a mish-mash assemblage of design and color, not indicative of taste nor affluence.

The bent lady shuffled and motioned for the two to sit down. She pulled a rocker from the wall up to the other chairs and carefully, slowly sat, the rocker dipping back with her slight weight, then settling. Dwight and Caleb sat in the two Victorian chairs.

“Well?” she asked pointedly of Dwight.

“Oh, yes. Pastor Handley died unexpectedly during the night.”

“Oh. Well, I did hear a dog barking in the full moon last night. I guess it was to be expected somebody was going to pass over. I’m glad the Pastor was a God-fearing man, at least.”

“Amen to that, Mrs. Johnson.”

“Now my Henry died on Christmas Eve right at midnight, so I know I’ll see him in heaven.”

“How’s that?”

“Gates of heaven are wide open on Christmas Eve at that time. Anyone that dies then goes straight through the pearly gates.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Now Emma’s man was a gambler and chewed tobacky. He went straight to hell.”

“Ah.”

Caleb shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He felt something crawling on the back of his neck, and reached back and pinched a bug between his thumb and forefinger. It was a ladybug. He crushed it.

“That’s bad luck, you know,” said the woman, watching him with the bug.

“Superstition,” he remarked.

“Is it? So, I am awfully sorry to hear about Pastor Handley,” she said, turning her attention back to Dwight.

“Like I said, we would have called. But really? It’s more appropriate to come in person.”

“Nice of you. But you coulda waited. He died last night? Why the rush?”

“Mrs. Johnson …”

“Call me Nadine.”

“Nadine … I don’t know how to go about this other that straight out. Pastor Handley left a wife and six children behind.”

“Do tell!”

“Yes, ma’am. And you might know that the church is small, as is the budget. Why Pastor Handley was practically giving his service to the Lord for free.”

“I did not know . . .”

“Yes ma’am. He worked part-time at the hardware store down to Valle Crucis to help make ends meet. And his wife, Lord bless her, knits and sells hand-made wool sweaters to help feed those children.”

“I didn’t have children.”

“No ma’am. Well, here’s the thing . . . the congregation has got together to see what we can do for the survivin’ family — you know. But none of us is exactly flush with money ourselves. Times is hard.”

“And what do you do, Mister …”

“Settles. Dwayne Settles — I’m sorry Ma’am. I should have introduced myself at the start.”

She was not listening. She was busy counting on her fingers after he announced his name. At the finish, she looked up at Dwayne with a worried expression.

“Your name has thirteen letters,” she said.

“Does it? I never knew.”

“So does mine,” she said with a smile.

“Okay. Um —“

“You want me to help out. Me and my sister. You want us to pitch in for the Handley family.”

“To put it bluntly, yes. I know that the church is in your will when you die …”

“It is.”

“But sometimes the needs of the church — of its flock — aren’t so timely, if you know what I mean.”

“We knowed visitors were coming. So I suspect this is all part of the Lord’s timing — which is always perfect.”

“How did you know we were coming, Nadine?”

“Two bees got into the house yesterday.”

“Oh”

“Unfortunately, Emma swatted them. But you two don’t appear to be evil.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Superstition,” broke in Caleb.

“Maybe so,” smiled the woman. “I would expect you would like us to step up our gift to the church, and maybe not wait until after we are dead, then.”

“We’re just here to see however you can or might want to help out the pastor’s wife and children. That’s all. If you can, great. If you can’t, we understand.”

The old wife stood and steadied her rocker with her hand so it wouldn’t move.

“Let me go speak to Emma and see what she thinks. She’s abed with the ague. Been trying to get her fever down for the past couple of days. Normally sliced potatoes work pretty fast. But then I seed a white moth in the cabin last night, so I’m more’n a bit worried you know.”

She walked unsteadily down a hallway to the back of the cabin and disappeared.

“White moth?” Dwight asked Caleb.

“Sign of death to come,” Caleb grimaced, raising his eyebrows.

As they waited they heard the women talking in low indistinguishable murmurs. A cricket began to sound from somewhere near the pot-bellied stove. Caleb also noticed a small toad hop in the direction of the cricket noise. All signs of good luck.

“You notice the ivy on the cabin wall outside?” he asked Dwight.

“Not really.”

“Well it’s all for good luck. The ivy, the cricket and the frog.”

“It’s a toad.”

“Same difference.”

“Get warts from toads.”

“Superstition. I’ll bet the beds run from east to west. North to south is bad luck.”

The old wife toddled back into the front room holding a metal box about the size of a large cigar box. It was obviously old, with black paint flaking along its edges, and a few dents here and there.

Both men stared at the old box wide-eyed.

“Emma and me were gonna give this to the church when we died. Pastor Handley knew that, as did those pastors before him. I think we’ve outlasted more than a few. Emma thinks it’s five, but I’m not so sure.”

She set the box down on the coffee table. Caleb leaned in as to take the box but Dwight shook his head slightly, indicating not to. Caleb sat back.

“I have been the absolute worst as a host,” clucked the woman somewhat perturbed at herself. “I have some molasses cookies Emma and I keep for guests. I’ll bring out a plate.”

“No need for that,” Dwight perked up.

“I insist.”

And she scuttled about the small kitchenette near the wood stove, and reached into a large clay jar for cookies she set on a platter. Pumping the handle of the water pump, she quickly filled a tin coffee pot and placed the pot on the wood stove.

“Now it’ll take just a little bit for the water to heat enough for tea,” she said cheerily as she carried the plate of cookies and placed them on the table next to the metal box. “Please!” she said, motioning to the cookies.

Both Dwight and Caleb leaned forward to pick a cookie from the pile. The cookies were hard to the touch. Dwight tried to bite his cookie.

“Ow!” he said.

“Oh dear! The cookies aren’t stale, are they?” she asked sweetly.

“No. I bit my tongue, is all.”

She smiled. “You know what that means, right?”

“I guess not,” Dwight answered.

“It means you’ve told a lie recently,” she laughed. “Aren’t superstitions funny that way?”

Dwight and Caleb laughed uncomfortably.

“You never told me what it is you do, Mr. Settles.”

“Right. Well, I am a mortician. That’s one of the reason I knew about Pastor Hendley’s death. I’m also the local coroner.” He bit into the cookie again, and again bit his tongue. But this time he winced, and avoided saying anything. When he looked up, the old wife was staring at him, a slight smile spreading.

The coffee pot began to steam and she noticed it and got up, again steadying her rocker.

“I’ve some wonderful raw honey I can add to your tea, gentlemen,” she said over her shoulder as she poured out the hot water into teacups and sank teabags into the cups.

“That’s fine,” said Dwight.

“Me, too,” said Caleb with some difficulty, having bit his tongue as well.

She carried the cups in on a tray, on which was a small oriental bowl with a top. A porcelain spoon protruded through a space in the bowl’s top. She spooned heaping globs of the thick honey into the cups, and handed each man their drink, and then a spoon.

Outside the cabin a sudden downpour ran through the gorge, and wind whipped the side of the cabin, whistling about its eaves and corners. Loose panes in the windows rattled.

“Oh, my! Quite a storm!” she said, smiling.

“You’re not having tea?”

“I’m not a morning tea drinker,” she smiled again. “Please … drink up!”

The men tested the drinks with sips, then drank them fairly quickly in the pervading silence of the room. The storm continued to ravage outside.

“Well, Mrs. Johnson,” Dwight announced as he carefully placed his teacup back on the tray, “may I assume this metal box is your gift towards the Handley family need?”

“You may.”

Dwight picked the box up.

“Do you mind if I open it?”

“Um — I’d prefer you didn’t, Mr. Settles. It should be opened with the leadership of the church. Don’t you think?”

“Yes, Ma’am. That’s perfectly fine.” Caleb smiled broadly from his seat and nodded in agreement.

The wind and rain whipped and howled outside.

“Mr. Settles, I’m going to insist you take my umbrella with you to protect you from the rain when you go. It’s really large enough for the two of you.”

“Oh no — we’re fine!”

“I won’t take no for an answer,” and she carefully crossed to the front door where an umbrella was propped up against the wall.

“All right, thank you Mrs. Johnson, we’ll take it. God bless you, Ma’am.” He stood along with Caleb, and picked up the metal box. The two followed the old wife to the door.

“Are you both okay?” she seemed concerned. “You seem a bit wobbly.”

“Wow, I am a little woozy,” Dwight admitted. “But I’m all right. Don’t worry.”

She opened the door and a gust of wind blew through the crack, knocking the umbrella to the floor.

“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “Do you know what that means?”

“No idea,” said Dwight groggily.

“Nope. I do not know,” added Caleb, weaving a bit back and forth and picking the umbrella up.

“It means that someone is about to be murdered!” she said as the men sidled past her onto the front porch.

“Ah! Superstition!” returned Caleb turning to her on the porch, and opening the umbrella. Both he and Dwight grabbed the umbrella shaft, the metal box tucked under Dwight’s arm.

The wind blustered and the rain scattered across the tin roof loudly. The men turned one last time to the old wife, who was peeking out a small opening of the front door, about to close it.

“Thank you again, Mrs. Johnson,” Dwight spoke in a loud voice against the wind and rain. “You’ll never know what this means to us! God bless!”

At that moment, the wind, which had been blowing from the north, suddenly reversed its direction. The two men were holding the umbrella bent low into the face of the wind. A huge gust shot into the open umbrella, which caught the wind like a sail, pulling the two men, the umbrella and the metal box over the front edge of the porch and up into the wind whipped sky over the gorge. Up they sailed for nearly a hundred yards. Out over the rocky gorge below. Then as suddenly, the wind stopped, and the two ne’er-do-wells plummeted down like a wounded crow.

The old wife shook her head slowly and regretfully and closed and latched the door.

“Is it done?” came a voice from the back of the cabin.

“It’s done. That’s another metal box we’ve lost,” she said, turning back to the table to pick up the tray and its contents. “I think the mandrake honey is losing its potency, by the way.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. If it hadn’t been for the wind catching the umbrella, who knows?”

“I’ll work on it in the meantime.”

“You do that, Dear.”

 Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 9 April, 2015

 

Sudden Death

23 Sep

Sudden Death

 the impossible dream

By L. Stewart Marsden

Scott Jeffries stepped up to his offensive line and looked over the defensive secondary. Three linebackers jostled positions, stepping up and away from the line as if to blitz, shifting to the sides.

He fastened his chin strap and slid his hands under the butt of his center, bending down to call out the count.

“Jerzee — mark down,” he shouted down one side of the line, then repeated it to the other side.

He raised his right foot up and back down, signaling the split wideout, who turned and trotted towards Jeffries.

“Chet! Hut! . . . Hut-hut!” he barked.

The football slapped against his open hands, and Jeffries turned and faked a handoff to the wideout, then danced back three steps, looking downfield. He planted his right foot.

Kajil Moore sprinted forward from his split position and drove the defensive corner back. He feigned right, just enough for the defender to take the bait, then suddenly skirted left towards the sidelines.

Jeffries had already launched the pass — a bullet spiral, down and outside — away from the defender. Moore dove for the ball, his gloved hands cradling the pigskin inches from the ground, and rolled with the reception.

“Great pass, great catch!” erupted John Hutchison, head coach of the Trinity U Devils. “That’s the way we need to run it every goddam time!” he shouted. “Why the hell can’t the first squad do that? Tell me?”

“Okay, second squad to sprints — first team, let’s run the quarterback gadget play till we get it right.”

Jeffries pulled his helmet off and tried to stanch the flow of sweat from his head down his face with the sweat band on his wrist. He stood a moment to watch the first squad — the starters — huddle together on the practice field. The sun had dipped well below the tree-lined border that cupped the field away from all but approved eyes.

Taj Butterfield stood and growled out the snap count.

“That’s where I’m going to be one day,” thought Jeffries as he shielded his eyes with one hand from the dipping sun to watch the play develop.

Butterfield took the snap and rolled to his left, handing off to Jason Tripp, his wide receiver, who sprinted back into the backfield and grabbed the ball as if to run a sweep right. Tripp stopped suddenly, and looked back and threw a pass to Butterfield, who was wide open in the left flat.

“Finally!” shouted Hutchison. “We are gonna catch Tech goddam flatfooted as a flounder on dry land, Gentlemen! Shit! Huddle up!”

The starters grouped together while their coach gave one or two quick encouragements, then shouted in unison “One – two – three Devils!”

“Run it again!” he ordered, and the hulking athletes broke the huddle to line up once more.

In three days the Trinity Devils would travel down to middle Florida to face the Techtronics — the number one-ranked Division I football team in the nation. Responsible for that ranking, according to most of the sports gurus, was Jamaal Salem, a second-year phenom at quarterback who led the Techtronics to an undefeated season — and the national BCS championship — the year prior.

Salem was six feet five inches of pure ego — and for a reason. He threw, scrambled, ran and boasted his way to more than 40 touchdown passes on over 4,000 total yards throwing. In addition, the 230-pound QB tiptoed across the end zone for four additional running touchdowns. He was hands-down the overwhelming selection for the Heisman Trophy.

Like most Division I schools, teams of lesser quality — or at least teams that presented little to no threat — were scheduled for the first three games. That was so powerhouse programs like Tech could iron out any hitches in their offenses or defenses. It also gave the team a sense of winning — which was critical to success once conference play began.

Normally that worked. But every once-in-a-while, a cinderella team inexplicably upset a powerhouse. That happened when virtually unknown Appalachian State knocked off Michigan.
The odds were slim, of course, but every player and coach and trainer — anyone associated with the Trinity program — dreamed and hoped for the impossible: an upset over Tech.

And, over Salem in particular, who brashly boasted the Techtronics would crush Liberty like a steamroller smashing a clod of dirt.

Salem also promised more than 400 yards passing, as well as three passing touchdowns.

“What I wouldn’t give to shut his mouth with a win,” Jeffries said aloud in the locker room as he punched Kajil Moore in the arm.

“Hey, man! I’m gonna catch the winning touchdown! You watch and see if I don’t,” he returned, his muscular black torso glistening from his shower.

“Amen!” echoed throughout the steamy room, and two or three hulking linemen slammed their giant paws on their lockers, beating out a rhythm.

One of the linebackers began to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at the top of his lungs.

Someone began to chant, “Tri – ni -ty! Tri – ni – ty! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” until the entire team was caught up in the shouting and slamming and dancing — like a war dance — which continued and escalated until the poignant moment a trainer stuck his head in the room and shouted,

“Hey, you guys! Know what just happened? Taj is out for the season!”

And that’s when everyone awoke from the Impossible Dream.

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 23 September, 2014

Next: the spread

Coming soon to a blog near you:

21 Sep

 

 

 

Sudden Death

By L. Stewart Marsden

Trinity University backup quarterback, Scott Jeffries, finds himself facing number one nationally-ranked Division I football team, Florida Tech, in a once-in-a-lifetime game. In addition, brash Tech helmsman, Jamaal Salem, who led the Aggies to an undefeated season and national championship the previous year, has become even more obnoxious than Johnny Football ever was.

He’s promising a trouncing of the small division II football team — and predicts he will throw over 400 yards and three touchdowns.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Trinity Devils could knock off the high-flying Salem and his Techtonics?

Stay tuned . . .

Survey: How many words in a Short Story?

16 Jul

I’m currently working on a story that started out as a short story. It’s to be part of my compilation of my short stories for a book I plan to self-publish in the near future.

Here’s the catch: the story seems to have a life of its own, and has just hit  9,500 words with no sign of slowing down.

When does a short story cease to be a short story? 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 words? Or does it matter?

What do YOU think? Give a word count and a reason. No fair googling.

Best answer will get a free copy of my compilation once it has been completed. Expected finish date is late summer/early fall of this year. Complete with illustrations by Ray Ferrer at urbanwallart.com. Contest ends Monday, June  23, 2012.

My two daughters (ages 13 and 9) and I will judge the entries.

L. Stewart