I went to Mass that Sunday. My parents went in the morning, but I wasn’t up,so I walked on my own to the five o’clock. I cut through the Island Grove Park on my way. To get to the Island, from my side of town, you had to cross a long concrete bridge that spanned the pond. It was a Civil War Memorial bridge with an enormous archway at the head of it, crested with a bronze eagle, as you reached the actual park. Inside the park there was an old roundhouse bandstand, and a small swimming pond with a sandy beach. The Island had been a meeting/speaking place for abolitionists prior to the Civil War and several spots were marked for historical significance. It wasn’t really an island at all though, and if you cut through you would come out to the road that led to the church.
The ground was crusted with frozen crumbled leaves, and a thin layer of winter sand. I lit a cigarette with little fear that anyone would see me. The drunks and kids and lifeguards would be around in the summer, the rumbling Park Department trucks, but not now. Now it was mostly deserted. This time of year you usually only saw people walking their dogs up here. I was now smoking pretty much every day, and I kept my cigarettes in the rock wall that separated our yard from the woods behind our house.
I hadn’t seen Alistair nor Danny since we had exiled Chad, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to yet. We had hung out with Chad for years, and now we had ruined him, ostracizing him from our group of friends. He had often been a bully himself, picking on the weaker kids, and I had thought I would enjoy seeing the tables turned on him, but I didn’t. I just felt small.
I had spoken to Danny on the phone. We were usually inseparable but he had said he had to spend the whole weekend helping his father do some work under their house. The work was filthy, something to do with the toilet pipes and the septic tank—something was overflowing or leaking–and Danny’s father couldn’t fit beneath the house so he would send Danny under with five gallon buckets. Danny’s house always smelled like sewerage and apparently the project was an ongoing one. Winter or summer, Mr. Hurley would sit in his lawn chair, cigarette in one hand and Bourbon in the other, supervising, as he sent Danny in and out with the buckets. The eventual goal, Danny said, was to dig a trench and lay some pipe to drain the septic tank directly into the stream that ran by their home. You had to be careful doing it though, he said, because if the town caught you, it would mean a lot of trouble.
My five-year-old son, Owen, was on the swing set kicking higher and higher and higher until he was nearly parallel to the ground.
“Dare me to jump?” he asked.
I was just about to yell, “No!” when he jumped.
I watched as he flew through the air like his favorite super hero Superman. He was in the air for so long that time seemed to stand still. But, of course, it didn’t.
“Yippee!” he called out, waving at me before he crashed to the ground. Fortunately, the area under the swing set at the park was full of beach sand, and the landing was relatively safe.
“Good jump,” I called running over to him to check to see if he was okay. “You were really flying there.”
He got up, dusted himself off, and hugged me around my knees. “Oh, Dad, this is so much fun. I wish we could do this every day.”
“Me, too, buddy,” I said squatting down to brush off more sand. “Me, too.”
But that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, if ever. Owen’s mother, the light of my life for the last ten years, had made it clear what she wanted. And what she wanted was, as she put it, “some space.”
“Why?” I asked at the time.
“I’m not sure I love you anymore.”
Ouch. Could she have been any more blunt? Or succinct? I doubted it. So, six weeks ago I moved into a small efficiency apartment on the edge of downtown Minneapolis and tried to adjust. I worked for Hennepin County Recycling driving one of their trucks so I was unaffected by the pandemic. My wife worked as a sales clerk for one of the big box stores in near downtown, and she was given the option of staying at her job or taking a leave of absence. Her employer paid more money if she continued working so rather than being furloughed, she stayed. Her younger sister took care of Owen when she was at work. I did whenever I could.
I loved my son and would do anything to be with him. My apartment was about two-hundred square feet so there was not a lot of space. Taking him to the park worked out great, and I enjoyed taking him.
After I’d cleaned him off, we stood up. “Look over there,” I pointed to a war memorial in the center of the park. “Do you know what that is?”
Owen laughed. “It’s a truck like you drive, silly!”
I laughed with him. “No, it’s not. It’s called a tank. Do you know what that is?”
He frowned and shook his head. “No.”
“Shall we go see it?”
My dad was a veteran of the Vietnam War who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD after he returned. He had been drafted in 1970, spent his year “In Country” as he called it, and came home to a world he couldn’t adjust to. Mom told me once that my dad had witnessed the Mai Lai massacre and it had changed him forever. No one, especially not me, expected that’d he’d shoot himself in the head at the age of forty-two after a night of heavy drinking while on a solo camping trip in the hills above Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. I’d been five at the time, the same age as Owen was now.
Did I have an ulterior motive when I took my son over to the tank? I’m not sure. But, in retrospect? Probably.
We walked through lush green grass toward the tank. It was a sunny day in June and three months into the pandemic. The park was small and we had it to ourselves except for an elderly couple on a park bench fifty feet away in the shade of a huge oak. They were wearing their face masks and quietly reading. To be courteous as well as cautious I took ours out of my pocket.
“Here,” I gave Owen his. It was blue and had a picture of a flying superman on it. “Put this on.”
I put on my black one.
I glanced at the old couple and the guy waved at me and nodded his head. I gave him the thumbs up sign. Solidarity, I joked to myself.
The grass was ankle deep. The word was that with the pandemic, lots of services were being cut back to encourage people to stay inside. But we were outside, and I saw no problem as long as we masked up and kept social distance when necessary. Like with the old couple.
The park was about the size of two football fields placed side by side and ringed with large oaks and maples providing shade around the perimeter. In the middle it was sunny and as we approached the tank, I could feel the heat reflecting off it.
“This is cool, Dad,” Owen said holding my hand. “It’s…”
I’m not sure what he was going to say because he was distracted right then when a bird flew out of the barrel of the tank. “Dad, look,” he pointed and excitedly jumped up and down. “It’s a bird. A pretty bird.”
It was a pretty bird. I was a backyard bird watching enthusiast (until I’d gotten kicked out of the house), and I could tell by the raspberry red feathers on his head what kind it was.
“It’s a house finch.”
Owen’s eyes went wide. “Cool.”
“You know, it might have a nest in there.”
“Yeah. Want to check it out?”
We quietly approached the end of the barrel of the tank. I looked in. Sure enough, there was a nest about three inches from the end. There was just enough light to tell it had four brown speckled eggs resting in it.
I picked up Owen, “Here. Take a look.” I held him close so he could see.
“That’s so cool, Dad!”
I smiled beneath my mask. “Yeah, it is.”
Behind us a voice said, “I see you’ve found the finches.” I turned. It was the old man. “Yeah, we did. I was just showing my son.” I set Owen down and he took a hold of my hand.
The old man was staying away a respectful stance. He smiled, his eyes crinkling, “My wife and I have been watching the finches every day for the last couple of weeks.” He knelt down so he was eye level with Owen. “The eggs should hatch any day, young man. Then in about twenty days the babies will fledge.” When Owen frowned at the unfamiliar word, the old man added, “It means they’ll fly away.”
Owen turned to me. “That’s so cool, Dad.” Then he thought for a moment and asked, “Can we come back again to watch them?”
I looked at the old man. “Would you mind if we joined you sometimes?”
“Not at all. By the way I’m Fred. Fred Anderson. My wife over there is Edna.” I looked in her direction and she waved. I waved back. I turned to Fred and said, “Hi. I’m Loren and this is Owen.”
Owen said, “Hi,’ but was distracted watching the finch who was perched in a nearby tree, chattering away like mad.
Fred Anderson said, “We should move away and let the mom and dad bird come back and do their thing. They’ll alternate sitting on the nest until the young one’s hatch.
“Good idea,” I said.
Fred walked back to join his wife and Owen and I stepped back from the barrel of the tank. In a minute a female finch, distinguished by being a duller color than the male, flew into the barrel. I had no doubt she got herself positioned on the nest to keep her eggs warm.
Owen watched the whole process with wide eyes. “That’s so neat, Dad.”
I nodded, “Yeah, it is.”
We were standing next to the sign by the side of the tank. I pointed it out to Owen. “Want to hear about the tank?”
He dragged his eyes away from the barrel and said, “Sure.”
I read, “This World War I tank was made from molybdenum infused steel. The steel’s superior durability, corrosive protection and much lighter weight than the original tungsten steel made it an excellent building material for tanks.”
I turned to Owen. He looked up at me and said, “What’s that mean, Dad?”
What it meant was that it was great for warfare because their light weight allowed them to travel at higher speeds and cover more ground and kill more people. But I wasn’t going to tell him that. Not after what my dad went through. Instead, I said, “What it means it that it makes a great home for birds.” Owen clapped his hands and smiled. “It sure does.”
We watched as the male finch brought a piece of food to his mate. “Do you want to come back tomorrow? Check on how the birds are doing?”
“Yeah,” he jumped up and down. “I’d love to.”
I looked over at the old couple. They both waved.
I thought about Owen’s mom. I knew she worked tomorrow and her sister was going to be with Owen. “I’ll tell you what. How about if I take the day off? Me and you can spend the day here. I’ll pack a picnic. We can play on the swing and watch the birds. Make a day of it.”
Owen hugged me. “That’d be great, Dad.” I couldn’t get the whole day off, but I did get the afternoon. We came to the park and saw the birds and made it a point to come every day if we could. We were even there when they flew off, or fledged as the old man said.
Owen’s got their nest in his room. “To remind me of how much fun it was seeing the birds,” he tells me.
“I’m glad,” I tell him. “It was a great time for me, too.”
And it was.
One of these days I’ll tell him about the tank and war and all that stuff. Maybe even about my dad. One of these days. When he’s a little older. For now, I’ll let him enjoy being a kid. For a little bit longer.
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over two-hundred online and print publications. His short story “Aliens” has been nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2021 Pushcart Prize. His collection of short stories Resilience is scheduled to be published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing and Short Stuff a collection of his flash fiction and drabbles will be published by Chapeltown books in 2021. In addition, Something Better, a dystopian adventure, will be published by Paper Djinn Press in early 2021. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
“Mrs. Miller, the Sunday school teachers are having a picnic at the lake after next week’s morning service. I hope your children will join us.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Ames. I wouldn’t be able to do that. The two young ones will be needing a nap.”
Mrs. Ames saw us walk to church in all kinds of weather, so she shoulda known Mr. Miller wasn’t likely to drive us to the lake. Mom knew better than to even think of asking such a question.
“I’m sorry you can’t make it. I was hoping all the children in Sunday school could be there. Fay is so well-behaved. Could she come with my family?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
“I want to come, too,” chimed younger sister Phyllis, wiggling like she was about to pee her pants.
Mrs. Ames hesitated. “I’ll ask Mrs. Tucker, her Sunday school teacher, if she has a vacant seat in her Desoto.” The loud way she said “vacant” made it clear she wasn’t in favor of allowing Phyllis to go. We Millers could have put all seven kids in that boat.
I was happy to be going on the picnic and gave a lot of thought about what to wear. I coveted a purple dress that belonged to my older sister Barbara, and she finally passed it down to me. I was saving it for a special occasion, and the picnic matched my idea of something special.
I don’t know who in the town made the donation. A whole dress of solid purple! I had never felt anything that soft and bumpy. “Crepe,” mom said.
We had a fine time, sitting at picnic benches, eating all kinds of stuff we didn’t have at home: a bun made just for a hot dog, potato chips, red pop.
Mrs. Ames said, “Now run along children, play some games, have fun before we go back home. We adults will take our blankets down to the water. Mind you, we’ll be keeping an eye on you.” The word “run” must have stirred up something in Phyllis’s brain. She said, “Why don’t we run down the row of picnic tables? We can leap from one to the other.”
And, so we did, laughing at our bold daring, until my leg went through a rotten board. I let out a scream. The church ladies looked over their shoulders, came running, and yanked me up and off the table so hard that I and Mrs. Ames’ hat fell to the ground.
“Good Lord! Has the Devil gotten hold of you? I thought you were a well-behaved child. Should have known better.” Under her breath, she whispered, “Unsuitable dress. Harlot’s color.”
“We didn’t mean to do it,” fumed Phyllis, fists balled at her side. “We were just having fun.” I kept my head down and my mouth shut.
While Mrs. Ames gave Phyllis a lecture on talking back and deportment in general, I took the opportunity to slink into the woods and examine my arm and leg. Both were smarting to beat the band. I spied a long tear down the skirt of the dress—my purple dress—and slumped against a tree, trying hard not to cry.
It was time to go home, and I had to cut that out. I pulled the hem of the dress up to my face, wiped my cheeks, and blew my nose. Mrs. Ames dropped us off at the church, and we footslogged home in silence. For once Phyllis wasn’t jabbering away.
My shaking body shrouded in farm clothes, I struck out for the barn to feed the animals. I made a detour to the rusted iron barrel where Mom burned trash and threw the crumpled wad on the low burning coals. Flames curled round the dress, like shame around my heart.
I watched the purple turn to ash.
Fay L. Loomis lives a particularly quiet life in the woods in upstate New York. A member of the Stone Ridge Library Writers and Rat’s Ass Workshop, her recent poetry and prose pieces appear or are forthcoming in The Closed Eye Open, Love Me, Love My Belly, Rat’s Ass Review, Ruminate Magazine, HerStry, Sanctuary Magazine, Burrow, Amethyst Review, Covid and Poetry Project, Al-Khemica Poetica, Blue Pepper, Sledgehammer Lit, Undertow Literary Review, and Love in the Time of Covid: a Chronicle of a Pandemic.
Jim Meirose’s work has appeared in numerous venues. His novels include “Sunday Dinner with Father Dwyer”(Optional Books), “Understanding Franklin Thompson”(JEF), “Le Overgivers au Club de la Résurrection”(Mannequin Haus), and “No and Maybe – Maybe and No”(Pski’s Porch). New work “Audio Bookies” is forthcoming from J.New Books. Info:www.jimmeirose.com @jwmeirose
People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.
The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden. If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.
Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.
One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.
“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.
“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”
Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.
Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.
A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.
It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.
“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.
Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.
“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”
“Gives the mind something to focus on.”
“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.
“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”
“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.
“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”
At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.
She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.
That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.
The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.