Monthly Archives: August 2015

Sex Education

There was no sex education in Texas schools in the 1950s, but we didn’t need it. We had animals, and we had eyes.
People didn’t neuter dogs and cats. And you know dogs have no shame. When they get in the mood they don’t care if it’s high noon in the front yard. They go ahead and do it. And they don’t care who’s looking. Can you imagine what parents back in the good old days were forced to come up with some sort of explanation when the kids asked, “Mommy, Daddy! What are the dogs doing?”
Cats, on the other hand, are more civilized when it comes to such matters of the feline heart. They have the good manners to go somewhere private. Now when it comes to the actual blessed event when the kittens tumble out into the world, the mother cat does it in the kitchen, under the porch, in front of God and country. After seeing kittens born a few times I was glad humans had the decency to go to hospitals.
By the time the freewheeling 1960s rolled around the schools felt obliged to have some sort of sex education presented in the Phys. Ed. classes, which were segregated by sexes. I remember the year we were marched into the school auditorium where the coach turned the presentation over to the school nurse, a gaunt old woman who you thought would not have any practical knowledge on the subject. She was able to turn something very fascinating into something as boring as dishwater.
Even the class smart aleck wasn’t able to faze her.
“What would happen if a dog and a cat did it?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied with a straight face. “Wrong genetics. Any other questions?”
Most people get upset about sex education in school because they’re afraid the teachers are going to talk about technique. Wouldn’t that be the most embarrassing six weeks ever in Phys. Ed.? And you know they’d have it in Phys. Ed. Biology class makes too much sense.
It makes me shudder to imagine a coach standing over us screaming, “No! No! Raise your elbow!”
And think of the other students standing around and watching. I got laughed at enough when I struck out in baseball.
My wife and I thought we’d come up with a good solution to sex education for our kids when we stumbled across this little book in a Barnes & Noble one time. It was written on a second or third grade level with simple illustrations. It started with chickens and ended with humans. When we gave it to our son he seemed to catch on pretty fast. Of course, he was 35 years old when we gave it to him. Not really. He was 25. No, honest, I think he was seven or eight.
Now our daughter definitely was more precocious. She took it to school the next day for show and tell. We had to transfer her to a private school and instructed her to leave her book at home. This created a new problem at the private church school because the students were even more naïve than the ones in public school. At recess the other little girls would tell our daughter that their parents ordered them out of the Sears catalogue. With a straight face our child replied, “My parents had sex.”
So when it comes down to sex education I’ve decided it’s much better to have our children learn about the birds and bees from the gaunt old-maid school nurse that from other more worldly children—like my daughter. After all, better to have them think sex is not something exciting and forbidden but rather think it’s just another dry, boring subject taught at school.

Remember Chapter Thirteen

Shirley sneaked through the door and tiptoed across the rough wooden floor. “Mrs. Cambridge?”

With effort Lucinda sat up. “Shirley, I really don’t think—“

“I know,” the little girl interrupted her, “but I have to ask you something before mama finds me.”

“You should be asking your mother.”

“Mama won’t tell me.” Shirley sat next to her. “Ever since you moved in here after Christmas, mama didn’t like you. It’s almost like you know some terrible secret.”

“Please, Shirley. I don’t think I can take another outburst from your mother. I’m so tired.” She resisted the temptation to recline.

“You know a secret.” A twinkle entered her eyes.

Lucinda shrugged. “It’s not really a secret.”


“Yes, it’s a secret.”

“She scooted closer. “It has something to do with me.”


“And Vernon Singleberry.”

Nancy blew through the door like a Texas tornado. “Shirley!”

“Oh no,” the girl muttered as she slipped from the bed.

“I can’t afford to miss time at the beauty shop, but I will stay home to make you obey me.” She wagged a finger at her daughter. “You were gone ten minutes before one of the customers asked me where you were!”

Shirley walked swiftly to the door. “I’m sorry, Mama.”

“You’ve always been like an angel.” She grabbed her daughter and held her by the shoulders. “But last few days you seem determined to defy me.”

“I’ll never do it again.”

“Thank you. Now wait for me downstairs. I have to have a few words with the teacher woman.”

Before Shirley left she glanced toward Lucinda with apprehension.

“Please don’t attack me again.” Subconsciously the old teacher rubbed her chest. “I’m sick, and I can’t take it.”

“I can’t take it no more either.” Nancy sighed. “We’re moving out tomorrow.”

“I hold no ill will against you.” Lucinda leaned forward, trying to hold back her tears.

“For the past ten years you’ve been watching us, Shirley and me. At the grocery, on the street, in the park. I’ve seen you.”

“I meant nothing by it.” She shook her head.

“Then you move in here.” Nancy pinched her lips and took a couple of steps. “You say it’s because you can’t afford any better, but I don’t believe it. I think you wanted a chance to win your way into my child’s heart. You wanted to hug and pet on her the way you never could have touched Vernon.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Lucinda leaned back in resignation.

“Of course I’m right. That’s why I’m taking Shirley away from you, and I don’t want you to follow.”

“I promise.” She paused, considering whether if she should add a condition to her pledge to stay away. “But you have to tell Shirley the truth about Vernon.”

“The truth? That her mother is a damned fool?” Nancy’s spine slightly buckled in acknowledgement of her own vulnerability.

“We’ve all been fools and made mistakes that left us miserable.” For once, Lucinda did not sound as though she were delivering a lecture in post-modern literature. “If we forget the mistakes then all we have is misery.” She paused and waved in the direction of the door. “Do you want to end your life like Mrs. Lawrence?”

“Hell no.”

She leaned forward. “If you forget Vernon, if you don’t share his memory with Shirley you will. I will stake my life that Mrs. Lawrence did something long ago that she regretted and spent years forgetting. Now she’s just a bitter old woman.”

“I won’t be like her,” she spat back with a stinging denial.

“Even worse,” she whispered, “you could end up like me, a pathetically lonely spinster who only lives for her memories that both comfort and torture her.”

“We’ll be gone tomorrow, and that will be that.” Nancy turned for the door.

“No, it won’t.” Lucinda realized she had difficulty with her breathing.

“Good bye.”

Cancer Chronicles 16

Sometimes a doctor’s appointment is approached casually, as though nothing really important is going to happen. That was how my wife and I told each other how we felt before the oncologist meeting on Monday. We were just going to find out if there were to be more chemotherapy or just radiation and when the treatments would begin.
We knew the last of the staples and the drainage tubes were coming out Thursday and what a relief that would be. No matter how those bags were held, there was always a certain amount of tugging from them on where they attached to the body, and that hurt. After they were gone, ordinary movement return and my wife could take an ordinary shower, new steps on the road to recovery.
When the doctor came into the examination room, however, those things were not the first topic he wanted to talk about. And we both knew it, but we didn’t talk about it. With a big smile, he told us the results of the tissue tests. All signs of the breast cancer were gone. There was no need for further chemotherapy. She would undergo five days a week for six weeks of radiation to make sure every last cancer cell was dead. She would be there only 30 minutes each day, and the procedure was like getting an x-ray, with few if any ill effects. Of course, it would still be a while before she will have the energy to go out to dinner or a movie, but that’s really just an inconvenience.
I think the doctor spent more time telling my wife what a trooper she had been during the rigorous six months of chemotherapy, and that he had never seen anyone so brave and have such a good sense of humor about the whole experience. He even gave her a hug. I’ve never seen a doctor give out hugs before.
On the way home we both finally confided to each other we were concerned about what that report would say. Neither of us could shake the melodramatic notion that during the operation the doctor noticed the cancer had spread and that nothing else could be done. They didn’t say anything to us at the time because they wanted us to have a final few days of relief before finding out the truth. Neither of us shared our suspicions because we didn’t want to scare the other one with our silly fears.
Thank goodness they were silly fears, and the truth was better news than we could have suspected. I think it was particularly hard on each of us because for the last 44 years we have immediately shared every last emotion and thought which went through our bodies. Some people call that TMI, too much information, but we call it love.

Smells of School

One of my most distinct early memories of school was walking in the building first thing of a morning and smelling freshly baked bread.
My mother never baked bread. We bought Mrs. Baird’s Bread which probably smelled really good when Mrs. Baird took it out of the oven. Then she handed it over to guys who wrapped it up, put in on a truck and placed it on grocery store shelves. By the time the loaf made it to our house the smell was gone, and the taste wasn’t that good either. Smelling freshly baked bread was a new experience for me, just like going to school and learning to read. Isn’t it nice to relate education to something so delicious?
Then there was the smell of mimeographed paper. This was the 1950s, and only people with really good imaginations could conceive of copiers and personal printers. Teachers had to cut a stencil of whatever they wanted to put on the paper, a test or drawings for us to color. The stencil was attached to a drum which then turned across ink and then the paper. Needless to say it was a tedious process and teachers weren’t given bonus points for doing it. Of course, it was the ink with the distinctive odor. It wasn’t exactly a sweet smell but definitely addictive, like sniffing glue or paint. However, the unintentional high was ruined by the half dozen or so girls in class who completely overreacted by pushing the mimeographed paper up to their noses and going, “Mmmm…” It’s like when someone moans when biting into a piece of chocolate. Kinda ruins it for the rest of us.
Speaking of something revolting, no one can forget junior high gym class. Nothing is worse than the smell of teen-aged boys’ sweat on the basketball court or in the locker room. I could not wait to get out of there. Who could concentrate on push-ups, sit-ups, volleyball or dodgeball with that awful odor permeating your nostrils? Forget about becoming a professional athlete. If teen-aged boys smelled that bad can you imagine the stench of a room full of grown men after a football game?
In high school I became aware of perfume and cologne. Some of the girls smelled just like cotton candy. Then I observed the reaction of girls to English Leather cologne on boys. Remember the girls who swooned over the smell of mimeographed paper? Well, when they became teen-agers they had the same reaction to English Leather. They would look inside a classroom and wriggle their noses.
“Someone in here has on English Leather!”
I always wanted to be the guy who had the girls snuggle their noses into his neck and go, “Mmmm…”
Now if I wear English Leather my grown daughter rolls her eyes and says, “Oh Dad, that’s what old men wear.”
The smell that cinched what I was going to study in college was a teletype machine. Maybe this went back to mimeographed paper. The distinct odor of the ribbon and the lubricant oil that kept the rat-tat-tatting keys going. I had to work for newspapers. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but at the same time I left the newspapers they gave up on the teletype machine and started using the dreaded antiseptic computer.
This comparison of learning and smells may be more profound than I originally thought. There are good smells and bad smells in life. Some of it just stinks. But we have to put up with it so we can smell the freshly baked bread.

Remember Chapter Twelve

Lucinda opened the door, and Cassie breezed into the room and plopped into the rocking chair. When Lucinda looked around, she saw that Vernon had quickly disappeared, just like he had done on that day in her classroom ten years earlier.

“Oh goody. A rockin’ chair. I jest love rockin’ chairs.”

“What’s the matter, Cassie?” Lucinda asked as she sat on the edge of her bed.

“I jest can’t stand it when Aunt Bertha’s havin’ one of her fits and mommy gits on to her.” The more she talked, the harder Cassie rocked.

“So you’re seeking refuge?”

“Yep.” The rocking became faster and faster.

“From my observations, I’d say Mrs. Godwin is a hysteric.” Lucinda did not mean this in a mean, gossiping way but rather as a cool, detached opinion, as teachers prone to do when they meet new students at the beginning of a school year.

“Yep. Mommy has to slap her to calm her down sometimes. I git mad at mommy all the time, but I don’t git carried away like Aunt Bertha does.”

“Cassie, dear, I know it isn’t any of my business, but what’s going to happen to you after your mother passes away?” Again, she did not mean her question as presumptuous intrusion into another person’s private life but as a means to offer the best, well-considered advice, which is one of the many duties teachers are not taught in college but develop on their own after years of practice.

Cassie stopped her rocking abruptly and looked at Lucinda blankly, without emotion. “Oh, she thinks she’s goin’ to have me put away in some mental hospital somewhere after she dies, but it’s not goin’ to happen.”

“Is that so?”

“Yep. I’ve been to daddy’s lawyer, and he says mommy can’t do that.”

Lucinda wrinkled her brow. “But—“.

“You see, I let the lawyer set up all these tests with psychologists and teachers and stuff to see if there was anythin’ wrong with me, up here,” she said, pointing to her head, “and they all said no.”

“And you haven’t told your mother the results of the tests?”

“Why bother?” Cassie shrugged. “She wouldn’t believe them anyway.”

“I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I’m confused.”

“You thought I was crazy too.” Cassie smiled and nodded.

“Crazy isn’t the word for it.” Lucinda slipped into tutorially mode, as though helping a student find a more appropriate word for an essay. “How can I explain it?”

“Jest spit it out. I’ve heard worse from mommy.”

“Well, for instance, you sometimes act so silly, so much like a small child, you know, about the soup. Not at all like a woman would act.”

“Thirty-seven-year-old woman,” Cassie added. “I talk about silly things like chicken with stars soup because mommy won’t give me a fight over it.”

“Then why don’t you just leave?” Lucinda felt she had lived her life bound by a code of ethics and common sense, and she could not understand Cassie’s apparent insistence in wallowing in her mother’s domination.

“Daddy begged me to stay when he was alive. He said mommy was jest unbearable to be around without me to take up most of her time.”

“Then your father knew—“

“That I wasn’t crazy?” She started rocking again. “Oh sure. Daddy was smart.”

“Then why didn’t you leave after your father died?”

“It would’ve been just too hard to fight mommy over it. I guess she’s a whole lot like Aunt Bertha. She’s a hysteric too.”

“I don’t mean to sound cruel, but doesn’t it make you feel sad, knowing you’ve wasted your life like this?” She told Cassie she did not mean to sound cruel, but, of course, she knew very well it was a cruel question.

“Oh no. I haven’t wasted my life. I made daddy happy. That ain’t no waste. And, in a way, it’s made mommy happy to have me around to fuss and bother with.” She stopped the rocker to beam with pride. “And Nancy lets me baby-sit her little girl while she works. Isn’t Shirley jest a livin’ doll? It’s almost like havin’ my own little girl.”

“I suppose.” She gazed out the window, at a loss for offering words of insight.

“Mommy won’t live that much longer anyway, and I’ll still have my life to do with as I please.”

“For your sake, I hope you’re right,” she replied with a sigh.

“Oh, I know. I take after mommy’s side of the family, and they all live a long time. Grandma died when she was eighty-eight. Why, mommy and daddy didn’t have me until they were a little bit older than me now.”


“Of course, mommy ain’t goin’ to live that long because of them cigarettes. And I think all that hate built up inside her is goin’ to cut some years off her life. That’s what her doctor told me, anyway.”

Lucinda considered whether it was proper for her to ask another deeply personal question. She did not pause long enough to consider it too seriously. “Why does your mother have all that hatred?”

“Gosh, I don’t know.” Cassie laughed. “She’s been mad about something ever since I was born.”

“I thought it had to do with your father’s death.”

“Oh no. She fussed daddy into his grave.” She laughed again and slapped the arm of the rocking chair. “Then he became a saint.”

“Did she have unfulfilled ambitions?” Lucinda wished she still had a blackboard on which to write her questions.

“I don’t know.” By her tone, Cassie did not care either.

“She never talks about anything she wished she could have done?”

“No.” Cassie paused to ruminate over the enigma that was her mother. “I always just thought of it as jest the way mommy was. You know, daddy was always a kind of bigger than life man who talked too loud and slapped you on the back too hard and got mad fast but felt guilty longer. And you’re the way you are because that’s jest the way you are.”

“Maybe life is that simple.” Lucinda decided if a student had made that observation in an essay she would have scrawled across the top, give this more thought.

“I don’t know. To say mommy’s the way she is because of something that happened to her a long time ago seems awful simple to me.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” Lucinda knew she wasn’t, however. “How are you going to live after — I mean — financially?”

“Oh, daddy left me enough money in my insurance policy to live on.” Cassie’s face lit. “And then I git whatever he left mommy that she doesn’t spend. I’ll sell the house — of course, I won’t git much for it. It’s such a firetrap. Did I tell you how you can git out of this room if there’s a fire in the hall?”

“No. That might be useful information.”

Cassie stood to walk to the window and lean out. Lucinda followed her and peered out too.

“There’s a good sturdy drainpipe right outside here. You can climb down it. See, there’s even places to put your feet. Those thingies that strap the pipe to the wall.” She pointed. It’s right next to the honeysuckle trellis, but I wouldn’t try to climb down it. The wood is rotten.

“Are you sure the drainpipe would hold my weight?”

“Oh sure.” Cassie lost interest in looking at the pipe, walked back to the rocker and sat. “The reason I know is because when Nancy used to have this room she’d climb down the drainpipe at night after that goofy lookin’ Vernon Singleberry left after one of their dates. “She had that handsome guy from the movie set awaitin’ on her at his motel. She always said it was Warren Beatty but between me and you I think it was really his stand-in.”

“Who she said fathered her child,” Lucinda filled in. She returned to the bed to sit.

“You know what’s funny? He wasn’t even the father.”

“I know,” she replied softly.

“Yeah. You see, she told Vernon she was already married, but that guy wouldn’t marry her until after a blood test.”

Lucinda saw how Cassie relished the telling and the retelling of the juiciest gossip ever to emerge from her mother’s boardinghouse.

“And the test showed the baby was Vernon’s.”

“Yep, and that guy dropped her like a hot potato.” Cassie nodded and resumed rocking. “Then Nancy didn’t have the nerve to tell Vernon the truth.”

“Yes, I know.” Lucinda’s heart was breaking a little once again as she remembered Vernon’s numbing grief.

“Anyway, after I sell the house I’ll git me a nice apartment somewhere, maybe with a nice view of somethin’ pretty, like a lake, to look at.”

“Do you think you’ll get a job?” She resumed her questions on Cassie’s personal life so she would not have to think about Vernon any more.

“Maybe I’ll babysit. I like that.”

“You have the ability to do more. I know you do.” Playing the part of the cheerleader always lifted Lucinda’s spirits.

“It’s too late.”

“It’s never too late.” Clichés always were comforting.

Cassie stopped rocking. Her shoulders slumped. The thrill of the rhapsodic movement was gone. “I could have gotten a job doin’ somethin’ but mommy wouldn’t hear of it. You see, those doctors said I wasn’t crazy enough to go to a mental hospital, but they said I — I never learned — well, what most people learn to git along in life — you know, out workin’ and with adults. Now babies, I love to be around babies.

“I’m sorry.” Why she was sorry, Lucinda did not know, but the sentiment was genuine.

“I’ll be all right. It’ll be downright heaven to live where I want to and do what I like without mommy tellin’ me I can’t or shouldn’t.”

“So you’re just waiting for her to die.”

“If there’s one thing havin’ a club foot teaches you it’s patience.” Cassie cocked her head.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’s wrong. They’ve all stopped now. Aunt Bertha’s probably cryin’ in her room, and mommy’s off cleanin’ somethin’ or other.” She stood abruptly and went to the door.

“You don’t have to leave now, Cassie.” No matter how sad the conversation, Lucinda was enjoying it nonetheless.

“Oh no. It’s time for my soap operas.” And she was out the door.

“How sad. How terribly, terribly sad,” she mumbled to herself, allowing herself to fall back onto her pillow. “At least she took my mind off Vernon. I shouldn’t have kept my nose stuck in my papers that day. And I shouldn’t have been so flippant about his going to Vietnam. But it was true. More people are killed on the highway than in . . .” Realizing how foolish her rationalization sounded, Lucinda stopped in mid-sentence.

Cancer Chronicles Fifteen

The worst part of the recovery from the mastectomy for my wife was constipation. She was full of it, and that’s no joke. Not funny.
This has been a recurring problem for her through the years whenever she had to be put under anesthesia, starting with her first caesarean section for our son. There was some trouble but nothing serious. She realized how serious it was with her second C-section when our daughter was born. Our child came out ready to go home, turning her head when she smelled the nurses’ pizza and keeping her eyes peeled on television when her mother gave her the bottle. In particular she liked the dresses the women wore on Dynasty. But my wife’s experience was different this time. She wasn’t passing anything, no gas, no urine and especially no poop. She was worse than the cheap guy at church who refused to pass the collection plate. Our daughter was ready to go home after a couple of days but her mother couldn’t leave until her bowels woke up and passed something.
One night the doctor came in and said if she didn’t pass something by morning he was going to cut her open again to see what the problem was. Talk about having the you-know-what scared out of you, my wife’s bowels were open for business by the break of dawn.
For the mastectomy operation, she was passing gas and urine all right so the doctor dismissed her, thinking the poop could not be far behind. It wasn’t. She said it felt like a stick up her you-know-what, and it hurt. She couldn’t find a comfortable position to sleep in. She didn’t want to eat because she knew it wasn’t going anyplace soon. Every trip to the bathroom was agony.
She endured every remedy possible from prune juice to enemas and milk of magnesia. I have been at her side through more than 40 years of various illnesses but have never seen her in so much discomfort and outright pain.
Eventually all the remedies joined together in her intestinal tract to block the logjam. At last she experienced relief, and I was relieved for her. Since then she has been back to her old ways of being a tough cookie as she progressed in her recovery. The draining tubes come out next. They can’t be as bad as the constipation, at least we hope not.
Everything about cancer, it seems, is crappy.

Third Grade Art

I’m no artist. I don’t even know if I qualify as a writer since I’ve never made any money at writing. I take that back. I was a newspaper reporter for a while and wrote a lot of obituaries, but that wasn’t my specialty. I don’t think I had a specialty except that I could write a story very fast with few misspelled words. It was important to turn in your story by 10 o‘clock in the morning so the newspaper would be delivered before supper that night.
Anyway, I digress. I’m no artist. I know the primary colors and appreciate people who can draw animals, flowers and people without tracing a coloring book. I learned art appreciation in the third grade at J.M. Lindsay Elementary School at Gainesville, Texas, in 1958. There were two third grade teachers. One of them was Mrs. Bell, and the other was not.
Mrs. Bell freely admitted she was fifty years old and proudly showed off her old age spots on her hands. We were her first class to teach—ever. She had raised her kids and decided to go back to college and become a teacher, and she was having a wonderful time at it. My first grade teacher was a young woman who went straight from high school to college to my classroom. She felt an obligation to act all grownup and serious. Mrs. Bell, on the other hand, had nothing to prove to anyone so she was as giddy as a school girl.
Her passion was art. We learned primary colors, secondary colors, what tempura paint was, and block printing. Anytime we wanted to stand up in front of class and tell a story or a joke Mrs. Bell let us do it, even if we weren’t very good.
The other third grade class, however, had a teacher with no sense of humor so she had to stick strictly with reading, writing and arithmetic. There was always a little stink on the playground during recess, with the children in the other class telling us that we were not learning anything but art. As everyone well knows, children have achieved the ability to be arrogant by the third grade, and this group was filled with grandmasters. They said the word “art” with such disdain that you would think it was one of the seven deadly sins. When we told Mrs. Bell back in class what they had said, she assured us art was no such thing.
We learned how to cut a pattern out of a sheet of thick rubber, glue it to a block of wood and make a print. We learned how to press a design into a thin sheet of copper. We put string dipped in different colors, put them between two sheets of paper and pulled them out, which created an interesting design. We put all colors of crayons on a piece of paper and then covered them with a layer of black crayon. We took a pencil and gently scraped off part of the black crayon to reveal a colorful pattern.
Our class put on a lot of little plays to illustrate songs and stories. We laughed, we had fun and I have a sneaking suspicion that we learned just as much or more as the students who sat through dry lectures by the so-called good teacher.
From the fourth grade through high school graduation I kept a mental note of how the students from Mrs. Bell’s bohemian third grade class ranked academically. We did pretty well.
Since then I’ve researched such things and learned that the arts stimulated the same sections of the brain which is used for math and science. Also you can’t learn very much if you’re bored and stare out the window. We never looked out the window because we never knew what Mrs. Bell was going to pull on us next.
School districts all around the country are tightening budgets because they believe the only good education is a cheap one. Mrs. Bell taught us the only good education was the fun one.

Remember Chapter Eleven

“Miz Cambridge?” Bertha called out. “This is Miz Godwin.”

“Come in.” She spoke softly and with difficulty.

Bertha cracked the door just enough for her to slip into the room, glancing back into the hall to make sure no one saw her. She padded over to Lucinda. “I jest wanted you to know I’ve made up my mind about calling the fire marshal and thought you ought to know that you might have to look for other lodgings if they shut Emma down.”

“It makes no difference.” She was lifeless, almost not hearing what Emma Lawrence’s sister was saying.

“I know you only moved in here because it was cheap,” Bertha continued with self-deprecation. “I hope this won’t put a crimp in your pocketbook.”

“Don’t worry.” Lucinda forced a smile. “I have plenty of money. Finding another place to live won’t be difficult.”

“But I thought—“

“I had other reasons for living here,” she interrupted Bertha, “but that makes no difference now.”

“Well, that’s good. Here I go. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, Mrs. Godwin.” Lucinda wished the woman would leave the room, do what she had to do and leave her alone.

Bertha was almost to the door when she turned back to look with pleading eyes at the teacher. “The only phone is in the kitchen, where Emma can keep an eye on it. She’s in the laundry room in the basement right now starting a load of clothes. Could you come with me and stand at the top of the stairs to let me know when she’s coming up. If she catches me on the phone with the fire marshal she’ll kick me out of the house for sure.”

Actually Lucinda wanted to lie down for a nap but she could not resist Bertha’s soulful plea. They softly went down the stairs. Bertha went to the phone, and Lucinda took her place at the top of the stairs.

“I’m so nervous I can’t remember the number.” Bertha reached for the phone book on the kitchen counter and fumbled with it as she flipped through the pages.

Lucinda would rather be anyplace but standing guard on the lookout for Emma Lawrence. And then she wasn’t there but back in her class room as Vernon, dressed in blue jeans and a freshly pressed short sleeve shirt, came through the door.

“Vernon. What are you doing here?”

Vernon looked down at his feet. “I know it’s been a long time, since last Christmas.”

“Oh, you mean it’s that spring already?” she muttered, mostly to herself.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been by your class room this semester.”

“Vernon, I’m very tired. I really don’t have the energy to listen to this. Would you please leave and come back later?”

“I know you have a lot of papers to grade, Mrs. Cambridge, but I’ve got to talk to you.”

“So that’s how I began, by asking him to leave,” she told herself. Lucinda looked at him, plastering her best sympathetic smile on her lips. “Very well, what is it?”

“I guess you heard about Nancy and me.”


“We were all decided to get married after the spring semester started,” he said slowly. “I found me a pretty good job to support us. I could only take nine hours so I didn’t take your course.”

“You don’t have to explain, Vernon.”

“Nancy said she wanted to go out of town to visit her grandparents one last time as their little girl. That sounded kinda sweet to me so I didn’t think nothing—“ he paused to look at Lucinda. “Ain’t — aren’t you going to correct me anymore?”

“You’re able to correct yourself.”

Before Vernon could continue, Lucinda became aware of Bertha’s screeching voice on the telephone.

“Hello? Court house? Can I talk to the fire marshal? You’ll connect me? Thank you.”

“I guess you’re right.” He breathed in deeply trying to compose himself. “Anyway, the day after the last day to add or drop any classes Nancy came back to town.” He pursed his lips. “It seems it was some dark-haired guy and not me that had got her pregnant and when she told him about it, he married her right on the spot.” He smiled sadly. “So I guess the joke was on me.”

“He ain’t there? Is there somebody else I can talk to?” Bertha drew Lucinda’s attention back to the present but only for a moment.

“You can make up those courses this summer and still enter the university on schedule next fall,” she said, trying to be comforting.

“No, I can’t.”

“Why not? Surely money can’t be a problem now—“

“I’ve been drafted,” he interrupted her.


“They caught up with me real fast. I thought it was nice of them to let me finish this semester first, though.”

Emma lumbered up the stairs and pushed Lucinda aside. “For God’s sake, get out of the way! Ain’t you got no common sense?”

“This is the fire marshal’s secretary?” Bertha’s voice trembled. “I got a message for him.”

Emma heard what Bertha was saying and charged over to her. “Bertha!”

“Yes, ma’am, my name is—“

Grabbing the receiver from her sister’s hand, Emma blurted, “She’s a damned fool, that’s who she is. Sorry for lettin’ her bother you. Good bye.” She slammed the receiver down.

“Emma!” Bertha’s hand went to her face.

Lucinda found herself caught between the worlds of present and past. Vernon was still there, but his voice was a distance echo.

“Who’s that? Another memory?”

She put her hand up. “Hush, Vernon.”

“Why did you tell that woman I was a damned fool?” Bertha was on the verge of tears.

“Because you are!” Emma retorted.

“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” Vernon humbly apologized.

“Vernon, I want to hear what’s going on.” Lucinda stepped away from the basement stairs.

“The very idea of callin’ the fire marshal!” Emma scolded. “Don’t you know I can’t afford those changes?”

Tears rolled down Bertha’s cheeks. “That’s a terrible thing to say to a complete stranger, that your sister is a damned fool!”

“Mrs. Cambridge?” His voice faded even more.

“You didn’t seem to mind to turn your sister into the law!” Emma wagged a finger at Bertha.

“It’s for our own safety, Emma!” She held up hands in defense. “We could all die if this place caught fire!”

“You damned fool!” she bit back. “This place ain’t gonna burn down!”

“It could, the way you smoke all the time!” Bertha jutted out her chin.

“Bertha, now you shut up before you have another one of your fits and I have to slap you!” She didn’t wait for a reply but stormed past Lucinda down the stairs to the laundry room.

“Don’t you walk off on me! And I’m not gonna have a fit! I ain’t had a fit in weeks!” With that Bertha exploded into loud sobs and stormed out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her room.

In the new silence, Lucinda drifted back to that spring day in her classroom. Vernon’s voice grew strong.

“I came to say good bye. Please, Mrs. Cambridge, stop grading papers long enough for me to give you a proper good bye.”

“What?” Then she remembered what she did next to Vernon, and she wanted to escape. Lucinda forced herself into the present tense and walked away, going upstairs to her bedroom.

“I’m sorry for what I said the last time we talked.”

She ignored him as much as possible as she opened her door and went straight to bedroom. All this would go away, if only I could nap awhile, Lucinda told herself. Before her head rested on the pillow, she heard another knock at the door. She hoped it wasn’t Bertha. She could not endure another rant from the landlady’s sister.

“Miz Cambridge, may I come in?” It was Cassie.

“Of course, dear.” She sighed and sat up.

“Mrs. Cambridge, please,” Vernon pleaded.

“What, Vernon? I’m in a hurry. Cassie wants to come in.”

“Well, I guess I’ll go. Good bye.” Trying to be light hearted, Vernon threw his hand across his chest in a mock salute. “I’m off to Vietnam to give my life for my country.”

Lucinda stood and walked to the door to let Cassie in. “Humph,” she threw carelessly over her shoulder.” “You’d better worry more about driving home today than going to war. You’re more likely to be killed on the highway than on the battlefield.”

Cancer Chonicles Fourteen

The double mastectomy is done, and my wife is back home. I thought there might be some sense of resolution by now, but I was wrong.
Even getting a time to be at the hospital the morning of the operation wasn’t easy. The staff was supposed to call her the night before surgery by nine o’clock but didn’t. When she called, they told her the people in charge of making the calls had gone home but they’d have the nurse give us a call but she was busy making her rounds right then. It was more like ten o’clock by the time the nurse called back with the information.
When they took her back to be prepped, my wife told me she wanted to flash me one last time before the breasts were removed. There were too many people standing around waiting to wheel her out so she didn’t get to do it. Our son and daughter sat with me for the two-plus hours. I saw other doctors come out with big smiles and glad-handed family members and told them everything had gone swell. My wife’s surgeon came out looking like a gloomy Gus, didn’t shake hands and said we were half-way through the total treatment and we could go back to see her in about an hour. He turned on his heels and departed.
I’m a storyteller. I have a good imagination, and it was going wild in all the wrong directions. My adult children are more adult than I am so they grounded me to reality. I kept telling myself the doctor had had a busy morning operating on people, and his back probably hurt.
My wife herself made me feel better when we finally got to see her. She was all bright eyed and bubbly. They brought in a lunch which she said looked good but she’d rather sleep. I asked her what the doctor had said to her after the operation; she replied he told her she might have to stay an extra day or two and then he turned and left the room. The next morning we called to see if she would be discharged and sure enough she was staying another day. This didn’t bother me because I thought a 24-hour stay was a bit short for major surgery. When we came for a visit she was happily eating a Salisbury steak. She still was not having much pain which was good with her. Once again her discharge was delayed. Again I was relieved to have her under professional care for another day.
By the time we did take her home on Monday, we were told by staff that she was the best patient on the floor, tough as nails and happy as could be. She was a little surprised. She had never thought of herself as tough when it came to the hospital care. She was even walking better than she was before the operation. Again we had to wait Monday night for a call to let us know when the home caregiver would arrive on Tuesday. The person was later than thought and cut into my wife’s afternoon nap time. The good news is that someone will come in everyday to change the dressing and empty the drainage bags.
She goes back to the doctor in two weeks to find out what the test results are on the tissues removed during surgery and exactly what kind of treatment will follow—perhaps more chemotherapy and radiation on top of that.
Good news. If it’s all such good news, why are we both so tired?

Summer Too Short

I cannot properly express my chagrin when I turned on the television the other day to discover that summer was already over.
Our wedding anniversary was just a couple of weeks ago, and that occasion had been our mid-summer celebration for the past 44 years. Now the stores have school supplies on sale, and children are being scared into believing if they don’t buy their new jeans and shirts with the proper brand labels they were doomed to being the “unpopular” kids for the next nine months.
Half a century ago when I was young…pausing to let that phrase sink into my head…school began after Labor Day and ended before Memorial Day. I had three whole months to run barefoot on the hot asphalt street of my small Texas hometown and get callouses on my toes. It was one glorious sun-drenched day after another. I could forget my embarrassment of being chosen last for every game played during recess.
Except for that one year—was it between fourth and fifth grade or between fifth and sixth? It didn’t make any difference; it was the middle of childhood—when my brother decided it would be fun to ruin my period of freedom. I suppose I brought it upon myself. I had begun the countdown to Memorial Day right after Easter. My ecstasy was too much for him to bear.
By the end of the first week of June, he began, “Isn’t it wonderful? Only eleven weeks to school!”
After a couple of weeks he started adding in that this would be the year I would learn another level of arithmetic and have to learn harder spelling words. My teacher would probably be the same one who absolutely hated him and my other brother so she would certainly hate me too.
I couldn’t enjoy my hot dogs and watermelon on Fourth of July without his clapping of hands as he announced that now school was only eight weeks away.
Our mother told him not to count down the days like that. He was ruining my summer. I did detect her tone of voice was not as severe as when he had not finished a certain chore as quickly as she had hoped. If her withering condemnation about something really important like not sweeping the back porch did not make him move faster, her soft-edged admonition to be kind to me certainly would have no effect on him.
By the time the middle of August rolled around, he was crowing about only two weeks left to buy school supplies. If you don’t have the right school supplies on the very first day, he warned me, that mean teacher would probably spank me.
Looking back on that horrible summer, I still cannot find the humor in my brother’s campaign to remove the last traces of joy in my juvenile heart. Though I now can understand it better. He spent most of his adult life in and out of the state mental hospital, which helped me to forgive him. Poor thing couldn’t help himself.
But why nationwide Big Box stores want to do the same thing to today’s kids is inexcusable. They do it just for the money.