Tuesday Tea – Roasted Chestnut

This post should have been written during the holidays because that’s exactly what the tea I’m going to share tastes like, the holidays! So, forgive the hecticness of said season and the tardiness of today’s Tuesday Tea. The good thing is that it’s never too late to enjoy a cup of Roasted Chestnut from Ohio Tea Co.

I discovered this tea about two years ago, and it became a staple in the Gibson household. I recently introduced my husband to Roasted Chestnut to help with his efforts to wean himself off copious amounts of coffee. It is now his favorite go-to tea, and while I prefer to drink it black, he loves to put cream and a little raw sugar in his. Either way, this tea is dessert in a cup without being overbearing.

I believe that last detail is another reason why we’ve fallen in love with Roasted Chestnut. The rich flavor is natural on the tongue instead of sickeningly artificial. Drinking it is so satisfying that it keeps us from nibbling sugary sweets high in fat and calories. Furthermore, it’s perfect with a meal or on its own.

The aroma of this “premium Ceylon black tea flavored with roasted chestnuts” wafts out of the packet upon opening and instantly puts one in mind of caramels with nuts and butterscotch candies. Roasted Chestnut brews up a beautiful, deep mahogany red at 212° F for 4 – 5 minutes, and the taste is beyond compare. Neither flavor nor scent diminish throughout the drinking experience.

If you aren’t already familiar with Roasted Chestnut, indulge yourself today by heading over to Ohio Tea Co. to purchase some. Touring their shop is great fun (you can preview the scent of the teas and shop all the great tea paraphernalia), but if travel isn’t an option, don’t despair. The Ohio Tea Co. website provides an amazing shopping experience with detailed descriptions of the tea as well as reviews to assist with your selection.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve had Roasted Chestnut, and if so, how you prefer it: black or with cream and sugar.

Tuesday Tea – Banana Bread

Perhaps it’s because this is the busy week of Hanukkah, perhaps it’s because I’m enjoying a cup of this delicious tea right this moment, but whatever the case, Tuesday Tea is coming to you late in the morning, but at least it’s coming!

What could be better than the delicious aroma of freshly baked banana bread permeating every nook and cranny of your home? How about your hands wrapped around a warm cup of Banana Bread tea on a frosty winter morning?

Thank you, Ohio Tea Company, for offering this beautiful, fragrant tea that serves up as comforting and delicious as the familiar baked good. There’s nothing artificial tasting about this brew composed of honeybush tea, apple pieces, cinnamon, cocoa nibs, natural banana flavor, natural chestnut flavor, and marigold flowers.

It’s lovely in the tea ball and equally gorgeous in your favorite teacup or mug as it brews up a pleasant shade of mauve. This caffeine-free herbal infusion is similar to rooibos, although I found the honeybush to be a shade milder but no less tasty. It also lends itself well to blending with the other ingredients.

The best part about Banana Bread tea is that it satisfies one’s craving for dessert, and in this season of over-indulging in too many sweets, this tea is a lifesaver. What’s more, it takes far less time to make a cup of tea than to prepare and bake loaves of banana bread. I find that detail comes in handy when you receive unexpected guests and have nothing to serve them in the way of dessert.

I haven’t done this yet, but I imagine Banana Bread tea would be well received at a tea party, especially when paired with shortbread for dunking. The flavor focal point becomes the tea instead of the food, and it elevates tea to a new level instead of presenting it as the usual accompaniment essential for a tea party but often overlooked.

I enjoy this tea without sugar or cream, but if you decide to include one or the other or both in your cup, please let me know how that worked for you. Also, I’m interested in balanced pairings, so do be sure to let me know what you served with Banana Bread tea.

Tuesday Tea – London Fog

This month’s Tuesday Tea features London Fog. “But that’s ice cream in the picture,” you say. Why, yes, Observant Reader, it is, and it is no less delicious just because it comes in a cone instead of a cup.

Shout out to Therapy Ice Cream & Coffee Bar in Akron, Ohio, for featuring some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. They purchase their flavors from Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, an award-winning company out of Madison, Wisconsin. If you’ve never enjoyed Chocolate Shoppe’s works of art, you’re in for a real treat. Their single flavors and flavor combinations are a huge cut above what I’ve previously encountered at ice cream shops, and you’ll find yourself wanting to indulge in all of them again and again.

I recommend starting with London Fog. This is the first time I’ve seen a tea other than green tea featured as a flavor. Of course, Earl Grey’s signature bergamot appears in the ice cream, but while it’s present, the pungent citrus is mellowed by the addition of vanilla and lavender much the same as in the hot beverage, London Fog.

If you’re skeptical of lavender, because it is a highly aromatic and almost camphorous herb, you’ll be pleased to know that it isn’t too flavor-forward. And the vanilla, which is unfortunately often thought of as plain, isn’t lost in the combination. Rather, all three are well blended, so each cool, creamy lick of London Fog ice cream is equally satisfying.

There was something incredibly fun and slightly scandalous in getting to eat my tea from a cone instead of delicately sipping it from a cup. I imagine London Fog is the sort of flavor a young Queen Elizabeth II would have enjoyed. I’ve already been for several servings of London Fog, but I think I need some more Therapy and soon!

Tuesday Tea – Black Knight

Don’t you love discovering treasures in unexpected places? I know I do, and that’s exactly what happened to me while walking around a local flea market one day.

Probably second only to books, when I hear the word tea, my ears instantly perk up. So, when I heard the owner of Rusted Leaf Tea Company talking about the loose-leaf blends he creates, I made a beeline for his table.

Allow me to paint a picture for you. Imagine a husky, bearded gentleman wearing what I believe was a Celtic-patterned t-shirt, sporting longish hair, and displaying a passion for tea that lit up his face. I try not to stereotype people, but I must admit, he wasn’t what I expected in a tea seller. And I feel just terrible that I didn’t get his name, so I’ll blame it on my own enthusiasm.

My excitement heightened as he described the ingredients in his proprietary blends and, thrill of thrills, allowed me to enjoy their aroma. He had a little tin with a clear top for each tea so one could see the mixtures and inhale the scent of each delicious concoction. It was difficult to decide, but I settled on Black Knight, and I’ll admit it was in part because the name is just so cool.

Black tea, raspberry leaf, and tarragon make up the ingredients, and in the bag, they smell sweet, fresh, and mildly minty. This last detail is from the tarragon which I love as a seasoning in beef dishes but came to adore in my hot tea. I learned a long time ago that mint teas are not my thing, but tarragon is obviously mint’s close cousin with a sweeter, less bitter personality. I was in love with the flavor that didn’t overpower but left my palate with that cool, minty sensation. Also, Black Knight didn’t require any sweetener or cream, but if you try it that way, let me know how it worked for you.

Make sure your water is quite hot for brewing this beauty. One teaspoon of the blend is perfect for a twelve-ounce serving. I found a four-minute steep with an additional minute to swirl my tea ball around the cup delivers a bright, bracing beverage that is perfect any time of the day. The tea is deep mahogany in color and tapers to a lovely green/gold near the edges. The aroma when brewed is that of a freshly mown field with stacks of moist grasses drying in the sun.

Prior to using, a quick fluffing with a fork will keep the settled ingredients well blended in the bag. I suspect Black Knight would make a delicious s iced tea, so if you try it, let me know in the comments how you enjoyed it.

Rusted Leaf Tea Company strikes me as a fledgling company since they are on social media but, as of this posting, do not have a website. Still, Rusted Leaf has much to offer, and I wish the company well and encourage you to seek them out.

Is #TBT Still a Thing?

I usually come late to a trend because I’m off doing my own thing. It’s not because I’m an amazing trailblazer but more because I’m in my own little world.

Still, #TBT crept into my peripheral social media vision, and while it was cute at first, I soon found the trend annoying. I played along a few times when tagged in various games, but I rarely finished.

So here we are, eleven years after the first use of #ThrowbackThursday according to Time, and I still don’t participate in the trend. Until now when I started thinking how can we use #TBT for something worthwhile?

Rather than share a picture of me from kindergarten with my barrettes sliding down my hair and what my husband refers to as my shifty smile, I decided to dig up some of my past writing. That’s what I do, so why not reveal a picture of myself through my chosen art form? So many authors have claimed that they don’t write themselves into their work, but that’s simply not true. We’re in there, somewhere, somehow.

My first goal is to catch the interest of Facebook friends by reposting some of my initial pieces. I won’t share all of them because a few are cringeworthy. Still, one can find them, which is my second goal of encouraging readers to poke around at HL Gibson, Author, especially under the Read & Relax heading where you’ll locate my short stories and flash fiction. If you want to find the dirt, you’re going to have to dig.

My third and most important goal is to draw out other writers. We need to build the writing community, so let everyone know where you can be found. The fourth goal in this process is to give permission to those reading my work to leave feedback. Dear Reader, you never truly needed that permission in the first place because if my writing is out there, it’s understood that feedback is desired, required even. It’s what writers live in fear of and crave at the same time.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a writer yourself, but since you do have an opinion, please express it. Be kind and constructive, refrain from insult.

Some in my writing community will no doubt think I’ve gone mental and/or opened a horrible can of worms with my offer. One writing friend is fond of saying, “Let the blood-letting begin.” While I find his misapplied comment humorous, I don’t believe that’s going to happen, and it certainly isn’t necessary. Still, it’s funny when he exposes his wrist at writing group.

Communication is the ultimate goal here. Let’s have a chat in our 21st century coffee house that is social media. Leave your feedback in the comments section and let’s have a conversation.

Tuesday Tea – Philosopher

Every writer has a favorite beverage he or she imbibes while working through the creative process. Some are famous for partaking of large quantities of their preferred poison. But whether you enjoy coffee, tea, wine, or a stronger spirit, I’m sure you would admit that you’re not at your best until a cup, mug, glass, or tumbler of your chosen libation is coursing through your veins.

For me, that magic elixir is a large cup of tea. I’ve become a fan of loose-leaf teas and purchased stainless steel tea balls in single cup size and teapot size. I’m always on the lookout for my next favorite tea, and Philosopher from Gnat and Bee is the latest winner.

I love black tea, and as a black tea blend, Philosopher instantly caught my eye. What drew me in was the description: dark and earthy with chaga mushrooms for pensive mornings or afternoons. Isn’t that perfectly charming! It’s as if it was made for writers who stare out the window, seeing nothing before their eyes but everything about the scene taking place in their mind.

The specific ingredients are Yunnan black tea, Assam black tea, chaga mushrooms, toasted barley, and black peppercorns. The teas, mushrooms, and peppercorns are certified organic, and the packaging is eco-friendly. What’s not to love?

Dry in the bag, the initial aroma is sweet and slightly woody. Don’t inhale too deeply or you’ll set off a round of sneezing from the black peppercorns, although they finish the fragrance with a pleasant zestiness. You won’t taste the peppercorns as much as you’ll experience them as warmth on the backend of your sip. It’s much the same as when you’ve eaten something with a spicy ingredient that you feel in your mouth instead of taste as an individual flavor.

And speaking of flavor, Philosopher tastes like the quintessential tea. It’s what tea is supposed to taste like. It is the pinnacle of teas as far as I’m concerned. I know that sounds vague, so let me see if I can expound upon that description.

It’s smooth and silky, rich and earthy, elegant and unpretentious on the palate. It evokes images a hawk flying on a cloudy day, the sun burning through fog, dew on the grass, and slipping into a warm, dry barn to escape a sudden shower.

Please do not be put off by the presence of the chaga mushrooms, toasted barley, or black peppercorns. If you do not care for any one of these, I promise you will not taste them individually. Gnat and Bee have created a balanced blend that works in perfect harmony.

Water should be hot but not boiling, and brew time is perfect at four minutes of steeping and one minute of swirling the tea ball around my mug. This is, of course, adjustable based on the size of your cup and desired strength. I prefer mine without cream or sugar because I want to taste the tea itself. If you try it with one or both, please let me know in the comments how that worked for you.

Once brewed, the aroma becomes mild tobacco and sweet leather, the color is deep mahogany.

I hope you try Philosopher by Gnat and Bee. Let me know in the comments how their marvelous tea influenced your own pensive morning or afternoon.

Photograph

Zara wrenches the key from the lock as she pushes the door open and calls, “Jan, where are you?”

A feeble voice from the bedroom replies, “In here still.”

“How pathetic,” Zara mumbles.  She slams the door shut with her foot and tosses Jan’s spare keys on the countertop.  Six plastic shopping bags, two to an arm and one in each hand, cut into the sleeves of her jacket and across her palms.  She hoists the bags upward with a groan and deposits them beside the splayed keys.  A quick survey of the apartment reveals that Jan hasn’t made much progress in the hour Zara has been gone.

“Oh, hey…you brought food,” Jan says.  “Thanks.”  Her slippered feet scuff the hardwood floor as she shuffles into the living room.  She wears a nappy, pink robe over the faded Superman t-shirt and sleep pants Zara found her in that morning.  A black and white photograph in a silver frame rests against her chest, safely embraced within her arms.

“I thought we agreed you’d start clearing out Jay’s stuff while I was gone,” Zara says.  She shoves perishables on the refrigerator shelves, cans and boxes in the cupboards.  Then she turns her attention to the newspapers and magazines strewn across the coffee table, couch, chairs, and floor.

“You don’t have to do that,” Jan says when Zara scoops up a stack of Jay’s photography magazines.

“Yes, I do.”

“No—you really don’t have to do that.”

Panic and annoyance strain Jan’s voice.  She abandons the photo on an end table to follow Zara to the garbage shoot in the hallway.  A brief wrestling match ends with the magazines scattered across the hallway floor.  Zara plants balled fists on her hips and taps one Christian Louboutin; the red sole is soundless on the sculpted carpet.  Jan cannot look at her best friend when she stands with the magazines clutched to her heart.

“I’m not ready to let this stuff go yet,” she offers as an apology and walks back to her apartment.

Halfhearted attempts at straightening no longer appease Zara, and she knows it’s time to confront Jan.  She lures her friend’s attention by sitting on the couch with legs crossed, arms folded.

“I thought you said we should get busy cleaning,” Jan says.

“It’s past the time for cleaning, Jan.  We need to talk.”

“It’s too soon.”

“No, it’s been three weeks since Jay left you for his assistant, Chrissy, and in those three weeks you’ve allowed your life to—I don’t know—something between fall apart and explode.”

“Are you judging me?  How can you expect me to deal with this right now?  I didn’t think you’d be so cruel.”

“Oh, spare me.  Just because everything in your world is going to hell in a handbasket doesn’t mean it’s affected everyone else.  I haven’t changed, and for that you should be glad.”

Shock etches Jan’s face, drawing her brows downward, and she says, “Damn, I admit I was just trying to buy some time, but you really are being mean and hurtful right now.”

“You need me to play it straight with you,” Zara says, punctuating the air with a condemning finger.

Jan knows this to be true.  She crumples into an armchair, still holding the glossy magazines.  Emotions sting her eyes.  She sniffs hard to keep from sobbing and pulls a wadded tissue from her robe pocket to dab at the wet trails on her cheeks.

“I’m just so embarrassed.  In front of all my friends and family.  My co-workers even.  For something like this to happen.  I mean…no one—no one—saw it coming.  Least of all me.”

Zara remains seated, aware that this little outburst confession is Jan’s way of softening up the other person thereby distracting them from what needs to be dealt with.  It would be so easy to slip into the crowded space of the overstuffed armchair and wrap her best friend in a hug.  But then Jan would never get out of Jay’s old pajamas and on with her life.

Instead, Zara claps her hands with a slow, rhythmic beat.  Twenty claps before Jan bursts out, “Okay—fine!  What the hell do you expect me to do?  You’re so smart?  You have all the answers?  Well, I’m listening.”

“Getting pissed off about this is a start.  At least I know you’re still alive, that there’s a hot-blooded woman in there.  You used to be so strong—”

“I am strong, Zara.  I’m just tired.”

“Yes, well, stewing in your own misery isn’t the answer.”

“Then what is?”

“Tell me something, Jan.”

“What?”

“How is it that you can wear his pajamas and sulk around this apartment all day, holding photographs that he took in Hawaii and act as if Jay’s not the reason you’re so miserable?  I mean, he up and left you in a single, freakin’ day!  Who does that?”

“Obviously Jay does.”

Zara startles when Jan bursts out in maniacal laughter.  She uncrosses her arms and leans forward, ready to catch her friend if she starts running and shrieking hysterically, which is exactly what Zara expects from her friend right now.

“Oh, oh my god…how did I fall to such depths?” Jan asks through laughter and tears.  “And don’t even think of saying this isn’t my fault.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Yeah, well, maybe Jay leaving me isn’t, but allowing myself to get like this is.”  Jan indicates her unwashed, disheveled appearance with both hands.  The magazines fall from her lap as she stands, spilling into the piles at her feet.  “You know what’s been on my mind today?”

“What, honey?”

“Will that bitch show up at Jay’s funeral or will she be granted calling hours of her own?  You know, like when feuding families host separate baby showers or something?”

“Oh, Jan…”

“Now that his body washed up on shore, it’ll be sent back to me.  The wife.”

“Do you need me to go with you to identify it?”

“No, his brother flew down to Cozumel to do that.  Then there was a bunch of paperwork, and the authorities acting all superior because Jay’s brother is American, and finally they cleared the body for shipping.  So much for their Caribbean vacation.”  A derisive snort is on the cusp of more crazed laughter, but Jan reigns in her emotions.  “The body.  Because that’s all Jay is anymore.”

“I guess what I don’t understand is why you aren’t furious with him for what he did.”

“You want me to hate him, I know you do, but I can’t, Zara.  There wasn’t enough time for me to become angry with Jay as the cheating husband.  He left me on Friday and died on Monday when his boat capsized in a storm.  For me, he was still the man I loved, the man I married.  Does that make sense?”

“I suppose so.  No, not really.”

“If he hadn’t drowned in that storm, if he and Chrissy were still touring the world and taking gorgeous, award-winning photographs for prestigious magazines a year from now, then yeah…I’d be looking at this from a whole different perspective.”

Zara sighs and tosses her head from side to side.  She still cannot comprehend Jan’s passivity, but she hopes to give the appearance of understanding.

“All right, then.  The order of the day is to find a new perspective for you,” Zara says.  “One for you, about you.  Okay?”

“What does that mean?  I’m still not quite ready for any major changes.”

“The only thing you need to do right now is get out of those smelly pajamas and into a hot shower.”

“That’s it.”

“One thing at a time, Jan.”

“Then what?”

“Then we’ll see about getting some orange juice—”

“The orange juice turned.”

“How the hell does orange juice go bad?”

“I don’t know, but the last time I tasted it, it was fizzy.”

“That’s disgusting.  Okay, shower first then tea and toast afterward.  One little thing at a time.”

“That’s your big answer for fixing my life?  A shower, tea, and toast?”

“I don’t have the answers for your life, Jan.  You do.  I’m just here to help you unearth them.”

The Truth in History

Tim Eady’s father worked for Mrs. Burton during the winter months when the construction crews were laid off. Occasionally, Tim’s father landed inside work hanging cupboards or finishing baseboards. This year, all the new homes were completed on time inside and out. The first flakes of snow saw the departure of a handful of families for Florida or one of the Carolinas, seeking work to tide them over.

Tim’s father would have gone, but his mother said it made no sense to pull Tim and his two sisters out of school for three months. The girls had started third and fourth grade in the fall. Tim was in his junior year. Besides, his mother expounded, Tim could hunt again this year, and they’d be near family come Christmas. Not to mention Florida never had snow for Christmas, and what’s Christmas without snow? Tim’s father grew up with fireworks in Charleston for Christmas, but he just shrugged his acquiescence.

Mrs. Burton lived on the outskirts of town and drove a faded, red Ford pickup. She wore a plastic bonnet over her hair whenever she went out, rain or shine. Every day found her in heels and pearls with a lace hankie tucked beneath her watch band on the underside of her wrist. When Mr. Burton died, she went right on living at their farm instead of selling and moving in with her sister in town. From the porch of her home she fended off foreclosure and potential suitors with Mr. Burton’s double-barreled shotgun. She also grew shrub-sized, pink begonias in wash tubs on that porch.

Canning, gardening, and tending chickens kept Mrs. Burton involved, as she called it, and gave her purpose in life. She also baked and attended Bible study, joined missions’ teas and volunteered at the library, participated in the fair and collected clothes for the migrants who worked the lettuce farms every summer. Much to her shame, she could not sew, but a few frenzied days of her clicking knitting needles produced some of the finest afghans to ever grace the back of a couch.

There were no animals in her house save only a yellow canary in a cage in the living room. The bright little bird never sang until the day his mate died, and then he chirped his fool head off every waking moment of the day. Mrs. Burton thought this morbidly hilarious. She had one of her church friends make a double-layered cage cover of black fabric to place over the bird when she needed it to shut up. She wasn’t unkind to animals. She just believed they belonged outdoors. She fed hundreds of strays and wouldn’t kill a snake in her yard. In autumn, when the corn grown on her land leased by others had been harvested, she walked boldly among the cattle let out to graze the stubbled fields.

the-truth-in-history

Winter on the Farm by Guy Whiteley

Tim’s father started with fence repair, and since there were miles of fence, he was guaranteed steady work. But his father wasn’t the one to prolong a job just to draw out a paycheck. Tim hunted the woods skirting Mrs. Burton’s fields and occasionally stopped to talk with his father when he worked the fence closest to the woods. A sharp crack in the distance always brought his father’s head up and a smile to Mrs. Burton’s face. Then she’d drive the truck back in the direction of the shot, stopping to pick up Tim’s father, and together they’d find Tim and the deer he’d killed. She waited in the truck while Tim and his father loaded the deer in the bed.

“Now Tim, you put plenty of them newspapers down under that doe when you hang her in the barn. At least an inch thick. Sprinkle saw dust on any blood that soaks through, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Rake it up and throw it all in the burning barrel with the paper and guts when you’re through, son.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then she’d drop his father back off wherever he’d been working and drive Tim to the barn where he’d dress the deer. There was a handy block and tackle setup with a crank handle for hauling the deer up toward the rafters. Tim supposed Mr. Burton had rigged it for getting heavy stuff up to the loft. Mrs. Burton brought him hot tea and sandwiches, the same delivered to this father, and when the job was done, she’d drive him to Fulmer’s to have his deer processed.

As a reward for feeding the family, Tim’s father allowed him time off from helping with chores to tan the hides of any deer he shot. Mrs. Burton graciously let him use her barn as a workspace. It took Tim a few tries, and a lot of trips to the library, but through his trials and errors he became skilled at producing supple, quality leather. That Christmas, everyone in his family and Mrs. Burton received moccasins. The following year, he sold his hides and earned such a reputation that hunters began bringing him their hides for tanning. Tim’s father let him keep the money he earned, so Tim made sure his father saw him spending it on jeans and shoes for school, fabric for his mother to make his sisters’ dresses, and books for the three of them. Reading was the only thing he had in common with the girls.

When the fences were done, Tim’s father worked in and around the barn. Tidying and repairing kept Mrs. Burton’s farm neat as a pin which always humored Tim because she was a bit of a pack rat. At least the newspapers in the empty stalls were stacked neatly as were the towers of plastic flower pots from the nursery. If she had one of something, chances were she owned at least a dozen of whatever it was. Radios, all in working order and dusty, lined the shelves next to the wood chipper. Scythes and shovels stood like troops at attention five deep against the walls of her garage. More canning jars than she could use in a lifetime even if she broke half of them waited patiently in the cellar next to coils of chain covering the floor and shoe boxes full of different sized knives. But Mrs. Burton wasn’t stingy. From her own personal stores she’d supply whatever need demanded filling.

“Ain’t you worried about rats around here, ma’am?”

Aren’t, Tim—and no. The threat of death keeps them at bay.”

Tim assumed she meant the smell from his hides, and he worried that her comment had been a request to tan them elsewhere. He’d meant drawing rats all over the farm with the promise of hiding places and knew they were attracted by the smell of a fresh kill, not repelled. He let it go when she hinted at a pair of fur-lined slippers.

That year’s wood supply diminished quickly when the weather turned for the worse, and Tim’s father had to drag downed trees from the woods. They worked together bringing the logs in to the barn where his father sawed them into manageable pieces and split them. Tim stacked it on the back porch, sneaking a peek in the kitchen windows where he could see Mrs. Burton sitting at her kitchen table writing out recipe cards. On his third trip from the barn to the porch, he felt a twinge in his throat and a flush of heat on his cheeks. He straightened from piling wood and swiped the back of his glove across his forehead, moving shaggy, wet bangs from out of his eyes. As he did so, he made eye contact with Mrs. Burton who waved him in. She met him at the back door and led him by the arm to sit at the kitchen table.

“My boots, ma’am.”

“It’s just snow and sawdust. Nothing that won’t wipe up.”

Then she put her cool hand on his sweaty neck to draw him forward. He blinked like a toad in a hailstorm when she pressed her dry lips against his forehead and held them there for half a minute.

“Mm…hmmm… You’re fevered.”

Tim sniffed hard to no avail and employed his coat sleeve to stem the flow of what felt like hot water dripping from deep inside his head. The heavy canvas raked his nose but absorbed nothing. Mrs. Burton had turned to the stove to make chamomile tea, but even without seeing she knew to grab the box of tissues and place them on the table beside Tim.

A few minutes later as the kettle whistled, the indeterminate voice of Tim’s father rang out. His footfalls pounded the steps and back porch, preceding a woodpecker’s rap on the glass pane of the back door.

“Come in,” Mrs. Burton called.

“What’re you doing in here, boy? I been calling for you.”

“He’s got a fever.”

“That so?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Burton’s word was final, and Tim’s father finished cutting and stacking wood on his own.

“He don’t mean to be hard,” Tim said as he sipped his tea.

“He could take unemployment like other men do.”

“Naw, he couldn’t, ma’am. Pride won’t let him.”

“Mm…hmmm,” Mrs. Burton said into her own teacup. Then, “How are your studies going, Tim?”

“Good, ma’am. I got a B+ in Algebra and an A- in English.”

“How’s your Science and History?”

“I’m working a solid B in Science, but History is kind of boring.”

“And what grade does boring translate to, Tim?”

“A C-, ma’am.”

“Oh, Tim,” she said, placing her hand over his, “History is too important to forget.”

“It’s all just memorizing dates and the bad things people do to each other.”

She cooed like a dove behind her slim hand, and Tim understood her to be laughing at his assessment of History class.

“Yes, well, I suppose it’s the way History is presented that makes it interesting or not. Why don’t you slip off your coat and boots, bring your tea, and we’ll sit in the living room?”

Tim had never been in the inner sanctum of Mrs. Burton’s home. She never forbade him from entering; none of the jobs she had for him ever took him beyond the kitchen. She settled him on a love seat with a mound of embroidered pillows and a red and blue afghan. Tim’s size twelves stuck out, and he overlapped his feet to hide the hole in his sock exposing his big toe. A dull thud permeated the frosted windows; Tim’s father was splitting chunks of freshly sawn logs.

“Everyone remembers history differently, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Burton paused her rocking chair to trace her finger through a fine silt of dust on an end table. She frowned and rolled the gray film into a ball to be flicked away with her thumb.

“Did you know I used to keep this house spotless? Spotless without a single thing out of place.”

Tim couldn’t, and wouldn’t, contradict her for he had nothing to compare to except the twine tied bundles of magazines bordering the room and baskets of yarn on every available surface not taken up by a knickknack.

“Mr. Burton insisted on it. Said his mother kept a spotless house, and so would any woman fit to marry. Guess that means I wasn’t fit for marriage to Mr. Burton.”

“But you said you did keep it clean, ma’am… or do.”

“I tried at first, but my efforts always fell short. Mr. Burton could only remember how perfect his own mother was, and it’s that history that came between us.”

Tim shifted on the loveseat. He slurped tea and waited to receive whatever Mrs. Burton would say.

“Then there’s the history of excuses I made when I couldn’t be seen in public because the bruises Mr. Burton left showed up on my arms or face. Only so many times a woman can wear long sleeves in the summer or walk into an open cupboard door.”

“Ma’am?”

Longing glances toward the barn couldn’t will Tim’s father to fetch him home. All he could do was watch the windows darken with twilight. The sky thickened with clouds promising snow that night.

“I always said the dusting wasn’t going anywhere, so what’s the rush? It’d be there when I returned from grocery shopping or running errands. But Mr. Burton wanted it done now o’clock.” She chuckled at the joke. “And the pendulum of his fist always swung on time. Sometimes in the middle of the night for no reason.”

Tim coughed until his chest rattled. He had no place to expel the viscous secretion, so he pretended to sip tea and deposited in the cup.

“So I dusted, and I cleaned, and my fingers and knees went raw from my attempts to please Mr. Burton, and people called me eccentric. Said I was too particular about my house and that it was too clean for a body to feel truly welcome. That’s the history people in this town remember.”

“Ma’am, it’s getting on dark, and my father will just about be done, I’m sure.”

“There’s a light in the barn, Tim.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She licked her lips and said, “Do you think I’m eccentric, Tim?”

“Ma’am?”

“I thought I might as well live up to their opinions of me.”

“Whose, ma’am?”

“Oh, you know. Those gossipy, ole biddies at church. I started by saving newspapers because they’re so harmless and absorbent. That’s how I justified it to Mr. Burton, by making newspaper seem useful in more ways than one. He didn’t care as long as the house was dusted. Then I save wooden thread spools, bread wrappers, and twist ties because they were easy.”

Tim thought of the coffee cans of said items stacked on the kitchen counters.

“Did you know there’s a bedroom closet upstairs chock full of peanut butter, pickle, and mayonnaise jars?”

“No, ma’am. I did not.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I suppose them rocks lining the flower beds were part of it, too?”

A nightingale laugh trilled from her lips, and the passion of memory glowed in her eyes.

“Exactly, Tim. I’d forgotten the rocks. And see how easy it is to mix up the real stuff with the useless? You’re such a smart boy to remember.”

Her praise solidified them in unwanted knowledge. Tim sat forward and placed his teacup on the coffee table.

“You’ll remember my history when I’m gone, won’t you, Tim?”

“Where’re you going, ma’am?”

“I don’t care if you correct them in their erroneous beliefs; I just need one person to know the truth.”

“What truth is that, ma’am?”

“I hated dusting. Can you do that, Tim? Can you remember my history the way it really happened?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A soft silence fell between them, ruptured by Tim’s father poking his head in the back door and calling out.

“Hey, boy—I’m warming the truck, so get your stuff and c’mon.”

“Yes, sir,” Tim called back.

He and Mrs. Burton stood at the same time. She carried both cups into the kitchen and set them in the sink. With her back to Tim she said, “The only paper I never saved was the one with Mr. Burton’s obituary in it.”

Tim jammed his arm into a coat sleeve and asked why not.

“I didn’t have to. Everyone remembered for me, told me about it all the time. They never found his body, you know. They dragged the lake come spring where they thought he’d gone in, but they never found it. That lake is so big and too deep. Three in one, really.”

“What was he doing on the lake, ma’am?”

“Trying to save some little kid who’d fallen in.”

“I thought he was ice fishing. Did the kid die, too, ma’am?”

“Huh? Oh, no… I guess I was wrong. I saw a red and blue knit cap on the ice as we were driving by and figured it belonged to some kid out there skating who should of known better with the thaw making places thin. I drove back to town as fast as I could and went straight to the fire department, but it was too late. I couldn’t remember where he’d gone in. Mr. Burton was lost.”

A headache and stuffy ears made it hard for Tim to think. Finally, he asked, “Where were you coming from that day, ma’am?”

“I don’t understand? What do you mean, Tim?”

“When you and Mr. Burton were driving by the lake, where were you coming from?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t suppose, but you remember everything else so well, ma’am.”

“Very good, Tim. We must keep our histories truthful.” She took a deep breath. “From the hardware in Austinville.”

“Why over there, ma’am, when we got a perfectly good hardware in town?”

“Because the road back took us past the lake, Tim.”

“What did you buy in Austinville, ma’am?”

“Matches, Tim. I had a lot of stuff in the burning barrel that needed burning that night.”

Three honks from the driveway told Tim to hurry up. He zipped his coat and shoved his feet into his boots without tying them.

“You take tomorrow off, okay Tim?”

“Yes, ma’am. My mom’ll make sure I don’t escape the house for school or work once she finds out I’m sick. I’ll be laid up with Vicks all over my chest and a hot water bottle tucked in my side. She still gives me baby aspirin, but at least I get ginger ale and popsicles.”

Mrs. Burton smiled at Tim’s mother’s doctoring skills.

“Well, it sounds reasonable to me.”

“I’ll see you when I see you, ma’am.”

“Goodbye, Tim.”

Mrs. Burton watched Tim and his father out of sight. In the morning she’d take a bag of horehound over and see how Tim was faring.

The Ashtray

A low rumble buzzed in the little dog’s chest. His wet obsidian eyes watched the young man moving about the room gathering items and folding clothes to be placed in the suitcase lying open on the bed. Gary Hoover didn’t pay the terrier mix no mind; he knew the dog took its cue from its mistress. His mother got the dog when Gary was three; she called the mongrel her second son.

Like any other day, today found Lisbeth Hoover installed in her favorite armchair with the dog wedged between the ham of her thigh and the armrest. One massive hand with fingers splayed across the dog’s back lent comfort to the agitated beast. The other held her trademark Marlboro, and the candy dish on the table beside her overflowed with ash.

“Peppy don’t like whatch yer doin’,” Lisbeth said.

“I can’t do it nowhere else,” Gary replied.

He considered pulling the curtain across the wire strung from one side of the living room to the other. His father put up the makeshift divider when they moved in to the miniature apartment. He had secured the heavy gauge wire he brought home from work with eyebolts in the burgundy walls.

“Looks like a whorehouse in here,” Lisbeth had complained.

“Yeah…well…”

His father never finished his sentence. He never finished looking for a job that would pay for an apartment where Gary could have a real bedroom. He also never finished his marriage or his promise to teach Gary how to pitch a baseball. The only thing he finished doing was leaving bruises on Lisbeth’s face and arms. Gary was five when they had moved in, six when his father left.

That was the day Lisbeth sat down. She sat and smoked, watching the sun come up and continuing long after Gary had gone to bed. His ample mother smoked and became a mountain of flesh spilling over the chair, conforming it to her shape. Every few years, a new chair had to be found in a secondhand store and dragged home because they didn’t own a car and had no friend’s willing to haul it for them. Lisbeth and Gary ended up on some kind of assistance because his mother couldn’t work. He really never did know why.

What he did know was that their life was as secondhand as the chairs his mother ruined. Food stamps, government cheese, turkeys and hams from the Catholic Church every Thanksgiving and Christmas, clothing and shoes from the Salvation Army. Fist fights behind the school for wearing items recognized by their former owners. The fabric of their existence reeked with the smoke of failure not unlike the flowered upholstery covering his mother’s latest acquisition.

the-ashtrayThe only nice thing they owned was the carnival glass candy dish his father’s mother had given Lisbeth on her wedding day. As a toddler, Gary earned a hard smack to this pudgy hand the first time he ever reached for the dish. His blue eyes, level with the table where the dish sat, never released the brimming tears. He could stare for hours at the amber glass shimmering with rainbow iridescence, and often did, falling asleep in front of the table on which it stood as if reluctant to abandon a sacred shrine.

His grandmother would cover him with a blanket. His mother started using the candy dish as an ashtray. His family was told to find someplace else to live, and Gary never saw his grandmother again. At least they were allowed to take the ashtray with them as they began the house-hopping journey that led them to this place.

The beautiful dish couldn’t contain the quantity of ash Lisbeth deposited within its fluted borders. Even she knew it wasn’t suitable for the purpose to which it had been condemned. Gary always emptied the dish two or three times a day without being asked or thanked. He would barely have it back in place before another inch of spent tobacco would drop off. Sometimes it would land on the table or chair, and once on Lisbeth’s threadbare dress, and burn an abstract pattern into whatever it touched.

Less mesmerizing than the carnival glass was the never-ending smoke curling upward from the tip of Lisbeth’s cigarette. It trailed through the bird’s nest of grizzled hair framing his mother’s face, staining the gray yellow, before it moved on to touch the doilies, lampshades, and ceiling with its filthy fingers. His mother, ensconced in the arm chair in the dark corner of the red room with the shades pulled and smoke wreathed about her head, presented a glimpse into hell.

“What’s this fancy school got you think you need so bad?” Lisbeth asked. She ran her big paw over Peppy’s head, stretching his eyes until the whites showed and yanking his ears.

“I earned me a place with my good grades. You’d of known if you’d come to graduation.”

“In what—this piece of shit dress? All I ever had I gave up for you. I was the one that stayed, remember?”

What Gary remembered was every bitter word his mother used to fight his father for not being the man she loved. He waited for the familiar version of events to spill from Lisbeth’s slack mouth.

“I didn’t ask for his sorry hand in marriage. That was my daddy’s doing when he learnt you was on the way. I coulda been a soldier’s wife, going to fancy military balls and wearing long dresses and pearls. Your daddy, your real daddy, was a marine.”

Gary’s hands trembled as he buckled the straps in the suitcase then closed the lid and locked it.

“I’m going to study mathematics at the university, and I got a job at a warehouse loading trucks to help pay,” Gary said.

“Well you be sure to send notice of your highfalutin self to your daddy living over in Coyle with his new wife and kids.”

The young man stood with his suitcase gripped in one hand, a bus ticket in the other. He wasn’t sure how much of what his mother said was true or which man she spoke of. His eyes were trained like a pointer’s on the only door leading out of their firetrap apartment. He tucked his ticket under his arm, walked to the door, opened it, and said, “I’m leaving for school now, Momma.”

“I see that, Son.”

Another caterpillar of ash crept from Lisbeth’s cigarette.  She watched it fall on the growing pyramid in the beautiful ashtray.

Neighbors

It starts with a funeral.  Why does it take great tragedy to bring people together, Cathy Higgins wonders as she stands in line with her husband, Jake, waiting to hug Mr. Robertson’s son, Dan.  The line of mourners trails all the way from the casket, around the sanctuary, and out the door of the church.  Cathy pulls at the front of her blouse trying to puff some air into the collar sticking to her neck.  She wishes they could inch a few steps forward into the shade of the roof overhang.

A week ago, Jake asked Cathy if she’d seen Mr. Robertson mowing his yard or pottering around the outbuildings on his property.  She hadn’t, and as luck would have it, when Jake left for work that evening, he saw Dan mowing with his father’s tractor.  He pulled into the driveway, shouted and waved to get Dan’s attention.

“Hey, we haven’t seen your dad around for a couple of weeks, and we’re wondering if he’s okay.”

Dan shook his head; his crooked smile told the story.  Jake called Cathy on his cell as he drove on to work to report back the sad news.  For some reason, Cathy called her family to tell them, not that any of them really knew Mr. Robertson beyond the fact that he was the neighbor.

Air conditioning blasts from the open double doors of the church.  Cathy can feel it now that she and Jake are within range of the building.  They really should shut the doors in between people, she thinks.  It would stay cooler inside and not waste electricity and money.  Her laughter escapes as breath expelled from her nose at the weird thought.  She’s always thinking odd stuff like this; probably the result of growing up and hearing such admonitions regarding the closing of doors when the air is on and refrigerators when they are running.

Jake waves to someone ahead of them in the line.  He taps Cathy on the shoulder and gently takes her by the arm.  She scowls for a moment when she understands they are jumping line to join whomever Jake spied.  It is Fran Mencer whose backyard is perpendicular to the Higgins’s.  Her home faces the side street as does Mr. Robertson’s who lived next door to Jake and Cathy.

“Hi,” Fran says in that long drawn out way that conveys I’m so glad to see you, but I hate that it’s under these circumstances.  The light in her eyes is at odds with the grim smile on her face.

She and Cathy hug, and the line jumping is forgotten.  At least by Cathy who is relieved to run into someone she knows.  She went to school with Dan Robertson, but they traveled in different circles, and neither she nor Jake ever met his sister and brother.  The Higginses don’t even know if there are spouses to be consoled.

“Can you believe this?” Fran says.

“Was he sick?” Cathy asks.  “We hadn’t seen him out in the yard for a couple weeks, so we thought maybe he’d gone on vacation.”

Fran shook her head.

“He’d been in the hospital for a while.  Declined rapidly.  His old heart finally gave out.”

“Oh, boy.  I wish I’d known.”

“I tried to call you a couple of times, but your line was disconnected.”

Cathy’s eyebrows knit for a moment, and then she says, “Oh, we let our landline go several months ago.”

A thought flickers through Cathy’s head:  the yards aren’t so big that one couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house with important news.  In the next second, her eyes widen and a knife stabs her heart.

“When I lost Buddy this past spring right after Pop passed, I pretty much went to bed for the summer.”

Oh dear Lord…how did we not know that Buddy and Pop died this spring, Cathy thinks.  Her husband and father in the same yearPlay it off or admit we didn’t know?

“Oh, Fran, I’m so sorry,” Cathy says, trying to cover all her bases.

How many times had she meant to walk across the yards and visit Fran?  Tea and a chat was always the invitation.  Cathy cannot discern what Jake is feeling beneath the shock on his face, but her stomach is heavy with the lead of guilt.

After talking with Dan Robertson, reminiscing about his dad, hearing how things are not going well in the absence of a will, and offering final condolences and goodbyes, Jake and Cathy leave hand in hand.  They look at the blacktop sprinkled with curled leaves dried from end-of-summer heat, falling before the autumn frosts have even arrived.  Neither speaks on the short trip home.

They change out of their dress clothes and wander outside to sit in lawn chairs, instinctively looking toward Mr. Robertson’s home.  Funny that we never called him by his first name, Cathy thinks.  Maybe because he was the oldest in our little neighborhood.  She and Jake always thought of themselves, Fran and Buddy, and Mr. Robertson as the neighborhood.

Their neighborhood:  not a sidewalk in sight, no fences between the yards, homes built on old farmland.  Deer still migrate through the yards as they hopscotch from cornfield to cornfield, foxes sneak through on their dainty paws, and hawks wheel in the endless skies above.  Fancy allotments with two and three thousand-square foot homes are popping up peripherally.

The Matulevich family lives across the street from Cathy and Jake.  Not a lot of contact past the occasional friendly wave, but Mr. Matulevich’s brother lives three doors down on the same side as the Higginses, and he is quite friendly.  He used to till the garden for Cathy every summer with his Bobcat until she gave up gardening for watercolor painting.

Across from Mr. Robertson are Clarice and Al Robertson, no relation, in the triplexes lining the side street.  They were there long before the Higginses built, permanent renters, and Cathy usually runs into one or both of them at garage sales every summer.

But so many other families come and go from these homes that Cathy and Jake gave up trying to learn who they were.  Still, unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent waves, smiles, and pulling cars out of snowdrifts when necessary.  That’s just how it is in this part of town that is somewhere between the suburbs and rural living.

img_20161030_173746250_hdrA month or more passes with Jake and Cathy falling back into the routine of work and lawn care for him and tending the house inside and out for her.  Always so much to do and never enough time to do it.  And then Jake comes in the house one day after putting his tractor away for the season.

“Fran is out back push mowing the yard.”

Cathy lays down the laundry she is folding and follows her husband outside.  They walk across the length of their backyard and two-thirds of Fran’s before finally reaching her.  These plots really are quite spacious, Cathy thinks.

“What are you doing?” Jake asks with laughter and gentle reprimand in his voice.

“I know, but I took some pain pills before I started and thought I’d work in patches,” Fran laughs in reply.

Jake offers to cut the yard however many times are needed until the November rains come.  The trio chats a bit; they end up inside Fran’s house with coffee, and they chat some more.

This time, Cathy thinks, we will be good neighbors.

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