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THE FOOD ANGEL

Beverly Mitchell Dodd

It’s gone, all the money I sweated for last summer and fall, at first picking those nasty berries, and then entering data for crazy old Peppitone. Mum called it borrowing, a little here, a little there, until there wasn’t a cent left.

Right now she’s calling us, Marta and me. I’ve just taken a break from my library book, the one about astronomy, and I’m watching the falling snow outside the window of our bedroom. It’s really the attic. Heck, there’s no wallboard on the ceiling or the walls even, just that silver insulation junk. It doesn’t keep out much of the cold either; sometimes Marta and I have to wear our coats up here.

Well, Marta heard Mum calling. Marta’s bedsprings are creaking. Here she is, pulling back the curtain that separates her “room” from mine. Her lips are all red and puffy from being asleep, plus they’re chapped from the cold.

It’s didn’t used to be this way—the blanket partition, I’m talking about. We used to be close when we were little girls; we’d push our beds together in winter and snuggle to keep warm. But Marta wouldn’t dream of that now.

“I wonder what she’s concocted tonight,” I offer to her Highness. “Whatever, it couldn’t be worse than yesterday’s green gelatin. And baking powder biscuits, ninety percent baking powder.”

Her Highness surveys me coldly. My words are insignificant. “Quit complaining,” she commands and strides toward the narrow stairwell on my side of the attic. She is toothpick tall, holds her head high, her shoulders straight. Marta never slouches.

I sigh, snap my library book shut, and follow her down the stairs, past the two second-story bedrooms, down another flight of stairs to the dining room. Here Mum is waiting.

She stands at one end of the rickety wooden table, our baby sister on her hip. The table is set with burgundy-colored china she keeps stored in a cardboard box in her bedroom. She’s saving it for the day she’s going to own a china cabinet. She gestures for us to join our little brothers, Jeremy and Brian, who’re already sitting at their places.

Mum sits too, adjusting the baby on her lap, and draws a deep breath. “There’s no food left in the house,” she announces. “Absolutely none.”

Well, duh, I’m thinking, and then suddenly remembering, I glance at Marta. I wonder if she’ll remind Mum that there’re two bouillon cubes in the kitchen cupboard that we both know are reserved for useless, sick old Hal. But none of the muscles in Marta’s skinny white face change; her dark brown eyes stay focused on our mum at the head of the table.

“You remember what they’ve been teaching us at church, though,” Mum continues, “about faith.”

I look up, and she’s staring directly at me. I know why. It’s because after asking Mr. Elwin my question, I never set foot again on that painted-over school bus they send from church on Sundays.

“So, I’ve set the table,” Mum’s saying. “I’m going to say grace. Then we’re going to wait for the food I’m sure will be provided. If only we believe.”

“How will it come?” Jeremy asks. His face is all excited-looking, and I feel very sick.

Right away Brian has an answer for him. “An angel will bring it.”

I know without looking again at Mum that she’s smiling, all soft-like and approving. Her face looks a little better when she smiles; it’s lined so bad, even though she only just turned thirty-seven—that’s really not all that old. Sometimes I try to imagine what she looked like when she was a girl, with straight shoulders then, and tall like Marta, not short like me. But I can’t remember when Mum’s bony shoulders weren’t curved in toward her chest, wrapped around our newest baby brother or sister.

Well, she’s saying grace now; everyone’s eyes are closed but mine, so I peek at Marta. I concentrate my stare at her bowed head, hoping she’ll sense it and look up. Sometimes that works with my friends at school, but not much with Marta, and certainly not now. Marta isn’t anything like my friends either; she’s not like anyone but herself.

It’s over finally. I feel embarrassed, sick. Maybe it’s the hunger. It couldn’t be the situation. The waiting. The baby fussing. I hear the rustling of Mum’s blouse; at least one of her kids is getting fed. Everything’s still and quiet except our baby sister’s gulps. We’re still waiting. Then he, Hal, Jeremy’s and Brian’s and our baby sister’s dad—not Marta’s or mine—stirs and groans from the downstairs bedroom.

“Marta, please fill the teakettle for Hal,” Mum asks, and Marta scrapes her chair from the table. The two boys are getting fidgety. Hal calls louder, and Mum goes into the bedroom. This is my chance to escape to the attic, where I lie face down on my bed. It helps the hunger cramps in my stomach. I fall asleep, and when I wake up, I hear Marta flipping pages on the other side of the blanket partition.

I roll to my back, shivering like a newborn pup, listening to the clock ticking loudly in my ear and to Marta changing positions, turning another page. It’s still early—a few minutes after six. I sit up and swish the blanket partition with my foot.

“Can I come over there, Marta?”

“Why?”

“I have to talk.”

“I can hear you from here.”

“It’s important.”

She flips another page, heaves this huge sigh. “All right, two minutes.”

I push aside the curtain and step into her sacred room. I perch carefully on the edge of her bed. Just a few months ago her room was even messier than mine; now it’s all neat and perfect. All those books and magazines she used to read—about parapsychology, star children, extraterrestrials, after-life experiences—they’re all stacked on the floor against the outer wall. The magazine she’s reading now is one from church.

“Hal doesn’t take very good care of this family, does he?” I ask.

“He’s sick.”

“Then why doesn’t he see a doctor?”

“Doctors are expensive. They…Mother does the best she can.”

“She didn’t do her best by him. By our derelict dad either.”

Marta flips a page of her magazine so hard it rips half way down.

But I never know when to quit. I just blurt out, “The kids at school would never believe this.”

“Believe what?”

“That we’re starving.”

Marta makes a strange noise in her throat; she looks up with eyes that assure me I’m an idiot. “We’ve gone for food for less than twenty-four hours,” she says. “Some people have fasted for longer than that.”

“Not little kids like Jeremy and Brian.”

“They let them charge lunches in the elementary.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. No lunches to be charged.”

“They’ll live. We’ll all live. Mother prayed for the check Hal’s waiting on to be in the mail tomorrow.”

“The check from Henderson? The last time Hal did a job for him, he didn’t get paid for three months.”

She’s not going to dignify my statement with an answer. She turns back to the magazine, her eyes traveling back and forth across the page. Oblivious to me.

It’s the same way she was at lunch in school today, sitting by herself at the end of the seniors’ table, with no food tray, shoulders straight, no expression on her face to make anyone suspect she was hungry. I was entering the cafeteria with the juniors, just about ready to ask my friend Sara if I could borrow some lunch money when I spotted Marta, so brave, so stoic. “Never mind,” I’d told Sara.

“Marta,” I say now, hesitantly, slowly, “I have an idea. But I need you to help me carry it through.”

“What idea?”

“I’m going to get some money, food, something…a job, maybe.”

“What are you blathering about?”

“I’m going to Miss Peppitone’s tonight. I’m going to get my job back.”

“How? We’ve no car.”

“I’ll walk.”

“Five miles in this cold, this storm? Mother won’t allow it.”

“I know that. That’s why I need you to cover for me, tell her I’m asleep if she calls up here. Will you do it?”

“You shouldn’t go. You should wait.”

“Wait for what?” I ask, lifting the blanket. She follows me to my half of the attic. I wriggle into a second pair of jeans. Fortunately, my jacket, gloves, and boots, are all up here instead of in the kitchen where I usually throw them.

“Those clothes aren’t adequate. You’ll freeze,” Marta informs me while I search for my flashlight under my bed. I use it to read by whenever Marta yells that my lamplight is shining through the blanket and keeping her awake.

“You will cover for me?” I ask again as I go to the window, working the frame back and forth to free it from the ice. Marta doesn’t answer as I lower myself down the outside of the house, feeling with my foot for the second-story roof, which I drop to with a thud. I slide a little from the snow but stop myself with my hands.

Marta sticks her head out the window above me. “You should wait,” she hollers down. She doesn’t seem at all concerned about my safety now. Her voice sounds almost threatening.

I lower myself to the kitchen roof. From here I can easily leap to the snow bank piled high at the end of the driveway. I pass the car Hal drove that last day he worked two weeks ago; it had sputtered, bucked, and then totally died a few yards from the house. Marta and I had helped him push it into the driveway, and then he’d stumbled into the house, as sick and useless as his old car.

I start down the dark highway that is scraped clean by the snowplows. When I pass the lighted houses, spaced far apart out here in the country, I flick off my flashlight to save the batteries. I catch figures behind the windows and wish I were them, warm without a rumbling belly. The snow’s let up some, but crystallized now, stinging my face. A mile and a half, maybe two to the turn, I tell myself. My feet are already aching from the cold.

Finally, here’s the turn that leads to the outskirts of the village. I only have to pass three more houses. Soon I see the name of her store in the rays of my flashlight: Peppitone’s Antiques and Sundries. At my knock on the side door, a light flicks on above my head. She opens the inner door, peering at me through the glass storm door. It only takes a second before she recognizes me. “Come on in out of that storm, Elizabeth,” she orders.

I enter what’s supposed to be the living room. No couches, chairs, or TV here. Just file cabinets and tables. Her humongous antique desk takes up half of one wall. It’s all cluttered and piled high with files and purchase forms. From the kitchen comes the usual stink of rotting food scraps. I think for a minute I might puke and wonder whether anyone would take even one step into her shop if they knew she lived like this just feet away in the back, behind all the merchandise.

“I didn’t hear a car,” she says, craning her neck at the window.

“A friend dropped me off at the corner.”

“Oh?” She juts out her face at me, staring with those cloudy, colorless eyes.

“Sara told me she quit here. I thought maybe…well, that you might hire me back.”

She’s pretty quiet. She’s probably thinking of that day last summer when I refused to scrape a possum carcass from the pavement and sling it into the weeds off to the side of the highway. Other kids who’d worked for her had warned me that she’d try to make me help her clean up road kill. For a pittance extra pay, too. I’d thought they were joking. I’d leaped from that old car so fast. I think I called her a crazy old bat, said I didn’t need her stinking job, and I preferred to walk the rest of the way home.

“You came here, in this storm, to ask for your job back?” she’s asking now.

“I sort of need the money.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble, Elizabeth?”

I convince her I’m not, so she points to a smaller desk with a ten-year-old computer plunked in the middle. Nothing too high-tech here. I set to work on the inventory sheets that have piled up since Sara quit. In a tattered bathrobe tied over polyester pants, Peppitone shuffles on over to her own desk. She mutters away as her fingers fly over her ancient adding machine; she stops every now and then to fix a hairpin that’s slipped out of gray hair scrunched up like a jelly roll around her face. I wonder just how old she is.

Forty-five minutes drag by. I’m dizzy, and my stomach rumbles. She can’t hear it, can she? She’s shuffling to the kitchen and comes back with a plate of graham crackers spread with honey and peanut butter.

Times before, when she made me these snacks that smelled just like her rotting kitchen, I’d hold my breath to take a little bite, and then when she looked the other way, stuff them beneath papers in the waste basket. Tonight, I just about inhale those crackers, and when I look up, I catch her staring.

She doesn’t say anything, though, just pays me for an hour’s work and says she’ll pick me up tomorrow afternoon after her neighbor drives her to the repair shop to get her car. But how will I get home tonight?

My friend’s meeting me at the corner, I tell her, and she gives me a weird look. Then she shuffles to a door near the kitchen. It opens into a musty cellarway filled with shelves of mason jars. Pulling down three, she says, “Avery up the road canned this soup and gave me some. I’ll never eat it all. Take these off my hands, will you, Elizabeth? I’ll get a bag.”

 

****

 

There’s no snow stinging my face on the way back. The wind has died; everything is white and quiet and about ten degrees colder. By the time I get to the turn that plastic bag of canned soup is heavy, clinking against my leg. My flashlight is dim, my fingers and toes throb, and my stomach growls angrily again. I hate it between houses, hate leaving their streams of warm light. I’m scared and reassured at the same time when cars pass. Three quarters of the way home, along a stretch with no houses, my flashlight totally dies. I’ve only the light from the snow and my memory of the curves and bend of the road. Up ahead is the bridge that means I’ve only about a mile and a half to go.

There’s a noise, a rustle, near the water beneath the bridge when I cross. At first I think it’s just a deer, but then the noise gets louder. There’s a crackling sound, and something is running right up the bank and onto the bridge behind me. I scream and break into a run myself, never slowing down until it feels like icicles in my lungs and at the same time sweat collects beneath my layers of clothes. Horror stories of hypothermia replay in my head. I glance behind and see that nothing is there; it’s all dark and silent like before; that is, until the bag of mason jars slips from my hand. I don’t know why. I guess it’s because my fingers are frozen.

I just know all the jars are broken, shards of glass and dinner floating in a plastic bag. I start bawling. It’s dumb, I know. I’m still scared, I guess, or maybe it’s the hunger. I can’t stop, though, even when I check and see that possibly only one jar’s a goner.

Here in the dark, my wet face turning to ice, I start to figure it out. It’s not fear making me feel bad, not being cold and hungry either, or even a cracked jar of soup. It’s too many months of a blanket partition and icy, scornful stares. I’d totally humiliated her, that’s what she told Mum after church that morning I asked Mr. Elwin my question in Sunday-school class. I couldn’t help it; something was bothering me about what he was telling us. I wanted him to explain how vegetation could grow all over the earth on the third day of creation, before the sun was stuck in the firmament on the fourth. “There’s this thing called photosynthesis,” I tried to explain as he quickly scanned the Genesis verses.

“There’s light; it says there was light,” he interrupted.

“But where did it come from? What was it? Another sun?”

“The answers to such questions we need not know if we have faith,” he declared. Then drawing himself up to his fullest height and puffing out his chest, he announced, “In fact, it is not our place or our right to question God’s Word.”

The class was very quiet. Marta had become a skinny limestone rock formation. I felt hot even to the ends of my hair. I decided right then and there I’d never go back. Just like right now, I’m deciding not to just stand here, freezing to death, no matter how rotten I feel. As I start out walking again, I start a little chant, “One more mile, one more mile, one more mile to go…”

And there it is. I can see it when I round the next curve, about a quarter of a mile ahead: the three lighted stories of our big old, falling-apart house.

 

****

 

Mum goes spastic, of course. She plays the furious mother role while heating the soup on the stove. She asks what I told Miss Peppitone, and I assure her that no one is the wiser about our “situation.” Marta keeps her distance, not saying a word. I glance at her, but she turns her face away.

The soup is rich and more filling than I could have imagined. Mum tells Marta to take a bowl to Hal, and when Marta returns to the kitchen, Mum ladles up some soup for her. But Marta shakes her head. “I don’t much care for that kind,” she says.

“You don’t much care…?” Mum’s mouth hangs open, and Marta kind of vanishes from the kitchen. But I can hear her quiet footsteps on the first set of stairs, and then the second.

It’s now that the strangeness comes. I’m not sure if I can describe it. It’s like looking through heat waves maybe, rising from sun-soaked blacktop in summer, something that makes the furniture, my little brothers, and Mum seem rippling and far away. I’m afraid, the way I was on the bridge. Am I letting my imagination run wild again? I blink my eyes. I get up and grab the bowl of soup meant for Marta. Maybe the hot china touching my fingers will make the strangeness go away.

But it surrounds me, becomes a part of me as I carry the soup up the two flights of stairs. I’m sad, the way I was the time Marta pinned up the blanket partition. I’m nervous too, like when my flashlight gave out on the dark road, and I had to find another way to see where I was going.

She’s sitting on my bed, staring out the window when I reach our room. She doesn’t acknowledge my presence when I come around and place the bowl of soup on the little plastic table beside my bed.

I try to reach out past the strangeness and joke, just one more time, the way I did when we were younger. “Go ahead, Marta. It’s all right. You don’t have to eat crow. Mum doesn’t know I brought this up.”

She just stares out the window.

“Marta,” I insist weakly, a useless attempt to come back from far, far away. “He’s not out there. The food angel’s not coming.”

I jump a little when she finally looks up. Her face is all twisted, as if she’s really angry, maybe a little sad too, like me. Her jaw is set as if she’s trying not to cry. She stands up and marches to the blanket partition. She grabs a part of the material so hard it makes a ripping sound. But it doesn’t come down; it’s only a tiny rip. She swings around, her eyes all fierce and glowing. “He would have,” she says in a low, determined voice. “He would have, if only you hadn’t interfered.”

 

 

© Copyright 1991 by Beverly Mitchell Dodd.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this short story

may be used or reproduced in any manner.

 

1955-1957

 

Jennifer L. Dodd

 

The hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus” echoed throughout the church. Before they said their vows, my brother and his bride sang a duet of the hymn to pay tribute to our mother, who had died two years before. I remembered when I was a little girl, Mother had played that tune on the old country church piano. In my mind, I could still envision her hands gently stroking those cracked ivory keys. As she played I would admire the scene on the stained glass window in which Mary held her baby tightly.

After the wedding, I remained seated in the pew and was left behind by the guests rushing to congratulate the bride and groom outside. As I sat there, the words of the duet continued to flow through me, and I could not celebrate. Memories of a long-ago winter would not let me.

 

****

 

It was the winter of 1957. I woke to the sounds of my three sisters breathing heavily next to me. Turning over to my side, I pulled the covers closer to my body. I peered out the cracked window of our bedroom. The sky was clear, and the moon was the bedroom’s night-light. I could see my breath as the brisk air seeped through the crevices of the windowsill. On the bottom half of the window, frost gathered, painting beautiful abstract designs.

Morning came quickly as I drifted in and out of sleep. My mother nudged us all awake. My sisters rolled out of bed, and I gathered their share of the covers closer to me. Before I could fall back asleep, my mother poked me with her finger.

“Ana, get up and go get some water from the well. Hurry, we’ll be late for church.”

I pushed the covers off, and the cold sucked the heat from my body, leaving a rash of goose pimples. I quickly threw on several layers: one tattered undershirt, a thin, long-sleeve shirt, and a severely worn sweater and trousers. I grabbed a bucket from underneath the kitchen sink. The tree branches hung low and were heavy with icicles. More snow had fallen in the path where Father had shoveled to the well. I tramped through the mounds of snow, which were too deep for my boots. Snow slid inside, soaking my socks.

I struggled with the well spigot, clenched my fingers around the handle, and pulled upward until my knuckles turned red. The sores on my chapped hands split open. Feeling the cold air sting my cuts, I gave up, dipped the bucket into a pile of snow, and brought it inside.

“What’s this?” my mother asked.

“The handle is frozen; we’ll have to boil this.”

My mother gave me a strange look but spooned the snow into a pot. Father gathered wood and put another log in the stove. My younger sisters were making hot chocolate and toasting bread. The smell of the rich cocoa made my stomach rumble. I made sure my twin brothers were washed up and ready for church. We huddled around the stove. The heat barely reached any other room. I set my little brothers on the floor, laid napkins in front of them, and broke apart their toast. We ate quickly, making sure not to leave any crumbs behind.

As we all cleaned up, Father warmed the car and put the last of the gas into the tank. Father had spent the remainder of his paycheck to fill the gas can so we could go to church. It seemed as if there was never enough money for both food and gas. As much as I enjoyed the church atmosphere, I often wondered why we couldn’t have a family service at home. Bread never filled me up.

During the pastor’s sermon, I felt tired and found myself nodding off. His voice droned on and on. My mother shook me awake.

“Jeezus,” I muttered.

My mother bent over and rasped, “You will not say the Lord’s name in vain.”

I peered around. Most of the people had their hands raised in the air. Many chanted, “Thank you, Jesus, my Lord, my Savior!” I heard one person shout, “Praise the Lord!” from across the room.

After the sermon, my mother quietly took her place at the piano. She began the introduction to “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” In the background, I heard the pastor saying, “Come, let Him hear our voices. Let’s sing God’s praises.”

I woke early the next morning to the sound of my brother crying. As usual, my sisters slept soundly. Mother and Father slept in the farthest bedroom from my brother’s. I lifted my brother from his crib, which was getting too small for him. His face seemed awfully pale, so I took him to my mother.

“Mother, Mother, wake up!”

“Ana? What’s the matter?” she muttered.

“I think Joey’s sick.”

“Give him here. He’ll be all right. Go back to bed,” she said, laying him down between Father and her.

Several weeks passed, but Joey didn’t seem to get better. Mother spent a great deal of time with him, so after finishing my geometry and history lessons, I helped my sisters with their homework and did the afternoon chores. Joey had developed a deep cough, and my mother continually wiped his nose. My other brother, Simon, slept in a separate room because Joey was sick.

“Mother, Joey doesn’t look any better,” I said to her one afternoon. “He needs a doctor.” I thought I saw fear in her eyes. But just for an instant.

“He’ll be fine. He’s just got a little cold.” She wrapped him in a blanket and kissed his forehead.

“He has more than just a cold. That cough sounds horrible.”

“I’ve asked God to make him well again. He’ll be better soon.” Mother really believed this. She was telling me what her parents had told her and what my great-grandparents had told them.

Maybe it was just a cold, I thought. That night before I went to bed, I said a special prayer for Joey. I asked God to keep my little brother safe and make him well again. As I drifted into unconsciousness, I found myself kneeling in complete darkness. My skin was lighter than normal in contrast to the blackness of my dream. I knelt there praying as I had done before I’d gone to bed. I found myself repeating the same words. I waited for my Lord and Savior to come and tell me everything was going to be all right, but I kneeled alone in the darkness. I watched as my limbs began to disappear until there was nothing. I knew nothing, thought nothing, and could feel nothing.

The next morning on Saturday, I rose late. My sisters were engrossed in their game of jacks. My youngest sister, Marlina, informed me that Mother had made a trip to the store, and I was to keep an eye on the twins while Father worked outside in the barn. I heard Joey and went to his room. He gasped for air and gagged when he coughed.

I walked out into the room where my sisters were playing.

“When did Mother leave?” I asked.

“About an hour ago,” my youngest sister Carrie said.

“Joey needs some medicine,” I said.

“He’s getting better, Ana,” Carrie replied.

“What are you talking about? Is everyone blind?”

“I’m not blind. Mamma said God would make him better,” Marlina said. I knew she was too small to understand how sick Joey really was.

“God has answered our prayers before. He’ll answer them again,” my middle sister Cassie said.

“You guys have no id…” I was interrupted by the front door slamming.

“How’s Joey?” Mother asked.

“I really think he needs to go to the doctor,” I told her.

“With what money, Ana?”

“Jesus Christ! If we didn’t always spend our money on gas to go to church, Joey would be getting better.”

My mother’s hand flew across my face, sending me to the floor. Involuntary tears formed in my eyes. I rubbed my cheek where it stung from the pain.

She said, “Read this and watch your mouth.” She handed me the Bible.

Mother left the room, and I shoved the Bible back on the shelf where she kept it. She just would not see Joey wasn’t going to get any better.

I sat with him through the night. I could hear him wheeze and gasp. His agony brought a heavy pain to my chest. After an episode of him coughing, I noticed blood in the corners of his mouth. His fingers and toes were slightly blue. I picked him up and cradled him in my arms and rocked him in the rocking chair. Suddenly he began to shake violently in my arms. I tried to hold him tighter. Blood sprayed from his mouth onto my nightgown. Then he was still.

 

****

 

I took a deep breath, rose from my seat, and proceeded to leave. I turned around for one more look at the piano that sat on the church’s small stage and gazed again at the stained glass window where Mary held her baby. The candles that were once lit had melted down, and the flames had died out. I walked out the door.

 

© 2002 Copyright by Jennifer L. Dodd.

All rights reserved. No part of this short story

may be used or reproduced in any manner.