Fiction Friday: “A Story to Tell” Chapter 16

As I told someone last week, I’m annoyed at the Blanche story being so depressing and serious at times but honestly, it feels like it is telling itself and that’s how it goes. I know that sounds weird – a story “telling itself” but that’s how it feels when I write – like I’m just transcribing what someone else is telling me.

I’ve thought about changing the days I publish these excerpts since not a lot of people probably read blog posts on Fridays but I couldn’t pull myself from the alliteration of Fiction Friday so I’m leaving it on Fridays.

If you need to catch up on Blanche’s story you can find links to the other chapter’s HERE.


 

“Shut him up, Blanche!” Hank shouted at me, staggering from the bedroom, bleary-eyed. “I have to get up for work in a few hours!”

“I’m trying,” I said, squeezing a dropper of gripe water into Jackson’s tiny mouth.

I started to rub Jackson’s belly like Hannah had done as I held him on my lap, his crying fading slowly as Hank stood over me, scowling.

“I’m going back to bed,” Hank snapped and disappeared into the darkness of our room. “Just keep him quiet.”

I cradled Jackson against me and laid a blanket across us on the couch, hoping not to wake Hank again that night.

I opened my journal and skipped past the pages where I’d written about Jackson being born and the entries about how he wouldn’t stop crying, how I felt like a failure as a mom.

I started to write, trying to settle my thoughts.

How did I get here? How did I end up with a baby at 19? It all seemed to happen so fast. I used to be so smart, but I have never felt so dumb. This isn’t the life I expected. This isn’t how I thought being married to Hank would be. God, will I always be this lost and confused? And what do I do about Hank? He’s so mean and hurtful. What if he hurts Jackson one day? Lord, I’m scared. If you’re there, help me to know what to do.

I thought about what Miss Mazie had said about praying for Hank. I tried, but I didn’t really know how. Praying wasn’t something I did often or that came easily for me.

God, please be with Hank. Please help him to talk to me again. Please help him to be nice again. Please help this baby to be okay and for me to be a good mama.

It was all I had, all I knew to say. Maybe someday I’d pray more eloquent prayers but for now all I could do was ask for simple things.

***

“You been reading about those KKK groups down South?” Hank asked me, looking at the newspaper on the table.

He was scraping the last of the mashed potatoes off his plate as I sat down to eat.

“Yes, they sound awful,” I said.

Hank shrugged.

“My cousin said he’s starting a group down home in Pennsylvania,” he said. “They’re going to tell those darkies that moved into town they aren’t welcome – starting with that preacher’s wife.”

The coldness in Hank’s voice startled me.

“Why would they do that?” I asked. “Lillian’s a good woman.”

“You have to know something, Blanche,” Hank said, lifting his glass of milk. “Those people aren’t as smart as us. They don’t think like we do. We can’t have them coming up here and demanding to be treated the same as us like they’re trying to do down south. They want to take our jobs, our women and look at that dumb preacher – I guess they want to take the men too, infiltrate their way into our world and taint our bloodlines.”

I’d never heard Hank talk like this before. I felt sick to my stomach and pushed my food around my plate as he talked. I’d read the article about groups like the one Hank was talking about in this morning’s paper. What was happening in Mississippi and the rest of the south sounded a lot like what Miss Mazie had said happened to her father.

The people in those groups wore white hoods and burned crosses on the lawns of black or Jewish people or people they didn’t like – good people like Lillian and Miss Mazie.

They burned crosses. I couldn’t fathom why they’d chosen crosses as their symbols of hate. I knew that wasn’t what Jesus had been crucified on that cross for – to say some humans were less important than other humans because of the color of their skin or how they worshipped.

“You’re not going to go around wearing one of those dumb hoods are you?” I asked.

Hank smirked, leaning back in his chair, his arm hanging over the back of it.

“Not me,” he laughed. “Shoot. I don’t care who sees me telling those niggers to go back to the jungle.”

I inwardly cringed at Hank’s use of the “n” word, a word we were never allowed to utter in my home and I had heard only a few times before from the men at the dinner downtown and usually when referring to Lillian.

“I don’t like to hear you talk that way,” I said softly, afraid how he would respond.

“Talk what way?” he asked, clearly annoyed at my words. He dragged his hand back through his hair and leaned forward in his chair, looking at me with cold eyes. “I’m doing this for you, Blanche,” he said. “And for my baby boy. I’ve got to protect him from these people.”

He called them “people” but he spoke about them like they were animals. I sat at the table, but I couldn’t eat. I’d lost my appetite and was relieved when he changed the subject to his latest gig and a new song he was learning to play.

I woke up gasping that night, in a cold sweat, images swirling in my mind of Miss Mazie hanging from a tree while Hank stood under her wearing a white, pointed hat and a white robe, laughing.  I pulled the blanket around me and looked at Hank, sleeping, the pale moonlight making his face appear ghostly against the pillow and wondered what had happened to change him so much since we’d first met. How had he become so full of hatred and anger and how had I not noticed it before?

I’d once heard Pastor Frank say that hurt people hurt people. I laid back down and watched Hank sleep, knowing Hank had been hurt by his father, wishing I could take that hurt away somehow. If I could take away his hurt maybe he’d stop hurting me and talking about hurting others.

***

“Blanche, honey, how old are you?” Hannah asked as she helped her toddler with her coat after church.

I swallowed hard and looked at the floor.

“I just turned 19.”

“That’s so young to have a baby,” Hannah said with a small shake of her head “I was 23 when I had Lizzie and even at that age I felt so lost. I hope you know I’m here to talk to if you have any questions or just need someone to share with.”

“Thank you,” I told her, still unsure I would be willing to open up to women as put-together as Hannah and Buffy.

“How is your husband handling being a daddy?” she asked. “Matthew just loves fatherhood. It looks good on him, I guess you’d say.”

I thought about how Hank almost never held Jackson and how I was the only one who woke up with him at night.

“He’s doing okay,” I lied, something I had done more in the last two years than I had my entire life. “It’s new for both of us.”

Hannah smiled, but somehow, I felt she knew I wasn’t telling the truth.

“You know, it’s important for a young couple to have time alone together,” she said as I slid Jackson into the carrier Buffy had loaned me. “If you want me to watch the baby, I’d be glad to so you can spend some time alone with your husband.”

I was nervous but excited at the idea. I thought maybe all Hank and I needed to connect again was some time alone. I’d heard him tell one of his friends on the phone he was singing at a local bar the next weekend and I knew he’d be surprised to see me in the audience, listening to him. I was sure he’d smile at me like he used to, a corner or his mouth tipped, his green eyes lighting up.

“That might be nice,” I said.

“Let me know a day and I’ll see if it works for me,” Hannah said, her smile genuine and gentle.

“Ready to go, honey?” a man’s voice asked.

A handsome man with a kind smile stepped beside Hannah and laid his hand on her back.

“Blanche, this is my husband, Matthew,” Hannah said turning toward him as he slid his arm around her and pulled her gently against him.

“Blanche,” Matthew said, stretching his hand out toward me. “So nice to meet you.”

His palms were soft and warm, like his smile.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, lifting the carrier.

“Here, let me get that for you,” Matthew said, taking the carrier from me. “Do you need a ride home? We’d be glad to have you ride with us.”

“Oh yes, please let us give you a ride home,” Hannah said quickly. “There’s room for one more.”

I didn’t want a ride home from Hannah and Matthew, people who looked and sounded like they had walked right out of a Bible tract. Still, I didn’t want to be rude either, so I agreed.

I sat in the back of their station wagon, Jackson hooked next to me, their three children, two boys, and a girl, crowded in around and behind me. Sitting there, a toddler squished against me, I suddenly missed being in a real family.

“Whath you name?” the little boy with blond curls asked me.

“Blanche,” I said softly.

“Blanth,” he said, trying to repeat it.

“What’s your name?” I asked, feeling awkward. I didn’t know how to talk to children who talked back.

“Billy and I’m thith many.”

He held up three fingers and smiled.

“I ate a booger,” the blond-haired girl sitting on the other side of Billy told me, her finger in her nose.

I forced a smile.

“Oh. That’s nice.”

“Lizzie, there is no reason to share that you’re eating the contents of your nose,” Hannah said from the front seat and smiled at me. “Sorry about that. She overshares sometimes.”

I nodded and couldn’t help but laugh.

I looked back at Lizzie who was watching me intently. Her blond hair was tied in tight braids on each side of her head and freckles speckled her nose and cheeks. Bright blue eyes blinked at me as she sucked on her finger, probably the one with the boogers. I guessed her age to be about seven, but I was horrible at guessing the ages of small children. They all looked the same to me. Her brother was in the back seat, reading a comic, and I guessed his age to be 9 or 10, but for all I knew he was 13.

“Does your baby have a daddy?” she asked bluntly.

“Yes,” I told her. “He does.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s at home.”

“Why doesn’t he come to church? Doesn’t he like to learn about God?”

“Lizzie!” Hannah said sharply. “That’s enough interrogating our guest. Sorry, Blanche, Lizzie also likes to ask too many questions.”

I smiled.

“It’s okay,” I said, laughing behind my hand.

I didn’t like the questions, but I liked the boldness of the little girl and wished I had her lack of inhibition.

“It’s the first right up here,” I told Matthew.

We stopped in front of the apartment building and I was suddenly struck with the juxtaposition of the perfectly dressed family in the new car and the dilapidated building we had pulled up in front of. I looked around the car at the smiling faces, feeling ashamed, and worked on the seatbelt around Jackson’s seat.

Matthew opened the door for me and as I stepped out and turned to pick up the carrier, I saw Hank standing in the apartment building doorway. He lit a cigarette and watched me with narrowed eyes.

“Thank you for the ride,” I said, anxious about what Hank might say or do, unsure if Hannah and Matthew had noticed him.

“Anytime,” Matthew said, smiling as he climbed back in the driver seat. “We’ll hope to see you and Jackson next week. Bring your husband along. We’d love to meet him.”

I nodded but knew I wasn’t going to ask Hank to come with me to church. I glanced at him and saw him blow a stream of smoke to one side as he kept his eyes on me.

Matthew pulled away and I walked toward Hank, my muscles tense.

“Have a nice time at church?”

I heard the mocking tone in Hank’s question.

“Yes,” I said, waiting for him to move aside so I could go back up to our apartment.

“They seem like nice people,” he said, still standing in the doorway, dragging deep on the cigarette.

“They are.”

He was watching me as he blew a trail of smoke from his mouth.

“I’ll go up and get your lunch ready,” I said softly, my eyes on the ground.

He stepped to one side. “Oh, by all means, madam. Why don’t you take your righteous self on up to the kitchen and cook me some lunch.”

I walked past him, ignoring his derisive tone, seething inside but afraid to show how much his comments angered me.

“I guess you think you’re better than me now,” he said as we walked into the apartment, pushing his cigarette into an ashtray on the windowsill by the sink.

I took a deep breath, praying silently.

“That’s not true,” I told him as I laid Jackson in the crib. “The pastor says we have all fallen short of the glory of God.”

“Fallen short?” Hank snorted. “What kind of garbage is that? I don’t know why you go there to hear some fool talk about fairy tales and a magic man in the sky. I guess that’s how you women are, though. You’re weak. Need someone to tell you that you’re worth more than you are.”

I pulled pork chops from the refrigerator and laid them on the counter by the stove. I tilted my chin upward and tightened my jaw.

“Why do you talk to me that way, Hank?” I asked boldly. “You never used to do that. You used to act like you cared about me.”

I wasn’t sure how he’d respond, and I felt a surge of fear rush through me, wondering why I didn’t just keep my mouth shut.

He rubbed his jaw, watching me and sneered.

“That’s before I realized how naïve you are, Blanche and what a child you really are,” he said, reaching into the fridge for a beer, turning and leaning back against the closed door. He smirked. “I thought you were worth my time, more mature than most girls your age. I was wrong. You’re nothing but a little child who believes in a wizard in the sky.”

He walked past me, bumping his shoulder into mine as he headed toward the front door.

“I’m going out,” he said, snatching his jacket off the hook by the door. “Keep my lunch warm for me.”

“Better a wizard in the sky than a wizard in a dumb white hood,” I mumbled as the door slammed shut.

I looked out the window over the sink at the rusted fire escape, breathing out a long breath.

“Lord, I don’t know how to deal with him or with any of this,” I prayed softly. “Help me know what to do.”

Written by Lisa R. Howeler

As a writer, photographer and former journalist, Lisa R. Howeler writes a little bit about everything on her blog Boondock Ramblings. She self-published her first novel, A Story to Tell, in September 2019 on Amazon. She's a wife and a mother and enjoys a good John Wayne movie and a cozy Jan Karon book. She's also a freelance writer and photographer who is a contributor to various stock agencies, including Lightstock and Alamy. Her photography work focuses on documentary and photojournalism.

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