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Shorpy Shorts

Short fiction inspired by Shorpy Historic Photo Archive
by Kelly Ferry

I knew everything was different after that day – nothing would ever be the way it had been before the policeman knocked on the front door. Mama was standing one minute, the broom in her hand, sweeping all the papers Papa tore up and threw on the floor when he left for work, and then she was on her knees with her forehead pressed down in that pile of dirt and dust, her hands clasped below her chin and that silent scream filling the black hole of her open mouth. 
Even at four I had the sense to see mama’s shell had cracked and all the sour truth of our future was leaking out of her into the light of day. Isn’t it a grace how you can see it all flashing bright in the air and know the story without the words. Just the hurt of it lighting up the world with its white hot certainty. 
Mama sat up fast, and the policeman seemed so uncomfortable and asked her if he could do anything. She wiped her eyes and told him thank you, no, she would be just fine, just fine thank you. She watched him pass Mary and me in the yard, and then she stood, brushed off her skirt, and said you girls just stay outside, you hear? I thought surely that wasn’t Mama talking because it didn’t look like there was anybody in her eyes, and Mary squeezed my hand tight and told me to follow her to the back yard. 
We watched Mama through the open window, standing in the shade of the maple tree. It was so hot and I wished for a glass of lemonade. Mary said Papa must be at the morgue. I didn’t know what the morgue was and I didn’t dare ask. I just watched mama take papa’s church suit out of the closet and hold it to her face, then twist the metal hanger to hook it over the top of the door. She raised her hands up and pounded her two fists on the door once in the middle of the suit jacket, right where papa’s heart would be if he were in it. Right where I would press my ear sometimes during church when mama had her eyes closed praying on her list of people she wanted God to help, like Grandpa Elias for his gout, and Mrs. Inverness across the street who was having another baby and that baby was sideways inside her belly and that wasn’t so good for being born, and little Joey Carter who fell off his tire swing that mama never let me ride because it left big black streaks all over my dress. Joey Carter broke his neck and couldn’t get out of bed and I thought I wouldn’t be so foolish to fall off the tire. I would hold on tight and fly through the air until it stopped and I would step off and put my feet back on the ground and walk home. Mama bent her head and squeezed her eyes shut tight and squeezed her hands together like pressing all of her wishes into a ball while the organist played Gathered In Thy Name, Lord Jesus.
Oh, how I hated the organ. I watched those pipes towering up the wall like great throats opening and filling the room with the terrible sound of the dead begging to come home. Papa saw me watching those pipes. I like to think he knew I was trying to get away from the sound, and he would put his heavy arm around me and gather me onto his lap where I could rest my head against his chest, pressing my ear closer to listen to his heart thumping there below the scratchy wool, drowning out the wailing. He smelled of lye soap and toast. Sometimes I fell asleep.
Mama turned from the suit and bent down to lift something else out of the closet, but I couldn’t see what until Mary said shoes as Mama placed them on the floor in front of the suit hanging black and flat against the bedroom door. Then I remembered the long boats of polished black leather with deep wear creases tapping softly on the church floor.
Mama turned and stared out the window and I couldn’t tell if she could see us there under the tree, so I held my breath and Mary took my sweating hand in hers and we held as still as we could, watching Mama look through us until she turned back so very slowly and left the room.  

I knew everything was different after that day – nothing would ever be the way it had been before the policeman knocked on the front door. Mama was standing one minute, the broom in her hand, sweeping all the papers Papa tore up and threw on the floor when he left for work, and then she was on her knees with her forehead pressed down in that pile of dirt and dust, her hands clasped below her chin and that silent scream filling the black hole of her open mouth. 

Even at four I had the sense to see mama’s shell had cracked and all the sour truth of our future was leaking out of her into the light of day. Isn’t it a grace how you can see it all flashing bright in the air and know the story without the words. Just the hurt of it lighting up the world with its white hot certainty. 

Mama sat up fast, and the policeman seemed so uncomfortable and asked her if he could do anything. She wiped her eyes and told him thank you, no, she would be just fine, just fine thank you. She watched him pass Mary and me in the yard, and then she stood, brushed off her skirt, and said you girls just stay outside, you hear? I thought surely that wasn’t Mama talking because it didn’t look like there was anybody in her eyes, and Mary squeezed my hand tight and told me to follow her to the back yard. 

We watched Mama through the open window, standing in the shade of the maple tree. It was so hot and I wished for a glass of lemonade. Mary said Papa must be at the morgue. I didn’t know what the morgue was and I didn’t dare ask. I just watched mama take papa’s church suit out of the closet and hold it to her face, then twist the metal hanger to hook it over the top of the door. She raised her hands up and pounded her two fists on the door once in the middle of the suit jacket, right where papa’s heart would be if he were in it. Right where I would press my ear sometimes during church when mama had her eyes closed praying on her list of people she wanted God to help, like Grandpa Elias for his gout, and Mrs. Inverness across the street who was having another baby and that baby was sideways inside her belly and that wasn’t so good for being born, and little Joey Carter who fell off his tire swing that mama never let me ride because it left big black streaks all over my dress. Joey Carter broke his neck and couldn’t get out of bed and I thought I wouldn’t be so foolish to fall off the tire. I would hold on tight and fly through the air until it stopped and I would step off and put my feet back on the ground and walk home. Mama bent her head and squeezed her eyes shut tight and squeezed her hands together like pressing all of her wishes into a ball while the organist played Gathered In Thy Name, Lord Jesus.

Oh, how I hated the organ. I watched those pipes towering up the wall like great throats opening and filling the room with the terrible sound of the dead begging to come home. Papa saw me watching those pipes. I like to think he knew I was trying to get away from the sound, and he would put his heavy arm around me and gather me onto his lap where I could rest my head against his chest, pressing my ear closer to listen to his heart thumping there below the scratchy wool, drowning out the wailing. He smelled of lye soap and toast. Sometimes I fell asleep.

Mama turned from the suit and bent down to lift something else out of the closet, but I couldn’t see what until Mary said shoes as Mama placed them on the floor in front of the suit hanging black and flat against the bedroom door. Then I remembered the long boats of polished black leather with deep wear creases tapping softly on the church floor.

Mama turned and stared out the window and I couldn’t tell if she could see us there under the tree, so I held my breath and Mary took my sweating hand in hers and we held as still as we could, watching Mama look through us until she turned back so very slowly and left the room.  

The pump house was just far enough from the main house that the sisters lingered there if they could, out of sight of Miss Eugenia and her embattled need to fill every second of their day with a task.
They savored the cooler air swirling through the trees and reaching up their legs to sooth their hot skin. In the swampy heat after the early thunderstorm, their thin cotton dresses clung to their bellies like leaves on the wet walkway. Birdsong filled the air with harmonies impossible to distinguish up at the house, but down here tucked up against the edge of the woods, the air swelled with a symphony that sounded like the records Miss Eugenia played in the parlor while she drank her cordial late at night.
The sisters moved slowly, without speaking; instinctively afraid to name the feeling of being in another world because naming it would make it real. If it was real, they might forget themselves and one would say to the other how nice it would be to get sent out for more water. Miss Eugenia had an unholy gift for sniffing out a thing that brought the girls even the tiniest spark of happiness, and then making it disappear. 

The pump house was just far enough from the main house that the sisters lingered there if they could, out of sight of Miss Eugenia and her embattled need to fill every second of their day with a task.

They savored the cooler air swirling through the trees and reaching up their legs to sooth their hot skin. In the swampy heat after the early thunderstorm, their thin cotton dresses clung to their bellies like leaves on the wet walkway. Birdsong filled the air with harmonies impossible to distinguish up at the house, but down here tucked up against the edge of the woods, the air swelled with a symphony that sounded like the records Miss Eugenia played in the parlor while she drank her cordial late at night.

The sisters moved slowly, without speaking; instinctively afraid to name the feeling of being in another world because naming it would make it real. If it was real, they might forget themselves and one would say to the other how nice it would be to get sent out for more water. Miss Eugenia had an unholy gift for sniffing out a thing that brought the girls even the tiniest spark of happiness, and then making it disappear. 

Thanks for all the follows, guys! xoxo

It was because of the wind pattern in that part of town. It came down off the mountain two miles to the west, and swept down the road right past the building, carrying all that coal dust and body ash into the two-to-three block neighborhood directly to the east.
Every flat surface in that part of town was coated with a thick film of it, surprisingly sticky for something that had been incinerated. Well, cremated. It took a real soaker of a storm to wash it away.
The people living in the Elm Street blocks were all renters. Men who worked in the coal mine, and their pale wives with vacant eyes, and scrawny children who could use some new shoes, and about a dozen other basic human needs. The few shopkeepers that made a stab at starting a business in one of the storefronts realized pretty quickly that the residents didn’t have enough money to sustain them, and nobody else in town would shop over there. Everybody had a persistent cough. They tried not to think too much about it.

It was because of the wind pattern in that part of town. It came down off the mountain two miles to the west, and swept down the road right past the building, carrying all that coal dust and body ash into the two-to-three block neighborhood directly to the east.

Every flat surface in that part of town was coated with a thick film of it, surprisingly sticky for something that had been incinerated. Well, cremated. It took a real soaker of a storm to wash it away.

The people living in the Elm Street blocks were all renters. Men who worked in the coal mine, and their pale wives with vacant eyes, and scrawny children who could use some new shoes, and about a dozen other basic human needs. The few shopkeepers that made a stab at starting a business in one of the storefronts realized pretty quickly that the residents didn’t have enough money to sustain them, and nobody else in town would shop over there. Everybody had a persistent cough. They tried not to think too much about it.

Fine. She’d just wash her hair in the sink again and hopefully get it done with less than one jug of water because she’d be damned if she had to lug any more gallons from her sister’s house to the car and then into her own house in this infernal heat. Donny promised he’d pay the bill and have the water turned on by morning, but he was passed out in the living room, half on and half off the couch, an ashtray full of bent filters balanced on his chest, and a pile of crushed Old Milwaukee cans leaking a sour circle of dregs on the carpet. 
She found him like that when she came in at three in the morning after her shift at the diner. The thin wad of singles she brought home in tips was supposed to buy groceries for the week, but if she didn’t get a real shower in soon, she couldn’t be held responsible for her actions. Prison sounded just about fine in exchange for the pleasure of pressing the lying breath out of that lazy sonofabitch’s throat with her skillet-burnt thumbs. Foolish man. 

Fine. She’d just wash her hair in the sink again and hopefully get it done with less than one jug of water because she’d be damned if she had to lug any more gallons from her sister’s house to the car and then into her own house in this infernal heat. Donny promised he’d pay the bill and have the water turned on by morning, but he was passed out in the living room, half on and half off the couch, an ashtray full of bent filters balanced on his chest, and a pile of crushed Old Milwaukee cans leaking a sour circle of dregs on the carpet. 

She found him like that when she came in at three in the morning after her shift at the diner. The thin wad of singles she brought home in tips was supposed to buy groceries for the week, but if she didn’t get a real shower in soon, she couldn’t be held responsible for her actions. Prison sounded just about fine in exchange for the pleasure of pressing the lying breath out of that lazy sonofabitch’s throat with her skillet-burnt thumbs. Foolish man. 

There was a body behind one of the doors. No doubt about it. Frank Harriman’s confession could have come two weeks earlier and Jack wouldn’t have minded this tag and bag nearly so much. This hallway was thick with the sickly sweet fumes of death, and his mind buzzed with knowing that he had to open a door to reveal yet another still-life of the hideous things men do. One more woman with her body splayed open, and her attacker’s rage painted in dark brush strokes across the room. Jack waited with his forehead against the damp wood, his hand on the porcelain knob, listening.
He swung the door open to her sunken face frozen in terror. Another image to chase him from sleep, dry-mouthed and ragged. Amazingly, there was always room for one more face in the dark.

There was a body behind one of the doors. No doubt about it. Frank Harriman’s confession could have come two weeks earlier and Jack wouldn’t have minded this tag and bag nearly so much. This hallway was thick with the sickly sweet fumes of death, and his mind buzzed with knowing that he had to open a door to reveal yet another still-life of the hideous things men do. One more woman with her body splayed open, and her attacker’s rage painted in dark brush strokes across the room. Jack waited with his forehead against the damp wood, his hand on the porcelain knob, listening.

He swung the door open to her sunken face frozen in terror. Another image to chase him from sleep, dry-mouthed and ragged. Amazingly, there was always room for one more face in the dark.

Andy crouched behind a trash barrel and tried to listen without being seen. The barker’s voice didn’t quite carry to the back, but one word fell like a hammer over the hurly-burly of men shouting and whistling and shifting from foot to foot.
Scandalous.
Andy had a sinking feeling he was about to learn a new thing about his Mama, and his world slid sideways like a picnic table tipped over in the yard. He stared at all those restless feet and pictured the mess of potato salad and BBQ and beans slopped together on the grass, and how the dogs would lap up the feast faster than Mama could even get out of her chair. 
Dogs. That’s what they were.
When she called him in from the garden for lunch that afternoon, he lifted the bucket of tomato hornworms he picked for the chickens with pride, “Look at this! I found 36!”
But Mama didn’t even turn around to look. Just stared out the window over the sink and said, “Wash your hands.” in that quiet voice that gave Andy the shivers.
She stayed at the window like that while he chewed his cream cheese and grape jelly sandwich slowly, watching her back and willing her to just get it over with and tell him the bad news. The last time he saw her like that was two years ago when she stared at her own reflection in the mirror over the mantle for half a day. Andy left her there in the morning to get on the bus, and found her there again when he returned with his first A in math. She joined him on the couch and said, “Your father isn’t coming home.”
When he finished eating, he slid the plate to the center of the table and she turned and sat down across from him. The only thing he could read in her face was tightness, as if Mama was holding something in — like how he felt when he held his breath at the bottom of the pond and willed himself to sit there for just five more seconds. She placed her hand on top of his and said, “I have to go into town now and I won’t be back for supper. I made you a plate and Mrs. Calhoun will stop in at five to check on you.”
"Where are you going?" he asked, his stomach heavy with lunch and fear. Andy knew he shouldn’t be such a baby, and twelve was pretty old to have never been left home alone. 
Mama stared at him for too long before she answered, “To talk to a man about a job.” She stood up fast and pulled Andy close, pressing his face to her tummy, then leaned down to kiss the top of his head. He breathed her in, and she didn’t smell normal; like soap and bread and their dog Trixie and like the wind. She smelled like funeral flowers and that’s when he knew he would follow her. 

Andy crouched behind a trash barrel and tried to listen without being seen. The barker’s voice didn’t quite carry to the back, but one word fell like a hammer over the hurly-burly of men shouting and whistling and shifting from foot to foot.

Scandalous.

Andy had a sinking feeling he was about to learn a new thing about his Mama, and his world slid sideways like a picnic table tipped over in the yard. He stared at all those restless feet and pictured the mess of potato salad and BBQ and beans slopped together on the grass, and how the dogs would lap up the feast faster than Mama could even get out of her chair. 

Dogs. That’s what they were.

When she called him in from the garden for lunch that afternoon, he lifted the bucket of tomato hornworms he picked for the chickens with pride, “Look at this! I found 36!”

But Mama didn’t even turn around to look. Just stared out the window over the sink and said, “Wash your hands.” in that quiet voice that gave Andy the shivers.

She stayed at the window like that while he chewed his cream cheese and grape jelly sandwich slowly, watching her back and willing her to just get it over with and tell him the bad news. The last time he saw her like that was two years ago when she stared at her own reflection in the mirror over the mantle for half a day. Andy left her there in the morning to get on the bus, and found her there again when he returned with his first A in math. She joined him on the couch and said, “Your father isn’t coming home.”

When he finished eating, he slid the plate to the center of the table and she turned and sat down across from him. The only thing he could read in her face was tightness, as if Mama was holding something in — like how he felt when he held his breath at the bottom of the pond and willed himself to sit there for just five more seconds. She placed her hand on top of his and said, “I have to go into town now and I won’t be back for supper. I made you a plate and Mrs. Calhoun will stop in at five to check on you.”

"Where are you going?" he asked, his stomach heavy with lunch and fear. Andy knew he shouldn’t be such a baby, and twelve was pretty old to have never been left home alone. 

Mama stared at him for too long before she answered, “To talk to a man about a job.” She stood up fast and pulled Andy close, pressing his face to her tummy, then leaned down to kiss the top of his head. He breathed her in, and she didn’t smell normal; like soap and bread and their dog Trixie and like the wind. She smelled like funeral flowers and that’s when he knew he would follow her. 

She scratched at the earth and the only sound was the wind racing itself across the plains, and the tink of small stones protesting against metal. The blade needed sharpening again. Dust rose like a dying breath, then collapsed, and Hattie watched the storm clouds gather in the sky like cattle around a watering hole. She hoped in vain that they would escape the driving wind and linger long enough to soak the miles of seed under furrows. 
A farmer’s wife – that’s an honest life, her father said. Think of the good you’ll do out west. You’ll grow food and raise cattle and children under that endless American sky. He had no idea how endless. But he had no money left either, so he could no longer take care of her. The longer she was here, the more she realized that her city vocabulary was inadequate for the job of describing this life on another planet, so she kept her letters simple.
Today I cut squares from Henry’s clothes that are too worn to repair. I’ll make a quilt to keep us warm this winter. It’s hard to imagine winter will ever come when it’s as hot as the coal furnace fully stoked. We eat corn bread with beans, though my beans aren’t as good as Mama’s yet. Maybe you could send brown sugar. It’s too hot to cook inside and too windy to cook out. We saw elk to the south and Henry wants to join up with the other men for the hunt. Meat for winter would be good, though I’ll need to learn how to preserve it. No electricity. Planted beans and squash and corn. It hasn’t rained once in a month. 
When Mrs. Hampton got notice that Hattie was leaving school to get married and move west, she pulled her out of cotillion lessons. She doubled her up on domestic arts. She helped her plan menus for every day meals and special occasions, gave her a list for a properly stocked pantry, and made sure she mastered the art of baking a cake without any butter or eggs. 
What she couldn’t teach Hattie was how to live on the farthest edge of the world where her closest neighbor was a two day ride on horseback. Or how to sleep next to a stranger who was slowly winning her affections with his kind voice and rambling suppertime conversations, but whose night sounds terrified her into tight, sleepless silence. Or how to pray so effectively that her prayers would deliver salvation to her dry, cracking hands along with the neat bundle of mail that arrived monthly from back east, fastened with butcher’s twine. 

She scratched at the earth and the only sound was the wind racing itself across the plains, and the tink of small stones protesting against metal. The blade needed sharpening again. Dust rose like a dying breath, then collapsed, and Hattie watched the storm clouds gather in the sky like cattle around a watering hole. She hoped in vain that they would escape the driving wind and linger long enough to soak the miles of seed under furrows. 

A farmer’s wife – that’s an honest life, her father said. Think of the good you’ll do out west. You’ll grow food and raise cattle and children under that endless American sky. He had no idea how endless. But he had no money left either, so he could no longer take care of her. The longer she was here, the more she realized that her city vocabulary was inadequate for the job of describing this life on another planet, so she kept her letters simple.

Today I cut squares from Henry’s clothes that are too worn to repair. I’ll make a quilt to keep us warm this winter. It’s hard to imagine winter will ever come when it’s as hot as the coal furnace fully stoked. We eat corn bread with beans, though my beans aren’t as good as Mama’s yet. Maybe you could send brown sugar. It’s too hot to cook inside and too windy to cook out. We saw elk to the south and Henry wants to join up with the other men for the hunt. Meat for winter would be good, though I’ll need to learn how to preserve it. No electricity. Planted beans and squash and corn. It hasn’t rained once in a month. 

When Mrs. Hampton got notice that Hattie was leaving school to get married and move west, she pulled her out of cotillion lessons. She doubled her up on domestic arts. She helped her plan menus for every day meals and special occasions, gave her a list for a properly stocked pantry, and made sure she mastered the art of baking a cake without any butter or eggs. 

What she couldn’t teach Hattie was how to live on the farthest edge of the world where her closest neighbor was a two day ride on horseback. Or how to sleep next to a stranger who was slowly winning her affections with his kind voice and rambling suppertime conversations, but whose night sounds terrified her into tight, sleepless silence. Or how to pray so effectively that her prayers would deliver salvation to her dry, cracking hands along with the neat bundle of mail that arrived monthly from back east, fastened with butcher’s twine.