Thursday, January 28, 2010

Meet Imogene

I'm going to do something very different on the Porch today.

Porch sitters, I'd like you to meet Imogene, the heroine of a fictional story I began to write nearly three years ago but then rudely shoved aside. That was about the same time someone introduced me to a "new" social networking thingy called Facebook, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Poor Imogene has been neglected for years. Oh, I pull her out of her folder occasionally and take a glimpse at her, maybe tweak a word or three, but I inevitably shove her back inside to be ignored for months at a time. Imogene flips me the bird as I close the folder again, no doubt calling me ugly names, like "procrastinator" and "slacker". Ah, she knows me well.

I love to tinker with fiction, and I adore Imogene, but I don't know what to do with her. I know her story; her life is written in that spastic, heavily caffeinated head of mine, but I can't seem to translate it to paper in a way that pleases me or her. I'm not doing her justice.

Since the Porch is my writing playground, I thought she should at least see the light of day here, should she never make it anywhere else. There's more to her tale than I've shared, but you'll get the gist of it. Maybe you can tell me if she's worth resurrecting and completing, or if I should chalk her up to nothing more than a writing exercise.

Readers, you come here for different things. I know that because some of you have so graciously shared feedback with me. Some of you visit the Porch for a laugh; others prefer more insightful pieces. A few of you (well, okay, one of you) digs the occasional poem. Whatever the case, thanks for returning no matter what I share or how poorly it might be crafted. The Porch isn't perfect and it isn't defined yet, much like Imogene.

But maybe that's why I like her and can't completely abandon her. I have to find her imperfect story. We all have one, don't we?

This is how Imogene's story begins:


(c) 2010 by Jennifer Jenkins McAnulty All rights reserved

As Imogene watched her husband of 21 years die in the front yard beneath the weight of massive tree limbs, her first thought was, God, Johnnie, you were so wrong.

Johnnie had been certain he’d die of a heart attack. How many nights had he sat at the oak table in their farmhouse kitchen, loaded his plate whatever battered country delight Imogene had served, and joked about Crisco-filled arteries? Imogene had worried, too, and had made a few half-hearted efforts to cook healthier, but who were they kidding? Rice cakes and tofu weren’t part of the Southern vernacular. They were born country, had stayed country, and that meant one thing: butter and lots of it. As he crunched into a drumstick or helped himself to another slice of pie, Johnnie often chided that his ticker would give out, all right, but he'd go with grease on his fingers and a smile on his face.

Johnnie Emmett Jackson Jr., you son of a gun, you were wrong 'bout that, too.

Johnnie wasn't smiling. Instead, his face was frozen in surprise, his mouth slightly open, his blue eyes puzzled, the way he might have looked if Publisher's Clearinghouse showed up on his doorstep and handed him one of those giant cardboard checks for $1 million. To Imogene, his expression said, "Are you shittin' me?!"

The rest of his body wasn't visible because Johnnie was pinned beneath the top half of a hackberry tree that had fallen the wrong way when he had attempted to cut it down by himself. Imogene had protested his chore, told Johnnie it was too dangerous, that she feared he'd kill himself as he laughed and mocked her for worrying. She took no comfort in knowing that she, in fact, was the one who'd been right.

Crouched on the ground beside him, Imogene stroked his short brown hair and told him to hold on, her heart refusing to believe her eyes that took in Johnnie's six-foot-plus frame, now crushed beneath the behemoth trunk of the tree.

"Hold on, baby. The ambulance just passed Ruth Ann and Dave's place," she said, cursing the vehicle that was taking too long to make it down their winding, gravel road. "Weren't they sweet to bring us all those green beans?"

She continued to talk to her husband about supper plans, though he lay lifeless beneath the foliage. She traced her fingers across his lightly stubbled cheeks. How she had always loved the feel of him, the roughness of his beard beneath her hands. As she brushed her thumb across the corner of his mouth, she half expected his face to break out in a sly grin. He would say something funny to ease her fears, like "Damn, 'Mo! Can you believe I done knocked this big-ass tree over on myself?"

She would reply, "Well, how we gonna' get you out of this one, Johnnie?" and then they'd have a big laugh, thinking about what a good story they'd have to tell Ruth Ann and Dave.

Though she willed it with every fiber of her being, Johnnie didn't grin. So Imogene continued to prattle on about beans as the sun beat down on her neck and the ambulance drew closer. Easy banter had been the trademark of their relationship.

Johnnie Jackson was a sweet and uncomplicated man, and Imogene had loved him since she was seventeen. She could still see the young man in him: the handsome, 22-year-old high school custodian took pleasure in flirting with the pudgy, shy senior and found excuses to linger near her locker. Though she knew better, knew it wouldn't last and felt he surely was using her, she'd fallen hard just the same. And as impossible as it seemed to Imogene, Johnnie loved her back. Even after 20-plus years together, she sometimes still felt like that silly school girl with the forbidden crush.

Imogene once heard that love was friendship on fire, and that's how it had always been with Johnnie.

She didn't know how she would make it without him, and talking to him kept her from answering that question. Even as his cheeks cooled beneath her touch, she rattled on and on, as if he'd just pulled up a chair in the kitchen while she cooked dinner. Johnnie was always too tired to talk much after work, but he seemed to enjoy listening to Imogene, as she'd scurry about chopping and stirring and sharing news of her day at the deli.

"I nearly finished snapping the beans," Imogene said to him now, as the ambulance screeched into their driveway. She barely looked its way as she cradled Johnnie's head between both hands. "You know, they brought us nearly a bushel full. We'll have to take some down to the Smithhearts after while."

Alder County EMTs Tim Knight and Royce Edwardson rushed from the ambulance to the tree. Tim, who went to church with Imogene and Johnnie, felt Johnnie's throat for a pulse as Royce tried in vain to lift the tree.

Imogene continued to talk about the beans, even as Tim and Royce cussed and sweat, pressed on her husband's chest, breathed into his mouth, pulled helplessly at the tree and called on their radio for assistance from the Meadeville Volunteer Fire Department. The EMTs, barely older than boys, tried to convince Imogene to go inside the house, told her they'd take care of Johnnie now, but she refused to budge. Despite the warm afternoon, Royce draped a blanket around her shoulders and told her to scoot back and give them a little space to work, so Imogene sat on the ground, her back against the splintered tree, and told the scrambling crew how she had planned fresh green beans for supper.

On some deep level, she knew it was stupid and senseless to discuss supper plans while men she'd known all her life swarmed around her dead husband with chain saws and tore at tree limbs, but she couldn't seem to stop. This mind-numbing talk of food--a topic she knew so well--was preferable to what she'd feel next.

She was still extolling the virtues of fresh summer vegetables when Dave and Ruth Ann ran up her driveway, alarmed and out of breath from chasing the emergency crews on foot. Dave, a short, beefy man, was red-raced from the jog and looked like he could use an ambulance himself. Ruth Ann clutched a dish towel to her chest; she had been washing dishes when they heard the sirens. When Ruth Ann saw Johnnie's hand sticking out from beneath a limb, she put the towel over her face and held it there, as if it had the power to erase the image. Dave paced around the volunteer firefighters muttering, "Holy Jesus" until it ran together in some bizarre religious mantra: holyJesusholyJesusholyJesus.

As the rescue workers pulled Johnnie from the tree--or the tree from Johnnie, depending on how you looked at it--Imogene looked up at Dave and Ruth Ann, her dear friends who'd played cards with them just last night, and said, "Thanks again for the beans."

At that moment, Ruth Ann emerged from the dish towel and plopped down on the ground beside Imogene. She took her friend's hand and said, "Oh, Imogene. Oh, honey." And then, before she could take it back, she said, "What business did Johnnie have being up in that tree by himself?"

For just a moment, Imogene didn't know what Ruth Ann was talking about. Everyone knew Johnnie Jackson could fix anything. Didn't he just help Dave get that old tractor running? And Imogene couldn't count the number of times Ruth Ann had called with a crisis: her gutters were sagging, her car was making a funny sound, her dishwasher was leaking again. Could Johnnie help Dave fix it? Johnnie often chided that Dave's "help" consisted of opening beers while Johnnie labored.

"The tree was growing too close to the house," Imogene replied casually, as if her husband had simply sliced a finger and was not flattened a few feet away. "We were starting to get a little moss on the roof from the shade, and the tree was weak from that ice storm last year. Johnnie's been afraid it will fall on the house if we get another good storm. You know how that man is when he sees something that needs to be done. He has to fix it."

And then, as if it made perfect sense, Imogene said, "Oh, crap, Ruth Ann! Look at the beans!"

Shrugging off the blanket, Imogene stood up and motioned to her porch, where green bean tips were scattered everywhere from an overturned pan. Something about those fragmented beans triggered a strange, new sensation in Imogene. She had always enjoyed tinkering with puzzles, and now she felt like she had a slew of pieces but had lost the box top: she couldn't picture exactly what she was attempting to piece together.

Imogene saw the beans, saw the crew now pulling Johnnie away from the tree and once again attempting CPR, saw her husband's limp legs dragging through the dust as if he were no more than a stuffed scarecrow. But everything was cloudy and dull, and Imogene felt as if she were watching the chaos from Ruth Ann's place instead of here, under half a tree, just a few feet away. Feeling dizzy, Imogene stepped onto the porch, and Ruth Ann followed uncertainly.

When she reached the porch swing, Imogene stopped and looked at Ruth Ann, motioning to the swing and then the beans as if they explained everything. Suddenly, the puzzle formed, revealed its ugly shape in Imogene's mind. God, she didn't want to see it, but tragedies have a way of replaying in the mind like CNN Headline News footage. She envisioned the anchorwoman now, with her perfect lipstick and over-highlighted hair, saying, "You won't believe this shocking video, so tragic and horrific. But take a look now at what happens to this man when he goes out to prune a tree…."

Imogene had been sitting on the front porch swing snapping beans in two and dropping them in the aluminum pan at her side. Johnnie was in the side yard on the extension ladder propped up against the hackberry, his chain saw grinding and stalling, grinding and stalling, as if the machine were complaining about its task. Their fat marmalade cat, LuLu, was grooming herself on the front porch step, enjoying the shade, when Johnnie yelled something that Imogene couldn't quite make out over the buzz of the chain saw.

Before Imogene could rise to check on him, that behemoth of a tree cracked and splintered, a hideous racket that sent LuLu skittering across the porch. Imogene knew the tree wasn't supposed to fall yet because Johnnie hadn't come down to pull on the rope he'd wrapped around the trunk.

Johnnie had planned to cut the trunk partially through, then come down to yank the rope, directing the top of the tree away from the house. Instead, the ladder was falling, the tree was groaning, and Johnnie was toppling backwards, his blue-jeaned legs kicking and splaying in the air before he hit the ground with a sickening thud that made Imogene stand up and knock over the pan of beans. As it hit the porch with a clang, scattering its contents, the entire top half of the hackberry crashed down on Johnnie.

The broadcast replayed hideously in Imogene's mind, and she suddenly turned and grabbed Ruth Ann's arms so tight they'd be bruised for a week.

"Oh God, Ruth Ann! The tree! It killed Johnnie!" Imogene said, running off the porch, seeking her husband.

Their efforts at CPR futile, Tim and Royce placed Johnnie on a gurney and pulled a sheet over his face, his beautiful face that Imogene wanted to see, to feel again between her palms. Just as Imogene took a step toward the stretcher, the boys hoisted Johnnie into the back of the ambulance and slammed the doors. Tim leaned against those double doors for a minute, his head against his sweaty forearms, before Royce patted him on the back and motioned to Imogene, standing with her arms outstretched a few feet away. Wiping his hands on his jeans, Tim walked over to her. He flicked bits of tree from his shirt and looked at his black sneakers, covered in the dust of a Kentucky summer. "I'm so sorry, Imogene. We tried. We really tried."

Imogene nodded, barely noticing the circus in her yard now: the volunteer firefighters clearing tree debris; Dave talking to Carter Fisher, the county coroner, whose arrival Imogene had missed in all the commotion; Ruth Ann squatting on her front porch, crying as she picked up green beans and put them back in the pan.

All Imogene heard were the screams, terrible, awful cries that sounded so primal they were barely human. With some surprise, she realized they were coming from her.


That night, Imogene tossed restlessly, winding herself in the sheets, mashing her face into the pillow. Repeatedly, she ran her hand down Johnnie's side of the bed, pressing on the furrow he'd worn into the old mattress. Just last spring, when Imogene mentioned they maybe should spend some of their tax refund on a new bed, Johnnie had laughed and asked her why she'd want to do a fool thing like that.

"Hell, Imogene. I've spent 10 year wearing my ass into the mattress so it'd be just right," he'd said, patting the bed like it was a faithful Labrador. "Besides, we've had some awfully good times in here, wouldn't you agree?"

True, with Johnnie by her side, the lumpy, full-size bed had felt right, comfortable, decadent on occasion. But all Imogene felt now were bulges and bad springs and an emptiness she couldn't comprehend. The bed, that barely held her, Johnnie, and the cat just last night, seemed cavernous tonight. Imogene curled into the fetal position and willed sleep and numbness to come, but both eluded her, leaving Imogene to wonder if she should have accepted the pills Ruth Ann had offered her earlier.

"You'll need rest, Imogene. Just take them," Ruth Ann insisted, as they had sat in Imogene's kitchen, weary from calling Johnnie's lone sibling, a brother in Colorado who promised to arrive for the funeral; a smattering of cousins who never left Alder County; and his work friends from the county school system. One thing you could count on if you lived in a small town like Meadeville was that it didn't take long for news to spread.

After fielding nearly a dozen calls, Ruth Ann had taken the phone off the hook, and she and Imogene had sat holding hands and crying softly as the late afternoon faded into dusk, and then to night. When the clock on the microwave indicated it was past midnight, Ruth Ann reached into her purse and pushed a vial of small, yellow and white pills to Imogene across the oak table.

"They're completely safe," she said. "I take them all the time. Dave's snoring drives me freakin' bonkers, otherwise!"

Although the adrenaline had worn off and Imogene was bone tired, she knew she wouldn't sleep. Still, she'd shaken her head at Ruth Ann, inexplicably angry. "No," she said, wiping at her now-chapped nose with a paper towel. "No."

Ruth Ann had said, "O.K. Whatever you need, you know that. But I'm going on to bed, if that's alright?"

Of course, Imogene told her to go, to head back down the road to Dave, but Ruth Ann insisted on sleeping in Imogene's guest room.

Imogene heard her friend across the hall now, snoring like a truck driver.

Unable to tolerate the bed any longer, Imogene climbed out, disrupting LuLu, who glared at Imogene before she settled back down on Johnnie's side of the bed. Imogene crept past Ruth Ann's room to the bathroom. She looked in on her friend, who had one arm slung over the side of the bed and one up over her head, her mouth agape. Maybe I will try some of those pills, Imogene thought, before she quietly shut the bathroom door and turned on the light.

She peered at herself in the mirror over the sink, and thought, Darlin', you look like hell on crack. Her chin-length dark curls were frizzy and wild, and her eyelids were puffy, her dark eyes were barely slits in her face. The pillow had worn creases into her right cheek, and her skin, usually her best feature and porcelain smooth, was ruddy and streaked.

Turning on the sink, she splashed cold water on her face and reached for a towel, momentarily comforted by the lingering scent of fabric softener. She folded the towel in thirds and placed it neatly back on the rack. Then she took a good look around the small room. Johnnie was everywhere here: his blue and white toothbrush, the disposable razor, the Old Spice deodorant, his worn gray robe hanging on the door. Why is it that a man makes his presence more known in the bathroom than anywhere else in the house, she wondered? It used to drive Imogene nuts, washing those small, coarse hairs out of the sink, putting the toilet lid back down, picking up his wet towels off the floor. But at 4 a.m. on the dawn of what she knew would be a terrible day, she found the tiny bathroom a haven.

She opened the medicine cabinet and took out the narrow can of shaving cream, blue gunk hardening on the nozzle. Holding it to her nose, she sniffed it before putting it back in the cabinet and shutting the door. She picked up his toothbrush from its holder mounted above the sink, pressed it against her cheek, then placed it gently back beside her own. As she stared at the toothbrushes, dangling side by side on the bathroom wall, the weight of her loss renewed itself, fresh and cruel like a cut reopened.

Uncertain of her motives, Imogene opened the shower curtain, stepped inside and lowered herself into the dry tub. Johnnie had been the last to shower today, and she smelled him here, the delectable scent of soap, shaving cream and man she found more intoxicating than any cologne. She inhaled deeply, and leaned back, the cool, porcelain more comfortable than her own bed tonight.

She reached behind her and pulled Johnnie's robe from the hook on the bathroom door. She had given him this robe as a Christmas present nearly 10 years ago, and the fleece, once plush, had softened and thinned. As she wrapped it around her, Imogene could see Johnnie standing at her kitchen counter, the robe falling open as he reached for a coffee mug. She saw herself going to him there, slipping her arms through the gaping robe and wrapping them around him, the feel of his warm chest rising against her own, his heart thumping against her breast.

"Johnnie," Imogene whispered, seeing her reflection distort like a funhouse mirror in the chrome bath hardware mounted on the opposite side of the tub.

Slipping into the chasm of her loss again, Imogene bunched the robe up and laid her head back against its folds. For a blessed little while, Imogene slept dreamlessly in her bathtub.


"Imogene, you OK in there? You alright?" Ruth Ann's voice carried from the hall as she tapped softly on the bathroom door. Imogene lifted her head with some difficulty, rubbed her stiff neck, and cursed herself for falling asleep in the tub. I'm losing my freaking mind, she thought.

"I'll be out in a second," Imogene said, noticing the light filtering through the small bathroom window. From its slant, Imogene guessed it was around 6 a.m. She climbed out of the tub and carefully re-hung Johnnie's robe. Then she lifted her night shirt, plopped down on the toilet, and peed, relieved for one small, normal activity in a day that promised to be anything but. Peeing in the morning was what everyone did: movie stars did it; the president did it; and widows who'd lost their husbands in freak tree accidents did it.

Widow. The word was cold and unfamiliar. She had finished peeing, but she paused on the toilet a minute longer, letting the new title slowly settle upon her. Widow. It was an uncomfortable fit, a cumbersome coat she'd like to return to the store: "This won't do at all, dear. It's much too heavy and bulky," she imagined herself saying to the salesclerk, as if she were Audrey Hepburn in a 1960s film.

Hmmmm, she thought, taking in her large, pale thighs, streaked with veins, and wondering why she always saw herself in fantasies as Holly Golightly. More like Holly Goheavily, she mused. Yep. I'm losin' it alright. She wiped, flushed, washed and dried her hands, and opened the door to see Ruth Ann leaning against the wall, her brow furrowed, her lips tight with concern.

"Imogene? Good Lord! Did you sleep in the bathroom?"

"You say it like it's a bad thing, Ruth," Imogene said, turning down the hall toward the kitchen where she already smelled coffee in the pot. God Bless, Ruth Ann.


After two mugs of stout black coffee, and half the slice of toast Ruth Ann burned but insisted she eat, Imogene called her boss, Jim Sikes, to deliver the news and let him know she'd be out a while. Jim owned Meadeville's biggest grocery store, Sikes Hometown Foods, and Imogene had been running his deli for nearly two decades.

As she anticipated, Jim had already heard the news, and judging by the hoarseness of his voice, he'd taken it especially hard. Jim had been the one to stand beside her and Johnnie at their small, city hall wedding so many years ago, and Imogene knew he loved them both like his own.

"I was just getting ready to come out there, Imogene," he said. "I just had to open the store and make some plans, but…"

"It's OK," Imogene said. "Ruth Ann's here. She stayed the night. I just wanted to--"

"Imogene, don't worry about the deli," Jim interrupted. "Becca' can fill in for a while so you can take your time. Take all the time you need." She heard him draw a sharp breath, and she pressed the phone tightly to her forehead.

"Good God, girl," he said at last. "This is just awful."

"Jim," Imogene said, "Tell Becca' not to put so much mayo in the cole slaw. The customers complained last time. And tell her I mixed up some of my season salt and put in pickle jar on the shelf behind the slicer. Make sure she doesn't go light with it on the chicken. You can't put too much seasoning on fried chicken, I've told her that a hundred times. A country deli ain't the place to go healthy, but she keeps talking about low-fat this and low-sodium that."

Imogene pictured Becca Sims, Jim's bony-butt, 20-something great niece who took a couple of cooking classes through the University of Kentucky extension office and dreamed of turning the deli into a gourmet bistro. But it wouldn't work in Meadeville, Imogene knew. No one in Meadeville trusted a skinny cook.

"Imogene, Imogene," Jim said, sighing heavily on the other end. "We'll be okay here, you know. I've been running this grocery for 50 some-odd years. I think we can make it a while. I'm a lot more concerned about you. Can we bring you anything? Can me and Sherry come with you today to help with the, uh, arrangements? Can we do that for you?"

"I'll be alright," Imogene lied. "Ruth Ann and Dave already offered, but that's kind of you and Sherry"

"If you need something, don't be afraid to ask," Jim said. "And hey, don't you dare worry about the darn deli, you hear me? You take all the time you need."

"Thanks," Imogene said, cradling the phone and silently thanking God for Jim, who at 72 was more like a father to her than a boss.

Imogene's real dad had run out on her when Imogene was in second grade, and she had rarely heard from him, other than a few sporadic letters that ceased altogether when she was 12. Imogene didn't know where she would be if Jim hadn't taken a chance on a teen-age cook, and she was forever indebted to him. Imogene's own mother had meant well, but Imogene had spent more time taking care of her than the natural order of things dictated.

Devastated by her husband's rapid departure with a 17-year-old high school cheerleader and the local scandal that ensued, Cynthia Clay would come home from her work as a secretary at the lumber yard and seek solace in Miller Lights and any local redneck who'd glance her way.

For years, Imogene's mom would drag lovers home to the double-wide, and young Imogene would lie awake listening to the sounds of the bed springs squeaking on the other side of the thin paneling, her Mama's drunken cries laden with more anger than arousal. After sleeping with him, Cynthia most likely would call her befuddled young lover a sorry, cheating, no-good son of a bitch and kick him out, only to burst into hysterical sobs when the screen door slammed behind him and whatever pickup truck he'd been in kicked up rocks down the dirt drive that lead to the trailer.

Sometimes Cynthia would stumble down the hall to Imogene's room and squeeze into the twin bed with her. She'd wrap her arms around Imogene, and with beer-bated breath, tell Imogene how handsome her daddy was with his wavy hair the color of coal, and how he'd once driven all the way to Nashville to find gardenias for his wife because she'd remarked that she loved their rich fragrance on summer nights. She'd tell Imogene how he loved his daughter, how he used to give Imogene kisses on her belly and call her his little Mo-Mo. As she lie in Imogene's bed crying for the only man she ever loved, Cynthia would stroke Imogene's hair, running her fingers through the thick, black curls until beer and tears lulled her to sleep.

Imogene never knew what to say to her mom those nights, didn't know the words to make things all right, so she tried to do other things to make life better in that trailer in the Southern Kentucky hills.

She didn't give her mom any trouble, did her best in school, and once even wrote a letter to her Daddy, telling him in her crooked, penciled letters how unhappy Mama was without him and asking him to come back home. When she didn't get a response, she tried other things to cheer her mother. She kept her room clean and tidy, swept the floors, and washed their laundry and hung it out to dry on the line, the way she recalled her mom doing it before Daddy left.

Imogene remembered dashing in and out of the sheets on the line one spring morning, while her Mom sang along with the small black radio perched on the back step. That beautiful day, Cynthia dropped the clothes pins and swooped Imogene into her arms for an impromptu dance. They swayed between the towels, shirts, and her daddy's dark Wrangler jeans, her Mom singing off-key, but neither of them caring, as they dipped and spun and giggled, the empty clothes their only audience.

As Imogene grew older, her mom drank more and more, unable (Imogene refused to believe she was unwilling) to care for herself, much less her daughter. So, the summer before fifth grade, Imogene taught herself to cook.

Imogene was quiet and didn’t have many school friends. Even when someone was kind to her in school, she knew she couldn't bring them home to a drunken Mama, so cooking passed the time and filled the lonely nights when Mama was out.

The menus started out simple enough: Campbell's tomato soup; a grilled cheese or fried bologna sandwich; maybe a few slices of bacon and scrambled eggs. Before the next summer rolled around, however, Imogene had progressed to more elaborate meals, like tacos, spaghetti, and Hamburger Helper. At first, Imogene cooked out of need because Mama's idea of cooking was opening some Cheerios and eating out of the box. But before long, Imogene could find her way around a kitchen and her Mama had noticed, smiling at Imogene when she saw two places sat at the kitchen table and a pan steaming on the stove.

Over time, Imogene grew to love the process and became more creative in the kitchen, whipping up casseroles from whatever leftovers she could piece together; making homemade pies with simple crusts created from vegetable oil and flour; frying chicken legs she'd dipped twice in buttermilk and baking mix.

Somehow, Cynthia Clay had managed to keep her job at the lumber yard (Imogene suspected it had something to do with Mama's married boss, who visited the trailer a few nights every month). She paid the rent on the trailer regularly, picked up clothes at garage sales for Imogene, and remembered to buy groceries at least a couple of times a month. Mainly, she bought basic things like cheese, ground beef, eggs, canned vegetables, and white bread, and most of it was off-brand. Still, it was enough for Imogene to work with, and she actually began to enjoy her days in the cramped kitchen, turning on the portable radio and singing Duran Duran songs as she chopped onions or whipped eggs.

Imogene's life wasn't great, but it wasn't out of the ordinary for a rural town, either. Lots of folks had it tough, Imogene knew, so why should she feel sorry for herself? She busied herself with school work and taking care of her Mama, and that was enough. She tried to find joy in the simple things, like the blackberry bushes that grew wild amid the brush behind their trailer.

When Imogene was 15, she spent one blazing summer afternoon battling the heat and the flies to gather fresh, ripe blackberries in a plastic bucket. She took them inside, washed them off, sprinkled them with sugar, and boiled them down in a big pot just long enough to bring out their natural juices. Then, she took some slices of stale white bread and cubed them, soaked the cubes in berry juice, eggs and milk, and alternated the bread and blackberries in a Pyrex casserole dish. She topped the concoction with a simple brown sugar and cinnamon syrup she'd learned to make from reading an old copy of Southern Living they'd gotten in the mail by mistake. Imogene piled on more fresh berries, popping one into her mouth, before putting the pudding in the oven.

The next morning, Imogene served a microwave-heated portion of her blackberry bread pudding to her mom, plopping a spoonful of it alongside cheese eggs and fried hamburger steaks. Bleary, hung-over Cynthia Clay sat at the formica table, robotically eating the eggs and hamburger. Absentmindedly, she scooped up a spoonful of the berries and shoveled it between her lips. Her dark eyes grew wide, and she took another bite and another.

"Oh, Mo," her mom said, wiping berry juice from her chin. "My sweet 'Mo. You are so good to me." Then she burst into tears, reached across the table, and squeezed Imogene's plump fingers, holding her hands for a long, delicious, dizzying moment. Standing in that hot trailer kitchen, staring at her mom's blackberry-stained teeth, Imogene realized she had a gift.

That afternoon, Cynthia stayed away from the Miller Light long enough to drive Imogene to the town square, marching her into Sikes Hometown Foods with a plastic Cool Whip bowl of blackberry pudding in one hand and a "Part-Time Deli Help Wanted" sign in the other. She spoke to the owner about a job for her Imogene. Jim Sikes protested, looking at the plump girl dressed in ratty cutoffs and a faded yellow Dukes of Hazzard shirt. He said Imogene was too young and inexperienced to cook for his deli, but he'd keep her in mind if he needed a cashier down the road.

But Cynthia refused to be dismissed, insisting Imogene was right for the job.

"Look here," Jim said. "I'm sure she's very talented, but this deli is my bread and butter. Lunch plates and pies are nearly half my business, and I'm looking for someone with a little more experience to help Maureen out back there. I appreciate you gals comin' down, but I don't think you know what all the job entails."

"I may not know much, sir, and I may not be worth a piece of crap to anyone these days," Cynthia had said too loudly, pulling the plastic lid off the container as she spoke and drawing the attention of shoppers, as Imogene cringed. "But dammit, young or not, my girl can cook. She's been cookin' my meals for years, and everyone knows I'd be dead if it weren't for her, so don't insult my baby by not even trying her food first."

Before Mr. Sikes could utter another word, Cynthia dug out a spoon from her purse and shoved a large glob of Imogene's pudding right into his mouth. Although she was accustomed to her mother embarrassing her, Imogene felt she'd gone much too far this time. Fighting back tears, Imogene pulled her mother's arm and began shuffling backwards toward the automatic doors that lead to the parking lot. She looked up only long enough to notice Maureen Cravens, the five-foot tall, 80-some-odd relic who'd run the deli as long as anyone could remember, standing on her tiptoes to peer out over the top of the lunchmeat counter.

"Come on, Mama," Imogene said between clenched teeth, "Please, come on! It's okay, Mama. Let's just go!"

But Cynthia Clay stood her ground, standing in front of the checkout lanes holding out the Cool Whip tub like she was offering manna to the gods.

Imogene was sure Jim would call for the police, but to her amazement, he reached out, took the bowl and ate another bite. Then he carried a spoonful over to Maureen, who tasted it. Imogene waited anxiously for Maureen's reaction, but her mouth was hidden behind the counter. Jim leaned over, and Maureen whispered something to him, and he whispered something back before walking toward Imogene.

Jim laughed--a rich, hearty, belly laugh you wouldn't expect from such a thin man.

"You cook this darlin'?" Jim asked her, as Imogene's face flushed hot.

"Yes, sir," Imogene said quietly.

"What else you make?" he asked.

"Lots of stuff," Imogene whispered, blushing as two of the carry-out boys elbowed each other and pointed at her.

"Such as?" Jim said.

Imogene cleared her throat.

"Umm, I can make chess pie, fried chicken, lots of casseroles," Imogene said. "I cook a lot at home."

"And her chicken salad is to die for," Cynthia burst in victoriously. "I swear, it's the best thing you ever tasted. She uses grapes in it, which you think would be nasty, but it works!"

Jim Sikes threw both hands up in the air in mock surrender, and flashing purple teeth, offered Imogene a job in his deli.

Behind the counter, legendary Maureen Cravens grinned.


(To be continued?)


  1. damn, jenn... minus the REALLY effed up home- life, johnnie being a janitor, and johnnie having enought hair through which mo could run her fingers... i'd swear this story was modelled after my life.
    i'm waiting with beer-baited-breath for the rest of the story!!!
    ps. MY john will be trimming NO trees anytime soon;)

  2. The events depicted in this story are sorta fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is pretty much intentional.

  3. Hey, wait a minute!! I'm a little concerned that you have been hounding me to get those huge water maples trimmed....I don't think I'll let you hold the ladder.

  4. Oh Jen. You simply must tell the rest of her story. So that I can buy it from Amazon. Stunning writing!

  5. @dani: Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. The idea of Imogene was born when we lived in very rural Allen County. And yes, I recommend keeping your John away from trees, unless you are lying under one and he is feeding you grapes.

    @Jeff: Ha. Actually, I owe you. If you hadn't stopped to pick up turkey at Food Lion, Imogene wouldn't exist!

    @Cubiclegirl: That absolutely made my day! I think I might renew her story, after all. Thank you so much! I hope you are still writing, too. You have such a gift.