Seventeen Year Itch

A Short Story by Donal Mahoney

Marcia was 17 the first time thousands of locusts rose from the fields of her father’s farm and filled the air, sounding like zithers unable to stop. Her father was angry but Marcia loved the music the locusts made. She was in high school then and chose to make locusts the focus of her senior paper.

At the town library she learned locusts spend 17 years deep in the soil, feeding on fluids from roots of trees that make them strong enough to emerge at the proper time to court and reproduce. Courtship requires the males to gather in a circle and sing until the females agree to make them fathers.

Courtship and mating and laying of eggs takes almost two months and then the locusts fall from the air and die. Marcia remembers the iridescent shells on the ground shining, She was always careful not to step on them. She cried when the rain and the wind took them away.

Now 17 years later Marcia is 34 and the locusts are back again. Her dead father can’t hear them and Marcia no longer loves the music the way she did in high school. Now she stays in the house and keeps the windows closed and relies on the air-conditioner to drown out the locusts. Marcia has patience, however. She knows what will happen. She reads her Bible and sucks on lemon drops, knowing the locusts will die.

In the seventh week, the locusts fall from the air in raindrops, then torrents. “It is finished,” Marcia says. She pulls on her father’s boots and goes out in the fields and stomps on the shells covering the ground but she stomps carefully.

At 34 Marcia’s in no hurry. Before each stomp, she names each shell Billy, John, Chuck, Terrence or Lester, the names of men who have courted her during the 17 years since high school. They all made promises Marcia loved to hear, promises she can recite like a favorite prayer. She made each man happy as best she could. They would grunt like swine the first night, some of them for many nights. But then like locusts they would disappear.

I Can’t See What She Sees

A Short Story by Suzanne Comer

“Miss Marianne, Miss Marianne—Miss Gerrie is dying,” Felicia says, out of breath, as she bursts through my half-open door without knocking.

“Whoa, hold on, what do you mean? We know she’s near the end. Hospice comes in to see her every day now.” I reassure, as I set my coffee cup in its saucer, move my newspaper over, and push away some administrative documents in need of my signature.

“Lord—Honey, you know I can’t stay in a room with no one so close to passing over.” Falincia is standing square in front of my desk. Her designer scrubs are starched and ironed with a crease. Deep furrows separate her eye brows. Her feet are spread apart. She is swaying side-to-side like a kid wading through a mud puddle wearing a pair of galoshes three sizes too big. From her stylish up-do hang two black braids that swing to-and-fro like up-side-down miniature metronomes, keeping the beat.

“What happened, she was fine an hour ago?” I question. It’s my way of buying time until I can figure things out. No need to rush to judgement.

“You see, Miss Gerrie says the Lord is in her room, over in the corner, and she thinks she sees me too over there with Jesus. She believes I’m a saint! Lord knows, I ain’t no saint. You know that about me. I try to be a good person, but I ain’t no saint.

“Maybe she wants to compliment you. Did you help her with something special? Possibly, it’s her way of bragging on you—saying thank you.” I suggest.

“No, Ma’am, nothin’ special; all I do is helps her dress and do her shower. I folds her clothes, and do her toileting and all. You know I try to be a good caregiver, but I can’t help her pass.” She stops swaying and gets a couple of Hershey’s Kisses out of my candy dish, knowing chocolate is the best elixir for relieving stress—that’s why it’s there. Then she continues, “Miss Gerri says Jesus has come to take her home, and I’m the saint he’s sent to help her pass on over. You know me, Miss Marianne. I ain’t lyin’.” Afraid of what I might say next, she places her hands at the sides of her face in dismay. Her mouth, full of chocolate, is ajar.

“Let’s go to her room and see.” I suggest.

“You go, Miss Marianne! I done told you, I ain’t goin’ into Miss Gerrie’s room ‘less I have to. Because I can’t see what she sees!”

I get up, move away from my desk, and walk through the door. “What are you scared of?” I ask.

“Oh, Lordy. What if He really is there and I am a saint—at least right then—and He takes me along with Miss Gerrie to help her pass over. I don’t wanta pass TOO!”

My administrator’s second sense tells me it’s time to let Falencia be. “Ok, I’ll go check on her myself.” I suggest. “Why don’t you go work in the laundry-room for a while.” Moments later, I press the code on the key pad to enter Memory Lane, the dementia unit. I watch to make sure no one escapes, then saunter toward 410—Miss Gerrie’s room.

“Good morning Gerrie. You look chipper this morning.” I exaggerate.

“Oh, cut the crap, will ya! I look like warmed over death because that’s what a ninety-eight year old women looks like. Now tell me, what’s the boss coming around here so early for?” Gerri quips.

I’ve known Gerri for eons so I get straight to the point because that’s what she appreciates about me. “Gerrie, has Jesus given you a visit lately?”

“Hell no, has he you?” She’s adamant.

“He does come around here every now and then.” I remind.

“Oh, now you’re beginning to sound like that pious ol’ hospice chaplain, soooo comforting!” Gerri dramatizes.

“Did you tell Falincia that Jesus was in you room, and you were about to die?” I refresh her ninety-eight-year-old selective memory.

“Oh, that!” Gerrie understands.

“Yes, that! She thinks you’re hallucinating. She thinks you see her as a saint.”

Gerrie’s brown eyes twinkle and she smiles a knowing smile. She holds up a knotty index finger and points up. “Yes, that girl is a saint. She was telling me how sometimes her husband treats her with disrespect. I told her she shouldn’t have to live that way, because she’s a wonderful young lady; so helpful, kind, and sincere. She feeds me when I’m hungry, gives me something to drink when I’m thirsty, and wipes my ass when I shit.”

“Yes, she does,” I agree with a chuckle.

“I can see her heart. It’s a caregiver’s heart, a consecrated heart.” She stops and thrusts her right hand into the pocket of her worn pink house dress. Retrieving a wadded-up Kleenex, she wipes her nose for no apparent reason, and then continues. “Yes, she is a saint. And yes, I am dying—but not today!”

I stand there and ponder Gerrie’s lucid moment for a while. Then I say, “You’re right. She works hard and needs your encouragement. So keep up your good work because—Falincia said it best. She can’t see what you see.”

There’s knocking on the door, then Falencia peeks in. Her eyes meet mine, and I give her the nod. The one that says everything is okay. See takes her cue and scurries past me—all smiles. “Hi, Miss Gerrie, looks like you are feelin’ better now. You ready for me to do your nails?”

“Yes, darlin. I want hot pink today— to match my dress.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

I get up to leave, my mission accomplished. I pull the door open and turn to look back at the two. While Falencia is busy digging through her manicure kit, Gerri looks up and gives me a discreet wink as a bright smile dawns over her face.

In Break Formation

A Poem by Donal Mahoney

The indications used to come
like movie fighter planes in break
formation, one by one, the perfect
plummet, down and out. This time they’re
slower. But after supper, when I hear her
in the kitchen hum again, hum higher,
higher, till my ears are numb,
I remember how it was
the last time: how she hummed
to Aramaic peaks, flung
supper plates across the kitchen
till I brought her by the shoulders
humming to the chair.
I remember how the final days
her eyelids, operating on their own,
rose and fell, how she strolled
among the children, winding tractors,
hugging dolls, how finally
I phoned and had them come again,
how I walked behind them
as they took her by the shoulders,
house dress in the breeze, slowly
down the walk and to the curbing,
how I watched them bend her
in the back seat of the squad again,
how I watched them pull away
and heard again the parliament
of neighbors talking.

“In Break Formation” was first published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Vol. 19 No. 2, Winter 1968-69, Box 151, Farmington, ME 04938.

Coming Home at Midnight to the Farm

A Short Story by Donal Mahoney

Driving down the hill I see the same bend in the road the school bus took me around for years. I can see in the headlights the wildflowers ringing the curve like a necklace–goldenrod, cornflower, Queen Anne’s Lace, God’s gift to country roads in the fall. You don’t see anything like that in the city but I’m getting used to living there.

I see the house ahead, one light on, upstairs. It’s midnight and my father’s dead and my mother’s in that room praying and maybe crying, waiting for me to pull in. She knows it’s a six-hour drive from the city.

The wake will be tomorrow night at Egan’s mortuary. There will be 15 decades of the rosary to say and I still have trouble getting through five. Then there will be three hours of listening to my mother’s friends console her, ancient ladies all, many of them widowed long before her.

Many times my mother has been in their place so she knows what they will say but she will find some comfort in it anyway. The old farmers still alive will simply say “sorry for your troubles” which serves as both a condolence and a prayer.

Mass will be at 10 in the morning with Father Murphy in the pulpit sounding like Bishop Sheen. My dad told me long ago that when he finally died Father Murphy would confer sainthood on him at the funeral, no need for any miracles. Father Murphy has a long history of canonizing every farmer who dies unless he committed one of the seven deadly sins in public. My father said he hoped Father Murphy would talk loud enough for God to hear.

After the procession to the graveyard and the consignment of the casket, everyone will drive back to the church hall for the funeral meal–wonderful food prepared by good women and arranged in a long buffet.

The farmers will assure my mother they will be out to her place tomorrow and the next day to put up the hay. After the hay is taken care of, they will take turns coming to feed the cattle and they’ll go to town to pick up whatever she needs. Things will work out, they will tell her. Not to worry.

After everyone has eaten, the ladies, one by one, will rise and bow to my mother and tell her to go home now and get some rest.

The men will shake hands with me and ask how long before I have to go back to the city. I’ll say I have a week, maybe two, uncertain as to what night I’ll have to leave. I know it will be around midnight. And the same light will be on, upstairs.