An Ethereal Relationship

May 14, 2030

1:00 pm

My wife, Ethereal, has been missing for three weeks, and now the unthinkable has happened. A policeman - an Officer Savvy - stands at my front door.  He says they think my wife is dead.  He wants me to come to the morgue and identify her body.  I'm stunned.  I realize my iPhone is in my hand.  I put it in the case that's attached to my belt, grab my coat and iPad and follow the policeman to his squad car.  I'm glad he has offered to drive me to the morgue.  I'm in no condition to drive myself.

Officer Savvy is a young guy - just a few years older than I am, I guess.  He seems uncomfortable.  Maybe he hasn't been a policeman long enough to be used to this sort of thing.

When we arrive at the morgue, a detective in plain clothes joins us on our walk down a long hall - Detective Bygone.  He's an older, gray-headed fellow, wearing a neatly pressed suit and speaking with a raspy voice.  Double doors are at the end of the hall, and they grow larger with each step.  We're not half way there, but I stop.  The policeman and the detective keep walking until they realize I'm not behind them.  Then they turn.

"Are you alright?" asks the blue uniform.

"I don't think there's any point in my going in there," I hear myself say with a confidence that seems out of place.

"But Mr. Numbman," the detective says, "we need you to make an identification.  I know this is hard, but . . ."

"I just don't think I'll recognize her," I say.

Officer Savvy tries to reassure me by telling me that my wife is not disfigured in any way.

"Oh, I hadn't thought of that.  No, it's just that I haven't seen her in years."

The policeman and the detective exchange confused looks.

"I didn't know," the detective says slowly, "that you and your wife were estranged.  When you filed the missing persons report, you said that you and Ethereal share a residence."

"We do," I reply, "I mean we did, but we really didn't see much of each other."

"I guess your work must take you out of town a lot?" Officer Savvy suggests.

"No, no. Neither of us is out of town very often." I feel weak, so I sit down in one of the plastic chairs in the hallway.

The detective and the policeman sit down, too.  They seem like kind men, and I think they're beginning to wonder about my sanity.

"Mr. Numbman, you said you haven't seen your wife in years.  How can you be in the same house with someone everyday and not see them?" says Detective Bygone.

"Well, you know," I begin to explain, "we watched TV every night. And we both did things on our iPads."

"You mean you did these things in separate rooms?"  Neither of these men seem to understand.

"No, we were always in the same room.  We just didn't look at each other," I say.

"But surely you did other things sometimes," the policeman says, "like - maybe - eating out together?"

"Of course, of course.  We ate out often, but we always had something to check on our iPhones, and - well, we just didn't notice each other much."

"You had no personal communication?" the detective asks in disbelief.

"Well, sure. We had personal communication.  We texted each other.  We posted on Facebook.  We even sent each other personal messages on Facebook. Sometimes we even talked on the phone."

I'm feeling a little indignant at their suggestion that Ethereal and I didn't have any personal communication.  We communicated all the time.  We just never looked at each other.  Why is that so hard for these men to understand?  Maybe the detective is too old, but Officer Savvy ought to understand.

"Anyway," I go on, "you can see why there's no way I can identify my wife."

There's a long pause, and then the policeman says, "Wait right here."

He and the detective go into a room that opens off the hallway.  They close the door.  I can hear the low buzz of conversation, but can't make out what they're saying.  The policeman is doing most of the talking.  There's an occasional grunt from the detective. They're coming back out in the hall now.

"Look here, Mr. Numbman," says Detective Bygone, "Officer Savvy here found your wife's photograph on her Facebook page.  He's got it right here on his phone.  You, me, and Officer Savvy are going to go in there where your wife is.  We'd like you to look at the woman lying in there on the table, and then look at the picture on Officer Savvy's phone, and see if you can make an identification based on the photo.  You know - maybe it will jog your memory.  You must have known what your wife looked like at some time in the past."

2:30 pm

The double doors close behind us as we walk back into the hall.  Truth be told, I'm a little embarrassed that I needed a photo to come to the conclusion that the woman lying on that table is not my wife.  But I console myself, knowing that if I were lying on that table, Ethereal would need a photo to identify me.

"Mr. Numbman, we're going to continue to look for your wife, and when we find her, I hope to God you'll look at her," says Detective Bygone. I don't appreciate his superior tone.

Officer Savvy smiles.  My phone rings as we're shaking hands.

"Gotta get this," I say with urgency. "It might be important."

"Yeah," says Detective Bygone, "maybe it's your wife."




Up a Tree

It was one of those happy, golden days. The temperature was perfect, neither too hot nor too cold. Autumn was Alison's favorite season, and here it was in all its glory - reds, golds, and rich rusty browns covered the hills and the valleys. City Park offered a feast of color. Alison had packed a lunch and her book bag full of papers to grade. What better place to work than a table at the park on a day like this?

She walked along the sidewalk, savoring the sound of crunching leaves under her brown boots. Now and then the gentle breeze sent more leaves raining down. She walked along, lost in thought, the pleasant little breeze rustling her golden curls.

Suddenly, the sound of a child crying interrupted her autumn wool-gathering. She stopped and listened, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. It led her to a large cedar tree, green among all the reds and golds. It was one of those trees that is made for climbing.

She looked up and saw nothing but the cedar's green boughs. The crying continued. She walked around to the other side of the tree. She looked up again and saw the green boughs rustling in an unnatural way.

"Hello!" she called. "Who's up there?"

The crying stopped long enough for a frightened little voice to say, "It's me. Bonnie. And I'm so scared!" Then the heartbreaking sobs resumed.

"Why are you scared, Bonnie?" said Alison.

"Because I can't get down!" the little voice said between sniffs and sniffles.

"Of course, you can get down! You got up there by yourself, didn't you?"

"That's right," said a matter-of-fact masculine voice, "whatever goes up can certainly come down."

"But she's gone higher than she meant to," said Alison. "That's the problem."

"Oh, no!" wailed Bonnie, "I never meant to go this high!"

The owner of the masculine voice said, "Kids! There's no end to the trouble they'll get themselves in." He was tall and muscular and had a take-charge attitude.

"Now listen, darlin'," he said, "I want you to look down . . . "

"No, no!" screamed Bonnie, "I can't look down! I'll fall!"

"Oh, for pity's sake!" He had to act exasperated because he felt so helpless.

"I'm Alison, and you are . . .?" Introductions were in order, she thought.

"I'm Ryan, and I really don't have time for this; but the kid can't stay in the tree." He peered through the greenery, trying to locate the terrified Bonnie.

"Well, of course not," said Alison, trying to hide her annoyance. He reminded her of her own father who had very little patience.

"Alright, Bonnie," Ryan said, "Hold on to the branch you're on and step on the branch below."

The sobbing had stopped, but now it resumed with added vigor.

"Wait," said Alison, "You're rushing her!"

"Some women are so permissive," Ryan thought to himself, "I'll bet she stood here and watched while Bonnie climbed out of sight." But little did that matter now.

"Ok, sweetie," said Ryan, "I can see your feet. You're wearing your red tennis shoes, aren't you?"

"Yes," whimpered Bonnie.

"Do you know which foot is your right foot?" Ryan asked.

"This one," said Bonnie, as she patted her right leg.

"Good girl!" Ryan said with a reassuring grin, "Can you put your right foot down a little bit where those two branches come together and make a V?" He made a V with his fingers and hoped Bonnie could see them.

"Oh, I don't know," said the shaky little voice.

"Sure you can," said Alison, "Hold on tight, and put your foot in the V."

"I'd go up and get her," said Ryan quietly, to no one in particular, "but those small branches won't hold me. If she would just come down to the bigger branches . . . "

"That's it!" Ryan and Alison said in unison as they saw one small tennis shoe plant itself in the V between branches.

"Now," said Ryan, "leave your right hand where it is, and move your left hand to that branch right below."

"Hold on tight with your right hand," said Alison, trying not to sound frightened.
Soon Bonnie's left hand was firmly on the branch below her right hand.

"Ok, sweetheart, hold tight with both hands, and look at that other V below your right foot."

"Do you see the V he's talking about?" asked Alison.

"Yes, I see it," said Bonnie, sounding more confident.

"Put your left foot in that V and move your right hand down to the branch with your left hand," Ryan was proud of her. She had stopped crying and was doing her best. They watched as she made more progress, following Ryan's directions as Alison gave words of encouragement.

"That's it," said Ryan to Alison, "She's down low enough now. I'm going up to get her."

He climbed carefully, trying not to shake the tree too much. He didn't give a thought to his dress pants and white shirt.

At last he had Bonnie in his arms. He handed her carefully down to Alison who set a smiling Bonnie firmly on the ground.

"There you are, Bonnie!" a tall young woman shouted as she walked toward them. "Come along now, your father is waiting."

"I'm coming, Mama," Bonnie shouted back. When she was about half way to her mother, she stopped and turned. Her little freckled face lit up. She waved at Ryan and Alison, and they thought they heard her say "Thanks!" as her mother led her away.

Ryan looked at Alison in disbelief as he climbed down from the tree. "I thought she was yours!" he said.

"And I thought she was yours!" Alison replied, laughing, as she helped him brush tree bark from his pants.

"I still have time for a quick lunch," Ryan said as he looked at his watch. "I think you should join me."

"Yes," she said, "I think I will." They walked away, side by side, crunching leaves as they went. Her packed lunch would keep.

Ghost Letter to Arabella

                    June 15, 1804

Dear Ab Arabella,
     I'm so tired I had trouble even spelling your name!  It's no wonder after the day I've had.  Although it's very late and I'm writing by candlelight, I'm too tired to sleep - so I decided to write and tell you about my day.
     Imagine my horror when I went out to the paddock this morning and found the gate open and all my sheep gone!  You know how hard I worked to talk Papa into letting me have my own little flock to tend.
     I had gone out to the paddock in my bare feet.  I hurried back to the house and put on my sturdiest walking boots and quickly packed some bread and cheese; then set out to find my flock, hopefully before Papa got home.  He was away at market.
     Bobby came along with me, and I was glad for his company.  I didn't know how much help he would be in finding the sheep, but you know what a good dog he is for herding and driving.  I knew he could help me get them home if only we could find them.
     First we set out for Conner's Tor where we would have a good view of the whole countryside.  No sheep in sight!  We came down from the tor - our climb for nothing - and turned down Cobbler's Lane with the cottages on one side and the open field on the other where there were a few cows grazing, but no sheep. 
     Mrs. Shoemaker called out to me from her cottage door.  She wanted me to visit, but I was anxious about my flock.  Besides, she has so many children and they're all wild and unruly!  One of the boys threw his leg over Bobby and rode him like a horse.  Poor Bobby!  We didn't tarry long.
     We went out Newman Mill Road with eyes searching and ears listening for anything like the bleating of sheep.  I was glad I had my shepherd's crook to lean on.  We rested by the mill pond.  I shared my bread and cheese with Bobby who was as hungry as I was.  Mr. Newman, the miller, gave me a cool drink of water from his spring, and Bobby drank from the mill pond.
     We rambled on and circled around to Market Town Road.  When we got back to the village, we saw Mrs. Hubbard coming out of the butcher's shop.  When she asked how I was, I burst into tears, and she made me come to her house for tea. We had bread and jam with our tea, and I was quite satisfied although Mrs. Hubbard was sorry there were no sweet cakes in her bare pantry.
     I thanked kind Mrs. Hubbard, and Bobby and I started for home with sad hearts.  Just as we were about to turn off Elm Rowe into our own lane, what should appear around the curve ahead, but my dear flock - all nineteen of them - bleating merrily and wagging their tails.  The dear little things!  As if they hadn't cost me a day of toil and tears!

                       Your faithful friend,

Can you guess who L.B.P. is?

The Package

            A Very Short Story
by Judith B. Landry

The door bell rang and there I was - up to my eyeballs in dirty dishes. At first I ignored it. Whoever it was could come back later. But curiosity got the best of me. I dried myself and hurried to the entrance hall where I nearly slipped on - of all things - a carrot!

"Kids!" I thought as I opened the door.

There he stood in a brown uniform, holding that new-fangled clipboard that provides a little rectangle for your signature. I signed my name and wondered who in the world would be able to read it.

He handed me a small package wrapped in brown paper. He didn’t seem to notice my puzzled expression as he turned to leave.

"What could it be?" I wondered, knowing that I had not ordered anything. Besides, this package had been sent by an individual, not a business. The return address had been carefully printed by a shaky hand. There was no name, only the address - "121 Cabbage Lane; Endive, Oklahoma." I read it several times.

"Oh, please!" I thought, "Is this some kind of joke?" But I wasn’t laughing. Who sent this? I was afraid to open it. I shook it, but nothing rattled. I held it close to my ear, but nothing ticked. It didn’t weigh much more than a feather. Was it an empty box?

My heart raced as I reached for the telephone book. I was shaking as I punched in the number of the nearby police station. But I hung up after the first ring. What could I say but the truth? ------- "I’ve received a package from Cabbage Lane in Endive, Oklahoma, and I’m afraid to open it." Officer Wolfe, that young twerp, would get a good laugh out of that! He would never take me seriously again.

I almost had to stand on my head as I rooted around in the cluttered cabinet and pulled out a small kitchen scale. I set the package on the scale. Three and a half ounces. But what did that tell me? Not a thing.

I left the package on the scale and sat down at my computer. I carefully typed "Endive, Oklahoma" in the search box on my favorite map website. I nearly came undone when this information flashed across the screen: "Your search for Endive, Oklahoma did not match any locations. Please revise your search."

There was no such place as Endive, Oklahoma! This was clearly a bogus package, fit for nothing but the trash can! I put on my old red sweater, my fuzzy ear muffs, and my brown mittens.

Hopping along in the cold, I finally reached the trash can at the end of the driveway. I lifted the lid and put the package inside on top of some newspapers. I turned and took two steps. Curiosity seized me. Something was in the box. What could it be? How could I ever stand not knowing?

I quickly retrieved the package from the trash can and hurried back inside. The package rested on the kitchen table as I poured myself a glass of vegetable juice. I found a pair of scissors and carefully cut the tape that held the package together.

With great care I removed a wad of pale green tissue paper, revealing a small, thin book at the bottom of the box. There was only one word on each page. "Hungry - indeed - is - the - one - who - finds - his - salvation - in - cabbage - and - endive."

Under the book were two envelopes - one containing cabbage seeds and the other, endive seeds. I almost missed the note under the envelopes. It read:

The book, my dear nephew, is for your edification, and the seeds are for your spring garden.
Buniford Romaine

Finally my paws stopped trembling, my long fuzzy ears relaxed as my furry sides shook with laughter. Dear old Uncle Buni! He always was a bit of a philosopher and a practical joker, too.

Just a Shade of Christmas
A Short Story by Judith B. Landry

A big green wreath with a red bow hung on the side of the locomotive.  The train had cleared the roadway, but as soon as the mechanical arm began to lift, the train started backing up and blocked the road again.

A voice that was vaguely familiar said, "God!  Don't you just hate it when they start to back up?"

I looked toward the passenger seat and there he was, big as life.

"Oh, Lord!" he said, "You don't look too good.  Are you alright?"

I propped my elbows on the steering wheel, put my face in my hands, and groaned, "I am losing my mind."

"No, you're not," he said with a hint of exasperation.  "It's just because you think I'm dead."

"Precisely," I muttered.  I felt sick and wondered if I was going to faint.

"Now don't start doubting your sanity," he added. "You're right.  I am dead."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" I moaned.

Finally the road was clear, and the cars in front of me were beginning to move.

"I've got to get out of this traffic," I said.  I turned onto the service road, parked on the shoulder, and turned the engine off.  I stared straight ahead, telling myself that he wasn't really there and that when I looked again, I would see an empty passenger seat.

"Damn!" he said as he took a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, "that's what I hate about these new cars - no cigarette lighter!  Would you look at that!  A plug for a dang cell phone where a cigarette lighter ought to be."

I stared at the plug, trying desperately to focus.  When I looked back at him, he was lighting his cigarette with a match.

"I may not have been a boy scout," he said with a grin, "but I'm always prepared."

I put my head back on the head rest, closed my eyes, and said, "I had no idea a ghost could smoke."

"Well, I like to go through the motions, but let me tell you - it's not as satisfying as it used to be," he said, dropping the match on the floor.  "Actually though, I feel pretty good - better than I did right before I checked out."

"That makes sense.  You had a massive heart attack."

"Yeah, well, I'm glad that's over," he said with his usual cavalier attitude.  "You know, I feel pretty solid.  Do I look solid?"

For the first time, I did more than just glance at him.  I took him in from head to feet.  He looked just like he did the last time I saw him.  Wavy gray hair, straight even teeth, average build, the usual clothes - plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots - and the warm brown eyes that usually spoke kindness even when his mouth didn't.

"Yes," I said with a sigh, "you look solid."

"Yeah, but looks can be deceiving."  He winked at me.  "Touch me." he said.

"What?" I croaked, shrinking as far away from him as I could.

"You heard me.  Touch me.  Let's see if I'm solid."

Morbid curiosity got the best of me.  I leaned over to touch him and immediately let out a shriek.  My hand had passed right through his arm!

"Oh, dear God!" I cried.  "You are a ghost!  I'm sitting here in my car, in the broad daylight, talking to a ghost!"

"Oh, geez!  For crying out loud - calm down, would you!  You know how I hate drama."

"Why are you here, James?" I asked, "Here - in my car?  You know, I'm just your cousin - and we haven't been close since we were young.  Why aren't you in Adele's car, talking to her?"

"I tried that, but it didn't work.  There's some rule against it."  He paused to take a drag on his cigarette.  "Look, I don't understand it all.  I don't know much about being a ghost.  I've just had one orientation meeting."

"You're telling me there are rules?"  I asked, but I didn't give him time to answer.  "Since when were you ever worried about rules.?"

"Never.  Never worried much about rules," he said as smoke poured out of his nostrils.  "I mean, what are rules anyway?  Rules are just the ideas of other human beings.  I always figured my ideas were as good as anybody else's."

"Ok - whatever.  But you're telling me there's some rule against appearing to your wife?"

"Well, if I understand right, what it amounts to is that you can't appear to people who didn't care about you."

"So now you're telling me Adele didn't care about you?"

"Read my lips, Joan.  Apparently she didn't."  He said it slowly and carefully like he was trying to teach something to a toddler.  "If she had cared about me, I would be able to appear to her."

I took a long breath.  "All this is very interesting, James, but Christmas is just a few days away.  I've got a lot of shopping to do."

"Well, crank up the engine, woman, and let's go!  It wasn't my idea to park on the side of the road and chat."

I started the car and moved back into the traffic.

"You've got three grown kids, James.  Why don't you go see Roger?"

"I tried.  It didn't work."

"Oh, no!" I said with a catch in my voice.  "I always thought you and Roger were close.  I'm so sorry, James."

"Oh, don't be.  Don't get all sappy.  I guess I can't blame Roger.  I wasn't always the perfect dad.    Besides, I'm sure the girls care about me, and two out of three ain't bad."

"That's true," I nodded.  "You could visit Carol or Linda."

"I thought of that.  But they're young - barely grown.  It would freak 'em out."  He put his cigarette out in my empty coffee mug.

Then he took a long breath and said, "Joan, let me give you a tip.  When we're talking, don't look over here at me."

I defiantly looked directly at him and said, "Why?"

"Geez!  Because other people can't see me!  Just look straight ahead - and cut out the hand gestures.  I don't want some cop to pull you over and put you in a straight jacket."

"Ok.  Ok.  I'm looking straight ahead, but I still don't understand why you're here."

"Damn, Joan!"  He threw his hands up in the air the way he always did when he was really exasperated.  "I hate following these car transport rigs!  Makes me nervous. You never know when a car's gonna come rolling off that thing.  For God's sake, would you please get around him!"

I couldn't help laughing as I passed the big rig.

"Why are you nervous, James?  You're already dead."

"Yeah, but you're not.  And I need you to do something for me."

I looked straight ahead and didn't say a word.  What in the world could James want me to do for him?

As if he had read my mind, he said, "I want you to see to it that Adele splits what I left her with the kids - even-steven."

It took a minute for his request to register in my head.  When it did, I was mad.

"Well, you're asking too darn much!  You left a will.  Why didn't you leave your kids something?"

"Oh, hell!  I was mad at all three of them when I made that will."  He lit another cigarette.  "Roger was in jail at the time, Carol was throwing her life away on that worthless jerk of a boyfriend, and Linda was threatening to drop out of school."

"Well, Adele's not going to give them a dime.  In case you didn't notice, Adele couldn't stand your kids."  I glared at him, forgetting I was supposed to look straight ahead.  "She was never the loving step-mother, James.  You knew that."

"Forget all that.  One little phone call from you, and I think she'll volunteer to split with the kids."  The smoke from his cigarette didn't hide the smug look on his face.

We waited in silence for the traffic light to turn green while James puffed on his cigarette.  I wondered what I could possibly say to Adele that would make her want to share anything with James's kids.

"I don't have time for this, James," I said out loud, not even trying to hide my impatience.

"It won't take long," he said.

"Explain," I demanded.

"Adele's got a little scheme going at her job.  It involves collusion, embezzlement, fraud.  Stuff like that.  If you threaten to expose her, she'll come around."

"Ha!"  My mouth dropped open.  "You've got a lot of nerve, James!  I don't want to get involved in this!  Get out!"  Now I was screaming.  "Get out of my car!"

"Aw, Joannie - please don't let me down."  He was pleading.  "This is my only chance to set things right."

"If you knew Adele was doing something illegal, why didn't you stop her?"

"Stop her?"  He looked incredulous.  "For crying out loud, she was going to make a bundle!  We were planning to retire to one of those resorts in Florida."

I was speechless.  The traffic light had turned green, and the car behind me was blowing.  As I accelerated, I found my voice.

"It's gonna be damned hot where you're going," I said through clenched teeth.

"Hot?"  He looked puzzled.  Then it dawned on him.  "Oh.  Oh, that.  You mean hot - like in hell.  Yeah, that's what I thought it would be, too, but they took me on a little tour.  It seems that hell is different things for different people.  It ain't heat I'm gonna have to deal with.  It's cold wet weather.  Rain, never-ending rain and cold.  Thunder - lightning - wind.  Twenty-four seven, three-hundred and sixty-five.  For eternity.  God, Joannie, you know how I hate that kind of weather!"

"Well, that's just too bad, James," I said with mock sympathy, "but I'm not getting involved in Adele's shady business."

"I'm surprised, Joan," he said quietly.  His sudden composure was unnerving.  "You always believed in doing the right thing.  And it really ain't right for Adele to get everything."

"No, It's not," I sighed.  "But what can I do about it?"

"Call Adele.  Tell her you know about her shady scheme, and you can prove it.  I've got copies of incriminating records in a safe deposit box - a box she doesn't know about.  Tell her that.  Tell her you can get your hands on copies of  "Operation Retirement."  That's what she calls her little scheme.  She'll know exactly what you're talking about."

"Well, that's just dandy, James, but I don't have a legal right to get in that safe deposit box."

"You probably won't have to.  I think she'll cave in.  But if she calls your bluff, get in touch with my lawyer - Roddy McCall."

I couldn't believe my ears.

"Adele's ex-husband is your lawyer?"

"Yeah.  He hates her guts - and he's authorized to get in the safe deposit box."

"I don't understand you, James.  You were going to retire with Adele on her stolen money.  Why would you want her ex for your lawyer?"

"I always did like to hedge my bets," he said with a grin and a wink.  Then he got serious.  "Thanks, Joannie - and Merry Christmas!"

He was gone as suddenly as he had appeared.  I looked at my watch.  It was almost noon, but I was too upset to think about food.  I turned in at a shopping center and parked the car.  I don't know how long I rested my aching head on the steering wheel, but when I finally sat up I knew what I was going to do.  I felt a little shaky as I reached for my cell phone to place a call.  A feminine voice answered.

"Adele?"  I said, "This is Joan."

Notes from the Author

Occasionally a story will almost write itself, and Just a Shade of Christmas is one of those stories.  It began one day when I set out on a Christmas shopping trip and had to stop at a railroad crossing and wait for a train.  Something reflected in the window on the passenger side of the car - probably the sun reflecting off the train. It made me think about ghosts and what it would be like if one materialized in my car.  The train   - switching tracks, moving back and forth - gave me plenty of time to imagine, and James materialized in my mind.  James, like a lot of characters in stories, is a composite of several people the author has known.  Anyway, from that point Just a Shade of Christmas was off and running and took on a life of its own.

No serious theological statements are intended in this story.  I don't know if ghosts are a reality or if they have any opportunity to set anything right after they've passed out of this world.  I doubt it, but who really knows? 

I suppose we all have our internal contradictions.  James is certainly a bundle of contradictions.  And would any sane person like Joan actually follow directions given to them by a somewhat whacky ghost like James?  I don't know.  Would you?

Ode to a Spider

I really don’t want to harm you.
I’ve heard about Charlotte’s Web.
But the stalls are no place to gather your wealth.
The barn wasn’t built for you.

It’s home to three gaiting horses;
And although they never complain,
I’m annoyed by you, your family and friends,
All cozy in lacy homes.

You’re a creature of God, I’m told;
But I wonder - really, I do!
If the devil himself has sent you here,
To invade this wholesome barn.

So my broom sweeps away your empire.
I’m sorry you toiled so to build it.
Go! to the trees, the woods, and the fields.
I won’t pursue you there.

You won’t miss the lowly barn flies –
A wealth of mosquitos you’ll find.
And the sun will make your fair webs
Glitter and gleam like diamonds.
Judith B. Landry 2007

Pressing Matters
A Short Story by Judith B. Landry

There was the Men's Lodge, and there was the Ladies' Auxiliary.  In 1955, life in the small town of Grand Fork revolved around these two organizations.  All the men belonged to the Lodge except Horace Milborne, the town recluse.  All the women belonged to the Auxiliary except Hattie and Mildred Cogburn, sisters who had become quite eccentric in their old age.

Lydia Marshall, President of the Ladies' Auxiliary, sat on the front porch of her well-kept home.  Her thoughts turned to the Auxiliary and her duties as leader of this esteemed organization.  Lydia was approaching sixty, but she maintained her slim figure.  She had platinum blond hair, cut in a neat pageboy.  Her genuine smile harmonized with her kind gray eyes.  She dressed in neatly ironed blouses and A-line skirts.

Her four children were grown.  Three of them had assumed positions of usefulness and prominence in the life of Grand Fork, while the fourth - embarrassing though it was - preferred anonymity in a large metropolis.

Lydia was an expert housekeeper.  Laundry and mending chores were done every Monday.  Tuesday was ironing day.  Wednesday she planned meals, paid bills, and went grocery shopping.  Thursday she cleaned and dusted.  Friday was reserved for gardening duties.  Her husband, Harry, could set his watch by the evening meal.  It never deviated more than a minute or two from six o'clock.  Meals were nutritious and satisfying.

Lydia knew that she was superior in homemaking skills to every other female in Grand Fork.  But because she had a good heart, she kept the knowledge of her superiority to herself and consequently was well liked.

On this spring morning her thoughts turned to the Vice-President of the Ladies' Auxiliary, Agnes Martin.  What would she do without Agnes?  They worked so well together.  There was scarcely a home in Grand Fork that had not benefitted from their leadership.  Agnes was Lydia's junior by twenty years.  They were friends as mothers and daughters often can be when they forget they are related.  Agnes's only fault was a tendency to tardiness.  But that could be understood and overlooked in a young married woman who had six children under the age of twelve.

Lydia's most recent conversation with Agnes had been about Eldys Browning.  Never was there a more likeable person than Eldys.  She was bubbly and full of life, and a loving mother to the three little Brownings.  But she had one glaring fault, and it was unwittingly displayed regularly by her husband, George.

George's unpressed shirts were the talk of the town.  It was even rumored that his wrinkled shirts were holding him back from advancement at the local bank.  His appearance was passable with his suit coat on, but still - there were those tiny wrinkles - the varicose veins of fabric.  And to make matters worse, sometimes the point of a collar refused to lie down.

George's shirts weighed heavily on Lydia's mind.  She was fond of both Eldys and George.  The thought that something as simple as the condition of George's dress shirts could diminish his ability to provide for Eldys and his three darling children was more than Lydia could bear.

"Did you see George's shirt yesterday at church?" Agnes had asked during her Monday morning visit.

"Yes," Lydia replied as she sipped a cup of tea.  "It's sad."  She paused.  "But Eldys is very young."  Silence fell and was broken only by the clink of cups and saucers until Lydia added, "I think a demonstration is in order."

"A demonstration?" said Agnes, picturing a crowd picketing the bank to protest George's shirts.

"Yes," Lydia reaffirmed, "at the next auxiliary meeting.  We should demonstrate the proper way to press a man's dress shirt.  It would fit right into this month's emphasis on homemaking."

"Oh, Lydia!" Agnes exclaimed.  "That's a stroke of genius!  That's it, of course - poor Eldys simply doesn't know how to press a man's dress shirt.  It does take skill!  I'll be glad to demonstrate."

"Good!" said Lydia.  "I was hoping you would volunteer."  Agnes had a reputation for pressing a man's shirt to perfection in record time.  She was so pleased with Lydia's idea that she couldn't keep from telling a few friends.  In a matter of hours most of the feminine population of Grand Fork - excluding Eldys Browning, of course - had been informed of Lydia's plans.

For two weeks the women of Grand Fork talked about the upcoming Auxiliary meeting.  Lydia was praised for her creativity.  What a good idea for teaching Eldys to iron a shirt without singling her out or hurting her feelings!  Agnes was lauded for her exceptional ironing ability.  There was no doubt that the demonstration would be a great success.  Dear Eldys would learn to iron George's shirts properly.  He would be promoted at the bank.  They would be able to send their children to the most prestigious colleges.  The more fanciful ladies even suggested that the Browning children might achieve great things and bring fame to Grand Fork.  And it would all happen because of an ironing demonstration at a Ladies' Auxiliary meeting!

Lydia and Agnes planned carefully.  Knowing how busy Agnes was with her children, Lydia agreed to provide the ironing board, iron, hanger, and shirt for the demonstration.  On wash day, when Lydia ironed Harry's starched shirts, she reserved one for the meeting the following day.  She sprinkled the starched shirt with water and rolled it up tightly.  To keep it fresh overnight, she put it in a bag in the refrigerator.

She arrived at the meeting hall earlier than usual to set up the iron and ironing board.  As the meeting time drew near, the little hall began to fill.  Ladies poured in through the main entrance.  Some came through the side door that opened onto the parking lot.  Lydia heard some of them complain that they could hardly find a place to park.  Indeed!  Lydia had never seen so many ladies turn out for an Auxiliary meeting!

She looked for the two faces that were crucial to the agenda.  Eldys had just come in with two of her neighbors, but where was Agnes?  Lydia called the meeting to order, scanning the hall anxiously.  She looked in vain.  Agnes was not there.

Minutes from the last meeting were read and corrected by Gail Winston who always found something to correct.  But where was Agnes?  Lydia refused to panic.  Wasn't Agnes always late?

Charlotte Hall gave the treasurer's report.  Lydia called for old business, and last month's bake sale was discussed at length.  Lydia tried to pay attention as she monitored both doors, anticipating Agnes's arrival.  New business took longer than usual and turned into an animated discussion of the approaching spring cotillion.

As the ladies discussed the new hem length that fashion dictated that year, Carla Green came and whispered in Lydia's ear.  Poor Agnes was at the hospital with Robert, her eight-year-old, who had broken his collar bone when he fell off the roof.

"Sometimes," Lydia thought, "Agnes is not attentive enough to those children."  She announced the news that Carla had delivered.  She had her mouth open to say that she herself would perform the ironing demonstration in Agnes's absence when Mavis Spicer stood up and asked to be recognized.

"Lydia, dear," she said, "why not ask for a volunteer to do the ironing demonstration?  I'm sure any number of homemakers present could do an excellent job."

Everyone thought this was a wonderful suggestion.  The hall was buzzing as certain capable Auxiliary members were encouraged to volunteer.  Modesty made them all hesitate and while they did so, Eldys Browning walked down the aisle to the front of the hall.

"Miss Lydia," she said with her dimpled cherub smile, "I'll be glad to do the ironing demonstration!"

A hush descended.  Lydia felt faint.  Never had the ladies of Grand Fork been so quiet.  Never had their attention been so focused.  Every eye was on Eldys and the ironing board.  She placed the shirt's collar flat on the board, wrong side up.  She pressed from the outer points to the center, holding the collar taut.  She repeated this process with the collar right side up.  Cuffs were pressed in the same manner.

Next, the sleeves were pressed with care.  Then she pressed the back and front panels, maneuvering carefully between buttons.  In no time, it seemed, Eldys displayed Harry Marshall's perfectly pressed shirt on a hanger for all to see.  She almost broke Agnes's record.  The applause was thunderous!  Eldys's auburn curls bounced as she took a bow.

"Mind you," she said to the assembled Auxiliary, "I don't do much ironing.  I'd rather play with the children and teach them their letters."  She slowly turned the hanger around in her hand, admiring the job she had just done.  "But a crisp, ironed shirt really is a lovely thing!"

As Lydia hugged and congratulated Eldys on a job well done, she was already planning next month's Auxiliary meeting.  Perhaps she would ask Eldys to share her ideas about children's activities.  After all, there is more to life than pressed shirts.

The next day, Mr. Bordelon, the bank president, greeted George Browning in the lobby of the Grand Fork Bank and Trust Co.  He couldn't help but notice that there was something different about young Browning.  He was more confident - neater, more put-together.  But Mr. Bordelon couldn't for the life of him tell exactly what it was that made the difference.  He turned and headed for his office.  Pressing matters awaited his attention.