Martha

by Stephen Paden

Martha Grainger settled into her chair and smiled. Her favorite program was five minutes from airing and all of the nightly chores, a conglomeration of petty rituals she had developed when Harry passed away last March, were finished. Oscar, her calico cat, rested on her lap in her usual position. Martha looked around at the walls of her living room−the pictures of Harry with Stan Drummond taken on a fishing trip, the picture of their small but beautiful wedding forty years prior, and pictures of their children−and clamped her mouth closed to prevent the quivers that would eventually come.

She flipped on the television with her oversized remote (her daughter bought her one with large buttons and numbers after listening to Martha complain about it) and let the flickering light from the TV wash over her, illuminating her smiling face.

When the program ended, Martha lifted fat old Oscar from her lap and placed her gently on the ground. She went to the kitchen and pulled a knife from the block and went back into the living room. Harry stood in the middle of the room, smiling. Martha smiled back and lifted the knife to her throat.

“We’re going to be together, babe,” said Harry. “You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen down here.”

“Who’ll take care of Oscar?” she asked.

Harry looked solemnly at Oscar and then back to Martha. “You should take care of that first.”

Martha nodded blankly and knelt down as fast as her old body would let her. Oscar purred and looked casually at the gleaming blade of the knife. Martha jammed the blade into Oscar’s stomach and the cat did a mixture of moaning and made Martha’s smile grow bigger. Oscar’s eyes raced back and forth as blood poured from her mouth and onto the hard wood floors.

Martha picked Oscar’s limp body from the ground and held her close. She placed it on the couch and then turned to Harry.

“That’s my girl,” he said. “You always did take care of things, didn’t you?”

“It was my job, love. We can be together now.”

“Yes.”

Martha looked at the bloody knife in her hands, still smiling. The shadows from the flickering TV danced around the walls. She looked at her wedding picture one more time, then raised the knife to her throat and with a single, elegant stroke, severed her carotid artery and her throat. She fell to the ground and landed on her back. The light from the television began to dim. Martha took her final gasp for air, but ended up taking in only blood. She tried to cough it back out but she lacked the strength in her diaphragm to force the action. Blood drained from her neck and onto the floor, mixing with Oscar’s. The flickering TV continued to cast shadows on the wall, and over Martha’s body.

Despair

by Stephen Paden

She was born Hope Dawn Richardson, but everyone who knew her called her Despair. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone.

It started in ninth grade when Hope tried to overdose on Tylenol in the girls’ bathroom. Samantha Cole, replacing her tampon in the stall farthest from the door, heard Hope’s moans coming from the stall next to her. Samantha recalled that it was her decisive action that saved Hope, and decided to run for class president on the simple message: “I care about you.”

For Hope, however, the popularity, or rather notoriety had only exacerbated her desire to keep trying. She tried more pills, slitting her wrist (which looked more like a cat had used her arm as a scratching post), and even jumping off of the roof of her ranch-style home, resulting in two twisted ankles.

Nothing worked. Hope decided to stop trying and focus on school, but only after a brief stint in a mental health facility that catered to depressed teenagers.

After her release, Hope made good on her promise to not attempt suicide again and also her promise to focus on school. Four years of high school passed quickly and Hope found herself on stage at graduation speaking as Valedictorian.

Her classmates, however, never forgot her antics. After freshman year, she had earned the name Despair, which was, at first, a burden comparable to Jesus lugging his cross around Jerusalem, but in the end, a moniker that she wore with pride.

Forty years later, she still couldn’t help but laugh: Hope had become Despair like her body had become cancer.

The irony wasn’t lost on her. She put the revolver in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

The Secret (New Short Story)

by Stephen Paden

When I was a little girl growing up in the fifties, my mother would take me on errands every Sunday. Sometimes, we would go as far as Louisville to fetch my father’s heart medicine, and other times we’d just go a few towns over to Lebanon to pick up groceries and laundry soap.

Our Sundays would always begin very early. My mother would wake up to turn on the coffee pot for father, and then float back upstairs, effortlessly avoiding every creaky floorboard. I always pretended to be asleep so I could watch her when she entered my room−her ruby lips, blues eyes, and silky white skin glowing in the warmth of my nightlight. Her ritual was the same every time: she’d go to my dresser, pull out hose and underwear, and then after quietly pushing in the drawer, she’d go to my closet and pick out a dress. And she would never forget my shiny black shoes roasting beneath the radiator; waiting for tiny feet.

My father was vice-president of the local bank. Sometimes in the summer my mother would run errands during the day while my father was at work, and we’d stop by to bring him lunch or when my mother needed to make a deposit.  He was a quiet man who rarely doted on either of us. But despite his seemingly soft nature, I sometimes heard him yell at my mother. When I would feel brave, I would come downstairs and see my mother hiding one side of her face while picking up broken glass from the kitchen floor. He was a hard man who thought love existed in a wallet, and when he smiled, it felt like a holiday.

The football field was filled with graduates, most of whom were half-asleep in the afternoon sun. After the speeches and the ceremonies were finished, my mother ran up to me, gave me a huge hug, and reiterated how proud my father would have been. I started crying, but she wiped the tears from my acne-ridden skin and kissed me on my cheek, like only a mother or an eager boyfriend would do on such rough terrain. The other graduates mingled about−most of them scurrying off to some party or just avoiding their parents. My mother pulled away and smiled at me with a look I’d never seen. Over the years, her perfect skin had given way to the demands of life and age, the porcelain smoothness all but gone. But in the harsh light of the midday sun, her face wore a look I had seen before. I remembered one of our Sunday adventures.

We drove to Bristol that Sunday. The snow had come in pretty strong the night before. By the time we arrived, the roads had gone from a slightly packed layer to slosh. I, like my mother, would much rather have preferred tightly pack powder under our half-exposed feet. I asked my mother once why I couldn’t wear boots and she prattled on about ‘being a lady’ and how it just wouldn’t work with our dresses. I would have preferred looking different to having cold feet.

Our first stop was the Woolworth’s on Main Street. My father’s heart medicine was always a priority, so mother made sure that was the first stop.

The next stop was always The Bushel; a small breakfast diner run by a man named Marvin. My mother went on and on about the man named Marvin every Sunday on our way there. She told me about some of his war stories, and how he’d saved a friend from German gunfire on the beaches of Normandy. She smiled as she described his work at the Kentucky Derby; brushing horses and walking them back to the stables. She told me about his fascination with cars, and how he’d once met James Dean. I liked seeing her smile like that, but she never did when we talked about my father. When I would ask her about anything that my father had done, she would reply, “He’s a very smart man, your father. He went to college to study finance.”

We were always greeted with a ‘Morning Maggie, morning Stella’ at The Bushel. That Sunday, Marvin wasn’t there to greet us. Instead, an unfamiliar man took the people’s money and their orders and whisked around the place, balancing the trays on his small hands as if he was a clown in a circus. Our usual waitress (or ‘Miss Wilson’ as my mother insisted I call her) appeared at the sign with menus; her somber face juxtaposed against the bustle and excitement of the crowded diner.

She sat us in a booth like she always did; the one by the window overlooking the slanted parking that went up and down Main Street. I loved sitting there because there was a pet store across the street, and I could always see the puppies or kittens sleeping or bouncing about in the window display. Unfortunately, I also got to see the happy children walking out of the store with their new friend and pretended every time that it was me. This want and desire always led to the next discussion−

 Mommy, I want a kitten. Stella, you’re too young.

It was a serious game at first−a girl and her animals−but as the months went by, it became mere formality and then eventually ritual.

Miss Wilson came to our table to take our order and smiled at me. She kept her golden hair wrapped up neatly on her head. She was stingy with her makeup, although I suspect she was born from the same heavenly stock as my mother and didn’t need any. I blushed and smiled back.

My mother said to her, “I don’t see Marvin. He never misses the Sunday crowd,” and then the young woman’s face turned sad.

Marvin had come in late a few nights ago to install a new oven in the kitchen, she told us. The old one had a busted something-or-other, and Marvin, being the practical, hands-on kind of guy, decided to save the money and install it himself. She told us that was just like that and I saw my mother nod softly; her face still in ruins. She proceeded to tell us how Mr. Avery, the fellow who was auditioning for Barnum and Bailey’s in the background, found him the next morning, and my mother quickly covered her mouth, and then put her hand up. They looked at each other with understanding; like a secret code between women that only women could know and I couldn’t because I was yet a woman. It bothered me no to know, and I would ask my mother on the way home.

My mother’s face went blank and her eyes filled with tears, but not one of them fell. She grabbed a napkin and dabbed it at the corners of both eyes (never once smearing her eyeliner), ordered the pancakes for me and just a coffee for her, and then excused herself the bathroom. Miss Wilson stayed with me and then attended to the young couple waiting at the door when my mother emerged from the bathroom.

She sat down and forced her best smile. “Everyone dies, Stella. It’s good you learn that now,” she said again. I didn’t want to die, and at my age I thought death just happened to old people.

“Is daddy going to die?” I finally asked. The mixture of anger and despair faded into a half-hearted smile. She fought back the tears and for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for my mother, but I didn’t know why. I reached over and held her hand with both of mine and she smiled and patted mine in return.

We cut our shopping trip short and made our way to the Sears & Roebuck to buy some perfume for my mother and new panties for me and then we made our way back home. My mother was silent the whole way, and after seeing the pain my mother was in, I forgot to ask her my question.

We pulled into the driveway and my mother stopped the car just before the garage. She looked over at me, leaned in and kissed me on the cheek and said “Love isn’t everything, Stella. Your father is a good provider.”

The graduates filtered through the folding chairs on the lawn. My mother went to look for my cap that fell hidden in a mess of other caps on the lawn of the football field. My father passed away a few years ago at the kitchen table from a massive stroke, but my mother said that he would have been so proud.

Looking back, I don’t think my father ever loved my mother; it was just the times. Men and women did marry for love, but some of them did it because it was expected. At least they had enough of it to bring me into the world, and what my father couldn’t provide for me, my mother did. We never wanted for anything but love. And although she lost it too quickly, mother had found it again in a man named Marvin.

The Wooden Horse

by Stephen Paden

First Published in The Bell Tower literary magazine, 2013

Angry Bear watched the foreigners from the tall grass in the field next to the town. A white boy, probably the same age, walked out of the store with a smile on his face while his mother carried a rocking horse made of wood. The brilliant colors of blue, red and yellow painted accessories contrasted with the horse’s dark coat and even darker mane. The foreigners thanked the shop owner and walked down the main street towards the other shops. The boy sat down and disappeared in the grass. He smiled and began to daydream.

The wind raced through his hair as his horse sped quickly over the open field. The sweet scent of honeysuckle and jasmine mixed with the fresh rain filled his nostrils as his horse galloped even faster. The sun was making its way slowly to the horizon, turning the lake near his home into a sparkling pool of liquid silver. He looked back for his father, who remained in the distance like he always did in these visions. The boy stopped the horse and turned around to look at his father.

“Why do you always linger?” Angry Bear yelled.

The man in the distance waved his arms and seemed to yell something the boy could not hear. He stopped waving his arms, then turned around and went back into the woods on his horse.

Angry Bear kept still as the wind carried the man’s voice. It echoed in his mind until he realized it had changed to a female’s voice.

“Angry Bear! Why do you linger in the fields? It is time for dinner,” his mother yelled from the edge of the village.

Angry Bear awoke from his vision and cried.

The boy sat at the table staring down at the soup bowl—back into the window display. He imagined himself sitting on the back of the horse, galloping into adventure after adventure.  At the end of the day, when the horse would surely be tired and hungry, he would take him to the watering hole to brush him and feed him and tell him the stories his grandfather had told him. He replayed this event over and over again in his head until his grandfather finally spoke.

“Child, why will you not eat your supper when there are those who have no supper to eat?”

“I’m sorry, grandfather. I was dreaming that I was on a horse, riding through the valley with my father, but I could not see him that well. He was always far behind me and then just before mother awoke me from my vision, he turned around and went into the woods. But grandfather, I rode faster than the wind! I rode so fast that my hair was in a straight line behind me! I was leading the horse to the watering hole near the village after the hard ride so I could feed him and brush him, but the sounds of mother’s voice awoke me from my vision.”

“Ah,” said the old man, “those are good thoughts for a young boy to have. I am proud of you and your father would also be proud. His spirit was with you, and that should comfort you, but you are too young and small to ride a horse. Please take a bite and we will continue the conversation.”

The child reached into the bowl and pulled out a handful of corn. He frowned and then shoved it into his mouth. He chewed the food and looked back to his grandfather and said, “I would like a horse so that I may be like my father. He was the bravest of the Lakota!”

The mother, who had sat quietly throughout the dinner, smiled into her bowl of food and the grandfather saw that the boy’s words had pleased her.

“Perhaps when you are older and have grown and can properly take care of one, you will ride the plains proudly like your father before you,” the grandfather said.

“But…”

“Please take another bite and then speak so that we may continue the conversation.”

Angry Bear took a quick bite, wiped his hands on his bare chest, then stood up with his fists in the air and his bony arms flexed.

“I found a horse today that even I can ride!” said the boy.

“I don’t like you going near the white men, Angry Bear,” his mother said. She turned to the grandfather. “He speaks of a small horse made of wood. A white man makes them from the trees north of the town.”

“I see. Well, that is another matter. And how would you take care of this horse, boy?” he asked. “Please sit down and take another bite so we may continue this conversation.”

The child obeyed and rested on the ground, anxiously waiting to hear his grandfather’s verdict on the matter of the wooden horse. After a few moments had gone by, the old man spoke.

“It seems to me that a wooden horse would indeed fit you much better than a real one, but the love and care they require is the same.”

“But it is just a wooden horse, grandfather. It does not eat or need to be brushed or taken to the watering hole at night. And it is just my size!” said the boy.

“Angry Bear, before we began this conversation, were you not riding on the plains, and leading him to the watering hole after the hard ride to be fed and brushed?”

“Yes, but that was in a vision.”

“The responsibilities of men are the same, regardless of the circumstances. If you do not feed your wooden horse in your imagination, you will not feed the live one. The things that we desire in haste often become ghosts in the corners of our heart and our mind. When you are ready, you will own a real horse,” replied the old man.

“May I have the wooden horse so that I may practice riding it and feeding it and taking it to the waterhole?” asked the child.

The old man stood and looked down at his grandson.

“I will think about this while I sleep. Your father would indeed be proud. Please go to bed so that I may talk to your mother.”

“Grandfather, why does my father stay far away in my visions?”

The old man nodded for a minute and closed his eyes. He opened them a few moments later and replied, “Your father’s spirit is watching over you, but he knows that the time will come when you are a man, and he will watch over you no more.”

“Where will he go then?”

“To the South Wind. Go,” he said and pointed to the furs.

The boy crawled into the furs that covered the floor of the back half of the tipi. The grandfather and the mother stepped out through the slits in the fur and into the brisk night air. The old man looked up at the stars and meditated for a few minutes, thinking about his ancestors before him and how they imparted wisdom onto the next generation. The mother waited patiently until the old man turned to her and smiled.

“The boy will have a wooden horse,” he said.

“He is too small,” replied the mother.

“His father’s spirit has given us our answer. He stays behind because Angry Bear will be ready to become a man soon. That is all I have to say.”

In the tipi, with the evening’s fire surrendering to warm, glowing embers, the child fell asleep under the buffalo skin.

The dreams were always the same; the wind would race through his hair as his horse sped quickly over the open field. The scent of jasmine and honeysuckle would fill his nostrils and the smell of the wet ground and grass beneath him would whisper at every touch of the horse’s feet. And he would look back to see his father riding away from him.

This dream began the same way, except this time he kept riding. He pushed his horse onward to the end of the day where the sun would fall and night would come. Patting his horse gently on the side of its neck, he looked over the village and smiled. He motioned his horse forward and never looked back.