For Dec. 8:
The short story below features the gift of capturing the profound within the ordinary. In “Provenance,” Brandy Wilkinson reflects the precision and mastery of storytellers like Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. Wilkinson lives in Fishers, Indiana. She reads and writes at brandywilkinson.com.
The day after Irene’s doctor tells her she’s dying, she walks down to the Family Dollar and buys three packages of neon yard sale tags and a king-size Snickers bar.
“You having a sale, Miss Irene?” the cashier asks, a wad of bright green gum between her teeth. A small photo of a pigtailed girl hangs from her name tag.
“Nope,” Irene answers, taking her bag. On the way home she peels open the candy, chocolate liquefying in the July sun, and eats it in five huge mouthfuls. She whispers a few words of farewell to the diet she has been on for fifty-seven years.
At home, she washes her hands and spreads the colorful tags across the kitchen table. With a felt-tip pen and faintly trembling script, she begins to label and price everything she owns. Her son will appreciate her efforts when he flies in from Virginia to sell off her estate. Nothing is worth much, not to anyone else, and she smirks a little, imagining her daughter-in-law, Marjorie, fresh off the plane and picking through Irene’s double-wide for antiques to hock.
Brass mantel clock: Wedding gift from Bud and Trudy Taylor, 1961, $3.
Kodak Brownie camera: Doesn’t work, still cute, $1.
Wooden chess set, each piece a different farm animal: Belonged to my sister Clarice, $2.
Drawer full of cheap costume jewelry – a few sparkling brooches and strand after strand of chunky plastic beads: Help yourself, Marjorie! Sell what you don’t want!
She opens a cabinet under the small kitchen island, removes a cardboard box and lifts out thirteen newspaper-wrapped dishes. She unswaddles each, slowly revealing a child’s tea set, her own: Blue Willow pattern, Made in Occupied Japan printed across the bottom of each piece. Irene has watched enough Antiques Roadshow to know that this is the most expensive item she owns. She imagines Marjorie’s hands unwrapping each dish, her long pink nails and Irene’s mother’s wedding ring.
“Nope,” she says.
The cashier at the Family Dollar greets her when she enters. Irene walks straight to checkout and places the box on the counter. “A tea set,” she says. “For your little girl.” She buys another Snickers bar and walks home. She eats it on the couch with Wheel of Fortune on the television, her feet on the coffee table, and the roomful of tags waving gently like wildflowers in the ceiling fan’s breeze.
You ever just heard a poem that stuck in your bones?
This is Christie Thompson’s tribute to her father and her family. Thompson is a writer returning to her love of writing this year. She lives in Henderson, KY, and works at WNIN, the NPR station in Evansville, IN.
My father has been gone for almost a year
And I was on my way to visit his grave
Tucked sweetly within a family plot
Beside his momma and daddy
St. Peter’s Cemetery
Is in the tiny town of Waverly, Ky—
Very much a Catholic area
And very much a poor, Catholic area
Every time I drive to see Daddy
I listen to Hank
Those in my family, we just say Hank
Because there’s only One
But perhaps I should specify—
Hank Williams Senior circa 1952
He was my daddy’s favorite
I know every word
To every song
And if you’re not sure, or don’t know who that is
It’s that twangy kinda country music
That makes dogs howl
The stuff I absolutely love
That will always feel like Daddy’s arms around me
Transports me to another time…
You ever just heard a story that stuck in your bones?
And who was tellin’ it made you rejoice
But who it was about made you cry
Even if they were one in the same?
The story came deep from within my blood:
My father grew up on a farm—
No, it wasn’t really big enough to be a farm
But there were hogs, an ass and two old milk cows—
Bessie and Brownie
It was a tiny two-room shack
In desperate need of repair
Chipped white paint, missin’ slats of wood
An old outhouse for a bathroom…
Daddy remembered the outhouse
When he was around six
He hated walkin’ to it at night
‘Cause the old mean rooster would peck at his privates
My daddy’s mom and dad,
They were extremely poor
And this story must’ve stuck in my daddy’s mind too
‘Cause he cried when he told it
His house was the kind that had dirt for a yard
Wobbly, slanted floors
And chickens wild
My dad and his brothers were the kinda kids
That wore girl’s jeans ‘cause they were cheaper
Right around the time of James Dean and Brylcream
Can you imagine what that must’ve done?
And when their father would eat
He would let the lard from the pork, stew, or whatever
Run down his chin
Only to wipe it with his sleeve
I only knew my grandpa for a very short time
But to a four-year-old he looked ominous, grotesque and mean
He was known to have cut the family dog with a razor blade
Rub gunpowder into its wounds
Purposely drivin’ the dog mad
Swearing it would keep Coloreds away from the yard
And my grandmother—
I never got the chance to meet
But she married at thirteen!
What I wouldn’t give
To tell her
Her granddaughter and great-granddaughter
Have her blue eyes and red hair
But mostly, that her son
Changed the course of an entire family…
She died when Dad was fifteen or so
He found her dead
After the night his daddy had beat her
Just a little too much
Can you imagine what that must’ve done?
When a Hank Williams song can make his eyes water
And a little black and white girl playin’ together
Can make him smile
Or when he wants to hold on to his only daughter
He let me go—
Goin’ on pure faith that he had taught me right
To lie down and die