Thursday, June 18, 2015

J. Stephen Howard writes


My good friend and classmate came over to contest my title as chess champion. Sarah was about as happy a teenager as anyone could ever find. She had, in truth, been the one to drag me out of depression after the storm that took my father and, of course, old Willy.

Her family had moved to the island from the mainland in Texas shortly after the Great Flood. Anyone might call that foolish, but someone else might say it was a smart move. After all, once a hurricane strikes an area, odds are it won't be hit again for some time. Also, homes become cheaper to those willing to hazard the risk. Sarah's family was hopeful enough to take that head on. Her father, a commercial fisherman, made a meager income, so the lowered home mortgages in Galveston must have seemed like hitting the jackpot to him.

The fact that Sarah came from a less wealthy family didn't bother me in the least. My mother, though, ever mindful of her place in high society, made her silent objection to my choice of friends subtly known. While she allowed her to come to our Belle de las Santos, she never cooked for her nor made any sort of effort to entertain like she did for some of my wealthier friends. In particular, I knew my mother wanted me to find a girlfriend with some means and property.

On that day, my mother, as she was wont to do, stood with hands on hips as she tapped her foot. "Your girlfriend is coming over again?"

"She's not my girlfriend. You know that. We've been friends for years."

My mother squinted her eyes. "You're both getting older now, and when boys and girls get older--"

"I know all about that, Mom."

She looked as if she'd been slapped. Interrupting her was something I seldom did. While I was a good kid for the most part, my mother was not averse to using a switch on me to drive home a point.

"Sorry. It's just that, you know, Sarah's not like that to me."

"Well, just make sure it stays that way."

I shook my head when I was certain my mother couldn't see me. She was a woman of great contrasts. I ached for her, and it could be said, I even felt the blues for my mother who was so beautiful, she could have picked any man to get married with again. It had been years since my father's death, but she still kept herself as closed off as a nunnery. And yet, she continued to wear dresses in the latest fashions that accentuated her beauty.

On this or any day, a regular dress for her might be, for example, a rose wine-colored silk dress that billowed out at the bottom while cinching tightly around her neck at the top, fastened by a pearl brooch. Someone might think she'd go around in funereal clothes, dark colors that suggested reverence or joylessness, but she commented one time, saying, "A lady must always keep up appearances."

Sure, she wore the expected black dresses up to a year after my father's death, but for the sake of appearances, she had worn elegant clothes signaling her station in life ever since. And for her own funeral, her request had been to be buried in that same dress I described above.

When Sarah had asked me about coming over to play chess, I thought I heard a strange note in her voice. It was the kind of off note one would hear when a hot stove gets touched by mistake just as my mother had done. At the time, I shrugged it off, figuring she might be coming down with something. Then, when I met her at the door, she wore her patented Sarah smile, and I ushered her into the study where a shiny marble board with shiny marble playing pieces awaited.

Later, though, about a dozen chess moves into the game, I saw her big eyes water in a melancholy stare.

"It's okay, Sarah. I'm letting you win, by the way." I had tried to pass that off as a joke, but I think I sounded more perplexed than anything else.

She turned away, giving me her quarter moon profile.

"What's the matter?"

She took a breath and did her best to sound cheery. "I didn't know you played guitar."

Sarah was looking at Willy's old guitar, which had been placed with care in the cradle of a plant hanger that doubled as a guitar stand. Of course my mother saw the instrument under my bed where I'd placed it, and of course she placed it where it would be safe from any harm or scratch. My mother always took care of things, which was her particular knack.

"I don't really."

"No, you don't," she said, laughter in her voice. "Who puts a guitar in a plant hanger? I play a little. Want to hear some awful noise?"

Before I had the chance to give any sort of response, Sarah had already plucked the instrument from its ignoble position. She wore a big smile that was insistent upon this moment.

I thought of my mother's admonishment to make sure Sarah and I were only friends. The bottom of my stomach searched for a way out of this predicament and grumbled as the acids from stress churned. I liked Sarah, but I wasn't attracted to her. It's ironic my mother didn't favor her because she was a nice, intelligent, responsible girl--all the traits that would normally curry favor with any parent. But, of course, Sarah didn't hail from a wealthy family, which my mother didn't like, and she had plain features, which didn't suit me.

"Your mother doesn't like me, does she?"

"My mother doesn't like me, either," I said, trying to deflect the tenseness of the moment with levity. Then, what I said next I've wished many times I could take back. In my naiveté, it was an innocuous enough suggestion, but fully understanding the mysterious evil of Willy's guitar, it was something else entirely. "Why don't you play something cheerful?"

Sarah fluttered her eyelashes and raked a hand across the quilted pink pattern on her dress. The other hand, holding the guitar, nearly dropped it. "I'm sorry. For a moment, it felt hot. Strange. It's probably me."

Then she snorted laughter, at which she put a hand to her mouth. Composing herself, she placed the guitar in a secure spot on her lap and began strumming a chord. After a count of four, she launched into a song I'd never heard before. It was about how everything in the world was wonderful, and we should all be happy to be alive. I honestly can't recall the specific lines, but it was banal and saccharine, whatever the lyrics were. And her voice, while pleasant enough, lacked authentic emotional connection. It was the over-sweet aftertaste of the suds of a root-beer float.

"Do you like it?" Sarah was boring in with her determined-to-be happy eyes.

I wanted her to go back to just being Sarah, my friend. I'd never seen her act this way.  "That's great," I said, trying not to sound flat in my delivery.

Just then, I saw my mother poke her head out from around the corner. Her hand, the same one she had burned on the stove, now had gauze wrapped around it. As soon as she realized Sarah had seen her, she turned back toward the kitchen in a huff.

Sarah nearly pitched the guitar onto the sofa and didn't stop, in her rush, to mutter an apology or to ask to be excused. Her eyes smoldered with determination.

From the eerie markings on the guitar's fretboard came a glow issuing a color I'd never seen. It was hotter than yellow, warmer than a burning ember.

The guitar had stolen my attention, and before I could react, Sarah was in the kitchen with my mother. I heard screams, scratching sounds, and the scuffling of feet.

I tore my attention away from the guitar. It's strange reading the sentence I just wrote, but that was how raptly that otherworldly instrument held my attention. It was no ordinary guitar. Somehow, perhaps in Willy Custard's grief over his son and in his belief that I had been his ghost, he manifested a supernatural energy within it. I feel many forces came together that day Willy handed the guitar to me, and of course, they were fused together by the awesome force of the hurricane.

I ran as quickly as I could, the twenty feet or so to the kitchen where I witnessed a most savage battle. My mother's face had several scars, leaving her with a mauled look. Her hair, normally a golden coiffure that enhanced her lovely features, had tendrils going in all directions. Plus her beautiful rose-colored dress was torn in several places. She appeared as if she had been thrown into a ring with a hungry and agitated bull.

My friend, Sarah, though, had never glowed with more confidence and femininity. In fact, she was lovely to gaze upon. Her face was a lovely crimson, her eyes two glittering crystals that shone with a myriad of images.

My mother was crouched like a wounded animal beside the refrigerator, with her chest rapidly rising and falling. I thought she might be having some type of anxiety fit. A heart attack or stroke could soon follow.

"I love you, Jeremiah," Sarah said, reaching a hand out that I couldn't bring myself to grasp. "I told your mother. She thinks I'm poor white trash, but I told her."

Yes, she did. It was all surreal, but I knew somehow old Willy had unwittingly caused this scene to unfurl in a curse he inadvertently cast on his guitar on the day of the Galveston Flood.

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