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The Road Less Traveled
A Collection of Short Stories
By ROCHELLE HAMEL
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Rochelle Hamel
All rights reserved.
The House by the Road
Jessie's shoulders felt sore from the backpack. Her steps became slower, as she trudged down the hot macadam road. It was a two-lane road, with rolling hills and shade trees now and then. She had passed a few farms, with cows in the fields. Jessie's last hitched ride had dropped her off at a crossroads yesterday. She decided to get off the highway and take the country road for a change of scenery. She was sick of the commercial fast lanes.
It was mid August, still warm, with the smell of fall around the corner. The farmers had finished the haying and reaping the oats and were now cutting the corn. It wouldn't be long before she would have to figure out what she was going to do to get through the winter. She couldn't keep traveling like this, when the snow started to fly. She was only fifteen and people weren't likely to hire her. She needed a place to stay. I can't go back home, I just can't! She thought.
Jessie's home life went from bad to worse when her mother, Reba, brought in Jimmy, her latest boyfriend. Jessie never knew her father. He had been in the military and was killed in Vietnam when she was five months old. Her mother never recovered and used alcohol to overcome the loss. Reba worked as a waitress during the day and drank at night with whoever was the boyfriend of the moment. It was up to Jessie, to find odd jobs, so she would have clothes and supplies for school. The Rescue Mission store was her best friend, as she made use of others' discards. Jessie had learned to isolate herself in her own room away from the crying-jags and arguments of her mother and male friends. Her room was her world, with her ears and mind closing off everything, on the other side of the door. That is, until Jimmy. She was aware of the innuendos, when she would walk past to get something to eat to take back to her room. Sometimes, he would brush up too close to her in passing, but she felt she was safe with her mother around. One evening, she came home from a friend's house, expecting her mother to be there. The only one there, was Jimmy, and he had been drinking and smoking weed. She went straight upstairs to her room and shut the door. It wasn't long before she heard him coming up the stairs, calling her name in a singsong way. Frightened, she propped a chair under the door knob. He pushed and pushed until the chair fell over. Jimmy picked her up and threw her on the bed, ripped her tee shirt up, kissing her as he pawed over her. It was at that moment that her mother walked in. There was angry screaming, but not at Jimmy, instead at Jessie. She blamed Jessie for "leading him on". Jessie couldn't believe her mother would take Jimmy's side. It was at that moment that she made the decision to leave home. By morning she was on her way from New York heading west with a trucker.
Jessie sat under an old maple tree, whose leaves were starting to show a little color, and took out the peanut butter jar, remaining bread and plastic knife that she had grabbed when leaving home. It was her emergency food. The truckers had been generous at the truck stops, and she had been able to fill her water bottle in the convenience store restrooms. But, since she had taken to the country road, food was scarce. Last night, she had been able to raid what was left of a vegetable garden. Tomatoes, old sweet corn and carrots had been her dinner. She had seventy-six dollars and some change in her pocket, but knew that wouldn't take her far. Ma will be furious when she realizes I emptied her wallet. Serves her right, she thought, with a sigh and sadness at "what could have been".
After relieving herself behind some bushes, she jumped over the ditch and started down the road. She had no idea where she was or where the road would take her. Jessie started singing to herself, "you take the high road and I'll take the low road," then stopped in the middle of the road, trying to remember who used to sing that to her. The puzzlement was still on her face, as she heard a tractor coming down the road behind her. She turned around and waited for it to catch up. Jessie put up her thumb for a ride. The farmer stopped and let her hop up to sit on the fender.
The farm was a mile down the road. She jumped down when he stopped in the barnyard. Thanking the farmer for the ride, she asked if she could fill up her water bottle. He pointed her to a spigot at the side of the bam and walked inside the house. Not very talkative, she thought, as she walked back down the driveway. At the road she turned to look at the farmhouse and saw a curtain pulled back, so she waved, and the curtain quickly fell back into place.
Three days later, after a cold night sleeping under an evergreen tree and scraping the last of her peanut butter jar on to her end piece of bread, she picked up her backpack with weariness never before known. Jessie knew she needed to find water. She had been walking for about a half mile, when she came upon a dirt road on her right. The land was a mixture of woods and old fields of golden rod in full bloom. There might be a stream down there, she thought hopefully. The dirt road was one lane, that followed the up and down hills of the countryside. As she walked over one more crest, she spotted a rundown house by the road. The yard was overrun with weeds, but she could see a well-worn path from the house to a mailbox. There was an old green Ford Scout parked under a shade tree, and a black longhaired scruffy dog sleeping on the porch. Jessie was leery of approaching the porch, because of the dog. She was a city girl and didn't have personal experience with any animals. Her thirst getting the better of her judgment, she approached cautiously. But, the dog just looked up at her, never raising his grey muzzle from his paws, and thump the tail on the porch. None, the less, Jessie made a wide path around the dog and knocked on the door. No one came, she knocked harder, still, no one. She hollered out a "hello". A voice, from outside the back of the house, shouted, "I'm coming, I'm coming". A few seconds later, an older woman with disheveled grey hair hanging straight down came around the corner. She was wearing an old ripped plaid shirt over a faded, flowered, cotton dress that buttoned down the front.
A slip hung below the dress, and men's black rubber boots came almost to her knees. She came up close to Jessie, so she could see her face clearly, squinted at her, stepped back to look her over better, then walked back up to her and said "Annie, you've come home." She, then, hugged her with a surprising strength. Jessie was speechless.
"Could I have a glass of water," asked Jessie, haltingly.
"Sure you can. I'll pump you a nice cold glass while you put your things in your bedroom."
Jessie stared at the old lady in wonderment.
"Get along with ya, and I'll have your water ready for you."
Jessie shyly opened the squeaky screen door, which slammed behind her, making her jump. She walked into a small living room. There was a threadbare rug, with what appeared to be roses in the design. Jessie didn't see any TV, or even a radio, and yet it felt comfortable. There were a couple of rockers, and over-stuffed chairs and a couch with covers over them. In one comer, there was a potbellied woodstove and over in the other comer, a piano, with white rollers in the front. Jessie had no idea, what that was all about. Along one wall were shelves made of boards and bricks full of paperback books. The small tables near the couch and chair had doilies with lamps on them.
Jessie walked down a hall and found two bedrooms, the first obviously used by the lady, and the second, quite empty, except for an old chipped white iron bed with a bare mattress and two pillows. There was a very small wood dresser next to an open closet with a curtain hanging from a wire across the top. She pulled the curtain aside and saw quilts and light blankets. The headboard of the bed was against the wall, with a straight chair next to a window. There was no curtain, only an old green window shade. The walls were covered with peeling flowered wallpaper.
Jessie remembered how thirsty she was. She dropped her things on the bare floor and headed back down the hall to the front porch. The lady was sitting in the rocker, drinking her water, and on the railing was a tall glass of water with moisture clouding the outside of the glass. Jessie eagerly reached for the glass and drank it all down. Immediately, she raised her fist to her forehead, when the cold hit her between the eyes.
The lady snorted a laugh, and admonished Jessie for drinking it so fast. "Now," she said, "It's time to go catch us some supper. That's what I was workin at, digging worms, when you came. I got us some big fat night crawlers out of the garden. So, let's get on with it. I know there's some nice tasty trout waitin on us.
Jessie was at a loss for words.
The lady got up and started around the comer of the house and with a backward glance, asked, "What's a matter, Annie, cat got your tongue?"
A minute later she came back around the comer with two wood fishing poles and a rusty can, which Jessie assumed were the worms. She handed Jessie a pole with a line with a red and white ball attached and a sinker and hook.
"But I don't know anything about fishing," said Jessie. "It'll come back to ya, Annie."
Come on, let's get to that crick before the farm boys stir up all the fish with their rowdy swimming. She then headed down the dirt road, clamping in her big black boots.
Jessie opened her mouth to respond, stared at the woman's back, then closed it, and followed behind.
There was little conversation as they walked down the dusty road and up over the next hill. As they reached the top, Jessie looked down on a pretty stream. The road crossed over a stone arched bridge. She could see a deep blue green pool on the left side of the bridge that riffled underneath the arch and spilled down a meandering stream through the woods, on the other side. The beauty caught Jessie's breath.
"What is that smell," Jessie asked.
"Wild mint. It's good in your tea. Come on, now. Let's get those worms on those hooks before boys mess up the stream."
"What's that rope for ... that's hanging from that tree over the water?" Jessie asked.
"Where you been girl, these years. That's for swinging from the bank, and jumping in the water. I used to do it. You remember, don't ya? And not waiting for an answer, scuttled down the bank path.
"You see that deep pool there? "Yeah," said Jessie.
"Well, put this fat worm on your hook, just like mine, and swing it in the water, just where the shallow rocks with all the bubbles end and the deep part starts." Said the lady.
Jessie gingerly took the worm and started to put it on the hook, but it wiggled and curled up in her fingers, and she squealed and dropped it in the grass.
"My goodness, it ain't gonna hurt ya!" the lady exclaimed.
Jessie picked up the worm again, with a new determination, and hooked it. She then swung the pole from her side, like she saw the lady do, and said "Now what?"
"You watch that red and white ball, and if you see it go under the water, jerk the pole up sharply, but not too hard, and walk backwards, pulling the pole upwards so it's pointing to the sky."
It wasn't long before the lady pulled a fish onto the bank and within seconds, Jessie's bobber went under the water. She concentrated in following the lady instructions, and soon had a nice fifteen-inch trout flopping on the grass.
"I caught one, I caught one!" she squealed, as she danced on her toes. She had never done anything like that before in her life. Taking it off the hook was not as much fun. By the time she had washed her hands in the water, by the bank, the lady had caught two more and declared, that, that was enough, and it was time for a swim!
Jessie looked at her with a blank look.
"I don't have a swim suit. Besides, I don't know how to swim!"
"Lordy me, Annie! Well, you're just going to have ta learn, if you're going ta have fun here!" She said. "But for now, just strip down, here's a bar of soap. It's shallow near the bank."
Jessie reluctantly stripped down to her bra and panties. She tentatively touched her toes to the water. It's cold, she thought, as she waded in up to her knees. Getting used to the water, she slowly lowered her self to a sitting position, catching her breath as she felt the water around her chest. Washing down the grime of the last few days felt good, and the water didn't feel as cold as when she first put her toes in. Actually, it feels almost warm, she thought.
A few minutes later, she heard a tractor coming down the road, with voices laughing and talking all at once. She hastily put on her clothes over the wet bra and panties. The lady just sat there in the water in the nude, paying no attention to the three boys, as they got off the tractor.
"Hi, Sadie, looks like you got yourself some nice fish there, shouted one of the boys. Who's your friend?
"She's my Annie. Stop by and meet her sometime, Randy."
"Hi, Annie," hollered Randy.
Jessie tentatively put up her hand in a half wave.
Sadie got up and put her housedress on over her wet body, then pulled her boots on, and gathered the rest of her clothes. She gave the poles to Jessie to carry, and picking up the string of fish, started up the path to the road. Jessie started to follow, turned her head to see the boys swinging from the rope, and dropping into the deep pool, with shouts and laughter. I wish I could do that, thought Jessie.
When Jessie and Sadie arrived back at the house, the first thing on Jessie's mind was the bathroom.
"I need to use the bathroom, Sadie," said Jessie. "You mean you need to relieve your self?" "Yes," said Jessie, shyly.
"It's out back; I'm going to clean the fish for supper."
Jessie walked along the overgrown path by the side of the house. She had to stop and pull off burdocks stuck to her pants. They were prickly and grew from a weed with the biggest leaves she had ever seen. When she reached the back of the house, she saw a beautiful garden of vegetables. There was a twenty-foot long one-story shed with small windows. A tall small-wire fence enclosed a yard, and to the side, had a board leaning into a foot-square hole in the sidewall. Chickens were walking up and down the board, entering and exiting the shed. The sound of the chickens, clucking as they scratched in the weeds, felt some how, comforting to Jessie. Over to the right was an undersized, tall, shed, with a tiny open window on the side and a door, that took up most of the front wall. Could this be the bathroom, thought Jessie? She tentatively turned a rectangular wooden handle, and opened the door. There was a pungent, sweet smell, coming from the bench, with two holes directly in front of her. Two covers, on hinges, were at the back. A roll of paper was at the side, along with a seed catalog.
Well, this must be it, she thought, as she looked down the hole and grimaced and crinkled her nose while lowering her jeans and panties.
There was a pan of water on a bench next to the house, bar of soap and an old towel. Jessie washed her hands and entered a back door, into a shed attached to the house, stacked full of wood on a dirt floor. It smells good, thought Jessie. There was a step up to a catwalk, that led to a door of the room beyond. She could smell food cooking, beyond that door, and realized just how hungry she was, as she knocked.
"Well for heaven's sake, just come in. Supper is almost ready," said Sadie, as she bustled around a big old iron stove.
The sun was going down cooling the outside air but the stove kept the kitchen cozy. There was crispy fish, potatoes, fried with onions and boiled green string beans with butter on them, and a pitcher of sun tea. Jessie sat down at the round table.
"Hold on, Annie. We need plates, forks and spoons and a couple of glasses. Up in the cupboard," said Sadie as she struck a match and-lit a lamp hanging over the center of the table.
Jessie set the table and then sat quietly down, as she stared around the kitchen and at the lit lamp. The kitchen was small, with three doors leading out of it. There was a wooden counter with a sink, without faucets. On the right side of the sink counter, was a red painted iron object with a big mouth, and a handle to pump up and down. Along one side of the wall were tall, cream-colored, wood cupboards that held dishes.
Excerpted from The Road Less Traveled by ROCHELLE HAMEL. Copyright © 2013 Rochelle Hamel. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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