Turn A Phrase
Originally from Kansas, Ann Graham has lived in Texas for nearly forty years. Her MFA in painting and drawing continues to inform her writing practice. She attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop and has been published by Grey Sparrow Journal, Digging Through the Fat, The Oddville Press, and the Panther City Review. Her writing prompt book, Ready, Set, Go Write, is available online, and she contributed research to Fort Worth’s Giants of Jazz. She maintains a blog at www.ann-graham.com and can be found on Twitter @AnnGraham7.
On the Road Again
Driving for any length of time, you encounter all shapes, sizes, and colors of signage. Some are large and imposing. Some are small and hand-painted. Some implore you to obey commands or to make a purchase. And, some remind you of the life you had with Elizabeth before you died.
Massage, a large pink and brown sign, hand-painted
Elizabeth gave killer massages after you’d worked, open to close, at your Texaco full-service gas station. She’d unkink your shoulder blades with her sharp elbows. You were never positive whether she eased the stiffness and pain or if you were just glad she’d stopped.
When you were seventeen, old man Russell took you on in his transmission repair shop. He’d throw you a Jackson at the end of the week if he thought you’d done more than squat. Between that experience and the Okmulgee High School auto mechanic program you were set to earn a living by the time you were twenty. You finally got your own station. The next year, you married Elizabeth.
Rest Area, Safe Phone Zone, another sign
You hover above a dark cherry metallic 1998 Malibu, its clear-coat peeling like sunburned skin. There are half a dozen kids inside. Long dark hair streams from the rear passenger window. You try to get the driver’s attention because he’s weaving from lane to lane, and you see there’s a line of big rigs about to enter from the ramp. You’re banging on his windshield to no avail. You’re unsure how your new powers work or even exactly what they are. As soon as you think that, you grab the hair flowing from the rear window and give it a tug. It seems to have worked. She yells at the driver, and he centers the Malibu. After another mile, he exits for the rest area safe phone zone.
Dump Station, a small sign posted on a fence
RV folks need to get rid of their gray water as they lumber down the road with their homes on their backs making dump stations necessary. How brave they are to have no roots deep in a place.
Elizabeth had her hair dyed—she called it a touch-up—every eight weeks at Wak-n-Yak, the beauty salon all the neighbor ladies used. Elizabeth said she needed to dump her grievances as much as she needed her hair done. She made no beans about how much you had come to annoy her and that yakking to her friends and her stylist was inexpensive counseling. You called it gossip. She called it gospel.
You and Elizabeth lived in a neighborhood with single-family houses, lawns, garages, back yard patios with gas grills, and front porches with swings and gliders. Once you told Elizabeth that you were going to buy the biggest RV on the market so that the two of you could travel the country, side by side. She said you could call a lawyer while you were at it.
Do Not Cross Solid Line, a federal highway sign
The traffic is congested. You’re watching the cars, trucks, and RVs creep alongside the largest casino complex you’ve ever seen. For a few seconds, you float next to a Subaru Outback stopped at a red light. You watch the woman hand pieces of beef jerky, one at a time, to the driver, then she hands him a can of Dr. Pepper. He takes a sip and holds the can for her to replace in the cup holder. They seem to have a system.
You and Elizabeth rarely rode together. Toward the end, you were rarely together at all. She wasn’t with you the day you missed the yield sign.
Motel California, a sign advertising an inexpensive motel
You and Elizabeth started dating in May 1976, bicentennial, voter registration, Elton John’s bisexuality, and all that. You hooked up at a school dance neither of you wanted to attend. She wore a red, white, and blue maxi. Dresses at that time were either mini or maxi. Her hair, Farrah Fawcett style, draped her tanned shoulders and turned you on. Her date was a football jock who went off with his buddies to guzzle Budweiser while several of you also ditched the dance to smoke pot under the bridge that spanned the Arkansas River. Even though it was close to the high school, the vantage point allowed you to see anyone approaching well before they sniffed out your pot. Long story short, Elizabeth dumped jock-boy and you were a bona-fide item. This sign reminds you how you wore out your Eagles album in the cassette player of your GTO. Up and down 21st, cruising with your gal, some vanilla soft-serve at Jack’s Burger Shack, windows open, and music blaring.
Be Prepared to Stop, a sign in a construction zone
Sure, sailing down the road at ninety miles an hour and these dopes are supposed to be prepared to stop. Your attention is hiked and you hope the drivers are half-aware. Traffic is heavy and some damn idiots are doing ninety and some barely reach sixty in the passing lane. Can’t they read? You guess it’s hard to read a sign while using a cell phone. You wonder how you could interrupt them or if that would make it more dangerous.
Flea Market, a bent sign nailed to a big tree
Peach preserves glistened like amber in the morning sunshine; the hand-printed labels faced the shoppers. Elizabeth set out her jams, every Friday, at the Southside Flea Market off 67. It was also marked with a large, homemade sign. You told her she should charge more for all the labor, packaging, and driving involved. She said it wasn’t for the money. It was for the camaraderie. She sold a jar every week to a retired Army General she called Clarence who’d told her, and she told you, that he began every morning with an English muffin, toasted, buttered, and laden with her luscious peaches. Then he winked, she told you, and said he thought about her pretty hair and wide eyes as well.
Please Stay Alert, another federal sign
After weeks of mustering the power to leave Highway 75, the road on which you were killed, you make it over to Bella Vista Avenue. A new blue Honda Accord sits in your driveway. At first you think it must belong to a parishioner from Christ the Servant Lutheran Church, but you see Elizabeth hop into it. You follow her to Kroger and you sit on the cart return until she exits the store with a bundle of multi-colored flowers wrapped in a clear plastic cone.
You follow her for forty miles on the Dallas North Tollway. She weaves in and out of traffic. Not only is it difficult to keep up, but you also find it perplexing that she’s driving assuredly and almost aggressively. You decide to sail higher for a bird’s eye view. At last she pulls up to a valet stand, and you watch her smile at the doorman as she swings her favorite Coach handbag into a boutique hotel on Main Street. She’s wearing a pink, fluttery dress you do not recognize. You float back and forth across the entrance all night. The following morning, she emerges with a sturdy man you think might be Clarence.
Cherry Ice Box Cookies, a billboard
You asked Elizabeth once what the hell were cherry icebox cookies. She said they were soft, chewy, maraschino-cherry-flavored cookies. Why the hell are they called icebox cookies? She said because you were supposed to shape the dough into logs and chill them in the refrigerator, icebox, until the dough was very cold. Ha, you said, mystery solved. She made a batch the next weekend and you thought they were damn good. You told her she should sell some of those at the flea market. She said no, not interested. She asked where did you hear about cherry icebox cookies? You told her they’re advertised on a billboard along I-20 outside Dallas.
Yield, one of the most common signs
You believe the yield sign to be the most important road sign. After all, isn’t all driving an act of yielding? In fact, you’ve come to believe that successful relationships practice mutual yielding. In fact you now believe that if you’d yielded to your wife once in a while, or if you’d both done a little yielding, you might still be alive. Who doesn’t yield to a rock hauler? You hadn’t seen it, because you took a sip of coffee at that instant, the wrong instant. You wish you could tell these distracted drivers that they should heed highway signs.
Hospital, a potentially consequential sign
This blue sign—a nice blue, not too dark, not too light—with a white arrow pointing west, reminds you of that day not too long ago. This sign does not point to the hospital where you were taken, but points toward another hospital that you assume is quite capable of saving lives.
Oklahoma Welcome Center sign
You wish you could still piss and take a dump and eat cherry icebox cookies with a mug of coffee and talk to Elizabeth and love her. It’d feel really good to do all those things.
Well, the least you can do is to stop by the Welcome Center.
I settle into reading the menu at the Main Street Bakery in Grapevine waiting for Kathleen Rodgers. She enters the cozy lit bistro, all energy and enthusiasm. We smile and hug, glad to see each other. The last time we met here was to plan our tribute/memorial service for a mutual dear friend, Drema Berkheimer who passed away last summer.
Kathleen should be a poster child for Stone Soup. Beginning in January 2008 she was a regular, twice a month, at Mark Noble’s gathering. In those days the Garret lived above the shop of Paperbacks Plus on Skillman and La Vista. The Garret was truly a garret then. We had shabby digs with old stuffed furniture, tables marked with the patina of coffee and wine glass rings, bookshelves and posters yellowing around the edges topped with a certain air that combined a bit of mildew, dust and decay.
It was wonderful.
Kathleen and her family moved to Texas in 1992. She was already a published writer, starting from her high school newspaper, moving on to cub reporter at her local paper, and had pieces published at Family Circle. And, she was writing her first novel, The Final Salute, drawn from her experience as an Air Force wife.
While her sons were in school, she kept regular office hours writing, submitting, free-lancing and tapping out the keys. She joined some local writer’s groups but could never find the right fit. For a while she took expensive classes at a Dallas university. Kathleen learned a great deal in that writing community. However, something was missing. Plus, the tuition budget was cutting into her home improvement budget: she wanted granite countertops in her kitchen!
She heard about The Writers Garret on KERA and parked that info on the back burner. La Vista and Skillman were a long drive from her home in Colleyville. Not only was it a trek, but the thought of taking classes with real writers was intimidating. (I suppose the Garret overdid its sales pitch with its close ties to bestselling authors.)
Desire overcoming intimidation, Kathleen began with Stone Soup. Here she found her writing home. Support, critique, helpful suggestions and community! Writers are a lonely bunch: scribbling away in coffee shops, libraries or a corner of the kitchen. We need community. We need to bounce our words, our stories, basically share our hearts and souls, with other strivers to know that what we spend our time doing is worthwhile.
Main Street Bakery is getting crowded as our brunch spills over into lunch time. The waitress very politely asks us several times if everything is okay and, do we want any more to eat? Eventually, we get the hint. Of course, we are not done talking. I climb into the passenger seat of Kathleen’s yacht like vehicle and she drives down streets lined with old houses, wide porches, great set-backs. She points out that this house is where she decided one character should live and across the street is the basis of the home of a different character. And for her work in progress, yet another old home.
It is this specificity, this use of what is there for us to see and use, that strike me. Kathleen is always writing. She works her craft using the tools available to all of us, borrowing details that bring scenes to life. The stuff that engage readers, letting them in on the texture of her characters’ lives.
Kathleen has a mantra: “God gave me a teaspoon of talent and a gallon of determination. When mixed together I milk it for all it’s worth.”
That she has. Kathleen Rodgers has four published novels, with a fifth one in the works. The Final Salute put her on the radar for military novels. Her second novel Johnnie Come Lately won the 2015 Gold Medal from Military Writers Society of America (MSWA). She is a 2019 MWSA Mike Mullins Memorial Writer of the Year Finalist.
Barbara Shinn is a retired pathologist who is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. She has long resided in Dallas, but it should be the Carolina coast. Pistachio is her favorite shade of ice cream.
Between the Lines
I long to lay you out naked,
magnifying glass in hand,
to read, digest, every line
upon your thigh.
Enticed by the ink flowing down your arm,
flowery script a sharp
contrast to the shoulders’ sans-serif Magnum,
Creepy Morgus, Cloister Black.
I trace with one finger the curl
around your ear, tongue
the salt curve ringing
the simple couplet of your neck.
Heat rises skin on skin,
sweat swirling lines:
a love poem,
a comrade, a fallen friend.
Isaiah celebrates at your wrist, and proclaims
awful judgement from your ankle.
The trees clap hands.
A voice cries in the wilderness.
I hear your silence,
your scrape of chair.
You move past, smiling excuses.
I wipe traces of ink from my fingers
and turn away.
My sister says I remember nothing.
Echoes of locker room ridicule,
prom night solitude,
the after-school smell of unwashed depression,
are packed in an over-stuffed suitcase
as at vacation’s end,
dirty laundry spilling out the sides,
straddled to close,
long residing dust-covered under the bed.
I am much better at packing now.
Train wreck marriage precisely compartmentalized,
(takes up less room every year).
LLBean toiletry bag, purple-orange plaid,
holds memories of quality time with the kids,
graffiti aerosol side pockets for son,
tiny angst pouches for daughter.
Sexual improprieties are discreetly rolled
and stuffed along the sides.
(Thongs, which take up no room,
uncustomary during the sexual revolution.)
My father’s bewildered look
at the nursing home,
“tough love” at my teen’s totaled car,
guilt and parental failures of air balloon enormity,
are wrangled into an entire partitioned half.
Fear I keep in my carry-on,
ever ready for that 2 am phone call,
the gnarly mammogram shadow,
secured so as not to tumble out
while diving for M&Ms.
All in all, a neatly packed ensemble
appropriately tagged. God help
springs the locks.