Mornings are always easiest. I usually leave my windows up and the blinds open. The sun reminds me I’m safe again. Last night was especially tough. It was our 20th anniversary. I went to her favorite restaurant that we visited so often, the waiter would usually have my order ready by the time I sat in her favorite seat. By the window, next to the dead magnolias and a clear view of the moon.
“How are you Eddie?”
“Still pumpin’ blood as far as I know.”
“Running a little late on your soup and grilled cheese. Got some new guys in the kitchen.”
“It’s alright man. I’m in no rush.”
I didn’t have much of an appetite that night. Or the entire day prior now that I think about it. Laying on our blue cotton sheets I remembered how she would be insistent about having her own pillow that my head was to never touch. Peculiar tendencies that woman had. I refuse to sleep on any other pillow now.
I appreciate the mail route on days like this. It gives me the time and solitude to think that I never had at the cement plant. And not half as bad on the back. I drive by a lot of foliage. It’s summertime so a lot of kids are outside waiting for me to come so they can hand-deliver the mail. I pull up to 61 Harris St. and little Evan and his sisters Sara and Joyce trip over each other trying to get to me before I open the mailbox.
“Hey Mr. Roberts!”
“How y’all doing this morning? You shouldn’t play so close to the road.”
The youngest Joyce looks down with a shy grin, slightly ashamed. “Can I see the mail?”
“Only if you promise to get it to your mama as soon as she gets home.”
“Yes sir.” There’s a stumbling unison in their reply.
I began to pull off, nearly hitting the flood drain. “And don’t open it either.”
Today was Wednesday. Which means that my oldest daughter Sheryl would be calling me between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. I had a copy of TV Guide to keep me busy while I waited. Shows don’t last the way they used to. Everything in this book looks strange to me. When things started to get bad, Deborah found comfort in television. She didn’t remember plotlines or character names. However, without fail she would beckon me at 6:30 every night. “Come on honey. The show is on. Come watch.” It wasn’t always the same show or the same channel for that manner. I just sat with her until she was asleep – drooling on the arm of the couch.
“Daddy I found you a new girlfriend.”
“Oh really,” I respond dryly. Sheryl makes this declaration once every few months. Someone she met at the hospital. A greeter at Wal-Mart. Her neighbor’s mother.
“No really Daddy. You’ll like this one. Her name is Anne.” She speaks slowly putting emphasis on the A. “She goes to my church. I want to you to come with me this Sunday so you can meet her.”
Not wanting to respond too quickly or flat out say no, I pause.”Well baby you know the anniversary at Greater Bethel is coming up. The planning committees are after church on Sundays. I can’t really be missing meetings this close to the date.”
“Father, what are y’all gon do besides have them same tired balloons with the same red velvet cake made by Miss Stewart. She’s getting too old to cook. She forgets more ingredients every year. Is Miss Stewart still alive?”
If I pause too long, it’ll sound like I’m seriously considering it. Maybe I am. I don’t want to be. “I don’t know. Y’all are all the way on the Eastside of Birmingham…”
“Daddy you drive a mail route. Besides I will come pick you up. Why are you stalling?”
“I-I-I’m not. I ju- “
“So you’ll come?”
“Well I – “
“Great! I’ll see you on Sunday at 8.”
“But I didn’t – “ The dial tone droned.
It couldn’t be too bad. Worst case scenario, I rush my daughter out of church so I can get back cross-town for the church meeting. I miss the hook when I lean over to hang the phone up, nearly falling off the couch. There’s been a slight tremor in that left hand lately. Nothing that won’t pass. I reach back down with my right hand and hang up the phone. Then I head upstairs to bed.
I tend to wake up extra early on Sunday mornings. I spend a little time speculating on what to wear. I put on a John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk mix that I figure sounds too soulful to not be considered a little bit holy. Even if that’s not true, I can pretend since most of it has no words. With the assistance of my background music, I get ready in the morning. I am usually one of the first five people in my church, pastor and first lady included.
This Sunday morning dragged a little bit. My 5 a.m. alarm didn’t seem to blare as loudly, but it almost lulled, as if telling me it was ok to ignore the day for a little while longer. I did not heed this advice and dragged out of bed. I stood in front of my closet a little longer this morning. I didn’t go to my daughter’s church often, and I think it courtesy to look nice for folk you don’t see often. Especially in their house.
There’s a blue suit in the corner of the closet. It’s the suit I was wearing the Sunday when Deborah told me she was pregnant with our third child on our way back from church. Adjacent to it is a grey suit that’s shrunk a little bit over the years. Deborah’s theory was that the man down at the dry cleaners did that on purpose because he was sweet on her and got the smallest satisfaction out of making my life a little less convenient. Black is so solemn on a beautiful day like this. Almost like I expect something to die or just beginning to acknowledge the death.
I pop in “A Love Supreme” and continue my morning routine.
The doorbell rings. The loud ding keeps me from nodding off in my favorite chair. I had been ready for 30 min, but Sheryl is notoriously late. I stand up to straighten my tie and grab my bible.
“Hey daddy!” She hugs me the way her mother did when she knew she wouldn’t see me for a while. In the morning before work. Or going to the bar to catch up with my old mining buddies. She was like her mother in the most memorable ways.
“Hey baby girl. We ready to go?”
“Hold up! My daddy looking so fly in his black suit this morning on the way to see his new boo. I gotta take a picture first.”
“Little girl, if you don’t come on.”
“No please Daddy. Just stand in the doorway. The lighting is better.”
Begrudgingly, I step forward a few feet and give a wry smile. It’s the type of smile where you wonder if people who see the picture will be able to tell how much your mouth hurts from the weight of such a fake smile. It’s awful heavy.
“Okay great!” Sheryl continues to look down into the screen of her phone as she walks the other way toward her car. “#Sundaybest, #mydaddyflyerthanyours, #isjesusjealous?”
“Baby girl what are you saying?”
“It’s for Instagram daddy. Don’t worry about it.”
I’m mostly quiet on the way there. We pull up to a mid-size, maroon-bricked church with not much of a steeple about 45 minutes later. Parking right in front of the church, it’s a much different scene than what I’m used to seeing upon arriving at church on Sunday morning. The scene outside the building is vibrant. Dozens of people in bright suits, some in street clothes greet each other with a youthful kind of enthusiasm. The kind that’s still quick enough to avoid pain.
We reach the front entrance. One of the ushers gives my daughter a knowing smile. He has on a grey suit that’s light enough not to be considered solemn. Still smiling he says, “Now I know this young man ain’t the daddy you been telling us about.”
He must think it a compliment to insinuate my youth. As he extends his hand, I squeeze slightly tighter, hold on for a few seconds longer.
Sheryl begins to work the lobby of the church. She gets her social prowess from her mother. I used to just stand aside and smile, only talking when directly addressed. This morning I manage to stand in a spot where virtually no one notices me while Sheryl schmoozes. I am almost successful until I feel someone step closer to me.
“Good morning.” The certainty in his voice told me he held some position in the church that required him to corral new faces. I respond in kind.
“I’m Deacon Jeffrey Jones. Is this your first time with us this morning?”
“Yeah my daughter Sheryl actually goes here. I’m here with her this morning.”
“Oh Sheryl!” My daughter was one of those people that always managed to captivate whatever spaces she entered. I knew mentioning her name would bring some familiarity in the man’s mind. “She’s extremely active in our fitness and nutrition ministry. We’re very happy to have her, and I’m sure you are a very proud father.”
“Yeah that’s my baby girl.” We collaborate on an awkward silence that I hope does not convey a lack of interest in what he’s saying. I tend to be that way around “new” people.
“Well sir, I hope you wouldn’t mind staying after church to meet our pastor. He likes to see the faces of our first-time visitors.”
I nodded my head and told him it was nice to meet him before walking toward my daughter as she walked into the sanctuary.
They end church with an altar call. After which everyone is dismissed.
“Go my brothers and sisters, and spread your light into the rest of the world.”
Sheryl tugs at me. “Ms. Anne always sits in the back. Come on so I can introduce you to her.”
I had almost forgotten my original purpose for attending. Thinking of how I would avoid having to meet an over-enthused clergy after church distracted me from what I was originally there to avoid. I walk slowly behind Sheryl, almost dragging. Sheryl walks within 3 feet of a woman’s back.
A woman turns around, looking to be in her late 50s, early 60s. She had on a purple dress, about ankle length, with only the slightest amount of frills. Her eyes were soft, but strained, and she had just enough smile to fit soundly within the well-placed wrinkles on her face. I imagine I was the first person to try to avoid meeting her.
“Ms. Anne, this is my daddy.”
“Hi, I’m Eddie.” She reaches out her right hand to shake mine, but the tremor is back. Ignoring it, I inexplicably reach out my left hand to grab her right and kiss her on it. Wow Eddie.
“Oh!” She’s only half as surprised as I am at my actions. My daughter has a confused look on her face which, combined with her smile, would have made quite the snapshot.
Embarrassed by my actions and in need of a distraction, I turn immediately to my daughter. “Come on sweetheart. I have a church meeting I have to get to across town. We need to leave now.” I tug her arm and walk as fast as 67 year old limbs will allow. I try not to make eye contact with anyone as I leave.
We get in the car and I pretend to be fascinated by whatever is outside my window for five minutes. The silence is finally broken as Sheryl eases up the volume on the radio.
“Daddy, since when did you become James Bond smooth?”
She choked back her laughter, but I was unamused.
“You know we didn’t have to barge out like that. Sister Anne is from the Caribbean. She likes aggressive men.”
She utters these words as if she expected them to make me feel better.
“Just send her my apologies. Please.”
“Why don’t you tell her yourself? I have her number?”
“Are you serious? I practically assault the woman in the middle of a sanctuary, and now you want me to call her up like some crazed lunatic? Great advice Sheryl. I’m never going back to that place or speaking to her again.”
“Ok ok. Well, here’s her number just in case.” She tucks a card in my coat pocket which I pretend to ignore. The rest of the trip is silent other than the “Gospel Jamz” blasting from the speaker. Kids these days.
I tell her to forget the church meeting and take me straight home.
Etta James was always Deborah’s favorite artist. Even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, an Etta James record seemed to turn back the clock. She would stand, or when her motor skills worsened, straighten up a little. And she would proceed to sing every single lyric to every single record. It never failed even when her mind was failing.
“A Sunday Kind of Love” was our wedding song. It was also the background noise for this particular Sunday evening. I opened the third drawer on the dresser in my bedroom and pulled a picture frame from underneath my socks. There she was. Dressed in a beautiful white gown that lay perfectly on her toffee brown skin. I think of what we always said to each other.
“I’ll love you till I fly.”
A slight tremor in my hand makes me lose control of the frame and it drops to the floor, shattering in pieces. Paying no attention to the mess, I pick up the picture, sliding it back into the sock drawer. Then I lay back onto the bed.
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