WAYNE HALL - WANDA
Wayne Hall lives in Conway, Arkansas with his wife Sherry and their dog Mr. Spock. Wayne is an outdoors enthusiast and avid hiker who is passionate about writing. In 2014 he completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail which begins in Georgia and follows the Appalachian mountains for 2,185 miles ending in the state of Maine. The journey so inspired him that he now does his best to write fiction that captures the spirit of the small towns and people he met along the way.
“Wanda was a good pig, and just maybe the prettiest pig to ever root the ground.”Mrs. Geni said while hammering the makeshift cross into the ground at the head of the freshly dug grave. The simple cross was made of cedar planks and held together with used eight penny nails with the name Wanda painted in white.
First Street ended abruptly at the edge of Town, as if when creating the map someone came to the edge of the paper and just stopped drawing. The next to last house before coming to a dead -end belonged to the Wright Family. Mr. And Mrs. Wright along with their Fourteen-year-old son William lived in a well-kept brick home, with a nicely manicured lawn, and a paved circle drive with a two car garage. The life they lived would by most be considered the very middle of middle class. William was a wiry built young boy with knobby knees and more than his share of freckles and a mop of red hair that had been unmanageable since he had been a toddler. Because of the mop of red hair, William was known by most as Rusty.
A week before the day Rusty found himself holding a makeshift cross while Mrs. Geni hammered it into the ground at the head of a grave marked Wanda, Rusty knew little about his neighbor and never recalled her owning a pig. Her house sat just over an old wire fence from the Wright’s brick home. Once you crossed the fence the contrast was evident, the house where Mrs. Geni lived was old and large, the eaves covered in Ivy while the two acres surrounding the house were overtaken by time and deprived of maintenance. Mrs. Geni rarely left the old house her presence was all but ghost-like; only the soft glowing of a lamp in the evening or the crowing of a morning roster gave an indication of life across the old wire fence.
Rusty was a prankster, and along with his two best friends Johnny and Kevin, found no shortage of trouble in which to participate.Whether it was putting shaving cream inside all the door handles of the cars parked at the Big Star grocery, or throwing roll after roll of toilet paper into the trees on the front lawn of their English teacher, the boys always had something up their sleeves. Sometimes the pranks that Johnny devised went a little far for Rusty’s taste, but most of the time peer pressure won out, and Rusty went along even if silently he thought it to be a bad idea. It was Johnny’s idea to prank the new Teacher the boy’s had for second period Math Class.
Mrs. Pruit was young and just out of College. Teaching the boy’s Math class was her first job, and she seemed shy and a bit nervous. Johnny shared his mischievous plan with Kevin and Rusty and with end a few hours the three had all they needed to carry out the prank: Arriving early to second-period math class the boys placed a small box wrapped in red wrapping paper with a white bow on Mrs. Pruit’s desk. Attached to the box a small tag that read, “for Mrs. Pruit.” When the new Math Teacher walked into class she looked delighted to see the gift on her desk. “Oh, is this for me?” She said her voice filled with excitement. Her look of excitement turned to horror. A look Rusty swore he would never forget, inside the small white box lay a small piece of Dog feces Johnny had found on his front lawn. Mrs. Pruit screamed and ran from the room while all the Children laughed, all but Rusty. The young Teacher never returned to teach Math in that Small southern town again. Rusty later heard that the reason she seemed shy and withdrawn was more than likely the death of her Father unexpectedly just before she had moved to their small town. Johnny only laughed and said, “oh well a prank is a prank,” but Rusty secretly made a promise to himself that he would never be involved in a prank that went that far again.
Two days before the burial of Mrs. Geni’s pig the clock that sat on a shelf surrounded by miniature gnomes in the dining room of the Wright’s home read 5:30 pm. With as much reliability as the hands of that old clock, Mr. Wright sat down at the dining table with his paper in hand, followed by Rusty, while Mrs. Wright busied herself setting the table for the evening meal. The delightful aroma of a pot roast drifted across the table while ice crackled as warm, sweet tea cooled in tall glasses. For a while, no one spoke. Silverware clinked against plates while napkins lay quietly across each lap.
Mrs. Wright cleared her throat before speaking, as she spoke she went about the task of compartmentalizing each item in her plate; separating the meat from the carrots, then the carrots from the potatoes, a slice of bread balanced on the edge of her plate like a gymnast on a balancing beam.
“I overheard some of the Women talking about our neighbor today at bridge club. Now mind you, I don’t believe in spreading gossip but I was sitting right next to them as they spoke and it would have been rude just to get up and move,” Mrs. Wright said. “According to Judy at Bridge club a man from the Telephone company came by Mrs. Geni’s to check on a wire that had come loose from her house, and she refused to let him in the yard. She claimed he was just there to steal from her; she told him she was going to turn her dogs out on him if he didn’t leave. She doesn't even have dogs does she Hun?”
Mr. Wright look up from his plate of Roast, wiping his mouth with the cloth napkin he said, “no I don’t think she has dogs, at least I have never heard any barking coming from her way, but if Judy at bridge club said it was true well I guess it is true.” Smiling Mr. Wright went back to eating his pot Roast.
“I heard she killed her Husband! A girl at school said Mrs. Geni killed her Husband,” Rusty said before swallowing a mouthful of Potatoes.
“Rusty, that is an awful thing to say. Let’s do our best not to spread that rumor around,” Mr. Wright said.
“Well, he did die under unusual circumstances,” Mrs. Wright said. “It happened before we moved here. I heard he just fell off a step ladder, wasn't anything wrong with the ladder; he just fell off, I heard he was quite handy around the house too, which makes it odder. A man who is handy around the house just falling off a step ladder.
“Whether or not she killed her Husband, I think we should leave up to God and the Women at Bridge club,” Mr. Wright said. I do wish she would clean up around that place a little; our property value would go up if she would just do a little cleaning. The only conversation I think I have ever had with her was when I asked her about that old wire fence, and if maybe we could take it down since she had no livestock and the pasture was overgrown. She just looked at me and said, “my fence, my land, “ and that was the end of that.”
The Wright’s returned to silence as they finished their Pot Roast and Iced Tea.
Around the same time, the Wright’s were finishing their meal, just across the old wire fence, Mrs. Geni stood hunched over the stove checking on a pot of Black-eyed Pea’s and making sure the sweet Corn was cooked. As she cut up a tomato fresh from the garden, she caught the reflection of herself in the Kitchen window. “How did I get so old,” she thought?”
A black and white photo framed in oak sat on a book shelve between the Kitchen and Den. In the photo, the couple looked happy, she in a White Wedding Dress, he in a freshly pressed Army uniform, both portraying the very essence of youth. Mrs. Geni picked up the photo and examined it closely; the woman in the photo looked faintly familiar, while the man in the uniform looked precisely the way she remembered. From a Kitchen drawer she took a small pocket mirror, holding it close to her face, she looked closer than she had in quite awhile. She noticed her hair was no longer just gray but now showed signs of turning white and thinner than she remembered pulled tightly into a bun. She ran her index finger along the deep crevices below her cheeks; it seemed only yesterday they were only small wrinkles, faint and hardly visible. “Oh well, it is what it is,” she said out loud.
In the quite Kitchen she went about dividing the Pea’s, Corn, and Tomatoes onto two plates. She then walked to the back door as she did every evening, calling, “Wanda supper is ready! Wanda, Wanda, Wanda, come quickly, don’t want your corn to get cold!”
As if on cue, From around the back of the House a pink fleshed Pig came running, grunting, squealing; the gate to her pen swung on old hinges, always left open until after Supper time. Her pen being the only part of the two acres not overtaken with weeds and lack of Maintenance. Wanda came through the back door and sat obediently next to Mrs. Geni’s chair as if it was normal for a pig to dine at the kitchen table and not knowing that other Pigs do not. Mrs. Geni sat one of the prepared plates in front of Wanda before picking up a fork and starting to eat. Wanda devoured the Corn cob and all before sniffing at the Pea’s; Corn was her favorite as it was Mrs. Geni’s. The two sat quietly enjoying their meal, to the sound of silverware clanking against a plate and Wanda rooting at what was left of the Corn, while Wheel of Fortune played on the television in the background.
The evening hours moved slowly as Rusty lay in his twin sized bed with his hand's clasp behind his head unable to sleep. His restless thoughts jumped randomly from why no one ever died in the Batman show he watched every week, to the look Cindy Crowley gave him in Rainey’s Grocery when the two almost ran into each other in the produce aisle. “I think she smiled at me,” he whispered to himself. Somnolence lay upon him like a warm blanket while his thoughts settled on the activities he Johnny and Kevin had planned for the next morning, it would be Saturday, and the possibilities were endless. He hoped Kevin remembered the old purse he had found in boxes his Mother was donating to Goodwill. The prank was simple. The boys would take an old purse and tie clear fishing mono-filament to the handle before laying the purse in the middle of a well-traveled road, with the clear line in hand the boys would hide behind a tree or bushes and wait; when a well-meaning traveler stopped to retrieve the Purse the Boy’s would give the line a fast jerk, hopefully giving the good Samaritan a scare and the boy’s a thrill. As Rusty worked out the details in his head sleep found him and held him until morning.
The smell of Bacon frying hung in the air as Rusty made his way through the House. “No time for breakfast,” Rusty shouted in the direction of his Mom, who stood turning meat over in a pan. He grabbed a Pop-Tart and took a long slug of milk from the carton before exiting the back door while wiping a light mustache of milk from his upper lip.
The Garage door opened at a slow pace. Rusty rolled his Black Schwinn with a yellow Banana seat down the driveway. A Red Fox Squirrel’s tail hung from the top of the Schwinn’s three feet tall sissy bar, the possibilities of the day greeted him with as much warmth as the morning Sun rising in the east. As if on cue or directed by some internal clock that all restless young boys have, Kevin and Johnny emerged onto First Street; each on his two wheel machine, playfully overtaking each other while hoping curbs and drainage canals.
“It's a great day for pranks,” Johnny said while coming to a skidding stop in the Wright’s driveway. Kevin followed close behind Johnny dismounting his bike letting it fall to the ground. “I’ve got everything we need right here,” Kevin said while taking off his backpack emptying the contents onto the drive.
“The big purse I have stuffed with newspapers to make it look full, you know like it has money in it, the small pocketbook I borrowed from my sister's room, she’ll never know, she has too many anyway,” Kevin said.
“Boy’s I’ve got a better idea,” Johnny said unzipping his backpack just enough to allow the others to peek inside as if it held a great mystery. Inside the worn denim pack was two dozen Black Cat bottle rockets left over from the Fourth of July celebration.
“Sweet!”Kevin shouted. “We can ride up to Lander’s hill and shoot them down at cars on Highway seven.”
"I have a better idea, we can shoot um at your neighbor, maybe see if we can get the old lady’s heart-rate up,” Johnny said holding the bottle-rockets clinched in his hand.
Rusty’s eyes widened. “Mrs. Geni? No! No, that is a bad idea, I live right next to her, and I know she would call the cops, no guy’s let’s do the purse thing.”
Johnny made a clucking sound indicate that Rusty was chicken, then Kevin started to cluck, the two clucking like a pair of old hens as they mounted their bikes and started down the Street, “Wait up you guy’s,” Rusty said while trying to catch his two best friends.
The sage grass in Berkman’s field stood chest high to Rusty, who was the tallest of the three boy’s. Three bikes lay hidden among the tall sage, quiet and still but ready at a minute’s notice to be used in a great getaway if everything went according to plan. The boy’s crouched together forming a flatten circle with only their eyes protruding above the grass.
Mrs. Geni’s estate sat to the east; all three boy’s examined its structure with the precaution of a soldier checking his battle plans. The House itself stood tall and white, long ago the eaves and porch column’s had been overtaken by ivy. Tall bushes that once had been shrubs now covered the lower window’s of the home, Chickweed and Dandelions grew where a well-manicured lawn had been.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this guys. How about we wait until dark and take the Bottle Rockets down to Cook’s Landing Dam and shoot them there? I think we should just stick with the purse thing as we had planned,” Rusty said while peering nervously over the tall grass.
“You’re so Chicken you might lay an egg,” Johnny said before playfully hitting Rusty in the arm. Johnny and Kevin both began to Cluck like Chickens again. “Tell you what we will do, we will take these down to Cook’s landing and shoot them tonight,” Johnny said tossing one bundle of Bottle Rockets back into his backpack. “That leaves this bundle here, and its got old lady Geni’s name all over it.” As Johnny spoke, he cut the wrapping from the Rockets with his Old-Henry pocket knife its blade shimmering against the morning sky.
Johnny’s hand was steady as he held out the Soda-pop bottle that contained the first of the fireworks. “You light it!” He said holding a box of matches toward Rusty.
“Oh no! Not me!” Rusty said refusing to take the matches.
“You have to. We are not the one that is afraid of getting in trouble. You need to conquer your fears, Rusty old boy.”
Rusty held one of the matches to the side of the box, dragging it quickly along the rough edge. The Red and White tip of the match came alive but before the flame had settled to the task of burning the stick of wood Rusty’s insides were filled with regret. Ignoring the voice in his head screaming, “don’t do it! This is a bad idea!” Rusty touched the flame to the fuse and watched it began to sizzle.
Johnny’s aim was steady as he held the glass bottle pointed toward the large White House. The Rocket left the bottle with force and speed, but not on the course the boy’s had planned. A trail of smoke followed the Rocket as it climbed upward before diving back to earth crashing into the field next to the edge of Mrs. Geni’s property, exploding with a loud pop. “What a dud,” Kevin said.
Johnny shouted, “it’s not my fault, I had a perfectly good aim. The damn Chinese don’t know how to make good Fireworks.”
“The Chinese are the only one’s that know how to make good Fireworks," Rusty said feeling relieved the Rocket had missed its mark.
The boy’s continued to argue about the quality of Fireworks made in other Countries while a small pillar of smoke rose from where the Rocket had landed. “Oh, Shit!” one of the boy’s shouted as they all three ran through the tall dry grass toward the now larger pillar of smoke. When they arrived at the site of impact not only smoke could be seen, but tall flames lapped at the air, taller than the boy’s themselves. After only seconds of trying to exhaust the fire by using their feet stomping as fast as they could, they each looked at one other with resolve. The fire was too big, growing too fast, and now with the help of a light West wind it was moving toward Mrs. Geni’s house. “We have to call the Fire Department,” Rusty shouted, his eyes projecting the fear he felt. Johnny and Kevin only looked at each other before disappearing into the tall grass, running in the opposite direction. Rusty felt it useless to try to call them back. Instead, he ran to his house shouting for his Mom to call the Fire Department.
Rusty’s eyes followed the second hand as it slowly moved around the clock that sat on the shelve along the dining room wall, just behind his parent’s head. For what seemed like centuries Mr. And Mrs. Wright only stared at Rusty who uncomfortably sat directly across from them. Mrs. Wright occasionally wiped her eyes with a well used tissue. Mr. Wright cleared his throat before beginning to speak. “Well Son, I am very disappointed in you. I’m not disappointed in the way you handled the fire itself, no you did the right thing calling the Fire Department as quickly as you did. I just feel you should be a little more mature, I mean pranks that involve fireworks and tall dry sage grass, you know better than that.” Mrs. Wright sniffled while dabbing the used tissue at her reddened eyes, the smell of charred wood hung thick in the air, causing Rusty’s stomach to churn with every breath he took. Mr. Wright continued his lecture. “The good new in all this is, I talked to the Fire Chief, and he assured me no charges would be filed. He said it was clear it was an accident, and since they were able to extinguish the fire before it reached Mrs. Geni’s house, besides the pig and an old out building the fire helped clear away some of the overgrown brush.”
“pig, what Pig, Rusty asked?
“Apparently, Mrs. Geni owned a pig, a pig she was very fond of, a pet pig. The pig lived in the old out building that burned in the fire. For that reason, you are going to march right over to her house Tomorrow and apologize for what you have done.”
“I never knew she owned a pig,” now Rusty’s stomach churned more, maybe it wasn’t charred wood he could smell, maybe it was charred pig, charred pet pig. Sleep stayed far from Rusty that night, but when it did find him, he dreamed of Wind and Fire, of flames chasing him. When he awoke, he swore he could hear a pig squealing in pain, but then decided it was only the wind.
Sunday afternoon Rusty climbed over the old wire fence and made his way through the overgrown landscape toward the large white house. Each step through the Dandelions and Chickweed brought him closer to his dreaded destination. He had never laid eyes on Mrs. Geni before, though he had heard rumors of how mean she could be. “Maybe she was a witch, maybe she had a Crystal ball, maybe she was looking into that very ball this instant, maybe she could see him before he ever got into view? Dandelion seeds floated softly on the wind disturbed by Rusty’s steps, as he grew closer, close enough to get his first look at Mrs. Geni, who sat on the back porch swing snapping Purple hull peas.
Rusty sized up the old lady before he was close enough to speak. She wore a long Blue Dress with White polka-dots, her ankles swelled over black work shoes covered in mud. Her chin long and pointed gave her profile a crescent moon appearance. From behind wire-rimmed glasses, her small dark eyes stared loudly as Rusty approached.
“Mrs. Geni, my name is Rusty, Rusty Wright; I live just over there across your fence.”
Before speaking, Mrs. Geni leaned to on side spitting into a Coffee can used as a spittoon.“I know who you are,” she said. “I’m old, but not blind or stupid, I seen you climbing over my fence. I figured you might be stopping by,” as Mrs. Geni spoke her wrinkled hands continued to snap peas with the grace of a conductor directing a piece of music.
Rusty tried hard to swallow the lump that had formed like concrete in his throat. “ I’m the one that caused the fire. I didn’t mean too, we were only messing around, but I;m the one responsible for the fire that killed your pig.”
Mrs. Geni placed the bowl of Peas on the swing next to her. “ It takes a man to walk over here and confess his wrong doings. You may still wear the britches of a boy, but it takes a man to say when he is wrong and to face up to his mistakes.”
“Honestly, we never meant to cause a fire, we were just pulling a prank, and that is something I swear I will never do again. I;m done with pranks,
“Well Rusty, Wanda was a great pig and more than that she was my friend, maybe my only friend. If you get to the pearly gates and the biggest thing you ever done was cause that fire, well, I would say you lived a charmed life.”Mrs. Geni spat again before wiping her mouth with her sleeve. “ Tell you what, since you came over here with your head hung low, saying how sorry you are there is something you can do for me,” Mrs. Geni asked.
“ Yes, Mam just name it! Rusty quickly answered.
“ Well I have to admit, I’m not as young as I used to be, now mind you I’m not as bad off as people say I am, but I do own a mirror and I guess I am old and fat,” her chin quivered as she chuckled while her hands went back to shelling peas. “ I would like to give Wanda a proper burial; I guess I could use some help with that.”
The two went about the task of surveying the yard looking for the perfect spot to bury Wanda. They decided on a level piece of ground under a Maple tree that cast a cooling shade in the evening Sun. While Rusty leaned on the shovel turning the soft dirt, Mrs.Geni told in great detail of all the memories she had with Wanda, from the time she was just a piglet and had to be fed with a bottle to how she loved to watch Wheel of Fortune with Mrs. Geni as they ate their supper and how corn on the cob was her favorite.
After the grave was covered and kind words had been spoken, Rusty said farewell and started across the lawn towards his house.
“ You know that old Peach-tree over there has been just overrun with ripe peaches. I made a cobbler with them yesterday; there is quite a bit left if you think you could help me eat a little?”
“ Oh boy could I,” Rusty said while turning in his tracks.
They ate bowls of cobbler while drinking tall glasses of milk. Mrs. Geni’s eyes that had looked small and dark now took on a softer tone, projecting a kindness Rusty never expected.
“ You know since I still owe you I could do a little mowing for you, maybe take down some of these tall weeds,” Rusty said taking his last drink of milk.
“There’s no need to make a fuss; all these weeds aren’t hurting me the least.”
“That old fence could use a little cleaning up around; I could do that if you like,” Rusty asked
“ Boy if you took all them weeds out that old fence would maybe just fall down,” Mrs. Geni said laughing. “ When you look at that old fence with your fresh young eyes all you see is a dilapidated fence; when I look at it with my old eyes filled with memories, I see a different picture. I see Lenard, my Husband young and tan building that fence with pride, it was the first thing he built when we bought this House. He was handy with tools, always kept things in order around here, no, that old fence belongs here as much as I do. Now the Weeds and Ivy have about taking over, but in my mind things are still the way they were, and that’s good enough for me.”
In some ways what she said made sense, though weeks later Rusty did convince her to let him mow down the Chickweed and Dandelions. The tragic results of a prank gone wrong had caused the death of a good pig but had given Rusty a friend he never expected. Friendly footsteps over time wore a path from Rusty’s back door across the old wire fence and to his new friends back door.
Years later Rusty found himself far away from a rural town in Arkansas, in a hostile land covered with sand while wearing army fatigues. On a warm Sunday morning, he received a letter from his Mother, which said Mrs. Geni had died in her sleep. The letter went on to say a land developer had bought her house and tore it down with plans to build new townhouses in its place. Rusty folded the letter placing it on his bunk, “I guess Dad’s property value will finally go up,” he said out loud. In his mind, he pictured the new Town Houses with their clean red brick and well-manicured lawn with no old wire fence. With those thoughts Home felt further away, far enough he wondered if he could ever get back. Then he remembered the old Ivy covered house, Mrs. Geni dipping snuff while snapping Peas, a friend he never met named Wanda, and again home seemed only outside the barracks door, maybe across an old wire fence.
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