Lessons From the Landfill
By J Warnock
January 27, 2019
This story is in response to the prompt: Lessons I learned from my father. I wrote it while a student in Marla Cantrell’s short story class at Chapters on Main in Van Buren, Arkansas.
On a sunny spring morning, I hopped out of bed looking forward to the freedom of riding my bike on the rolling hills of Highway 167 in south Arkansas. I easily pushed aside concerns for homework or the next week’s busy tenth-grade schedule. While pulling on my favorite frayed bluejeans, I heard dad from the hallway. “Jim, we need to make a trip to the dump this morning.” I sighed as my Saturday freedom faded.
We lived in “the country” as we defined it because we were outside the city limits. There was no trash pick up. We had a concrete burn barrel I tended every couple of days, but we hauled the trash that wouldn’t burn to the landfill or “the dump.”
Daddy let me help him hoist the full trash trailer onto his Chevy truck hitch. He’d built the trailer from an old truck bed someone gave him when he came home from the Korean War before I was born. He used it to move my mom to south Texas for one year, then back to Arkansas. He worked as a chemist in an oil refinery and could have bought a nicer trailer, but we’d lose the entertainment of fender-less wheels wobbling and dancing at highway speeds.
I started to smell the landfill from memory while climbing into the cab of the truck. Daddy’s hands rested easy on the steering wheel, his bare arms rippled with muscle. I noticed a couple of scabs on his knuckles, ever-present trophies from doing physical work with his hands.
“So, Jim, how are things going at school?”
I said, “fine,” knowing that response wouldn’t prompt follow-up questions. Dad was a quiet man and I’d learned that teenager sentence fragments were enough for most adults. After that, there was only silence between us. Not an awkward silence, but very familiar.
When we drove up to the entrance of the landfill, an elderly man with dark wrinkled skin came out of a small wooden stall. “That’ll be $1,” he said.
Dad handed him a dollar. “Yes sir,” he said. Then Dad said, “I appreciate your help, sir. It’s a beautiful day.”
The man smiled and gave us a friendly wave as we drove into the landfill.
Dad stood with one foot on the trailer wheel and the other balanced on the rusty-blue trailer wall while tossing sacks of trash toward the roaring bulldozer working nearby. His slim body swayed effortlessly and his biceps swelled as he tossed heavy trash bags as easily as I might have thrown my basketball against our garage. I stood inside the trailer and pushed bags of trash toward him so he could toss them out. I took shallow breaths to reduce the stench in my nostrils. It didn’t work. The front of my head ached from the musty charred smell.
Soon we were pulling back onto the paved road. I cranked the window down and leaned my face into the wind. As we drove, I looked across at Daddy’s hands and those scabbed knuckles. Then I glanced at his face. He had a distant look in his eyes and a slight smile.
I cleared my throat. “What was the Korean War like?”
“It was cold,” he said.
His answer, suddenly, wasn’t nearly enough. “Is that all, just cold?”
Dad rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand and stalled for a second. “No,” he said. “sometimes it was dangerous, but mostly it was just doing patrols, checking boundary lines, and trying to stay warm.”
Just then we were passing an old wood-framed house converted into a bar. I’d wondered about that old joint for years. I was sixteen, five years from being able to order a beer, but I’d have given a month’s allowance just to go inside.
Dad seemed to read my mind. “Let’s stop in here for a Coke.”
He turned into the dusty parking lot with our truck-bed trailer bouncing lightly behind.
As we entered, a cloud of cigarette smoke floated just above my head and glowed silver in the dim light seeping through pulled curtains. A lady sat on a stool behind the bar, so I assumed she was the bartender. Her bleach-blonde hair was piled up like a Viking helmet and her red blouse was cut low enough to be distracting. I remember thinking she’d probably been pretty at one time, but years of cigarette smoke and bartending must have worked against her beauty. Still, she had a broad smile.
“What’ll you guys have?” she asked.
“Just a couple of Cokes.” Dad said.
She smiled and winked at my dad, “You sure this kid doesn’t want a beer?”
I felt the blood rise to my cheeks. It was a joke, of course, and Dad shook his head no as he laughed.
I was glad mother wasn’t there.
The lady returned with two 10-ounce bottles and glasses of ice and Dad said, “Thank you, ma’am,” in the same respectful manner I imagined him using when a coworker brought him a lab report. She smiled and cocked her head to the side as if startled by his kind tone.
So there we were, a Baptist deacon dad sitting next to an under age kid, in a smoky bar. After a couple of sips on our Cokes, dad said, “I was kinda lucky in the Army. There was a lot of combat in Korea before I arrived and a lot after I left, but while I was there things were pretty quiet.” He said this as if he needed to apologize.
I’d been thinking about what he told me in the truck. I knew there had to be more to the story. After another sip, I asked, “What was the most dangerous thing you saw?”
He stared at his glass. “I was leading a platoon through a minefield when the point man froze. Frozen solid with the whole platoon behind him! He wouldn’t move so I crawled to his position and told him to crawl directly behind me so the others would follow.”
“So you led the whole group through the minefield,” I asked. I looked at my hands. Both were gripped around my glass, the condensation wet against my palms.
My Dad nodded yes.
I wanted to ask more but just then a stooped man in a loose-fitting flannel shirt put a quarter in the jukebox at the end of the bar. When the music started I felt the vibrations through the brass foot bar rails. Merle Haggard’s twangy guitar intro to “I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” broke our conversation.
We each took a last bite of ice, mouthed a thank you to the bartender, and left our bottles at the bar. As we opened the door to leave and dad’s eyes squinted against the bright sunshine, I remember thinking we probably wouldn’t mention this stop to mother.
As we drove home, I considered asking about the war again, but somehow I knew the moment was meant to stay in that smoky bar. But then, I looked again at my father’s strong scuffed hands on the steering wheel. They were still the hands of a quiet man who loved and provided for his family, but now they seemed much more complex.
I looked at my father. He had a dimple in his chin. Already his whiskers were growing out, something he fought every day. He seemed like every dad I knew.
But he was not. My father was a war hero who spoke with the same respect to a man of a different race working in a landfill as he might use with his boss at work. There was respect and kindness in his voice, whether addressing his pastor at church or a woman working in a smoky bar. There was a fearless quiet confidence at his core that viewed all others as equals.
I rubbed my chin. I wouldn’t need to shave for another year but at that moment I was anxious to. When I was five he put lotion on my palm so I could pretend as he shaved. It seemed like something that would connect me to my dad, that would say I was at least a little like him.
As I grew older, I heard that if you lack qualities you admire in someone, pretend to be that person and do as they would do. It made me recall that day in the landfill and our visit to the bar. On more occasions than you can probably imagine, I’ve pretended to be my father. I’m happy to report that each time, I’ve met with good results.
Note to reader: For this short story, I took a scene (trip to the landfill) that was factual, then added some details and embellishments. My cousin, dad, and grandfather once stopped at a smoky bar for a Coke after installing some ornamental iron. I was jealous. I pretended daddy and I went to that bar which gave us a location for our conversation and the character of the bartender. I learned of my father’s minefield Army experience in little bits over time. For this story I condensed it down to a single conversation.
Her Crowning Glory
By J Warnock February 3, 2019
Note to reader: This story is true. The topic was a surprise to me. Thank you to Marla Cantrell and my classmates for encouragement and feedback. Writing, revision, and editing can be such fun! – Jim Warnock
“I haven’t had a hair appointment in three weeks, Jim!” said my 87-year old mother over the blare of a made-for-TV Hallmark movie.
I glanced at my wife, thinking she probably had an easy answer. She stood next to my mother’s kitchen sink, dutifully counting pills and placing a week’s worth in a plastic organizer. Becca said, “We’ll figure something out.”
A reasonable response, I thought, but I immediately knew that it wouldn’t suffice. Mother’s piercing eyes looked at me, then fell back to some unopened mail in her lap. This small-framed retired teacher, poised precariously in a forward leaning position on her cushy lift chair, was skilled in classroom management and could still communicate paragraphs with a single look.
As we left Mother’s apartment, I knew it was time for action.
I thought of Rhonda, the kind lady who cuts my hair. When I was a new client, she worried about cutting my hair too short, not realizing I’d outgrown my hair vanity many years ago. I’d say, “It always grows back. You’re the pro, so just cut as you like.” I think I might be her favorite client.
I sent Rhonda a text to see if she could work in my Mother, Elsie, on Tuesday, one day before a memorial service for my father. She said yes.
Leaving work early, I arrived at Legacy Heights Retirement Center at 2 p.m. so we’d be on time for the 3 p.m. appointment, a 15-minute drive. Time marches to a slower beat when traveling with Mother.
“You’re already in the lobby?” I was startled to see Mother sitting next to her walker. Her raised eyebrows said she was ready to go, much more than for our more common trips to medical appointments. I went upstairs to retrieve her wheelchair, a souvenir from her week in rehab in October, knowing the walker would never do for the entrance to the shop on Main Street in Alma, built long before handicapped accessibility. I also bundled her in a heavy green knitted coat to protect her from the January temperatures.
After doing our little slow-dance technique to get into the car, we drove to Rhonda’s. Mother squinted against the bright sunshine while sinking low in the car seat so that the visor failed to cast a shadow over her face. “I’m sorry we didn’t get your sunglasses.”
“Oh, they’re in my purse.” She began to unzip all three compartments of her red fabric file cabinet with shoulder straps. I was relieved when the glasses finally found their way to her face a few minutes later. She then sat comfortably, swallowed up inside her coat with her small face nearly covered by large sunglasses that fit over her regular glasses.
I slowed the car to a crawl as we approached downtown Alma, replaying in my mind how I would get my mother into the shop. My greatest fear was dumping her onto the sidewalk where someone who knew us was sure to be driving by.
Rhonda stepped out of the shop. “What can I do to help?”
I said, “You can spot me, so mother doesn’t tumble out while I pull her chair up the steps.” Mother gave a nervous laugh. She’d been in drama classes during college and says that’s where she learned to fall. She’s the best faller I’ve ever seen, rarely injured as she tumbles to the ground. I breathed a sigh of relief when we were safely inside.
After our transfer from wheelchair to shampoo station, Rhonda said, “I’ll cut her hair in the wheelchair after our shampoo, so we don’t have to change chairs again.”
As she began to work soap into Mother’s hair, she said, “Miss Elsie, you have beautiful thick hair. We’re going to have you looking pretty for tomorrow’s service.” Mother closed her eyes and on her face was the look of pure ecstasy as Rhonda’s fingers massaged her scalp. Sitting nearby, I felt my shoulders relax.
Rhonda cut Mother’s hair while bending over to accommodate for the low wheelchair. Finally, she got on her knees while working the solid hour to trim and then curl each section of hair.
As the hour progressed, Mother’s eyes closed and she drifted into a half-sleep state. I watched her face and thought of the different stages of her life. She’d once been a schoolteacher who could organize and orchestrate learning for thirty students while taking care of her family, volunteering at church and a local arts center. She was always eager to take on new projects at her church library or for local service groups.
When I see my Mother now, I see the whole arc of her life. I see a glistening red-haired lady who was patient with my reluctance to read and my obsession with drumming and all things music, who gave me space to explore and follow my interests, never hovering to control every outcome.
I see a young lady, so short she had to stand on her tiptoes to try to touch an overhanging bluff at Petit Jean State Park. She was at my daddy’s side, who had easily stretched to reach the same spot. A few minutes later, on a nearby trail, Daddy called out to her. “Elsie! Are you okay?” She had stumbled off the perfectly fine trail, falling beside it. He took her hand and help her up. Her face flushed red, nearly matching her hair as my daddy smiled down at her. After he brushed off her clothes, he slowed his pace, and they walked down the trail together with me following close behind.
While I now see Mother’s loss of mobility and declining eyesight, more importantly, I see a person of dignity in the face of physical challenges and a person of humor who can still brighten a room. Her striking hair, now a shining silver, is lovely and thick like a crown of glory, something of beauty that remains after so much else has been lost.
Our time together for this hair appointment began at 2 p.m. By the time we got back to Mother’s apartment at Legacy Heights it was almost 5 p.m., so I stayed for supper in the dining hall, now thoroughly acclimated to the deliberate march of elder-time.
The residents slowly arrived for their meal. “I love your hair,” said Mabel, a friend of Mother’s since college days.
Carolyn, the resident musician, said, “Who did your hair? I just love it!”
More compliments followed. Mother beamed a smile as she said thank you to each of them. I’m not sure who was more pleased, my Mother or me. Standing in the dining room, I imagined the next day and seeing my Mother on the front row of a room filled with lives touched by my Father. We would share tears of thankfulness and memories of his life and the 67-year love story they wrote together on the pages of their lives.
After dinner, I returned Mother to her apartment. As I moved toward the door to leave, she said, “Thank you for today!” There was an earnestness and small crack in her voice.
I was pleased to have played a small part in maintaining some of what made her still beautiful. Mother’s hair is her “crowning glory,” reflecting the deeper beauty of a life invested in others and a life well lived.
Lessons From the Lawnmower Shop
Jim Warnock April 21, 2019
A familiar pungent vapor suddenly burned my nostrils. I stopped and raised the hood to see gasoline spattering onto the motor of my riding lawnmower. I quickly shut off the engine and stepped a few feet away to fill my lungs with fresh air, thankful that there was no fire.
I stood motionless, staring at the hot gasoline-covered engine crackling in the sun, waiting for it to cool. When would I find the time to make two trips hauling that mower to and from the repair shop as my grass continued to grow?
Then, I thought about Saturdays from my childhood while watching my dad repair our old riding mower I’d nicknamed “Death-Trap” because of the way its single steel blade threw rocks and limbs from underneath the deck. It’s a wonder I still have all my toes.
Maybe I should at least make an attempt at repairing this much newer machine. I decided to remove the offending parts, one of which I couldn’t identify.
When I got to the mower shop, I presented the parts to Rick, the expert behind the counter. “I need a fuel filter and this other thing,” I said, thumping my finger against the black plastic casing. He raised his eyebrows at my little display. He was crisp and clean in his dark green company overalls, but it was early in the day.
“Oh, you need a fuel pump.”
“I thought a fuel pump would be bigger.”
Rick bent the connecting hoses to reveal small cracks and said, “I’ll throw in a piece of new hose, too.” He stepped quickly away to retrieve the parts and returned in less than a minute.
I moved to the cash register and said, “My dad could fix anything, but I didn’t get that trait. Do you charge double for repairs gone wrong?”
Rick laughed and said, “My whole family sings beautifully, but I can’t carry a tune. When I was 12 years old, our preacher said something about the joys of singing and my mother elbowed me and said, ‘Not you. You can’t sing.’ She wasn’t trying to be mean, but I got the message.”
I tilted my head, frowned, and said, “You should go ahead and sing anyway.” I didn’t mention to him that I was a musician.
He smiled and said, “Hope the mower repair works. If you get into a bind, just bring it in, and we’ll take care of it.”
While getting in my truck to leave, I felt a tinge of sadness at Rick’s comments about singing. I thought about how different my life might have been if my parents had pointed out things I couldn’t do. Daddy never said I couldn’t fix things or that everything I touched ended up broken even though I showed little evidence of being handy with tools and was sometimes accident prone.
When I got back home, the engine was cool to the touch. After installing the fuel filter and pump and making the hoses match the picture I took with my phone before removing them, I cranked up the mower. I watched the golden gasoline begin flowing through the clear fuel filter housing. Nothing was spewing from that little black fuel pump, and the motor was running normally. I smiled, thinking of how proud Daddy would be.
As I began cutting our tall grass, I thought about how I dreaded those childhood mowing days with my father. Back then, what should have been a two-hour job often took most of the day, because the mower I called “Death-Trap” often broke down. Now, I’m thankful for those Saturdays spent watching Daddy repair that riding mower. Both of us were unaware of the lessons being taught. I wonder if he knew how those lessons would be remembered years later at a lawn mower shop, by a much older son who is still in awe of the man whose example he still tries to follow.
Faith of My Father
by Jim Barton
It was nothing you’d see draped
on a hinger in his closet;
it was nothing sealed in plastic
from the cleaners down the street.
It was nothing handed down
from religious hierarchy,
an icon steeped in history
and meant to be locked away.
He didn’t have to polish it
when company was coming;
it never had to hang outside
to air out or to dry.
It was nothing he could tear or muss,
or stain or ever lose;
it was invisible, it was visible
in everything he did.
And, when at last, he faced the end,
on linens white as snow,
the background hum of instruments
strumming peacefully as harps,
flourescence beaming down on him
was met with an inner glow.
He filled his lungs and straightened out,
then slipped into the pool,
a lone and graceful swimmer
backstroking through the waves,
smiling with anticipation for
those waiting on the other shore.
by Jim Warnock Feb. 9, 2019 draft
Note to reader: This is my first fiction short story. My earlier stories were based on factual events. Thank you to Marla Cantrell, award winning author, and my peers in the Chapters on Main Writing Workshop.
Matthew Johnson pastored the small congregation in Gainesville, Missouri. For three years, he’d led members through marriages, births, divorces, and deaths. Epiphany Community Church was a good place to begin a career in the ministry. He was still single and immersed in his work, knowing that season of life would come soon enough.
Someone seeing his 6’2” frame stride into Jeb’s Cafe on a Friday morning might mistake him for a state representative visiting constituents or an all-star football player returning for his high school reunion. Visitors to Jeb’s Cafe wouldn’t mistake it for anything but itself, a small town eating joint at the center of Main Street in a dusty, southwestern Missouri town.
“Good morning, Jan. You pulled me right off the sidewalk with that bacon!” His brown eyes and smile behind a neatly trimmed beard beamed with the look of anticipation.
“Bacon and two eggs coming up. Saw in the Ozark County Times where you had a birthday. Happy 26th! I can’t imagine being that age again,” said Jan, her mixed gray hair pulled back tight.
“We missed you Sunday.”
“You’ve missed me for a year of Sundays! Sorry, Preach, but this place doesn’t run itself.” She’d been saddled with the cafe since her father’s death several years before Matt arrived in town.
“Read you loud and clear. You know, you can just call me Bro. Matt.” Jan gave him a smirk over the top of her glasses as she poured his coffee.
“Sure thing, Preach. Coffee’s on me today. Happy birthday.”
Matt looked at the Busch Beer clock on the wall behind the counter. It was now 7:40 a.m. Beer wasn’t served until after 5 p.m., so Bro. Matt felt he was above reproach having breakfast at Jeb’s, even though a few of his more conservative members complained quietly about him being seen there. Jan added a variety of beer to the menu after Ed’s Bar & Grill down the street closed.
Jan saw him looking at the clock. “Why don’t you drop in some evening and have a beer?” Matt looked up from his eggs and smiled, used to the good-natured sparing over breakfast.
“I’m afraid I might embarrass one of my parishioners.”
“Awe, come on, Preach, Jesus made some mighty fine wine, right?”
“Yes, you got me there. Maybe I’ll just surprise you sometime.” The truth was he enjoyed sipping a Guinness Stout most evenings on the back porch of his small parsonage, a habit he picked up with seminary friends while smoking pipes and pretending to be world-esteemed theologians, grappling with deep existential questions.
Matt left a nice tip as usual. Jan smiled, knowing a man who passes collection plates is under pressure to be generous as well.
As Matt stood facing north on Main Street, he could see the church steeple in the distance. He thought about how different Jan’s life had been from his. Behind the bar inside was the 8×10 photo of a beautiful young lady who looked like she might walk right out of the frame and say hello. Matt never knew her, but Jan’s daughter had been an honor student in high school before her life’s path took a destructive turn. She was dead within a year of graduation. Jan’s dad, Jeb, died a few months later.
Thanks to the success of his grandfather’s business, higher education was never a question for Matt. His way was paved for college then seminary leading to the ministry, a calling he thought he’d heard, and that his grandfather encouraged, since early childhood.
Though very different, Matt and Jan seemed to have a common bond, but their knowledge of each other was only skin deep. Both had lost their father, hers in death, his in life, but this was a loss he never shared.
Matt shook his head and wondered if anyone had noticed his momentary spaciness as he stared to the north. He began walking toward his church, exchanging friendly greetings with several residents as he went. In the next block, he stopped and sat on a park bench outside the County Clerk’s office. He took out his phone.
“Hello, Mom? This is Matt.” He called Sally often, usually just to chat and see how she was doing. She and his grandfather lived in West Plains, an hour’s drive to the east.
“So good to hear from you,” she said in a raspy, quivering voice.
“Yes, I can’t talk long, I just have a question.”
“Sure, what is it?”
How can I contact my father? My father, John Johnson.” There was silence on the other end as she absorbed the weight of his question, a question she’d never heard before.
His mom had three children by three dads. None of them stayed long or filled the role of father. As the oldest child, Matt, along with his grandfather, had been the sources of stability for the family.
Finally, Sally said, “I think I have a number. I’ll have to find it and call you back.”
Matt’s dad, John, had been run out of West Plains by his grandfather after Sally got pregnant. Matt only knew his dad from small, blurry photos he’d found in his mother’s jewelry box. In his favorite photo, the two of them had broad smiles as if laughing at each other while sitting on top of a picnic table.
His grandfather once said, “I wish I could do that chapter of life over again.” He also said that John sent small monthly payments to his mom to help with expenses even though under no legal obligation. “Kinda made me respect the guy,” grandfather had said as he looked down at his hands.
Matt harbored resentment at not having a dad, but, for years, he’d had a gnawing desire to know him. Not having a relationship with his father was his secret hurt and he’d protected it carefully. He wondered if he could forgive and mend the brokenness in his life as he urged others to do in his weekly sermons.
Suddenly, Sunday’s message seemed completely irrelevant, empty. Jan was justified in not attending for over a year. He didn’t speak to the struggles of the heart. He parroted high spiritual themes with eloquence but failed to practice the most basic precepts of the beliefs he espoused.
As he entered the church office, he said, “Mrs. Louanne, why would anyone listen to a word I say?”
Mrs. Louanne, the longtime church secretary, looked over her glasses with a frown. She was used to his random outbursts, but he was usually trying out sermon lines. “What are you talking about?”
“How can I teach about forgiveness when I don’t practice it myself? I’m as hypocritical as the worst of backsliders!”
Mrs. Louanne brushed back her gray hair and said, “Are you coming down with something? Did you have a flu shot?”
“I’m fine.” He said as if he had fallen backward, knocking the wind out of his chest. He looked at the floor and slowly closed his office door.
Matt sat at his desk and thought about the futility of his last three years of work. He’d only been playing the part of pastor. Maybe he was a good actor, and his audience thought he was authentic but, deep inside he felt an emptiness that he was trying to fill. He appeared successful, but his was a pseudo ministry when the light of honesty shined on the private, painful place in his life.
Mrs. Louanne interrupted his self-loathing contemplation. “Your mother called and left a number for you. She didn’t say who’s number it was and didn’t seem to want to talk.”
Matt slid his fingers over the smooth yellow post-it note and his eyes narrowed at the 10-digit number. If he called, would his father even talk to him? Would he feel threatened when faced with the physical presence of pain from the past? Would Matt’s resentment well up inside and overcome his desire to forgive?
Matt thought back to breakfast at Jeb’s. He wanted to share true stories of hurt and healing in his life and minister to the brokenness in others. He wanted Jan, and others like her, to know that he lived with pain and inner struggles. He needed forgiveness just as he needed to forgive his father and grandfather for past injuries, real and perceived.
The image of Jan’s clenched smile became clear in his mind, and he could almost hear her say, “Awe come on, Preach. Call your damn dad for heaven’s sake!”
Matt’s thumbs trembled as he carefully pressed the numbers on the keypad.
One ring, two, then a third.
“Hello, this is John Johnson.”
Matt took in a full breath, “Hello, this is Matt. Matthew Johnson, your son.”
Our eight-day Ozark Trail trek in early November gave this poem by Mary Oliver new meaning.
Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, has become meaningful to me over time.
The following haiku was composed after walking the Iron Spring Bridge on Hwy 7, north of Hot Springs, Arkansas. After hiking Hunt’s Loop in the dark, morning light revealed this bridge that contains many family memories. The haiku syllable formula of 5, 7, 5 for the three lines makes me think.
Kingfisher was published in Do South Magazine, June 2017, page 12
Wendell Berry reminds us not to be predictable in action or thought.
John Muir Trail thru-hike in July of 2016
This poem was written a few weeks after one of our students committed suicide in his home.
I apologize for the following comment related to politics, but the number of glossy political ads we were receiving seemed to demand a response of some type.
This heart-shaped frost flower was next to the Ozark Highlands Trail on a January morning.
Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area
Small creek crossing close to the Chancel Trail Head on the Ozark Highlands Trail.
Spirits Creek following a night of heavy rain.