In my Creative Writing: Fiction class we often talk about how syntax (the way we form our sentences) can help create voice. The story below–written by one of the students in this class–is a good illustration of what can be accomplished with syntax.
GRAPE TOOTSIE POPS
by Jessica Thiele
Kneeling at the dark casket and folding my hands. St. Theresa’s, eerie with the lights dimmed and glinting through the stained glass windows, the ghostly silhouette of the Virgin Mary casting a foreboding presence over all of us with outstretched hands and wide, haunted-yet-innocent, all-knowing eyes. Mama tickling my ear with a soft whisper–“You can say a little prayer, if you want to.”
Touching the cold, clammy hands. Not wanting to, but being curious and mortified all at the same time. Daddy standing over the body with his head bowed, thinking I saw a tear fall as he deeply sighed. I’d only seen my daddy cry once, ever. I didn’t want to see him cry again. It twisted me somewhere deep inside. Don’t cry, Daddy. Please don’t cry.
Great-Uncle Paul had been the one lying motionless in the casket. Daddy’s uncle, Grandpa Louis’s little brother. He had been in the old person’s home in Tilden for some years. After he’d suffered what Mama and Daddy called a stroke, he had never been quite right in the head again. I hadn’t understood why I felt sad, because I’d never really known Great-Uncle Paul all that well. It was just that he had been a real person, and I remembered him talking to me when I was little. He had lived on Grandpa’s farm in Clearwater, in a little trailer house north of Grandma and Grandpa’s house before he’d had to move to Tilden.
Cousin Katelyn and sister Shaely. Holding Katelyn’s hand. Great-Uncle Paul sitting on his blue Honda four-wheeler by the garage. Him talking, in such a strange way I didn’t know what he was saying, but he always had that little grin on his kind face. Him reaching out his chapped, knobby, work worn hands and plopping Oreos, rock hard and cold from Grandma’s freezer, in our outstretched hands, or ceremoniously handing us white-sticked tootsie pops–all flavors, but the ones I remember most were grape–wrapped in the same blue as his four-wheeler.
Grandma’s house the day of the funeral. A girl I’d never seen being there to babysit all us kids. Playing on Grandma’s front lawn, framed by the brick house and an overcast sky. Sweet Williams along the lane blushing purple with little flecks of yellow in the centers. Sitting in a circle on the lawn. Holding a little cousin. And then, the cars! Oh, the cars going by on their way to the cemetery north of town! So many, many cars! All the cousins and me waving to all those cars. A fun endeavor. Then…the maroon Buick Lesabre slowing and coming to a stop. Right in the middle of the highway. Right in the middle of the procession of cars. Realizing it was Grandma and Grandpa’s car. The back door flying opening. Uncle Danny yelling at us to go inside. Trailing the babysitter back into the house, a feeling of ashamedness inside us all, without knowing of what to be ashamed.
To this day, the memory boils inside me and makes me flush with anger. We were only little kids, ten and eleven years old. Why couldn’t we wave at the cars? Some of the people waved back. It probably cheered them up and made them stop crying. I don’t understand why Uncle Danny got so angry, only maybe he was so sad he couldn’t help it.
Today, as I walk the well-worn dirt paths around Grandma and Grandpa’s farm tramped down by tractors, four-wheelers, and Chevy pickups, I look toward the chute where so many cattle have been loaded and unloaded. I remember. Playing mailman with Grandma. Sister Shaely and I inside. Rap, rap, rap at the little door. Who could it be? We open the door with a little creeeeaaak. Grandma! The mailman. Bringing bills, milk, whatever we needed.
I pause in my tracks. Would Grandma go away like great-uncle Paul had? Would Grandma be lying in a dark casket? Would I reach out and touch Grandma’s cold, clammy hands? I shudder. I suppose Grandma will go away, someday, but she once told me, “Don’t cry when I die; I’ll be with Jesus.”
Maybe then I’ll have my own daughter. Maybe then she’ll kneel at the dark casket and fold her hands. Maybe then I’ll tickle her ear with a soft whisper–“You can say a little prayer, if you want to.”