Obediah fixed the coffee tray to carry to her room. It was 42 steps from the sink in the kitchen to the top of the stairs where the door of old woman’s room sat just left of the last step. He knew it was exactly 42 because he’d counted them over and over each time she screamed his name, yelling for him in the endless way that she did all hours of the day and now even into the night. “OBIE…!” She’d shout, distorting his name even more atrociously than the standard way of shortening it. New people he met tried to call him Obed as if something less formal sounding might shrink the distance between them suddenly making them instant friends instead of the strangers they really were.
Obediah didn’t really like most people and he liked strangers even less. He’d grown up wary tending to keep to himself after his family had moved out to the country. Back in New Orleans, his Old Testament sounding name was never looked on as ridiculous or even odd by the people living closest to them. New Orleans welcomed the weird and unusual so much so that being not just another Jennifer or Jason was appreciated and sometimes expected.
When forced to introduce himself he always gave his full name, Obediah Jenkins, but damned if people didn’t immediately ask him, ” What do you like to be called? ” He couldn’t understand this. Why did people think he’d introduce himself one way with no indication that he might like to be called something else unless he’d offered it up in the first place. Obed, seemed to be the most popular choice when people were trying to rename him and even though he didn’t like it, he tolerated it coming from some people like the smiling checkout girl down at the Handy Pantry over in Hattiesburg.
Her name tag said her name was Bertie, but she’d told him that was because the store manager was too lazy to say her whole name when calling her up to the front whenever the store got busy and the lines were too long. Roberta had frowned a little when she’d told him this story. She said she hated the way Frank Stillwell, the store manager always sounded as if he was laughing a little when he called her name making Bertie sound more like Birdi slurring it all together like the southern Mississippi man he was.
Originally from Michigan, Roberta had trouble sometimes when folks around Hattiesburg pronounced their T’s like they were D’s. She said she spent what felt like half her life saying, ” What…or I’m sorry, could you repeat that.” It never occurred to him to tell her that he preferred Obediah to Obed when heard her say it the first time. There was something so sweet in her northern way of speech that it almost sounded like a new name completely. It was enough to keep him coming back every couple of days to spend an extra minute or so talking to her when she was shelving peas or some other food group…none of which he usually wanted. He’d spot her down an aisle and act as if he’d been looking for just the particular item she happened to be holding, once even taking the can of pears directly from her hand so that their fingers touched for just a second. Even though the Wal-Mart Super Center out on Highway 49 had everything he might ever need and at a lower price, the one thing missing there was Roberta.
Listening to the noise coming from upstairs, he placed the items on the lace covered tray in the way he’d been taught. It seemed as if he’d been carrying this same cup of coffee for years, assuming responsibility by default after his father had died one day after coming in from cutting the grass. Obediah thought back to how a cold glass of milk on a hot summers day had changed his life forever.
He remembered because he couldn’t forget and he avoided the sofa in the living room in the same way that he now avoided milk. Looking more red-faced than usual, his father had plopped down on the largest place to sit in the room. Along with size, it was also the most sturdy and even though his mother would have yelled at him for “plopping” as she called it, his father did it anyway that day making it seem as if something was wrong before actually was.
Gus Jenkins had called out to his son asking him to please bring him something cold to drink and Obediah had gone to the old Frigidaire that came with the house and poured out a tall glass of cold milk. He’d carried it in to his father who downed it quickly and then stretched out on the sofa, putting his feet on the lacy throw that his mother had spent the winter crocheting with a tiny needle. He had started to tell his father that there were bits of grass dropping out of his cuffed trousers onto the seldom used coverlet, but the sound coming from his father stopped his words before they could form properly in his mouth. Looking up from his father’s feet in the direction of the unfamiliar sound, he realized the soft puffing noise was coming from his father. Seeing him with his hand tight to his chest, Obediah should have been able to tell right away that he was having a heart attack, but all he could focus on were the tiny white bubbles blowing across his lips created from the milk residue and the puffing brought on by the pain.
He’d stopped drinking milk after that and he never again sat on the sofa after the paramedic’s had lifted his father’s body off the spot where he’d plopped for the last time. Now all he had was this life that was no longer his own. He wished for more, but his mother had taken to her bed permanently it seemed after his father’s death. He had no life outside this house and the woman waiting for him upstairs. It seemed he only got tiny minutes of his life back during his trips into town to pick up the groceries they needed, but just this morning his mother had been whining that she couldn’t be left alone anymore. ” Obie,” she’d said, “we’ll just have to have what we need delivered.” ” Your mama needs you here with her.” She said all of this in what he thought of as her, ” I’m too sick to be denied ” voice and knew then that he had a choice to make.
No more trips to the Handy Pantry meant no more visits with Roberta and Obediah felt ill thinking that his life would be permanently confined to the walls of this old house. He wanted more than a few minutes in the frozen food aisle with her, but that was never going to happen unless a few things changed around here. He pulled the dusty box out from underneath the kitchen sink where he’d stuck it a few weeks ago after telling himself that kitchen was being overrun with ants again. Searching through the old gardening shed out back, he had found the box with its brightly colored warning signs still prominent even though the box had faded from sitting on a shelf for the last few years. He’d noted the directions for use at that time and what to do in case of accidental poisoning before tucking it into a dark place back behind the Pledge he never seemed to get around to using.
It didn’t matter now he thought, since his mother never came downstairs anymore. She never noticed whether there were ants crawling through the sugar bowl or dust on her mother’s antiques. Obediah sprinkled a little ant poison around the back of the sink where they seemed to be coming in through a crack in the wall. Using a teaspoon that he’d taken from the kitchen drawer, he dusted the area carefully trying to be precise. Shaking out another spoonful of the white powder he dropped it into the cream on his mother’s coffee tray giving it a quick stir before leaving the used spoon behind in the sink. He hurried along thinking he would wait and wash up when he came back down as his mother’s shouting was beginning to get on his last nerve.
Picking up her tray, he counted the steps as he had for the last ten years, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, knowing that this time was different. Obediah had first begun counting the steps years ago when the distance between the kitchen and her door seemed never-ending. Knowing it was only 42 steps helped him make the journey over and over too many times a day to remember all the trips. It might still be 42 steps from the kitchen sink to his mother’s door, but somehow today it seemed more final as if these steps were now part of a destination and not just more of the same old daily journey. ”OBIE!” Obediah heard her shrill voice calling him and instead of his usual anger at hearing his name so distorted he counted, seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi, focusing instead on the steps leading up to his freedom.
Thanks to Leon for the topic suggestion that I used for this week’s TMAST. I also want to thank MrsDoF for her topic sentences and Judy Harper joined me again in writing a story for TMAST. Her story can be found on her blog here. Although Judy and I have not been comparing notes, it seems we tend to choose the same topic sentences and photographs for our TMAST projects. I find it interesting that it has occurred several times already and it makes me look forward to seeing what next week brings. Please take a look at the pictures for next week’s TMAST and offer up suggestions for topic sentences based on the photographs. Thanks for reading and commenting and please consider writing along with me next week.
Additionally, I want to thank each of you who leave a comment especially on TMAST days. These little stories are fun to write and are the seeds I hope for the bigger stories and real work I imagine for my writing future.