Friday, January 14, 2011

Joseph and Jasmine

This is for John Kenyon's Challenge to write a story based loosely on a fairy tale. I don't think you will have any problem guessing which one this comes from if anyone is out there. Sorry to rush the Summing Up away, but this had a deadline.

Links to other stories can be found here. (I think)



Joseph and Jasmine

By Patricia Abbott

“You two be okay while I run to the store?” Joseph’s mother stood in the doorway of her father’s house, an unlit cigarette see-sawing from her lips. One hand was propped on the door frame, the other scratched her head with a Zippo. Joseph wondered if the day was coming when her hair would catch fire. But it hadn’t yet 'cept for the one time she’d lit her fag on the front burner of the gas stove and her bangs got nipped.

“Singed fringe,” she called it, flaking off the ashes and wrinkling her nose at the smell.

Janice wasn’t allowed to smoke in here. Or be here, come to that. Had her own place a mile or so away. Nasty stuff happened there only last year. Jasmine got some scabies disease that poor people get for one thing. Another time, a man broke in while Joseph and Jasmine were home alone asleep. Maybe took some stuff, maybe touched Jasmine where he oughtn’t.

The Court put Joseph and Jasmine in their grandfather’s care after that.

“Man’s too old,” Janice complained, but the judge didn’t care to hear her, told her to be still. Her mouth and opened and shut like Nemo’s a few times, but she shut up.

Janice was allowed to visit Joseph and Jasmine, chaperoned by a social worker, twice a month. Sometimes, Janice didn’t show up. Being Detroit, other times, it was the social worker.

“Nobody should get between a mother and her babies,” she told Joseph after they moved out. She looked at him for an argument. But by ten, he knew how to duck her clip to his head with a nod.

Joseph’s grandfather was at the hospital today, seeing his doctor. An emergency. “You stay inside, kids,” he’d instructed on leaving. Hadn’t counted on his daughter showing up though.

“I should only get what’s handed out on that city pension of his,” Janice was always saying. “We all paying for it, you know. I’d like someone to pay for my next round of penicillin.”

Lung trouble or not, the man could smell smoke in the house from two miles away. And he could especially smell stale smoke from his daughter’s cheap no-name cancer sticks hours later. “A head-shaking girl,” Poppy often said. “Sorry she dragged you kids into this. Be better if….”

Joseph knew what would come next should the old man say it.

“Sure,” Joseph said to his mother now, not knowing why she’d even told him ‘bout her plans. She’d left him and Jasmine alone every night back when they lived with her.

“You’re the man,” she told him at six when Jasmine was an infant. “You take care of your sister, hear?”

House rules were different here though. No Janice, no smoking. “East-side rules,” Poppy said when they moved in. And he’d never left them alone before today. But Joseph was closer to eleven now than ten, and it was daytime. Plus Poppy was havin’ trouble breathing. Too much smoke had snaked down his throat from all those years puttin' out fires. Poppy’s house was in a neighborhood where city workers used to live. One of the safest in Detroit. At his mother’s house, Joseph heard gunshots every night. You hardly even noticed the Fourth of July or New Year’s. You learned not to play near windows. Those were house rules near Gratiot Avenue.

“Going to Mr. Cs and then Target,” his mother told him. She must be having a nooner, Joseph reasoned, though it was nearly four o’clock. “Your granddaddy should be home soon. He be out of milk so I’m goin’ out to get some.” She harrumphed and puffed up like getting a carton of milk was somethin' special.

“Carton’s in the fridge,” Joseph started to say. Then stopped. She knew that. It was just an excuse—for somethin'.

“And you need some other stuff too. Old man don’t notice, but I do. Only a Mama knows certain things though he’d never confess it. I be over to Eastland Mall. Maybe get Baby Girl some clothes.”

Joseph nodded. When she called Jasmine Baby Girl things weren’t looking up.

Jasmine, four, never lifted her head throughout this conversation, occupied with deciding what charm to pick for a game of Monopoly. She picked each one up and put it down, looking thoughtful. She’d even added some tokens of her own to the pile over time. An orange rubber ball that always rolled off the game board for one. Joseph’d taken one of those orange sticks to it, but still it rolled. There was also a token from Greektown Casino and a John Kerry 2004 button.

Jasmine was too young to play Monopoly, but Joseph made the moves for both of them, playing his best on both their accounts. His sister was content just moving her dog or iron or ball to wherever he pointed, pretending to read the cards, shuffling her money around importantly. She loved that pastel money. Joseph always told her she’d won when he grew tired of playing.

Poppy and he played Battleship or checkers after Jasmine went to bed. “Never did like counting money,” his grandfather said and then chuckled. “Lucky, cause I never had much to count. Anyway, we’ll leave money-counting to your sister.” Sometimes Jasmine slept with the stacks of money next to her bed. Asleep, she breathed with wet gulping sighs like she’d caught her grandfather’s disease. “Asthma,” the old man said when Joseph first told him.

Joseph listened while his mother’s feet went down the front steps. What was she doing over here? Had some kind of witchy instinct about when Poppy’d be gone, usually showing up on those rare occasions. Usually tried to get them to come over her house. Promised them cookies. Rule Number Three. Don’t go over near Janice’s house. Most of their house rules concerned Janice.

“Oh, say Joseph.” His mother had her head back in the door. Here it was. Joseph knew it. Flexed his muscles, waiting.

“Think you and Jasmine could run over my house and wait for a package. You know, while I’m doing all this crazy-ass stuff for you all. Going shopping and that. You just gotta sit at my house and wait for the delivery. Probably take fifteen minutes. I even got some DVDs you can watch. More a treat than a chore.” Her eyes were black slits. “When the package comes, just open the door wide enough to take it. No reason for anyone to come inside. Hear?” She took an audible breath. “Don’t care for no strangers in my house.” Since when?

The clickety-click on the steps was a sign she’d more than shopping in mind. High heels. Poppy owned the only car in the family so his mother must be taking DDOT to wherever she was really going. Or perhaps her lover-man had a car waiting at the corner. Anyway, no milk would be coming their way today. No clothes for Jasmine.

Nodding, Joseph rolled the dice, preparing to move his race car to Ventnor Avenue. A car pulled up outside, its engine loud.

“You hear me, boy. Get moving,” Janice said, sidling out the door.

On the street, Jasmine had a fist full of Monopoly money he hadn’t seen her grab. “How we gonna play the game next time, girl?” he asked, as a fluttering green bill caught him smack in the eye. Eye tearing, he led the way along deserted streets, ignoring what Jasmine did with the bills because it was too late to stop it. One or two got caught in her hair. Maybe he could make new bills out of construction paper. Or probably they could get a new old game at Salvation Army. Lots of games had money inside the box probably.

Why was she was throwing the bills in the air? Jasmine still didn’t talk so he couldn’t ask her. Twice he had to stop her from running into the street to grab one. She hated to lose the gold ones. “Guess we can find our way home easy enough now,” he said, humoring her. "You left us a trail." She grinned. Her teeth were perfect whereas his were crooked pegs. Good thing he wasn’t a girl, Janice always said.

Jasmine was going to be real pretty. But “not talking” like she did was gonna hold her back. Poppy had her hearing and other stuff checked out. “She’ll talk when she gets a mind to,” the old man decided. When you tried to talk to Jasmine, she just smiled that big half-moon smile. When she cried, tears came but no sound.

Joseph thought if he could see inside his sister's head there’d be wondrous things there instead of the nasty things he saw in front of him now. Maybe she saw things in colors that he couldn’t even name. She was full of secret smiles for no reason he could see, so it hadda be somethin’ like that going' on in her head. Some different place entirely stretched out in front of her.

They arrived at their mother’s house fifteen minutes later. He’d forgotten what a mess it was. It looked like she’d been sleeping on the sofa by the front window instead of in her bed. Why? He looked out that window, noting you could see the whole street from that perch. The window was propped just the right amount for surveying the lay of the land. The curtain was tucked back just so. A lookout like in a cowboy or cop movie.

Jasmine and he were watching Die Hard 2 when he heard the car pull up. He could make out two faces on the passenger’s side windows. Meant at least three people were in that car, counting the driver. Scowling faces that didn’t look like they had any mind to deliver a package. Looked like they were scoping out his mother’s house, in fact.

The woman next door came out of her house just then and threw the men a dark look. The car sped away. She shambled across the lawn and knocked at the door. “Back again, huh? This for you?” she said when Joseph opened it. “Some guy in a Tiger's hat and shades left it.” Mama’s package. He took it, thanked her, and closed the door before she could ask about why they were there. He listened as she waited on the porch a few seconds before shambling off.

That car again. It’d slowed down, idling a house or two away. Same two faces checking out Mama’s house. A really bad feeling came over Joseph. Couldn’t have said why ‘cept that it was Janice’s place. Where bad things happened. Stay away from Janice’s house was a house rule for good reason.

Joseph grabbed Jasmine’s hand and yanked her toward the back door. They dashed out the door and down the back alley, knocking over a trashcan or two, dodging some mangy cats, an overturned milk carton, and a heap of trash. Someone yelled, a dog barked, but they kept up their pace.

They weren’t more than a block away when he heard the explosion, felt the heat even. Jasmine found one of her gold dollar bills on the sidewalk and held it up. “Time to go home to Poppy’s” he told her, shaking. He could picture the old man coming in and finding them gone. He could imagine what Janice’s house looked like now. Die Hard 2 probably floating through the air.

“Do not pass go,” his sister said, somehow keeping up with him.

For a minute he thought he’d imagined it. Imagined Jasmine talking. Always thought her first word would be something like “Poppy.”

He turned around, and her grin stretched wider than her face. Teeth sparkled like jewels.

“The witch’s house burned down,” he said, smiling a little, too. It felt strange with his lips turning up. Unnatural.

They followed that Monopoly money all the way home, recovering a sizable portion of it.

15 comments:

R L Kelstrom said...

Great take on H&G. Loved the kid's POV especially his descriptions of his mom. Several other H&Gs in the challenge, including mine. Is it all the sugar from the holidays still on the brain?

nigel p bird said...

great that there can be such different (and quality) takes on the same stimulus. nice work Patti.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - What a wonderful take on this!! I'm so intrigued by the way you shared the boy's POV about his little sister, especially. Oh, and the dialogue is pitch-perfect in my opinion. Loved this!

sandra seamans said...

Wonderful story, Patti!

Naomi Johnson said...

Now there's a Hansel and Gretel I can truly empathize with. Excellent update on this story.

Kaye George said...

I love a happy ending! I'm working my way through all the entries and see good competition!

Dorte H said...

I like this one! Great setting & ending.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks to all.

Jerry House said...

Nice.

Richard R. said...

That's a great story. It's Red Riding Hood, right? :-)

David Cranmer said...

I appreciate little slices of life like this. Nicely done, Patti.

Evan Lewis said...

Beautiful prose. Fine story. Looks like a winner to me.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great one Patti. The voice and dialogue were excellent. Lean, mean and everything worked out in the end.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but I'm glad I finally made it. Great story, Patti. My favorite line? Her mouth and opened and shut like Nemo’s a few times, but she shut up. It tells you so much about the narrator's frame of reference.

ABSOLUTELY*KATE said...

"Do not pass Go". < Brilliant first words considering the swirlcomestances you put these kiddos in 'round mean Detroit streets.

Monopoly money as breadcrumbs and all the 'token' touches of what a child finds special, even a Kerry button held its own gameful magic. Wise brother, but you'll let Poppy get better, won't you?

~ Absolutely*Kate