Bonita LeFlore was born in New York City. She graduated Syracuse University with a BFA in painting. After years in the advertising industry she made a leap and changed course. She now lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts doing what she loves. Bonita divides her time between being an accomplished artist and writing. Her short stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in Work Literary Magazine, The Front Porch Review, and Avalon Literary Review.  Her first novel The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light will be published in 2016.

A Short Story

By Bonita LeFlore

 

Gabby heard her mother walk across the porch floor, the thumps of two crutches stopped when she reached the railing overlooking their cemented backyard. A few seconds passed and Gabby’s name was called out for the entire neighborhood to hear.  Over the tops of the houses and through the yards, Ga-bri-ell-a was shouted, each syllable infused with hope. It echoed the sound of the trumpet of her namesake.

“I know you’re out there,” her mother, Grace, said under her breath. “Ga-bri-ell-a, dinner is ready,” she yelled into the evening heat a second time.

No one could see Gabby’s hiding place, under the screen porch, behind the thick lattice covered with vines. The ground had been leveled and cemented several years before when her uncle, Elijah, decided to build an addition onto the three story house in Brooklyn. There was never enough money saved for the project; there was always something more important, more urgent needing to be done. The lattice room was left vacant until Gabby unhooked the latch one day and found a refuge from Grace.

In the first week after her discovery she went into the room twice; she sat in the dark, using her phone without anyone bothering her. She took an old blanket to sit on the third time. The following week she brought an empty tin box. One day the battery in her phone died and she began to listen to the sounds around her and think of what she should put into the box.

“Where have you been, Gabriella?” Her mother looked up from the stove. “I tried to call you, but it went to voice mail.  I thought we agreed that if you got a phone, you would answer when I called. Now I am back to screaming for you.”

“I heard you, Mom, that’s why I’m here.” Gabby walked over to the stove to see what her mother was cooking.

“I get nervous when I can’t reach you. It’s not just about me, you know,” she looked down at the cast on her left leg. “It’s about you too.”

“Mom, I’m fourteen, I can take care of myself.”

“The five o’clock news is filled with stories about daytime robberies.  It worries me to have you walking around the neighborhood alone. Did you know every forty-seconds a child is abducted?”

“You’re watching too much TV Mom. You worry too much.”

“Did those girls on the bus pick on you this morning?”

“They bothered someone else today. Besides, I settled with them last week.”

“Those aren’t the kinds of girls I want you to be friends with.”

“I didn’t say I made friends with them; I said I settled with them.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means we came to an understanding.”

Gabby didn’t want to explain what it meant, she just wanted to eat dinner and get back to her book before her Uncle Eli appropriated all the air in their small apartment.  When he entered he took over the conversation and focused on the celestial meaning of things.

On cue the front door swung open, it hit the wall with a thud; Gabby waited for Eli’s affirmation.

“Praise God for another day, ladies. It’s been an outstanding one for me,” he boomed. “I can’t wait to hear all your stories over this wonderful meal.”

Uncle Eli was six-three and thin as a scarecrow. When he was in basic training at Fort Jackson he had found salvation and was born again. It was only natural, he always told them, that a marked man should spread the word, find a flock and preach.

Eli ran one hand through his thinning hair and clapped.

“Just seeing if you are paying attending, Gabriella.” He walked over to the sink and began to wash his hands. “I heard your mother calling you before. Hiding from us?”

Uncle Eli, while extremely devoted, could keep secrets. Gabby had never told him about the lattice room and so he must just be fooling with her, she thought.

“No, just reading.”

“Always got your nose in a book, what’s it this time?  Shakespeare?” He went up behind his sister, finished drying his hands and looked into the pot she was stirring.

“Here, make yourself useful Eli, mash these potatoes for me.” She took the towel from him. “Mash them without lumps, please,” Grace said.

“I told your mother before you were born, Gabriella: put on that Ozark music and you will have a smart child.” He started pushing the soft potatoes through the masher with the same energy he gave to everything. “Like this?” He turned to his sister for her approval.

Gabby was musing about the value of the sounds of Appalachia when she realized that her uncle was not talking about hillbilly music. “You mean Mozart, Uncle Eli.”

“That’s what I said, Mozart. Excuse my pronunciation.”  He laughed at himself.

“Did you get any letters today, Grace?”  He looked at the Folgers coffee can inside the glass cabinet above his head.

“No, not today, Eli.”

Gabby’s father had written regularly, almost a letter every week, the first two years he was gone. There were stories about his road trip west, hitchhiking through the Great Plains, stories of crazy truck drivers and wild storms. When he got to Alaska the letters slowed down but there were pictures of him every once in a while, pictures her mother started showing Gabby when she was a baby.

“Well, you always get a letter at the end of the month with a check.  He’s a good man for never forgetting his obligations and I do pray for him regularly.”

“I know you do, Eli.”

Grace was already forty when she married, a late love, she called her husband.  Gabby was truly unexpected.

“He has left you with this blessing and we are forever grateful for the gift.” Eli crossed the room and gave his niece a kiss on the top of her head.

“If I was never born…” Gabby started.

“But you were,” Grace said.

“My father and mother might still be together. He left because of me.”

“And where did you get such an idea?” Eli asked.

“Let’s sit down and eat.” Grace dished the meat onto a plate and placed a large mound of mash potatoes next to it. “Here Eli, this is yours.  Gabriella, take this one and sit down.”

They pulled their chairs up to the table and waited for Eli to give the blessing. The ritual of thanks before the meal always started closest to home.

“Dear Lord, thank you for my one good hand and my intelligence that has led me to you. Dear Lord, thank you for allowing Grace to survive her accident with just one broken leg and thank you for giving her this time away from a demanding job,” he smiled. “Disability is a wonderful thing, Lord. Thank you for Gabriella’s good grades.”

Eli continued to thank God for the health of his flock and his neighbor’s kindness.  Because he had immersed himself in current events, he parsed what he felt was relevant: the mayor’s crack down on drinking soda and the president’s trip to Africa. Finally there was a note of warning about terrorism and climate change.

“Amen.” Eli opened his eyes.

“Amen,” Grace looked at her daughter and smiled. She knew how hard Gabriella had worked to get good grades.

There was usually a small break in Eli’s conversation while he ate.  It was not a void that Grace or Gabriella wanted to fill; they appreciated the silence.

“I think I did a real good job with the potatoes Grace,” he took another bite waiting for her to agree with his review.

“Yes, Eli, they are very smooth tonight.”

“So, Gabriella, what was the best thing that happened to you today?”

“I have twenty-five new followers. My last tweet on bullying went viral.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about. Is this what you were trying to show me last week?” he shook his head.  “Everyone has their face in a little glowing box, if they only looked up to heaven, their faces would glow from within.”  Eli got up from the table.  “Do you have a pencil and paper, Grace? I need to write that one down.”

“In the first draw next to the fridge, Eli. I agree with you,” she looked over at her daughter. “We spend too much time on our phones.”

“It’s the way we communicate now Mom. It’s our newspaper, television and music all in one place that fits into our hand. If Uncle Eli could tweet, wow, just think how many people he would reach.”

“I like to look at people in the eyes when I’m talking about God.  You can always tell if they are listening.”

“I know people are listening when they answer and retweet what I write.  They send me their pictures too.”

“I’m sure they send you their best picture, the one they posed for.” Eli sat down and started to eat.

“Well, you’re right about that. There are girls at school that change their photos everyday.”

“It’s easy to change what we look like, harder to change who we are.” He reached for the pad of paper next to his plate.

Grace laughed.

“I may have my sermon for next Sunday done before we finish this meal. Now talk to me about bullying Gabriella.”

“You know what bullying is, Uncle Eli.”

“Is this about the girls on the bus?” Grace asked.

“What girls, you’ve never told me that anyone was bothering you,” Eli said.

“It’s not something that kids go around talking about, you know. It happens all the time. I bet it even happened to you when you were kids.” She looked back and forth between the two adults sitting at the table with her. “You figure out a way to deal with it, right?  I figured out how to deal with it using this,” she held up her phone.

“You’ve had that on your lap? Didn’t I ask you to leave that in your room at dinner time?”

“It was in my pocket, on vibrate, Mom.”

“Tell us what you did, Gabriella,” said Eli.

“I told one of the girls I was writing a story about them and wanted to ask her some questions.  At first she just laughed at me, but when I told her I wanted to interview her and take her picture she got curious.”

“That stopped them?” Grace asked.

“Well, everyday for a week I showed this girl, JC, her name is Jade, what I wrote. She told her friends to leave me alone.” Gabby looked at her plate. “My English teacher wants me to read the story in the next assembly.

Elijah was beaming; he could not contain himself. “My little niece will be preaching! I’m so proud of you Gabriella.”

“I didn’t say I was doing that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not about me, I don’t want to be the center of attention, it’s not only for the kids that get picked on, but it’s also about the kids that are mean, that’s what my story is about.”

“I don’t understand,” said Eli.

“Those kids, the bullies, are invisible to the world. They only get attention when they push people around. I want to tell their story.”

“It would be a very brave thing to do, standing in front of the auditorium,” Grace said.

“I’m not brave. I just want to be left alone.”

“I shall pray on this tonight,” said Eli.

They ate in silence for a few moments when Eli asked: “Grace, I didn’t mean to ignore you, how was your day?”

“Nothing special today.”

He faced his sister. “It is the earthly events of everyday that show us who we are.  How we pass our time here is fleeting we must make the most of it. Certainly you were alive today?”

“The line at the A&P was particularly long, I was reading the covers of tabloids when the woman in front of me started to yell.”

Eli rubbed his left hand and smiled.

“She was screaming at the women in front of her about what kind of food she was buying with her SNAP benefits. She told her she would be damned; excuse me Eli, if she was going to pay taxes for someone to buy snack food. Then she told her she was fat. The cashier called the manager.”

“Then what happened?” asked Gabriella

“I turned to the woman behind me and talked to her.”

Eli shook his head and smiled.

“Turns out we both had to use those benefits at one time in our lives, we knew exactly how embarrassed the woman was using the card.”

 

 

In the summer of 1971 Uncle Eli went to a revival meeting when he was stationed in Columbia, South Carolina. The revival was held at the university’s football stadium; the crowds overflowed the stands. Troopers turned away, what the press later said was ten thousand souls. Billy Graham took the podium at eleven. Uncle Eli was one of seven thousand who confessed; it was a miracle, he told his family. It was a harvesting of souls.  When Uncle Eli returned to the base he took aim at his right hand and shot a hole through the middle of his palm.

 

“Repent and turn to God.”  That’s what Billy told us and it is exactly how I got myself out of the army. I wasn’t going to go off to Viet Nam to kill anyone.”

 

The story of how Eli convinced his Sargent the gun went off by accident was never explained the same way twice. His letters to his mother were kept in one of the Folgers cans in the cabinet over the sink.  In time his younger sister, Grace, was allowed to read them and discover for herself why Elijah was put under observation while he filed papers with his left hand. All the letters post marked Columbia, South Carolina were filled with his awakening. It was only last year that Uncle Eli had opened the can, found the bullet, and gave it to Gabriella.

“It is a symbol, much like the mark on my palm,” he told her. “You’re old enough and smart enough to read these.”

 

“My day, well, my day was also filled with em-pithy, just like yours, Gabriella.”  He turned to his sister and his niece and waited for them to give him their full attention.  “I had to spend time with a back slider.”

“Why don’t you tell us about it while we clean up these dishes, Eli,” Grace said.

Gabby stopped listening and took the plates into the kitchen where she rinsed them in the sink.

“I need to do my homework, Mom.” She looked up at the clock; there was enough daylight for her to read outside.

 

Gabby pulled the blanket underneath her and leaned back against the house.  The light filtering through the lattice created a diamond pattern across the cement floor in front of her.  She checked the contents of the tin box: a picture of her father, a letter where he mentioned her name, Eli’s bullet, and a newspaper clipping about a girl who surfed with one arm.