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Sweet Winter - a short story by E C Dollgener

Eddie is a Christian author, and in the last 20 years, a mentor to countless young people through God's ministry.

Wishing you, your family, and your friends the warmest holiday blessings.

Please don't forget about those you care about but are unable to visit because of the pandemic or other reasons.

Cherish the wisdom and love of those who once cared for us as we begin to care for them. This is the 5th commandment of our Heavenly Father.

sweet-winter

Morning

“Mrs. Baxter?” The young woman knocked softly on the screen door. “May I come in?”

Cora Baxter, who had been snoozing lightly in the warm sunlight filtering in through the living room window, took her time to get up from her chair by the heat register and walked slowly to the front door. The hardwood floors creaked under the weight of her shuffle. As she approached the front door, she had to squint her eyes to try to discern her afternoon visitor.

The image in the door was fuzzy, but Cora knew the voice, and she chuckled to herself for forgetting her glasses. She lifted them from the chain around her neck to her eyes and, for a moment, studied the frail black woman standing there patiently. You never knew who would show up on Sunday afternoon after church. Sometimes a stranger would come to her door, and she would have to ask them to leave kindly. Frank disapproved of her having strangers visit the house when he worked in the fields. Through the bright sunlight, she could see Nettie’s unforgettable hairdo, and her eyes lit up happily.

“Well, come in to where I could get a better sight of you, Nettie.” Cora coughed and grunted as she had to clear her throat. “Best you keep your distance, dear. I don’t want your little ones to catch this cold. I caught it early in the winter. I really should go see the doctor about it.”

“Maybe I can make you an appointment while I’m here.” Neticia Johnson walked into the room and set her books and a bag on the small table by the door. “Are you okay?”

“Except for this cold, I feel fine.” Cora started to walk toward her kitchen. “Can I get you some coffee?”

“I don’t need any right now.” Neticia glanced around. “Do you mind if I start cleaning?”

Cora sat back in her recliner by the heat register under the large window. “Frank doesn’t have enough money for me to go see Doc Ramsey right now. Don’t you have time to sit down and talk with me, Nettie? Spring is coming soon, and my children will be home from school during the break.”

“Please call me ‘Neticia.’”

Outside the window, thunder rumbled low and deliberate from a not-too-distant storm. Cora looked out of the window overlooking vast rows of corn stretching as far as the eye could see. She could see the billowing white thunderheads to the southwest, their forms becoming luminescent in the waning daylight.

“Looks to me like there are going to be some bad storms come through here tonight. It’s a little early in the season, don’t you think?” Cora turned back to Neticia.

“Well, maybe. Doc Ramsey sent your medicine with me.” Neticia reached into the bag she had brought in and pulled out the medicine. “He knew I was coming by, so he asked me to bring it to you. I also brought you some cake.” She took out a small plate with a slice of lemon cake and brought everything to where Cora sat. “You don’t have to eat all of the cake right now, but I would like it if you ate some with your medicine.”

Cora took medicine and a bite of the cake. She gave a wide smile of pleasure. “Why Nettie, this cake is heavenly! Did you make it yourself?”

“Thank you, Mrs. Baxter, but I have to confess something to you.” Neticia leaned over to whisper in the older woman’s ear. “I bought it at the bakery down on Seventh Street.”

“You bought it from Harvey?” Cora beamed with joy. “He made my wedding cake. That was almost seventeen years ago! He can still make a delicious cake!”

“Actually...” Neticia started to say something but turned to look out the front door instead.

“What is it, dear?” Cora tried to look out front to see what had drawn Neticia’s attention away, but the sunlight was too bright.

Neticia hesitated. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Baxter. This has been a hectic day. I left one of my little ones outside. Let me go take him home, and then I will come back later and finish my job cleaning up.”

“Of course, you should.” Cora got up to follow Neticia onto the front porch.

“You don’t have to come out.” Neticia stopped her at the door. “I’ll be back later. I promise.” She gave the older woman a light peck on the cheek.

Cora shook her head with a slight chuckle. “You youngsters are always on the go. You never stay long enough.”

Mid-day

Cora watched from the door until Neticia was out of sight and then turned to go back into her living room to the delicious cake. As she was moving beyond the dining room, she heard footfalls on the stairs. She looked up to see Becky examining herself in one of the long mirrors. She wore a long, lavender satin gown.

“Are you getting ready for the prom tonight?” Cora approached the foot of the stairs and beamed proudly at her daughter as she descended.

“Do you think that I look okay in it?” Becky moved her head so that her long brown hair would cascade down her right shoulder. “Will Peter like it?”

Cora moved in behind Becky to finish zipping up the back of the dress. “I’m sure he will. As for you, you would look...”

“...just as beautiful in a tow sack.” Frank’s deep voice cut in as he walked through the screen door.

Becky knew he was teasing, of course. “What do you think of my dress?”

“If he lays a hand on you...”

“Frank!” Cora barked sharply. “Becky’s sixteen now, and Peter is a good Christian boy!”

Frank took a plug out of the lemon cake and sat on the arm of the sofa. “You know I’m just teasing her. I still think of her as my little girl. I like Peter, too.” He swallowed the piece of cake and crossed his arm with the meanest scowl he could fake. “Of course, my shotgun will have both barrels loaded.”

Cora whispered into Becky’s ear. “You know I’ll keep him under control. You should wear your white dress shoes. They’ll go good with that dress.”

“Thanks, Momma.” Becky ran back upstairs, giggling at what her father had said.

“This is good!” Frank said as he took another plug of the lemon cake and stuffed it into his mouth.

“Nettie brought it in from town. She bought it from Harvey” Cora took a bite for herself.

“Nettie?” Frank frowned as he searched his memory. “Oh! She’s that black girl that comes by to help you with the house chores.

“She also brought me some medicine for this cold.” Cora glanced out the window as another rumble of thunder rolled through.

“Doc Ramsey sure has been good to us. I hope that I can repay him someday.” Frank rubbed his chin thoughtfully. It was a habit that Cora had grown accustomed to during the hard times. He always rubbed his chin when he was contemplating a good deed. “You know, I bet I could fix up that old Ford he’s got parked out back of his place. It couldn’t be more than a head gasket and timing chain.”

“He’d be mighty proud to drive that old relic again.” Cora took half of the remaining cake into her hand and gave the rest to Frank. “I’ll save the rest of this for Charlie. He’ll be hunting for something sweet when he gets home from Chet’s place.”

Frank looked at his half with a bit of guilt. “What about you, Momma?”

“I’ve already had my share.” She stopped at the kitchen door and winked. “Besides...I’ve got to watch my figure...lest you take some mind to chase one of those little heifers down at the bar.”

“Now, Cora, don’t you go talking like that.” Frank got up off the couch and approached her. “We both might be approaching forty...” He gently embraced her, “...but you’ve still got the best-damned body I have ever seen on a woman.” He pressed his lips to hers.

“You still move the earth under me when you talk that way.” She let out a giggle and nearly dropped Charlie’s cake. “Why don’t you come in early tonight? Both of the children will be gone.” She kissed his cheek. “It should be a good sunset if the timing is right.”

“That sounds like an offer I can’t refuse.” Frank covered his cake. “I’ll finish this later. I need to take the disc out to the north field and finish turning the soil. We’ll be planting a new variety of corn next week.” He winked at her. “I’ll make sure that I’m in early. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Cora hugged him tightly.

Frank donned the filthy old straw hat he always took to work with him, kissed her again, and then strolled out the front door. Cora followed him to the door and then stood and watched him as he leaned against the porch rail. He winked at her as he popped a Chesterfield into his mouth. His faded blue jeans fit every lean curve of his body, and his boots were worn away at the heel. She would have to get him a new pair next Christmas if they could afford it. The smoke curled up out of his nostrils. He had promised so long ago to stop smoking those damned things.

It was the only promise he had ever broken, but she had to forgive the habit. He got awful cranky without them. He tipped his hat to her and proceeded to make his way out to the tractor.

“Momma!” Becky called from upstairs.

Cora closed the front door and turned to go into the kitchen to put away the cake. She listened as the old Farm-All coughed and sputtered to life and gave a silent prayer to God that the old tractor would not give out in the north field again. That had been a long walk in the overbearingly hot sun of summer for Frank that day. She could hear Becky running upstairs. She set the cake on the counter and walked back to the foyer.

Becky ran down the stairs at an alarming rate. “Turn on the radio, Momma! There’s been a report of bad weather over in Taloosa headed our way.”

Cora followed Becky into the living room to the fireplace mantel. The young girl turned on the old transistor sitting there and stepped back with a fearful look in her eyes. There was a bit of crackling that was the unmistakable interference of lightning activity. Cora turned the knob that helped fine-tune the station as well as possible. The announcer sounded harried, rushing through the bulletins as they came in. A line of severe thunderstorms was pushing its way across the western part of Kansas and was expected to move through their area in just a couple of hours.

Cora ran back to the front door, hoping to catch Frank before he left. Her heart sank. Already the tractor was a distant speck at the far edge of the farm. She could not even see the thick black smoke the tired old Farm-All belched out of the exhaust.

“…already spawned four tornadoes. People are advised to seek immediate shelter as the storms approach.” There was another loud crackle-hiss that interrupted the transmission.

Cora looked outside again. The sun was shining bright. A covey of quail took wing when something startled them. Grasshoppers jumped about lazily in search of food. There was only a light breeze that stirred the tender young shoots of corn. In the distance, angry white clouds were mushrooming into the dangerous anvil shapes. She reassured herself that Frank would be back before the storms hit. He always had a sense of their timing.

“I’ve got to call the Witherspoon's,” Cora told herself aloud. She turned to the telephone by the couch. “Have them send Charlie on home. I don’t want him out in the storms.”

After she got off the telephone, Cora began pacing the floor, alternately looking from the living room window to the front door. The window offered a view of the approaching line of storms that seemed to be moving much quicker than normal. The front door offered a view of the increasing winds and the dreadful time when everything outside became silent and still.

Menacingly quick, the storms grew and approached. She could see the dark bluish-gray under the clouds. The tops of the clouds flashed as if there was a mighty war being waged within. Frequent cloud to ground lightning strikes could be seen. From her view, the storms were less than twenty miles away. Occasionally the wind would die down, and her heart would catch in her throat. Surely Frank would see them.

Cora decided to get the cellar ready. The entrance to it was behind the stairs. Becky followed her to help. Just as she was about to follow her daughter down, she heard the screen door open. She turned to see Charlie standing there, dripping wet and pale as a ghost. He seemed to be on the verge of tears as he ran to hug her. She picked him up to comfort him. Becky had brought up one of the blankets from the cellar.

“It’s a nasty storm, Momma.” He shivered, but he would not let go of her. “I ran as fast as I could. I’m cold.”

“You’re okay now.” Cora nuzzled him close. “Did you see your Daddy?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Charlie’s teeth were chattering. “He was coming on the tractor to the north gate.”

A bright flash of light outside caused the radio to crackle and the lights to flicker. The immediate blast of thunder sent a shockwave through the entire house. The family portrait in the foyer fell with a crash of broken glass on the floor. Cora looked out in time to see an oak tree split into halves as the trunk could no longer support the upright crown.

“Take him!” Cora gave Charlie to Becky. “Go downstairs! I’m going to see if I can help your Daddy!”

Outside, the wind was already howling. Cora walked up to the screen door and looked out to the north gate. The sky was nearly as dark as night. The clouds rolled and boiled like a black cauldron full of noxious fumes. Between flashes of lighting, she could make out the north gate. She could see the swirling of the wind flow in the strange dance of the corn and through the bending and groaning sway of the trees. The ancient pecan tree planted by Frank’s grandfather growled heinously as it touched the very height of its crown low to the earth as graceful as any ballerina.

Hope swelled Cora’s heart when she saw the Farm-All now chugging just a hundred yards from the barn. She let out a sigh of relief when Frank waved to her. Her fears subsided as she thanked God for returning her husband safely once more.

Then Cora saw the bolt of lightning as it struck the exhaust stack of the Farm-All. The image burned into her eyes. Bright white light with just a hint of blue filled her mind a split second later. She let out a gasp of horror. Unable to scream, she laid hold of the doorsill to keep herself upright. Blinding, painful spots flooded her vision. She did not realize that the immediate heat blast of thunder had knocked her to the floor.

Immediately Cora cried out to Frank in desperation. She could hear the terror in her children’s distant voices crying out to her. The blindness quickly went away as she struggled to regain her strength. Charlie was by her side instantly, and despite his young age, was able to help her stand back up. She pulled his small head into her bosom in an attempt to shield him from seeing his father dead. She looked outside to see where he had fallen. The storm raged even more furiously, seeming to grow with intensity with each passing moment. The house began to give in with creaks and groans.

“Cora!” Frank barked, his boots clomping on the front porch. “Have you lost your mind? Get out of the doorway and down into the cellar!”

“I saw the lightning hit the tractor!” Cora sobbed. “I thought you were…”

“I felt it coming and jumped off the tractor.” Frank pulled the screen door open. “Now, let’s get down in the cellar! I think there’s a tornado just about on top of us!”

Dreamily Cora felt his strong arms wrap around her, escorting her and the children to the safety of the cellar. She stopped and looked around her house one last time before they all retreated downstairs. As they huddled in the cellar, waiting for the worst to happen, Cora looked into Frank’s eyes long and hard, knowing how close they had come to losing each other. With their children huddled around them, their lips met with a brief, thankful kiss that they still had each other. Cora fell asleep as the storms raged on.

Afternoon

Neticia Coleman adjusted her hair as she slowly approached room 107. The long hallway was full of people today. It was Saturday, and most of the folks in the center had family coming at one point in the day or another. She watched an older man who put too much reliance upon his cane as he made his way to the dining room. An older woman, feisty as she was, was not so much danger to herself as she was to other pedestrians. She seemed almost giddy as a child in the wheelchair she was confined to. She seemed particularly intent upon causing trouble for one orderly whom she was trying to evade.

The door to room 107 was closed, as it nearly always was. The glare of the hallway lights hurt the older woman’s eyes who resided within. When Neticia had first started working at the nursing home, she wondered why Mrs. Baxter never went out into the lobby to socialize with the other residents. It seemed inhumane to keep her in her room.

Then Neticia learned about Mrs. Baxter from different nurses and orderlies that had cared for her. Her husband, Frank Baxter, had died from a bolt of lightning that struck his tractor nearly fifty years ago. The flash of lightning itself had nearly blinded her, allowing her to see only shapes and shadows. When she lost her son, Charlie, in the Vietnam War, Cora seemed to lose the will to live on in the present.

The last contact that Rebecca Baxter had with her mother was about two months after she had her mother committed to the nursing home. She had to move on to Chicago with her husband and children, but she promised to visit every Christmas. That had been almost ten years ago. Neticia went home and cried the night she found out.

Neticia knocked softly on the door. “Mrs. Baxter?” She smiled as she listened to the familiar creak of the recliner and the shuffle of footsteps. “May I come in?”

An older woman, frail and wasted, opened the door cautiously. She squinted upward through partially-blinded eyes. It was a short moment before recognition changed her gaunt expression into a bright smile.

“Well, come in to where I could get a better sight of you, Nettie.” Cora coughed and grunted as she had to clear her throat. “Best you keep your distance, dear. I don’t want your little ones to catch this cold. I caught it early in the winter. I really should go see the doctor about it.”

Neticia thought that by now, the repetitious greeting would become mechanical to her. Mrs. Baxter always put that notion aside, greeting her with a smile that was as genuine as the first one. Outside, another jet rumbled over the neighborhood the nursing home was situated in. Cora looked out of the window overlooking vast rows of corn stretching as far as the eye could see. She could see the billowing white thunderheads to the southwest, their forms becoming luminescent in the waning daylight. Leticia wondered what kept Cora so enraptured with rows of tenement housing between the nursing home and the landing strip of the airport.

“Looks to me like there are going to be some bad storms come through here tonight. It’s a little early in the season, don’t you think? The thunder is awful loud.” Cora turned back to Neticia.

Neticia nodded her head slightly. “Doc Ramsey sent your medicine with me. And I brought a chocolate cake today.” The young aide smiled as she realized, 'perhaps Mrs. Baxter was happier in the world she lived in.'

A Christmas read

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