AMONG THE POPLARS

My name is Nanette and this is my story.

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a small house on a tiny crescent-shaped street called Magnolia Terrace, one of the many cul-de-sacs in the area. At the end of the street was a turnabout and beyond the turnabout was a footpath that led into a wooded area dense with poplar trees.

Magnolia Terrace was the tiniest street around with only 8 houses; they were all very similar, modest and affordable. Each house was painted a subtle shade and the street was lined with magnolia trees; from March through April, the graceful trees bloomed in an array of pastel colors, from luscious whites to pale yellows to deep pink and purple hues.

The residents of Magnolia Terrace were hard-working people with a great love of family, God and country. We were far from rich but we were content.

There were children in every house and our street rang with the sounds of fun and laughter. When the streetlights came on, we knew it was time to run home for dinner; there would always be tomorrow for more childhood games. For me and my friends, Magnolia Terrace was the happiest place on earth.

Our fathers all worked for the same factory about fifteen miles from home and they would take turns driving every day – two cars, four men per car. They’d leave for work at 7:00 AM and be home by 5:00 PM in time for dinner. Two or three nights each week our dads would go bowling, get together at one of the houses to play cards and attend a meeting at the “lodge”. We kids thought our dads were really spies for the FBI and the factory was just a cover because they all used a secret handshake and wore the same ring like Dick Tracy.

Sometimes when our fathers went out, our mothers would get together for sewing bees or book clubs. About once each month all our parents would get dressed up and go to the lodge for a fancy dinner and an important meeting. As usual, they never told us anything about their time at the lodge. It was grown ups only.

There was one very important rule our parents made sure we clearly understood: under no circumstances were we allowed to go beyond the turnabout and into the poplar woods. When we asked why, our parents told us the woods were private property and we would be trespassing; there would be a hefty fine to pay. This sounded very official to us and we were raised to obey the law so we never entered the woods.

Time passed very quickly for us; I was now 18 years old and a senior in high school. I had a boyfriend named Ryan; his house was diagonally across from mine and was the closest to the woods. Our parents knew we liked each other but we were never allowed to be alone. The only time we were even allowed to hold hands was at the weekend barbecues where there were lots of people around.

When our fathers went out at night and all was quiet, Ryan and I would sneak down to the footpath near the woods. We never did anything bad – just talked and made out – but it was our special time together. One night we were making out when Ryan suddenly stopped and motioned for me to be quiet. He tapped his ear and pointed into the woods; we sat very close together as silent as could be and that’s when we heard it – distant sounds we could only describe as guttural chanting.

Ryan took my hand and as quietly as possible we left the area and ran back to our houses. My mother was engrossed in her sewing, the TV on in the background, and she never heard me come in and head up to my room. Whatever Ryan and I heard in the woods frightened us both but I knew we had to find out more.

As I was drifting off to sleep, I had a weird thought: my mother was always busy at her sewing machine but I never saw any of her creations. What was she making? The next day she had a large box delivered; it had obviously been damaged during shipment and was taped up but some of the contents were visible. All I saw was what looked like white cloth and I didn’t think it was a big deal but my mother became irate and screamed at me to go back into the house. She could be very strange at times and I never knew when she would fly off the handle.

Ryan and I decided the best night to go back to the woods would be bowling night; that was Monday, four days away. We were determined to go deeper into the woods; we wanted to see and hear more but knew we had to stay out of sight. Neither one of us had any idea what to expect; it could have been a group of hippies camping in the woods. Whatever is was we hoped our questions would be answered on Monday.

The weekend dragged on. If my mother was still upset about her delivery, she didn’t say anything. On Sunday we had our usual barbecue and just as everyone was beginning to head home, my father started handing out brown packages tied with red string to all the men. My mother always used red string to secure her packages so whatever was wrapped in that brown paper had been made by my mother. I wondered how many times the same packages were handed out over the years and I never noticed. None of the men opened the packages but they seemed very happy to have gotten them.

Finally Monday evening arrived and at 8:00 PM all the men of Magnolia Terrace headed out to go bowling. When it was safe, I snuck out of my house and met Ryan at the turnabout. The crescent moon did little to light our way. We held tightly onto each other’s hands as we hesitantly entered the woods. Every few feet we would stop and listen but all was silent. About 15 feet in, we were startled by a distant glow that lit up the night sky like a rocket; the low chanting we heard the other night began and intensified to an angry rumble. Believing the revelers were blinded by the glow of what must have been a bonfire and deaf to all sounds but their own, Ryan and I felt emboldened and crept further into the woods. We now had an unobscured view and what we saw shook us to our core.

Was this a spacecraft surrounded by aliens? The luminosity of the fire was so intense, it was impossible to clearly make out shapes and sizes. Then gradually the flames diminished just enough for us to clearly see this was no spaceship but something far more horrifying in its significance: it was a blazing cross! And the creatures were no extraterrestrials: they were men, maybe as many as 25, dressed in white robes with attached capes, rope belts and pointed hoods with eye holes covering their faces.

We were transfixed. Ryan spoke to me in a barely audible voice “Nanette, I can’t believe what we’re seeing! It’s a Ku Klux Klan gathering.”

I nodded and whispered softly “I know. I saw them on the news. I’m frightened, Ryan! Why are they here so close to where we live?”

But before Ryan could answer, the chanting stopped and one man began to address the group. I gasped and buried my face in Ryan’s chest, my body quivering, and he held me tightly. When I looked up, I was crying and barely able to utter the words “That’s my father!”

“I recognize his voice, too” Ryan replied. In hushed tones he continued. “Nanette, we can’t stay here. Let’s go back to my house, slowly and as quietly as possible. Here, take my hand.”  Terrified, I held Ryan’s hand tightly as we cautiously made our way back to the clearing, never letting go of each other. Once free of the woods, we ran back to Ryan’s house and collapsed under a tree in his backyard.

For a long time we sat huddled together, saying nothing. Finally, Ryan spoke softly: “Nanette, we have to talk about this, but not now. Let’s get our thoughts together and we’ll talk during the week. I think you need to go home now and try to get some sleep.” I started to get up but Ryan held onto my arm. “Nanette, be careful. I love you.”

That was the first time Ryan said those words and I told him I loved him, too. We hugged, then I quickly walked back to my house across the street. As usual, I snuck in through the kitchen; my mother and a few other women were playing bridge and no one saw me scramble up the stairs to my room. I threw myself onto my bed and cried into my pillow. This felt like a nightmare.

From the next day on, nothing was the same but I had to act normally. I could barely look at my father let alone talk to him without feelings of anger and disgust. I was also deeply saddened. It was difficult to believe that all the fathers living on our perfect little street were members of the KKK and all the mothers supported them. The many nights they were supposedly bowling or playing cards they were really in the woods plotting and scheming and doing God knows what. And all the time my mother spent hunched over her sewing machine she was making the men’s robes and hoods! The fact that our parents were living duplicitous lives all these years made me sick to my stomach.

There was nothing Ryan and I could do and no one we could trust; the Klan hid in plain sight. Confronting our parents with what we knew about them would do no good. Ryan told me to hang on a little longer until he figured out what to do. A couple of weeks later he told me he came up with a plan. He said during Sunday’s barbecue we would tell our parents that we were in love and wanted to get married after graduation. Ryan said he would ask my father for his blessing and tell him that he wanted to work in the factory with the other men to provide a good life for me. We were sure our parents would see we were mature enough to make such a big decision and would give their blessing. Ryan told me once we were married we could leave town and never return to Magnolia Terrace.

As happy as I was with Ryan’s plan, I was filled with mixed emotions. It wouldn’t be easy leaving my parents and the only home I ever knew but I couldn’t go on turning a blind eye to the evil lives they were living. I cried for the younger kids who would be left behind but I saw no other answer; this was our only way out.

On Sunday the barbecue was in full swing when Ryan said he had an announcement to make. Everyone quieted down as he told my father about our wishes to get married and asked for his blessing. To my surprise my parents were very happy for us and my father enthusiastically patted Ryan on the back. My mother began to cry and embraced me. I was revolted by her hug but told myself I’d only have to play this charade for a little while longer.

Everyone was very happy for us and my father droned on and on about how we could build a house of our own on the plot of land right next to their house. Ryan laughed and nodded at my father’s enthusiasm and we smiled at each other across the yard knowing our plan was successful. Relief washed over me as I watched my father and Ryan walk over to the area where our future house was to be built and laughed thinking how flawlessly Ryan had pulled off his plan.

Just then my mother came out of the house carrying a bag and placed it on the ground next to my father. I looked on in disbelief as my father reached into the bag and drew out a familiar-looking brown paper package wrapped in red string and proudly handed it to Ryan. They both looked over at me with serpentine eyes as they smiled and shared a secret handshake. At that moment I knew I’d been betrayed.

NAR © 2023

HANKY PANKY

This week’s challenge asks us to share a period in our lives
when we seized the opportunity to try to get away with something.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” That phrase by the famous author Sir Walter Scott is so very true, especially in this scenario.

It all began when my boyfriend Bill (now husband) and I along with his brother Jim and girlfriend Lynne (now wife) came up with the idea of going away for a little weekend of hanky panky. Why we felt the need to get away is a mystery; I suppose being away from home made it exciting and naughty. We were doing just fine in the hanky panky department at home but we were rebellious teenagers who acted first and thought later.

We told our parents we were going skiing in Kingston, New York – about a 2-hour drive from where we lived in The Bronx. The first blazing red flag for my parents should have been the fact that I did not ski. If they had any doubts at that time about the validity of our story, they said nothing; I probably told them I was going to take ski lessons since Bill, Jim and Lynne all knew how to ski.

The brilliant plan we came up with was to tell our parents that Lynne and I would share one room while Bill and Jim stayed in another. In hindsight I can’t help but wonder why my parents would believe such a flimsy story. What’s even more incredible is they let me go! Maybe they just relaxed a bit after already raising one daughter who was a saint compared to me.

When the day of our get-away finally arrived, we drove up to Kingston and checked into our hotel. After a bit of alone time in our rooms to unwind from the drive, we all went out to dinner. I remember ordering a sloe gin fizz cocktail and a ridiculously rich steak dish smothered in a creamy mushroom gravy.

*At this point it’s only fair that I inform you, dear readers, that rich and creamy gravy goes through me like a freight train. TMI, I know, but it’s necessary info for this story. I can feel my stomach churning as I write this.*

After dinner we returned to the hotel and all hung out together in Jim and Lynne’s room for a while before heading off to our own room. A couple of hours later I woke Bill up complaining of intense stomach pains. I was in a bad way and he decided to take me right to the hospital. Not wanting to disturb Jim and Lynne, Bill and I went alone. If only we had stayed in our room and let nature take its course. These things have a way of resolving themselves but at the time it seemed more serious than it was and our impulsive nature took over.  

After arriving at the hospital and explaining the situation, I was politely but sternly refused treatment because I was underage and there was no adult present to sign any necessary forms. Sick as I was, I was cognizant enough to realize this could be problematic. In other words, we were up the creek without a paddle. There was even talk of notifying my parents. This meant trouble.

DUM DA DUM DUM!! The tangled web was becoming a knotted mess.

Well, this is something hospital personnel see all the time – kids out for some fun without their parent’s consent – and they cut me a little slack. Determining I had nothing more serious than a bad stomachache, they still refused to treat me but they gave me access to a private bathroom. Bill managed to get his hands on some Pepto Bismol at the drugstore across the street and after a while I started feeling better. We returned to the hotel a little while after Jim and Lynne had woken up; they were very surprised to find out I had gotten sick.

Even though I was feeling better, I wasn’t up to our weekend get-away and we all reluctantly agreed to return home. There was no need to come up with an excuse; we would simply tell our parents the truth – that I wasn’t feeling well and we came home early; however, we left out the little bit about the hospital.

Our parents were surprised to see us but agreed we did the right thing by coming home. Everything was going smoothly until later that night as we sat in Bill and Jim’s kitchen talking about our abbreviated weekend trip. Lynne inadvertently said “Yeah, Jim and I were surprised to find out Nancy had gotten sick; she looked fine when we left Bill’s room last night.”

Liar, liar! Pants on fire! The knotted web now had us in a stranglehold.

Of course, Lynne immediately realized her gaffe but it was too late. She sat in horrified silence, a nauseous feeling coming over her. Bill and Jim’s mother realized we had not been in separate rooms and the disappointed look on her face was too much for Lynne to bear; she quickly got up and went into another room. Bill managed to come up with an explanation to cover what Lynne said but we’re sure his mother only pretended to believe it.

I don’t know for sure if my parents ever found out about that night in Kingston; I have to believe they didn’t because I never would have heard the end of it if they knew. But was it just a coincidence that I was forbidden to attend Woodstock a few months later? That was never, under any circumstances, ever going to happen. There was no getting around that one.

I learned a lesson that weekend how quickly things can go wrong and how easily someone’s trust can be lost, even if temporarily.

It took me a hell of a lot longer to realize there are certain foods I couldn’t eat and drinks I couldn’t drink. After too many years of ‘discomfort in the lower tract’, I finally wised up and changed my crazy eating habits but I never lost my rebellious and daring spirit. I just learned to temper it.

NAR © 2022

#FBTF

SECRETS ON MYLAR

Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Free love and hooking up. No strings, no regrets, no jealousy – just consenting adults getting stoned and getting it on. There was a clear understanding: never get romantically involved with someone else’s spouse.

The year was 1973.

Four young friends, Nathan and Brooke and Michael and April, lived in an apartment building in Riverdale. The girls were sexy and fashionable in their halter tops, tight low-rise jeans and platform shoes. The guys were good-looking and cool in their faded jeans, crisp white t-shirts and leather blazers. They had many similar interests and traveled in the same circle of friends.

Brooke and Michael broke all the rules. Their attraction was instantaneous. Everyone else was so out of it they never noticed that the duo always ended up together.

Brooke was one of those girls who was innately sensual and completely oblivious to the power she had over men. She was electric. Michael was handsome, smart, funny, sexy and vain, confident and fully aware of the effect he had on women.

Michael was a photographer; Brooke taught piano. They had the luxury of working locally while their spouses April and Nathan worked in Manhattan. It was very convenient for Brooke and Michael to get together whenever they wanted. He loved taking photos of her – hundreds of erotic nudes. He even let her take one of him, something he never let anyone do. She kept the photo tucked away in an inconspicuous compartment in her wallet.

For April’s 25th birthday she and Michael had a party with a lot of guests which gave Michael the opportunity to display his new photographs. One piece was an intriguing black and copper image on glossy Mylar poster paper. As Nathan and Brooke admired the print, Michael sidled up to her and whispered “That’s you.” She stared intently, tilting her head a bit. Then she saw it – the sultry vision of a face and woman’s body! Brooke was annoyed that Michael would display something so personal but also felt a rush; only they knew about the image hidden on the Mylar.

Time passed as it always does, lifestyles changed and the four friends slowly drifted apart. Brooke got pregnant and she and Nathan moved to Connecticut. Michael and April got divorced. Out of the blue one night Nathan and Brooke got a call from April: Michael was dead; he crashed his Corvette into a tree, dying on impact. The news was devastating, especially for Brooke. She barely slept that night thinking of all the times she shared with Michael.

A few days later Brooke received a package in the mail; a neatly typed address label was attached. Removing the wrapping, she was shocked to see Michael’s Mylar poster and the image of her naked body. Taped to the back of the poster was a large manila envelope full of Brooke’s nude photos and a note: “Consider this a gift; the negatives come with a price. Imagine Nathan’s reaction.”

The note freaked her out. Who sent this? There was no return address but the postmark read “Riverdale”. Brooke immediately thought of April and knew she had to get the negatives from her, regardless the cost. Nathan could never find out.

Brooke gathered everything, grabbed her purse and started driving towards Riverdale, towards April. All she could think about was Nathan and getting the negatives back. Michael promised he would destroy everything and she couldn’t believe he would lie to her. April must have known found the photos while going through Michael’s belongings or she knew about Brooke and Michael’s affair all along. Her mind on the past, Brooke almost missed the Riverdale exit and swerved erratically back onto the highway. She never saw the oncoming truck; Brooke died instantly in the crash.

At that exact moment Nathan sat in his Manhattan office opening a large manila envelope with a neatly typed address label. Stuffed inside were hundreds of negatives.

One must wonder which was more devastating for unsuspecting Nathan – the shocking news of his wife’s death or the gut-wrenching revelation of her infidelity?

NAR © 2020

SAVING GRACE

I have never told anyone this before but I got pregnant at 17.  

It was 1942 and I was crazy about Pvt. Roy Holmes at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Every night for two weeks I snuck out to be with him. Then he stopped coming and I heard he’d been deployed. I was heartbroken. One month later I learned he was killed. Another month later I realized I was pregnant. 

Mama and daddy would never forgive me. I packed some clothes and snuck out one last time. I caught a north-bound bus, getting off at the aptly named city of Hope, Ohio. Eyeing a pretty white church, I headed straight for it and rang the bell. I was surprised when a boyish pastor answered; he was even more surprised when I fainted in the doorway. When I came to I was on a sofa, the pastor and two woman standing over me. 

Better now?” asked the pastor and I shook my head. “Tell us what’s wrong” he suggested. “Maybe we can help.” 

Speaking softly, I made up my story as I went along: “My name is Grace Holmes. My husband of five months was killed in the war. I have no family, no money and I’m pregnant.” I started to cry again – real tears of sorrow and shame. Handing me a tissue the pastor quietly said “Stay the night here in the parish house and in the morning we’ll sort it all out.” 

The next morning I found everyone in the kitchen preparing breakfast. “Good morning, Grace! Join us! This is our cook Anna and Peggy, our housekeeper, and I’m Richard Clark, the pastor.” Everyone was so welcoming!

After breakfast Richard asked me into his office. “Grace, I believe things happen for a reason. We can help each other. You see, my secretary recently retired and I’d like to offer you the job. It’s not very demanding, the salary is decent and room and board are included. Won’t you stay here with me … um, I mean with us?” 

We both blushed. “But what about my condition? Won’t people talk?” 

“Have faith, Grace. You’ll find the people here very understanding.” 

“Then yes, I accept!” I replied happily. “I won’t let you down.” 

Parish life was wonderful! Richard and I grew close, fell in love and he asked me to marry him. I was thrilled but haunted by my lies. “Richard, I love you but I have a confession. I was never married and I left home because of the pregnancy.”  

“I was hoping you’d tell me, Grace. I’ve always known.” 

I was stunned. “But how?”  

“No wedding ring, no pictures of your ‘husband’, no mention of your family. I figured it out and it doesn’t matter. I love you and I want us to be a family.” 

Richard and I got married that weekend and a few days later our baby girl was born. 

She’s beautiful, just like you, Grace. What shall we name her?” 

“That’s easy, darling. Her name is Faith.” 

NAR © 2019

JUDAS BLUE EYES

Life was good

It was fine

A bit mundane

from time

to time

but fine and dandy

dandy and fine

Never once entered

my contented mind

to look for someone

or

cross a fine line

Who

could be

out there?

I never once

had a care

for a

mesmerizing

intense

blue-eyed

devilish

stare

Smooth

suave

and

sure of himself

Getting caught up

in spite of myself

A

Charming

Sexy

Funny 

Clever 

person

I didn’t know

existed

Ever

Never

I’m savvy

Street-wise

Nobody’s fool

No blinders on

Lady Green Eyes

Always so cool

Drawn to him

Dream of him

Laugh with him

Fun times begin

Really good friends 

That’s it

Nothing more

Though the roar

in my head

and core

screams

“Maybe more!”

Than friends

Exciting

Inviting

Igniting

Skywriting

Delighting

Inciting

private jokes

and

teasing

flirting

What does it matter?

Who are we hurting?

Close friends

Familial blends

All so natural

All so casual

Days

Weeks

Months

Years

Lunches

Dinners

Laughs

No tears

Holidays

Relations

Weddings

Vacations

never foretold of the

inevitable cessation

When did it change?

When did it turn?

I was about

to learn

and

to feel

the burn

of

Lies

Aspersions

Deceptions

Distortions

Evasions

Contortions

Deceptions

Fabrications

Hyperbole

Inaccuracy

Mendacity

Dishonesty

Insincerity

Falsity

Hypocrisy

Duplicity

This ideal

once heaven friend 

Now

Svengali

Machiavellian

Reptilian

Cheater

User

Liar

Abuser

Selfish

Shallow

Manipulative

Hollow

I was a friend

I was a fool 

To the bitter end

an unwitting tool

Too kind

So blind

Edged out

Left behind

Lied to

Why?

Once bitten

Twice shy

One step too far

behind my back

A devious blow 

Did he think

I wouldn’t know?

No

Apology

did

Judas Blue Eyes

see

He didn’t

even care

he was

losing

me

Obtuse and dense

Now past tense

Amazing how

caring

and

sharing

can turn

into hate

Fuck you, my once friend!

Too little too late

NAR © 2018