Sleeping on Paul's Mattress

Sleeping on Paul's Mattress 
is a short story by Brenda Sutton Rose

From my crouching position under the house, I watch a hearse back into the yard and stop right short of the front porch. It’s late in the day, and the sun is bleeding red across the sky as far as I can see. Four men with fleshy faces climb out of the limousine of death. They stand tall, stretch, straighten their ties, and flip dandruff from their dark suits. If you ask me, the city slickers look like white sugar frosting on a shit-pile. You can’t fancy up poverty like ours. No, you can’t color a share-cropper's house anything but ugly no matter how many polished shoes walk up its decaying steps.

As August breathes the god-awful stench of the outhouse up the noses of the funeral attendants, they scowl and exchange glances. One smirks a nasty smile. I'd like to knock the sneer off his face. Another breathes from his mouth and exhales through his nose. He shakes his head in disgust. I know what the idiot's doing. He's by-God trying to filter the odor of poverty, as if he could simply adjust the way he breaths and perfume the air. Another stifles a gag. His mouth and throat spasms. Reckon he's never smelled shit before. If Paul could see these highfalutin men with their nostrils puckered up, lugging his coffin from a deluxe black car spiffed up with goddamn curtains in the windows, he’d howl with laughter. We'd hold our bellies and roll on the ground, and the laughter would hurt like hell.

Sweat oozing down their faces, the men heave Paul's casket from the rear of the hearse. Heat smothers the South in the summer and, down here, some days our pores weep sweat like we're a bunch of sinners with the hottest seats in hell. Today's one of those days. It's August, and we live inside a giant pressure cooker.

The ushers with blood-red faces move in unison, their feet shuffling in rhythm over dirt and rocks as they aim for the steps. I move under the house to get a better view and count their paces. I count with a rhythm, a short pause between each numeral. A-one and-a two-and-a three-and-a four.

The rotting porch-steps moan and sag in pain under their weight, but the wood holds. At one time this piece of shit we call home was used as a pack house for cured tobacco, and, until yesterday, a nicotine scent loomed in every corner. Today, the rooms reek with the sweetness of decay. I smell it from down here. A mixture of decay and shit with the faintest hint of unanswered prayers.

The ushers take exactly thirty-three steps moving the coffin from the hearse to the front door, yet they pant and sweat like they’ve carried the load all the way to Golgotha. They wouldn’t last an hour working beside Paul and me in the tobacco fields. These city folks know nothing about hard labor. They know nothing about poverty.

Through the gaps between the floorboards I can see straight up the preacher’s wife’s dress if I want to. If Paul were still alive, we'd check out the color of the panties she chose to wear out to our shack. We'd search for pubic hair poking from the elastic around the crotch. I’ve got no stomach for spying on her now, though. The ache in my groin has traveled up to my heart. All I want is my brother with his hair shining copper and blond under the summer sun. I want to inhale his familiar earthy scent and touch his calloused hands. But Paul's lying dead in the pine box that’s just arrived special delivery from the goddamn funeral home. Blew his brains out with a shotgun while the rest of us were working in the fields. My old man sent him home to refill the water jug, and he kept going. Escaped from this hell. Stuck the barrel in his mouth and squeezed the trigger. Rigged it with tobacco twine and did it on the bed we shared.

The old man dragged the bloodied mattress out behind the house yesterday and yelled at me to clean it. Said we couldn’t throw it away because we've got no money to buy another one. I washed that mattress until my hands were raw, sore, and shriveled, but Paul’s bloodstains wouldn't budge. You can’t imagine what it’s like to watch your twin brother’s blood diluted with water, streaming pink through hands that look just like his. You can't imagine what it's like to know the blood you're washing from a mattress is the last you'll ever see of your brother. I watched Paul's blood seep into the soil, lost forever. I counted into the thousands while I scrubbed. Twice, I lost count and started over at the number one. The mattress is leaned against the back fence drying. I expect it’ll be good and dry by tomorrow night if the weather holds.

The preacher, who never laid eyes on us white trash until yesterday, hears the men from the funeral home on the porch and turns toward the door while my old man sits in a chair in the corner of the room with his head in his hands, most likely dreaming of a drink, and my mother stands like a zombie in the opposite corner waiting for the dead body of her son, the oldest by ten minutes. Paul was always ahead of me, even in birth. All four of the attendants, soaked and steaming from the workout of carrying the coffin up the steps, wait for somebody to hold the door open and let them in. The preacher takes his sweet time getting to the door, and like a damn fool, he invites the wilted men inside. “Won’t you please come in?”

Of course they’re coming in—they’ve got a dead body to deliver, you goddamn idiot.

This scream tangled inside my throat grows thicker by the minute. If it keeps swelling, this silent scream will choke me dead. I know like I know my own name that if God played fair my old man would be stretched out in that pine box and Paul would be here with me. But nothing’s fair in life. Not a damn thing. My old man should've swallowed the barrel of that shotgun and he should've done it long ago before he dragged this family down with him. Of course he’d need to own a conscience to give his sons the gift of his death. If he ever had a conscience he strangled it in whisky before Paul and I were born. If I ever find my old man dead like I found Paul, don’t you believe for a second that I’ll waste my tears crying over him. Hell no. I'll lift my head to the heavens and thank God. I’ll cram the drunk's cold, intoxicated body in a coffin and toss as many whisky bottles as I can find on top of him. Then I’ll pour a pint over his corpse and stuff the empty bottleneck in his mouth like a pacifier. Marinate the old man in his own whisky before we bury him. But I don’t waste my time wishing for these fantasies to come true. Wishes are nothing but weeds of hope, and hope grows out of whisky-soaked lies. Hope is a liar and hope is a thief. Turn your head and hope will steal your brother. It will steal your life. To hell with hope.

I crawl on my knees in the dirt and follow the coffin through the gaps in the floors. Somebody moves the couch across the room and replaces it with a dolly on casters. The funeral attendants heave Paul's coffin onto the dolly. My mama moans and I try not to hear her. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Shut the fuck up, Mama! Shut the fuck up!

As Mama moans, the numbers come, swallowing me whole. I count, chanting numbers. I fill my thoughts with numerals, because that’s what you learn to do when your old man beats you with a strap until you're blood-soaked and crying. That’s what you do when your old man crashes through the door with his breath reeking of whisky and the devil flapping on his back. That’s what you do when your mama is colorblind to the purple bruises on her boys’ bodies and blind to the scars carved in their young hearts. And that’s likely what my mama’s doing right now as she watches the men from the funeral home deliver her 13-year old son in a coffin. I bet she’s bleeding digits, maybe in multiples: two, four, six, eight, ten, and on and on, burying herself in a cemetery of numbers, digging that grave of despair deeper and deeper. 

I watch family and folks from the community arrive with dishes of food, as if anybody in this dump feels like eating red velvet cake and fried chicken. We’ve got four rooms in this pathetic house, and my brother blew his head off in one of them—nobody in his right mind wants to sit at our table, bite into our food, and taste our misery.

Car doors slam. I count the footsteps moving toward the house. They speak in hushed voices, but I hear them. They don't care about us. They've come out here to see where my brother died. They'll dissect his death, open up all the details, and spread the bloody horror of it from one end of the county to the next.

So far, my old man hasn’t hit the bottle, but I doubt he can hold out much longer. If he stays sober all night and through the funeral tomorrow it'll be a goddamn miracle. And we sure as hell aren't allotted many miracles out here. He's still sitting in the corner. He moves his hands and holds them out before him, as though examining them for blood. For once in his life, the old man has a good reason to dilute his memories with alcohol. His eyes, dark and hard as nails in a coffin, are parched and thirsty, and his hands tremble with urgency. It won’t be long. Lord knows it won’t be long. There's no hope to be found in this house.

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve submerged myself in numerals. I'm trapped inside the cesspool of my old man's cruelty and addiction, so I learned to survive with numbers. When my father swaggers through the door with a bottle of lightning in his hands, his lethal eyes slashing everything in his path, numbers bleed from me. I count soundlessly when he whips the razor strap across my back and legs. I count, tallying the slashes to my legs, the marks he'll leave scarred on my body. When I walk, I count. When I walk from the house to the tobacco barn I count my steps, keeping score with a rhythm, my speechless tongue marching to the beat of a steady drum: a-one-and-a-two-and-a-three-and-a-four-and-a-five-and-a-six. I can’t stop counting. I'm addicted. Several times I tried to give up the habit, but numbers gush from me like a wound that won’t stop bleeding. I’m a continuous hemorrhage of numbers.

Me and my old man scraped Paul’s brains from the beadboard walls yesterday and washed the blood and gore from the iron headboard. The old bastard said it was our place to do it. The preacher told us that he’d find some good Christian members of the church to clean the room, but the old man said no. Said we’d do it. The sheriff offered to send out a crew to handle the clean-up. The old man still refused. He yelled at the sheriff. "It's our responsibility and we'll get the house ready for Paul's body. Mind your own goddamned business." As I cleaned my identical brother’s brains from the bedroom, I went from counting footsteps to counting the beats of my heart. A savage drumbeat crashed against my ribs. The year is 1944, and I counted 1,944 heartbeats. Talk about coincidences.

Paul wanted to be something when he grew up, but he didn’t know what. You can’t plan for the future when you’re living in a battlefield, and the enemy is your own deadbeat father whose love for liquor is only one of the most lethal things about him. The bastard would kill his own wife and children for a drink. Some might think I’m padding the truth, but slip into my skin and try dreaming under the weight of a man who won’t let you speak an opinion born from your own head—a man who beats his children to a pulp for slamming a door and drags his wife to the bedroom when he comes home drunk—and see how much time’s left for deciding a future. Shit. All you know is you want freedom. You've gotta escape. You throb all the way down to your bones with the desire to wake up without fear and dread knotted tight in your belly. You long to sleep a full night without nightmares sneaking into bed with you. That’s all you know. Like a prisoner of war, you spend every minute counting down to freedom.
You might not believe this, but Paul loved poetry. Perhaps you think a poor white boy has no reverence for matters of the heart, but I'll tell you what Paul told me: Poverty is the mother of poets. Paul idolized Walt Whitman. He admired Keats and Frost and some of the others, too, but he flat-out worshiped Whitman. You should have heard him recite Oh Captain! My Captain! The words swelled in sorrow on his tongue and fell like salty tears around him. I can hear Paul still: “My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still. My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will.”

Paul kept his plans a secret. If I’d known he was plotting to kill himself, I’d have told him to turn the gun on me too. Don’t leave me in this hell with no way out. But Paul didn’t confide the details of his escape to me. He mapped out a plan and made a dash for freedom without looking back at me, his twin brother, his mirror image. He ripped my heart out by the roots and left me screaming on the battlefield. Goddamn you, Paul. Goddamn you.

One night, not long ago, I asked Paul if his head bulged with numbers like mine did. He told me of course it did. “We came from the same womb on the same day with the same parents and were split from the same egg. Of course numbers fill both our heads, Peter.” Until then, I thought I was the only one counting to sleep with a steady lullaby of numbers. I live by the beat of the digits in my head. If I clean out the numbers, I don’t know what ghosts I might find hiding there. I’m too yellow to open that box. The numbers keep me going. Fixate on numbers and the rhythm of counting, and you can handle anything. Maybe that’s what Paul did. Maybe he stopped counting, and the god-awful truth of his life reared up from that graveyard in his mind, demons screaming from every corner of the brain he blew to kingdom come.

Mosquitoes buzz around my ears, drill into my flesh, and feast on my blood. Paul once told me only female mosquitoes take our blood. I wonder if any of these fat mosquitoes still carry my brother's blood. I count eight of them squatting on my arms and legs, and there’s more swarming around my head. I can’t feel the bites. Nothing penetrates me other than this miserable ache pounding out numbers in my head.

I look up through the cracks long and hard at that coffin. It holds not only my brother, but his laughter and his anger and his tears and his memories and his love of poetry and his voice and his songs and the stories he told and his tilted smile and all the numbers that once filled his head. How can a simple pine coffin hold so much without splitting wide open? That box overflows with a life lived, and tomorrow we’re going to place it in a hole and smother it with dirt. And my old man will go back to drinking if he’s not already drunk by then, and my mama will go back to her colorblind lie of a life, and I’ll count and count and count.

By tomorrow night, the mattress should be dry. 

I’ve got to believe the numbers won’t let me down.

Sleeping on Paul's Mattress is a short story by Brenda Sutton Rose
originally published in a different form by Mobius: A Journal of Social Change.
Dogwood Blues by Brenda Sutton Rose on Amazon
Dogwood Blues by Brenda Sutton Rose on Barnes & Noble

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The Friendship of Two Redheads

Polly and I met in 2005 when I married my husband and moved to Georgia. I was a new wife, recently moved back to Georgia, my homeland, when we crossed paths through our love of the arts. She and I became sisters nearly immediately. When I found her, I felt as though I’d found a missing chapter to my unwritten memoir. She and I go way back.

Over time, Polly watched my husband and me gradually transform our house from a traditional place to an eclectic, cozy home. Polly witnessed the evolution of our manicured back yard as we softened it  into a romantic overgrown garden with winding brick walkways, garden statuary, and secret nooks. And I watched the slow but unique renovations she and her husband made to their home. Using Polly’s ideas they turned their ranch house into a unique cottage of colors, textures, and warmth. I watched the growth of her farm, her garden, and a growth in the number of pets and farm animals. We have a history together. Somewhere in this house I have a collection of thank you notes from her daughter that began when Elizah was barely able to write. She is now a senior in high school.

Sunflowers at Polly's house.
On the morning of July 5, 2010, I received a call that my youngest brother had died suddenly during the night. As my phone continued to ring with calls from family and friends, I took a walk in the neighborhood in an attempt to escape the pain. When physical exhaustion wore me down, I walked home through a fog of grief, and my husband met me at the door. Instinctively recognizing my need to hide from the wailing phone, my husband hugged me and let me go. He would handle the incoming calls so I could go to Polly for a few minutes.
In this photo: my sister-in-law, Debbie. People are arriving for my book launching party. 
Later in the day, as I tried to convince myself that my brother’s death was not real, Polly came and cleaned my home, knowing it would soon be dark with mourners, dark with loss, dark with the plans for a funeral. That’s the kind of sister Polly is to me.

We confide and listen and offer pieces of ourselves to each other. We speak the same language.

When I was writing Dogwood Blues, Polly advised me in the chapter about Delilah’s labor and delivery. I had cared for Polly’s goats on numerous occasions when they were swollen with unborn kids, but I had never been present for a birth. As I wrote about Delilah’s difficult delivery, Polly served as my encyclopedia, my goat midwife, my source of facts.

We’ve been through some memorable times together. Side by side we’ve brainstormed for the arts; we’ve planned themes and menus for entertaining; we’ve made Christmas wreaths; we’ve thrown thrilling Christmas parties. As October leaves trembled, we’ve dreamed many autumn cookouts and bonfires into wonderful magical events; we’ve turned our creativity into successful ventures.

Polly and I share a love for the eclectic style, a mixture of old and rustic and traditional. We like vintage. We like whimsical. We prefer a wild array of backyard flowers overflowing from a vintage jug to a formal floral arrangement, designed with balance, dominance, contrast, proportion, and scale in mind. We like chipped antique crystal, turned wooden bowls, pottery. When the mood hits us, we serve wine in mason jars. Excitement consumes us at the sight of faded antique lace, of burlap, of hand-stitched quilts.

I have searched thrift shops and antique stores throughout the states for silver serving pieces. Few of the pieces I purchased match, but they reflect my style. And I have a small stash of pewter that Polly gave me over the years. When Polly and I entertain together, we pull out old dough bowls, pewter, silver, our second-hand crystal (often purchased at antique stores), pottery from southern potters. We don’t serve food from Sam’s. Polly whips up dishes that are beautiful and delicious. Stunning creations of food.
A feast for my book launching party.

We think alike. We should have been twins.

Polly didn’t think I was crazy when I drove to Maryland to pick up a mid-century modern dining table and chairs that I had seen on eBay. She didn’t think I was crazy when I purchased an antique phone booth to use for book storage in my office. And I didn’t think she was crazy when she and her husband covered the ceiling in their den with beadboard. I didn’t think she had lost all sanity when she painted her china cabinet yellow. I loved the changes.

With grace, she put up with my long absences during the writing of Dogwood Blues. She took no offense at my moodiness, my tiredness, my absentmindedness, the obsessive amount of time I devoted to writing. And when the writing was done, Polly pulled together an intimate book launching party for Dogwood Blues in her home and invited only a select few of our book-loving friends and family to attend. Her home was warm, cozy, and magical that night. It glowed with excitement, soft lights, and friendship. The aroma of baking and all manner of cooking spilled throughout the rooms. She had captured Spring inside her house, and the March night glowed like stars around us.

I suppose there is no real point to this blog. I am simply posting what is on my mind this morning.

Life is beautiful. Sisters are beautiful.

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An Evening with Local Authors: Books Allowed!

Robert Reid Goodson, Director of Tift Theatre for the Performing Arts, has unveiled a lineup of local authors for An Evening with Local Authors

In 2000, after claiming the title of Reading Capital of the World, Tifton hit the national headlines for something as nurturing and inspiring as reading. I was living in Illinois at the time. Imagine my surprise when I turned the channel to CNN and heard Tifton—my hometown—being reported on for reading. Not football. Reading.

I have since discovered we are a reading community, and our local library is the center of it all. In Tifton, we pride ourselves in reading everything from chick flick to fantasy to science fiction to southern fiction to the classics and a great deal more. And poetry: let us never forget poetry.

Goodson aimed for a broad section of authors for this literary event to be held in downtown Tifton. He’s lined up authors of children’s books, Christian fiction, mystery, young adult, poetry, southern fiction, and other genres. Nine authors will be reading, discussing their works, and signing and selling books. I'll be one of them.

Let’s rattle our imaginations Friday night!

Where:  City Hall at the Myon, Tifton, Georgia
When:  Friday evening, March 20, 2015
Time:   7 PM
Admission fee:  $5

Kat H. Clayton
Tracey Cox
Beth Hallman
Janie Hopwood
E.M. Knowles
Rebecca Hagan Lee
Raven H. Price
Brenda Sutton Rose
Pamela Williams

What else do I need to know? Light refreshments will be served.

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Moaning with the blues: DOGWOOD BLUES

The Alapaha River flows through DOGWOOD BLUES.

Told through the voices of its eccentric characters, DOGWOOD BLUES depicts life in Dogwood, Georgia, a small town near the soothing waters of the Alapaha River, struggling with change.

When Kevin Kilmer, award-winning New York author with deep roots in Dogwood, purchases a Craftsman in the historic district and moves back to his hometown to write his memoir, he shocks the community with his lifestyle and comes face to face with his past.

As spring blooms with the miracle of new life, Boone Marshall, a farmer and blues pianist, stirs gossip by bringing home a new bride, a nightclub singer from New Orleans, six months after his ex-wife’s suicide.

Every week, the women of the Honeysuckle Bridge Club gather at homes in the historic district to play cards, share gossip, and argue about local issues. Playing bridge has never been more fun. And Nell Sauls, a bridge club member for thirty-five years and a gossipmonger who keeps her nose in everybody’s business, creates gossip and drops it like bird poop all over town.

Dogwood residents draw battle lines over the upcoming liquor referendum, a vote that threatens to turn dry Creek County wet. Tommy Stone, a construction worker from Willacoochee, makes extra money by building unique Vote Yes and Vote No signs for residents to display their views on the issue in their yards.

The Alapaha River holds the novel together with liquid grace and the sound of ancient life. Spanish moss hangs like witch’s hair from the arms of native trees, and spring blooms with the magnificent beauty known only in the South. A new goat is born near the river. Music grows from the soil and from the bleeding heart of Boone Marshall. He plays the piano with a farmer's hands.

Brimming with opinionated and irreverent characters, and told with the mournful sound and rhythm of the blues, DOGWOOD BLUES is a story of betrayal, prejudice, forgiveness, and redemption. It is a love song to southern Georgia, a prayer played out with the blues.
DOGWOOD BLUES sings of the beauty of the southern landscape.


This sassy first novel from Brenda Rose captures some of the conflicted and captivating characters of a rapidly changing South. The book poises on a fulcrum between cultures, between those digging in and those racing onward. It would be serious business if it weren't so light-hearted and funny. And like most Southern writers, Rose is obsessed with the mysteries of place -- the landscape comes fully alive beneath her pen. ~~Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, winner of the American Book Award, 2015 inductee into Georgia Writers Hall of Fame

Spring comes to Dogwood with a multitude of heavenly blooms. Much of the story takes place in Dogwood, Georgia and at a cabin on the Alapaha River.
DOGWOOD BLUES by Brenda Sutton Rose is a work of classic small-town fiction, evoking memories of "Cold Sassy Tree," by Olive Ann Burns. At the heart of Rose's fetching story is Lottie's Beauty Shop, where rumors come and go with its good-hearted customers. And then there's Nell, whose 60th birthday unleashes a bitter mood that runs dog-wild throughout the town. ~~Pulitzer Prize nominated Author Janice Daugharty, Writer in Residence at ABAC, in Tifton, Georgia, author of Earl in the Yellow Shirt

DOGWOOD BLUES weaves a tapestry of mysteries that are revealed one by one in a small Georgia town where everyone has at least one secret. Filled with humor and pain, bitterness and redemption, this atmospheric novel offers glimpses of wisdom in unlikely places and invites the reader to choose compassion above all else. ~~Elizabeth Jennings, author of THE BUTTON COLLECTOR

DOGWOOD BLUES is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Later, it will be available on Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, numerous local stores, and some B&N stores. It will be available on Nook, Sony, Apple, Kobo, and Diesel. Dogwood Blues is sold at Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village at the Country Store. It is also sold at The Cabin Shop and Moon's Pharmacy in Tifton. In Nashville, it can be purchased at Nana's House Quilt Shop.

You may contact me about DOGWOOD BLUES at brendaroseatbellsouthdotnet. When emailing me, please type the address above in the proper email format. It is listed in a manner to avoid Spam.

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(I wrote this poem about my mother, after her death.)

With red clay between my toes,
and the sun setting over my head,
the ghost of my mother blows in,
riding on a honeysuckle breeze, oh lord,
riding on a honeysuckle breeze.
Her teeth, the keys of a piano.

I play her grinning ivory notes
with cadenced fumbling fingers,
splattered with paint, textured with scars.
A song rises up from the belly of my past
and rocks me in the bosom of buried memories.

My mama’s dress bears the stains of her life:
blueberries, blood, bleach, and breast milk;
She cradles in her arms a lifetime of love and sorrow;
Its brilliance nearly blinds me.

My fingers tire, 
as though I've played this song for years.
The tune swells red, 

dying around the edges of a setting sun.
A magnolia breeze blows in strong, 

a heavenly taxi sent to carry my mother home. 
She will not say goodbye.
For there is no truth in spoken farewells.

I am pregnant with a poem,
my life lost in its stanzas.

My mama steps out of her dress
and drops it, an inheritance falling to my feet.
She stands alone: bathed, blooming,
burdened with nothing of this world.
Her body is naked and beautiful,
her wings gray and scorched,
her brown eyes piercing the brown of mine.

I watch her departure, her flapping wings:
She doesn’t look back, not even once,
not even to whisper my name: Brenda.

I lick the teeth of my piano mouth.

With a painter’s hands,
with a writer’s hands
with rusty wrinkled hands,
with hands soaked in the joys,
the sorrows, the spills
of my mother’s life,
I pick up eighty-one years of stains
And pull her dress over my head.

Her stains look good on me.

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