This is the 26th (and last) round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I wrote one story for each letter of the alphabet, this being the last, or “Z” story.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the total votes received.
The story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of this round, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “Z” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(4,600 words – approx. reading time: about 17 minutes based on 265 WPM)
He was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds. Could’ve used a middle name, also. As it was, he just got the pair: Glenwood and his surname. The running joke was that it saved his mother time. When the woodpile got low, all she had to do was holler: “Glen, wood!”
Born at home in the late ‘30s, he was the sixth of eight children: one sister, six brothers. Glenwood was different. Unlike his rough and rowdy siblings, he was sensitive and introspective, finding solace in the heart of the forest and the skin of the bay.
His mother was Swedish, so he was big and fair, and his hands were mitts. His wavy hair and hazel eyes made him passably handsome, but his esteem was anemic. At 15, he was 6’2”, 135 pounds. Embarrassed by his height, he opted to walk with his head down, eyes fixed to his big farm feet.
A slow learner, Glenwood struggled in the one-room clapboard schoolhouse. He felt stupid. When an incautious kid said as much, Glenwood beat him. The Principal grabbed Glenwood by the strap of his overalls and shouted, “Your damn family is nothin’ but trash. You’ll end up in prison like your no-good brothers.”
Glenwood bristled, but acknowledged the odds of the prophecy. He bore the brand of his feral brothers. The oldest, William, was a brawling giant. Despite his enormity, he chose to cut men that crossed him. Gerald and Julius were fun-loving rascals, handsome and harmless, until the bottle was tipped. Like Jekyll’s nostrum, a single drink could unleash their Hyde.
Their father, Walter, desperate to keep his boys out of prison, paid off victims, lawyers, and judges. At one point, he exhorted the court to remand the boys to a foreign war rather than state prison. Four of the boys put their hands on bibles and swore Army oaths. They were good soldiers until they weren’t. Once again, rebellion and whiskey interceded. The boys went wild, trading small-town misdemeanors for international war crimes; rampaging through Korean villages, raping and killing noncombatants.
Back in the Florida fish town, Glenwood watched his father read the telegrams and weep. He loved his father more than he loved himself, and silently vowed to never hurt him. In fact, his brothers’ bad actions galvanized Glenwood, compelling him to erase the family stain with the cleansing agent of undeterred decency.
At seventeen, Glenwood joined the Navy. It was 1955, a time of precarious peace. His father forbade it, but his mother forged his signature. She was the lioness of the family, fiercely defending her indefensible kids, abetting their every caprice and caper. It was her indulgence, some said, that licensed their iniquity.
As Seaman Recruit, Glenwood soon learned that iron Destroyers on angry oceans were not like Birchwood boats on languid bays. He spent months at sea; months in misery. His constitution did not abide the sea-faring life. His stomach mutinied; his head rebelled. Yet, for reasons known only to him, he suffered the nauseous assaults for twenty-one years, remaining a Navy Sailor.
On his first furlough, Glenwood returned home. He was 19 and worldly, having harbored in Pacific ports and Atlantic anchorages. He’d gained weight, as well as confidence. He bought his first car: a 1957 Ford Fairlane. His father, Walter, complained that it was too expensive, and that it would be impractical for a sailor who toured for six-month intervals. But Glenwood insisted. Not surprisingly, his mother co-signed, forging Walter’s name.
Glenwood cruised the coastal strips, honking at pals, whistling at gals. One sunny day, a girl waved back. Glenwood stopped. He knew her. She was Noahy Hurst’s daughter, Martha. She was pretty and had a reputation for being “boy crazy.”
Martha recognized him, too. She’d dated his brother. He came from a bad clan, but she was 16 and fearless.
“Where you goin’?” she asked.
“Goin’ to the picture show in Destin,” he lied. “Wanna come with me?”
She knew he was lying. The Destin Theater didn’t show early matinees. High school had just let out; it was only 3pm. Still, she told her two sisters to fib for her, to tell Mama that she was at Cousin Tilly’s doing homework. Martha jumped in the car, and the couple sped off.
The road they traveled would not end for the better part of six decades.
Nine-months married, they had a baby girl. Glenwood’s heart dilated, doubling his capacity to love. Despite the trio of boys that would follow, Glenda would always be his favorite. He would defend her indefensible actions, worry without ceasing, and co-sign her life, despite her serial mistakes.
Davey Glen came a year later. Twins, ten-months after that. As well as being unexpected, the twins were measly and ill, spending weeks in incubators, teetering on life’s razor edge. Martha sobbed, and Glenwood did all he could to console her.
Just as the family was established, Glenwood got orders to Southeast Asia.
“Vietnam!” Martha exclaimed. “You can’t leave me here with four babies and go off to war.”
The Navy disagreed and shipped Glenwood to China Beach, where he spent two years. He sent letters and audio reels. He called monthly and cried when he heard first words on crackled lines. He sent money and gifts. He sent his love.
The truth was, War was much easier than the home-front. Glenwood, being an E-4 Store-Keeper, was in charge of military supplies. This kept him far from action, far from harm. He sunned on the beach, tossed footballs, fished, and made hooch from spoiled potatoes.
He liked his job. Personnel needed materiel. What was a sailor without tools, cots, socks, rations, rifles, and boots? He learned to bargain and barter, to leverage his position. He made enemies; he made friends; he made deals.
When his Vietnam tour was finished, he returned to Florida, to his family. He rekindled his relationship with Martha and grew to know the children. Having nearly a decade of military service, he was restless. He wanted to utilize his dealing skills in the civilian sector. He loved to wheel-and-deal, to squeeze profit from loss. Not a man of vapid patter, he used his Southern sincerity to inveigle his interlocutors. Brute honesty, he discovered, had more power than a thousand lies. He combed the classifieds for promising jalopies. He paid cash for cars, scrubbed them up, and flipped them for a C-note. He had four kids. A hundred bucks was a month’s salary. It was the difference between bare feet and shoes, spam and sirloin.
Life was good. His children were healthy, and his wife seemed happy. He flew through the Navy ranks and was a Petty Officer First Class by the age of 28. Recalling his Principal’s dark prophecy, Glenwood felt charmed. Even blessed.
The summer of ‘70, it all changed. He came home to find Martha weeping. He begged her to tell him why. Was it the kids? Was it her family? His family? She could only cry and smile and sway.
Glenwood had married a fun-loving girl that had dallied in youthful dissipations, to include bars and theaters and tawdry romance paperbacks. But that was over. God had barged His way into her heart and discarded the debris of hedonism. Martha was Saved. She was raised to walk in the Newness of Life. Martha was Born Again.
“Saved,” Glenwood asked. “Saved from what?”
“Saved from hell-fire damnation,” she sobbed.
He knew that she’d been attending First Baptist Church regularly, but assumed it was for the free childcare.
“So what you’re saying,” Glenwood summarized after an hour of incoherence, “is that we have to go to church on Sundays? That we can’t go to the beach, or catch a movie, or drink cocktails? You’re saying we can’t have fun?”
Martha closed her eyes piously. “That Martha is dead,” she intoned. “I’m a child of God now. I want to raise my children – our children – in a Christian home. As the head of the household, it’s important that you take the lead. It’s important that you accept Christ into your heart. If you don’t, you’ll go to Hell and drag the kids with you.”
Glenwood cracked a beer, sat silently in his recliner, and prayed that this was just a phase.
For the next forty years, Martha hectored Glenwood, campaigning for Christ. She prayed and pled and threatened to leave. She conspired with Southern Baptist pastors, deacons and elders. Weekly, she unleashed these zealots upon her husband. Juntas of cheap-suited men banged on his door, insisting that he was hell-bound, and that he accept Jesus as his personal savior.
For reasons only known to him, Glenwood resisted.
As if in divine retaliation, tragedy fell upon his family. That summer, Glenwood’s youngest brother, Clyde, flipped his Volkswagen Beetle and snapped his neck.
“He was drunk,” Martha said. “That could’ve been you, Glen. Is that what you want? To leave us again. To die? To burn in Hell?”
Calmly, Glenwood ironed his Navy Dress Uniform. It was his duty to carry a share of the casket, as well as the burden of his grieving parents.
A year later, it happened again. It was Big William. The news was badly timed, even for bad news. Family and friends had gathered to celebrate Walter and Josephine’s 50th wedding anniversary. Glenwood watched his father turn pale and drop the telephone. Glenwood caught his falling father and shushed the crowd.
“He’s neckbroke,” Walter sobbed. “Just like Clyde. William was killed in Mobile, chasin’ whores.”
And so it was, the giant of the family was slain. His mighty frame enmeshed in metal wreckage, dead in a ditch in Alabama.
Martha shooed her children out of the mournful house. When the chance was given, she quoted scripture to her distraught husband. It is the stubborn and unrepentant heart that invokes the wrath of God.
On that day, Glenwood vowed to attend Sunday morning church services with Martha and the kids. He hated it. It was not that he was opposed to things holy; it was the flagrant shaming spewed from the pulpit. He saw it for what it was: a scam
Not a scam, he rethought, but a pitch . . . a sales pitch. He knew it because he did it. Every time he hawked a car and made a buck, he’d made a pitch. The difference was, he sold something for something. Something solid. Something that could take a family on a picnic. Something that could get a guy to work or tote kids to school. This pastor, Glenwood observed, was selling something invisible, intangible . . . something speculative, like insurance. Precisely, he decided. This guy is selling Fire Insurance!
Once he’d sussed how the trick was done, it occurred to him that Hell was the fire and God was the arsonist – the same God that Martha implored him to love.
This revelation galvanized his recalcitrance. Each Sunday, he braced against the onslaught of insult. When the altar call ensued, he simply stood . . . resolute . . . and suffered the shrapnel of pleas, entreaties, and deific threats.
As the family drove home after one particularly scathing service, Martha carped: “I prayed it would be today, Glen. I prayed you’d open your heart and receive Jesus.”
Glenwood thumbed the radio and hummed a Roger Miller tune.
“If we crash and die,” Martha shrilled, “in this car. On our way home. And break our necks. Like your brothers. You’ll go to Hell. And burn for eternity.”
Dang me, dang me . . . oughta take a rope and hang me
Glenwood looked over his shoulder at bickering kids and asked, “Who wants ice cream?”
They stopped scuffling and screamed for ice cream.
Martha closed her eyes and prayed.
Hang me from the highest treeeeeeeee . . . .
Woman, would you weep for me?
In the Bicentennial summer, Glenwood separated from the Navy. He’d given them 21 years and 87 days of his life. The Navy, in return, had exposed him to seasickness, malaria, Agent Orange, and asbestos. He exited 100 pounds heavier than he entered. At 38, he was retired. At 38, he was rudderless . . . unsure of his next step.
“Here you go, Hoss,” Martha said, dropping a sheaf of bills in his lap. “All yours. Figure it out.”
She was unhappy with his decision to retire. They had kids. Kids needed stability. The Navy was stable. The civilian sector was a crapshoot. She’d done her part. She’d gone to Nursing School and become an RN. She worked long nights and slept short days.
“Okay,” he agreed. “I’ll take over the bills. Listen . . . I’ve given it some thought. I want to try fishing. Mullet fishing. Joe and I are going in on a boat . . . fifty-fifty.”
“A boat,” she grunted. “You quit the Navy because you hate boats. Now you want to buy a boat with Joe? You really believe your worthless brother will hold up his end?”
Glenwood lowered his head and studied his feet. “I’ve got to try. Give me the summer. I’ve done everything you asked of me . . .”
“Everything?” she snapped.
He knew what she was referring to. It was the ghost, unholy, between them.
“I go every Sunday,” he protested. “I sign the checks. Ten percent. Every week.”
In her white uniform and soft-soled shoes, she turned to leave. “If you think that’s what being a godly man is, then you haven’t been listening.”
“Wait,” he shouted, but the door slammed and the car started.
He gave it the summer. He fished, daily, taking it as seriously as military service. When the dog days of August came around, he assessed his progress. There was none. In fact, due to high gas prices and boat motor repairs, he’d lost money. He sold his half of the boat to Joe and turned to the Jobs Listing in the Pensacola News Journal.
He sold burglar bars. He sold aluminum siding. He sold vacuum cleaners, kitchenware, and encyclopedias. Finally, in the wake of serial failures, he walked onto a car lot and asked to see the manager.
Jack Hare, a man with sideburns and mirrored shades, shook his hand and asked, “What can I do for you? We just got a shipment of Datsun pickup trucks. You could drive one off the lot for” –
“I want to sell for you,” Glenwood interrupted. “I like your product. These Japanese 4-bangers. You’re smart. Fuel is expensive . . . Americans can’t keep filling up their gas-guzzlers. I can start tomorrow.”
“Start,” Jack sputtered, releasing Glenwood’s huge hand. “You sell cars before?”
“Yes,” Glenwood said, justifying his answer with his many private sales.
Jack Hare sized him up. “Navy?” he asked, pointing to the tattoo on Glenwood’s forearm.
“Retired . . . honorably.”
“Marines,” Jack countered. “Got out after Nam.”
Glenwood nodded, knowing when silence served.
“Tell ya what,” Jack said, “you work for three months – strictly commission – and if you have a knack, I’ll put you on the sales’ staff. Deal?”
Glenwood shook on it, and showed up at 7:00am for the next eight years.
Glenwood had a knack for it. His strategy was to have no strategy. He simply approached each customer and talked to them, many times never mentioning cars. He once had a two-hour conversation with an elderly woman about her grandson who was considering a Navy career.
Fellow salesmen scoffed, calling her a flake. Then they lectured Glenwood, pointing to the quote printed on the Sales Tote Board: Time is money. WASTE NEITHER!
Glenwood got the last laugh when the granny returned and purchased one Datsun for herself and one for her grandson.
Soon, he surpassed seasoned salesmen on the Tote Board. In his second month, he averaged a car a day. Jack Hare scuttled the probation period and asked him to join the Datsun Team. He accepted . . . on condition that he be allowed to drive a new Datsun.
Jack Hare stipulated the terms. “Any car but the 240Z,” he said. “That little rocket wasn’t built for big men like us.”
“The Z,” Glenwood insisted. “Can’t really sell a sports car if I haven’t experienced one.”
Jack looked up at the Tote Board. Glenwood led by six sales. “Okay,” he said, dropping the key into his massive hand. “Go see Linda. There’s some paperwork you gotta sign.”
That evening Glenwood pulled up to the house and honked. The kids, in their pajamas, came running out. Each pleaded for a ride in the sleek speedster. “Get your Mama,” he said. “She gets to first ride.”
Martha made him promise not to speed. He broke his promise leaving the driveway. Thrilled, she forgave him. “It’s so fast,” she cried. “Can we keep it?”
Without cracking a smile, he said, “Yes, but we’ll have sell the kids.”
“Deal,” she squealed, clutching his arm.
They flew down backroads and alternate routes, ending up at a make-out spot. He kissed her and she kissed him back. He tried to do more but he was big and the car was small.
“We’ve got to get back home,” she panted. “The kids haven’t eaten and I’ve got to get ready for my ten o’clock shift.”
“Martha,” he laughed. “They call me Z-Man.”
“The guys at the car lot,” he explained. “I got the job with Jack. Full-time. Fifteen-thousand base, plus commissions. There’s no reason I can’t make over thirty-thousand this year.”
“With my salary?” she asked, breathless.
“With yours,” he calculated, “forty-five gross.”
She pressed her hands to her heart and whispered benedictions to God. “We’re rich,” she exhaled.
“We need a swimming pool,” he said. “For the kids. And I want you to go part-time. This shiftwork is killing you.”
“Glen,” she breathed, “you’re so good to me.”
“I try,” he said, and kissed her.
When the moment was pitch perfect, she shattered it with a prayer: “Thank you . . . thank you, God, for blessing our family. Unto You, we give all the glory.”
The car got crowded. Glenwood felt the chill of ghostly imposition. They drove home together, separate.
On February 16, 1978, Z-Man crammed into the cab of the 240Z and pointed it homeward. He thumbed the button for a country station and let the cries of crooners replace his own. It was his birthday; but he was sad. 1978 had stolen the souls of two more brothers: Julius and Gerald. Both had died violently – one from the muzzle of a cop, the other from the blade of a jealous husband. His mother, addled by grief, knitted and muttered to her dead sons. His sister was admitted to a sanatorium. His other brother, Joe, lost a leg in a boating accident.
Always one to worry, he looked inward for answers. Is it me? Have I cursed my family with my ungodly obstinance? The kids . . . will they be affected? Maybe I could fake it. Pretend to believe in the unbelievable.
The radio DJ interrupted his self-flagellation. “We’ve got a request from four excited youngsters. They want to wish their daddy a happy fortieth birthday. Glenwood, if you’re listening, this song is dedicated to you.”
Glenwood spun the volume knob. He knew the tune before the first note – it was Middle Age Crazy, by Jerry Lee Lewis. He leaned back, stomped the gas, and sang along:
Today he’s forty years old, goin’ on twenty
Don’t look for the grey in his hair,
‘Cause he ain’t got any
For the first time since he was nine, he cried. It wasn’t the song. It was the realization that he’d done something right. He’d helped raise children that loved their parents as much as he loved his. To Glenwood, there was no greater accomplishment.
The tears continued to stream as he thought of his widowed father, Walter. The previous year he’d called a family dinner meeting. When all six seats were filled, Glenwood made an announcement. “As you all know, Grandpa is not doing well. The stroke has left him . . . well, in a bad way. Your mother and I have agreed to take him in.”
The kids looked up from their plates. “You mean,” one said, “like live with us?”
“Yes,” Glenwood affirmed. “We’ll need your help. Your cooperation. Your patience.”
To Glenwood’s amazement, all parties seemed amenable to the idea . . . all except Martha. Her christly smile seemed forced. She dabbed her tense lips with a napkin and spoke in nursely terms.
“He drools,” she said. “The left side of his face is paralyzed, so . . . he drools. It’s not his fault . . . so don’t be grossed out.”
The kids ate much and said little. These were adult problems. They had exams and dances and ball games to tackle.
Driving fast, Glenwood passed his exit. He recalled Martha’s ultimatum just a month later. “Get him out of my house,” she shouted. “I can’t stand it. There are puddles of slobber everywhere. It’s driving me crazy. It’s him or me, Glen.”
He chose her.
Jerry Lee’s song was finished but Glenwood’s tears were not. His tears were his father’s tears – the tears Walter had cried the day he’d taken him to Shady Lake Senior Living.
The kids left home, one by one, in the order of their birth. Glenwood was closer to fifty than forty. He was no longer Z-Man. His career as a car salesman evaporated when American automobile manufacturers started making affordable, fuel-efficient cars. He now worked a quotidian government job on the Navy Base.
“They call us empty-nesters,” he told Martha, as they sat in separate chairs in their living room, watching the evening news. “That’s couples . . . like us. After the kids leave.”
She did not acknowledge him. Her bible was in her lap, but she wasn’t reading. Recently, her headaches were blinding and debilitating.
“I was thinking we should go to Hawaii,” he said. “In the Spring.”
She stood, shakily, and shuffled toward the bedroom. “I’ve got to lay down,” she said, rubbing her temples.
He asked if she needed anything. The bedroom door slammed its emphatic answer.
A hemisphere away, his youngest son called him on his sixtieth birthday. Glenwood lifted the receiver and heard a tinny rendition of a golden oldie.
“Today he’s sixty-years-old, goin’ on forty . . . don’t look for the hair on his head, ‘cause he ain’t got any.”
Glenwood laughed. “Not funny. But . . . really, really funny.”
“Thought you’d like that,” the youngest said. “How’s Mom?”
Levity left the line. “Ahhh . . . you know.”
“No I don’t. Tell me. The headaches?”
“Not just that,” Glenwood confided. “The mood swings. She won’t take the meds to help with her . . . with her . . . uh . . .”
“Yes,” Glenwood said. “And now she’s seeing things.”
“Seeing things? Like what?”
Glenwood’s voice broke. “Scary things . . . uh . . . demons.”
“Dad, this sounds like full-blown psychosis. You gotta get her back to the doctor.”
There was a long pause and then Glenwood asked, “What if they’re real?”
“Dad, that’s not funny. Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay,” he said truthfully. “I’ve lost her again. All these years, God had her. And now the devil’s got her. So . . . when do I get her?”
At 70, Glenwood retired from his government job. His new life was occupied with self-imposed chores. He battled azaleas and raked leaves, and cleaned the placid pool. He chopped firewood and recalled his mother’s sweet, Swedish yodel: Glen . . . woooood.
He lost three inches in height. He lost eighty of the pounds he’d found during his middle-age crazy days. There was something wrong with his gut. He knew it, but was too tired to make a fuss. The important thing, he thought, was that the kids and grandkids were doing well.
If asked (which he never was) if he’d had a good life, Glenwood would’ve said Yes.
If asked (which he never was) if it could’ve been better. He’d have repeated his answer.
If asked, “What would’ve made it better?”
This would be his reply:
Yes, if I’m honest, it could’ve been better. Don’t get me wrong; I’m the lucky one. All of my brothers lived short, violent lives. Meanwhile, I traveled the world. I made money and drove sports cars. They called me Z-Man.
Most importantly, I raised good kids that raised good kids. I have a wife that I love – a wife that, I hope, loves me.
That’s the rub. That’s what could’ve made my life better. She does love me . . . I know she does. I’m just not sure that I have her heart. Her whole heart.
You see, our fifty-year marriage has been a little crowded. When I left her . . . when I went off to Nam . . . she found someone else. Another man. A man that never changed a diaper, never kissed a scraped knee, never attended a piano recital or a little league game. This guy never paid a utility bill or bought a box of chocolate-covered cherries on Valentine’s Day. Never killed a spider; never fixed a bike chain; never spent a sleepless night worrying . . . worrying . . . forever worrying.
And yet, this deadbeat had the other part of her heart. The bigger half. The better half.
And get this . . . I was complicit. I didn’t want to lose my portion of her heart, so I wrote checks to this guy. I sent my kids to his house and to his summer camps. I welcomed his henchmen into my home and bit my tongue as they denounced me as a scoundrel.
Yes, my life could have been better. Thanks for asking.
On April 4, two years later, Glenwood died. It was cancer . . . of course it was cancer. His entire gastrointestinal tract was riddled with it. Typical Glenwood, he refused to make of fuss of it. After eating his favorite meal – Chinese – he asked Martha to take him to the hospital.
Eight-thousand miles away, I got the call. “Come now. It won’t be long.”
When I arrived, the family was gathered around him. He’d had exploratory surgery. The doctor spoke of colostomies and chemo and radiation. “However,” he cautioned, “there’s the matter of his heart. It’s damaged.”
Martha stroked his concave chest.
I rubbed his large, lean hand.
“I called the pastor,” she said. “He should be here any minute.”
Faintly, but firmly, I said, “No.”
Mom tilted her head, hurt. “It’s his last chance, honey . . . his last chance to accept Jesus into his heart.”
With my free hand, I took hers. My siblings joined, forming a circle. We were united, the six of us, linked by life and love.
Respectfully, I said, “You just don’t get it, Mom . . . after all these years . . . you just don’t get it.”
“Get what, dear?”
Tears sprang from my eyes, and my voice quavered. “There’s no room in Dad’s heart for God or Jesus or the Holy Ghost. Dad’s heart is full. It was always full. We are his heart, Mom. You, me . . . us. We have his whole heart. We are his whole heart.”
For the first time, she bent her head and did not pray. It was her last and greatest gift.
For him, she did not pray.
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