By Amanda E.K.
The old lady on the boarding house porch rocked from 8-3:00 every day in her old blue wooden rocking chair. Sometimes she sang, but mostly she mumbled—incoherent lyrics or rhythmic phrases like a chant that she repeated from breakfast until tea.
The boarding house had nine rooms and was run by a matronly widow with no end to her generosity for taking in the sick at heart. She had extra special patience for the old lady, who’d roomed with her for the past fourteen years and never once caused a fuss. The old lady’s name was Jenny, and on Sundays Jenny entertained the boarder’s kids when they got home from church.
The Midwest heat settled into the cracks and splinters on the porch and rested in the laps of the three children as they clustered around the rocking chair to listen to Jenny’s stories. They preferred her stories to the ones they heard at church because the ones they heard at church were like the ones they heard at school, disguised as lessons.
Lisa—the youngest of the three—was thoughtful and asked Jenny why she smiled to herself, and why she spoke of a son she had no pictures of.
“He never did like his picture taken,” Jenny told the kids. “Even as a baby. Didn’t like mirrors either. Couldn’t tell himself from a stranger if he had to.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Alice—nine years old and towheaded as a ghost. “Everybody knows who they are.”
“Not my Johnny,” Jenny said. “He’d tell you himself if he was here.”
“But he’s never here,” said Aaron—the middle child—who always felt a step behind his sisters. “Will we ever get to meet him?”
“He said he’d be here when I die,” said Jenny matter-of-fact. “So maybe tonight. Or could be three years down the road.”
Aaron gulped. “Ms. Jenny, do you really think you’ll die tonight?”
Jenny rocked and looked up at the sky. She bent her wrist and pulled a crumpled tissue from her sleeve. She dropped it in her lap, then bent her wrist again, plucked another tissue, then another, then one more.
“Why do you keep so many tissues?” Lisa asked. “You don’t have a runny nose.”
Jenny went on rocking as though she were deaf.
Aaron placed a hand on Jenny’s chair—gentle, like an introductory caress. Jenny gazed down at him, then stopped like she’d been paused.
“Johnny,” she said to Aaron, “Mommy doesn’t like it when you touch.”
Aaron frowned and hustled through the side door to the kitchen.
“Ms. Jenny, that’s our brother not your son,” said Alice with a laugh.
Jenny smiled at the girls. Then, with her feet flat on the ground, she bent in half and grabbed the hems of her layered skirts. “I have friends in all sorts of places,” she said, her eyebrows raised. “Want to see?”
Alice giggled and Lisa shrugged.
Jenny lifted her skirts up to her knees and lay them there to rest.
“What’s she doing?” whispered Alice to her sister.
The girls could see that Jenny wore brown nylons. The nylons were filled with lumps.
“Ms. Jenny, what’ve you got down your tights?” asked Lisa, more curious now than ever.
Jenny looked giddy as though bursting with a secret. She patted her puffy shins. “These are my butterflies,” she said, sighing pleasantly and bundling up her tissues. She held them close to her face.
Her lips moved but she made no sound. None that the girls could hear at least, as close as they dared lean in. They made eyes at one another but stayed planted on the porch. They had no more use for questions. Only awe for this fantastic woman.
Jenny shredded the tissues like leaves for mulch and blew softly on the pile. “Look at them flutter,” she said. “Aren’t they free and pretty?” Then she gripped them in her fist, and with a flash of her wrists, stuffed them down a stockinged leg. “Ha!” she said with satisfaction. “Now they’ll stay like that all day.”
Amanda is a short fiction and freelance writer, and a member of the Knife Brothers writing group. Her work has been featured on the Denver Orbit podcast and on Mortified Live. She has stories in Suspect Press, Birdy, Jersey Devil Press, and the Punch Drunk Press Poetry anthology. She’s currently working on a memoir about the damaging effects of growing up in evangelical purity culture.