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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Write in the HISTORICAL genre (05/03/07)

TITLE: A Kind Woman Lives Here
By Jan Ackerson


My arms ache. I have hung the contents of five basketsful of sopping laundry on the clothesline this morning, and with this last sheet, I also feel a sharp twinge in the small of my back.

As I attach a wooden clothespin to the dripping sheet, I am startled by a sound near my right shoulder—a man stands there, clearing his throat and holding his tattered cap in grimy hands. Crazily, my first thought is not for my own safety but for that of my clean laundry. Oh please, don’t touch my sheets, I think, but all that I say is “May I help you?”

“I ain’t askin’ for nothin’ much, ma’am,” he mumbles, and I can hear weariness in his voice. He keeps his eyes low and hesitates before speaking again. “Jes’ a sammich, maybe, er a couple a eggs. I kin chop some wood fer ya, if ya want.” He nods toward my dwindling woodpile, and finally meets my eyes.

I should be frightened. I am no longer a young woman, and I have lived alone here since Henry died in the trenches of the Great War. Fifteen years I have been a widow, scraping out a living by taking in laundry, missing Henry every day. But this sad little tramp is older than I am; his thinning hair is a dingy gray and wrinkled skin drapes his throat. He will not harm me.

I direct the wiry little man to the woodshed where Henry’s tools are still kept, and watch as he takes the axe and shuffles back to the woodpile. He seems too old to work for long, but soon the thunk thunk of iron on maple creates a rhythm in the late morning air. I walk into the kitchen and prepare him a lunch of cold meatloaf and my last slice of apple pie.

The nightly radio broadcasts have warned housewives like me to beware of the hoboes who have been seen with increasing frequency in areas near railroad lines. Today’s visitor is a first for me, although in these difficult years since The Crash, I’ve often seen his despairing look on the faces of other men. The congregation of my little church dwindles weekly, desperation stealing fathers and sons away from this hopeless place. They are not searching for Something Better, but for Anything At All. The American Dream that roared through the last decade has become a nightmare.

The thunks stop, and I peer through the curtains, afraid that the man may have run off with Henry’s axe. He is still there, leaning on the axe handle and wiping his brow. I step into the sunshine with a plate and a mug of coffee.

“Rest a bit,” I tell him as I offer the food. He sits on a log and gratefully takes the plate. I’m surprised to see him close his eyes in a silent blessing.

He eats quickly. “I thank ya kindly, ma’am.”

I start to speak, hesitate, then begin again. “Have you seen…do you know…a boy named Hank? Early twenties, reddish blond hair, quite tall?” I realize how foolish I must sound. Oh Hank, my son, you could have stayed…

The fellow wipes a crumb from his mouth with the back of his hand. “No ma’am, I surely haven’t. The younguns mostly go East. There’s more track out East. Hank’s yer boy?”

I nod.

He finishes the last bite of pie, then stands and gazes into the distance. “I’ll be on my way, ma’am. The wood’s in yer shed. I hope yer boy comes home. If ya like, I’ll say a prayer fer ‘im.”

My throat has formed a tight knot of loneliness and grief, so I do not reply, but I marvel at this poor man’s richness of grace.

Several hours later, while I am taking down the stiffly dried sheets and towels, Sergeant O’Meara from town steps out of his car and shows me a childlike drawing in charcoal on the front gate. It’s a little cat—the sergeant tells me it’s a message to other hoboes: a kind woman lives here. “You’ll want to wash that off, Mrs. Chambers, or every tramp in the state will be at your door, looking for a handout.”

I thank the officer—and leave the drawing. Let them come; I will feed each one, and pray that somewhere out East there is a kind woman with a cat sketched on her gate, offering my Hank a heel of fresh-baked bread.

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This article has been read 1750 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Lynda Schultz 05/10/07
This is absolute quality. It brought tears to my eyes. Great message wrapped in a wonderfully told story.
Helen Paynter05/10/07
I was going to pick out some of my favourite sentences and phrases, but then I realised I'd have to quote the whole thing. Beautifully, tenderly written - and the ending gave me a lump in my thoat.
Betty Castleberry05/10/07
This really touched me. The lady hanging out her clothes reminded me of my own mother doing that when I was a little girl. What a perfect ending, too.
Leigh MacKelvey05/10/07
The writing is sophisticated and shows much matruity ( in writing, not age!)
You really have a gift for authentic dialogue and placing the reader right in the story and setting. Oh to get to this level of writing!I can't find a thing to correct or critique. and that's the honest truth!
Linda Germain 05/10/07
This is exactly what my grandmother did during the Depression. She never turned any man away, even though she had 7 kids to feed. She told me the Lord would provide for her to share what little she had. (They never knew she washed their dishes with boiling water -- just in case one of them had TB or the flu). Well done.
Cassie Memmer05/11/07
Excellent! Top notch story and writing!
Helen Murray05/11/07
Joanne Sher 05/11/07
Wonderful description - I truly felt like I was there. And what a story! Excellent.
Loren T. Lowery05/11/07
This was beautiful and endearing - I am so gratefull for the kind people of yesterday and of today. We call can use the TLC garnered from this story and pass it on.
Mo 05/11/07
Nice ending.
Janice Cartwright05/11/07
I don't know what more I can add to the glowing comments you've already received, but I couldn't bear to exit without saying how much I liked your story. It had every necessary element, including deep longing of the protagonist. I felt compassion for the woman, but agony for the poor old man and even though it wasn't possible, wished she could have provided a permanent home for him.
Teri Wilson05/14/07
This is really beautiful.
Patty Wysong05/14/07
Wonderful. Moving. I could feel her loneliness and the heartache for her son. Excellent writing!
Rita Garcia05/14/07
This is so beautifully written, it reminds me of the many stories my mom told me of the depression era. Now I need a tissue.
Jeffrey Snell05/14/07
Outstanding! You've texturized real grace. Historical drama not about history but about people. Outstanding!
Henry Clemmons05/14/07
High quality story telling with a heartwarming message that loosens the tear ducts some. Thank you also for your encouraging comments on my entries.
Pat Guy 05/14/07
I thought you were going to end it slightly different! I thought she was going to want the hoboes to come by so she could ask them about her son. ;)

Good ending! And wonderful writing that touches deep.
Mariane Holbrook 05/14/07
I agree with all the others that this is definitely a two-box tissue read. It's so well done that I'm tempted to plagurize but even then I couldn't come close! Beautifully done!
Myrna Noyes05/15/07
I LOVED this sweet,poignant story! The Great Depression was a time like no other and often brought out the best as well as the worst in people. My favorite lines were "The congregation of my little church dwindles weekly, desperation stealing fathers and sons away from this hopeless place. They are not searching for Something Better, but for Anything At All. The American Dream that roared through the last decade has become a nightmare." The ending was so touching and so perfect! Excellent, excellent piece! :)
Venice Kichura05/15/07
I liked your ending as it was more realistic. Great job!
Jacquelyn Horne05/15/07
Wonderful story. I liked the way each hobo let the others know of kindness.
Julie Arduini05/15/07
Just perfect from the title to the dialogue and the sweet message I won't soon forget.
T. F. Chezum05/15/07
Very well written and interesting story. High quality writing as usual.
Suzanne R05/16/07
Just gorgeous. I love being whisked into a different time and place (from the comfort of my chair!) and you've done that very successfully. Thanks.
Sharlyn Guthrie05/16/07
Your story is so touching. Each detail adds life to the vivid picture you have painted for us. Very nice!
Donna Powers 05/16/07
Such a wonderful, wonderful story. I absolutely loved it! A great character sketch and a wonderful ending. It really touched my heart. Thanks for sharing it
Debbie OConnor05/16/07
Oh Jan, you are such a master. I love this story! Your characters live and breathe for me. Awesome job.
Sara Harricharan 05/16/07
This reminds me of an "American Girl" story. A bittersweet note to it, but a common strand. Wonderful writing, I loved this piece!
Brenda Welc05/16/07
I so enjoyed your story. I felt so intertwined in the story I wanted to turn the page! Great Writing!
Pam Carlson-Hetland05/16/07
As stated above, I have no other comments to make. Truly a wonderfully written story, done with great skill and grace. I enjoyed this very much.
Verna Cole Mitchell 05/18/07
Truly a winner in this category for me! You always come through, no matter the genre.
Edy T Johnson 05/18/07
I just added this to my favorites. This is so rich with character, drama, history, heart and more that I hope I can one day soon hold a copy of your book of short stories in my hands. Thank you, too, for your comments on my historical entry. I am always honored to see your name, and especially appreciated what you wrote this time.
Chely Roach10/27/10
The last line literally made me well up. Perfect and powerful in its simplicity, and completely evocative. Beautiful.