Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
1936 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

The End of the World

by Tamara Shaffer

“Do you think Mother went to heaven?” Kerri asked Matt, wishing he would answer but knowing he wouldn’t. She and her big brother were walking back from the store on the Dixie Highway a quarter of a mile from their house. Matt had made a few dollars doing farm work for a neighbor, so they’d bought some food to have for supper; no telling when their dad would get home.


They were two years and two states away from the Western Pennsylvania countryside where they grew up, the first year following their mother’s accident spent away from each other with different relatives. When their dad showed up to collect and reunite them, Kerri balked, not sure she wanted to leave the security and sobriety of her aunt’s home in Akron. “This is the rubber capital of the world,” he reminded her. “If the Russians bomb us, they’ll hit here first.” Swayed by his cleverly employed caveat, reminiscent of the nuns’ dire proclamations of a possible war with the Reds, Kerri tumbled hesitantly into the back seat of the little blue Ford, concentrating instead on the joy of seeing her brother again.

Don’t lose your head
To gain a minute.
You need your head
Your brains are in it...

The poetic advertisements unfolded on the signs along the highway, Kerri and Matt delighting in each new line as if it were a surprise under the Christmas tree. They scanned radio stations for hillbilly songs and guessed the makes and years of cars behind them. Under her brother’s tutelage, Kerri could spot the grill of a 1950 Chevy a half-a-block away.

“I’m never gonna talk funny like these people down here,” she vowed sternly, as they sped across the Kentucky border.


She loved it there—long, rolling hills and grass so green it really looked blue like everyone said. She soon assumed the twangy speech of the region—“reckon,” “yonder,” and “y’all” prominent in her vocabulary. She was Southern now and feeling all grown up at ten, proudly donning an apron and washing the dishes, making the beds, and sweeping the floors in the little house their dad had rented on the outskirts of Louisville.

For the first month, he took them for supper to a downtown cafeteria a couple times a week after work, Rosemary Clooney’s “C’mon A-My House” resonating from the jukebox alongside his admonition, “You’ll have diabetes, for Christ’s sake,” as Kerri chose potatoes cooked three ways.

He was on the wagon; proudly announcing his sobriety to his two hopeful but skeptical children, who, growing up, had heard the vow many times from both parents and their drunken friends. Kerri worried when, several weeks into summer, he announced an office party that would make him late coming home. She watched for him until midnight, then slept despite her concern.

She awoke at 3:30, because her light was on, her eyes passing the clock as she squinted toward the door. She watched in groggy horror as her dad groped for the switch, lost in his own house and naked, his face red from the alcohol and contorted from the sudden light. When his fumbling hand finally found its mark and snapped her back into darkness, she slept again until dawn, when, hoping it had been a dream, she cracked his bedroom door and the familiar odor hit her nose like a slap. Just as she’d feared, he had fallen from the wagon—that big wooden structure that hauled sober people about, a vehicle that spawned her safety, made her world predictable, and brought her peace.

He was late every night after that, but ironically, evenings comforted Kerri, despite his absence. The vigil she and Matt kept in the darkened living room was special, somehow prompting Matt to engage in the kid-talk of a ten- and twelve-year-old as he would at no other time. They stopped their chatter to stare out the window at each hopeful glow in the distance, as it increased in size and intensity and evolved into two lights in the road—teasing lights that, up close, revealed they were too narrow or too far apart and flanking the wrong grill. When the hesitant, weaving Ford finally approached and rolled awkwardly into the driveway, they shared the disappointed relief of their dad’s drunken presence.


Today, as they trudged homeward with what would serve as their evening meal, Kerri was anxious for them to beat the threat of thunder and lightening in the darkening sky.

She gazed at the clouds, rolling gray and thick. She wondered whether the already-dead—those who’d been spared hellfire—were behind them someplace, floating about in their celestial abodes. She longed to know whether Matt thought their mother was among them, eager for a reason to believe she’d made it to eternal safety despite her drunken state that night. Drunkenness, according to the nuns who’d taught her the tenets of her faith, was a mortal sin, which rendered the soul black and unfit for heaven unless removed by Confession.

Kerri visualized her mother’s tarnished soul a headless, limbless white mannequin, thrashing about with other lost sinners in a sea of fire someplace in the bowels of the earth, screaming and moaning from the pain and hopelessness. There’d been no time for Confession; the car that hit her in front of their house had rendered her instantly unconscious, then DOA at the same hospital where Kerri and her brother had been born. Kerri could only hope that God might have granted one of those special dispensations the nuns talked about in Catechism class, perhaps in exchange for her unhappiness here on earth.

Kerri had been seven years old when she caught her mother crying in the cellar, standing over the steaming wringer washer, as it thrashed the dirt from a load of clothes. She had run down the stairs, the smell of bleach and blueing stinging her nose, and hadn’t seen the tears until she reached the bottom and circled around the washtubs.

“What’s wrong?” she gasped, upon seeing the wet, red face and hearing the deeply inhaled sniffle as she approached. She had been struck with the sudden urge to help with the wash, picturing herself feeding a piece of clothing to the menacing wringer—carefully and with her mother’s gentle prompting, of course—but no, not once she saw the distress. She froze, waited for an explanation, and upon receiving none, ran out the side door that opened onto the driveway and made a sharp left toward the willow tree, her favorite, the one that flowed out over her mother’s flower garden in the front yard.

She didn’t cry. This wasn’t like when she fell and scraped her knees for the umpteenth time, bellowing and sobbing until she’d had a hug and soothing words and the gauze and neat crisscross bandage had been applied. Then it was all better, transitory, forgotten. The dressings were knocked off from play, scabs formed and fell, and knees were again smooth. That was the natural order of things—kids cried, mommies reassured, wounds healed.

Sitting at the foot of the tree, she watched intently as a butterfly fluttered past her face, resting for a mini-second on a nearby weed, just long enough to flap its kaleidoscopic wings back and forth, as though to warm up before taking off again. A bee buzzed past her ear, a stray from the row of flowers, no doubt, where Kerri could see tiny yellow bodies bolting in and out of petals, sometimes plunging downward to a bed of clover. She scooped up an unwary grasshopper and held it close to her face, watching intently as the slit of a mouth opened wide and emitted a glob of brown liquid onto her finger. She released the tiny green creature, who hopped upward and did a nosedive a few feet away. She was relieved to concentrate on the goings-on of nature; bug mommies went about the business of gathering food and caring for their young—present and sober and predictable.

Sometime during their last year in Pennsylvania Kerri knew that her dad had lost his job—sudden references to a lack of money that she’d never heard before; they even ate chicken on a Friday once, breaking an indisputable edict of the Church, because it was all they had in the house. Kerri chewed the thick white meat hesitantly, imagining an angry God stoking hell’s fire with every swallow and hoping that the scarcity of food exempted them from eternal doom.

She had seen her mother cry one other time that final summer. After playing at a neighbor’s most of the day, she had come home expecting dinner, only to find her mother sitting on the couch with Jean, her favorite drinking friend. It was going to be one of those weekends Kerri dreaded, both women drunk, the house in disarray, and even worse, the crying—first Jean bursting into tears after expounding on her life’s difficulties, then her mother, the two alternating sympathies and pats on each others’ backs, while Kerri sat staring with a silent desperation. No use saying anything, no use crying out that she felt scared by her mother’s unhappiness, that she wanted the house to be clean and orderly, her mother sitting at the piano, playing a forties hit that Kerri could sing all the words to.

When the weekend was over, her mother, sober and contrite, cleaned for hours. She was vacuuming the upstairs when she turned off the machine and sat down on the window box in the hallway, pulling Kerri into her arms and apologizing for the way she had behaved. Kerri couldn’t tell if she meant she was sorry for just that weekend or for every time she’d been drunk, which seemed constantly of late.

“I guess you think I’m not such a good mother,” the hungover woman said pleadingly, pulling Kerri away and looking into her eyes. Kerri’s honest answer would have confirmed that assumption, so she peered downward, averting the expectant gaze, and said nothing...


Today the Kentucky sky grew black; large, scattered raindrops threatened to soak the bags the two kids carried.

“It looks like the end of the world,” Kerri said meekly, cringing at each yellow zigzag and the detonations that followed.

The nuns had spoken of it—the end—how it might happen anytime, and she feared its advent with every change of the sky, every atmospheric condition. The eerie darkness of a thunderstorm, trees pulled sideways by the wind, as though they might topple, could be heralding its arrival. Rivers and oceans would rise, their waves swishing jagged peaks into the air. The vivid red sunsets were pilot lights, ready to be lit by God’s anger at man’s transgressions, exploding into flames and dropping down to consume the earth. She almost expected to see the face of Jesus appearing over the clouds in mammoth proportion, here to gather the remaining population for the final judgment. Every person ever born would be judged, the nuns had said; every deed, every thought they’d harbored, good or bad, exposed to everyone else.

“It’s just a storm,” Matt muttered, increasing his pace slightly, causing her to have to race to keep up.

“Wait,” she pleaded, on the verge of tears, then slowed and conceded, allowing him to expand the distance between them. She hugged the soggy paper bag and concentrated on supper; they were having peanut butter, and she liked to eat the oil on the top with a spoon...



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Tamara Shaffer

has had stories and articles published in various newspapers, journals, and magazines, including Chicago Tribune, Woman’s World, Phoebe, and The Pedestal. She published a book entitled, Murder Gone Cold: The Mystery of the Grimes Sisters, in 2006. She is retired and lives in Chicago.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury