Short Fiction

A Pebble at Dawn by J Bradley Minnick

What most disturbed Ben Sykes about his present situation was how it had crept up on him: Ben had lost his home, his wife, and he had thrown away his job. He wasn’t able to say which one thing brought him to this—the world was certainly a more complex and complicated place than placing blame on one thing. If it wasn’t for his ex-mother-in-law, Mrs. Edna Ferbish, allowing Ben to stay with her, well.

Edna had always liked Ben. She doted on him far more than Jonelle, her daughter, whom Edna fought with like a cat. “Two women cannot co-exist in the same house,” Edna had told him. “Beware, Ben. This is an incontrovertible truth.”

Soon after Ben began living with Edna, he noticed her hatred of traditional holidays. On Christmas, for instance, there was no tree, no stockings, no lights, no bread pudding, no fruit cake, no mistletoe—instead, they ordered Wok & Roll: bourbon chicken, fried rice, and cold sesame noodles. The New Year went unacknowledged, too; there was no sparkling wine, no popping of corks, no throw-away plastic cups, no pointy hats, no air horns, no streamers—there was no pork and sauerkraut, either. Instead, Edna made corn dogs on a stick and poured Ben a Coke.

Similarly, there were no Easter eggs, no baskets, no fake grass, no bonnets, no Easter dresses, no Cadbury Eggs; there were never birthday cakes, and forget about candles.

Edna did, however, acknowledge Memorial Day, D-Day, Armistice Day, and the day the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was signed. She wore an armband to celebrate V-J Day; however, she busily crossed her arms begrudging the date of the Cuban Missile Crisis saying it wasn’t a real holiday. From a distance, perhaps, only acknowledging war holidays was something that Ben hoped to be able to laugh at later. But, Thanksgiving dinner was still spaghetti at the Gab & Eat, and the year passed without a single resolution.

Ben tried to celebrate in little ways: he bought a good processed turkey, but Edna fed it to the birds; he brought a poinsettia, but Edna set it ablaze and left it burning on the porch; he dragged into the house a little Christmas tree, but Edna sawed in two with a Shun knife. 

“I took a test at the Senior Center on the Interweb, and I’ve learned I’m in the 3rd circle of Hell,” Edna announced one day in May. Then she followed up and said, “Can a woman rightly be called a dick? That’s what Karen Knoll called me while there.”

Ben Sykes spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what was wrong with his ex-mother-in-law but soon began to realize, all things being equal, the simplest answer was most likely: she was crazy as a cartoon. He made an appointment with Dr. Mitchell.

“Complicity and duplicity” Edna said over-and-over after Ben Sykes had managed to coerce her out of the house, “D-Day is on the way, Ben, and I have to attend to setting up the tubs for the boats and soldiers.”

The television remained eternally on and very loud. As a joke, Ben bought a pointy foil hat for the anniversary of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty but Edna said, “Live free or die,” and tossed the hat into the fireplace and poured on the creosote.

In late August when they pulled up in front of a rather nondescript building, Edna refused to get out of the car—wouldn’t unbuckle her seat belt. “Don’t imagine that I don’t know exactly how this looks, but I don’t quite see how even my own ex-son-in-law can make me go in there. It’s not like I’ve violated parole.” Edna sat in the car for about fifteen minutes, staring ahead and not acknowledging him. Then, she opened the car window and yelled at the building, “This used to be in the same spot where they made Talk-of-the-Town Bread. Sometimes the loaves arrived at the store so fresh that the bread was still warm within the plastic wrapper.” With that, Edna closed the window and said, “Let’s reschedule this shrink-wrapped visit, Ben. I’ll promise you I’ll go in next time if we can drive away to the Gab & Eat. I have a hankering for butter squash soup and rare roast beef on multi-grained bread.”

On the second visit, Edna said she was too embarrassed to eat the brown bag lunch Ben had packed: a grilled cheese sandwich, an orange and hard-boiled egg with a small packet of salt. Edna remained in the car and said, “Doctor Bedbug will think I’m an immigrant eating congealed American cheese on toast that tastes just like flesh!”

“On the third trip, Ben stood under a large emblematic umbrella out in the rain while Edna spit out the side window of the car and recounted how she always pickled relish as a sandwich spread on Memorial Day. Then, she mused aloud that her pickled sandwich spread had clogged a lot of hearts.

On the fourth visit, Edna talked about how in the 8th grade, she had developed the taste for eating crayons, as many as twenty in one sitting. “I still sometimes go to the Dollar Store and drool,” she said, “and sometimes I still can’t resist chewing on colored paper.”

One day in early October after a particularly violent storm, Ben Sykes returned home to find their outdoor garage had blown down. Edna stood at the screened door and said, “Thank God for large and small miracles—for crayons and waxed paper and cliché’s, and Ben watch out for that sink hole the rain seems to have uncovered.”

Ben tried to fill in the large and scary sinkhole but the dirt he pitched in was immediately swallowed up with no end in sight. “Did you use calcified dirt or gravel?” Edna said when Ben, dirty and disheveled, found his way to the table for dinner: “Gravel is in the garage; I should have told you before.”

As the days passed, Edna seemed to remember more about the past and observe less of the present. She couldn’t remember her pill schedule, but could remember recipes of long-lost pies and breads and miscellaneous facts about her family history. “One signed the Declaration of Independence, and the other didn’t see fit to allow black and white children in the same schools. I’m here to tell you, Ben. I’m proud and not proud of it all.” No detail escaped her: an errant thread on Ben’s shirt was snapped off like a spider web, a button about to lose itself was plucked off his coat like a wandering eye, and in-seams were redoubled before they tore free. Ben found Edna’s triumphs of attention to the future’s little disasters all rather disturbing. And, he was embarrassed the fifth time he had to cancel on Dr. Bedbug. The receptionist, who had been rather kind and understanding of the four previous cancellations, said, “You know, Mr. Sykes, each cancellation on Dr. Mitchell comes with a charge, and up until this time, I was able to wave the fee, but I’m just not going to be able to do that anymore. We have the right to refuse service!”

Ben Sykes knew Edna would eternally refuse to get out of the car, but he continued to drive her out to the nondescript building. Predictably, his ex-mother-in-law would make up some excuse, refuse to take off her seat belt, and, then, after about fifteen minutes and another story about bread, together they would go to the Gab & Eat.

Ben actually worried that one day Edna might run out of stories about pies (Rhubarb, Custard, Snowball) and bread (Pineapple, Ginger and something she called Aloft) and forget why she came and suddenly get out of the car. And in this worry, Ben Sykes began to realize that he had not-so-suddenly become a middle-aged man, who lived with his ex-mother–in-law. He was afraid this fact would overshadow all that he might well in the future accomplish. 

“I’ve lived in this house for going on 60 years and have decided that I will die here,” Edna said while she stood in the small hallway during an undecorated Halloween. No candy, no rubber bats, no plastic pumpkins filled to the brim with fun-size candy—“Nothing fun about ‘em,” Edna said after ignoring another knock at the door. “I just wanted you to know about the dying part, Ben because I don’t think that I have said that before.”

Ben had an ornery streak when it came to the Kingdom of Death, yet he tried to curb this instinct and said, “Just smile and keep quiet, Mom. The trick-or-treaters you’re ignoring will know we’re in here and toilet paper and egg the house.” Through the symbolic gesture of his empty hands Ben tried to prove that he, unlike the hooligans waiting with open maws for fun-size bars, meant no harm.

“You have a mean streak, Ben,” was all that Edna said.

One evening to celebrate Liberation Day, they went to a fancy Italian Restaurant two towns away. Edna complained about the uncomfortable plastic wicker chairs and refused to eat her Bolognese when she overheard a thin man who stood at the front door say that his wife was presently in the emergency room having her stomach pumped after having had a reaction to the sauce. Edna’s dinner sat there congealing while Ben ate the salad, his pasta, two orders of bread, and gelato.

Edna watched him eat and said, “I don’t want to make a scene, Ben.” Then she had the nice waiter wrap up her dinner and promptly she disposed of it, dropping it into the first receptacle she could find on the street. 

J Bradley Minnick

Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay 

7 thoughts on “A Pebble at Dawn by J Bradley Minnick”

  1. Hi there,
    Great to see this on the site today.
    I love Edna!
    She is cantankerous and set in her ways but what a legend!!!!


  2. Hello Brad

    Although civilization seldom varies from the plan, individual persons keep things interesting. I like Edna, but would not live with her. Excellent work. Congratulations on your second appearance with us!


  3. Edna is a great character – so well drawn and detailed. Her psychotic burning of a house plant is brilliant. Excellent writing that left me wanting to know more about Edna and why she is like this and how the pretty oddball relationship between her and Ben continues.


  4. Absolutely loved this little gem! Brad, what a fantastic opening hook, you had me from the very beginning! The world is indeed a complicated place and what is even more telling than that statement is the fact that we can all, at least I know I can, empathize so very strongly with how our current situations can mimic the crazy state of affairs that Ben finds in his collapsing world.
    There are so many beautiful images and sentences here that I can’t even begin to start sharing my appreciation over and the character of Edna is such a beautifully constructed and wonderfully funny picture of villainy and psychosis!
    What other character have I read about or heard about that has only celebrated war holidays and has such a disdain for holidays in general, well, actually none. Lol. What a deft touch that was! That alone appeals to me on a couple different levels and in a twisted way makes her character strangely appealing. I love the inner play of Edna and Ben and had to laugh at the idea of five doctor visits that lead on a road to nowhere and the unceremonial dumping of dinner at the end of the story into a nondescript trash can. What a perfect illustration of Edna and her callous embrace of life as a ho hum affair devoid of even thinking that it could be truly special. Ah, Brad you have constructed such a joy and a happy moment in my mind and heart over this one! Thank you for letting me into their little world and I can’t wait to explore more to come in this evolving relationship tapestry. Bravo, my man! 👍✌️🥂


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