Hot Coals and Black-Eyed Peas

by Douglas Charles Jackson

Dad says he stopped by to see Mom and get some tools, but he missed her because he only knows her old schedule. Since he’s been spending all of his time over at Gran’s house, he hasn’t seen Mom bouncing through the house in a leotard, humming the theme from Flashdance. Brian and I haven’t been so lucky.

I’m too busy saving the world from alien invaders right this minute to explain to him that she’s down at the gym with Mrs. Tew for the 10 a.m. aerobics class. “She’s not here,” I say.

“Oh.” He watches alien ships explode for a minute before saying, “If you’re not too busy this week, can you drive over to Gran’s and help me with a few things?” There’s definitely sarcasm in his voice, but like shooting alien warships, ignoring Dad’s jabs gets easier with practice.

Dad leaves and Brian takes his position in the challenger’s beanbag, hitting the reset button. He selects two-player, and I don’t complain; my hours of practice are promising to pay off—doubly, since Middie follows up the stairs behind him. “Hi Charlie,” she says.

I keep my eyes on the screen, and tell myself the distraction tactic will not work. “Hey, Middie.”

The first round goes well. Then she starts to talk, continuing a conversation that she must have already been having with Brian, and my concentration waivers.

“Oh, look Charlie,” she says, interrupting herself. “One of those caterpillary things got you.”

“Yeah, Middie. I see that.”

“So what I was saying is, that it’s good luck to drink out of the fountain in the gazebo. Sandy said that if you drink from it, you’re supposed to make all A’s that year…or is it only good for a semester? I can’t—”

“Who cares?” Brian says, clearing the first round of invaders, not missing a beat of the conversation.

“Well,” Middie says, “Sandy said it didn’t work for him, but I drank from it anyway—I was thirsty—so the way I see it, I already have a leg up on the first semester.”

I ask the expected question, “When are you leaving for Chapel Hill?” and next to me, I can almost feel Brian’s restrained comments. It’s clear he doesn’t want her here now, and right as she says, “Forty days,” his ship is hit.

“In Ireland, our uncle kissed the Blarney Stone,” Brian says, “and said he got a really bad cold—sick for days. You’d better watch that stuff.”

I don’t know what uncle he’s talking about, but I tell Brian that he could use a drink of the grade stuff from that fountain. It doesn’t improve his mood any, or his concentration, and by the time Momma Fonda walks in, with matching terrycloth head and wrist bands, Brian’s lost the game.

Aerobics isn’t Mom’s only new interest. She got a stack of self-help books from the county library, others from the Waldenbooks in Raleigh. She’s always talking on the phone to Mrs. Tew, discussing their horoscopes, creating strategies based on star signs.

Mom says some nice things to Middie about the prom pictures, and catching her reflection in the mirror over the bar, she stands a little straighter. When I tell her that Dad was looking for her, she says, “Oh?” and then, as if feigning distraction, “I wasn’t here.”


Dad stops by twice more, missing Mom both times, before I’m able to make it over to Gran’s. Everything is different when I get there. The air is filled with dust, dropcloths cover a floor littered with tools and scrap pieces of wood, and the air is taut with the smell of shellac and wood stain. Dad’s wearing goggles and a mask, and is kneeling on the staircase sanding a baluster. “Hey, sport,” he says without looking up.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Sanding her up,” he says. “She’ll be a beauty when we’re done.”

“I’ve got dinner,” I say, carrying the vegetarian casserole that Mom sent with me into the kitchen, and on the way, I notice that like every piece of molding, framing, and detail work appears to be undergoing a precise and rigorous revitalization process, which seems to be a lot of work on a house that’s listed for sale. I lift the lid of the dish and, leaning over the kitchen table, sniff something that’s got to be entirely too healthy.

“Any offers on the house yet?” I say when I’m back in the hall.

He doesn’t answer for a minute, then asks, “Ready to hang some doors?” like he hasn’t heard me. I notice the stack of wood doors in the dining room, the sawhorses, the orange extension cord, the piles of hinge pins. It’ll take hours.

“You’ve been busy,” I say. I touch a door, running my hand over smooth wood. Occasionally, there’s a bit of dust or some particle that forms a bump, enough to make me want to scratch it off, but not enough to make my fingers stumble. The grain of the dark wood is deep and distinct. I try again: “Any offers yet?”

He steps down, making a show of stretching his legs. He lifts the goggles. “It’s already been sold.”

I tilt my head toward him. “Who…”

“Your Aunt Maureen and I worked with the attorney to meet your Grandmother’s requirements, and then I bought out Mo’s half. I’m going to surprise your mother with it.”

He’s pleased with himself. The look on his face shows it, and he seems content, standing there, covered in wood dust, like a kid about to go back to a favorite toy. I can almost see the image in his mind, one with Mom installed in Gran’s house. Finally, she’s an undeniable piece of Campbell Run, living in the town’s landmark Queen Anne Victorian, but making it her own. I add an aerobics studio and séance room in the carriage house and smile, a contribution to Dad’s pool of enthusiasm. I am enthused. I’m glad for it. I want to wish him luck, but that doesn’t seem entirely the right sentiment. I want to say I’m rooting for you, for us.

If you really do, like they say, get what’s coming to you, Mom has certainly put up with enough to get to this point, dotting her i’s and crossing her t’s while Gran was around, and it was never enough. Of course, everyone has biases, but as she got worse, Gran made no effort to hide hers. Yet Mom persevered. Then Gran’s will, and the mandated estate sale. Dad’s recent moods and drinking. Mom must be beginning to wonder: What has she done to deserve it? What hasn’t she done to ward it off?

We do think in those terms. We count black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to estimate the money that will come to us in the coming year. The horseshoe over Gran’s back door is still hung so the luck won’t run out. There are things we can do, lest we get our due. Mack snuck a kiss from Middie Townson under the scaffolding at the grocery store, and the next day, a can of paint fell on his head, causing the star pitcher to miss the regional playoffs. Does the scaffolding count as a ladder walked under, or was the illicit act enough to cause the downfall of the cocksure? When we’re up against it, we wonder what hand we had making our beds.

Dad stops by the house again the next day. He asks if I’ve requested the time off to go to the beach next week, the family vacation to air as previously scheduled. I tell him yes and that he’s missed Mom. I think about his news for her, wondering quietly if the effort’s not too late, like crossing your fingers after the fact.


At work, Barbara’s been distracted, and it’s not just the three days of rain that she knows is killing business at the golf course, bringing her numbers down; there’s something more. “A big box of shirts was dropped off at the house yesterday,” she says, rearranging a display pile of wooden golf tees for the fifth time. “They put my name on the top line, and I guess Bob didn’t even look at the address before delivering the mail. If this rain holds up, let’s you and me close for a bit this afternoon and run get them.”

I tell her sure, and then we wait out the morning, Barbara quiet throughout. I’ve gotten a little stir crazy, thoughts running through my head. I almost ask her two or three times and then reconsider. I’m relieved when the lock clicks shut behind us and we head to her car.

Finally, in the car, she says, “Charlie, I’m leaving.” I think she means work, and I say something about her boss, Mr. Temple, who I know she doesn’t like a whole lot. “No,” she says, “I’m moving away. On my own.” Tears well in her eyes. “I’m going to go back down to Wilmington.” We’re both quiet the rest of the way to her house. It’s no secret around the club that Will’s been seeing someone else. It’s been behind her back, but just barely.

Once we get to her house, I carry the box out to her car and step back inside. There are sheets and a pillow stacked at the end of the couch, and I figure that’s where one of them’s been sleeping. Barbara’s back in the bedroom or bathroom or something so I stand in the middle of the room, imagining their breakup. Arguments at the dinette set in the kitchen, cold looks across the living room. On the letter writing desk, there’s a copy of the I Ching, and I know it’s Barbara’s because she’s talked about it before, as well as the year she spent at Duke taking Chinese classes. I know she uses the book, throwing sticks or coins, or pointing at a page and reading it like a farmer might read the almanac. I open the book at random and read:

The Judgment:
Influence. Success.
Perseverance Furthers.
To take a maiden to wife brings good fortune.


I think about Dad, the idea of sticking to it, and the fact that the book is far older than the Bible, but younger than the caves in France. It’s good to give things order. But it’s rare that it actually clarifies anything.

“That’s a good one,” Barbara says. I didn’t hear her come into the room, and before I can close the book, her fingers are in it, pointing at the dashed and solid lines, trying to explain what they mean, the importance of the words. “Nine in the third place means: / The influence shows itself in the thighs / Holds to that which follows it. / To continue is humiliating.”

The words stop there, but she keeps going: “Commentary: sometimes you got to keep it in your pants. Right Charlie?” She turns without looking at me, and I don’t know what to say, so I just put the book down. “Right, Will?” she says in an angrier tone to the wedding picture that hangs above the chord organ.

Then, looking back to me, she says, “Hold off until the time is right.” And it’s not really an opening in the conversation, but I think there’s safer ground in sight. Well, marginally safer. So I say, “Barbara, were you out at Hitchens’ Lip last weekend?

She gives a half-laugh, and says, “Yeah, wasn’t that silly?”

I don’t understand the laugh, and she must see the lack of comprehension in my face.

She exhales. “I was out on a walk, and your father and I ran into each other. We started to talk. We’ve talked before and I guess we’re both finding ourselves in strange waters right now. When he saw your dog on the trail, he didn’t want you to know I was there. He didn’t want you to think the wrong thing. It was a little crazy, but I figured it wasn’t my decision to make.”

I laugh a little, and say, “I thought something was weird. For a minute…”

“Don’t even say it, Charlie,” she says, shaking her head. “He’s not my type.”

I feel a big sense of relief, like a valve’s been opened, and I tell myself that I never believed it for a second. But then I see she’s still looking at me. “But you, Charlie, you’re a different story.”


We each have our own relationship with fortune, the stake we put into oracles, the degree to which we run to fate. Gran always said hot coal pops toward you, and it means you’re going to get a letter. Do I hope when I check the mailbox each day that there’s a letter from Colin Gibbs? Do I seek out popping coals?

Local folks used to say that mermaids swim up the Cape Fear River to wash the salt water from their hair, making their way to a sandy spot not that far north of here, at the confluence of the Deep and Haw Rivers. Dad took us there once. He said that his own Daddy had taken him there when he was a boy. Papa Hamilton showed Dad what was being shown to us, and Dad said that the sight that day made him want to join the Navy, to be a sailor and see the world. Apparently, he saw more than we did.

Since then, I’ve read that sailors considered mermaids to be bad luck, and like the sirens who sang so beautifully, they could foretell your death at the hands of the sea. I figure the people who go up to Mermaid’s Point looking for them must have their feet firmly planted on the ground, or else they like to push their luck. Sometimes you can’t help but get into water over your head. Sometimes you can’t help yourself.


The next day, Brian’s still avoiding Middie, and even if he hasn’t found out about her and Mack, or her and Colin (whatever there is to know, and I’m still not sure what that is), he knows something is up. He’s acting distant toward her, and while I’m more practiced now, probably experienced enough to offer him some tips on dodging her and the half-hearted advances she threw around earlier this spring, in this case, it’s the maiden who’s persistent. She follows me around the country club pool trying to get me in the middle of it. “Charlie,” she says, “I really do care about your brother.”

I nod and say, “Sure you do, Middie, I’m just not getting involved. Tell him yourself.” I move from beneath the hand she placed on my shoulder, away from her, putting the low dive between us. A couple of kids splash in the deep end, and the sun is still high in the sky. I can feel myself perspire, a tickle under my arm, adding yet more moisture to the air. Six months ago, this scenario would have been fuel for winter classroom fantasies, but I now sense the danger that runs through it; all I need is for Brian to think that it was me pulling Middie from him the last couple of weeks. “Gotta go, Middie.”


At points it seems that all the world’s movements are choreographed, putting you in the right place at the right time, like events build to a fated end, and in those times, it’s as if the air is charged, particles pushing against each other, pushing you toward that end. Luck, or something like it, is with you. And you aren’t surprised when it happens. Moving from Middie, crossing the expanse of poolside concrete, I think that being able to say no to Barbara yesterday was what needed to happen to really push me beyond Middie. I feel sure, confident.

The stars lined up to make it work out this way. I see that now, and strong as an ox, I swing open the back door to the storeroom, avoiding the pro shop, resisting temptation, trying to give Barbara as wide a berth as possible, putting Middie behind me.

Once the door is closed and my eyes adjust, I see Barbara at the other end of the storeroom. She’s changing clothes beneath a bare bulb, and she doesn’t seem surprised to see me; she doesn’t turn away. Within a circle of light, her loosened hair falls, draping her shoulders, and framing two soft hemispheres. Everything is still. The jumble of shouts and splashes outside and the flurry of voices in my head all reduce to a complex silence broken by the simple sound of a sigh. She looks directly at me. She steps out of her swimsuit. She opens her arms, and it’s as if she’s offering me the world.

Douglas Charles Jackson lives and writes in Roanoke, Virginia. His work has been acknowledged with the Tennessee Writers Alliance Short Fiction Award, the James Andrew Purdy Award for Fiction, and the Bay to Ocean Fiction Award. His stories have been included in Haunted Voices, Haunting Places: An Anthology of Writers of the Old and New South, The Delmarva Review, Pilgrimage, and Clay Bird Review. He is a graduate of Duke University; the University of California, Irvine; and the creative writing program at Hollins University.