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Issue number nine




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The White House by Barbara Herrick

She expected company at the white house. Sometimes she waited on the long, wide porch pushing the creaky swing with her bare feet and admiring the Red Maple tree shading the spring-fed well in the front yard, but usually she hunkered on her knees in the big, dark kitchen scrubbing the faded flowers of the linoleum and hoping the floor dried before the company came calling. She kept a hearty dinner warm in the black oven and a coffeepot percolating on a burner atop the wood-burning stove. Welcoming aromas wafted from the clapboard farmhouse.

During that winter, when she woke from a dream of the white house, mouth watering, she longed to go back to sleep and check under the lid of the porcelain pot.

She explored the white house. She discovered countless closets, storage areas, pantry shelves, and attic spaces to be sorted through and scoured before the visitors arrived. With energy unknown in her waking hours, she swept and mopped and demolished cobwebs with exuberance. Meticulously, she sorted the odd sticks of furniture, the mismatched dishes, the canned foodstuffs, and the moldy linens, making clean what was usable and burning the rest in a metal barrel in the back yard. In between cleaning chores, she salted and stirred the meal in the oven.

If a span of sleep periods elapsed without a dream of the white house, she despaired she might not finish the preparations before the arrival of her visitors, and she worried they might not find another unsoiled place.

She pondered her purpose at the white house. On a summer night in full sun, while she scoured toilets and disinfected footed bathtubs, she perceived that the expected guests were her kinfolk. Catching her breath in the porch swing, she shaded her eyes and watched for the procession of aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws she seldom saw when awake. Standing to allow the breeze barely blowing across the porch to catch in the gathers and dry her dress, she smiled in anticipation of a reunion with her relatives.

Awake, in a modern, artificially cooled kitchen in springtime, she re-counted the gist of her serial dream to her mother, and the white-haired woman turned to her middle-aged visitor and said, "I used to have similar dreams."

Thereafter, her mother sometimes helped her work at the white house at night. The older woman added spices to the simmering caldron in the oven, and she kneaded bread in a wooden trough she stored in the flour bin. While yeast toiled, she guided the daughter through passageways and cubbyholes she discovered in years past. They took coffee breaks at the worn, wooden table in the kitchen and discussed how to most effectively dispel the mildew and smoke smells permeating the drafty rooms. Encumbered by their unaccustomed long dresses, they tied their cotton skirts together between their legs and worked in harmonious unison.

In the dream house, the mother explained to the daughter the reasons she suspected she was chosen to accomplish the mission of preparing the place, but the younger woman could not remember the revelation in her real life while attempting to nap on late summer afternoons in her unkempt living room.

Her goal at the white house remained on the horizon of her efforts. As time to receive her guests drew nearer, she cleaned harder and cooked faster, but new worries arose with the doggedness of dandelions. She brooded the babies would not be properly accommodated in the white house. She prayed the mothers and fathers of the babies would bring washable, cloth diapers because a television newscaster in her real world warned disposable diapers could not be burned in a trash barrel. For three nights in a row, she tore blankets into squares and hemmed them by hand in a rickety rocking chair in the shade of the breezeway.

While tragedy and turmoil pervaded her waking hours that autumn, and in light of the problems of the real world, the dreams seemed inane, so she and her mother seldom discussed the white house while awake.

Summer days persisted at the white house. The interminable dry heat impeded her efforts to terminate the tidying. Her arms became sore and swollen in her attempts to restore the view through the many windows, and she frequently rested her elbows on the sills and surveyed the surroundings, the yellow grass in the distance and the baked dust in the yard. A tire swing hung lonely from the Red Maple tree in the front yard, and more than once she put her head on her arms and cried at the thought of how much dirt the children would kick up and into the farmhouse.

Barely enduring the harsh set of circumstances displayed in the dull light of that late autumn, she gave her full attention to the white house and made notes while awake to remind herself of some chore she wanted to accomplish in her dreams.

One of her mother's many sisters dropped in one night to assist at the white house. She soon became distracted by the contents of the trunks they hauled downstairs from the stifling attic. In spite of her aversion to touching other people's possessions without permission, she joined her aunt in guessing games concerning the personalities of the trunk packers from clues they unfolded from the mothballed depths of the trunks. They wasted a night or two playing dress-up in the bright sunlight, and ultimately no objects or apparel were salvaged as serviceable for the visitors they expected shortly.

With the waking world in such despair and disarray, she chose that winter to devote her conscious and subconscious efforts to the preparation of the white house for occupation, and she effectively blocked the real world from her mind.

The company arrived at the white house. While working alone one sunny night, the hostess heard voices hailing her and looked out the back screen door to see her mother and her aunt leading the procession. Seven or eight adults and several bedraggled children tramped up the dirt driveway laden with supplies, and straggling clumps of figures marched the gravel road behind them. Although not ready to receive, she wiped her hands on her apron, put on a welcoming smile, and went out to greet them. Before the screen door slammed shut behind her, the weather changed, and the murky, winter drizzle eclipsed sight and sound of her company.

With the season aligned to real time, winter passed productively at the white house, and the twenty-two residents settled in companionably to await the arrival of spring.

She presided over her clan in the white house with an iron hand tempered by good intentions and a southern sense of hospitality. The first night was cold and confusing because everyone, including the hostess, slept in the white house for the first time. Soon, a comfortable bed or cot or pallet was fashioned for each member of the brood, and they slept comfortably. Soon, the four strongest men cleaned the fireplaces and laid back enough firewood from the neighboring woods to keep them warm all winter. By fairly and diligently doling out the food goods carried in by the company and salvaged from pantry shelves, she managed to stretch the supplies until early summer. Just when the garden was successfully planted with seeds brought by her mother and aunt, she began to occasionally dream of her old world. One morning at about the time the first tomatoes and cucumbers were showing red and green, she woke to winter in the life she thought she left behind.

After she and the real world failed, she never dreamed of the white house again, but she looked for it out the window of the bus transporting her through the scorched countryside after the holocaust, and she often told the others about the white house when they had trouble sleeping at night in the hot, crowded dormitories.

Barbara Herrick was born in December, 1951, in a very small town in Gibson County, West Tennessee. As soon as she figured out how to hold a pencil, she busied herself with writing and drawing. Folks in Trenton, Tennessee, advised her that she must see the places and people about which she wrote or painted scenes, so after college, also in West Tennessee, she set off to see the world with her soldier husband, making a family along the way. Now, after seeing said world, she lives by a river in Middle Tennessee and still relies solely on her imagination for her drawing and writing.

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