Lonesome Prairie

Holding a cup of hot green tea, Marie sat in a white wicker chair on her front porch and watched the fading sunlight cover the Badlands formations in pastel shades of gold. She took a sip of the tea and then inhaled the aromas of prairie grass and dry earth. With oncoming twilight the line of cars on the road in front of her property going into the Badlands National Park was thinning out. Most drivers had turned on their headlights and they shone like dull candlelight in the diminishing daylight.

The phone rang in her living room and for a moment she considered ignoring it. She placed the tea on the stand next to the chair and slid her feet into her fuzzy green slippers then stood and opened the door and went into her house. Long shadows had begun to fill the living room so she turned on the lamp on the end table next to the sofa and picked up the phone’s receiver.

“Hello,” she said cheerily.

A dial tone buzzed in her ear.

She placed the receiver back on the phone’s cradle and returned to the porch. After picking up the cup of tea she stood at the porch railing and watched a large brown hare hop through the tall prairie grass in her front yard until it was out of sight. As if a black curtain was slowly being lowered on the landscape, the formations and the road became lost in the blackness of night. Only the headlights of a fewer number of cars could be seen.

A coyote’s bark from the small canyon on the other side of the road echoed in the dark. She went back into her house and closed the door and took the empty cup into the kitchen. At the sink, as she ran the cup under the water, she stared out the open window at the expanse of prairie covered in the blanket of night. A warm, gentle breeze flowed in and tousled the loose, gray curls that circled her wrinkled face.  She turned off the water and placed the cup in the dish drainer and returned to the living room.

After sitting on the sofa she picked up the television remote and turned on the television. Flipping through the channels, several were only screens of grainy black and white with no discernible images. Unable to find anything to her liking, she turned it off and picked up a magazine from the coffee table and sat back and began flipping through the pages.

When there was a knock on her front door, she said aloud, “Who could that be?”

She put the magazine on the arm of the sofa and went to the door. She flicked on the porch light then opened the door. No one was there.

“I must be hearing things,” she thought.

She closed the door and turned off the porch light and went back to the sofa. Sitting down, she again picked up the magazine. A short time later she fell sound asleep with the magazine open in her lap.

In the middle of the night she suddenly opened her eyes, startled awake by her phone ringing. She picked up the receiver and before saying anything heard the dial tone.

“Those darn Appleby children making nuisance calls again,” she thought.

She placed the receiver back on the cradle and looked down at the magazine. It was open to a photo of a crowded street in New York City. “Not for me,” she mumbled as she closed the magazine and placed it on the coffee table and stood up and stretched. Her slippers made a sh sh sound as she walked across the hardwood floor and parted the curtains and gazed out the plate glass window. A quarter moon had risen and its light had transformed the formations into what looked like dark blue pieces of layer cake. There were no vehicles on the road. A light tan and white fox was sitting in the middle of the gravel of the long driveway that led from the road to her house. She tapped her fingers loudly on the glass. The fox looked her direction and then bounded into the grass.

She turned off the lamp and climbed the stairs to the second floor and went into the bathroom and pulled the string to the ceiling light filling the bathroom with a soft white glow. At the sink she stared at her reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror and pushed her curls back from her lined forehead. It never ceased to amaze her that she had grown old without being aware of it while it was happening. She brushed her teeth, peed, then turned off the light and went to her bedroom and turned on the light.

Opening the window she inhaled the fragrant night air. Coyotes howled and barked in the distance. The prairie grass shifted in the breeze, forming ripples and currents in the moonlight.

After changing into her nightgown she shut off the light, kicked off her slippers, and pulled down the handmade quilt on her bed and climbed under the sheet and laid looking up at the darkness above her bed. Just before falling asleep she heard the brief sound of a car’s horn echoing from far away.

Morning sunlight streamed through the window. Marie lazily opened her eyes and turned to watch the white sheer curtains fluttering in the warm breeze. She got out of bed, put on her slippers and went to the window and watched as a small herd of buffalo crossed the grasslands inside the boundary of the park. A meadowlark perched on a fencepost along the edge of her property warbled melodically then flew off.

She turned away from the window and muttered to herself, “Before I forget.” She picked up the receiver to the phone on the stand next to her bed and pushed the numbers for Delilah Appleby. “She needs to know what her children are doing in the middle of the night,” she thought. It rang and rang but no one picked up. She placed the receiver back on the cradle and left the bedroom and went down the stairs. Before turning to go back to the kitchen she gazed out the window in the door. There weren’t many cars on the road.

She paused for a moment to think why that was, then her phone rang.

She went into the living room and picked up the receiver.

“Is anybody there?” a female voice asked.

“I’m here,” Marie said. “Who are you calling?”

“Is anybody there?” the caller repeated.

“Who is this?” Marie said.

There was a click and then the dial tone.

Marie put the receiver back on the cradle and went into the kitchen.  She put fresh coffee in the pot then put it on the stove and turned on the burner. Picking up an orange from a bowl in the middle of the table she peeled it while looking out the window. A white tail deer was making its way through the tall grass.

There was a knock on her front door. She laid the orange on the sink and went to the front door and looked through the window and saw no one. She stepped out on the porch and looked around. Before going back in the house she noticed again how few vehicles were headed to and from the park. She went back to the kitchen and turned off the stove and poured coffee into a white porcelain cup and placed it on a saucer and picked up the orange and went into the living room. After sitting on the sofa she placed the peeled orange on the saucer and with one hand held the coffee cup, taking small sips, and picked up the television remote control. Channel after channel was nothing but gray and black snow. Finally she found one station. A man’s face was pushed against the screen.

“Is there anybody out there?” he kept repeating.

Marie sat the saucer with the orange on the coffee table and carrying the cup of coffee she got up and went to the window. A flock of geese were flying in a v formation over the canyon. A car was stalled on the road and the few others behind it were going around it.

When the phone rang it startled her and she dropped the cup, spilling coffee on her nightgown and slippers. The cup shattered when it hit the floor.

“Damn,” she muttered.

She went to the phone and cautiously picked it up. “Hello,” she said tentatively.

“Is anybody there?” the same female voice as before said.

“I’m here,” Marie said. “Who is this?”

“Is there anybody there?” the caller repeated.

“This is Marie Thompson. If you need help you should call the police. I’m just an elderly woman who lives on the prairie,” she said.

“Is there anybody there?” the caller said.

Marie hung up. She stared at the phone for a moment then picked it up again. She pushed the number for the sheriff’s office in Wall. It rang and rang but no one answered. She placed the receiver back on the cradle and glanced at the man on the television who was still asking, “Is anybody out there.”

She went back to the front door and peered out the window before opening it and stepping out onto the porch. She looked toward the formations. In the bright morning sunlight they were orange under a bright baby blue sky. She walked down the three steps to the paved walkway that led to her house from her driveway. Standing there she looked toward town. It was too far to be seen, but it reassured her knowing it was there. She glanced toward the stalled car and wondered where the driver had gone. Before going back up the steps she watched a green grasshopper climb a blade of prairie grass.

Back in the house she closed the door and then picked up the pieces of the cup and carried them into the kitchen and threw them in the waste basket. She took off her slippers and nightgown, and in only in her panties, put the nightgown in the sink and turned on the faucet. As the sink filled with water, immersing the nightgown, she wiped the coffee from her slippers with a dish rag. She put the slippers back on and turned off the faucet. Leaving the nightgown to soak she left the kitchen and climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

As she dressed she looked at the framed photographs on the wall of her family. Her favorite was of her only son holding his newborn baby girl. Standing in front of the mirror on her vanity dresser she adjusted the red belt on her floral summer dress and then put on a pair of white pumps. She picked up the phone receiver and pushed the buttons to his number in Chicago. It rang and rang but nobody answered.  She put the receiver back in the cradle and left the bedroom and went back down stairs. She took the car keys off the hook by the door and looked at the coffee stain on the floor in front of the window and thought, “later,” and opened the door and went out.

Going to her car parked in the driveway she saw that another car was also stalled in the road, blocking the end of her driveway. Walking down the driveway the gravel crunched beneath her pumps. The hot breeze played with the hem of her dress. At the car she peered in the open window. No one was in it but the radio was on.

“Is there anybody out there?” the radio announcer kept repeating.

She went behind the car and waved her arms trying to get someone to stop, but the very few cars coming her direction sped around her. The lane coming from the park was empty.

She put her hand to her eyes, shielding them from the glare of the bright sunlight and stared the direction of Wall. In her younger days she could have walked to it easily and often did, but she knew she would never make it now, especially in the heat. She walked back to the house and before going back inside stood on the porch and watched a flock of wild turkeys land in the grass on the other side of the road near the rim of the canyon.

Once inside and with the door closed she put the car keys back on the hook and went into the living room. The television screen was black and white snow. The phone rang and she quickly picked up the receiver and put it to her ear. Nothing but dial tone. She put the receiver back on the cradle and for the first time in her life felt terrified, but didn’t know of what or why.

She went back upstairs to her bedroom and took off her pumps and put on the slippers. Standing at the open window she saw more cars had stalled on the road. No vehicles were moving.

Looking at the formations they were pale yellow with the sun rising higher in the sky.

She sat on the edge of her bed and inhaled the aromas of the prairie. She removed her slippers and placed them on the floor by the bed and laid down.

When the phone rang, Marie was no longer there.

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photo by David Harms

author bio:

Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over sixty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He has traveled extensively but now lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time.