A Sneeze Away

Ralph was actually doing his homework when the cheers and whistles and clapping caught his attention, dragging it away from the tedious task of memorizing all the nation’s capitals. As far as Ralph was concerned, his life had abruptly changed – and quite for the worse – when his mother announced late in August that they were moving to island off the Pacific Northwest coast. It was bad enough that Ralph was a chubby, bespectacled bookworm of a 5th grader, but to be so precipitously moved from his comfortable urban Seattle apartment to a tiny coastal town reachable only by ferry was the height of ignominy, as far as he was concerned.

He tried to be patient with the move and with his mother, Ellen, who was working two jobs to make ends meet. After his father died, his mother had been left with a stack of medical bills, no insurance, and no family to help her. She had worked part-time during their marriage as a waitress, but there simply wasn’t much work to be found in Seattle and she didn’t like leaving Ralph alone all night to work a graveyard shift.

An old college friend of Ellen’s had heard about her difficulties through the grapevine, and called Ellen up to offer her a job managing the small coffee shop he owned. He helped Ellen find a small, clean apartment and was flexible with Ellen’s hours so she could take a second job to start paying down the bills. One of the best things about his mother’s job, Ralph thought, was that it came with a free meal each day. But, he could tell his mother was weighed down with sadness and fear – and he simply didn’t know what to do about it.

Ralph squinted into the sun, and saw a small crowd of people dancing and marching down the streets, waving some sort of noxious yellow weed. He scratched his head and moved to the curb, leaving his geography book and map lying on the table.

An elderly couple looked up from their game of tiddlywinks – a game Ralph knew nothing about beyond its name, and could have cared less to know anything about anyhow – and the grizzled man slapped his knee and roared with laughter.

“Well, Martha,” he said, “looks like they have crowned a Scotchbroom Queen.”

“About time,” Martha wheezed. She had a nose plug feeding oxygen into her laboring lungs, racked by years of passionate chain smoking. Not that the oxygen tank slowed down her smoking any. “That nasty smelling weed has been blooming for at least a week now.”

“Excuse me,” Ralph ventured cautiously. “What is a Scotchbroom Queen?”

“Just a little local fun, kid,” the old man replied. “Hustle out there and wave some scotchbroom with ‘em. You look like you could use the exercise, anyhow.” The man gave a chuckle and Martha smacked the man’s arm.

“Henry!” she said, warningly.

Ralph glared at the man and started to head back to his table when he hear his name called from among the crowd. Turning, he squinted through his glasses and gasped in surprise. His mother was riding in the back of a pickup truck, a wreath of the yellow weed in her hair and a hideous bouquet of the same noxious smelling flower cradled in her arm. Ralph squeezed through the laughing crowd and paced next to the slowly moving truck.

“Mom, what are you doing?” he exclaimed in surprise.

“Come up, Ralph,” Ellen held her hand out to Ralph, and then he felt strong hands lifting him up into the back of the truck and a voice booming, “And here’s the Scotchbroom Prince!” A ragged old hat with a sprig of the stuff stuck in the band was thumped down on his head and the people cheered.

Shyly, Ralph smiled back, looking up at his mom. Ellen was beaming ear-to-ear – happier than Ralph could remember seeing her since about first grade when his father grew so ill. Ellen wrapped her arm about her son and hugged him close as he started to sneeze mightily from the scotchbroom.

A dancing lady next to the truck winked at Ralph and handed him a kleenex. With a grin, Ralph honked his nose mightily and started waving to the people lining the streets with a jaunty air. Perhaps everything was going to be okay after all. It was probably just a sneeze away.

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