In this week's story, Ball Jar, grownups laugh at a funny word while a young girl colors an enchanted forest
Suggestions for writing prompts are always welcome! Today's prompt came from my friend Gretchen Schutte during a conversation about growing and canning tomatoes. You never know when inspiration will strike!
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/SusanQuilty)
Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 29 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Ball Jar
Before we get to today’s story, here’s a reminder of how my process works: I use a word or phrase as a prompt to write a story—with no planning and very little editing—and then I share that story with you.
Today’s prompt came from my friend Gretchen Schutte. We’d been talking about this podcast not long before our conversation shifted to gardening and canning tomatoes. Suffice it to say, at some point, Gretchen interrupted herself to suggest “Ball jar” for my next writing prompt, and I heartily agreed.
So, let’s get to the story.
Alicia spread her markers across the kitchen table, looking for just the right shade of purple. It was a huge pack of Crayola markers—50 colors—and Alicia was determined to use them all.
The picture she was coloring was one her grandma had drawn for her in light pencil on a large sheet of creamy construction paper. It showed an enchanted garden with vine-covered trees, woodland creatures, fairies, and mountains of flowers.
Alicia swung her feet below the table and stuck her tongue between her teeth as she puzzled over color combinations. Her grandma had taught her all about the importance of color combinations in making a picture look its most beautiful.
Alicia hadn’t told anyone, but she hoped to color this picture well enough to make it a gift for her second-grade teacher, Ms. Vogel. The parents had already gotten Ms. Vogel a gift card at the end of the school year, but Alicia felt that spending half the year in online classes had deprived her teacher of all the beautiful pictures she would have gotten if Alicia had been in school with her.
As she uncapped the lilac marker, Alicia heard a whoop of laughter from the kitchen island. Her mom always laughed a lot when Aunt Sheila was around, especially when they drank wine out of her grandma’s special pink glasses.
Alicia was also drinking from a special pink glass, but hers was filled with grape juice. Her grandma said grape juice tasted the way grapes should taste. Not like wine, which was just spoiled grapes.
When she said that, Aunt Sheila asked why she had the wine glasses at all, then smirked when she was told to shush. That was something else that happened a lot when Alicia’s mom and aunt got together. They laughed a lot and her grandma kept shushing them, but always with a laugh of her own.
Alicia did think it was fun to use the pretty glasses, but she was more intent on her coloring. She was so intent, she didn’t even notice when one of her flip-flops slipped to the floor, leaving one foot bare as her lower legs continued to swing.
Alicia’s mom and aunt sat on barstools along one side of the kitchen island. Her grandma bustled around the other side. Between them, the island was half-covered by the baskets of tomatoes they’d picked in the garden that afternoon.
As Alicia continued to color, her grandma rearranged the baskets to make space for a growing collection of pots, pans, and various utensils.
“I thought we were canning tomorrow?” Alicia’s mom questioned, pouring herself another glass of wine.
“We are. I’m just making sure we have everything.”
“We could use some more wine,” Aunt Sheila told her, pouring out the last of the bottle into her half-full glass.
Alicia’s grandma ignored Sheila as she thoughtfully frowned at the supplies she’d gathered.
“I’ll just need some help hauling up the Ball jars,” she told them, causing another peal of laughter.
“She needs help with her Ball jars!” Alicia’s mom giggled, putting a strong emphasis on the Ba sound at the beginning of the word.
“Gotta have the Ball jars!” Aunt Sheila agreed, repeating the popping Ba sound that made them both laugh.
Alicia finished the flower petals she’d been coloring and began testing green markers on a piece of scrap paper. She was barely listening to the grownups, but the phrase Ball jar had caught her attention.
She repeated it in her thoughts, using the same emphasis as her mom and aunt. B-all. B-all. Silently mouthing the word, she liked the way her lips popped around its starting sound.
Ball was a funny word, she decided, before selecting just the right green for the flower’s leaves.
“Where are the B-all jars?” Aunt Sheila asked innocently, while Alicia’s mom continued to giggle.
Alicia’s grandma did not seem to think it was such a funny word, though she rolled her eyes and let a small smile show before saying they were in the basement.
“The B-all jars are in the b-asement!” Alicia’s mom shrieked, making both Bs pop.
“B-all,” Alicia echoed without thought, catching the attention of all the grownups.
“See what you’ve done?” her grandma asked with an exasperated sigh. “You’re corrupting a minor.”
Alicia looked at them quizzically and went back to coloring. She didn’t know what corrupting meant, but she knew a minor was someone who went into a cave and used a pickaxe to find diamonds. Like the dwarves in Snow White.
She scanned the drawing, looking for dwarves, but didn’t see any. She thought that was kind of strange since her grandma had one out in her garden. His name was Tippy and he wore a pointed orange hat and bright yellow boots.
“Why doesn’t Tippy have a pickaxe?” Alicia asked suddenly, breaking into whatever conversation the grownups were having.
Her grandma and mom answered at the same time, saying “What, dear?” and “Who’s Tippy?”
“You know!” Aunt Sheila jumped in. “That creepy little garden gnome by the azaleas.”
“Oh! That thing.”
“He’s not creepy,” Alicia insisted, looking up from her picture. “He’s Grandma’s garden helper, and if we scatter birdseed near him, he helps in the garden while Grandma’s asleep at night. Because he likes to watch the birds eat.”
“Why do you tell her things like that?” Alicia’s mom sounded annoyed, but Aunt Sheila patted her arm soothingly.
“Oh, let them have their fun. Let’s go fetch the Ball jars.”
Alicia watched her mom’s mouth soften from a tight line into a curve of laughter. She liked the way Aunt Sheila could always make her mom laugh.
As they left for the basement, Alicia frowned at her picture.
“Tippy’s not in this garden,” she told her grandma with a sigh.
“Oh, I can fix that!”
Her grandma fetched a pencil from the drawer by the phone and took a seat at the table.
“Where should we put him? Over here?”
Alicia agreed and sat back to watch her grandma sketch. As she waited, her mind went back to the Ball jars her mom and aunt had gone to get from the basement.
She didn’t know what a Ball jar was, but Alicia liked high-bounce balls very much. The small ones that she sometimes saw in gumball machines. Her grandma gave her a new one every time they came to visit, and her collection was impressive. Her favorites were the ones that were glittery and semi-transparent.
“Do they have balls inside?” Alicia squinted at her grandma’s surprised face.
“Balls?” she repeated in confusion.
“The Ball jars,” Alicia explained. “Is that where my balls come from?”
Her mom and Aunt Sheila walked in then, each carrying a cardboard box and both laughing loudly.
“Oh, honey,” Aunt Sheila giggled, “you don’t have balls.”
“Yes, I do!” Alicia fired back. “Grandma gives me one every visit!”
Her mom and aunt laughed harder, while her grandma shushed them more sternly.
“No, dear,” she answered kindly. “Ball jars are used for canning vegetables. They’re made by a company named Ball.”
Alicia accepted that answer and went back to coloring, not listening to the rest of her grandma’s long story about their family tradition of canning tomatoes or to her mom’s questions about why it’s called canning and not “glassing” since the jars are glass.
It wasn’t an interesting conversation and Alicia had to focus on her coloring. Still, she did think it was odd that Ball jars had nothing to do with her high-bounce balls. It would make more sense if they were filled with balls. Or somehow used to make balls…
“Grandma,” Alicia asked abruptly. “Where do balls come from?”
Aunt Sheila laughed so hard she nearly fell off her barstool. This time Alicia’s grandma and mom both shushed her, seeing the confusion on Alicia’s face.
“I mean, how are they made?” Alicia tried again.
“I’m not sure, dear. How do you think they’re made?”
Alicia thought about it. She guessed they were probably made in a factory, but that wasn’t a very fun answer. Her grandma was very big on fun answers.
“It would be cool if they grew on bushes,” Alicia grinned, feeling a warm glow as her grandma smiled widely.
“That would be cool!” she agreed. “Maybe they do.”
“Oh, mom,” Alicia’s mom sighed. “Stop filling her head with nonsense.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a little nonsense in life. You should know that!”
“Yeah, sometimes, when you know how to separate harmless nonsense from lies and magical thinking.”
“What’s wrong with magical thinking? We could all use some magic, too.”
Her grandma nudged Alicia with a cheery wink and got up to look over the Ball jars. Her mom shook her head and turned her attention on Alicia.
“It’s a fun idea, baby, and you have a great imagination. But high-bounce balls are made in a factory. We can look up a video tomorrow. There’s got to be one online somewhere. Okay?”
“Okay,” Alicia agreed, knowing her mom would forget all about the video by morning.
Alicia went back to coloring and didn’t stop until it was time for bed. The next day she had her first lesson in canning, and, at the end of the week, her mom took her home to the city.
A few months later, when Alicia was starting to feel both nervous and excited about starting third grade, a large package arrived with her name on it. The box was taped tightly and covered in stickers that said Fragile.
Alicia’s mom fetched a knife and helped her carefully open the package. Inside, they found a Ball jar firmly attached in a Styrofoam base. The Ball jar was filled with dirt and stuffed with life-like plastic branches decorated with high-bounce balls.
Laughing delightedly, Alicia admired the glittery, pastel balls while her mom fished out the card. It read: Dearest Alicia, Have fun in school, and always make time for some nonsense! Love, Grandma”
Thanks for listening. If you’d like to learn more about me and my novels, you can visit my website, SusanQuilty.com. You can also find me on social media or support me through my Patreon page.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]