STORIES VOLUME ONE

Preface

SHORT STORIES:

The Last Asteroid, by Robin Crawford

Revenge of a Father, by Michael Cook

Does Bigfoot Bury Its Dead? by L.T. Fawkes

WALLS, by Paul R. Buckle

Lela’s Game, by L.T. Fawkes

Missouri Story #1, by L.T. Fawkes

Ground Lights, by L. T. Fawkes

Summary of a Life, by L.T. Fawkes

Matthew, by L.T. Fawkes

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THE LAST ASTEROID

THE LAST ASTEROID
by Robin Crawford

1

Seven days ago, I stood on the end of the world and watched my girl Gidget go up in flames.

We were on a picnic. Gidget made the best ham salad sandwiches, even though there really was no such thing as ham anymore. No pigs. No animals at all. Animals had become a chapter in history books fifty years before I was born.

But back to the picnic. I had signed up for the spot months ago, hoping Gidget and I would still be together when my turn came. We were. I knew she was the one, with her one blue eye and one green eye, and the way her laugh made my skull tingle. And the way she didn’t mind that my eyes were both the same color – brown – and that when I laughed, children ran scared.

“No, they don’t, Henry,” she would tell me. “Children love you. Have you signed up for one yet?”

That’s why I loved Gidget. She could say the most outrageous things in the most innocent way. I could never scold her, though signing up for a child was the most personal, intimate act an adult could commit, and it was usually done with a partner.

Gidget was hinting, of course, and always fell quiet for awhile after I told her I hadn’t signed up for a child yet. That I was waiting.

But I had. I had signed up the day after Gidget and I met in line at the CHIP-checking station. She was standing in front of me talking to the friend who was with her. She laughed that skull-tingling laugh, and I knew right then and there this was the only person I could ever sign up for a child with.

I also signed up for the picnic spot the day I signed up for a child. It would only take months for the ten square foot patch of earth located next to Lake Yin, one of two remaining bodies of water in the world, to be available. And it was then I would tell Gidget, and we could spend the next several years waiting together for our turn for a child.

2

There was this mythical place called “paradise” people believed in centuries before my girl Gidget went up in flames. It was as remote a concept to us in the year 2712 as planet-hopping would have been to those ancient people.

The “state-of-mind” theorists of the twenty-third century had proven ideas such as paradise, hell, hunger, thirst, and even love were merely tricks one’s mind would play. We’d moved beyond that. Now we had total control. One could choose a state of hunger, or paradise, or pain, or pleasure.

It might be surprising to someone from outside our culture to know how many times people chose unpleasant states. But all things being transient and without substance, even sadness could be an entertainment. Contentedness replaced unrest in the world.

So I had decided to choose paradise. Sharing my life allotment of eighty years with Gidget was the state of mind I wished to dwell in for as long as I could. And sharing also with her the child who would one day be awarded to us would make it perfect.

The day we met, in line for the required yearly check of our EZ CHIP implants, Gidget met my eyes with her laugh and said, “I’m Gidget. What’s your name?”

I told her and she turned back to her friend. She didn’t say another word to me until I walked out the door of the station and reached into my Ziplok to program my Travelmate for home. She was suddenly in front of me.

“Henry.”

I was so startled I accidentally pushed the “send” button before I had finished entering the coordinates. I spent the next ninety seconds at the foot of my next door neighbors’ bed before I collected my thoughts and hit the “reverse” button.

Gidget never let me forget that. It was her favorite “silly Henry” story.

“I thought you didn’t want to talk to me, Henry,” she said. “Just disappearing like that.”

She laughed. Her one blue eye and one green eye sparkled. And the hair on top of my head stood on end. I was in love. It was the best state of mind I had ever chosen. And it seemed Gidget had picked the same one.

3

Anxiety was the least popular of all possible states. No one wanted to worry, no one wanted to feel the dread of anticipation. That’s why no one had been told about the last asteroid.

If I had known, would I have taken Gidget to the picnic spot? If I had known about the five-hundred square mile chunk of space detritus heading on its unstoppable path toward our planet, would I have done anything differently?

Probably not. Except I would have been in a state of sadness, of mourning. Time with Gidget might have been spent railing against the unfairness of the universe or attempting to find a solution, an escape. This would have been a useless waste of time.

Our planet was relatively young, but we who were left on it after the ravages of civilization had eliminated all but three species—man, palmetto grass, and cockroaches—were tired. Our scientists were worn out from learning everything about everything, from pulling our emaciated ball of dust out of one fire after another.

Changing the course of previous asteroids and finding cures for every imaginable disease had taken its toll. Now new diseases mutated unchecked on a regular basis and asteroids continued to target our tiny world.

I suppose this is why no one was told. Someone had made the decision not to tell since nobody had the energy anymore to make another rescue effort.

Gidget and I had just finished our sandwiches and she was laying out dessert. I pulled her to her feet.

“Henry,” she scolded, looking down. “You stepped on a Twinkie. You are so silly.”

So I stood there with my skull tingling and white goo all over my foot, holding Gidget’s hands. Suddenly the air around us grew warm and there was a roar and something began to happen to the small lake behind us. I didn’t know what was coming, but I knew I’d better hurry.

“Gidget, I signed up for a child. Would you like to share it with me? Oh yes, and by the way, I love you.”

She smiled, she laughed. I tingled. The world exploded. And Gidget went up in flames.

4

Afterwards I pieced together what happened. It was some sort of luck that I happened to be standing with my back to a deep body of water at the time. When the asteroid hit, I was lifted off my feet and buried face down in the muck at the bottom of Lake Yin.

A pocket of air allowed me to breathe. I woke up sputtering, nearly drowning, and finally fought my way to the surface. Nothing is what I saw.

For seven days I’ve wandered and still I’ve found nothing. Not even a cockroach. Now I’m tired. Now I’m ready to choose the final state of mind.

Robin Crawford’s book One Man’s Dark is available on Kindle at:
http://www.amazon.com/One-Mans-Dark-ebook/dp/B0054ZLGMC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1331702256&sr=1-1

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REVENGE OF A FATHER

by Michael Cook

Wisps of fog rose from the surface of the lake like ghosts rising from their final resting place, only to disappear on a wind that snatched multicolor leaves from their lofty perches. The leaves swirled around in colorful twisters until they floated to the forest floor and the surface of the lake. The smell of damp earth and pine needles filled the air.

A pair of woodsmen crouched on the bank, watching, listening. Birds sang and flitted about. Caleb Stewart looked at his son and was proud of what he saw. The young man of seventeen years had grown to be an excellent woodsman. Luke was smart like his mother and inquisitive like his father. At six-foot, three inches, he was a big man with a big heart.

“What are you looking at, Pa?”

“Ah, thought I saw a deer across the lake.”

Caleb glanced away, embarrassed at being caught staring. He deeply loved and cared for his family but putting it into words wasn’t something he was capable of doing.

The sound of a squirrel fussing stopped their conversation and the two men quickly slipped into the thick brush. They searched and listened to their surroundings. The squirrel fell silent and moved away through the treetops.

Caleb put his hand on Luke’s shoulder and signaled for him to move up the hill. The young man nodded, hefted his rifle, and silently crept away.

Luke took it as a compliment his father had such confidence in him. His father was known far and wide as an accomplished woodsman and Indian fighter and was respected for his bravery and courage. Caleb letting Luke take a separate trail showed him his father respected his ability as well. He had long since matured past any of the adolescent feelings that sometimes caused problems between a father and a son. Caleb’s confidence and respect meant a lot to Luke.

Caleb took the lower trail with his rifle at the ready. The last thing he wanted was to walk into a bear. Or worse. A bend in the trail loomed ahead so he moved ahead cautiously. He knew Luke was searching on the cliff which rose on his right. The brown, green, and burgundy of their clothing blended well with their surroundings and the fringed edges broke up their silhouettes. Like spirits, they made very little noise.

Caleb continued forward until he heard a blood-chilling noise – a chorus of war whoops. They were coming from above, up where . . .

“Luke!”

Caleb turned, only to be brought up short by the muzzle of a musket pointed at his face. On the other end stood a young Shawnee Indian. The warrior’s black eyes bored into him, and Caleb knew he was about to die.

Oh, God. Luke would die thinking his father hadn’t come to help. He couldn’t let this happen. But what could he do? He was helpless.

He saw the warrior’s finger tighten on the trigger. Caleb tensed, preparing for death. The Indian squeezed the trigger.

But no hot lead of death came from the musket. A harmless puff of smoke rose from the lock. A flash in the pan. Misfire!

Caleb acted, ducking to the right and pushing the muzzle to the left. At the same time, he unsheathed his hunting knife.

A slow burn! The musket fired and the shot grazed the side of Caleb’s shoulder. He ignored the pain. His solitary thought was to help Luke.

Caleb turned the knife edge down and plunged it into his attacker just below the Indian’s ribs. He drove it down, ripping him open to the waist. The warrior dropped his musket and grabbed his stomach. It was a useless attempt to stop the inevitable.

Caleb slashed again, cutting the warrior’s throat to stop the warning cry he was about to raise. The Indian fell and Caleb, sheathing his knife, was on him. He pulled the shooting bag and powder horn from the Indian’s body and slung both over his left shoulder. He grabbed the musket and his own rifle and then ran as fast as he could to where Luke had ascended the hill.

Caleb slung his own rifle over his shoulder and began reloading the musket as he ran. He got to the top and saw evidence of a struggle, but Luke was nowhere to be found. That meant he wasn’t dead – at least not yet. If he was a captive, there was still a chance to save him.

“I’m coming, son,” he said softly.

He crouched and began looking for tracks to determine the direction they’d gone. In his fear and concern, he almost missed the approach of someone from behind. He sank down in the brush and peered through it at a warrior carrying the one he’d just killed. He slid up behind a large tree and waited.

Caleb saw the man was going to pass right by his hiding spot. He reached around to his lower back and pulled his tomahawk from his belt. As the warrior came even with him, Caleb swung it and buried the blade in the man’s chest. Both warriors dropped and Caleb seized the additional powder horn, ammunition, and musket.

He circled the area and found the tracks of the war party and those of his son. A sigh of relief expelled from his lungs. Luke was still alive. Caleb headed west at a ground-eating run, following the tracks.

Luke had the hell beat out of him. His knife, pistols, and rifle had been taken from him, along with his shooting bag and powder horn. His lip was bloody and his left eye was swollen shut. There was also a deep cut from a tomahawk in his left upper arm. His sleeve was soaked with blood. His hands were tied behind his back and a warrior pulled him along by means of the rope which was tied around his neck.

He knew things would only get worse when they got to the Shawnee village. There would be torture and they would make him run the gauntlet. His only hope was his father. If Caleb was still alive, he knew he would come for him.

Caleb ran until his legs screamed for relief. Then he slowed to a walk and kept moving toward his son. Finally, he had to stop. Fear, anxiety, and exhaustion took over and he heaved. His whole body jerked and everything in his stomach came up. He filled his mouth with water from his canteen, spit it out, and then took a couple of small swigs.

He rested only a few minutes before he walked on. Finally, feeling better, he caught his breath and began running again. One way or the other, he would catch up to them before sunset.

Luke knew he had to somehow slow his captors. He stumbled and fell, making them stop and help him up. He took a couple of kicks to the ribs for his trouble but he’d slowed them down and managed to leave a lot of evidence of their passing.

When he stumbled a second time the beating was worse, but the war party decided to stop for the night. Luke felt like he’d been kicked by a mule but at least he’d accomplished what he wanted. If his father was still out there, he’d catch up soon.

The sun was beginning to set when Caleb smelled the smoke. There was at least one campfire up ahead. Maybe more. He stopped and checked the loads of the two muskets, his rifle, and his two pistols. Then he climbed to an overlook, took off all but his own shooting bag and powder horn, dropped to his stomach, and eased up to the edge.

He counted seven warriors in the camp below. Luke sat off to one side. He wished he could catch his son’s eye to let him know he was there. But Luke, tied to a tree, appeared to be sleeping.

Caleb slipped down from the overlook and into the thick brush. He knew his best chance was to wait for nightfall then move in to rescue Luke once the Indians had bedded down. He ate some jerky and then dozed. It was a fitful sleep, and he awoke with a start a few hours later.

Checking the stars, he figured it was almost midnight. He stretched and got ready by checking each gun he had one last time. He checked his own shooting bag and powder horn, strapped on the other two powder horns, slung his rifle across his back, stuck his pistols in his belt, and picked up the muskets.

His earlier anger and fear turned to a slow simmering desire for revenge. The warriors might kill him and Luke, but they would do so only after Caleb exacted a great toll on them for taking his son. If he had his way, none of them would live to tell the story of what had happened in these woods.

He made his way down to the trail and crossed it, slipping through the woods like a ghost. With several hours of darkness left, there was no need to hurry.

As Caleb got close to the camp, he saw movement up ahead and dropped to the ground. He searched the woods and spotted the guard about forty yards from the edge of the camp. The man had made a fatal mistake. He was facing the camp rather than away and wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings.

Experience told Caleb that the light of the fire had destroyed the Indian’s night sight. He propped one of the muskets against a tree and then crept forward another twenty yards. He laid the second musket on the ground and drew his knife. He silently stepped up behind the guard, put his left hand over his mouth, and shoved the long blade into his rib cage, piercing his heart. The man tried to yell but no sound came as Caleb dropped him to the ground.

He crept forward again, drawing his tomahawk. With murderous determination, he ran into the camp. The first warrior to see him sprang, but a smashing tomahawk blow to the Shawnee’s head split it open like a gourd.

The camp erupted into chaos. A chorus of war whoops broke the night quiet. Another warrior sprang from beside the fire and reached for his musket. As his fingers wrapped around the stock, Caleb swung his tomahawk, chopping off the man’s arm. Spinning, he drove his knife into the man’s chest.

Luke could only watch as his father fought like a man ten years younger. His long, salt and pepper-colored hair was loose and wild-looking as he moved about the camp. He thought Caleb resembled an angry silver tip grizzly and struggled to free himself so he could help.

Caleb wrenched his knife free just as one of the others jumped him from behind and forced him to the ground. The man rose and straddled Caleb’s back. He raised his war club but Caleb pushed up and bucked toward the fire, rolling the warrior off and into the roaring flames. The Indian’s old, dirty clothes caught fire, engulfing him. He rolled out the other side, howling in pain and batting at the flames in a useless attempt to put them out.

Caleb sprang to his feet and spun around as four warriors came after him. He pulled one of the powder horns from over his shoulder and dropped it in the fire as he leaped over it and ran to the far edge of the camp. The horn exploded, killing three of the warriors and mortally wounding the fourth.

Pa!”

Caleb turned to see the warrior he’d first batted away crouched behind his son with a knife to his throat. Blood covered the side of the man’s head and neck and he appeared dazed. The point of his blade pierced Luke’s neck.

Caleb didn’t think. He just reacted. In one quick move, he drew one of his pistols, and fired a hastily aimed shot at the Indian’s head. The warrior jerked as the hot lead ball tore through his left eye and exploded out the back of his head.

Luke’s neck muscles tightened as the blade dug deeper. He stared wide-eyed at his father. Pushing back, Luke rolled with the warrior and the knife fell away from his neck.

Tears welled up in Caleb’s eyes.

“No . . . ”

Dropping the pistol, he rushed to his son. The cut was small but deep enough to bleed like a stuck pig. Caleb tore a strip from the hem of his hunting shirt and soaked it with water. Gently, he cleaned Luke’s neck and then bandaged the cut.

“It’s alright, Pa. I’m alright. Untie my hands. I can’t feel them.”

“Aye, I can do that.”

Caleb moved behind his son. Once Luke was cut loose. Caleb walked to each warrior and made sure each was dead. He reloaded his pistol, stuck it in his waist belt, and then retrieved his knife and tomahawk. Then he walked back over to his son.

Offering his hand, he helped Luke to his feet and was rewarded with a bear hug for his efforts. Caleb fought back tears as relief flooded over him. Luke was safe, and that was all that mattered. Exhaustion over came him and Luke had to hold him up.

“Pa. You alright?”

“Aye. Let’s move on.”

The camp was filled with death – death he’d brought upon it – and he had no desire to sleep in its midst, but Luke was able to persuade him to at least sit for a while and let the tension drain away.

Caleb felt very old and tired. After some time, Luke came over and offered his hand. Caleb took it and was lifted to his feet.

“Let’s put out the fire and move on,” Luke said. “I think it’ll be good to get back and see how Ma and the rest of the family are doing. What do you think?”

“Sounds good to me, son,” Caleb agreed.

“Should we bury the Indians?” Luke asked, looking around the camp.

“No. The varmints have to eat as well, so leave them. They’d done nothing better for you or I.”

As they left the camp, Caleb stopped and looked back. A dozen men had died that day, and he was thankful his son hadn’t been one of them. He felt no remorse for what he’d done. He knew if any of these men had his child taken, he’d have done the same.

Turning away, he walked to catch up with his son.

DOES BIGFOOT BURY ITS DEAD?

By L.T. Fawkes

It was Saturday night. All up and down the avenue the street lights came on. In all the complacent houses the men sat in front of televisions and the women scrubbed supper from plates.

Bennie believed that Saturday night was an internal function. She thought that she would sense Saturday night even without sight or sound or anyone to make her yearn. Saturday night had to do with the way the atmosphere changed and the way risk suddenly seemed to be less risky.

She paced the space of her home willing it to stretch for her but it shrank instead and seemed ready to squeeze her out into the night. It was Saturday night and the quiet of her home didn’t fit anymore. It felt unfamiliar and uncomfortably tight.

She opened the back door. Ten years before, the gravel of her parents’ driveway was disturbed again and again by the tires of cars piled with friends who had plans and ideas. This was another driveway she watched now and it slept undisturbed.

Bennie was twenty-seven and she felt embarrassed standing in the doorway in the cold night air wishing ghosts of teenagers into her driveway.

She crossed the corner of the driveway and moved barefoot out into the wet grass. The damp mood of the grass crawled up her bare legs. The cold found its way to her bones.

She knelt, then stretched long and straight on her back and watched the stars doing nothing in the inky void. She sought the comfort of unimaginable distances but instead the Earth heaved toward the gallaxies and the gallaxies sagged.

Small insects took microscopic pieces of flesh from her bare ankles and her bare neck. She was twenty-eight and she’d learned many hard lessons. She’d run up a long tab of experience but somehow she’d forgotten how to handle Saturday night.

Later, she locked the door and turned off the lights. In bed, she curled into herself and sang a silent, private chant designed to persuade Earth to turn her back around to the sun again.

________

WALLS

by Paul R. Buckle

Glossary

Weir– A low dam; On the hop – Skipping school; Holliers – Holidays; Langer – Contemptible person; Quid – Pound; Boy – buddy/mate (pronounced – by); Leaving Cert – Leaving certificate (End of high school certificate); Nagan – Small bottle of alcohol; Offy – Off Licence; Whacker – Uncouth youth; Half cut – Half drunk; Fag -Cigarette; Snazzy – Well dressed; Hopped – Jumped, attacked; Preggers – Pregnant.

It’s a warm summer afternoon when I find out that Joe has killed himself. His image comes to me, him hanging there in his bedroom, his long red hair swaying about his face, his shadow flicking about the pale yellow walls. ‘Walls the colour of puke’, he always said.

I stand there helpless.

“Remember Graddard?” Joe is asking.

Joe and me are down the weirs watching the water bubble over the rocks. We’re on the hop, and it’s the usual haunt for truants, right behind the school and easy to get to if you can squeeze under the wire fence at the back of the sports field, which you can because it’s been pulled up many a time for just that.

It’s getting to the fence without being nabbed that’s the trick; you have to slip your way through the loose line of ferns that start at the school gates and go all the way past the prefabs up to the gym, and then there’s that bit of open space, a couple of yards you have to sprint across before you kind of dive-wriggle under the fence.

You can be caught alright.  A few lads are.  Dewey, the Vice-Principal, is no fool and it kills him to have fellas get away with anything; but as keen as he is he can’t be everywhere at once, so it’s often worth a go.  It’s our third time down here this month actually – it being the best time to go on the hop, with the holliers coming up an’ all.

“Do ya remember Graddard?” Joe asks again.

I don’t say anything.  I don’t want to remember Graddard.  I stand up and try to skip a stone down the river but it’s not flat enough.  One hop and it goes under with a plop.

“Christ, he fucked you over, didn’t he?  You know he got kicked out of Bell’s too, do ya?”

“Did he?” I say, glad as.

“Yeah, so I heard.  No school would hold that langer.”

“He’s a langer alright.”

“Remember that shit with the bike?  Fuck’s sake, he really fuckin’ had you goin’ didn’t he?”

Joe is smiling away annoyingly.  I try for another skim.  This one goes down without even a jump.  Plop.  I don’t like to be reminded about Graddard, not only because of the bike.

“Didn’t he rob twenty quid off ya as well, the fucker?”

“Jesus, will ya shut up about Graddard!”

“Oh, soft spot is it, boy?  Come on for fuck’s sake.  Will ya relax?  Just chatting like.  Besides, I was the one who helped ya like.  If it wasn’t for me he’d probably have conned ya out of your underwear too.”

The thought of it brings a huge smile to Joe’s face.  “Jesus.  He’d a had ya bollocks naked if it wasn’t for me, boy!”

Now he’s going red in the face with his own humour; splitting himself, he is.  I spot a heron on the other side of the water, a pale dirty one, and I wonder if I can get him with a stone.  I pick one up and take aim.

Joe sees me and the bird too.  “Just imagine he’s Graddard, boy!” he says, barely able to get the words out so cracked up is he at himself.  I fire the stone off but it’s woefully wide.  Still, the heron is at least nice enough to raise its wide wings and fly off, though more slowly and lazily than I wanted.

I grab a scoop of river water and fling it at Joe.

“Alright boy, alright boy,” he says, still grinning away. “Change subject like.”

It’s a great feeling of freedom to be down here, in amongst the trees and rocks, with the long grass bent under our arses and the smell of the green and the river surrounding us.  We can see over to the farm on the other bank and take turns giving the little farmhouse the finger. Pointless as it is, it feels good, and there isn’t much else to be getting along with but flinging stones down the river and talking shit to each other.

At about lunch-time Joe decides to take a nap.  Lying back on the grass now, he is, jumper under his head, mouth half open, dribbling on himself.  I look out over the water again. Another Heron has come down by the bank over. Maybe it’s the same one, mocking me.

Leaving Cert night and we’re on the piss.  We got our results and the points we needed so good fucking bye BCS forever.  Joe is off to the regional tech to do Mech. Eng. and I’m going up to UCD to study communications.  We won’t see each other that much after this so we’re going to make the most of our last weeks down here together, which means going on the piss as often as possible.

We’ve just got out of Farran’s offy where we usually get served ‘cos they never check ID. We stick our nagans in our jackets and head for the alley near Spitzer’s.  We’re going to down the nagans and then head into the nightclub. We’ve got past the bouncers there before, so we’re pretty sure we’ll get in.

We’re not the only lads in the alley.  There are small groups all around.  Everyone’s drinking.  It’s dark and the ground is wet.  Small puddles light up under match flames and laughter bounces around the damp walls.

There’s a group of whackers not far from us and one of them asks us for a fag. We usually don’t talk to whackers but we’re half cut and not much seems to matter so I throw them a ciggy and we get talking.  There’s four of them, fairly rough, shaved heads and white faces, pale and thin.

“On the piss, boys?” one of them asks.

“We are.  Headin’ for Spitzer’s after this,” Joe says.

“Ah Spitzer’s.  Nice one, boys.  We’d be in there too but the bouncers are cunts. Ye’ll get in alright though, snazzy out,” he adds, looking at our clothes.

Compared to them we do look snazzy, but it wouldn’t take much.  They look like they don’t wash – themselves or their clothes.

“Cheers anyway like.”  He raises a can of cider and we knock our nagans off it.

“Got another fag there, boys?” his friend asks.

I open the box and offer one.  He takes two.

“Where are ye boys from?” another one of them says.

“Ballincollig,” I say

“Ahh, I know it alright.”

“And ye boys?” says Joe.

“Knockah.”

I can’t help cringing.

Joe nods.  “My cousin works up in Apple,” he says.

“Me brother robbed a chip out o’ there once,” one of the whackers says casually.  “Couldn’t get nothin’ for it though.”

Joe laughs.

“The ‘collig is it?  D’ye know Deccy MacCarthy?” another one asks.

We do.  He’s a dealer.

“Yeah.”  We nod.

“What d’ye think of Deccy?  He’s a langer isn’t he?”

“Cunt,” says Joe without hesitation.

The whacker looks at him carefully.

I take a swig of vodka.

“And what d’ye think o’ Smurf.  D’ye know Smurf?”

We do.  Smurf is one of Deccy’s delivery boys.

“Langer,” says Joe simply.

“I think he’s alright,” says the whacker very slowly.

I cop it but Joe doesn’t seem bothered.

“Couple o’ lads hopped me brother out in the ‘collig one time,” says his friend. “Kicked the head off him, they did.”

“Probably those cunts down in Castle Park,” says Joe happily.

“My cousin’s from Castle Park like,” says one of the whackers quickly. “You got a problem with that?”

Joe looks blankly at him.

“No boy, there’s all sorts in Castle Park,” I say.

“He wasn’t fuckin’ askin’ you, boy,” his friend says with a sneer.

I turn and look at him.  There’s an ugly acne scar on his forehead.  My eyes rest there for a moment.

“What are ya lookin’ at, boy?  Are ya alright like?”

“Chill the beans, boy,” Joe pipes in.  “Have some fuckin’ vodka.”

He offers scar-face his bottle.

“I don’t need no fuckin’ charity, boy.”

I grab Joe’s arm.

“We’re out of fags lads,” I say quickly.  “We’ll just go grab some.”

One of the whackers steps in front of me.

“You’re not goin’ nowhere, boy.”

Blackness comes over me, a black drowning fear.  I try to push past the whacker.  He kicks at me.  I half fall towards the wall.  He swings at me with his fist but misses and hits the wall.  He grabs his hand in pain.

Then I hear Joe cry out.  They’ve started on him.  I half look around and see one of the whackers knee him in the stomach.  He doubles over, dropping his nagan on the ground.

“Cut the fucker,” someone shouts.

Jesus.

I twist past the whacker who’d swung at me.

“Come here ya cunt,” he says, still holding his hand.

I run and don’t stop until I get to the end of the alley.

“Joe,” I shout back into the darkness.  I don’t hear anything.  I don’t see anything.  I stand there helpless.

“Joe.”

“You ran.”

Those were the first words he said to me from his hospital bed.  I don’t know what I expected from him but I didn’t expect that.  I never asked for any of it. What could I have done?  But to Joe, it was all black and white.  I ran.  I left him there.  Now he was in hospital with a punctured lung and a mangled kidney and I was just the one who got away.

I didn’t stay long at the hospital.  I tried to explain myself and he nodded, just nodded.  We chatted for a while.  I left.  He was in there for over a month. Missed the start of college. Then we hardly saw each other.  I was up in Dublin anyway and he was still down in Cork.

When I finished my course, I stayed up there and got a job with RTE.  He failed his first year in Mech. Eng. and didn’t bother repeating.  Took a job at a butcher’s.  Got well into his drugs.

I saw him when I was in a nightclub once, back down in Cork.  He was high on E.  He came up and hugged me and for a moment I felt things were alright with us, but then he was gone again, into the smoke and light.

I left RTE and went to London to work for the BBC.  I didn’t talk to Joe at all after that, just heard bits and pieces:  he was still at the butcher’s; he was on the dole; he was working for the ESB; he was mad into his E’s; he’d got a young one preggers; they were living together at his mother’s place.

Bits and pieces, and eight years later, this.  Swinging from the roof of his bedroom.  Hanged.  Swinging between yellow-puke walls.

__________

LELA’S GAME

By L.T. Fawkes

Lela sits at her seventh-floor window like a tweed-wrapped vulture looking down on the city.  I watch her from the hall across half-a-ton of smooth off-white carpet.  The building is corporate headquarters for Lela’s Bank and Tooth, or whatever it is she calls her power factory.

The window is the closest she usually comes to the city down there.  She has a penthouse on the building’s top floor and there are gofers to run her errands for her.  If things were different between us for five minutes, I would get her out in the sunshine, but I expect things between us will always be the same.

Lela’s short hair is the color of dried blood and her face is the color of a claw.  Sometimes I love her and sometimes I wish she would jump out that window.  She gives a little start, glances around, sees me.  She smiles with her lips squeezed together.

“Ah, darling,’* she says, and I wonder if my name has escaped her for the moment.  “When did you come back to town?”

Of course I haven’t been out of town.  It’s just that I’ve been managing my life well enough that I haven’t needed to come and see Lela for awhile.  I don’t tell her that.  I don’t tell her anything.  Lela doesn’t care if I don’t answer her questions.

She stands up slowly.  “I assumed you were here to ask for a job,” she says. “That’s why I had my secretary send you down to the clinic for the physical.  Have you brought the form?”

I have the long blue paper in my hands.  At the top, in thick black letters, it says, “Medical Summary.”  I hold it out and she snaps her bony fingers.  People bring things to Lela.  Lela does not come and get them.

It’s easy enough to feel strong watching her from the doorway, before she knows I’m there, but the power always flies over to perch on her shoulder when I have to walk across all that plush carpet to give her the form.  She watches me coldly with licking, scavenger eyes.  She takes the form and sits, examining it, while I stand awkwardly in front of her.

She finishes reading and smoothes the blue paper across the polished surface of her desk.  “Very good, dear.”  Her eyes run over me like steam rollers, mashing all the soft places so the harder parts become prominent lumps and bumps.

“And how is my dear sister?”

“Mother is ill,” I report.  Mother is actually very well, but when I come to Lela, Aunt Lela, with my hat in my hand, I feel I should hold up my end of the bargain.

She smiles.  The air around her red mouth is sulphurous.

“And your father?”

This is the big one.  Lela wants me to invent yet another failure in the health or business of my father, who was Lela’s lover first, but left her for my mother.  My father has been flourishing ever since like a greenhouse orchid through their long and steady marriage, but by this time, I know Lela wants a vivid memory-leveler.

This time, I’m ready for her.

“Drinking again.”  I hang my head and use the opportunity to glance at my watch.  Eleven-thirty.  Lela will be knocking off for lunch soon.

“Drinking?  Again?  Oh, my.”  I can almost smell the poison washing across her tongue.  She analyzes my face.  “I believe you are beginning to look like him.”

This is a new touch.  I am caught off-guard for a minute and I have to scramble for a way to bounce us back on the track.  “It’s odd you should say that, Aunt Lela, because . . . May I confide in you?”

“Of course.  Dear.”

“I’m afraid . . . I’m worried that I’m beginning to develop some of his – ah – tendencies.”

Now I’ve got her, the witch.  She stiffens with excitement and regards me, eyes glittering. “And so, you have come to me.”

Now we’re rolling.

“I need your help, Aunt Lela.  There’s no one else I can ask.”

She stands, walks to her desk, shuffles papers.  Sighs.  It’s ritual.  We’ve been through this several times before, but I always admire the way she does it.   “I’ll see what I can do for you, dear . . . ”

She turns to face me.  “In the meantime, why don’t you run down to Personnel and take a few aptitude tests?  Then I’ll have a better idea of where I can fit you in.”

I act surprised.  “Oh, thank you.”  She offers a brittle hand and I shake it.

“Run along to Personnel, dear.”

In Personnel, the clerk gives me a test folder as she has done several times before.  I finish with the tests in a few short minutes, randomly penciling in several little doodles and smiley faces.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t answer any questions because the tests will never be graded.  They will be shredded by the clerk the minute I return them to her.

She watches me curiously.  She doesn’t know why she and I are doing this, but she has been told to do it, so she does it.

I stack the test papers and, on the face of the top one, I draw a sketch of a mangy dog licking himself.  It’s quite a nice sketch.  I sign it with a flourish and give the stack to the clerk.

She notices the drawing but doesn’t let it interfere with her efficiency.  As she feeds the tests to the shredder beside her desk, she says to me, as if the idea had just occurred to her and she hadn’t said the same thing the same way a number of times before, “Why don’t you wait in the lunchroom?  I’ll let you know when your aunt is ready to see you.”

“What a nice idea.”

The lunchroom has as wide a variety of vending machines as you’re ever likely to find anywhere.  If you have enough change in your pockets you can buy five kinds of soup, five kinds of sandwiches, twelve kinds of soft drinks, six kinds of chewing gum, ten kinds of munchies, sixteen kinds of candy bars, five kinds of fruit, and eight kinds of hot plates such as pizza wedge, turkey slice w/gravy, or Salisbury steak.  Not to mention three kinds of pie, three kinds of pudding, and three kinds of cake.

The person with change to spend could blossom into downright obesity within the off-white tile walls of Lela’s lunchroom.

Unfortunately, I have no change.  A publisher has had my novel for four months and I haven’t heard a word about it since that first postcard where a typewriter acknowledged its receipt.  Two magazines are holding two stories and not being communicative.

I have used up every cent of the money I got tending bar up until two months ago  when the bar changed ownership and it wasn’t fun anymore.  That is why I have come to Aunt Lela.  Of course, there are other places I could go for money:  friends, my mother who is not ill, or my father who definitely does not drink . . . but all those good people would make me a gift of the money.  Lela, bless her browned-out soul, makes me earn it.

I have three more stories ready to mail when I have the price of postage, which will be at approximately four-thirty this afternoon.  After I mail my stories I will go to the best restaurant I know and order the biggest steak they have.

Then I will go to my favorite office supply store and buy ink cartridges, a case of paper, pens, paper clips, and file folders – oh, and a six or two of MGD – take them back to my room and go on a three-week literary binge.  All courtesy of my Aunt Lela.  Who pays top dollar.

While I wait in the lunchroom for Lela’s summons, I make my plans and I watch Lela’s employees.  They scamper in like mice, a few at a time, plunk their coins into the machine slots, fall onto chairs, put their elbows on the tables, nibble nibble, chatter chatter, look at the time and scamper out.  In and out, like mice.

Sometimes one of them nods to me and smiles.  I like that.  They have families and mortgages and lawnmowers and you could count on them if you were their friend.    They live right.  They save five dollars a month and after awhile it amounts to something.

I wouldn’t mind working with these people and doing my writing in my spare time, comfortably, with a paycheck every Friday.  Actually, the first time I came here to play Lela’s Game, I didn’t know it was a game.   I thought I really was applying to Lela for a job.

When Lela sent me to Personnel that first time, I sweated over the tests and tried to get every answer right.  I confidently handed my handiwork to the woman behind the desk and was all the way to the elevators before I thought of a question.  When I breezed back into her office she was feeding my tests to her shredder.

We stared at each other in horror.  I was horrified she was shredding my hard work and she was horrified I caught her at it.  Back in Lela’s office, I didn’t rat out the Personnel woman and I was pretty confused when Lela discussed the results of my tests as if there had been some, other than a bag full of shredded paper.

Lela asked me to come back and try again, and I did that less than a year later, still not knowing we were playing a game.  The second time, I didn’t work nearly as hard on the tests, and I waited a little longer before I popped back into the office, figuring the personnel woman would wait an extra minute before she fired up her shredder, not wanting to be busted again.

When I busted her, I shrugged and smiled, and she shrugged and smiled back.

Each time since then, I don’t bother with all the little boxes and blank lines on the tests.  I just draw any funny cartoon that comes to mind and she doesn’t wait for me to leave the office.  She shreds them right away.

I didn’t fully appreciate that it was Lela’s Game we were playing here until I’d been back another time or two, but I gradually began to under­stand that Lela didn’t want to hear that father was expanding his business and mother was learning macramé.  Now I understand it perfectly well and I play the game the way Lela wants it played.

Time passes slowly as I sit in the cafeteria.  I haven’t eaten much in the past few days and my stomach is beginning to talk to me.  You might say my stomach is fed up with all this waiting.  I chew my nails and bounce my foot and watch the mice until the hands on the clock on the wall finally wind their way around to four-thirty.

The clerk is in the doorway.  “’Your aunt has called for you, Sir.”

Lela is leaning back in her chair when I come around the corner.  She pulls a long face and it would mislead you unless you look closely at her eyes, which are giggling with pleasure.  Other people go to the Bahamas or Lake Tahoe for their fun.  Lela imports it.

“Sit down, dear.”

I sit across the desk from her.  She will wait for me to speak, but I am supposed to squirm uneasily first.  After all, I am supposed to be waiting breathlessly for her to offer me a job, based on the results of the aptitude tests over which I am supposed to have spent the afternoon laboring.

My entire future is supposed to be riding on the coming minutes, remember?  That’s the way the game goes.  So I squirm.  Then I ask, timidly,

“Well, Aunt Lela?  Can you help me?”

She chews on the side of her mouth.  “You didn’t do very well on the aptitude tests, dear.”

“I didn’t?”  You mean that dog drawing didn’t qualify me for management training?

“Not very well at all.  Perhaps you aren’t feeling your best.”

“I feel all right . . . ”

“You know that I want very much to help my dear sister’s only son . . . ”  She loves this, “but I do have a business to run . . . ”  She always does this so beautifully.  “. . . so I can’t very well give free reign to sentiment.  I hope you understand my difficult position.”

She plays with a jeweled letter opener, idly pushing it around on her desk with one very long, very red finger­ nail.  This is the part of the game where the nephew, sitting across from her, is quietly suffocating as the weighty ramifications of his dashed career wrap themselves around his chest.

I play it just as she wants it.

“I don’t know what to say, Aunt Lela.”  There’s a nice throaty tone in my voice.

Lela looks up.  Our eyes meet.  For an instant the game is suspended and with a blink we tell each other, “I know exactly what you’re doing.”  Then she tilts her head and curls her lower lip out in a fairly good simulation of sympathy.

Of course her bird eyes are filled with joy, but I don’t suppose she can do anything about that.

“You know, even an insignificant little headache can throw a person off for those tests. Perhaps that accounts for your low score.”

I look off, as if I were pondering the possibility.

“Let’s do this,” Lela says, standing up.  “I can’t offer you anything right now, but you come back when you’re feeling tip-top and take the tests again.  Then we’ll see.  How does that sound, dear?”

“Oh, it’s very generous, Aunt Lela.”   It’s nearly over now.   I can almost taste that strip steak.

“In the meantime,” she says, coming around her desk, taking my hand, leading me to her office door, “stop by the cashier’s office downstairs.  I gave instructions for them to have a little something ready for you.”

“Thank you, Aunt Lela.”  Humbled.  Confused.  What could possibly be waiting for me, down at the cashier’s office? Could it possibly be a check for a thousand dollars, like it’s been each of the other times I’ve come in here over the past three-plus years and given Aunt Lela the pleasure of telling me, the son of her lost lover and the sister he married, that I fall short of her tests, I just don’t have what it takes to be one of her mice?

She holds my hand between hers.  It is all she can do to coat the naked triumph in her voice with thin solicitation.  “You’ll come back soon, dear, and have another go at those silly tests, won’t you.”

“Yes, I will.”  Who wouldn’t, who was struggling along, trying to write and pay rent and eat, all at the same time, and was offered the opportunity to make a thousand dollars in one afternoon?

“Thank you.”  I add the one last touch:  I kiss her papery cheek, lightly, because it is expected.  Then she releases me.

Lela watches me walk tightly, carefully down the hall, exactly like a young man who has just had his spine beaked out.  Exactly like a young man who wonders what other people trust on a bad day.

In the elevator with Lela closed away, it occurs to me to wonder for the first time who or what this game satisfies.  I got what I wanted but I don’t feel victorious.  Lela got what she wanted but I don’t see how she can celebrate, either.  It suddenly occurs to me that we’re both victims, with a shared vulnerability to some predator that neither of us can name.

I wonder if Lela and I will ever find a better way to know each other.  She’s on a super-highway and she’s been hammering down it for a long time.  I still haven’t found the road that suits me.  I still flip a coin at every intersection.  But I think I’m looking for just the right country lane – one that rambles up and down hills, in and out of the shadows of trees, and is rutted by my neighbors’ wheels.

Maybe there’ll come a day when I’ll find my country lane.  And maybe, when I know my lane so well that I can find it again from any direction,  I can find a way to detour Lela.  Bring her onto my lane.  Walk her along in the sunshine.  Ladle water for her from a natural spring.  Talk with her.

_________

MISSOURI STORY #1

By L.T. Fawkes

I walked on down the road, thinking to go over to his place and see if he was there, and if he was, to talk some and see if I could get him to talk about his old man and how long he was in for and exactly what he done this time.

In town they were saying that he got in a fight over in Cairo and tore the bar up pretty bad and that when he came up in front of the judge, the judge got to thinking about all the other times he’d been sent up and all the times he was probably going to be sent up, and he decided to save everybody some trouble by giving the old guy double or triple what he deserved.

Some folks were already adding to this that the old guy killed a man in the bar and he was in for life this time or that the old guy himself was hurt and died right there in the courthouse after the judge had his say and so on, but I didn’t believe any of that.

Probably the old guy got drunk and broke a glass and traded a few with the bartender or somebody and ended up in jail. But still, I was curious and I wanted to hear it right from his son who most likely knew all about it by now.

But I got to feeling sorry for the kid while I walked down the road. It was a lot like a lot of our Missouri days are. In the morning it rained and now as the sun got hot everything was warm and clean. There were blue jays and cardinals chasing each other and singing way up in the trees and there were a couple of old cows up close to the fence hanging their heads over it to get a look down the road and one of them mooed kind of pretty and I guess I liked that but I’m not one of these cry babies who walks around thinking about that sort of thing.

No, the idea that it was a nice day went through my mind. That’s all. And the birds and cows and the sun and the cleanness were what made it nice. That’s all. And I got thinking about my ma sewing on my old britches and my old man mucking stalls back at home, that’s all, and I felt bad for the kid. Seemed like he got cheated.

Anyhow, I didn’t go over to his place. I walked on by his turnoff. But I figure the old man just done a little brawling that was all and now he’s laying around over in county jail, fat and sassy, waiting for his up. That’d be my guess. The kid, back there working their place all by himself again, now, he’s the one serving the hard time.

_________

GROUND LIGHTS

By L. T. Fawkes

He is restless.  He prowls.  She watches his progress, how he rests one linen-sleeved elbow on the mantel, how his eyes sift the faces in the crowd, how he shifts his shoulders, tilts his head to overheard conversation, how he walks in the long, even strides of one who is accustomed to covering distances quickly.

He moves toward the French doors and pauses, starts when one of the waiters touches his arm to offer a drink from the silver tray on his palm.  She takes in the hollows and gleams of his face in quick glances, lines and planes so fine they could be cut into marble, the soft shine his dark hair captures from the little candelabra behind him.

She is not shy but she does not allow her eyes to linger on the big, wild dark eyes for fear of accidently drawing them.  She notices the right hand pocketed in the linen trousers and the left, hanging, clenched.

She inquires.  No, the name cannot be Bill.  I’m asking the name of that one, squeezing the lime into his glass.  Bill?  Not possible.  Surely it’s something more exotic.  And he does what?  Imports?

Disappointing.  She expected to hear he was a mercenary, for example, or a gambler.  But there must be something extraordinary about him.  What a fine-looking man he is.

She continues to observe him.  Now he moves to the piano where a young woman in sheer pink is playing. He stands nearby, hands clasped behind him.  The musician glances up.  He smiles and nods and moves on.  The musician turns to watch him go, then settles down once more to her music.

She remarks to herself that he certainly has presence.  Now he stops near the bar and speaks with an older man, white-haired, distinguished.  The older man steps closer to hear and nods.

When he’s speaking he fixes his probing eyes on the older man.  When he listens he turns his head slightly and his eyes roam the room.  And now, as he listens, his attention is on her.  She is unexpectedly singled out.

A woman, talking in a group, laughs and steps back, interrupting the line of sight, moves forward again to take a man’s elbow and the circuit is reconnected, a two-twenty line Oh my but he is beautiful.

She smiles, not calculatedly but involuntarily, the result of nervous laughter building somewhere very near her stomach.  He makes his excuses to his companion and takes a step in her direction and she catches her breath.  There are times when she has the gift of prophecy and this is one of those times.

But suddenly here is her hostess, at last she has a free moment to show off the library. “Come along, it’s so nice to see you again.  I hear you had an encouraging note from an editor.  Have you reworked the story and sent it back yet?  It’s all so exciting.  I hope you’re finding some good material here at my little party, dear.”

She glances over her shoulder.  There he stands, his lips suggesting an ironic smile.  He shrugs, turns, and she glimpses his lean figure as he roams into the crowd once again.

She is steered along a hall, the party noise fading, and into the deep silence of the library.  So many books.  Floor to ceiling.  Strong smell of furniture polish, long, gleaming library table, big, dark desk, heavy leather chairs, stone fireplace, long windows, books.

“Yes, I’m awfully proud of our library,” her hostess says, her voice soft as velvet.  “You must come and work here sometime, will you?  Over here is the reference section.  Oh, yes, we’ve been accumulating books for many years.”

“Now over here, novels, poetry here, and that far section is the classics.  Bill?  Oh, ho, you have been finding material.  No, I don’t know him well myself.  He’s an acquaintance of my husband’s.”

There is a sound in the hall.  “Oh,” says the hostess, “here is Mr. Glinn, the publisher.  Come and meet the young woman I mentioned, Mr. Glinn.”

She shakes a firm hand and answers direct questions.  Mr. Glinn is all business.  Even his smile is economic.  Yes, sir, she would like very much to send some of her work along, thank you.

The hostess and Mr. Glinn have run into each other’s friends here and there.  They exchange messages.  His wife is fine and was looking for the hostess earlier in the evening.  Their boy is doing well at school.  She feels awkward.  She reads titles across the book shelves and tries not to appear to be eavesdropping.

“Oh, look how diligent our young writer is,” says the hostess.  “Ready to roll up her sleeves and go to work when there’s a party in the next room.  But why don’t you go on back and find your young man, dear.  And will you close the doors behind you, please?”

She regrets noticing a touch of red in the hostess’s cheek, a certain intensity in Mr. Glinn’s expression.  She wonders if maturity is the process of acquiring more and more bits of information that one must keep to oneself.

She feels strange re-joining the party, removed, as if it has shifted into another gear in her absence.  It seems as if there are half again as many people now, and none of them is him.

She is served a drink and moves to the edge of the crowd so as not to be jostled.  The crowd moves, too, and she edges along, looking for breathing room, finds it near the French doors where he stood earlier.

She turns, parts the thin gauze curtains and sees the large, lighted patio with big umbrella tables and geometric gardens running down the slope.  Her eye slips on down to the lighted pool and beyond, down to where the earth falls away and becomes black sky.  She knows, bringing her eyes back up and squinting to penetrate the blackness, that stars ought to be visible since it is a clear night, but she is blinded to the stars by the ground lights.

She turns back to the party and recognizes rising anxiety.  There are too many strangers, unfamiliar social codes, too much noise, too much brilliance.  She feels buried.  She wanders to the bar, leaves the half-empty glass there, looks around for someone to talk to, any friendly face, wanders through the crowd into the hall, glances back once, looks for the hostess who is, of course, absent, pulls open the heavy front door and steps out onto the long front porch.

The long, broad driveway, lit by lanterns on posts and lined with big cars.  Gleaming chrome.  Three uniformed chauffeurs talking, smoking.  Shadows.  Distant party noise.  Warm fragrance of honeysuckle somewhere nearby.

She walks along the porch to the end.  Wide side lawn and then woods.  Left of the woods, lights of traffic on the avenue and in the distance, down in the valley, the soft glow of the town.  It is time she started home.

She reaches the broad porch steps and stops, hears a throat being cleared in the darkness at the other end of the porch, searches the shadows, sees the figure in white linen come into the light.

“Hello.”  His voice is low and grainy. “Leaving?”

“Yes.”

“I was about to speak to you earlier.”

“I know.”

He tucks his hands into his trouser pockets.  He is standing close now.  His eyes prowl the landscape, past the chauffeurs in the driveway, past the avenue lights, they dip into the valley, arc into the obscure sky, veer into the dark woods, come along the side of the house, peeking in the long windows, and finally they seize her eyes and hold.  He has such deep and restless eyes.

Long moments pass.  She waits while the creature inside her who acts out the real emotions squirms and screams.

Finally he sighs. “Like to go have coffee somewhere?”

“Yes.”

Even though she understands clearly even now that she will certainly spend large parts of her spirit running to keep in front of whichever restless winds happen to be lifting him away, and if she felt buried when she was blinded to a clear night sky by the ground lights, well, involving herself with this man will be infinitely worse, yes, she knows that, and she also knows that this is a man who will not ration her but will use her up quickly, definitely, all at once, yes, she sometimes has the gift of prophecy, yes, she knows that.

SUMMARY OF A LIFE

by L.T. Fawkes

She went to a Laundromat.  Here’s what happened first:

A decorator did the nursery in teddy bear wallpaper six months before she was born.  On her first birthday her grandfather gave her a pony and a football.  Only one of his gifts was meant as a joke.  When she was two she painted Cyril’s Irish setter with Mae’s night cream. When she was three she rode her tricycle four blocks from home before Cook noticed she’d left the estate and went looking for her.

When she was four she played with her Barbie dolls on a priceless Persian carpet.  When she was five she wouldn’t let go of Nanny’s coat at the door to her kinder­garten class. When she was six a man who owned railroads taught her to shoot marbles while they sprawled on their bellies on a marble floor.  When she was seven she was photographed riding Cyril’s shoulders into a Broadway theater.

When she was eight she left a tooth under her pillow and the tooth fairy left her a ten dollar bill.  When she was nine she joined Mae and Cyril on their annual European tour.  When she was ten she wore her first nylon stockings to Easter Sunday Sunrise Services.  When she was eleven she cried because she was worried about beginning middle school.

When she was twelve she started her period and Mae gave a “Coketail” party for her and twenty-nine friends from school.  When she was thirteen the Peddicords were divorced.  She stayed with her mother.  Cyril moved to Arizona.

When she was fourteen she cheated on her tenth grade English final and the teacher looked the other way:  divorce or no, she was still a Peddicord.  When she was fifteen Mae married Lauri Quesenberry.  When she was sixteen she was arrested after a destructive spree through a cemetery with a group of friends, but Mae and Lauri fixed things and got her out of trouble.

When she was seventeen she made her debut in a two thousand dollar dress.  When she was eighteen she entered an exclusive women’s college and lived in a hall where there was a maid for every ten girls.  When she was nineteen, and in her second year of college, she sat on a leather arm chair in a hotel suite and listened as a tearful Mae Peddicord Quesenberry informed her that Cyril Peddicord had been having bad luck in Arizona.  His investments had divested him of most of his funds and he was unable to come up with the tuition payment which was due by the fifteenth.

She comforted Mae, wound up her affairs at the college, and together they returned to Cleveland.  She lived there with Mae and Lauri for two months.  Mae made a habit of urging her in the most polite terms to find a suitable husband.

This advice seemed sound at first, but she noticed that Mae and Lauri drank most of the time, independently of each other.  When she looked at the long-range possibilities, and considered the matter in light of how Mae herself had fared, she decided marriage was not the most promising alternative.  She began to look for a job.

At college she had been a history major.  Very early on in the course of her job search she learned there was not much demand for former history majors or former debutantes.  She was hired only after she stopped mentioning her coming out or her time in the ivory tower.  The job she found was working as a clerk-typist in a factory in the Cleveland flats.

After three days’ work she was promoted to assistant manager of customer service because the customer service manager said he liked her “manners.”  She was sufficiently wry to reflect that the sum total of her nineteen-year course in Better Living had paid off as everyone had always said it certainly would:  at the rate of twenty-five dollars a week, since that was the size of her raise.  But she was pleased about the raise and said, “Thank you.”

She used most of her first three paychecks for the deposit and first month’s rent on a small and dirty unfurnished walk-up apartment above a barber shop on Euclid Avenue in the University Circle district.

Mae was opposed to the move.  “You don’t know the first thing about survival,” Mae said.  “If you walk through that door, I’ll never speak to you again.”

With what was left after the rent, and her fourth week’s wages, she bought a twin-sized bed, but she only used the apartment for sleeping, preferring to spend most of her non-working hours in the more pleasant atmospheres of the Art Museum and the Public Library.

She didn’t know how to cook, so she skipped breakfast and ate lunch and dinner at hamburger stands.  She didn’t know how to clean the filthy apartment, so she simply tried to ignore the grimy floors and walls, the badly stained sinks and tub and toilet.  She wasn’t certain what to do about the burned-out light bulb in the living room ceiling fixture, so she paid five dollars for a second-hand lamp without a shade and used it, instead.

For two weeks, she tossed her dirty clothes into a corner of the bedroom closet until she had nearly run out of clean ones.

Then she went to the Laundromat.

Nothing happened.  Except that she walked up and down the aisles reading the directions on the machines and watching what the other people were doing, and figured out where to put the dimes and where to put the quarters and which machines were the washers and which were the dryers, and how to add the detergent, and how to sort the clothes so the colors wouldn’t fade on the whites, and how to tell what was permanent press and which cycles to use for what.

Two hours later she walked out of the Laundromat with four loads of properly laundered clothes.  She went back to her apartment and put the fresh clothes away.  Then she went to a nearby grocery store, where she bought a few basic things for cooking and cleaning (after a good deal of label reading and consideration) and a little bit of food, and some light bulbs, and a cookbook for beginners.

On the way home she stopped in a little crafts shop and bought a handful of brightly-colored paper flowers and an orange and yellow macramé wall hanging.  She wasn’t sure, but she thought she was going to be okay.

Later that evening, she scrubbed her sinks and washed her floors and made and ate a perfectly nice tossed salad.  Then, after she’d set the flowers in a paper cup on the window sill and hung the macramé from an old nail in the wall, she went downstairs to the pay phone in the all-night drug store and called Mae, just to say hello.

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Matthew

by L.T. Fawkes

My big brother Matthew has always been awesome to me.  When I think about my life in a certain way, it seems like I’ve spent most of it watching Matthew live his. I’ve always admired his intensity, his flamboyance, his skills . . . I even admire his flaws.  Like when you catch him drinking straight out of the two-liter Coke bottle he grins at you like this is the best thing ever and holds the bottle out to you so you can try it.

He’s the closest I’ll ever come to a super hero, but he’s not cocky.  Instead of cockiness he’s got a quality . . . I guess you’d have to call it innocence.  Most of all, I admire his innocence.  Every day the rest of us are tinged by a lot of little corruptions.  Not Matthew.  Maybe he’s always moving too fast to be tainted that way.

Matthew is only two years older, but when we were kids he always seemed more like an adult than a kid to me.  It was the way he was with me.  I can remember when we were very small he’d put his hand flat on my back and come close to me and I’d look up into his boy face and he’d say, his brown eyes wide and bright and earnest, “Good job, Nathan.  You did it.”

How, if a neighbor kid got a little rough with me, Matthew would give him that steady gaze and say in that even voice he has always, from the time he first learned to speak, used when he’s angry, “That’s my brother you’re pushing around.”  And in those rare cases where his mild warning wasn’t enough, he can fight.  He’s fearless in a fight.  He’s never lost a fight.  I doubt he ever will.

Matthew’s magic, perfect, bigger than life.  I’m almost his double, only the mold was a little worn when I was cast.  I’m slightly less-perfectly shaped, slightly less graceful, my features are a little bit coarse where his are fine.

Where he has an instinct for success, I have to labor.  Where he can do everything, I have to be selective.  There are some things I just can’t do well, no matter how hard I try.

Since I’m so nearly like Matthew but so obviously not exactly like him, there’ve been those who tried to get between us because they thought I had to be jealous of him, but the fact is, I never have been.  That’s because he’s so generous.  He’s never had anything or done anything that he wouldn’t share with me, and he’s always shown much more pride in my accomplishments than in his own.

I remember the Homecoming game in high school when I was a sophomore and Matthew was a senior.  Matthew had been the quarterback since his own sophomore year and he was a star.  He electrified everybody.  Even the other teams’ crowds.

I made varsity sophomore year and Matthew and I had tried to convince Coach to put me in some other position so we could both start, but quarterback was the position I’d learned because of all the work Matthew had done with me, so I was second string quarterback.  Matthew’s backup.

I didn’t mind running the scrubs at practice and riding the pine during games.  Sure, I’d have liked to be playing, but it was so cool watching Matthew.  God, but he had style.

So there we were at the Homecoming game, and it was a bruiser, Matthew on the field matching the other team point for point and me on the sidelines watching, when all of a sudden he got popped, blind-sided, and I heard his bone snap from clear over on the sidelines.  I got to him before anyone else.

His leg was sticking out at an odd angle and he was holding it, rocking back and forth, his face twisted with pain.  The doctor and Coach ran up, and behind them a couple of the guys with a stretcher, and the doctor took one look and sent somebody to tell the EMTs to get the ambulance ready to go and roll down the gurney.

Matthew didn’t want the stretcher.  He threw one arm over my shoulder and one over Coach’s and we carried him off the field.  All the way to the sideline he talked in my ear.

“It’s yours now, Nate.  86 can’t beat Willis on a long pass.  They’re weak on the left.  15 thinks he’s a one-man blitz.  Remind Pecarek every play to keep 15 off your back . . . ”

Coach said, “He’ll do fine, Matthew.”

All I remember saying is, “God, Matthew.  Your leg’s broken.

We put him on the bench.  He wouldn’t lie down to wait for the EMTs to bring the gurney.  Coach started telling me the next play when all I wanted to do was stay by Matthew.  The EMTs came running down the hill and Coach told me to put on my helmet.

Then I heard Matthew say, “I’m not leaving ‘til the game’s over.”

By that time our mom and dad were down out of the stands and for a minute everybody was talking at once.  Then Matthew said in that even voice that nobody argued with, “Tell that guy to turn off his gumball.  I’m going to watch Nathan blow them off the field.”

Coach and the doctor looked at our dad, leaving it to him to talk some sense into Matthew but our dad knew how things were.  He said, “It’s Matthew’s call.  If he wants to stay, he stays.”

That was that.  Matthew sat on the bench until the end of the game.  His face got paler and pastier and he was grinding his teeth because of the pain but he stayed.

At the top of the fourth quarter there was a bad call against me and Matthew got so mad he would have jumped off the bench except our dad had his hands on his shoulders and held him down.

In the middle of the fourth the play was supposed to be a shovel pass but I saw the safeties were up and in so I told Willis to run a post and I told the guys to keep ‘em off me because we were going long.  I said, “This one’s for Matthew.

I threw the bomb and while the ball was in the air I heard Matthew yell, “What a pass.  Look at that kid throw that ball.

We got the touchdown to tie, missed the extra point, recovered a fumble on the kickoff and scored on a field goal to win.

Matthew was swaying and the doctor had told our dad he was concerned Matthew could go into shock, but he wouldn’t let them take him until I came off the field.  They had him strapped onto the gurney and were ready to roll him up to the ambulance.

I came up beside him and he reached for my hand.  He said through clenched teeth, “You schooled ‘em, buddy.

As the EMTs loaded him into the ambulance he said, “Ride with me, huh, Nate?”

I climbed in and sat down beside the gurney.  Our mom and dad went to get their car.  The EMT pulled the door closed and the air suddenly smelled like sweaty football players.  The EMT climbed in over me and started organizing his equipment.  I felt helpless and tried not to cry.

Matthew looked up at me.  The ambulance started moving and the driver turned on the siren.

Matthew said “I’m a little scared Nate.  I’m glad you’re here.

I pushed some of his wet black hair off his forehead.

No, I’ve never been jealous of Matthew.  He’s my big brother.

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Posted in LT Fawkes | Tagged , , | Comments Off on STORIES VOLUME ONE

THE WAY IT WAS

Preface

SHORT STORIES:

COLLEGE SQUARE CINEMA, by David Porter

PANTIES ON THE CEILING, by Wayne Brown

THE TREE OF SHAME, by Merlin Fraser

BLACK FRIDAY, by Wilbur W. Giesy

THE OLD PLANK ROAD, by Margaret Richardson

THE COLORADO RIVER SCROLLS, by L.T. Fawkes

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(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled WELCOME.)

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COLLEGE SQUARE CINEMA

By David Porter

(All Rights Reserved by Author)

May 1974 REFLECTIONS

There I was, standing alone at the edge of the vast parking lot directly across from the College Square Shopping Strip Cinema at ten-thirty in the evening, watching it burn.  Yeah, just standing there with those hot hungry golden flames reflecting in my wire-rims.

My full Christian name is Paul Nolan Davis, I was twenty-three years old at the time, and the fire happened in the town where I grew up.  It’s a small Northeast Ohio college town not far from the city that was once referred to as The Mistake on the Lake, owing to the fact that its river had, more than once, caught on fire.  Tough clue, huh?

I worked at the Cinema during my last year in high school.  As far as I was concerned at the time, this fire was one of the best things to ever happen to my hometown. Don’t get me wrong. I did have some good times working at the Cinema.  They weren’t really great times, mind you, but there were some times that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.  Although, if I’m being perfectly honest, I guess such a trade would depend on exactly what was being offered.

The Cinema was in business long before modern summer blockbusters and sold-out matinees.  Before multi-multi-multi Cinemas and concession stands larger than the auditoriums themselves.  This was when the films being shown mattered more than popcorn and candy sales.

It was a period of time just before the old ways made room for the new ways and an old way of life began to fade away. I guess that’s the way of the world, isn’t it?  Don’t step off the roller coaster, ’cause when you try to get back on, you’ll find that everyone else has moved on to the Super Colossal Tower of Fear and left you behind to cough from their dust.  You don’t appreciate things the way they are until they’re long gone and there’s no way to ever bring them back.

Here are a few quick details about life at the College Cinema to help you understand what it was like to work in a movie house at that time. We used to waste way too much time pretending to change the mini-marquees out by the road during those warm and seemingly never-ending summer evenings.

Sometimes the ushers would sneak upstairs and out the skylight trap door to make out with the concession girls behind the air conditioner units. Sometimes during the show on slow nights, a couple of ushers would ride a bike down the auditorium aisle to check the exit doors.

Where was I? Oh, right. I was standing across from that old movie house with fire engine sirens blaring around me and the flickering light from the blazing fire bathing me in its golden glow, watching a part of my life go up in smoke.

Here, warts and all, are some stories about a year in the life of a movie theatre and the people who staffed it, in a time more recent than you think and in a community much closer than you realize.

January 1970 THEM

It was your normal Saturday afternoon at the College Cinemas. Fifties Hair-Do Girl was the cashier, Holly Lee worked the concession stand, Arnold Ziffle and The Kid were the ushers, and Deaf Eddie Bishop and yours truly manned the doors.  Mr. Carrey, the manager, was, as usua,l upstairs in his office. Elmer Cody slept quietly in the projection room. We were over-staffed by at least five people because only ten customers had come in for the first afternoon show. At least that put us in double digits.

This was long before summer blockbusters and such.  People just didn’t go to matinees much back then.  The price for adults was only twenty-five cents lower than at night, and unless you had a Disney movie for the kids, forget it.

But we were open anyway, hoping against hope that a giant sunspot would knock out all the TV waves and the crowds and the golden age of movies would return. There are worse things to wish for, I suppose.

I was bored to tears, as usual, right up until it happened.  What happened? you may well ask.  This happened: Them walked in.

Who were Them? I’ll tell you who Them were.  Them were two guys in long leather coats, black gloves, and ski masks.

The ski masks should have been the first clue right?  But then and of course, why?  Because it was the second week of January, the temperature was in the teens, and good old Mother Nature was being a cold-hearted bitch. Northeast Ohio in winter. Also, Them planned to rob the place. Got it?

I guess if you checked the Police Records, you could find Them listed by name in there somewhere.  That is, if you wanted to take the time to do that.

Today Them might be labeled as Victims of Society’s Ills, or something.  During the 80’s Them might have been referred to as System-Challenged.  But the truth of the matter was, Them guys were what you’d call ‘badasses’, or ‘hardasses’ or ‘badass hardasses’ or, in just plain Average Joe parlance, ‘bad guys’. That was the bottom line. See?

The short one – we’ll call him Ray – was the type of guy who would hurt you if you had something he didn’t, and having it made you happy. The way he would hurt you was, he’d destroy whatever it was.  Guess he figured that if he couldn’t have it, then neither could you.  The sad part was that it never crossed his pea-like mind to just take whatever it was away from you and keep it for his very own self so that you wouldn’t have it and he would.

Rusty little wheels in his head just didn’t work things out that way because he  wasn’t very smart.

He needed guidance. And that was where his partner came in.  Let’s call this worthless asswipe Eric.

Eric was different from Ray in that he had half a brain. He didn’t have much more than that, but then half a brain is better than no brain at all. At least that’s what the scarecrow once pointed out to Dorothy.

Eric was meaner than Ray.  Remember what Ma Joad asked young Tom in The Grapes of Wrath when he returned home from prison? “Did they make you mean mad, son? Did they?”  Well, for a fact, Eric was mean mad.  Whereas Ray would hurt you for a reason, justified or not, Eric would hurt you just because you happened to be within hurting distance and were breathing.

Didn’t matter to him if you had something more than he did; nope didn’t matter at all.  He just wanted to hurt you close up.  No glancing blow. Hurt you right to the gut. Would cut out your beating heart and eat it before you’d taken your last breath.  Like that Indian Magua in Last of the Mohicans would.

And just like that, he’d forget about you.  That’s how much you meant to him.  If everyone else considered him to be dirt, he figured that you were even less and how much time do you allow yourself out of your busy day to think about something that’s stuck to the bottom of your shoes?

So, there you have it, Eric and Ray. As the local Good Old Boys down at the Haymarket Bar in Tappan would say, Them was two badass sombitches.

As I’ve already said, in Them walked. All ski-masked up.

When Fifties Hair-do Girl asked if she could help Them, one, perhaps Eric, said in a muffled voice, “Give us the money,” and both of Them opened their long leather coats and brought out sawed-off shotguns to aim at us.

One of Them jumped over the counter, cleaned out the ticket booth drawer, and stuffed the bills into a bag. Them then ushered the cashier and myself back to the concession stand and had Holly Lee give them the money back there.  About this time, both Arnold and The Kid emerged from the auditorium and Them herded the whole wild bunch of us toward the stairwell door.

Mr. Carrey never knew what hit him, as usual.

All of us were then thrown into the office and we watched as Them two emptied the ‘open’ safe. Then the two of Them turned off the light, told us to stay where we were, and left, shutting the door behind Them and leaving us in the dark.

Time passed. Nobody spoke. Eventually the door opened again revealing Deaf Old Eddie Bishop in silhouette against the stairwell light.

“Mr. Carrey,” he said. “There’s no one downstairs and the movies are letting out.”

“Fine. Thank you, Eddie,” returned Mr. Carrey. His voice sounded firm and manly, but I don’t quite know how he managed it.

Deaf Old Eddie nodded, turned, and pulled the door closed. Leaving us in the dark once again. He never asked why Mr. Carrey was sitting in the dark in his office. In fact, he’d missed the entire robbery.

Which makes me wonder, is silence, indeed, golden?

 

February 1970 THOSE


To begin with, it was just plain too blessed warm for the second day of the second week of the second month of the first year of the second half of the Magnificent Decade. It was. And something was in the air, so to speak. When night fell, the sky was mostly starless, there was a brooding crescent moon, and something strange seemed to be brewing. There was a spark of electricity in the heavy atmosphere.

Not that they, them, those two jerks hiding in the shadows of the alley by the back entrance to the old Starlight Theatre were aware of the brooding and stirring. Hell, no. Them weren’t aware of much of anything.

For here once again, in living three-strip Technicolor, were our two local good old boy moron badassess, Eric and his partner, Ray. Them had a plan. They were going to break in and rob the place. The fact that all the money had been safely deposited hours earlier hadn’t occurred to either of them.

It was ‘round about midnight, as the stars in the constellation Orion touched the zenith of the dark space in the heavens which the aborigines called the backbone of the night,* when good old Eric nudged good old Ray.

“Could be,” said Eric to his less-than- brilliant buddy, Ray, as those two half-wit lame-brain good-for-nothing idgits knelt in the dark shadows of the cluttered alleyway near the rear entrance of the old theatre, “there are other things in the theatre that’re worth something, along with the dough in the safe.”

(Dough which, unknown to Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumb, wasn’t there anymore.)

“You ready?” Eric asked.

“Yeah, sure. Why not?” replied his nervous buddy, who rarely thought about much of anything and, consequently, never ever thought about the consequences of anything.

Together they rose up and moved toward the old wooden exit doors. Good old boy Eric brought out the crowbar that he had carried with him and told good old boy Ray to keep watch while he worked at opening the rear door.

Ray wasn’t the brightest bulb in the old marquis, but then come to think of it, just how many two-bit, low-life, good for nothing hoods are? He wasn’t particularly brave, either. Nighttime bothered him. In fact, dark starless nights downright scared him clear to the ends of his nasty parts.  His nerves weren’t any too damn steady to begin with, and that was a fact.

He had lost all control of his bladder following the afternoon heist at the College Cinemas just a short five weeks earlier. Because of that, good old Eric had beaten him almost totally and completely senseless, which, since we’re talking about Ray here, hadn’t taken too damn much. There hadn’t been all that much sense for old badass sombitch Eric to work with, if you get my drift.

Eric believed for a fact that he had carefully thought this caper out to the last and final little detail. It was an old theatre with no alarm system and it seemed like breaking in ought to be a piece of cake.

Old Ray, on the other hand, had a really bad feeling about the whole thing. But he didn’t want to say something and risk upsetting his pal Eric again. One beating was enough. Ray hunched down behind his buddy Eric and watched the alleyway while Eric turned to the ancient, paint-faded wooden door.

Eric went to work with his rusty crow bar. Suddenly Ray thought he heard footsteps echoing from the end of the enclosed alley. Then he thought he saw a faint smoky mist coming toward him. Blinking, he rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t just falling asleep.

It didn’t help. That smoky mist, slowly swirling in the night air right in front of his very eyes, began to turn solid and that cloudy wisp began to take a ghostly shape. Rays lips began to move but he didn’t seem to be able to make any sound come out.

As he watched, the ghostly mist began to form itself into the shape of what appeared to be a very tall gentleman with a bushy western mustache. Details emerged. He wore western gear. A big bronze sheriff’s badge hanging off his shirt suddenly glinted and a handgun about the size of a small cannon appeared and pointed directly at Them.

Old Ray’s eyes popped damn near out of his head, his ding-dongs climbed back up from where they had half-dropped years before, and he fell backwards into good old Eric, who was none too damned pleased to be interrupted, for sure.

“Stupid mother . . . ” muttered Eric. He turned to see what was happening and found himself looking up into the stern and ghostly eyes of that eerie, misty shape and Eric – badass sombitch Eric, don’t-care-about-anything-or-anybody-in-this-world Eric – finally, completely, and for the first time in his completely useless, worthless, and pointlessly wasted life came to finally understand and fully comprehend the term . . . fear.

As Eric and Ray stared, frozen in terror, the misty ghost-like shape of a man who shouldn’t have been there but was, asked them a question in a voice that neither of they, them, those two morons would ever wish to hear again for as long as their wasted useless worthless lives would, by chance, last.*

You buckos sure you wanna go to this dance?”

In an instant, Them lost their badass, down-and-dirtiness and ran screaming down the alley to Depeyster Street and straight into the side of a police car. The young  officer whose car they, them, those two dumb, no-longer-badasses, ran into, documented what happened next. They fell to their knees and begged to be arrested right then and there. One of Them even wet the back seat of the cruiser on the ride to the station.

After Them had been booked, the young officer and the older detective stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.

The young officer said, “Whatever it was they think they saw, it scared them right down to their very souls. Do you think they’re on drugs, Lieutenant?”

The gray haired man grinned and slowly shook his head. “So, those losers say they saw the Sheriff, huh?  Man, some people have all the luck. I wish I could meet him.”

The young officer blinked and raised an eyebrow at his superior.

“You believe those two, sir?” he asked in stunned disbelief.

The older man looked off toward the night sky and the far distance glowing white sliver of moon.

“You’re new here, right?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve been here a little over three months.”

The older man put his arm around the shoulders of the younger officer and began to lead him back up the steps into the station house.

“Come on in, Kid. I’ll tell you the Sheriff’s story while you do your reports.”

The crescent moon that lit that February night continued to shine. It was still just a little warm for this time of year, but the strangeness was gone from the atmosphere and it was completely and totally safe now, from all of the monsters of the night.

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*And yes, I know this can’t happen, but I don’t care. It worked for Frederick Brown and it sounds good, so there!

May 1974 REVELATIONS

There I stood, a solitary figure at the edge of the large and mostly-empty parking lot, across from the College Square Shopping Strip Cinema on a warm evening in late spring, watching it slowly burn to the ground.  The emotions of the moment passed quietly over me like a silent breeze and left me alone with memories of all the people and the things that happened when I worked there.

For that one single year, I wasn’t a social outcast like I was at school. I was a productive part of the whole. Sometimes I was even at the center of it all. There were moments that I’d never forget, moments without stories but only those wonderful John Ford like vistas that would play over and over again in my head.

Like that summer evening when Trevor and I drove out to a spot west of town just to film the sunset.  It was high on a ridge that overlooked the countryside and we let my 16mm Bolex Rex-5 camera run for the whole two minutes and forty-six seconds and didn’t say a word to disturb the moment because it was so far – freaking – out.

My only true regret was that I hadn’t quite appreciated all of it as much as I should have.  Moments that I shouldn’t have let slip away trickled right straight through my fingers.  Perhaps, if they hadn’t, some things might have been different.

A big red American-LaFrance fire engine with its horn blasting the scorched air drove past me, breaking me out of that magical spell.  It was such a strange turn of events, after all. Who would have guessed that the owner was so cheap that he never bothered to insure the place properly?

Oh, yeah, who would have thunk that?  From deep inside me there came a grin – a nasty, evil smirk that betrayed my actual knowledge of such things.

Presently I found myself walking away from the burning inferno laughing to myself, not unlike Renfield from Tod Browning’s 1932 version of ‘Dracula’

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PANTIES ON THE CEILING

by Wayne Brown
(All Rights Reserved by Author)

I was a late arrival into the Vietnam Conflict, at least from a permanent assignment standpoint. I had already spent some time in country the previous year as part of a temporary duty (TDY) support for the 21st Tactical Airlift SQ out of Taiwan. During that period I had some exposure to ABCCC (Airborne Command & Control Center) as we flew radio monitoring missions over the Pass on orbits “RASH” and “TRUMP.”

I arrived at Korat in April of 1974 just before the Paris Peace Talks produced the now-historic Nixon cease-fire. I was a front-end Navigator . . . one of the dudes up front riding in a standard government-issue seat. I had already spent a tour at Dyess in C-130 tactical airlift and was quite familiar with the C-130.

My first ride at Korat was a local area check. I was not prepared for the tired, worn condition of the ABCCC birds and that first one came as a bit of a shock. I think about a third of the instrument panel was either inop or removed for repair. I realized that the year ahead of me might be a long one with only minimum navigational aids available.

The hootch area (the name evades me now) to which I was assigned was filled with the rag-tag, war-worn, officer riff-raff that was so common in those times. Everyone seemed about a bubble off center from the get-go. Funny thing – the longer I was there, the more normal this behavior seemed.

The sheetrock walls in the room assigned to me were adorned with what looked like large red Chinese language symbols. Up on the ceiling there was a glossy color photo of the previous tenant with a pair of frilly red panties pulled over his head and the letters “DILLIGAFF” carefully printed across the bottom in red. He peeked out at me through one of the leg openings. I left the graffiti and the photo where they were as a reminder that these wars do end long before the marks we leave behind us wear away.

When the war was suddenly put on hold, insanity rose to a higher-than-normal level in the hootch environment. The adrenalin of war had to be dissipated in some manner. There were many harder-than-normal drinking stints that regularly drained the community fridge. These binges tended to produce extracurricular activities like Night Carrier Landings and The Manning of the Guns.

Night Carrier Landings went like this. Once everyone was drunk enough, the hootch area picnic table was covered with heavy plastic sheets and thoroughly wet down. Then the brave soul attempting the landing shed all his clothes (necessary to get that tail hook in position), did one last gear and flap check, and set up on final approach.

He executed a running leap that ended in a mid-air stall which caused the naked chest and belly to harshly contact the landing surface. Then he attempted to engage the tailhook and go hard on the binders to stop his forward momentum while still on the deck. Failure, which happened regularly, produced a crash in the grass and activated the drunken disaster team. There were no “go-arounds” and no rubber rafts.

The path to the Officer’s Club lay on a straight line from the hootch area and there was a clear view for almost the entire length. Only a few trees and shrubs offered concealment. Anytime someone ventured onto this path, there was a Manning of the Guns and the attack was on.

One of the guns was a large slingshot constructed of a metal funnel attached to two large rubber surgical tubing bands. Two men became the posts for anchoring the bands and two more pulled back on the funnel to launch the round.

The round was a water balloon. The unit could be rapidly reloaded and those water balloons found their targets with surprising accuracy. By the time victims walking blindly along to the O Club heard the “whoosh” it was too late to take evasive action.

It was a long walk to the O Club on most days.

The other gun was a “tennis ball cannon” constructed of three tennis ball cans taped together. The bottom had been removed from two of the cans to form a barrel. A small hole at the base of the third can transformed it into a firing chamber. A tennis ball was stuffed down the barrel, a fire cracker was ignited in the chamber, and the ball was fired toward its destination with great speed.

The personnel manning the guns possessed super-human sensory perception and could literally hear a mouse peeing on a cotton-ball. Those brave souls fought off our hootch enemies on a regular basis and kept us free, and when there weren’t any hootch enemies handy, they were also known to attack their own.

Within three months of the cease-fire, the word came down that the 7th was moving to Clark until we could get the war restarted. Moving from Korat to Clark was like moving from Podunk to New York City. Rumor had it that there was even hot running water there. Soon, the rumors were confirmed and movement orders began to arrive sending my hootch mates off to the bright lights north of Manila.

The thrill of moving to Clark was too much for those whose brains had already been grossly affected by the prop-flux of war. The village fell out for one last celebration. The natives danced about the fires until the wee-hours offering tribute to whatever gods had brought about their deliverance to the new land.

Since I was a Newbie, my orders ran late. I was to be left behind with the few souls awaiting rotation back to the states. I lay in my room listening to the distant revelry and staring up at the picture hanging on the ceiling, wondering where the hell my orders might be.

As I was about to head for the hootch shower the next morning, I heard someone outside say “they’ve painted the buildings.” That made no sense to me, since our buildings had just recently been recoated with a brilliant white paint.

The meaning of the statement became clear when I walked outside. Various large rude farewell messages had been scrawled in red paint on almost every surface of both of the buildings that made up our hootch area.

The Korat base commander didn’t take this well. He issued a statement that said, more or less, “every swinging dick in those buildings is on admin hold until those walls are repainted.”

The small number or personnel left in the hootch included me. I was a college graduate, an officer in the United States Air Force, precision-navigational-instrument-trained to the teeth, and now, overnight, I’d become a criminal on admin hold.

All my instincts said it was wrong that I had to help repaint the quarters. I was the victim of a cruel hoax perpetrated by my former hootch mates, all of whom were now gone, I protested. I would not paint. At least I thought I wouldn’t.

They sent a Lt. Colonel to deliver the paint to my door. I was all ready to say, “Colonel, this isn’t right. Do I look like the sort of guy who would vandalize a building like that?”

But I noticed he was staring at the red Chinese lettering on my walls. Then his eyes moved up to the ceiling and he stared at the image peeping out from the frilly red panties. I stared, too, and I didn’t need him to tell me what he was thinking. I thanked him for the paint and proceeded to prepare my brush for the task.

My advice for future precision-navigational-instrument-trained personnel – never leave old graffiti on your walls or old pictures on your ceiling.

__________

THE TREE OF SHAME

by Merlin Fraser

Imagine a picturesque English village set high in the West Country hills circa mid-1950’s. The sort of tranquil and picturesque chocolate-box scene everybody thinks of when they think of England.

The roads into the village are like an upside down Y with a large tree right in the centre of the downward prongs, making the tree a central feature and focal point for the village. Most of the village cottages radiate from that centre point along the three routes.

Close to the tree is the village public house, even more of a central focal point than the tree, if you catch my drift. But don’t forget the tree. It’s important and we will return to it shortly.

Our cottage overlooked the centre of the village, and the tree was between our cottage and the pub. To my left and directly opposite the pub was the house of my best school friend and co-conspirator, Alan. (I was going to change his name to protect the innocent, but what the Hell. He was as guilty as I was, and besides, I owe him one.)

Now to the central character. In those halcyon days, rural crime was almost non-existent, so our village shared a solitary police constable (let’s call him Police Constable (PC) Plod) with four other villages. Plod was a typical English country bobby. He was ex Army, recently returned from the Wars, solid and dependable, friend to all and known by all, and, of course, a very obvious target for my practical jokes.

To cover his vast patch, PC Plod was supplied with the standard black “Sit Up and Beg” ex-Army surplus bicycle, complete with solid rod brakes and battery-operated front and rear lights. You know – the type that wouldn’t attract the attention of German bombers passing overhead.

At this time in British history, public house opening hours were a source of laughable confusion to most people, so it is hardly surprising that in far out-of-the-way places like our village, these laws were, shall we say, stretched a bit.

Enforcing said British licensing laws was strictly part of PC Plod’s duties, and on rare occasions he was known to do just that. To that end, you had to know both the working code and the official procedure, If Plod entered the premises through the front door wearing his hat, he was on duty and had to be taken seriously and addressed in the formal manner, I.e., not called Fred, as was more usual.

If, on the other hand, he entered the pub via the back door with his hat and bicycle clips off, he was off duty and therefore answered to the name of Fred, and was available to drink all the beer on offer. This was a well-understood procedure for all pub customers and community members above the legal drinking age.

PC Plod was friends with, and on first name terms with, my father. They drank together and played darts on the same team. And our cottage had a Grandstand view of the centre of the village and of the comings and goings from the pub. So it was not unusual to find Plod sitting on our stairs, mug of tea in hand, as he surveyed his patch in the warm.

Our front door opened towards the stairs so, on the afternoon in question, as I came home from school, I was well inside the house, door banging behind me, before I realised PC Plod was sitting there.

Now, to find a fully booted-and-suited officer of the law in your house at any time is alarming if you are ten years of age, doubly so if you are me. The trick is not to show panic while your mind races in twenty different directions at once as you a) try to remember all the things you might have done that could possibly have brought him here in the first place, while b) attempting to come up with a string of reasonable excuses why he’d got the wrong guy, because one small child couldn’t possibly have done all that, and probably a big kid did it all and then ran away.

I suppose it was the silence that brought my mind back to reality. My full, formal, given name had not as yet been shouted out as if I were deaf (which was normal for those occasions when I’d been caught at something) and my mother was working placidly in the kitchen, quietly getting on with dinner preparations as if nothing had happened.

So whatever had brought PC Plod to our house that afternoon, it wasn’t me.

Now, most normal children would simply have breathed a hefty sigh of relief and headed for the kitchen and food. But this man’s presence, hiding – lurking, I thought – as he was behind the front door during my arrival home from school, annoyed me. He had scared me out of at least two inches of normal growth, which I never got back, by the way. So some form of revenge was clearly necessary.

Later the same day Plod returned to the village after his rounds, Alan spotted him a good two seconds before I did. Well, Alan was well on his way to the six foot three inches he would ultimately reach, while I remained much closer to the ground.

Of course by this time I had told Alan all about my recent scare and we had been discussing what I/we should do about it. We watched as Plod headed towards the pub, pushing his bicycle, He lent it against the wall, took his helmet off, and headed for the back entrance of the pub.

With a fair amount of giggling we began to hatch our dastardly plot. As the gloom of evening took hold of the day we removed Plod’s bike and, with a bit of rope and a lot of grunting, we hoisted it up the tree in the centre of the village and went home.

As I described earlier both Alan and I had a clear view of the centre of the village from our respective homes so I was still hanging out the bedroom window awaiting pub kicking-out time of 10 :30. At what point I gave up my surveillance and went to bed is long since forgotten. Suffice it to say, the following day I arose refreshed and disappeared to school without a backward glance.

The only thing out of the norm that day was that “Hissing Sid,” the headmaster (he had badly fitting false teeth that made him hiss whenever there was an S in the word) (thus making it critically important to be seated in at least the third or fourth row back from the front of the class).

That day Sid was called out of class mid-morning and when he came back he declared an extra assembly before everybody went home. This announcement meant no undue cause for alarm. This sort of thing had happened on other occasions and usually meant an appearance by the ‘Nit Nurse’ or other such grownup-devised activity designed to cause embarrassment to children.

It wasn’t till we were ready to go home that all classes were duly assembled and ‘Hissing Sid’ returned, accompanied by PC Plod. Together they announced the theft of the policeman’s bicycle. This was a very serious crime, they told us, and anyone who had any information was to come forward immediately.

Yeah. Like that was going to happen.

Like two old pros, Alan and I didn’t flinch. We didn’t even look at one another. In fact, we even joined in the growing clamour of chat until Sid brought the meeting to order and we were all dismissed.

I high-tailed it home, making sure not to raise any suspicion as I rode my bike casually under the tree. I hardly dared to breathe as I looked up and ascertained that the bike was still there.

“See ,” I reasoned with myself. “Nothing was actually stolen.” The bicycle was still where we’d left it.

Of course, unbeknown to Alan and me, and because of the loose interpretation of the rules regulating such things, it had been well past midnight and very dark, before the pub had actually emptied and the bike had been discovered missing. A local farmer had volunteered to take Plod home and had lent him another bicycle to use until his was found.

Unfortunately for all concerned this borrowed bicycle merely added to Plod’s misery. And to the list of things Plod was going to do to the culprit when the culprit was eventually apprehended. I never fully understood the problem, but apparently it had something to do with a wobbly, misshapen saddle – and piles. Piles of what was never explained to me.

The case of the purloined bicycle was far more serious than two ten-year-olds could comprehend. It was official Police Property. Our pal Plod had Signed For It and was Responsible for its safety and well-being. If it had indeed been stolen, then Plod had lost his Official Mode of Transport and would have to Formally Inform his Superior (i.e. the desk sergeant) in the nearby town.

That would mean the incident must be logged into the county’s Monthly Crime Figures as an Unsolved Crime. This in turn would look bad on the Chief Constable’s Annual Report to the Home Office department of the Government and, in due course, all hell would come down from On High upon any humble PC who had been so careless to allow his bicycle to be nicked in the first place.

Or put another way, Plod was in deep doodoo and he was looking for someone to share it with.

Of course all the usual suspects were rounded up for questioning and Alan and I were at the head of the queue. Naturally, we stoutly denied all knowledge based on the unspoken conviction that we hadn’t, in fact, stolen anything. We had done a bit of relocating, perhaps . . .

Now whether by clever police deduction and detective work, or by sheer process of elimination, the attention of the investigation stayed focused on the kids of the village. There were veiled threats of mass groundings, an increased police presence, and compulsory inspections of all bicycles for road worthiness, but even all this was to no avail. Neither Alan nor I cracked, and because we hadn’t done any bragging about our supreme cleverness, there was nobody who could squeal on us.

Still, it had to be said that all the kids for miles around began to have their own suspicions. If any of them were to come under suspicion and be grounded or otherwise punished, they would know what to do about it, and to whom. The true villains (meaning Alan and I) would be shown no mercy from any quarter. This was getting seriously out of hand.

The mystery of the disappearing bicycle entered a fourth day, the weekend approached, and the powers that be, having gotten nowhere in their investigation, devised a new strategy. An area-wide Amnesty was called. No action whatsoever would be taken against any party for any information that led to the recovery of the missing property, i.e. one official policeman’s bicycle with a PC Plod-sized saddle.

At that point, I cracked and told my father everything. Well almost everything. I said I had no idea who had done it of course – I’m dumb, but not that dumb. But I knew where the missing bicycle was because I had spotted it there. I led him to the tree and showed him the missing and much-sought-after article still swinging quietly in the breeze.

Needless to say, the whole village knew about it long before Plod arrived to reclaim it. But now there was the more serious issue of how to explain the affair so as to both protect the guilty from prosecution and to prevent the local Bobby from becoming the laughing stock of his fellow law enforcement officers.

Over another late night in the pub, and while consuming a considerable quantity of beer, the grownups concocted a cover-up story: Some drunken ne’er-do-well had purloined the constable’s bicycle to get himself home but, being too drunk to ride it, got fed up pushing it and tossed it into a ditch where in due course it was found by the neighbourhood children.

The end result was that the villains became the heroes, so to speak. In fact, I may well have got off completely unscathed if only I’d kept my mouth firmly shut. But alas, full of heroic pride, I had to ask if there was a police reward for the recovery of the bicycle.

__________

BLACK FRIDAY

An Eye-witness Account of The Kansas City Flood of July 13, 1951

by Wilbur W. Giesy

I was in the roofing business in Kansas City in those days and I had an office and some warehouse space in an area down near the Missouri River that was called The Bottoms.  I was angry that July morning when I found the route I usually took to my office so crowded with sightseers that I had to make my way through side streets.

Everyone knew there had been a lot of rain up north, but everyone also knew there were dikes upriver protecting the city so there’d never be another flood like that awful one back in 1903.

“What is the matter with all these crazy people?” I asked Bud, my helper, who was riding to work with me.  “Haven’t they ever seen muddy water before?  Doesn’t anyone but us work for a living?”

William A. (Bud) Osborne was my niece’s husband and was working for me that summer.

“You can’t blame folks for being curious,” he said.  “I’d like a good look at that old river myself.”

That remark was to bring us many a laugh later.  Frankly both of us now hope we never see another flooding river as long as we live.

The Industrial District was practically deserted.  There were few cars about, and no pedestrians.  I stopped at a filling station for gas.  The attendant was on the phone.  He came out white-faced.

“They said the dikes are going out.  I’ll fill your tank, but then I’m getting out of here.”

True to his word, the minute he finished with us he ran into his station and came running out with a load of supplies which he tossed into his car before running back inside for more.

I turned to Bud.  “No sense in panicking.  We’ll go on down to the office, load the truck with whatever equipment we can, and drive it up to higher ground.  But I don’t think the water will get this far anyway.  This isn’t 1903.  Those dikes will hold.”

My office shared a building with a feed store.  I found the feed store manager busy loading the freight elevator.  The three of us pulled out the drawers from my desk and piled those drawers and everything else that was loose into the elevator.  Then we sent the elevator up as high as it would go.  No one expected the water to get that high, even if it came in, but it didn’t hurt to take precautions.

By that time the streets were so crowded with vehicles of every description that had been moved to the high ground that I could not find a place to park my truck.  I ended up driving it all the way to my home.  Bud follow­ed in the car and once the truck was safely parked we started back to the office.

The streets were jammed worse than ever.  We did not know it then, but the police were stopping everyone trying to get into The Bottoms.  Again we took to the side streets and alleys, and that was why we missed being warned.

We had reached the foot of the Forrester viaduct when here came the water.  It came with a roar like a dozen freight trains, and the force was so terrific that it was preceded by a cloud of dust.  I threw on the brakes, reached behind me for the small folding ladder I always carry, and yelled “Come on!” to Bud.

We stepped into water that came up to our ankles and raced for the nearest building.   I put the ladder together as I ran.  By the time we reached the building the water was up to our knees and rising fast.

The ladder would not quite reach, but I drew myself up and over the edge of the roof, then reached back to steady the ladder for Bud.  He was halfway up when the main force of the water struck.  The ladder swung out, and for one awful minute I thought I could not possibly hold him.  But Bud was young and strong, and he made it.

I pulled the ladder up behind him and we flopped on our backs on that sweltering old roof and lay there, stunned and speechless.  But after a few minutes we crawled to the edge and peered down.

The violence of the water was awful.  There seemed to be almost more debris than there was water.  Great beams and pilings, whole walls of buildings, small sheds, roofs of houses, everything anyone could imagine seemed to be churning and grinding in that terrible current.  The roar it made was deafening.

Someone had left an old panel truck parked across the street.  Bud yelled, “Look!  There’s a man!”

He was sliding along next to the brick wall of the store across the street from us,   evidently trying to reach the truck.  As we watched, he made it and scrambled inside.

“He’ll drown in there,” Bud wailed, and we began to scream at him and motion for him to get on top the truck. He finally saw us and understood and someway managed to swing him­self up onto the truck’s roof.

He was an old man.  He wore a coat and a felt hat, in spite of the hot day, and he was smoking a pipe.

As the water’s depth increased, the debris grew bigger, and the current more violent.   The truck began to sway and to lurch sideways.  Bud peeled off his shirt.

“I’m going after him,” he shouted.

I caught his arm and yelled into his ear.  “You couldn’t possibly swim in that mess.”

As if to give emphasis to my words a big ten-by-ten suddenly reared up and crashed down on a floating box, splintering it.

“Suppose that had been your leg,” I yelled.  “Or your head.”

He pulled away from me.  “We can’t just stand here and watch him drown.”

“Listen,” I shouted.  “You have three little girls at home.  You have no right to risk their father’s life for that old man.”

He hesitated.

I yelled, “Maybe we can find a rope.”

A window from the adjacent building opened onto this roof.  When we tried the window it opened easily.  We stepped in and looked around.  Almost too good to be true, there lay a coil of rope.

Bud snatched it up and we hurried back.  But it was too late.  The water had bumped the truck along until now it was underneath a row of wire cables.  We could not throw the rope under the wires, and we dared not try to haul the man across them.

Just then an extra surge of water threw the truck up against the building.  Using window ledges, ornamentation  – anything for hand and foot holds, that man went straight up  that wall like a cat.  And he never lost his hat, nor missed a puff on his pipe!

A cow from the stockyards came bawling down the current.  She was red with a white face, and she kicked now and then in an effort to guide herself, or to keep afloat.  Bud swung his rope.

“What will you do if you manage to rope her?” I shouted.  “We can’t possibly pull her up here.  She’d choke.”

Regretfully Bud lowered his lasso.

A pig came along next, and tried his best to get on top of a store across the way.  It had a false front and, try as he would, he could not quite scramble over it.  If he had had any sense he could have swum around back and walked on, for the roof sloped up from the rear.  But he was only a pig and could not figure that out.  Soon he gave up, exhausted, and the current carried him away.

All this time I had been worrying about my wife and family.  They undoubtedly had heard about the dike failing, and when they re­ceived no word from me, they would be frantic.

I realized we could be stranded on that roof for several days before anyone came along and found us.  It was a scorching hot July day.  The heat shimmered on the tar and gravel roof.  We had had no food or drink since breakfast.

Regretfully I remembered we both had lunches in the car, and there was even a thermos of ice water.  I peered over to where we had left the car.  I thought I could see the car’s roof, but l wasn’t sure.

Then I remembered something.  There’d been a telephone in that place where we found the rope.  Quickly I climbed back into the room and took up the phone.  I was plenty relieved to hear that dial tone.  But I got no answer when I dialed home.

Bud had better luck.  He talked briefly to his wife and asked her to call the police and tell them where we were.  We went back to our roof.

We could see the Forrester viaduct from our place on that roof.  There was a group of men in swimming suits there.  They were diving into the water to salvage anything they saw floating by that looked interesting.  It was a dangerous business, and couldn’t have been too profitable.

After a while a policeman came by and made them leave.  We waved and shouted as loud as we could, but nobody heard us.  Everyone was so busy looking at the water that no one thought to look up.

We’d seen lots of crates drifting by, but now the force of the water broke open the door to a warehouse to the north on Mulberry Street and it was something to see those big crates come wheeling out in single file just like a parade.  Those crates held heavy electrical appliances, ranges, refrigerators, and such.  You would never have thought they could possibly float.  But they did.  The current must have been terrific.

We saw older and smaller buildings shudder and collapse and go to pieces before drifting away. Bud was sitting on the wall watching, and wishing he could get at that drinking water.

“Which way are you going to jump when the wall you’re sitting on crumbles?” I shouted.

He looked startled and then dropped down on all fours and crawled away.  From then on he never got within ten feet of the edge of that roof.

It was about four-thirty that afternoon when some men in a motor boat came to our rescue.  They stopped and got the old man first, and then they came and took us off the roof.

The boat took us over to the viaduct and let us off.  The viaduct humps up in the middle and, to our dismay, we discovered that the far end of it was under water, too.  And the motor boat had gone.

Finally we dropped from the middle of the viaduct to the roof of the old freight depot.    From there we climbed onto the old street railway trestle that led to the Eighth Street tunnel.  We walked through the tunnel and over to Grand Avenue, where we caught a bus for home.

Now, remembering how hungry and thirsty we were, I wonder why we didn’t stop somewhere for something to eat or a cold drink.  But at the time, all either of us wanted was to get away from that river and go home!

When the water finally receded several days later, my car was still there, but it was fit only for the junk pile. The office was a sticky, smelly mess of debris.  The records we had so optimistically sent up on the elevator were soaked and illegible.  And when I entered my warehouse and began to take in the desolation there, a live hog stood up and grunted at me.

That hog was a determined old beast.  Every time we managed to run him out, he found a way right back in.  I couldn’t really blame him.  That big filthy room looked more like a pigpen than a roofer’s warehouse.

Bud and I called for a bull-dozer to rake everything out and haul it away.  A short time after we sat down to wait, an elderly gentleman approached us from the street.  The minute I saw that coat and that felt hat (so out of season for July) and especially that pipe sticking out of his mouth, I knew who he was.

We introduced ourselves, Bud found him a chair and a cold bottle of Coke, and we passed the time of day for a while.

Eventually the conversation lagged.  Bud shook his head.  “That was some flood.”

The old fellow grinned at us.  “You know for a while there, I was kinda scared.”

I told him, “I wouldn’t have given a plug nickel for your chances.”

__________

THE OLD PLANK ROAD

by Margaret Richardson
Written in 1950

(When I was small, we lived on a farm in central Missouri “out on the old plank road.”  The name of the road puzzled me because I could not see any planks.  My grandmother explained that back in 1857 some progressive farmers got together and laid hickory planks side by side to pave a stretch of the road eight miles long. 

It was said to be the first paved road west of the Mississippi River, and folks came from miles away just to ride back and forth on it.  Oh, it was a sight to see.  Some of the more daring young men painted their sulky wheels yellow and shortened the shafts until they were practically riding the horses’ tails.    

To this day, that region is noted for its trotters and the State Fair still has harness racing.) 

Ed Stillman parked his old red truck with the four hogs in it in front of the Barbee Q and went inside, letting the screen door slam behind him.

“Couple hamburgers and a Coke.”

He swung a blue-jeaned leg over a stool, inserted a coin in the countertop jukebox, and grinned at the girl behind the counter.

Mamma heard the order and pushed a skillet over the gas burner as big band music filled the air.  Rita reached for the DPT gun, walked around the counter and sprayed the screen door.  Then she stepped outside and shot a vicious cloud of repellent in the general direction of the truck and its grunting occupants.

She could hear Mamma and Ed laughing behind her, but the sound brought no answering mirth within her.  She felt a sudden sympathy for the big blue fly still trying dazedly to cling to the wire screen.  Life had trapped him, too.

Rita had always taken it for granted that when her school days were over, she would go to the city and get a job.  Most of the girls around here did.  The city was where things happened.  There was music.  Real music.  Not this jukebox stuff.  And plays, and people.  Interesting people who did things.  Something was always going on in the city, and you could be there and see it happen.  Maybe even be a part of it.

But Mamma had put her foot down.  No girl of hers was going off to the Wicked City and Run Wild.  Rita could help out here in the lunch room until some nice boy came along and she decided she was ready to settle down.

Some nice boy like Ed Stillman, Meg supposed.  Oh, there was nothing wrong with being a farmer and raising pigs, if that was what you wanted to do, but was this all she had to look forward to?  Living on here while Life passed her by?

Simply nobody new ever came along this old side road.  It did not even have a number like Highway 40 or M 55; people just called it “the old plank road” and it was every bit as back woodsy as it sounded.

In a little ceiled house along this same road a long time ago, Meggie Alexander lay tense on her shuck mattress waiting for Pa’s snores to sound off from the front room.  Beside her, Cousin Birdie twisted and burrowed and fidgeted about.

Cousin Birdie’s restlessness caused Meg no little guilt.  Cousin Birdie preferred the feather bed.  If the decision had been Birdie’s, she’d have chosen to sleep on the feather bed the year round, but Meg told her Ma she would get up and sleep on the floor before she would swelter in that hot old feather bed all summer.

So Cousin Birdie sniffed her little martyred sniff and said, “Far be it from me to run a body from her own bed . . . ”

She always left sentences hanging in that meek way of hers, as if to remind everybody that after all she was only a poor relation who had no rights.

No one ever tried to make Cousin Birdie feel like a poor relation, Meg thought as she twisted resentfully against the shucks.  Hadn’t they given her the bed and put the boys on a pallet?

Cousin Birdie was such good help for Ma, and so thoughty for them all, that they might have forgotten she was beholden to them if she had let them.  But Cousin Birdie never forgot, and she never let anyone else forget it, either.

Pa’s snores began to raise a racket like a marauding wildcat, and then clopped off short like a piece of chopped stove wood.  Then Birdie quieted, as if this had been a signal, and then she added her thin little whistle as an obbligato.  Meggie stifled a giggle with a corner of the wedding-ring quilt and slipped one foot out from under the kiver.

Cousin Birdie was a light sleeper.  Eluding her would take as much skill and cunning as it took to follow an old turkey hen bent on hiding her nest.  The shucks rustled as Meg slid to the floor, and for a moment she almost wished they had kept the feather bed.

She reached the middle of the room, and, hugging herself, wished for the clothes that lay neatly folded on top of her trunk.  But she didn’t dare try to dress.  Cousin Birdie would hear and be awake in no time, demanding to know what Meg thought she was doing dressing herself in the middle of the night.

She crossed the room and, stepping cautiously over the sleeping boys on the kitchen floor, slipped out the back door.  She stumbled and nearly fell over something at the top of the steps.  It was Ma’s shawl, slipped from her shoulders and forgotten as she and Pa sat a spell before going to bed.

Meg folded it cornerwise and wrapped it around her shoulders.  She hesitated only a minute before she deliberately pulled the drawstring from the neck of her muslin gown and tied it tight around her waist, belting in the shawl.  There.  Not as much of the white nightgown was visible now.

Everyone was sound asleep anyway, she reminded herself, but it did not hurt to take precautions.  If Pa had the slightest notion what she was up to, he’d skin her alive, big girl that she was.  But ever since the Barbee boy’s visit last month, Meg’s curiosity had   been a-boiling.  She was dying to see what the men were doing to the Big Road.  Of   course, she couldn’t go up there in the daytime and look – a young woman amongst a group of rough men – but at night, when everyone was asleep, and no one knew . . .

Meg had been churning the morning the Barbee boy had come to their house, and Ma had traipsed to the front door all afluster to let the young man in.  He had protested politely that he had come to see Pa and would just run on down to the barn, but he was the first neighbor to call since they had moved across the ridge to Missouri, so Ma ushered him firmly into the parlor, rolled up the green window shade and clipped it with a clothespin, and sent Cousin Birdie to get Pa.  Ma knew Quality when she saw it.

The Barbees lived up the road a piece in that big painted house with the upstairs and,   though the women folk had been polite enough whenever their buggies had met in the  road, Meg knew Ma felt a little hurt that none of them had come to call.  She was determined to show this young man that they had as good manners as anybody.

Pa was not so polite.  Pa was busy trying to get Old Maud’s harness patched up so’s he could get his haying done before the big cottony clouds in the west could blow up a rainstorm, and Pa did not relish having to stop just to be neighborly.

When he discovered the purpose of the visit, Meg, who had edged over to the door to   listen, thought Pa would choke.

“Help you to plank the road?  What in tarnation for?”   Pa roared at the young man whose face was now almost as red as his hair.  “Lay the road over with planks all the way into town?  Why, it would take you weeks to do that – months, maybe.  Weeks awasted while the hay rots.”

Eventually the young man found himself outside, his hat in his hand, and Pa afuming all over the front yard.

“Lookit over there son, on that slope.  That’s your Pa’s hay, and it’s still standing, just like mine.”

He swung his long arm around to the west.  “See them clouds rolling up?  If you was the proper sort of young’un, you’d be helping him get it in instead of running around bothering the neighbors with such tomfool ideas.  Don’t know what the young folks are acoming to these days.  All they think about is to be rushing around somewheres.  In the first place, a planked road ain’t practical.”

The young man muttered something about having them in Kentucky.  Meg put her hand over her mouth.  Oh, he couldn’t have.  Pa hated Kentucky, and everything in it.

“It might be all right fer Kentuckians,” Pa conceded and the way he said it, you’d a thought the folks living in Kentucky were some sort of foreigners.  Heathen, even.  “Folks with nothing better to do than ride around all day behind their new horses.  But I’m a man that works fer his living, and I’ll thank you to take yourself off, and let me be at it.”

Meg felt her face burn with shame.  How could her Pa be so unmannerly?  If Ma had noticed the ladies who lived up the road, so had Meg.  She noticed how they always turned their skirts up in the buggy, so the hems would be fresh and clean when they got to church.  How they always wore stocking mitts on their hands and arms when they worked in their gardens to keep them white and ladylike.  How they never pushed their sunbonnets back, no matter how hot ’twas, for fear the sun would coarsen their hair and darken their faces.  The Barbee women were ladies.

Meg had noticed this young man, too.  She had seen how broad his shoulders were when he dashed past on the big bay stallion, how thick and curly his red hair was the day his hat flew off just as he reached their front gate.  She had seen his eyes crinkle with merriment that day in church when Cousin Birdie had come sailing in under full steam and almost knocked over little Mrs. Doctor Jenkins.

And he did not seem too mad at Pa, Meg noticed.

Young Barbee looked up and saw Meg watching, and a suspicion of a wink twinkled in the corner of his eye.  The young scamp, Meg gasped. No one but bad boys winked at   the girls, Cousin Birdie said, and no one but bad girls liked it.

Meg felt ashamed of the delighted glow which stole over her.  She didn’t think she was a bad girl, but she liked it.  But what must he think of her, stealing up like that so she could listen to the men talk business?  She hurried back to the churn and reached for the dasher.

“The butter’s already come,” Cousin Birdie informed her airily.  “I took it up.”

Remembering all this, Meg ventured out into the moonlit night.  When she was safely across the back yard, she stood still for a moment in the shadow of the big shagbark hickory to see if she had roused anybody.  Pa’s snores, though dimmed by distance, were still rhythmic, and she felt vaguely grateful.  The sound was cover for any little noise she might have made.

Satisfied that all was well, she turned off down the lane.  She would stay in the lane until   she came to the crick.  Then, out of sight of anyone from the house, she could walk boldly down the big road.  She couldn’t wait to see how far young Tom Barbee’s road had come.

Pa refused to discuss it, and Meg had been afraid to ask.  Sometimes she thought her Pa was right sorry not to be helping.  Pa always prided himself on being a good neighbor, and it did a man no good to be known as one who would not do his share on community projects.  But Pa was a stubborn man, and he held to his course, even after some of the older men came to talk to him about it.

They explained that with a road covered from here to the junction, a body could take a wagon to town any time he was a mind to, even in rainy weather, but Pa just sat and chewed.

Meg wanted to remind Pa of the trouble he had getting home with that sack of wheat flour across the saddle, the time he rode Old Tip to town through the mud.  Pa liked his biscuits, and a week of cornbread sent him to town after flour in spite of the muddy roads.  He brought it back, but from the wild look in Tip’s rolling eyes, the sweat on his sides, and the mud all over Pa’s britches, Ma and Meg had known that it had not been easy.

Pa would use the road once they got it built.  He’d have to.  It was all the road there was.  Oh, why couldn’t he give in just this once?  If only Tom had not mentioned Kentucky.  Pa always got upset whenever anyone spoke of Kentucky, and Meg had wondered why until Cousin Birdie explained.  When Ma was a girl, Cousin Birdie said, she had almost run off with a young man from Kentucky but her folks found out about it and put a stop to it.

“The man’s folks had Plenty.”  Cousin Birdie loved to talk in capitals.  “But he was No-Account and Fiddlefooted.  I reckon your Pa has always been a mite Jealous.”

Ma had come in from hoeing the garden just then, and Meg looked at her in astonishment.  Imagine her Ma carrying on with a wild young man.  But she was a right pretty woman, Ma was.  Her eyes were bright, as black as Meg’s own, and her hair, damp with perspiration, curled softly around her face.

Ma went over to the washstand, wet her hand, and pushed the hair back into the tight little knot on the back of her neck.

Willows along the lane that looked so pretty in the daytime were mighty lonesome looking at night, Meg decided.  Their lacy fronds closed about her like folds of black veiling.  A plaintive scream from the wild plum thicket made Meg shiver, though she knew it was only an old screech owl.  She’d be plenty glad to reach the road.

But it was not so easy to step out into the bright moonlight once she got there

Meg wished she had not heard Cousin Birdie telling Ma about the Woman in Black that people in town had seen moving along the roads after sensible folks were abed.  The Woman in Black never did anything or said anything.  Not that anyone ever knew about anyhow.  She just followed along behind you and you couldn’t get rid of her.

Meg cast a quick glance behind her.  All was bright and still.  Shucks, Cousin Birdie was always talking about Visitations and Spirit Rappings and such.  Usually Ma and Meg laughed about it.  Only tonight, for some reason, those tall tales did not seem quite so funny.

Meg hurried along, kicking up the soft dust with her bare feet.  She hadn’t been barefoot all summer, a great big girl like her, and it felt real good.

Why, the men had come clear up to the fence by the west forty.  There were their tools piled in a heap by the side of the road, ready to be used first thing in the morning.  And there was a pile of hickory planks, already smoothed on one side, ready to be laid.

Meg looked down the moonlit road.  She could hardly believe her eyes.  It stretched smooth and paved with planks as far as she could see.  Why it was slick as a kitchen floor, pretty near.

Your buggy wheels would really hum when you whipped up the horses.  Be hard on the horses’ hooves, though, like Pa said.  But she guessed a body really ought to have them shod anyway, like Tom Barbee said.

“Them logs’ll rot,” Pa had said.

“Not for a long time, and you can replace them,” Tom had said.

“Your buggy wheels will carry the mud right up on top of it,” Pa had said.

“Not very far.  And the next fellow’s rig will pack it back down, hard as a rock,” Tom had said.

Tom had said it would be the first paved road west of St. Louis, Meg remembered with a glow of pride.  And her Pa would have nothing to do with it.  Meg felt torn between loyalty to Pa and pride in Tom Barbee’s accomplishment.  She looked down the long stretch of paving, glanced over at the planks all ready to be laid, and set her lips.

Pa was never going to give in.  He would not even come out to see how they were getting on.  And her brothers were too little to help.  Well, here she was, and she had two arms, hadn’t she?

No one would ever know she had helped, she told herself, as she tugged at the nearest heavy plank.  But she would know it.  Every time she rode along the new road, she could say to herself, “I nailed down one of these planks my own self.  Maybe this one we are riding across this very minute.”  If there was only some way to mark it, so’s she could tell where it was.

She was backing across the road, dragging the plank by one splintery end.  The black   shadows of trees behind her reached out across the road in dark scallops.  One of the   shadows was taller than the rest.  It moved.

Too terror-stricken to go on, or even to drop the plank, Meg froze.  The Woman in Black, she thought.  She tried to make herself turn around and face the danger but she could not.  Then someone laughed.

Ghosts did not laugh.  They groaned.  Meg dropped her plank and whirled about to face Tom Barbee.

“That’s a fine thing to do,” she told him scornfully. “’Sneaking up on respectable womenfolk in the middle of the night and scaring them half out of their wits.”

As she gave tongue to her fear-turned-to-anger, she became increasingly aware of her position.  “Respectable women” did not stand barefoot in the middle of the road at midnight in their nightgowns.  Vainly she tried to cover herself completely with the shawl.

Seeing her embarrassment, Tom stifled his laughter and asked, “Did you really think you could tear up the whole road?”

“Tear it up?  Oh, no.”  Meg was horrified.  Why, he thought she was on her Pa’s side.  “I only wanted to help a little.  Pa won’t, and the boys are too little.  And I – Oh, Mr.  Barbee, isn’t it wonderful?   Why, rigs will come from all over, just to ride on our road. Surreys from Salisbury, buggies from Brunswick, carriages from Cairo, some of them from as far away as twenty miles, even.  Can’t you just see yourself flying down the road in a new buggy with yellow wheels behind a high-stepping horse?”

“With a pretty young lady beside me?” he teased.

Meg stiffened.  What must he think of her?  And all at once that seemed the most important thing in the world.  More important than the road, even.  She turned blindly away.

“Wait,” Tom said softly.  “I know how you feel, because that’s the way I feel, too.  This is something big we’re doing, something new that people will talk about and marvel about.  Here.  Let me help you.”

Meg clutched her plank again. “No, please.  I want to do it all by myself.”

Young Barbee was very ill at ease until the plank was laid in place.  “At least let me spike it down for you,” he told her.  It made Meg feel nice and protected to know he had not liked to see her working while he stood by and watched.  She looked carefully round.

“If there was only some way to mark my plank, so I could tell which one it was.  Do you suppose a fence post . . . ”

“No.”  But this time Tom did not laugh.  “The fence will be rotted long before the plank   is.  This is good seasoned hickory.”  He touched the plank briefly with the toe of his boot.  He walked slowly up the road a ways and stopped where some brush was growing.

“An oak tree, now . . . ” he said thoughtfully.   “It takes many a year to grow, and will outlive a man.”

He came back and fumbled among the tools until he found a shovel.  In a short time, he had the little burr oak planted in the fence row opposite the plank she had laid.

“It’s so little,” Meg ventured to criticize.

“A bigger one would not grow,” he told her.  “I’ll keep it watered for you, until it gets a   start.”

Meg looked back along the lane.  She suddenly felt the cool night air and she suddenly felt uneasy.  What if Cousin Birdie woke up and missed her?  What if she followed her and found her here like this?  Cousin Birdie would tell Aunt Emma, and everybody knew what a gossip Aunt Emma was.  Soon everyone in the county would think that Meg had gone to meet the Barbee boy on the big road in the middle of the night in her nightgown.

“I thank you,” Meg said politely, but her teeth chattered. “I’ll never forget it.”

She started back.  Out of the corner of her eye she could see his long legs keeping step.

She stopped abruptly.  “You can’t come with me.  Please.”

“I can at least walk you to the end of the lane,” he announced in a firm voice that made Meg think of her Pa.  “You’ve no business out here alone this time of night.”

“I know it,” Meg told him meekly.  She stole a sideways glance at him.  “Why did you come?”

Even in the darkness she could feel that the tension between them had been replaced by companionship.

“Same reason you did,” he admitted a little sheepishly.  “Couldn’t sleep.  Wanted to gloat over it a bit, I reckon, and see how it looked in the moonlight.”

They walked a moment in silence, and then she heard a chuckle.

“I don’t even know your name.”  It was a question more than a statement.

“Why,” Meg stammered, “it’s Marguerite, really, after a French grandmother.  But Pa’s Scottish.  He calls me Meg.”

“I’ll not call you Meg,” Tom decided.  “I’ll call you Rita.  It’s pretty, and it matches your black eyes.”

Meg was speechless.  He could not possibly see the color of her eyes, even in the moonlight.  He must have remembered.

All too soon they came to the end of the lane.  They could see the house lying white and still as a sleeping cat in the moonlight.

Old Tige, his short hair bristling with suspicion, stood stiff-legged out in the yard.  Meg held her breath.  The folks had not missed her yet, but what if old Tige barked?  Pa would be up instantly with his shotgun in case it was a varmint after the chickens.

Hurriedly Meg moved out into the light.  Tige must have recognized her for he lay down again, stretching his head out along his forepaws.  But Meg knew he was keeping his eyes on them.

She heard Tom breathe deeply.  He had been afraid, too.  “Look,” Tom whispered.   “When will you be sixteen?”

“November 7th,” Meg told him, surprised.  “’Why?”

“You must not have heard all of the conversation I had with your Pa,” he told her mischievously.   “I asked him something else.  And he told me you can’t do any setting up with a man until you’re sixteen.  November 7th, huh?  I’ll not forget.”

But they had forgotten old Tige.  The old dog must have caught the deeper tones of Tom’s voice, for the next thing they knew, he rushed across the yard raising Old Ned,   and right behind him was Pa, one hand still pulling up his galluses, and the other clutching his gun.

“Meggie.”

Pa stopped, puzzled, as Meg hurried forward to try and stop Tige before he could get to Tom.  But Tige circled around her and was not to be diverted until she caught him round the neck and held on.

When Pa spoke again, he sounded like an old, old man.

“Who’s that ye got with ye?”

Tom came forward then and stood beside her.  Pa looked at them a long minute and all Meg could think of was her bare feet and the dusty hem of her nightgown.  Slowly Pa raised the gun and laid his cheek along the wooden stock.

Meg wanted to run out and clutch the gun, knock it aside, or even to throw herself in front of it.  She tried to move but her legs seemed rooted to the sod.  She tried to cry out, and her tongue was like a ball of wet wool in her mouth.

There was a sudden swish of white muslin from the front porch.  Cousin Birdie was there, too, swinging on Pa’s arm and bringing the gun barrel down before Pa could shoot.

Rob Alexander.”  Her voice was sharp and tight.  It did not sound a bit like Cousin Birdie.  “What in tarnation do ye think you’re a doing?”

“Leave me be, Birdie.”  Pa shook her off.  “I aim to kill him.  Not a man on the jury would   convict me.”

“Mebbe not.”  Birdie clutched the gun again.  “But they sure would convict Meg.  Think what you are doing, Rob.  Do you think any decent man would look at her twice, after you pin a thing like this on her?”

Pa pushed her aside and clicked the hammer.  Birdie swung her weight on the gun barrel and it came down.  Even through her terror, Meg felt a deep surprise that meek little Cousin Birdie had the spunk to stand up to Pa like this – a thing that not even Ma had ever dared to do.

“Do you want her to be like me, Rob?”  And now she sounded more like herself.  “An old maid with no one to call her own, beholden to her kin for every bite she eats?”

For the first time, Cousin Birdie’s words seemed to make Pa conscious of what she was saying.  He turned to look at her.

“You’re a good woman, Birdie.  I reckon I never did believe what was said.”

“There was them that did,” Cousin Birdie pointed out grimly.  “Seems like folks just purely want to believe what is ugly or bad.  You can’t do this to Meg, Rob.”

“She done it to herself.”

Meg slumped, and then she felt Tom Barbee’s hand under her arm, steadying her.  He urged her forward across the yard, and it seemed miles and miles they had to walk.

“Stop right there.”  Pa said to Tom, and with his head he motioned Meg up onto the porch where Ma was waiting.

Tom stood and waited.  Even through her fear, Meg felt proud of him.  He hadn’t talked back to Pa.  He knew what they were all thinking, and it shamed him, too, but he did not act scared a bit.

“Reckon there is just one other thing to do then,” Pa said grimly.  “He will have to marry her.”

Meg wished she could go right down through the porch floor and never come back up.     For her Pa to say a thing like that.  To force her on a man, a man like Tom Barbee, who wouldn’t even want her.  Oh, she couldn’t.  She’d kill herself first.  She would.

Through the fog of fear and shame that surrounded her, she heard a strange sound.  Tom Barbee was laughing.  Laughing.

Pa was as mystified as Meg, and half-raised his gun again.

“I’m sorry,” Tom said when he could speak.  “Of course I’ll marry her.  I made up my mind to do just that the first time I ever saw her, when she came into church that morning with her cheeks as rosy as the ribbons on her hood and her black eyes a-sparkling.  The only thing that worried me was, I knew what a stubborn, strong-willed man her Pa was, and then I kind of got off on the wrong foot with that road business.  I couldn’t see how I was ever going to talk you into it.”

He stood up straight and tall, and made a little bow in the direction of the porch.

“I’ll be very happy to marry your daughter, sir,” he said formally.  “But not until she’s had her due of proper courting.”

He sounded every bit as stubborn as her Pa, Meg thought,

“You’ll marry her now,” Pa said, and hefted his gun.

Shame on you, Rob,” Cousin Birdie said.  “This young man is treating our Meg like a lady.  Why can’t you do the same?”

Cousin Birdie, Meg thought, I love you.  And the first thing in the morning, I’m agoing to put that feather bed back.

Tom turned his back on Pa and his gun and walked to the front gate.  There he swung around and spoke straight to Meg.

“I’ll be back to call,” he promised before them all, “on November 7th.”

Meg watched him walk away from her down the big grand road in the moonlight.

Rita looked up as a brand new station wagon turned onto the gravel in front of the Barbee Q.  The back end was filled with tools and equipment of some kind.  Telephone linesmen, maybe, she thought.  But no lines were down that she knew of, and nobody needed a new phone, either.  There was never anything new around here.

The driver got out and harried to the lunchroom door.  He was short and stocky – a hungry male who wanted his dinner and no nonsense about it.  The other man was younger.  Rita noticed how broad his shoulders were.  His forehead was high, and his red hair had a tendency to curl that even a crew-cut could not dis­courage.  As he reached the door, his eyes met Rita’s and crinkled in amusement.  Rita grinned back.

That was simply all that happened, Rita told herself.  They did not know each other – they had not said one word.  They merely laughed together because that little man had been kind of funny.  No cause for her to stand here like a goon, staring off down the road to where that old burr oak leaned against the fence.

A jalopy overflowing with kids from the Consolidated High School roared to a stop out   in front.

“Hi, Rita,” someone yelled.  “Wanna travel?”

Mamma was at the door in nothing flat. “Rita Barbee.   Don’t you dare get in that thing.”

She turned to Ed Stillman who was right behind her.

“I don’t know what these young folks are coming to.  All they want is to be rushing madly from one place to the other.”

“It will be worse than ever,” Ed  drawled, “when they put the new road  through.”

What new road?” Mamma wanted to know.

“Ain’t you folks heard?”  Ed licked his lips with eagerness at the prospect of spreading   some exciting news.  “They’re making a new cut-off for Highway 40 right through here.    Four lanes, seventy foot wide.   Follows the old plank road clean through to Moberly.     Ought to make your business pick up considerable.”

His bright eyes found Rita and he gazed at her in a calculating fashion.

So that is why the big ape has been making passes at me, Rita thought grimly.  Well, he can just go feed his pigs.

The men in the station wagon were probably surveyors.  They should be around for quite some time.  Rita smiled to herself.  Maybe this summer would not be such a washout after all.

A new highway.  Right here.  Maybe they could get the buses to stop.  There would be cars from all over.  Massachusetts and Florida and California, maybe even some from foreign countries.  They might put in a gas pump.  Maybe even a trailer camp.  Things were going to happen right here, and she would be here to see it happen.  Maybe even be a part of it.  Who cared now about going to the city?  Why, the whole world would soon be roaring right past her own door.

Mamma was gazing off down the road .

“They will have to cut down that old oak tree.  Mighty pretty it always is in the fall.”

“Mamma,” Rita laughed.  “It’s just an old tree.”

“Well, old Grandma Barbee thought a heap of that tree.  Always said she wanted to be buried right under it.”

“But she’s laying up on the hill with the rest of them,” Meg said.

“Of course she is.  The Barbee women are ladies.”  Mamma opened the screen to go in.

“Oh,” she said, glancing in that direction one more time.  “I know it’s just an old Oak tree.  But I sure hate to think of them cutting it down.”

__________

THE COLORADO RIVER SCROLLS

EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK OF KALAN
by L.T. Fawkes

They looked us over sourly. Their faces were tired and strained and they sagged in their saddles like half-filled bags of grain. Linon had warned us they were especially dangerous because they had been so long without sleep. Now, Linon sought us out with his eyes, face by face, reminding us again to be careful.

The one who was their commander sat stiffly in his saddle. He seemed to favor his left arm as if he had been wounded.

“Barragan,” he shouted.

His mount, like all the other exhausted horses in the infinite columns behind him, panted heavily. Its breath billowed from its nostrils in twin bursts of steam and dissipated into the cold morning air.

Someone rode up from the rear. All along the columns the horses started, as if they had waked suddenly and thought it was time to charge into battle again. The riders had difficulty calming them.

The rider stopped to the left of the commander and regarded us, one corner of his wide mouth pulling lower and lower. Then he spat into the dust.

“These are the ones we’ve been fighting for three months?”

The commander had to turn from his waist to face this Barragan, which meant the wound must be in his shoulder and had stiffened his neck. I looked at Linon to signal, but he had seen for himself. He was watching the men and listening.

“A mistake has been made somewhere, Barragan,” said commander. “This is some stray tribe of cast-offs. Idiots and cripples. Not the enemy we engaged.”

Now the commander spat. I curled my back even more and, not daring to look anywhere else, watched the commander’s spit drop to the ground. Watched the little balloon of dust rise above the tiny crater and slowly settle back.

Barragan sniffed at the air. “My God. I can’t stand the stink of them.”

I agreed with him. Linon had insisted we all roll in the sulfur powder we normally used only at our shrines to drive away devils. The stench was unbearable.

The commander, forgetting his wound, twisted to look to the rear. He groaned and bent forward in pain, and when he raised his head again I saw that he was very pale.

“Bring the captive forward,” he whispered.

Barragan turned his horse and rode back through the massed army.

My heart stopped. Captive? Had they taken Baral, or one of the other women or children in the group she was leading North? They had been gravely burdened because they were carrying all our possessions with them. Or had they intercepted Rilat, who had led another group of women and children South? Perhaps one of the older ones who carried a baby on her backs had tired too quickly.

The commander waited, hunched, his breathing labored, until Barragan returned pulling another horse behind him. When he reined in beside the commander and led the captive’s horse into the space between them, I saw to my horror that the captive was Walir.

He was still wearing his battle cloth. The rest of us had traded our finely-crafted loin cloths for rags during the night because Linon said that our only chance against such numbers was to cast ourselves into the wind. The women had carried away all our battle dress and all our weapons.

Now I stared at Walir and struggled to hold my face in an idiot’s leer. I hoped the others could manage to do the same.

Barragan leaned across the neck of Walir’s horse and studied the commander’s face. “With your permission, Sir, you must let me call up a litter for you.”

The commander gasped for breath. “One moment, Barragan.” He tried to focus his eyes on Walir. “Now, you. The truth. Are these your people?”

All life seemed to stop and wait for the answer. Walir, the renegade, the rogue, the trouble-maker, banished for cowardice two days earlier, and now the captive of our enemy, held our fate in his thieving hands. The idiot’s drool dried in my mouth. I stared at Walir. He sat tall on his mount. His hands were tightly bound behind his back. He played his eyes over us.

When he saw me he sniffed and made a face to show his amusement at the way we smelled. He gave me a slow smile and then he hooted.

“These?” He laughed. “Yes, of course. These are the ones who who cut your army in half.”

He laughed harder, rocking on his saddle. Nearby I heard Linon mimic Walir’s laughter in a high-pitched, idiot way. I quickly followed his lead, as did some of the others.

Walir sat back, watching, and shouted to the commander, “Behold. My people. And there . . . ” he pointed at Linon ” . . . that one is our brave leader. ” He hooted and laughed twice as hard.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Linon pointed back Walir and did a crippled little dance, laughing, his head rolling loosely above his neck. Most of the rest of us joined in.

The commander, who had twisted uncomfortably to watch Walir, became enraged by his behavior. A terrible change occurred in his face. All the skin seemed to pull back from his teeth. As Walir continued to laugh and we continued to mimic him, the commander drew his long gleaming sword, lifted it shakily, and drove it deep into Walir’s chest.

Walir cried out. His eyes bulged. He looked down, his hands went to the sword’s handle, his fingers touched at it all over, and then he fell.

The commander lost his balance with the effort of the kill. He fell over onto Walir’s horse, which shied and stepped away, so that the commander fell on top of Walir and they tangled together on the ground, arms and legs.

It was an astonishing sight. We all stopped and stared except for Linon. In his wisdom, he imitated Walir’s death cry, clutched his own chest, and threw himself to the ground laughing.

Fighting for self-control, we followed him one by one until we were all crying out and falling and laughing insanely. If some of our shrieks sounded more like grief than joy, our enemy failed to notice.

Barragan dismounted and separated his commander from Walir. Under our noise, I heard him scream for a litter. Three soldiers ran up with one. Barragan, assuming command, sent one of them to the rear with marching orders. Then he helped the other two load the commander onto the litter.

As they settled him down, Barragan leaned closer to hear something the commander said, nodded, and turned Walir, who lay in the dust, face-down and still. Barragan kicked him over, put one heavy boot on his chest, and drew out the commander’s sword, which he wiped across his pants and placed beside the commander on the litter.

They carried the litter up the hill to a waiting wagon, Barragan at the head and the other two at the feet. That was the last we saw of Barragan. The soldiers nearest us, and as far up the hill as we could see, turned their backs on us and waited with their restless horses until the slack was taken up and the line began to move. And then they marched away. The sun was nearly overhead.

We sat or lay in the dust, our eyes burning and our backs aching, until the last white plumes disappeared over the hill and the noise of the army had faded to an underground vibration that came up the ladders of our spines. Linon sent Ocar and Faran to follow the army’s retreat so as to warn us in the event it turned back. Then he sent runners after Baral’s group and Rilat’s group with orders to meet us in the mountain camp.

As the runners disappeared he crawled to a boulder and lay back wearily against it. Motioning for me to stay with him, he said to the others, “Go down to the river. Bathe and sleep. We’ll move tonight.

Linon closed his eyes. In a moment he was snoring. I lay flat on the ground, listened to the splashing noises coming up from the river where the others were swimming, listened to insects buzzing, and stared at Walir’s crumpled body.

After a short time Linon began to cough. For a few minutes his body shook with the dry coughing and then he lay back against the rock, breathing heavily. Finally he rolled his head to look at me and saw I was awake.

He sat forward, crossed his legs, and absently began to trace figures into the dust.

“We can’t fight them again, Kalan,” he said.

“No.”

“They live only to make war. If they have families someone else must take care of them and feed them. They don’t have babies to worry about.”

“No.”

“They find us too easily out on the plains. We can’t go out on the plains anymore.”

“No.”

His finger continued to draw the soft lines in the dust. “We kill them and kill them and they send back new armies, each bigger than the last.”

I said, “They must have others in their own land raising their children to take their swords.”

“Yes.”

Linon erased his dust figures and began a new design.

“From now on, we must stay in the mountains. Everything will have to be different from now on.”

I only nodded. We sat quietly.

“We will have to adapt ourselves to mountain winters. It will be difficult for us and for our children, but each generation after that will be a little more suited . . . ”

“What do you mean?” Even as I asked, I knew with cold certainty what he meant. He had spoken like this before, but never in this tone of finality.

“You know very well,” he said, reaching out to me and resting one calming hand on my shoulder. “Our ancestors bred particular wolves or we wouldn’t have the loyal dogs that sleep at our feet each night and keep our watch for us.”

“Do you want us to change ourselves into wolves?”

“Not wolves, Kalan.” He shrugged. “Stronger people. Mountain people.”

I sighed. “Oh, Linon. It will be so hard . . . ”

Which of our children could survive the mountain winters? I thought sadly of my own frail little ones.

Linon stood up. “One more thing to do here and then we’ll join the others in the river,” he said.

He walked over to Walir’s body. I followed. Linon squatted near Walir’s head and began to dig in the dust, dog fashion, the dirt spraying out behind him. I began to dig beside Walir’s feet. We dug steadily. When we hit clay, we found sharp rocks and carved into the clay until the grave was deep enough. Then we lifted Walir and lowered him and sat facing each other on opposite edges of his grave.

Linon sighed deeply and coughed. His eyes filled, but I didn’t know whether that had to do with the coughing, or the dust, or the future he had been drawing into the dust, or with our rogue, Walir. Linon shook his head slowly.

“He laughed at our rules, cursed our ancestors, let others do his work, and stole from them while they were doing it. More than once I had my hand on my knife . . . ”

“As did I,” I said. “But he had an honorable end.”

Linon nodded.

Solemnly, we pushed the dirt into the hole until the grave was tightly packed. Then, following our custom, we marked the grave with six stones, one for each of the directions in which Walir’s spirit was now free to wander. Then we walked to the river.
________

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EARLY EIGHT

Preface

Early Eight by L. T. Fawkes is the third book in the Terry Saltz Mystery series.

 

EARLY EIGHT is now available on Kindle.

(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled, WELCOME.)

Chapter 1

 

Procol Harum’s Salty Dog was playing on the jukebox.  I could barely hear it over the commotion in the busy kitchen at Smitty’s Bar and Eats.  I only knew a few of the lyrics, but that didn’t stop me from singing along in my most soulful cigarettes-and-whiskey voice while I watched the seconds tick down on the bread timer.

My name’s Terry Saltz.  I’m a carpenter.  I also moonlight a few nights a week at Smitty’s.  Technically, when I’m at Smitty’s I’m a bouncer.  But at Smitty’s you pitch in where you’re needed.  That’s why I was baking bread.

Suddenly Danny Gillespie was beside me, elbowing me in the ribs.  “Boss.  Seven-thirty.  Time for pool league.  Let’s go.”

His freckled face was all serious.  That was an unusual condition for him.  He was chewing the inside of his cheek and the chewing action was making his strawberry blond mustache bounce.

Me and Danny have been best friends since we were little kids.  When we were fifteen, my brother P.J. got us jobs as gofers for Red Perkins Construction and we learned carpentry together.  Danny eventually got fed up with Red, went to work for Miller Roofing, and we lost touch for a while.

But then I went to jail.  Which I guess this is as good a time as any to go ahead and explain about that.  Get that right out of the way.  See, one night in a bar I did a bunch of shots along with some controlled substances.  Then I hit some people and trashed the place.

I don’t remember anything after the first few shots, but when I came to, I was in a cell.  My skinned knuckles and assorted lumps and bruises were solid evidence I’d had a pretty interesting night.

Because of my one-man rampage, I ended up losing my job, my wife, and my trailer.  There was gonna be no place for me to go when I got out, and nothing for me to do when I got there.

Then Danny showed up.  It turned out he’d been living in the crappy little attic of an old house just down the hill from the town square in Spencer, Ohio, in the northern part of Grand County.  He visited me in jail and mostly kept a straight face as he listened to my sad stories and, as my release date approached, he saved my ass by offering to let me crash at his place till I got back on my feet.  Moving in with Danny kept me off the streets.

Moving in with Danny had an added benefit.  If I’d gone back to my old stomping grounds in the southern end of the county, odds were I’d have slid right back into my old bad habits, and I didn’t want that.  I really didn’t want that.  I didn’t want to end up back in jail.

So I swore off the booze and drugs and moved in with Danny in Spencer.  He even carried me awhile till I found a job as a pizza driver.

Now, a busy year and a half later, I still hadn’t touched anything stronger than coffee and Marlboros, we had us a bunch of new friends, and we were sharing an awesome double-wide with a rookie cop out in Chandler’s Trailer Park.

We were carpentering together again, and moonlighting together as bouncers at Smitty’s, and our brand-new pool team was about to kick off its winter session.

I told Danny, “Hang on.  I gotta get these loaves out of the oven when the timer goes off.  And don’t call me Boss.”

Danny snickered.  Then Hammer spoke up.  Which I didn’t think he was even paying any attention.  He’d been standing there with his hands tucked under his armpits like he was in a hypnotic trance or something, watching the hot new waitress as she tried to reach the take-home cartons that were stacked on a high shelf.

Hammer said, “Go on, Boss.  I’ll take care of the bread.”

I glared at him.  Skinny, goofy, redheaded kid.  He was grinning at me.  Because he’d called me Boss.

I said, “Now he’s got you doing it, too?  It’s not funny, Hammer.  Do not call me Boss.”

I stepped over to lift down the boxes the new girl was never gonna reach without a stepladder.  Then Danny dragged me out of the kitchen.  I glanced at his profile and saw he was still smirking about Hammer calling me Boss.

I got my arm free and followed him across the busy dining room.  Sexy-ass dining room with thick burgundy carpeting, dark green wainscoted walls, sparkling brass chandeliers dimmed down to half light, and oak captain’s chairs with sexy green leather seats at sexy oak tables.  Most of the tables were surrounded by happy, chewing customers.

I was about to tell Danny he seriously had to stop calling me Boss, and stop instigating everybody else to do it, too, when we came to the doorway from the dining room to the pool hall and I saw the crowd.  I stopped and stared.

I said, “Holy shit.  Where’d all these people come from?”

Both of Smitty’s teams were shooting at home that first night of pool league.  And you figure, four pool teams with six to eight players each, okay, that’s a lot of people.  But that didn’t account for the crowd all along the front of the bar.

Besides a lot of unfamiliar faces, I saw that Smitty had come out from behind the bar to watch, and I noticed that some of the regular bar flies, who we call the Members, had even come around from their reserved seating area on the back side of the bar.

Mule, wearing his usual stained Carhartt overalls, leaned against the pinball machine, his longneck in his hand.  Big ole Tiny was right beside him.  Tiny’s huge Carhartts were plenty stained, too.  Tiny runs a septic service.  Mule works for him.

Danny threaded his way between the pool tables to where our team, looking tough and menacing in black Smitty’s T-shirts and black jeans, was huddled by the scorer’s table.  I followed him, looking around with my mouth hanging open.

The Elliot twins, Luther and Reginald, were our co-captains.  They were sitting at the scorer’s table studying the score sheet.  The rest of our team was hovering over them.  A fat guy I didn’t know was also hovering there.  He was talking to the twins.

As I walked up, he said, “. . . to shove it, ya know?  I mean, I need a job, but I don’t need that job.”

One of the Elliot twins said, “No kidding.  You can make that hourly working at Burger King these days.  That one up in Fairfield has a sign out in front.”

The fat guy said, “No shit?  Huh.”  He looked at his watch.  “Well, I guess we oughtta get started.  Who’re you putting up first?”

Luther Elliot said, “Saltz.  New player.  Unranked.”

The fat guy bustled back to his team’s end of the table.

Bump Bellini was standing behind the twins, screwing a stick together. Some of his long blond hair had gotten loose from his ponytail.  He blew it away from his nose.

I looked closer at the stick.  It was mine.  The new one I’d bought two weeks earlier.  He saw me and walked over, holding my stick out.

I couldn’t stop staring at the crowd.  It was a total clusterfuck, all around the pool tables and in front of the bar.  People were glancing my way, rubbing their chins, putting their heads together and talking quietly, like they were discussing something important.  I didn’t like the look of things at all.

I pushed past Bump so I could talk to the twins.  We had six players on our team, and only five sets are played in a match, so I was thinking I could sit out that first week.  You know?  Get a feel from the sidelines for what these matches were like.

I said to Reginald Elliot, “Dude.  Play somebody else first.  And where the fuck did all these people come from?”

Reginald grinned up at me.  “Believe me, precious.  It’s better to go first when you’re new.  If you wait, your jitters will only get worse.”

Don’t get the wrong idea about that “precious” thing.  The twins are like that.  They call everybody precious.

“But Danny, Bump, and Gruf are all new, too.  Seriously.  I’m not ready.”

The twins were shaking their blond heads.  Reginald said, “Danny, Bump, and Gruf have all played in leagues before.  You’re the inexperienced one, so you’re up.  You’ve got a five-minute practice session as soon as your opponent finishes.  Then it’s a race to three.  That means, whoever wins three games first . . . ”

“I know what it means.”

I stole a glance across the pool table toward the other team’s end.  I remembered we were playing the team from Four Corners Tavern in Woodcrest.  The team that called themselves the Terminators.

I said, “Who’s my opponent?”

“They’re discussing it now.  Ah.  Here comes their captain.”

The fat guy was waddling toward us.  He said, “We’re playing Tiffany,” and jerked his thumb to indicate a fat, messy girl who had stepped up to the table and was beginning to rack the balls.

Tiffany was wearing a school bus yellow T-shirt that said I’m With Stupid and had a big red pointing arrow.  I watched the arrow, but no matter which way she turned, I didn’t see Stupid anywhere.  I wondered if maybe Stupid had gotten a load of her T-shirt and decided she wasn’t with him after all.

A voice beside me said, “Wouldja?”

It was Danny.  I saw he was watching Tiffany, too.  I said, “Not even with your dick.”

Then I turned back to tell Reginald that I wasn’t shooting first, but he wasn’t there anymore.  He was over at the bar getting his gin and tonic refreshed.

Gruf Ridolfi straightened up from the score book.  He ran his fingers through his long black DA, grinned at me, and gave me the thumbs-up.

I said, “No.  Dude.  Somebody else has to go first.  I . . . ”

“New guy always goes first,” he said firmly.  “It’s easier on the nerves that way.”

Whose nerves?”

Tiffany’s five minute practice session seemed like it was over before it started.  Then it was my turn to practice.  There was no one left to turn to.  No mercy available anywhere, except that Reginald came back to the scorer’s table carrying an iced tea for me along with his gin and tonic.  Iced tea for me because, like I said before, I don’t do alcohol anymore.

There was nothing I could do but suck it up.  I racked the balls, positioned the cue ball, lined up to break, and totally biffed.  My stick glanced over the top of the cue ball and the cue ball rolled sideways about two inches.  I’d forgotten to chalk the tip of my stick.

Tiffany snickered.  Behind me, people groaned.

Somebody said, “Noonan.”  It sounded like Gruf.

I turned around.  Gruf was scratching his head and looking up at the ceiling.  Mule was frowning at me.

Fuckin’ Mule.  Frowning at me.

I turned back to the table and found the chalk.  Somehow I got through my practice session, even though my bridge hand seemed to have developed a slight tremor.

Then it was time to shoot for the break.  At least I knew how to do that.  We’d gone over it at our team practices.  What you do is, the two players stand side by side at the head of the table and both shoot at the same time.  The idea is to hit the end rail, and the one whose ball stops closest to the end rail after touching it, wins the right to break.

Tiffany’s ball bounced off the end rail and stopped in about the middle of the table.  So did mine, only mine stopped there after it came all the way back to the head rail and bounced back to the middle.  Her break.

I racked the balls and stepped back out of the way.  Reginald came to stand beside me.  He reached over and brushed bread flour off the front of my black Smitty’s T-shirt.

Tiffany broke and the thirteen ball dropped into the corner pocket.  She walked around the table, decided to try a rail shot on the eleven, and missed.

I started for the table.

Danny said, “Boss.  Don’t forget to chalk up.”

Which was irritating, because I would’ve forgotten.

I decided to go for the four in the side, but just as I was lining up on it, Reginald stopped me.

“Time out.”

I stood up and turned around.  “What.”

Reginald stepped close beside me, cocked his hip, frowned, cupped his chin, and stared at the table.  “Let’s talk about your strategy.”

I said, “My strategy is:  Sink all the solids and then drop the eight.”

Like, What the fuck.  You know?

He allowed a tight smile.  “Well, yes.  In a perfect world.”

Across the way, Tiffany said loudly, “Tick tock, there, Shitty’s.  In this lifetime, huh?”

The Terminators all snickered.

Reginald ignored her and gave me my first four shots, telling me what English to use and where to leave the cue ball.  I paid attention.  The Elliot twins are far and away the two best shots in the entire bar league.

I lined up on the one ball to the corner like he’d said.  The one dropped, but I shot a little too hard and ended up with the cue ball behind two stripes and no good shots on a solid.  I’d only managed to get one lousy ball down and I was already screwed.  I stood up from the table, baffled.

Reginald said, “Time out.”

Tiffany yelled, “Foul.  He already had a time out.”

Reginald looked over with his mouth open, but her fat captain was already telling her that I was a new, unranked player and was entitled to unlimited time outs in my first two matches.

The captain was fat and Tiffany was fat.  Matter of fact, just about everybody standing and sitting around the opposing scorer’s table was fat.

I said to Reginald, “Those guys must have a lot of team dinners, huh?”

But he was studying the table and seemed not to hear me.

He said, “We’ll call a safety.  Remember, to make it a legal shot, you have to hit one of your own balls first.  Then something has to hit a rail.”

He showed me what to do by sketching lines in the air above the green felt surface with his finger.

I nodded and lined up for the shot.

Reginald said, “Call the safety, precious.”

Tiffany said, “Yeah.  Call the safety, precious.”

I straightened.  “Safety.”

I stood there breathing for a few seconds.  Jeez.  Up until the last ten minutes or so, I’d been pretty good at pool.  Now I felt like I’d never played the game in my life.

I chalked my stick and managed to do what he’d told me.  My team and most of the people standing in front of the bar nodded and clapped.  The safety worked like it was supposed to and Tiffany scratched.  I sank a couple of balls and then blew an easy shot.  Then she blew an easy shot, and then I managed to run out the table.  One-zip.

Tiffany racked the balls, swearing to herself.  I chalked my stick.  I broke and the four ball dropped.  I lined up on the three ball to the corner pocket.  Tiffany suddenly appeared in my line of vision, twirling her stick.  Distracted, I glanced at her, and in that glance I caught sight of a face in the crowd just over her shoulder.

I went back to lining up my shot before I realized whose face it was.  I stood up and looked again, but he had disappeared.

I took a few steps toward the bar, craning my neck, trying to find him.  I took a few more steps so that I could see down the back hall, but there was no sign of him.  Danny, looking puzzled, had stepped up beside me.

I said, “I thought I saw my brother.  Berk.  Did you see him?”

He shook his head.  “What would Berk be doing here?  Are you sure it was him?”

I wasn’t.  It’d been years since I’d seen Berk, and it’d been only a split-second glance.

I shrugged it off and went back to the table, but I couldn’t get my head clear.  My shot went wide, and my cue ball didn’t end up where I meant for it to, either.  It was lined up to give Tiffany a bunny shot, eleven to the side.  She made her shot, and three more, before she blew a bank shot and scratched.

I shook out the cobwebs and settled myself down.  Then I ran the table.  Two-zip.  The fans went wild.  Gruf and Bump stood on either side of me, pounding me on the back.

Bump said, “One more game, dude.”

Gruf said, “Bring it on home now.”

I laughed at them.  I broke, sinking the two ball, and missed a rail shot to the corner.  Tiffany sank two but missed a bank shot into the side pocket.  As I stepped up to the table, I noticed for the first time that the eight ball was sitting on the side rail, dangerously close to the near corner pocket.  I dropped four balls, but then I hesitated.

I looked back to the scorer’s table to see if Reginald was going to come out to talk to me.  He nodded at me to go ahead and see what I could do.

I thought I could maybe clip the six ball into the side pocket, but then the cue ball would be heading up toward that eight ball.

You never want to risk an Early Eight.  Early Eight is instant death.  Sink that badass black eight ball before it’s time and it’s instamatic Game Over.

I looked for a safety, found one, called it, and made it.  My team applauded.

Tiffany stepped up, called the nine in the side, and made a tough bank shot.  But the cue ball kept going.  It banked around to make a perfect rail shot on the eight.  The eight dropped into the corner pocket with a thud.

Early Eight.  My team and most of the bar erupted into cheers.  I’d won my first-ever bar-league set, three-zip.  I was suddenly swallowed up by laughing, back-slapping teammates.

Then the other end of the room erupted in cheers.  A bunch of people from Lo-Lites Bar in Ladonia were cheering for the tall, slender blonde who had just won her set.  She strutted back to her table laughing, pumping the air with her hands in that “raise the roof” gesture.

I heard her say, “That’s me.  Red Hot.  Just like my license plate says.”

None of us knew it on that frigid January night, of course, but Red Hot didn’t have much longer to be red hot.  In just a few hours, the long, tall blonde from Lo-Lites was going to be cold as ice.

 

 

Chapter 2

Luther was up next.  While he and his opponent took their practice sessions, I walked through the bar looking for my brother Berk, or a guy who looked like him.  I kept on looking for him even after I knew he wasn’t there.

Berk is eight years older than me.  I thought about that as I searched the bar, and realized that made him thirty-four.  As a kid, I worshiped Berk like a god.  Everything he did seemed golden.

After he bought his first pickup truck, sometimes he’d let me ride shotgun and we’d cruise around southern Grand County.  Go get a Coke or something.  I’d ride as tall as I could and keep my eyes peeled, hoping to see kids I knew.  When I did, I’d make Berk honk his horn so they’d look around and see me riding with my brother.  Then I’d hoist the high hard one at them.

Even after I was sure Berk wasn’t in the bar, I kept my eyes moving around because now that my set was over, I was more or less back on the job.

Me and Danny and Bump are sort of odd job boys at Smitty’s.  Whatever needs to get done, we do it.  The co-captains of our pool team, the Elliot twins, are servers.  Gruf is Smitty’s son, so he’s sort of a glorified odd job boy slash manager.

The Elliot twins are ranked as sevens in the pool league.  That’s the highest ranking there is, and those two are amazing to watch.  Luther Elliot was up after me.  His opponent that night was ranked a four.  Under the handicapping system the league used, that meant Luther had to win seven games before his opponent won four.  Everybody settled down for a long one.

There was quite a crowd gathered around to watch Luther shoot—including, I noticed, the tall blonde from Lo-Lites.  She was model thin and had that kind of long, straight, glossy blond hair that looks so perfect it seems like it must be fake.

Luther and his opponent shot for the break.  Luther left his ball leaning against the end rail.  You can’t do any better than that.  His opponent was a little ruddy-faced guy who’d lost about half of his brown hair and who was nearly as wide as he was tall.  I noticed that the first thing he did was look around for a bridge.  I imagined, as short and wide as he was, he was probably pretty good with the bridge by now.

Somewhere behind me, I heard a guy clear his throat in a nervous way and say, “I was watching your set.  You really spanked that guy.”

I looked for the speaker and found a pale little pocket protector-looking dude standing behind me and a little to my left.  He was staring up through his cloudy glasses at the blonde from Lo-Lites.  His eyes were wide with awe and wonder.

Without looking at him, she said, “That’s me.  Red Hot.  Just like my license plate says.”

The first time I heard her say that, it sounded kind of cool.  Hearing her say it a second time, I realized it was her rap, and now it sounded corny.  Kind of annoying in a vague sort of way, like, Oh.  License plate?  Golly.

The nerd cleared his throat again. “Boy.  You sure are a tall drink of water.”

She ignored him for a few seconds.  Then she looked down her nose at him and said, “Long.”  Her attitude was nasty.

The guy said, “Huh?”

The girl said, “It’s not tall.  It’s longLong drink of water.”

She looked back toward our team’s table, where Luther was lining up for his break.  I watched her, thinking her bitchy attitude was out of line.  I mean, the guy was harmless.  Why’d she have to go ahead and bust his balls like that?

An older guy in a chocolate brown suit with a lighter brown tie stood beside her.  He had a soft, tired look about him.  His cheeks drooped like some of the air had leaked out.  Even his thin brown hair looked tired.

He had the posture of a guy who has to stand up all day on his job—toed out, with his knees bent a little, like he had a slightly lower center of gravity than most people.

A spot opened up in front of the pinball machine so I moved over there and leaned against it.  I was curious about the guy in the brown suit because that suit and tie made him look so out of place.  Like he belonged over in the dining room, chewing on a twenty-six-dollar steak, instead of out here in the pool hall.  I noticed that every time a girl walked by, his eyes followed her.  Each time, it looked to me like his eyes were firmly focused on ass.

It didn’t occur to me then that they were together, the old guy and the tall blonde.  I watched him when he headed over to the bar.  After a few minutes of watching Luther’s set, I glanced over and saw that the guy was on his way back and he was carrying two drinks.  He handed one to the blonde and I thought, Huh.  They still didn’t speak to each other.

Ten or fifteen minutes went by.  I glanced at the couple a few times, but mainly I watched Luther shoot.  The couple was standing so that the blonde had about a quarter profile to me and Brown Suit faced me head-on.  They never seemed to actually look at each other.  They were too busy watching the people who passed back and forth between the bar and the pool tables.

The blonde finished her drink.  She rattled her ice at Brown Suit and he headed toward the bar for another refill.  As he walked away, she slowly did a three-sixty.  Her eyes paused briefly on me as she scanned toward the bar.

Then the scanning stopped and she smiled.  She raised her hand and wiggled her fingers at somebody.  By the obvious change in her breathing and the way she began to squirm just a little bit, I could tell she was happy to see him, whoever he was.

I turned to look.  The somebody had his chin on his fist, his head tipped sideways, and was staring at her.  He flicked his tongue at her like a snake.  He was dark and dangerous-looking, with long, black, curling hair which he wore loose, a menacing black mustache, and a black turtleneck full of muscle.

Over the turtleneck, he wore his colors.  By colors, I mean his leather jacket.  One glance at that weathered, studded leather jacket told me that he was a club biker.  I couldn’t see his back, so I didn’t know which club until much later.

I got curious what would happen, since the blonde chick was already with somebody.  Brown Suit returned with her drink refill and she shifted so that she was facing the bar where Snake Man was.

I had a chance to really look at her now.  She had a long narrow nose, big green eyes that were slightly too close together, high cheekbones that gave her a hungry look, and an indentation in the middle of her chin.  She wore a black stretch-lace T-shirt and you could see the shadow of the black bra underneath it.  Tight black straight-leg jeans disappeared into tall black leather boots with some serious stiletto heels.

She’d stopped smiling.  She was restless and fidgety, like she had an interesting itch.

Over at the pool table, a loud Wo went up.  Luther had just won his set, and he’d apparently done it decisively, since the eight ball and all the solids were gone but all the stripes were still there, spread across the table.  Bump was pounding Luther on the back. I caught Luther’s eye and gave him the thumbs-up.

As the noise died down, I heard the blonde finish her sentence: “. . . filthy pig.”

I looked over.  So did several other people who were standing near enough to hear her.  She was glaring at Brown Suit and breathing hard.  I couldn’t hear what he said.  Then she said, “You’re a fucking pig, Ray.  Get me another drink.”

He shrugged, took her glass, and headed for the bar.  She looked over at Snake Man, smiled, pursed her lips, and kissed the air at him.  I didn’t look at him right then.  I didn’t need to see any more of his flicking tongue.  Brown Suit came back from the bar and stopped beside the blonde, so now they were both more or less facing me.

She took her glass from him and knocked some back.

He said, “Now.  Have you calmed down?”

She said, “You’re disgusting.  I can’t even stand to look at you.”

Then she noticed me staring at her.  “What’re you looking at?”

I frowned.  “Nothing special.”

She said, “Well, then, mind your own fucking business.”

I said, “I am.”

Which, she was my business at that particular moment, since I was the nearest bouncer.  When she finally succeeded in provoking Brown Suit into swinging on her or something, it was probably gonna be up to me to pull him off.  So I went right on watching them.

She turned back to Brown Suit and snarled, “You fat fuck.”

He’d had enough.  He said, “Get your coat.  I’m taking you home.”

“I drove myself here, remember?”

“You’re drunk.  I’ll drive you home.”

She laughed.  “I’d rather walk home to Ladonia in a fucking blizzard than ride with you.  But why don’t you go?  That’s a good idea.”

She tossed her glossy blond hair and looked toward the pool tables.

He said, “Don’t tempt me.  But you’re drunk.  If I left, how would you . . . Oh, I get it.  Who is it this time?”

He began to look around.  I glanced over at Snake Man.  He was hunched over his beer mug, studying his knuckles.

Brown Suit sucked in one cheek and nodded at her.  “One of these times, Gwen . . .”

She looked back at him and sneered.  “Are you still here?”

He said, “One of these times, you’re gonna go too far.”

She twinkled her fingers at him.  “Drive carefully.”

He turned around, carried his glass over to the bar, walked down the back hall, and disappeared out the door.  Before the door had even swung closed behind him, the girl was heading for Snake Man.  He stood up.  She walked right into his open arms and they kissed.

I thought, Wow.  She’s some piece of work.  Then I caught a patch of brown in my peripheral.  I looked.  Brown Suit had returned and was standing at the far end of the bar watching them kiss.  He stood there blank-faced for a full five seconds.  Then he turned and walked back outside.

The thought went through my mind that maybe he was going out to his car for a gun.  I moved to a position beside the cigarette machine and leaned my elbow on top of it.  I figured that way, when he returned, which I was sure he would, I could step up behind him and grab his arm.

I waited and watched the back door.  Five minutes went by.  At the bar, the blonde and Snake Man were sitting side by side now.  She had her arm up around his shoulders and they had their heads together.  He whispered something in her ear.

Another five minutes went by.  Danny finished his practice session and his set got under way.  A few people came in the back door, but none of them was a pissed-off old guy in a brown suit with a big ole gun.

After five or ten more minutes, I went outside into the icy January night and walked up and down the rows of cars in the shadowy parking lot, looking to see if he was sitting in a car out there anywhere, but he wasn’t.  The only people I saw were Gruf and Tiny, who were standing about halfway up the narrow alley, sharing a doobie.

I said Cool and headed back inside to catch the end of Danny’s set.

I stopped beside Bump.  “There’s a tall blonde on the Ladonia team.  Gwen something.  She’s sitting over there . . . ”

He interrupted.  “Yeah.  What about her?”

“What’s her last name?”

“Dillon.  Gwen Dillon.”

Danny won his game and his set in his next turn.  I was listening to his triumphant play-by-play when I felt a light nudge in the ribs.  I turned around to see Mule standing there.  His cloudy burn-out eyes blinked shyly up at me.

“Tiny wants to buy you and Danny a beer.”

He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.  I looked to the back side of the bar and saw Tiny hunched there, watching us.  His nose and cheeks were still pink from being out in the alley with Gruf.

Danny said, “Cool.”

We followed Mule around to the Members Only seating area on the back side of the bar, which Gruf had created so the regular barflies wouldn’t be bothered, and vice versa, by the well-dressed yuppies and grays who were flocking in droves to our fancy new dining room.

Princess was working the back side of the bar.  Tiny gestured along the line of Danny, Mule, and me, and told her, “Beers.”

But Princess knows I don’t drink, so she looked at me and said, “Iced tea, Terry?”

I nodded.

Mule gave me a funny look.  “Are you an alcoholic, Terry?”

I nodded.  I don’t know what the technical definition of alcoholism is.  My definition is, if screwing up your whole life seems like a good idea to you when you’re drunk, you’re an alcoholic.  By my definition, I’m the fuckin’ poster boy.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  I sat on the back side of the bar with Tiny, Danny, and Mule for a while, enjoying my iced tea and watching the action.  I noticed that the Red Hot blonde left Snake Man sometime along in there and wandered back over to the table where her team was shooting.  Off and on I noticed her circulating around the bar, chatting up one guy after another.

Then I got interested in Bump’s set and before long Danny and I thanked Tiny for the drinks and walked back over to the table to watch Bump’s tiebreaker game, which he won.  After Bump’s set, Gruf took a girl from the Terminators to school.  His win gave our team a clean sweep.

I got caught up in the celebration and forgot all about the blonde and Snake Man.  Sometime later, when I glanced around the bar looking for them, it seemed like they were both gone.

 

 

Chapter 3

After breakfast at Brewster’s Thursday morning, Danny leaned so far back on his chair I thought he was gonna go over on his head.  Then he stretched back even more and lit a smoke.  That was back in the good ole days when you could smoke in Brewster’s.

Our usual breakfast group was in the process of breaking up.  John Garvey had already left.  Nelma Wolfert, who started out as my parole officer and ended up as a friend, and Alan Bushnell, a sergeant on the Spencer PD, were up at the cash register chatting with Ilene as she totaled their bills.  That left me, Danny, Bump, and Gruf sitting at the table, sipping coffee and smoking.

Me and my friends eat breakfast at Brewster’s every weekday morning.  We push three tables together so there’s room for everybody.  Brewster’s is a big ole hometown place where you can move the furniture around and joke and hit on the waitresses and nobody cares.  The food’s good and the atmosphere’s friendly.

A sweet-natured waitress named Mary takes our table every morning.  She’s got me so spoiled I don’t think I could face the world if I didn’t start my day seeing her pleasant smile.

I mentioned John Garvey.  John’s a cop.  At that time he was a rookie.  He stands about five-eleven or so, and wears his brown hair buzz-cut.  He left his home in Indiana to enter Ohio Highway Patrol School and came straight onto the Spencer force from there.

Staying in Danny’s and my spare bedroom in our super-fine double-wide three bedroom trailer out in Chandler’s Trailer Park was supposed to be a temporary thing until he could find a place of his own.  But John’s a friendly, square, likeable guy who can cook like a sonofabitch, so it wasn’t long before Danny and me invited him to make the thing permanent.

I already told you about Danny.  He’s tall like me and he’s got long, golden red hair which he usually wears pulled back into a ponytail.  When he doesn’t have his hair tied back with the customary leather shoelace, and there’s a little wind, and the light’s right, he looks sort of like a freckled, goofy Jesus.

I tie my black hair in a ponytail, too.  I got it all cut off a year or so ago, but that was a bad mistake.  I knew it almost right away.  So I grew it back.  Grew back my mustache, too.  The mustache grew back faster.

Anyway. Danny stretched back in his chair and lit a smoke.  I glanced at the clock.  It was a few minutes past eight.  The weather forecasters had said we were gonna get hit by a blizzard, but they predicted it wasn’t gonna arrive until late afternoon.  They were wrong.  The front edge of the blizzard had blown into northeastern Ohio overnight and by breakfast time the storm had been hammering us for several hours.

Mary came around with the coffeepot and we all nodded yes to one last cup.  As she poured mine, she glanced toward Brewster’s wide front windows and sighed.  “Look at that snow.”

Gruf nodded.  “How much of that shit are we supposed to get today, anyway?”

Danny said, “All.”

Gruf said, “All?”

“All.”

Gruf grinned.  “That could be quite a bit of snow.  You think we can make it out to Ladonia in this stuff?”

We’d just started a job out in Ladonia.  A friend of ours, Bud Hanratty, hooked us up with it.  Three of his lawyer friends bought a big old two-story farmhouse and wanted to convert it to offices for their law firm.  They wanted it remodeled, from the attic (climate-controlled for files and storage space) to the basement (kitchen, lunchroom, bathrooms, and conference room).

It was an awesome job.  Which any indoor job during the winter months is an awesome job for a carpenter.  It was gonna keep us working (indoors) for several months, and Bud had told us to charge them top dollar.  We said, That’ll work.

Danny bounced his eyebrows. “We’ll make it out there, but will we be able to make it back in?”

Bump laughed and slapped a tip onto the table.  “I’ll give you guys two days, and if I haven’t heard from you by then, I’ll send out the wiener dogs.”

The rest of us stared at him.  Gruf said, “You mean the St. Bernards.”

Bump had stood and was looking around for Mary.  He spotted her back by the waitress station and blew her a kiss.  Then he turned back to Gruf.  “No, I mean wieners.  You do the math.”

We watched him saunter out the front door laughing.

Danny said, “Oh.  I get it.  He’s saying he’ll send wiener dogs because we’re a bunch of wienies.  What a funny guy.”

I said, “We’ll cram into my truck.  My truck can go through anything.”

My black Toyota Tacoma had the four-wheel drive.  The odometer had just rolled past a hundred twenty-five thousand and the thing still ran tight as a drum.  I loved my truck.

We drove east on Third Avenue out of town and then cut over toward Ladonia on Route 89.  It was slow going.  Heavy snow and strong wind all the way.  I barely made it out of second gear.

Danny was folded into the back seat.  He leaned forward between the headrests and propped his elbows on the corners of the seat backs.  When he belched, you could smell the bacon.

“I bet the power goes off.  All that heavy snow on the lines.  I bet the Highway Patrol closes the roads.  Aw, look at this guy.”

A county plow roared toward us.  He was going so fast his blade was throwing the snow a good twenty feet in the air.  He flew past us and my windshield got pelted with the salt that was being whipped out from the back of his truck.  We all turned to watch him go by.  Just after he passed us, his blade caught a mailbox and sent it flying with a loud thwack.

Danny yelled, “Hooo.  No mail for you.

Ladonia, Ohio, is about ten miles northeast of Spencer.  It pretty much consists of the Ladonia Volunteer Fire Department, the house we were working on, and Ladonia Hills Apartments.  Oh, yeah—there’s the Lo-Lites Bar, too, but it’s on down the highway another half mile.

I turned into the driveway and pulled all the way back to the garage.  We each grabbed a snow shovel from my truck bed, spaced out along the driveway, and started throwing snow.  The wind howled in our ears as we worked.

Danny had the middle section.  After a few minutes, he walked over to the Dumpsters we’d rented, shoveled snow off the lid of one, and looked inside.  He yelled, “Sonofabitch.  They did come and empty these things last night.”

I could barely hear him over the wind.  I shouted, “They did?  That’s great.”

I wanted to yell that I took back everything I’d said and I guessed he did know how to sweet-talk refuse hauler dispatchers, but it was too hard to yell into that wind.  I decided to save it for later.  I worked my way out to the edge of the highway, threw my last shovelful, and bent over to stretch my back.  I saw that Gruf had already worked his way to the part Danny had cleared, and Danny had another shovel or two before he reached my part.

Gruf was carrying his shovel toward my truck and I saw that he was going to drop it in the bed.  I had my mouth open to yell that they were extra shovels, and we’d leave them in the garage for the duration, when the air was suddenly filled with a bloodcurdling scream.  I jerked straight.

Danny yelled, “What the fuck was that?”

It sounded again, high and shrill in the thin, cold air.  I turned and began to run up the driveway.  Danny was just ahead of me.  Gruf was turning his head this way and that, trying to hear where the noise was coming from.  That second scream seemed to last forever.  You could hear the terror in it.

As I got closer to the house, I realized the screams were carrying on the wind from the apartment complex next door.  I yelled, “The apartments.  Come on.”

I began to run toward the sound.  Gruf pounded along right behind me.  We crossed the wide strip of side yard and ran between two of the apartment buildings, following the screaming sound.  Two long rows of three story brick buildings faced each other across the long, wide parking lot.

Now we could see the screamer toward the far end.  She stood on the far side of a parked, snow-covered car, screaming, staring at something inside.  We raced down the length of the parking lot toward her.  The plow hadn’t been through yet.  We followed the tire tracks of some earlier vehicle.

The girl saw us coming and began to point into the snow-covered car.  She was hopping up and down now and still screaming.  She was trying to make words but the screaming was getting in her way.

We ran around the back of the car, stopped, and stared.  Danny came pounding up behind us.  The driver’s side door was open and there was a blonde sitting behind the wheel, not moving.  The girl continued to scream.

Gruf took her by the arm and pulled her away past the back of the car, out into the traffic lane, telling her, “You gotta stop screaming now.”

Danny and I stepped up to the open door and leaned in, being careful not to touch anything.  A section of the gray dashboard casing stuck up out of plumb from where the blonde had evidently kicked it as she struggled.  A length of yellow rope was looped over her shoulders, and you could see frozen blood stuck on it up near her neck.  Her face was so distorted it was unrecognizable.  Her eyes bulged and her jaw seemed to be dislocated.

Danny and I drew back like a single organism.  Danny said, “God.”

The other girl had stopped screaming.  Gruf yanked off his gloves and fumbled his cell phone from his inside pocket.  He was talking to the girl, trying to get her to stay quiet while he called 911.

There were two little purses sitting on the front passenger seat, one black, one brown.  I looked past the tangled blonde hair of the dead girl and saw a black leather cue stick case sitting on the back seat.

I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I said, “Oh, shit.”

Danny said, “What?”

I moved to the back of the car and brushed snow away from the license plate.  It said REDHOTZ.

Gruf watched us while he quickly finished rattling off our location to the dispatcher.  Then he snapped his cell closed.  “What?”

I said, “It’s Gwen Dillon.”

The girl began to scream again.  Gruf told her, “You’re really gonna hafta stop that.”

I looked over at them.  The girl was a little brunette.  Now I recognized her as another member of the Lo-Lites pool team.  She wasn’t wearing a coat.  All she was wearing was a fuzzy little white sweater, jeans, and high-tops.  She shivered uncontrollably and her teeth chattered and there was a voice sound, too, like a low-grade scream, or a hum.  Like there was an engine running inside her or something.

I said, “Come on.  Let’s wait for the cops inside.”

Trying to stay on the tracks we’d already made in the snow, Danny and I high-stepped away from the car and then all four of us made for the nearest building entrance.  Once we were inside, I peeled off my Carhartt and wrapped it around the girl.  She was still humming.

I said, “You were at Smitty’s last night.  You’re on the Lo-Lites team.”

She nodded.

I said, “What’s your name?”

Her words, when they came, gushed out like a dam had broken.  Rushing, tumbling words and rattling teeth.

“Allison.  Allison Burgess.  My boyfriend dropped me off at Smitty’s last night because my car’s at the BP getting a new battery?  So then I didn’t have any place to put my purse?  So then Gwen says, Well put it out in my car.”

Gruf interrupted her.  “Allison?  You need to slow down and breathe.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  Right.  Yeah.  So Gwen says, Put your purse in my car so then I did and I locked it because she never locks it herself?  So then after my set was over my boyfriend was there and I wanted to get my purse but Gwen’s car was locked and I couldn’t find her . . .”

Gruf said, “Allison.  Breathe.”

She nodded.  “Right.  Breathe.  So I couldn’t find Gwen to give me her keys?  So then my boyfriend’s all, I gotta get up and go to work in the morning let’s go.  So then I go, Well if you’re in such a fucking hurry let’s just go and I’ll get my purse tomorrow and you’ll hafta give me a pack of your cigarettes.  I’m dumping him.  I swear to God.”

Danny said, “You and Gwen share an apartment here?”

She shook her head.  “Share?  No.  She’s 2C and I’m 3B.”

I said, “In different buildings?”

She shook her head.  “See the three doors?  A, B, and C.”

She pointed a shaking finger at the building across from the doorway where we huddled.

She said, “Gwen’s got a fucking two bedroom with a balcony and everything?  I just have a one bedroom.  I can’t afford the two bedroom.  I don’t have help like some people I could name.  I just have my jerk boyfriend.  Soon to be ex.”

I said, “Your boyfriend brought you home without your purse last night so you figured you’d get it back from Gwen this morning?”

She nodded.  “So then this morning the BP called that my car was ready and my boyfriend goes, I don’t know what time I’ll be over, but I’m not waiting around.  You better be ready.  I gotta dump him he’s such a jerk.”

Gruf said, “Allison . . . ”

She said, “I know.  I’m breathing.  So then I had to get my purse back from Gwen’s car so I could pay for my car?  So then I thought, Well maybe I won’t hafta wake her up because she doesn’t like that when you wake her up?  So then I thought, Well maybe she didn’t lock her car.  Because she usually doesn’t.  Did I already say that?”

We nodded.

“She leaves it unlocked like she thinks nobody would dare rob her.  So then her car was all covered up with snow and all the windows were all covered with snow and I couldn’t see in and then when I tried the back door to get my purse and it wasn’t locked but she was sitting there in the front seat.  I go, Gwen?  Gwen?”

The hum started again and began to pick up some volume.

Gruf said, “Don’t start screaming again, okay?  Please.”

She nodded and the volume of the hum dropped.

I said, “Last night.  You couldn’t find Gwen?  Did she go somewhere?”

She nodded.  “Somebody got a cigarette?”

Danny was first with his pack out.

Gruf said, “Are you allowed to smoke here in the hall?”

She said, “I’d like to see somebody try and tell me not to,” and gave us all a hot glare.

Danny thumbed his lighter and she sucked flame.

I said, “So, Allison.  Last night.”

“Yeah.”

“The bar was closing and you couldn’t find Gwen?”

Allison said, “Somebody better call the cops.”

Gruf said, “Already did.”

It occurred to me that Ladonia was too small to have a police department.  I wondered if the highway patrol would handle this.

I said, “Which cops are coming, anyway?”

Gruf grinned at me.  “Highway Patrol dispatcher switched me over to Spencer PD.”

I said, “Shit.”

Danny grinned, too.  Because we were all thinking the same thing.  If Spencer PD were the responders, that meant it was gonna be Alan Bushnell’s case, and he was not gonna fucking believe we were right in the middle of it.

Gruf said, “Well, at least Alan won’t be out here this morning.  At least it’s not on his shift. . . .”

Alan pretty much works third shift.  Works third shift, and then stops at Brewster’s and eats breakfast with us before he goes home.  He’s got the seniority to work any shift he wants, but he says first and second shifts are too boring.

Danny was standing with his back to the door.  Every few minutes he glanced outside over his shoulder.  All of a sudden he pushed the door open.  “Hey.  Stay back.  That’s a crime scene.”

He looked back at us.  “They’re gonna be all over that car in a minute.”

He hurried outside.  With him out of my way I could see out the glass door into the parking lot.  Three guys in ski jackets and jeans were shuffling uncertainly on the sidewalk across the way.  They really wanted to go have a look for themselves.  Danny walked toward them, gesturing and explaining.

There was a sound on the wind.  I couldn’t tell if it was the wind howling or if it was a siren.  I stepped back in and pulled the door closed.

I said, “Allison.  I got a couple quick questions for you before the cops get here.”

She peeked up at me from behind her shaggy brown bangs.

“You said after you played last night, you couldn’t find Gwen?”

“It wasn’t the first time she went off with somebody without telling anyone.”  She smirked.  “It was just the first time last night.

“But her car was still there in Smitty’s parking lot?

She nodded.

“Do you know where she went, or who she was with?”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea, but I’m not saying.”

Gruf said, “You’re gonna hafta tell the cops anyway . . . ”

Her jaw stuck out.  “Says who?  I’ll just say, Gee, I don’t have any idea where she went, Officer.”

Gruf said, “I hear the siren.”

I said, “Allison.  Do you know who killed her?”

Her eyes skittered toward the door.  Her voice went soft.  “She turned twenty-nine in September.  She was a Virgo.”

I nodded.  Virgo.  Got it.  Whatever that means.

She said, “I remember the night of her birthday.  We were all in Lo-Lites.  We all work there.  Guys were buying her drinks all night and she got lit.  She was upset that she was twenty-nine already.  After we closed, it was just a few of us girls.  She told us, I’m making a solemn vow.  I’m gonna get a rich husband before my thirtieth birthday.

Allison drew a ragged breath.  “Now she’s not gonna get the husband or the birthday.”

I said, “Allison.  Do you know who did this?”

Gruf said, “There’s the cop car.  Let s go out.  Hey.  Is that John?”

I said, “Hang on.”

I didn’t want to let her get away from us until she told us what she knew.  But Gruf, distracted by the arrival of the cops, was already halfway out the door, taking Allison with him.

 

 

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LIGHTS OUT

Preface

 

Lights Out by L. T. Fawkes is the second book in the Terry Saltz mystery series and is now available in its entirety on Kindle.

 

(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled, WELCOME.)

Chapter 1

I was sitting in Brewster’s one Friday morning in the middle of November, happily mauing my number four breakfast like a healthy growing boy.  I was enjoying my friends’ goofy small talk and watching the weather out Brewster’s big front windows.  Lightning ripped through black, boiling storm clouds, and sheets of cold, wicked rain slapped at the vehicles in the big parking lot.

Ah, late autumn in northeastern Ohio.  Nothing else like it.

My name’s Terry Saltz.  I’m a carpenter.  Breakfast at Brewster’s every weekday morning is sort of a ritual for me and my friends.  Eat. Shoot the shit. Get our natural juices flowing by ragging on each other before we head out in different directions to earn our daily pack of Marlboros.  As I sipped my coffee and glanced around that particular morning, I was lazily speculating whether or not to go ahead with a fairly radical plan.

I was thinking about maybe getting a haircut.

My hair was long.  I’d worn it long since I was thirteen.  At first, it got long because my old man wasn’t around to spot me the cost of a haircut, and I wasn’t willing to hand my hard-earned paper-route money over to a barber.  In those days, half the time I was using that paper-route money for food.

My hair grew down over my collar.  Teachers started getting on me about it, and I liked being a bad boy.

When it got longer, the girl I’d been watching for a while suddenly got interested in me. Sometimes after school we’d go stand behind the middle-school building and she’d reach up to run her fingers through my long black hair and say how silky it was and how good it smelled.

After that, I was enthusiastic about three things: my girlfriend, my long hair, and what kind of shampoo and conditioner smelled best.  No shit.  I spent the better part of a year sniffing bottles up and down the shampoo aisle in the drugstore.

When I was fifteen, my older brother, P. J., got me and my best friend, Danny Gillespie, jobs as gofers for Red Perkins Construction.  P. J. and most of the other carpenters who worked for Red wore their long, scraggly hair in ponytails, so me and Danny split a pair of leather shoelaces and tied ours back like theirs.  That’s how we’d had it ever since.

Only recently I’d been thinking about getting it cut.  All that long black hair was a lot of trouble.  That November morning, while I chewed my Texas toast and watched the rain, I was thinking how much easier it would be if I got it all chopped off.

The absolute last thing on my mind was my wife, Marylou, also known as the Bitch.  Which, by that time, she was supposed to be my ex-wife.  Except that the divorce she’d so cold-bloodedly initiated six months earlier while I was sitting brokenhearted and forlorn in jail somehow got canceled once I was out and on my feet again, in a new town, with new friends, new money, and a new outlook on life.

The talk around the table that morning turned to names.  Gruf Ridolfi mentioned that if your initials spell a word, it makes you lucky all your life.  Danny Gillespie piped up right away with the information that his initials spell DIG.

I looked at him.  “I?  What’s your middle name?”

He got a look on his freckled face like he’d stepped in something.  Which he had.

Bump Bellini grinned at him. “I can’t even think of a name that starts with I.”

Danny got busy stirring sugar into his third cup of coffee. He said, “Don’t start with me. Everybody has a weird middle name.”

John Garvey said, “Mine’s Thomas.”

Bump said, “Mine’s Edward.”

Gruf grinned.  “Andrew.”

I said,  “William.”

Gruf said, “William?  So your initials are TWS?  Ouch.  Sorry, Terry.”

I said, “TWS spells something.  It spells Twees.”

Bump said, “Nice try.”

I said, “Hey, you know?  Twees wouldn’t be a bad nickname.”

Bump groaned.  “Here we go.”

I said, “No.  Really.  You guys didn’t like Muzzy for my nickname.  So let’s go with Twees.”

I saw them all make eye contact.  Four pairs of eyes making connections all around the table.  Well, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

I said, “Yeah, I’m going with Twees from now on.  That’s what I wanna be called.”

There was a heavy silence.  Then Bump turned back to Danny with an evil gleam in his eye.  “So where were we? Oh yeah. What’s the I stand for?”

We all watched Danny and waited.  He squirmed.

John poked him.  “Well?”  He was grinning.

Finally, Danny blurted out, “Okay, it’s Ignatius.  Happy now?”

I’d have to say we were pretty happy. Everybody howled.

And just at that point, Danny glanced toward the front door.

He said, “Uh-oh.”

I followed his eyes, and there was the Bitch, bearing down on me like a mall surveyor.  All up and down the table, my friends saw her coming and got the squirms.  It looked like Danny, Gruf, Bump, and John had all suddenly gotten infested by some kind of specialized flea that only enjoyed the rich red blood of mid- to late-twenty-something males.

She walked down the side of the table and stopped behind me.  An expensive cloud of Jessica McClintock perfume wrapped itself around my head.  I dropped my fork and turned to look at her.  She smiled down on me, but you could see that behind her eyes, lots was stirring.

She said, “Hi, Terry. Can I talk to you a minute?”

I said, “Shoot.”

Her eyes flicked briefly around the table.  “In private?”

In my brain, I said, Oh, shit.

I looked mournfully at what was left of my breakfast, picked up my coffee cup and my cigarettes, and looked around.  The only open table in the place was a booth right behind the pushed-together tables where me and my friends always sit.  That was way too close for comfort, but what was I gonna do?

We slid in across from each other, and she nodded when Mary, the waitress who takes care of us every morning as if we’re her own family, asked if she wanted coffee.  Mary glanced at me and gently patted my shoulder.  I noticed the slight rise in her sweet little eyebrows as she turned away.

She brought the Bitch a cup and topped me off.  She said,  “Don’t you want your plate over here, hon?”

I shook my head.  I wasn’t hungry anymore.

There were a million thoughts flying around in my brain, but the main two were: How did the Bitch know where to find me?  And what did she want?  I wanted to say something to her like, Where did she get off bothering me during my leisure hours.  Then I realized it wouldn’t make any sense.

So then I thought, Okay, what I was really feeling was that she must have been spying on me to know where and when I ate breakfast.  Because ever since I got out of jail and moved to Spencer, I’d been pretty careful not to let her know how to get in touch with me. I should demand to know where she got off doing that.  But I didn’t.

I thought about saying that I didn’t want her coming around me anywhere, anytime, anymore.  I didn’t want to always be looking over my shoulder, thinking she might turn up here or there.  But I didn’t really want to say anything hurtful.  That was more in her line, if you catch my drift.

I ended up not saying anything.  I just sat there looking at her, waiting for her to start, while my friends sat at the next table with their ears sticking out.  You could almost see their little pink lobes quivering, waiting to pick up every word.

Oh, jeez, look at that.  Bump and Gruf were laughing.  Danny, too.  Now John was leaning over to Danny.  Yeah, Danny had said something to make Bump and Gruf laugh and now he repeated it to John, and they were all laughing behind their hands.

I knew Danny’s remark wasn’t anything mean directed toward me.  These friends of mine, they’re the loyalest bunch of humanus erectus you could ever find anywhere.  I doubted it was anything mean directed toward Marylou, either.

What it was, it was just one of Danny’s wry little comments on the situation in general.  Danny can come up with some pretty good ones sometimes.  But it wouldn’t have been mean.  Danny doesn’t have a mean molecule in his body.

I looked at Marylou, sitting there with her big blonde seventies mall hair and her two-fisted makeup covering up all her natural good looks.  I lit a cigarette and waited.  She took a sip of her coffee.  Then she looked up at me through her heavy black mascara, combed out into what looked like millions and millions of long, long lashes.

She smiled like she was flirting with me and said, “You could at least act like you’re glad to see me.”

I didn’t want to say anything hurtful to her, but I wasn’t gonna sit there and lie, either.

I said, “Why? I’m not.”

She poured it on, turning her head a little and bat­ting those eyelashes.  “Not even a little bit?”  There was actually self-confidence in her voice.

“Not even a little bit,” I said coldly.  “What do you want?”

Mary was over at the guys’ table with the coffeepot.  She stopped by Bump, bent down to whisper something, and stayed bent down to hear the answer.  It looked like he was whispering into a microphone hidden in the red carnation she had pinned on her green waitress dress.  I swallowed a chuckle and turned my eyes back to the Bitch, who was busy pushing her cuticles back from her pearly white nail polish.

I said, “Marylou, say what you want and leave, so I can finish my breakfast in peace.”

She gave me a hurt face and puckered her lips.  “You don’t have to be so grumpy.”

I drummed my fingers and waited.

She drew breath and said, “Okay. I want you to help me move.”

I thought about hauling her out of the booth, pointing her toward the door, and giving her a gentle shove, saying, There.  You’re moving.  Happy now?

Instead I said, “Move.  To where?”

But I already knew to where.  A few months earlier, she’d been in Carlo’s, the little pizza place where I worked nights as a driver, and she’d told Debby the waitress that she was going to sell our mobile home down in the southern part of the county and move into a town house here in Spencer.  I’d been horrified at the news.

She said, “Green Meadow Town Houses.”

There it was.  It was really gonna happen.  Not only that, but she wanted me to help her do it.  I got pissed.

I said, “I’m not gonna help you move up here.  I don’t want you up here.  Find yourself another sucker.

I reached to pick up my cigarettes and go back to my place at the table, but she put her hand on mine.

She said, “You have to help me.”

“No, I don’t. Get some of your friends to help you.”

You’re my friend.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But I love you.”

“That’s your problem.”

You’re probably thinking, Why does this guy have to be such a hard-ass?  Would it kill him to help the poor girl move?

If you’re thinking that, Chief, it’s because you don’t understand women.  Or at least, you don’t understand this woman. Neither did I, back when she and I were together.  But I’d learned a lot about women since then, and I knew for a fact that she wasn’t here about moving.  She could get plenty of help with moving.

She was here because she wanted me and her to get back together.  The moving was her excuse.  She figured she’d get me to help her move, and she’d wear some Daisy Dukes or something.  Then the whole time during the move, she’d keep brushing against me, keep posing and giggling, keep saying how much she missed me.  Keep saying things about how nice the town house was and didn’t I think I’d like to live there with her?  Look, we could get a recliner and put it right there in front of the TV for me.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

I could see it all happening right before my eyes.  And it would’ve worked once.  But not now.

She tried to work up a tear.  She even got a slight tremble going in her lower lip.

She said, “You loved me once.  It’s not my fault if your feelings changed.”

Making a conscious effort to keep my voice soft and calm, I said,  “Oh, you’re wrong there.  It’s entirely your fault that my feelings changed.”

She looked away.  “Anyway.  We’re still married.  You have to help me.”

This made me laugh. “We’re not married anymore.  Our marriage was over the day I got your divorce papers in jail.”

“But—”

I interrupted, making my voice even quieter.  “But there’s still a piece of paper in a file cabinet somewhere that says we are married?”  I shook my head.  “It doesn’t mean squat to me.  We’re not married anymore.  Plain and simple.”

She looked down into her coffee cup.

I said, “And as far as that piece of paper goes, I don’t care anything about it.  It can sit in that file drawer until hell freezes over, for all I care.  If it bothers you, you go pay a lawyer to make it disappear.”

She said, almost whispering, “I don’t understand your attitude, Terry.  You make it sound like you hate me.”

I said, “I don’t hate you.  I don’t feel anything for you at all, except I want you to stay out of my life.  Starting now.”

Then I did pick up my coffee cup and my cigarettes and move back to my place at the table with my friends.  They were looking at me curiously.

I stole a glance at Mary.  I studied her kind face like it was my own conscience, but I couldn’t tell whether she looked sympathetic or disapproving.

Well, whatever.  I’d explain it to her later if she didn’t understand.  Because I was pretty sure I felt great.  I’d stood up to the strongest of the old forces that had led me down a self-destructive path that ended in a jail cell, and I’d said no—loud and clear.

Mary came over with the coffeepot.  “More coffee, Terry?” she asked softly.

“Thanks, yeah.  Top it off.”

I heard a little rustling sound behind me. In peripheral vision I saw a figure moving toward the front door.  I turned to watch the Bitch go.  Her short little black skirt bounced side to side like windshield wipers as she walked away.

All of a sudden, everybody was moving and coughing and talking at once.  I looked around, waiting to hear what they thought.

A strand of long, golden hair had escaped from Bump Bellini’s ponytail.  He tucked it back behind his ear and grinned at me.  “Whew. I guess you told her.”

Daniel Ignatius Gillespie gave me a high five. He was laughing. “No offense, dude, but I really didn’t think you had the balls.”

They were all grinning and laughing. I started laughing, too. We all sat there, laughing like a bunch of idiots.

Everything would’ve been different if I’d helped the Bitch move that rainy November morning.  Some stuff probably still would’ve happened, just in a different way.  Some other stuff probably wouldn’t have happened at all.  If I were the kind of guy who sits around thinking about what might’ve been, I guess I could log some serious hours wondering about this.  But I’m not, so I won’t.

__________

Chapter 2

It was getting to be about that time. After a few minutes, John, Danny, and Bump all took off. That left Gruf and me. We moved into the same booth where I’d just had my showdown with the Bitch, because the booth benches are considerably softer than the wood chairs at the tables. Mary topped us off for one final cup of coffee.

When I worked nights as a delivery driver at Carlo’s Pizza, Gruf was my boss. He was Carlo’s night manager. In the daytime, I guess you could say I’m Gruf s boss. We have a little carpentry business we call Now on Deck. I’m the carpenter and contractor. He’s my “manual laborer,” as we both like to say because we think it’s funny.

After hearing me whine about paperwork, Gruf also stepped in to take care of the books for Now on Deck. He has a four-year college degree in accounting and was already doing the books for his dad’s bar, Smitty’s. That’s where the two of us were currently working days. We were doing a major renovation job on Smitty’s Bar.

That morning in Brewster’s, Gruf stubbed out his cigarette and drained the last of his coffee. Then he ran his fingers through his glossy black DA. He fixed his ice-blue eyes on me and smiled. “Okay. Ready to go?”

I said, “I’ll meet you over there. I’m gonna go get my hair cut off.”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “Okay. See ya.” Forty-five minutes later I walked into Smitty’s Bar through the beat-up old back door. It feels funny walking in there before the place is open. You feel like a burglar or something, walking in when the beer signs and spotlights are turned off and the bar’s all dark and shadowy. All the action that time of day is in the kitchen.

The only two people in the place at that hour of the morning, besides Gruf, were Gruf’s dad, Smitty Ridolfi, and his day cook, a skinny, geeky guy named Benny Jepson. Benny wears his black-rimmed glasses adhesive-taped together across the bridge of his nose and is always on the lookout for a chance to talk about the Internet.

Smitty and Benny were in the kitchen, working briskly and quietly. Benny was making hamburger patties and Smitty was tearing up heads of lettuce into a big, white plastic tub.

Smitty looks exactly like Gruf, only older. He’s a tall guy with a lean, strong face. He wears his snow-white hair in the same long, wavy DA and he’s got the same ice-blue eyes.

Benny looked up and saw me standing in the doorway. He wrinkled his nose to adjust the way his glasses were riding and said, “Holy shit, Terry. What happened to you?”

I ran a self-conscious hand over my bald-feeling head. It wasn’t bald looking, though. I’d told the girl to cut it just long enough so none of my scalp showed through.

When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like my mustache anymore, either, so I had her shave that off, too. My head felt so weird I didn’t think I’d ever get used to it. It was like reaching up to feel my hair and finding somebody’s short-haired dog there instead.

“Got a little trim,” I said, grinning. “And call me Twees. It’s my new nickname.”

Benny got a puzzled look on his face.

Smitty looked me over. His grin made papery wrinkles at the corners of his blue eyes. “I bet you felt every drop of that cold rain out there.”

I laughed and nodded. It had already occurred to me that maybe I should’ve waited until the warm days of spring to make such a drastic change. I could al­ready see that I was going to need a hat for the first time in my life. And I’d already started to wonder what kind of hat wouldn’t make me look like a total dweeb.

I said, “Where’s Gruf? Over in the New Part?”

They both said, “Yeah.”

I walked past the dark bar, turned right, walked through the big darkened hall where the three pool tables were, and approached the double doorway to what we were now calling the New Part.

The New Part had been, until recently, a huge, unused, closed-off mess known as the Old Part. Once we had it renovated and open, it would double the size of Smitty’s Bar.

The back section of the New Part was now a brand-new, state-of-the-art, high-efficiency commercial kitchen, with every shiny stainless-steel appliance a restaurant chef could ever dream of. Gruf and I had stripped the old room down to its carcass and rebuilt it, painted it white, installed the stainless-steel cabinets, put up the stainless-steel shelving, installed the appliances with the occasional help of the manufacturers’ techs, and laid the shiny white tile during an intense three weeks in October.

Then we went to work on the rest of the New Part. We cleaned out the decades of junk that had accumulated there and stripped the structure down to its skeleton. We tore out the shitty old plywood flooring down to the shitty old subfloor. We tore out the cheap old paneling and the raunchy old ceiling.

As soon as we finished building the new waitress station, we planned to turn the entire room into a large formal dining room, with wainscoted walls, thick carpeting, brass lighting fixtures, heavy oak booths and tables, and sexy captain’s chairs.

I should go back a ways and explain how all this craziness got started. See, at first Gruf just wanted to persuade Smitty to let us build a large deck onto the back of the building, with an outdoor waitress station that looked like a gazebo and wide stairs leading down into a large three-court volleyball pit.

During the time that Smitty was considering that idea, Kenny Carlo decided to start franchising his pizza stores. The first one sold was Carlo’s—Spencer, since it had the biggest volume. The couple that bought it were currently being trained for the takeover at the home store in Fairfield.

When Smitty heard that news, he put his cards on the table. Once the new owners took over Carlo’s— Spencer, he wanted Gruf to quit Carlo’s and take over running the bar so he could retire. Gruf agreed, so Smitty gave the go-ahead on the deck and volleyball pits.

Then the two of them started talking about the future of Smitty’s Bar in general. They had a bunch of late-night heart-to-hearts. Gruf had a lot of big ideas. Smitty listened. Eventually, Smitty agreed to go large.

Gruf and I were still working nights at Carlo’s while we waited for the new owners to come in. The plan was, we’d help the new owners get settled and help them train a new set of employees. Then we’d make the jump to Smitty’s, taking most of the old Carlo’s employees with us.

That morning I stood in the double doorway and looked back toward the brightly lit area where we were building the new waitress station. Gruf was already hard at work. I watched as he marked his cutting line on a piece of drywall. He made his last measurement, marked it quickly with his pencil, and tucked the pencil behind his ear.

I said, “Jeez, you look like an old pro doing that.  You look like you’ve been hanging drywall for twenty years.”

He’d only been my “manual laborer” for a few months, but he was picking everything up really fast. I took a lot of pride in how fast he was learning.

He walked around me, checking out the haircut. When he got back in front of me, he nodded. “I like it. Looks good.”

“It feels freaky. Gonna take a while to get used to. Plus, I’m gonna hafta wear a hat when the weather’s cold. What the fuck kind of hat am I gonna wear?”

He said, “Get yourself one of those black knit caps. Those things look cool. You’ll look like a guy that works on the lakes.”

Well, there ya go. I nodded and looked around. “Where’d we hide the radio?”

He glanced around, too. “It might be back in the kitchen.”

I nodded. Smitty sometimes stuck it back on a counter in the new kitchen to prevent one of the barflies from walking out with it. I found it sitting back there, brought it out, and turned it on, and we got to work drywalling the divider that would close off the waitress station from the dining room.

Once the divider was up, we leveled that section of floor by belt sanding the humps and shimming the outer joists. Then we laid five-eighths plywood and did the prep work for the tile before we broke for lunch.

We washed up in the kitchen sinks, took a minute to look over what we’d accomplished so far that morning, and walked out to the bar. Now it looked more like Smitty’s, with the lights on and the barflies hovering over their beer mugs.

I made a quick call to the lumberyard for delivery of the plywood for the dining-room floor. Then I slid onto my usual bar stool next to Gruf. Our French dips were sitting on the bar waiting for us, along with my iced tea and Gruf’s High Life.

We ate in silence for a while. I began to look up and around while I chewed. Now that I’d put in so many hours working in Smitty’s, I knew most of the regulars by sight, if not by name. The unemployed and disabled ones were there every day. Today almost all the other regulars were there, too, since most of them were laborers and it was raining.

I began to notice something unusual. Normally, most of them sat alone, quietly drinking and smoking, staring off into space. But today, I noticed they were sitting in twos and threes and talking quietly. Now and then, one of them would slide off his stool, walk up to somebody else, and have a few words. I noticed they didn’t look too happy. I also noticed that more than one of them glanced our way as they talked. I began to wonder what was on their minds.

After lunch, Gruf and I laid the tile in the waitress station and rolled it good. Then we moved the front pool table out of the way and went out back to wait for the lumberyard truck. The cold rain was beginning to clear off, but the parking lot had standing puddles, so we dragged out a couple of pallets and set them near the back door to take the plywood.

The truck came after about ten minutes. The driver off-loaded the plywood with a winch, I wrote him a check, and we carried in the first of the plywood sheets. We were starting back for the second load when two guys I didn’t know came in carrying the next sheets. Gruf and I backed up against the wall so they could pass. I looked after them in amazement and turned back to the door in time to see the next two guys coming. These two I recognized as regulars.

Out by the stack two more guys were loading up. I looked at Gruf. He was grinning. “Looks like we got us some volunteers.”

Needless to say, with eight guys working, it didn’t take long to get the stack carried inside. Gruf and I brought in the last sheet. The other six guys were

standing in the dining room, looking around squinty-eyed and critical. Smitty had walked back, too.

I said, “Thanks for the help, guys.” I caught Smitty’s eye. “Next round’s on me.”

Smitty winked at me. “Next round’s on the house. Come on, boys. Let’s get outa the way.”

We got busy tearing out the old subfloor. After a lot of tedious shit we got the joists level and were able to begin laying the plywood. We were about half-finished when I happened to glance around toward the double doorway leading back into the bar. One of the barflies was standing there. He wasn’t one of the ones who’d helped us, but I’d seen him around almost every time I’d been in Smitty’s.

Judging by his wet hair and rosy cheeks, I guessed he’d just walked in.

He’s kind of a blurry-looking guy, average height, midforties, long brown hair parted wide to the side, skinny, droopy shoulders. His fuzzy green eyes watched us from under his raggedy brown eyebrows with the expressionless stare of the acid burnout.

Gruf saw me looking, turned around, and smiled at the guy. “Hey, Mule. Whad’ya think?”

Mule’s smile was sweet. Shy. He gave Gruf a tentative grin and took a baby step into the room, looking around.

Mule said, “Sure looks different.” He gave out with a nervous little chuckle.

We both joined him in looking around the place, nodding. I said, “That’s for sure.”

Mule nodded. “That’s for sure.” He produced another little chuckle and took another tentative shuffle step into the room.

A second guy appeared behind Mule. I knew this one’s name. He’s called Tiny. He’s huge, taller than Gruf and me, even.

We’re all tall. Gruf, Danny, Bump, and me. We range between six-four and six-six. The only one who isn’t tall is John Garvey. He’s a brawny five-eleven.

But Tiny is enormous, and he’s a very tough-looking guy. Which I had made every effort to stay out of his way, because he’s so big he looks like he could kill a guy with a careless swat. He has long, greasy, sand-colored hair, always has a few days’ beard on his wide face, and has the same vacant burnout expression in his eyes as Mule. That day he also had the same rosy just-came-in-from-outside cheeks.

Under their dirty Carhartt jackets, they both wore ratty old faded flannel shirts randomly buttoned over gray T-shirts, filthy Carhartt pants, and knee-high green rubber boots. I remembered somebody saying that Tiny installed septic systems. A bunch of Ohio Lottery instant tickets were sticking up out of Mule’s jacket pocket.

Gruf said, “Hey, Tiny. How the hell are ya?”

Tiny didn’t smile or hardly move beyond the tightest possible nod. His eyes darted around the room like bright lights were flashing at him.

Mule glanced over his shoulder at Tiny and said, “It sure looks different.”

Tiny’s eyes brushed across Mule and went back to darting around the room.

Gruf cocked his head and studied them. Then he said, “Come on back and have a look at the new kitchen.”

He picked up his Coke and led the way through the kitchen doorway. Mule and Tiny came across the new floor toward me like they were afraid it might cave in on them or something. For that matter, as big as Tiny was, this actually could’ve happened to him before.

As they passed me, Tiny gave the top of my head a rough open-palmed noogy and said, “Shouldn’ta cut it.”

I opened my mouth to agree with him. Big as Tiny is, offhand I can’t think of anything I would ever disagree with him about. But by that time he was already in the kitchen and I realized no answer was required.

I set my nail gun on the counter frame, picked up my iced tea, and followed them.

I wondered why Gruf had turned on the exhaust fan, which operates with an efficient, state-of-the-art whisper. Not like the deafening, rattling exhaust fan in the kitchen over at Carlo’s. When I saw Gruf’s hands go to the back pocket of his jeans, I knew why. He was going to burn a bowl with the boys.

I leaned on the nearest available counter to watch. I was curious what Mule and especially Tiny would be like when they got high.

I leaned back against the counter because I don’t do the weed anymore. I don’t do the weed and I don’t do the booze, because overindulgence in those two recreational activities a year or so ago were what caused me to go nuts in a bar one night, trash the place, pound on a few guys, and land in jail. For me, jail was an effective wake-up call. I’ve been sober as a judge ever since.

The bowl went around once. Then Gruf tamped it down and relit it. He said casually, “So. Whadda you guys think about the changes around here?”

They both stared at Gruf’s hands as he got the bowl going again. The bowl went around another circuit. As Tiny passed it back to Gruf, he said in a low mumble, “Somma the guys wanna know what it’s gonna be like.”

Mule shifted uneasily in his worn, out-turned work boots, and I remembered all the whispered conferences around the bar during lunch. I began to realize that this was some kind of unofficial barfly delegation, and now I saw that Gruf was aware of it. I drank a slug of my iced tea and watched them with even more interest.

Gruf shrugged. “Bigger. Newer.”

He sucked on the bowl a couple of times and handed it to Mule, who took a deep draw with his eyes squeezed tightly closed and passed it to Tiny. Tiny made a production of tamping it down with a split, dirty thumbnail and relighting it. He took a couple of deep draws and handed it back to Gruf.

Tiny mumbled, “Somma the guys wanna know if it’s still gonna be their bar.”

Gruf looked at him closely, reading between the lines, took a draw, and passed the bowl to Mule.

Mule sucked deeply. Still holding the bowl, he said, “Listen to this. This was the funniest thing. One time, me and my one brother Robert cut school and we were down by the tracks behind the feed and grain? Remember where the train tracks used to be, down behind the feed and grain? And Robert, he goes—”

Tiny put one heavy hand on Mule’s shoulder and reached for the bowl with the other. He said, “Not now, Mule.”

Gruf said, “What’re you saying? Some of the regulars are worried the bar’s gonna get too fancy?”

Tiny nodded, taking a drag. “Fuckin’ yuppies in here, actin’ all stupid.”

Gruf said slowly, “Well, I hope all the boys know this’ll always be their bar. Fuck, they’ve been supporting the place for all these years.”

Tiny passed the bowl to Gruf and said, “Hard for a man to relax and enjoy his beer if there’s a bunch a fuckin’ yuppies all flyin’ around actin’ all stupid.”

Gruf nodded and took a deep draw. “I see what you mean,” he said, nodding. “Yeah, I see your point. Listen. Lemme think about this. I’ll come up with something. Okay?”

Tiny cocked his head and gave Gruf a suspicious look. Gruf reached over and punched Tiny’s arm.

I almost shit.

But Tiny grinned at him.

Gruf said, “You tell the boys to give me a few days to think about this. And tell ’em not to worry. I’ll take care of them. Okay? Tiny?”

Tiny nodded, shook Gruf’s hand, and elbowed Mule. Mule staggered sideways.

Tiny said, “Tell Gruf thanks for the bowl.”

Mule grinned shyly and said, “Thanks for the bowl.”

Tiny was already shuffling back out toward the bar.

Mule started after him. Then he stopped and looked up at my head. “Shouldn’ta cut your hair.”

He didn’t wait for my reaction. He just hurried out after Tiny.

When they were gone, Gruf grinned at me. “The regulars are getting their shorts in a twist. This is trouble.”

It did seem like trouble at the time. But everything’s relative. The problem with the regulars at Smitty’s was just a little crease that needed smoothing out. The real trouble was lurking right around the corner.

__________

Chapter 3

I’ve always been the type of person who’s asleep when his head hits the pillow, and I’m a sound sleeper. But that Saturday morning the sharp crack of the first gunshot flipped me over on my back and popped my eyes wide open. The second and third shots, which came close together, sat me straight up in bed. I looked at my alarm clock. It was four thirty.

I knew right away they were gunshots, and I knew they were fairly close. I jumped out of bed, ran through the living room of the double-wide trailer that I share with Danny and John, unlocked the front door, and ran down our short driveway and into the street.

Everything looked dark and wet, quiet and deserted. My breath was white smoke in the cold dark air. I looked up and down the street and saw nothing but empty cars parked here and there along the narrow berms. Puddles left from the rain reflected the yellow glow of the streetlights on the black pavement.

I heard a car engine start up somewhere. Dogs began to bark all up and down the street. As lights came on in trailers all around me, I heard another car engine start. I looked in every direction, but there was nothing moving anywhere that I could see.

I heard a noise behind me and spun around. John Garvey, who shares the trailer with me and Danny, was hopping down the dark driveway toward me, trying to get his cop pants pulled up and zipped under his gun belt.

John’s an Indiana farm boy who’d recently graduated from Ohio Highway Patrol School. He was a rookie on the Spencer PD, only a month into his six-month probationary period. He had his cop shirt on but not buttoned, and he was barefoot.

He looked at me critically. I’d run outside in what I was sleeping in – a T-shirt and red plaid boxers.

I can’t help mentioning that I hate plaid boxers. I’m a white briefs man. But while we were together, the Bitch was in charge of buying my underwear, and she bought me plaid boxers. I had a drawerful of the hideous things. Until I got around to going to the mall, I was stuck with them.

“Where’d the shots come from?” John asked me quietly.

I shrugged. “I couldn’t tell.”

He pulled a little radio from his gun belt, and began to talk into it quietly as he clipped it to his lapel. “This is Garvey. I’ve got shots fired, Chandler’s Trailer Park, middle block of Sumner Court.”

His voice was steady and calm and I admired him for it, since I knew for a fact the most serious offense he’d handled so far as a first responder was a traffic violation.

The voice of the female dispatcher came through the speaker all buzzy. I couldn’t understand what she said after, “Copy. Shots fired.”

John signaled me to start walking down the street. He turned and began to walk in the other direction.

Doors were open and coming open in trailers here and there. Ahead of me, a bare-chested guy in a pair of cutoffs walked out to the street.

I said, “Where’d the shots come from?”

He shook his head. “Maybe up that way, but I’m not sure.”

I turned back toward John.

The dispatcher’s voice buzzed through the radio again, and this time I made out, “Bushnell responding.”

That meant Alan Bushnell was on his way. Sergeant Alan Bushnell’s a big guy who wears wire-rim glasses and has gray hair that grows down over his collar. Apparently there isn’t anybody on the Spencer PD who wants to stand up and tell him to cut it.

When he’s being a hardass, which seems to be most of the time, I’ve noticed that he takes his glasses off and polishes the right lens. I’ve never seen him polish the left lens. I guess he expects the left lens to take care of itself.

Alan’s been best friends with Smitty Ridolfi since they were in kindergarten. Sometimes Alan and I are friendly; sometimes we aren’t, depending what day it is. I can tell you this for sure: Don’t call Alan “General.” He doesn’t see the humor.

I walked back toward John and caught up with him quickly, since he paused to shine his flashlight up each driveway he passed. Now there were quite a few people, mainly men, out in the street, looking around and talking to each other in quiet, excited voices. John reached a little knot of them just as I caught up with him.

John was trying to button his shirt and hold on to his flashlight at the same time. I took the flashlight from him and he finished buttoning.

He said, “Could any of you guys tell where the shots came from?”

One guy pointed up the street, one pointed down the street, and everyone else laughed nervously.

I said, “Hold on.” I pointed to the guy who said up the street. “Which trailer’s yours?”

He pointed down the street. “The green one. With the light on.”

I said to the other guy, “You?”

He pointed at the trailer across the street from where we stood. John and I glanced at each other. Then we ran down the street to a drive halfway between the two designated trailers. The lights were already on inside the trailer and the door was opening as John reached to knock.

John said, “Everybody okay in there?”

The woman said, “What was that?”

John said, “I believe it was gunshots, ma’am. Could you tell where it came from?”

She pointed through her backyard. “Back there.”

John and I ran through her backyard and into the backyard of the trailer behind hers. Both of us were barefoot, so we slipped and slid in the cold mud. Just as we came up on the back corner of the trailer, there was a loud crash from the vicinity of its little side porch. John drew his gun and we ran toward the noise.

John’s flashlight beam picked up the shape of a tall, slender woman standing in the shadowy driveway, weaving drunkenly, her back to us. She was wearing a white T-shirt that was way too big for her and nothing else, as far as I could tell. Her arms hung limply at her sides. A gun dangled from her right hand.

John leveled his gun at her and yelled, “Police. Freeze. Drop the weapon.”

The woman just stood there weaving.

John yelled, “Drop the weapon. Now.

Almost in slow motion, the woman’s fingers opened and the gun slid onto the wet cement of the driveway with a sharp metallic crack.

John yelled, “Take three steps to your right.”

She obeyed, slowly and unsteadily.

He said, “Three more steps, right up to the trailer wall. Put your hands on the trailer. High on the trailer. Now.”

She did as she was told, but sluggishly. It looked like her knees wanted to fold.

John turned his head so he was talking into the radio. “This is Garvey. Suspect in custody, middle block of Haskins.”

The dispatcher said, “Copy, Garvey. Do you need an ambulance?”

John said, “I don’t know yet. Hold on.”

He approached the woman cautiously, pulling handcuffs off his belt. I hurried toward the porch, dodging the shards and dirt from the flowerpot she’d apparently knocked off the porch as she’d come down the steps. I ran up the steps, stretched my T-shirt over my hand to turn the handle on the screen door, and stepped into the dark trailer on muddy tiptoes.

I looked around and couldn’t see anything. There was light streaming into the trailer from the streetlight outside, but not enough. I ran my T-shirt-covered hand over the wall to the right of the door and found the light switch.

Bright light blinded me for a second. There was no furniture in the living room and nothing on the walls. I scanned the empty living room, working toward the kitchen.

He was stretched out across the kitchen floor, facedown, a pool of blood running away from me toward the back hallway. Big guy. Muscular. Wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, gray socks, and black hightops.

I tiptoed over to him, watching where I stepped, and squatted beside him. I pushed his tangled dark hair off his neck and put my fingers on his throat, feeling for a pulse. There wasn’t one. He was dead.

I hurried back out through the door. John had the woman handcuffed behind her back. She was sitting in the shadowy driveway crying, her head bowed, her body swaying. Her tangled blond hair hung down between her knees.

When John finished reading her rights I said, “There’s a dead guy in there.”

As he ducked his head to the radio and began to tell the dispatcher he needed the coroner, the woman sitting on the driveway raised her dazed blue eyes to look at me, let go with a sob, and said, “Terry?”

Danny came running up behind me and skidded to a halt, staring at her. “Holy shit,” he said. “Marylou?”

He sounded as stunned as I felt. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I thought she was drunk. There are a few things that happen to ole Marylou on those rare occasions when she gets drunk. First, her eyelids begin to droop. Her eyelids are like a sobriety meter. The drunker she is, the lower they ride. At that moment, they were fluttering about one degree above lights out.

Another thing is, she gets weepy. The drunker she is, the weepier she is. And she also gets sleepy. It doesn’t matter where she is, as soon as she hits a certain level, all she can think about is stretching out and going to sleep.

So even as John started apologizing to me for not realizing it was Marylou, because she’d been hanging her head and he’d been more concerned with getting her handcuffed and under control than getting a look at her face, there’s ole Marylou letting out with another sob, trying to roll over onto her side and go to sleep in a puddle on the cement.

I was about to reach down and pull her up off the wet driveway when she twisted her body and her T-shirt rode up and I saw her naked butt cheek sticking out. That’s the other thing that happens to Marylou when she’s drunk. She wants to get naked.

“Dammit, Marylou.”

I was disgusted with her.

“Where’s your fucking clothes?”

I guess it might seem odd that I was more concerned with her bare ass than I was that she might have just killed a guy. But the thing is, I never for a second thought she was the one who had fired that gun.

She mumbled something in a sobbing little voice, but I couldn’t understand her. I took hold of her shoulders and lifted her onto her feet, tugging her T-shirt down over her key areas. Then I held her up in front of me. I quickly ran my eyes over her, looking for blood, making sure she hadn’t been hit, too.

“Let’s try this again. Where’s your clothes?”

She scrunched up her face at me, like I was speaking in a foreign language or something. “Huh?”

Danny said, “I’ll go find ’em. Was she in this trailer?”

He’d come running up after everything was all over. He didn’t even know yet that she’d been carrying the gun or that there was a dead guy inside.

John said, “Hold on, Danny. You’ll have to wait until Alan gets here. That trailer’s a crime scene now.”

Marylou turned her head to look at him. “Huh?”

John said, “Marylou, tell us what happened.”

She shook her head. “I wanna go to sleep.”

John said, “In a little bit. Right now we need to know what happened.”

She said, “About what?”

I said, “Who’s the guy in there, Marylou?”

She said, “What guy?”

I said, “The dead guy in the trailer.” and immediately regretted losing my temper with her because I knew by this time it was useless to ask her anything. The waterworks started up all over again.

John said, “Marylou, who fired the gun?”

She blinked at him, hiccuping with sobs. “Huh?”

When Alan arrived a few seconds later, he didn’t take long to figure out we weren’t going to get anything coherent out of Marylou until she’d had a few cups of coffee, at the very least.

Once he’d satisfied himself that the guy in the trailer really was dead, he got a blanket out of his cruiser, wrapped Marylou in it, and put her in the backseat of his cruiser where she promptly rolled over and passed out.

By that time other cars were rolling up. Alan and John disappeared inside the trailer, along with everybody else.

Danny and I walked out to the street and leaned on the hood of Alan’s car. Little knots of trailer-park residents were huddled up and down the street, smoking and talking in quiet, excited voices.

I started to feel the cold night air for the first time. Every time I shuffled my bare feet, cold mud squished between my toes.

Danny pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket – he’d taken the time to throw on a flannel, jeans, and his hightops – and tapped me out one. His long, reddish gold hair was loose and wild in the wind. The same strand kept blowing across his face. He looked like a big freckled Jesus standing there. I told him about the gun.

He whistled softly. “You don’t think she did it, do ya?”

I shook my head. “No way. She doesn’t get violent when she’s drunk. She gets a lot of other things, but not violent.”

“Then how’d she get the gun?”

I shrugged. “Musta picked it up or something.”

“I don’t know how you can be so sure . . . ”

“Trust me. I know the Bitch.”

He looked up the street. “It looks like she did it The cops’ll think she did it.”

I said, “I’m not worried about that. They have tests they can do to tell if she fired a gun. The tests’ll show she didn’t do it.”

One thing about spending some time in jail, listening to the other guys talk, was that I’d learned a little bit about crime.

He said, “Oh. That’s good, then.”

I said, “Yeah.”

We smoked silently for a while. We started seeing flashes go off inside the trailer as a police photographer recorded the scene.

Danny said, “Wait a minute. If she didn’t do it, that means she was inside that trailer when the murderer was.”

I shrugged. “Maybe. We didn’t actually see her inside the trailer. She was in the driveway when we first caught sight of her.”

One of the little knots of people began to move toward us. The woman was reluctant and kept a tight grip on the arm of the man she was with, but the other guy encouraged them to come on. As they passed under the streetlight I could see they were all young like us, somewhere in their twenties. The two guys were average height and build. The girl was a plump little brunette.

The bolder of the guys lit a smoke as they joined us. They formed a little circle with us and he took a long draw. Nobody spoke for a while. The three of them were jittery and jumpy.

Then the bold guy said, “What a night, huh?” He let go a sleepy-voiced, nervous chuckle.

Danny and I nodded wordlessly.

The guy rubbed the brown scruff on his chin. “Well, fuck it. I’m glad this is Saturday. Be able to just sleep all day, huh?”

Danny and I both nodded like we agreed with him, even though we were both planning to work that Saturday. So was John. It was gonna be a long day.

The girl had a high little scared voice. “Is someone dead in there?”

I nodded. “Think so.”

She shivered and turned to her boyfriend or husband or whoever he was. “I told you to call the cops. I told you someone was gonna get killed.”

He said tiredly, “Oh, jeez, Janice. This had nothing to do with the fight. That was up the street. Across from us.”

Danny and I said together, “What fight?”

The guy stuck out his hand and said, “Frankie Abbott.”

Danny and me both told who we were and shook the guy’s hand.

Then the other guy, the bold one, stuck out his hand and we formally met Will Nazinski.

Danny said again, “What fight?”

Frankie laughed nervously. “Some of the neighbors were really going at it for a while before we heard the shots. They were throwing stuff at each other and screaming bloody murder. But that was up there.”

He jerked his thumb.

“And they musta settled down when they heard the shots. Right, Janice? Nothing going on in there now. Nothing to do with this.”

She said, “Still . . .”

Frankie gave me a look that was supposed to mean, Women. Can’t live with ’em . . .

Danny said, “Still, it could have had something to do with this.”

Frankie shook his head. “I promise you, it didn’t. Those two up there go at it like that all the time. Next day, to look at ’em, you’d swear nothing happened.”

He shot Janice a look.

She shrugged.

He said, “Anyway, that’s a blonde lying there in the cop car. The woman up there.” he jerked his thumb. “She’s got brown hair. Nothing to do with anything.”

We smoked on. I was just bending over to scrub out my cigarette butt when John came down the driveway toward us. He ran a hand over his brown buzz cut.

“They cut me loose since I’m technically off duty. Come on. We may as well go home and try to get some sleep.”

We said good night to Will, Frankie, and Janice and began to walk back up the driveway and slog through the backyards toward our trailer.

I stopped walking and said, “Hey. Did you find Marylou’s clothes and shoes in there anywhere?”

John shook his head. “Sorry. The trailer’s empty. I even looked in the closets and cabinets. Nothing but a six-pack of beer on the kitchen counter.”

I said, “Shit.”

We went on walking.

Danny said, “Who was the guy?”

John shook his head. “No idea. We didn’t find any ID on him. We don’t even know yet whose trailer it is.”

Danny said, “Once Marylou sleeps it off, she’ll be able to explain a lot of it, huh? Hell, she musta been a witness.”

I said, “She mighta been a witness, but she won’t be able to tell anybody anything.”

We’d reached our own driveway. John stopped and stared at me. “Why not?”

I said, “She’s not gonna remember anything that happened tonight. She was in blackout.”

__________

Posted in LT Fawkes | 2 Comments

NOVEL EXCERPTS

Introduction

Excerpts from:

THE SEEDER, by Fred and Pamela Baker

THE SWAMP, by Fernando Paez.

Becky Makes Her Move, by Hugh Morris (Dags the Drover)

One Man’s Dark, by Robin Crawford

Golf Beat: A Year in the Live of Persimmon Pines, by Larry Caringer

_______________

THE SEEDER

The Seeder is a previously unpublished, full length science fiction novel expanded from Fred Baker’s prize winning short story of the same title. Copyright 1998 by Fred Baker.

Fred is the author of the Ptolia series and the anecdotal autobiography Tales of a Golden Heart. Additionally, he writes online articles under the pen name of Ghost32 as well as publishing his own original songs as Mogularian.

THE SEEDER

by Fred and Pamela Baker

“Sci Fi is for the masses. Science fiction is for the purist.”  – Yland Meungas

Chapter 1

The Guild

Assignment

Mrs. Harrington Fordson James, Christian name Darla, watched anxiously from dawn onward. The Guild Representative wasn’t due until ten AM, but this being her first Contract, she couldn’t sleep anyway.

Her husband hadn’t approved of the Guild, said he’d heard things. But Mr. Harrington Fordson James had dropped stone cold dead of a massive heart attack at age forty-five. Darla no longer cared what the Old Bostonian Bastard thought, wherever he’d landed on the inner planes.

At precisely five minutes to ten, a sleek gray flyabout coupe rolled in and parked smoothly in the third of nine visitor parking spots. There was that about the procedure that bespoke manual handling by an expert; this driver preferred the feel of the wheel to the supposed luxury of computerized transportation. On her feet behind her third story window, Darla James found that reassuring. A flydriver herself, she tended to distrust anyone too mentally and physically lazy to handle the controls. Manual override. Definitely the way to go.

She let out a little sigh of relief. A man after all. She’d requested a man if possible, wanting no female rummaging around in her secrets. Few people could have accurately judged from this perspective, looking down on the plasteel brownstone’s courtyard, but the widow James had her own skills.

Yes, a man. One worth bedding, though that was hardly the purpose of his visit. Slim, in a tailored gray suit and carrying a small gray suitcase that looked like it came from Alien Row. There weren’t many of those shops yet; only the truly affluent could afford such an exotic bit of luggage.

He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back. Had he felt her gaze? An empath, then, or at least a primitive telepath? Even at this range, his confident male vibration reached up and through the bulletproof glass window, penetrating various parts of her mind and body. Already this seemed less of a worry, this Guild thing. One more Narvex chewable antacid tablet, then she headed down on her private elevator to greet him in the living room where the Contract would be fulfilled. She smiled again as he entered.

“Mr. Garrett Di Marco, I presume?”

He grinned as they shook hands. “Garrett will do fine. Unless you’re from the South or a military brat and that makes you uneasy.”

Her laughter tinkled musically, a simultaneous release of tension and genuine amusement. “No, I can handle it on a first name basis. Nothing military. As to the other, I was born in Michigan and raised in Indiana; that hardly counts as the South, does it?”

“I wouldn’t think so. Thank you . . . Darla?”

“Darla is fine. I have to tell you I’ve never done this before.”

“That’s what they all say.” A tired old joke, but they both laughed. Briefly. Quickly enough, the man with the fancy suit and fancy suitcase put on a reassuring face, serious without being grim.

“Mrs. James – Darla – this being your first time, let me at least share my credentials. I’m thirty-seven years old and have been a licensed Guild Representative since I was twenty-four. During that time, I have fulfilled, um . . . ”

He paused long enough to check his wrist mounted dayrunner.

” . . . precisely four thousand, one hundred and twenty-three Guild Contracts. Two thirds of those have been female clients. More than half of all clients have specifically requested me by name for one or more additional visits, and I have had just three official complaints. One lady who swears I saved her life even sent me a Geode Award, something even the best of us seldom see.”

That word official might mean something, but she wouldn’t pursue it for now. Her tilted green eyes grew thoughtful, blue lacquered fingernails tapping mindlessly while she considered.

“Do you mind commenting on those three complaints, Garrett? I mean, if it’s not violating privacy laws or something . . . .”

He shook his head. “No problem there as long as I don’t reveal identities. Which obviously I would not do on general principles, not to mention the fact that talking out of school is expressly forbidden in our Contracts.”

“Talking out of school? I haven’t heard that expression in decades!”

“No? You haven’t? Well, to get to the point: Complaint Number One was filed not by the client, who was a twenty year old female dying of cancer, but by her widower husband after she died. I did as Contracted and paid for but, after my first visit, advised both Mr. and Mrs. verbally and in writing that it would take at least three more visits to complete the job properly. Maybe more; she was in bad shape, and it was dangerous in there. The husband let her die rather than pay for the Seeder treatments, then sued me and the Guild.”

He stated this without visible emotion, but his listener was not fooled. She did, however, have to ask. “Was he justified?”

Di Marco sighed audibly. “From his viewpoint, probably. Not according to the Regulators, of course. We had fully-filed records, as always, and they spoke for themselves.”

By this time, they were seated at the conference table. She rose for a moment, helping herself to a mug of Brazilian coffee from the RRF, the Refurbished Rain Forest, while the Seeder continued. He preferred not to drink coffee or anything else while on the job.

“Complaint number two came from a black man some forty-eight years of age. He paid for a total of five visits, all of which were completed as scheduled. His energy, which had been seriously depleted for a number of years, returned in full. His asthma, a lifelong problem, improved by eighty percent or more. But his erectile dysfunction, which he’d endured for about two years prior to calling us, did not go away. On the other hand, not even Viagra 3000 Turbo did the job in his case. The Regulators threw that one out; it never even came to trial.”

“I can imagine!” Her laughter tinkled again. “And Number Three?”

He shrugged. “That one was the easiest and most complex to defend all at the same time. It was, as it turned out, an attempted insurance scam. They used a little girl, and the good side of it was, I was actually able to help her. The bad side, as we later proved in court, was that the bastards, excuse my French, had deliberately caused most of the problems I was sent in to correct. She was cute, blonde, blue eyed, ten years old, cheerful under adversity like you wouldn’t believe, and totally victimized.”

Darla shuddered. “I hope the authorities . . . ”

“They did.” His voice suddenly became grim indeed. “She was removed from her parents’ home and placed in foster care with foster parents pre-inspected and investigated by both the Guild and the government social workers. She’s grown now, has her own family.”

It was the beautiful widow’s turn to sigh. “All right, then. I’m out of excuses, so let’s get on with it. You’re a good looking guy – I admit I don’t think I could ever let a dog ugly Seeder go rummaging around inside me – and even our local prosecutor swears Guild records will stand up anywhere as models for integrity. So.”

Nodding in agreement, Garrett rose from the table and headed for the spare bedroom indicated by his hostess. Changing quickly but carefully into a set of fatigues with bulging pockets, he returned to the living room looking like a Marine ready to hit the beach.

If Mrs. Darla Harrington Fordson James had not been well briefed in advance, she would have either run from the house screaming or fallen on the floor in helpless laughter. In truth, though, the man looked good, a quiet but effective warrior. With, she couldn’t help noting, impeccable tailoring whether it might be in a gray business suit or mottled fighting gear.

As instructed, she took a seat in a large recliner and tilted the chair back far enough to allow her body to relax.

“Date of Contract visit,” the Guild Rep read into his lapel mike, “February 3, Year 2144. Recording operative as of now. Here we go.”

He thumbed a stud on a gizmo the size of a deck of cards which was double clipped to his web belt. And disappeared. Darla sipped her coffee. And waited.

A Change In Outlook

Garrett explored the terrain with a distinct blend of confidence and caution. Rolling hills everywhere, covered sparsely with stands of jack pine and the occasional blue spruce. Dry, mere touches of green in what few grasses scrabbled for existence on generally rocky ground. Nothing threatening at first glance; actually, it appeared extremely familiar, much like his native Black Hills of South Dakota without the millions of tourists and overbuilding. Nothing threatening, yet his “spider sense” was tingling like crazy.

When the Zar passed on such a heavy warning, it was half past time to pay attention. He was in someone else’s inner worlds without the protective safeguards automatically activated during dream state travel. Danger. Many a Guild Rep had died while on assignment, a fact little known outside the Guild itself and seldom discussed even among the Seeders themselves. He was, in effect, on enemy turf.

The Box at his belt had achieved limited production status in the year 2087, a proprietary product owned by the Massen family. Gerald Massen died without biological heirs, but he left the Guild, now some thousand Representatives strong, not counting Administration.

They were strong.

It could well have worked out differently, as every trainee learned in Week One of Basic Seeder Training. During the first six years of using the Box to project into the personal universes of clients, more than three hundred highly trained, high I.Q., highly sensitive Representatives failed to return from Assignment.

Only massive bribes paid to the clients had kept these debacles quiet, and not always then. Guild Rep Dead In Client’s Head!! Tabloid headlines like that one had stirred up plenty of enmity among Joe Public and Peter Politician alike. It had been a close thing.

Di Marco shook his head irritably. Woolgathering like some spatter brained rookie. It was enough to know the Guild had survived, had in the end thrived. He wore the Box with pride, used it with skill. The physicists could explain till they turned blue in their egg headed faces about how the marriage of miniaturization technology and breakthroughs in frequency modulation science had shown the speed of light to be in fact the threshold to the astral plane. Shades of Star Trek and warp speed and little green aliens.

Like every other Seeder, he’d done the required reading, knew that every Senior Rep could now transfer at will to and from any of four major inner worlds:  astral plane, causal plane, mental plane, etheric plane, no diff, no big.

At the upper edges of the etheric plane, even the most avant-garde physicists had to admit they’d run into an existential brick wall. Garrett personally suspected this particular stopper would be a doozy. Zarellan writings taught that time and space went no farther, and how the hollyhockin’ heck did anyone figure to shift a physical body to no-space, no-time, and then back?

On the other hand, not that many centuries ago, top thinkers had been certain the world was flat and Earth the center of the Universe, so maybe . . . .

In the meantime, every government on the planet and thousands of private firms continued to attempt to crack the Guild’s secret technology. It was not patented, because patents could be reverse engineered and circumvented. Representatives had been captured and tortured, their mutilated bodies sometimes deliberately left for the media to find.

All any claim jumper needed to do was snag one Box intact, and the technology would spread like wildfire to military applications and other unthinkable uses. Only one man’s incredible genius had held the wolves at bay thus far; Massen had built safeguards into his product and into his people that had held together for more than fifty years and counting.

Hopefully. If it hadn’t been cracked already. In the end, who knew? No time for pondering all that at the moment, though. Business at hand.

They came at him from three sides: Three big men, each resembling the pictures he’d seen of the deceased H.F. James. It wasn’t like the B movies, either, with the bad guys conveniently attacking one at a time in order for the hero to show off his martial arts skills.

“Get out of here!!” They shouted, coming in fast.

Di Marco changed outfits. You could do that here at will, this plane having much more flexible rules than rigid old planet Earth. You could . . . if you knew the rules that did apply. Not that seeing an intruder on their turf suddenly shift from fatigues to black motorcycle leathers did much to slow their onslaught.

The lefthand sword did, though –  skewered one and left him flopping. The Seeder’s long lunge had thrown the other two off just slightly, slowed them long enough for him to draw the long barreled stainless steel target pistol right handed.

The .22 long rifle hollow points did not kill them. It did discourage one, though. He held up his hands and backed off, a single red bloodspot shining between his eyes where the round had entered.

No blood showed on the one who’d taken the sword thrust, but that one stayed firmly down, dead dead dead. On the other hand, the final antagonist took several small caliber bullets and kept on coming. More slowly, at least; the Guild Rep had time to return his Zar-given long blade to its back-hung scabbard before almost casually drawing the .357 Magnum. Four ear-splitting rounds from the big revolver, and the guy finally stayed down . . . where he reformed rapidly into a decomposing carcass resembling a rotting alligator.

Things in the inner worlds are not always what they seem.

 Mr. Hands-in-the-Air continued to back slowly away.

“Let her get on with her life,” Garrett suggested quietly, a pistol in either hand.

“Why not?” The guy shrugged, turned his back, and walked off. Nothing like trying to keep on controlling your wife after you’ve done went and died, the Guild Rep figured, but this had been a sideshow. Not what he’d contracted to do.

Three low ridges later, he found her: Darla James herself, dressed casually in denim and sitting on a stump, chewing on a long stem of grass like the southern country girl she claimed she was not. They understood each other without words. She did not flinch as he approached slowly and carefully, ever so carefully, got a thumb-and-forefinger grip on the hideous worm protruding from the center of her right eye.

He pulled gently, ever so gently, steadily but gently. Like a robin extracting an earthworm but with much greater sensitivity, he drew the long, slimy parasite from her causal body . . .

There. He had the first one out, placed it in a suddenly manifested ceramic dish, intending to burn it later. No chance of that – it self-combusted the instant it hit the dish, leaving nothing but ash. There were two more. The final one – not unlike his earlier attackers – being by far the cagiest. It took three tries to snag that one, but he really was good at what he did. Mission accomplished.

He’d even managed not to vomit. Always a good day when he managed not to hurl. Straightening up with a profound sense of relief, he addressed Causal Darla verbally for the first time.

“Done,” he said quietly. She simply nodded, and he thumbed the Box’s Return stud.

“Done,” he said quietly to Earth Darla as he snapped into visibility in her living room.

“I felt it,” she admitted just as quietly. “There was some kind of disturbance, and then later a sort of pulling in my right eye, and then a kind of happiness. Like I could see things a little more clearly. In a spiritual sense, at least.”

“Good.” The Seeder looked impressed, as well he should have been. “Few people perceive the process so clearly. You’re extremely sensitive.”

He studied her with new eyes. This lady was not just a client; she was a keeper. Maybe. Possibly. Some other time. For the first time, mentally casting around for an excuse not to go all ga-ga over a client . . . well, at least not this soon . . . he looked around the living room more closely.

Artwork of surprising variety graced every available wall:  Here a Matisse, there a Van Gogh, both most likely originals. That was to be expected. The ultra-realistic acrylic of a rare black jaguar lurking among deep green leaves high on a massive tree branch and nearly hidden from sight, now, that was interesting.

And, hey, that bull rider about to be thrown clear over a rodeo arena fence by a massive red bovine (of the Simbrah bloodline developed by John Carr in Belize more than 150 years earlier, or he’d eat his gray suitcase).

Nobody would have paintings like that, paintings that jumped right out and grabbed you by the throat without . . . this widow was alive!

“So I’ve been told.” She smiled in a way somehow different, a touch lighter than during their earlier conversation. “I suddenly feel like resting. Could you do the honors? Pour me another coffee? And will you have one yourself now?”

“Now I would love one.”

He moved to the counter, rinsed her cup at the built-in sink, found a second cup in a cabinet, and poured for two. In the meantime, Darla James found the energy to ease herself up and out of the recliner, joining him at the dining room table where they hunched gratefully over their steaming drinks.

“It was in the causal body?” Darla asked. “You weren’t gone too long, so I figured you didn’t have to do much hunting, but . . . ”

“It was. Or rather, they were. Parasitic worms in the right eye, three of them. Burned up by themselves when they hit the air. Your outlook on life will be different now, though maybe so subtly it will be hard to be sure.”

“I’ll be sure.”

He grinned at her, sitting there all pretty and sure of herself and no doubt one hundred percent right in her self assessment. This was some special lady.

“In your case, you probably will. I wouldn’t mention the other thing, the little disturbance you felt . . . ”

“It wasn’t really all that little.”

For the first time since he’d walked into her life, the widow James put a bite into that lovely voice. The Old Bostonian Bastard might have run her life while he lived, but it seemed pretty clear she was not and never had been a doormat.

“True. It wasn’t. Seems your dear departed husband kind of wanted to keep on running the show. He . . . ” The fire in her eyes stopped him cold. What had he said that . . . ?

“Dear departed my left tit!”

The words hit the air with the crack of a bullwhip. This woman was irritated. Just the sort he never could resist, as it happened, the kind that always got him into trouble, the kind he never dated, just married.

“Excuse me?”

“Mr. James was an asshole. I was his trophy wife, and he did honor that. Left me his millions. But let me tell you, Garrett Di Marco, I paid the price for it.”

He nodded, putting his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender that made him think of James’s similar behavior just minutes earlier on the causal plane. “Well . . . he seemed a bit more reasonable after we had a little face-to-face.”

She arched one eyebrow, an expression that somehow conveyed an admission of being impressed in return. A flush of pleasure shot through him like a spike of pure adrenaline, a lot hotter voltage than when he’d merely had to fight three big dudes for his life a bit earlier. Easy, Di Marco, he thought, You don’t even know if she’s in the market.

“Good.” It was her turn to grin. “Do I owe you for that, too, or . . . ”

“Nope. That’s a freebie. Part of the service we provide.”

“And part of the reason you went in wearing combat fatigues?”

“Part of.” He didn’t see any reason to mention the whole story. His personal fighting outfit remained a secret as closely guarded as the inner workings of the Box itself.

“You’re one helluva Seeder, Garrett Di Marco.”

“We really prefer being called Representatives, or at least Reps.”

She raised that eyebrow again, this time with a whole different meaning. He felt forced to explain. “See, the media picked up on that Seeder term about ten years back, and . . . .”

“And you’re stuck with it. But . . . you do remove karmic seeds from people’s inner bodies, do you not?”

Considering how to answer, the slender warrior took a long swallow of coffee and scrubbed a hand through a shock of unruly brown hair before answering. “If we’re lucky, yes. But in today’s operation, for instance, those worms were well beyond the seed stage.”

“So . . . you feel like only common people with no brains would use the term? Call you Seeders?”

This time his shrug showed definite discomfort. “Not that, not exactly. We’re not elitists. Well, okay, some of us are, but not me . . . ”

“Inaccurate, then. You hate inaccuracy, don’t you? In the English language every bit as much as in your work?”

“You got me.” Sheepish? Rueful? He wasn’t used to that, not a bit used to it.

She chuckled. They were much at ease with each other. Likely they’d be good in bed together. Yet he’d already been more intimate with her in a very real sense than any merely mortal lover could ever be. Now, if she had her own Box and knew how to use it, mmmm . . . oh, no doubt . . .

Her thoughts went right over Di Marco’s head. Women often made passes at him, and most of the time he missed the point altogether. Right now, for example, his own thoughts had already left the building. Darla James had transferred the necessary ten thousand credits to his escrow account even before he’d arrived. Now one thousand could be shifted to Guild Tithing, Inc., the remainder to his personal Granary.

He’d take the time to enjoy perhaps one more cup of excellent Brazilian coffee, change back to his fancy gray suit, maybe have lunch at Skarley’s Upscale before heading on home. He was rich, he was expert in his craft, he’d had an invigorating little tussle with three wannabe bully boys and had performed yet another successful operation. Life was good.

It did cross his mind, semi-sensitive that he was, that perhaps he ought to describe this woman to his two currently-contracted Submissives. Come to think of it, it was only a twenty minute run to the house. Perhaps the girls would also like a late lunch at Skarley’s. He could afford it. He was of the Guild.

__________ 

The Swamp

By Fernando Paez

I.

Hendricks rose slowly from the water, mud covering every inch of his body. He used the last remaining strength in his aching muscles to pull himself out of the swamp and up onto the slippery clay banks.

He lay on his back, panting for air, eyes shining, face camouflaged by the flat brown streaks of his mud-plastered hair. He was in a mangrove field and the bull rushes swept in among the elephant grass. He could see and hear the mosquitoes droning in the air above him, their larger-than-life bodies practically swimming through the humidity. Luckily, the insects could not sense his body heat due to the layer of mud that was pasted uniformly on him.

If I stay out here too much longer I’ll probably turn into the fucking mud, he thought.

He had read accounts of early explorers succumbing to rare diseases from prolonged exposure to these black waters:  boils that refused to heal, skin that darkened and then bloomed in multicolored inflammations which eventually burst and were fatal . . . There were worms that crawled around just under the skin, planted there by their parents, the stinging tropical flies.

He knew that the swamp was a miasma and had been feared since the first days that primitive man came to live and hunt and wander in these bayous. The swamp could kill in thousands of different ways. Leeches, mosquitoes large as bats, bats big as eagles. Panthers, crocodiles, wild cats, boars, snakes, poisonous frogs. Even the God damned monkeys were aggressive and could completely fuck a guy up.

But the worst of all were the millions of parasites and microorganisms that could infiltrate your body and make you violently ill in such a drastic way that you would spend the next four weeks alternating between shitting your intestines inside-out and lapsing in and out of consciousness.

Hallucinations were common, especially at night when the chill crept in. It could be hot as a clay tandoori oven during the day and colder than a can of Moosehead straight from the freezer at night.

So how tough did you really have to be to survive alone in the jungles of Panama? Hendricks was finding out the hard way, and there really is no way other than the hard way, he laughed bitterly to himself.

Hendricks had escaped a prison several days earlier. He had decided he was being held in the Campamento Central, but he really had no way of knowing where he was. He had decided he was in the Campamento Central because it was the jungle prison where they kept the worst offenders as well as the poor assholes like himself who were never given a trial, just sent away – far away – to a place where no one would ever follow, even if they knew it existed. The place he’d been held was a prison surrounded by terrain so impassable that there were no fences to keep the prisoners in. The guards didn’t even bother to shoot runners. Nobody got away because no one could survive for long in the hostile environment outside the compound.

Shit, thought Hendricks, they might have been able to find his sorry ass by tracking him through an “Eye in the Sky” spy satellite – if they had one – like that fucking movie he saw with that weakling, Leonardo DiCaprio. What the fuck was that movie called? He wracked his brains, mumbling to himself like a lunatic as the mosquitoes finally found him and invaded relentlessly. He was too dead tired out to even mount a counterattack on the blood suckers.

He knew rather than felt that there were leeches clinging to his soaked skin, greedily sucking what was left of his tainted blood under his tattered clothing. He would have to pinch them off later, which, you would know if you have seen any Vietnam movies at all, is precisely the wrong way to remove them. The right way was burning them off with a cigarette.

A cigarette, ah, fuck. What he would not give right now, this very instant, for a dry fucking cigarette.

No matter. No matter. No matter. He kept repeating to himself, fighting off the growing nausea, fatigue, muscle pain, itching and, of course, the fear. He knew that he was not supposed to acknowledge it, but as the jungle darkness closed in around him, the fear returned with a vengeance.

II.

“Body of Lies”, he remembered. That was the name of the movie. He saw bits of it when he was cleaning the warden’s big office, the only room in the Campamento that had a TV, and a huge one at that. At least a fifty inch, flat screen, HDTV – a Sony Bhravia, with SKY TV package that only worked on the days when the torrential rains weren’t slamming into the jungle.

The satellite in that movie had a camera that could actually zoom in on people on the ground and get close enough to see their features. He laughed, swatting a huge insect that was crawling up his leg. No way anyone was tracking his sorry ass. As far as the world was concerned, he did not exist.

Shit, there wasn’t even a search party looking for him. Why should there be? Anybody crazy enough to try and escape would be faced with hundreds of miles of dense jungle, body sucking swamps, wild animals, starvation, disease . . .

No one had ever made it out and in reality, not that many had even tried over the years.

If you did manage to make it out and nobody ever found out, you had a free pass if you played your cards right. If anybody did find out, they wouldn’t believe it. If you managed to persuade them it was true, the result would be a kind of hero worship. It would be a badge of honor or some such manly-man bullshit.

The prison – the Campamento Central – was a secret facility. Other than the staff and inmates, no one outside of a few high-ranking members of the government even knew of its existence. The whole point of the place was that the prisoners were not supposed to know exactly where they were. All they knew was that they were in the middle of the jungle with about three hundred other lifetime losers. At Campamento Central there was no probation, no time off for good behavior. Once you were brought here, you never left.

Life inside the facility was brutal. Prisoners slept on the floor and were only allowed one thin, disgustingly-filthy blanket each. They were allowed to take a quick one minute shower once every other month or so. Their three meals a day provided the barest of subsistence. A few beans, some rice, maybe some old meat without too many maggots. Maybe.

Beatings were regularly dished out by the guards, but even those sadistic pricks could not muster the energy to inflict too much damage in the hundred degree, ninety-nine percent humidity. The place sapped every ounce of your will, so that most of the time all you could do was sit there and stew in your own sweat.

Most prisoners died in a few short years anyway, from disease, starvation, madness (yes, madness can actually kill you), beatings, or suicide.

Suicide was an art form inside the camp and guys found very creative ways to off themselves. Hendricks remembered one guy who actually tried to eat a live eyelash viper that had crawled under his blanket. The reptile had promptly attached itself to his tongue. His face fell off in black chunks. Fortunately for him he died pretty quick from suffocation once his tongue swelled up like a giant mango.

Hendricks had arrived at Campamento Central five months earlier. From the moment they took the black sack off his head, he knew that he had to escape, or die trying. Hendricks knew that he could only survive here for a short while so he spent every minute alone thinking, withdrawing into himself and concentrating on his inner rage, stoking it, feeding it, making friends with it.

The man who had destroyed his life must pay. The man who had taken his family away, who had framed him for murder, who had paid God -knows-who to put him in this hell hole. He had to be a very powerful man in Panama. Someone high up enough to somehow cover up the disappearance of an American ex-pat like Hendrick. The rage he felt was a living, breathing, conscious being. He loved his anger. It was the only thing that kept him going.

Escape itself was easy since the prison had no walls, no fences. He walked right past the morning sentry (Rodriguez, that fat shithead) who only laughed as Hendricks stepped past him into the swamp. Rodriguez actually called a couple of the other guards over and Hendricks could hear them hooting and calling to him in Spanish as he swam through the thick algae and stumbled over the muddy islands, putting more and more distance between himself and his former captors, until all he could hear were the shrieks and calls of the wild birds and monkeys overhead.

The sun was merciless and although he had brought a gourd of water, he knew that it would not last more than a day or two at the most. Already he was exhausted, famished, and so thirsty his tongue felt like a giant piece of peach skin, all fuzzy and swollen. Hendricks knew it would only get worse. He also knew he could not stop, not even for a minute.

If he stopped he would never get out of here. He knew he must get out of the swamp, out of the jungle, and back to Panama City. He also knew with dead certainty that he only had one or two days at the most to do this before the swamp and the jungle claimed him.

Yes, he knew very well that he could not stop even for one minute. To stop meant to die, and no way was he going to die before he killed the man who had destroyed his life.

III.

Hendricks slept soundly even here in the jungle with only wet leaves for cover. He was used to the pelting rain, the insufferable heat and the voracious insects that he had been forced to endure all those months at the prison. He felt stronger mentally, his will was honed and hardened, his weaknesses were pushed to the back of his mind.

He focused on the pain. Fed off it. Rage was not a festering thing to him not something to be extracted, cured or exorcised. It was nurturing. He welcomed the pain because the pain gave him something concrete to hang onto, something that would distract him from his emotions, which he had learned to keep in check since he was a kid.

Hendricks had a first name – Nathanial – but he never used it. Na-tha-ni-al. Sounded funny to him now. He couldn’t quite wrap it around his tongue. He had not heard that name spoken out loud since childhood, growing up dirt poor on an Oklahoma reservation that had all the creature comforts of a crowded refugee camp. And his father – an alcoholic, drug-addicted, brutally abusive full blood Chocktaw – had taught him to be quiet at an early age.

Hendricks grew up angry and could not wait to get off the res. When he finally left the Marine Corp after two extended tours in Afghanistan, he moved to Costa Rica for a few years and then on to neighboring Panama, where he worked as a tour guide at Bocas del Toro, a resort community surrounded by beautiful beaches and jungles.

That’s where he met Celia. Celia was beautiful, young, and exotically dark skinned She was sassy and fun and they immediately fell in love, marrying after going steady for only a few short months. A few years later they had two kids and one more on the way. That was when the trouble started.

Celia was working for one of the developers on the island, a rich Panamanian named Federico Blandon, who promptly fell for her in a hard way. He was a man who was used to getting everything he wanted, and he decided that he wanted her, even though he knew she was happily married.

In reality this only heightened the thrill of the hunt for the twisted developer.

After warding off several after-hours unwanted advances by Blandon, a confused Celia had become depressed and morose. Hendricks noticed the change in her demeanor and demanded that she tell him what was going on.

At first she stubbornly refused, but after a while she blurted it all out, sobbing hysterically. Hendricks comforted his weeping wife and was relieved that she had acted honorably, but he was crazy-mad at Blandon for terrorizing his poor, sweet, innocent wife in such a despicable way.

His mind raced with the ways he would batter the cretin. The guy would never even know what hit him. After being in Special Forces for a few years, Hendricks knew a little about inflicting pain and even more about doing it in a stealthy manner.

Celia knew her husband and knew the calculations that were forming in his mind. She cried and yelled and beat him on the chest, and begged him not to confront the man.

This was her boss, the Patron, and she wanted desperately not to lose her job. In a country with unemployment rates over 50%, she knew she was lucky to have any job, much less such a high-paying job as this one. She was in charge of maintenance for the entire development and she took her job very seriously. Besides the money, she loved her co-workers and the condo owners themselves, who were mostly American and Canadian, all of whom praised her to no end. She was very well liked and very popular.

Hendricks lied to her, telling her what she wanted to hear, that he was not going to do anything, not even talk to the man. She passed out on the couch after taking a valium for her nerves. Hendricks quietly picked her up and gently tucked her into bed. Then opened the top drawer of his bureau cabinet.

The weight of the black carbon blade Becker Bowie knife was familiar and comforting in his hand. He grasped the handle tightly and headed out the door. He knew what he had to do. He also knew that the man had it coming to him.

A snake slithered into the water just feet from where he was sitting, snapping Hendricks out of his reverie. He had to push all of those memories out of his mind. He needed to focus all of his waning strength on the task at hand – getting out of this swamp alive.

And that would be no easy task. For all of his bravado and skill and focused intentions, there was still only a slim possibility that he would survive for more than five or six days at most. The first thing he needed was some fresh water and the second thing was food.

Water would prove to be the hardest to get. It was not rainy season and there was little chance of rainfall, which would have made it relatively easy for him to fashion some sort of water scoop out of the large plantain leaves. Although he was surrounded by water from the swamps, there was no way he was going to let any of that gunk pass his lips. To do so would be tantamount to suicide, and not a quick one either. He had heard stories in prison of escapees that had been found days later, their bodies contorted in pain from having sampled the brackish pools.

Food was a different story. It would not be too difficult to kill a lizard or two, maybe some large beetles or a scorpion. If he was lucky, maybe even a snake, though that would not be as easy without a knife. He would have to eat whatever he caught raw since there was only green wood that would not burn easily out here.

Hendricks knew, deep down, that his only real chance at survival was to get out of the swamp and get out quickly. This was already his second day in the wild and he had a splitting headache from thirst. One or two more days like this and he would not be able to move.

He got up and trudged his way through the jungle, heading, he hoped, due north, and God willing, to the Costa Rican border.

IV.

Hendricks felt like he had been going for twenty hours straight now. It was difficult at times to tell where the sun was in the sky because of the denseness of the jungle canopy. He knew that he needed to keep heading north, but without a horizon, he was just guessing most of the time.

Tripping constantly over exposed roots and deadfalls, pushing aside stray vines and whipping branches, swatting incessantly at the buzzing flies, gnats, bees, mosquitos, and God knows what the fuck else flying through the air . . . these fuckers really sting too, damn them, he thought after one especially big cocksucker flew straight in at him and injected its probiscus straight into his fucking throat. Twenty minutes later his throat, with steadily mounting, throbbing pain, had swollen to the point where it began to constrict his airway. He dropped to the jungle floor, grabbing at his throat, wheezing, and, fighting for breath, he passed out.

When he woke up the swelling had gone down a bit. He was able to take some large, deep breaths and eventually, he struggled into a leaning position against a tree trunk. He rubbed his throat, which still hurt like crazy.

He looked down at the crusty blood in his hand. That’s when he felt them. He looked down and a muted, hoarse scream tried to get out of his mouth as he realized that he was now literally covered with ants. Hormigas de Fuego. Tropical fire ants. He swatted at them, trying to brush them off a he struggled to get up, slipping on a root and cracking his knee against the tree trunk.

Hendricks cried out, or tried to through his swollen throat. He kept trying to bat the ants off but he knew with a sense of growing desperation that it was a hopeless task. The layer of ants on his arms and legs, and oh my god, between his legs and inside his pants, looked like a blood red carpet.

Hendricks ran a few yards, grunting in pain. He saw a glimmer of water between fallen logs and he dove for it.

The pool was covered with algae and greenish, but it was surprisingly deep. It engulfed the tall man, who never hit bottom. The relief on his skin was immediate. He could literally see the fire ants floating to the surface as they drowned.

Hendricks looked around in the dirty water, trying to adjust his eyes. He saw a flash of light coming up at him from below. It looked like a beam of sunlight going the wrong way. He floated to the surface, took a deep breath, and dove again, swimming strongly to the light source.

He found a rock wall with his hands and crawled down along it, getting closer to the light. At last he felt a large jagged hole, the entrance to an underground tunnel of some sort, and the source of the light. He went in, guiding himself with his arms against the horizontal tunnel. Yes, he could see that it was indeed a tunnel. He could see the end, too, just up ahead, dazzling with refracted light. Ten feet later he exited the tunnel and, lungs bursting, swam up to the brightness until he emerged, sputtering and coughing. He paddled his way to the near bank and pulled himself up, exhausted at the effort.

He turned over, sucking in air, eyes closed.

Hendricks opened his eyes. He looked up and was surprised to see that he was in some sort of natural cave, or cavern. The ceiling was over a hundred feet above him, and he knew it was perforated because natural light, lots of it, came down in rays. But Hendricks could now see that the sides of the cave were glistening. He approached the cave wall and ran his hand over the surface. It felt like glass. Glass embedded in rock.

Hendricks suddenly stepped away, his eyes wide.

He came back and ran his hand over the surface. No mistake. Had to be. Diamonds.

He noticed other flashes from the wall. He ran over and touched them. More diamonds. Some as huge as small boulders, but none smaller than ten karats at least. Calculations ran through his head.

He stood back and ran his eyes up and down. The entire wall was covered in what looked like twinkling lights.

Hendricks fell to his knees and laughed and laughed and laughed. Even to himself he sounded like a madman. But he couldn’t stop thinking how funny it was, because it occurred to him that it had to be late December and damn if those lights didn’t look just like Christmas.

Finally Hendricks pulled himself together. He realized that now he had absolutely no choice but to survive at all costs.

He had to get out of the jungle. He had to escape.

So he could hurry up and come back as soon as possible.

V.

Hendricks spent the next few hours lying on his back and staring up at the constellation of what he was now convinced could only be diamonds. He could be wrong, he thought, but deep inside he knew he was not. It seemed too good to be true – way too good to be true – but these could be nothing other than real, rough diamonds imbedded into the rock, just waiting there for someone, no, that wasn’t quite right, just waiting there for him to find.

He did not believe in accidents or happenstance. He believed all of this had been predetermined.

How many people had traveled over these same jungles over the years? How many people had gotten themselves lost here? How many of them would have fallen into that particular pool and how many would have seen a shaft of light from below, piercing the darkness? And how many of those were like him, injured, starved, thirsty, and desperate? Would they too have been curious enough to dive back down and explore those murky depths?

No. This, he knew without having to analyze it further, was a miracle. He had been drawn down here by a greater force, an overriding intent that some would call Fate, others God.

Did diamond mines even exist in Panama? He had to be honest to himself and admit that he did not know the answer. He pushed back the notion that If there had been diamond exploration in Panama he would have heard of it somehow, especially since he prided himself on having knowledge regarding Panamanian history and general knowledge.

But none of that mattered. What he previously did or did not know was immaterial here. Because here in front of his very eyes was proof. A gigantic underground cavern literally encrusted with what he would swear were diamonds.

Had he not been so exhausted he would have laughed at the irony of his predicament. The diamonds in this cave would make him by far the richest man in Panama – maybe in the world – yet he might not ever be able to recover them.

Finding this cave again would be an almost impossible task since he had very little idea as to where exactly he was in Panama. If he was even in Panama. He could have been taken to Coiba, for instance, an island directly to the south, near the western end of the country. Coiba was notorious for its prisons, but as far as he knew, all of those facilities had been shut down many, many years earlier. But what if he had been taken to Coiba? If that were true, he would probably never be able to leave the island.

He got up and went to one section of the wall where the diamonds stuck out a little more prominently. Picking up a large rock, Hendricks banged all around the diamond, freeing it. Hendricks picked up the irregular shape and cleaned it off as best as he could. He was no expert but the diamond that he held in his hand had to be at least five inches across and had to weigh at least a half pound. Once cleaned, polished and faceted, the finished diamond would weigh at least fifty karats. He stuffed it into his pocket. He broke off a few smaller pieces, knowing that if he ever got out there he would need something to use as currency.

With his pants stuffed with diamonds, Hendricks approached the edge of the water. He looked down. The dark water mirrored his image back at him, unfathomable. He prepared himself, took a deep breath, then dove in and pushed down into the dark depths. He reached the wall where he thought the tunnel entrance should have been but he could see very little. He felt blindly along the wall, looking for the entrance. After a minute of this, he swam back to the surface and crawled out onto the bank again, tired and despondent.

He stayed there for a while, trying to regain some energy and find the will to continue. Again he stood up, breathed deeply, and dove. Once again he searched the walls, this time quicker, using up lots of energy.

Suddenly, he found it: a large, jagged hole in the wall. This had to be his tunnel and he swam into it, pushing forward blindly, feeling the slimy walls with his outstretched hands.

His lungs were bursting in his chest and it seemed that the tunnel went on much longer than it had when he had first swam through it. A wave of dizziness swept over him and he saw sparkles of light swimming in his vision like fluorescent, runaway sperm.

Hendricks realized with a sickening certainty that he was at the Point of No Return. He had neither the energy nor the air supply in his lungs to go back, and if he did not find the entrance on the other side, he would most likely die down here, his body never to be found.

He pushed on, refusing to give up, refusing to be beaten. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he came to the end of the tunnel and kicked for the surface. His lungs did not make it to the top and he swallowed some water before breaching the mossy surface of the pool into the darkness of the jungle, sputtering and coughing.

He managed to crawl and climb his way up the steep, muddy, slippery banks and rolled onto his back, gulping in great mouthfuls of dank air.

Once again, he heard the mosquitoes droning overhead, crisscrossing the air. Some landed on his face and arms but this time he did not swat them. This time he silently thanked God that he could hear them, that he had somehow managed to escape yet again, this time from a watery death.

He felt his pockets and knew that his treasure was safe. Hendricks got up slowly. It was dawn he realized. He could see the orange glow of the sunrise coming from what had to be the eastern horizon. Now he knew his direction and where he must go.

Carefully, he walked around the area and noted as many landmarks as he could. Using a sharp rock, he carved symbols into the sides of trees. He would carve these personal markings as he made his way through the jungle. He would use these to lead him back here someday, if he ever got out of this jungle alive.

But somehow, he knew that he would survive, that he was destined to come back here one day. That this place was his and no one else’s. He felt it in his marrow. This was no cosmic accident. It was Karma, of this he was dead certain. He held no fantasy that the remaining days and nights in the jungle were going to be anything but frought with danger and torturously difficult, but he knew that this was just part of the price that destiny would demand of him for showing him the way to this incredible treasure.

No matter, he thought. No matter. He would make it. And he would come back.

VI.

Hendricks spent the next two days and nights in the jungle. Even though he was constantly on the verge of passing out from hunger and exhaustion, at least the problem of thirst had been solved early on. A few hours after he left the cavern pool the sky opened up (even though it was the dry season) with the ferocity and absolute power that only tropical storms seem to have.

He laughed and danced as he drank and drank some more. He had not realized how parched he had actually been. Unfortunately he had not been able to store any water for later, but what he was capable of drinking worked magic on his morale.

He walked faster now, taking great care to leave landmarks and to cut the trees thoroughly. Once he tried doubling back just to make sure that his path was clearly visible and he was relieved to be able to follow so easily.

At first he had thought to not make the way back too obvious, but then he thought, what the hell? Even if someone did stumble upon his path, it would only lead them to a dark jungle pool. No, his treasure was just as safe as it had been since prehistoric times, he guessed. That cavern had to be ancient. Hell, didn’t diamonds sometimes take millions of years to form? He thought he remembered something to that effect.

Hendricks knew he was cracking up  A few times he found that he had been talking out loud. He would got angry at those moments and hit himself on the side of the head and shouted obscenities. He knew he couldn’t last much longer. Once he blacked out for several hours and woke to find himself sitting on a log in the dark, not knowing where the daylight had gone.

The pain was overwhelming but worse than that, worse even than the hunger, was the fatigue. Y et he pushed on. He felt the lumps in his pants pocket and smiled a grim smile at the feel of them in his hands. This was what made him push well beyond his limits but finally – finally – he dropped in a faint on the jungle floor, unconscious.

Fate has different paths for all of us. It tempts us with different choices and different directions. Taking one path may mean riches and fame, the other, painful suffering and death. Fate does not ask us our opinion. We are as nothing to it. The whims of Fate need no permission. Fate routinely ignore our cries and pleas for clemency. And sometimes, on rare occasions, Fate welcomes certain persons with open arms and extends the full bounty of its magnanimity and generosity. That day, Fate opened its arms to Hendricks.

Luz Cardeñas, a raven-haired, eighteen year old beauty, had strayed from her chores without thinking about it. It was a beautiful day and she had been out picking berries when suddenly a gorgeous golden butterfly passed near her face.

Luz had always loved insects and animals – especially butterflies. She had photographed them for years until her old camera finally broke. Luz saved every dime she could scrounge, and one day she would buy a new camera, a digital one like she had seen on TV.

This butterfly was magnificent. She had to see it closer and so she followed its path into the jungle. Every time she came close it skittered away like a leaf of gold fluttering in the sun. She laughed and chased it, running and calling to it, Mariposita. Luz felt that the golden insect was taunting her, staying just inches from her reach as she ventured farther and farther into the jungle.

Though she and her family had lived here on the edge of the jungle all of her life, still she feared the ever present dangers of the jungle. The biggest killer by far was not any type of big cat or snake, but the jungle itself. If you got lost in there, chances are you might never get out. Only the most experienced of the village’s hunters ever ventured too deeply into it. So on this day after Luz followed the rare butterfly into the jungle it suddenly rose up higher into the canopy. She watched it disappear and waved goodbye. Luz had heard that if you climbed to the highest limb you would find yourself above the canopy and you would see hundreds of butterflies flapping their velvety wings in the sunshine. She sighed, wondering what it would be like to be up there, all alone with her camera, taking the most beautiful pictures in the world.

She turned around and realized that it had gotten much darker. She realized it was late in the day and she was in an area of the jungle that was unknown to her. She tried going back the way she had come but it was no use. She was lost. The realization brought instant panic and Luz began to hyperventilate, calling out for help and crying desperately for her mother and father. She trembled and fought her way through the thick vines.

Suddenly she tripped on an exposed root and fell flat on her face. She groaned and lifted herself up on her forearms, then looked to her right.

There, not inches away, was a bearded man with bloodied face and cracked

lips.

Luz screamed with all of her might.

Hendricks woke with a start and tried to get up, but he was too exhausted. He fell back down, panting and dizzy from the exertion.

Luz got up and tried to run away but Hendricks reached out and grabbed her by the ankle, causing her to scream once again.

Hendricks tried to comfort the girl without letting go. “Please, uh, por favor, no grites. Don’t scream please. Please. Necesito ayuda. I need help. Agua. Water.”

The effort was too much for him. He released her and almost passed out again.

Luz immediately scrambled backward and grabbed a nearby stick to protect herself. She stared at the fallen man. She realized that he was injured and that he would not be an immediate threat to her.

She stood up over him. “Quien eres? Como te llamas?” she asked him his name.

“Me llamo Hendricks.” he croaked in a whisper.

“Henrique? Que haces aqui?”  What are you doing here?

“Estoy perdido. I am lost,” he replied.

Luz collapsed, sobbing.

“Yo tambien. Yo tambien.” she admitted. Me too.

___________

BECKY MAKES HER MOVE

by Hugh Morris (Dags the Drover)

Chapter 1

Becky carefully shut the sterling silver locket, held it to her left cheek, and closed her eyes, but only for a moment.  Then she gently slipped the locket and its fine silver chain into the pocket of her stretch jeans and tried to focus on the now, as she absently massaged the pain with her short rough fingers.

Although she could not see it, she knew the skin on her temples was red and dry from the regular workout.  Headache was her constant companion these days.

Her whole body tensed as she heard the throbbing V8 Holden Torana skid to a halt in the driveway.  She rehearsed her greeting one more time as she stuffed her bra into the top drawer of her bedroom dresser and buttoned up the two bottom buttons on her one clean, white, tight-fitting blouse.  Hurriedly she made her way across the lounge room as she heard the car door slam.

The thin winter light was waning.  The street lights would soon come on and a chill was growing in the air.  Even in the tension of the moment she could hear her mother in her head:  “Stomach in, chest out.”

Although her mother wouldn’t approve of her current appearance, it was just the advice she needed right now.

She stepped into the doorway.  “Hi Bundy.  A bit more rubber in the driveway.  Just the thing to keep the landlord on side ya reckon,” she said with a deceptively approving grin.

Phil Ratanbury, panel beater and spray painter extraordinaire, chop shop operator, and tattoo-parlour client, stopped just short of the bottom step of the two-bedroom fibro housing commission house they shared, lifted his gaze to meet hers, and noted that tight white blouse.

“Hey,” she said, softening her tone.  “Wanna go get us a DVD an’ a slab of Bundy at the bottle shop for tonight?”  She applied the sexiest smile she had and tugged at the undone buttons on her blouse.

Bundy, as he was known to his mates because of his ability to consume large amounts of the stuff, eyed Becky suspiciously.

At least he stopped at the bottom step, she thought.

He drilled her to the doorpost for a long moment with his eyes, took another slug on the can of Bundaberg Rum and Cola he was nursing, nonchalantly flicked his car keys into the air while spinning on his heels, caught the car keys behind his back, and headed for car without a word.

Most blokes would have pulled a flannel shirt over their blue singlet by now, but Bundy was one of a kind – and tough.  He took what he wanted regardless of whether it was being offered or not. Becky wasn’t his girl, she was one of his possessions.

She draped herself invitingly on the doorpost and leaned forward just the slightest bit as Bundy turned to look at her once more before he slid into the driver’s seat of the Torana. As usual, he smoked up the rear tyres on the driveway while reversing out and roared off down the street.

Becky breathed with relief.

She held herself in the doorway, clutching her locket with her right hand until he was completely out of sight.  Then, she turned quickly and headed straight back to the main bedroom.  She guessed she’d have twenty-five to thirty-five minutes.

There were lots of things that were confused in her mind at the moment, but one thing was clear.  If she ever saw Bundy Ratanbury again, she’d be dead.

5:28 pm

Bundy eased the Torana into the traffic on the highway near the Fire Station at Matthews and headed east.  A red and blue flashing light up ahead caught his attention straight away.  He secured his can of Bundy rum and cola between his legs, checked his rear view mirror, Speedo, and stayed with the flow.

The last thing he needed at the moment was to be pulled over by some enthusiastic young copper with a breathalyser and a car inspection.  Sydney traffic was getting  ridiculous. Bumper-to- bumper morning and night, even way out here in Western Sydney.

He flicked his blinker on before he got to the Canter Ave. intersection.  The Random Breath Test Unit that was checking homeward-bound drivers on the other side of the median strip had kept his attention until now, but once he had safely passed, his mind turned back to Bex’s invitation.  He called her Bex or Bitch, depending on his mood.  It was his own little joke.

Lately she’d been more Bitch than Bex.  He figured she was up to something.  He just wasn’t sure what.  He knew there was plenty of grog at home, but he was happy to play her little game.  He’d have a bit of a browse through the hot DVDs at Blockbusters next to the bottle shop.  That was a reasonable diversion for a hard working man like himself. And if it was a bit of fun she wanted tonight, then fun she’d get, and she’d get reminded who was boss while he was at it.

5:40 pm

Beck threw her backpack up and pulled herself into the cab.  The driver was wearing that sort of grin that said he couldn’t believe his luck.  He got the big rig rolling, and in between changing gears he turned the heater up, hoping she would be too hot to put a jumper on, if she had one in that backpack.

He checked her out one more time and smirked.  “Where you headed, love?”

She answered in a cold, flat voice.  “Just up the road, mate.  You keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel and things’ll be just fine.”

“Ahh, a feisty bit of gear, eh?”

“Yeah, and where I’m goin’s none of your business, buddy.”

She reached across and flicked the heater off.

“I just thought you might be cold . . . ”

Beck nestled back in the passenger’s seat and closed her eyes for a moment.  She’d been watching this truck for weeks now.  Every Thursday evening around 5:40 to 5:50 it pulled out of the machinery dealership beside the western rail line in the Matthews industrial area. It was always the same big white truck – sleeper cab, chrome exhaust stacks, and the name Kenworth across the bonnet and on the mud flaps.

The step-deck tri-axle trailer was always loaded with new red tractors or cultivators or some sort of farming equipment.  She was not sure it was always the same driver but she guessed the silver sign writing on the driver’s door which read “Dubbo Freight Services” meant the truck would be heading west.  She sure hoped so.

She was tired, she was hungry, and she had a thumping adrenalin headache.  But she knew she needed to keep a steely presence and stay on guard until she worked this bloke out.

5:50 pm

Bundy pulled the Torana into the driveway again, smiling to himself at all the rubber he had laid down last time out.  His mate, Greg, got out of the front passenger’s seat while his other mate, Brett, extracted himself from rear.  They waited by the side of the car while Bundy retrieved the carton of Bundaberg Rum and the couple of DVDs he had hired while at the shops at Matthews.

Bundy strode up to the still-open front door.  Something was wrong.  The TV was not on, no cooking smells wafting from the kitchen, and the place had that cold, empty feeling about it.

Bitch,” he yelled.  He marched through the lounge room and kitchen to the laundry out the back.  The laundry door was open as well, and he could see the gap in the paling fence leading into the back lane from the unshaded light globe in the laundry.

His eyes narrowed, his teeth clenched, and his lips pulled tight as he pushed back through the house to the front door and across to the garage.

“Bitch.  Stinkin’ bitch.”

In his rage, he threw the garage door up effortlessly, went straight to the grey steel Stanley cabinet behind the water heater up the back, and unlocked it.  His temper was such that he forgot to close the garage door behind himself, which was something he was usually meticulous about.

“Close that stinkin’ door and stay outside,” he yelled.

The others didn’t need to know too much and they didn’t need to be told twice.

Both rifles were there.  A .22 and a 243, both with high-powered fitted sights.  On the top shelf was a fair supply of ammo.  By law, ammunition was supposed to be locked in a separate compartment to rifles and guns, but then, Bundy had never been too fussed about what “The Law” required and didn’t have a license anyway.

He quickly pushed a couple of ammo boxes aside to reveal an unobtrusive box at the back. He pulled it out and checked its contents.

“Just as well,” he thought to himself.  “The money’s still there.  At least the stupid bitch didn’t know about that.”

He pushed the box back, rearranged the ammo in front of it, grabbed the .22 and a loaded magazine, slipped them into a long sporting bag, and pulled the zipper shut.

No one ever betrayed Bundy Ratanbury and got away with it.

6:23 pm

The traffic was rolling along the motorway leading out of Sydney to the west quite quickly now, and thinning due to the second mass exodus of vehicles at the Mulgoa road exit.  Matty’s truck approached the high kilometer-long bridge across the Nepean river. The lights of the city of Penrith came into view immediately to the right as the road rose slightly and fell again following the curvature of the pre-stressed concrete bridge across the river.

They passed suburb after suburb of red tile roofs, illuminated by streetlights, beyond the barriers of the motorway.  Then suddenly the silver ribbon of the river came into view, followed by the honeycomb-colored Sydney Sandstone, made bare by the huge cuttings carved into the mountain side.

And then the motorway began its steady assent of Lapstone hill, the gateway to the Blue Mountains and the vast Australian interior.

This river and the mountain range which rose abruptly in a blue haze from the coastal plain immediately beyond it, had for some years been a significant barrier to the first Europeans when they arrived in this country in the late 1780s.

Today however, the saddle horse and bullock wagon had been replaced by vehicles like the computer controlled, turbocharged four hundred and seventy horsepower Cummins diesel, coupled to an 18 speed gear box in Matty’s Kenworth T404.  The treacherous old trail had given way to a three-lane dual carriage, bitumen highway, carved at an easy grade into the side of the mountain. The river and the mountains were a barrier to man and progress no more.

Matty flicked the Road Ranger back a couple of gears to keep the Cummins in the torque band as they began the run up Lapstone Hill.  Ahead were a couple of older trucks pulling hard with heavy loads and their left-hand blinkers on, trying to get across to the left-hand lane for slower vehicles before they impeded his progress.

He kept the power on as they sped up the centre lane and just missed the back end of the first B-Double loaded with bricks with his bulbar. He acknowledged the truckies on the UHF.  With this relatively light load, he knew he might have to drop another half a gear, but he would be able to stay with the traffic flow with no worries.

They hadn’t been on the road long, so there was no need to make a log book stop yet, but he felt a bit peckish.  He didn’t like the plastic stuff served and sold as food at the service station just before the traffic lights, but he knew he could park the semi just off the highway in the parking bay at the Glenbrook Visitor Information Centre and walk across the park to the shops behind the VIC.  The food was better further up the Mountains but it was not so easy to park a semi up there.

Matty was wondering about this chick now, too.  When she first jumped in the truck in those tight jeans and that white shirt with no bra, he thought life was going to be good. Now he wasn’t so sure.  He pulled up Lapstone Hill to where the road leveled out past the RAAF base on the big left-hander and headed down toward the traffic lights at the village of Glenbrook.

Without thinking any more about it, he checked his mirror and flicked his left blinker on, held his line until the car in that lane had driven past, pulled his truck across the left lane, and exited the highway.  Changing down through five or six of the eighteen gears with the compression brakes on, he quickly came to a stop behind the other semis that had already pulled up.

He applied the maxi brakes and, satisfied with the big hiss of air released from the drive axles on the prime mover and the tri-axle trailer, let the Cummins idle for a few moments.

He flicked the cab light on and grabbed his official “Transport Work Diary.”  This would be his first fifteen minute break.  He usually forgot to record his loading time and driving time as required by law nowdays, but on this occasion he remembered and duly completed the paperwork.  By that time the turbo charger had cooled enough for a shut down.

Becky, who had been sitting more or less motionless and silent for the last fifteen minutes, remained slouched quite low in the passenger’s seat, and tried to look calm. They were only 30 or 40 k’s from home, which wasn’t far enough by any stretch, and she was sure she’d seen Bundy’s blue Torana flash past back down the M4 motorway.

Also, she didn’t trust this bloke.  She knew it was time to leave the pseudo security of his truck. But who would she run into next? She had to be in control of her physical surroundings to be in control of her own destiny or, or . . .

She couldn’t bear to think about failure, knowing that by now Bundy was mad as hell and maybe lurking close by.

As they had pulled into the parking area, she had noticed the aluminium tipper at the front of the line of trucks in the parking bay.  A skinny young bloke, dressed in the mandatory blue singlet and unbuttoned checked flannel shirt over jeans, strolled across the park toward it as Matt was doing his log book thing.

She decided to take her chances with Skinny and, just in case Bundy was already over at the shops quizzing truckies about any hitchhikers, she decided to give Matt a bit of incentive to keep quiet.

“Gunna come for a feed, love?” Matt asked hopefully as he prepared to climb down from the cab.

“Nah . . . not really hungry, thanks,” Beck replied in a slightly softer version of her Western Sydney working class accent.  “I might just stretch out here on the bunk if ya don’t mind, so don’t be too long getting that feed.”

She forced a smile and gave a good impression of a lusty nymph as Dickhead, which was how she thought of him now, closed the cabin door and headed off with a bit of an expectant swagger across the park.

Matt let his mind run a little ahead of itself as he stepped off the footpath to cross the street to the shops.  He failed to notice the blue Torana parked at the curb on the other side until Bundy flicked his cigarette at him.  Bundy had Matt at sixes and sevens in no time and neither of them noticed the dull taillights of the aluminium tipper disappear into the night.

____________

ONE MAN’S DARK

an Excerpt
by Robin S. Crawford

Joe Gunther walked through the door with a slow, halting gait ahead of the guard. There was just one other prisoner in the waiting room, one too many. Gunther nodded
toward the unoccupied benches on the opposite side of the room. He was not feeling
sociable.

“Sign this.”  The guard handed a clipboard to the CO who was standing at the door tothe infirmary.  Then he held out a simple wooden cane. “And here, give this back to him, if you want.”

CO Jenkins, who had been at Lee Correctional for almost as long as Joe Gunther, signed for the delivery and traded the clipboard for the cane.

“Hey, Father Joe, what’re you doing back here so soon?” He stuck the cane up under his arm and reached for his keys. “Looking for a sweetheart to spend Valentine’s Day with?”

Gunther held out his wrists and considered suggesting the CO stuff his Valentine. But he was feeling as gray and lifeless as the concrete floor beneath his feet. He decided instead to conserve his waning energy.

“You know I’m saving my heart for you, Jenkins,” he said. The coughing jag that followed lasted nearly two minutes.

Gunther had pneumonia again. In two weeks, his weight had dropped from a muscular and well-distributed two-hundred ten pounds to one-eighty-five. Despite aggressive treatment for a bronchial infection, his health had continued to worsen.

During his first year inside, Gunther had been stabbed in the leg with a homemade knife—a rusty shank fashioned out of a spoon. The injury never healed properly. This resulted in loss of muscle tissue and permanent damage to his immune system. Now he was highly susceptible to illness and this was one reason he avoided any temptation to quell his loneliness—that maddening partner which had shadowed him since childhood—with even a brief fling.

In here it would be suicide. After nine hard-fought years of celibacy, he had earned the nickname “Father Joe—the priest of cell block twelve.”

He hobbled over to the bench and sat. His breathing was slow and labored. With what felt like his last ounce of energy he pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and waited.

Jenkins leaned down with a light.

“Well, y’ain’t got much to choose from, anyway.” The CO motioned toward the other inmate. “Just this sorry piece of shit.”

The young prisoner was dressed in poorly fitting prison issue denims crusted with dried blood. He avoided eye contact by adjusting the ice pack he was holding to his nose so that it hid most of his face.

Unruly hair, matted with more blood, hung over his forehead. His right foot rested on a blanket on the floor, a second icepack balanced on top of it. His toes, stiff and swollen purple, stuck out from underneath.

Gunther recognized the tell-tale signs of a first-timer. This was an inexperienced fish hardly deserving of the second glance he was getting. Anyone who hadn’t figured a way to score some decent clothes lacked money, connections, or was just plain lazy.

There was no room in Joe Gunther’s circle for this “sorry piece of shit.” He decided to let this one sink or swim on his own.

He leaned back on the cinderblock wall and feigned interest in Jenkins’ conversation. Usually distracting at best, today the idle and ignorant banter was annoying. Gunther’s gaze soon wandered across the room for a third furtive glance.

Jenkins truncated his gossip about the warden’s nineteen-year-old daughter and nodded again in the direction of the other inmate.

“Got himself cornered in the shower,” he said with a knowing smirk. “The two Franks.”

Gunther knew the pigs. Who hadn’t heard of Frankie Rizzo and Frank “Killer” Kilcoyne? The pair had hooked up with each other a few years back at a prison down state. Their reign of terror was by this time of near mythical proportion. The only reason they were at Lee—a medium-security facility—was lack of space at a more suitable prison.

Gunther began to take more interest in his fellow inmate. It was hard to believe that after a run-in with the two Franks, this kid would still be conscious, much less sitting upright.

Much less alive, for that matter, he thought.

“That’s all they did to him?”

Jenkins nodded and his smile stopped short of admiration.

“Wait a sec. Let him tell you. Hey, Flash. You, over there. Whyn’t you tell us what you did to those mother-fuckers?”

In despair of his dwindling anonymity, the prisoner moved the ice pack to cover his entire face.

Jenkins was not so easily discouraged. He turned his head to spit, and waited. He knew exactly what he was doing. If this kid was smart, he’d take the opportunity to tell his own story and earn status in the eyes of Joe Gunther, one of the most powerful inmates in the joint.

Instead, the young inmate let out a deep breath as he lowered the ice pack to speak. He scowled at the CO through a roadmap of bruises and bloody scrapes on his face. His nose had been broken in the altercation and both eyes were starting to discolor.

Gunther was unfazed by the carnage. It was standard fare for a prison fight. But he was surprised by what he heard next from across the room.

“If you don’t mind, CO, sir, I’m not much up to talking right now.” His soft, smooth-as-honey southern drawl oozed humility and deference. “I’m sure you can do a far better job of telling the story than I. Why don’t you just go right ahead?”

With a cursory glance at Gunther, the inmate repositioned the ice pack over his face once more, sat back against the wall and closed his eyes.

Gunther felt a jolt. He wished the eyes would open.

Jenkins shrugged and spat again. He wasn’t one to give second chances.

“Well, I didn’t see it myself—I wasn’t there, y’know what I’m sayin’?” His face fell at the disappointing thought. “But I heard Kilcoyne was coughing up blood when they took him away. Someone said his chest musta been caved right in. And Rizzo? Bawlin’ like a baby. They said he—the kid there—was jumpin’ around like some kinda wild fuckin’ animal. Kicked Rizzo in the nuts, then grabbed on and squeezed ‘til they popped like ripe tomatoes.”

He paused to savor the image, spat, and continued. “Blood everywhere. It’s a right fuckin’ mess in the fish tank, for sure. Anyway, that’s when Kilcoyne stopped the son-of-a-bitch, grabbed his foot and sent him into the wall. No tellin’ what he would’ve done if he’d kept goin’. Ain’t that right, Flash? Huh? Boy, you hear me?”

Winston shrugged and changed position. Jenkins shot him a scowl and went on.

“Sent both Franks to County Hospital. One lucky bastard, huh, Joe?”

“Nobody’s that lucky,” Gunther said as he studied the slight figure seated across the room from him. He no longer cared if he should be looking or not.

The boy—and that’s all he seemed to be—shifted position again, this time leaning his elbows on one knee with his face to the floor. He cradled his forehead in one hand. His stiff posture telegraphed the pain in every muscle of his body.

“Hey.” Gunther called out across the room.

The inmate Jenkins had called “Flash” rolled his eyes upward, raised his free hand in a small wave, and went back to staring at the floor. If he could, he would have willed the concrete to open and swallow him up. Another horny bastard, thought Winston Mills. Just what I need.

Though his body language made it clear that he didn’t want to be bothered, Gunther persisted. He wanted to hear that voice again. Had to hear it. He cleared his throat and tried not to sound too interested.

“Martial arts, kid?” He took a drag of his cigarette and was careful not to look directly at the boy.

The young inmate opened his eyes and muttered his reply without bothering to move the ice pack.

“No, sir. I was just trying to kill the sons-of-bitches.”

Gunther’s fit of laughter ended in another coughing jag. After catching his breath, he had a few words with Jenkins. Then he took up his cane and made his way to the bench on the other side of the room.

“Do you mind if I sit?” The courtesy of asking was unnecessary, of course. Joe Gunther sat wherever he wanted.

At the moment, the young man didn’t care who was asking.

“I’d rather just be left alone, sir, if you don’t mind.” Why can’t they all just leave me alone, he thought?

“Oh, shit,” Jenkins said with a gleeful smile. He’d been witness to the swift intensity of Gunther’s rage several times. Nothing brought it on faster than a show of disrespect. This could make up for missing the fight with the two Franks.

With an edge to his voice that could slice the steel bars at the window, Gunther repeated his request. It hadn’t really been a question, and he hadn’t really expected an answer.

“I just want to talk. I’m not asking you to marry me.”

From across the room came an explosive guffaw. Jenkins leaned forward to catch every second of the show before he’d have to break it up.

The boy sighed and stared at the floor.

“It’s a free country. Sit where you like,” he said.

For an instant, Gunther considered returning to his original seat and sealing the little punk’s fate. Even if he didn’t know who he was talking to, there was no excuse for this lack of respect. But a retreat might be taken as just that. He couldn’t risk that sort of blow to his reputation.

It didn’t matter to him what this kid had done to the two Franks—Joe Gunther wasn’t afraid, and he didn’t want anyone to think he was. He dropped down to the bench at a respectable distance.

Disappointed, the CO shook his head and prepared for a quick nap.

Gunther offered his hand. He was startled to see how much younger the kid appeared at close range. The thought that he might be one of those young offenders—under eighteen—filled him with regret and relief. They could only be friends, after all.

Sick as he was, it was becoming obvious that he would need all the reasons he could muster to resist this temptation.

“Joe Gunther,” he said. He was pleased to note a flicker of recognition in the boy’s eyes. “They call you ‘Flash?’”

Winston’s snort of disgust brought on a wince of pain. He rubbed the cold out of his right hand against his pant leg and then held it out to Gunther.

“They can go straight to hell,” he said, straightening up with a grimace. “The name’s Mills—Winston Mills. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Gunther, sir.”

His brief handshake was firm, and not that of a boy at all. As their hands parted, Gunther experienced a moment of terror. Something deep inside him stretched and yawned, coming awake.

The sleeves of Winston’s denim shirt, several sizes too big for his slight frame, were rolled up to the elbows exposing two slim wrists and long, delicate fingers. His eyes, flannel gray, soft as an old man’s nightshirt, and weighted with pain, were not those of a boy, either.

In another dizzying jolt, Gunther felt the return of a forbidden and nearly forgotten feeling. His sudden breathlessness had little to do with the inflammation in his lungs. He felt as if he were suffocating on an irrational, incongruous, and all-consuming fear.

Then just as quickly it disappeared. Disoriented and flushed, Gunther turned his smile on the battered face. Just inches away, it tempted him with a nerve-wracking mix of defiance, shyness, and allure.

“A pleasure, huh?” he asked. “You think?”

Winston Mills looked him in the eye again. Gunther knew this was a nasty habit that would be beaten out of the naïve inmate before long. He felt suddenly protective.

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Winston said, “but I’ve heard you’re a very powerful man, sir. To be quite honest, as I just don’t have the energy at the moment to be anything but that, if our meeting is a pleasure, then it will mark the first thing I’ve done right since checking in at this resort in hell three weeks ago.”

Gunther took out his cigarettes and offered one to his new acquaintance.

“Let me tell you something, Winston,” he said. “The only time anyone calls me ‘sir’ is when they’re arresting me or delivering bad news. My friends call me J.P. or Joe.”

Winston waved off the cigarette and pointed to his face.

“I can’t,” he said. “Not right now. Thanks anyway, sir, uh, J.P.”

Gunther tucked the cigarette into Winston’s shirt pocket and patted it. He felt a defensive shudder and stiffening of Winston’s chest. Gunther’s hand froze on the firmness of the warm flesh. He began to imagine what was beneath the stained fabric.

“For later then,” he said. He pulled his hand away, took a drag of his own smoke and coughed a little.

“So, I take it you’re not too fond of that handle—‘Flash?’”

Winston shook his head. He’d been christened with the nickname by his fellow prisoners three weeks earlier, the day of his arrival at Lee. Handcuffed and shackled, he tried hard to ignore the catcalls and invectives being showered on him and the five other incoming prisoners in his line. But as the only white man in the group, Winston could only assume that he was the intended recipient of the repeated promise that one burly inmate was going to “have your lily-white ass to myself, pretty boy.”

Winston had eaten very little in the county jail while awaiting transport and was weak with hunger. Overcome by heat, and the stench issuing from the cells, a wretched potpourri of sweat, urine, and rotting fruit, he became dizzy and light-headed. When the line was called to a halt, he stumbled, lost his balance, and fell.

His clumsiness was mistaken for an attempt at escape. Looking up from the hard cement into the barrels of no less than three shotguns, Winston promptly fainted. He was unconscious for two minutes. During this time, Winston’s fellow prisoners took it upon themselves to christen him with the nickname “Flash,” a reference to the flick of the week shown the night before—“Flashdance.”

The next thing Winston remembered was being yanked to his feet.

“Oh, shit,” he groaned.

“What’s your back number?” the guard was screaming at him.

“I’m okay,” Winston said.

“I don’t give a shit if you’re okay, cocksucker,” the guard said. “What’s your Goddamn back number, inmate?”

Winston’s head cleared and he carefully recited the five-digit number that was printed on the back of his orange jumpsuit. He then made the mistake of smiling for approval after finishing.

The butt of a shotgun made eye-watering contact with his ribcage and Winston never made that mistake again.

Gunther’s voice broke into the painful memory. “So, what do your friends call you?”

Winston raised his eyebrows and cracked a painful smile. He had no friends. Not here, anyway, and most likely none on the outside. Not anymore.

“Call me whatever you like,” he said. “Just not that.”

Gunther nodded and sat back. He pulled on his smoke and tried to avoid another coughing fit while he considered the young man beside him. He was reminded of a promise his mother had held him to years ago. He’d broken it three times, and only once since her death. Joe could hear her even now admonishing him, “Be careful. Be a good boy.”

He decided this was just a matter of bad timing. He was sick. His resistance was low. This pathetic kid was nothing special, not worth taking a risk that could not only compromise his reputation, but what was left of his health.

The attraction, if Joe could even call it that, lay in the fact that his own misery paled in comparison to that of this Winston Mills character. How else to explain the fact that just sitting with him on the same bench gave him a curious sense of well-being? In a few minutes, one of us will be taken away for our X-rays and that will be that, Joe thought.

As if reading his mind, a trusty came through the door from the inner exam room. Jenkins startled out of his nap.

“There’s a problem with the machine,” said the trusty. Jenkins threw him a dirty look. “You can take them two back to the infirmary, or wait it out. Could be ten, fifteen minutes. Maybe more.”

“We’ll stick it out,” Jenkins said. He was too comfortable and wasn’t about to rock his own boat. He had two hours left on his shift and he could think of worse ways to ride out the time.  Keeping an eye on these two was a piece of cake—one couldn’t walk and the other could barely breathe.

The trusty nodded and disappeared into the back room. Jenkins resumed his position against the wall.

Winston shifted on the wooden bench. He’d been sitting for over half an hour resting his foot on the blanket. With his free hand he massaged the pins and needles out of his leg. Gunther’s own hand tingled with a desire that made him wonder how sick he really was. He forced himself to look away.

The ice pack slipped off Winston’s foot. Gunther leaned down to replace it. The injured ankle was swollen to twice its normal size and sported a crayon-box assortment of blues and purples.

Winston thanked him. After weighing his meager choice of the two least painful positions on the bench, he leaned back against the wall.

“This sucks.” He shifted his weight again. “I’ve been sitting here so long I can’t feel my ass.”

Gunther gave his bench mate a quick glance out of the corner of his eye. Was he being flirted with? By this time he knew, if he were ready, here sat the person with whom he could easily break his long-standing vow. It was clear, however, that the remark had been an innocent statement of fact.

Gunther laughed to himself. In all likelihood, he thought, Winston Mills probably can’t feel his ass.

Gunther knew he had to act quickly to dispel his escalating and inappropriate feelings. The last thing he wanted was to make a move and meet with rejection. His depression had enough fuel. The only way around this was to change the subject.

Joe reached into his shirt pocket once more. This time he brought out a photograph. The corners were worn and the colors faded. It had once been torn in half by an over-zealous CO during a shakedown. It was now held together by a piece of yellowing tape with dirty, fringed edges.

Joe held it out to Winston.

“Here,” he said, “take a look.”

The young prisoner studied the photo with perfunctory interest.

“Cute,” he said. “Yours? I mean the kid?”

The child in the picture was seated astride a small pony. She grasped its shaggy mane between chubby fingers. Next to her stood a dark-haired young man with one hand on the pony’s lead, the other at the small of the child’s back.

“Yeah, she’s mine.” Gunther’s shoulders fell. “That’s my sister, Amy. She was three and a half when this was taken.” He fell silent and stared for a long time at the photo. After years of study and longing, the image was burned indelibly into his memory, but he never tired of holding the worn picture and looking at it.

Winston cleared his throat. He felt a rush of compassion but he was unsure of what to say, what the protocol would be.

“Who’s that with her?” he decided to ask. “Your daddy?”

“Guess again.” Gunther said, and he coughed. “That’s me. Almost ten years ago. I was just a young buck, like you. Yep, six months later I was sitting in this hell-hole.”

He shook his head and traced the image in the photo with one finger. He felt old and very tired.

“May I?” Winston lifted the picture from Joe’s hand to get a better look at the young Joe Gunther.

“Well, isn’t she a darlin’? You must miss her somethin’ awful. Does she come to visit you often?”

Gunther shook his head.

“I haven’t seen her once in all these years. This is all I’ve got. Don’t even know what she looks like. All grown up by now, I suppose.”

“Well, my guess is she needs a bigger horse,” Winston rolled his eyes to the side and was pleased to see a small smile appear on Gunther’s face. He handed the photo back and resisted the urge to offer the unhappy man a reassuring pat on the knee.

What he really needed was a hug, but the no-touching rule straight from junior high school was strictly enforced here. Winston was surprised they’d gotten away with a handshake.

Besides, he was still undecided as to whether Joe Gunther had been cruising him for the past ten minutes, or if this was just a lonely guy looking for a friend. This association was too promising and too useful to throw away with one poorly calculated move. He decided to keep his distance and wait for an invitation.

Gunther turned to Winston with red and glazed eyes.

“Thanks. Thanks for . . . you know. Just, thanks.”

He slipped the photo into his pocket and held the palm of his hand against it. His head bowed in a silent supplication. His shoulders dropped, and he stared at the floor.

Winston was thinking of something to say when the trusty appeared in the doorway again, studying the clipboard he held in his hands. Grateful for the interruption, both prisoners looked up and gave him their full attention.

“Seven-two-eight-three-six,” he called off. “Mills? Come on, sweetheart.”

Winston held up his hand in a tentative wave and pointed to his foot, swollen to the size and color of an eggplant.

“Shit.” The trusty made a face and stomped his foot. “No one don’t tell me nothin’ ‘round here. You ain’t walkin’ nowheres, are you, honey?”

Winston raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

“Sorry,” he said into his lap.

“Well, bro, you sho’ nuff don’t weigh more’ n a sack o’ taters, but I ain’t carryin’ you. That ain’t part of my job. I got a trick back, and I told them . . .”

He paused and looked to Jenkins for sympathy.

“Your problem is you ain’t got no fuckin’ brains,” Jenkins said. He nodded toward Gunther. “I ain’t in no mood for your whining. Take the other one first. Come back with a chair for the little one. Joe, guess it’s your lucky day. Move to the head of the line.”

Gunther lifted himself off the bench and stifled another coughing fit as he bent to retrieve his cane. He took a step toward the trusty and then turned. He slipped something out of his pocket and tossed it onto the bench next to Winston. It was a pack of cigarettes, nearly full—cash in hand.

Winston nodded his thanks and tucked the pack away in his shirt pocket.

“You need anything, come see me, okay, kid?” Gunther said. He turned away without waiting for a reply.

Jenkins stared at Winston after the door closed.

“Is something the matter, CO, sir?” Winston said.

Jenkins’ lips stretched over a nicotine-stained grin.

“Why, I suppose congratulations are in order. Looks like you got yourself a daddy.”

Winston leaned back onto the cold cement wall, closed his eyes, and broke a painful grin.

“Yes, it would appear that way, now wouldn’t it?” he said.

He marveled at this accidental turn of good fortune. The next twenty-two months, one week and three days no longer loomed before him like a torturous eternity. Fate was finally smiling on him, and until she discovered her mistake, he intended to take full advantage.

And the best thing, he thought with a chuckle – all it cost me was a little gushing over some brat in an old Polaroid.

__________

TEED-OFF GOLFERS CAN’T “LEAF” WELL ENOUGH ALONE


from the book Golf Beat: A Year in the Live of Persimmon Pines

by Larry Caringer

Angra Buttshugg-Demott thought she knew her Golf Etiquette and Rules. That’s why, after she recently hit her ball into a large pile of leaves twelve feet to the right of the third tee on Valley Heights Country Club’s Blue Course, she announced that, even though the ball could not be found, she would play another from the approximate spot where the original ball entered without a penalty.

Problem was, the leaf pile was adjacent to the out-of-bounds stakes which run along the property line of the stately home owned by Rex Usall, former local Champion Golfer. Rex happened to be at home at the time and was watching some hired help clean up fallen leaf debris from his yard.  Under his supervision, they were depositing the leaves just over the property line in a convenient spot off the 3rd tee where Golf Course workers would see it and pick it up quickly, thereby saving Rex from having to pay for costly removal. This is how he came to be close enough to overhear Mrs. Buttshugg-Demott’s declaration of a penalty-free shot.

Being an upstanding citizen and former outstanding golfer, Usall stepped from behind the tree where he and his workers had secreted themselves and tendered his opinion for everyone in the playing group to hear.

“You can’t do that. The ball might be out of bounds. You must find and identify your ball or hit another from the tee with a stroke and distance penalty.”

Witnesses to the event say a decided chill filled the air. Usall and Buttshugg-Demott found themselves in, according to a player in the foursome, “a stare-down lasting in the neighborhood of twelve minutes.”

Some who are less educated in the ways of golfers might say the fact that Buttshugg-Demott and Usall are currently locked in a nasty multi-million dollar legal battle could have been a complicating factor in the confrontation.

For readers who have not perused the Financial Section lately, the lawsuit was brought by Buttshugg-Demott and her current husband, Hoary Demott, against Sputz and Sputz, financial advisors in general, and Rex Usall, Senior Financial Advisor in particular.

But those who know Rex Usall understand his intent has always been to make sure the rules of The Game are respected and upheld. His integrity is held in the highest regard by anyone who has never used him as a financial consultant. He is well-known as a champion amateur golfer who once won the Traylor County Area Grand Slam of Golf , which includes The Custard Cup, The Francona, The Dickster Open, and The Woodstone.

In fact, he won three of the tournaments that year based on allegations of rules violations he raised against competitors who finished ahead of him. As Usall said after one of these wins: “I don’t write the rules. I just use ’em.”

That said, reports from bystanders who were present at the time say it seemed obvious that, champion golfer that he is, Usall had only the interest of fair play in mind when he tried to be helpful by intervening in that particular ladies’ four-ball match.

What happened next seems to be in dispute. The only fair way to report this story seems to be to start with the official police report. It indicates that Buttshugg-Demott, after the stare-down with Usall, thanked him and continued looking for her golf ball. However, after Usall turned to go back into his yard, he reported he saw the ball just outside the out-of-bounds stakes under some leaves.

The police report states that Buttshugg-Demott felt that Usall’s reporting of the discovery seemed “a little too gleeful.” So, instead of a “thank you,” she responded by flinging her three wood at Usall, hitting him in the ankle and causing him to fall on the ball.

On this next point, all agree: When Usall landed on the ball it squirted sideways – ending up clearly in bounds and on a good lie.

As the former Local Grand Slam Winner said from his doctor’s office during a check up on his cracked ankle: “If the ball is moved by an outside agent, it is considered ‘rub of the green,’ and play should continue from that point. Ms. Buttshugg-Demott was entitled to play from that point without penalty.”

Buttshugg-Demott’s Attorney, Thermal Goude, said his client would have no comment on the story. He did, however refute the charge that his client cracked Usall’s ankle with her three wood. “And, even if she did,” Goude told this reporter, “he had it coming. He took my client’s money against her wishes and invested it in a long-term investment that meant she couldn’t get at it right away. It made her angry.”

I asked Goude if that was any reason to throw the three wood. He said that Ms. Buttshugg-Demott was simply, “acting out. She’s very young. Her husband’s very old. She quite often feels as if she’s being treated like a little girl. I think that’s partly because of the way Mr. Demott makes her dress in those braids and all.”

Whatever the cause of the sudden angry outburst, it has resulted in a lawsuit by Usall against Buttshugg-Demott that’s even bigger than the one she filed against him.

But in this world of high finance, none of that seems to matter right now. While she won’t talk about the lawsuits or assault, Buttshugg-Demott did grant me a quote about the rest of her day on the Golf Course.

“Thanks to the ‘outside agent’ ruling on my ball, I was able to play without a penalty – and made a bogey – which made me really happy. I got mad right after that, though, the more I thought about things. None of this would have happened if all those leaves hadn’t been piled up right there in that odd place beside the tee. So I called Marge Wilburite, the General Manager, and told her to fire everybody on the Grounds Crew.”

Later that day, fourteen people filed for unemployment benefits from Valley Heights CC.

I contacted Usall by phone for his perspective on this aspect of the story. His reply was quick and succinct. “The Rules of Golf are clear and leave little room for interpretation. However, the rules of life are less well defined. It is in these gray areas that life’s winners and losers are often determined.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

There was a long pause, then a sigh on the other end. “There are now more leaves than ever beside the third tee.  And now there’s no one left to pick ’em up and get rid of ’em.”

__________

Golfers Decry Plans to Revise Unfair Tee Time Arrangement

from the book Golf Beat: A Year in the Life of Persimmon Pines

By Larry Caringer

Traylor County Pro Tempore Councilperson-at-Large Vivian Festerhump has seen a ton of controversy lately.

“Since Buck Rucklesbuck, the former eight-time Councilperson-at-Large was arrested for public indecency in the restroom at the Traylor County Spring Tractor Pull, it’s just been downhill from there for me,” she said.

Ms. Festerhump and I were sitting in the Golden Rule Cafe, having a cup of coffee. She took a quick drag on her Camel and explained: “Right after I took over, we had that problem with the septic system at the Library. Some books are still drying out from that.”

A long pause to reflect. “The Old Man and the Sea swelled up to twice its size.” Another pause. Another sip. “After the Library mess, we had the County Jail fiasco.”

For those who don’t recall, two months ago all fourteen men and women in the Traylor County Jail escaped after Deputy Sheriff Oscar LaMott forgot to lock up before going home for the evening.

Festerhump shook her head. “Lucky for us, the most serious offender in the lock-up at the time was Lucy Schmuckel, who was in for failure to pay multiple parking tickets.”

The problem was resolved when all the escapees returned to jail the next morning after getting a good night’s sleep in their own beds.

Viv waved Rez Nuggetman, owner of the Golden Rule, over for a fill-up and lighted a new cigarette. “Now this.”

“This” is the new plan by the Board of Directors at the county-owned Hooking Hills Golf Course to change the way golfers get weekend tee times. Hooking Hills, a direct competitor with the city-owned Persimmon Pines Slippery Meadows, had used a “racking system” to schedule tee-off times.

However, Hooking Hills pro Bix Wilstrup says he began to see a drop-off in his business after Slippery Meadows eliminated the racking system and began taking telephone reservations. He proposed a change – one he said would be fairer and less onerous to most golfers.

The Hooking Hills Board of Directors quickly approved the plan, but angry longtime Men’s Club members Mickey Dogslaw and Elmer Pittswheel appealed to County Commissioners to review the plan.

Vivian stared across Broad Street toward the County Courthouse. “Twenty-seven lawyers later we’ve still got a mess on our hands.”

She crushed out her Camel, blew a cloud of smoke over my head, and pointed at me. “Don’t quote me in your damned article, but I’ll tell you this: Golfers have got to be the most screwed up, backwards, and self-centered idiots on the planet.”

Then she stood and walked outside, coughing.

For the uninitiated, here’s how the old (and still current) racking system worked (works): Basically, the racking system began with the simple democratic principle of “first come, first served.” Originally, you arrived at the course, placed your ball in a rack on the first tee, then teed-off in the order in which the balls were “racked.”

That was back in the days when golfers arrived just a few minutes before they intended to play. As more people began taking up The Game, it became important to arrive earlier and earlier to get into the rack for a prime tee time. These days at Hooking Hills, to get a weekend tee time, you must arrive at the Golf Course the night before you want to play.

For a Saturday morning time, you must be in line by 8 p.m. Friday. Everyone in line by this time is allowed to draw a number from a hat. This number corresponds to the order of the line for the next morning. That’s when the actual tee times will be made.

After that, the golfers in line arrange their cars in the parking lot according to their number. Then they recline their seats and wait. They must remain on the premises because anyone who has a number for the line but leaves the premises loses his right to snag a time.

Several times during the night, golf course employee Nat Ulyee walks by each car and shines a flashlight inside to make certain no one has slipped away home.

At dawn, the bent and twisted golfers climb over gear shifts and stumble through the mist-shrouded parking lot to the Starter’s Shack where they once again stand in line to watch as the numbers they’ve been assigned are drawn from a spinning Bingo Basket. Not until their number is called do they get to name their tee time.

It’s a simple enough arrangement. But Wilstrup, the Hooking Hills pro, thought he had a simpler plan: “Let ’em call in on Wednesday for the following Saturday. That way, they know in advance when they’re going to play.”

Wilstrup declined to say any more for this story because, as he said, “Now it’s all up to the courts to decide.”

However, the two men who brought the lawsuit, Mickey Dogslaw and Elmer Pittswheel, weren’t as reticent about speaking out.

I met them at their usual hangout, a table in the Grill Room at Hooking Hills. Both men are in their sixties, with skin the color of tarnished copper cookware. I shook hands with them and sat down to a cold Budweiser.

It was 9:30 a.m. I checked the clock on the wall.

Elmer Pittswheel lifted his glass in a toast. “Too early to get served?  Hah.  We’ve been members of the Men’s Club long enough to have a little pull with Squirrelly back in the kitchen. Salud.”

I watched the glass of beer disappear quickly down Pittswheel’s stubbled throat. Mickey Dogslaw took the pause in the conversation to jump in.

“Look, we’re doin’ this to protect traditions . . . to keep those things alive that make Golf so enjoyable and magical to those of us who honor The Game and it’s heritage.”

“The racking system was good enough for us for the last thirty years. It oughta be good enough for these damn rich yuppies with their cellular phones who want to destroy our way of life.”

Elmer seemed upset and a little distracted as he looked impatiently around for Squirrelly. But Mickey nodded quickly. “Exactly. And we don’t say that just because we hate yuppies and don’t own cell phones ourselves.”

“Couldn’t you guys just call from home to get your tee times?”

There was an icy pause broken only by Squirrelly’s arrival with the second round. Elmer took a long sip. Mickey leaned toward me.

“Haven’t you heard anything we said? This is about tradition.”

Elmer nodded. “We’ll be damned if somebody’s gonna have it easier than we did. Hell, I had to choose between dating women and racking.”

I tried to get the quote written down in my notebook as Mickey stood and looked out the Grill Room window at the first tee. “That’s a little harsh, Elmer. Truth is, you quit dating women when they all stopped saying yes.”

He turned back to our table. “Look, I’ll be the first to admit that my first wife hated to see me leave on Friday nights.” Mickey sat back, reliving those magical moments.

Elmer put down his glass. “Your second wife loved them Friday nights.”

They both laughed.

Mickey nodded. “I went to the Golf course and she never complained. I just thought she was understanding.”

Elmer chuckled. “It took him five years to catch on that she was havin’ her Boss over every Friday night.”

“I didn’t catch on ’til I came home one Saturday afternoon and she wasn’t there . . . and neither was most of the furniture – and my TV.”

More laughter.

Elmer looked up at me, earnestly. “Good times.  If we lose the racking system, them yuppies’ll lose their chance for experiences like that.”

I couldn’t argue.

Mickey was deep into nostalgia. “My third wife was the only one who knew how to keep me home on a Friday night.”

Elmer winked at me. “She took his clubs to the dump and had them crushed.” He laughed.

Mickey didn’t. “It was because of her I got those new clubs with the bigger sweet spot. She really saved my game.”

I looked up from my note pad. “Are you still married to her?”

Mickey looked down at the two beers in front of him, grabbed a glass, chugged it, got up, and walked away with Elmer close behind.

I took it as a “no.”

__________

Posted in LT Fawkes | Comments Off on NOVEL EXCERPTS

STORIES VOL. 3

Preface

SHORT STORIES:

SLIPPING by Robin Crawford

HARRY by L.T. Fawkes

IRON MAN by Robin Crawford

Whittling by Wayne Brown

crazy maddie haunts my wall by Iggy Sarducci

BEYOND SEX byAlexandra Lucas

DARK SHADOWS AND CRYSTAL POOLS by Melanie Loveridge

All rights reserved by the authors.  Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.

(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled, WELCOME.)

__________

SLIPPING

by Robin Crawford

She woke up cold and then hot. She was naked and sweating underneath the bed sheet. Her mouth was cotton-dry. A headache corkscrewed into the base of her skull. The room, lit by a slit of light through the curtains, was unfamiliar.

She felt movement on the mattress next to her and she turned her head.

“Oh, my God,” she thought, “what did I do last night? Who’s this one? Was I at a party, or was it a bar?”

She sat up and rubbed her neck. She wished she were home. She wished she knew where her clothes were. She began to cry.

The man next to her stirred. She felt his fingertips at the small of her back.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

She shook her head. She sniffled, unable to speak.

He slid out of bed. He returned a moment later with a bathrobe and placed it across her shoulders. It was soft—a woman’s robe—and it made her cry more.

“Come on,” he said. He helped her slip her arms into the sleeves and then eased her off the bed. She wanted to ask his name, but she was embarrassed. And she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

He led her to the bathroom, turned on the light and left, closing the door behind him. After using the toilet, she washed her hands and looked into the mirror over the sink.

He had returned and was standing behind her with a glass of water. She didn’t recognize either reflection.

He opened his hand and she scooped up the aspirin. The water was what she wanted, needed. It refreshed her. She asked for more. She didn’t notice the few minutes it took for him to return with another full glass. It was as if no time had passed.

She drank while he ran warm water in the sink, wet a washcloth, and lathered soap into it. He washed her face. She let him wash her face. It felt odd, but it felt familiar.

She closed her eyes and saw the pink porcelain and brass fixtures in the bathroom of her childhood home. She smelled the cloud of lavender that had always surrounded her mother. Her toes grabbed for the edge of the wooden step stool that made her taller.

He dabbed her face with a dry towel and then wrapped her fingers around a toothbrush.

“You fell asleep last night before you brushed your teeth,” he said. “Might as well do it now.”

She brushed and rinsed, then drank some more water. The headache was going away.

She felt warm, only warm. Not cold and hot at the same time.

They were in the bedroom again. She hadn’t noticed the time it took to get there, as if mere thought had moved them down the hall. He slipped the bathrobe off of her and pulled a nightgown over her head. He put his arms around her.

“I love you, honey,” he said.

She knew he did. But she didn’t know him. She hugged him back, and loved him back, because he had dressed her, and washed her face, and given her water. And now she felt better. She lay down in the bed and turned on her side. He got in next to her, pressed his body against her back and curled his arm around her.

She took his wrist in her hand and pulled him closer. She no longer felt like crying. She was not afraid to ask now, because he’d been so nice.

“Who are you?” she said.

He said a name she didn’t know, and then he said, “I miss you, honey.”

She fell asleep in the arms of the man she’d married twenty-eight years ago, and woke with her hair still damp with his tears.

__________

HARRY

by L.T. Fawkes

One set of Harry’s bare toes stuck out from under the sheet. The other set protruded from the new air cast. He pulled the sweat pants from the gym bag on his lap and glared at the girl who sat at the foot of his bed.

Red?”Loretta was gnawing at the skin along the edge of her thumbnail. She shrugged. “They didn’t have black or gray in the XL.”

“XL? I wear medium.”

“Yeah. Medium’s really gonna pull on over that cast.”

He frowned at the big red sweat pants. “These things are gonna fly at half mast.“ He handed her the empty bag. “There’s only one store in the city that sells sweat pants?”

“Oh, gimme a break. I barely had time to get to one store and be here by eleven.”

“Whatever. I think my jeans are in that closet. Shove ‘em in the bag and help me get these on.”

“Please?”

“Don’t frown like that. It makes ugly lines around your mouth.”

You make ugly lines around my _ tell me again how this happened.”

Harry sighed. “I paused in the middle of my busy day to try and pinpoint where things went wrong.”

Loretta blinked at him. “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess things went wrong when your pause happened in front of a fucking bus.”He gave her a level look. “It wasn’t a bus. It was one of those library trucks. Book-mobile or something. And I was up on the curb.”

He tugged at the waist band of the sweat pants, testing the stretch.

“Then I don‘t see why you‘re doing this. The library will have to pay your medical bills, won‘t they?”

He sighed. “Okay, I might’ve been a few steps off the curb.”

“Oh my God. With your head up your ass.”

“The mouth on you.“ He struggled into a position where he could draw his good leg up and work his foot into the stretch pants. She hopped off the bed to give him room.

He said, “I can’t get stuck for this bill. I’m already hiding from the county.”

She groaned. “Why?”

“There ya go. That’s what I was trying to figure out when the book-mobile _ Loretta, don’t just stand there. Help me get these things on before they come with the lunch tray.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Why are you hiding from the county, Harry?”

He adjusted his posture in the high bed. “You know, Loretta, there’s plenty of other people I coulda called.”

“Okay. Do that. I‘ll dial for you. Let’s see. Who’ll drop everything in the middle of a weekday and help you skip out on your hospital bill. Who, who, who.”

Harry was stretching, trying to get the sweat pants over the end of the cast. He gave Loretta an exasperated glare.

She growled. “Here. Move your hands.”

She worked his foot into the sweat pants and helped him draw them up along the length of the cast. He laid back and writhed the waistband under his hips.

“Stuff my jeans in the bag and hand me my shirt. And my trainers. Uh, my left trainer.” He turned and swung his legs out off the bed. The left leg bent. The cast made the bad right leg stick straight out. Harry groaned.

Loretta said, “Harry. This is a bad idea.”

“I know. Can you put my shoe on? Please?”The trip outside was a nightmare because Harry said they couldn’t risk taking the elevator. He followed Loretta down three flights of stairs, groaning at each torturous step, and they finally emerged through a side door, only to be confronted by the vast parking lot.

Harry sighed. “Where’d you park?”

“Halfway to Berea. Wait here. I’ll go get the car.”

By the time Harry slumped into the passenger seat, wet black curls were plastered to his forehead and his complexion was pearly gray.

Loretta said, ”Harry_”

Harry pointed through the windshield. “Drive.”

At the first intersection, Loretta signaled for a right turn. Harry said, “No. Go straight.”

Loretta turned to stare at him. “Your rathole’s that way.”

“We’re not going to my place.”

“Why? Oh. The county.”

“I need to stay at your place for a few days. Just until I get things straightened out. And stop at the Rite-Aid. I need smokes.”

Loretta sighed in anticipation of a few days of Harry, groaning and complaining and filling her cute little apartment with cigarette smoke.

They cruised in silence for several blocks. Midway down fast food row, the sidewalks were congested with the legal aides, insurance clerks and dental assistants who, hungry for cholesterol, continued to pour out of the six-story bank building on the corner.

Suddenly Harry shouted, “Stop. Pull over.”

Loretta, startled, slammed on the brakes, earning a severe honking at from the car behind her.

Harry pounded on the dash. “Pull over.”

He had his door open before the car jerked to a stop at the curb.

Loretta watched in disbelief as he launched himself onto the curb with a howl of pain and went airborne shouting, “Gimme my money.”

Everyone on the sidewalk stopped and turned to look. The object of Harry’s attention, a sloppy-fat guy with long brown hair straggling out from under a limp, stained baseball cap, also turned, just in time to see Harry coming at him in a flying tackle.

They ended in a pile on the sidewalk, Harry on top groaning, “Gimme my money. Gimme my money, you rat bastard.”

The guy’s shocked whimper turned into words. “I don’t have it. Gees, Harry. I’ll get it. Gees.”

Loretta, looking for cops, scanned the pile on the sidewalk, the rearview mirror, the scene through the windshield, the left side mirror, the scene through the windshield, the right rearview mirror, the pile on the sidewalk, around and around until she had the slightly dizzying sensation that her eyes were spinning in her head.

Harry had one forearm across the guy’s chest. The other hand pulled a wallet from the back pocket of the guy’s jeans.

The guy yelled, “Get off me, Harry. I can‘t breathe. At least sit up.”

Harry was staring into the guy’s open wallet. He pulled out a single bill . “A dollar? One fucking dollar?”He tucked the bill into his shirt pocket, tossed the wallet onto the sidewalk, and dragged his broken leg back to the car.

Dropping himself into the passenger seat with a groan, he said, “Drive. And don’t forget I need to stop for smokes.”

Loretta pulled into a convenience store parking lot on the corner before her apartment building. Harry was still groaning under his breath.

“Want me to go in?”

He glared at her. “I’m not a cripple.”

She snorted, thinking but not saying, If you aren’t I don’t know who is . . .He struggled up out of the car and dragged his bad leg inside. At the counter as he waited for the clerk to pull his pack of Marlboro Reds from the wall display, one sign out of many caught his eye.

Super Lotto Now Up To $124, 000, 000Harry pointed to it as the clerk slapped the ciggies on the counter. “Almost worth buying one of those now, huh?”

The clerk punched the cost of the Marlboros into the register and waited. Harry pulled his wallet from the side pocket of the sweatpants and dug out a fiver. Then he plucked the wrinkled dollar bill he’d just tackled a guy for and waved it in the air. “Make me a millionaire, dude.”

Loretta finished her story by saying,“ . . . So I don’t even want to go home tonight. The whole place is gonna smell like cigarette smoke and ass.”

Loretta and two stylists sprawled in the salon’s waiting area drinking coffee and enjoying a lull in business. Sammi stopped laughing when she saw the disgusted look on the new girl’s face.

“Don’t believe a word she says, New Girl. Her brother’s hot.”

Loretta sneered.

Sammi grinned at Loretta. “You can bring him over my place. I’ll take care of him.”

Loretta said, “You would, too, wouldn’t you? New Girl. Are there any more appointments tonight?”

The little blond frowned. “My name’s Cathy.”

Sammi laughed. “You’re New Girl until Loretta’s sure you’re staying. She called me New Girl for four weeks.”

Loretta said, “I did not.”

“Swear you did. Four weeks.”

Cathy had crossed to the desk and returned with the appointment book, which she handed to Loretta.

Loretta ran a platinum-nailed index finger down the page. “Nothing. Cool. We‘re outta here.”

In the hallway outside her apartment door, Loretta carefully juggled her handbag and the cartons of Chinese as she turned her key in the lock. Inside, she dumped the cartons onto the kitchen counter and stepped around the corner into the living room.

Harry was sprawled on the sofa watching television. He didn’t look up. A full ashtray, a dirty sock, and two empty cans of pork and beans, a spoon sticking up out of one of them, cluttered her beloved Crate and Barrel coffee table.

She fought the urge to take his head off by reminding herself that he was her brother and he had been hit by the Book-Mobile. She took several deep breaths before speaking.

“How ya doin’, babe? I brought us Chinese.”

Harry waved a dismissive hand. “Shut up. It’s Reveal Day.”

On the TV, Niecy Nash cried, “Take off your blindfold and open your eyes.”

__________

WHITTLING

by Wayne Brown

The old man sat on the bench out front of the little country store. It was his chosen place. His son-in-law owned the little store so the old man could pretty much do as he pleased. He didn’t want or need much other than a comfortable place to sit in the shade so that he could whittle and contemplate whatever came to mind.

Most days he whittled with his old pocket knife. He kept it razor sharp for this task. He never knew what it was he was going to whittle. The wood kind of took shape with each cut and he just followed his instincts.

Sometimes he made a small work of art in the form of a fish or dog or a pig. Other days, all he had to show for his work was the shavings at his feet. Either way, it was a satisfying way to pass the time. The shavings from his whittling spread out at his feet and clung to his plaid flannel shirt and khaki pants.

The old man watched the flow of cars along the two lane country highway. He noticed their license plates, the number of folks in the car, the luggage tied to the roof. He tried to imagine where they were heading or where they were coming from on their trek down the road.

Sometimes they stopped at the little store. They pulled up front of the small porch where he sat. They wanted gasoline most of the time. Sometimes they ran into the store to use the restrooms and grab snacks. These were the ones he really liked because he could get a close look at them.

Most paid no attention to the old man. Some of them totally ignored him and some of them offered a silent nod of the head as acknowledgement as they moved to and from the store. Most were in too much of a hurry to care about him or what he was doing there.

That was okay with the old man. He just wanted to sit and whittle.

There was a time many years back when he had driven the big locomotives. He had ridden the engineer’s seat for decades taking freight back and forth across the country pretty much from sea to shining sea. He had spent a lot of time alone in the cab of those engines. He had seen the backside of America, the parts that folks who travel the highways don’t get to see.

The train went just fast enough to get there and just slow enough for him to soak up the beauty and awe of all the faces of America he could see from the rails.

Having seen all that, it was not difficult for him to imagine why some men chuck it all and spend most of their life riding the rails. The life of a hobo could have some benefits.

The one thing he disliked about the trains is they required him to be hands-on. There was little or no time for whittling and contemplation. Now that he was retired, his hands were free to create articles of wood and his mind was free to sort through the thoughts and memories of his life and place each one into its proper folder.

A white Toyota mini-van pulled up in front of the gas pumps. A man exited the driver’s side and headed for the pump. A small boy aged five or six climbed out the right side door. He ran between the pumps and stood momentarily on the island looking up at this dad.

“Now you stay where I can see you, Joey. And you stay out of the lanes here so no cars run over you,” the boy’s dad said, smiling at him.

The boy pointed in the direction of the old man. “I’m goin’ to the porch, Daddy.”

His father nodded his approval and the young boy quickly bounced up onto the porch where the old man sat whittling away on a stick of wood. The boy bounced up onto the next bench over and pulled himself against the back. He watched in fascination as the blade cut away the wood from the stick.

The old man worked the wood, rapidly cutting notches here and there, shaping it gently from a stick to an object of art.

“What’re ya doin’?” the young boy said, never taking his eyes from the knife.

The old man stopped momentarily and looked in the boy’s direction. Giving him a warm smile, he replied, “Just whittling.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I am using this sharp knife to turn this stick of wood into something that I want to create. It might be a dog, or a horse. I just might carve it into something that looks a lot like you. It’s called whittling. I like to do it just to see what I can create. It gives me pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. You know we all need a sense of accomplishment.”

“Yeah, my daddy told me that one time.” The young boy looked up into the old man’s face. “Can I try that whittling?”

“Well, I don’t know. This knife is mighty sharp. You would have to be very careful,” the old man answered.

“Oh I would,” said the boy. “Please can I try it, just once?”

The old man looked over at the dad who had finished filling his tank and was now standing at the edge of the porch watching the exchange.

“You need to ask your dad, son,” the old man said, pointing to the boy’s father.

“Can I, Dad? I’ll be really careful.”

Joey’s dad patted him on the head. “Okay Joey. But only if you’re very careful and you listen closely to this man on each cut. I’m going inside to pay for the gas and get us something to drink.”

Joey nodded and looked at the old man for his approval.

“What’s your name?” Joey asked as the old man carefully handed the stick of wood to Joey to hold in his left hand. He then took the knife by the blade between his fingers and held it out indicating that Joey could take it into his right hand.

“My name’s Charlie. What’s your name?”

“Joey, my name’s Joey!” said the boy, excited to be holding the knife.

“Now, listen to me Joey. The first rule of whittling is to not cut yourself or anyone else. You always take your cuts going away from you and then you very carefully handle the knife with your palm holding the wood steady with your thumb. That way you can cut the small notches to give it shape.”

Joey nodded solemnly.

The second rule is to remain patient and let things flow naturally. You don’t want to force it, just let it come to you,” said Charlie as he directed Joey’s small hands in making his first slices with the knife.

They both worked at it until finally Joey was handling the knife carefully and comfortably. Charlie was able to take his hands away and watch the joy on the boy’s face as he began to cut at the wood.

After a bit, Joey’s dad returned and watched proudly as Joey demonstrated how he could whittle with the knife all by himself.

His dad smiled and said, “That’s great, Joey. You need to thank your new friend for allowing you to learn to whittle and then we have to get on toward home. Mom will be waiting dinner for us.”

Joey nodded his understanding as he returned the pocket knife and stick of wood to Charlie.

“Thank you, Mr. Charlie. It was nice of you to let me learn to whittle.”

Charlie took the items into his big hands.

“Maybe I’ll see you again sometimes, Mr. Charlie,” Joey added.

Charlie smiled. “I’d like that, Joey. You come on back anytime. I’ll be right here.”

Joey and his dad headed back toward the minivan.

Charlie looked down at the whittling. “Hey, Joey, come back here for a second will ya?”

Joey looked up at his dad who nodded his approval. Joey ran back up the steps to where Charlie sat on the bench.

Charlie held out the piece of wood to Joey. “You keep this. Next time you come back, bring it with you and we will work on it some more. Then, one of these days, when your dad says it’s okay, we’ll look into getting you your own knife for whittling.”

Joey grinned from ear to ear, grabbed the piece of wood and yelled, “Thanks Mr. Charlie. I’ll be bringing it with me next time and I hope it is soon!”

With that Joey turned and ran to catch up with is dad at the van.

As the father and son drove off down the road toward home, Joey sat in the passenger seat turning the wood in his hand and imagining what he could make with it.

“I am going to make something real good with this piece of wood, Daddy. I am going to make something to give to Mom for her birthday and Mr. Charlie will help me. I want to do it because Mr. Charlie says we all need a sense of accomplishment.”

“Charlie’s right about that, Joey. We all need that. We’ll get back to see him real soon. You just take good care of your wood until then,” his dad instructed.

Joey nodded indicating that he planned to do just that.

Back on the bench on the porch, Charlie sat with his knife in his hand and the wood shavings on his lap. He watched the van head down highway. This time he knew who was in it and where they were going.

He folded the blade back into the knife and slipped it into his pocket. He brushed the wood chips from his clothing onto the floor of the porch.

On some days, Charlie carved cats, dogs, and pigs. Today he smiled as he watched to van go out of sight. Today he knew that he had carved a friendship, something that would last a lifetime.

__________

IRON MAN

by Robin Crawford

I’m a punk. I’m seventeen, and a punk, and I don’t like the way you’re looking at my girl. My girl has no name. Not to you. It’s enough for you to know she’s mine and you don’t look at her. Not like that. It’s enough for you to know I’m coming after you. I’ll make you pay.

It’s a ’61 Impala and I tell her to get in. “I’m taking you home,” I tell her. “I’ve got something to do.”

She listens. She knows better than to argue with me.

On the way to her house I remember their faces. I remember their mistake, and I remember the rage. It builds, and I grip the steering wheel hard in my left hand. My right arm curls around her waist. My hand is up under her sweater and I cop a feel. I’m holding her tight, and my fingers dig into her ribs because I can’t forget them looking at her.

“What’s wrong, Eddie?” Her voice is soft and scared. I like that. It makes me feel good. It makes what I’m about to do a good thing. I don’t answer.

In the driveway of her parents’ house I tell her goodbye after we kiss. My tongue feels good inside her hot mouth and I can taste the cherry red of her lip gloss. Under her sweater, my fingers tweak her nipples pressing hard against the silk of her black bra. I know it’s black. She always wears black underneath when she’s with me.

I begin to reconsider. Her eyes are closed and she is relaxing into my hold.

Her hand falls to my lap.

“Come on, Eddie,” she whispers, and squeezes me. “Come on inside. Mom and Dad are playing cards down the street. They won’t be home for hours.”

I don’t know why, but I see their faces again—the two assholes in the C-store. They flash into my mind and I push her away from me.

“Gotta go,” I say. “I got important business. Tomorrow.” I cock my finger at her like a gun and she gives me the boot lip. But she listens. She knows better.

I make the tires squeal pulling out of the drive and I catch her wave out of the corner of my eye. I don’t wave back. I nod, and that’s good enough.

Under the seat is an eight-track tape. I find it and push it into the player. Black Sabbath screams “Paranoid” and my hands slam along with the music on the steering wheel.

On the way back to the C-store, I taste the cherry on my lips, and my fingers tingle where they touched her warm skin. That taste is mine; that skin is mine. I see the assholes walking down the sidewalk and my fingers tingle in a different way. My muscles harden in a different way and I pull to the side of the street.

My shirt is new so I take it off before I get out of the car. My legs pump like steel pistons, carrying me toward them. I feel light on my feet, alive. This is what I do. This is my purpose.

One of the assholes is tall and lurpy, and he wears glasses. I take him out with a kick to the chest. His glasses fly off and bounce across the sidewalk. He’s in the bushes, blindly swinging the sixteen-ounce Dr. Pepper he just bought and it slips out of his hand. I feel it smack me in the back, but I’m already on his buddy.

I read fear and confusion on this one’s face. The fear is what feeds me. I don’t give a shit if he’s confused. My fist shoots out and catches him in the bread-basket. He stumbles back a step and whatever he’s trying to say comes out like air from a leaky mattress. He doesn’t fall until I get him between the eyes. My knuckle meets the bone in his forehead and he hits the sidewalk hard.

Lurpy is out of the bushes. He finds his glasses and stuffs them into his pocket. Our eyes lock and he turns to run.

“Tank, what the fuck?”

It’s my friend Ron, standing by my car. I didn’t see him come up. I was busy. Ron leans over the asshole on the sidewalk. He yells after me. I’m chasing Lurpy, but I stop.

“Holy shit, Eddie. I think you killed this guy.”

The guy’s not moving. I’m gulping air, wiping my hands on my t-shirt, and all I can think is that I’m glad I took off my new shirt. Blood streaks the white cotton stretched across my heaving chest.

“Hey!” I yell in the guy’s ear. I put my hand under his nose, like I’m feeding a horse. I feel nothing. I rip a handful of grass from the lawn and stuff it into his mouth. It sits there. He doesn’t care if there’s grass in his mouth. He’s dead.

“Get him in the car,” Ron says. We drag the body to the curb and it takes both of us to get him up and into the back seat. He’s a little dude, but death makes him heavy in our arms.

My brain kicks into focus and I tell Ron to drive to the lake. Ron takes my keys and his hand shakes so bad he drops them.

“What’s your problem, man?” I say. “We gotta dump him.”

I already know where. I know exactly where no one will see us and no one will find him for days. It’s funny that I know this, I think, like I had it all planned before.

I’m in the front seat next to Ron and my brain kicks me again. Lurpy is still running, down the sidewalk ten feet in front of us. We stop, get out, and grab him.

He’s in the seat between us, sitting on my new shirt and sobbing or some shit. I grab my shirt out from under his sorry ass. Then I tell him that if his friend’s dead, I have to kill him, too.

“No witnesses, man,” I say, and I feel nothing explaining this to him. But my mind wanders and I think about the ‘no witnesses’ part.

Ron’s knuckles are white around the steering wheel and I shake a cigarette up from my pack. I offer one to him and one to Lurpy. I am aware of the body in the back seat. It makes the car drive slower. The lake is fifteen blocks away but we’ve been driving for hours, I think.

I don’t say it this time, but I think Ron knows what I’m thinking about the ‘no witnesses.’ He’s my best friend, since kindergarten, but when you kill someone you can’t leave any witnesses, even best friends.

This is what I’m thinking: dump dead-guy; snap Lurpy’s neck and dump him; kill Ron and dump him; get rid of the t-shirt and wash my hands. Wash them real good, ‘cause there’s blood all over them. Then I think about tomorrow and seeing my girl.

She’ll wait for me to call, then I’ll pick her up and we’ll go for a drive and share a six-pack up by the lake, but not over where the body is. And she’ll let me touch her and maybe I’ll get a little, because she’s my girl, and nobody else touches her. Nobody else better look at her . . .

We’re at the lake. We’re all quiet. Dead-guy’s the quietest, of course.

“What now, Tank?” Ron asks.

I find a cup in the car. There’s pink gloss on the edge and I know it tastes like cherry candy.

I hand the cup to Ron and tell him to put some water in it from the lake. He runs across the rocks and I sit there with Lurpy. I feel like I should say something but I don’t know what. I’m not really sorry. It’s just the way it is, my mind says.

I take the cup from Ron and splash water in dead-guy’s face, up his nose, in his eyes, in his ears, and I hear Lurpy scream or some shit. Dead-guy’s choking. The water sprays off his face and his eyes are open. I can see that they’re blue, like mine.

“Okay, dude, you’re outta here.” I pull him out of the back seat and throw him on the ground. Lurpy’s just sitting there looking.

“Get the fuck out of here,” I say. “You tell anyone and I’m coming after you.”

He falls out of the car and lands on his ass next to his friend.

“Slide over,” I tell Ron and I take the wheel.

We drive away. I crank the eight-track and “Ironman” shakes the windows. At the C-store, we buy a quart of Budweiser and some Doritos, and we sit in Ron’s driveway jamming until his dad comes out and tells me to go home.

__________

crazy maddie haunts my wall

by Iggy Sarducci

maddie killed herself at last, blew her head off with that gun she bought, but even then her soul was not at rest. her spirit continued to flit nervously through the atmosphere.

a handful of mourners met at midnight like a pack of vampires in the abandoned bedding warehouse where we once joined for diego’s wake. we were there to attempt to put that spirit to rest, i imagine.

no one was comfortable speaking to the group. none of us had been on good terms with maddie at her exit. none of us could claim she was the positive spirit that kept a smile in our hearts when we needed it, as folks had said of diego. no one knew what to say. had she been a friend to any of us? at times, yes, to each of us, but in the end, no, not even to one of us.

when i began to speak i stumbled in my confusion and turmoil. i remarked on her fire and passion which had sparked me, her unique nature, her sharp, quick wit, her sense of intrigue, and her blazing genuineness about coarse subjects.

but then i broke. i was compelled to describe her as she was. maddie was one of the rawest souls I had ever known. she lived on the edge of chaos awash in harsh vengeant bitterness and paranoia she was unwilling to make peace with her skeletons. she’d slash her flesh and turn herself inside out bleeding before she’d apologize for her caustic hatred.

she was too volatile to go on at that high-spun pitch for much longer. in truth we all knew it but there was nothing any of us could do. she controlled her own destiny and in the end, you can burn only so many friendships before you no longer feel at home in this world. when you are alone on your cold cement floor there are only so many fragile psychic masks you can wear and smash and piece back together before your clay is too shattered to be anything but charged dust strewn across the concrete.

after the ceremony, everyone looked at me like i was nuts to have said what i said. maddie’s loose spirit would haunt my crux, they all knew. punish me for my honesty with razorblades, spit, and twisted affection.

i wound up arguing with her molester father over her inheritance but i wanted her notebooks and her sketches, not the miniature nude self-sculptures of her body wrapped in snakes, chains, and crucifixes. i especially wanted that self-image she’d sketched in coal with  streaks of purple across the eyes, wildly tinted, beautiful, and sad.

i wound up settling for a glossy color photocopy of it and now, five years down the road, that image of her face hangs on the wall in the studio where i do my writing and my own sketch work.

from the wall she continues to sneer at the power of my false image of stability. she continues to ignite beautiful sparks in my rabid madness. her shimmering dimple continues to smirk from that flimsy tattered sheet. her stinging critical eyes continue to pierce me and force me to face the harsh edge of humanity in my works.

__________

This work is protected by copyright by Iggy Sarducci. All rights reserved.No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. For more writing by Iggy Sarducci, please see http://hubpages.com/profile/Iggy+Sarducci.

__________

BEYOND SEX

by Alexandra Lucas

It’s May 14th.  Many things have happened on this day throughout the years.  Lina Medina becomes the youngest confirmed mother in medical history at the age of five and a Pope dies.  Israel becomes a nation and forms its first provisional government.  The Freedom Riders’ bus in Alabama is fire-bombed and civil rights protesters are beaten by an angry mob.  The first smallpox vaccination is administered and the Netherlands surrenders to Germany.

On this day in 2010, the sky is a particular shade of azure that happens only at this time of year.  The air is filled with the scent of lilacs; the blood of sweet green shoots; and dark, damp earth.  It’s a heady perfume perfectly balanced and beyond comparison with any singular thing.  I breathe deeply.

The sign in the window of the Parfumerie on my right proudly declares the creation of a new scent – Beyond Sex.  I would hope so, and I push thoughts of dirty hotel linens from my mind and assure myself it’s probably sandalwood based.  We keep walking.

On the left, an earnest young man in wire-rimmed glasses is shoveling dark earth and raking it into what will become gardens gracing the way to the dumpsters behind the United Church.  He reminds me of John-Boy.  I notice he has thrown his red sweatshirt over the handles of the wheelbarrow and I wonder what year it was when red became an acceptable colour for Christians to wear.

In Biblical times, crimson was a colour of sin and decent people usually kept to black, white, blue and grey.  You certainly don’t see the Amish in scarlet overalls.  Acceptance of red must be due to that great rationalizer – moderation.

We’ve just come out of the small corner grocery store where we bought luscious red grapes and dark roast coffee from Ethiopia.  Three young men are gathered at the corner of an old brick building, laughing and shoving each other as young men do and speaking in an African language that plays like a melody.  If I understood the words, perhaps it would not be so lovely, but this way, it’s like birdsong.

I can’t remember when it was that I learned birds are not singing, but yelling obscenities at each other as they wage their territorial disputes.  My reverie continues as I pass the three-story purple house with the chandelier on the veranda.  I’m not far from home now.

I can see them up ahead.  A few patients from the long-term care facility at the Miseracordia hospital have been trotted out into the sunshine while the staff hovers over them, some dutifully, some engagingly, and some indifferently.  A wheelchair parked under a tree holds a man in his middle years who is slumped forward over his blanket.  His eyes are open but they appear not to see.  His attendant is nearby, staring into the bark of a tree.

I can’t help but think how well matched they appear to be, although I find myself hoping the man in the chair is running through the spring sunshine somewhere else in his mind.  It occurs to me that we, as humans, are all about reciprocity.  Otherwise, someone would be sitting with him and reading aloud.

And then there are the ladies seated around the patio like garden gnomes and being fed chocolate ice cream carefully scooped into child size cones.  One lady in particular is positively twinkling while taking in the sights and sounds of my companion.

No phone, no pool, no pets.  I ain’t got no cigarettes . . . Roger Miller recedes into the background as we pass.

“Did you notice you were being admired?” I ask him.

“Yes.  I’ve always seemed to attract old ladies.”  He gestures toward the house on the corner that has recently sold.  “I do hope the new owners enjoy landscaping.  It would be a shame to see these beautiful gardens disappear.”

Apparently, he is already holding the shovel I’ve handed him.

“Yes, it certainly would be.”

Now what was the name of that parfumerie?

__________

Dark Shadows and Crystal Pools

by Melanie Loveridge

The grass crushed beneath her feet like soft green velvet and the sweet smell of the earth’s perfume scented the air. The young girl stood, transfixed, her violet eyes wide open in wonder. Ahead, amongst the trees, a large deer raised his majestic head and sniffed the air. At once he felt her presence and smelled her strange scent. Frightened, he shivered and bounded across the glade.

Sunlight streamed down through the thick canopy of trees and reflected off her long auburn hair, making it glow as though it were on fire. Turning, she walked unsteadily towards the large pool of water that had filtered down through the rocks from a small stream nestling further up the valley.

Her legs felt weak and, unable to go any further, she lowered herself carefully down onto a small flat slab of rock by the water’s edge. She reached out and skimmed the top of the water with her delicate fingers. The water rippled and sparkled like broken crystal in the sunlight. Startled, she snatched her hand away and, holding her breath, watched as the water fell from her fingers. Slowly she began to laugh.

A small rabbit scurried through the undergrowth, alarmed by the sudden disturbance. She saw the flash of white and, jumping to her feet, she watched as the small creature disappeared down a tiny hole underneath a large oak tree. She sighed in wonder and shook her head. Closing her eyes, she began to sing. All around her grew silent as if the very earth itself were listening to the strange but beautiful sound.

After a while an awareness crept over her and, uneasy, she stopped singing and lowered her gaze. She was being watched. She could sense it, feel it, and this time she knew it was no animal. Her heart beat faster and she raised her eyes.

There, in the shadow of the trees directly in front of her . . .

Holding her breath, she waited, unsure of what to do. She wanted to run and hide, but her legs felt numb and she was unable to move. She heard a sound – deep, guttural. Someone was speaking in a language not unlike her own.

“Toby. Come on boy. Where are you?”

A young man peered through the long grass, trying to catch a glimpse of his small dog, a Jack Russell. Normally Toby stayed faithfully by his side, but today he was acting strange. Jumpy.

“Damn it Toby. Come back.”

Impatiently he kicked a small stone and sent it skimming into the water. Watching it sink, he suddenly realised that he wasn’t alone. Violet eyes were watching his every move. Startled, he smiled.

“Sorry.  I didn’t see you there. I don’t suppose you’ve seen a dog run this way, have you?”

He looked friendly, so, relaxing slightly, she answered, “A dog? No I don’t think so.”

Her voice sounded strange, song-like. He thought she looked confused.

“What are you called?” she asked curiously.

Unsure of what she meant, he hesitated. “Oh. You mean what’s my name?”

“Yes. Your name.” She sounded uncertain.

“Marcus.” He smiled. “What’s yours?”

“Laya.”

“Do you live around here?”

Marcus glanced around, certain that he had never seen a house this deep into the woods.

And he was sure that she didn’t live in the village nearby. He would have noticed her a long time ago.

Laya smiled. She turned to look at the water and whispered, “Come and look.”

Intrigued, Marcus moved beside her and watched as the girl knelt by the water’s edge. She leaning forward, skimmed her fingers across the surface, and giggled.

There was something strange about her. Marcus began to feel uncomfortable.

He wondered if maybe she wasn’t quite right in the head. He looked more closely at her clothes. The blue of her tunic seemed to glow with its own inner radiance and her eyes. Those strange, violet eyes. They were unlike any eyes he had ever seen before.

Startled by his thoughts, he stepped backwards and stumbled. The sudden disturbance seemed to break the spell, and the girl looked up. “What’s this called?” she asked softly.

At first Marcus didn’t understand. Then he realised that she was referring to the pool. He turned on her angrily. “Is this some sort of joke? Because I’m sorry but I don’t find it particularly funny.”

Seeing his anger, Laya stood up and turned to him. She reached out her hand and touched his face gently, like the wings of a butterfly. Her touch was electric. Marcus shivered. He felt his body respond. He looked into her eyes, so large, so beautiful. He could see no madness, only uncertainty and maybe fear.

Laya spoke. “Take me into the sparkle.”

Marcus looked at her. “Water,” he said softly.

“Water,” she whispered.

Taking his hand, she turned and stepped carefully over the rocks to the water’s edge. The sunlight torched her hair to flame and Marcus could only watch as she reached up and pulled the tunic over her head. Naked, her body glowed pale in the sunlight.

Turning to Marcus, she smile and beckoned. His breath caught in his throat as he looked at her. She was so beautiful. For a second he thought he must be dreaming. Then hands were undoing his shirt, pulling it from his shoulders. Soon a small pile of clothes lay on the bank beside them.

Stepping off the rock into the cool clear water, Laya carefully went deeper and deeper until the water covered her shoulders. She tilted her head back and her hair streamed out behind her like a silken carpet. Her face showed an ecstasy that Marcus had never seen before. She seemed to drink in the sunlight and air and water as though she were memorizing it. As though she would never see it again.

Marcus began to see through her eyes the things he had always taken for granted. The heat of the sun, the deep green grass, the cool sweetness of the water. He swam slowly to her side, reached out, and stroked her silken hair.

Laya turned her violet gaze upon him. Then she gently pulled him to her warm, soft body. He tried to resist, but an overwhelming sense of wanting took over. Tentatively, he steered her towards the bank, helped her to step out of the water, and embraced her.
The ground felt cool and damp. Marcus opened his eyes and yawned. The sun hung low beyond the trees and caused shadows to flicker over his body. His head felt muzzy. As he tried to collect his thoughts, he heard a whimper and looked up. Toby ran across the clearing and launched himself at Marcus.

“Hi, boy. Where have you been?”

He nuzzled the dog’s neck and groped for his lead. Suddenly he was aware of his nakedness. Puzzled, he looked across to where his clothes lay in a neat pile on the grass.

“I don’t remember going for a swim,” he muttered.

He rose slowly, stiffly, and made his way across the clearing. As he retrieved his clothes he felt something niggling at the back of his mind, just out of reach. Something he couldn’t quite recall.

He shook his head. “That must have been some dream. If only I could remember it.”

And then, dismissing the thought, he whistled, “Come on boy. Let’s go home.”
Laya slowly opened her eyes. Violet orbs took in the cold metal dome above her head. To her left a pale shaft of orange light seeped through the window and slanted across her bed. A small hand emerged from under the blanket and three crooked grey tinged fingers reached up to wipe away a small drop of perspiration from her brow.

Her smooth shiny head gleamed like polished marble in the light. Her mouth felt dry and sore. Outside she could hear the sound of hissing and crackling as the giant electrical storm gave vent to its anger.

When the storm had nearly passed, Laya dragged her weak, shapeless body from the bed and staggered to the window, hoping for cooler air. The sky was lit with blue and silver streaks which intensified the electrical heat.

Laya sighed. “These dry storms are the worst.”

Once again there would be no moisture to collect from the small drums placed by the elders just outside the town. Every week the small community gathered for their meagre rations – one pot per household. The moisture was always cloudy, grey, and tasteless, but they needed it to survive.

Now the drums were running low, and this time there was to be no solace from the sky. Sulphorous red dust rose up in spirals from the dry ground.

Laya looked up at the two moons hovering above her world, her mind still trying to shake off the vision that she had seen so vividly in her dream. The green landscape, the animals, the water, Oh, the water, so clear, clean, and sweet. Maybe there really was a world out there beyond the moons that hadn’t been destroyed by wars and greed and self destruction.

Not ruined like her world. Maybe her own planet had been like that once. She smiled at such nonsense. Outside, the air glowed with electricity. Had the electricity somehow brought together two parallel worlds, so alike, yet so different. Had two dimensions touched? Overlapped? Had the invisible become visible?

Laya smiled as she thought of the handsome young creature who had given her just a small taste of paradise.

“A dream.”

She sighed.

“Only a dream.”

_______________

Posted in LT Fawkes | Comments Off on STORIES VOL. 3

STORIES VOLUME TWO

PREFACE

(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled, WELCOME.)

All rights reserved.  Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.

The Ghost of Kaupi Village by Glenda Inverarity

Uninvited Wedding Guests by Jed Fisher

Domestic Violence: Lizzie’s Tale by Shalini Kagal.

Auld Acquaintance by Robin Crawford.

Boys, Men, and Growing Up by Hugh Morris (Dags the Drover)

victimology by Iggy Sarducci

__________

The Ghost of Kaupi Village

by Glenda Inverarity

‘Is there any other business before we adjourn?’

The Museum Committee of old Kaupi Village in Kauppilanmaki in Finland was wrapping up their monthly meeting.

‘Yes.’ Gwendolyn stood up.

The chairwoman sighed. She had a bad feeling about what might be on Gwendolyn’s mind. ‘State the matter.’

‘It’s about the ghost.’

The chairwoman sighed. ‘Gwendolyn, we’re a museum committee, not an oral history society. This is not the time or place for fanciful stories.’

‘But you have to listen. Please. Just give me three minutes.’

‘All right, all right!’ The chairwoman quickly raised her hand to hold the peace. ‘You have three minutes, and then we never want to hear the topic again. Is that understood?’

‘Yes. Thank you.’

Gwendolyn looked around at the sea of sceptical faces, drew a deep breath, and began her rehearsed speech.

‘I know that most of you don’t believe in the ghost, but her activities are increasing. The evidence was there when we opened after winter. Freshly baked loaves of bread were piled on the rafters and a new, elaborately-embroidered cloth was covering the kitchen table. Neither of these was there when we closed for winter.’

‘That doesn’t prove anything,’ Fanny Hershaw butted in sarcastically. ‘We already discussed the problem of vagrants. Were you asleep then?’

‘Here! Here!’ supported other committee members.

‘On the contrary, I listened to your fabricated evidence that these anomalies were done by vagrants, but I don’t believe it. Firstly, you all agreed there was no sign of forced entry into the hut, and secondly, no fire had been lit. The bread was warm but the fireplace was cold. Also, why would vagrants bake six months’ worth of bread and leave it there? Vagrants can’t afford that much flour! And I’ve never known vagrants to carry elaborately-embroidered tablecloths. You have to believe me! The ghost is responsible for doing all this, not vagrants!’

‘Rubbish!’

‘Codswallop!’

‘Order! Order! She still has two minutes left. The sooner she finishes this nonsense theory the sooner we can all go home. Gwendolyn, we’d all appreciate it if you could get to the point quickly.’

‘Yes. The point is that the Mid-Summer Festival is only two weeks away, and this year, it coincides with a blue moon. The new moon appears on the seventeenth, just before mid-summer eve, and is full at the end of the month. That full moon will be the second in the month, making it a blue moon.’

‘Good grief girl! What’s the relevance of a blue moon?’ Mr. Morone interjected in more than his usual derogatory tone.

Gwendolyn took a deep breath. ‘A blue moon, combined with mid-summer’s eve, creates a powerful force in the cosmos, opening the Portal between the living and the dead. I think the ghost has made all that bread to entertain. Judging from the quantity, I guess she’s planning to call every man and woman ever burned as witches on the pyres in this region. If we don’t do something to stop her, there’ll be trouble.’

Mr. Morone interrupted again. ‘Hundreds of witches! I thought we were talking about one little ghost!’

‘Yes, we are. I believe our ghost was accused of witchcraft in her past life. She was probably burned on the pyre.’

‘Madam Chair!’ Morone slammed his hand on the table. ‘I’ve heard enough. This absurd talk has disintegrated into superstitious mumbo jumbo. I move that this ridiculous discussion be struck from the minutes before we all look like fools for posterity.’

‘I second the motion.’ Miriam Hoyle piped in.

‘All those in favour, say Aye!’ called the Chair, who was always willing to respond to a consensus motion.

‘Aye!’ shouted the voices with resounding unity.

‘The Ayes have it! Secretary, strike the discussion from the minutes. If there’s no other business arising, I declare this meeting closed at seven-fifteen PM. The next meeting will be held on the first Monday of next month, that’s the fourth of July.’

‘Madam Chair.’ Mr. Morone turned a serious face toward the chairwoman. ‘May I suggest that the first item on the agenda next meeting should be a vote regarding Gwendolyn’s suitability for this committee, especially considering her rather questionable state of mind.’

‘Mr. Morone, your request has been noted. It’ll be given due consideration at the time of setting the agenda,’ The chairwoman replied in mock official tones.

‘That is if we all survive the blue moon witches.’ Mr. Morone laughed as he picked up his old brown satchel and headed for the door.

‘Don’t come running to me when the town’s overrun by mischievous ghosts,’ Gwendolyn muttered to their backs as they left the room ahead of her.

Much later that night, anyone who looked out his window would have seen a very peculiar sight as Gwendolyn and her best friend Gwyneth left their apartment building to confront the ghost. Rain was drizzling as Gwyneth pushed her bicycle across the car park. They mounted, Gwendolyn riding passenger on the rear rack. She held her old, dilapidated black umbrella high over their heads while Gwyneth pedaled wobbly along the footpath like an intoxicated Mary Poppins.

They hid the bicycle in a crop of bracken by the roadside near the museum village and crept along from there on foot. They found the ghost in the garden behind the hut digging a very large, deep hole.

She was wearing a long dark dress covered by a greying pinafore. Her hair was wound roughly into a bun at the back of her head with some long wispy tendrils flowing loosely over her cheeks. She looked about twenty-five years old and she wasn’t transparent as they had expected a ghost would be. As they watched in breathless silence, she laid down her shovel, picked up a bundle of blankets, turned, and glided straight toward them.

Suddenly she peered into the bushes. ‘Who comes to my home at this late hour?’ She asked in a raspy whisper.

Realising their presence had been detected, they reluctantly stepped out of hiding just as the moon emerged from the clouds and dimly illuminated the little clearing.

‘We . . . we came to talk to you,’ Gwendolyn stammered.

‘Why?’

‘Because we’re worried about what’s going on.’

‘And what, pray tell, do you think is going on?’

‘We think . . .we think you’ve been baking bread.’

‘I think that you think too much. What I do is none of your business. You should be on your way.’

‘But it is our business.’ Gwyneth bravely stepped toward her. ‘This is our town, and our museum village, and we don’t want anything terrible to happen!’

‘And what do you think will happen?’

‘We think you are planning to call others like you to come through the Portal.’

The ghost sneered. ‘Do you now! And what would you know about the Portal?’

‘Enough’ Gwyneth bluffed.

‘You can’t stop me. I’ve waited for centuries for this chance. You should go. My quarrel is not with you.’

‘Who’s your quarrel with?’ Gwyneth asked.

‘With the family who did this to me. Go now.’

As she turned to move away, a small voice in the bundle of blankets she was carrying began to cry.

‘You have a baby?’ Gwendolyn gingerly stepped toward her.

The ghost turned with sadness in her eyes. ‘Yes. They burned her on the pyre with me. That’s how cruel they were. Even if I had cursed the crops, how could they accuse a baby who cannot even talk of such a crime?’

Holding the baby close to her breast, she crumpled onto the ground, crying into her precious bundle as the moon slid behind the moisture heavy clouds, casting a dark shadow over the women. As they watched, the ghost-woman faded away and vanished into thin air.

‘Come on.’ Gwyneth tugged at Gwendolyn’s sleeve. ‘Let’s go home. There’s nothing more we can do here tonight.’

Gwendolyn slept restlessly for what was left of the night. Time and time again, she dreamed of the woman clutching the baby as they burned to death on the pyre. She wanted to rush forward and save her, but her feet wouldn’t move. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t take a step toward those awesome flames.

Gwyneth roused her early next morning. ‘Wake up. We’ve got a lot to do.’

‘What’s up?’ Gwendolyn reluctantly peered into the daylight.

Gwyneth’s eyes shone with excitement. ‘I figured out what we have to do. I’ve just phoned the city archives, and found out that they have heaps of old transcripts from the witchcraft trials.’

‘What’s that got to do with us?’

‘If we find out what happened to our ghost, we might be able to figure out how to help her. The clerk said he’d have them ready for us when we get there.’

Their enthusiasm was short-lived when the clerk took them to a small room at the back of the building. It was stacked ceiling to floor with boxes.

‘I’ve put this table and two chairs outside the door for you to use as there isn’t any room inside,’ the clerk informed them.

‘Yes, but where are the transcripts?’ Gwyneth asked.

‘There!’ He gestured into the room.

‘Which ones?’ she asked breathlessly.

‘As far as I know, all of them. Nobody’s ever asked for them before, so I don’t know what’s there. I can’t imagine why you’d want to read them . . . ’ He seemed to be laughing to himself as he left them alone and bewildered.

‘Good one, Gwynny! What now?’

‘He wasn’t kidding when he said heaps, was he? I guess we start reading.’ She shrugged. ‘I didn’t realise there were so many witchcraft trials.’

‘Apart from a needle in a haystack, what exactly are we looking for?’

‘If we could find out about her trial, we might find out who her quarrel is with. Then we can try to help her before the Portal opens.’

‘But we don’t even know who she is!’ Gwendolyn pointed out.

‘No. But we do know that she was accused of cursing the crops, and her baby was also charged with the crime. It’s not much to go on, but it’s better than nothing,’ said Gwyneth, trying to be positive. She lifted a box onto the table and shuffled through the aged yellow papers.

‘Hey, listen to this!’ Gwendolyn sat down and, in a downcast voice, read out loud. ‘The Widow Chittern was charged with causing three-year-old Sarah Fergusson to become ill and die. Having bound Witch Chittern’s thumbs and toes before throwing her into the lake, with the town’s honourable people as witness, she was found to float, proving the charge to be true. To ensure no further mischief, she was burned to death at the stake.’

‘That’s awful,’ Gwyneth replied, and as the hours and days wore on, they began to learn the awful truth about the so-called fair trials of hundreds of innocent men and women in the town’s hidden past.

With only two days left before the Portal would open, and with the task looking futile, they finally struck gold.

‘Gwyneth, look at this! I think I’ve found it! Listen! Agnes Demdike is charged with causing, by way of a curse, the crops to fail on farmland owned by the honourable and wealthy merchant, wait for it, Mr. David Morone esquire! More than twenty people were called to testify that the crop failed due to a curse.’ She drew a long breath before continuing.

‘While awaiting the final trial, the Witch Demdike, after being without food and water for only one week, confessed to the crime of witchcraft for both herself and the child on the condition that a priest christen her child before the burning. He rightfully demanded sixpence, which she was unable to produce, and the burning proceeded as planned.’

‘That’s it! That’s it! We found it!’ Gwyneth squealed excitedly. ‘And it was a Morone that made the charges. That must be who her quarrel is with! Mr. Morone’s ancestor! She wants Morone!’

‘What are we going to do?’

‘Don’t know.’ Gwyneth quickly folded the piece of paper and tucked it into her pocket before stacking the boxes back into what they now called the Room of Horrors. It was late when they left the archives and headed for Mr. Morone’s home. They were extremely unsure of how their warning would be received.

‘Hello Mrs. Morone, is Mr. Morone home?’ Gwendolyn asked breathlessly.

‘Why no dear. It’s Gwendolyn, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, and this’s my friend, Gwyneth.’

‘Nice to meet you Gwyneth.’ Mrs. Morone continued. ‘He went to the museum village. He got a phone call saying there were vandals hanging around, and was hoping to catch the ratbags red-handed.’

Thank you Mrs. Morone. We’ll go to the village to see if we can help with those vandals.’

‘That’s very good of you. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your help. Take care.’ She waved goodbye as they ran down the garden path and back into the street.

Late evening was closing around them as they reached the village and crept toward Agnes’s hut.

‘Shhh! Listen! Can you hear that?’ Gwyneth whispered.

Gwendolyn, her eyes wide with fear, nodded. ‘It’s coming from around the back. Doesn’t sound like vandals.’

They crept stealthily through the shrubs into the backyard where the muffled sounds were closer.

‘Over there.’ Gwendolyn pointed to where they had first seen Agnes digging the hole. They looked at each other with sudden dismay. ‘She dug a pit! Come on!’

Crouched on hands and knees, they crawled cautiously across the opening toward the very deep pit. The muffled sounds were now recognisable as those of a gagged person.

‘Mr. Morone. Is that you?’ Gwendolyn called into the pit.

‘Mmmyyymmm, mmmyyymmm mmmyyymmm.’

‘Mr. Morone. Is that you?’ She repeated, hastily adding, ‘Once for yes, twice for no.’

‘Mmmyyymmm.’

‘You shouldn’t have come back,’ said a familiar raspy voice behind them.

They swung around in unison to see that Agnes had materialised behind them.

‘Agnes.’ Gwyneth cautiously took a step toward her. ‘We know what happened. We want to help you.’

‘Nobody can help me,’ she said bitterly. ‘All I can do is get revenge, and that time’s about to come. Tomorrow night is the midsummer blue moon, at midnight the Portal will open and the others will come. We’ll give Morone the same fair trial that they gave us.’

‘We know what you went through. Let us help you,’ Gwyneth pleaded, tugging the piece of paper from her pocket and handing it to the ghost.

She glanced at it. ‘This doesn’t tell you anything. This doesn’t tell you what they did to me. Do you want to know? I’ll tell you! They put me in a pit, just like that one.’

She pointed to where Mr. Morone was incarcerated. ‘But mine was in the village square, right in front of the Ale House. Day and night, the men drank their fill and then pissed into the pit until I was standing knee deep in it! They gave me no food or water. Not even for my babe. I realised death would be better. So I confessed for both of us.’ She hung her head with shame, remembering the indignity.

‘And then they burned us, without my babe ever being christened.’

Gwendolyn pointed to the pit. ‘But he’s innocent! Hurting him won’t make the past right.’

‘Oh! And I wasn’t innocent?’

‘Of course you were. We know that now. But it’s too late to change it.’ Gwyneth tried to soothe her.

‘I must go. And you must go also. When the others come, they’ll show you no mercy. Now leave.’ The ghost of Agnes Demdike slowly faded from sight.

‘Mr. Morone, listen to me,’ Gwendolyn whispered into the deep, dark pit. ‘We’ll be back. Nothing will happen to you until the Portal opens. You’ll be all right till then. Just wait. We’ll figure something out. Okay?’

‘Mmmyyymmm.’

‘At midnight tomorrow the Portal opens,’ Gwyneth muttered as they rushed away into the night. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t have the foggiest idea! Do you?’ Gwendolyn asked hopefully.

Early next morning, the two young women, perched on the bicycle, wobbled precariously toward the town library, and headed straight to the occult section, where they surrounded themselves with a mountain of books and hunted for answers.

The books offered no solutions. Their worry grew into anxiety, their anxiety grew into frustration, and the day grew into evening.

‘What are we going to do?’ Gwendolyn moaned as the librarian ushered them from the building that evening. ‘My God! The Portal’s only three hours away!’

God! That’s it! You found the answer!’ Gwyneth squealed.

‘Yeah, right!’ Gwendolyn sarcastically snapped back.’God’s going to turn up like some kind of miracle and put everything right?’

‘Not God! A priest! Come on!’

‘But he’ll never come.’

‘It’s our only chance. I’ll bloody-well kidnap him if I have to.’ Gwyneth strode across the square and around the back of the church where a dim light was shining.

‘Father, there’s an emergency. Please come quickly.’ Gwyneth called, pounding on the vestry door, her days at drama school finally paying off with a grand performance. ‘A baby, Father. A very sick baby. It needs to be christened quickly.’

‘Just a minute. I’ll get my things.’ The priest called through the closed door.

Within minutes the trio set off for the evening’s work, with Gwyneth quickly explaining their problem to the very sceptical Father as they hurried toward the village.

‘Wait here Father. Don’t make a sound. We’ll try to convince her to do it.’ Gwendolyn said. She stepped into the opening and approached the pit.

‘Mr. Morone.’ She whispered. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Mmmyyymmm,’ came the muffled reply.

‘Stay quiet and start praying.’

Right on cue, Agnes materialised. ‘Why have you come back?’ she demanded.

‘We think we can solve your problem.’

Gwyneth joined them.

‘Nothing can be done,’ Agnes said, clutching the baby to her breast. ‘I’ve told you before, go away!’

‘Please, listen to us. We want to help, and we think we’ve found the answer.’ As she spoke, Gwyneth gestured Father O’Brien from the bushes. ‘We’ve brought a priest. He’ll christen your baby. Then you can both cross over.’

The ghost looked unconvinced. ‘How much money does he want?’

‘He doesn’t want money. He wants to help!’

‘I don’t know. I had my plans. I’ll have to think about it.’ The ghost said stubbornly.

‘Agnes.’ Father O’Brien stepped forward. ‘God in heaven loves you. Take this chance to go to him.’

‘Will it work?’

‘I don’t know, but it’s worth trying.’ He reached out and pulled the blanket down, revealing the young baby’s tiny face. ‘If not for yourself, won’t you do it for your baby?’

‘I’ll try,’ she said reluctantly, ‘but if it doesn’t work, you’ve all got to leave, and never come back. Do you hear?’

They looked at each other and grudgingly nodded their agreement.

The priest said, ‘You two wait here. I’ll do it in the hut. If it doesn’t work, I don’t know what will.’ He led Agnes and her baby inside.

Gwendolyn paced up and down for what seemed an eternity, checking her watch with periodic frequency.

‘It’s almost midnight. After that, the Portal starts opening.’

She went over to the pit. ‘Pray harder Mr. Morone.’

‘What are they doing?’ Gwyneth wondered aloud. ‘A christening doesn’t take this long. Something must be wrong.’

’Gwendolyn sighed. ‘It has to work!

The clock ticked slowly but surely the last few minutes toward midnight and, finally, the steeple bell chimed the hour as the girls looked at each other in despair.

The sudden sound of the priest’s voice startled them. ‘You can relax now. She’s gone.’

‘What happened? What took so long?’ they cried together.

‘I christened the babe but nothing happened. So I took a chance and gave them the last rites, and they both vanished.’

‘But that doesn’t mean they’re gone. She vanishes all the time.’ Gwyneth uttered.

‘I’m sure she crossed over, because the strangest thing happened when she left. The rafters were piled high with bread, and when she disappeared, all the bread did, too.’

Gwendolyn and Gwyneth gave each other a relieved look.

‘Thanks Father.’ they uttered in unison.

‘Don’t thank me. I’m only the messenger. Thank Him.’ He pointed upwards.

‘Yes, yes, we will.’ Gwyneth said with determined sincerity. ‘But now we have to get him out. Mr. Morone,’ she called into the pit. ‘You can say a prayer of thanks now. We’ll have you home in no time.’

 ‘Madam Chair. I want to request an amendment to the agenda for this meeting. I’d like us to remove the first item regarding Gwendolyn’s suitability for the committee.’

‘You’ve changed your tune Mr. Morone. Is there anything we should know?’ the Chairwoman replied.

‘Not unless you believe in witches and blue moons during mid-summer, Madam Chair,’ he replied respectfully.

She threw him a quizzical glance. ‘Very well. All those in favour, say Aye!’

UNINVITED WEDDING GUESTS

by Jed Fisher

Jill, a retired school psychologist, turned off the TV and said, “Jack, take me to some pretty place this Sunday.”

Jack was a retired veterinarian. He didn’t bother to ask about where they’d go. After twenty-eight years of marriage, he knew this conversation was one-way.

“Okay. We’ll take the Mustang. I need to drive it every so often so it don’t seize up.”

Jill said, “There’s a wedding we can go to. It will be so nice. That’s a good idea, don’t you think?”

He understood the key words. She was saying don’t think . They’d already married off their three daughters and two sons, but Jill loved weddings, so it was time to start going to other people’s weddings.

Jack said, “Great idea.”

She wrongly anticipated that he was about to ask for more details. “The wedding for Addison Madison and Birgit Scott. It’s over in Leon.”

Jack said, “After church?”

She turned the TV back on and spoke as she went to the kitchen. “We’ll go right after church. We’ll dress nice for the wedding.”

Jack went to his computer, looked up wedding announcements for Leon, Oklahoma, and got the address. Leon was about two hours from Lawton. It would be a nice drive. Not bad. And a chance to give the old Mustang a workout.

Jill’s voice came from the kitchen. “Wear your dark blue suit.”

Jack and Jill arrived at the Leon Baptist Church in time for the ceremony, but they had to park a street away. The car with the Just Married sign was a new Jaguar. It looked out of place in this decomposing town.

In front of the Jaguar was an ancient, dusty yellow Ford F-100. A flustered-looking lady backed out of the truck’s passenger door gripping a box of Kleenex. She turned as a pair of elderly ladies approached and was soundly hugged.

One of the old ladies said, “So you’re marrying off the last of your boys, eh, Carol Jane?”

The flustered lady waved the pink box. “Almost forgot my Kleenex.”

Huh, thought Jack. So the decrepit old Ford belongs to the groom’s parents.

The pews were full so Jack and Jill stood along the back wall. The groom stood up front, looking back. It was a Scots-Irish crowd, looking more Irish on the right and more Scottish on the left.

The groom looked familiar to Jack. He had to think for a minute before he remembered why. The month before, Jill wanted to visit the restaurant where Jack took her on their first date. The place, in Wichita Falls, Texas, had long since been converted into a bar, and then it had become a gay bar. Jack stopped ten feet from the entrance and held Jill’s hand firmly to prevent her from barging in.

A well-dressed young man approached Jack and asked if he were an officer. Jack replied that no, he was never an officer. Then the young man went into the bar. That young man was today’s groom.

Jack shrugged it off. It wasn’t his family. None of his business, really.

The organist began to play the wedding march and the bride emerged from the Sunday School room. She brushed past Jack on her way to the aisle, where she looped her arm through her father’s. She was magnificent. A second after she went by, Jack got his first whiff of fertile female pheromones in eight months.

He had been deprived of this stimulus since Jill went through menopause. Jack refused to allow reason to become slave to appetite, but the monkey part of his brain was thinking like a juvenile. Jack watched the bride as she and her father made their way down the aisle.

With the bride and groom in place, the preacher began to speak.

Jill gripped Jack’s arm. “Jack, do you still love me?”

The preacher droned on. Jack thought it would be rude to carry on a conversation with Jill during the ceremony.

Jill said, “Jack?”

The preacher was at the part where he said, “ . . . let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

Jill wanted an answer. “Jack. Say something.”

Jack thought she meant he should say something about the unsuitability of the marriage. He took a step forward.

“He can’t marry her. He’s a homosexual.

The groom turned and faced the back of the church, arms akimbo, balled fists pushed into his waist, face thrust forward. He stamped his foot, stood hipshot, and scanned the pews.

Who said that?

Jack wanted allies in the crowd. He knew there had to be some doting mothers wishing their sons were getting married.

“Why the hell does he get to marry her? There are better men in this church today.”

The guests stood and turned to face the back of the church. Jack stood straight, stomach in, chest out, hands on his hips. This bought some time, but the crowd was getting hostile. The bride was still as a statue, embarrassed, waiting for this interruption to end.

Jack felt bad for her but he couldn’t back down now. Showing weakness meant defeat. Time to divide and conquer.

Jill slipped quietly out of the church.

Jack considered his options. Offend the Irish and they’ll beat you up but then drink with you and become your life-long friends. Offend the Scots and they’ll let you run just long enough so they can brag about how far away you were when they shot you. The Scots were on the Bride’s side of the church. Jack decided to make an appeal to the Scottish sense of thrift and moral decency.

“That groom. He must be in hock up to his eyeballs. His bride will be swinging from a stripper pole for the next five years to pay for his big, fancy car.”

Shocked, the preacher stepped backward into the candelabra. Flames shot up his sleeve and he tried to put out the fire with his Bible. The best man pushed the preacher to the floor and smothered the flames by lying on top of him.

The flames were already out when someone yelled, “Fire! Fire!

The guests moved from the pews to the aisle, Irish shoving Scots, fighting one another, yelling, challenging others who blocked their escape. The main doors of the church were flanked by ushers who were glaring at Jack and would surely stop him from leaving.

Jack ducked into the Sunday School room and locked the door behind him. Then he opened the window, pushed away the screen, and climbed out head-first. Jill had the Mustang waiting out front with the passenger door open. Jack scrambled in. Jill stomped the gas, and the tires squealed as she and Jack sped away.

They rode in silence for half an hour when Jill said, “Let’s stop for dinner.”

Jack, who’d been holding his breath metaphorically ever since they’d squealed away from the church, turned to look at her.

“How about the Beef and Brew?” he asked hopefully.

Jill considered this. “No,” she said. “Not on a Sunday. They’ll be too crowded with football fans watching the big screens. Let’s go to the Cracker Barrel in Duncan.”

“Okay.” Jack sat back in his seat, sighed happily, and enjoyed the passing scenery.

____________

Domestic Violence: Lizzy’s Tale

by Shalini Kagal

Lizzy pressed herself against the wall. He must have caught the earlier bus home today. She could hear his key in the lock and she knew just what he’d do if he caught sight of her. With her little ones growing inside her, she wasn’t as fleet of foot anymore and it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to try and outwit or outrun him.

Maybe if she stayed quite still, he wouldn’t see her. Fat chance! He strode in, threw his salesman’s bag on the chair, yawned and stretched. He paused right in the middle of his stretch and came to life.

That was the effect she had on him every time he set eyes on her. A cruel gleam slowly grew, starting from the back of his eyes till it spread through his whole face, lighting it up. She could almost hear the words in his mind, ‘Let the games begin!

He slowly made his way to the fireplace and picked up the poker.  Staring at her, willing her not to move but to stay frozen, transfixed like a statue, he advanced slowly, poker in hand.

‘Why do men love violence so?’ she wondered. ‘This slob of a man who sits sprawled in front of the idiot box, gorging on unhealthy take-away food whenever he’s in the house – what right does he have to torment me the way he does, day after day?’

She was usually much better prepared. As soon as it was time for him to come home, she hid behind the curtain and stayed still, very still. Any little movement was enough to get him going. Last week, it had been that awful spray. She hadn’t been as ungainly last week so she had run as fast as her legs could carry her, eyes shut tight so she wouldn’t get blinded.

She hid herself behind the first door she could spot and after looking around a bit, he gave up and returned to his favorite couch potato pastime. This was his usual routine. He’d switch the TV on and watch the soccer replays and if there wasn’t anything that interested him, he would keep flipping channels. On the couch beside him would be a Big Mac or a Volcano Burrito with a huge bowl of potato crisps that he would noisily chew through. She knew from the sounds that emanated from the couch when the crisps were wasabi-flavoured ones.

Lizzy loved this house. It was hers – he was the interloper. The old wooden beams, the walls you could hug, hoping it would tell you stories from years ago. If you listened carefully, you could hear the whisper of ivy as it brushed against the outer walls. This was where she had her children, where they had grown up, playing and running through the rooms, some of them in a rather dilapidated condition but she knew and loved every brick, every beam.

‘And here I am, pregnant again, unwanted in my own home!’

He hated her, that much was certain. She knew the day he got rid of her would be one of the happiest in his life. Why did the very sight of her make him so mad? Was she really that repugnant? She, who kept his home clean, who never, ever made demands, who went around without a sound, not disturbing him or anyone else. Most of the time, she was not seen, not heard.

The hand holding the poker took aim. Lizzy couldn’t move, she was so terrified. Would her little ones die in her womb, never seeing the light of day? Or the warm glow of the house at night? One foot after the other . . . slowly, he advanced, holding her gaze so she would stay pinned to the wall with fright.

He lifted his arm, oh, so slowly. Then he struck. In that split second, she moved, as though a puppeteer had jerked some strings. She felt the poker come down hard on her behind but she got away. Scampering to safety, into the attic above, she let out her breath, scared but glad to be safe.

‘Tonight… I can feel it’s my night. How many will there be? Four? Five? More? We won’t let him kill our spirit, my little ones. Soon, there will be many more of us for him to tackle. Who knows? Maybe we can drive him mad!’

The man put down the poker and gingerly picked up the lizard’s tail with a paper tissue.

‘The next time, I’ll smash that dratted lizard, I will!’

_______________

AULD ACQUAINTANCE

AULD ACQUAINTANCE

by Robin Crawford

The morning breeze came soft as a feather, giving breath to the blue-checkered curtains.  They billowed in and out, in and out, as the shades clacked and rattled against the pane.

Waking to the sound after only five hours’ sleep, Topper Brown cracked his eyes open to check the time and instantly slammed them shut again.  It can’t be morning already, he thought.  His entire body screamed in protest.  Daylight crashed into senses raw from overuse.  The breeze became a howling gale.

Topper groaned to himself.  A stirring in the bed beside him reminded him that he wasn’t alone, and he changed the groan to a moan that could be heard.  A hand fell on his shoulder and pulled him onto his back.

“I had too much wine last night,” Topper said, at once diagnosing, excusing and apologizing.

“You had too much me last night.”  Christopher knelt beside him on all fours and bent his head close to Topper’s chest.  He puckered a nipple between his lips.  The rough stubble of beard tickled Topper’s sensitive skin.

The old man squirmed in pleasure.  He hesitated to push his lover away, even though he had to piss like a racehorse.

Chris was twenty-eight.  Too young and much too good-looking to be messing around with a man nearly twice his age.  Yet Topper had lucked out on this one—or had it been the wad of cash he’d pulled out of his pocket to pay for the drinks the night they’d met? Whatever the reason, two Saturdays ago Topper Brown had been the one to take Christopher home with him from the Crawlspace, amid stares of disbelief, congratulations, and envy.

“Let’s go for a swim,” Chris said, coaxing Topper’s eyes open with a kiss to each brow.

Topper reluctantly rolled out from under his young lover.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said, easing himself into a sitting position.  The mention of swimming conjured watery thoughts and he absolutely had to get up.

He stood, became self-consciously aware of his semi-flaccid erection, and experienced a vague wave of satisfaction.  Things down there still work pretty good for an old coot like me, he thought.  Feeling Chris’ eyes following him as he headed for the bathroom, he couldn’t help adding silently, They’re still looking pretty good, too.

He made a mental note to try and find time for the gym today if his arthritis would allow.  It was just a little pain, once in a while, but enough to prevent the schedule of daily workouts which had been at the top of his list the past New Year’s Day.  It was the fourth item on that list he now considered as he stood shaking the last stubborn drops into the porcelain bowl:  Stop killing every man I sleep with.

Christopher hadn’t seen the list yet, of course.  And he wouldn’t.  Not until just before the event, like his brothers already gone before him.  And when he did see it, he would laugh, thinking it a joke, just as the others had.

But Topper would show him at the proper time, as he had Danny, Phil, Scratch (his real name was William, but because he suffered from a case of chronically-unresolved hangnails, Topper had bestowed upon him a fond yet devilish nickname), and Martin, of course.  Dear, sweet Martin, who loved cats and strawberry ice cream, and gave killer foot rubs, had been the most recent, over a month ago.  Topper sighed feeling dangerously close to regret.

Each year, Topper started afresh, forgiving himself every indiscretion, mistake, and F U, as he sometimes called them.  He always vowed to try harder, to pay closer attention to the warning signals, and to be a better person.  Each new resolution allowed him to lay them all to rest—a year’s worth at a time—and erase them from his memory and his conscience.

Forgive and forget, as his mother used to say.  Tabula rasa.

And he did forget.  He couldn’t name a single one of the men who had vanished from his life the year before, much less during the past five.  The last one had been a Christmas party pick-up.  They had spent four glorious days and nights in guilty seclusion, enjoying every excess the holiday season had to offer, and more.

The four who had so far slipped through the crack of Topper’s good intentions since January first, however, remained vivid and lively memories.  Clearly imprinted on his brain were the full names, phone numbers, and vitals of each.  If he closed his eyes, Topper could still taste their bitter and musky flavors, each one unique and distinct from the others.

He tingled with excitement to recall how each had felt lying beneath him, on top of him, and beside him, their bodies drenched in sweat, their muscles heaving and rippling with strength and youth.  For not one had been over thirty years old.  This was a rule Topper had made five years ago when the whole thing had started.  What better way to explain their abrupt, yet inevitable disappearances, his frequent losses at the game of love? How better to garner sympathy, rather than suspicion, for his pathetic life of heartbreak and emotional frailty?  He cried on shoulders, moped and sighed, railed at the cold heartedness of humanity–until the next one came along.

Topper’s a great guy, Topper’s friends and family all thought.  He’s got some money, and keeps himself in shape, he’s a good dresser, neat, well-read.  But there’s no way he’s ever going to hold onto any of those young hunks he seems to prefer for any length of time.  Of course they leave, one after the other, quickly tiring of having to revive the old man’s tired, stiff body every morning, of navigating the rabble of pill bottles just to get to the coffeecake on the counter; of running their fingers across dry, dead scalp instead of thick, soft hair like their own; of trying to coax new life into a dick that’s increasingly more interested in eight-straight than four-on-the-floor.

Poor Topper, they commiserated, shaking their heads.  When will he finally give up and settle down with someone his own age?  Someone he can grow old with?

Christopher was face down on the bed, his face pushed into a pillow, pouting silently when Topper came out of the bathroom.  He’s too easily spoiled, Topper thought.  Only two weeks and he’s already used to getting exactly what he wants.

“Okay, let’s go,” Topper said, smacking Christopher on the butt with the flat of his hand.  He noticed the red imprint it left just below the bruise he’d sucked up to the skin the night before.  Evidence.  The word sprang to his mind and he shook it away.

“Race you to the lake.”

Christopher turned onto his side, smiling his crooked smile–the impish grin which, two weeks ago, Topper thought he could easily handle seeing every morning for the rest of his life.

“And I’ll go for the croissants after,” Christopher said, generously making his own concession.  Topper shrugged, wrapped himself in a robe, and tossed one to Christopher.

At lakeside, some five-hundred feet from the back door of Topper’s estate, the two men shed their robes and dropped them along with their towels onto the grass before wading into the shimmering water.  To their right and left, startled frogs leapt invisibly from rocks and lily pads where they’d crawled to catch the first warmth of the early morning sun.  A snake slithered off the bank and Chris shrieked.

“I know, I know,” he said, registering the look of impatient disgust on Topper’s face.  “Not poisonous–more afraid of us than we are of them–I know.  It’s still not something I’ll ever get used to–swimming with snakes.  Sounds too much like ‘swimming with the fishes,’ you know?”

He laughed and dove under the water.

Topper watched the glistening smooth skin slip beneath the surface like quicksilver.

“Yes,” he said quietly to himself.  “You never know what you’ll find in this lake.”

A splash hit him in the eye as Chris wiggled his foot in a teasing wave just before disappearing completely.  Then Topper felt the arms encircling his knees and he toppled into the shallows.  He was mildly annoyed, but prepared this time to enjoy the sensual horseplay.  Not like the first time they had been in the water together, when Christopher had surprised him with his adolescent antics and had come close to setting a record for the shortest of Topper’s doomed relationships—barely twenty-four hours.

But it wouldn’t have been fair.  Chris hadn’t seen the list of resolutions yet, hadn’t been given the same chance as the others.  It had always been their choice, either to laugh or to be warned.

This pretty boy with the sandy hair and crooked grin was thus granted a reprieve and Topper hadn’t regretted one moment of the past two weeks.  Just the night before, as he was pulling the cork out of their second bottle of Shiraz, he caught himself thinking that Chris might be the one—the one that gets away . . . and gets to stay.

Fifteen minutes later, they crawled out of the water much like the frogs, and lay on the bank to let the sun warm their backs.

Christopher rested his cheek on the back of one hand while idly running the fingertips of the other up and down Topper’s spine.

“You know, Toppy, I’ve been thinking about last night.”

Topper took a deep breath and relaxed into Chris’ touch, noticing with amazed relief that his hangover had vanished.

“Me too, sweetie,” he said with a chuckle.  “Can’t seem to remember much except for the feeling good part.  I do remember feeling very, very good.”

Chris rolled over onto his back and squinted up at the sky.

“That, too,” he said.  “But I was thinking about that thing you showed me.  You know, your New Year’s Resolutions.”  Topper’s blood ran cold as he tried in vain to remember why on earth he would have shown Christopher the list the night before.  With a laugh, Chris added,  “I didn’t think people did that anymore.”

“I’m just an old-fashioned guy,” Topper said, swallowing hard.

“Yeah, I guess.  But that one though, about killing the men you sleep with . . . ”

Not killing,” Topper hastily corrected him.

“Yeah, whatever.  Guess that’s the important part, huh?  Anyway, you had me for a minute there, but then I looked at you sitting there at the table all serious one minute, and then sleeping with your chin bouncing off your chest the next, and I figured it must be a joke.”

“Why is that, Chris?”  Topper had calmed down.  He rested his forehead onto crossed arms, allowing logic to cool his irrational passion.  It was unfortunate, but since Chris had seen the list, he’d have to be next.  Rules were rules.

Christopher turned onto his side and leaned down to brush a kiss along Topper’s shoulder blade.

“I just couldn’t picture you stepping on an ant, much less strangling a man to death, or putting a bullet into his brain, or . . . ”

“Cutting their throats, Chris.  That’s how I do it.  With a stiletto.  They bleed to death in a matter of minutes.”

Chris grinned and slapped him on the butt.

“There, see?  You’re such a kidder.  But I’m warning you—you’re starting to freak me out.”  He scrambled to his feet.  “Let’s go in again.  Do we have time?”

Topper smiled and sat up.

“Just a quick one.  I’d like to get to the gym before it gets crowded.  Go on.  I’ll be right in.”

Christopher trotted back to the edge of the water and splashed in, scaring more frogs and watching for snakes.  Keeping an eye on him, Topper reached for his robe and pulled something from the pocket.  He followed his lover into the lake and soon caught up to him.

“How about a kiss, sweetie?” he asked, grappling the younger man into an embrace. Chris swooned with happiness as he leaned back against Topper’s chest.

“Can I spend the rest of my life with you, Toppy?  Forever?  Here in the water forever with you?”

“Of course, my love.”  Topper brought the blade up and swung it around with a flick of his wrist at the last minute.  “You can spend every last second with me.”

Chris closed his eyes and smiled as the razor sliced a neat, quick line through the skin and muscle above his Adam’s apple.  He barely had time to open his eyes, for his smile to fade into resignation, before it was over.

“Topper, I can’t believe it.  Another one gone.”

Topper nodded sadly as he sat at the bar with his friend, Jasper.

“Yes, I just woke up this morning and he was gone.  No note, no explanation, no anything.”

“The little shit.”  Jasper signaled the bartender for another round.  “It’s his loss.”

“You say that every time, Jas.”  Topper mustered up a smile.  “You must think me the biggest fool.”

“Well, it does seem rather odd that you keep getting—well, there’s no other way to put it—dumped.  And you keep going back for more.  This one, though—I really liked Chris.  I thought he was the one.  It’s a crime, really.  An awful crime.”

Topper didn’t answer.  He sipped distractedly at his Bacardi and Diet Coke.  Chris had been unplanned.  It had happened so unexpectedly that he wasn’t sure he’d done everything properly this time.  He’d burned the belongings to ash in the kiln in his potting shed.  The piranha had been collected, counted, and put back into the aquarium in the cellar.  And the knife had been soaked in bleach.

Neither one of them had been wearing any clothes at the time, so there was no blood evidence unless, of course, the fish had spattered themselves as they tore at the corpse, stripping the skeleton clean of every last trace of human flesh.

The skeleton.  Now that was always a problem, but Topper would do what he always did.  First thing tomorrow morning he would put on his diving mask and collect the bones from the bottom of the lake.  He knew exactly how many to look for—two-hundred-six—and he would do a careful inventory before taking the last remains to the kiln.

He made the wry observation to himself that perhaps the only thing that would stop all this would be his inability to do the legwork afterwards.  But how far in the future was that–five? ten years?  If he stayed healthy he might have as many as twenty good years left.

“You know who would be perfect for you?” Jasper was saying as Topper refocused his attention on the present.

“No, Jas, I don’t think I want to . . . ”

Jasper cut him off and pulled a napkin from the stack on the edge of the bar.

“Here, let me give you his number.  Pen.”  He snapped his fingers.  “Pen.”

Topper handed over his faithful Waterman.

“Arthur . . . Arthur Murphy—not Murray.” Jasper grinned and pushed the napkin across the bar to his friend.  “He’s a professor at the University.  Now, he’s not as young as all your others, not as old as us, either, but it’s a little more realistic proposition.  He, uh, did ask me once for your number, but you were hooked up at the time.  He’ll be thrilled if you call.  And you might find you have more in common with someone like Art–if you know what I mean.”

Topper was insulted, but he knew Jasper meant well.  He folded the napkin and stuffed it into his pocket.  Then he snapped his fingers at Jasper to recover the pen and went back to nursing his drink.  He wouldn’t call Arthur Murphy.  The guy was probably in his mid-forties, looked more like mid-sixties, and drove a Buick, for Crissake.  Not his type.  Not his type at all.

Besides, he’d already decided that after tomorrow morning’s final clean-up, he would try to keep things quiet for the rest of the year.  It was early  September, and he felt certain he could be good for four months.  It disturbed Topper that he’d been so bothered by Christopher.  Maybe it was because he had thought he was the one, too.

Two and a half months later, Topper stared into a plate of Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce.  Seated next to him at Jasper’s eight-foot cherry dining room table was Arthur Murphy, along with a host of their friends and acquaintances, most of whom Topper knew, and none of whom were under the age of forty.  He scowled as Jasper raised his wine glass in a toast.  Their eyes met.  Jasper smiled with a knowing nod. Topper decided he would develop a headache as soon as the pumpkin pie had been served.

But Arthur was not as bad as he’d thought, and they had a fine conversation during dinner about the differences between country and city living.  One thing led to another, and by the time the dessert dishes had been cleared and the brandy was being poured, Topper had discovered that he and Arthur shared many interests–Impressionist art, historical novels, and tropical fish, to name a few.

The following evening, Topper parked his car behind the powder-blue Regal in the driveway next to Arthur’s split level home.  He felt a weight lift off his shoulders.  There was a certain freedom in knowing that this relationship would not end the same way as every last one he’d had in the past five years.  Arthur was, after all, forty-seven.  Even if this lasted one night, even if the sex sucked, it wouldn’t be tainted by the nagging possibility that one of them would die before it was all over.  Whistling, Topper rang the doorbell and looked straight into the peephole with a confident, light-hearted smile.

That night, for the first time since Christopher, he had too much wine, and again for the first time since Christopher, he felt good—very, very good.  And afterwards, when Arthur handed Topper the typewritten list to read, he wasn’t quite sure why he laughed when he read the second line—Resolution Two: Stop killing every man I sleep with.

They cuddled, and then at Arthur’s suggestion, went in to shower together.  There was no shower curtain.  Two one-gallon bottles of bleach stood in one corner.  Opposite these stood a fifty-gallon aquarium, air filter bubbling merrily as the piranha fish swam and circled the glass in a hungry swarm.  How did Jasper know, Topper wondered as he watched his own blood swirl down the bathtub drain?  How did he know Arthur and I had so much in common?

__________

BOYS, MEN, AND GROWING UP

by Hugh (Dags the Drover) Morris

She lent over and shook his shoulder gently. “You okay, love?”

“Uh . . . What? Wha‘dya say?” he mumbled, half awake.

“You said you had to get the pump jack started. What pump jack? You haven’t talked in your sleep for years. And what’s this about a pump jack?” She pushed her pillow around, somehow hoping it would all of a sudden become more comfortable.

He sat up, more awake now. “Well, you know how we’ve started this new thing, and well, it’s not really taking off the way we’d hoped.”

“Yep, I’m beginning to wish we hadn’t spent the money.” She wrestled with her pillow some more.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I think I’ve found the answer.” His speech and just about everything else became clearer by the minute.

“Okay, that’s fine. Any time you want to let me in on this is good. And what’s it got to do with a – a pump jack?”

She trawled back through her memories of the early days of their marriage on the farm. “Just remind me what a pump jack is?”

“Well . . . the answer is we’ve got to do two things at once.” He warmed to his theme. “You see, when I was a kid, oh . . . I dunno, about eleven or twelve I suppose . . . ” He slid back down under the blankets and a distant gaze settled on his features.

The year was 1967. He was twelve years old and pretty undersized for his age. He’d had rheumatic fever five and-a-half years before and he’d been kept pretty sheltered by his mum ever since. Concern about heart murmurs and all that.

It was the week after Christmas, harvest was over, and the days were witheringly hot and absolutely windless with the nights not much cooler.

His dad was crook in the hospital and there was a problem. Most of the livestock had been moved on to water on the two creeks that ran through the place, but the stud merino ewes and their prize progeny were up in the 42 and relied on the pump jack in the Creek Paddock for their water.

His job each morning while his dad was crook was to catch his horse, an old grey mare he’d named Betty after the lady from the farm next door, and ride up through the Hill Paddock to the 100 Acre and check the water level in the tank on the hill. The water reticulated from the tank back down through the newly-laid poly pipe to the trough in the 42 for the stud mob.

This tank was usually supplied by the windmill over the bore in the Creek Paddock, but there had been so little wind and it had been so hot his dad had unhooked the wooden connecting rod on the windmill, set up the pump jack over the bore casting connecting onto the pump rod from below, and moved the huge single cylinder Southern Cross diesel into place to run the pump jack.

On this day he knew the tank was going to be empty because it was less than a quarter full yesterday. He swung old Betty around, rode back along the fenced ridge between the Hundred Acre and the 42 to the gate, passed through, and headed down through the freshly-harvested wheat stubble toward the trough on the fence line.

As he came over the rise he saw that the mob were all hanging around the empty trough panting with their tongues out. He knew what had to be done but he wasn’t sure he could do it.

Before his dad got crook, he went with him each morning in the old Falcon ute to help him start the pump. He was not only the gate opener, he was assistant pump starter as well. It was nearly a two man job to start this pump because his dad was pretty crook with asthma and the big old Southern Cross diesel was so heavy to turn over that his dad got real wheezy every time. Sometimes it scared him to see his dad sucking at the air and not getting any. But hospital and an oxygen bottle was fixing that.

He pulled old Betty up at the fence between the 42 and the Creek Paddock, swung his off-side leg over her back, dropped to the ground, tied the reins to the fence, and looked down the seventy or eighty yards to the gully where the windmill, the pump jack, and the diesel engine waited.

How could he ever get that thing started? It seemed it was all his dad and he could do together.

He stopped for a minute and it occurred to him he could move the stud mob to another paddock. He looked across to the Grass Paddock immediately to the east. That was no good. It was watered by this bore. In fact, all this end of the place was watered by this bore, so that wouldn’t work.

He thought back to the western side, to the Hill Paddock and Bottom Hill Paddock. But that was no good either, because the pump on the bore down the homestead end was not working and he didn’t know what to do about that.

And he wasn’t going to box the stud mob with any of the other mobs. If that was going to happen, his dad would have to tell him to do it. There was nothing else for it. He had to give it a go.

He climbed through the fence and walked down to the windmill, checking for red-bellied black snakes as he got closer. The old Southern Cross stood about as tall as he was.

He began by doing the things his dad always did. Check the fuel in the fuel tank and make sure the tap is on; pull the dip stick to check the sump oil; pull out that long thimble on top, turn it up, pour some engine oil into it and tip it into the head from the tin sitting on the ground beside the engine, replacing the thimble at the same time.

Now, for the hard part. Two things had to happen at once. He pressed down as hard as he could on the spring-loaded decompression valve and tried to wind the crank handle at the same time. He remembered not to grip the crank handle with his thumb over the handle but to tuck it in beside his pointing finger so that if he lost pressure on the decompression valve and it backfired, it wouldn’t break his thumb.

He only got half a turn in before he had to let go of the valve. Bang. Back the handle came. It reefed out of his hand and nearly hit his head on its way round backwards.

He took a spell for minute and thought about those stud ewes and lambs.

His dad had taken him out of school last Easter so they could go to Sydney for the Stonehaven Cup at the Royal Easter Show. He remembered the impressive lineup of teams of merino rams and ewes from the different merino studs across New South Wales.

He thought about how he decided there and then that he would take a team of stud sheep to Sydney one day and proudly stand in that line up. But if he couldn’t get that engine started there might not be any stud sheep left.

He found the crank handle, inserted it into the slot on the pulley side, pulled himself up to his most manly self and sucked in a big breath. He pressed down on that decompression valve and heaved with all his might onto that handle once again. Around once, around again . . . he watched the big old fly wheel on the other side begin to spin. As he did so, his hand slipped of the decompression valve and chooff . . . chooff . . . chooff . . . then . . . silence. His eyes dropped, his shoulders sagged, and he felt his normal self again. Useless.

After a moment he stood up straight and caught sight of those ewes and lambs. He thought about his poor dad stuck in hospital, too crook to take care of his own pride and joy, and how that must be eating away at him. He thought about how proud his dad would be if he could start that pump. He was pretty desperate to please his dad.

“Well” he said, gritting his teeth with determination. “I’m the boss today, so let’s get this bally thing going.”

His energy rising now, he grabbed the crank handle again and, before he had time to assume the position, he was into it. Around once, around again, faster, faster. He could start to feel the momentum of the fly wheel, and he spun the handle one more time as he took his other hand off the decompression valve.

He was holding his breath now. Usually he did one thing and his dad did the other. He’d only ever wound the crank handle once before.

Chooff . . . chooff . . . chooff . . . chooff . . . choof chooff chooff.

Big belches of blue smoke pushed out the exhaust each time it fired, the huge fly wheel providing the inertia required to keep that single piston going up and down until the compression was great enough to fire, and then . . .Away she went. She had a life all of her own.

He’d done it.

He collapsed in a heap onto the ground, his shirt ringing wet, trying to catch his breath and recover his energy.

He was too exhausted to feel proud, but something had shifted inside. He might only be a boy, but he’d just done a man’s job. The old girl had settled into her rhythm now, with the push rods on the pump jack pushing up and down, lifting water from the pump down below, squirting water out over the top of the leaking buckets on the packing case with each stroke, and spraying refreshingly cool droplets all over him as he lay there on the dried-out foxtail grass.

He looked up to see the mob milling around the trough again. The water had begun to flow. He was just thinking about which fence post he was going to have to pull old Betty alongside to get back into the saddle for the ride home when his wife broke in.

“So . . . what’s the pump jack got to do with the business?”

Having just been jerked back into the present, he responded slowly.

“Okay. This is how it works. We’ve got to do two things at the same time. One, we’ve got to get going door-to-door and actually sell some of those pictures because they won’t sell themselves. And two, we’ve got to get more galleries signed up to take them on commission at the same time. As more pictures appear in the market place, the more people will see them, the more people will want them. They begin to sell themselves. They take on a life of their own, you see.”

“Right. The pump jack, eh?”

“Yep. Actually, as I was thinking about it just now, I realized it’s the doing two things at once. It’s the momentum of the first sales that generates the future sales in the market place. Nice hey?”

“Okay.” She yawned as she rolled over. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

He lay there thinking for a moment or two. Self-doubt was a constant companion, and he’d had a few failures of which he was only too aware. But something had shifted. It was time to have a go again.

“Well,” he said to nobody in particular. “I’m the boss here. So let’s get this bally thing going.”

__________

victimology

by Iggy Sarducci

so i walk into the room
a clean off-white bare room, a bland room, church-rectory type room
half a dozen nervous-looking people on folding chairs
suckling neurotically on styrofoam cups
ping-pong eyeballs gaping at the carpet
meditatively devouring each others’ shoes, all fidgeting.

here ye, welcome all, here we are to bare our naked innards
purge our dirt
ration our demons out to strange dogs drooling at our gizzards
cleanse shine disinfect and deodorize our souls…

the door closes and like wind-up marionettes, necks jerk up
suddenly warm charming and neighborly
faces preen all over me
a hand is thrust at me
a hollywood grin

hi, i’m Louisa, molested by my mother. big weird quirky smile

across the room the bald lanky suit coughs —hi again everybody— he looks at me, nods —Philip, son of an alcoholic, second cousin to a breast-fed hemophiliac

next to him in farmer jeans and flannel —i’m Luke, cross breed: Protestant father, Roman Catholic mother

next to me an emaciated spandex woman leans in —hi, i’m Nicoletta, i’m… a nymphomaniac workaholic with lesbian transvestite psuedophilosophical Freudian inbreeding tendencies

frumpy dark eyebrows next to her closes his eyes. high nasal voice —hi, i’m Melvin, recurring nightmare of a vegetarian muskrat in the himalayas on the verge of sleep-deprivation

i’m the last victim. the new guy. everyone’s quiet, all eyes staring at me,
big cartoon grins.

i look down at my shoes, one hangs untied,

take a deep breath that deafens the room,

thinking madly thinking maaaaaan i-don’t-belong-here i-don’t-wanna-beeee-herewhat-the-hell-am-i-doooo… what-do-i-say-to-these-nutjobs

who’s-the-gaunt-guy-in-the-doorway anyway
should-i-tie-the-damn-shoe-now
what-am-i-going-to-say– gulp!

i look up solemnly and smile —hi, i’m Rogongo, abducted by anglo-saxon yuppies at conception, annually prodded through a synthetic wildlife preserve in San Diego, fed neon pink beehive-shaped sugar fluffs and told it was fun, i’ve been subjected to superhydroponic brainwaves from my incarnate sister since ’66, i ate six candy bars on the way over here, recently came to the realization that i was born politically incorrect, and i harbor unsuppressable desires to unpeel grinning strangers like bananas.

they all shake their heads nervously and tragically, looking down at the floor
in condolence.
respectfully we all observe a moment of grave silence.
and then slowly all heads rise, ceremoniously.
and we look to the tattered guy in the doorway,
imploringly.

the guy steps forward politely, tips his cap —hi, i’m Ed. uhhh, is this the room for the free soup?

__________
This work is protected by copyright by Iggy Sarducci. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. For more writing by Iggy Sarducci, please see http://hubpages.com/profile/Iggy+Sarducci.

Posted in WHAM, BAM, FANG YOU, MA'AM | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

WELCOME

Introduction

Hi. Welcome to L. T. Fawkes Reading Room, a website dedicated to fiction, from short stories to full-length novels. You’ll find my own stuff here as well as an ever-growing collection by terrific writers from all over the world.

We’ve gotten tons and tons of great comments in the time we’ve been on-line and believe me, we’ve loved every one of them. But lately the number of comments has fallen off, and that tells us the threads have gotten too long. So we’ve cleared all the old comments out and now we’re watching for the new ones. Please take the time to say howdy or attaboy or what were you thinking? to your favorite authors!!

If you look to the right you’ll see the words “New Stuff.” Click on that and you’ll find the day-by-day log of what’s new and where to find it.

Hey, Kindle readers – KINDLE FORUM is a list of Kindle titles by price, category, and brief description. Please help other Kindle readers – add your favorite Kindle books by leaving the info in the “comments” box. Thanks!

Are you on Facebook? Check out the page Kindle Party for fun Kindle reviews.

And please visit my Amazon Kindle Author Page at:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&search-alias=digital-text&field-author=L.%20T.%20Fawkes

Thanks!!

L. T.

All rights reserved by the authors.  Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.

NEW STUFF

9-20-12

Added the latest installment of Rising Falls News to RISING FALLS NEWS

9-11-2012

Added COLLEGE SQUARE CINEMA, by David Porter, to THE WAY IT WAS

4-12-2012

Added the new book, News From Rising Falls, in which L. T. Fawkes assumes the alias of Larry L. Little, ace reporter.

3-13-2012

Added The Last Asteroid, by Robin Crawford, to Stories Vol. 1.

7-19-11

Added the new book KINDLE FORUM, a place for Kindle readers to find titles by price, genre, and brief description, without a lot of hype.

7-14-11

Added HARRY by L. T. Fawkes to Stories Vol. 3

6-15-11

Added JUDAH’S TEARS by Susan Pierce to AGATHA BLISS.

3-29-11

Added The Seeder by Fred and Pamela Baker to NOVEL EXCERPTS.

3-28-11

Added Why Clancy Went West by Fred Baker to HUMOR.

3-13-11

Added Bob’s Discount Tattoo and Grocery by Daniel J. Durand to HUMOR.

3-09-11

Added MIRACLE ON A STAIRWELL by Daniel J. Durand to HUMOR.

3-06-11

Added Chapters 1 and 2 of Lights Out by L.T. Fawkes.

3-01-11

Added The Ghost of Kaupi Village by Glenda Inverarity to Stories Vol. 2.

2-16-11

Added Murder Indeed by Susan Pierce to Agatha Bliss.

2-15-11

Added Revenge of a Father by Michael Cook to Stories Volume 1.

2-12-11

Added Chapter 24 of FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN by L.T. Fawkes.

2-11-11

Added Uninvited Wedding Guests by Jed Fisher to Stories Volume 2.
Added Chapters 21, 22, and 23 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN by L.T. Fawkes

2-10-11

Added Chapter 20 of FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN by L. T. Fawkes.

2-9-11

Added Chapter 19 of FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN by L. T. Fawkes

2-8-11

Added Chapter 18 to Fillmore Rides Again by L. T. Fawkes.

2-7-11

Added Domestic Violence: Lizzie’s Tale by Shalini Kagal to Stories Vol. 2.
Added Dark Shadows and Crystal Pools by Melanie Loveridge to Guest Fiction.
Added The Swamp by Fernando Paez to Novel Excerpts.

2-6-11

Added Death at the Hotel: Part 2 by Susan Pierce to Agatha Bliss.

2-5-11

Added Auld Acquaintance by Robin Crawford to Stories Vol. 2.

1-24-11

Added Death at the Hotel by Susan Pierce to Agatha Bliss.
Added The Pale Blue Felt Hat by Ian Dorking-Clark to Humor.
Moved Shotgun and Herons by Ian Dorking-Clark from Guest Fiction to Humor.

1-20-11

Added Shotgun and Herons by Ian Dorking-Clark to the book titled Guest Fiction.

1-16-11

Added The Yuma Stage by Bill Henderson to Guest Fiction.

1-14-11

Added Chapter 17 of FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

10-22-10

Added an excerpt from the book ONE MAN’S DARK by Robin Crawford.

10-14-10

Added “In the Garage” by Susan Pierce to AGATHA BLISS.

9-24-10

Added “Slipping” by Robin Crawford to GUEST FICTION.

9-22-10

Added Chapter 15 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.
Added Chapter 16 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

9-21-10

Added Chapter 13 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.
Added Chapter 14 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.
Added “Whittling” by Wayne Brown to GUEST FICTION.

9-20-10

Added “Thigh Pains Drifter” by L.T. Fawkes to STORYBOOK.

9-19-10

Added “A Faceless Corporation Has Stolen My Cheese” by Larry Caringer to ONE MORE THING.
Added “Smile, You’re on a Bike Trail” by Aaron Dorksen to FITNESS.

9-16-10

Added “Tips for Healthy Eating” by Aaron Dorksen to FITNESS.

9-15-10

Added “Make a Bucket List for Fitness” by Aaron Dorksen to FITNESS.
Added Chapter 12 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

9-14-10

Added “The Best Gym Membership I’ll Ever Have” by Aaron Dorksen to FITNESS.
Added “Ten Tips for Beginning Weight Lifters” by Aaron Dorksen to FITNESS.
Added the book titled FITNESS to the bookcase.

9-13-10

Added “Boys, Men, and Growing Up” by Hugh (Dags the Drover) Morris to GUEST FICTION.

9-12-10

Added “Death on the Freeway” by Susan Pierce to AGATHA BLISS.
Added Chapter 11 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.
Added “Matthew” by L.T. Fawkes to STORYBOOK.

9-7-10

Added Chapter 10 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

9-6-10

Added “Panties on the Ceiling” by Wayne Brown to THE WAY IT WAS.

9-5-10

Added Chapter 1 of “Becky Makes Her Move” to GUEST FICTION.
Added Chapter 9 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

9-4-10

Added Chapter 8 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

9-3-10

Added Craig Martini’sBass Guitar Solo to the book titled MUSIC VIDEO.
Added “Walls” by Paul R. Buckle to GUEST FICTION.
Added “Black Friday” by Wilbur W. Giesy to THE WAY IT WAS.
Added “crazy maddie haunts my wall” by Iggy Sarducci to GUEST FICTION.

9-2-10

Added “victimology” by Iggy Sarducci to GUEST FICTION.

9-1-10

Added Chapter 7 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

8-31-10

Added “Iron Man” by Robin Crawford to GUEST FICTION.
Added Chapter 6 to FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

8-30-10

~ Added “A Massive Misunderstanding – Two Mates at a Pub” by Hugh Morris (Dags the Drover) to GUEST FICTION.
~ Added “Grocery Shopping with the Kids – Special Ops Style” by L.T. Fawkes to       STORYBOOK.
~ Added “Death on the Escalator” by Susan Pierce to AGATHA BLISS.

8-28-10

Added “A Brief History of a Life” by L.T. Fawkes to STORYBOOK.

8-27-10

Added Chapter 21 of COLD SLICE.
Added Chapter 4 of FILLMORE RIDES AGAIN.

8-26-10

Added “Washboard Vlad” to WHAM, BAM, FANG YOU, MA’AM.

8-25-10

Added “To the Depot” by Susan Pierce to AGATHA BLISS.
Added “The Tree of Shame” by Merlin Fraser to THE WAY IT WAS.

8-24-10

Added “Ground Lights” to STORYBOOK.
Added “Life Among the Driveway Lanterns” to STORYBOOK.
Added Chapters 19 and 20 of COLD SLICE.

8-23-10

AGATHA BLISS by Susan Pierce got her own book (bottom shelf of bookcase).
FILLMORE SAVES THE DAY is fixed.  Yay.
Added “PEMDAS #3” by David Amerman to ONE MORE THING.
Added “PEMDAS #4” by David Amerman to ONE MORE THING.

8-22-10

Added “Agatha Bliss: Along the Canal” by Susan Pierce to Guest Fiction.
Added “PEMDAS #1” by David Amerman to One More Thing.
Added three new golf parodies by Larry Caringer to Wham, Bam.
Added “Surprising Origins of Underwear” by Stan Fletcher to One More Thing.
L.T. asked Fillmore to mix up a great big mojito . . .

8-21-10

Added “Beyond Sex” by Alexandra Lucas to Guest Fiction.
Added “The Mighty Hunter” by Robert Robillard to One More Thing.

8-20-10

Discovered “select text color” button.
Tried to tweak Fillmore Saves the Day and messed something up.  Now there are no paragraph indentations and I can’t get back in to fix it.  Grrr.  Sorry.  It’ll be fixed on Monday.

Moved “Colorado River Story” to The Way it Was.
Added “Lela’s Story” to Storybook.

8-19-10

Added Chapter 3 of Fillmore Rides Again.
Added Chapter 18 of Cold Slice.

8-17-10

Added Chapter 17 to Cold Slice.
Added “Agatha Bliss: Death Under the Bridge” by Susan Pierce to Guest Fiction.
Added Chapter 2 to Fillmore Rides Again.

8-16-10

In STORYBOOK, “Missouri Story #1” has been added.
In STORYBOOK, “The Colorado River Scrolls” has been added.

8-15-10

In Guest Fiction, “Agatha Bliss: Death in the Abbey” by Susan Pierce has been added.
In Storybook,, “Does Bigfoot Bury Its Dead” has been added.

8-14-10
Chapters 15 and 16 of Cold Slice have been added.

8-12-2010

Two more chapters of Cold Slice have been added.  Up to Chapter 14 out of 24.

8-11-2010

The first two books of The Fillmore Chronicles, Fillmore to the Rescue and Fillmore Saves the Day are now posted in their entirety.
Several more chapters of the first Terry Saltz Mystery, Cold Slice, have been
added.

Posted in EVENTS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

ONE MORE THING

Introduction

All rights reserved.  Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Robert Robillard is about to share a tale with you about one man’s quest to “bag the big one” – after a hearty breakfast, of course, in “The Mighty Hunter.”

Larry Caringer tells a harrowing tale of corporate America in “A Faceless Corporation Has Stolen My Cheese.”

 

David Amerman appears with the first of a series of heartfelt letters of apology to the Waaklesky School District Board.

Stan Fletcher will share a bit of obscure (until now) caveman history in “Surprising Origins of Underwear.”

L.T. Fawkes approaches a challenging errand like a military operation in “Grocery Shopping With the Kids – Special Ops Style.”

Pop a cold one and settle in . . .

(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled, WELCOME.)

__________

A Faceless Corporation Has Stolen My Cheese

by Larry Caringer

Once upon a time there were two humans and two mice who lived in a gigantic, magical maze with – oh, I don’t know – maybe six billion other people and God knows how many other mice.  

The two humans were named Al and Fred.  Every day of the week – well, every working day of the week – they left their homes to travel through the maze to jobs where they made cheese. 

They worked for different cheese makers.  Al worked for Cheese Valley, a small, local cheese maker.  Fred was a level 12 Cheese Ager for CheezKo, the cheese-making subsidiary of EatAmerica, Inc., a giant industrial corporation whose main concern had little to do with making cheese and a lot to do with producing stock dividends.

Both Al and Fred were very happy.  They had been at their jobs for quite some time.  They both knew how to make cheese like nobody’s business!

Then one day, Fred was called into a meeting at CheezKo.  A man from Corporate in a really nice suit without any bits of cheese on it, stood in front of all 800 employees.  He used a laser pointer to explain the future. 

“We are going to crush all competition,” he said.  “We’ll put every other cheese maker in this country out of business.  And when we do that, you will all get a special reward for your hard work.”  

“Hard work?  What hard work?”  Fred thought.  “I love making cheese, so it’s never hard work.” 

But the man in the suit without any grated cheese on it continued.  “I say hard work, because those of you who are still working for us after today will be taking over for the 600 who are being let go.  That means whoever is still employed at the end of the day will be doing four jobs instead of just one.” 

There was a gasp.  Then total silence.  Fred had never heard the cheese factory so quiet. 

The man in the spotless suit smiled.  “This is called ‘maximizing efficiency.’ ”  

The news spread fast.  That night when Al got home from Cheese Valley, he went next door to see Fred.  “I’m sorry to hear about CheezKo,” he said. 

Fred didn’t have time to talk.  “I’ve got to get to sleep so I can get up early and do what Jack and Alva used to do, before I do what I do, and then later I have to do Grace’s job.” 

Al was shocked.  “Did you get a raise?” 

Fred shook his head.  “No, but they say the salary cut is only temporary.  Just until they can get the profits up.”

Al felt badly for his friend and tried to console him.  But Fred said, “Don’t feel bad for me.  Pretty soon, you’ll feel bad enough for yourself . . . after all of us at CheezKo put Cheese Valley out of business.” 

Al went home that evening feeling very bad indeed.  

Weeks passed.  Then one day Al went to work at the little Cheese Valley factory like he had every working day for the last 15 years.  But there were no cars in the parking lot.  No cheddar-smelling smoke was coming out of the smoke stack.  Mr. O’Brien, the owner of Cheese Valley, was standing at the front door with a sickly smile on his face as he brushed at the cheesy residue on his suit’s lapels. 

“Hi, Al.  I have some bad news.” 

Al stopped short.  “Bad news?” 

Mr. O’Brien plucked a larger strand of jack cheese from a spot near his Lions’ Club pin and popped it in his mouth.  “We’ve been put out of business by CheezKo.”

Al went home and waited for his friend Fred to get back from work.  He had a plan.  “I’ll talk to Fred about getting a job at CheezKo.  After all, I have 15 years experience.  And I love making cheese.  Maybe he can put in a good word for me.” 

Fred came home very early that day and saw Al on his front porch.  “Hi, Al.  I heard about Cheese Valley.  I’m sorry.”  

Al put on his brave face.  “It’s just business, Fred.  But I was wondering.  Could you put in a good word for me at your factory?  I love making cheese and I have 15 years experience.”

Fred fumbled for the keys to his front door.  “I’m out of work too, Al.  CheezKo is going to make cheese in a different country.” 

Al couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Fred kept looking for his keys.  “Looks like both of us won’t be making any more cheese.  Ever again.” 

But Al wasn’t ready to let it go.  “I don’t believe that.  I’ll be in the cheese again.  You’ll see.”

And so they went their separate ways.  Al went out into the maze every day and looked for new opportunities to make the cheese.  But he came home every day more frustrated than the day before. 

Meanwhile, Fred went out into the maze every day, too.  But, because he knew how big corporations worked, he decided on a different way to make the cheese.  He went to a computer school where he could learn new skills so he could find the right part of the maze where people were still making cheese.

And, you know, they both succeeded.  Fred became a highly skilled member of the new society.  He’s now working out of his family room selling foreign cheeses on-line on ebay.  As Fred says:  “This year, with a little luck, my wife will get a raise at her job in the mall and we might get to keep our house.”

And Al found a way to remain close to the cheese he loved without retraining.  Every day, he puts on a paper hat and see-through plastic gloves and goes to his new job at a nearby hamburger chain placing a slice of foreign-made American cheese on a Brazilian-grown hamburger for one-fourth of what he used to make.  

By the way, the two mice I mentioned at the beginning of this story are doing great.  They don’t need jobs.  They don’t need money.  They don’t need huge corporations to live a good life.  But, then – who does?

 __________

PEMDAS #1

by David Amerman

To the Waaklesky School District Board:
Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.
Let me explain.

You see, my family was dealt a heavy blow when my father injured himself last Saturday afternoon. We went to McDonald’s for our traditional Saturday brunch, only this time we went to the new Mickey D’s downtown, just to check it out.

Unfortunately, this one was really different. It had this gigantic freaking playground at the front of the store. You could barely even tell there was a restaurant behind such a behemoth of a playground.

My little brother Shannon went apeshit. Excuse me. Let me rephrase that. My little brother Shannon became excited. For someone accustomed to slipshod, low-budget grade school slides and swings, coming face to face with a three story playground was like seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Minus the scattered snail corpses and persistent body odor, you know.

So my dad let Shannon play for a little bit before the meal was ready to eat. Once we got our food, though, Shannon was so into this colossal playplace that he didn’t want to stop and eat. We set the tray of burgers down on a table near the shoe cubbies and called his name. He was at the very top of the structure and refused to get down.

So my dad gets the bright idea to climb up and get Shannon himself. I was surprised that he even got past all those other little kids and made it all the way up to the top. But just as he was crossing the last cargo net tunnel, his weight caused him to crash right through the net and fall thirty feet or so where he landed on some fat guy’s table.

He scared the shit out of that fat guy. What a sight it was. One second this lonely lard ball is staring at the eleven Filet-O-Fish sandwiches he bought and the next second, BLAM! An explosion of North Pacific cod and tartar sauce, and what looked like a 350 pound man flailing his arms as if he were trying to take flight.

We had to pay $450 to pay for the broken cargo net tunnel and another $30 for that fatso to buy some more sandwiches. Worse than that , my dad hurt his back. He didn’t break anything, though. The doctors said that those stacks of fish sandwiches probably cushioned his fall. Maybe obesity has its advantages after all!

Well, even though my dad didn’t suffer any major damage, he was still in a lot of pain so the doctor gave him some Vicodin.

Three days later, my dad’s sister, Aunt Sally, came all the way up from Cheyenne to visit us for a few days. This was the first time Shannon and I have ever met her. I wish we could have kept it that way. All Aunt Sally wanted to do was sleep on the sofa, smoke glass pipes, and eat my Snickers Kudos bars that I like to pack in my lunch. Kind of like what our Uncle Saul used to do before he died.

Yesterday Aunt Sally came to school to pick me and Shannon up. She was eating my dad’s Vicodin like Crunch ‘n Munch and she kept saying she wanted to go spelunking with Mark Ruffalo or something. She looked kind of dizzy, but that’s how she usually is anyway.

Then she grabbed my backpack, found my AXE deodorant, and started spraying it everywhere. Then she tried to light a cigarette and when the flame hit the aerosol spray she wound up lighting the art class display on fire.

Aunt Sally says she’s sorry for destroying everyone’s project. She says she needed to take all that Vicodin (which is why she got so dizzy) because she cut her pinky on a dried up orange peel.

It won’t happen again.
Sincerely yours,
Graham Mackenrow
5th Grade

THE SURPRISING ORIGINS OF UNDERWEAR

by Stan Fletcher

A little known fact that I’ve been researching today: Underwear has been around since cave man times.A cave man named Gonad came up with the concept somewhere around 12,000 BC.

Gonad was out on a mammoth hunt when he rounded a corner and was surprised by an angry mammoth that had been shot with an arrow by another caveman who looked an awful lot like Gonad. As the mammoth charged, Gonad lost control of his bowels and soiled his favorite loincloth.

His wife, Danglyboobs, was incensed when Gonad came back to the cave that night. How would she ever get Gonad’s loin cloth clean? There wasn’t a Rockmart close by and they were almost out of detergent. Gonad knew that his hunting days were numbered if he continually came home with a soiled loincloth, which was a common occurrence. Danglyboobs wasn’t going to put up with Gonad’s crap forever.

Even though Gonad’s brain rolled around in his head like a BB in a boxcar, he came up with an idea. He needed something to wear between his loincloth and his nether regions that would shield his loincloth from any adverse effects of a charging mammoth or saber-toothed tiger. Underwear was born at that moment.

The first thing Gonad tried was a large banana leaf. This was a great shield but wasn’t very absorbent.

His caveman friends laughed at him, too. “Is that a banana leaf in your pants, or are you just glad to see me, Gonad?” was followed by raucous laughter.

The laughter stopped when the group was assaulted by an angry saber-tooth and Gonad was the only one in the group with a clean loincloth.

That’s when Gonad began to see the marketability of his new invention. But he had to use something besides a banana leaf. No more banana jokes. So he began to sew the first real pair of underwear that ever existed. They were made from the hides of the fluffiest hamsters he could find.

His son, Numbnuts, was shocked when he came home from school to discover that Gonad had killed five of his pet hamsters and sewn their hides together.

“Numbnuts, someday, when you’re on your first mammoth hunt, you will understand. Now help me clean up this mess before Danglyboobs gets home.”

Gonad’s new hamster undies worked wonderfully. Occasionally the stitching would come loose in the back, and the thread, or string, that Gonad used to sew them together would hang down behind his thigh. Gonad would pull on it until it came loose.

“Gonad, looks like you’ve pulled another hamster string,” his hunting buddies would say. Hamster string was eventually shortened to hamstring, which explains the origins of the name of that particular thigh muscle.As long as there was a good supply of hamsters in the caves where Gonad and his tribe lived, there was no shortage of underwear.

Gonad and Numbnuts began to farm hamsters for this purpose. Through some genetic engineering, their hamsters began to become more and more soil repellent. They realized one day that their Hamsters Are Not Easily Soiled.

An acronym was born from this phrase – HANES – and they began marketing Hanes underwear to the other male cave dwellers. Shortly thereafter the wheel was invented and they were able to ship significant quantities of Hanes to Rockmart. This is one of the earliest instances of commerce on record. No one is sure what other products Rockmart was carrying at the time, but apparently much of it was being shipped over from China.

Cavemen from all over began to swear by their Hanes, and their wives would not let them leave the cave on a hunt without them. Numbnuts finally went on his first mammoth hunt, and was successful, even though he soiled three pairs of Hanes in the process. Gonad and Danglyboobs were never prouder of Numbnuts.

So next time you slip on a pair of Hanes, say a silent thank you to Gonad and Numbnuts. After all, there is a great moral in their story, which is this: “Sometimes great things happen, and much progress is made, when you’re so scared that you crap your pants.”

The End.

PEMDAS #2

by David Amerman

To the Waaklesky School District Board:
Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.
Let me explain.

First off, let me apologize for that first shocker. My dad had every intention of being a chaperone for our field trip to the Rocky Mountain chocolate factory. He had his L.L. Bean travel bag all filled up and ready to go. Heck, he even dusted off his trusty chaperoning megaphone. Ol’ Mikey, as he calls it.

But at about 5:30 in the morning, my dad got a call from Mr. Jeremy that all the salespeople had to go to an emergency briefing in St. Cloud. Some dopey shit about pathogens or cathode rays or something like that.

After he stopped talking to Mr. Jeremy, my dad woke up Aunt Sally and asked if she could take his place chaperoning the field trip. She didn’t seem too excited until the words “chocolate” and “factory” were mentioned.

We left for school ten minutes later (even though school didn’t even start for another hour). By that time Aunt Sally was so excited she could hardly contain herself the whole bus ride down to Minneapolis. I didn’t know she loved chocolate that much.

(I guess she did since she filled her gigantic Coach purse as well as my leather Jansport knapsack with a crap load of boxes of Rocky Mountain Chocolate after the tour was over.)

When me and my little brother Shannon went back to the bus to drop off our stuff so we could go ice skating at the park, Shannon was holding some sort of needle. The kind that the doctor pokes you with to make you cry and him rich and happy. He said he got it from a candyman who was selling his new recipes on the side of the road next to the factory.

It didn’t look like any candy I’ve ever seen, but the candyman told Shannon it was a special kind of lollipop called “A Dreamy Lime.” It must have come from Europe or Oklahoma or some shit because it wasn’t spelled the way normal people spell a dreamy lime. It was spelled “adrenaline.”

Shannon set his candy next to Aunt Sally’s purse, which was now oozing shiny, gooey melted chocolate out the top. I didn’t want anything to do with that nasty mess, so Shannon and I got off the chartered Lorenz bus and ran to catch up with the rest of the group.

On our way to the park, we passed Aunt Sally. She looked kind of sleepy and she twitching and making funny popcorn sounds with her back. I wondered what was wrong with her so I followed her back to the bus.

I tried to ask her as she was wedging herself back into her bus seat, but I was interrupted by some loud rude sounds coming from the moistened fat underneath Aunt Sally’s butt chin and then a sudden loud shriek that made me jump high enough to set an Olympic record. Aunt Sally stood and I stared in shock at Shannon’s dreamy lime needle poking out of her ass.

Two silent minutes went by. Then Aunt Sally started to vibrate like my dad’s Blackberry. She yanked Shannon’s needle out of her voluminous jello mold butt, pushed me into Bobby Trent’s backpack with tremendous force, and sprinted toward the driver’s seat.

Just as I scrambled back onto my feet, Aunt Sally hit the gas pedal. It was like she’d just seen Speed for the first time and was drawing some demented inspiration from the plot line. I got thrown against the seats in the back and I held on there for dear life.

Once Aunt Sally hit cruising speed, and remembering what I learned in Little Rascals Boot Camp, I army crawled my way up to Aunt Sally to ask her what the great green gravy fuck she was doing. This time, she had an answer. Apparently, Aunt Sally did get a job after all.

I didn’t even know the CIA was hiring middle aged drug-addicted fat folks from north central Minnesota but, to my surprise, my Aunt Sally told me she was on a secret mission to stop the KGB’s efforts at dominating America.

I’ve always had the impression the KGB is supposed to be as smart as the CIA but if, as Aunt Sally whispered, their big, evil plan was to replace the mustard at Hardee’s restaurants with moldy Romanian mustard to control the minds of American youth, I hafta think Mother Russia probably didn’t think this one through.

As I mulled this over, Aunt Sally got the bus up to a speed of about 70 miles an hour and was heading straight for the Hardee’s on Hamline Avenue. I tried to talk her out of it, but Aunt Sally was not about to listen to my reasoning. She was acting like my little brother Shannon did the time I gave him a bottle of Mountain Dew.  He was hyper for five hours and he shaved his eyebrows. The only difference was that Aunt Sally had a bad case of the jitters and she also was about to destroy the only decent Hardee’s in Minnesota.

I knew I couldn’t stop her without causing the bus to veer into oncoming traffic, so I bolted back to the dinky bathroom and started praying. Forty-two seconds later, it happened.

BLAM!

The toilet splashed a puddle of Smurfy blue stew in my face. It sure wasn’t anything like the blue raspberry fun dip I had on the way down to Minneapolis. But nothing could have prepared me for the sight that awaited me outside the chrome lavatory door. Clicking off the “occupied” light, I bore witness to Fast Food Ground Zero.

Aunt Sally had driven right through the two-story burger joint with a precision that would have made Sandra Bullock look like a prison short bus driver. I wondered how many people my dear Aunt Sally had slain until I saw a surprisingly intact sheet metal sign lying next to the right front tire. According to the sign, the St. Paul Hardee’s had been closed three weeks ago due to economical turmoil.

Well, that’s my story. Aunt Sally told me to tell you that she is genuinely sorry for sitting on my brother’s dreamy lime needle and causing the following infractions to occur:

1. Destruction of an abandoned fast food eatery.

2. Use of a chartered bus to destroy a fast food eatery.

3. Making Vice Principal Roglerts chase after the bus on foot and eventually fall down an open manhole. We’ll be sure to attend the funeral on Wednesday.

4. Leaving behind 34 students and teachers and instilling fear within them that they did not have a ride home.

5. Spilling melted Rocky Mountain chocolate all over Mr. Roglerts’ satchel, which contained a 32GB iPod touch that was loaded with 28 GB of pornography and was labeled with Principal Koebbler’s name, address, and cell phone number.

It won’t happen again.
Sincerely,
Graham Mackenrow
6th Grade

__________

Grocery Shopping with the Kids – Special Ops Style

ONE MAN’S STORY as told to L.T. Fawkes

The strike force was assembled for the pre-invasion briefing.  As their leader I stood before them, tensely flicking my car keys against the taught muscles of my thigh.

“Listen up, people, while I say a few final words. First, I’m not buying Cavity Berries Cereal. This is an order straight from the top.  Mom says you can picket the kitchen table, you can threaten to hold your breath until you die, you can post Youtube videos of the fungus growing at the base of the bathtub . . . she doesn’t care. 

“There is to be no Cavity Berries Cereal, not now, not . . . Stand at attention, soldier.  I’ll change your diaper in a minute. And second, anybody who bites or pulls hair will be put on report and sent to the car. That’s it, troops. Lock and load.  We’re going in.”

On arriving at the Invasion Sight (the parking lot of the U-Breakit, U-Boughtit) the first problem I encountered was that of troop transport. I thought it over as we entered the store and reached the staging area. Clearly, two shopping carts were needed.

I placed the two- and three-year-olds in the kiddie seats of said carts, arranged the carts into a convoy and advanced them by means of the famous Flitman Push-Pull Technique, named for Lt. Col. Betty Flitman, mother of seven, who developed and gave instruction on the technique right up to the day she ran off to Scandinavia with her NATO liaison.

But transporting the five-year-old brought me into a gray area. Should he ride in the basket of one of the carts?  Or should he be given marching orders, with all the inherent risks, such as the possibility of a defection in the toy aisle, or his penchant for cutting too closely around the nine-feet-high olive jar display? I threw caution to the wind and let him march.

We crossed the store’s demilitarized zone and the action began almost at once when we infiltrated the crowd around the free-pizza-sample table.  Gnawing on our free samples as we advanced, we immediately encountered an enemy agent who had parked her cart in the middle of the canned goods aisle, thus blocking off a viable escape route.

Fortunately for her, we weren’t under fire at the time, so she didn’t have to be liquidated. 

I sent the five-year-old ahead to take a number at the baked goods counter, hoping he would have the strength of character necessary to stand up under the stress. Would he buckle, I wondered? In the event he were taken and questioned, would he confess that the force was about to cash in for the third time on a one-to-a-family offer? But the mission was accomplished without incident and we moved deeper into the interior.

Everything went well until, as we approached the egg case, I suddenly heard someone shouting my name. I whirled around and stared down the long aisle. There, at the far end, was a friend of the wife’s.  “Matt,” she shouted.  “Hey, Matt.”

Cursing softly under my breath, I pulled my coat collar over my face and hoped against hope that the camouflage would confuse her and she would pass us by.  But a surreptitious peek told me it was too late.  She approached us with a puzzled expression on her face.

“Geez,” I muttered.  “I knew we should have worn glasses-nose-and-moustache disguises.”

 “What in the world are you doing?” she asked when she finally stood before me.

“Some things you’re better off not knowing,” I said cryptically.  “Go back to your shopping, Ma’am, and forget you ever saw us here.”

“What?”

“Do as I say,” I ordered. “You’re about to blow this whole operation.”

“What the . . . ” 

“All right,” I said.  “I didn’t want to have to do this, but you’ve left me no other option. We’ve been watching you. We have a dossier on you as long as that roll of paper towels you’re holding there. For instance, we know that you’ve been leaving your house Monday nights on the pretense that you’re going to the library. But you don’t really go to the library, do you, Ma’am?  No.  You do not.  You slink out to attend a tap dancing class where you are enrolled under an alias.”

“Alias?  What are you . . . of course you know that.  I go with your wife. It was her idea.   She said it would be a great way to get back in shape.”

“Don’t try to cloud the issue.  And there’s more, believe me.  I’ve been thoroughly debriefed.  I don’t want to have to use this information against you, but I will if you don’t move on, right now.”

She stared at me in disbelief.  “Okay, okay, I’m going,” she said.  “But first let me write you down the name of a counselor who might be able to help you.”

It had been a close call, but we came out of it uncompromised. We trekked up and down aisles, completing the mission as spelled out in our marching orders, and before long we were ready to begin the most difficult part of our mission – the journey back to freedom.

The slow and grueling ordeal through the hostile territory of the check-out line was the ultimate test of leadership. I knew I had to hold my troops together, even though the strain was beginning to show on their battle-weary and cookie-crumbed faces. When a small sticky hand reached out to loot the Life Savers display, I was there – alert and ready to prevent the potential plunder. 

A minor problem came up when I discovered I’d forgotten the mustard, but the five-year-old made a fast dash across enemy lines to grab a jar and we were able to stay on our timetable.  We moved ever-so-casually through the line without arousing any suspicions, and then the race was on to get troops and freight back to headquarters before the Klondike bars melted.

On our return to base, we brought the freight inside and secured each item in its proper place, keeping a running inventory so as to be sure nothing had been overlooked. This was quickly accomplished.

I placed the last can of green beans on the pantry shelf.  Then I turned, knelt, and faced my comrades who stood waiting expectantly in a semi-circle around me. Our eyes met, and the realization began to grow in our minds that it was all over and the mission had been successful.

Our tight and determined faces slowly began to dissolve into wide grins. Someone began to laugh and the laughter quickly spread to the rest of us.  The feeling of elation grew in us until we were hugging and back slapping all around.

Some time later, the exhaustion of the ordeal began to take its toll.  Our hilarity subsided and we sank en masse onto the living room sofa.  A hush came over the members of my brave band.  I knew they were waiting for me to address them one last time.

“You were good out there today,” I said tremulously.  “There’s not a finer unit anywhere.  I hope we’ll work together again soon but for now, stand down. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”     

__________ 

PEMDAS #3

by David Amerman

To the Waaklesky School District Board:
Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.
Let me explain.

On April 1, my little brother Shannon first learned about the comic potential of April Fool’s Day. He seemed excited about it, but I didn’t really care. I had just come from the junior track meet, where Coach Glassman had me run two relays, the mile, and the half mile. I was too exhausted to give one nugget of lizard shit about what my idiot little brother had to say.

Nodding my head was enough to make him think I was active in the conversation, so I was able to focus on hatching a sinister plot to eliminate Coach Glassman. Only joking, my dear school boardsmen.

Anyway, my dad didn’t give a crap about Shannon’s discovery either. He’d been working twelve-hour days since last Tuesday, so sleep was precious to him. For dinner, he brought home KFC for everyone. Aunt Sally was still zonked from doing all her community service, so she didn’t eat. But the rest of us quickly chowed down without too much dialogue and went straight to bed.

The next morning, I woke up three minutes before 7:00. I knew that I was up about an hour earlier than normal, but I didn’t really care. Thirteen hours of sleep was enough for someone of my tender age. I figured this would be a good time for me to use the school’s new fitness center so that Coach Glassman wouldn’t bitch and moan at me as much as she usually does.

So, after a shower and a bottle of Yoohoo, I walked the 1.35 miles to school. When I got there, I saw that the sliding door to the east kindergarten room was shattered. Some clay pots were broken and the topsoil had been spilled. Also, a surveillance camera had been knocked down and scuffed up.

From what I can remember about kindergarten, I guessed the clay pots and topsoil must have been left over from the annual Earth Day Potted Plant Project.

I guessed that someone must have gone apeshit trying to break into the school.

I tentatively stepped through the door frame to find a pristine AM kindergarten room with nothing changed except for a messy table moved over toward the clock.

As I walked into the main hallway, the warning bell began to sound, which was weird because the warning bell always goes off at 8:30. Even more peculiar was the fact that all the clocks I could find, including the gym clock, the lunch room clock, the fitness center clock, and various classroom clocks, all said that it was about 7:30. Even the custodian’s miniature Jimmy Neutron clock said 7:30.

Still just as confused as I was when I first arrived, I proceeded to the office to see if Secretary Keaton knew what was up. Nobody was in the outer office except for a few firemen. When I opened the main door, an unspeakable stench hit me like a baseball bat. It smelled like horse manure and caramelized feta cheese with a hint of sarsaparilla.

Don’t ask me how, but at that moment, I knew Aunt Sally was in trouble again.

There was a great deal of commotion in Principal Urethrolapoulis’s office. I poked my head in and immediately felt bad for her. After only two weeks on the job as new principal, her office had already been trashed. But the worst thing was yet to come. As I watched, a firemen pulled Aunt Sally off the top of Principal Urethrolapoulis’s demolished pine wood desk.

My dad’s sister then explained her story:

Apparently, Aunt Sally woke up at around 5:00 in the morning after a long day of picking up trash on the side of Route 94. Barely awake, she looked at the calendar (which my little brother Shannon admitted to changing as per April Fool’s Day) and thought that it was the morning of the Daylight Saving time change.

In a fit of civic responsibility, possibly as a result of all the community service she’s been doing lately, my dear Aunt Sally decided that she was going to “do something right for a change” by setting all of our clocks back an hour. Once she was done resetting the clocks at my house, she figured she would make sure that the clocks at my school were up to snuff as well.

So, after driving my dad’s Kia Sedona over to school, she parked in the visitor’s lot and made her way over to the entrance. Of course, it was locked. That’s when Aunt Sally got creative. She took the two kindergarten class chrysanthemums and used them to make her own entryway. She heaved the first potted flower at the security system nearby and she sent the second one flying straight through the AM kindergarten sliding door.

From there, she set out on her quest. She was successful in reaching and resetting just about every analog clock in the Waaklesky Intermediate School until she reached the main office, which contained the last four targets: the sitting area clock, the principal’s and vice principal’s clock, and the master clock that controls when the bells rang.

Aunt Sally was able to change the sitting room clock and the VP clock, but she dropped the ball once she used her 467 pounds of body mass to forcibly enter the principal’s office. To reach the analog clock ten feet above the floor, Aunt Sally stood up on Principal Urethrolapoulis’s newly-stained pine desk and reached out as far as her beefy arms could take her. And just when she almost had the ticking Sanyo model in her hands, the desk collapsed beneath my dear Aunt Sally’s weight.

Her fall took out a few wooden shelves laden with knick knacks, and also punctured the concrete floor, but worst of all was the fact that the abruptness of the incident surprised the shit out of Aunt Sally. Literally. She vigorously soiled herself upon impact with the unforgiving cement floor and eventually passed out from the shock and smell of it all.

When I visited her in the hospital that day (since school was closed due to all the toxic fumes), she said that she had been in something called a “fugue state” during the incident, which means she doesn’t remember anything at all about what happened.

So, despite the damage, the confusion, the cancellation of Baroque Era Appreciation Day, and the everlastingly pungent odor, I don’t think it would be fair to send Aunt Sally to jail since she did everything she did while basically sleepwalking.

Trust me. It won’t happen again.
Sincerely,
Graham Mackenrow
7th Grade

__________

THE MIGHTY HUNTER

by Robert Robillard

It was a cool October Michigan morning. The sun hadn’t shown its face yet, but as Norbert Glunt backed his rusty old Ford down the driveway, he caught a glimpse of the orange- and gold-tinged eastern sky in the rearview. It was going to be a gorgeous day, and the fact that he had enough time to grab breakfast and still get to the woods by sunrise made it even better. 

He pointed his truck toward downtown Garden City and did a little dance in his seat. Today was the day that Norbert Glunt, Mighty Hunter, would write a new page in the history books. He could just feel it.

Locals call downtown Garden City “The Corner”, because that’s all it really is. The greater downtown area consists of a dozen or so restaurants, bars, and mom and pop businesses, clustered around the intersection of two busy roads. You can get downtown from anywhere in the city in under five minutes; even less at this time of day, when most of the traffic lights are still “blinkers.”

In his reverie, Norbert drove right past The Corner without even noticing. He would have completely missed the café too, if it hadn’t been for the flashing purple Christmas lights they keep lit year round.

He made a hard right turn, fishtailing into the parking lot and swerving around Agnes Faraday, who was just coming out of the restaurant. He coasted into a parking space, got out of the truck and walked toward Agnes, who was waving her cane in the air like a rapier and shouting at him.Here we go, he thought.  Old lady Faraday’s all worked up and she’s got me in her sights.

“Young Man!”  Agnes said. “You nearly gave me a heart attack! You had damned well better slow down before you kill someone!”

Nearly? he thought. I’ll try and do better next time.

“Sorry old lad…I mean Mrs. Faraday.” Norbert whined. “I just got my brakes fixed and I think they must’ve messed somethin’ up.” 

He shot her his best innocent smile and added a dopey little shrug for effect.        

Norbert saw that old Agnes had plenty left to say on the subject. He decided the best course of action would be to hurry inside before she could launch into her tirade about ill- mannered youth and respect for elders. He turned his back on her in mid rant and walked inside, leaving the old gal standing in the middle of the parking lot, mouth still open, cane still in the air.

“Other people’s kids.” Agnes muttered. Her face was still red with rage. Her blood pressure was so high that she could hear it pounding in her ears as she turned and hobbled toward her car to find the spare blood pressure meds that she always kept in the glove compartment.

Norbert walked into the café and was delighted to see that Marisol, his favorite waitress and the object of so many of his “happy” dreams, was standing near the front counter with her back to the door.

There were half a dozen people scattered about the place, mostly seated in the sun-faded, red vinyl booths along the walls. That wasn’t going to stop him from having a little fun with sweet Marisol, though. In fact, having an audience made it all the more exciting for Norbert.

He crept toward Marisol with as much stealth as a five and-a-half foot tall, 280 pound man was able to muster. He gave her a good, hard slap on the behind and shouted, “Order up.”

The waitress shrieked and spun around with her fist drawn back, ready to swing. When she saw Norbert standing there, she paused for a moment to consider whether she could get away with blasting the obnoxious little creep in the face and blaming it on reflexes.

Everybody in the café looked up to see what all the commotion was. The sight of Marisol, poised to flatten Norbert Glunt’s bulbous nose, was more than enough to hold their attention for a few seconds while she considered her options.

Finally, deciding that she had hesitated too long to build a plausible defense on reflexes, Marisol lowered her fist and said “Oh…it’s just you.”

The diners went back to enjoying their breakfasts, but they kept their ears open in case things heated up again.

“Heh-heh-heh” Norbert laughed, nervously. “Nice to see you again, too. Miss me?”

“With every bullet so far.” Marisol said. “My aim’s improving though, so you’d better watch your step.”

Norbert hoisted himself onto one of the leather and chrome stools at the counter and said “You know the deal, babe. Number three and a side.”

The number three breakfast special was legendary in Garden City. It consisted of a three egg, sausage and cheese omelet, wrapped around a pile of hash browns, with two buttermilk biscuits.  At least that’s what the menu said, but you really couldn’t tell what-all was on the plate; because the whole dish was hidden under a cozy blanket of sawmill gravy. That’s more than enough breakfast for most people, but Norbert always ordered a side of bacon to go with it.

Marisol turned and shouted over her shoulder “Virgil! I need a Fat Man special with a side of bacon!”

Everyone in the café snickered. The number three was often called the Big Man’s Breakfast, but Marisol couldn’t resist getting in a parting shot before she grabbed the coffee pot and made her rounds of the dining room. After refilling everyone’s coffee, she made her way back to the front and saw that big boy’s food was almost ready. She decided this was the perfect time to take her break and let Mitzy, the other morning girl, deal with the slob for a while.

Norbert admired his breakfast for a few seconds before he began to gulp it greedily, barely taking the time to chew between mouthfuls. Using his toast (liberally buttered, of course) to mop up every last bit of gravy, he let his mind wander to other, more important things. His first hunt of the season had finally arrived, and he was mentally checking off items on his list: jerky, beer, Cheetos, beer, pork rinds, and of course, plenty of beer.

Satisfied that he had packed all of the essentials, he went about the business of licking the last dribs of butter off his knife. Using his finger, he liberated the few remnants of gravy that had evaded his toast-mop.

Not even the last smear of bacon grease went unclaimed. He was paying six bucks for this breakfast ($6.75, if you include the tip), and he intended to enjoy every last bit of it.

When Marisol returned from her break, she saw that Mitzi was already making the coffee rounds again. The tables were all bussed and the sugar bowls filled. She had nothing to do but watch, and wait for Norbert to be done.

They had danced this dance three times a week for as long as Marisol had worked at the cafe, and she had learned not to bring the bill during the grand finale. The grunting and the sound of smacking lips as he licked the flatware and finger-mopped his plate were more than she could bear.

As Norbert inspected his work, making sure he hadn’t left anything on his plate; the waitress choked back her nausea and brought the check. She laid it on the counter and hazarded a glance at the beast. There was gravy matted in his beard, egg in his mustache and bits of sausage on his camo shirt. 

Redneck doggie bag, she thought, and had to stifle a giggle.

Looking at his watch, Norbert gulped his fourth cup of coffee, tossed three quarters onto his empty plate and headed to the other end of the counter to settle his bill. He was just reaching for his wallet when Frank Nizich came strolling through the door.

Frank was grizzled and looked older than he actually was. He was painfully thin, had silver-gray hair, and you could tell by looking at him that every line in his weathered, fifty-six year old face had a story attached to it.

He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, but he sure did enjoy messing with Norbert Glunt. He couldn’t help himself.  Norbert just brought that out in people.

“Norbie!” he said, a little louder than was actually necessary. “I almost didn’t see you there in all that camo! Bigfoot season already?”

The few people that were still in the restaurant burst out laughing.

“Hey!” Janice Henderson cried from the corner booth, way in the back of the place.

Apparently, when Frank dropped the Bigfoot bomb, her husband, Ralph, had been sipping the coffee that was now dripping from her nose and chin.

Aside from being obnoxious, Norbert was also known as the town kook; although he preferred to call himself a cryptid hunter. He was fascinated by Bigfoot, Nessie, Mothman . . . all of it. Maps lined the walls of his study, with pushpins everywhere there had ever been a reported sighting of an unknown creature.

“C’mon, Frank.” Norbert said. “You know I don’t hunt Bigfoot.”

“No?” Frank asked. “Well I heard there was some kinda monster in Lake Michigan, but I don’t see no boat hooked to your truck out there. So what is it this year, Norbie?”

Norbert hated being called Norbie, but he let it slide. He wanted to get out on the road and away from Frank’s ribbing as quickly as possible.

“Oh, nothing, really.” He said. “I just thought I’d head out to the woods and shoot some rabbits.”

“Rabbits!” Frank nearly shouted. “Now that don’t hardly seem fittin’ for a big game hunter like our Norbie Glunt! Come on, boy, we’re all friends here. You can tell us where you’re going.”

Norbert looked around the café. All eyes were on him, now. When he walked in this morning, he had wanted to draw some attention, but this was definitely not what he had in mind.

“I already told you, Frank. I’m going rabbit hunting.”

Frank raised his bushy gray eyebrows and started at Norbert until he cracked.

“Okay,” Norbert said. “Maybe these rabbits are . . . well . . . special rabbits.”

“Special?” Frank asked. “Special how?”

“They’re just special, Frank; that’s all. As much as I’d love to tell you about the special rabbits, I’m running late. Nice talking to you, though.”

Norbert turned to make a break for the door, but Frank wasn’t done with him yet.

“Hang on a second there, Norbie. Special rabbits? You’re talkin’ about those jacklewhatsits, aren’t ya?”

Norbert froze, hand on the door, ears beginning to turn red. He turned to look the old man in the eye. “My name is Norbert.” he said through clenched teeth. “And they’re called Jackalopes. Not jacklewhatsits. They’re Jackalopes, and you’ll see one on the news just as soon as I get back from this trip.”

“Norbie” Frank continued, “You’re just about as dumb as a box of rocks, aren’t ya? When are you gonna grow up and see that there ain’t no Bigfoot, there ain’t no birdmen, and there ain’t no jacklewhatsits.”

Up until now, Norbert had tried very hard not to let his inner “kook” out to play; but now he snapped.

“Frank!” He shouted. “Sasquatch is real. There’s a whole family of them up in Caro and I have pictures to prove it! Birdmen have been seen all over the world for centuries. You’ll see how real Jackalopes are, just as soon as I bring one back and shove it up your . . . “

He stopped himself short. Frank had it in for him and there was no way he was about to say anything that could be construed as a threat. He vibrated visibly as he tried to come up with a zinger. His lips were moving, but nothing came out.

He finally shouted something that sounded like “Aaaach!” and stormed out the door.

Frank watched him spin his tires leaving the parking lot, then looked around the diner and said “Well, there he goes. Norbie Glunt, the mighty jackawhatsits hunter!”

Everybody in the café had a good laugh while Frank made his way to the counter to order some breakfast.

A two hour drive to the woods gave Norbert time to cool down, and was more than long enough for breakfast to settle in and all that coffee to do its work. He guided his truck into a gravel parking area at the edge of the woods whose inhabitants he had terrorized since childhood. With a three mile hike through thick forest still ahead of him, he was relieved to see the familiar green hut at the far end of the park.

“Johnny on the spot!” he said. “Friend to hunters everywhere!”

He nosed his truck in about ten feet from the door. He pulled out his pack and set it on the hood. Then he leaned his rifle against the bumper (The Grizzly BMG .50 is more of a small cannon, really. A testament to his atrocious shooting skills) and headed inside.

He sat inside for twenty minutes listening to the buzzing flies and picturing the Jackalope that would soon be mounted on the wall of his den as he – well, everyone knows what the green hut is for.

He emerged feeling like a new man, but something felt very wrong. He looked around, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then it struck him. His rifle! Where was the cannon?

From behind him came a metallic “Click”, and a familiar voice.

“Ahem. Looking for this, old friend?”

He turned and, to his horror, there was the Jackalope. Two Jackalopes, actually. His rifle was being steadied on the antlers of one of them. The other was peering through the scope with his paw on the trigger.

Norbert’s knees locked. Sweat beaded on his temple. A small but rapidly-growing dark spot appeared on the front of his camouflage pants.
 
 “Uh-oh. Looks like you had some unfinished business in there.” the evil rodent chided, nodding toward the Porta Potty. “What an embarrassing way to go!”

“C-c-c’mon, pal.” The pudgy hunter was on the edge of panic now. “We can talk this thing out. You know I would’na really shot ya, right?”

He was trying not to show panic, but the vibrato in his voice and the still-growing stain on his pants betrayed his terror. The Jackalope smiled, or maybe it was a snarl. It was hard to tell the difference with all those teeth.

The Hunter took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself. This was not the first time he had been in a tight spot. It seemed like he was constantly finding himself between a rock and his own stupidity. At any other time, he would have been able to drop and roll out of the line of fire. Not this time. That king-sized breakfast would be his undoing.

His mom (God, he wished she were here now) had always told him all that bacon would kill him some day.

A couple more deep breaths. Now he was regaining some measure of control. Gotta do somethin’, he thought. Gotta think on my feet. No way this little rat’s smarter’n me.

He steeled himself and took a few tentative steps toward the Jackalopes.  I can do this. Just a few more steps, and…

“That’s far enough.” the Jackalope warned. “One more inch and we’ll see what you’re really made of.”

Norbert knew he had nothing to lose. He was probably dead either way, so he lunged. He wasn’t a very smart hunter, but he had been right about one thing; the #3 breakfast special was indeed his undoing. It had slowed his reflexes and left him groggy. He tripped over his own feet and landed hard on his knees, grasping for the barrel of the rifle. It was mere inches out of his reach.

The last thing to go through the hunter’s mind was his left ear. It lingered there briefly before it exited via his right ear, taking his brain with it. The whole mess landed squarely on the backpack on the hood of his truck; right next to one of his eyes and a couple of molars. A few more teeth were embedded into the big Ford’s radiator, and bits of scalp and bone created a greasy smear across the windshield like an unspeakable Rorschach ink blot.

The poor bastard’s brain had vacated in such a rush that it hadn’t had time to let the rest of his body know it was leaving. What remained of the former mighty hunter was still on its knees, twitching. The Jackalopes watched as Norbert began to rock, then lean. They shouted and danced victoriously as he fell forward into a pile of dead brush and leaves. As another vehicle pulled into the gravel parking area, they dashed off into the woods to continue their celebration.

Darkness.  And the stench of excrement. Am I in hell? the Mighty Hunter wondered. Flies buzzed around his head. He couldn’t feel his legs. He heard footsteps on gravel. These were followed by banging, and shouting.

“Hey! You about done in there?”

The Mighty Hunter was awake now, and fully aware of his surroundings.

He was not in Hell. He had not been taken down by his own rifle. This was yet another side effect of his massive breakfast. He had ridden the tryptophan express directly into the inevitable food coma.

More banging and shouting. “Come on, pal! I gotta return my breakfast! You’re killin’ me, here!”

Norbert completed his transaction and hauled himself up. His legs were dead weight. These outhouses are not conducive to napping in comfort.

He opened the door to blinding sunlight and a man dressed in typical hunter’s attire. The guy was doing an impatient dance.

“All yours”, he said, and started toward his truck.

In spite of of his obvious distress, the man paused before closing the door. “That your gun?” he asked, pointing toward the wood line. “Nice one! You really shouldn’t leave it layin’ around like that. Someone could just . . . you know.”

Norbert glanced toward his truck and then at the wood line.  It was his gun all right.  He walked to where it lay and picked it up out of the weeds.  He froze.  Did something duck behind that tree? Had he caught a flash of antlers? Hard to say. He took a hesitant step, then stopped. He felt tiny eyes glaring at him, boring into the back of his neck. It felt like someone was doing a tap dance around his heart.

Norbert turned and walked back toward his truck, telling himself that he would just grab his pack and get on with the hunt. As he picked it up, he thought he heard laughter. Distinctive, high=pitched, chattering laughter. He turned, and this time he was sure he saw antlers, and they were too close to the ground to be a deer.

They were there, all right; waiting, taunting him. He considered for a moment, not sure what to do. He had been planning this hunt for months, and he was not about to give it up now, was he?

“Hell no!” he said. “The Mighty Hunter don’t give up. I am still kinda tired, though; and it’s a long walk through them woods. Maybe I’ll go get some lunch and see what good old Marisol is doin’ later. I can always just come back tomorrow…or the next day.”

__________

PEMDAS #4

by David Amerman

To the Waaklesky School District Board:
Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.
Let me explain.

Here’s what happened: Because my dad thought I showed some sort of aptitude for American history, when course selection time came around at the end of my seventh grade year he decided it would be a magnificent idea to enroll me in the gifted eight grade history class.

Right. All I really remember from seventh grade history class was learning about World War I and, between you and me, I think I would have rather been gassed and contracted trench mouth in France than been forced to sit through another one of Mr. Quimby’s fascinating lessons.

That guy is like a 128-dose box of Unisom from Costco. He could probably euthanize a rabid wolverine by telling it about the wonders of the Roaring 20’s. But, since I did my homework and studied for the tests like a good boy and got an A in history, my dad assumed I was a fucking prodigy and scheduled gifted history for me behind my back.

Cut to the present day, where I am trapped in the bamboo cage that is the Vietnam War segment of this educational inferno called gifted history taught by Lucifer himself: Dr. William Howard Willis, Ph.D. What a pretentious fuck. Do you know he actually makes his students call him that? “Excuse me . . . Dr. William Howard Willis, Ph.D.? Can I have a bathroom pass?”

Please don’t expel anyone if he winds up accidentally falling into a big smelting furnace. The guy’s got it coming. I’d rather cross paths with Ho Chi Minh, squat one out on his famous sandals, and risk getting garroted eight seconds later by a swarm of butt-clown Mongolian Vietcong than sit through another one of that guy’s classes. Sorry if I offended School Board Treasurer Phu, but that’s how I feel about this situation.

Any who, our most recent homework assignment was to turn on the History Channel for a 2-hour Vietnam War special at 7:00. Fortunately for my classmates and I, it was the same “special” that we were shown in class during fourth grade social studies. I came to this realization about two minutes into the program when that memorably obnoxious limey with the distended yellow incisors introduced himself to myself and Aunt Sally, who happened to be half-dozing on the adjacent Barcalounger at the time.

Ecstatic to be relieved of responsibility of sitting through two hours of the History Channel, I tossed Aunt Sally the remote and immediately fled the premises to take part in a large community badminton match. Three hours later, I emerged back on the home-front victorious, sweaty, and fatigued.

After a shower and a swig of orange Listerine, I trudged upstairs to hit the hay; all too unaware of the faint glow being emitted by the living room flat screen.

Dad still had two days left at his business conference, so Aunt Sally had to take my little brother Shannon and me to school again. She was a hell of a lot edgier than she usually is and kept talking about someone named Charlie and how Charlie was planning on ruining every American dream in the world and how Charlie was the ultimate enemy of the planet Earth.

I thought she was yammering on about one of her ex-gigolo friends, so I just let her run her course until we got to school. Once there, Aunt Sally walked with us to drop off Shannon’s sickness excuse form from last week in the office. I’d like to know how that little fucker got eczema on his eyeballs, but that’s another story.

Shannon and I knew, of course, that it was Chinese Culture Day and were looking forward to a day of no classes, endless exhibits of art and history, and free sweet and sour chicken out the wazoo. And then that wazoo would have chicken coming out his wazoo. This was a big deal for us and many of our peers. But Aunt Sally? She had no idea. She took one look at all the Asian people milling around and flipped out.

And not in a good way like if Kirby Puckett came back to life to smile at me and sign my Twins jersey before sinking back into the underground. No. Replace Kirby Puckett with the boogeyman and everything else with kill, kill, and kill, and you have more of an accurate statement.

She basically fastballed the sickness form at Secretary Keaton and darted out the door without saying goodbye.

Shannon and I tried our best to follow our beloved chunky ancestor to see what was up. She was sweating profusely (I’d know that smell anywhere. Smells like those rare wasabi Funyuns they sell in northern Milwaukee) and was easily frightened by every person of Asian descent that got within eyesight.

Suddenly, it hit me: Charlie was code for hostile Vietnamese warriors from the fucking History Channel special she must have watched after I left to go school the weaklings at badminton. But by the time my light bulb flickered on, it was too late. Aunt Sally had had a conniption.

By now, I assume you can fill in the rest of the details. She destroyed every exhibit, insulted/assaulted just about every Asian person of every age she could find, and my apologies once again to Treasurer Phu. I’m happy to hear he’s come out of the coma.

She ruined the Chinese buffet by eating half of the sweet and sour chicken and, as a result, coating the remaining half of the food with a pungent layer of barf. The hope of my family and me (and you, I’m sure) is that she will obey the newly set-down restraining order and never interfere with another attempt at cultural understanding at the Waaklesky Intermediate School.

Trust me. It won’t happen again.

Sincerely yours,
Graham Mackenrow
8th Grade

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WRITERS’ WORKSHOP

Introduction

(Note: For all the latest Reading Room news, and to see what’s been added lately, please go to the book titled, WELCOME.)

All rights reserved.  Please do not copy or reproduce without permission.

Help for New Writers

 

Introduction 

Lots of people want to write fiction.  Sadly, most of those people, when they finally get around to trying, quickly become discouraged and give up.  The simple truth is that getting what’s in your head onto the paper or screen* is more difficult than it seems like it ought to be.

The thing is, those great books or stories that are lurking in your brain, desperate to get out, are in a pretty remote corner.  A dusty, murky, neglected corner.  And they’ve been there for so long that they’ve gotten pretty comfortable in their solitude.  They aren’t going to come out without a fight.

I don’t know the anatomical term for the circuits that connect the brain to the fingertips, so I just talk about writers’ muscle.  As you approach your early writing sessions, your writer’s muscle is a pretty pathetic, puny little thing.  You don’t approach the home gym for the first time already sporting washboard abs.  And you won’t start out writing with golden phrases spilling from your brain onto the page or screen.

The purpose of the following is to provide some concepts and approaches that will help you begin to develop your writer’s muscle with minimal angst.

* If you have access to a computer, USE IT.  If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a wannabe writer say, “But I have to write longhand” . . . “I can’t be creative on a computer.”   Wrong.  You want to write longhand because that’s what you’re used to.  Once you’re used to using a computer, and you begin to appreciate the convenience of being able to move paragraphs around, etc., you’ll feel pretty silly about your affection for longhand.   I know I did.          

 Before you start . . .

 Once you decide Today’s the day, the last thing you want to have happen is for something to stop you dead in your tracks.  And something will unless you do some simple preparation. 

The thing is, the second you sit down to write, some evil little corner of your brain will start looking for excuses not to write – you know how you are – and if you suddenly realize you can’t remember whether or not Route 6 intersects with Tequila Terrace and you have to go looking for that map you used to have stuck under your owner’s manual in the glove compartment of your car, odds are you won’t make it back to the keyboard any time soon.

So before you sit down to write, have everything you might need close at hand.   

 Make a long, long, long list of names

Actually, make several lists of names – male first names, female first names, and surnames.  One of the most common reasons a perfectly good writing session gets stopped cold is that you come to the point where you need to introduce a new character.  Your brain goes blank and suddenly the only name you can think of, male or female, is Kenny.    

Make sure you have a nice variety in your lists:  cool names, stupid names, old names, young names, multi-national names . . . Keep this list right next to your computer, or in a “Names” document on your computer, so that when you need a name, all you have to do is run your finger down the list until you find just the right name for your character.

Phone books are a great source for names.  So are newspapers, especially the sports section where rosters are listed.  Also, you can do a Google search for “Most Popular Girls’/Boys’ Names” by decade, according to how old your character is.

Character names are important.  We’ve all heard somebody, on being introduced to somebody else, say, “Huh.  You don’t look like a Cindy.”

Names, in real life and particularly in fiction, carry information.  Everybody knows that in real life we shouldn’t judge a person by the name, but that’s exactly what we do in fiction.  So the choice of a name is important. 

Choose the name that is exactly right and will convey exactly the right image, for the character.  At the same time, don’t go for the glaringly obvious.  I’ve stopped reading books, even best sellers (well, I guess I should say, especially best sellers) when I discover that the name the author has given the macho dare-devil he-man star of his novel is Rip Thorn.  Gag me.  If you’re going to name your male lead Rip Thorn, your genre better be high camp, is all I’ve got to say.

Dictionary.  Maps.  Other Reference Materials?

 Where’s your story going to be set?  Have a map right at your side, even if you know your terrain pretty well.  If you’re setting your story in a fictional place, draw a rough map and mark in locations as you create them so that when you need to refer to a place you mentioned earlier, you can see at a glance where you put it.

Also, have a dictionary handy along with any other reference materials you might need.

Music – the Value of White Noise

 The second you begin trying to concentrate on your writing, you will probably suddenly develop the super-human ability to hear every distracting sound being produced within a three mile radius.  An antidote to this is background music. 

You may have to experiment a bit to find the music that’s right for you.  I like Rock ’n Roll, R and B, and some Rap, but when I’m trying to write those genres don’t do it for me.  When I write I need soothing music which is happy to step into the background once I get going strong.  Sometimes I listen to native American flute CDs such as Sacred Drums, In Beauty, and Spiritlands.  Other times I use the radio on iTunes to find classical stations such as WGBH Boston.                                                                         

Start out with Realistic Expectations

You didn’t paint the corners the first time you tossed away the rosin bag and picked up a baseball.  You didn’t run the table the first time you picked up a cue stick.  And you’re not going to produce something profoundly evocative the first time you attempt to write.

In fact, your early efforts are probably going to suck.  Everybody’s early efforts suck.  This is why lots of writer wannabes get discouraged and quit.  Don’t quit.  So what if your fastball just sailed over the backstop and into the nosebleed section.  The good stuff will come if you stick with it.  In the meantime, you’re writing.  You’re doing it.  Yay.

Try to write every day and set yourself a daily goal

And I don’t mean a time goal:  “I’ll sit at the computer for one hour each day . . . ”  If I did that, I’d spend that hour losing play money on Poker Stars.  I mean a production goal, whether it’s a paragraph or a page.  I know this is difficult for people with busy lives, so set an easily-attained goal, even if it’s a mere paragraph.  (Anyway, before you know it you’ll begin to get the reins in your teeth and that daily paragraph will turn into pages.) 

There’s a good reason for setting a modest goal daily.  You’re trying to grow your writer’s muscle, remember?  Well, a critical part of writers’ muscle is found in the subconscious.  It may take a week or two, but at some point your subconscious, knowing that in a few hours you have to sit down and come up with something to write about, will begin to kick into gear during your busy day.  You’ll start coming up with ideas when you least expect them.

Get yourself a little notebook

 to carry around with you.  Because when your subconscious writers’ muscle begins to crank out ideas at odd times during your busy day, you need to write them down.  Or at least write down enough key words so that when you sit down at the computer, you can remember what that idea was.  Oh, I know . . . when the idea comes to you, you’ll think, No need to write this down.  I’ll remember it.  No, you won’t.  Write it down while you’ve got it. 

Getting Started 

So you’ve got your notebook, you’ve made your list of names, you’ve got your dictionary and maps and what-not, your background music is playing, you’re fired up and ready to go, you sit down at the computer, and . . . FINGER FREEZE. 

Don’t worry.  You’re just putting too much pressure on yourself.  Remember, you’re not striving for great literature here.  You’re just trying to begin to open up the circuits between brain and fingers . . . to get something down on paper (or should I say, onto the screen).  You’re beginning to exercise your writer’s muscle.  So start simple  . . .

 Record a simple event from your day

Describe a simple event you’ve just experienced.  Keep it simple.  When you’ve described it, go back and flesh it out.  Who else was around?  What were they doing?  What were they wearing?  What were the background noises?  How did things look?  Smell? 

Embellish.   This is your writing and we’re talking fiction here, after all.  You can make your event twist and turn however you want it to.

Record a conversation you overheard

or you took part in.  Once you’ve recorded the conversation, how can you change it to make it more . . . interesting? . . . threatening?  . . . titillating? . . . mysterious?  . . . revealing? . . . etc., etc.  What did the participants look like?  How did they sound?  Who else was around?  What were the non-participants doing?  What were the hidden agendas or motivations in the conversation?  What were the undercurrents?

When hearing voices is a good thing

Voice, in fiction, means how the story is being told.  It may be told in third person, which means the voice is an anonymous onlooker . . . “He climbed the stairs.  She stood at the top . . . ” or it can be told in first person, which means one of the characters is telling the story . . . “I climbed the stairs and I was surprised . . . ” 

When writing in third person, you have a certain amount of leeway . . . is the tone folksy or formal, for example.  Biblical or tabloid-ish.  But when writing in first person, you can infuse personality into your narrative. 

Experiment with first person voices.  Try telling a simple story in a voice different from your voice.  Think of an acquaintance who has a distinctive way of speaking and try to write something using that voice.

Tackle a scene from that novel you’ve been carrying around in your head

 And, of course, if you’ve been walking around with the germ of a novel in your head, choose the scene that’s clearest in your mind and write it.  Remember, be satisfied at first just to get the bare bones down.  In later sessions you can always go at it again.  The main thing is to get started.

Play, experiment, have fun, take chances . . .

but never use session 4, for example, to go back and edit what you wrote in session 3.  Editing, when you’re starting out, is cheating.  It’s what you do to pretend like you’re writing when really you’re trying to avoid writing. 

Later on, editing will become critically important to you.  In fact, some might say editing will be even more important than the writing itself.  But at this stage, if you want to grow that muscle, you need to keep producing new, fresh stuff every session. 

Save everything, even your worst stuff   

 Maybe that early writing sucked, but the ideas have value and may come in handy later.  Also, someday you’ll be able to look back and laugh . . .

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