Thursday, June 30, 2016

What's in a Name?



The phone was ringing as Larry walked in through his front door. He didn't even put down his backpack, he just walked over and glanced at the caller ID as he picked up the phone.

"Hello, Mom." He swung the backpack around and put it on the floor next to the hall table.

"Larry? Are you OK? It's your mother." Her voice sounded concerned but that was not at all unusual.

Larry Walter (no "S" on the end) smiled to himself once again. He was 32 years old and every time his mother called him on the phone, she began the conversation by telling him who it was. He loved her and felt very lucky to have her as his mother and as he had told her countless times, he actually recognized her voice. Always had, always would. He didn't even try to explain caller ID to her.

It was always the same, ring, ring, pick up the phone, "Larry, It's your mother." He was still waiting for the time that she would omit her introduction, he knew just what he would say. He'd say, "Who is this?" It would be great, but, he'd never gotten the chance. Probably never would, it was just part of having her as a mother, and he loved it.

"Hi, Mom. How are ya?" He said still smiling.

"How am I? I'm worried sick, that's how am I. How should I be, hearing on the news that my son is dead? I almost had a heart attack, right there. So, you're not dead? Right?" She pronounced it "hawt attek". He smiled again.

"Right, Mom. I'm just fine. I just walked in the door from work. I took off a little early cuz I've got some papers to grade. We're coming up on the end of the semester." He taught a beginner's writing course at the community college.

"I tried to call you at work and you didn't pick up. Scared - me - to - death," dramatic pauses between each word. This was very much in the style of his mother, May Zykliss-Walter. She'd grown up enthralled by the great ladies of film and could do some pretty fair impressions. Her Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck were quite good and, of course, a young Katharine Hepburn. She and her younger sister, Sophie, who lived just down the street from her, would regularly perform small vignettes from their favorite movies and the other would have to guess the movie and the actress. These closet thespians regularly appeared at holiday get-togethers, especially those including a little wine. It was family lore, spread, of course, by them, that the Zykliss Sisters (not a professional stage name) were the hit of many a neighborhood party back in the Brooklyn of the 1940's.

Larry delighted in occasionally reminding her that "all fame was fleeting" to which she would take an exaggerated swing at him. Everything but the cymbal crash.

"Sorry, Mom. You could call the other number you know. The cell phone, remember? I got a cell phone." This was another well-worn path. He knew exactly what she was going to say next.

"If I call and you're driving, you might swerve into a truck, God forbid. Then how would I feel? I'm responsible for your fiery death and I'd feel, how? It's not safe, Lawrence. How would I live after that?" He nodded through this part and just let her finish.

"I understand Mom, but really. I would just pull over to answer it. But, it's OK, I understand. But in this case it would be an irony, right?" He thought he'd make the call a little lighter by pulling her chain.

"Lawrence! That's not funny. God forbid that I'd -- That's just not funny. I'm concerned, darling. You know that. You, living there all alone. You could fall and..." She was going over the same things again and pointing out that he hadn't married. He cut her short.

"Mom, I'm all right. I haven't fallen. I'm still wearing my bicycle helmet all the time, especially in the shower. I'm being safe. Besides, I'm thinking of turning gay to see if I can find a date that way."

"From your mouth. Pshh. Bicycle helmet!" She snorted. "All right Danny Kaye, you're quite the comedian now, huh? You're a shit, that's what. It's just not funny, kiddo. But seriously Lawrence, if you're gay, you can tell me. It's OK, honey. I understand. Your father didn't help much raising you, the bastard, may he rot in Denmark or wherever it is he ran off to. But darling, nowadays it's OK. You could even get married now. It's legal and if that makes you happy, then God Bless." She paused expectantly, waiting, once again, for him to finally come out and confess the love whose name must not be spoken.

She'd started down this line before he'd even gotten out of high school. He kept telling her, he liked girls and he dated them, regularly. But he just hadn't found the right one yet. It worried him too sometimes, but he didn't want to settle, and he didn't want to fight with his Mom about it. They were both too old.

"Gee thanks, Mom. I'll keep it in mind. I've had my eye on a guy at the JiffyLube, I might make a move." He wouldn't explain again, it wouldn't help anyway. She was going to worry about the things she was going to worry about.

"So Mom, how did I die today? Did the news say?" He knew this would get her going again but it was all part of a conversation with Mom.

"Lawrence!" An accusation. "What did I say?"

"Sorry, Mom. Just naturally curious. What was the deal?" He held the phone between his shoulder and ear, sat up on the hall desk and started flipping through the mail he'd picked up on the way in.

"Sophie and I were having coffee time and watching the Channel 5 news show. I had Sophie over, you know Sophie?"

"Yeah, Mom. I know Aunt Sophie." Flipping. Some car insurance stuff, the cable bill.

"Well, we were having coffee time and, anyway, that nice looking lady on Channel 5 said that the police activity that was causing the backup downtown was from a man who was found dead in front of the Wayling Plaza, by the fountain, where people eat their lunch downtown. You know the place?"

"Yeah, Mom. I know Wayling Plaza and the fountain. It's nice." Almost every piece of mail had an "s" on the end of his name. What was so hard about this?

“So people are eating their lunches and someone finds this man, dead. At first, they thought he was napping on the grass. People do that sometimes on a nice day."

"Right." He'd like to be napping right now.

"But they looked closer and found out he was dead. They won't say how, but it wasn't natural, like a hawt attek or something. The pictures show they put up big sheets and a tent to hide everything. They're keeping everybody back from it."

"They do that." Apparently, the "s" didn't matter. They cashed his payments and it all appeared on his statements.

"Sophie said, 'It was so sad that these things happen,' and I said yeah. So then a little bit later they said that they had a name for the victim, they called him a victim. They said his name was Lawrence Walter and I almost shit, excuse my French. Sophie said it probably wasn't you but I was crazy with worry, and then, when I couldn’t reach you, well, I - almost- died. That's all. But you know, I held onto the hope, honey. I didn't give up on you."

"Thanks for--whatever that means, Mom. That's quite a story. I can see why you were so worried. Everything's OK though. I'm sorry you couldn't reach me and you got so scared. It just, it's the end of the semester and I left early, but it's OK."

"Thank God, that's all. Of course, now I feel bad for that poor man's family. What, Sophie? Sophie says she's so relieved that you're OK too!"

"Thank Aunt Sophie and tell her I'm sorry she was worried." It was pretty weird. His name must have been more common than he’d thought.

"Sophie, he says he's fine and thank you." A pause, Sophie speaking in the background, then, "I don't know, I'll ask him. Since you're OK, we're going down to SaveMart. Do you need anything, honey?"

"No, Mom. I'm OK. Tell Aunt Sophie thanks for asking. You guys go and have a good time." He said. He'd make a sandwich and start into the papers in his bag and then go online to work on the rest. He might make quite a dent by 6:00 pm.

"Good time! I don't know about that. But we'll be careful and watch out for crazy people. That SaveMart can be quite the freak show, you know."

"Mom! I'm shocked. You of all people. The queen of tolerance and crypto-socialism." He couldn't resist getting one more wag of the tongue in.

"Lawrence! Your smart mouth is going to ..."

"Mom!" he interrupted, "I love you! Tell Aunt Sophie I love her too. You guys go, have fun. I'll be by tomorrow to see you and have a decent meal. OK?"

"Of course. I wouldn't let you go hungry. I'm going to roast a chicken and have the cheese noodle hot dish you like so much. Sophie and Marv might be here too."

"It'll be great, Mom. I gotta go. You're making my mouth water. Bye, Mom. Bye to Sophie."

"Goodbye," longingly.

He hung up the receiver and shook his head. He'd get to the bills later, now for the turkey sandwich.

As he stood the phone rang again. Larry immediately imagined his Mom had forgotten to tell him some major news item and she was calling back. He picked it up.

"Whajja forget?" he said.

"Lawrence Walter?" A man's voice said.

"Yeah. Sorry. Thought you were someone else. What can I do for you?" Maybe someone from the school, although they didn't usually call him Lawrence.

Click, and a moment later the dial-tone come back on.

Weird, he thought. It wasn't a wrong number. The guy'd said his name, and without an "s." Suddenly, he thought back on the news story his Mom had told him about. Did the victim's name have an "s" at the end? Surely his Mom wouldn't have missed the significance of that detail. What was that deal?

The phone rang again and startled him so much he actually jumped, like in a cartoon. His heart rate jumped too.

That explained it, the last call had been dropped by mistake and the guy was calling back to complete whatever it was. The pulse pounding in his head started slowing to a more normal state.

"Hello, Lawrence Walter." He said hoping to cut to the chase.

"Lawrence Walter?" The voice was a man but not the last guy that called. This voice was higher in pitch. That was really an annoying question after the way he answered.

"Yes. This is Lawrence Walter. Who is this?" He needed to get to the bottom of this and get on with his afternoon's work.

"Mr. Walter, this is Lieutenant Shafer of the Sacramento Police. Are you alone, sir?" Wow, this took him by surprise.

"Yes, Lieutenant. I'm alone. What's going on?"

"Sir. I want you to stay on the phone with me right now. There's nothing to worry about, but we're sending a couple cars to your house on Montrose right now. You may be in danger and we just trying to be careful. Do you understand, sir?” Larry's heart did a U-turn and started back up.

"Yeah, but what's going on? I don't understand. What kind of danger?" As he said this he began to hear distant sirens. This had to be some weird coincidence. It had to be a joke. Who did he know that'd pull something like this?

"I'll tell you in a minute, but tell me first, are your doors locked? I'm just asking as a precaution. As I said, we're just trying to cover our bases," the man's voice said.

Larry's head started spinning with a thousand different thought's. Was his door locked? Had he locked it when he came in?  This couldn't be real. The sirens were getting closer.

"Wait, wait. Lieutenant... What did you say your name was? Is this a joke or something? Come on. It's not funny." He glanced at the door to see if it was locked but what he saw was the silhouette of a man walking up to the door cast against the curtains that covered the window in the top half of the door.

"Sir, we just got a call from the State Police that five people with your name have been killed in the state in the past four hours. We don't know what this means, but we're not going to take any chances." Lieutenant Shafer's voice was receding in Larry's mind.

The sirens were getting louder, but it might not matter.

The door was opening.


* * *

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Measuring of Ronald Furnower

Ron Furnower drove his ancient red Jeep Wagoneer down Maple Street on the way to his office and he was already getting a headache. The only thing he dreaded more than the drive was pulling into the parking lot that was shared by four other businesses in the dirty little strip mall. There weren't enough spaces for all of the employees, let alone any customers that might accidentally wander in.

His office was officially in the seedy part of Washaw City, which was officially the seedy part of this quarter of the state. It was made up of about two miles of Highway 82, leading into or out of town, depending which way you were facing. It was originally an expansion of a town with a future.

Back in the early-1980's, the tap had opened and the money flowed and Washaw looked ready to grow, so cheap business space was built out on the east edge. Now there wasn't a single business there from the original occupants. He knew of at least three buildings at the far edge that had never had a tenant.

It had all started well enough, the project had drawn some larger chains to the area for the first time and Washaw was spoken of as a model for the future of small town America. Folks from the surrounding area drove to little Washaw to shop or dine at the new Circuit City, HomeBase, Silo, Red Lobster and Future Shop arrayed along the strip. The bump in customers and the publicity was like blood in the water, and the chains lined up, eager to take advantage of the crowds with loose cash. Washaw became a little prairie oasis of for a day of shopping, restaurants and a 12-plex theater complex. There was nothing like it and in the middle of nowhere.

Then, when everything got built up, the tap was screwed down, hard. In 1987 the wallets snapped shut and the big chain stores just slammed their tailgates and drove off. Many disappeared from the surface of the earth. Almost all of those new buildings lay empty, abandoned.

There were some small sporadic attempts to start up local businesses but none had the appeal or the resources to hang on for long. Nobody went out to buy new appliances when the old ones could be repaired for less, and the hankering for new electronics just quietly receded in favor of a little larger cushion in the bank after the mortgage payment.

Still, there were all those empty stores and nature abhors a vacuum, and MTV had done its damage and awakened the younger generations to sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, and all that needed a place to exist. So little by little, the hermit crabs that were pawn shops, liquor stores, and strip clubs crawled into the abandoned shells of the big chains and made themselves at home. That stretch of Highway 82 became a little oasis of sin, a little piece of the big-city right-smack on the edge of Mayberry.

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm? Right? And most of the area was small towns and farmland. Washaw and the other tiny towns in the tri-county area, had been planned with a cookie-cutter from the second half of the 1800's.  A center square, with a fountain or bandstand, old trees and maybe a cannon or statue from some great war, surrounded on four sides by old brick storefronts with awnings and hand painted signs that reminded Ron of new lipstick smeared on very old pigs. The downtowns all included a bakery, two cafes, the remnants of a "five & dime", a drug store, maybe an attempt at a bookstore or little fashion shop. Just off the square was the gas station and mechanic, a small grocery, the required two churches, and a feed store. Every town was the same, built on an old design that was sufficient to the needs.

But the strip glared its difference and while the town got quiet when the sun went down, the strip was just getting started. A grotesque alien limb grafted onto an alderman's body, it not only existed, it thrived. At night, you could see the its lights reflected on the clouds above for miles away. It was an anomaly. No doubt about it.

Before “the strip,” the most recent murders were towards the end of the Civil War, 150 years before, when Confederate Raiders had viciously killed two farm families, ten people in all, near Wilber-Creek. There was a brass plaque set into a limestone base in the square commemorating it.

But in the past 18 months alone, there had been 14 violent deaths on the strip and at least four were murders. That was quite a change. As you’d expect, most of the trouble came from drug and alcohol use.

So high times on the strip had brought boom times for local law enforcement. The Clayton County Sheriff's Department had received four new deputy positions, three big new SUV's, and a round of ballistic vests and military assault rifles for the house. Hoorah! Those upgrades were not to control the farmers.

Ronald Furnower worked at the Clayton County Agricultural Extension. He liked to think of it as the AgEx (Ron was a fan of Tom Clancy). The AgEx had been moved into the more cost-efficient, abandoned storefront next to Jiffy Appliance Repair which was next to Dark Knight Tattoo, home of the famous "TatTwo for One Sale, Every Day." You know the place.

Ron's job was to help local farmers, which included the new ostrich rancher and a worm farm started by a Californian, to find answers to their problems, to help them fill out applications for federal and state aid, and reconfirm the commitment made by Abe Tuttleby (that was really his name) the new Governor, to support the obsolete concept of the family farm.

Business was not overwhelming at the Agricultural Extension office, but Ron did his best to give the taxpayers their money's worth, for he was an honest man. He prided himself on his neatness and organization. It's not hyperbole to say that Ron Furnower had the most tightly organized file system in the state office world. His little coffee area was also a thing of beauty. Ron didn't drink coffee, but he made a fresh pot every morning just in case some troubled farmer should seek succor from the state.

Ron Furnower was born and raised in Washaw and he lived there still. He was 41 years old, not married and lived next door to his aged parents, who were, blessedly, still in decent health. His brothers, Donald and Xavier, both lived within an hour of Washaw, as did most other members of his extended family. He had worked by himself at the AgEx for 14 years, since graduating from the community college and had seen many changes. He liked his job, he just wished it was a little busier and didn't take place in this depressing and, frankly, scary place.

As he pulled into the parking lot at 7:17 am, it was cloudy and the headache over his eyes was in full bloom. He parked next to the large blue dumpster at the western edge of the lot, next to the chain link fence that had no obvious reason for existence since "Wild Woodie's Used Cars" had folded its tent (literally) and stolen away, three years before, leaving disappointed creditors in the rearview mirror.

Ron locked his car and then stopped, closed his eyes and slowly shook his head as he smelled the sour scent of fresh urine nearby. Unfortunately, this was not an uncommon way of starting the day here.  He looked down to make sure he wasn’t standing in it and caught a glimpse of color from the corner of his left eye. Turning his head, he looked at the corner of the dumpster with its dark blue, chipped paint and saw a small puddle of red on the ground by the wheel. He froze and swallowed involuntarily.

He slowly moved along the side of his car toward the rear of the large metal box and on his second step he saw a foot, or more correctly a lower leg in jeans and a sneaker.

Ron stopped. "Hey! Hey, are you OK?" He looked around the parking lot, a few parked cars but nobody else had arrived for work this early. He was alone, or almost.

He took another step. "Buddy?" Maybe it was a woman, he should--what? Use some politically correct unisex approach until he knew for sure? He thought maybe he was overthinking this. But he did represent the State Department of Agriculture here, you know. What? "Jesus, Ron. Get a grip," he said to himself.

He took another step and saw a hand, a very pale right hand lying on the ground, palm, up. He also saw the top of the jeans and the lower forearm. Whoever it was, was sitting upright on the ground leaning back against the dumpster, and whoever it was, didn't look – umm -- healthy. He shuddered at the obvious implication and felt nausea pass over him like the flying shadow of the grim reaper in an old cartoon. The feeling passed and he stood upright and took a quick breath. He hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath and grimacing. He took another breath and felt better.

He should turn right around and go into his office and call the sheriff, right now. That's what he should do, a responsible citizen would do that now. He might, what do they call it -- umm-- mess up the crime scene and mess up the clues for what happened.

Maybe whoever did this is still here. Ron snapped upright, suddenly afraid to look behind him. Was he in danger just by finding this – uh -- body?

"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Please, don't let me get killed next to this dumpster. Please, let me live through this," he said silently, not to himself this time. This time, he was picturing in his mind the Nativity display in front of the Reform Baptist Church by his house, as he’d seen it every Christmas since he was a kid. He was asking for help specifically from the small, but powerful and accommodating Baby Jesus in the manger, lit from two sides by 200-watt waterproof flood lamps.

"He knows I love him, he won't let me die here. Please, Baby Jesus. Spread your illuminated, miracle-working presence around me and keep me safe." Ron felt better after these thoughts. He realized that the Savior and his folks were probably resting in the back of a garage somewhere at this time of year, but he was confident that they would hear his voice and respond, no matter their surroundings.

There were no sounds around him and he turned his head to see only the side of his car and the empty lot behind it. No one else was here. Whatever had happened, had happened sometime the night before. Not in the morning light. Things like this required darkness. He was safe enough right here.

He began to turn to go to his office and report this, but something made him stop. Maybe he needed to say a brief thanks to the Nativity crew for being there for him. That was a very nice idea, but that wasn't it. No, he wanted to see the body. Something made him think it was important. But something else said, Ron you don't really want to do that. The second something lost the argument and Ron took a couple more steps and turned, with exaggerated slowness, to see the what was to be seen. He lowered himself onto his haunches next to the right side of the body and looked at it, closely.

It was a young man, sitting against the dumpster, legs straight out in front of him. His chin rested on his upper chest and his mouth was open a little. The front of his sweatshirt was soaked in blood down to his waist. The crotch and thighs of the man's jeans were very dark from the release of his full bladder. His eyes were open and bulging out a little and his pupils were so large that you almost couldn't tell the color of his eyes, but Ron could see a rim of brown iris there. On his face, he had an absent expression of deep thought. The man looked young, in his 20's and slightly foreign, maybe a mixture of white with Hispanic or some south Asian blood, something like that. He had thick dark black hair and a mustache. He was kind of handsome, Ron thought.

He'd seen dead bodies before, several times, in caskets at the funeral home. They didn't look like this. This man's face was so – pale -- almost like a white porcelain cup. Ron could see the man's lower lip, it was a pale, pale, bloodless gray.

He felt as though he should be revolted, he should be disgusted and sickened by this sight, but he wasn't. For some reason, he was actually, sort of fascinated and his headache had disappeared.

As Ron squatted there next to the body, he saw his own left hand involuntarily rising toward the young man's face. What was he doing? His hand just kept moving toward the face. Just what did he think he was doing? You can't go around touching dead bodies! This guy had been shot, murdered! He couldn't touch a murdered man's face! His fingers were spread, reaching on their own for the dead man's right cheek. Ron's eyebrows raised in alarm. It was like he wasn't in control of his own left arm. Sweat broke out on his forehead as he focused his will on his own hand, and it finally stopped, maybe a quarter of an inch from the cheek. He could feel the coolness of the face radiating on the tips of his fingers.

A strong chill ran down his neck and back and the hair stood up on his arms and head. He felt very alive and alert. It was a feeling he couldn’t remember ever feeling before.

Slowly, Ron pulled his left hand back until he had full control of it and he took a deep breath and sighed.

He stood up, turned and walked around the back of his car and toward the front door of his office. He felt as if he were walking through light fog, the things around him were like pictures on the wall of an enclosed hallway. Another car pulled into the lot behind him, probably Dale from the appliance repair shop getting an early start. It was much too early for the Tattoo guys to show up.

He unlocked the front door and flipped on the lights absent-mindedly. Ron walked on back to the coffee counter and reached for the empty carafe to go refill it with fresh water, and then stopped. His eyebrows moved together into a frown and he pursed his lips and walked back to his desk and raised the handset to his ear and listened for a moment to the dial tone. Then he reached down his left hand and punched 9-1-1 and listened to the ringing at the other end.

* * *



Monday, June 27, 2016

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi




Thomas Pembroke was not a hero. He had never had heroic thoughts or daydreams. Far, far from it. "Hero" was exactly opposite of what Thomas was. Most people would evaluate Thomas and feel justified in declaring him a "coward." That's because we're taught that everyone should have some boundaries and standards that we shouldn't allow to be violated. We should tolerate only so much and no more. What comes after "no more", is a gray area that encompasses, sending food back to a restaurant's kitchen, pushing back against bullies, and homicidal road rage.

If you are prepared to tolerate absolutely anything, you are called a coward. That's the way it works. Almost.

A brief side-trip. If you are prepared to tolerate anything because of well thought out principles, then you may be considered a Saint, a great thinker, and very brave because by tolerating anything, you protect the sanctity of your truth, the fundamental concept of your philosophy, like Gandhi or Jesus Christ. But, if you are prepared to tolerate anything because you are afraid of everything, then you are a coward and held to be the lowest form of life. Just imagine someone who is so afraid that they allow themselves to be insulted, pushed around, robbed, enslaved, taken and tortured, and eventually killed like an animal for sport. The difference between the two identical ends is the cause, the motivation, the philosophy. The difference is so slight sometimes as to be measured against the width of the human soul. That's enough of that.

Thomas was a coward. He'd be the first to tell you. He despised himself for it. He was ashamed, always had been, but he felt there was nothing he could do about it. He'd tried. It was akin to trying to be taller or shorter or just somebody else. He tried very hard to be someone else, anyone else. But he never was anybody but Thomas the coward.

He couldn't watch movies or read books because stories contain peril and conflict in them. Thomas couldn't stand that. Thomas was frightened and nervous, of almost everything. He didn't need writers to make entertainment out of the horrible ways to die at sea, or how easily you could be crushed by a bus, or how the serial killer waits near the gas station or where the terrorist might place the bomb. He had a good imagination, and that was not "good" for him.  He saw danger everywhere, and the first part of his life convinced him that his perceptions were correct.

When he was young he was taught by the children around him. How else would they respond to someone who cringed without even defending himself when you spoke to him? They would push, and Thomas would fold. They would taunt, and Thomas would run and cry. They would chase and beat, and Thomas would curl up and absorb the blows best he could, and wait for his attackers to tire or get hungry.

But even children will tire of pursuing someone who is immobile with fear, and will move on with their own lives.

Thomas' parents were at first concerned for their only child's safety and well-being. Good for them, you say. They did what you'd expect parents to do. They went to the teachers and principals and complained. They went to the parents of the children who habitually picked on Thomas and reasoned with them. They went to the police, to the parish priest, to anyone who would even pretend to listen. They prayed for him and they threatened him and they bribed him. Nothing helped. Thomas came to fear his parents as much as he did the rest of the world.

They enrolled him in karate and boxing classes. They took him to therapists and doctors. They put him on medications and even tried several rounds of shock therapy. They sent him to camps; for fat kids (he wasn't actually fat), introverted kids (that was a lot of quiet, isolated fun), ADHD kids (a nightmare for everyone) and inner-city kids (he left there in an ambulance and there was a lawsuit that closed the camp). He was counseled with tough love, soft love, reverse psychology, outward bound, role play, and every Pop-Culture cure, supplement, diet, and regimen guaranteed to "Make a Man" of your problem child. They even sent him to a military school which quickly became like Guantanamo Bay for him,

His parents eventually accepted that their only son was a disgrace to the Pembroke name or any other name, for that matter. And they never let him forget their disappointment.

Thomas was such a coward that he dared not harm or even think ill of another person. He tried to live so as not to harm any living thing, or even any non-living thing. Not because he loved or respected everything, but because he feared everything. When he was very young, he would try to run from immediate danger, but he stopped that when realized he might actually be running into even worse situations without thinking. After that time, he preferred to just close his eyes and brace himself for what would happen.

I know most of you think that his story should wrap up soon with something like, "... and then the day came when Thomas stood up to the bully and pushed back and his life changed, and he was never, ever afraid again."  If you imagine John Hurt reading that line, you can feel the warmth grow in your heart and your mind settles into a comfortable hum.  Then you'll sigh deeply, having witnessed the redemption of Thomas, and give the story five Stars, maybe even recommend it to your family. We do love happy endings and I wish that were the story.

He grew into his adulthood like this, carrying his crippling burden with him, barely concealed. Every decision he made or emotion he had was finely filtered through it. He accepted that his life would be spent in this prison that everyone told him he was responsible for building. He would never feel safe, ever. He was afraid to fall asleep because of what might happen or the nightmares he'd have. Afraid to go out, afraid to stay in. Afraid to even be heard crying in the night. Too broken to occupy his small place in the world, too intact to just wake up dead one morning and have the torment over.

Thomas knew well the adage- "A coward dies a thousand deaths; the brave man dies but once." His parents had repeated it to him in hopes that such an awful realization would shake him out of his fearful state, but you can imagine the effect of such a pronouncement upon him. Thomas had keenly felt his thousand deaths, and thousand more and a thousand again. He'd given himself up, and over, many times.

When he was 35, both his parents died of cancers within two months of one another. Prior to that, he had visited them every day and they had continued their pronouncements and warnings about not trying hard enough to change, from their deathbeds. When they died he cried for each of them as he had cried many times before during his life while contemplating their deaths.

The world had no place for, or interest in, someone like Thomas and it moved ahead without him.

You may think that you would not live that way, afraid of everything. You would rather die. You would take your own life if you were that afraid. Of course you would, because you're brave.

I told you all that so that I could tell you this.

In February of this year, Thomas turned 50 years old and couldn’t tell anyone. On the afternoon of his birthday, he accidentally stumbled into the midst of an armed robbery at the cash machine in front of a Credit Union branch, two blocks from his little apartment.

A young man, apparently on drugs, was robbing a young mother with a child, at knife-point on the sidewalk by the cash machine. Thomas was walking past the bank but his attention was focused on the obvious danger of the enormous city bus pulling up to the stop near the bank entrance. Distracted by the bus and oblivious to the robbery, he walked right past the frightened woman and child, and collided with the armed man. The robber screamed at him and Thomas did what he always did when frightened, he froze and closed his eyes. The woman saw her chance and moved away with her child, toward the bus, and the robber, enraged, stabbed Thomas in the center of the upper abdomen with a vicious, upper thrust.

Most of the people on that side of the bus, along with the driver, saw the shocking incident. Thomas fell to the ground and curled up, best he could, with the knife still in him. The young man ran off and was caught later that day thanks to eyewitness descriptions and closed-circuit TV video recording from the cash machine.

By the time the Medic-One van pulled up to the scene, Thomas had lost so much blood he could no longer see. He could only hear the voices around him. He heard the young mother and her daughter crying and people from the bus consoling them. He heard people talking about what they'd seen and how shocking it had been.

He heard people saying that he, Thomas, had saved the life of the mother and child and that it was the bravest thing they'd ever seen.

When Thomas heard this, he thought the voices sounded a little bit like the voices of his parents, and then he died, right there, before he could be afraid of what came next.

* * *


Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Errand



A couple more things and he would head home. Honestly, his feet felt like they were on fire. He needed to get online and look up "Athlete's Foot," maybe that's what he had. Whatever it was, it was really annoying.

Cary Freeman walked with a constant, uneven rhythm along the sidewalk in front of the stores with a dark blue backpack slung over his left shoulder and a reusable grocery bag in his left hand. He moved at a leisurely pace and looked into the store windows on his left as he passed them, but the rest of the time he kept his eyes on the ground ahead of him. It was a nice afternoon, a little cooler than average, but that was good, and there were plenty of people out, busy living their lives. Some were on their lunch breaks and trying to squeeze in some errands, a quick trip to pick up cleaning or drop off papers along with grabbing something to eat.

Cary was amazed that there could be so many worlds existing independently, but almost never touching. It was like a well-run ant colony or something. Except ants had a common bond and goal, but people – people acted as though they were all strangers on their own paths. Watching what most people did made Cary believe that, with the possible exception of a few moments each week, when they were comfortable and safe, sitting with their feet up and their stomachs full, most people never considered the common good, never thought of their real place in the universe.

Cary Freeman thought about these things, he thought about them more than most. That made him different, not better necessarily, but, well in some ways, yeah, better. He felt that he understood his place in the world, his function. At least he thought about the world. He felt he was more of a quiet leader-in-waiting, but of whom or what he couldn’t say. There can be no more lonely and useless position than leader of a group that feels no bond, no relationship, no cohesion. Cary Freeman knew what irony was, he knew really well about irony.

Take his name, he hated it, "Cary." It was his mother's idea. She picked it out long before he was born. She loved Cary Grant and so her only child would, of course, "carry" that name. His mother hadn't understood irony. She saw only disappointment and personal insult.

As he passed a pet shop he stopped and looked through the plate glass. There were seven puppies in two open top glass enclosures. Four small, fuzzy, tan puppies, maybe retrievers, were piled, asleep, amid wood shavings and toys in the right-hand enclosure. On the left, two mostly black, shaggy-haired puppies were playing tug-a-war at the rear of the box, using a small piece of rope with knots at the ends. The third one, black with a white blaze on his little chest, sat, ears up at the window, looking straight across into Cary's face.

Things slowed down as Cary and the little dog considered each other slowly. Cary felt as though he and the pup were taking the time to judge each other fairly. It started at the surface and continued deeper. They looked for signs of commonality and understanding, for indications of balance and justice, and even whether the other had the rare abilities to admit weakness, to forgive and to apologize.

Cary was aware that people were passing behind him and that everyone one of them was staring down at the strange sight as he and the dog had their silent conversation. He was used to people looking at him, especially behind his back. It no longer bothered him, especially not at this moment. Not while he was connecting with another, what? soul? -- well, dog. He chuckled at the thought and the puppy cocked his head at Cary's reaction and then dropped his ears and wagged his tail with what might have been either enthusiasm or the shared thought. Cary didn't seriously think the dog really understood, but he appreciated that the dog would laugh with him out of courtesy and respect.

Cary blushed and felt that he'd insulted this animal by arrogantly assuming that sharing something with a "dog" was beneath his own "exalted status" as a human being, while the dog had shown only respect and humility. He looked down in shame. This puppy had given him a gift, a lesson.

Cary nodded to the dog and turned to back in the direction he was going. Maybe, if things worked, out, maybe he could come back and buy that puppy. Was it right that he should do that? He'd never dared to have an animal depend on him before. His mother had told him more than once that he couldn't take care of a pet properly. His mother had said many things like that. He missed her, but in many ways, he was glad that she was no longer living. He loved her but she only ever told him about the things he could never do. She seemed to enjoy telling him about what he could never have. He knew he had limits, but sometimes it could be fun to ignore a few of them, just for a little while.

The dog had given him much to think about.

He reached the corner and paused waiting for the light. Jeez, his feet were burning and itching like crazy again. He had to get something for them. Maybe after he finished at the bank.

The bank was just across the street on the corner. There was a digital clock incorporated into the sign above the double glass doors that said "South Valley Credit Union" and time was 12:34. "1234," he thought, just that simple. He turned his head as far as it would go to the left and heard his neck crackle in his ears. He glanced up at the stoplight with its "Walk/No Walk" sign. He waited patiently while a few people joined him at the corner, all pointedly looking somewhere else.

The light clicked, the sign changed to "Walk" and off he went, across the crosswalk, following the white dashes that marked the left side. Up onto the sidewalk and through the glass doors into the lobby. He walked to the end of the short line of people formed between the blue velvet ropes looped through chrome stanchions.

A couple minutes later he was standing at the teller's counter and his head barely cleared the countertop. A woman said, "May I help you?”

Without hesitation, he slipped the note onto the counter and removed the revolver from the shopping bag.

"Oh my!" He heard the teller say in a hushed, confused voice. The people in line behind him began talking to each other.

This might be a little tougher than he had thought and his feet were starting to bug him again.

"Could we pick this up a little bit?" He said as he raised his left eyebrow as high as it would go to fix his gaze on the teller. It wasn't easy with the large twists in his back. He had vaguely hoped that they'd think it was a clever disguise. After all, it wasn't very often that you saw a hunchback rob a bank.


* * *


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Adam Kepke's Looking for Work


It had been hot for weeks. Hot and dry. Adam Kepke had seen 68 summers, but he could only bring about 60 of those to mind and of those, he couldn’t remember more than five that weren’t hot and dry. He lived in southwestern Iowa and that’s the way summers were. But that didn’t keep it from being the number one topic of conversation, every single year. That was OK with Adam, it kept things simple and simple was comfortable.

Adam kept his life pretty simple. He'd never married and didn't know why. It just hadn't happened. He didn't pay much attention to the world outside himself, he never had, and where he lived, in the town of Slipperyrock, Iowa, that was considered a virtue.

Adam wasn't a hermit. He attended church most Sundays, went to the store, and to the diner to eat on occasion. He used to work every day, spent most of his life working at the Tyler’s heavy equipment repair just outside of town. He'd worked mostly on farm equipment but he could fix a car and even appliances, if he wanted to. He'd always been handy and had been a machinist mate shop mechanic, the rating called MMS, while in the Navy. He'd been in the landlocked navy, never at sea or on boats. Adam enjoyed working on machinery.

He'd gotten hurt when a full-sized tractor had slipped just enough on a set of big jack-stands to break his right shoulder, badly. It happened at lunch time and he waited under the tractor for 20 minutes for his buddy, Jeff, to get back from the diner and jack the tractor up off him. Jeff drove him to the nearest hospital in Red Oak, 30 minutes south. They gave him something for pain and sent him by ambulance to Omaha, Nebraska another 30 miles northeast. Adam was awake and quiet throughout the whole affair.

They fixed his shoulder best they could, but it was never as good as before and it'd pop out of its socket if he put any real load on it, so he could no longer work at the shop. That's how he came to retire at the age of 65. Adam missed working on machinery.

He spent most of these hot days in the rocking chair on his front porch. He didn't read books, he didn't listen to the radio, just rocked. Once in a while, somebody walked by on their way uptown, kids rode their bikes around, the occasional car passed by. Mostly it was quiet and Adam rocked.

He held a small woven palm-leaf fan on a flat stick that he waved by his face to create a little breeze. The fan was the type common in the old days before air conditioning and electric fans and they used to be placed in the hymnal holders on the backs of the pews in church to use during the service. It was common for funeral homes to stencil their names on the flat part to advertise. The fans worked well as a personal cooling device, even when the power was out. Adam's fan used to have a name stenciled on it but it had worn off long ago.

That day, as Adam sat rocking on his porch, the dark clouds gathered to the south. It was just past noon but looking south was like looking at night time. It was still over a hundred degrees according to the old mercury thermometer advertising Challenger Seed Corn that hung near his front door but maybe they’d finally get rain.

There was a radio he could check, but checking the radio wouldn't make it rain or rain any sooner. He'd know if it rained because he'd see it.

He didn't have a watch either but he could tell it was only about 15 minutes later when the sky over him had darkened enough for the streetlights to come on and he could hear the thunder.

A harsh wind rushed through and he smelled the unmistakable scent of rain hitting hot dirt and leaves. It wouldn't be long now.

Then it was on him. Huge drops of dirty rain, so thick he could barely see across the street, hitting so hard they knocked leaves off the big oak tree in his front yard.

The rich steamy odor given off by the flooding moisture on the heated surfaces around him could almost choke a person. A powerful mixture of brown dead grass and weeds, roofing shingles heated to 170 degrees, asphalt and concrete streets, dirt violently combined into mud, and the tons of dust suspended in the air, all smashed into solution by an incalculable quantity of water falling from a column of clouds and wind 40,000 feet tall.

With the aroma came the cooling. The air temperature dropped twenty degrees in 30 seconds. Amazing the changes rain and wind could bring. One of God's biggest machines moved over the surface of the earth. Nothing and no one could resist its power.

The world flashed bright blue-white once, twice. Adam's eyes closed by reflex at the lightning, but not before he was almost knocked backwards off his rocking chair by the deafening clap of thunder the light brought with it.

Even under the roof of his porch, Adam was pelted by the rain that the wind blew sideways and dry leaves skittered around his feet.

There were a few more lightning strikes nearby and Adam held his ground, but he no longer rocked. He sat stock still and bore witness to the display. He thought back for another time he’d sat through a thunderstorm like this one. The violence that surrounded him drove any comparable wonders beyond of his reach.

And just as fast as it arrived, the tempest of lightning, thunder, and fierce winds was gone, moved on ahead of the storm. What was left was the rain, falling straight down. Enough water to make instant mud puddles in the yard, to form small rivers on the street sweeping anything loose along with the flow, to choke the downspouts and overflow the gutters of his house causing an unbroken sheet of water 20 feet long to cascade over the edges. The sound of the rain overpowered all other sounds except the receding rumble of thunder as the storm moved on.

Adam marveled at the power of the engine he'd just witnessed. One day soon, he thought. One day soon, he would see that machine from the inside and work on it.



* * *

Friday, June 24, 2016

It's Better to Be Lucky than Good


"It's a Great Life, If You Don't Weaken." That's one of the things David's father would often say to him. His father said such things for no apparent reason, at least none that David could discern. It was like his father was trying to raise him to adulthood by passing him secret messages.

David Jutts was sitting at his desk in the top floor of the three story building where he worked as a claims manager for an insurance company. He'd just finished reading an adjuster's report of damage to a roof from a falling tree. It had occurred two days ago during a thunderstorm/tornado in a town 25 miles from here and it was very similar to four other reports that had arisen from the same storm. "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall."

These people were lucky, most of the damage was over the garage and their car wasn't involved, so they hadn't had much damage to their living space and belongings. The company would pay off on the costs, after the deductible, of course, but everyone had gotten off lightly on this one. "A Miss is as Good as a Mile."

He turned his head to release some tension in his neck and sat back against the chair. His eyes skittered over the family picture and past the large monitor on the desk and landed on a postcard that was thumbtacked to the coarse brown fabric cover of the cubical wall.

It showed an old man, he guessed an Italian or Spaniard, standing, balanced atop an ancient bicycle, leaning up against the brick wall of an old southern European building. The old man was perched precariously atop the bicycle's seat, leaning his elbows on a window sill and kissing an old woman who was leaning out of the open window. A caption read, "Where there's a will, there's a way." His wife had given him the card for their 25th wedding anniversary a couple years before. It was a cute card. He must have looked at it a hundred times over the past couple years and each time he would consider it in a new light.

Right now, as he looked at it, his attention was drawn to the caption and to its possible double meaning. Probably just emotional overspray from his job. He imagined the old woman coming up with a scheme to do away with her paramour for his fortune. The old man certainly didn't look rich though. Maybe she suspected that her window wasn't the only one that the old man was climbing up to reach. In that case, his "will" wouldn't matter. What possible motive could she have to entice the old man to risk his life like that? If she really loved him, wouldn't she discourage him from climbing atop a bicycle that way?  Why was he thinking about this simple sentiment in such a jaded and uncharitable way? What was wrong with him?

"A Liar Trusts No One," his father would have said. Was David really dishonest and conniving to gain from another's tragedy? He wasn't cheating on his wife. It was like Jimmy Carter had said, real cheating was in your heart and David’s heart was not unfaithful to his wife. He didn't steal from work, not even a pen. Well, maybe a pen, but “stealing” implied you were never going to give things back. No, dishonesty, real dishonesty resided in the heart. He needed to stop trying to justify things. Why was he even thinking like this? He certainly wasn't feeling guilty, was he? He hadn't gotten up and moved around for hours. He was getting a little stiff mentally, that's all. Get up, walk around, stretch! Good idea.

He stood and leaned back, arching and stretching. He put both his arms in the air, spreading his fingers. Yeah, that felt good.

As he felt his body relaxing and his circulation improving, he looked across the tops of the surrounding cubicle walls, all the way to the reception area, 25 feet away. He saw two uniformed police talking with his boss, Anne. They were all looking directly at him and Anne had her arm raised, pointing right at David.

"You Can Run, But You Can't Hide."


* * *

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pleasantview

Edgar Barrey sat at a small table on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop a block away from his apartment in the city. It was a beautiful June morning with glimpses of sun between clouds and a little breeze. There had been rain in the early hours, and now the world had that sweet, clean smell peculiar to larger cities. He loved this little shop, he used to come here with his wife Eleanor before her death nine months ago.

The sun came out and shown on him and he closed his eyes just to feel the warmth on his face. He saw, in his mind's eye, a few of the times he and Eleanor had sat at a table here and talked or read the newspaper or just sipped coffee and watched the world go by.

He remembered the last time they'd been here together. It was the last time she'd come out before going to the hospital. She had become so frail he thought some slight autumn breeze might blow her off the chair and send her tumbling down the sidewalk. It wasn't warm then, but even bundled up in two sweaters he could almost see through her.

He opened his eyes and the girl set his coffee down in front of him. He mumbled a thanks as she hurried off to take care of other customers.

He started to reach for his cup to take a sip but stopped and just sat there, thinking again of Eleanor. It seemed he'd thought more and more about her lately, and of only the good things. Their time together had not been easy, but now looking back he could only remember it as a good time. How could he forget all the fights, all the ultimatums, all the crying by both of them? She'd left him twice, they'd both talked to lawyers, and then, gotten back together. That must have been thirty years ago. He couldn't remember how or why they'd reconciled.

Right now, thinking back, he remembered only an ideal marriage. Helping each other, laughing at each other's jokes, worrying about each other, holding hands in cold waiting rooms. He wished Eleanor was still here, he missed her badly. Strange how your memory could rewrite your whole life.

They'd never had children. The time for expecting them passed by and without a formal acknowledgment, they'd both adjusted their courses and gotten on with life. Maybe that was a tragedy, maybe not, it hardly mattered now. They'd had friends but friends move on, fall out, die. Both of them had come from small families, with only a couple siblings, who’d scattered and not kept in touch. This was the way things worked.

Edgar Barrey had become alone in the world. He reached down, picked up the cup and lifted it to his mouth for a sip. It tasted wonderful.


* * *

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Reunion


Paul had been behind the wheel of the old GMC half-ton pickup, driving south down Interstate Five towards Portland, Oregon for almost an hour before he took a good long breath and looked around.

He'd been sitting on the tailgate, eating the baloney sandwich he'd brought when his beat-up Nokia "Dumb-Phone" had rung and he'd just left the job site.

He glanced in the rearview for the first time and his tailgate was still down. Paul tried to remember if he'd told anyone at the job that he was leaving. Kevin, the foreman, had been standing a few feet away, looking at some blueprints spread out on a scrap plywood table and talking to a subcontractor on the phone. Andy had just laughingly called the new guy, what was his name, called him a rookie for something and the others were laughing. "New Guy" was pissed, Paul could tell.

No, Paul hadn't said anything to anyone. He'd just got in the truck and left. What happened to his sandwich? He looked around. He didn’t see it. He hoped he wouldn't get fired for leaving the job, but for now, what happens, happens. A job wasn't on the top of the list right now.

He looked at the clock in the dash out of habit, it said 8:20, it always said 8:20. It'd stopped working a long time ago. They'd broken for lunch around noon and he'd had maybe two bites of the sandwich so, he'd probably gotten the phone call around 12:10, 12:15. He was now past Olympia and before Centralia so that had taken, what? Maybe an hour, so about 1:15 now.

He was headed for his brother's double-wide near Longview which was maybe 45 more miles away. Dale was in trouble and needed his help. That's all he knew for now. Dale was in trouble. That was not exactly news.

There was a lot less traffic since he'd gotten past Olympia, it'd get a little busier around Centralia/Chehalis and then I-5 would open up and he could make some time. Paul hoped that he'd get there in time, or that Dale would get out and go someplace safe. It was still a long way away and he didn't know how much time he had.

Paul glanced down to his right and saw his old Nokia phone. He picked it up, flipped it open and punched in Dale's number slowly with his right thumb while looking back and forth between the phone and the road. It rang and rang and then went to voicemail, he heard Dale's smart-ass voice and his message, "Hey y'all. I'm not all here, or not all there, or something like that, anyhoo. Leave me a message and I'll think about it. Baah!"

"God dammit Dale. I'm on the way. Call me back quick. We got to make a plan. Call me back!" and he hung up.

Maybe he was on the phone to somebody else. Dale wouldn't call the police about this, but Paul wished he would. Maybe Paul should call the cops and just tell them. Dale would get arrested but maybe that would be good idea at this point. What was Paul going to do to help him? He looked around the cab of the truck. Good question, he was so focused on getting there, he realized now he didn't have a plan and he was sure that Dale wouldn't have one.

There was a tire iron behind the seat and that was about it. No guns. He didn't even have his tool bag with his framing hammer. He'd left that on the tailgate and it had probably fallen off the back of the truck with his Thermos and sandwich when he took off.

His phone rang and he swerved as he reached down to pick it up.

"Dale?"

"Where are you man? I need a little help here. There here now, man. Three cars of them. God dammit, where are you?"

"I'm not even to Centralia yet. Dale, you got to call the cops, dude. It's your only chance here. Call 'em. Maybe you can stall ‘til the cops get there." Paul was talking fast, trying to get through to his brother.

"That's your idea? Call the cops, man? Give myself up? Roll over? Shit, they'd do me for sure then. These guys don't fuck around Paul. They don't fuck around." There was a pause. "Just get here man. I'll try to hold on. Shit!"

"Dale, I love you." Paul couldn't think of anything else to say. He wished he was there with him. He wished they were together for this. Whatever happened, Paul would share it if he could.

"Yeah, man. I love you too. Paul." Another pause. "Look man. I know I --" The was a big crashing noise over the phone obscuring what Dale said next and the signal was dropped.

Paul continued to hold the phone to his right ear. "Dale. I love you, man. I'm coming." He said to no one.

The road began to blur as tears stung his eyes. He thought about Dale and him when they younger. They were inseparable. He could see Dale, maybe 8 years old, in a dirty white t-shirt and jeans, laughing.  Dale and him, they took care of each other.

Paul closed the phone, then flipped it open again and carefully dialed, 9-1-1 as the old pickup rolled along the interstate.

***


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Leap


The young man stood in the modern lobby looking through the glass doors into a reception area that could have been part of a Hollywood movie set. All the furniture in the room was either dark red wood, leather the color of strong black coffee or thick glass with a greenish tinge.

He'd been standing outside the doors for about five minutes and while many well-dressed, great smelling people had passed him, no one seemed to notice his presence even though he wore old jeans, dirty sneakers and a hoodie sweatshirt. He wondered if it was common for lost-looking street people to stand around in lobbies. He had no idea.

Joe had never been in a place like this before and right now he thought that he'd made a mistake by coming here. He wasn't ready for this big of a move. Some people were just meant to be where they were. They had no business trying to do better, he had no business trying to do better.

This was stupid, he was stupid. It was like Eric said, Joe was a worm and the only guts a worm had was what you saw when you stepped on it. Joe knew what Eric meant when he said that. He was saying that Joe was looking to get stepped on bad if he didn't settle down and stop his whining.

Joe knew what Eric could do to him. Eric wasn't a worm. He'd seen Eric beat the holy shit out of guys before. Once he got started, Eric just kept going, he didn't feel sorry for the guy and stop. He just kept going until he got tired of beating the dude or something else caught his attention. Eric didn't care. Joe guessed he didn't have to. That was why people followed him, Eric made decisions that stuck and you did what he said.

So what was Joe doing here, in this building, standing outside the office of the District Attorney? Did he really think he could rat out Eric and come out of this alive? Fat chance, worm! Come on, get out of here now, before somebody spots you. Somebody will see him and word will get back to Eric and Eric will kill him. Maybe Eric will send guys to his Mom's apartment and they'll kill her too. Maybe they'll drag them both to the same place and beat them both to death, one at a time.

Oh God, he couldn't think this way. He couldn't bear to picture what that would be like. What was he doing? Quick! Get out of here, now!

Just hold it. He had to go through with this. To show Eric he wasn't a worm. He had to do it to show Eric that he was a person. Joe can stop Eric. Joe can walk in there and tell them what Eric did last night. Joe saw it. Joe can tell them how Eric and Pauly and the new guy killed those two kids in the park, just for fun. Just for fun!

He can't go back there after they did that. It'd be like saying it was OK. If Joe went back now, he'd be telling them that those two kids were nothing, that they deserved to die alone and screaming, like they did.

Either go in and do this or turn around and get out of here. One or the other. He needed to make up his wormy mind for God sake. Joe looked at the floor and rubbed his sweaty hands together. He had to get out here. He'd go back home and think about this some more. Maybe there was another way he could do this. Right!

He started to turn to go back to the elevator bank and was surprised to find himself instead walking quickly through the glass doors and then up to the desk. What was happening?

"May I help you?" The woman was about his Mom's age but not as beat up looking. As she looked up at him the smile on her face quickly changed to neutral and then to concern.

"I, I, I, I, ummmh," he swallowed quickly and took a deep breath, "nn_n-n-need to spuh, spuh, spuh, talk …"

With a stutter like his, this was going to take a little while. He needed to concentrate now.


* * *

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Mostly True Tale of Heroism and Manliness

Alright then. A young fellow jumped into an active volcano to save his one true love, Daisy, from certain doom after she'd fainted during a hot air balloon ride over the volcanic caldera and fallen from the gondola and seeing her plight, leapt, without hesitation or thought for his own safety over the side of the gondola after her.

I could go into detail about how he had rented the balloon and taken a series of balloon piloting classes that went 3 days per week for 3 weeks plus the written course which covered a surprising amount of material. He had studied at night while spending his days at his job as a public defender for the state court system. Even with all of this he'd sill managed to volunteer at the Jesus Saves soup kitchen and donate blood at least once per week.

His name was Chester but everyone called him Sandy because of his full head of unruly blond hair. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a kind word for those around him. He was a vegan who ran 5 miles before dawn every morning and who, while a lay minister for the poor at the Divine Whisper All-Inclusive Christian Outreach Church, dabbled in Buddhism because it helped to center him and control the chronic pain from burns he'd received as a teenager saving children from a burning orphanage, which was his home since his missionary parents had been killed in a tragic canoe accident in Malaysia.

I could go into that detail, but it's more important to say that he was mighty proud of his balloon pilot's license and looked forward to landing at the aerodrome after the flight and surprising Daisy by proposing marriage to her. He had arranged for the other members of the Barbershop Quartet to which he belonged, to meet them at the Aerodrome and strike up the tune "I love you truly." when they landed. He had worked overtime, picking blueberries, to buy the modest ring in his pocket with which be hoped to win Daisy's heart as he "plighted his troth" to her.

Chester was taken aback when, after he surprised Daisy with the balloon excursion, she requested that they fly over the active volcano on the edge of the jungle just outside of Pittsburgh, where they both lived. But Chester could never deny Daisy anything that was in his power to give, and so made all the necessary calculations and preparations to traverse the very center of Mount Wachatremblony which was at the time, erupting with spectacular displays of lava.

All went well until they reached the midpoint of the overflight when Daisy was overcome by an attack of the vapors. She was too much of a gentle soul to allow the gasses to escape her digestive track and the pressure built until she could no longer breath and so, she fainted while standing at the gondola's railing. If she hadn't been wearing a festive hat with various local fruits fixed along the wide brim she might not have been so top-heavy, but the effect of the 12 pound hat on the suddenly unconscious woman carried her quickly over the side.

Chester had been studiously adjusting the ballast bags, strictly according to the Balloon Pilots Handbook, when her swoon began and although he dropped his cow horn ballast adjuster and reached for her, it was too late. Chester quickly added up the situation and decided on what seemed to him to be the best course of action, he grabbed up one of the mooring ropes coiled at his feet and jumped over the side after her.

While Chester had an absolute heart of gold and a thorough background in law and religion, he lacked a firm grasp of physics and so he reckoned that since he was larger than the petite Daisy, he would fall faster than her and catch up to her on the way down, then grab her, and save them both by holding on tightly when he came to end of the mooring rope.

The natural world, of course, had other ends in mind and since they fell at the same speed, he could never catch up to her, and so he watched her fall into the molten rock from a position a few feet behind. Not that it mattered, but he couldn't hold on to the end of the mooring rope either because of the speed he'd attained when he'd covered its length in the fall.

There you have it. It's easy to see where the title came from now, yes? I hope you are not too terribly distressed by this cautionary tale and I trust that you can draw your own conclusions from it.

A nurse is standing by in the lobby to help those with weak constitutions.

I wish you a good evening.

("to conclude with God Bless America")


Friday, June 17, 2016

There Already

Morning here at the Gorge. I wander down the big staircase to the common room while the rest of the house is either still in bed or doing their morning preparations. Only the two cooks are heard through the open door to the kitchen, preparing for the upcoming rush. Hawkins is busy straightening the tables and setting out the new editions of the newspapers, magazines, and a couple flower arrangements.

I move to the sideboard and pour myself a mug of freshly made, strong dark coffee and lift it to my lips without drinking. I take a moment to slowly smell the aroma, it's almost enough by itself. Like every day, I'm looking forward to getting to work. It's a good feeling. Hawkins looks up at me and nods, I smile back.

The salmon light of the sunrise is beginning to intensify through the big double entry doors and the oversized double-hung windows along the front wall. It's my favorite time of day here or anywhere. All of the promise of the day seems locked up with nervous energy still. Like standing in a stable full of horses waiting to be released from their stalls. Restored from their night, ready for the day to begin. To Stretch, to move, to do what horses naturally do.

I take my coffee and walk out of the front doors onto the large covered porch which wraps around all four sides of the lodge here at the Gorge. The smell of the world outside envelopes me and sends a chill down my spine. It's about 50 degrees and almost silent outside. A bird, a robin, sings in the trees that line the drive. Now another robin answers. Such large voices for such small birds. I close my eyes and take a sip of the coffee, slowly. The heat and moisture feel good as I inhale, the taste fills my senses.

I wouldn't mind being stuck in this instant of time, right here, for a bit longer. Not at all.

A few moments more like this, suspended between worlds and I hear footsteps on the stairway inside, a muffled conversation and a laugh. The larger day will soon begin in earnest and I'
ll probably spend at least part of it in a room with several of the others, collaborating on a project. The rest of the time I'll spend tucked into some corner, away from the others, laptop open, working on my story. Building with words, people, relationships, problems, solutions, a whole world with all its vibrations and rough corners. I can see it all when I close my eyes. The job is to get it down so others can see it as well.

I like my job.