Don’t Believe Them

Hearing bad news from your boss is uncomfortable enough. But when the unexpected changes involve what will raise your stress levels maybe a hundredfold, the situation quickly escalates from critical mass to nuclear.

“Are…are you certain you are doing the right thing?” asked the Vice President. He glanced to his left and right and over one shoulder looking for support before remembering how he and the President of the United States sat alone inside a small office attached to the Oval Office.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

The President stood.

“Well, my last piece of official advice to you is to put together a short list of those who you think would be right to take your place. If you need any help deciding on a final candidate, you might want to call together the Cabinet and talk it over with them before sending your final selection over to Congress for their approval.”

The President walked to the door leading back to the large office where for years he had made thousands of decisions affecting billions of people. His vice president caught up to him at the thick oak door.

“Sir, the other party might now have a majority in the House but there still are not enough of them in the Senate to impeach you. Sure, there are some turncoats in our party who might vote for your impeachment but –”

“Let me tell you something about being POTUS. Sure, you can try to change things here in D.C. But you know what remains no matter what you do?”

“No, sir.”

“WHINOs.”

“WHINOs?”

“That is short for We’re Here Indefinitely, New One. So what if a new person becomes president every four to eight years? There is an unbreakable iron triangle of the ones in Congress, the ones who work for the federal government, and the special interest groups that both of the first two parts of the iron triangle cater to. The same is true at the state levels. Only there, the iron triangle consists of those in the legislature, those working for the state government, and all of the special interests they cater to.”

The President shook his successor’s hand. “Good luck. I’ve enjoyed working with you. Well, don’t let me keep you from what you need to do now.”

I need time to sort this out, thought the Vice President as he walked through a maze of hallways past Executive Office staff, visitors, and secret service agents assigned to protect the highest leaders of America.

He told the agent assigned to guard him of his intended destination. After nodding his understanding, the agent spoke into a tiny communications device to inform a driver and four other agents of imminent movement of Eagle, the code name of the one they guarded with their lives. Two of the agents joined the Vice President in his black, bulletproof limo. The other three rode in the lead vehicle of the small motorcade.

Uncomfortable silence reigned in the second car until the Vice President flipped on the TV embedded into a console by the back seat. Already, talking heads on many of the news channels he flipped through were speculating on just what the President might say during his unannounced message to the American people. Nervous, the agent seated next to the Vice President broke protocol.

“Sir, do you know what he’s going to say?”

The Vice President nodded. “Go ahead and watch it with the headphones on. I have some calls I have to make.”

He picked up the phone capable of connecting him to subordinates worldwide. Within ten minutes, he had scheduled a series of briefings that would begin within minutes of his arrival home at Number One Observatory Circle on the grounds of U.S. Naval Observatory. Heads of the CIA, FBI, NSA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others would brief him with their assessments of a world gone crazy.

* * *

The wife of the Vice President counseled him as well after the briefings ended. Although not officially on the payroll as an advisor to him, that is what she had become. At times, he reminded her how you are worth more than rubies, thank God that I found you or I wouldn’t have made it this far. He did so after she had helped him compile a list of eleven names to serve as his potential replacement.

“I’ll run the names by the Cabinet when I meet with them tomorrow,” he said as he turned off the lamp next to their bed. “They get to choose which order we send them over to Congress.”

Faced with getting the House and Senate’s approval, both of them had agreed that because of the current gridlock on Capitol Hill, it was possible none of the eleven names would eventually have the title of Vice President in front of it.

* * *

As Vanessa Huesca watched the President announce his resignation effective tomorrow at noon she thought he looked even more worn out and depressed than President Lyndon Johnson had in 1968 when he had told America I shall not seek and will not accept the nomination of my party as your President. Vanessa had been five at the time of LBJ’s announcement.

Later during her college years, Vanessa took note when her political science professor claimed that network news anchor Walter Cronkite’s devastating assessment that the Vietnam War had descended into a stalemate was what had driven LBJ to quit. She changed her major to journalism, determined to also bring about major change.

After graduation, the only broadcasting jobs she found were at Spanish speaking television stations. She quickly tired of being required to wear outfits that accented her large breasts and revealed her lower thighs. But most of all, she resented a long series of men who had promised much but delivered little or nothing.

Her obsession to change history the way Cronkite had revived somewhat as one of his successors used fake documents to target a sitting President’s re-election campaign. The end justifies the means became her unspoken code of conduct. Then members of her party called her racist after she backed a candidate other than Barrack Obama for President. Angered, anything goes became her new code.

Her body remained youthful but all her disappointments had aged her soul and kept her single.

As she drove toward her youngest sibling’s apartment, Vanessa remembered reading what one of her heroines, FDR’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt, had said to those around her the first time Whittaker Chambers came into her presence: He’s not one of us. Vanessa sighed as her anger toward her little brother grew into resignation.

“Little Thomas is not one of us,” Vanessa said as she switched off her phone, which chimed nonstop with tweets and calls celebrating the President’s announcement moments before.

* * *

“But I’m afraid I’ll get fired,” Thomas Huesca said after listening to his oldest sibling’s plan.

“Not if you do it exactly like I said. Don’t you want one of our own to become President before we both die?”

Thomas grumbled as he made a face to match his mood. He wondered what was worse, doing what Vanessa wanted or having to listen to another speech of how the white men from Spain destroyed our ancestors in South and Central America. He studied the small vial of clear liquid given to him by Huesca.

“I don’t know. Will it hurt him? Is it poison?”

“No, pobrecito. It will just make him loco en la cabeza long enough to disable him from being President is all. But you have to be sure it gets into his system right after he is sworn in as the new President.”

Western Slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains

Danny Trang awoke with a start, his body once again drenched with sweat caused by his recurring dream. When his dream’s bloody scenes refused to end, Danny skipped breakfast. He walked from his small cabin built into one of the Sierra Nevada’s foothills to the stable with the creature he spoke to more than all other humans combined.

“Just a snack for now,” Danny said as he dumped a small portion of oats on top of a flake torn from an alfalfa hay bale he dropped into his horse’s trough.

While the horse ate, Danny brushed his chestnut hair until the animal looked in better shape than his master. With black hair dangling past his shoulders and chameleon-like skin that alternated between a pale yellow and dark red, Danny often frightened strangers. At times, he spooked the inhabitants of the four parcels nearest to his cabin, his only neighbors for five miles in every direction.

“Let’s go.” Danny guided the horse from his stall into the predawn light and leapt atop it to ride bareback.

Horse and rider climbed a nearby slope for several hundred feet and then followed an abandoned logging road that gave a view of their neighbor’s four homes. They rode a half mile until the logging road ended at the dirt road connecting the neighborhood’s properties. After crossing an ancient wooden bridge, Danny left his horse by a long rusty gate secured by lengths of chain connected by five locks that allowed the five households access to and from their private little world.

Danny climbed over the gate and walked to a large square metal box divided into six smaller ones, one with a slot, the drop off and pickup point for rural mail. He found only a newspaper in his mailbox. Its large bold headline across the top of the front page made Danny curse.

“Now I’m going to have to tell the dream to my neighbors,” he said. “Whether they like it or not.”

The White House

Thomas Huesca’s next shift at the White House began at 5 a.m. It promised to be a busy one, his supervisor informed Thomas as he tied a white apron about his waist.

“The Vice President is being sworn in as the new President at noon. Afterwards, he and the Cabinet are having a working lunch.” The supervisor frowned at her inattentive helper. “Are you listening to me?”

Thomas stopped fondling the vial of liquid his sister Vanessa had entrusted to him and pulled his hand from his black pants’ pocket. “Yes ma’am.”

* * *

The first effects of the drug hit the newly sworn-in President about an hour after he drank the glass of water served with his lunch. By then, his Cabinet members were arguing about which name from his list of possible new Vice Presidents to send to Congress for its approval. One by one, they stopped speaking as they noticed the President begin to stare around the room. Ten minutes later, irrational statements gushed from him.

His doctor was called. After a quick exam revealed dilated pupils, increased blood pressure and pulse rate, and increasing anxiety, the doctor said, “Mr. President, I think we need to run some further tests at Bethesda Naval Hospital.”

“Oh? Will we fly there on Air Force One?”

A couple of hours later at Bethesda Hospital, two psychiatrists conferred after their independent exams of the President.

“What did the blood tests show?” the Secretary of State asked them after being summoned to the hospital.

“There were no traces in his blood test of alcohol, LSD, THC, cocaine, PCP, MDMA, barbiturates, or amphetamines, all substances which could account for his erratic behavior,” answered the head psychiatrist.

“He seems to be in a psychotic state,” said the other psychiatrist. “For his safety, we need to keep him here under twenty-four hour observation.”

“Definitely,” said the head psychiatrist. “His tweet of Don’t believe them proves the President is paranoid and delusional.”

* * *

Already, the talking heads had become exploding heads as they conjectured about the condition and unavailability of the new President. They quoted sources, always referred to as speaking only on the condition of remaining anonymous, by the score. When the Secretary of State returned to the White House, an army of reporters equipped with satellite dishes had surrounded it.

The one he knew would be waiting pulled him into a private office inside of the White House.

“As Speaker of the House, I’m next in line of succession to the President,” said a sweaty little man, anxious to exploit the situation. “We need to immediately invoke the section of the 25th Amendment that states the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet can determine when the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

“But –”

“No buts. There is currently no Vice President so I am now the de facto VP, whether you like it or not. Either you and I go in and convince enough of the Cabinet to come up with a written declaration of how the President is incapacitated and I am now the acting President or else I go outside and tell the press that the Cabinet is stonewalling just because of my party affiliation.”

Sierra Nevada

After an awkward introduction, a relationship can only improve, Danny Trang believed. Or so he hoped.

“Have you read the last message that the real President sent out on his Twitter account before he was replaced?” asked Danny.

The one who lived nearby yawned. He was black, looked somewhere around fifty years old, and not easily impressed. Or so it seemed.

“What was it that he sent? I’m not following him on his Twitter account.”

“He said, Don’t believe them.”

“So?”

Danny jerked his head backwards, a rare gesture used when it felt as if he had been slapped in the face by the obvious indifference of someone he was trying his best to help. “So, it means he was set up. This whole story about him being incapacitated is obviously just a cover-up for what really happened.”

“So what really happened? Were you there?”

“No. But the main thing is how the Acting President is up to no good.” Danny paused. “Let me tell you about my dream. Maybe then you can understand, at least a little bit.” For the next five minutes, Danny spoke of American soldiers killing American citizens on American soil. But Don Gamble remained impassive, unimpressed.

“Sorry, but I’m not into dream interpretation. Your dream sounds like some kind of dystopian thriller sort of movie. You know, the kind that Holly wood has been cranking out for years and years.”

“Look, he’s already federalized the National Guard in all fifty states. Doesn’t that scare you at all?”

“Sort of.” Don shrugged. “Look, I get the impression you’re just dancing around something you really want from me. What is it? After all, I’ve lived here for almost a year now and this is the first time I’ve talked to you. The most you ever did was wave when you rode by on your horse. Until now, what gives?”

Danny sighed.

“I need to know what you really are. It’s one of two things. And they both begin with the letter N.”

Don’s quick mind jumped – to a conclusion as usual. “Oh, I get if. You think I’m either a negro or a nigger, don’t you?”

“Uh –“

“Let me tell you a thing or two. I was born in South Central L.A. to some parents who did not try to use the color of their skin for personal advantage, okay? Oh sure, Daddy was a dyed in the wool Democrat for a real long time. But then he heard through the grapevine what President Johnson said in private about his Great Society program. Johnson said: I’ll have the niggers voting Democrat for 200 years. Oh sure, there was at least one liberal who warned LBJ. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that the steady expansion of welfare programs is a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure. In other words, all liberals really did for us was to put us on a welfare plantation where more and more babies were born without a father in the home so the mom could get welfare and food stamps and housing and –”

“But –“

“I’m not finished yet, okay? Anyway, when the gangs started to take over our neighborhood, Pop moved us to Anaheim. He found the most rundown house in the best possible neighborhood we could afford and made it livable for our family.” Don stared past Danny, as if lost in better days from long ago. “Pop always told us kids to find a career in fixing buildings, cars, or human or animal bodies because something is always needing fixing on them.”

“Well, you did a nice job on this place.” Danny accented his nods to try and amplify his praise.

“Yeah, I guess so. Pop taught me all there is to know about remodeling. So have you figured out what word that I am that begins with the letter N yet? Or do I need to tell you even more of my life story to give you more hints?”

“Not quite yet.” Danny leaned forward until his face was half a foot from Don’s and stared into his eyes. “Do you work as an informer for the FBI, DEA, or some local law enforcement agency?”

“Huh? What kind of question is that? No way, man. Why?”

“Because our neighbor to your north and my south needs to know. You remember how California now allows a household to grow up to six marijuana plants at a time?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, our neighbor grows six at a time for some flatlanders in Sacramento and the Bay Area. Once they get three or four feet tall, he delivers them still in growing containers to them. He figures he technically isn’t breaking the law because he adheres to the limit of six plants at a time per household.”

Danny stuck out his hand and waited for Don to shake it. Then he leaned back in his chair. “Well, that’s a relief.”

“What is?”

“Your pupils didn’t dilate when I questioned you and your palm isn’t sweaty so I think you’re most likely telling me the truth. You probably wouldn’t like my next test. My ancestors would heat up a knife blade in a fire and then place the hot blade on the tongue of someone they were questioning. If the person was lying his mouth would be bone dry and his tongue would get burned. But if he was telling the truth, then there would be enough saliva on his tongue to keep it from burning.”

Don shook his head. “Look Chief, I am on your side, okay?”

“When I came here, I thought you were either a narc or a neighbor, not one of the two n-words you mentioned. Now I know for sure that you’re a neighbor, which is good news because I have a little secret I need to show you just in case things go bad like my dreams have warning me they will be.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about my rant then. I get sort of sensitive sometimes.”

Their walk on the rutted dirt road to Danny Trang’s cabin took a quarter hour, time Danny used to reciprocate by telling part of his family history.

“My mom is full-blooded Northern Paiute Indian. My dad was second generation American because his parents fled from Vietnam after the Communists took over South Vietnam. My dad was all gung-ho and enlisted in the Army right before the Gulf War.”

“What did he do there?”

“He was a demolition expert and blew up the chemical weapons plants in Iraq. The guys in his squad always teased him because of how he covered himself from head to toe so as not to catch any of the fallout carried by the winds after the explosions. But he outlived the others.”

Instead of entering his roughhewn cabin, Danny stopped at a small shed by the small barn. Sweet smelling smoke drifted from the screen mesh on top of the shed’s walls.

“Here’s my little secret,” Danny said as he swung open the shed’s wooden door.

Thick hazy smoke revealed only the outlines of seven large carcasses hanging on metal hooks from the shed’s ceiling. Danny added more oak wood chips to the faint coals glowing on the dirt floor.

“So you’re a poacher?” Don asked. “Even I know you’re only allowed to bag one deer a year around here.”

“Not exactly a poacher. I go to the casino run by my mom’s tribe and chat up Vietnamese who gamble there. You know how much us Asians love to gamble. Most of them are willing to make a deal to offset their losses gambling.”

“What kind of deal?”

“I get them to enter the Fish and Wildlife Department’s lottery for a deer tag for this region. I keep their tags on hand here and have a written statement from them that they shot the deer and I am smoking it for them.”

“What do they get out of it?”

“Sometimes they want the hides. More often, they just want the antlers for their folk doctors to grind up to make some sort of cure for whatever is ailing them.”

“Why so many deer?”

“Just in case things get really bad like in my dreams and we are cut off from food supplies way out here. Last I heard, one of our state’s National Guard units is headed this way. It seems that our Acting President is more afraid of honest citizens who legally own guns than the gangs with illegal guns who control all of the inner cities.”

Danny paused, wondering if he should tell Don his big secret now that his neighbor knew his little secret.

Washington, D.C.

“But the amendment specifically says that when the President sends a written statement that he is able to resume his duties, we are supposed to let him do so,” the Secretary of the Treasury said.

The Acting President shook his head. “No way. If the doctors had found some trace of anything that might have caused his mental breakdown then I could let him take back over as President. But we can’t afford to take any chances. What if he has another breakdown? He could start World War III.”

“The 25th Amendment also says that if we don’t accept his request to return to power, then Congress has to vote on whether to let him do so,” said the Defense Secretary.

“Exactly,” the Acting President said as his smile broadened.

By the time Congress is called back into emergency session from their vacation, maybe we can line up enough votes to deny the President his return to office for another twenty-one days, the Acting President calculated. Sure, the issue might end up in the Supreme Court.

But, if nothing else, the Acting President knew all of that gave him enough time to permanently disable those he loved to demonize by calling them racists, white supremacists, domestic terrorists, and Nazis.

Thirty Miles South of Danny Trang’s Cabin

So far, Captain Samuel Morris’ National Guard platoon had confiscated twenty-seven weapons, arrested forty-two citizens who had been categorized as Domestic Terrorist in a data base maintained somewhere in a federal agency 3,000 miles away, and shot and wounded five who had resisted. Captain Morris was especially proud of his no kill rate to date. Other federalized National Guard units elsewhere throughout the country had killed a total of 259 citizens, according to the tallies that the exploding heads on the news networks updated 24/7. All of them agreed such casualties are collateral damage necessary to restore order.

Intell and reconnaissance was the captain’s motto. To gather intell, he now chatted up the only one of the local yokels willing to talk to him, an old woman who took a selfie next to Captain Morris and immediately posted it to her Facebook page.

“Can you show me on this map where these people you told me about are holed up at?” Captain Morris asked as he shoved his hand held device under the woman’s nose.

“I sure can. They’re right there, off of Old Bear Creek Road.” The woman left part of a freshly picked booger on the screen as she tapped it. “I never did like that bunch or trust them one bit either. It would not surprise me at all if they had a command post for the rebels up there.”

“You don’t say?”

The woman nodded.

Then she turned to hurry back inside of her home to call neighbors and boast. They all lived in a small foothill community numbering less than 1,000 residents, the closest town to where Don and Olene Gamble and Danny Trang and their neighbors lived. The one providing intell was known by locals as a gossip, a reprobate willing to slander and revile anyone just to garner attention. If Captain Morris had bothered to verify her story, he could have learned of her wild imagination and evil suspicious nature. But he was anxious to be the first platoon to return to his National Guard unit’s headquarters.

That meant reducing the time devoted to intell gathering to a minimum.

He walked to the sergeant in charge of reconnaissance and gave him the coordinates of their target. The sergeant in turn ordered a corporal to launch a small drone. Its whirring blades quickly lifted it above the surrounding oaks and pines and fir trees. It soon disappeared over the treetops as it buzzed toward the coordinates fed to it by the corporal’s computer.

Then the captain hopped into his Humvee and punched his desired destination into his phone, which began barking directions to its driver. As the commanding officer’s vehicle lurched forward, the other Humvee with equipment to control the drone, two 5-ton trucks packed with twenty-eight soldiers, and a mobile kitchen vehicle followed to where foothills met mountains.

* * *

Olene Gamble could not decide what was worse – moving from urban southern California to isolated rural northern California because her husband Don was convinced an apocalypse awaited L.A. or his latest bad news.

“At least one of our neighbors has prepared for what we’re in for,” Don said as he finished telling Olene about the smokehouse full of deer their neighbor Danny Trang had shown him.

“Maybe I should check out what our other neighbors are doing?” Olene asked, any ruse to avoid listening to her husband’s worries, which had metastasized in the last couple of days into what she considered mania.

Their first neighbor to the south was a widow who somehow had managed to stay on her ten acres of forestland since her husband had died six years ago. For Mary, visiting with Olene always elevated just another day of waiting to die into something special.

“Do you know much about our two neighbors to the north?” Olene asked as she bit into one of Mary’s soft homemade chocolate chip walnut cookies.

“Only that they are more private than private,” answered Mary. “I’ve lived here nine years now and you would think both of them are deaf-mutes.”

“Why?”

“Because the most I ever get out of either one of them is a wave. Even when I yell out hello or hi they never stop whenever they pass by, the one in his truck and the other on his horse. They have never even said thank you for the boxes of cookies I leave for them out by the mailboxes every Christmas.”

Olene cut her visit with Mary short with a promise to return later and next walked to the Bannon’s house, which sat closet to the gate secured by five lengths of chain and five locks. As always, Mrs. Bannon was delighted to see Olene. And, as usual, she sensed what nagged at her neighbor before she said a word.

“So is Don acting all crazy too?” Mrs. Bannon asked as she poured a cup of Irish coffee for her guest.

“Uh…”

“You should see my Michael. Ever since the Acting President declared martial law, Michael has been taking apart and cleaning every single one of his guns. He must have more than twenty of them. He keeps on saying the second Civil War has begun! At least one good thing has come of all this craziness though.”

“What’s that?”

“Michael was finally able to talk to those two loners who live north of you. It took a national emergency for that to come about.”

When Olene asked what might happen if any National Guard troops came to where they lived, Mrs. Bannon shuddered. Then she wiped her tears with her apron.

Bethesda Naval Hospital

The head psychiatrist whose diagnosis of paranoid and delusional had caused a newly sworn-in President to unwillingly step down mulled the case over as he walked through his hospital’s parking lot. Why had his patient shown no further signs of mental illness beginning the day after the initial onset? The psychiatrist still suspected the dethroned President had been dosed with some kind of hallucinogenic drug. But then why hadn’t any shown up on the tests done on his blood work?

An ancient muscle car distracted the psychiatrist’s train of thought. A bright decal attached to the car’s rear window that read STP seemed to jump out at him, triggering a faint memory of STP being used as an acronym for a drug popular before the psychiatrist had been born.

He hurried to his office and typed STP into his computer’s search engine. Over 90% of the hits were for an oil additive. But a few detailed an illegal hallucinogenic drug used during the 1960s and 1970s. Another few minutes of searching gave him the chemical formula of the drug, which in many cases produced a psychotic state in the user, especially if taken unknowingly in a high enough dosage.

He ran through hallways and down flights of stairs to the hospital’s lab. There, the psychiatrist grabbed the lab tech he trusted the most by the collars of her white coat.

“Do you still have the blood samples that were drawn from the President on the day of his mental breakdown?” he asked.

“Sure. Why?”

He handed her a copy of the chemical formula he had printed from his computer. “I need you to run another test to see if any of this is present in it, no matter how small the amount is.”

* * *

Captain Morris ordered his driver to stop their Humvee at the rusty gate and open it. The driver returned a minute later with a shrug.

“Sir, it’s got five locks on it attached to lengths of chain.”

The captain cursed as he leapt from his seat and stomped to the Humvee parked behind his.

“What is the drone showing?”

The corporal operating it pointed at a computer monitor displaying a live video feed from the drone’s camera.

“It looks like there are five dwellings off of the dirt road once you cross this bridge.” The corporal tapped his keyboard, which brought up a series of still shots of each of the homes. “Something is cooking at this place, Sir.” He pointed at an overhead image of the smokehouse on Danny Trang’s property.

* * *

Mary Bannon had spotted the advancing National Guard convoy first. To keep her husband from going outside, she asked him to make lunch. Then she called and whispered a warning to Olene Gamble.

Don Gamble noticed the expression his wife used when she did not want to tell him something he needed to know. “They’re here, aren’t they?” Don asked as Olene set down her phone.

“Yes.”

“Great. You know what that means.”

Visions of Danny Trang attacking on his horse at a full gallop, Mary’s husband Michael Bannon armed with God only knows how many guns, and her Don doing something foolish flashed through Olene’s mind. “No, what does it mean?”

“That as usual I get to be the diplomat.”

“Huh?”

“Just like always. My whole life I’ve been caught between other blacks who said I was an Uncle Tom or a sellout and whites who couldn’t believe a black wasn’t only interested in sucking on the social welfare teats of the system White liberals were always the most condescending with their you can’t be black and be a conservative too attitudes. Maybe I should just give up.”

Olene inched closer to Don. “Does that mean that you’re going to just stay inside and not go out there?” Her arm trembled as she pointed at the door.

“I wish.”

While Don walked the quarter mile toward the rusty gate, Captain Morris sifted through his options. One of his privates persuaded him to choose the one he least liked.

“I’m telling you straight up, Sir. It’s a meth lab for sure,” Private Horton said as he studied the image of the smokehouse that had been forwarded from the computer controlling the drone to the handheld devices of the platoon’s members. “Look at all that smoke coming out the top. They must be cooking up a batch of fifty pounds at least.”

“Sir, someone’s approaching.” Another Guardsman pointed at Don Gamble, who had stopped halfway across the short wooden bridge.

“Looky there. The white supremacist Nazis running that meth lab even got themselves a nigger to deliver their dope down to the ghettos,” Private Horton said before he spat out a large wad of spit toward Don. It landed fifty-three feet short. “He’s a no-good traitor to his own people.”

“You can’t say…” Captain Morris cut his reprimand short when he remembered that because Horton was African-American, he could use the n-word with abandon. He strutted to the gate and faced Don. “We need you to open this up or we‘ll have to break it down.”

“Are you looking for anybody in particular?” Don asked.

“We have orders to disarm anyone deemed a threat,” answered Captain Morris.

“Well, there are five houses up here behind that gate. I think I need to get my neighbors’ input before opening up the gate.” Don turned and walked toward the Bannon’s property.

Watching from a thicket of trees that gave him a clear view of the bridge, Danny Trang waited until Don’s shoes touched the dirt road before he pushed the button on the remote electronic detonator his father had taught him to use a week before his death. Danny’s dad had also shown him the metal canisters of explosives hidden beneath the bridge and left him with a final warning: only detonate these as a last resort, son.

He had also told Danny of the 15-second delay between pushing the detonator’s button and the resulting explosion, a detail Danny forgot during the last nine years. Danny now wished there was also a button to cancel the Detonate command. For whatever reason, Don Gamble had made an about face and now walked back across the bridge toward the gate and Captain Morris.

The explosion splintered the bridge mid-step with Don about a quarter of the way across it. It catapulted him fifteen feet into the air like a circus acrobat, spinning him into a back flip ending with his butt landing on a bed of pine needles at the edge of the steep ravine. The explosion also caused the platoon of Guardsmen to seek cover, flip off the safeties on their weapons, and point them at where the injured Don writhed in pain.

“He’s a suicide bomber, Captain Morris!” Private Horton yelled. “Give us permission to shoot him before he explodes another bomb!”

Captain Morris alternated between disbelief and awe and hesitation until his communications specialist yelled for him.

“What is it?” Captain Morris asked after he walked to the Humvee.

“Sir, we just got orders to stand down and return to headquarters.”

“What?”

As the news buzzed from soldier to soldier, most of them dropped their weapons and pulled phones from pockets. Every site they visited broadcast the same story: President Rogers returns to power….President’s doctor claims he was given hallucinogenic drug without his knowledge….President Rogers cancels national martial law…

It took a life flight helicopter to evacuate Don from his neighborhood, now more isolated than ever because of its missing bridge. It took him weeks to agree to see Danny Trang.

“So, have you finished rebuilding the bridge yet, Chief?” Don asked as Danny walked into his room at the convalescent hospital.

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The Effects of Being a Military Brat on Writing

Military brats tend to be…well, different.

They are a subset of children who grow up in a rootless existence, such as those whose parent or parents labor in the construction or agricultural industries, in which one often must move to where work is available; corporations or government, in which promotions often require moving elsewhere; traveling sales field; and the previously mentioned military, personnel who are stationed all around the globe.  Such rootless childhoods have produced many artists, actors, musicians, photographers, and writers. Maybe that happens because such children often use imaginations to create their own worlds or universes, different from their childhoods of packing up and saying “goodbye,” moving to a strange place, making new friends, saying “goodbye” to them, and moving again, over and over and over. Parents’ careers and resulting lifestyles leave lasting imprints on their children. Especially those in the military.

Our dad came of age when every American was expected to battle an Axis of German National Socialism (Nazism), Italian Fascism, and Japanese Imperialism that sought to rule Earth.

After flying as a navigator in bombers during World War II, he was transferred into the US Air Force Reserve. When North Korean and Chinese soldiers tried to conquer South Korea, Dad was recalled to active duty to fly bombing and attack missions over Korea. During that time, I was born in Mom’s hometown of Watertown, South Dakota. Mom’s introduction to military life as a wife waiting, praying, and wondering at home set the stage for what was to come during the next 3 decades when Dad decided to remain on active duty for the USAF.  Because her husband was a navigator, he was away a lot flying wherever the USAF told him to.  Sometimes, the 2 or 3-day flights stretched into TDYs (temporary duties), longer periods of him being assigned elsewhere. A military spouse has to have a strong soul to endure.   Maybe that’s why strong female characters show up in my stories.

After the Korean War, Dad was transferred to South Carolina, then West Germany, where my brother and sister were born. Then it was 3 years in Ohio, 3 years in Southern California, 4 years in Alabama (where another brother was born), 2 years in the Philippines, and 2 final years in Northern California before he retired. Looking back now, I realize how being a military brat connected me to history that had occurred in some of those places,  such as legends told to me about Abraham Lincoln and Johnny Appleseed when we lived in Ohio. Such tales contributed to my love of history, and eventual writing of historical fiction.

In Southern California, Dad worked as a USAF liaison to the aerospace industry during the space race to put an astronaut on the Moon. He would bring home black and white photos of aircraft used during preliminary testing to simulate what astronauts would encounter in outer space, such as the X-15.  One of his Christmas presents to me was a colorful map of our solar system’s sun and nine planets (this was long before some of the lesser, most distant ones were called into question). He also favored taking the family to double features at the drive-in when at least one of the movies was a science fiction thriller about human beings meeting strange aliens from some distant planet. All that fed an imagination that I have tapped for several science fiction and dystopian novels and short stories.

We lived in Alabama from 1964 to 1968. To try and understand the social upheaval unfolding all around us, I tried to research about the Ku Klux Klan and learned  that the three main groups it had targeted were blacks, Jews, and Catholics.

“Alabama is 2% Catholic and Montgomery, where we live, is 1% Catholic,” Dad informed us. His and my mother’s siding with integration despite the resulting tensions taught us kids what it meant to take a stand.  No wonder some of the characters in my stories end up having to do the same, even if it means dying as a result.

In the Philippines, we met what have to be some of the happiest people on Earth.  With only a small middle class and even smaller upper class, about 80% of the Filipino people during the 1960s were classified as what Americans consider “poor.”  But meeting and talking to them and getting to know some of them left me wondering how they could be so content despite their lack of money and material possessions.  That  experience has driven me to write stories that are character driven instead of plot driven.

While in the Philippines, our parents took us kids on short trips to visit other countries, such as Japan and Taiwan. Because I was a senior in high school   transitioning to another phase of life, they also took just me along to visit Hong Kong, Thailand, and India.  Experiencing such places firsthand left indelible impressions still used when trying to write about such foreign nations.

Serving in the military for 29 years gave my dad a lot of stories, which he loved to tell his children. One of them:

“One time on a flight, the navigator told the pilot that if he continued on his present course, the plane would crash into the side of a mountain. The pilot ignored the navigator. So the navigator had the captain sign his log book’s entry that he had permission to bail out of the plane by using his parachute.”  (Long pause)  “The navigator bailed out and the plane crashed into the mountain and the rest of the crew were all killed. The navigator survived.”

Another one:

“One time we were flying out of Alaska and the compass on our plane was spinning like crazy because of the magnetic field from the North Pole. I wasn’t sure which direction our  plane was headed because the clouds were blocking out the sun. You can always use the sun during the day and stars at night to help figure out where you are and where you are heading, if you can see them. Then, all of a sudden, the sun’s rays broke through the clouds. I got on the radio and told the pilot, ‘turn this plane around. We’re headed straight towards Russia!'” (Long pause) “If the sun hadn’t come out when it did, the Russians would have either shot us down and killed all of us who were on that plane or we would have been forced to land in Russia and probably ended up in some prisoner camp in Siberia and none of you kids would ever have been born because this all happened before I met your mother.”

Such storytelling passed down from military career father to military brat birthed in me a desire to write stories.

But most of all, being a military brat teaches one the following:

The world owes you nothing (the 3 military brats who became America said it best in 1 of their songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBk23MV3O88

If you are going to survive, you need to learn to adapt

Life is one long compromise because you don’t always get what you want, such as growing up in one place

If this is Tuesday, then it must be…(fill in the blanks: any one of the 50 states of America or some foreign country that I’ve never even heard of or read about)

 

Others have written in greater detail about the life of military families,  books, both fiction and nonfiction.  Here are a couple you may want to read:

Eat, Drink & Be Mary: A Glimpse Into a Life Well Lived  by Michelle Mras and Tony Mras

MacArthur’s Children by Dary Matera

Both books are available from Amazon.

Happy reading.

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Indiana Christmas

(Adapted from The Prince of Alexandria)

Rod Lee awoke shortly before midnight and stumbled down the narrow stairs, hoping his bumping against walls and furniture would not awaken the others. A struck match allowed him to locate a candle. Its soft glow illuminated the kitchen enough to end his collisions. He fumbled through the icebox for the pitcher of buttermilk. The rich, thick liquid began to calm his nerves, which had taken on the habit of continuing to receive messages from his brain all hours of the night.

Tomorrow would be his third Christmas since his return from Egypt. How he missed the adventure of reporting the struggle of a nation rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, British Empire, and any other foreigner who sought to rule it.

Although he had planned on accepting a position at a Chicago newspaper after returning from Egypt, life had intervened. After much reflection, he had accepted Patty Pierson’s proposal “to be lonely together.” Now Rod knew the life of a farmer on the land his mother-in-law Mrs. Pierson had deeded to his wife Patty.

“Two’s company but three’s a crowd.” Mrs. Pierson had said when she moved to a friend’s boardinghouse in Evansville. “Besides, I’m all farmed out after sixty-three years of living on one.”

Soon any lingering loneliness either Rod or Patty might feel would be banished. She lay sleeping on the soft straw-filled mattress, their first child growing inside of her womb. Thoughts of fatherhood troubled Rod. Faced with a crossroads scarier than any of his earlier ones, he knew this decision would chart the course for the rest of his life. Talking it over with Patty had only complicated the issue.

“You have to decide, Rod. I love you and will back you up either way,” she had said.

Being offered a position at the largest newspaper in southwestern Indiana seemed a deal too good to be true. But acceptance would mean much time away from his soon to be born child because their farm was fifteen miles from town, a journey of two to four hours, depending on the weather and disposition of whichever horse carried or pulled him there.

As was his habit, Rod moved to the front parlor. After positioning firewood over the faint embers, he sat next to the hearth in his favorite overstuffed chair. Its footrest bore a permanent indentation from Mr. Pierson’s years of resting his boots on it. The notebooks Rod wrote in were larger than those he had filled as a journalist. Now they were the kind used by college students for essays. Into them went whatever came to mind, scenes with characters he understood but doubted any reader would.

When Patty had given him a copy of Ben Hur for his last birthday Rod devoured its pages in three days. He glanced at the dog-eared book. If another Indiana writer can write like that then maybe I can too.

By the time Patty joined him downstairs, Rod’s pencil had dropped to the floor and his head was quivering in response to his snores. Soon the aroma of breakfast stopped the snores, replaced by stretches and yawns.

“Better get up, sleepyhead! We have to meet Ma for church in town.”

Rod shook the stiffness from muscles and joints as he staggered to the kitchen. He put his head beneath the pump above the metal sink and pulled down on the handle until his hair and neck were soaked with icy water.

“At least the pipe didn’t freeze up again.”

After drying off with a dishrag, he went back upstairs and dressed. Then he poked his head into the smallest bedroom to wake his younger brother.

“Better get up or you’ll miss Santa.”

The twenty-two year old boy-man stirred.

“Merry Christmas, Billy.”

“Christmas?”

“Come on down for breakfast.”

Billy jumped out of bed and stubbed his toe against the leg of his dresser. Dancing on one foot to relieve the pain, he threw an undershirt, socks, and pair of drawers onto his bed. Then he fished his “Sunday meeting go to church” blue suit from the closet. Five minutes later, the image in the mirror convinced him he would pass Rod’s inspection. Billy had a man’s fully developed body, the mind of a young boy. For him, the lure of what lay beneath the Christmas tree was stronger than the delicious smells drifting to the second floor.

“Looky there! Which ones is for me?” He pointed at the presents before he touched the bottom step of the stairway.

Rod watched from the doorway separating the front parlor and the kitchen. “You know Mom will tan your hide if you open up her present when she’s not here, little brother. Come on in and eat.”

“Aw, shucks. I always have to wait all of the time for everything.”

“You’ll live.”

They devoured the bacon, eggs, and toast without talking. Each realized there would be hell to pay if they arrived late at the worship service. That hell would not be delivered by the preacher but by Mrs. Pierson, who preached that being late for one’s own funeral was the only tardiness acceptable when it came to church gatherings. Christmas day especially made her vigilant for laggards.

After breakfast, Billy helped Rod to hitch the horses to the sleigh. Though winter had officially begun only days earlier the roads already were clogged by enough snow to make travel by wagon too slow and treacherous. As he had for every Christmas since age three, Billy wore a long red cap with a white ball dangling from its pointed end. Riding in the sleigh transformed him into one of Santa’s elves as he handed out aliases.

“You’re Santa, Rod, and I’m your elf!”

Patty, seated between them, elbowed him in his ribs. “Who am I then, Billy?”

“Mrs. Claus, silly. And that’s another elf in your belly.”

They laughed. The fifteen-mile trip to Evansville was spent singing every Christmas carol and Yuletide hymn Billy knew, all thirty-seven of them. Mrs. Pierson’s icy stare when they entered the otherwise warm church let them know they had missed too much of the organist’s prelude before the service. It lasted a full hour every Christmas. Rod let his wife and brother first enter the pew where Mrs. Pierson sat so they could serve as a buffer. From painful experience, he knew she was willing to chastise wrongdoers with whispered rebukes during the service. When Billy sat next to her she trembled. Her face grew beet red as she snatched the cap from his head.

“No hats in church!” Her hiss reminded Billy of snakes he had stumbled across in the cornfields.

Billy grabbed it back and placed it gingerly in his coat pocket. “I forgot, Grandma. Sorry.”

Rod chuckled. Billy had yet to grasp the concept of a mother-in-law. After much confusion he had decided his sister and brother’s respective mothers-in-law were his grandmothers-in-law.

“That’s because my real grandmas and grandpa died already. So Rod and Sarah went out and found me one new grandpa and two new grandmas by getting married.” He always explained to any who asked about his extended family.

The service was short.

Pastor Henkhauser knew most in attendance morning were itching to get back home for Christmas dinner, gift exchanges, and merrymaking, not listening to his pontificating so he trimmed the sermon to half its normal time. Speaking of the Babe in the manger surrounded by farm animals and visited by shepherds, he tossed his pitch to the farm families who made up over half of his congregation. He also mentioned the Three Kings of the East. Based on their elaborate gifts, they were certainly shrewd operators when it came to finances. That platitude was a nod to the businessmen, bankers, and so forth in attendance.

“Let us become like the shepherds and three kings, worshippers of our Savior Jesus Christ born in Bethlehem so long ago.” His conclusion created a stir in the children. Just one last hymn to endure.

As its last words faded the most anxious children exited the pews without parents and ran to the social hall next to the church. Their mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers had spent the previous week baking; those goodies now filled the hall with aromas summoning the youngsters. Any who hesitated would not be able to slip some of them into pockets for the ride or walk home before stuffing cookies, brownies, and gooey pieces of walnut-studded fudge into their salivating mouths.

Rod was the first adult to follow the children into the hall. Close on his heels was Mrs. Pierson, describing every piece of music her daughter had missed during the worship service’s prelude, all “wonderfully played by my good friend, Annabelle Erickson.” Oblivious to the treats, Rod scanned the hall for a safe harbor from her monolog.

Like they say, Any old port in a storm. He hurried to Stewart Daloy’s side, even though he was known to use any occasion to talk politics, even a holiday celebration.

The Daloys hailed from Kentucky. Rumor had it that Stewart’s father had been part of the Ku Klux Klan Klavern that had crept across the Ohio River into Indiana and burned a farmhouse serving as part of the Underground Railroad to the ground. The story continued with the Daloys later fleeing from Kentucky because of trouble with law enforcement. Since settling on a farm near Evansville, the family had led a quiet existence, which ran counter to tales of supernatural goings-on involving its males every full moon.

“Hello, Stewart.” He thrust out his hand. “Merry Christmas.”

“And Merry Christmas to you, Rod.” When Rod kept glancing at Mrs. Pierson, Stewart turned to see the distraction. “Avoiding your mother-in-law, eh? Can’t say I blame you. She’s bent my ear more than once about the evils of the Klan.”

“The Klan? Everybody knows they’ve dried up around here for the most part.”

The two moved to the table laden with various strengths of apple cider and received cups of the strongest batch of hard cider from the server.

“Yes, I reckon so. It’s a sign of the times. Ever since old Abe Lincoln invaded the South and freed the nigras things have all gone downhill in this once great nation of ours. The Republican Party has just about destroyed this country even though it’s only been around for what, thirty years, now?”

“Thirty-three years. It started in 1854.”

Stewart smirked. “The boy knows his history. Give him an A plus.”

“I read a lot.”

“Uh huh. So tell me, was Lincoln really offering to let the freed slaves go on down to South America and set them up on land after the war ended but they turned him down?”

“That’s the way I understand it.”

“Hot damn! Too bad he wasn’t as good at convincing them slaves as he was when he dragged the North into the War.” He finished his cider. “Tell me, you a Democrat or one of them daggum do-gooder Republicans that always thinks he knows what’s best for everybody?”

“Depends on what the candidate stands for. I vote on the issues, not the party.”

“One of those independent types?” He shook his head. “You all are the hardest ones to recruit.”

“Recruit for what? Your Democrat Party?”

“That’s just the start. We also got us some mighty fine organizations that support our efforts. That’s how we finally sent us a Democrat back to the White House.” He raised his empty cup in a toast. “Here’s to the honorable President Cleveland.”

Rod raised his cup halfway as his thoughts grew into a rant.

I’m not obligated to reveal anything to someone who likes organizations that help elect Democrats who change Reconstruction into Jim Crow laws that put the Negroes back onto a kind of plantation to keep them all in line. I know he’s talking about the White League and Red Shirts. From what I heard they’re out to replace as many Republicans with Democrats as possible. It’s no different here than it was in Egypt when it comes to those willing to kill innocent people for their cause. Some of those White League and Red Shirt boys are worse than the KKK ever was when it comes to vigilantism. They’re like armies.

To dull his senses against Stewart’s worldview, Rod returned to the cider table and held out his cup for a refill. The smiling matron who wielded the ladle gladly obliged him. Sipping the hard cider every few minutes to make sure it still tasted fresh, she was feeling her special brand of Christmas cheer. Rod sampled his second cup as Stewart droned on about how “the South will rise again.” His speech was fueled more by his cherished beliefs than any alcohol.

Soon, the warm room and hard cider lulled Rod into a twilight sensation. He imagined he was a part of The Christmas Carol his mother had read to him as a child. The only question is whether I am the faithful clerk Bob Cratchit or the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, Rod wondered as his eyelids drooped.

His memory drifted back to Christmas Past.

He was a farm boy, harvested from Indiana soil near where the Wabash River runs into the Ohio, who turned sixteen and had moved north. His parents claimed a better life could be reaped from Chicago than might be had from the land, no matter how fertile it proved to be.

An uncle let Rod live in his basement in exchange for a couple dollars each week from his nephew’s pay, earned at a slaughterhouse. Squealing pigs, bleating sheep, mooing cows beg for their lives, their pleas for mercy answered with razor sharp knives to throats and clubs hammered to heads. Slice open the abdomens; pull out the hot steaming organs, bowels crammed with feces and bladders with urine squirting on him until he was covered with filth. Lift the carcasses onto hooks and send them down the line to the skilled cutters of meat, surgeons creating roasts, steaks, chops, ribs, bacon, stew meat, and sausage. Only the brave are allowed to live in our meat factory – the cockroaches, rats, flies, and maggots that feast to their hearts’ content! Go home and take a long, hot bath. But the smell of blood and excrement and urine lingers.

After a year of slaughter he begged his way into a copyboy position at one of Chicago’s newspapers. A year later he was entrusted with a beat no one else wanted. “Make sure your gun is fully loaded,” Rod’s editor said as he sent him into the city’s bowels to prowl its back alleys and dig up sources who would just as soon pee, spit, or vomit on him as answer his questions. Those sources’ stories always led Rod into the tombs of city hall, where corrupt judges, bureaucrats, and politicians joked among themselves as the city’s neglected hundreds of thousands struggled to survive. The people you’re supposed to serve are honest; something you’ll never be became Rod’s unspoken mantra as those in power stonewalled him. Krauts, micks, Pollocks, wops, Swedes, yids, Czechs, Russkies, freed slaves from the South, come one, come all. Chicago calls. And how they love to procreate once they get there!

At age nineteen he moved to the opportunity the many daily papers offered in New York City. He worked for three of them over the next two years. His apprenticeship as a journalist was under the tutelage of down-to-earth older men who had labored in the field for as long as forty-seven years. Rod had naturally gravitated to those with minimal formal education. He had little choice. The college-educated writers wanted nothing to do with “that hick from Indiana.”

Restless, Rod found himself on a ship bound for Egypt in 1882. He arrived as the Egyptian military sought to overthrow their ruler, who was backed by the Ottoman Empire. Soon, the entire country was in chaos, with Egyptian Moslems killing Egyptian Christians and Jews and foreigners with impunity.

England, America, and other nations sent ships filled with troops to restore order or evacuate their citizens from Egypt. It was then Rod met Private Benjamin Worthington of the English Army.

Thinking of Worthington transported Rod into Christmas Present.

No matter how hard Rod had tried to conjure up a story adequate to be the next Great American Novel, he had grown increasingly frustrated. Why couldn’t I have been a soldier like Benjamin Worthington? Then I would have more than enough to write about.

Worthington had fought in Egypt and Sudan against the hordes of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi who many Moslems in the region believed would conquer the world for Islam after a Jewish antichrist first conquered the earth. Now he was battling rebels in Northern India, some of them hashish eaters crazed beyond any thought of self-preservation.

He is a modern day Ben Hur, Rod thought. Say, perhaps I can write a novel based on English soldier Benjamin Worthington’s adventures.

He was returning for a third cup of hard cider to conjure up the ghost of a Christmas Yet to Come in which he had become a famous novelist when Patty hugged his arm.

“Excuse me, dear, but we have to head over to Ma’s place.” She smiled at Stewart Daloy. “I’m so sorry to break up your conversation, Stewart, but we have to leave now. Mother is waiting for us.”

Stewart glanced at Mrs. Pierson, who was tapping her foot in eight-eighths time with arms folded. “Of course, my dear lady. A Merry Christmas to you and yours.”

Rod sighed as they walked to their horse and wagon. I guess I’m just like clerk Bob Cratchit, he thought. That means Billy is Tiny Tim. He glanced at his slow-witted brother. Except instead of a bum leg like the one Tim had, Billy has a bum head.

Since marrying Patty, Rod had endured marathon Christmases. Morning worship was only the beginning of his longest day each year. Next came dinner with Mrs. Pierson. The day ended with supper at home during a visit from his parents.

Mrs. Pierson still called Evansville a town even though its population was exploding from about 30,000 in 1880 to 50,000 by 1890. City or town, it contained all her weary soul desired. Best of all, church, doctor, dentist, friends, library, and stores were all within walking distance of her boarding house. She had grown so accustomed to strolling to her every destination she refused to make the thirty-mile roundtrip to visit Patty at the farm.

“All that bouncing on the road on top of a wagon or buggy is just too hard on my joints,” she had explained a month after moving.

She had used the excuse so often that Patty claimed, “you sound like a parrot that only knows one sentence.”

Even on Christmas day Mrs. Pierson refused the luxury of a short sleigh ride. “Come on, Rod. You’re going to walk home with me. Ain’t had a chance to talk with you yet.” She turned to Patty. “You and Billy meet us over at the boarding house. Since you’ll get there ahead of us go ahead and help Mrs. Olson with Christmas dinner.”

Rod groaned as the sleigh turned at a street corner. A similar mile-long walk with mother-in-law last Christmas had become a question and answer session. Maybe if he counted his steps he could tune her out. He had reached number forty-two before her opening remark made him lose count.

“I hear you’ve been planting your seeds somewhere besides my old farmland.”

“Huh?” He could not recall helping any neighbors during planting seasons, only during harvest every autumn.

“Don’t be bashful, son. I’ve been itching for a grandchild nearby me for years now. With Patty’s sister and brothers living way off in St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis, I don’t get to see their kids much at all. I look forward to spending what time the good Lord has left for me by enjoying the children you and Patty are having.”

“Children?”

“Land sakes, boy. You men folk may be good at making us women folk with child but after that you’re not much good at all. Patty told me she’s only four months along. Any fool can tell just by looking that she looks like she’s eight months along. She’s carrying at least two, maybe three.”

Rod stopped. “Three?”

“Of course that’s really rare. But twins run on our side of the family. Twins run on your side at all?”

“I think I remember Dad talking about some second cousins who are twins.”

“That explains it.” She chuckled, the first time she ever had done so when talking to him privately.

By the time they arrived at the boardinghouse the first shift was already feasting at the dining room table. It consisted of the five other boarders. One of them kept asking about Mrs. Pierson.

“Where’s the Pierson woman? It’s not right to eat dinner without her, especially seeing how it’s Christmas and all.”

“We already told you three times, you dolt. She’s going to eat with kinfolks.” The boarder who considered himself the head rooster of the house waved a knife at him.

“Eh?” The forgetful man leaned forward until the knife grazed his nose and cupped a hand behind an ear. “She’s going to eat in the kitchen?”

The three elderly ladies at the table carried on their own conversation, mostly about how they wished that some family member or even a distant relative would come to visit for the holiday. As each finished their allotted portions of ham, sweet potatoes, green beans, a slice of bread, and piece of fruitcake, an “excuse me” was spoken and they moved to the parlor.

The house was a large two-story Victorian with seven bedrooms. Mrs. Olson, the owner, slept in one. Any vacancies were filled within a week. Mrs. Pierson had invited Mrs. Olson to eat with her guests. After the dining room table was cleared and reset with clean china, silverware, and crystal, the second shift sat down. Billy and Rod said little. The women spoke of Patty’s being with child and whether she would give birth to two boys, two girls, or one of each. Between mouthfuls, Mrs. Pierson called for bets.

“How about you Roger?”

“Put me down for two bits on two boys.” He looked up from the checkerboard in the parlor. “Put knucklehead here down for four bits on two girls.”

“Okay.”

“How come there’s two of them?” Billy asked Rod. “I don’t know how to be an uncle to more than one at a time.”

Rod shrugged and returned to the daze he had entered. He waited until they were in the sleigh and waving their goodbyes before seeking an escape from his fears. “It’s not really twins. Your mom is just putting me on, right?”

“I don’t know. But she’s always right about such things.”

He guided the horses into a slow trot. “Well, I guess that kills my idea of going back to newspapering someday for good. With two kids, I’ll have to stick to farming just to feed them.”

“Let’s stop off at the Courier’s office. Just to say hello.”

“It’s Christmas. There won’t be anyone there.”

“Tom told me to have you stop by.”

The newspaper was only three blocks out of the way so he agreed. A cantankerous editor who had hounded Rod about coming to work for the newspaper since he had returned from Egypt, Tom had had his offers rejected with the excuse of Rod would have to spend at least four hours traveling to and from work six days a week and even longer if the roads were snowy or muddy. The editor’s greeting as they entered the front office made Rod think he, too, had heard about Mrs. Pierson’s prediction of twins.

“That’s quite a woman you got there, Rod.”

“So you already heard?”

“Huh? I was talking about the press. Patty sure knows how to drive a hard bargain.”

“Press?” Rod’s eyes darted at those who knew more than he. Patty blushed.

“Merry Christmas, Rod.”

“Huh? You already said that at home.”

Billy grabbed his arm and tugged him. “She’s talking about your real present. All the ones for you under the tree back home are just wrapped up empty boxes to fool you! Let me show you your present!”

Rod followed Billy by the tightly spaced desks of the newsroom into the back of the building and the pressroom. In a corner sat an object covered by a tarp.

“It’s so big we couldn’t wrap it up!” Billy yanked on the tarp to reveal a small printing press that had been retired years earlier.

“It hasn’t been used since we went to our modern press.” Tom pointed at its replacement.

Rod sat on a crate. “What am I going to do with a printing press?”

“Print your own paper, dear.” Patty walked over and kissed his cheek.

“Look, I’m a farmer with two kids on the way and…”

“Twins?” Tom slapped his knee. “I was thinking you looked awful big.” He pointed at Patty’s womb. “That’ll make a good story for the Courier. Don’t get many twin baby announcements. Pretty rare.”

“You’re a writer, Rod. I read some of your writing in your notebook,” Patty said.

“Okay. I know I can write. But writers don’t need printing presses. It’s like old Clancey up in Chicago once told me, ‘a writer only needs three things: notebook, good sources, and a bottle to calm your nerves so you can meet deadlines.’ So far, I’ve only needed a notebook and good sources. If I try to be a publisher and editor, I’m going to need more than one bottle!”

“I talked it over with Tom. He said that since we live fifteen miles from town you won’t be competing with the Courier much at all. He said your writing will make it successful.”

“Oh, no. You think I can be the reporter, editor, and publisher all rolled into one?”

“Don’t forget ad seller. Without the ad revenue, you won’t make it.” Tom winked. “It’s still done by one person in towns and small cities all over the West, boy. No reason you couldn’t do it, too.”

“But the farm needs me.”

“Meet your new hired hand, boss.” Billy stuck out his hand.

“What?”

“Patty says I can live at your house and eat all I want if I work real, real hard for you.”

“But you were just staying with us for Christmas and New Year’s.”

Billy shoved his hands into his pockets and stuck out his lower lip. “You’re just like Dad! You don’t want me around either!”

“No, Billy. I just didn’t know about any of this.”

“Then I can stay? Yahoo!” He ran over to Patty. His hug lifted her off of her feet. “Your plan worked out just like you said it would! I’m going outside and tell Chester and Millie it’s going to be me feeding and taking care of them from now on.”

Rod inspected the press. “It’s too big. It would never fit into the house.”

“Sure it will. We can set it up in the back parlor. I can move my things on out into the front parlor to make room.”

He turned to Tom. “I can’t believe the Courier would let someone set up a paper right next door by selling them this.”

“Like I said to Patty, you’re far enough away that it won’t matter. Besides, with thousands of people moving to Evansville our circulation just keeps on growing. Since you’ll still be working your farm you’ll only be able to publish a small paper.”

He touched the press. A faint smile buried Rod’s dour expression. “So what do we call it?”

“Billy and me already came up a name for you,” Patty said. “The Tri-State Herald.”

Rod cocked his head

“Since your paper will be read by folks in Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, that’s three states, right?”

“Three states?”

“We’re just a stone’s throw from Kentucky and Illinois. After you print up the papers I’ll drop them off at the post office over at Darmstadt when I go do my shopping.”

“Did you mortgage the farm to buy it? We should’ve talked this out.”

“No, silly. Me, Billy, Tom, Ma, and your folks all went in together to give it to you.”

“You too?” Rod pointed at Tom. “Thank you.”

“Like I said, Rod. She talked the owner down to where she got a steal. She even got him to agree to deliver it. It’ll be at your place the day after tomorrow.”

Rod spent the rest of Christmas Day imagining how running every phase of a newspaper would feel. To his surprise, his parents were supportive of the venture. Because it meant Billy could have a greater measure of independence, their father was especially happy.

Late on Christmas night, Billy insisted Rod unwrap every empty box with his name that had been placed by the tree to hide any inkling of his real present, a printing press and a newspaper of his own. As Rod opened each one the boy-man guffawed in delight.

* * *

Christmases came and went, Mrs. Pierson had died but her Christmas spirit of giving continued on after her death.

She lingered in many memories of those she had helped. But when Billy started singing Christmas carols on the way home from church, Rod’s musing about his deceased mother-in-law’s true understanding of Christmas ceased.

“It’s too soon to be singing those!” Rod protested.

Patty squeezed his arm. “No. That one reminds me of Ma. It was her favorite one. Keep on singing, Billy.”

Rod listened as the others joined Billy, who kept up the carols the rest of the way home. When he saw his wife’s tears as she sang, Rod knew the dam of pent-up sorrow had finally broken.

The next morning the Lees journeyed to Evansville so Patty, Billy, and the children could begin their Christmas gift selections. For eleven-year-old Bob, ten-year-old Clara, and seven-year-old Stanley, it also meant compiling a wish list to be left where parents, grandparents, and uncle would find it. Rod hung around the livery stable, conversing with its owner as he fed the hungry tired horses that had pulled the family to town. When Stewart Daloy happened by, Rod accepted his invitation to join him for a snack at his home.

“Sorry to hear about Mrs. Pierson’s death.” Stewart said as he handed the remnants of yesterday’s turkey to him.

Rod was surprised by Stewart’s sincerity. Usually his words were glib. “Thanks. It’s been hard on Patty.” Rod studied his appearance. Gone were the unparted hair and beard Stewart had worn since coming of age. Fashion now dictated slicked down hair parted in the middle and his clean-shaven face, usually obtained with a straight edge razor wielded by a servant or barber. His white shoes also spoke of fashion. His suit was perfectly matched: pants, coat, and vest all the same style and color.

Rod’s one suit, worn only for church, was old-fashioned because of its contrasting colors. His outfit today was homemade: jeans and linsey-woolsey shirt sewn by Patty. His hair remained unparted and he shaved once or twice a week. I’m just the country rube in the presence of the slick city politician. If it weren’t for me being so hungry I wouldn’t even be here.

Since his election to county office Stewart had transformed his speech, manners, and daily habits. Potential voters always received his attention. Gone was the bluntness he once had used on Rod, replaced by persuasion, an art Stewart had mastered when dealing with everyone except the hardest headed or those too ignorant to understand the need for people like him to run their lives.

“Given any more thought to my last offer? I’m looking for a better writer like you for speeches and pieces for the newspapers. You have a way with words. The one I got now just doesn’t cut the mustard. He sounds too phony baloney.”

“Thanks. But I’m still trying to sell my novel.”

“Never say die. I like that. Well, just let me know if you change your mind. I imagine you could use a steady source of income. It’d be a crying shame for you to grow old out there on that farm of yours just to sell out and move to town like your parents are planning on.”

Rod frowned. Nothing escaped Stewart. While most usually knew the latest about neighbors and fellow churchgoers, Stewart knew everything about everybody. Must come with the territory of being a politician, Rod thought as he finished making his sandwich and left with it after saying he was late meeting Patty.

When he found her inside the downtown emporium she looked like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Gone were the drab grays and blacks she had worn in memory of her mother.

When they had parted company two hours earlier, Patty was like any other Midwestern farm wife: plain, dressed in homespun clothes, hair falling past her shoulders. Now she looked like she was paying a visit from St. Louis or Chicago or New York, a lady of fashion. The clerk who had helped to pick her style had pulled Patty’s long blonde hair back from her forehead and tied it on top of her head in a psyche knot, currently the rage for city women. Her feet were pinched into long black pointed shoes half as wide as the cowgirl boots she had worn into the store. A shirtwaist hugged her breasts and hips. Though it accented her figure, Rod thought the shirt’s style made her look masculine.

“I guess you’re a Gibson girl now,” was all he could say.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Patty spun around in front of the three tall narrow mirrors. Her radiant smile convinced Rod his wife had finally fully rejoined the land of the living.

The leg-of-mutton sleeves caused Patty’s broad upper body to appear even wider. Her years of farm labor had produced muscular upper arms and shoulders so the puffy sleeves made her look top heavy. A long blue skirt ended at her ankles. Happy because of the head to toe sales, the clerk added a pink parasol at no charge. “Be sure to use this parasol. It will protect your delicate skin.”

Rod coughed to hide his smirk. That clerk sure lays it on thick. Bet he could give old Stewart a run for his money. He scanned Patty’s face. Years of sun had tanned it beyond any hope of ever returning to the pale skinned look city women wore as a badge of honor. You can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of her.

“I hope you don’t mind all this fuss about me but this is Ma’s Christmas gift to me.” Patty smiled as she stepped onto the sidewalk to display her new look to Evansville’s residents. “When she knew she was going to die she gave me an envelope of money to use for this Christmas. She always loved the pictures of the Gibson girls in the magazines.”

Street vendors reminded the children they had not eaten since breakfast as the smell of their offerings drifted their way.

“Hot corn! Get your pure white-hot corn! Smoking hot! Piping hot! Oh yes sir, what beautiful ears I got! Get your hot corn!” The fifty-five year old man danced from foot to foot as he juggled corn on the cob that would blister his fingers if held too long.

A half block away a large black woman stirred a simmering pot as she yelled, “Pepper pot, it’s right hot and the best I got! All hot! Makes your back strong! Makes you live long! Come buy my pepper pot! You want soup? That’s what I got!”

Rod ignored them as the huge turkey sandwich from Stewart Daloy’s table digested in his belly. His children’s stomachs growled; their mouths watered. Clara tugged on her father’s arm.

“Please, Daddy! We’re hungry!” She pointed at the hot corn vendor. Bob ran to the pepper pot soup vendor and stuck his face over the steaming kettle, which was kept warm by a bed of glowing embers constantly fed with wood chips. Its heat flushed his cheeks, the smell made him lightheaded. Little Stanley smacked his lips.

“Please get them something, dear. Then you can meet me over at Mrs. Olson’s boarding house with the wagon. We really need to bring Ma’s things back home where they belong. Then I really need to go to bed early tonight.” She winked.

“Okay.” Rod grinned. Patty’s sultry voice told him the long lonely nights could now return to normal in their bed. She had not called him dear since the funeral.

Stanley and Clara had Billy blow on their hot buttered corn on the cob until it cooled. Bob gulped down his cup of pepper pot soup and took along another for the walk to the livery stable. On the way, Rod sent Billy into Stewart’s house. The politician smiled. Here was one bumpkin whose vote could be bought for a sandwich. By the time they arrived at the boarding house with the wagon, most of Mrs. Pierson’s final possessions were stacked up on the sidewalk.

“About time you showed up!” The curmudgeon of the house grumbled to Rod as he set a box on the wagon’s bed. “I’ve been itching for months to move into her old room. I was beginning to think you were going to keep it as a museum exhibit to honor Mrs. Pierson. That would’ve been a waste of space since it’s the best room in the house.”

“Maybe she wanted you to wait until the Christmas season so it could be her last present to you,” said Rod.

 

 

 

Standard

Something Smells Good; It Has to Be Brownies

You ever have one of those weeks where you end up feeling lower than whale poop resting more than a mile down on some ocean floor?
I had just come off of such a week. I was flying high on Friday as my two-day free e-book promotion cranked up on Amazon. One of my Facebook friends was kind enough to share the promotion on her page. When I saw she had over 1,400 Facebook friends, I started dancing on cloud nine. Even walked around the house whistling, humming, and singing the tune We’re in the Money.

My longsuffering wife, who was drafted into my vision of being a writer after we married in 1975 finally asked, “So where is the money coming from this time?”

I ran over and hugged her. “My latest book promotion is going where none of my promos has gone before!”

Her expression turned thoughtful. “Hmm. Just like the crew on the Starship Enterprise?”

“I’ve posted my promo on a bunch of Facebook pages, and on Kboards, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Google, and Pinterest. All that’s left is to blast out a tweet on Twitter. I’ll give away thousands of books for sure this time.”

“But if you’re giving it away for free, how are we going to be in the money?”

“Because all it takes is just one reader to love my book and post glowing reviews about it and then tell all of their family members, neighbors, friends, and co-workers how great it –”

“I love you, dear.”

“Same here, right back at you.” Who could refuse to love someone who stuck by a writer through four decades spanning parts of two centuries and two millennia?

Late Saturday night, I checked the book promotion report showing twenty-eight books given away. By the time the promotion ended early Sunday morning, thirty books had been downloaded by who knows who. When we got to church a few hours later, I was dwelling among whale poop. But then our pastor complimented the parents of the baby being baptized for the tie their child was wearing. I couldn’t see the tie because I’m a lifelong back pew backslider but just hearing his description made me laugh. He made me laugh even harder during his sermon when he told a story of how he proposed to his wife on a cassette tape inside of a tape player he gave to her. The Alleluia Chorus followed after his taped proposal.

At the door of the church I told him, “Thank you for telling us about that baby wearing a tie and how you proposed to your wife. I’ve had a bad week and really needed some laughs.” He just smiled and shook my hand.

That afternoon included our photo appointment for the next church directory. A month earlier, a brochure detailing the photography company’s full line of services had appeared in our church bulletins. It encouraged us to bring pets or objects that would show off our interests. One of the brochure’s photos showed a grinning old codger hunched over his model train set.

I determined to sit for the photo session holding two of my books with covers in full view and asked my wife which of my books would look the most photogenic in the church directory. “At last people there will know what I do and ask me about my books.”

“I think those kind of photos are separate from what goes into the directory,” she said.

Full of disbelief, I contacted the one coordinating the photo shoot. “That’s right,” she said. “The photos going into the directory are only of people who attend church here, nothing else. The ones with pets, etc. are for your personal use.”

Like they say, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

So as the photographer positioned us in front of her bright lights and state of the art camera, I put on my dark sunglasses, large enough to cover a third of my face.

The photographer’s head tilted at an odd angle, as if she had never seen such a thing. “Are you really sure you want to wear those?” she asked.

“Yeah. I want to look cool like Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano, Stevie Wonder, and John Kay of Steppenwolf all do.”

The photographer shrugged and said, “Okay.”

But my wife grabbed the sunglasses off my face so fast that they tweaked my nose and ears. “No way,” she said.

“But I have to be cool. What do Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Jose Feliciano, and John Kay all have in common?”

“They’re all blind and have a valid reason for wearing sunglasses.”

“Not. John Kay is only color blind. Last I heard he doesn’t even wear them all of the time like he used to. But he doesn’t have to anymore. What all of them have in common is that they have sold millions of copies of their albums. How am I ever going to sell millions of my books unless I look cool too?”

She moved the sunglasses further from my reach as I grabbed for them.

After twisting our bodies into perfect postures and positions, the photographer hurried behind her camera and said, “Smile…come on, sir, bigger smile than that. It will help you look cool.”

Through clenched teeth I whispered to my wife, “I always have to be nice just because you’re the church organist and choir director. You don’t know how hard it is being married to someone on a church staff. You always get to be cool here at church while I never do.”

Outside in the parking lot, my wife finally returned my sunglasses. As I put them back on I said, “I could have been Joe Cool in the church directory if only I could have showed off my books or at least worn my sunglasses for it.”

She smiled. “A comic strip beagle named Snoopy can be Joe Cool with his huge sunglasses. You need to learn to be yourself. Stop stressing out about becoming a successful writer.”

That’s easy for a non-writer to say. I decide to take my book marketing to the next level.

* * *

I had not visited one potential outlet for my books in a long time. So I grabbed two of my paperbacks and drove to the lone Christian bookstore in our city of 62,000. As I entered, it seemed to hold only half the number of books it had had on its shelves three years ago, another casualty of online retailers and e-books.

The clerk looks unfamiliar but I begin my pitch anyway because he was helpful with the customer he waited on before me. “Hi, about three years ago your store had a book signing event for local Christian authors. About ten of them set up tables right over there.” I point an area now displaying artwork, greeting cards, knick-knacks, and other gift items.

“That was under the old ownership. We took over this store a few months ago.”

“Oh. Anyway, I talked to the one who organized the book signing event and asked her if I could be a part of the next one. She said she would have to read what I planned to sell to see if it fit in. You know, met her high standards and all, I guess.”

I hold up a book whose cover shows a mushroom shaped cloud rising toward the stratosphere. “I left her a copy of this to read. Is she still on staff here so I can ask her about it?” I describe her as she had metal embedded into her face.

“Oh, you’re talking about Marcie. She is the only one from the old staff still here. But she’s not in right now.”

“Well, just in case she didn’t like the book I gave her about atomic bombs, World II, and the Cold War, here’s another one I wrote that’s even more of a Christian book of short stories.” Its cover depicts the Old Testament prophet Elijah sitting in the wilderness and being fed by ravens commanded by God to do so.

“Can I leave this book for her to read with a note so maybe I can be a part of the next book signing event?”

“Sure.”

His friendliness makes me want to give him the copy of my novel about the nuclear bomb and Cold War era to read. But an inner fear of reminding the one in charge of book signings of a book she started and never finished or one she read and hated because of not enough romance or too much realistic language used by soldiers during World War II or not being Christian enough, whatever that is, keeps me from giving that book to the clerk.

After writing a short note in a way more or less begging her to let me get some much needed exposure, I leave it and the book of short stories with him. His news that half of the bookstore is going to be turned into a coffee shop leaves me wondering if there will ever be another event for local authors to meet and greet potential readers and sell some books. Maybe coffee now has more appeal than hardback or paperback Christian books for the faithful?

* * *

Disappointed by my latest trip down a rabbit hole, I look for someone to unload on. Everybody needs such an outlet. For some, it’s a priest in a confessional or other spiritual leader in an office or nowadays, some spiritual guru spouting his or her version of the truth online via a colorful website. For others, it’s a friend or acquaintance or even stranger at a bar if you’re desperate and drunk enough. For the most desperate of all, it’s $500 or more an hour talking to a shrink or counselor.

For me, it’s Chester Fields.

Chester lives a few houses down from us in one that is unique because his hand carved life-sized bears, eagles, deer, other wild creatures, and fifteen foot tall totem pole decorate his front yard instead of the grass every other neighbor waters, mows, and fertilizes or pays some guy too much money to do for them.

He also paints. Some of his artwork is a kind of matter of fact realism, almost as if it were taken by a camera instead of put down on canvas. The rest is surrealistic. As usual, I find him in his open garage working on his latest masterpiece.

“Hey Chester.” My greeting so startles him that he smears the red paint on his brush across a small canvas as he turns his head.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that.” His words sound like a growl, his demeanor now like a grizzly bear stung on its nose by the bees whose honey it stole from their hive in a hollow of a tree. “You know better than to interrupt an artist deep in thought as he is painting.” He points at his large refrigerator stocked with soft drinks, iced tea, beer, and energy drinks that he claims give me inspiration.

“Thanks.” I grab a twenty-ounce, icy cold soda loaded with sugar, salt, and caffeine, a no-no according to my doctor because of my high blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and fifty pounds of excess fat.

“Speaking of art, how is your next book coming along? I thought you said you would let me critique it for you. You said that you’re trying to write for the Old Adult genre. I sure fit into that category.”

That’s classic Chester for you. Half the time I visit him, he brings up what I really want to talk about for me instead of letting me beat around the bush for a quarter hour trying to confess what is bugging me. His question makes me squeeze my plastic bottle of cola so hard that some of it squirts out onto my faded blue jeans.

Chester laughs. “If you leave that soda on your pants instead of washing it out, maybe it will eat holes into your worn out jeans. Then you can look all stylish like those fools who buy brand new pants with holes already in them.”

I wipe the spill to spread it around, hoping it will dry faster. “My current book is on hold while I try to sell some of my other books that are already published. Do you think I should buy a booth at the annual street faire that’s coming up next month so I can hawk some of them there?”

“Not unless you plan on selling a whole raft load of books. I took a bunch of my carvings and paintings to the street faire a few years back and could not even sell enough of them to make back the $500 the city charged me for the booth for the day.”

“Oh.”

I study the paintings hanging on Chester’s garage walls and the smaller wood carvings on its many shelves and conclude they are at least as good as the stories in my books, probably even better. How can some artists cram a story into a painting or carving like Chester does? Meanwhile, I’m supposed to show not tell when I write. At least that is what all the experts say. I’m tempted to ask Chester if it’s possible to paint with words.

We talk for a while, Chester telling tales of working as a carpenter in Chicago before moving out west to be closer to his children as he ended his career of sawing, nailing, and yelling at those on his crew either too lazy or foolish to follow his work ethic. Although he is ten years older than me, we have a lot in common. We’re both retired. But more importantly, we share the agony and ecstasy of the artist without an audience, at least not one willing to pay for what we produce.

We wear our badges of struggling artist and struggling writer with pride. Not starving artist or starving writer because we both have pensions to keep food on our tables and in our pets’ dishes. I must be struggling worse than Chester, based on his one sentence diagnosis of my anguish.

“Stop looking like Ernest Hemingway before he killed himself.”

Then Chester suggests an alternative to the local annual street faire.

* * *

“Are you sure people will buy any of my books today?”

“I guarantee it.” Chester has been trying to derail my fears for the last forty miles as we drive to The Largest Flea Market for 100 Miles in Any Direction. At least that’s the way they advertise it. “I have always turned a profit selling my stuff at this place every single time.”

Yeah, but your wood carvings and paintings sold for a lot more than I can charge for my paperbacks, I’m tempted to say, but stifle my doubts into thoughts.

After waiting close to a half hour in a long line of cars, I pay a $50 vendor fee and show my permit sent from the state sales tax agency as proof I will collect sales tax. I park as close to the gate as possible. Am I glad Chester brought along a hand truck to haul the six cases of books I ordered because it’s at least a half mile walk to my vendor’s booth. Chester carries two lawn chairs, which he claims are required for the ten hour day, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., when customers by the thousands will swarm through the market.

I estimate I will need about 1% of them to buy at least one book each in order to break even.

It takes only a few minutes to display samples of my three historical fiction and two science fiction books on the top of the one inch by six inch board that serves as a counter at the front of the booth. Measuring six feet by six feet, the cramped space has Chester and me bumping into each other. So he wanders off to scout out all of the booths with free food and drink samples and to use the bathroom. The plan is to take turns manning the booth to allow for bathroom and food breaks.

I survey the booths on either side of mine as customers start to mill past them. The guy on the right has nothing but used items: clothes, tools, kitchenware, suitcases, the kind of things you see at yard sales. The one on the left is hawking CDs and talkative.

“Your first time here?” he asks me.

“Yeah. How did you know that?”

“From the anxious look you have on your face. Chill out. Those kind of expressions repel customers instead of drawing them in so you can hook them and make the sale. Put on your happy face.” His forced grin looks as if it will split his head into two sections.

“Oh.”

I put on my sunglasses to try and partially hide my anxiety. Why can’t anyone, including Chester, understand that like most writers, I am an introvert? Puffing my books to strangers to get them to buy them is the last thing I want to do on a Saturday.

I point at my neighbor’s rows of CDs. “How’s the music business these days?”

“Probably a lot like the book business you’re in.” He pauses to collect money for the three CDs a customer has chosen. “Did you know that 95% of the acts signed to the record companies lose money for them?”

“That many?”

“I kid you not. It’s the other 5% who barely break even or make money that carry everyone else.” He makes another quick sale of two CDs. “At least we have gigs to fall back on. We sell our CDs at our shows too.”

His group is an oldies act and plays songs from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. By the end of the day, I’ve memorized a lot of their songs’ names because he plays the CDs nonstop on a small portable CD player until its batteries die.

About four hours after the flea market opened, I’ve sold eighteen books and Chester is ready to retrace his steps back to sample more of any free offerings. He seems proud of the map detailing each booth by number that one of the flea market staff gave to him. Based on his earlier search, Chester has marked each booth on the map at which he found free food or drink.

“There are forty-two of them with freebies calling out my name for me to make a return visit,” Chester says as he waves goodbye.

A few minutes later, a man who looks about forty stops his brisk walk and almost knocks over a love struck couple with eyes and hands locked as he careens up to my booth. He is dressed in a casual gray suit and enough gold to pass for a bride in India on her wedding day. The sun glinting off of his three gold rings, wrist band, and thick chain around his skinny neck supporting a medallion also made of gold makes my eyes water. He introduces himself by first extending his hand.

“Hi, I’m Michael R Bellow,” he says as he grabs and releases my hand in a single motion, as if someone standing nearby had warned him of a contagious disease’s pathogens residing on it. “Nice looking books you have here. Are these all of the books you’ve written?” He nods at my five titles.

“No, I have some e-books published, too. Altogether, there are eleven books.”

“You don’t say.” He whips out his smart phone, one with all the latest apps, and within thirty seconds is introducing me to his line-up of fifteen books as if they were his children or grandchildren. One of them especially interests me.

How I Made Seven Figures by Self-Publishing Books? How did you manage to pull that off?”

He smiles and leans closer until I can feel his breath on my ear and whispers. “When I wrote that book, I really had only made $11,381.24.”

“Huh? But everyone thinks seven figures means millions of dollars, right?”

His grin of perfect teeth widens as he counts off each number on his fingers. “One, one, three, eight, one, two, four. How many numbers is that?” He shoves one hand with five extended digits and the other with two extended into my face.

“Seven…I guess.”

“Now you’re catching on. So you see, technically, I didn’t lie, did I? Besides, you know what my total sales are now since that book came out? Over $100,000. So now I’m up to six figures using your method of accounting and eight using mine.”

As I try and edge away from this fishy guy toward a real customer, he makes me what he claims is an offer you can’t refuse. “How about us swapping reviews? You’ve got eleven books out and I have fifteen. You review all of mine and give them all five stars and I’ll do that same for all of yours. But you can’t just write one of those fake reviews that are only one or two sentences long.”

“Huh?”

“You know what I mean; the ones they say this book was a great read or a real page turner or it told me everything in order to succeed. Any potential buyers who read that kind of tripe know it’s just a canned review.”

“But I thought that reciprocal reviews between authors were unethical and against Amazons terms for reviews.”

“Unethical? Don’t start getting high and mighty with me, wise guy. Do you want to be a best-selling author like me or just another flunky self-publishing his way to Nowhere Ville? What’s the matter with you? Are you a curmudgeon or just grumpy because your books aren’t selling?”

“Excuse me, I have another customer.”

He shakes his head as he straightens the lapels of his expensive tailored silk suit. “You’re a real loser. Don’t ever say I didn’t try to help you out with some really great reviews. Here’s my card just in case you wise up and come to your senses.”

I pocket his business card as he walks away in search of other prey.

“May I help you?” I ask a mother who looks about thirty. Her daughter in the stroller by her side has one of my books and is trying to eat it. “It looks like your cute little girl really likes that book. Are there any others you would also like to buy?”

“I don’t think so,” Mom says as she sets the book she has been thumbing through down. “I must have scanned forty or fifty pages and did not see a single romance scene. Give the man back his book, darling.”

A tug of war begins until mother hands me the book her daughter had been sampling with her mouth. The impressions of her teeth on the cover appear to be deep enough for a dentist to fashion a crown. And her slobber covers all of the pages of one corner, leaving it feeling slimy. I sit down to try and relieve the building stress.

My heart rate and breathing had slowed somewhat when I hear a faint voice that sounds familiar. Then I notice that about fifty yards up the wide asphalt aisle the throng of shoppers is parting like the waters of the Red Sea after Moses’s command. Through their midst walks Chester. The closer he comes, the louder his short ditty grows.

“Something smells good, it has to be brownies.”

He repeats the refrain a dozen times before he reaches my booth. If nothing else, his impromptu free entertainment is causing smiles and laughter for the strangers within earshot. Maybe it might draw some customers our way.

He offers me a sample of the inspiration for his song. “Have some of my brownie. I bet you can’t eat just one.”

I study the half eaten, moist chocolate goodie he drops into my hand before breaking it into two to better smell it. But my nose cannot confirm my suspicions that one of the brownie’s ingredients is causing Chester’s slurred speech and uncoordinated movements. It takes him three attempts before he is able to settle into one of the lawn chairs without falling off of it. I sit in the other one and pull it next to Chester’s to study his eyes. They are bloodshot and his upper eyelids are drooping.

“Chester, you didn’t go off the wagon, did you? I don’t want your wife blaming me for you getting drunk.”

“Wagon? What wagon?” He shrugs.

“Can you show me on your map where exactly you got this brownie?”

“Sure thing, partner.”

He pulls out his map and studies it by rotating it clockwise and then counterclockwise. “Uh, the brownie joint was one of the first ones I marked.” He points at the series of Xs he wrote on the map’s locations of the booths with free food and drink samples. “I think maybe it was this one.” He pauses. “But don’t quote me on that. For some reason all the marks I made on the map look the same all of a sudden.”

I count nineteen Xs and decide to visit them all if necessary until I find the one serving brownies. “Can you describe the booth where you got the brownies?”

“Sure. It was a couple of old hippies selling tie-dyed shirts, candles, and crafts. You can’t miss it. Do me a favor. Bring me back some more of those brownies. I’m starving. And get me something to drink too. My mouth feels drier than Death Valley on the Fourth of July.”

He has the munchies, cotton mouth, bloodshot eyes, faulty short term memory, incoordination, uninhibited behavior, all symptoms feeding my worst fears. “How many of those brownies did you eat?”

“Three or four, I think. I’m not sure because I went there twice, you know. Can I have the last of the one you’re still holding onto?”

I drop the pieces of the sample he gave me onto my handkerchief and wad it into a ball and shove it into my pocket. “I’m saving it for later. Do you mind holding down the fort while I go and get us some real food for lunch?”

“You got yourself a deal. Hurry on back here though. I’m hungrier than a really skinny bear who just woke up after his long hibernation for the winter.”

Not until locating the booth corresponding to the twelfth X on the map do I find one fitting Chester’s description of a couple of old hippies selling tie-dyed shirts, candles, and crafts, and a metal pan containing brown crumbs that smell like brownies.

“Do you have any more free brownies left?” I ask the bearded, long haired giant of a man who has his eyes closed and feet propped up on a cardboard box.

“You’ll have to ask my old lady, man,” he answers. But then something makes him spring from his metal folding chair, as if someone poked his fat rump with a pitchfork. “Hey, wait a minute. What color is that pan, man?”

I lift it up to examine its sides and bottom. “It’s orange. Why?”

“Because that’s the pan that was meant just for me and my old lady. Is there very much left in it?”

“Mostly just crumbs, I’m afraid.”

He turns toward a frail looking woman who must weigh at least 150 pounds less than he does and yells at her. “Hey, Janie! How many times do I have to tell you before you remember? Orange begins with an O, which stands for ourselves. In other words, for you and me.”

The woman answers with a frown and crimson blush as she takes a step backward away from her man’s wrath and then returns her attention to a customer amused by the drama. He growls back.

Next, he stomps toward me and snatches the pan from my hand. He groans after seeing how little of the brownies remain. “I must have put $50 worth of hash in the batch that went into that pan. She was supposed to put out the purple pan with the just plain brownies for our customers. Get it? Purple begins with a P and P stands for people.”

He bangs the pan on his booth’s wooden counter to loosen the crumbs and then tilts it at his salivating mouth. A small avalanche of crumbs tumbles into it.

“Anyway, a friend of mine, an old guy in his seventies, came by here and ate more than one of your hashish laced brownies. He’s stoned out of his mind.”

“So?” He wipes away the stray crumbs lodged in his beard and belches.

“So do you want me to tell security about you doping him up without his knowledge?”

His sneer and roar of a laugh is more intimidating than his recently displayed wrath. “Security? Who do think that they hire here for that, the Hell’s Angels so you can get them to beat me up? What do you think this is, some kind of outdoor rock concert? I think you’re the one that’s stoned, not your friend, man.”

“No, they hire rent a cops here. Maybe one of them would be willing to test this with his drug testing kit.” I pull out my handkerchief and display the remainder of the brownie Chester gave to me. “All I need is some money to feed my friend a decent meal because he has the munchies really bad, okay?”

We argue for a few minutes until settling on a compromise. He gives me $10 in exchange for my evidence, which he conceals by popping it into his mouth.

“I had to destroy it just in case you decide to narc on me,” he says after washing it down with whatever he squeezes out of his fake goat wineskin.

As I return to Chester, I see a kid carrying one of my books and a young man with three of them. When I reach the front of the booth, an old lady is stuffing a copy of each one of my books into her handbag. I thank her and walk around two neighboring booths to reach our booth’s entrance along its backside, expecting to find Chester with either a fist full of cash or reports of all the sales he has made while I was fetching our lunches. Instead, he is stretched out on the ground between the two lawn chairs, fast asleep.

It takes me a few minutes of shaking and coaxing the snoring Chester before he fully awakens, and only five more for him to devour both burgers, two orders of French fries, and guzzle down one of the two sodas I delivered. I guess he thinks I already ate, that is, if his thought processes are even functioning at a level that considers others’ needs due to the THC from the hash brownies still circulating in his brain. He hands me the other soda before stretching back out for another nap.

A half hour later a woman who is young enough to be my granddaughter pauses at our booth. She is wearing a stylish light blue pants suit and jewelry to match it. After she says she is also an author, I begin to wonder if part of my problem is that I don’t dress the part of what a successful writer should look like. The combined costs of her outfit and the one the other author who stopped by earlier offering to swap glowing reviews are well over $1,000. I wonder if they write off their wardrobes as business expenses. I picture them telling a tax auditor, But my clothes are part of my author brand, which makes them a legitimate tax write off.

After thumbing through one of my books, she asks if I ever write reviews of books.

“Sometimes,” I answer, waiting for another offer you can’t refuse, excellent reviews of her books in exchange for the same of mine. Tit for tat. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. A symbiotic relationship made in heaven or hell, depending on whether you’ve sold your soul to the devil yet.

“What’s the name of a book you’ve reviewed?” she asks as she connects to Amazon on her smart phone.

I help her navigate to one of my reviews. After reading it, she clicks on the pseudonym I use as a reviewer name, which takes her to a page with all of my book reviews. After ten minutes of skimming them, she sighs as if she were dealing with a dense boyfriend who has yet to grasp the feminine mystique, at least enough to see things her way.

“Why do you put in the phrase Received a free copy in exchange for a review as part of so many of your reviews? Research has shown that a lot of potential buyers either don’t trust or completely ignore reviews with phrases like that.”

“Because the Federal Trade Commission requires that kind of statement whenever a reviewer receives a product for free.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. None of any of those kind of regulations or being ethical, whatever that is, matters anymore anyway.”

“Why? Did the FTC drop that regulation about reviews?”

“No, silly. All of us really smart authors finally figured out a way around it is all. Now I just have all of my Advance Review Team preorder an advance copy at a discount. It’s a win-win-win kind of situation for everyone involved.”

“But how is it a win for your reviewers if they now have to pay in order to review your books for you instead of getting a free copy?”

She leans forward and lowers her voice, as if disclosing an indie self-publishing trade secret. “They get a copy before everyone else at a fantastic discount. The price goes back up from $.99 to $4.99 once the preorder period ends.”

“And I suppose it’s a win for you because almost all of your team will give you a great four or five star review.”

She wrinkles her nose and tosses her perfectly trimmed short black hair to one side, as if something unclean has invaded her private zone. “Of course. They have to. How couldn’t they? I only write high quality stories with all of just the right tropes for my readers. Some of them have told me that they are addicted to my books.”

“Just what is your genre?”

“Erotic dystopianism. You know, instead of Sex in the City, I write all about Sex in the Future.”

“Oh, you write porn. One of the online writers’ groups I belong to had a thread where a lot of the writers were bragging about how well porn sells for them.”

Her eyes narrowed, giving her an appearance of a cobra or rattlesnake about to strike. “I do not write pornography. I write erotica. You obviously are so uncouth and illiterate that you don’t even know the difference between the two. Pornography is vulgar while erotica is beautiful. Besides, all I do is give my readers what they want. Don’t you do the same?”

“Well, my market is made up of people who are like my wife: over fifty, family oriented, and Christians who love the Lord. She is my alpha reader and editor so I can better aim at that market. She says God never intended for sex to be a spectator sport. Uh, you said win-win-win but only mentioned two groups of winners, you and your Advance Review Team. Who is the third one?”

“Those who have never bought any of my books but are persuaded to do so by my Advance Review Team’s reviews. I was even intending to ask you to join my team but you are obviously just one of those holier than thou grumpy men with a bad case of sour grapes because you write for such a narrow market of narrow minded people like yourself. I bet you sell very little, if any of your books.”

She sneered at my books. Then she gave me a last if looks could kill stare, her sharp daggers projecting from her fiery eyes into my soul before strutting away, head held high, posture perfect, as if she were modeling the latest fashions from Paris for her readers.

And here I am, dressed in what my two daughters gave me as birthday gifts – a pair of baggy blue jean shorts that reach down to my knees and a T-shirt with a warning to Never underestimate an old man who listens to the Beach Boys and a picture of the band as they looked fifty years ago, holding onto a surfboard and wearing huge smiles. At this point, I’m beginning to think I overestimated instead of underestimated, at least the market for paperback books by an unknown author like me trying to sell them at a flea market.

The guy selling yard sale kind of merchandise has already gone home carrying nothing but money, his inventory of used items completely sold out. The musician on the other side of me is packing up. It seems like he has lots of unsold CDs left, so I hope maybe he understands.

“Did you sell enough of your CDs to break even today?” I ask him.

“Yeah, and a little more besides.” He smiles as he stacks his display into cardboard boxes. “You mind if I borrow your hand truck to haul these boxes out to my van? It’s a pretty long walk and I don’t want to have to make two trips.”

“Sure.”

“Here, go ahead and pick out one of these as my thanks for letting me use your hand truck.”

While he wheels his remaining three boxes of CDs to the parking lot, I study the songs listed on the CDs he gave me.

Flashback to the Fifties contains:

I Walk the Line originally performed by (OPB) Johnny Cash

Fever (OPB Peggy Lee)

Great Balls of Fire (OPB Jerry Lee Lewis)

Come on Let’s Go (OPB Ritchie Valens)

Johnny B. Goode (OPB Chuck Berry)

Come Softly to Me (OPB The Fleetwoods)

Rawhide (OPB Frankie Laine)

Not Fade Away (OPB Buddy Holly)

Crying (OPB Roy Orbison)

Sleep Walk (OPB Santo and Johnny Farina)

 

Sounds from the Sixties has:

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood originally performed by (OPB) The Animals

Help (OPB The Beatles)

In My Room (The Beach Boys)

Hit the Road Jack (OPB Ray Charles)

Rag Doll (OPB The Four Seasons)

Go Now (OPB The Moody Blues)

Oh Well (OPB Fleetwood Mac)

Somebody to Love (OPB Jefferson Airplane)

The Weight (OPB The Band)

Badge (OPB Cream)

 

Solid Gold from the Seventies includes:

Smoke on the Water originally performed by (OPB) Deep Purple

Nature’s Way (OPB Spirit)

Give It Everything You’ve Got (OPB Edgar Winter’s White Trash)

Doctor My Eyes (OPB Jackson Browne)

Summer Breeze (OPB Seals and Crofts)

Blue Collar (OPB Bachman Turner Overdrive)

Simple Man (OPB Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Heard It in a Love Song (Marshall Tucker Band)

Listen to the Music (OPB The Doobie Brothers)

It Don’t Come Easy (OPB Ringo Starr)

 

When the musician returns Chester’s hand truck, I give him back Flashback to the Fifties and Solid Gold from the Seventies.

“So you are a Sixties’ music fan?” he asks.

“Not really. I mostly picked that one because that’s the kind of music my friend here likes the best. I think I’ll give it to him to thank him for helping me out here today.”

“It looked to me that he mostly just slept and ate all day long.” The musician points at the still asleep Chester and laughs. “So, how did you do with selling your books?”

I pull the wad of ones, fives, tens, and twenties from my pocket and count it. “Well, I think we almost broke even, if you don’t count the books that people walked off with while Chester was asleep and I was gone from the booth.”

He nods. “You sound a lot like my situation. We only make pocket money after expenses as a band. But we keep doing it because we love music. Just don’t forget what my wife is always telling me: ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ She even said that when I asked her to marry me.”

* * *

As we drove home, Chester listened so impassively to the first eight songs on the CD that I thought maybe I had chosen the wrong decade’s music to give to him. But when The Band’s song The Weight mentioned a character named Crazy Chester, my friend responded by singing along.

I joined in on the chorus, something about someone taking a heavy load off of another (The Weight) and then putting it on me instead. All that deepened my depression caused by all of the failed attempts to market my books. Then the CD’s last song, Badge, told a story of one who had cried away her life since falling out of her cradle as a baby and the need to pick oneself up from the ground before it’s too late.

“Those last two songs remind me of you,” Chester said.

Standard

Minimizing to the Max

Minimizing to the Max

 

Being an adult is no fun, thought Grace Turpin. You have to do so many boring things. The current thing fogging her mind until eyelids drooped was a mandatory seminar.

Her training was titled Minimizing to the Max: How to Be Successful in Every Area of Life. At least this one is only four hours long, Grace thought. She shuddered when she recalled the weekend retreat the office had attended two months ago.

To appear she was paying attention, she flipped through a forty-two page manual. Its last two pages contained more acronyms than Grace remembered seeing in any manual, even the 241 pages of her desk manual at her office titled Policy, Procedures, and State, Federal, and International Regulations.

At least she put these acronyms down in alphabetical order, Grace thought as she began to read them:

 

AIM: Allocating your IM to others

BIM: Bearing IM fatigue

CIM: Cleansing you IM

 

A shadow spreading across her manual until overhead lighting no longer illuminated it slowly lifted Grace’s head until her eyes met the instructor’s. Glancing sideways in both directions told Grace she was the center of attention now. Her co-workers were shaking heads, smiling, or stifling laughter. The biggest jerk, Ian, covered his mouth with one hand and pointed with the other as his body convulsed with silent glee.

Until this point, the instructor had smiled and sometimes joked with her pupils. But now her bubbly demeanor soured. Champagne bubbles became molten lava flowing downward on top of Grace.

“Perhaps you feel accomplished enough about today’s subject matter to take my place?” she asked.

Beginning in second grade, Grace had learned to use deference when any adult scolded her. Above all else, let the offended ones save face by making them believe they were in total control. So Grace lied.

“No, ma’am,” Grace answered. “Honestly, I wouldn’t even know where to start on such a complicated subject.”

“Exactly, young lady.”

From a distance, Grace had thought the instructor old enough to be her mother. But at less than a foot away, she appeared ancient enough to be her grandmother. Not even my Grandma Jezebel has crow’s feet that huge, Grace thought as she focused on the lines radiating outward from the corners of the instructor’s eyes. They seemed to undulate as blood pulsed from heart to head.

When the instructor’s hand reached toward the table at which Grace and two others sat, Grace slouched down in her padded chair because the movement reminded her of hands from long ago grabbing her, shaking her, extending forefingers to wag in her face.

Instead, this hand landed on her manual and caressed it.

Now, the instructor’s voice went from a grizzly bear’s growl to a dove’s cooing. “We simply must save the best for last, dear,” she said as she flipped the manual’s pages backward to the subject matter she had been expounding before this rebel interrupted her train of thought. “You can’t have your dessert until first you have eaten all of your meat, potatoes, and veggies.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m terribly sorry.”

The instructor’s smile revealed teeth so white   surrounded by bright red lipstick that Grace pictured a Christmastime candy cane or barbershop’s revolving red and white stripes. She let out a shallow breath as the instructor walked back to her command post of podium and computerized overhead projector.

“That was close,” the one seated to Grace’s right whispered. “I’ve seen her take off people’s heads at other seminars. They don’t call her the Queen of Hearts for nothing. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland.”

By the time of a twenty-minute break, Grace shuffled zombie-like to the hotel’s bistro for her favorite comfort food, carbs washed down by caffeine. Ian plopped into the chair across from her.

“Better go easy on the coffee, Grace, or you’ll be disrupting our class-time by having to get up to use the bathroom,” he said. “You always did have a tiny bladder.”

“Why don’t you go pick your nose like you’re always doing at work?” Grace asked.

The office peacemaker walked to their small table to intervene and remained standing to focus their attention on her. “Isn’t this just wonderful?” she asked. “It’s so refreshing and relaxing to get away from our phones and computers for the whole afternoon.”

Ian glanced up from his smartphone. “Oh, that reminds me,” he said as he stood. “I need to be somewhere by 5:30. The only way I’ll make it through all of the rush hour traffic is if The Wicked Witch of the West lets us out of here early. If you behave, Grace, maybe she will.” He searched for new victims to at worst, irritate or at best, try and impress.

Grace sighed to try and remove the latest expectation dumped on her. Only Ricki the peacemaker made no such demands of Grace, so she pointed at the empty chair and asked, “Care to join me?”

“So, what do you think is really going on with our branch?’ Ricki asked. “Do you think that they’re going to shut us down? If they do, maybe they’ll let us transfer to openings in other states. I’m sort of tired of all the hurricanes and snow we get here, anyway.”

Grace shoved the plate holding the remaining half of her cream-filled croissant across the table to the one employee of their company she considered a friend. “Maybe they’ll do what they euphemistically call a reorg and lay a bunch of us off. If they do that, I hope Ian is at the top of their list.”

She nodded at a nearby table where Ian was doing his imitation of John Travolta. A gifted mimic, Ian could imitate any celebrity from movies, television, music, or politics. “Then he could go into show business instead of real estate. Wouldn’t it be great to change the channel every time his creepy face showed up on it?”

* * *

After the break ended, the instructor pasted a smile back on her face. Her re-applied, expensive makeup highlighted it. Perfectly brushed graying hair served as a crown.

Just two more years of this crap and I can finally retire, she thought as she fiddled with the control that flashed the visuals of her presentation onto the sixteen by twenty-foot screen behind her. At least the manager for this group said he will show me some properties this weekend. If I downsize enough then my retirement income just might turn out to be enough that…

Her train of thought fizzled when the last seat in the small auditorium was filled by Ian. “Thank you, class, for being so prompt.” She glanced at her watch. “If we all stay on task for the rest of this afternoon, perhaps we shall finish up a little early.”

As she turned to see if the correct image filled the screen, Ian pumped his fists high above his head. His swaying body became like a trained seal’s, his hands its flippers as he pretended to clap.

“Now, who remembers our definition of Internal Mechanism?” the instructor asked.

“The IM is like your soul,” answered a twenty-two year old real estate agent. “You know, the inner part of you that motivates you to do things, to see the world in a certain way.”

“Excellent. That was a very good paraphrase.” The instructor pressed the handheld control and her five sentence definition of Internal Mechanism reappeared on the screen.

For the next hour, she dissected what she claimed every human being came equipped with at birth. She peeled the IM’s layers as if peeling a plump onion, occasional tears flowing down her cheeks whenever she felt inspired by her own words. Example after example of those great and small who had accomplished fantastic things once they had tapped into their IMs. Finally, she introduced them to the list of acronyms Grace had discovered hours earlier.

After reciting the list slowly and then at a rapid fire pace, she ordered her apprentices to their feet.

“You will now receive your mantra,” she intoned the words as if she were a high priestess of a New Age Cult. “May it serve you well.”

She aimed a laser pointer at the first acronym and waved her free hand as if conducting her magnum opus. Her pupils responded as one:

 

AIM: Allocating your IM to others

BIM: Bearing IM fatigue

CIM: Cleansing your IM

DIM: Diminishing your IM’s enemies

EIM: Eliminating IM guilt

FIM: Feeling your IM

GIM: Grateful for your restored IMur trafficearly. afternon,eekend. If I downsize enough then my retirement just might…-foot screeen tire, she thought as she fiddled with the control that flashed the visuals

HIM: Healing others with your restored IM

IIM: Imaging your revived IM

JIM: Jump starting your comatose IM

KIM: Keeping your IM healthy

LIM: Liking your IM

MIM: Maintaining you IM

NIM: Notating your IM by keeping a daily journal

OIM: Occupying your IM 24/7

PIM: Peace with your IM

QIM: Quitting IM negativity

RIM: Reorganizing your IM

SIM: Stimulating your IM

TIM: Talking to your IM

UIM: Understanding your IM

VIM: Vitalizing your IM

WIM: Wondering about your IM’s growth

XIM: X-raying your IM

YIM: Yearning for the IM of your youth

ZZZIM: Resting your IM with lots of Z’s (sleep)

 

“Thank you for your attention today,” the instructor said. “I hope you will minimize to the max by no longer stressing out and worrying but instead cut away the negativity that surrounds all of us by tapping into your internal mechanisms daily.”

An hour later, Grace Turpin stumbled into her studio apartment. After feeding her cocker spaniel, huge Maine Coon and skinny Siamese cats, she collapsed onto her couch and used a well-worn remote control to turn on her sixty-inch TV.

She smiled when nothing appeared on the screen to remind her of work or work related seminars.

“At least Ian hasn’t quit his day job yet and become a full-time clown on TV instead yet,” she told her animals.

Exhausted, Grace ignored her twenty-four pound cat as he went to the plastic trash can and ate the French fries leftover from the fast food meal she had eaten during her drive home. Her smaller nine-pound cat jumped onto the kitchen table and knocked over the remaining cup of soda. Then she lapped up the pool of sugary, caffeinated liquid.

Within thirty seconds, Fran was ZZZing her IM with a two-hour nap.

 

Standard

Thanksgiving with a Veteran

Sgt. Les Applebee (retired) surveyed his troops: three generations of Applebees all present and accounted for, a few in-laws and a neighbor who sometimes acted like an outlaw thrown in for good measure and laughs. All fourteen of them were seated at the homemade table Les assembled every Thanksgiving: two four-foot by eight-foot sheets of unfinished plywood supported by four-inch by four-inch posts of scrap lumber from his workshop. A red and white checkered plastic table cloth covered the table. Les pulled his masterpiece, a twenty-seven pound Tom turkey, from the oven and whistled at it.
“Now that’s a bird custom made for today,” he announced as he set it in the middle of the table.
Dressing oozed from the cavities he had stuffed eight hours earlier. His secret recipe of bread cubes, celery, raisins, giblets, wild rice, parsley, walnuts, cranberries, and onion was locked away in his head, along with plans not to pass it on until he lay on his deathbed, which now was at least a few days sooner thanks to the ungrateful attitude he thought surrounded this feast. The youngest one seated at the table pointed at the turkey.
“Look, Mommy, the turkey’s going poo poo.”
Her mother blushed. “That’s called stuffing or dressing dear, not…” Her search for words was drowned out by laughter and hoots.
The laughing helped soothe feelings and calm nerves frayed by an earlier argument on who was to blame for the current mess in the Middle East. Everyone at the table forgot the angry words from ten minutes ago. As usual, Les had retreated when the other eight adults had squared off, with four blaming “you pointy-headed liberals” and the other four yelling about “you dumb Tea Party radicals” being the cause of the world’s ills.
I’m the only one of them here that’s a vet, Les had thought when he abandoned the argument. What do they know about the military and what it has to do just so they have the luxury of going at each other like they get to?
He turned to his wife. “Can you say the blessing, Jane?”
She bowed her head. “Thank you for all of our family and friends, Lord. Please bless this feast today. In Your name, amen.”
By his second helping of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and yams, Les’ rising blood sugar revived his mood enough to talk, even though his feet still ached from standing on them since four a.m. making and baking pies before preparing the bird and loading it into the oven. All the side dishes he delegated to his wife. He decided to ignore his wife’s annual plea of: “please keep your conversation nice this year, dear,” made as she had mashed boiled russet potatoes and simmered the gravy.
To try and prepare his guests, he raised his glass of cider and offered a toast. “Here’s to the brave men and women who are stuck in God only knows where today so we can be free to eat feasts like this one.”
The other adults raised their glasses. Two of them said, “Amen.” The five children took the toast as their notice that they could wander off to the den to watch TV or communicate via their phones. Only Les objected to their absence.
“Just when I was getting ready to give them a history lesson.” Les set his empty glass on the table so hard that it bounced with a “thud,” which he hoped would keep the rest of his audience captive to his tale. “I remember two or three Thanksgivings when we were keeping the damn Russians from pouring through the Fulda Gap. We were The Third Herd, Third Armored Division. I was infantry. When we weren’t doing that, we were on maneuvers down at Graf or Hohenfels. Once, we even went up to Wildflecken and it was so cold that the captain made us get up at midnight and run our engines in our vehicles for twenty minutes to keep the oil in them from freezing up.”
“Uhh, I think we heard you tell us this story already, Les,” his brother-in-law said. “Besides, you weren’t in any real war.”
“No, just in a place where I had to patch up guys who tried to kill each other over women, money, and drugs. Or kill themselves because they got a Dear John letter from their woman back home.” Smart aleck punk, Les thought. “There were over 200,000 U.S. troops in Europe when I was there. You know what that means?”
“No.”
“Just that from 1945 to 1990, which is how long the Cold War lasted, millions of Americans served over there. Do the math.”
When his brother-in-law shrugged, Les decided to up the ante. “Okay, wise guy. Let me tell you instead all about my father-in-law and after that my dad.”
Jane, who had begun to reach for her husband’s forearm in hopes of corralling his “war stories,” pulled her hand back. Hearing about her dad was okay, no matter how many times Les told it, as long as he did not embellish his retelling of her father’s stories too much. With her dad deceased and not at the last eight Thanksgivings, any remembrance was welcome.
“My father-in-law had it pretty good at first during the big one.”
“World War II?” asked his neighbor. Fifteen years older that Les, he often wanted clarifications.
“That’s right. He was a desk jockey with the Army Air Force there in England. Then after D-Day he had to drive some officer around who was surveying the bomb damage done by our B-17s. He said they once got lost behind enemy lines. Some of Hitler’s SS troops almost caught them and then–”
Jane coughed. “Dear, you know Dad said they got back to friendly troops without too much trouble.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell the short version then. But I know for a fact the part about your dad seeing German civilians shake their fists at any of our planes or the British planes flying overhead is true. He told me that part at least twenty times before he croaked.”
One of the children, an eleven year old, came running from the den. “Uncle Les, Uncle Les!” He grabbed Les’ arm. “Come quick. There’s a movie about you on TV.”
Les blinked. “Huh? Well, it’s about time. We would have never won the Cold War if it hadn’t been for us being stationed there in Europe. The Berlin Wall would still be standing if it weren’t for us.” He followed his nephew to the den.
Jane smiled as she and her sister and sister-in-law turned to a different conversation. The four men still at the table rose and followed Les.
“When did they make a movie about when Les was in the army in Germany?” asked his brother-in-law.
The other three shrugged. When they stepped into the den, Les was slapping his forehead with hand. “The Big Red One? That’s your great grandpa’s war, not mine.” He frowned at his nephew. “That’s World War II in that movie. I fought the Russians in the Cold War, boy.”
“But the movie has tanks just like you always tell us about.” His nephew pointed at the screen as a German Panzer rolled toward the American troops. “And the American soldiers said they’re going to Germany just like you did.”
Les sank into his easy chair but sprang back to his feet before his plump rump had settled on its cushion. “That does it.” He stomped over to the television and turned it off with a swat. “We’re going outside for some exercise. Grab your backpacks, kids.”
The three who had brought packs went in search of them. The two oldest, teenagers, stared at each other.
“Come on, come on. You’re not getting out of this. You have to set an example for the younger ones, you know.” Les led them to his workshop. He tossed gear from a large barrel. A sleeping bag, mess kit, duffel bag and canteen attached to a web belt lay on the sawdust covered floor before he found a field pack. He tossed it to the oldest teen.
“You’ll have to share this. Take turns carrying it, troops.”
Five minutes later, Sgt. Les Applebee felt thirty years younger as he stood in his faded fatigues in front of the children and their mothers on the sidewalk by his home. The other men had returned to the warm den to watch football games.
“All right, let’s get going. We’re going to force march all the way to the mall and then back here.”
“The mall?” Jane shook her head. “But it’s three miles away. They’ll all freeze to death before you get half way there.”
Les’ head bobbled. It always did when he was ready to answer any question he deemed unnecessary. “Then we’ll go double time to keep warm.” He growled when Jane shook her head. “Okay, okay. I’ll stop off at the donut shop on the way and warm them up with some hot chocolate. How’s that?”
“It’s too far.”
“What if we just walk, no double time?”
“Let’s drive there instead, Les.” His sister gently nudged him and pointed at her SUV.
Les turned and stared at the eight-seat vehicle. “You sure it’s big enough?”
“I’m sure,” she said as she herded the shivering children into it.
During the drive to the mall, Les grumbled about how “traveling in six-bys and tracks is a lot more fun than these dang cars they got nowadays. Nothing but smog equipment and computer parts waiting to go and break down on you. Sometimes just the parts cost hundreds of dollars.”
“What’s a six-by?” his sister asked.
“A five ton truck. Don’t you know anything?”
She smiled as she remembered similar scenes from their youth, big brother trying to educate his little sister in the ways of the big bad world. “What’s a track?”
“An APC, armored personnel carrier. Now, that’s even better than a truck. They can go just about anywhere that a tank can. Looks sort of like a tank without a gun barrel.”
***
Three hours later, the Thanksgiving Day shopping expedition returned. By then, the kids were ready for pieces of pumpkin, apple, and pecan pie. The men had started to watch their third football game as Jane packed up leftovers to send home with her guests. At least her husband had found another topic for conversation, she thought.
“Lord have mercy, you should have seen the crowds at the stores,” Les said. “First and last time I’ll ever go shop again on Thanksgiving Day or any other holiday. Never again.”
“You’re supposed to wait until Black Friday,” his brother-in-law said. “You know, tomorrow.”
“Black Friday? That reminds me of those terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. They called themselves Black September. They killed a bunch of Israeli athletes there in Munich. We were on alert and couldn’t go off post and…” His words trailed off as four pairs of eyes turned to watch football instead of listening to him.
What do they know? Les thought as he sighed. I was there and they weren’t.

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A Thanksgiving from Long Ago

“Hold him still, Billy.”
As soon as the ax severed the turkey’s head Billy released its convulsing body. While not as lively or long lasting as the run displayed by chickens with their heads cut off, the post mortem activity of this tom was enough to entertain his executioner’s helper. He flapped his wings and strutted in a small circle as Billy tailed him.
“Gobble, gobble, gobble!” Billy supplied the call the bird had made to its dying breath. He ceased it when the turkey fell over and stopped twitching. “Ah, shucks. How come turkeys don’t run around as much as chickens do, Rod?”
“I guess because they’re not born in the woods to be scared by an owl, Billy. Bring it over to the porch so we can pluck it and dress it out so Patty can get it in the oven.”
“Okay.” He flopped the 28-pound bird over his shoulder and carried it to the porch. “How come our carryings on celebration times ain’t as fun anymore, Rod? You think maybe it’s ‘cause Grandma died?”
“Maybe.” Being the older brother of one who was “touched in the head” was proving tiring for Rod Lee. But he had seen worse little brothers than Billy. So what if Billy called Rod’s mother-in-law Grandma?
Mrs. Pierson’s passing last summer had relieved the Lees of the thirty-mile roundtrip by horse-drawn wagon to her boarding house for Thanksgiving dinner. Rod was thankful for that but weary of his wife’s depression since her mother’s death. Patty’s cold isolation had unraveled the once tight knit family.
“Don’t worry, Patty. She’s just left the boarding house for her cabin up in glory land.” Rod had joked a month after the funeral. That was a sufficient period to grieve, he thought.
“Let me be. You grieved for your dang newspaper for a long spell and it wasn’t even a person.” Patty had sobbed as she turned away.
When the Tri-State Herald’s last edition came out during the Panic of 1893, Rod had moped around the farm for months. The ensuing nationwide depression did not allow him to resurrect the paper he had edited and published.
More out of desperation than hope, he then turned to his unfinished novel. Within a year he had finished it. Five years of trying to sell it had followed. During that same period, one of his former correspondents for the Herald, Samantha Hillsdale, had graduated from having her short stories published in magazines to getting her first novel in print. Desperate to know her secret, Rod had visited her in Central City, Kentucky a month earlier.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with my book,” he had told her.
“I read through the first two chapters that you sent me. Your writing is strong but the plot isn’t what the publishers want nowadays.”
“I guess so. In the last five years, it’s been Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde, or H.G. Wells’ time machines and invaders from Mars that people are buying. That and love stories like Ships That Pass in the Night or your book. But I don’t know how to write that way. I guess my story of a farm boy going off to the big city and then to Egypt to be a writer just isn’t exciting enough. That’s what the last editor wrote back and said, ‘I can’t get excited about your book.’ I don’t need her to get excited. I need her to get the publisher to buy it.”
“That’s you as the main character in your book?”
“It shows through that bad?”
“There’s nothing wrong with making your experiences into a novel. Mr. Clemens and Mr. Dickens both did it more than once. Maybe you need a second main character to play off the other one? Remember how Tom Sawyer had Huckleberry Finn?”
On the train ride home, Rod had thought of possible people on which to base his secondary main character, such as one of his other former correspondents. All of them were colorful characters in real life. But each seemed too similar to the main character of his novel, and Samantha had warned that any secondary main character must be very different or readers would get bored and word of mouth about his book would doom it to few sales. Just as the train had pulled into Evansville, Indiana, Private Benjamin Worthington appeared in Rod’s mind. He wondered if his friend had survived his initial enlistment and if he could serve as the basis for a suitable character.
He had had no contact with the English soldier since they had parted company in Egypt years ago. But Benjamin had given him an aunt’s address in London and message to deliver, “just in case you stop off there on your way back home. Stop in and tell her I’m doing well.”
So Rod decided to have Billy type a copy of his book to send to Benjamin in care of Aunt Bessie along with a request for Private Worthington’s story to be inserted into it. Billy hit the typewriter keys with his two index fingers. But at a nickel a page, he typed furiously.
“I’ll be finished typing it by Christmas. I’m going to get me a two-way radio from all the nickels you give me,” Billy told Rod to motivate himself. “Then you and me can talk to your soldier friend no matter where he gets sent off to.”
***
Since her mother’s death, Patty had communicated only as necessary with Rod, Billy, and her three children. This had caused Rod and Billy to become friends more than brothers as they turned to each other to make up for their missing relationship with Patty.
They joked about whether they should invite any of the local Shawnee to the feast to make it a true Thanksgiving.
“Maybe we best not.” Billy reflected. “Pop would probably pull his gun out and start shooting at them. He’s sometimes forgets that they are peaceful like nowadays.”
Once the turkey was a steaming golden brown, Patty removed it from the woodstove and wrapped blankets around the pot that held it and loaded it into the wagon where the others sat waiting, the children almost hidden underneath quilts. Rod pushed the horses so that they covered the five mile trip in an hour. His father William herded his guests to the table immediately.
“Put that turkey up on the table and get busy carving it up, Rod. Nothing worse than cold turkey for Thanksgiving. Makes decent sandwiches for later on, though. Think you could leave some of the leftovers here?”
“Maybe you could say the blessing first, Pop?”
“All right, all right.”
William hurried through the blessing and his meal. Rod was only half finished when William asked his son to join him by the fire in the parlor.
“Not many folks that live most of one century make it on into the next one.”
Not again, Rod thought. He’s told me that a dozen times already.
“Hard to believe 1900 will be here in just a month.”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve whipped my weight in wildcats, Rod. It’s time for me and your mother to hang up the plow. We’re fixing to sell out and move into Evansville. I wanted to give you the news first. Only other person that knows is Mr. Tomasci the real estate man. He’s going to list the farm starting tomorrow.”
“Thanks for letting me know. What you going to live in?”
“Oh, we’ll just get us one of those little houses, nothing fancy. So, did your book sell yet?”
“No. I’m still looking for an editor who thinks like I do and likes my writing.”
“Oh. Well, after listening to Billy recite most of it at dinner I got a little suggestion.”
“Yeah?”
“You need some more blood. Now that America whooped the Spanish down there in Cuba and the Philippines, people want to read all about it or something like it. Write about that English soldier that Billy talked about. Have him fight in some wars in your book.”
Rod pondered his father’s advice as he finished his turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, corn, and cranberry sauce. I wonder how willing Benjamin would be to write about what he went through. He recalled what they had seen in Egypt. He had met Private Benjamin Worthington in Alexandria in 1882 when the Egyptian Army had revolted and dozens of foreigners and hundreds of Egyptian Christians had been killed by Moslems who shouted, “Death to foreigners! Death to Christians!”
Private Worthington might even be sent to fight in England’s latest war against the Boers in South Africa. From what Rod had read in the papers, over 100,000 troops were being sent from Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to South Africa. Rod was still daydreaming about how including his friend’s exploits could make his book a best seller while he ate his slices of pecan and pumpkin pie three hours later.

Adapted from The Prince of Alexandria. Hope this short tale helps this Thanksgiving be more memorable for you. Thank you for reading it.

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