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:

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.


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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


“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.





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?”


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.”


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.


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.”


“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.”


“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.


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.



What Smells?

Curbside garbage pickup was every Wednesday for those who lived on South Pinedale Avenue in Banderville.
It was also the day Cara Husky had to babysit her little sister for half a day while their mother worked a twelve hour shift as a nurse at Banderville Memorial Hospital. Cara was glad her mom last month had cut back to part time work hours.
But that still meant two twelve hour shifts, one during daytime on Wednesday and the other on Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays, when Dad had to assume the role of babysitter. On this Wednesday morning, Cara wished that summer vacation would hurry up and end so she could return to a routine of high school while an aunt or grandparent took over Wednesday babysitting of Hope.
Not that Cara minded watching Hope.
But she often wished three year olds came with a switch to shut off or at least power down what seemed to be an infinite supply of energy. All that morning Hope had toddled around both floors of the dwelling, reaching into cabinets, drawers, and bookcases until the house appeared as if a flood had washed through its interior and removed pots, pans, books, CDs, DVDs, clothing, and other items from their storage places and left them strewn about the floor after the waters had receded.
It had taken two snacks, three children’s TV programs, and five stories before Cara could coax Hope into her room and sing her to sleep for a nap with lullabies. With her little sister tucked away in bed, Cara cleared a path from the bedroom she shared with Hope to the kitchen. There, a pile of dirty breakfast dishes and utensils greeted her.
“Ugh. Why does Dad have to always have his bacon fried to a crisp?” Cara wondered out loud as she rubbed a scouring pad on the bits of meat and fat that seemed to have become one with a greasy cast iron skillet. Scrubbing it and the stainless steel pan in which half a dozen eggs had been fried in canola oil distracted Cara enough that she did not hear Hope awake and saunter toward the front door of their split level home. Because of the summer heat, Cara had left the solid core wooden front door open, with only a screen door keeping away flies looking for an entrance to a supply of food and buzzing mosquitos hungry for human flesh and blood.
But the screen door was ajar enough for tiny hands to open it as Hope pushed on its aluminum frame.
Once outside, Hope lifted her arms toward the fluffy gray and white cumulus clouds that hid the sun. Then she walked across the lawn to a favorite ball and kicked and rolled it until it became wedged underneath a row of bushes that divided her front yard from a neighbor’s. As she crawled under the green shrubs to retrieve her toy, Hope heard a familiar sound, one of her favorite ones, a gigantic green and white garbage truck bouncing and lurching toward the curb thirty feet from her. Its hissing air brakes widened her hazel eyes.
Every week it performed the same trick, its magical illusion amazing Hope without fail. Down toward Earth would descend a huge metallic claw to clutch the 60-gallon plastic container full of stinky trash, anything that could not be recycled into new plastic or metallic containers or paper products or converted into reusable mulch. Up, up, up, the claw always lifted the container, no matter how full or heavy it might be, before upending it, shaking it, and making its contents somehow disappear.
Hope was certain of the before and after condition of the garbage can because more than once she had climbed onto an overturned bucket next to where it sat on days other than Wednesdays and peered down into it to survey its contents. Every Thursday, it was either empty or contained only a trifling of trash, the only confirmation necessary to assure her the truck’s performance had once again succeeded.
Sometimes the magic truck was in a hurry and the plastic bin would fall on its side as it was returned from its journey toward the sky back to planet Earth. Even from her bedroom window, Hope had seen that it had been empty as it rested sideways on the sidewalk. Often, Hope had tried to convince her parents and siblings to watch the weekly magic show with her, but they had all ignored her pointing finger.
Only her eleven year old brother seemed to care enough to share her excitement. In response to her pointing and shouts of “look, look, look!” he had lifted her into a freshly emptied can and given her a ride inside of it to the side of their house. But Cara had screamed at him until Hope came to his defense by beginning to wail, her preferred tactic to distract her older brother and sister whenever they fought.
* * *
After finishing the dishes, Cara flipped on the television set and found a movie she thought adequate for her sophisticated tastes, maybe one that would prove good enough for her to review on her reviewer page at Amazon’s website.
Tired from a date the night before and not getting home until midnight, her father’s imposed curfew, Cara drifted off to sleep While Cara dreamed about what August and being a sophomore might bring her way, Hope watched her favorite Wednesday late morning or early afternoon entertainment.
After squeezing the overflowing trash can, the iron claw hoisted it skyward. But three quarters of the way up, the mechanism jammed. Hope’s mouth opened as the truck’s cursing operator exited his right side driver’s seat. Because he held a tire iron and his face resembled her daddy’s whenever he grasped such a tool, Hope scooted backward until her head touched the hedge.
The sanitary engineer climbed a ladder made of three-quarter inch rebar welded to the side of his truck until his face was level with the lid of the garbage bin. Then he banged on the metal chain that lifted and lowered the twenty-five to thirty dozen cans his truck lifted every shift.
“You better work now,” he said as his feet touched the concrete and he shook the tire iron at the part of his truck that always seemed to require the most care. He climbed back into the truck’s cab and pushed the control that moved the chain. When he heard the kind of groaning sound mechanical things make when their human operators expect the impossible, he leaped back onto the sidewalk and looked heavenward. “Come on, God. Why do I always have to get stuck with the truck that is so messed up that it can’t even finish a single shift?”
He rolled the bin containing yard waste underneath the one that dangled above hm. Next, he grabbed a ten-foot long one-inch thick piece of oak from behind the driver’s seat. Standing as close to the cans as possible, he thrust his long pointer to press a control in the cab that released the metal claw.
As the freed can dropped two feet toward the top of the plastic bin under it, the driver leapt next to them and squeezed the falling can in a bear hug as the one under it tottered from side to side. He stopped the lower can’s movement by letting it bump against his hip until it stood motionless. Then he lowered the one he held to the ground.
His orange coveralls and face drenched with sweat, the driver walked to the rear of his truck and pulled a two-liter plastic bottle of root beer from his protective clothing’s largest pocket. In between gulps, he dialed his cell phone. As he waved traffic around his vehicle and explained the breakdown to his dispatcher, Hope walked to the truck and touched the bottom rung of the ladder that looked no longer than the ones she loved to climb at the playgrounds her family took her to visit.
Her leg and arm muscles were firm from the hours spent climbing monkey bars and ladders to their tallest slides. Soon, her feet rested on the next to last steel rung of the ladder. This allowed her to bend at the waist, her pelvis resting on the top step.
Hope was surprised by the stinky assortment of fresh garbage that assaulted her eyes and nose because she had assumed the garbage she had so often seen tumble from the cans somehow disappeared. After all, her big brother had said that the trucks ate the garbage to give them fuel to rumble around town and out to the dump, where they spit out anything that gave them indigestion and went “potty” if need be.
A sad looking doll, dumped from her next door neighbor’s can, seemed to be reaching up to Hope, so she stretched toward it. Her motion propelled her into a somersault, landing her atop 138 houses’ worth of weekly trash.
Having convinced his dispatcher that, “I can’t pick up another can because the chain’s jammed beyond me being able to fix it,” the driver threw his empty soda bottle high into the air and yelled, “three points, he wins the game,” as it disappeared into the truck’s storage compartment. He whistled as he headed toward the dump to jettison his not quite full truck. After that, it would be back to the maintenance shop to pick up another truck to finish his route.
“Looks like a little bit of overtime,” he sang. “OT for me, how sweet can that be?”
His song and the rumbling diesel engine next to him drowned out Hope’s alternating wails and sobs, which began when the truck lurched forward into gear. She wondered if the truck had already decided which of the three scenarios detailed by her brother would happen to her: consumed along with the garbage all around her to power the monstrous truck, burped out by the truck at the dump, or worst of all, becoming part of what came out of the truck when it went potty.
* * *
Ten minutes later, the increased volume of the television as a commercial break played woke up Cara.
She stumbled to the bathroom. After splashing three cupped handfuls of water on her face, she went to check on Hope. Seeing only a rumpled blanket where she had tucked Hope in, Cara began calling her name, starting with one call in a normal voice every ten seconds. After a search of her home’s every room, Cara’s voice rose in volume and her calm, evenly spaced interrogative calls escalated from “Hope?…Hope?…Hope?…” to demanding shrieks of “Hope! Hope! Hope!”
On her second sweep of the house, Cara noticed the front screen door was ajar. She dashed through the front entryway with enough force to pull the top hinge of the screen door from its aluminum alloy frame. As Cara’s feet touched the concrete steps leading from the front porch to the yard, scenarios flashed through her mind, all of them starring Hope as innocent victim because of a neglectful sibling: frightened and lost, kidnapped, run over by a car, molested, murdered. The images flashing through Cara’s mind stoked the two emotions controlling her – fear and guilt.
When quick searches of front and back yards showed no sign of her little sister, Cara did what many of her age had grown up doing: she pulled out her phone from her jeans pocket and sent a tweet:
Help. My three year old sister Hope is lost. I think she is still in the neighborhood. Help me. And don’t tell my mom or she’ll kill me.
Her tweet landed on 117 phones. Within three minutes it had been forwarded to another 538 phones. Ten minutes later, the message sat in the memories of 2,639 phones. Twenty-six volunteers descended on the Husky’s home. Their frantic knocks on doors within a two-block radius produced nothing, not even a report of a sighting of Hope.
Hearing the negative results, Matthew Hennessy took charge as GIC, Geek in Charge.
First, he posted on his Facebook page:
Missing: Hope Husky, age three. Last seen on the 1800 block of South Pinedale Avenue in Banderville. If you have any information, call….
Not sure whether his army of 1,351 Facebook friends, most living outside of Banderville, would prove adequate for the task, Matthew next posted on What’s Happening in Banderville?, a page where local residents chatted, complained, cursed, gossiped, and sometimes raged about politics, religion or life in general.
Matthew smiled as he watched the genesis of what he thought would be a case of one of his posts going viral. The first comments to it hit Facebook within seconds and did not cease until weeks later. Within two minutes, nineteen others had shared the post to their Facebook pages. The first comments were dramatic and short:
OMG. I hope u find her.
I started searching over here on the south side of town.
Have u found her yet?
Let me know if the searchers need any sandwiches.
On the way there with my dog Roscoe, best damn tracker in the state.
Have you called 911 yet?
The last comment sent Matthew to Cara to ask her the same question.
* * *
It had been a routine shift for LVN Tonya Husky, caring for older patients with pneumonia or the flu strain that never seemed to fully exit those it invaded and patients of all ages who had endured the uncertainties of surgery, some minor, some major. At least the number born at Banderville Memorial Hospital that day outnumbered those who had died in its wards – so far. Tonya was returning to her ward from lunch in the cafeteria when her phone rang.
“This is Tonya.”
“Hi, Tonya. I just heard the news. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Because I’m almost seven hours into my shift I’m not too good at recognizing voices right about now, Tonya thought. It would help quite a bit to tell me who you are. “Who is this?” she asked, in a voice she hoped carried enough irritation to keep this intrusion as short as possible.
“Oh, hi Racheal. What do you want to help me out with?” She hoped her friend had heard how Tonya had been drafted to serve as chairwoman of her church’s craft fair. As she listened to the answer Tonya’s expression went from bored to concerned to hysterical. “Oh, my God! My baby? I have to get home.”
She dropped her cell phone and ignored its bounce and slide across the tile floor. Sprinting to the nurses’ station, Tonya slowed to a trot as she passed it. “My daughter’s missing. I have to get home right away.”
The charge nurse for the ward stood and tried to utter a reassurance, but her words bounced off the door to the stairway as it slammed shut behind Tonya. She descended three flights of empty stairs in forty-two seconds and bumped into three staff and two patients as she bolted across the first floor for the hospital’s main entrance. Commuting to or from her worksite took fifteen minutes most days.
Tonya made this trip home in eight minutes.
* * *
Tonya Husky’s body shook as she grabbed her oldest child and rocked her back and forth. Her voice trembled even more. “What happened? Where is Hope? Why didn’t you…” She stopped when she saw Cara’s eyes grow wide and her head bob about.
Cara’s fears and worry for the last hour gave way to tears. “I’m sorry, Mom. I fell asleep just for a little while after Hope laid down for her nap. When I woke up…” Cara pointed at the house, the front yard, and then toward the back yard to try and communicate the extent of her hasty search. Unable to any longer take her mother’s fingernails digging into her bare upper arms, Cara tried to wiggle free from her grasp. As Cara collapsed onto her knees, she dragged Tonya’s vise-like grip downward until the pairs’ faces were inches apart.
“But…but…” Tonya stammered, not sure which level of scolding her daughter deserved or if it could even penetrate what she considered the hardest head of their five-member family. A loud cough spun Tonya’s head upward.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. I’m Officer Jorgenson. I need to ask you a few questions Can we go inside and maybe you can have something cold to drink to help you calm down. I know you’re pretty upset because I chased you for the last five blocks here to your house and you didn’t slow down even after I put on my lights.”
“Are you going to give me a ticket at a time like this?” Tonya let go of Cara and wobbled as she stood.
The officer sighed. “No. You must be the mother of the one that the dispatcher radioed us about. I just need to help you find your missing daughter, okay?” The cop started to walk to the front porch. “Maybe you should come inside, too,” he nodded at Cara after he saw a van from a local television station pull up to the curb. “It’s getting a little bit crazy out here.”
* * *
When Art Pagan lifted the lid to what he called “the best compost bin known to man because it has wheels and didn’t cost me a cent,” the gasses created from grass clippings, weeds, leaves, coffee grounds, and the parts of fruit and vegetables his wife did not include in her cooking and baking knocked him backward, as if one of his friends had landed a punch to his jaw after both had had too much alcohol.
“Woeee, Jethro!” He imitated Uncle Jed, his favorite character from the situation comedy The Beverley Hillbillies. “That shore be some right powerful mulch. It’ll make Granny’s garden turn into the Garden of Eden for sure. All that’s left to do is give it one last shot in the arm.” Art popped open a twelve-ounce can of his favorite beer and poured the brew on top of the steaming, smelly mulch. “I read in one of them organic gardening magazines that baptizing mulch with beer gets it to cooking big time. I love the smell of rotting vegetation in the morning!”
Art slammed the lid to the eighty-gallon heavy duty gray plastic refuse bin that the city had provided to all its residents. Into it was supposed to go “all yard waste, but no pet litter, meat or dairy products, disposable diapers, or other toxic materials,” according to the instructions that had come with it.
Art checked the date he had painted onto the can’s lid and smiled. “It’s been cooking for four weeks now. Should be ready to spread around starting tomorrow.” The sound of his phone ringing in his den sent Art inside.
“Hey, Art. The radio just said they are really biting up at Lake Tuckahotha. Let’s go.”
Art’s plans of applying his freshly brewed batch of compost around his eleven fruit trees evaporated, replaced by visions of large, plump bass being reeled into his friend’s boat. “I’ll pick you up in ten minutes. We’ll take my camper and your boat. Let’s stay through Saturday. By then, the lake will be crawling with boats and the fish will all be hiding.”
“Quit jabbering and get on over here before our wives find out and try to talk us out of it like they always do.”
* * *
When a breeze blew past Art’s compost bin and through an open window, his wife Nancy’s nose twitched. She had agreed to tolerate his mulch making only if he had all of it out of the bin by tomorrow because she needed it in an empty condition so she could prune her rose bushes. But he had run off to go fishing instead.
“You snooze, you lose. You fish, you wish you hadn’t instead of doing your chores,” Nancy said as she wheeled the bin to the curb fifteen minutes before the truck picking up yard waste turned onto the Pagan’s block.
Some of the smoldering batch of table scraps and yard waste had reached 172 degrees after sitting in full sun inside the closed container for twelve hours a day for weeks. It landed atop a pile of gasoline soaked newspapers, used to clean up a mess from a neighbor’s garage and which then had been tossed into the yard waste bin because his trash can was full. An hour later, Art’s steaming mulch ignited the newspapers as the truck holding them turned onto a bumpy, rutted dirt lane that led to the county dump.
Its driver had heard tales of garbage trucks catching on fire, but the legends always took place in a large metropolis, where anything and everything was transferred from cans to the trucks, including dead bodies. Seeing his own truck burning terrified him.
“Help! Help! My truck’s on fire.” He waved his arms as he fled the flames, which had spread downward to the branches, bushes, and weeds killed by herbicides, until his truck’s container looked more like a volcano than a “sanitary receptacle,” the term a bureaucrat had coined.
* * *
The dump’s superintendent’s 911 call alerted six members of the nearest volunteer fire department, four of whom responded. By the time they arrived with their fire engine, an ancient model handed down by the U.S. Forest Service, the fire had consumed whatever was flammable inside the truck’s bed and a mixture of smoking ashes and embers remained.
It took five minutes for the fire crew to drench the residue and another five trying to convince the driver to dump his load “on the dirt road so we can make sure it’s completely out before we leave.” After reminding the driver of how Smoky Bear always ordered campers to drown their campfires, stir what remained, and soak them again in public service announcements starring him, the driver obeyed.
Satisfied after every drop of water from their 1,200 gallon tank had been applied to the gooey mess, firefighter Sondra Tighe coiled one of the hoses used to fight the blaze. The glint of the setting sun’s rays reflecting off of something about 150 yards away turned Sondra’s head.
Must be a piece of metal or glass, Sondra thought. A minute later, another reflection from the same direction seemed to be a little closer. And moving.
She ran to the truck and grabbed the binoculars that had been donated with the truck. What appeared to be a dirty, crying child filled the instrument’s field of vision.
“Angel, you my angel?” were the first words Sondra heard after sprinting to the tired, hungry Hope, whose silver colored hair clip had caught a descending sun’s final light for the day.

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Riding the Bullet

“Hurry up, Mom, or we’ll miss it.”

Thirty-seven year old Melissa Towne broke into a trot as she struggled to catch up to her teenaged daughter. She regretted dressing her best for the trip in a cream colored pantsuit, gold plated necklace, mother of pearl earrings, and tight fitting brown loafers two sizes too small to hide what she considered her big feet. Each step became more painful.

“Stand in the doorway, Carly. I’m almost there.”

Carly planted her feet against one half of the closing door and her backside against the other half. A mechanized voice rebuked her. “Please clear the doorway, train is departing…please clear…” The voice groaned the order seven times before mother and daughter ware aboard the L. A. Express, nonstop service from Stockton, California, that had originated in Sacramento.

The pair walked through four passenger cars before they found two seats side by side. Now it was Carly’s turn to whine.

“Way to go, Mom. If you hadn’t taken so long to get ready this morning, we would have gotten here in time to get upper deck seats. There’s no good view down here on the lower deck.” She pointed at the triple paned window and then flopped into her seat. The two men seated facing them did not look promising either.

One looks like a dinosaur because he’s so old, Carly thought, and the other one…Carly stood and pretended to straighten her blue jeans and green cotton blouse so she could get a peek at the passenger whose face was hidden behind a copy of that morning’s U.S. Business Report. She leaned forward until her shiny black hair brushed one of the hands holding the newspaper.

When the paper folded, a man who appeared to be forty winked at her. “Aren’t you getting a little too close before introducing yourself, Miss…?”

Carly blushed as she fell back into her seat. She stared out the window as the man who wore a charcoal gray suit turned his attention to her mother. “First time riding the bullet, ma’am? I’m Roger Huntsfield.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Huntsfield. I’m Melissa Towne and this is my daughter Carly.”

Roger’s smile revealed so many teeth that Carly thought he was a shark. His tone of voice convinced her that her mother had been targeted as a potential meal.

Roger nodded at the sleeping man next to him. “I’d introduce you to this man but he’s been asleep ever since I sat down.” He shrugged and returned to his sweet talk, a pitch to possibly hook up with the pretty woman who sat three feet away. Roger frowned when a porter pushing a cart stopped next to the four travelers.

“Your usual this morning, Mr. Huntsfield?”

“Yeah, the usual.” He held a metal wrist chain up as the porter scanned it.

“Here you go, sweet dreams.” The porter handed him a plastic vial an inch long.

Roger lifted it in a toast to his two new acquaintances. “Doctor’s orders. She says I don’t get enough sleep.” He unscrewed the vial’s tiny cap and drank the clear liquid. When Roger’s head drooped, the porter pulled a disposable pillow from the cart, placed it behind Roger’s head, and gently rested it against the neck support that he pulled from the seat’s top. Then the porter turned to Melissa and Carly.

“How about you ladies, would you like what he just took?”

“No thank you,” Melissa said.

“Okay, enjoy your trip. We’re scheduled to arrive in L.A. an hour and twenty minutes from now. As the porter stepped to next row of seats, the train lurched forward.

The nameless passenger opened his eyes halfway before stretching his long, thin arms and legs and yawning. He stomped his boots on the carpeted floor to circulate more blood to his tingling feet. His frayed jeans and plaid flannel long sleeved shirt gave him the appearance of a retired lumberjack, Carly thought.

He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “About time. Let’s get this show on the road.”

*  *  *

By the time the train was rumbling past Modesto, proper introductions had been exchanged among the three passengers who would spend a little over an hour together as they traveled about 350 miles through the heart of California, the Central Valley made famous by John Steinbeck’s stories from the previous century.

Carly thought John Hender was boring. His voice seemed to resonate between a Midwest twang and some other strange dialect she had never heard. Most intriguing were some of the strange words he used. She wondered if maybe they betrayed his former profession and waited until her mom paused her conversation to pour a handful of soy nuts into her mouth.

“Excuse me, John, but may I ask you how old you are?”

Melissa gagged on a soy nut as she elbowed Carly and shook her head. The question brought forth the first smile displayed by John Hender to his seatmates.

“Old enough to be your grandfather, little girl.” He studied Carly’s bright hazel eyes. “Let me guess first. You’re sixteen, right?”

“Fifteen.” Carly said. “And my guess is you’re about seventy, huh?”

John tipped his Sacramento Tigers baseball cap. “Thank you. Actually, I turn eighty-two next month.”

Carly calculated where one that old might have been when. “You weren’t in the Israel War were you?”

John turned his head and stared at the farmland rolling by the train. His hands became fists twice before he cleared his throat. “What if I was? Why do you need to know?”

Carly leaned forward. “We’re studying that war and have to turn in something about it. If I could interview you about what you did then I wouldn’t have to write an essay instead.”

“Carly, it’s not polite to get so personal with someone whom you just met.” Melissa turned to the one she feared had been offended. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hender. My daughter should know better than to ask you such things.”

John Hender’s hands clenched a third time. His sigh sounded like some long dead spirit was exiting his soul. He cleared his throat. “That’s all right. It seems to help when I tell folks about it.”

“All right.” Carly punched the metallic wristband of her smart watch.

As its screen flickered on she sat erect before lowering her voice an octave, a range she used when she hoped to persuade her listeners. She aimed the watch’s screen at her face. “This is Carly Towne and I’m here today on the Stockton to L. A. Bullet Train. For my sophomore history class project, I’m interviewing someone who fought in the war during which a quarter of Israel’s population died. Let me introduce you to Mr. John Hender. How are you doing, John?”

His hands became fists again until his story ended, of how a third of his battalion’s troops were killed or wounded until the survivors wondered why they had been spared.

“We had laser weapons that we fired from rifles, tanks, and planes,” John said. “But they had biological and chemical weapons.” He paused and cleared his throat. “You ever see someone die from those?”

“No,” Carly said. “But I saw a movie about that war and –”

John bent his neck backwards at a ninety degree angle and focused on the dirty ceiling above them. In a corner a spider rested from spinning its web as it waited for any flies or mosquitos that had boarded the train in Sacramento or Stockton. He wondered if the passengers who sat above them in the train’s upper deck were as naïve as the youngster plying him with questions.

“That smart watch of yours hooked into the internet?” he asked.

“Yeah. Why?” Carly asked.

“Look up Israel War Memorial.”

“I didn’t know there was one,” Melissa said.

John returned his head to a position that allowed him to view the Townes. “It’s there in Jerusalem. Maybe it will help your report get a better grade if you download photos of some of the troops from my battalion that died.”

*  *  *

After completing her interview of John, Carly reverted to her normal routine of calling her friends on her smart watch. Her mother began a new conversation.

“So, what did you do after the war, Mr. Hender?”

“I helped build this rail line.” He swept his hand back and forth over the center aisle. “How do you like riding the bullet?”

Melissa sighed. “The worst part is getting to the station on time, any of them. Our commuter bus from Livermore got stuck in traffic and we almost missed this train. We usually just take the milk run train that travels along the coast because it’s so scenic. We catch that train out of San Jose.”

“So why all the rush on this trip then?”

“My dad’s sick. He got the flu and then pneumonia and my mom is afraid he won’t make it. They live outside of San Diego.”

John chuckled.

“What’s so funny about what I just told you? My daddy’s dying.”

“I’m sorry. I was just thinking how it’s going to take you longer to get from L. A. to San Diego than your trip from Stockton to L. A. will.”

“I know. After spending over three trillion dollars on this bullet train line, you would think that they could also have built an express line between San Diego and L. A. with some of that money.”

“You sound just like all the ones I worked with. All of us said what you’re saying once we finished this line. Once you’ve done the same thing long enough it’s sort of hard to get used to doing something else.”

“How long did you work on the bullet line?”

“Oh, only about twelve years. There were some guys who milked another three, four or even five years after it was built because of all the repairs that had to be made to it.”

*  *  *

As it entered the tunnel through the Grapevine, the bullet train slowed to 210 mph. Melissa said that God had created the sixty mile wide stretch of mountains as a sign that there should be two Californias: South California and North California, with the highest ridges of the Grapevine serving as their border.

“Maybe the voters will finally approve it this time during the next election,” John said after grabbing a back pack in the rack above him. “Looks like sleepyhead overdosed.” He pointed at their snoring traveling companion, Roger Huntsfield, who grunted after the porter snapped a wakeup capsule under his quivering nostrils. Its vapors could rouse even the drunkest or most stoned passengers to the point that they could safely exit the train.

The Townes and John Hender said their goodbyes at the passengers’ platform for the next train departing for San Diego and a loved one’s sickbed. Then he walked to the row of taxis sitting in front of L. A. Central Train Station. John chose a two-seater cab because such vehicles’ fares were subsidized by the Federal Pollution Control Agency.

Besides, he did not want to share a cab with other passengers. None of the four, six, eight, or ten seat cabs could depart until every seat was full of humans or luggage. Any cab drivers leaving the station with even one empty seat would lose their license.

“Where to, sir?” The cab driver pressed a button to bring his cab’s electric motor to life.

“How about Huntington Beach?”

“Sorry, but my cab’s batteries are running low.” The driver pointed at a flashing gauge on the dashboard.  “If I drop you off at Venice Beach instead then I can hit a recharging station while I eat lunch.”

John shrugged. “You’re the boss. Let’s go.”

“You down here for the Olympic Gladiator Games?” The driver pulled a ticket from his shirt pocket. “This is the last one I have so it’ll be pretty steep, say maybe $12,000?”

“That looks like a ticket that’s only good for one day.”

“Yeah, that’s the only ones that us scalpers can buy up to resell on the black market. What do you say? Tell you what, I’ll knock the price down to $10,000, but you can’t tell anyone else what I did for you because that would be bad for business.”

“No thanks.”

*  *  *

John waded into the Pacific until its warm waves massaged his tired knees and aching feet. Every few minutes, he dunked his head under the ocean’s water for a few seconds because a friend in the apartment next door to his back in Sacramento had said, “The sea water has minerals that will make your scalp healthy enough to grow more hair. You got too many bald spots for any woman to want you.”

He followed his friend’s prescription not because he believed it would produce the claimed results but so he could have something to joke about when he returned home.

Because it was midday on a Tuesday, the beach was only being used by a couple thousand of swimmers, surfers, sun worshipers, and beachcombers either looking for valuables buried in the sand or food to eat that had been left on the sand or in trashcans. John found a spot where the closest beachgoers around him sat or lay at least fifty feet away, enough of a comfort zone for him to relax. His daydream had turned into a dream manufactured by REM sleep when a whirring sound roused him.

“Mr. John Hender?”

“Huh?” He stared at the drone hovering two feet above him.

“You are to accompany me to the nearest memory center immediately, sir. Failure to do so will result in your arrest, possible detention, and potential incarceration. You will be liable for all court costs. Because all of California’s prisons are currently filled to capacity, you will have to serve your sentence in a Mexican prison, should you be convicted of making Islamophobic statements.”

Part of him wanted to pretend to cooperate before grabbing the drone and tearing it apart with his calloused hands. But that was a felony. And others who had tried such things had lost fingers or hands, depending on the composition of the drones’ blades, with carbon ones producing the most amputations. Any ambulance summoned in such cases was triaged into the bottom of the electronic lists that dispatched them, which had resulted in some of those injured by drones being “ DOA, dead on arrival.”

Baring his soul to a teenaged girl to help her complete her homework in an easier fashion and soaking in Southern California’s sun and waters had calmed John to the point that he chose the option he always called, “the lesser of two evils.”

*  *  *

Dr. Thelma Ricketts ordered the computer to display her patient’s medical history on the screen embedded in the wall next to his bed. She clucked her tongue as if that substituted for every comma and period her weary eyes saw.

“Memory Disorder…shoulder injuries requiring surgery…two hip and a pelvis replacements…spleen and prostate gland removals…” She sat in the chair next to the bed. “Mr. Hender, it would be easier for me to tell you what is not wrong with you, because I’ve only read just the first page of your records. There are twenty more pages besides that one.”

John smiled. “Well, doc, guess I’m just the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow all rolled into one, huh?”

Her silence and quizzical look told him this was not a doctor to be toyed with, one who had an agenda that did not include his well-being. When her lips jutted out in a pout, John sighed. He wanted to ask if he could leave now because his roundtrip ticket from Sacramento to L. A. stipulated that he take the 6:01 p.m. Bullet Train that evening and it was nonrefundable. But the cold metallic bars that anchored him to his bed convinced him that silence was a better option.

Dr. Ricketts stood and removed her glasses and let the android nurse standing next to her disinfect them in the sterilization chamber built into her abdominal cavity. After replacing them, she left the crowded ward without another word. Two agents, one uniformed and the other in plainclothes, met her in the hallway. The one in matching pants and blouse took charge.

“Dr. Ricketts, I’m Agent Gladstone and this is Agent Vickers of the Veterans Administration. He is here to ensure that John Hender’s rights are maintained in an orderly and lawful fashion.”

Agent Gladstone’s fingers felt ice cold to Dr. Ricketts as they shook hands. She wiped the sweat transferred to her hand by Agent Vickers’ palm onto her white large pocketed doctor’s coat and made a mental note to disinfect her coat and hand once she had finished talking to those she considered interlopers. Because Agent Gladstone had not identified which agency she worked for, Dr. Ricketts knew it was in her best interest to cooperate. If she did not, she might lose her license to practice medicine as a doctor in California.

“So where do we go from here?” Dr. Ricketts asked. “I have a heavy patient load here at the memory center and others waiting back at my private practice.”

Agent Gladstone smiled. “We understand.” She glanced at Agent Vickers until he nodded.

Then she ordered a matchbox sized device as thin as a piece of paper to display, “Case 1988767265.” Dr. Ricketts watched two minutes of the interview Carly Towne had done of John Hender four hours earlier as they sped at 300 mph through what little remained of the once seemingly endless farmland of the Central Valley.

“It’s worse than I thought,” Dr. Ricketts said. “What course of treatment do you recommend?”

“Removal of all memories from age twenty-two and earlier,” said Agent Gladstone. “Do you agree, Agent Vickers?”

“Yes. Current Veterans Administration protocols concur with your recommendation.”

Dr. Ricketts turned to the nurse android assigned to her. “Schedule patient John Hender for laser corrective memory surgery immediately.”

*  *  *

Six Weeks Later

John Hender’s neighbor clicked off his television. “You’d think with 1,000 channels to pick from, that they’d have something good enough for us to watch.”

“Whine, whine, whine, that’s all you ever do,” John said. His friend walked over to his visitor and studied John’s hairline.

“Listen, if it weren’t for me, you would’ve never gotten all that new hair to grow back in over your bald spots. Say, what’s that scar doing there? I don’t remember that ever being there before.”

John ran his fingers over the synthetic skin that had been grafted into his scalp. “That’s where they went in to operate at the memory center when I was in L. A.”

“No kidding? My doctor has been saying that’s just what I need.”

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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?”
“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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