Sing Unto the Lord a New Song

(From Short Stories Book 4, Copyright 2019 Stroble Family Trust. All rights reserved.)

“Oh yeah, It’s going to be great. I can hardly wait.”

Maybe for you, Jane Wesley thought. But what about me? Why do your crises always have to include me as one of the main players?

Jane recalled her husband Trevor’s last crisis. It had been a messy midlife type of crisis lasting for over a year. Now, twenty-nine years later, Trevor was suffering from a late-life crisis. Both of the crises had one thing in common – music.

During Trevor’s midlife crisis, he had finally convinced Jane to go with him to a small homemade recording studio occupying a garage in a suburban Sacramento neighborhood. A guitarist/singer from a local rock band had built and ran it. There, Jane had recorded two songs Trevor had written. Well, at least the lyrics. Jane had had to compose the music for the songs. She also played guitar on them, backed by her sister on flute.

Able to play guitar, piano, organ, and clarinet since childhood and blessed with a voice capable of singing lead or harmony, Jane seemed to have been dealt almost all of the musical talent in this marriage, while her husband served as her Svengali on a mission with a vengeance.

Poor Trevor was tone-deaf.

His dreams of playing in a garage band during the 1960s had crashed and burned, even after a year of trying to play trombone during fourth grade for his school band and a year of piano lessons during high school. His talented friends who could listen to a song once or twice and then play it note for note tried to help. But their writing down the chords for the Top 40 hits of that era for Trevor did not sound as it should have whenever he plugged his three and a half octave portable organ into his amplifier.

A wiser mind possessed by one of Trevor’s guitarist friends had correctly labelled Trevor’s gear as your Ass Tone organ and Twin Trouble amp.

But dreams die hard.

Now pushing seventy, Trevor had convinced himself that his true calling was to be the manager of a musical group. After all, how hard could it be to get three very different people into a recording studio? Never mind how one of them lived about 1,500 miles away from the other two. And once their CD hit You-Tube and Amazon? Look out, baby, here comes success with a capital S.

“We’re going to call the band the Inspirational Hillbillies of Praise,” Trevor told Jane.

“Huh? But I’m not a hillbilly.”

“Who cares? Neither are the other two guys I picked out for the band. Both of them can sing and play guitar.”

“But –“

“It’s all in the formula, honey. The Inspirational Hillbillies of Praise are going to play 60% gospel, 20% country, 10% bluegrass, 8% folk, and 2% contemporary Christian praise music. What a combination! We can’t miss.”

“You want me to be a part of a trio?”

“Yup. Some of the greatest acts of all time were trios. Look at The Kingston Trio, The Jimi Hendrix Experience; The Cyrkle, and Peter, Paul and Mary. And don’t forget Emerson, Lake and Palmer.”

“Emerson, Lake and who?”

“And Palmer. You know, one of the greatest Progressive Rock groups of all time.”

* * *

Two weeks passed.

To sublimate his late-life crisis angst into action, any sort of action, Trevor stormed Facebook. Every friend, foe or casual observer of Trevor’s posts or comments to Facebook soon began to suspect something serious had infected his soul.

No matter what anyone else posted on their Facebook page, Trevor began to reply, often just a sentence or two, followed by a link to a song he found on YouTube. Sometimes the song selected proved to be a tenuous at best, a mystifying at worst connection to the original post.

In one instance, a resident of Arizona posted photographs of Arizona scenery. One vivid photo of a sunset looked like the sky had been set afire. In response, Trevor commented on the photos with a link to the song Sons and Daughters (Reprise), which had been used as the last song in the soundtrack for the movie Fire in the Sky, based on a true story that took place in the mountains of eastern Arizona.

Trevor considered that comment among his Top Three of 2019 for Facebook interactions.

But no amount of compromise or revamping of his hastily written Business Plan for the Inspirational Hillbillies of Praise seemed adequate. Despairing, Trevor staggered out of bed at 4a.m. after a restless night of sleep mixed with strange dreams. He fed his three cats, and then sat down to write a song he hoped The Inspirational Hillbillies of Praise would someday record.

He called it Time for a Change:

 

There are so many people nowadays

Calling out for a change

That it leaves you with the feeling

God is getting ready to rearrange

Everything and everybody everywhere

 

It seems like all things are being shaken

And too much is being taken

For granted by every

Child, woman, and man

Who are so busy with their own plan

That they can’t understand how

Only God’s kingdom is going to remain

Going to remain

 

So, let’s turn away from our sins

And turn back

Toward God the Father’s throne again

His Son Jesus has been given

All authority

In Heaven and on Earth, over all humanity

It’s high time we told the lost billions of people

Of their need for their rebirth

Born again as adopted sons and daughters

Of God our Father

The One Who created the heavens

And the earth

 

To tell you the truth

I’m really not all that sure

Where all this talk of change

Is going to end

But I have a mighty bad feeling

Because way too many people

Ignore or blaspheme their Creator

Over and over

And again and again

 

So, let’s turn away from our sins

And turn back

Toward God the Father’s throne again

His Son Jesus has been given

All authority

In Heaven and on Earth, over all humanity

It’s high time we told the lost billions of people

Of their need for their rebirth

Born again as adopted sons and daughters

Of God our Father

The One Who created the heavens

And the earth

 

After trying to sing the song to his wife, Trevor stared at Jane. His expression reminded her of one of her seven children when they were younger and begging to taste something she had cooked or baked.

“Well?” Trevor asked after a minute went by.

Jane’s expression changed, as if she had just been pricked by a large hypodermic needle shoved into her leg.

“Uh, you still tend to slide into a monotone after the first line or two of whatever you sing. I’m really not sure what the melody is supposed to be for your new song.”

“No problem. You’ll figure it out because you are now The Official Composer in Chief of the Inspirational Hillbillies of Praise. We’re a team. I write the lyrics, you write the music, just like Rogers and –”

“Hammerstein.” Jane sighed and looked heavenward before saying, “Oy vey,” her favorite expression when tasked with a seemingly impossible request.

(Taken from Short Stories, Book 4, which will be available for free from Amazon from Tuesday, December 3, through Saturday, December 7.)

 

 

Standard

The Guardian

“Well, it gave me goose bumps, so it has to be good. Let’s get to work on the B-side of our demo record. I can’t wait to play My Girl Drove Me Insane for Chris and Frank and Zane,” Ralph Gilbert, bass guitarist for the garage band known as The Aspirations, said.

Sy Clarke yawned as he looked at his watch. “It’s already 7:30 and I’ve got a chemistry test tomorrow I need to study for. Maybe we should call it a night?” The Aspirations’ rhythm guitar player, Sy often was the member of the band least given to using music to become rich and famous.

“But I’m just getting warmed up. Let’s just spend another half hour on the next one before we quit. Since it’s going to be the B-side, we can knock it out in no time.”

“After we take a break.”

Sy switched on his bedroom’s radio. When a commercial ended, Smokey Robinson’s high-pitched wavering voice took listeners to a place called Go-Go as his backup singers The Miracles repeated the song’s title Going to a Go-Go throughout the tune until it became a hypnotic chant.

As the DJ praised the hit from Motown, Sy asked, “You think they sang going to…” as he imitated the dance moves he had seen the group make on television, “…enough times?”

“That’s it!” Ralph pulled the radio’s plug from an electrical outlet. “For our next song, we’re going to do the exact same thing.”

* * *

The following Friday after school, The Aspirations met at Zane’s home to hear what Ralph and Sy had written. Listening to My Girl Drove Me Insane left drummer Chris Fernandez scratching his head and lead guitarist Frank Wade scowling. As usual, their record producer Zane remained stoic.

“It needs more work, a lot more work,” Frank said to break the silence.

Ralph ignored the criticism and turned to the one he had been certain for days would praise his song. “What do you think, Zane? You’re the expert.”

Zane drained the last of his ice-cold beer and crushed the empty aluminum can against his forehead. He burped and threw it toward a growing pile of trash in the corner of his living room.

“That song hit my ears just like that can just hit my head. It’s passable for the B-side of your demo record because a lot of times the record company people and DJs never even bother to listen to the B-side. Now let’s hear what we’ve all been waiting for, your A-side. Hit us with your best song.”

“Uh, that was our best song,” Sy said.

“Well, don’t be bashful. Let’s hear the other one. Time is money, especially in the record business, boys.” Zane raised both hands as if signaling an orchestra to stop warming up and prepare to play.

Ralph pulled his solid body bass closer to his body as if it were a shield and waited for Sy to trade his electric guitar for an acoustic one.

“This is called Listen to That Sound,” Ralph said.

After playing a four measure intro of softly strummed chords punctuated by occasional deep notes from the bass, Sy and Ralph sang, their voices blending to create what sounded like a third instrument:

 

Listen to that sound

The one coming from underground

The sound to carry you back

When life wasn’t so black

It’s not too late

To turn your life around

 

When I was just a child

Maybe two or three

There were lots of stories

From the books my mother read to me

Tales of faraway lands

And treasures buried in the sand

 

So listen to that sound

The one coming from underground

The sound to carry you back

When life wasn’t so black

It’s not too late

To turn your life around

 

Growing up and becoming a man

Is not what I thought it would be

Where are all those good things?

Mom said were waiting for me

All those things she said

Were just around the corner

Up ahead

 

So listen to that sound

The one coming from underground

The sound to carry you back

When life wasn’t so black

It’s not too late

To turn your life around

 

Seems like everything has a price

Do this, say that, pretend, pretend

And don’t ever offend

But don’t mean what you say

All people seem to want

Is how much you can pay

 

So listen to that sound

The one coming from underground

The sound to carry you back

When life wasn’t so black

It’s not too late

To turn your life around

 

Sy bowed his head as if not wanting to hear any feedback.

Ralph turned his pleading eyes from Zane to Chris to Frank and back to Zane. Frank’s response did not surprise him.

“I need a beer to clear my head, Zane. Is it okay if I get one?”

“Help yourself.” Zane pointed toward the kitchen and waited until Frank could not hear his lowered voice.

“That was good, boys. I like it. All it needs is a soft beat from drummer man Chris and a few licks from Frank and we will have ourselves a decent demo for me to shop around town.” He glanced at his watch. “I have another appointment to make down at the marina. You guys work out the parts of your songs for lead guitar and drums with Frank and Chris and then make an appointment to record them with me.”

“You mean we can still do My Girl Drove Me Insane?” Ralph asked.

“Sure. Who knows? Maybe it will chart around L.A. as a novelty song. Stranger things have happened in this business for the B-side of a forty-five.”

 

Saturday, February 12th

Chris Fernandez lifted his head from the hand propping it up and stared at the four textbooks on his desk. Each required either a chapter read or essay written or test studied for.

Maybe I can do my homework tonight, Chris thought.

He flipped on his transistor radio and listened to part of California Dreamin’. The line about going into a church and faking a prayer made Chris shake his head and turn the radio off.

That’s my problem, I’m just faking it, Chris thought.

Sure, he had worked hard for more than thirty hours perfecting a drum part to match the two songs written by Sy and Ralph. But somehow, The Aspirations succeeding as recording artists seemed much more unreal than the California dream that had sent The Mamas and The Papas to the top of the charts. The most religious of The Aspirations, Chris decided to turn to the One he used only as a last resort. He knelt by his bed.

“Lord, I ask You to have mercy on us. I know our music doesn’t glorify You in any way but it’s all we seem to know. Please show me how to help Sy and Ralph.” He felt an unwelcome nudge in his soul. “And Frank, too.”

Chris paused for a moment of reflection, something learned during a religious retreat he had attended last year. A still small voice seemed to speak within his soul: You are the guardian for The Aspirations. The revelation snapped Chris’ upper body backward. How many times had priests’ sermons or sisters’ or brothers’ lessons at school centered on bearing your cross for Jesus Christ’s sake?

But being a guardian for three dopey friends?

“Are you sure, God?” Chris asked.

 

(Adapted from 1966, which is available for free from Amazon from Tuesday the 30th through Saturday August 3rd)

Standard

Don’t Believe Them

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

He dared to ask only one, more of a plea instead of hope for an explanation.

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

“Yes, I’m sure.”

The President stood.

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

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

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

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

“No, sir.”

“WHINOs.”

“WHINOs?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

Her obsession to change history the way Cronkite had revived somewhat as one of his successors used fake documents to target a sitting President’s re-election campaign. The end justifies the means became her unspoken code of conduct. Then members of her party called her racist after she backed Hillary Clinton instead of Barrack Obama for President in 2008. Angered, anything goes became her new code.

Her new pragmatic code spilled over into her devising a way of best bringing a conspiracy to fruition. No need to run around in protests like those silly white radicals who wore some sort of mask over their faces and spouted their agendas on social media. No need to pow-wow with the rich who funded the protests or the political hacks and Hollywood elite who labored long and hard to appear to be completely progressive in all things. Being part of The Resistance did not mean telling the world about one’s involvement. For Vanessa, only one other person was required to join the plot to install one of her own as President of the United States.

Maybe afterwards, she might even be rewarded with a government job by those who benefitted from her skullduggery. If not, she would still have the silent satisfaction of having changed the course of history.

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

Western Slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White House

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

“Uh, no sir. It’s close enough that we can drive there.”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

“But –”

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

Sierra Nevada

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

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

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

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

“He said, Don’t believe them.”

“So?”

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

“So what really happened? Were you there?”

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

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

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

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

Danny sighed.

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

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

“Uh –“

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

“But –“

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“What is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he do there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of deal?”

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

“What do they get out of it?”

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

“Why so many deer?”

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

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

Washington, D.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirty Miles South of Danny Trang’s Cabin

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

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

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

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

“You don’t say?”

The woman nodded.

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

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

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

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

“What do you think, Sir?” asked his driver. “Will we get to take down some domestic terrorists this time? This whole mission has been pretty boring so far.”

“Huh?” The Captain looked up from his I-Pad and the stories about the latest conflicts between soldiers and civilians across the nation. “Who knows? I just hope it doesn’t come to that for us.”

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Uh…”

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

Bethesda Naval Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Why?”

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

“What is the drone showing?”

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

“Yes.”

“Great. You know what that means.”

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

“I wish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had also told Danny of the 30-second delay between pushing the detonator’s button and the resulting explosion, a detail Danny forgot during the last nine years. Danny now wished there was also a button to cancel the Detonate command. For whatever reason, Don Gamble had made an about face and now walked back across the bridge toward the gate and Captain Morris.

Don stopped and clenched his fists. His face contorted with rage as he yelled, “Don’t believe them!”

As Don nodded an affirmation to his warning, a deafening explosion splintered the bridge. It catapulted him fifteen feet into the air like a circus acrobat, spinning him into a back flip ending with his butt landing on a bed of pine needles at the edge of the steep ravine. The explosion also caused the platoon of Guardsmen to seek cover, flip off the safeties on their weapons, and point them at where the injured Don writhed in pain.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Uh…” Danny shrugged as he placed his peace offering of Vietnamese pastries fresh from his mother’s oven onto the nightstand by Don’s bed.

“You better get cracking, Chief. How else am I ever going to get back home?”

Standard

Cats and Dogs I Have Known

Being in a military family meant no pets for the first six years of my life. Early in her marriage, Mom moved back to her hometown of Watertown, South Dakota after Dad was called back to active duty during the Korean War, a fate for many soldiers, sailors, and airmen who already had battled through World War II. After he returned, we lived in trailer courts in South Carolina and Tennessee during his next two short assignments.

Yeah, even United States Air Force officers had to make do living like what some love to call trailer trash during an era when being in the military did not include much in the way of pay and benefits. The only benefit I longed for became owning a pet.

But the next assignment to West Germany meant living in a large apartment complex at Rhein Main Air Force Base near Frankfurt. None of these early living arrangements allowed for pets.

That all changed when we moved to Bowling Green, Ohio where Dad taught ROTC at a university. Dogs and cowboys ruled on TV during the 1950s. Heroic collie Lassie and German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin saved their humans during episode after episode. Maybe that’s why Dad got us three kids a puppy we called Sparky, named after the brave dogs from library and school books who rode atop fire engines and lived with the fire fighters at local fire stations in every town everywhere, at least in our minds. Life seemed wonderful.

Then one day Dad said, “Sparky ran away.”

Decades later, I began to wonder if that was his way of cushioning the reality that he had seen our pet’s dead body some place next to the busy road that ran in front of our house. But fear of knowing one way or the other kept me from ever asking. After Dad died in 2016, I asked Mom about it but she was uncertain about what really became of Sparky.

To salve our pain, Dad took us to a local hardware store and let us choose a small chick surrounded by dozens of others, all of them chirping and bumping into one another. It seemed that every Easter season the chicks magically became available as pets for kids. By summertime, little Henny Penny had grown halfway to adult size. Dad had a gift for translating adult logic into doses digestible by his children. He convinced my brother, sister, and me how: We have too small of a yard for Henny Penny to be happy. She belongs on a farm where she can roam free with lots of other chickens.

So he drove us to a nearby farm where she joined others of her kind. But something about that farmer’s hungry grin unsettled me.

Finally, what seemed like a slot machine handing out Dad’s assignments came up a row of nothing but cherries as far as I could tell. In 1961, we moved to Southern California, home to a surfing craze, Magic Kingdom, and introduction to what I would eventually conclude are God’s most mysterious creation – cats. Mom found us a pure bred Siamese. Her dark black face and paws offset deep blue eyes that seemed to radiate a message of: Don’t worry, humans, I have this situation under control.

Evidently, Snowball believed in all cats being created equal. She gave birth to a surprise litter of two Siamese who looked identical to her and a jet black cat with green eyes that we named Spooky because of its Halloween look.

The nearby Magic Kingdom of Disneyland and Disney Studios boasted animals possessing many human qualities so it seemed natural how our cats also did. In Disney’s films, pets became heroic. The Incredible Journey chronicled a true story of two dogs and a cat somehow traveling hundreds of miles to reunite with their humans.

Art imitates life, which imitates life.

At least it did for us during our next move from Torrance, California to Montgomery, Alabama. Snowball and her daughter Spooky crowded into our 1960 Oldsmobile station wagon to join our cross country trek. After we stopped at a motel for a night, Mom let the two cats out to use their outdoors bathroom. Snowball disappeared. So Mom talked to the motel’s manager and left our address for the new home Dad had bought in Montgomery during an earlier trip.

Our journey continued, minus one cat. Memory fails on all of the logistics of traveling thousands of miles with a cat, but I think we had a small litter box on the floor in case the need arose between rest stops.

In the middle of a desert, our car broke down. Long before the advent of cell phones, such an event left you at the mercy of Good Samaritans. One gave Dad a ride to the nearest gas station. After what seemed like hours, Dad and a mechanic returned, riding in a tow truck. A look under the hood and lightning striking a nearby telephone pole convinced the mechanic the repair could not be made by the side of the road or at his small repair shop, which lacked the needed part.

Because the repair would take most of the afternoon at a large repair shop in the next city, we retreated to a double feature playing at a nearby movie theater. Spooky? Mom had a handbag large enough to hide our green-eyed cat inside of it. Once inside the theater, Spooky crawled out and took her usual catnap on the cool floor of the air-conditioned building.

The rest of our trip proved uneventful.

A couple of weeks after arriving in Montgomery, the manager from Arizona let us know that a skinny, hungry Snowball had returned to his motel. Arrangements were made and Snowball travelled inside a small wooden crate on a train to join us. She arrived home minus fur from the parts of her body where she had rubbed against the inside of the crate during a journey more painful than incredible.

Cats being who they are, new adventures arose.

Within weeks of each other, Spooky and Snowball gave birth. Spooky had eight kittens and Snowball six. For some reason, one of Snowball’s teats became infected so her daughter Spooky became a wet nurse and somehow managed to provide enough milk for a total of fourteen hungry kittens, some her sons and daughters, others her half-sisters and half-brothers. Meanwhile, Mom, a registered nurse, used her skills meant for humans on Snowball. She wrapped a large cloth bandage around Snowball’s back and underside to protect the swollen teat and applied a salve and hot compresses until it healed.

Watching the kittens as they were born had been icky for us kids, in particular seeing the mothers lick the gooey mess off of their newborns. Watching strangers take them away to new homes, kind of sad. Two of those answering our newspaper ad of Free kittens, call… also took Snowball and Spooky. That left us with one kitten, named Snowflake by my sister.

Snowflake grew into adulthood and began venturing from home greater distances, which cut her life short. One evening I returned home after basketball practice and met nothing but turmoil. My sister sat at the dining room table crying harder than I believed possible for a ten year old. Between sobs, she spoke about her cat getting hit by a car.

Snowflake did not suffer. Apparently, her death was caused by a blow to the head because her body remained intact enough that Dad carried her to a neighbor who was a doctor. He massaged her heart without success and pronounced her dead.

A pet-less three years followed, including two years at Clark Air Base, Philippines, where not many on the base had the luxury of pets.  Back in the States for Dad’s final assignment, Mom chose a petite white French poodle for our next pet. When Michelle went into heat, Dad helped a neighbor’s sniffing, inquiring miniature male poodle by tossing him over the fence into our small back yard. The neighbor’s sour expression and grumpy words signaled a reluctant approval.

As soon as they were weaned, the litter of three was offered for sale. Buyers wanted the two smaller puppies. But no one showed any interest in Pierre, who already had grown to twice the size of his siblings and would become one and a half times as large as his mother.

Dogs can be more high maintenance than cats.

While house sitting for my parents six years after Dad’s retirement from the Air Force, my wife gave Michelle and Pierre a much needed warm, soapy baths in a tub. They thanked her by immediately running outside to roll in dirt, which made her let out the loudest scream I have heard from her during my forty-four years of knowing her.

Based on what I’ve seen and read and heard, I’m convinced animals are more in touch with their Creator and so accept their limitations better than humans. One night, Pierre moved from Mom’s to Dad’s to my youngest brother’s feet, while they sat in the den. Pierre lay by each one for a spell, as if saying goodbye. The next morning, Mom found him dead from natural causes in the garage.

When our son turned eight and we bought our first house, he asked for a dog. Searching the want ads, we found one offered for free to a loving home. Ruffles appeared to be mostly a Belgium border collie, a line of dogs bred to be sheepherders. She lived up to her heritage by herding our small kids back toward the house if they wandered too close to the sidewalk next to the street. Incredibly patient, Ruffles ignored the neighborhood show-off, Sunny, a tomcat who loved to saunter across the street and roll on his back in the concrete gutter by our front yard.

Years went by. We adopted a pregnant stray cat who had jumped up into our van to give birth. Cabby and Ruffles became friends and avoided typical hostilities their kinds are famous for. More years passed.

As my wife walked home from the grocery store with Ruffles and our youngest son one day, a pit bull escaped through a front door and attacked our dog. My wife throwing cans of food at the pit bull did little to stop the unprovoked attack. By the time the owner pulled off his dog, Ruffles had a gaping wound on her shoulder.

The vet charged hundreds of dollars to clean and sew up the wound. The owner of the attacking dog’s callous refusal to accept responsibility for his pet’s actions by offering to pay anything cemented a growing realization in me that sometimes such people have less commonsense or compassion than their animals.

Within a year, Ruffles developed tumors and other internal problems. Unable to afford the cost of the vet’s offer of surgery, we instead had Ruffles put to sleep. Then Cabby grew sick and met the same fate.

Months later, a collarless dog pushed through our front door, which had been left ajar on a cold, rainy morning. After the veterinarian found no microchip or report of a missing dog matching this pit bull and terrier mix, we took her in. Our daughters named her Lacy. Several weeks later, a neighbor down the block surprised us.

“So that’s where Lucky went,” he said.

“Lucky?”

“Yeah, we got her as a puppy but were getting ready to take her to the pound when she disappeared. You can keep her.”

Next, a stray cat neighbors across the street had dubbed as Rosy meandered into our lives. She earned her keep by discovering a way into the attic through the garage where we kept her. Up there, she hunted the roof rats that infested our neighborhood because of nearby rice fields.

Time passed. Rosy also grew sick. After she was put to sleep, I buried her in our back yard next to Cabby. A few days later, Lacy dug up her lifeless body and, tail wagging, carried her to our back door.

By now, I had grown weary of cats and dogs and let my family know. “We already have had two cats and one dog put to sleep. I can’t handle this anymore.”

But one daughter wanted a kitten as her eighth grade graduation present. I relented. She picked out a Siamese tiger mix who kept me busy by climbing our orange tree onto the roof and getting stranded there. One daughter called her Mousse, as in chocolate mousse. The other daughter called her Cleo. I called her Moose because her large ears looked like a moose’s antlers, at least to me.

Early on, Lacy had bitten a neighbor’s kid who was playing roller hockey in the street. We paid for the kid’s tetanus shot and doctor’s visit co-pay. A couple of years later Lacy went after the hired man cutting another neighbor’s grass and bit the bottom of his jeans. Luckily, her teeth did not break skin.

Lacy cowered and I had to drag her on the lease when I took her to have her put to sleep. That left us with one cat.

I retried and my daughter let us keep Moose when my wife, I, and two disabled sons moved to be close to her aging mom and sister. For whatever reason, Moose no longer tolerated other cats, although she had been friendly to them for years.

If another cat came within 100 feet of her, Moose would yowl like a tomcat, even though she had been spayed as a kitten. Deep growling sounds. If the cat did not flee, Moose would chase it, climbing the six-foot tall backyard fences if necessary and running along the top wooden rails in pursuit.

When a small black cat with green eyes started hanging around, I’d shoo it away to try and discourage it from returning. Within a week, I began to find the paper plates holding remnants of Moose’s uneaten canned cat food that I buried around our citrus trees as mulch to feed the earthworms dug up and the food gone. At first, I suspected raccoons. But then I saw the small black cat eating from one of the plates. After consulting with the local animal shelter, I talked to a neighbor who had complained of the same stray.

“The shelter said the humane thing to do is to trap any stray cat, get it neutered or spayed, and then release it back into the same neighborhood where it was trapped,” I said.

The neighbor did not like the idea of releasing the cat back into our neighborhood and spoke of renting his own trap at a nearby feed store. He offered no further details for his plan. I borrowed a trap from an animal clinic and followed the vet technician’s instructions. For four nights in a row, the food disappeared from the inside of the unset trap. The night before the appointment to get the stray I had named Spooky neutered or spayed, I set the trap. The next morning the food remained, untouched, the trap unsprung.

Spooky had vanished. We never saw him or her again. I shared my regrets with Moose.

“I wish I had tried to catch Spooky sooner,” I told her as she sat on top of her carpeted cat condo. “Then we could have continued to feed Spooky, get it shots, and –”

Moose’s expression changed until she looked like Yoda from Star Wars. The song Born Free, which I had not heard in years, began to play inside my mind. It told of an orphaned lion cub raised by humans and then released back into the wild. It was as if Moose had planted the song.

Six months later, another stray started loitering in our backyard. Once again, I borrowed and set a trap. This time, none of the food was touched. Embarrassed, I returned with the empty trap to the clinic. A long line of people with caged cats and small dogs and leashed larger dogs stretched outside its front door. A lady behind me brought three cats crouched inside carriers.

“How did you catch them in a carrier without using a trap?” I asked.

“You just stop feeding them for two days and put the food inside the carrier,” she explained. “We live out on the delta and people dump cats and dogs on our property all the time so I bring the ones I can catch here to be neutered or spayed. One night, my husband found a dog whose throat had just been cut. He chased after the man who had done it but he got away in his car.”

The woman inside the clinic who refunded my deposit for the trap was sympathetic.

“I live out in the country,” she said. “Sometimes when the traps I set have caught the stray cats, someone comes along and opens the trap and lets them go.”

By now, a possible sibling had joined the young orange and white shorthair stray cat I had named Daniel Tiger. Because the second orange and white cat had long puffed out hair, my wife called it Fluffy.

This time our timing seemed perfect. After catching Daniel Tiger in our cat carrier, I took him to a local vet clinic. Because the regular vet was on vacation, his substitute was available for operations.

“The regular vet is booked for months in advance for surgeries,” a vet technician told me. “If you can bring your other stray cat in by 10 a.m. tomorrow, we can fix it too after we operate on Daniel Tiger.”

We caught Fluffy, whose long hair had kept us from determining its sex. When I picked both cats up the next afternoon, the vet tech smiled. “Fluffy is a boy,” she said. “Both these cats are so affectionate when I hold them.”

“I know,” I said. “They seem pretty tame. We’ve been wondering if someone else has been taking care of them too or if they belong to someone. But if we didn’t get them neutered, they might have had hundreds or thousands of descendants.”

The vet tech nods. She says she owns a ranch where dozens of cats and dogs are dumped off.

Within a day of returning to his neighborhood, Daniel Tiger did not show up with Harry (what my wife had renamed Fluffy) for their usual early morning breakfast. After two days of no Daniel Tiger, we posted his photo on a Facebook page devoted to lost and found dogs and cats in our area code, which covers several counties. One commenter to our post suggested we also post on the site Nextdoor, which is designed to connect those who live within blocks of each other. We did.

A day after Daniel Tiger returned, a man who lives a block away contacted us through Nextdoor. I hurried to his home and caught him as he was pulling out of his garage in his car.

“Hi, I’m Steve and we’ve been trying to take care of two orange and white stray cats. My wife said you’ve been doing the same thing?”

“Yeah,” he said as he shook my hand. “I noticed how they’ve been fixed. We’ve been feeding them for about four months now. They come in through the cat door we have for our two cats and like to sit next to me at my desk. We’re probably going to move to Dallas to be close to our kids in the next two years. I was telling my wife that I don’t want to have to move with four cats.”

“We’ll take care of the two strays.”

During the lengthy process of going from disliking to tolerating to trying to help stray cats, I sensed somehow God was using it. You know, how The Lord works in mysterious ways…

Was the Lord using them to change me? Moose had changed. She now watched over Daniel Tiger and Harry by chasing off any other cats that came near them. I had been called a curmudgeon because of my posts at a writers’ website I belonged to. That had only served to strengthen my dislike for any who dared to disagree with me.

“No wonder that famous best-selling author I read about calls herself a misanthrope,” I growled to my wife. “Maybe if I become a full blown misanthrope, I can be rich and famous too.”

At last, it dawned on me.

“Maybe God gives us animals to take care of and love to teach us how to love people?” I asked my wife, who has always understood such things better than me.

She smiled with the kind of expression cats and dogs reserve for humans.

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The Effects of Being a Military Brat on Writing

Military brats tend to be…well, different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

MacArthur’s Children by Dary Matera

Both books are available from Amazon.

Happy reading.

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Indiana Christmas

(Adapted from The Prince of Alexandria)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better get up or you’ll miss Santa.”

The twenty-two year old boy-man stirred.

“Merry Christmas, Billy.”

“Christmas?”

“Come on down for breakfast.”

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

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

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

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

“You’ll live.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The service was short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I read a lot.”

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

“That’s the way I understand it.”

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

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

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

“Recruit for what? Your Democrat Party?”

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

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

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

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

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

His memory drifted back to Christmas Past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking of Worthington transported Rod into Christmas Present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Children?”

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

Rod stopped. “Three?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about you Roger?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tom told me to have you stop by.”

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

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

“So you already heard?”

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

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

“Merry Christmas, Rod.”

“Huh? You already said that at home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the farm needs me.”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rod cocked his head

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

“Three states?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Standard

Something Smells Good; It Has to Be Brownies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographer shrugged and said, “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

* * *

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

For me, it’s Chester Fields.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your first time here?” he asks me.

“Yeah. How did you know that?”

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

“That many?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven…I guess.”

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

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

“Huh?”

“You know what I mean; the ones they say this book was a real page turner or it told me everything I need to know 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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

Flashback to the Fifties contains:

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

Fever (OPB Peggy Lee)

Great Balls of Fire (OPB Jerry Lee Lewis)

Come on Let’s Go (OPB Ritchie Valens)

Johnny B. Goode (OPB Chuck Berry)

Come Softly to Me (OPB The Fleetwoods)

Rawhide (OPB Frankie Laine)

Not Fade Away (OPB Buddy Holly)

Crying (OPB Roy Orbison)

Sleep Walk (OPB Santo and Johnny Farina)

 

Sounds from the Sixties has:

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

Help (OPB The Beatles)

In My Room (The Beach Boys)

Hit the Road Jack (OPB Ray Charles)

Rag Doll (OPB The Four Seasons)

Go Now (OPB The Moody Blues)

Oh Well (OPB Fleetwood Mac)

Somebody to Love (OPB Jefferson Airplane)

The Weight (OPB The Band)

Badge (OPB Cream)

 

Solid Gold from the Seventies includes:

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

Nature’s Way (OPB Spirit)

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

Doctor My Eyes (OPB Jackson Browne)

Summer Breeze (OPB Seals and Crofts)

Blue Collar (OPB Bachman Turner Overdrive)

Simple Man (OPB Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Heard It in a Love Song (Marshall Tucker Band)

Listen to the Music (OPB The Doobie Brothers)

It Don’t Come Easy (OPB Ringo Starr)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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