Category Archives: Light fiction

A Professor’s Challenge

PROFESSOR COLGATE SAT as the campus bell at Texas Christian tolled. In his chair beside the podium, he crossed his right leg over his left, conveying a typically bored gesture while his class of three hundred filed into the auditorium.

He often decided to arrive early and watch the procession as classes moved in and out of his day, unlike many professors who waited until their class finished seating before making a grand entrance. The beginnings of pompous, he thought.

For Colgate, his time both to teach and to learn. Colgate learned as much from his students as they learned from him.

The last student gathered a seat. The soft rumble of conversation subsided as he stood and went to the podium. Matter-of factly, he reached and flipped the microphone switch, opened a notebook and summarily began.

“Feeling is to perceive through the sense of touch. If you can’t believe the authority of Webster’s or Random House or the American Heritage Dictionary, whom can you believe?”

Here he paused to let a low murmur in one of the upper tiers become the only sound in the quiet hall, muffled coughs and the normal rustling of papers or closing of a book excepted. He stared at the approximate location of the noise and soon two heads came up. Shocked looks identified the culprits and embarrassed, they leaned back in their chairs amidst smirks from a half dozen students surrounding them.

They’d all been in Colgate’s advanced English class for two months and they knew their instructor’s brilliance included two important features. First, he had an amazing ability to recognize every face assigned to his class and put a name to it, and second, he brooked nothing but total attention to the subject at hand. Failure to deal seriously with the edict Colgate pronounced on the first day of class and never again, brought a personal visit to his office and no student left it feeling good.

All learning began with listening. He imparted that thought to the recalcitrant or unconvinced in no uncertain terms and tied his or her final grade to deportment in class as surely as to providing correct answers in tests.

The professor jotted something on a small pad and then cupped a hand around his left ear, moving his head in a sweep that encompassed the entire hall. Should a pin drop in the upper left tier, the student body divined the professor would hear it.

“We take our words from such authoritative works and we rely heavily on them for correct spelling and for precise meanings of the words of our language. English is tough enough to learn, even if you haven’t come from another country and learned its language first.

“Why am I repeating something you learned in high school? The reason may surprise you, but it is, in fact, simple. I am going to move away from the program today,” an involuntary groan escaped some lips, “and I am going to give all of you an opportunity to be truly creative. I am going to satisfy myself that all three hundred of you deserve to be here, that you are intelligent enough to think on your own and that you can formulate an answer to my suggested direction in a work of fiction.

“It does not concern me that this is not a creative writing class. You all have the tools and now I’m going to ask you to use them. Here is your assignment. Write a story that involves never having had a sense of touch. Keep in mind that you have had one for all of your lives and now you are being asked to pretend that no such sense has ever existed. You may find this a difficult concept to get your mind around, but it is what you must do.

“You will use your wire binders, neatly tear out your pages of effort and hand them to the monitor at the back of the hall as you leave today. Your name must be legible and your class and time listed in the upper right corner of each page. Everyone is required to write on this subject. This will count twenty-five percent of your final grades.”

A gasp and shudder went through the professor’s audience even while pages were frantically being located and prepared for the writing assignment.

“You have an hour and fifteen minutes, from…now!”

Surveying the assembly, Professor Colgate saw blond and brunette heads bend over their retractable DeskWriter tables. A smattering of redheads in varying shades punctuated the sea of blond and brown and a small group with black hair sporting tight curls or dreadlocks or ironed hair bent over their work on the right.

Satisfied that his message had gotten through the eyes and to the brains of this group, Colgate sat down in his chair and pulled out a text on contemporary English. His presence and his all seeing eye would be with the student body, even during moments he didn’t survey his scene. Many could not get from their minds the hideous vision of Orwell’s “Big Brother” watching them.

About twenty percent went at it with a will, he noted. The rest joined them reticently or thoughtfully, grimaces to outright fear showing on faces briefly lifted from the desk to see if “the eye” might be watching them.

Professor George Colgate, of average height and build, had a studious appearance. He did not wear glasses, but if contacts were his method of avoiding something hanging from the bridge of his nose, no one knew it for sure. He had a narrow face, a little pinched, and his expression many students interpreted as cross, although most did not know this of him directly. Many teachers ran on reputation, deserved or not. He did not actually warrant being placed into this mold, but to him, it seemed to leaven the conduct of the unruly few and he believed that the student body helped to police this potential through rumor. In any event, he did nothing to dispel it, given the size of his classes.

Today he wore black knife-edge slacks and a white shirt, with tie, covered with a brilliant red cable-knit pullover designed to combat the chill in the large hall. His choice of bright red paid obeisance to Christmas, only days hence, although he had no religious predilections of his own.

He did think the assignment an especially good one so close to Christmas, and perhaps more importantly to the days that followed, a school break that would provide renewal from the frenetic pace he kept during class season. Rather than go somewhere-being single he didn’t need it-he would relax with three hundred pieces of fiction and try to ferret out real gold from fools’ gold.

The Professor hadn’t tried this experiment before and genuinely wondered what would come of it. He glanced up periodically. Yes, Colgate the shepherd, Big Brother indeed, watched his flock today. The knowledge that he had nearly ultimate power over these young people didn’t cause him to smile, because he knew that the grades he gave them could make a difference in their young lives and could send them on their way in directions they wanted or did not want.

An hour passed. Little movement came from the assembled except the furious application of pen to paper. Every now and then someone would shift his weight to get off some part that had gone to sleep. A few began to look up frequently. They were running out of ideas. He casually noted who they were. He’d be seeing them again on paper, but he wanted to see if physical appearance and expression on a student also carried to his or her work.

Ten more minutes passed. He stood and turned the mike on again. “Five minutes to finish up.”

The professor didn’t add anything, but left implicit in his statement the very important element of closure. How many would round out their stories and make them circular? He had an idea who would excel and who would not. His class contained a microcosm of American man and womanhood, but more than that, many of these people would become the leaders of future generations.

Today’s assignment tested them now. In it he offered them a key to the creation of a better world, to an understanding that automatically accepting current thinking was wrongheaded, that humanity’s direction had to diverge, to think beyond present truths and to find new ones. He hoped that a few would grasp the key. Right now he held it in his hands. Soon enough his class would pass from his influence and move into the real world, there to create their own happiness or sadness, to make their mistakes and enjoy their occasional successes.

Professor Colgate wondered how many would be touched by the assignment.

“Time’s up. You are free to leave. The monitor will collect your work as I have said. Enjoy your holidays and we’ll see you back on January 2nd.”

Colgate smiled at them. A few called out, “Merry Christmas,” to which the professor nodded. He had an idea how he would approach the students’ return, what he would tell them. Perhaps he would pose it as a question. “Who among you can tell me the reason for this assignment?”

Regardless, they must be told whether they had succeeded or failed. Three hundred students struggled to their feet, began the climb to the top of the amphitheater and out into lightly falling snow. Jonathan Brown, his grad student monitor would see him within the half hour carrying a large flat bundle of student work. He wouldn’t ask John to read half of them this time. He wanted gold. He’d have to find it himself.

More than One Way to Get Iced

I’D MUTTERED, “SO far, so good,” low into my full-length mink coat collar seconds before, more angry than frightened. Jonathan, what a jerk! I’d grabbed my coat and fled; patting my right pocket to be sure the keys were there. They were.

Jonathan had taken my silver-plated thirty-eight special away from me, a gift from a former boyfriend, a cop I’d dated. Dear boy convinced me to take it, unsafe world and all, but not the guy for me. I’m choosy. He wouldn’t take it back when he left for good.

He said, “Nah, you keep it. Someday you may need it, you never know.”

I thanked him and put it into my nightstand drawer, right where it would be when I needed it. Sure, right! Only, Jonathan took it away easily. He must have been very confident, because in my opinion men can be so stupid when they’re thinking macho.

Oh, the stupid? Yeah, then he actually let me out of his sight to go to the bathroom.

“Jonathan, I’m going to throw up. Please, it’s here or in the john.” I gagged for effect.

“Go!” he said. The gun rested in his hand on the bed.

I went straight to the bathroom, crouched over and fast, closing the door with a slam! The glass on both sides shivered. I made all the disgusting sounds a frightened woman vomiting should make. Could have taken time to feel proud of myself for consummate acting, but the truth is, although I might have been somewhat frightened at the turn of events, he didn’t frighten me that much.

Thinking all the time, I waited for a few seconds quietly before flushing the toilet. After a bit I let him hear more retching. Then I made my move.

Silently I exited the bathroom through its second door, the one into the living room foyer, thankful that I’d had this built with a door at both ends as an accommodation. At the time I hadn’t wanted to stand the expense of two bathrooms. The door into the bedroom had been an afterthought of the builder.

“I maka door here, too,” he had said, long years ago, one hand on his chin as he appraised the situation, “so you havada master bedroom suite, okay, Missus Delehanty?”

I loved that man’s delightful Italian accent. An excellent workman, he had built me a solid house on a hillside overlooking the L.A. basin.

I’d said yes. Obviously a convenience, I remember thinking about how in my house such an access would only be used by my husband and me, whenever I managed to land one. I told Mr. Fratelli to disguise the doorway so that guests wouldn’t think of another entrance and would feel comfortable while about their business. He made it look like a full-length mirror. To leave from inside, I push the mirror and a latch clicks and the door swings open. Mr. Fratelli even thought to etch the mirror’s perimeter so it wouldn’t show fingerprints.

This is crazy. I could die and here I am thinking about my beautiful house. Jonathan is definitely not husband material. Now I’ve got to stay alive and get to the police! Fact is; I know too much.

Now outside, I looked up. I stepped out from the overhang and noticed the unusually cold air. I caught the steely glint of something on the railing. Evidently last nights rain had turned to ice. Some freak cold front must have come through. Didn’t think that happened in southern California. First time in my memory and a really bad time to be wrong! I ought to listen to the radio sometimes.

“Rats!” I said it vehemently, purposefully, because Jonathan couldn’t hear me now.

I couldn’t have known. I stood for a moment. I had to get away, but how? I couldn’t leap the balustrade. I looked down thirty feet to the bushes below and how the hillside sloped sharply down from there. I thought Jonathan would hear. I’d hurt myself anyway. Not a good choice.

I wasn’t quite ready for him to know where I’d gone. He wouldn’t be suspicious yet. Lucky for me the main access door had recently been oiled to get rid of an annoying squeak.

I faced the thirty-seven stairs with trepidation. I could see ice on the steps as well as the wrought iron railing. Bunny slippers, why did I wear them instead of my mountain boots? Of course, I knew why. No time! The blow-up occurred much too quickly, my fault, too.

Couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Had to tell him what I thought of him and the crooked deals, I’d learned about quite by accident last week.

Couldn’t believe it, a gangster in my house, and I had even given thought to marrying the jerk! Some gangsters are smooth.

Better try to get out of this without dying. Either way, this is the rock or hard place people always talk about in mundane conversations about finances or their kids on drugs or whatever.

I looked at the surround deck. It went past the floor-to-ceiling picture windows that provided the living and day rooms their spectacular views of the normally smog-filled basin that opened out beneath me. Last night’s weather took care of the smog for today, anyway. Wouldn’t be long…

Okay, so Jonathan could see me if he’s gotten off the bed. Can’t try for the back of the house. Not much cover in the scrub; bad idea.

Got to get to the garage. Got to get the car. Got to get away. Too many things against me! I began to feel real fright.

The door to the garage sat to the right at the bottom of the brick stairway. I leave it open most of the time. Living in this particular community had proved safe and I have felt secure enough to ignore the news that filters out of L.A., you know, crime running rampant, lock your doors and all of that.

Well, I do lock my doors. I’m not that careless, but the garage has no access to anywhere and my Lexus is fully protected, so why bother? Good thing today. The noise of raising the door would surely bring Jonathan running and it would help me gain that extra few seconds I needed to get away from a dangerous man. That’s all I could think of. But first, how to get down these stairs?

I inspected them in a manner I had never done before. They were flat with a slightly raised lip. With care, I could negotiate them. I couldn’t be slow about it, either; seconds were ticking away. Close to a minute since I’d eased out the bathroom door. Jonathan had guts and I hadn’t seen any fear in the man. He’d be antsy now. A minute of silence is too long in a situation like this.

“Margie, what you doing in there? Get back in here!” I couldn’t hear him from the outside, but I would bet a lot that’s dear he’d just said it angrily toward my bathroom door.

Get going, girl, I told myself. I grabbed the railing, thanking my lucky stars I had stayed in shape. Keeping my body straight, balancing everything like a cork standing upright in a puddle of water, I eased down the stairs. In a couple of steps I had it down pat and moved more quickly. I’d made it halfway down, all the way to the landing where the stairway turned when I heard the latch behind me click.

The door opened suddenly. “Come back here, Margie!” Jonathan said. I heard death in his voice.

Grabbing the rail with an iron grip, I turned. “Come and get me, Jonathan. Better not use that gun out here. This place is patrolled.”

The man hesitated for a short moment, made a decision and quickly headed down the stairs. Intent on me, he didn’t see the ice. His feet went out from under and with a yell, Jonathan tumbled down, totally out of control. He grabbed at the railing but ice provided no grip. With a satisfying crack – to me anyway – his head hit the railing at the turn where I stood. I had to move quickly to the side to avoid getting struck, almost losing it in the process.

Silence followed for a few moments and then my gun hit the driveway below…and went off with a loud “Crack!”

That ought to bring the neighbors, I thought gleefully. Jonathan was out cold. Blood started to well on his forehead. Somehow that didn’t bother me a bit.

In a couple of minutes two Security men came racing up the hill. George from next door evidently called them. I explained what had happened and how frightened I’d been and told them how wonderful I felt to have brave men like them watching over the residents of Pine Vista Acres.

They looked grim and oh so masterful and took over. They patched Jonathan up and took him to the hospital, assuring me that the police would meet them there, and “Not to worry, Ms. Delehanty, we’ll take care of everything.”

Later that morning the L.A. police came up and took my statement and would I testify against this man they’d taken into custody.

“I certainly will,” I replied.

When they checked my permit for the gun, “Just routine,” they said, I told them that I’d made a mess of defending myself, happy at least that it went off by itself.

The policemen laughed.

Oh, and one more thing. The ice surprised them, even here in the hills. One of them, the cute one said, “That’s one of the better ways to ice a guy in L. A.”

We all laughed at that one. And speaking of ice, with all the attention I got from our Security and the L.A. police, I figured my day couldn’t get any better!

Like icing on a cake!

Le Cafe DuMonde

LOOKING OVER MY shoulder, I quickly entered the Café DuMonde. I knew I’d lost my tail. I searched in the dim light for Gaston. There, over by the fake fireplace he sat, yakking with Michele, the cutie, five-foot-three of gorgeous, delectable womanhood. It figured! Leave the guy alone for two minutes and he’s after all that’s natural.

I’d been gone an hour, not my fault. But my news couldn’t wait. I moved up quickly.

“Gaston!” I whispered loudly. My voice carried enough and he looked up.

“Frank, you’re late.” His face took on a disgruntled look. Why do the French always have to try laying a guilt trip on us Americans? I couldn’t go figure on that one.

“No choice. Got to see you. Now!” I turned my right thumb downward. The news wasn’t good and I wanted Michele to leave, too.

Gaston caught on and spanked Michele out of the way. She pursed her lips and made some kind of an “Ooo” sound, only it sounded like “Ouh!”

How do they do that? I pursed my lips but couldn’t make that sound. I smiled inwardly in spite of myself. How silly, I thought, bad business and me trying to pronounce a word the way the French do?

I love to hear the French language spoken. It’s very liquid and I don’t understand a word of it, let alone try to pronounce it. Made me wonder why “M” sent me into this when we have a French-speaking agent in the department. But, I do what I’m told.

So Michele left and I got close with Gaston. In my brief glance I could see the fat man wore a black silk shirt, maroon trousers, the baggy kind I hate, and a cravat. Did it make him look sexy or something? My stomach churned.

I brought my thoughts up, higher than his had been, anyway. Back to business! We had trouble here and Gaston could stop this from getting out of hand. Still, I stayed dubious.

“Tell me what is the trouble, Frank.”

“It’s your damn French foreign legion, Gaston. You were supposed to arrange for Marcel and Mickel to be at the drop site and out of sight. They’re parading around like they want someone to take pictures of them or something. What gives?”

“Oh, ho, ho, Frank! That is the best cover of all. Who would suspect those two of being undercover agents?”

I wasn’t convinced. “No self-respecting agent would act like that here, Gaston. Our prey is going to fly, I’ll bet a dollar.”

“An American dollar?” Gaston said with a smirk.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, Frank. You are young and you do not know my people. They are showing themselves to be tourists in a place where you would expect tourists. They will miss nothing. You do not have to worry, Frank. We will be there to catch the “evildoers,” as your President Bush would have said.”

Gaston laughed again. His belly jumped around. Obscene, I thought, absolutely obscene! How could Michele even look at this misshapen man? I kept it to myself.

In the position of go-between, I didn’t feel I was accomplishing much. Still, Gaston and his group had the nod from “M.” What could I do?

“Look, my little friend, in twenty minutes, we will have our answer. Sit with me and have a drink. You are nervous. All will be well, it is my promise.”

“No, Gaston, I can’t. I have to get back to my post. At least I won’t be seen.”

Suddenly a dangerous looking gun appeared in Gaston’s hand. “Sit down, Frank.”

He said it quietly but I caught his meaning, like crystal. Now what, I thought? I sat.

Michelle came over to our table with some duct tape. No smile on the pretty lady, either.

“Put your hands behind the chair, Frank.” He gestured with his gun. I did what he asked.

Michelle took a long strip of tape and expertly bound my hands, first to each other and then to the chair-back. Staying to the side in case I decided to kick, she bound my feet, one to each chair leg. Agent Frank Farber was going nowhere.

“This is for your own good, Frank. I won’t have Michele cover your mouth if you promise not to yell, okay?”

I felt like saying plenty, but I kept it inside. I didn’t want my mouth covered. I felt a cold coming on and it would be tough to breathe through mucus-clogged nostrils. “I won’t yell.”

”Good, Frank, that is good.”

How had this friend of the U. S. Government so suddenly turned against us, and why? A lot more going on than I had any idea, and I didn’t like it. “M” assured me of this Gaston’s friendship and that we could rely on and trust him.

I didn’t like him to begin with, but in the Service you don’t get a choice of bedfellows. I tried not to be judgmental, but he seemed decidedly less like a friend now. Couple of points for my instinct! Anyway, trussed up like this, I could do nothing.

They’d sat me down at the far end of the table in a little alcove where I wouldn’t be visible to anyone walking in the door. In the mid-afternoon, customers were few. I thought Gaston would have Michele lock the door anyway, but he didn’t. He did put his gun away. Then he turned and kept his eye on the door.

It came to me. He expected someone. So Marcel and Mickel were a ruse! Why did Gaston keep me here? I’d have been none the wiser watching the drop site. There must be another reason. Guess I’m dangerous. Either that or Gaston wanted me where he could see me, plain and simple.

Twenty minutes ticked away. I slowly tested my bonds. Very tight and well done, but I had a fraction of an inch of play. Maybe I could loosen the tape enough to rip it, if I got the chance. I didn’t think Michele used a lot of tape.

I’m small and don’t look like much. “M” says I make a perfect agent. Nobody would notice me in a crowd. Maybe so, but I’m wiry and strong, too. I don’t let on and like I say, I don’t look it. I labored at my bonds.

Three things worked for me at the moment. Michele went back into the kitchen to do something. I didn’t know where she could be, but she couldn’t see me. Gaston had his eye on the door and gave me no attention. The table covered my slow movements.

I flexed my right leg, tightening up the muscle. I felt something give. Ripping tape makes a sound. I tried to rip it gently. It took a couple of minutes of intense pressure. When it felt about to give, I flexed the left leg and did the same thing.

Meanwhile I had managed to gain an inch on the tape to my hands. Maybe she wasn’t all that expert, after all. Maybe they underestimated me. I kept glancing at the door. More than twenty minutes had passed. I noticed Gaston fidgeting in his chair. Nervous or worried?

The pressure of breaking the bonds quietly tired me out, but I got a new lease on it when I felt a sudden give behind me. I’d disconnected from the chair-back. Another two minutes and I’d be free.

Maybe I made a sound. Gaston suddenly looked back at me, hard, like trying to figure out what he heard. He started to get up and check on his prisoner when a shadow fell across the door. The knob turned slowly. Gaston turned back, a faint smile on his face, his thoughts elsewhere. I breathed a small sigh of relief.

A tall, dark, broad-shouldered man entered the restaurant. Behind him came a gorilla of a guy. He must have been six-six and three-fifty. My heart sank.

The first man said, “Ah, Gaston.”

“Monsieur le Grande.” Gaston, now totally composed and self-assured, stood and shook the man’s hand.

The tall man looked at me briefly and then at the restaurant owner. Gaston shrugged and said, “Earlier business. I will finish it later.”

They both looked away. I became a piece of furniture.

“Please.” Gaston gestured and then sat back down in his chair. The tall man sat across from him while the big man stood behind him protectively, glancing around every few seconds. Monsieur le Grande put a thin attaché case on the table. I caught a part of Gaston’s expression. The Frenchman seemed about to drool.

I renewed pressure on the remaining bonds. Suddenly, with a little jerk, I got free. No one noticed. I tested my legs. Yes, free there, too. I brought my eyes to slits, my vision darting this way and that, looking for anything that would help me. It concerned me that Michele had stayed out of sight.

Gaston had put his .44 Magnum in his right side pocket. When the man moved in his chair, I could see the bulge shift. I might be able to get the gun. I thought about it and a plan hit me. I almost smiled.

Meanwhile, le Grande opened the case and took out a fair-sized package. He carefully unwrapped it and removed a velvet bag with a pull-tie at the top. Then he laid a royal blue velvet mat down and opened the tie, pouring the contents slowly onto the velvet. With a small tinkling sound, marquee, square, round and oval cut diamonds poured out. They were brilliant, all of them in the two and three carat range. I’d have bet they were all in the vvs category.

I couldn’t see well and dared not move for a better vantage. I guessed there must have been ten million dollars worth of diamonds in the collection. Why Gaston had turned traitor didn’t seem so strange anymore.

The traitor pulled a jeweler’s loupe out of a shirt pocket and ran his fingers through the pile. He chose one and studied it, put it down and took another. I watched him do it a few times. Le Grande let Gaston check out the diamonds, but kept a wary eye on him. Finally Gaston looked up.

He said, “Yes, they are beautiful. I will have Michele bring in the money.”

He snapped his fingers. Michele came in immediately, carrying another attaché case, larger, black and rectangular. From the way she carried it, it seemed fairly heavy. She glanced at me, but did not stop. Gaston took the case from her.

“Merci, mon chere,” he said. Michele stood looking at the brilliant treasure below. Her eyes sparkled and she smiled, but said nothing. Gaston grabbed her hand and looked up at her.

I saw my chance. I rose from my chair, picked up the edge of the table and heaved it at the three men. I caught them completely by surprise and off balance. Le Grande and his gorilla fell back. Gaston, being slightly to the side grabbed for anything he could. As he turned, my hand dove into Gaston’s pocket and I came up with the .44. In the same smooth motion with my other hand, I pushed Gaston into the tall man and they both went down.

The gorilla gained his feet and pulled his gun out, even while trying to steady himself. I put one between the big man’s eyes. He slumped to the floor, twitched, and lay still. One dead gorilla! The gun had a kick like a mule.

Michele turned to run. I didn’t want to kill her, but I couldn’t let her escape. I put one in her right leg and she went down screaming. I didn’t feel right about ruining such beautiful womanhood, but she’d lost my vote as a friend.

I moved around the table and aimed the .44 at the two men sprawled on the floor. Gaston glared up at me, eyes filled with hate. The other man looked at me curiously, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened.

“Move and die. I’ll make it simple.” I found a telephone a step away under a nearby counter. Without taking my eyes from the men on the floor I dialed “M.”

“Got an interesting crew here, boss,” I said when “M” came on the line. I explained where I was and how I saw my situation. I listened for another ten seconds, said okay and hung up.

“Get comfortable. You won’t be here long.” I glanced at Michele, a little worried. She lay whimpering, her leg broken and too much blood flowing from the wound.  I didn’t want her to die. I grabbed a sash cord from a room divider, yanked it down and threw it to her. I knew her leg must hurt like hell, but she took the cord and tied it around her upper leg, twisting it into a tourniquet. She screamed again, but held it and the blood slowed.

The tense situation lasted another ten minutes, when two members of my team came boiling through the doorway, sized up situation and let me off the hook.

“M” came through the door last. “Nice work, Frank.”

“Thanks, sir. I just feel bad about the lady.”

“You’ll get over it.”

Fireside Chat

I LEAD OFF the discussion. “Friends do for friends, right?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Charlie starts.

Get this. We are sitting around this roaring campfire in the woods up near Talcott Notch. It’s a warm night and insect spray is keeping the bugs off. Our faces are blazing and our backs are cold. Five of us stare into the flames together, me and my four friends. We are unlike, like I mean different! It’s not an encounter session…maybe it is. We’re here to talk out something.

Two rules; we stare nowhere but at the moving flames while we’re talking, and everyone must have something to say.

I better back up a bit. It comes down to an argument we had back in March. That day we’re in Joe’s Bar on Center Street in Waterbury tossing Bud’s and Sam’s and maybe a few boilermakers. Hand to mouth we’re munching chips or cashews or popcorn at one of Joe’s seriously distressed tables. The surface is covered with bottles, most being empty. We’re a bunch of old farts being loud.

To understand this group and where we are you have to get to know the guys. First me. I’m Donnie. I make things happen. I’m headstrong with a bit of a temper. I might know almost as much as I think I do, depending on who you listen to.

So Charlie’s got a load on and throws out the thing that grabs me. “Why are we friends?”

“Why are we friends? You shitting me?” I say to him.

“No law says we have to be,” Charlie says.

“You got no string tied to your ass,” I say back.

I get this sudden thing, like a brickbat to the side of the head. It’s something I’d been mulling for months, but it didn’t have a home until that moment. We’re not alike in any way, shape or form, so why do we stick together? I hold up my hands and wave everybody down.

“Hey, gang, Charlie wonders why we are friends.”

Everybody in the small group debates the point and we get nowhere, as usual, but nobody says no when I offer to head up a special session of the self-styled Raucous Bunch in a place where they’ll have no choice but to think about it. I don’t want asshole answers.

Now it’s July and here we are, camping…and drinking…and munching. Food seems to be part of every social conversation. Maybe food is a catalyst in the nature of friendships, something to do with your hands while you’re thinking, I dunno. Well, if you’re Italian, ha ha.

I plan to test the theory tonight by the fire. Some time ago I gave them all homework, a sheet of paper, a list in fact. Here’s how I figure it will shake out. I’ve had a spotty life, but I’m good with me. I like me. Sometimes I disappoint me, but I rationalize, who doesn’t?

Charlie, the one who kicked this off in my head went to college and graduated an engineer. He stuck with it and had a successful career. That’s in engineering. In marriage, he stunk. He got a girl and had some kids, but the idea of a permanent relationship went south five times before he gave up and decided single fit him best. By then his divorce decrees said he had to pay for seven kids until they became adults. That’s all past him now.  The last one turned eighteen a month ago. He’s pragmatic about it.

Al is short and bull-like and isn’t that smart like a thinker, but he’s the tenacious one. He ended up a laborer, what’d he care? He wins arguments by sticking to what he knows and never rises to a new idea. Still, he’s a sweetheart of a guy and nobody denies that. He married, but didn’t have any kids. His wife died three years ago.

John is quiet and studious when you compare him to the rowdy gang we generally are together so I wonder how he got to be part of the Raucous Bunch. I scratch my head on that one. He told us once he wanted to be a Minister, but life got in his way—didn’t it for all of us—and he became a Librarian his whole life instead. He had the same job when he retired. Advancement didn’t appeal.

Finally we come to Ralph. He’s our big guy, three hundred pounds of mostly muscle gone to seed through inactivity. He worked in the Waterbury school system and from what I heard, when he bellowed, the kids listened. He made them look up to him, so he did well.

There you have it. The Raucous Five, and except for me—I’d been camping for years—the others met at the campground shorn of their natural habitat. I’m thinking I picked it right.

So I ask the question and Charlie already wants to pick a fight.

I say, “Go ahead. You opened you big mouth, BUT what?”

He looks at me. “Rule number one, stare at the fire, Charlie.” His gaze goes back. Now he’s talking to all of us. There’s method in this madness.

“Okay, Donnie, you’re right and you’re wrong. Suppose I turned you in to the police because I was trying to be a friend.”

“Let’s roundtable first.” I look at Al.

“Yeah. Charlie, you’re not being a friend if you rat on a friend.” Al does what I think he’s going to. He’s sticking to the tried and true. He’s honest because he can’t think of a good way to not be. I like honesty, but there are all shades of it.

“Maybe a friend you rat on isn’t a friend.”

John speaks up. “What drew you to him to begin with?”

Ralph moves in his chair. It threatens to collapse and dump him. I’m taking a bet in my head on that. Before John can answer he joins. “Twenty-five years I taught grammar school kids and I saw every kind of conflict, including friendships that came and went. You can’t figure it. It’s chemistry.”

I break in. “The major problem is kids become big people and all people change as they go.”

“Right,” Ralph says, “they grow up, they grow down, they grow sideways, and what’s the cause? Other people, other circumstances, other places and how people react to them. It’s up here where all that happens.” He taps his noggin.

Charlie glances at Ralph and returns to studying the flames. “You know; I like this,” I say. I reach into the nearby woodpile and toss a good sized stick across the burning center. Sparks leap for the sky and everybody’s eyes follow them up and watch them die.

John says, “You like what?”

“Thinking. We don’t do much at Joe’s place.”

We’re silent for a time.

“You guys check out the thing I gave you?” They turn to look at me. They’re going to crack wise, but before they do they get this look and they glance at each other and nod.

“Yeah, thanks. A list of all the values people live by…or should. I thought you were blowing smoke up my butt, but you opened my eyes,” Charlie says. “You want to tell us what you had in mind, Donnie?”

“Sure. I’ve been thinking about our group for awhile and I started wondering about it. Wasn’t till Charlie made his offhand comment a few months back that it gelled with me and I figured I ought to go for some answers. That’s when I grabbed for the brass ring and spilled it to the group and here we are.”

They’re all ears.

“First, friends do for friends. We know this, but did we know that each one of us comes to that conclusion from different places. What is a friend to Al, to John, to Charlie? Ralph may have a different take on what’s a friend to him. See?

I see cloudy confusion.

“Or…maybe there’s nothing to see.”

I deadpan so they can’t read me.

“This sheet I took off the Internet from some guy named Blackwell, on values we live with. I looked it over and shortened all the garbage he spouted to what I figured were the real meanings of what he tried to say. I left one out.”

Nobody looks at the fire now. They pull out the sheet I gave them from front and back pants pockets, one from a shirt pocket, and they study the list in the firelight.

I’m seeing what I want to see so I feel smug, kind of. “What value did I leave out?”

“Tell us,” they say.

“Sure. It’s friendship. Friends are people who sustain us by accepting us as we are.”

The light dawns. So easy you could trip over it. Of course it’s a value!

Charlie says, “You dragged us out to your goddamned campsite in the wilderness to tell us this?”

I make it heartfelt because I feel it in my gut. “You guys, you’re what I have and I’m for you. Isn’t it nice to know why a bunch of guys who wouldn’t look at any of us on the street turned into buddies? You think you’d remember if we’re screaming at each other in Joe’s place?”

The guys sit and think a bit.

“So it’s written on the inside of your brains?”

Nods and, “Yeah.” We share a special moment.

Then Charlie says to the boys, “Let’s grab this old bastard and toss him in the lake.” They get out of their chairs and go for me.

Friends…so nice to be appreciated!

Appreciation Profile

“HOW ABOUT A hug?” he says.

“Okay,” she replies. It comes out as a sigh. She’s mad at him. She doesn’t want to, but that engaging quirk of his lip takes some of the steam out of her. She relaxes a little. They come together. The hug is silent, warm, and tingly and costs them nothing. It brings a smile to both peoples lips.

“We should do this more often,” she says.

“It does have a leavening effect on our relationship, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. I forgot what I was mad at you about.”

“Must have been awful,” he says, still holding on.

It comes to her. She’s never far from the moment, not ever. She operates on a different level from him and he idly wonders as the next statement spills from her mouth, if living in the moment one hundred percent wouldn’t be better than coming to it as he does, kind of sidelong, detached, transported into it rather than being there.

He’s not going to change. She’s not going to change. The thought is absurd in the circumstance, and yet it does not surprise him. It’s who he is.

She says, “You’re a beast, you know.”

“Moi?” his mispronounced French is his signature. The tone of voice softens the word. Maybe they can talk this new thing out with more light and less heat. His indiscretion couldn’t be monolithic, after all.

“Yes, but I’ll save it until the next time.”

“That sounds a bit more like you.” He can’t help it. He should not have uttered the words but they came out. Like the voice of doom, it goads her.

“Just what do you mean by that?” Item: feelings can change in a heartbeat.

She can get so…er…find a good term…moody sometimes, he thinks. Two steps back, but he responds adroitly. “It is my dear, one of the things I love about you.”

“And what is that?” She moves away from his embrace and stands still in the kitchen, but the impression of her words is all hands on hips. Her hackles are right back up again.

Dig out; dig deeper? He gives it a shot.

“The straightforward honesty you project in all things. I had a wife who stabbed me in the heart, but I never saw it coming. She was devious and dishonest. You are not. It may hurt to hear what you have to say, but at least you are up front. Thank you for that.”

This from one imperfect soul to another, he thinks but does not say.

He has alluded to her first husband obliquely. This is part of a strategy that has worked in the past and he knows she will recognize it. She’s not perfect and she accepts that on a personal level, but to admit it in a confrontational situation wouldn’t be her.

They are both running true to form. Their knowledge of each other and how they parry is classic. They have had many years together and know one another as much as two people can. Although the outcome is not preordained, they are giving it their best shots, and they know their fail-safe points.

All that he said came from his heart. He hoped she would accept it as being honest and forthright.

She ponders a few moments, her face impassive, and then says, “Okay, husband. Look, I have shopping and we’re going out later to a movie. We’d better seal this with another hug, don’t you think?

Gets right to it! We embrace. He relaxes. She is healed and he is no longer raw.

She goes her way. He goes his. A potential rift is sealed. He gets to thinking it over and decides that appreciation is oft-times better molded into a scene than spoken. It’s a healthier way. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than any professed uttering. They have the same meaning as the spoken word, but are more permanent.

A good result is unbeatable. He thinks that we all stand on the head of a pin and balance is the only force that keeps us from the abyss. He likes that thought.

Gordon Tuttle

Light fiction with subtle humor, or as my Australian friends would say, “humour.”

LONG BEFORE I  actually laid eyes on the man, I sensed that my relationship with Gordon Tuttle wouldn’t be a source of joy and comfort to either one of us, especially me. What could I expect? His goons had me tied up with duct tape, one of my two favorite products. I love WD-40, too. That’s the other one. I felt I should mention it since I brought it up.

Got to hand it to Gordon’s boys, using modern technology to do the job. Imagine trussing somebody up with rope when duct tape is used around every home in America. You know, quick repairs to your car’s upholstery, covering the split in your kids bicycle seat, just about anything.

They had me in a kitchen chair. My kitchen chairs weren’t all that sturdy, being twenty-five years old and having gone through the rigors of my four, now grown and gone children. Made of oak, my favorite wood, the old brown high-back style meant they were strong, except at the joint points, which creaked from loose screws and failed glue. I point out that they held me tight just fine.

Charlie and John did a good job of making me part of the chair, I have to admit. Crooks learn stuff about things most people hear or read about, but seldom take time to really get into. I think it’s part of the School of Hard Knocks where they learn all that stuff, you know, how to use rope and duct tape, how to torture people for information or just torture them, if that’s their thing.

Charlie sat on a chair smirking at me. Charlie wore an outsized blue work shirt and baggy jeans. His belly protruded over where he might have had a belt, but I couldn’t tell. I guessed he liked his beer. A disgustingly fat, but very strong man, he kept his eye on me while John went out for cigarettes. There’s a packy a block from my house and they sell ‘em there. I know because I buy liquor there. Obviously, they sell cigarettes, too.

I don’t smoke any more. Filthy habit. Stinks up a room and the stale mouth you get from cigarettes only works if your wife also smokes like a chimney. Then you’re immune, kind of.

‘Course, if you’re a drinker and she’s a smoker, neither one of you would be able to abide the other, I suppose. Fortunately, my smoking wife died of lung cancer two years ago, kind of why I gave up cigarettes and started drinking. Well, not fortunate she died; only that she doesn’t have to watch me become a lush. I do miss her. Strange how when you’re all tied up, you have time to think about absurd things.

Charlie’s a hulking dummy, Gordon’s dog. He likes to hurt people. Evidently Gordon saw value in that, because I picture Charlie groveling at his feet like a lovesick puppy, that type of guy.

The only contact I had with Gordon so far, a phone call I got two days ago, he told me he’d be showing up to discuss money. As I sit looking at Charlie’s smirk, I replay the conversation in my head.

“Money? Who is this?” I say to the unfamiliar voice on the other end.

“Gordon, my man.” He sounds black. I know, I shouldn’t stereotype, but he does.  He has that unmistakable inner city speech pattern. I search my brain, but I can’t make a connection. There has to be one. In my business, you don’t get to know all the people you affect, one way or another.

“I don’t know a Gordon, do I?”

“You gonna soon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know Dilatania Jones?”

“Oh, her. Yeah, so what?”

“She married to a friend of mine.”

“How’d you get my number?”

“I got ways, man. Look for me.” He hung up.

I found it a little unsettling. Dilatania Jones borrowed some money from me. I run this banking business, see. You need money and you can’t get it from a regular bank, you can come to me. My rates are high, but you got a need, I can fill it, you know? Call it a substandard client loan fund, something like that. Hey, the banks give out sub-prime mortgages. Pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

Jones didn’t tell me what she wanted the money for, but I found out later her husband is into gambling and isn’t always successful. Not my problem, but I’d been after her for the weekly payment. You know, nice at first, accommodating – for an additional fee, of course – then not so much.

So this morning about seven a.m., this guy John comes to the door. John is tall and thin and clean cut and he’s got blue eyes and he’s wearing a dark brown delivery outfit that says UPS. He looks the part. I can’t remember getting a delivery so early in the morning before, but they got to start sometime. I’m not expecting something, but I have in the past, so I open the door. I should have listened to that little nagging voice in my head.

“Check this out first,” my voice says, but I don’t.

My voice is right. John pushes me and I catch my balance on the telephone table near the door and by that time Charlie looms behind him and it’s all over but the shouting, you know.

That’s where we are now. John comes back and I’m sitting, going nowhere. I can’t believe this, he lights up outside and has his smoke before coming back in. Gotta love these no smoking programs. Even some of the scum are doing the right thing. Must eat in restaurants a lot.

Five minutes later Gordon walks in. He’s short and dapper and I want to laugh because he’s wearing a zoot suit. Remember them, high waist, wide legs at the top, tight cuff, pegged trousers, long coat with wide lapels and the wide padded shoulders. Remember the zip-up pants bottoms? This guy’s out of the fiftes, for crying out loud. He’s got intense brown eyes, kind of bloodshot near the edges and with a little madness in them. In a couple of minutes I figure I know why he’s the boss of this pair. He’s a take-charge guy, and for his size, real impressive. He gets right to it.

“My friend Lennie found out his wife borrowed some money. He had to take her in hand. Consider it a bad investment. You write off bad investments?”

“Not often.”

“You going to write this one down.”

“She signed a contract.”

“It’s void, get it?”

“Let me outta this chair and we’ll talk.”

“I talk, you listen.”

The upshot of my day is I get to live and we forget Dilatania Jones, Lennie Jones, Gordon Tuttle and his two dogs. We go back and forth for a little, but after he calls Charlie over to administer some grinning persuasion, I decide Gordon is right, after all. He didn’t exactly break my legs, but they’ll be healing for a time and he may be a dummy, but at pain he’s an expert.

Win a little; lose a little, like life. It took me six hours after they left to get out of the tape job. You’d think he could have left a kitchen knife nearby to help out, but I didn’t suggest it with Charlie around.

I figure I’d better relocate. I’ve been known to make good choices when it counts.

Lots of big towns in this land of opportunity.

Lannie Mae

Lannie Mae Richards for many years had embodied the rock upon which her family stood. Raised in a God-fearing household, she carried those lessons through her life and taught them to her children. She broached no compromise with the laxity she saw in “moderns,” as she called them. Now, for the first time in her life it appeared she would have to let others help her do what in her mind anyone could do with ease.

She’d fallen again, not to the floor, but against a filing cabinet. No one would have noticed except, curse it, she yelped. Stella, the Office Manager, heard her from the other side of the room and called to her.

“Mrs. Richards, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she’d said, but by then Stella had crossed the room and Lannie Mae couldn’t pretend. Hurt like the dickens. So did her ankle. She wondered idly what she’d managed to do to that.

Stella helped her to sit on a nearby swivel-chair, and turning, said over her shoulder, “I’ll get your son,” and ran out of the room.

“No, no need,” but by then the lady had disappeared toward the president’s office. In thirty seconds, Lance appeared, assessed his mother’s situation and said, “We need to talk.”

All conversing done, today she sat in a wheelchair with a drab brown, careworn shawl around her shoulders; her favorite shawl and she didn’t care who knew it. With her head bowed, she waited for her son Lance to finish registering her for a suite of rooms at Brandywine, an upscale assisted living facility not far from the factory.

Tired in body and spirit, she didn’t want to come here. Nonetheless, she alone made the decision to apply. She gave Lance no voice in her decision. Her oldest son argued and even pleaded, suggested they would keep her at home, but in her mind being out of sight would take pressure off her family; the right thing to do. They would not have to live daily with a fear that at a wrong moment, she would miss a step and perhaps break something serious and permanent.

The wheelchair in which she sat spoke silent volumes about her pronouncement. She’d volunteered for a placement, insisted on it. She’d sprained her ankle, hence the wheelchair.  The bruise on her shoulder, black and ugly, meant nothing. Now the facility doctor had her records and silently studied them.

A hairline fracture of the hip, mended, but fragile in the extreme with extensive osteoporosis the doctor mentioned briefly as he reviewed her x-rays convinced her. She asked the doctor when that happened and he looked at her curiously.

“You don’t know when it happened?” he asked.

“Would I ask if I knew?”

“You’ve forgotten.”

“Doctor, I’m in this world eighty-seven years and I forget nothing.”

“That’s astounding.” He didn’t believe her, so he waited.

“Life is filled with pain, doctor. I take it as it comes. Sometimes it hurts. I can think of a dozen times I could have broken something and sometimes I did, but the exact event that caused what you just told me is mixed up with some labor or other and therefore meaningless. I don’t have time to rest on my laurels. Work waits for no man. Doesn’t wait for me, either.”

The doctor looked quizzical, but had nothing more to say so he gazed at Lannie Mae’s son and Lance nodded.

“Well,” the doctor said, “I can do nothing for you, except to caution you about doing too much. I’d like you to remember that your body won’t take the strain you’re determined to give it and if you don’t ease up, it’ll be worse next time. Our Administrator will arrange for all the assistance you require.”

A couple of days before, at home, she had him make the calls that brought her here, she’d told Lance how she felt.

“I’m tired of the looks I’m getting. Stella follows me around like a pup and I know what she’s doing tailing me. You take me to Brandywine now,” she said. “You and your siblings can visit as often as you want or not, Lance. The business is more important than I am.”

“That’s not true, mother.”

“Thank you for that, but you know well enough it’s true. The town will disappear if the mill stops producing. You don’t want that, do you?”

“No, mother,” Lance sighed.

The mill earned millions and it was the family’s fortune – and burden – to have begun operation in the mists of the past and through good stewardship, caring managers and contented workers that it continued.

The brass plaque affixed to a large boulder at the side of the long drive to the facility proclaimed Milltown Textiles – 1740, mutely but proudly. It started on a shoestring like all ventures had back then. Men carved a place out of forested woods. They knocked down trees, moved rocks and blasted when the terrain wouldn’t give up to Man’s design. They built dams and waterwheels and other things with hands that sometimes bled. Their blood washed away in each rain, but their monuments of civilization stood and grew.

The clever and driven worked long hours and paid attention to business and they succeeded. Their survival took many forms two hundred and fifty years ago, but they never compromised the drive to better themselves.

A quarter of the population of Milltown owed its existence to the mill and the rest of the town relied in some measure on the people who produced products everyone needed. Food, clothing and shelter were the basics of life after which all other things followed. Milltown Textiles provided one of the three. Stores sold merchandise that flowed daily from the big warehouse doors and trucks rumbled through the town to distant destinations. Milltown Textiles made life good.

Lance Richards ran the multi-million dollar business, making decisions all day long, but he couldn’t get a thought in edgewise where it concerned his mother. Up to now, she’d been a constant presence that hung over everything. With the gut feeling that his mother’s life and that of everyone she had touched for the past seventy years must now change by her simple act, he completed the paperwork and held a clipboard for her signature.

She looked the documents over carefully, her half glasses low on her nose. Pointing at a place, she asked a question and another, reviewing thoroughly. Finally satisfied, she signed with her unique scrawl. Lance handed the clipboard back to the doctor.

“Mother, the nurse will take you to your rooms. I have to get back to the mill.”

“Of course,” she said, and patted his hand.

Lance kissed her on a proffered cheek. Always in control, he thought. Brandywine, you are all about a new experience with Lannie Mae Richards.

“I’ll check on you tomorrow. That special shipment has to get out and I have some paperwork the shipping supervisor needs on my desk.”

His mother waved at him dismissively. The corner of Lance’s mouth turned up in a quirky grin. Just like her.

As he left the building, he made it a point not to look back, an inbred and now involuntary habit of life. Outside the door, he lost the grin and allowed his brain to be assailed with the multitude of problems command generated. He focused briefly on his mother. Mother knew the score. She knew he could handle it. In fact, Lannie Mae had passed the mantle seconds ago. She’d never say it, but by taking herself out of the loop, she’d ratified his position as de facto president. He now truly ran the company.

At Brandywine, Lannie Mae looked up at her nurse’s aide.

“Show me my rooms, Margaret,” she said. “You play poker?”

Mary Beth and Ollie

I glanced out the window on Amtrak’s D.C. run, my thoughts on other things. I’d switch trains in Baltimore and then cab-dash into the district to be there by five p.m. I saw rolling fields of early corn that stretched all the way to the mild hump of horizon. Gray hills continued into the distance. The fields shimmered with June heat.

My pen hadn’t made many marks on the pad I held in the last hour. I became aware of a crick in my neck. I wish I’d bought that cheap laptop I saw at Staples last week. Best price I’d seen in months, but it’d still cost me close to a thousand and my frugal-bone told me I’d better wait on the money. I didn’t have it.

I consciously moved my neck back and forth and rubbed it with a negligent hand.

The article wasn’t coming easy this time. I couldn’t get the right amount of worry into my words and Tim Roderick; my editor at Time had admonished me at our last meeting.

“Rich, this one’s time has come. Make it bleed and I’ll feature it in the center section. We need this one and you do, too.”

I got his meaning. My last several articles weren’t up to my usual slash and burn style. I knew it, but that last episode with my ex-wife threw me way off. I leveraged my mind out of there.

I stared at the rolling hills, felt the rushing train. I rode rails; fear of flying. Up to now I’d blocked out the monotony of train sounds. Now I let in the regular clack-clickety-clack of big steel wheels ironing out the unvarying track separations. Soothed my mind. My eyes drank in the greenery.

Out there patterned fields flicked by; corn standing like leafy green soldiers, row after row, separated with hedgerows like Army battalions. Others with straight stonewalls separated one owner from another. The greenness subtly changed as I watched. The next several fields were a little yellower and the corn not as tall and I knew that the farmer working them needed money. Probably stretched his fertilizer too far.

I felt a pang. Right there, another example. I pulled out my map and tried to estimate exactly where we were. I marked the spot with a yellow highlighter and put the map away. Maybe I could use it some time.

I shrugged. Enough about other people’s money troubles; I’d have more of my own if I didn’t. Time to get back to work. I picked up my steno pad and grabbed the ballpoint. With the economy in the toilet and the damned politicians in Washington about to pull the flush handle on the American economy hard enough to include two or three future generations, I didn’t want to deplete my nest egg any more than I had. Might have to live frugally again. I had done that in my youth and I knew how, but it went against my grain. I’d always been a responsible citizen. I’d minded my money, paid my bills and kept my obligations within pretty strict limits.

Had fun, though. Doesn’t take money, not all the time.

The fellow next to me shucked into a better sitting position and I noticed him for the first time. He had on a worn tweed coat, mismatched corduroy pants, and a blue denim shirt with a rumpled collar. The shirt pocket sported a dark blue stain from a leaky ballpoint. His shoes needed attention, but not as much as the rest of him.

The train felt cool enough, but the guy had to get off sometime and when he did, how uncomfortable could that be? Thirty-five degrees, oh yeah, but ninety-seven in Baltimore, from what I heard. First impression, nobody’d be waiting for him at the station.

Not my problem. I had to construct an emotional piece that would bleed all over Time’s centerfold. I went back to work, staring at the two hundred or fewer words I’d written and looking for a sign of blood.

No blood. I squeezed my eyes shut until they hurt, opened them and looked at my neighbors a bit closer.

Across the narrow aisle a boy and his mother sat. Mom looked careworn and the child appeared listless. Mom wore a fading red dress. I’m not a style horse, but I knew that one had passed years ago along with its better days. The boy wore worn,  ill-fitting hand-me-downs. I grew up with a lot of that and I got a little lump thinking back. Neither looked my way. They seemed oblivious, sunk into themselves. The word “desperate” came to mind.

Funny what people can project without doing a blessed thing. I’m a writer and my life is mostly on paper. I don’t talk much except through my fingers, but in a sudden paradigm shift the beginnings of excitement surged someplace inside.

I looked at the lady. “Ma’am?”

I broke her reverie and she slowly turned toward the sound of my voice.

“Are you addressing me?” She had a soft and elegant voice that belied the rags I’d stereotyped and her voice had a deep-south accent I tried to place immediately. It’s something I do, a game, I guess. Alabama? No, more Tennessee. Memphis maybe, but city, not ridge-runner. Gotta be careful with stereotypes. The accent and manner caught me off guard. She didn’t smile, but her face gentled as she focused on something beyond lassitude. She seemed younger then, effecting a small, significant transformation.

“Yes, ma’am. I’m a writer for Time Magazine and I’m writing an article about the bad economy. I’m stuck, and as I glanced around for the first time since taking my seat, I realized there are three people around me and I’m sorry to say I may have stared. It came to me that my three companions may have what I’m trying to develop. May I ask you a few questions?”

She hesitated, “Why, I don’t know…”

The mismatched man came to life. “Mister, them’s my sister and her little ‘un. Muh names Ollie…Ollie Pratt. Why not you ask me your questions?”

He had the same accent, but his voice had an unusual, gravely texture to it, like maybe he’d been a miner and got a snoot full of coal dust over time.

“Why, sure,” I said. We introduced around; Ollie, Mary Beth and eight-year-old Derwood. After I broke the ice they came out of their lethargy.

I proceeded to ask about them where they were going and where they had come from. I got that they came from a little village a few miles from the big metropolis of Memphis, Tennessee. I chalked up one for me. I asked them about their jobs and their opinion of our government and if they favored what it had in mind for the economy. I asked the questions gently, almost apologetically. I held in my excitement, because these were people, real people living just what I needed to hear about.

And while we talked I got to know them and they began to smile and trust me. Ollie’d been a miner in West Virginia, but when the mines closed he had to go all the way to Memphis to find work.

“Gas station, pumpin’ gas, sellin’ candy and cigarettes.” His expression said he didn’t like it. “Mining, yuh got dirty, but yuh had yer crew keepin’ yer back all the time. Scarier selling gas with all them robbers out theah then workin’ under the ground.”

“Yes, I understand. This country’s gotten to be a dangerous place. It’s part of what my article is about. There is a correlation between tough times and crime.” And other things, I thought, but didn’t say it.

“We aren’t well off,” Ollie said. “Done visitin’ tuh oldest sister and her Fancy Dan husband. He’s a stockbroker in New York City. We proud, but with the government bailin’ out all them big banks and fat companies, I figured we’re worse off altogether, so’s we went north to see if sister’s man could help us a bit. Turns out he’s lost a good bit himself and he’s concerned about carryin’ his family. Goin’ tuh sell his boat and the summer place. Don’t know who’d buy it, but somebody’s got money somewheres.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Well,” he stopped to take a long breath, “we’re on our way home none the better. I figure if the fat cats are down in the dumps, where’s that leave us? Nowhere, I think.”

Ollie had started to get animated and then thought better. I wasn’t the enemy. He figured it’s the government and I knew some part of that would creep into my article and become the part that bleeds.I lost track of time and when the whistle sounded ahead to warn an intersection, I realized we were entering the outskirts of Baltimore. I thanked these down to earth people and wished them well. I had my story now and I knew just how to get it into that centerfold. I’d earn my pay, this week anyway.

Getting Along

I HAVE ONE hand in my pocket. The other holds a stick slung over my shoulder. A blue polka-dot kerchief filled with all I own bobs at the end. I whistle something out of tune, but it’s happy and that’s all I care about. The road I travel is dusty and today’s going to be hot. I’m on a lane with overhanging trees and their green leaves slap me gently as I pass. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going; I just know I’m free. Free to make my own choices. Free to succeed or fail and it’s all the same to me.

The hand in the pocket holds a piece of paper. I take it out again and look at it, maybe for the hundredth time. It’s my divorce decree. I jump in the air and click my heels. There’s no one around, but it could be Madison Square Garden, for all I care. Out from under. Hot dog! I could have one day left on this earth or forty years, I couldn’t care less. Happiness is a piece of paper with official writing on it in dull, dry as bones legalese, but to me it spells freedom.

The blue polka-dot kerchief doesn’t look like much. Nobody is going to stop and rob a dusty guy with nothing but a tied up blue kerchief at the end of a stick. They wouldn’t guess there’s sixty thousand dollars in there, her payoff. I get the money and she gets the house, the grounds, and the headaches.

The kids? I’ll miss them, part of the price. Thinking back to the troubles, they’re better off with her than me. She influenced them too much while I worked my butt off trying to stay even with her spending habits. They caught her particular brand of crazy and nothing I did could lead them out of her downward spiral. I know a guy shouldn’t give up on his kids, but when I decided, I saw only a stacked deck and me with no aces.

Reason with her? Hah! You didn’t reason with that witch. She’s a perfect definition of a fair weather wife. Fine while everything went her way, but one downside, one need to move together to meet a challenge or ward off an enemy or handle some other crisis as a couple and she’d leave me in my corner all alone. Solidarity? Loyalty? Hell, no!

I stop and concentrate. I send her a mental message willing her lots of big headaches. I wish she could see me smile!

Twenty-five years of my life I devoted to her and her spawn. Now that I’m out of it and fancy-free once again after half a life of pure agony, I can do what I want, when I want and I love the feeling.

I could be stupid, carrying all that money in the bag at the end of a stick, but I’m thinking I’m smart. Who’s going to see money on a tramp? They’ll see dirty clothes, underwear, maybe a dented pot for cooking and book matches, maybe fingernail clippers, maybe even a razor and soap, but not money.

Regardless, I’m not that stupid. Got a little Smith and Wesson twenty-two short riding herd under my jeans, right over the iliac region, you know, right where the back curves inward, makes a little hiding place. Got the gun wrapped in a piece of old blanket. Shirt hanging out loose, who’s gonna see it? Hardly feel it, but I know it’s there and guess what? Yeah, I got plenty of ammo on me, too.

I don’t like guns, but a man needs to protect himself. Won’t be long before I find a place to stash the money. I’m going to disappear, become someone else. Got the profile down and I practice it as I go. Just need to find a small town, 8500, maybe 9000 people, small enough so I can be known in my circle, but big enough, you know what I mean? I want a place where I can feel comfortable with my handful of friends but not be known by all the people. It’s insulation by my way of thinking.

I’ve got plans, you see. I’m going to start up a little business. I’ve been mulling it over for some time. This money’s my grubstake. No one knows my plan because no one is going to know me until I’m ready. That gold-digger wife I had won’t know, but after I’m back on my feet, I’m going to send her a note, twist the knife, so to speak. Maybe by then I won’t hate her so much. Maybe I’ll even pity her. Yeah, pity, I’ll use that in my letter from…let’s see, where shall I send it from?
Have to think about that.