Walking Along Governor Nichols Street

New Orleans Writing Marathon

Day Four, Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ancient tree growing through the sidewalk, Governor NIchols Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Walking in the morning is too hard. My feet ache from all the walking the day before, my leg muscles are stiff and weak from sleeping all night. The morning humidity is difficult to breathe as if the moisture is displacing all the oxygen.

Time oppresses this morning. I can feel the burden of centuries in the teetering live oaks growing out of the sidewalks – their ancient roots beginning to slip and rise, pushing the bricks and slabs of concrete up and aside like they are packing peanuts.

I have seen these trees lying on their sides after a violent storm. Enormous root ball exposed to the air – an obscene display of the oak’s private parts.

How many storms, named and ancient anonymous, have these giant trees endured.

Some of them… I don’t think they will make it through the next one.

I have been through too many storms – some quiet, some loud, and they have left be bent. How many more do I have left?

Not too many, maybe not enough.

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Monday Flash Fiction – The Lunch Thief

“Did you bring the duct tape?”

“Of course, did you bring the… you know… the pliers?”

“Yup.”

Sam pulled a hideous looking pair of rusty heavy duty curved-jaw carpenter’s pincers from the inside of his jacket. “I was going to clean these up last night, but….”

“No, they are more frightening that way.”

“I know, right?”

“Now when Clayton gets here with the chloroform, we’ll be ready.”

Sam and Brandon stood at the entrance to the office cubicle, fidgeting, Sam clutching his pincers and Brandon trying to push his hand through the cardboard tube at the center of the roll of gray shiny tape. They both could feel their nerves ratcheting up when Clayton came walking down the aisle between the cubicles. He was carrying a cardboard shoe box under his arm and the two could hear the glass bottle rattling around as he moved. He had a white folded face towel in his hand.

“Now we’re ready,” said Sam, “Now we’ll catch the son of a bitch that’s been stealing everybody’s lunches.”

—————————————————————–

“So, as you see… we have all three of you pretty much red-handed,” the Human Resources Woman said as she stopped the video. “Plus, his blood and your prints… partials, but enough, were on the pincers we found in your desk. Those things were horrible, where did you find something like that?”

“My grandfather had them in his woodshop, I picked them up when he died.” Sam kicked himself internally. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice that surveillance camera before.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“You have been assigned to that cube… how long? Seven years?”

Sam nodded.

“That camera has been there all this time, a black dome over your head, in plain view, but it had disappeared from your mind, they always do.”

Sam glared at the Human Resources Woman. “Yeah, you look at something for long enough, you don’t notice it anymore.”

“That’s why we don’t bother to hide the cameras.”

Sam looked at the Human Resources Woman, really looked at her for the first time. He was never good at guessing ages and she could be anything from twenty-five to forty. She was wearing a standard and severe woman’s business outfit, a subtle patterned dark gray tube from skirt to shoulder carefully designed to disguise the fact she was a human being. Her hair was pulled back so tight it gave her a rictus grin.

Behind her desk was a blown-up copy of a diploma from a school with the word “middle” and two different compass directions preceding the name of a distant impoverished state. He glanced at the nameplate on her desk but forgot what it said as soon as his eyes returned to her.

Sam glowered. “Have you brought in Brandon and Clayton yet?”

“No, not yet. After we found Markson duct-taped to the water heater in the janitor’s closet, bleeding and missing most of a molar, it didn’t take long to find the incriminating evidence.”

“Markson, the asshole. So he ratted us out.”

“Nope, he wouldn’t say a word. He didn’t show up for work after that, though.”

“No, I guessed he wouldn’t. That was the point.”

“But the lunches kept on disappearing, didn’t they.”

“Yeah… dammit. We were sure that it was Markson.”

“But you were wrong.”

“Yes we were.”

“He never confessed, even under your torture, did he?”

“No, not a peep. He said that his lunches were stolen out of the office refrigerator too. So now what? Are you going to fire me? I don’t blame you. Let’s get on with it.”

The Human Resources Woman expanded her smile enough that the bun on the back of her head dipped a little.

“Fire you, oh no. There is an opening in the operations department, a district level manager’s position, with an office. You are one of the three remaining candidates.”

“Wait? What? You are offering me a promotion? But I don’t know anything about operations. I’m an accountant.”

“Here at Yoyodyne, we value pluck, independence, and innovation. Your reaction to the stolen lunches seems to indicate that you have the qualities we value in a management setting.”

“Yoyodyne? What does that mean? The company is called Earnest and Baynes. I’m not even really sure what we do… what they do.”

“Yes, that is our public name. We are offering you the opportunity to join the inner circle, the people that really understand what is going on. The group in charge of the Yoyodyne operation.”

Sam’s head was spinning; he found it hard to catch his breath. The air suddenly felt thin, lacking in oxygen.

“Are you interested,” said the Human Resources Woman. She didn’t ask it as a question.

“I guess,” said Sam. “What do I need to do to qualify?”

“That is for you to figure out.”

Sam rubbed his face with his palm, trying to decide what to do next. Suddenly, an important question came to mind.

“You said there were three candidates. Who are the other two?”

“Brandon and Clayton, of course. They have not been notified and hopefully, never will be. We have decided to give you the first shot.”

As Sam turned to leave, the Human Resources Woman called him back.

“We wanted to return these.”

She handed him the pinchers. They had been cleaned and the rust buffed off, leaving gleaming arcs of steel. Sam nodded, slipped them under his suit jacket, and left.

—————————————————————–

Getting rid of Clayton was easy. He had always been a natural crook, but very sloppy, plus fast and loose with the books in his department. A detailed anonymous letter to the local tax board inspector (mailed from another city) was all it took. Everyone lined the corridor while Clayton was marched out of the maze of cubes clutching a thin plastic grocery bag with his meager personal possessions. They didn’t even give him the dignity of the customary cardboard box.

After he left, a fast wave of employees fell upon Clayton’s cubicle to grab any left-behind office supplies. Only Sam and Brandon stood back. Sam eyed his rival and caught a distinct stink-eye glare from his former co-conspirator. Had the Human Resources Woman lied? Did Brandon know something?

It was on.

Both sides brought out every dirty trick in the book. Tiny slivers of seafood hidden in the crevices of the cubical. Invitations to non-existent meetings across town at critical times. Subscriptions to gay-porn message servers with work email addresses. Wiping out of data files. A potato in an exhaust pipe. Subtle, yet critical changes to customer databases. Viruses inserted in desktop computers.

Finally, though, Sam obtained information from a young administrative assistant about Brandon meeting up with a cute intern at a hot new nightspot. Sam knew that was the evening Brandon’s wife always went out with a group of friends. A careful email insured that the group chose the proper place to meet and was sure to run into Brandon and his illicit date.

And that was the end of Brandon.
—————————————————————–

As he left for home, an hour earlier than he had for seven years, Sam locked up his Yoyodyne badge in his desk and pulled out the Earnest and Baynes badge he wore outside of work. He took one long last look at the spectacular views from both corner office floor-to-ceiling glass windows before leaving his private office and dropping off a pile of work on his assistant’s desk.

The executive elevator was waiting and whisked him to the executive parking garage where his new Mercedes sat tight in its assigned spot. His smile turned to a scowl when he saw the heavy yellow boot locked on the front wheel. There was a typed note under one wiper blade, “Please come see us in the garage office and we can settle this minor matter.”

“What the fuck!” Sam screamed as he yanked the note off his windshield and strode toward the cinder block office. “I will have someone’s ass over this!”

He jerked open the heavy metal door and jumped into the small, windowless office. There were three parking garage employees standing by the opposite wall, facing away from him, all wearing stained yellow coveralls.

“Ok, which one of you assholes booted my Mercedes?” Sam screamed. His voice echoed around in the tiny office.

One of the men clicked something in his hand, a small remote. Sam heard a bolt slide in the door behind him. Before he could ask why the door was locked, the three turned around.

It was Brandon, Clayton, and Markson. Brandon had a roll of tape that looked like the same roll they had used on Markson, weeks before. Clayton had the same bottle of chloroform. And Markson swung something long, red, and massive, holding it with both hands. It was a big pair of nasty looking heavy duty bolt cutters. Swinging the handles, Markson made sure Sam could see the steel levers forcing the thick jaws open and shut.

“There are things you might miss a lot more than a tooth,” Markson said in a frightening, calm, matter-of-fact voice.

“Hey… what the hell?” Sam pleaded in desperation as the three closed in on him. “Come on guys. Don’t blame me, I didn’t steal anybody’s lunch.”

Interstellar Bait Shop

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Van Taurus examined the planet below as he orbited, trying to determine the best place to land. He knew that through his planet’s research and his extensive personal surgical procedures he would be able to superficially mix with the inhabitants of the planet below – even speak a few rudimentary phrases of their languages. But he had to pick the proper place to land. He didn’t want to set down in a densely populated city – it would create too much attention – or even a panic that would overwhelm him and make his mission of study impossible. Likewise, he didn’t want to settle in an isolated spot – that would make his intention of personally interacting with the natives difficult or impossible.

He knew his predecessors had made a policy of seeking out tracts of small, portable rectangular identical dwellings clustered in rural areas – thinking that such simple folk would be more accepting and malleable – but their missions had all been abject failures, so he rejected that plan.

He noticed the layout of some cities of what looked like more modern construction – a spoke and wheel arrangement. The dense central urban area that had strips of some smooth material radiating out – most connecting with other population centers some distance away. He decided to land somewhere along one of these connections, thinking that would be a spot little noticed but one that would give him eventual access to the population of the planet.

Van Taurus selected a large – but not too huge – urban area, then a spoke radiating out, and finally he found a vacant area next to the smooth strip. During the dark period he maneuvered his ship through the atmosphere and set it down in the center of the vacant area, about five ship-widths from the transportation corridor.

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Location of the landing

He knew from the research on the planet’s electromagnetic communication that the people were very familiar with the shape of his ship – obviously learned from the many failed missions that had preceded him. The circular ship, oval in cross-section – and lined with viewing ports had become a symbol of his planet’s visits – yet the population didn’t seem to take it all that seriously. It was almost treated in their entertainment communications as a subject of strange humor, rather than the momentous discovery it really was.

This was another in a long string of curious mysteries that Van Taurus had intended to solve when he volunteered for the dangerous mission – one that no fellow explorer had ever returned.

So it was with trepidation that Van Taurus peered from his viewports as the planet’s single star rose above the horizon. He expected to see a large, agitated crowd of the planet’s population, possibly afraid, possibly hostile.

Instead, he saw no one. The only activity was a steady stream of transportation modules along the smooth strip of prepared surface. There were a wide variety of metal capsules moving at a high speed, most containing only a single individual. They sped along without any visible means of power or guidance, and Van Taurus used his remote spectrograph to discover that each was spewing a mixture of toxic gasses out the small pipe in their tail. Why? He couldn’t imagine.

Another mystery.

After a few diurnal cycles without anyone paying any attention to his ship, Van Taurus felt confident and bored enough to venture forth, walking along the transportation strip in the direction he knew the distant city to be located.

He didn’t have to travel far before he came upon a small, colorful structure that seemed to offer for trade a selection of foodstuffs and other small items. He entered and moved in front of an individual that stood at the front of the room. He had carefully prepared his statement.

“My name is Van Taurus and I am an alien on your planet. I mean you no harm.”

“An alien? Well hell, what’s one more? Let me tell where the folks around here go for labor”

Van Taurus didn’t know exactly what the word “labor” meant, but the man seemed to understand that he was an alien and didn’t seem too disturbed about the fact. Perhaps this civilization had expected someone like him and prepared a location to communicate with aliens and he was being directed to it. He allowed himself a bit of praise in his choice of landing spot – so close to the alien gathering place.

When he reached the location described to him he found a group standing around. Metal capsules, larger than most, would arrive and the occupant would gesture at a small number of the group, and these individuals would climb into a large open box on the back of the capsule. They would then speed away.

He was confused by this, but one gestured at him from a capsule, and, almost reflexively, he climbed in with the others. He was transported to a spot where the group spent the day picking up blocks of artificial stone and carrying them from one location to another. At the end of the period, they each were handed a small bundle of flexible sheets.

On the return trip, his crude knowledge of at least three of the planet’s languages allowed him to learn from the others in the back of the capsule that these sheets could be exchanged for food and other goods from locations such as the one he had visited earlier.

He stopped on the walk back to the spaceship and the man seemed glad to see him, once he displayed his collection of sheets. He exchanged a few for various foodstuffs. Van Taurus found the food to be palatable though strange, and oddly unfulfilling.

He settled into a routine of walking to the gathering spot, going off to do some strange, meaningless task, often involving killing and removing harmless vegetation, and afterwards purchasing food at the small building.

Some days he would spend in the space around his ship, doing scientific research. He was fascinated by the small, long, wriggling eyeless creatures that lived in the soil where he had landed. He traded for a tool from the building and had dug out a pile of these animals when he was surprised by a capsule stopping and the occupants offering him a small stack of sheets for the creatures.

He asked his fellow laborers about that and they explained about “fishing” and helped him make a sign of cardboard that said, “Van Taurus Bait Shop.” It wasn’t long before he was collecting enough sheets in exchange for the creatures that he didn’t have to go on the trips with the laborers again, though he did miss the companionship.

Van Taurus was alarmed when he began to exhaust the supply of creatures around his ship. But the man in the colorful building explained that he had collected enough of the exchange sheets to move to a location a distance away that had a structure made of some sort of cut and assembled vegetative matter. It was at the intersection of two transportation paths and was thus, as the man explained “A Prime Location.” More importantly, the space behind it had a terrible odor and was always wet with excess water – Van Taurus suspected that is was used for the disposal of waste products from various creatures. However, it did contain the wriggling creatures in a tremendous, virtually endless, supply. They were larger and more vigorous also, and brought in more exchange sheets.

Van Taurus was able to trade these for another, larger flat communication display that said, “Van Taurus Baits – Best Wigglers West of the Mississippi!” The man from the building had recommended that – even though it confused Van Taurus, he was able to exchange more of the creatures than ever before.

Over time, he forgot about his mission and concentrated on activities that accumulated more and increasingly valuable exchange sheets. His spaceship was neglected and eventually vandalized by the younger local inhabitants. Finally, it was reduced to an ignored shell sitting along the transportation corridor.

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Red and White

(click to enlarge)

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The aliens of Altair Six developed an interstellar drive – but it required such immense amounts of energy that the probe sent through the time/space vortex could be no larger than a mote of dust and the temporal rift so unstable that only one blurry image could be sent back.

They had established Earth as a good candidate for life and the high priests had blessed the probe (they had long ago abandoned the difference between science and religion – both relied on faith) and were confident that if life existed on the distant rock, it would show up in the image.

They were right. The single image returned showed an ordered collection of what were undoubtedly life forms. But exactly what were they looking at? Why were the individuals on one side all bedecked in bright white, while the others shone blazing red?

The debate raged on Altair Six. The accepted theory is one of racism – the photo showed a border with the white-lighted denizens restricted on one side, the red on the other. There is obviously no mixing of the two races – the apartheid is complete.

Others believed the dichotomy was age-based. Noting that the white creatures shone brighter than the red, the theory was advanced that the red were larval forms, while the white were full-grown. It was thought that they were separated to keep the developed individuals from eating the fry.

One controversial idea, put forth by Professor Yo’rin Cake of the University of Vultur Volans that the objects in the image aren’t actually life forms, but some sort of dwelling. The color of the lighting, red or white, is merely a marker to help delineate different neighborhoods.

This was dismissed by the learned councils out of hand. It was considered impossible to have that many dwellings in the image without capturing any of the life forms themselves.

Still, the debate between these and many other factions, some completely ridiculous, others more studied and mainstream, continued and only grew in intensity and cacophony. In an attempt to find an answer to this question an enormous portion of Altair Six’s economy was dedicated to building a huge power facility and a corresponding time/space vortex generator. The plans were laid to send a larger probe with a better camera and more sensors to finally answer the mysteries of the rock called Earth.

Unfortunately, their reach exceeded their grasp and the interstellar probe complex broke down and exploded. It was a terrible planet-wide disaster and set the society back by millennia. They were reduced to a level of advancement only slightly higher than ours.

Sunday Snippet – A Thousand Unnatural Shocks

Here’s a little thing I wrote the other day. It’s not very good – I know I won’t use it in my book. So I’ll put it up here for your amusement and ridicule.

The germ of the idea for this came from two places. One, a piece of fiction I read more than thirty years ago – One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson. The story left an impression on me and I always wanted to write something in a similar vein.

The other inspiration came from a book I stumbled across. I won’t mention the name – but it was a popular new-agey book of spirituality and such. I found it stumbling upon a blog written by a person that lived by its tenets. One chapter of the book recommended an experiment. It said that you should give the world forty eight hours to do something wonderful for you. It said that if you opened your mind, within two days the universe would prove to you that it was dominated by a beneficent force that would give you a sign, some unexpected positive event, to prove that it existed.

Well, this isn’t my usual cup of tea – but I was attracted to the scientific aspect. Also, forty eight hours is such a short period of time. I decided to give it a shot. And I did it right, I wrote down a commitment on a piece of paper, I was positive about the whole thing, I was optimistic. I can say I was even excited and curious about what boon the universe was going to deliver to me in the next couple of days.

I think you know what happened next. Almost immediately I had such bad luck – nothing I couldn’t deal with – but again and again unexpected disasters – frustrating, expensive, uncomfortable stuff kept coming at me from every direction. The few good things that occurred over those two days were the inevitable, expected result of hard work that I had done previously – not the unexpected wonder the book promised.

So the book failed for me. You could say that nothing happened that I couldn’t deal with – that things could have been worse… but that’s not what the book promised.

I guess the only good thing that came out of this disastrous two days is the idea for a story… even if it isn’t a very good one.

A Thousand Unnatural Shocks

by Bill Chance

Buford knew it was going to be a bad day but he didn’t think it would be this bad.

When he woke up it was cloudy and he couldn’t tell what time it was. His wife was nowhere to be found and the alarm clock was flashing twelves. By the time he dressed, the thunderstorm that had cut the power while he slept kicked in again and he ran through the rain to find his front left tire flat. Buford had to stretch out in the dirty cold water in the gutter to slip the jack underneath and was soaked by the time he had the tire changed.

At work, his badge didn’t operate the rotary door and he had to stand in the cold drizzle while the security guard called human resources. He knew something especially awful was happening when the HR woman had the guard escort him to an obscure conference room after letting him in. On the table was a cardboard box with all the personal stuff from his cubicle.

Apparently, they had found the irregularities in his petty cash account.

On the way home, someone turned left in front of him and made him swerve. He hit a light pole with his right fender. Buford was able to back out and continue on, but a cop gave him a ticket a block farther for his broken headlight and expired inspection sticker.

Back home, he discovered that the dog had pulled over the trash can and spread garbage throughout the house. The dog also fished out and ate last night’s leftovers and vomited them up on the couch. After cleaning the mess as best he could he put his dirty, wet clothes into the washing machine. On the rinse cycle, the hot water hose burst, flooding the utility room and kitchen and scalding Buford as he had to use a big wrench and wedge his foot against the wall to get the leverage he needed to shut off the balky valve.

Deciding he had better not try and do anything else for the rest of the day, Buford turned on the television and settled in his easy chair to watch television. He was admiring the vase of fresh flowers his wife had placed above the set when the dog chased the cat into the living room. The cat leaped on top of the television, knocking the vase over. The water spilled and trickled into the circuitry. With a sharp spark and a bang, it went dark. A column of rancid smoke rose from the back, a breaker tripped and the room went dark.

Buford did not dare budge; he sat there in the gloom, motionless, until Camille, his wife, came home.

————————————

He heard the keys jangling merrily in the lock.

“Why is it so dark in here?” Camille asked as she walked briskly through the room.

“Blown breaker.”

“Well, I’ll reset it then.” Buford cringed and he heard the click and the lights came on, expecting a fire or explosion. But it was his wife, after all, that threw the switch, so nothing bad happened.

“How was your day, dear?” she asked. “Not too horrible, I hope?”

“Worse than ever,” he replied. “For one thing, I lost my job.”

“No worries.” Camille answered. “I bought a lottery ticket on the way out this morning. Ten grand scratch-off winner.” She tossed a thick envelope on the coffee table. “If we need more, I’ll buy another.”

“So your day was good?” asked Buford.

“Of course it was; you know the drill.”

Camille reached into her pocket and removed a small object. It was a crude statue, made from some mottled mudstone, of a distorted human figure of extreme ugliness. The troll-like character was leering into space and holding a large, crimson, translucent jewel – clutching it with both arms wrapped around the gleaming gem like its life depended on it. Camille carefully placed the sculpture onto a sturdy wooden stand on the mantelpiece. Though diminutive and unattractive, it had a quality about it that commanded attention. Both Buford and Camille, husband and wife, stood for a minute or two, as they did most days when the charm was replaced back in its place, and thought about the day they had acquired it.

They were on the Mayan Coast of Mexico, on a bargain package vacation Camille had won at a company bingo game. Their cut-rate guide had been drinking and became lost; then his rattle-trap jeep broke down in an isolated village. The pair ventured out through the thick air – sweating so much in the tropical heat that it was painful.

“I can’t believe you got us into this,” Buford said to Camille, his voice thick with reproach and misery.

“Hey, all I did was win a contest. You are the one that jumped on it. You’re too cheap to pay for a trip on your own.Don’t blame this on me.”

They continued to snipe at each other as they walked down the muddy street between ragged huts made of crude sticks, reeds, and rusty corrugated steel. The village was strangely devoid of the usual beggars and con-men and they kept walking hoping to find some establishment that looked like it might have clean ice. They were ready to give up anything for something cold to drink when a strange old man approached them and spoke in almost perfect English.

“Ah, we don’t get so many tourists in our little town.”

“Well, you’re a long way off the beaten track,” Buford said to the man as his wife glared.

“That’s true, not so many are as lucky as you.”

“I wouldn’t say we were lucky. Not at all.”

The old man stared at them for a minute, and then continued.

“Well, I have something here for you, and I guarantee that your luck is going to change.”

Now that he thought about it, Buford realized that the old man didn’t say their luck would change for the better, only that it would change. And he had not been lying.

The old man offered up the little statue, the strange charm. Buford wanted to walk away, but Camille took the charm in her hand and stared into its jewel. From that point, they had no choice, she had to have it. The price was not too high and Buford peeled some bills off the roll he kept hidden in a pocket sewn into his waistband.

But the old man wasn’t finished. He talked about the charm and how it would bring good luck to whoever carried it.

“But, there’s a catch,” he said.

“Isn’t there always,” replied Buford. He was doubtful, but there was something about that ugly little statue that commanded interest. “This isn’t some sort of Monkey’s Paw or anything, is it?”

“No not at all.” Buford was surprised the old man knew the reference. “It works, but you have to remember that the amount of luck in the world is finite. The charm gives out good luck, but it takes it from other places, usually nearby.”

And that is how it worked. It didn’t take long to figure out that whichever one of them would carry the charm would have fantastic things happen to them. But it would always be at the expense of the second. The better that one did, the worse the other.

They tried switching every day, but that was too ragged… the bad luck would overtake the good. They had settled on three days. Camille would get it for three days, placing it in the stand on the mantle every night (they were afraid what the charm might do while they slept) and then Buford would get it for the same length of time.

It worked out for a while, but now everything seemed to be spinning out of control. The charm was working better and better, but the downsides were getting worse and worse.

————————————

“Why do you get the charm tomorrow?” asked Buford. “It isn’t fair. It was horrible today.”

“You need to do what I do, dear. When you have the charm, I stay in bed all day. Not too much bad can happen that way.”

“You know I can’t do that. I can’t lie still all day; I have to do something… anything. I’ll go crazy otherwise… what’s the use of the thing if you have to spend half your life in bed…. I think I should have it…. I really need it tomorrow.”

“Now, you know that’s not what we agreed on.”

“But it’s not fair!”

“Come on dear, “ Camille said, ending the discussion, “It’s time for bed. Don’t be so upset, tomorrow’s another day.”

————————————

At three in the morning, after hours of tossing and turning and being awakened from a restless half-sleep by Camille’s incessant snoring, Buford gave up, climbed out of bed and walked into the living room. There he looked at the charm on the mantelpiece and how it seemed to glow with a faint unearthly aura in the moonlight.

“There is no way I can get through another day like today,” Buford said to himself.

He knew he needed all the advantages he could get so he took the charm down and slipped it into his pocket. Then he opened the small metal safe at the bottom of the hall closet and carefully loaded the handgun. Holding it out in front, he returned to the bedroom and the uneven drone of Camille’s snores.

“I’m sorry dear, but this is not going to be your lucky day,” he said to his wife’s sleeping form as he raised the weapon.

Sunday Snippet – Free Breakfast

I have to be careful what I read while I’m writing. The style and feeling of what I’m reading tends to seep into, drown, and dominate what I put on paper.

Last week I plowed through Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. I’ll write about that book… maybe the day after tomorrow. But in the meantime… this is what happened.

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Free Breakfast

Thelma bent and reached under the seat in front of her, pulled out her briefcase, and opened it on the meal-table which folded down from the seat back. Arranged in neat, alphabetical folders was information on a hundred cities that she had visited, either for work or for pleasure alone.

Anchorage, Birmingham, Cairo, Dallas… on and on. She was assiduous about collecting what would be useful on a return trip: lists of restaurants, business cards of important contacts, tourist magazines taken from hotel rooms – and would file these upon her return home. Thelma was especially fond of the compact maps that the rental car agencies would give out – she found these to be carefully designed for maximum help. They were the exact size and scale to get a renter around a city without any superfluous information or ornamentation.

She thumbed through the folders, one by one, allowing the memories of the previous visits to flood over her, hoping to jar loose a recollection of her present destination. She remembered getting a phone call in the middle of the night ordering her to go to the airport before dawn and getting on a flight, but she couldn’t remember where. All she remembered is thinking at the time that not only was that a city she had never been to, she had never even heard of it before that moment. It was odd that there was a city unknown to her (human geography had always been a passion)… but there it was. She couldn’t even remember getting on the plane, but assumed the ticket had been pre-purchased by her company… the way they always were.

Her memory was so bad because she was so tired. She had not had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Her nightmares had become so severe that her doctor said she was suffering the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – caused by the terrible subconscious memories of the nightmares – yet she could actually remember nothing from the dreams except vague impressions of deep, cold water, things moving in darkness, and breaking pipes. Awakened by the nightmares in her bed, she would lie in terror – confused about exactly where she was and even who she was. It was mid-summer but she would shiver with bone-deep cold, rising up from within.

The folders did not succeed in giving her a clue to her destination, so she closed the case and placed it back by her feet. She looked at the man sitting in the seat next to her – perhaps she could ask him their common destination. He was a large man, dressed formally, with an oddly-shaped beard, reading a book. Looking at the pages, all she could make out were squiggly lines in some unfamiliar alphabet. He probably didn’t even speak English – and how could she possibly ask a total stranger a question as stupid as, “Excuse me, do you know where this plane is going?”

Frustrated, she let out a sigh and tried to relax. Quicker that she imagined was possible, she slumped sideways against the reading man and fell asleep. For the first time in weeks she did not have a nightmare. She dreamed she was in a large green meadow, surrounded by steep, granite, rugged mountains capped with bits of snow. The meltwater coursed across the meadow in a hundred swift streams and as she walked up to a watercourse and began to step into it her foot began to rise up and she stepped again and again, higher and higher, as if on a rising stairway of air.

Soon, in her dream, Thelma was floating and then flying, rising and moving. She could see the patterns of the little streams in the meadow far below which, instead of joining into a larger river, meandered in a random pattern, sometimes joining together, sometimes splitting apart, so that the same configuration filled the entire area and it was impossible to determine where the water entered and where it left.

She rose higher and moved closer to the ragged vertical walls of rock until she could clearly see the small remaining nubs of snow and ice which were melting in the summer sun. Still higher, she began to look closer to see what was on the other side of the mountains… some sort of shape was emerging from the haze of distance.

But at this point she woke up. She felt refreshed from her first undisturbed sleep, but had to wipe a bit of spittle that had formed on her lips and she saw that it had stained the sleeve of the man sitting next to her. She turned to apologize but saw that he was still immersed in his reading and was paying no attention to her. She became aware of a noise and realized that the flight crew was making an announcement.

“We are now pulling up to the gate and will turn off the seatbelt sign as soon as the doors open. Will all passengers continuing on to Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo please remain seated while everyone debarking disembarks. We will only be on the ground for a short time. Thank you for your attention.”
Thelma frowned. She had missed the announcement of their location… but she was sure her stop was the first one on the flight, so at the ding of the bell, she collected her briefcase, rose, and retrieved her carryon bag from the overhead bin. She was the only person that left the plane.

The airport was crowded. Thelma could only see a few feet sideways through the surging sea of passengers. They did not seem to be the usual airport denizens – businessmen, families on holiday, students with backpacks – the mob wore tattered, wrinkled, out-of-style clothing – and had a thin, desperate, hungry look about them. Although there were men, women, and children of all ages and races, they did not seem to be in any family groupings – they all seemed to be struggling to get to their various destinations alone. The few that were carrying luggage had crude bags or parcels wrapped in dirty cloth.

Looking up above the crowd, Thelma realized that the airport looked exactly like every other airport – beams of steel or wood arched overhead, supporting a corrugated roof of light blue or cream metal. Large windows let in an orange light of either sunset or sunrise. Signs hung down with directions printed in several languages, none of which Thelma understood, and also included simple iconic drawings of mysterious objects. Finally, she spotted one sign that seemed to sport a sort of crude suitcase and an arrow beneath the puzzling lines of text – so she pushed her way in that location to get her checked luggage. She thought she remembered checking bags.

In complete contrast to the main concourse, the baggage claim area was deserted. A thin layer of dust covered the floor and Thelma could see her footprints as she walked across. A half-dozen huge metal belts emerged from openings in the wall that were covered with finger-shaped strips of rubberized cloth. These were all motionless and festooned with cobwebs. In some corners a hint of rust was beginning to appear on the machinery.

However, in the center of the room, there sat two bags, one large and one a bit smaller. They looked familiar to Thelma and she realized they were the same style and almost the same color as the carryon she held. She tried to check to make sure but the paper ID tags had been torn off.

Still, she collected the bags, attaching her carryon to the top of the smaller, and extending the handles, she lumbered out toward the twilit line of windows and glass doors. The automatic portal hissed open at her approach and she pulled her bags out to the curb. The thick humid air and oppressive heat struck her like a blow as she emerged from the cool air-conditioned terminal.

The orange light from earlier must have been sunset because it was now getting to be quite dark. She was happy to see, right in front of her, a large van parked along the curb. Large red symbols of some unknown language blazed across its side, but beneath, in smaller black block letters, were the welcome words “AIRPORT SHUTTLE”.

A man in a dark blue uniform and a jaunty cap stood beside the door and smiled at her. She stared at him – he looked familiar.

When Thelma was twelve, her parents had taken her on a driving trip across the continent, ending in New York. They had crossed the Mississippi on a huge bridge made up of silver steel beams and then had stopped in a tall Holiday Inn right on the Memphis riverbank. As they were checking in, she kept staring at the family in line in front of her. Outside she had seen the family which had already pulled up in a station wagon that was facing in the opposite direction. The father was untying a large valise from the rack on the roof. Thelma imagined that they were going on the same trip, coast to coast, but the other way, from East to West. There was a young boy about her age and something about him had drawn her to gawk. In her own way, she had fallen instantly in love with this boy.

Her family only stayed there for a day before they continued their journey, but everywhere Thelma went, to eat in the hotel restaurant, to swim in the pool, down the hall to fetch some ice from the machine, she would see the boy, sometimes close… sometimes at a distance, and her heart would ache. She never spoke to him and the boy never seemed to even notice her, but the day and the boy were etched deep into her head and heart forever.

Thelma realized that this man waiting at the Rental Car Van looked exactly like she imagined that boy would now. This could be him grown up. But what could she say? It would be silly to ask if he had been in a Holiday Inn with his parents decades earlier. And what if it was him? They had never spoken to each other.

“May I have your bags please,” he said with a sparkling smile.

She stood mute while he climbed into the van, carefully placing her bags on a tubular rack.

“And your purse, Ma’am?”

Thelma didn’t even think about how odd this request was as she handed him her handbag. Another flash of smile and he turned and climbed into the driver’s seat. She let out a soft sigh and began to follow but as she stepped forward the folding glass door of the van snapped shut an inch in front of her nose.

Shocked, Thelma staggered back a few steps as the van screeched its tires, sped away from the curb, and went careening down the street, disappearing around a concrete wall. Thelma felt panic welling up, she was now stranded in a strange city – she didn’t even know its name – without clothes, without ID, without money, without a credit card. She turned and retreated to the doors that she had emerged from, but found them locked.

At that moment, all the lights in the terminal went out. Thelma realized how late it was and how dark it had become. Still, who ever heard of an airport closing like that? What about the crowds trapped inside? She stood there for a long time, waiting for someone to come along or for something to happen, but no one did, and nothing occurred. The only thing she could do is start walking. In the distance, beyond the wall where the van had sped away, she could see the blue glow of streetlights.

She walked along the sidewalk as the road curved away from the airport. The way was well lighted by the ring-shaped streetlamps suspended high above on metal poles. She felt herself sweating through her clothes but made good time walking along the sidewalk. After a bit the sidewalk split away from the road and became a separate, paved trail. Thelma wasn’t sure about following it, but the road crossed a dark, swampy-looking patch on a bridge that had no walkway, so she had no choice.

The path entered a thick wooded area and curved first to the left, then to the right, and the streetlights were far enough distant so that the only thing visible was the bright concrete between the trees. The path became rougher and then the paving gave out until all that was left was a narrow, sandy lane. Thelma struggled along as best she could in the dark. The branches tore at her clothes and snipped at her face, thorny weeds underfoot sliced at her ankles.

Thelma decided she couldn’t go any farther and turned around to retreat. The path improved slightly but then began to go wild again and she realized she had made a wrong turn. Fighting back panic, she could think of nothing except to sit down in the soft sand along the widest patch of trail she could find.

She sat curled up, hugging her ankles and sobbed. The crying wore her out and she slowly gave up, stretched out in the warm sand, and fell asleep. She found herself in the same dream as she had on the plane, walking through the mountain meadow. As she approached a stream she began floating upward again, and looked ahead eagerly toward the rim of the surrounding mountains, hoping to get farther this time… and she was able to.

As she soared over the snowfields of the mountains she felt herself drifting lower on the other side, moving gently through waves of warm rising air. As she moved downward through the mist a shape began to form on the ground below. She saw long straight stretches of pale pavement, all emerging from a large building made of a complex series of giant halls. As the mist fell away she realized it was an airport and, though she had never seen it, it was the airport she had just left. As she drifted closer she saw the spot where the van had left her and the curving road away.

As Thelma’s dreamself passed high over the airport she saw a huge sign at the spot the largest road came up to the terminal. Though it was in an alphabet strange to her as she looked the symbols began to feel familiar and in her dream she realized the sign spelled out “Nepenthium International Airport.” That was the name of the city, Nepenthium.

The scene dissolved and she woke feeling the hot morning sun on her cheek. Aching, she gathered and pulled herself erect. Thelma was ravenous and thirsty, her clothes were torn and patches of sand stuck to her skin. Still, the peaceful sleep and pleasant dream had done her a world of good and she felt new hope welling up.

Looking around in the light of the rising sun she saw there was a barbed wire fence only a few feet into the woods on one side of the sandy path. There seemed to be light and space on the other side. She pushed her way through the tree branches and began to struggle over the wire. A barb jabbed her thigh. Fabric caught on the wire and she felt her clothing tear, but she pulled her way over. With a final rip as a hefty piece of cloth was left behind she fell clear and found herself on a strip of cool grass. She stood up and realized she had lost a shoe in the exertion to get over the wire. She kicked off the other and started moving barefoot. A trickle of blood ran down one leg.

The grass lined a road and on the other side was a large building. She waited for a gap in the passing cars and crossed the road. The building was undoubtedly a hotel and, although again the symbols on the sign were strange, she recognized a familiar logo of an international chain. Under the sign was a lettering board with black plastic letters lined up on a white glowing background.

The top line was a grouping of symbols, but underneath that was an English translation. It said, “Free Breakfast.”

Beyond the sign was a concrete apron in front of what must be the registration desk. Parked on the apron was the van from the airport. Thelma limped towards it, despite her torn clothing and desperate appearance.

Next to the van was the driver, standing there with the same bright smile. He had her luggage in a neat pile next to him. As she approached his grin expanded even wider and he reached his hand out and handed over her purse.

Tuesday Snippet – The Fatted Calf

Prodigal Son, Thomas Hart Benton, Dallas Museum of Art

Prodigal Son, Thomas Hart Benton, Dallas Museum of Art

The Fatted Calf
(First Scene of a Short Story)

It had been a decade since Sam had rented a car. He always had his assistant arrange for a limousine. Those days were gone – long gone.

At the rental counter the first three credit cards were rejected but the fourth went through and after a short, polite argument he was allowed a subcompact car. Red-faced he took the vehicle out onto the old highway – the one he remembered from his childhood – now gone over to cracked asphalt and weeds creeping over the edges. He blared the radio and tore down the rough road with the windows down – looking across the bright green bristles of spring wheat at the lines of huge trucks on the newer Interstate – parallel – a mile distant.

He remembered his mother driving him to the airport twenty years earlier – his small bag packed. His mother teared and resigned – her wet eyes locked on the road ahead. His father was plowing the east forty. Sam could see the cloud of brown dust raised by the steel blades slicing and turning the dry soil. He watched the distant tractor stop – the dust cloud blowing past and leaving the huge machine alone and tiny in the distance. Sam had to imagine his father watching the pickup flying by on the road clear past the end of the field carrying his son away.

The hamlet was closer to the city than Sam had remembered and he drove down the main street before heading out to the family farm. Everything was so familiar – nothing had changed in the two decades – except it all seemed smaller somehow. Smaller and quieter – the streets deserted and more than a few windows boarded up or taped over with paper.

It was like driving through a miniature model of his childhood memories – perfect in detail, yet missing something essential – a soulless reproduction.
This strange living mutation of what he remembered frightened him. He accelerated, squealing his tires in the dust that leaked in thin waves onto the streets, and turned off the paved highway at the edge of town. He drove down the familiar washboarding sanded country lane – the hedgerows on each mile section taller than he remembered or often taken out altogether, leaving a gap like a missing tooth.

As he approached the farm he felt his heart beating like a fluttering bird – his breath coming with some difficulty.

At first he didn’t recognize the place. The weeds had grown high across the yard – once kept cropped short by a small herd of sheep – now gone riot. The familiar barn to the left of the drive was gone. Sam looked closer and saw the expanse of scorched earth where the wood and stored hay must have burned. The encroaching weeds were greener and taller here – fertilized by the ash.

The house – always a clean white wash – was speckled with a gray peeling – revealing the weathered old wood underneath. The windows, which Sam remembered as bright rectangles showing his mother’s colorful handmade curtains were now bare shadow pits adorned only with crystal scythes – shards of shattered windowglass.

Although it was obvious that the place was uninhabitable, for some reason Sam took his suitcase – no larger than the one he had left with two decades ago – out of the trunk after he climbed out of the tiny car.

For a long time, he stood in the remaining bit of sandy road, trying not to touch the invading weeds, with his hand on his jaw, trying to comprehend. Off to the side, behind a few strands of rusted barbed wire, was the skeleton of a cow, now bleached by the sun to a bright white. He wondered if this was the calf he had left behind –the one he had been getting up before dawn to feed. It wasn’t of course – those onerous chores were twenty years in the past – that calf was hamburger long, long ago.

The skeleton seemed to pull Sam out of his reverie and, looking past the house, he saw a structure still intact. It was the old windmill. Green vines climbed the four metal struts that supported the structure, but the zinc-coated blades were still creaking, spinning in the breeze.

Sam pushed his way through the weeds and found the path that ran from the kitchen to the windmill. The well below was too shallow – the water too contaminated and salty for humans to drink, but the cows and sheep seemed to like it fine. A series of troughs, now twisted and junked, ran from the pump attached to the mill to a half dozen watering stations that the farm animals could use.

It had another use, though. The farm was too far out for city utilities, and potable water was precious. Halfway up the tower was a tank that could be filled by the windmill, and underneath that a compartment, about the size and shape of a phone booth, was constructed of galvanized steel. A big old-fashioned shower head hung below the tank like a drooping sunflower.
Sam had hated going out to the windmill and taking his shower before school – especially in the winter. It was humiliating even when it wasn’t brutally uncomfortable.

Staring at the mechanism now, Sam was oddly drawn to it. He reached out and yanked a few stray vines out of the way and then pulled the familiar lever. Sam jumped back when the pump arm let out a huge metallic groan, but it started to move again and he heard rumbling and the telltale splash of water starting to fill the tank. As if on cue, the breeze picked up and the blades began turning faster.

Sam looked around at the vast expanse of nothing, nobody. It was silent except for the clicks and hissing of insects moving through the weeds. The sun was directly overhead and the day had turned hot – Sam felt the streams of sweat trickling across his face.

As the tank filled, Sam pulled off his suit and hung his clothes on the old hooks that ran up the windmill strut. As he waited for the tank to top off he stood naked, leaning back in the sun. As a child, he was always shy and would dash from the house with a towel held firmly, but now he didn’t care. There was nobody within miles anyway.

He reached out and pulled on the rusty handle that opened the valve to the shower head. At first there was only a hiss, then some lumps of old mud-dauber wasp nest tumbled out, followed by little more than a thin rusty trickle. It did not take long for the pipes to clean themselves and the stream gained in strength and clarity. Soon the water was pure and strong, and Sam stepped into the shower, ducking his head into the cold liquid, sparkling in the sunlight.