What I learned this week, February 26, 2021

Zen-like Christmas decorations, Waxahachie, Texas

The Zen rule for becoming happier: Change one thing

1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.


Crepe Myrtle trunk in the snow

Train Your Body to Work Out—or Just Hang Out—in Colder Weather

So you hate the cold.

With coronavirus surging, restaurants and bars closed and the homes of even friends and family off-limits, does that mean your winter social life is doomed?

No, according to a host of scientists, professors and trainers who are experts on the physiological impact of frigid weather on humans. Adapting to cold isn’t fun— who loves to shiver?—but it’s possible, scientists say. And as a bonus: Cold, like exercise, makes you healthier.


Window washing job I couldn’t do
Downtown Dallas, Texas

The computers rejecting your job application

A professional journalist, I had recently applied for a new job, and for the first part of the recruitment process the publisher made me play a number of simple online games from the comfort of my own home.

These included having to quickly count the number of dots in two boxes, inflating a balloon before it burst to win money, and matching emotions to facial expressions. Then an artificial intelligence (AI) software system assessed my personality, and either passed or failed me. No human had a look-in.

I wondered: is it fair for a computer alone to accept or reject your job application?

Welcome to the fast-growing world of AI recruitment.


The Window at Molly’s, the street (Decatur) unusually quiet, with notebook, vintage Esterbrook pen, and Molly’s frozen Irish Coffee

How to Write a Novel, According to 10 Really Good Novelists

Take notes everywhere, embrace Wikipedia wormholes and other handy tips



Mojo Coffee, Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
(click to enlarge)

Our 14 favorite gadgets and hacks for working at home

From mesh networks to lap desks, here’s how The Verge’s staffers create their workspaces


Display at main Half-Price Books, Dallas, Texas

The Use and Abuse of ‘They’

Journalists and essayists in recent years somehow formed the impression that the academic study of English grammar is partitioned into two mutually hostile tribes: descriptivists and prescriptivists. Both are portrayed in cartoonish stereotypes.

The descriptivists allegedly think that anything uttered by English speakers is ipso facto good English and can never be erroneous. So if people sometimes say, “It’s in the, the . . . the hall closet,” we must deem that correct, and posit noun phrases with three definite articles in a row. This insane view is purportedly associated with the political Left.

But the other tribe seems just as deranged. Its members won’t change their minds about the sacred edicts of grammar regardless of evidence. No matter how many great writers may have committed some solecism, they say, it’s still wrong if the rules of correct grammar say it is. This view gets tagged as conservative.

Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, Collision by Bill Chance

“After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident.”
― J.G. Ballard, Crash

Wrecked Car waiting for the decision – scrap or repair – like there is a question

Collision

He had a nice townhouse in the city, but Brian Newman spent every weekend at his girlfriend’s apartment, driving a hundred miles after work on Friday and back Monday morning before work. He would leave at five to be sure and beat the traffic. Brian was never a morning person and the Monday drive was difficult, but he had done it so many times over the last couple of years it became a familiar blur.

He was waiting at an ordinary red light with his left blinker on and his mind somewhere far away, but an oncoming truck still caught his eye. It was the middle of the summer and the sun was above the horizon. The truck was a big dump truck, red, faded, peeling, patched with rust. The massive front bumper, painted black, was an angry scowl. It was coming fast. Too fast. Much too fast.

It shot through the red light as if it wasn’t there. Brian felt his heart jump and wondered if the truck would swerve and hit him. He knew that there wasn’t anything he could do if it did.

Right then, a small white car moved in from the left, with its green light, and was hit broadside by the onrushing dump truck. The truck came on as if nothing was in its way. With a horrific sound of tinkling safety glass and rending sheet metal the car was pushed along until it was smashed between the heavy dump truck bumper and the stout light pole in the center median.

The pole snapped off and fell over but not before it brought the massive truck to a final halt. All that kinetic energy reduced the car into a wad of compressed metal like the foil left after a wrapped sandwich, ready to toss in the bin. Brian was in the left hand lane and as he looked out his side window the driver was only a few feet away across the hood and in clear view through the windshield as the light pole came through the side tearing him apart. Brian had a clear view of the man’s panicked face right before the collision crushed his skull, sending bone, blood, and brains in all directions.

The police interviewed Brian at the crash site and at the local office. Over the next week a parade of lawyers asked him the same questions over and over… “Did you hear brakes?” “Did the truck swerve at all?” “How long had the light been red?” “Did the truck sound its horn.”

It seems the driver claimed his brakes had failed. The suspicion was that the driver was on his phone and hadn’t seen the red light. It would be the difference in damages and possible murder charges.

“It happened so fast,” Brian said. “I don’t really know, I don’t know what happened.” He didn’t understand how nobody cared about what had happened to him. Just because he hadn’t been hit didn’t mean he wasn’t affected. The look on the driver’s face in that split second before he died haunted Brian. He thought they made eye contact. Brian was the last person he had seen, a complete stranger, before he died. There was not a scratch on Brian’s car but he had to go to the car wash and scrub off some of what looked like blood and a bit of what might have been skull bone.

Brian called his girlfriend and told her that he had to take some time off and stay at his place for work. She said she understood. He called his work and said he had to take some time off and was going to stay at his girlfriend’s. They said they understood and would sign him up for a workplace disability program.

The lawyers paid for a hotel in the town where the accident happened. Brian figured it was so that he would be available if the case, civil or criminal, ever went to trial. He wasn’t sure which lawyers paid for the room; the defense, or the truck driver, or the dead man’s estate, or the truck manufacturer, or the company that owned the dump truck. They all called him all the time, asking him the same questions over and over. They would always end with saying how lucky Brian was, to have so much violence and horror so close to him and yet to be unaffected. The truck did miss him completely, of course – even if only by inches.

He spent the time binge watching old crime shows in his hotel room or taking long walks around the perfectly ordinary town he was now living in.

As the weeks went by his girlfriend decided to make the man she had been seeing, cheating on him, for a year during the week while Brian was in the city at work her full-time partner. The man proposed and Brian’s old girlfriend accepted. She sent Brian a thoughtful and carefully-worded letter to say goodbye but Brian never opened the envelope. Though he didn’t know exactly what had happened he guessed the main thrust of things and didn’t care much about it.

His work eventually promoted the temporary replacement to take over Brian’s full-time job. Then, as the various cases were settled the lawyers told Brian that he would have to move out of the hotel. They were glad, however, to help him sell his city townhouse and buy a place in the town. Property values were less and he was able to get a small bungalow with a big yard and still have some money left over.

He didn’t need much and was able to find a simple, thoughtless position near his house with the town government and that was enough. Ironically, the job was vacant because it had been held by the man killed in the accident. Brian’s years passed in quiet, lonely peace. He never married, never left the town.

And never drove or rode in a car for the rest of his life.

Flash Fiction of the day, Invisible Ones by A. C. Spahn

“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Rest Area
The trail runs through some thick woods between the train line and the creek south of Forest Lane. There is a nice rest area built there. This homeless guy was sitting in the rest area, reading and writing in his notebook. We talked about the weather and I helped him find a lost sock.

Invisible Ones by A. C. Spahn

Flash Fiction of the day, Dump Refrigerator by Gabrielle Griffis

“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

― Jerome K. Jerome

Employees/Artists from Orr-Reed Wrecking. Her T-Shirt says, “Show Us Your Junk,” which is their motto.

Years ago, I had a big chest-type deepfreeze freezer in the garage (I guess I still do). People from my background often have these – the generational memory of The Depression, dust bowl, and mass hunger leads to a deep desire to store enough food to get by for an unreasonable time.

At any rate, this freezer was full, mostly beef. I had stumbled across a good deal on half a steer and a lot of it was there, frozen, waiting on my hunger. I was out of town on a long trip and while I was gone someone accidentally unplugged the cord on the deep freeze. I’m not sure how long it thawed out, but it was summertime, and it was way, way too long. It was beyond disgusting.

I thought and thought about what to do. I ended up digging a big hole in my backyard, pulled the freezer out there and tipped the contents into the hole. I covered it up, and used a hazmat mask to clean out the inside of the freezer.

It actually worked. I’ll bet to this day the grass grows really green in one spot in that backyard.

Today’s story is about a man that does this sort of thing for a living, and for redemption.

Dump Refrigerator by Gabrielle Griffis

Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction) – Time is Money by Bill Chance

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
― Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
 

Decatur, Texas

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#100) Did it! Now what? What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


Time is Money

Clay used his connection, the wire embedded in his brain, to move the car through the busy morning streets. “Breathe and Calm, Breathe and Calm…,” Clay kept repeating this simple phrase through his mind like a mantra, a hope, a dream. The car, however, had other ideas. It kept sending back in an insistent electronic voice.

“Late, late, late!”

And the weather was making it worse. Spitting pellets of ice, whirling wind, cold gray. Clay had to shrug his shoulders and lower his head under the web of ice across the windshield and look through the thawed oval over the dash whenever the autosteer started to lose it, pull the wheel back to correct. “Might as well be driving this old heap myself!”  he cursed as he fingered the  socket in his neck, felt the wire running to the central console.

“Late, late, late!” the car screamed at him silently, electronically, through the wires.

Clay felt the helpless panic welling up. He couldn’t go any faster; since his last accident his car was hooked directly into Central Police Monitoring, the red blinking transponder sitting there on the hood, thick cable running down, through the crudely drilled hole in the stamped steel. Ten seconds spent over the speed limit and his car would die, they would come to haul him away.

Since the Third Time Act was passed, being late for work had been a criminal offense and Clay was afraid he wouldn’t get probation this time.  He made an effort to concentrate, calm himself, and sent an ETA AT WORK request out his connection to the car’s computer. The answer came back immediately, in through his neck connection and spreading through his brain like a sudden cold voice from beyond, telling him he wasn’t going to make it.

He could feel the knurled edges of the single coin in his pocket and knew it wouldn’t be enough. Clay cursed himself for not taking out more cash when he last stopped by the company cashier. The credit chip, mounted to the back of his skull, wired in with the rest, was useless, spent, he had used all his credit privileges months ago. It’s been all coin, paychip to paychip, since then.

“Do you feel lucky, punk? Do you?” He asked himself, mimicking a line in one of his the films from an  ancient cinema class that he took last year, part of his educational requirement.  “A Flexible Mind is a Healthy Mind, A Healthy Mind is a Useful Mind,” he chanted involuntarily, the jingle from the ad campaign that was drilled into everyone following the Second Compulsory Adult Education Act.

Clay didn’t feel particularly lucky, but he pulled into the time station on the corner anyway, looked up at the hand printed sign that said “Time – 4Crts/Hour,” and cursed again. The price was up a whole Credit per hour from yesterday, his single coin would only get him fifteen minutes and he needed at least a half hour. His stomach began to ache as he waited a good three minutes for a time pump to come empty, then pulled forward into the red oval beside the pump.

A familiar push and twist and the connection popped out of his neck, the car immediately died, shut down quiet. He shoved the door open, backed into the freezing rain and felt the sudden sharp pain of wet cold across his neck, his bare hands, saw his fingers redden instantly. He knelt down on his knees on the wet pavement of the station and reached out, feeling along the floor mat and reaching under the seat. His hands kept meeting food wrappers, empty beverage cylinders, plastpaper bags, faded receipts,  bits of flotsam and jetsam, some sticky. A couple handfuls he pulled out, flinging it into the back seat. Digging until his arms reached back to the juncture of the seat and the backrest, he knew the old sagging seat left a gap there.

Clay groped, pushing his fingers down into the carpet, trying to forget the cold water soaking the knees of his pants as he kneeled on the tarmac, trying to ignore the stares of queued customers daggering his way, stuck in line and waiting for him to get finished so they could pull forward.

Suddenly he felt cold metal, the knurled edge. And then, again, there were two! And a third! Pulling them out, he held them up to the gray winter daylight, confirming the triple profiles, two women and one man, of the three current presidents, engraved on the front of the coins. Stamped from cheap steel, they were getting rusty from sitting under the seat for who knows how long, but the imbedded chip, mounted right under the engraving of the new Capitol on the back, would still be working. It was guaranteed.

Two of these three plus the one in his pocket would give him forty five minutes. He only needed thirty, but it had been such a hectic morning, the found coins must be an omen, so Clay decided to splurge. He unscrewed the timechip module mounted on his wrist and placed it on the little blue shelf provided. The three coins went into the slot, “chunk chunk chunk”  it sounded so nice. The last coin rolled back into his coat pocket.  He leaned back against the car, making sure his entire body was inside the red oval embedded at his feet. The ID laser shot out and found his eyes, read his retinas, “Ready?” a cold voice squeaked out of a tinny speaker, and Clay shook his head yes and closed his eyes.

A  wave of nausea washed over him as the singularity wave was generated under the red oval, rising up to tear him and his car out of space, out of time, and fling him back. It only took a second. Clay reached out for his timechip module and replaced it. He closed his eyes and looked at the illusion projected on the inside of his eyelids, Seven-o-Five in the morning. He had indeed been thrown back forty five minutes. Now he had plenty of time to get to work.

As Clay drove away, his commute now leisurely, the hounds at bay for now, he refused to even be bothered by the pesky clanking from the rear transmission. A quick turn on the digital cube  player volume  drowned that unpleasant sound out with a pulsing beat.

Clay made it to work with a good ten minutes to spare. He felt the extra coin in his pocket, an instant of reassurance to run his fingers over the serrated edge.

“Hey Gladys!” He called out cheerfully as he stood in front of the heavy turnstile, waiting for the time clock to read the thin ID chip mounted under the skin of his forehead. He always said “Hey!” to her, he didn’t know what her name was but thought she looked like a “Gladys.”  She didn’t answer, she never did,  deep in concentration, trying to manage the I/O of the two  jacks, one on each side of her neck. “Extra five hundred a year for that little bit of surgery” thought Clay as his hand left the coin to absently touch the single jack on his neck.

“Clang” – and the turnstile admitted him to work for the day.

 

 

 

Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Plastics by Bill Chance

Mr. Maguire: I want to say one word to you, Benjamin. Just one word.

Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir.

Mr. Maguire: Are you listening?

Benjamin Braddock: Yes, I am.

Mr. Maguire: Plastics.

—-The Graduate

Grapevine, Texas

 

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#29). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


Plastics

 

Baker worked for Yoyodyne Injection Moulding (marketing insisted they always use the British spelling). One thing he had to do was to walk out every morning to the tank farm where the monomers were stored and inspect the containment around the tanks to make sure there were no leaks or spills – no foreign material inside the dikes.

It rained all the time, especially at night. There was usually water in the containment and the maintenance crew would come out  most afternoons to drain the accumulation. They were the only ones with keys to the valves.

He had a form on a clipboard that he had to fill out. Date the top, make checkmarks by each line that corresponded to a tank. At the bottom was a space for corrective actions in case of a leak. He had never written in that spot.

It was very tempting to pencil-whip the inspections – not do the walking around and looking – simply check the forms and file them away. He knew that’s what Duane did, the guy that used to do the job. He would sneak out for a smoke when he was said he was going for the inspections. But Duane was caught with a joint in his mouth while he was operating the big press and they fired him. The union was going to get him reinstated but the inspections looked like they were Baker’s for good.

The factory was located in a swamp in the south and it was always incredibly hot. Humid too. And giant mosquitoes. Baker would try and get out to do his inspection right as the sun came up but it was still so soggy and sweltering he felt he couldn’t even breathe properly – the air so full of hot water that it displaced the oxygen. The very air of the place could not support life.

At dawn, the sun would be peeking orange over the swampy jungle that surrounded the factory, the tanks looming huge – white cylinders shrouded in mist burning away by the growing daylight. All sorts of birds would be chattering, chirping, or singing – their sound competing with more guttural cries from swamp critters – Baker had no idea what was making those noises and didn’t want to learn. The smell of decomposing miasma wafted across the property and competed with whiffs of acrid stench of volatile monomers coming from the vents as the tanks were heated by the sunrise.

That day, however, it was not like that. It was February and a historic cold front had blown through the night before. These blue northers were not common, but they happened. There had been a good bit of cold rain and he knew there would be water in the containment. Baker dug an old musty coat out from his locker and had brought from home a knit cap and gloves that he had kept from when he had moved from that more northern, civilized place.

“Cold one out there today,” said Dale, the shift boss.

“Yup,” was all that Baker could think to reply as he pulled on his gloves.

“Better you than me,” said Dale.

Bundled up, he trudged out to do his inspections.

Right at the first containment he saw there was something wrong. The water that stood inside the dike was almost covered with solid plastic. Baker’s heart jumped as he looked at the contaminated containment. The material looked to be about at least a quarter inch thick on the side nearest him… maybe more in places. It tapered off across the water until it disappeared on the other side – he could see ripples there where there was still open water. The solid material was smooth and clear.

The material must have leaked out of the tank – bad valve, overfill, broken connection – floated on the water and then polymerized. He wasn’t sure what was in that tank – maybe styrene, maybe vinyl chloride. Any of them could do what he was looking at. He was surprised that it didn’t smell worse than it did, but the polymerization must have been complete and the cold would keep the vapors down.

He wasn’t sure what to do. There was a little guard shack and he grabbed an empty metal paint can and a pair of tongs. The technician that unloaded the tank cars used these to take samples. Carefully leaning over the concrete dike he grabbed the edge of the solid polymer with the tongs. A chunk broke off easily and he transferred it to the can.

Leaving his clipboard behind he hurried back into the factory. Nothing about this was his fault and it was a good thing that he had done his inspection and found the leak – but he was afraid he would be blamed anyway. He was always the fall guy – the outsider – who could be blamed for anything. That wasn’t altogether bad – Baker had learned in his short career that if you could take unlimited blame and abuse – well, there was surprisingly good money in that.

Inside the warm factory he found the nearest phone and spent a minute getting his gloves off so he could dial. He called the emergency number. A tired and bored voice answered.

“Hello,” the voice said.

“We have a spill,” Baker said.

“Where is it? What material?” the voice said. It still sounded bored and bothered, like this happened every day.

“The containment farm.”

Baker looked down at the paint can he was holding and was shocked to see it contained a clear liquid instead of the chunk of plastic he had put it in there. It was weird – he didn’t smell anything.

At that moment there was a click inside Baker’s head, a shift in understanding so sudden he almost could hear it.

The stuff in the can was water. The spill in the containment was ice.

It was usually so hot and tropical he never imagined that the water could freeze. It never entered his mind. The blue norther had dropped the temperature to freezing. Ice. Ice.

“Umm, never mind,” he said into the phone.

“What do you mean? Where is the spill?”

Baker hung up.

Later that day, he wrote a letter to his Uncle in Chicago. He never really liked that branch of the family tree, but he asked if knew of any job openings in the city. Baker was thinking he wanted to return to civilization. Even some place that had ice half of the year.

Short Story Of the Day, Weeds by Bill Chance

“The new owners kept the lawn up all right, they hired a crew to come in once a week, Mexicans in a pickup, trailer in back, mowers and edgers and in an hour it was done. Other than that, though, things were worse. Way worse.”

—-Bill Chance, Weeds

Wildflowers, Huffhines Park, Richardson, Texas

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#11). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Weeds

Weeds! Weeds!

Jonny pulled and moved forward. Working carefully on his hands and knees he inched along his side yard. This was Tuesday and Thursday work, pulling weeds. He was retired and had the time to do this by hand, to do it the right way. Monday was mowing and edging. Wednesday was for the flowerbeds, Friday the vegetables. The weekend was for fixing and painting.

He glanced up for a minute from the lush green growth to look across the street at the house there. It had been purchased six months earlier by some young man, named Douglas. At first Jonny and the other neighbors were happy, anyone would be better than the crazy slob that lived there before. That nut never kept the place up at all. When his nephews came to visit Jonny had been so embarrassed at the tall grass across the street he sneaked over one day when the nut was gone and mowed it. The nut called the police when he came home but they wouldn’t do an investigation, mowing someone’s lawn might be trespassing, but it wasn’t a thing they had time to pursue.

The new owners kept the lawn up all right, they hired a crew to come in once a week, Mexicans in a pickup, trailer in back, mowers and edgers and in an hour it was done. Other than that, though, things were worse. Way worse.

First were the bars on the windows. Then the big siren up on the roof, hooked up to a burglar alarm. That damn thing went off one night, woke up half the neighborhood. Cars coming and going, all night. Dark cars, tinted windows. Quick, hairy, odd folks. Darting in and out.

Jonny didn’t like it. Not at all. Right across the street.

Not much he could do about it. He cursed a little under his breath, turned his head back to the lawn and started to inch forward again. This time of spring the spurge was bad, round bright green leaves mixed in with the darker St. Augustine blades. It didn’t look right, so Jonny would pull them by hand, before they could get a stranglehold on his lawn. Had to nip these things in the bud, Jonny always said.

He was so intent on his weed pulling he didn’t see the first police van pull up. It was silent, no siren. The second one came faster and squealed its brakes. Jonny snapped his head up in time to see the third, fourth, and fifth speed in from different directions, all slamming up to the curb along the neighbors house. A few police cars came screaming in too, filling the street.

The black-clad helmeted police poured out of the trucks and ran up to the house, one at each window, the rest in groups at the front and back doors. Then the shouting started, and a loud banging, and the sound of wood being torn apart. The two groups of police disappeared into the house and, on cue, a big dark green truck pulled up, one with big back double doors that opened wide.

More shouting. The police came out with a black man wearing only bright red underwear, his hands cuffed behind his back. They threw him roughly into the back of the truck. Then they led out a skinny blond woman, wrapped in a blanket, smoking a cigarette, she went into one of the cars.

A group of police came out the back door, shouting louder than ever. Jonny could hear grunting and cussing, the police were red-faced and heaving at something. Then Jonny recognized Douglas, the young fellow that bought the house, he was wearing a black leather jacket like the police, it was hard to tell who was who.

Suddenly Douglas let out a scream and heaved forward and somehow broke loose. His hands were cuffed behind but he took off running across the street, straight for Jonny’s house. The police pulled guns, but didn’t fire. Two of them, maybe the biggest men Jonny had ever seen caught up with Douglas and knocked him down like he was made of straw. He bounced into the grass not ten feet from Jonny. The police gathered him up, quiet now, and hauled him quickly over to the truck. Even though he was right there – nobody said a word to him. They ignored Jonny completely, like he was invisible.

The trucks all left along with most of the cars. Only one marked car was left behind. One man took photos while another stretched yellow tape across the doors of the house. Soon then they left too. Suddenly quiet. Jonny hadn’t moved an inch. He still was on his knees, a freshly pulled weed between his fingertips. Nobody had said a word to him.

Jonny knelt for a minute, trying to decide what to do. Should he go in the house? His wife wasn’t home; on Tuesdays she spent the day at the Center… was it ceramics day? He thought for awhile but couldn’t come up with any reason not to keep weeding. Jonny looked up and saw something white on the grass, right where the police had thrown Douglas down. A fleck of what looked like a scrap of paper. He started to get up to walk over, see what it was.

“Jeez! That shore was sumpthin’!” a voice startled Jonny. He stood up quickly and looked into the face of Fred, a neighbor from down the block. Fred smelled of fresh clippings, he must have been mowing.

“Uh, yeah,” was the only comment Jonny could come up with.

“I always knew somthin’ fishy was goin’ on over there… but Jeez!” continued Fred. “Come back from Vegas yesterday, lawn growed up somethin’ awful. I’s out mowin’, then this. Jeez!”

“How was Vegas?” Jonny asked, eager to change the subject.

Fred was happy to oblige, “OK, I suppose.” “Wife and I ate at the buffet, at the Brass Nugget, same as always. ‘Cept this time we went to pay and the girl said ‘Thirty-Two dollars.’ ‘Thirty-Two Dollars!’ I says back at her. I couldn’t believe it had gone up that much. ‘It’s whole lobster night,’ she says. That explained it, it was whole lobster night.”

“Did you eat a lobster?”

“Yeah, you had to use a coupon so it wasn’t really all you could eat, you only had one. You picked out your lobster, only they weren’t very good. Too big ‘n tough. I’d never had a whole lobster before, only tails ‘n claws. This one was too tough.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Well then,” Fred went on, “I went back, to the regular part of the buffet, and got some of the meat. Some beef. And, you know, it was so tough I could barely chew it. Like horsemeat.”

“Oh, the buffet wasn’t so good?”

“It’s OK. Same as always, really. All you can eat. Can’t beat that.” “Well, Jonny, I’d better get back to that mower. Lawn’s all grown up ‘n all.”

“Oh, talk to ya later, then.”

“Talk to ya later.”

And Fred strolled off. Jonny watched him for a minute, thinking about Fred flying all the way out to Las Vegas for a vacation. Thinking about going all that way to wait in line in an all-you-can-eat buffet. Piling up tough meat on a plate.

Jonny turned and looked at the fleck of white. It looked even worse than a weed, so he walked quickly over to get it off his lawn. In a few steps he was on it and could get a good look down into the turf.

He wasn’t so young anymore, he wasn’t up on all the new stuff, but he wasn’t an idiot either. He knew what that was down there. It must have fallen out of Douglas’ pocket when he went down. In all the hubub nobody noticed such a small thing stuck there in the blades of grass.

It was a marijuana cigarette, a joint. Handrolled, ends twisted, a little bent, Douglas must have rolled onto it as he fell. Jonny had never seen one of these before. It looked familiar, though. In the army, he and the other men would buy tins of tobacco, packs of thin, gummed papers, roll their own cigarettes out on maneuvers. He knew this wasn’t tobacco, though.

Jonny didn’t know what to do. The police were all gone. The few neighbors that had come out onto their porches right after it happened had all retreated back inside. He looked down the block and saw Fred pushing his mower around the corner into his side yard.

Jonny bent over, picked it up quickly and walked fast into the door of his workshop.

It used to be a detached garage, but Jonny added space on to the front that would hold their car and converted the rest into storage for his tools and a bench. It was dark and quiet, the one place where Jonny felt always at home. It had been more than five years since another human being had been in this room. He pulled the hand-rolled cigarette out of his pocket and put it down on the bench between his soldering iron and the case of his socket set.

Jonny stood there motionless. He kept thinking of Fred and the buffet. He could see the trays, almost taste the tough meat. He thought of all those retired people on vacation, trading in their little coupons for tasteless old lobsters, picked from a tank and boiled alive. He could hear the sound of mowers through the wall of his shop, not only Fred, but others out pushing the machines. It sounded like bees buzzing through the walls. Jonny thought of the third of his yard he had left unweeded, of the brighter green leaves of the spurge mixed in with his carefully tended turf.

Without even knowing why, Jonny reached out to his pegboard and pulled the long propane lighter he used on his bar-b-que grill.

He sat down on a stool. “I think I’ll let the rest go today,” he said out loud to himself and picked up the marijuana, stuck it in his mouth.

Short Story Of the Day, Fourth of July by William E Burleson

But now he plays. As always, he plays because that’s what he’s paid to do. But this time, he also plays for his co-workers. This time, he plays for honor. And he plays brilliantly.

—- William E Burleson, Fourth of July

The end of a game of giant Jenga – Community Beer Company, Dallas, Texas

I remember… let’s see… I was about ten – that would make it about 1967. Well over a half-century ago. The memory is from a small farming town (about 500 souls) in the middle of nowhere – so that would mean, if I was living there, probably it was when my father was in Vietnam. I remember discovering a well-worn building within walking distance of my house (everything was within walking distance) that had a couple of pinball games right inside the front door. I would walk down there and some old man would give me a quarter so I could play.

A quarter was a lot of money in those days.

If you were weaned on video games you don’t understand the thrill of a real, mechanical marvel. The sound, real sound, of the metal ball and the flippers and the bumpers, clanking and chunking – the bells chiming – the mechanical counters clicking around (and hopefully the wonderful CLUNK of a new free game). The slight smell of ozone in the air from the thousands of contacts making and breaking. The flashing lights and garish graphics – real wood, real glass, real paint. The feel of the spring loaded piston that sent the heavy ball – you could feel the weight in the handle – shooting up and around and the moment you felt your fingers move to the round buttons on the side with your palms against the wood to give careful, tiny shoves (don’t want to TILT – you learned the limits of your machine) to keep the ball moving and away from the gutter. You became one with the flippers – the game would last as long as your skill and luck held out.

Those days are gone.

Read it here:

Fourth of July by William E Burleson

William E Burleson homepage

Rather Be Exact

“Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Galveston, Texas

How I Feel Tonight

“The challenge lies in knowing how to bring this sort of day to a close. His mind has been wound to a pitch of concentration by the interactions of the office. Now there are only silence and the flashing of the unset clock on the microwave. He feels as if he had been playing a computer game which remorselessly tested his reflexes, only to have its plug suddenly pulled from the wall. He is impatient and restless, but simultaneously exhausted and fragile. He is in no state to engage with anything significant. It is of course impossible to read, for a sincere book would demand not only time, but also a clear emotional lawn around the text in which associations and anxieties could emerge and be disentangled. He will perhaps only ever do one thing well in his life.

For this particular combination of tiredness and nervous energy, the sole workable solution is wine. Office civilisation could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol.”
― Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Decatur, Texas

I was looking forward to an easy day – especially since it was supposed to be my day off. But the phone calls kept rolling in, the emails kept coming, everybody wanted a piece of me. By the time I made it home… there was nothing left. Another day stolen by the man.