The Annual Meeting

 

Friday

After driving six hours from Chicago, Joe Smoltz arrived at the Splendent Hotel. It was Friday night. An intense two days of meetings would start first thing in the morning. As the Midwest manager of a national chain of appliance stores, he was required to attend the annual “Strategic Management” sessions. The four area managers, when gathered at a bar after previous sessions, called them “Pat ‘em on the head and kick ‘em in the butt” meetings, as the sessions would invariably come down to putting fire in the bellies of the managers with the owner’s version of “Strategic Management”.

Joe found the hotel, an austere looking ten-story structure, in the middle of a high-tech office park. He parked his car and walked into the lobby. The first thing he noticed was the utter cheerlessness of the place. It was like he had walked inside a cube, a sterile cube. The white-walled two-story lobby was empty except for a few chairs, a front desk and a staircase. The massive window on the street side framed the skeletal form of another ten-story building being constructed across the street from the hotel. In the middle of the lobby was a staircase to the second floor. Its design looked as if it had been taken from an Escher drawing. The huge spare lobby had no flair and no ornamentation. There was not a plant or tree in sight. There was only floor, bare walls and the massive windows offering a view unworthy of the windows. One painting, a swoosh of color, hung above the front desk. The place looked familiar to Joe. The owner had chosen similar-styled hotels in the past for their annual meetings. The octogenarian was all business, just like the hotels he chose for their meetings.

“Ugh! Let’s get this over with,” Joe grumbled.

After checking in, Joe rolled his suitcase over to the elevators. The four elevator shafts at the center of the atrium were a vertical column within a four-sided stack of rooms. Between the elevator doors was a sign: “Elevator Testing Today”. That is odd, he thought. “What am I supposed to do with that information? Is something going to happen? Will I be stuck in this thing? What if I one of my service guys went over to a customer’s house and placed a “Dryer Testing Today” sign on one of our customer’s dryer and then he left with no further instructions?”

He thought for a moment and then smiled.

“That would be a great slogan for our stores: “We don’t leave our customers hanging out to dry. No Doubt Dependability!”

Joe pressed the up arrow. He got in the opened elevator and pressed “7”. The elevator closed its doors and began to shuttle him upwards. “Oh, thank God!” he thought, “No elevator music.”

“Hello Joe. Remember me? You’ve led a lousy life Joe. A lousy life. Three marriages and three divorces and countless sexual affairs. Your kids want nothing to do with you. Endless frustration with your lack of self-control. A lousy life, Joe. A lousy life. Go to the tenth floor and …”

Joe shook his head the voice stopped. “You again. Go away! All that is behind me now. I am a different man.”

The elevator door opened on the seventh floor. Joe got out and looked back at the elevator. “Go back to where you came from.”

Joe walked to his room, limping and his head whirring. The constant white-noise chirring in his head began about two months ago. He had thought at the time that the incessant hissing might just be an electrical noise from one of his appliances at home. But when he left the house and sat in his car, the intruding hiss was there. And, it was loud. Joe didn’t know why it had started. All he could do was name it: Tinnitus. And, his knee? The bone doctor couldn’t offer any precise explanation for what was going on with his knee.

“It could be arthritis” he was told after the doctor had taken X-rays and found nothing affecting Joe’s left knee. “Unspecified Chronicity” was written on the exit form. Joe was given a script for an anti-inflammatory pain killer and an order for physical therapy. “The body gives no senior discounts,” Joe thought when he left the doctor’s office, expecting another medical bill.

Using the pass key, Joe opened the door to his room and switched on the light. The hotel room had the same stiff angular character he had seen before in the hotel rooms booked for him for his annual meetings. Lines and boxes. A black credenza ran the length of one wall, from the entrance closet to the curtain. At the curtain end was an angular lamp with a USB charging port. To fill the void above the credenza there was an 85” large screen TV.

“Let’s get this over with.” Joe placed his suitcase on the credenza and hung up his sport coat and pants.

After washing his face, Joe reviewed the hotel services menu on the TV. There was a restaurant and bar just off the hotel lobby. He put on a sport coat and went out to the elevator.

When the one of the elevators arrived, he walked in and pressed “L”. The doors shut and the elevator proceeded down.

“You’ve led a lousy life joe. A lousy life. Three marriages and three divorces and countless sexual escapades. Remember the affair you had with the youth pastor’s wife. And, right in the parsonage? What do you have to live for? This lousy sales job?”

Joe’s tinnitus did nothing to block the disturbing noise in his head. He shook his head and looked at his watch. Maybe the other sales managers had arrived and they would be at the bar.

The dining room was empty except for the rather rotund woman tending the bar. She was leaning against the back bar. Her arms were folded across her chest and she had a scowl on her face. Above her, like three thought bubbles of “Clash”, were three muted large screen TVs showing college football games and a NASCAR race. Joe sat down and ordered a bourbon straight up and a sandwich.

Earlier in his life he would have judged the woman, thinking her repulsive and not worth his time. He would have assumed that the scowl on her face was her way of saying ‘Don’t put me in a box. Don’t mess with me. I’ve been through enough’.

But now, Joe reserved judgement only for himself. He saw her as a woman who needed a mirror that reflected more than this world has to offer.

Joe took a sip of his drink and looked around. The restaurant bar area had the same stark quality as the lobby. There was no artwork and no plants, only space with boxy fixtures against white walls. “A coat of Warm Apricot would warm up this place.”

Beyond the rectangular bar, square tables with stiff chairs were set along the right angle of two banks of windows. The windows faced the same new construction as the lobby. Another ten-story layer of containers being built for get-in-and-get-out business just like this hotel. Joe thought.

The bartender placed the sandwich before Joe. She released her scowl for her only customer. “What brings you to Splendent?”

“I’m here for the annual sales meeting. I am the Midwest manager for a chain of appliance stores.” Joe looked at her. She could see that his eyes were bloodshot.

“Did you come along way?”

“I drove from Chicago. It rained the whole way. My name’s Joe.” He put out his hand.

“Amanda.” The woman reached across the bar and shook his hand.

Joe couldn’t help notice her bare shoulders and the black lace top with sleeves that reminded him of bats. A skull tattoo was on the back of her hand.

“Amanda. That’s a pretty name.” Joe winked at the woman and she squeezed out a smile.

At that moment an Asian couple came into the bar and asked for a table. Amanda told them “Sit anywhere you like.”

Both Joe and Amanda stared at the couple. The young man was wearing a black sport coat and tie and black slacks. The young women wore a black skimpy dress that barely covered her bottom. She was taller than the young man. Her six-inch heels made it so. Both Joe and Amanda looked away when the couple turned and asked for a menu.

Joe finished his sandwich and his drink. He paid his tab and asked Amanda if she was working the rest of the weekend. She said she was. He handed her his business card. “If you need an appliance, I can set you up. I have a store in the area.” Amanda thanked Joe and said that her mom might be interested.

“I also have friends in the paint business. So, if your mom needs to redecorate, I can get her a good price on several gallons of paint.” Amanda looked at Joe and wondered if he was being nice to her so he could sell her something.” She thanked him and put the card in her purse.

Joe got up and grimaced as he placed weight on his knee. He wished Amanda a good night. “Amanda, that’s a pretty name.” He left her a handsome tip.

Joe found his way to the elevator and saw that the “Elevator Testing Today” sign was still there. “Hmmm. Let’s get this over with.” Joe pressed the up button and an elevator door opened. He got in and pressed “7”. The doors closed and the elevator began to shuttle upward.

“Go on Joe. Invite Amanda to your room. She is sweet on you. Did you see how she looked at you when you said her name? It’s been years since you were with a woman. You owe it to yourself. Anyone can go to their room and watch porn. Hook up with Amanda and you’ll have at least one relationship in your sorry life.”

Joe looked over the elevator. “What is it with this contraption? I’ve had plenty of people telling me how I should live my ‘sorry’ life. Do this, be this and not that. And now this elevator from hell. Argh!”

The door opened and Joe limped over to his room. He went in. The constant chirring in his head, the electric hiss, was the only sound he heard. He got undressed and turned on the TV.

After searching for something watchable he found a western. He watched Shane until his eyes closed and sleep and the pain pill overtook him.

 

Saturday

The alarm sounded at 6 AM. Joe shut off the alarm and sat up. “Let’s get this over with.” He got up, showered and dressed for his meeting. He went down to the breakfast buffet where he met Haze the restaurant manager. She was a likeable young woman with a nose ring. She asked Joe if he was enjoying his stay. “Its had its ups and downs so far.” Joe chuckled and decided not to go into detail. “The buffet looks good and the service so far is great. Hazel, Huh? I haven’t heard that name in a long time. I like it.”

Joe filled his plate and sat back down. He hadn’t seen the other managers yet. He wondered if they would arrive this morning. He would have liked to talk with them before the meeting and gauge the atmosphere he would be walking into. Sales had plateaued in his market and that would not go over well. He pondered how he would present his numbers. Two of the managers, the west coast and east coast managers, were vying to become national sales manager. They would cozy up to the owners again this year. Joe had no interest in the position. It meant more travel and being away from home. His only ambition, as he told himself over and over again, was to keep from screwing up his life any more than he already had.

“… I was no angel, that’s for sure. I didn’t know any PK who was. Even Peter, adopted by the Lord, denied him three times. I did the same in my three failed marriages.” Joe felt self-disgust rise up in his stomach. “I had to sit through all of dad’s sermons. Never-ending sermons about never-ending judgment. Getting numbers of people saved from judgment was his business. I wanted to be saved from the sermons and the judgment that grew in the hearts of those who heard the sermons, like that woman who scolded me with “Fly right!” after she learned that dad’s little angel had messed up his first marriage. There was no clemency for a PK, especially not for one who squirmed outside the bounds set by the mini providences surrounding me. They still surround me. Little wonder that I responded with anger and rebellion and with the same black and white judgment of those around me.”

Joe looked at his watch. He had another hour before the meeting started. He got up and grabbed another plate of food and sat down. Haze brought him some more coffee. As she poured a young couple with two children came in and reviewed the buffet.

“Have any kids, Haze?”

“Not yet.” Haze walked over and welcomed the family. Joe returned to his thoughts.

“Mothers birth boys and Fathers birth men,” is what dad often said from the pulpit. But dad didn’t birth me the man. But I understand dad. He was day and night busy with the church …. I followed in his footsteps. But not as a minster, whoa! never as a minster, unless you can call selling a coat of paint as redemption for one’s home and selling a new a washer as salvation from unwashed clothes. Work your passions, work for your family…”

Joe checked his watch again. It was time to head over to the meeting.

Outside the conference room a small buffet was set up with coffee and sweet rolls. Inside the room was a chalk board and an easel pad. The west coast and east coast managers were huddled around the owner and apparently sharing funny stories, as the they both laughed at each other. Someone was writing the day’s agenda on the pad.

The south manager walked over from the elevator and came up to Joe. “What the heck is going on with the elevator, Joe? What does Elevator Testing mean?

“Stick around and you may find out.” Joe shook Roy Lee’s hand. “When ‘d you arrive?”

“Just this morning. I wanted to fly out last night but my flight from Atlanta was constantly delayed due to heavy storms in the area.”

“You ready for the next storm?” Joe nodded toward the conference room.

“My numbers are not stellar. How about yours?

“Same. We better go in and get this over with.” Joe led the way into the room. He greeted the owner and company’s namesake, Archibald Whitlock Sr.

“How are you Mr. Whitlock?”

“Call me Archie Joe. Every year I tell you the same thing. Call me Archie.”

“You’re right, Archie.” Joe turned to greet the other two managers who had taken seats on each side of Archie.

At the table the managers began sharing brief personal updates about family. Joe shared that he waiting to become a grandfather now that all his kids were married. And, that he bought a parrot to keep him company.

Taylor, the west coast manager, burst out laughing. “A parrot? Wow! I bet you have interesting conversations with the bird.”

Joe retorted. “Perot can say Archie Appliances.” With that the owner smiled and called the meeting to order.

Archie began with a greeting and introduced his son Archie Jr., “the company’s new national sales manager”. West Coast and East Coast looked at each other with an expression of “How can this be?” Joe thought the announcement a pat on the head for Archie Jr. and a kick in the pants for those two.

Archie Jr. had a Rod McKuen look about him. Beneath his disheveled sandy blond hair, he bore a melancholic disposition. He wore a turtle neck and sport coat and slacks that must have just been pulled out of the dryer. By his looks it would be hard to take him seriously. Here was Joes’ National Sales Manager and his new boss.

Archie Jr. was handed the meeting by Archie Sr. In a slow ponderous voice, Archie Jr. began by pointing at each word on the flip chart as he spoke it. “Where …Are … We …At?”

“This will be a long day,” Joe thought, “a long lousy day”. The three other managers looked pale and antsy. West coast threw his pen on the table before him. East coast stared at the wall biting his lip. South furrowed his brow and began straightening a paper clip. “When was the next break?” was on each of their minds.

During that morning session that droned on for what seemed a lifetime, the managers learned that Archie Jr.’s background was in finance. He was a numbers guy. And, by the look of his trousers, Joe thought, he didn’t know squat about what they were selling. He didn’t know about the Archie No-Wrinkle Dryer. Joe realized where his thoughts were going and stopped them. He withheld any more judgment, as he had been wrong about so many things in the past.

Then came an endless array of pie charts and Joe grew rankled. He hated meetings to begin with. But pie charts? The business of sales was a relationship between people and not between a red slice of pie and a blue slice of pie. People – him and his customers – don’t belong in pie charts. These charts were like the porn he used to take in – objectifying. Joe sat through the presentation of graphs and charts passively engaged. A growing disdain welled up in him at the thought of his work, his passion, being reduced to a cut and paste graphic.

The group broke for lunch. The managers almost ran out of the room. Each hurried to a quiet corner of the atrium to make phone calls to their stores. After the calls they searched the internet for “Archibald Whitlock Jr.” Their area reports would be required in afternoon session. What else did they need to be prepared for?

Joe went outside for a walk. The conference room had become suffocating. Outside, the whirring in Joe’s head was replaced with the sounds of traffic and construction. Autumn wind buffeted his ears and blew construction dust into his eyes.

Joe had a lot to think about. Archie Sr., who grumbled about every nickel and dime spent, would still ask the managers, “Do you need anything?” But now Sr. was taking a hard line through his numbers guru son who said “Here’s what numbers tell us.” Sr. was silent. Jr. had a spreadsheet. And Joe had prepared for the question “What do you need?”

After almost an hour of pacing the long sidewalk along the hotel Joe headed back to the conference room thinking Here ‘s what I need: Let’s get this over with.

The east coast manager, Charles, began the afternoon session. He had no charts. He passed out a handout showing each store’s numbers for the past year. There were stores that had improved sales and there were stores that were just getting by. He suggested that the slow down at the latter stores was due to many folks in his area dealing with job losses, rising housing costs and high sales and property taxes. He went on to suggest that financing options should be over two years instead of one. He sat down.

The south area manager, Roy Lee, also brought a handout showing his managed stores numbers. Like the east coast area, some stores’ revenue had bumped up and others had plateaued. He talked about the areas that had been hit by floods and hurricanes. Neighborhoods and houses were destroyed. Rebuilding was going on and there was a substantial need for their appliances. Agreeing with Charles, he stated that it was essential that their financing options should be over two years instead of one, as many folks had to wait for Federal assistance and insurance monies. He went on to say that keeping employees was a priority, as they knew the appliances and the customer base. He had to pay higher wages to keep them, thus cutting into the bottom line. He sat down.

Joe was up next. He began by congratulating Archie Jr. on his being selected as national sales manager. Archie Jr. perked up and looked over at Sr., who then winked at him in approval. The other managers nodded, barely moving their heads. Joe began, also passing out a handout.

“What these not-so-stellar figures don’t show are the number of satisfied and repeat customers we have. Warranty repairs costs are down. Customer satisfaction is up. We are getting good reviews online. The upside is that the customers in the Midwest are happy with their Archie Appliances. The downside is that because the appliances work so well repeat sales have long a long turnaround. So, for new sales, I am working with housing developers to have them place our appliances in new homes.

Joe then proposed refrigerator magnets with an 800 number and the slogan: “We don’t leave you hanging out to dry. Appliances and Service You Can Depend on.”

He went on to say that he visited the factory in the past year to learn how the appliances are made and to hear firsthand about warranty issues. He said that he goes on installation and service calls as often as possible. He then turned his laptop screen to face the group. On it was a slide show of clients standing next to their appliances, all with big smiles. The last photo was of Perot. “And this is my communications director.” With that the three other managers moaned. Archie Sr. smiled once again. Archie Jr. looked perplexed at first and then he eked out a smile

Before he sat down, Joe said that he agreed with Charles, the East Coast manager, about the cost of living and making financing a priority. “The Chicago area, in particular, has very high property taxes. Many people are just getting by.” He turned to the South Area manager, Roy Lee, and said that he agreed with him about keeping experienced employees. He stated that employee satisfaction was just as important as customer satisfaction. Wages also had to go up in his area. Joe sat down.

The west coast manager, Taylor stood up. “How do I follow Perot? Good points, each of you. Here are my numbers.” He proceeded to pass out his report.

“I’ve included a forecast for this next year. The demographics of my area show many lower income folks are moving into the middle class in the areas I listed. The federal tax break has given them some buying power. As they move up, they want to upgrade and buy appliances. The financing Charles and Roy Lee both mentioned is essential for my customers. They want to build their credit rating. By giving them flexibility in financing that can happen. We should also update our nationally televised commercial. My wife Betty says it lacks verve. Maybe the commercial can say “You know you have arrived with Archie in your home”. The spokesperson could be a butler named Archie and there is a cartoon parrot which says “Archie Appliances at your service.”

Joe said a loud “Yes!” Charles was excited too. “Yeah, that might work. There are plenty of annoying spokespeople on commercials right now. But, adding an animal would make sense. People love animals.” Roy Lee saw his chance to voice his approval. “What we have on TV now is a failure to communicate.” The group looked at Archie Sr.to see his reaction. His face unchanged, Sr. looked over at his son. Jr. was biting his lip. No comment.

Taylor continued.

“I like what Joe said about the housing developer market. That will bring new sales. They will of course want discounting for the quantities involved. And, Roy Lee, you are right about our employees. Perhaps we can offer them help with regard to health insurance. We should be able to work with a health care provider to lower our costs because of the number of employees we have nationwide. I see growth but it will take some new initiatives to make it happen. Taylor sat down.

Archie Sr. stood up. “Thank you for your reports and your comments. You have given me a lot to think about. How about you Archie?”

“I learned a lot today. I have a lot to think about.”

Archie Sr. adjourned the meeting by saying that tomorrow his son would present a solution to one of the issues addressed that afternoon. Outside the conference room, the managers gathered in one corner of the atrium to talk about the night’s agenda: dinner and then a gentleman’s club. Joe said, “No, thanks. Been there, done that.” He’d see them in the morning.

Joe returned to the conference room to talk to Archie Jr. Archie Sr. came over to Joe.

“Joe, I was impressed by your presentation.”

“Thank you, Archie.”

“Joe, I’m getting too old for this game. Today proved to me again that my ways are …dated. Fifty years ago my passion was to own my own business. I worked all kinds of hours to grow this company. And, I had to provide for a growing family. So, I didn’t have much time to fool around, as they say. I was very demanding of those around me. Failure was not an option. Archie, here, took the brunt of my time away from home. And now I’m a tough old codger who can’t change my ways …Well, you know me and the background of this company, Joe. I’ve told startup story hundreds of times. I brought Archie on to pass the mantel to him when I retire in six months. I would like you to take him under your wing and show him the day-to-day business during this time.”

Joe watched Archie Sr. put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Was he asking Joe to birth the man?

“I’d be happy to, Archie. In fact, I came back to ask him to come to Chicago and spend some time at the stores there. We can also take a trip to the factory in Indiana. I can show him how we build what we sell. He can meet the people who build our appliances. He can see firsthand what goes into the manufacturing costs.”

“Excellent. Archie, you up for that?’

Jr. looked at both men and saw them looking back at him. “Yes, sir.”

Joe then asked Jr. if he would like to join him for a drink later. Jr. said he would. Joe, famished from not eating lunch, dismissed himself.

“See you in the AM Archie. I’ll see you later Archie.” Joe walked over to the bank of elevators. He noticed the “Elevator Testing” sign was still there. He walked over to the front desk.

“Are they still testing the elevators?’

The woman at the front desk said she would call her manager and find out why the sign was still there. Joe thanked her and returned to the elevator. “Let’s get this over with.”

Joe pressed the up button and a door opened. He got in and the door closed and began its shuttle upward.

“Joe, remember all the times you spent at gentleman’s club …the times you enjoyed women and wanted them. Remember the lap dances and the prostitutes you made love to. Go on. Go out with those guys, Joe. Nobody will know. Besides, all you have in your life is a parrot. This guy you are meeting later is a milquetoast. You need to be around real men. Go on, joe. Go on. It is normal. You need it.”

The elevator opened on the seventh floor. Joe got out. The whirring white noise in his head was oddly comforting to him right now. In his room he washed his face and changed his shirt. All he could think of was eating, so he hurried and went out. A cacophony of voices rose up from below. He looked over the railing.

On the atrium floor entourages in colors chosen by brides and newly-classified monochromatic men converged. It was Saturday night and marriage receptions were taking place. It occurred to Joe that on every Saturday night of his annual meetings, wedding receptions took place in the hotels chosen by Archie Sr. Was it coincidence?

He took the elevator down. Some the wedding party rode with him, thankfully, Joe thought.

Crossing the lobby Joe saw Archie Sr. sitting in a chair. His Wall Street Journal was lowered. He was taking in the flourishes of human activity surrounding him. Joe only knew Archie Sr. from their annual meetings and his phone calls to Joe. This was new impression of Archie and made Joe rethink his boss in terms of being human. Apparently, the prosaic old codger needed more than numbers could supply.

As Joe crossed the lobby he noticed signs posted. “Welcome to the Reception of the Nuygens” “Welcome to the Reception of the Hobarts” “Welcome to the Reception of the Clivens. The Splendent was no longer an empty shell.

Joe’s stomach growled loudly. He entered the bar and sat down. Amanda greeted him with a drink napkin.

“Long day? Bourbon up?”

“Yeah, yes, please. It started out lousy but things turned around. One more meeting and I’m going home.”

“Where’s home?

“Chicago.”

“I’ve heard they have great pizza there.”

“Yeah, great pizza and great hot dogs. You can tell by my potbelly. Say, something is different about you”

“I changed my hair. It was black and I returned it to its natural red. I asked the hairdresser to give me a more relaxed look. I thought I looked a little too severe before.”

“It’s a great look for you, and that smile wasn’t there last night.”

“Yeah, change for the better. What can I get you?’

“I’ll have the rib-eye and a cup of soup.”

“Coming up.”

Joe looked around. An older couple sat at a bar table watching the football games on the screens above the back bar. Other than the couple the place was empty. Sitting there it was easy for him to recall the many times he sat in bars alone during his road trips. It was easy for him to recall what he did when felt isolated and alone. Thinking about It made him sick inside and anxious to get home and back to work.

He checked his phone and found a message from Kim. She sold a washer/dryer unit to a young couple. They were expecting to meet Joe when it arrived at their home. Here was something he could bring to the table tomorrow.

Amanda brought his drink and said she would return with the soup.

The bourbon, double-oaked, went down smooth. Sitting and the strong drink helped to lessen the pain in his knee. He had hobbled from his room to the bar. The soup arrived and Joe asked for another bourbon. After a couple of minutes, the steak arrived. He had to slow his eating. He was so hungry he had woofed down his soup.

As he finished up, Archie Jr. arrived and sat down next to Joe.

“Did you eat, Archie?”

“Yes. Thanks. I went to dinner with dad …someplace nearby.”

Amanda placed a drink napkin in front of Archie. “What can I get you?”

“A glass of Chardonnay, please.”

Well, Archie, your dad must have a lot of respect for you to make you the national sales manager and eventually the CEO.”

“Yeah, well, maybe. I am the oldest and my two younger brothers joined the Navy. So, to keep the business in the family, I was the chosen one. I was initially looking at a career in mergers and acquisitions.”

“Your financial background will be a boon for this company. Each of us managers are so busy making sales and running the store operations that the books are not given their due diligence. “

“Well, I have an idea that I will share tomorrow. I’ll want your feedback.”

“You’ll get it. By the way, how do you like this hotel?”

“It serves it purpose. There is nothing charming about. It is rather cold and business-like for my tastes. I see of a lot the same minimalist thing in LA. – expose the essence of a subject through eliminating all nonessential forms, features, or concepts. Minimalism uses the fewest elements to create the maximum effect.

“Are we the subject?”

“I think the architect is the subject.”

“Non-essential features? Like a coat of warm gray paint on the walls and terra-cotta floors?

“The colorless the better for the unforgiving minimalists.”

“Minimalist, that’s the term for it? How do you know this?”

“I read Architectural Digest. Architecture is kind of a hobby for me. Helps me to refocus. Numbers are unforgiving too. I like classical forms and not the stark boxes being built today. And, this hotel is the latter.”

“Fascinating. I have a lot to learn. Archie, I hate to cut this short but the steak I just ate is making sleepy. It was great getting to know you better. I better head up to my room and get to bed. I have a long drive home tomorrow after our meeting.”

“I appreciate your meeting me for a drink, Joe. I was fairly certain that the managers would be very upset by my father’s announcement.”

“Well, I, for one, think it is a change for the better. I’ll see you in the morning.”

With that Joe paid his bill and told Amanda that it was nice meeting her. He then hobbled back to the elevator. The whirring in his head was replaced by the loud music coming from a wedding reception. The throbbing in his knee and the “Elevator Testing” sign were still there.

“Let’s get this over with.” Joe pressed the up button.

“Joe, Joe, lousy -life Joe. You want flair in your life. You can make it happen. Otherwise you might as well take your boring lousy life up to the tenth floor and toss it off. Your friends and family have abandoned you. You’re a worm in their eyes. They would have forgiven you if you were forgivable. The lousy life you led is unforgivable. You are left to your own devices now, Joe. Joe, Joe, lousy -life Joe.”

The elevator opened on the seventh floor. Joe exited and held the door open. “Your day is coming …minimalist.” Joe let go of the door. “Joe, Joe, lou …”

The party’s music reverberated up to the seventh floor. And we can build this dream together, Standing strong forever, Nothing’s gonna stop us … Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.

In his room Joe took his pill and went to bed thinking about everything that transpired that day. Soon, thoughts of his past crept in … He didn’t need a voice to tell him that he had lived a lousy, roguish and profane life for many years. There was Joe by day and Joe by night for a long time. That was until he had a breakdown. Then he made long overdue changes …

That night he had a waking dream. He had committed suicide and knew that he would know he had committed suicide for eternity. Nurses would come and look at him in lying in bed. They would wrench their faces in horror and run in terror. Joe would sit up in bed and make faces at them and mouth words. But they couldn’t hear him and were scared off.

Joe woke up and looked around the room. Whirring. Only whirring. He laid his head back down and fell back to sleep.

Then another dream. Joe was on a stretcher being lowered down. His friends were lowering him down. When they stopped Joe felt a hand on his head and heard “Friend, your sins are forgiven. Get up and walk.” His friends were not happy at all. They wanted a different outcome. But Joe felt elated.

Then the alarm sounded.

 

Sunday

The next morning the hotel was still and the hiss in Joe’s ears pronounced. The wedding guests were sleeping. Joe opened the room’s curtains. He could see the boxes where people worked.

The coffee maker started Joe got in the shower. The dreams, both so vivid, colored his thoughts as he showered, shaved and dressed. He put on his sport coat and headed downstairs to the breakfast buffet.

Exiting the elevator, Joe took a few steps toward the lobby and then stopped. He turned and noticed that the “Elevator Testing” sign was gone. He went over to the front desk.

“I see that the “Elevator Testing” sign is gone.

The young woman at the front desk told Joe that someone had come early in the morning and had removed it. She was told that one of the elevator service men had left it behind on Friday after they tested the elevators. A lot of people had been asking about it, so her manager made a call last night.

Joe smiled and thanked her for taking care of it. He told her that he would be checking out later that morning. His next thought was breakfast. The smell of bacon was in the air.

At the breakfast buffet in a large room next to the bar Joe saw Haze. Her cheerful smile was a welcome sight.

“Good morning Joe. Coffee and orange juice?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Joe began to fill his plate. He decided that he wouldn’t eat again until he got home that evening.

Haze brought the coffee and juice to Joe’s table.

“You’re from Chicago?”

“Yes, do I look the part?”

Haze laughed. “No, Amanda told me. She mentioned that she got to know you the past couple of days.”

“Yes. We talked. I go to know her a bit.”

“She said that you sell appliances …Archie Appliances.”

“That’s right.” Joe pulled a business card from his coat pocket and handed it to Haze.

“Do you sell kitchen equipment to hotels? Corporate is building a new hotel near the airport next year.”

“Yes, we do. We offer commercial ranges, broilers, fryers, ice machines, freezers, hoods, ovens, bar refrigeration. Have them call me.” Joe handed her several cards. “We work onsite with the contractors who install the equipment. The website shows all of the equipment well offer. The prices shown are individual prices. We can bundle the equipment and offer a discount.”

“Wow! Thanks. I’ll pass it on. In our last meeting I told my manager that our chef was not happy with what he had to work with. Apparently, the last time, somebody had purchased the equipment without talking with him.”

“Here’s another card. Have the chef call me and we can talk about what he needs. Oh, and I have friends in the paint business. They can offer great paint at great prices. Have them call me and I can make it happen.”

“Will do. More coffee?” Joe said and yes and then noticed Charles and Roy Lee walk in. They looked in bad shape. A few moments later Taylor straggled in. All three looked hungover. Haze greeted them and asked if they would like a table. They noticed Joe and said that they would sit with him.

The three brought their plates of food over to Joe’s table and sat down.

Joe greeted them. “You guys look in bad shape. Did you paint the town last night?”

“Yeah,” Charles rubbed his forehead, “Taylor is on west coast time. He wanted to stay out later,”

“These annual meeting are killing me.” Roy Lee was pinching his temples.

“It was the five Southern Comforts you had at the club …” Taylor held his stomach until the nausea passed. “You were so lit up last night, Roy Lee, that you kept saying that you heard voices in the elevator. You …” Taylor stopped when the nausea came back. “Uhhhgg. Ishhhh-kabbible.”

Charles continued for him. “You freaked out when you saw that sign by the elevators. You said we were all gonna die if we took the elevator. You wanted to take the stairs up to the sixth floor.”

“I think I did die. I feel like death warmed over.” Roy Lee moaned.

Joe knew how they felt. He had had many mornings feeling as they did. But today, his head wasn’t pounding.

Haze came to the table and asked if they would like more coffee.

Joe said yes. And then seeing his chance to rub it in he said, “Maybe these guys would like a Bloody Mary.”

Each of them waved off the offer. Charles said, “Hell, no,” and continued.

“I am not looking forward to another meeting with our new National Sales Manager. The guy drones on and on.”

Taylor agreed. “I don’t think I can sit through another three hours of that guy. We are supposed to end at noon. We have planes to catch and, Joe, you have a long drive home.”

Roy Lee, who looked about ready to pass out, said they should tell Sr. that the three of them got food poisoning last night and maybe then Sr. would let them go early.

Taylor chided Roy Lee. “Maybe we can tell him that we all died in an elevator crash and that we just returned from the dead for the meeting.”

Joe laughed. “You guys look the part.”

While the other three were finishing their breakfast, Joe said he had to finish packing, He settled up with Haze and said goodbye.

“How was your stay, Joe?” Haze asked.

“The food was good. The service was great. The people here made all the difference. It was nice meeting you and Amanda. You have my card. I can come down and meet with your chef and corporate to talk about what they need. It was great meeting you.”

“It was nice meeting you, too,” Haze replied. “I hope your knee gets better.”

With that Joe hobbled back to the elevators and to his room. He packed his things and rolled his suitcase over by the door and headed downstairs for the nine-o’clock meeting.

At the conference room just off the atrium, Joe saw the same small buffet with coffee and sweet rolls just outside the room. He decided to pass on more food. Inside, Archie Sr. and Jr. stood talking. Nothing was written on the flip pad except a phone number.

When Joe walked into the room Archie Sr. greeted him. “Joe, how’d you sleep? The music was so loud I couldn’t until after two.”

“Yeah, the music was loud. But the pill I take for my knee must have knocked me out.”

“Knee trouble, huh? My wife’s got issues with her knees.”

Archie Sr., seeing his three managers dragging their feet as they walked across the atrium to the conference room, said, “The music must have bothered them, too. They look worn out” Archie Sr. looked over at Jr. “Maybe we should finish up early so these boys can be on their way and get some rest” Joe couldn’t help but smile.

With the four managers seated, the meeting commenced. Roy Lee sat with his elbows on the table and holding his head in his palms. Taylor sat back in his chair rubbing his stomach and looking at the trash can. Charles kept twisting his head and neck. Joe sat there trying not to look at the other three managers. If he did, he would break out laughing at the hilarious situation that Archie Sr. had presumed.

Archie Jr. began, this time sounding more self-assured.

“I heard what you said yesterday about financing. As you know large home improvement retailers sell everything from hardware and paint to appliances and yard goods. They offer a credit card and financing is handled through the card. The card keeps them coming back. I propose the same financing with an Archie Castle Card. ‘Castle’ because your home is your castle. The card could be used to purchase our appliances and could also be used to purchase home furnishings and remodeling at our other family stores, Archie Accents, run by my sister Analise.”

Joe interrupted. “That’s a great idea. And, I have a friend in the paint business. He has stores. Maybe his stores could be tied in with this card. Then a shopper could paint their castle.”

Archie Sr. looked over at Jr. “Check out what Joe is saying, Archie. We could bundle home purchases and roll out discounts and financing through the use of the card.”

“Will do.” Archie Jr. began again.

“I heard what you said about our TV commercial. It is rather lackluster. I will talk to our ad man and get something going. You guys will be the ones to approve it.”

Hearing this, the three otherwise silent managers perked up.

Charles took his hand from his temples to say “Now we’re talking!”

Archie Sr., seeing his three lethargic managers, told Jr. to keep going.

Jr. went on to talk about a health insurance plan that might work for their number of employees. He mentioned setting up the employees with an IRA and the company matching a percentage of the employee’s salary into their account. “Employees are our greatest asset. They know what we sell and they know the customers.” Jr. went on to talk about the sales numbers for the past year and to say “going forward, the numbers will take care of themselves if we do right by our customers and our employees.”

“Lastly, the number on the flip chart is my personal number. Call me with any concerns.”

Archie Sr. stood up and thanked his son. He walked around the table and shook the hand of each manager telling each one to “Work with my son. Give him the benefit of the doubt.” Then, to the group he said “Roy Lee has invited us to Charleston for next year’s meeting. I am looking forward to that. I’ll get some more golf in. Have a safe trip home.”

The four managers exchanged “goodbyes” and headed on their way. Joe went to his room, grabbed his suitcase and breathed a sigh of relief. The meetings were over. And, the hotel Roy Lee would pick would be quaint and comforting and not business as usual.

At check out Joe was asked about his stay. Joe commended Amanda and Haze for their great service.

Joe drove home with his head whirring, his knee throbbing and with fire in his belly. He would again drive past fields of corn and soy beans and wind turbines. He would once again pass the large black billboard with white letters that read, “HELL IS REAL”. Back in Chicago he would pick up Perot from his former paint business partner Bill, who watched the bird while Joe was away. He hoped Bill had not taught Perot any of his curse words. He really hoped that Bill had not taught Perot the pet name Bill once had for Joe: “Good times Joe”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Homecoming

 

The airport was especially crowded. Parents were waiting to pick up their college kids for Thanksgiving break. Alyona waited for her youngest daughter Sophia. She checked the flight information screen. The flight was on time but the plane was sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate. When the plane finally pulled up and the passengers began deboarding she looked at each passenger coming out from the boarding ramp. She thought he saw Sophia. The eyes were the same as Sophia’s but this person looked so different.

This person walked toward Alyona. “Hi mom.”

Alyona stood for a moment looking at her daughter and then embraced her. A look of disbelief was still on Alyona’s face when she let go of Sophia. “You look so different!”

The first thing Alyona noticed was Sophia’s pixie haircut. Her long naturally blond hair had been cut short and died jet black. The second thing she noticed when she hugged her daughter was the tattoo on the side of her neck. It was a creeper, a vine with colored flowers that originated somewhere below on her torso. Alyona put her hand to her mouth to contain her thoughts: “Those three piercings she’s wearing on her face could come off but the ink …”

What did come out: “Wait till your…” but she stopped herself. “Sophia was home now”, she reflected, again with her hand pressed to her lips. “And by the looks of her, home is where she needs to be”.

Sophia put on her backpack and looked at her mother. “I wanted to look different than then the lily whites on campus…Mom! Don’t you know that plastic straws are destroying the earth!” Alyona had been sipping a coffee drink waiting for Sophia. Alyona took a long sip and then threw the cup into the trash.

“Looks like I’ll have to schedule a stagecoach for your return to campus, Sophia. C’mon, let’s get your luggage.”

With Sophia’s luggage and art portfolio case in hand they walked to the car and drove home.

Alyona began the conversation in the car: “How’s your artwork coming along?”

“Good. I am working on a graphic novel about climate change. The main character – I named her Zara – has a degree in climate science. She comes home from the university after graduating. She attends city council meetings every week. She tells the council that the way to fight climate change is human recycling, you know, eating people. The people laugh at her so she takes things into her own hands, so to speak.”

“That sounds gruesome. How did you come up with this?”

“There’s a lot of environmental activism on campus. That’s how I heard about a scientist in Sweden who’s advocating eating human flesh after a person dies …to save the planet.”

“We’re having turkey again this year. We’re not eating your dead grandmother.”

“Mom, I’m serious. There is a climate emergency. If we don’t do something the world will end in our life time. I read a study that says parents should have fewer children to reduce CO2. Overpopulation and overconsumption will bring on biological annihilation of wildlife. I ‘m going to have only one child.”

“You’re my last. I don’t want to be accused of CO2ism and “biological annihilation” of wildlife. Whew! I wish there was more common-sense activism on campus.”

Sophia screwed up her face and said, “Mom, you don’t want to be a climate denier. Those people have no common sense.”

“Listen, Sophia, your grandparents are coming for dinner tomorrow. Spend some time with them. And don’t forget. We go to church on Thanksgiving morning. So, get in the shower early tomorrow.”

“Mom, I’m not going to church tomorrow. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be among a bunch of dominionists who care about saving souls but not the planet. Besides, my friends at school don’t believe in God and neither do I. I’m above all that nonsense. I’ve found something better to do with my life – climate activism. Instead of sitting sit around praying and singing old songs and listening to sermons I can do something that matters, something about the planet.”

“Wait till your…” Alyona stopped herself once again as she parked the car in the driveway. Her brows were now furrowed and she began biting her lower lip. Seeing his wife’s face as she entered the house, Aleksey, Sophia’s father, thought it had to do with Sophia’s changed appearance.

“Who’s this? I thought you went to the airport to pick up our daughter. You brought home a stranger.”

“See for yourself. It is your daughter.” Alyona said this with her eyebrows raised and her hands raised, the palms of her hands facing up.

“Well, I’ll be.”

“Hi dad.” Sophia hugged her father. “It’s just grown up me.”

“There’s something growing on your neck.”

“Yeah, dad. I have a tattoo to remind me of the need to save the planet.”

“I seeeeee? The planet needs saving? You’ll have to tell me all about this.”

“Yes,” Alyona injected, “tell your father everything.”

 

Before dinner that night Sophia talked with her father. He sat and listened quietly. He was stunned and perplexed at the change that had come over his daughter. He wondered about the point of departure from what she had been taught. Was it her friend’s influence? Her profs? He was glad that she had become assertive and was no longer the unassuming young woman she had been. He had hoped for that. But she come into her own or into another’s?

After an hour of hearing Sophia talk about her climate activism and about her graphic novel and about her new found atheism, he said, “Well, we’ll talk more later.”

Before he left the room, Sophia prodded him. “You’re not a denier are you dad?”

Aleksey turned to face Sophia. “I don’t deny that humans affect the climate but that effect is miniscule and not catastrophic to any extent. And, I don’t deny that there is a God and that eating human beings is not the answer to any problem.”

“Dad …. c’mon. You’re an engineer. You understand data and the data points to a climate catastrophe.”

Aleksey returned to the couch and sat down. “Sophia, climate data is based on computer models and those models provide projections based on assumptive inputs. You know the saying ‘garbage in, garbage out’. As an engineer I use formulas and data – constants -that provide proven outcomes. The outcome is predictable. Climate science is not iterative in that respective. The scientific method involves experimentation. Scientific observations have to be repeatable to be validated. Climate scientists cannot control all the variables that effect climate. And though there have been many observations made in very different circumstances on different instruments by different observers, the observation must be validated with past results and successful future predictions to test for falsifiability. If it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

Climate science ‘experimentation’ is based in computer modeling and virtual reality. Climate change projections have never been validated by experimentation. You can’t conduct an experiment on a natural system such as the Earth’s climate system in the same way you can conduct a controlled experiment in a physics or chemistry lab. As I said, climate science modeling is based on many assumptions, …like, the climate is unchanged without the effects of greenhouse gases and that the sun’s intensity is the same day after day and that any change in the climate is caused by humans emitting trace amounts of “greenhouse” gases into the atmosphere. And yet, some climate scientists still make their world-ending claims. They don’t say “maybe this will happen”. They say “It will happen!”

And, Sophia, if you take God as a constant out of your life’s equation and His validation the outcome will not make sense. You will end up inputting variables to force the outcome you desire. Your friends will, no doubt, approve of your values but they will not incur any consequences for their outcome. But you will. Their attitude will be much like the climate scientists who point to evidence in their own science journals. Without God, at some point Sophia, you may even begin to despair of life itself. These are hard words but they needed to be said.”

Sophia looked at her dad indifferently, thinking to herself “I am above all that. You’ll see.”

Dad, looking as if he had seen the future he just described, was no longer able to talk. He got up and told Sophia to go into the kitchen and to help her mother with dinner.

“Dad doesn’t understand what’s at stake,” Sophia thought. “This is a backwater town. I’ve seen the future and what really matters.” She set down her sketch pad and walked into the kitchen carrying her attitude with her.

“Mom, do you need help?” Alyona, at the sink, turned to see her daughter. She relaxed her furrowed brows and put on a smile.

“Soph, snap those green beans for me please. They’re for my casserole. Tonight, we’re having burgers and fries.”

“Mom, I’m a vegan now. I’ll just eat a salad. Can we make a tofu turkey tomorrow?”

“Listen, Missy, we’re having turkey tomorrow. Consider it less turkey CO2 in the air.”

 

The next morning, the air crisp and clear, Alyona and Aleksey drove off to church. Sophia slept in. She had been up late texting her friends. She wanted to make sure her resolve didn’t wane. On the kitchen counter, Alyona had left a list of things for Sophia to do to prepare for the Thanksgiving meal. After an hour-and-a-half Alyona and Aleksey returned home. Sophia was still sleeping. The list was untouched.

Sophia finally wandered into the kitchen in her pajamas. Mom, frustrated and yet compensating, told herself, “Sophia is home”.

“Hey, kiddo, we have a lot of work to do. Grandpa Mo and grandma Jean will be expecting dinner at one o’clock sharp.”

Sophia looked at her mom with cow eyes, hoping for some latitude.

“I’ll have some coffee and get in the shower and then I’ll help.”

“You’d better hurry. Dad is cleaning the house and I need your help.”

Sophia left the kitchen with her coffee and a cinnamon roll and proceeded to her room and then to the shower.

The smell of sage and roasting turkey began to fill the house. The familiar aroma brought back memories of family times for Sophia.

At noon Grandpa Mo and grandma Jean were at the door. Dad, still wearing an apron, greeted them.

“Hi dad. Hi Mom. Did you have a good drive over?”

They both responded. “Oh yeah, except for the guy who drove the speed limit in the inside lane. He wouldn’t move out of the way. That’s why we’re a minute late.”

“Well, the turkey is in the fast lane. It will be ready to cut into at one.”

“Good. I brought the wine.” Grandpa handed dad the wine.

Grandma walked into the kitchen and set down the apple and pumpkin pies she had made. She gave Alyona a hug and asked, “How’s my granddaughter?”

Alyona looked at her mother-in-law with pursed lips. “Well …she’s …she’s …she’s home. Thanks for making the pies. I’m sure glad you brought the wine. I could use a glass right now. What’s this?”

Grandam showed Alyona the multi-colored afghan she had made for Sophia.

“Beautiful!” came Alyona’s response.

“Could you use some help?” grandma offered.

“I sure could. I left Sophia a list of things to do while we were at church but she slept in and didn’t do any of it. She’s in the shower right now. …the same old Sophia and the new Sophia are in the shower right now.”

Not sure what to make of that, grandma put on an apron and started peeling potatoes.

In the living room, dad and dad were laughing. Grandpa Mo had begun telling his corny jokes.

“Why can’t you take a turkey to church? Because they use such fowl language!”

“What did the dry cleaner say to the impatient customer? Keep your shirt on!”

“I am reading a book about anti-gravity. It is impossible to put down.”

Aleksey put his hand on his father’s shoulder and responded in kind: “What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? Where’s pop corn?” Grandpa had a good laugh.

“Hey, where my granddaughter?”

“She’s in the shower. You won’t recognize her. She has a new look and a new attitude.”

Grandpa looked at his son quizzically. “Nothing a few bad jokes can’t cure, I’m sure.”

After fifteen minutes Sophia emerged from the bathroom. She was wearing a robe and her black hair was spiked out in all directions.”

“Hi, grandpa.” She called into the kitchen. “Hi, grandma.”

Grandpa looked her over and said, “Say, that’s a new look for you isn’t it?”

“I’m just catching up with the times.” She hugged him

Grandma came out of the kitchen, “Dear, what have done to yourself?”

“Grandma, it’s just a new look. I cut my hair short.”

Grandam looked at Sophia’s neck and said “Hmmm”. “Here, I made this for you.” She handed Sophia the afghan. “This will keep your neck covered.”

“It’s beautiful, grandma! Thank you!” She hugged her grandmother and walked to her room.

Grandpa Mo and Grandma Jean looked at each other and shook their heads. Grandma spoke. “Life as we know it is coming to an end.”

 

Before calling everyone to the table, Alyona looked over the place settings Sophia had put down. The table set and the turkey resting on the stove, mom lit the tapers. The flames reflected in the silver and the goblets. Looking up from the table and outside she could clearly see the Autumn Blaze Maple trees along the property line. Through the kitchen windows, fogged from the cooking, they appeared as an artist’s palette smeared with oranges, reds, and yellows. As she looked, stiff khaki-colored leaves from the neighbor’s lawn tumbled across the lawn, lifted by the cold wind. Alyona called everyone to the table.

Everyone was finally seated after calling Sophia to the table several times. Dad asked grandpa Mo to give thanks. Heads bowed, except for Sophia’s.

“Father, it was written long ago that the earth is yours and the cosmos and all who live in it. Nothing happens without you knowing it. In your providence you see a sparrow that falls to the ground. We give Thee thanks for keeping an eye on us sparrows this past year and for sustaining us. Make us wise stewards of the bounty we enjoy. And may everything that has breath praise You. We ask for your blessing on this wonderful-smelling food. Amen.”

Dad echoed the “Amen” and said, “Let’s get these dishes passed. I’ll go slice the turkey.”

Grandpa, with a twinkle in his eye, looked over at Alyona. “I was hoping for a glutton-free meal.”

Grandma looked over at Alyona and rolled her eyes. “Your father-in-law… Go easy on the potatoes, Mo. Save some for Sophia.”

The dishes began to be passed and the wine was poured. Mouths were too full to talk. Only “Mmmmms” could be heard and heads nodding “Amen” could be seen.

Minutes later dad returned with a platter of turkey. Grandma said that Alyona had outdone herself, “The food is delicious!” Grandpa and dad seconded.

From the table each could see the maple trees in the yard framed by the picture window in the dining room. The trees were overlaid with November sunlight. The trees, resplendent with fall color, seemed to respond to the sun’s attention by fluttering their leaves as standards in the wind. Seeing this, grandpa recounted his and grandma’s recent trip to the Smokie Mountains. “I got in some plein air painting. There were so many hues …reds, oranges, …the yellow birches and shagbark hickories were golden.”

While grandpa talked, Sophia ate with her eyes glazed over. She was deep in thought. She imagined the world coming to an end and her family eating turkey and engaged in meaningless conversation. “I should never have children because of what I know about their future.”

Grandpa noticed her despondency. “Sophia, how is school? Do you like your art teachers?”

Sophia perked up. “Good. I like Professor Nulin, my graphics art professor. He’s helping me with the narrative for my novel. He says that we have lost our way and must return to the narrative of the indigenous people who lived in ecological equilibrium long ago. He thinks we need to become more human by learning to live in balance with nature and to have a reverence for nature as they did. He says that to be human is to live as they did, in harmony with the cycles of nature. He thinks we need to take down civilization to a pre-civilized world to do this. He says that the religions of the world lead folks away from the divinity of the land. He says that industrialization is destroying the planet and creating climate change.”

Grandpa wiped his mouth. “Wow. That’s a lot to digest. It seems that climate change research has moved into the arts and social sciences. How’s your graphic novel turning out?”

“Oh, fine, grandpa.” Sophia went on to describe the narrative. “…and Zara is the main character. She has a band of Climate Change Confronters. I’ll show you the panels I’ve created after we eat.”

“That would be great. It sounds like you have given it a lot of thought. My old art professor, Mr. Smithers, who always wore argyle sweater vests that looked like a diagonal checkerboard, would lecture us with his glasses perched on top of his bald head. “Class,” he would say, “to create art of lasting value, it must be created within the enduring context of humanity and give dignity to the human drama. “You must read history and good literature if you want to understand that context!”

He conveyed to us that art should help us to see the world as it really is and then the viewer’s imagination can move him beyond immediate initial emotion to a consideration of the sacred and redemptive. He warned us about fantasy. “Works of fantasy”, he said, “mimic and mock reality. They begin with emotion and end with emotion, leaving the viewer frustrated and empty – with a diminished sense of objectivity. They are created to make you feel something for the sake of feeling something. They deal in sacrilege and the profane”.

Grandpa continued. “Look around. There is a surfeit of fantasy today – in pornographic images, in movies, on TV …. I saw a commercial for a movie the other day. It had graphic images depicting a specter of world-ending apocalypse and superheroes swooping in to save the world. Kids today eat this stuff up and can’t get enough of it seems, by the many previews just like it …”

Seeing Sophia’s arched eyebrows, Dad broke in. “I think it is time for some pie.”

The meal over and the table cleared, Alyona brought out the coffee. Grandma brought out the pies she had made.

Grandpa, taking his son’s cue to change the subject, asked, “How’s you work going, Aleksey?”

“I was made the responsible engineer for a greenfield project. We will be installing a new substation, transformers, circuit breakers and transmission lines. The project will take a year to complete.”

“Does it involve renewable energy?”

“Not in this case. This project is basically power distribution. But our company does do engineering for wind farm and photoelectric clients. We also work with businesses and institutions who want us to design “island” microgrids using wind and solar. The ‘islands’ can be switched to distributed power as needed. Soon, there will be microgrids using small modular nuclear reactors – SMRs. Those projects will involve both our nuclear group and our distribution group.”

Alyona, hearing the details about Aleksey’s company for the first time, asked for Sophia’s sake, “There is so much talk about fossil fuels today. Is your company involved with fossil fuels?”

“Our fossil group engineers CO2 capture projects …what you don’t hear talked about, Alyona, is that greenhouse gases make up only one to two percent of the entire atmosphere. Nitrogen and oxygen make up a majority of the atmospheric gases. And, CO2 comprises only about three-and-a-half percent of that one to two percent of greenhouse gases. Of the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, humans cause only about three to four percent of the annual CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. So, the anthropogenic effects are real but minimal.”

Aleksey stopped for a moment and finished his pie.

“And don’t forget. Without carbon, there would be no green bean casserole. Sunlight and carbon are required for the greening of the earth, for photosynthesis. And, to answer your questions, yes, our company has the anthropogenic effect of engineering and distributing clean energy. Nuclear plants alone provided fifty-five percent of the country’s clean energy last year. Renewable natural gas is also gaining in use.”

“It sounds like you and Sophia have things in common.” Grandpa wanted to restore transmission with the brooding Sophia.

Dad looked over at Sophia. Sophia looked over at her dad, her eyebrows again arched.

Dad looked over at his wife. “We do. But I think we will need to redirect some energy, dad.” Alyona looked over at Sophia and gave her a reassuring smile. And dad felt that there was more that needed to be said.

“It occurred to me as you were talking dad that what makes the enduring context that you were mentioning even possible are the physical constants in the cosmos which make life possible. These constants could not have happened by random chance. Not all scientists accept that premise, of course. Some choose a multi-verse theory as the random ‘creator’ instead of God. But scientists of all worldviews agree that the physical constants of the universe, which made possible the precise fusion of the carbon element on which life depends, are finely-tuned. It’s as if, as one scientist said, that the universe must have known we were coming.”

Grandpa wiped pie from the corner of his mouth. He looked as if he was about to say something. Everyone looked at him, hoping that he would not ask another question. They were all full and had started pushing back from the table when he began to speak.

“All this reminds me of the two goldfish in a bowl. One goldfish asks the other, “If there is no God who changes the water?”

With that and a smile everyone got up from the table. Alyona began to clear the dessert plates. Dad and grandpa offered to help. Alyona asked Aleksey to help in the kitchen while she and grandma talked. “Sophia, show your grandfather your art work.”

Sophia went to her room and came back with the graphic panels she had created. She sat down and sidled up to her grandfather on the couch. She talked about the narrative: indigenous people were in tune with the land and with the seasons; indigenous people were uncorrupted until the white man came along and began destroying natural resources with his greed; industrialization is wreaking havoc of the earth and poisoning the atmosphere; indigenous people considered the earth sacred; true religion is that which cares for the earth; we need to return to a dark green religion. She went on to explain to her grandfather who Zara was and her band of disciples -the Climate Change Confronters. “They will challenge, protest and do whatever is necessary by any means necessary to restore the mother earth to its health.”

“Sophia, you put a lot of thought into this. Your work shows a lot of promise. I like your draftsmanship. Have you thought of going in the direction of representational art? I think you would enjoy realism. I know of an atelier where you could learn. I know the owner. He lives on a farm about thirty miles from grandma and me. I’m sure he would take you in.”

Sophia looked puzzled, not sure if grandpa understood the direction of her work. Seeing the look on her face, grandpa responded to her narrative.

“Now, what makes you think that God would allow mankind to destroy His creation? You know the story of the flood. God stopped the destructive indigenous people before there was any talk of CO2. I think that there is a bigger picture that you need to take into account.”

Sophia sat there still looking pensive. “Maybe, but I still think mankind has lost its way. The planet needs to be saved from anthropogenic effects.”

“You are right about that. But then, God knew we were coming and He was prepared for the worst mankind could do. He ‘engineered’ a solution.”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Diner

 

The first day of autumn Matt walked over to the diner. The air around him was an admixture of warmth and chill as day and night and now the seasons began to converge. He carried with him a copy of Prank, Chekhov’s own selection of the best of his early work. Matt thought the stories were hilarious, as Chekov poked fun at the quirky humanness he witnessed in all strata of Russian society.

The diner, just off Main Street, opened at 6 am. Matt left his place at 6:30 for some breakfast at the fifties-style haunt. Turning on to Main Street from the street where he lived, he could see that sunlight was beginning to find its way around the dark buildings. The advancing sunlight and the yellowish light from the street lamps made it possible for him to see the black and orange “We will crush the Titans!” painted on the store windows by high schoolers for homecoming:

Turning off Main Street and walking half a block Matt came to the diner. If anyone looked in the street window, he would see a counter which stretched from the cash register on the right to a small dining area on the left. The worn laminated counter with a dull chrome ribbon along its edge ran the length of the window. Near the entrance the counter holding the cash register began its run parallel with the sidewalk. Moving left, the counter then curved into a horseshoe shape out toward the street and then went straight again for five feet and then curved out into another horseshoe toward the street. Swivel stools with red vinyl tops were posted around the serpentine counter.

If anyone would walk in, they would see the cash register and a framed black and white photo on the wall next to the register. The diner had a street picture taken when it opened in 1952. Walking along the counter, they would likely hear the red-haired Colleen say “Good morning!” And, they would see the owner and cook, a white-haired Greek, looking out through the order window. If anyone walked in during the summer, they would meet Aleixo’s three high-school aged daughters and learn that they were into cross-country. They worked at the diner during their summer vacation.

Matt walked in and sat down on a stool at the corner of the first horseshoe counter. From there Matt could see three men, retirees by their in-no-hurry look of them, sitting around the other horseshoe counter drinking coffee. The scene was a familiar one, one that he encountered every time he came: old men sitting at horseshoe number two drinking coffee and talking about politics, their trucks, their projects at home and about women as Colleen listened and refilled their cups. “This is America, Matt thought. “Land of the free and the home of the diner.”

Colleen walked over to Matt with coffee and a glass of water. “Here you go hun.” Do you know what you want or do you need a menu?”

“I know what I want. Two eggs over easy, hash browns, pork sausage and English muffins.”

“Got it.” She walked over to the order window and called out, ‘Order.”

Colleen, a wisp of a woman in her early fifties, had a craggy face that bore the deep lines of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun. She always wore her hair pulled back, out of the way. Today she was wearing a tee shirt that said, “Love has four paws”. Matt had learned during one of his diner meals that Colleen had four large dogs and no children. Now, as she walked away with the order, Matt saw the decorative rivets on the back pockets of her jeans. A signature look for the sunny colleen.

From past experience it would take about fifteen to twenty minutes to get a plate of food. At this hour in the morning Aleixo was busy in the back room getting thing ready for the day’s meals and perhaps feeding himself. No matter, Matt thought. Coffee and a good book would pass the time.

And from past experience the old men sitting at the other horseshoe would be talking and Matt would again listen in while reading. They were talking when another man came and sat down with them.

This fourth man had a white beard that came down to a point. He wore a ball cap on top of his short stature. By his demeanor he seemed feisty and ready to spar. As soon as he sat down and his coffee poured, he began to talk politics. He had something he wanted to get out:

“This president,” he pointed to the newspaper, “is a mob figure … he should be impeached …the whole administration is corrupt … “

The three men he was sitting with may have been politically conservative or just neutral on the topic or maybe they had heard this all before. They didn’t nod their heads when the fourth talked. They simply drank their coffee and let him have at it.

“You won’t believe this. My daughter went in to surgery for a knee replacement. During the surgery her blood count became dangerously low but she had refused a blood transfusion because the donor might have eaten meat. I had to go get the hospital minister to convince her to have the transfusion. He told her to take it or die.”

This time the three listeners, with puzzled looks, shook their heads. And Matt wondered how anyone would give up their life for veganism. No ideology was worth that.

Colleen brought over Matt’s breakfast and poured more coffee into his cup. A few minutes later Aleixo came out of the kitchen and sat down with the four men. When he picked up the newspaper the fourth began another litany of invectives and then added his own political ideology.

“Did you hear the mayor of New York say that money is in the wrong hands? I agree with that. The rich don’t need all that money. Just think what could be done with all that money in the right hands. The rich and the corporations are screwing the little guy …”

One of the men put his coffee down and replied, “With the large rat population in New York it’s not surprising that one of them became mayor.” The other men laughed but the fourth not at all. He put his coffee down, rose up straight on his stool and began to point his index finger as if to lecture the group when the diner door opened and someone walked in.

When the door opened Matt felt a chill go up his spine. Had it turned cold outside? Matt turned to see. A young man came in. He was wearing a black hoodie and had a canvas satchel clinging to his side. His left hand was holding a handkerchief to his face as if he were about to sneeze or cough, like he was carrying something contagious. He walked past the Matt and the group of men and looked into the dining room. No one was sitting in the booths.

“Good morning!” Colleen greeted him. He said nothing

“Would you like a booth?” Again, he said nothing. The five men were looking him up and down trying to figure him out.

As the man walked to the counter between the horseshoe counters Matt could see the man’s searing black eyes darting back and forth, looking for who knows what. The man lifted the strap of the satchel off of his shoulder and put the satchel down on the counter. He lifted the flap.

“Can I get you some coffee?” Colleen offered. The man said nothing. He dug his hand into the satchel. Would he pull out a book?

He pulled out a gun.

One of the men began to plead with the man. “Son, don’t do this. You are young. What are you? 22 years old? You have your whole life in front of you.”

With the handkerchief still over his mouth the man shot back, “Shut up old man. I’m 24. And I’m not your son.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out. And don’t call me son, old man. I want everyone to put their wallets on the counter and pass them to me very slowly. You (pointing the gun at Colleen) go open the cash register and bring the drawer here. Now!”

The men proceeded to take their wallets out of their pockets and place them on the counter. Matt did the same. Colleen opened the cash register and brought the drawer over to the counter where the man was standing. The man wanted her tips, too. But Aleixo interceded. He told him no one had finished their meals. There were no tips yet. “You have all you are going to get from us.”

Then Aleixo, trying to mediate the situation but not sure what to say, asked, “Why are you doing this? Do you need money? I have three daughters … Maybe your dad needs the money.”

“He has plenty old man. But he cut me off anyway. He cut off my allowance. I have rent due and food I have to buy. I have a student loan I have to repay. My dad cut me off. Now, you guys will have to pay up.”

With that the man gathered up the wallets and the cash from the drawer and stuffed them into his satchel. He closed the flap and then ran out the door and down the street. The men left their seats and went to the window hoping someone had see the man. But the street was empty and the sun, still behind the building across the street, cast a large shadow across the street and onto the diner.

Standing at the window, one of the men said, “That kid will make someone a good jail-mate someday.” Another wondered, “What did that kid study a university?” And the third man said, “Probably himself.”

The fourth, back in sparring mode, said, “See! That’s what I’ve been talking about…”

The other men waved him off and one of them said, “Enough, already. Let it be.”

Colleen called the police. Two cars showed in just minutes. The officers came in and began questioning each one. They asked if the diner had a security camera and Aleixo said no, he didn’t think he needed one. Everyone who came in was friendly until today. “Just local people come in.”

The officers filled out their report with each question asked. What was the height and weight and look of the suspect? What was his age. What was he wearing? What was stolen? When they had finished, they gave a copy to everyone. Each of them would have to deal with their loss. Aleixo wondered out loud if he could file an insurance claim. One officer thought he could.

The officers called in the robbery and gave the suspect’s description to the dispatcher. A squad was sent out to search the nearby neighborhood. Before the officers left Aleixo offered them some coffee. They thanked him and said they wanted to drive around to see if they could catch the guy. Aleixo thanked them and said that they could come for a free breakfast anytime. With that the officers left.

And though no one felt they had been in any real danger of being shot, the whole episode shook them to the core. The men wagged their heads in disbelief and disgust. Colleen was so shaken that she paced back and forth behind the counter as if to shake off the feeling of terror that clung to her. Matt, who had finished his meal, was frustrated that he couldn’t pay for it. Aleixo said “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

The three diners walked out still wagging their heads. The fourth, the man with the pointy beard, followed talking in a strained high-pitched voice about how tuition should be free and then kids wouldn’t have to take things into their own hands. The three men ignored him and drove off.

Matt walked slowly home carrying the Prank and a copy of the police report. He would have to call the credit card companies and his bank and inform the state that his driver’s license had been stolen. He would tell them that his money and his identity were in the wrong hands.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Payment Plan

 

Roni made one more call just before the end of his shift at 10 pm. The west coast number was in the queue. Someone picked up. A young girl answered.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is Roni. Is your mom or dad home?”

“Mom, someone’s on the phone!” When the girl yelled into his headphones Roni yanked them off of his ears and held them away from his head.

“Who is it?” It was the voice of the mother in the background.

“Who are you?” The girl queried.

“I’m Roni with American Resources.”

“Roni ’merica rescores.”

“What? Let me have it. Hello?”

“HI I’m Roni of American Resources. I called to tell you of a special offer…”

“No thanks.” The phone clicked off.

10 pm. Roni removed his headphones and signed out. His shift at the call center was done for the night.

He had one taker that evening. A woman in Hawaii. When she picked up Roni heard a piano playing in the background. He started with his usual opening and then asked, “Is that a piano playing that lovely music?”

The woman said yes. She was giving someone piano lessons.

Hearing that Roni said, “I’ll be brief. You have been chosen to receive a special offer.” Roni sped up.

“The card is only made available to qualified folks. I won’t be long. The card is a valuable resource as it is accepted in almost everywhere. Parity Platinum doesn’t charge penalty interest. That’s a potential lifesaver for cardholders who occasionally miss payments due to liquidity issues. And when you use it you earn points, when you shop, when you eat at restaurants, when you travel… That sounds like Debussy. Is that clair de lune.”

“It is. Are you a musician?’

“I played the trumpet for many years. I bet it is a beautiful day there.”

“It is. There’s a breeze coming off the ocean.”

“I’ve neve been there, I… well, you’re in the middle of something. I better be quick about this. Are you interested in the Parity Platinum Card?

“OK.”

“I will need to verify some information and then read you the terms and conditions and then we will be done. OK?”

“OK.”

Roni spent the next minute verifying her name, date of birth, address, and her occupation – Piano Teacher. He then read the terms and conditions on the computer screen, a full page of fine print. He only stopped to catch his breath in the middle. The 29% finance charge was read off in the same rapid-fire monotone as the rest of the legal boilerplate. When he had finished, Roni asked her if she accepted the terms and conditions. She said yes.

“Thank you, Ms. Hampton, for accepting this offer. You will be very pleased with this valuable resource in your wallet. Parity Platinum Card welcomes you. And, thank you for the beautiful music. Your card will be mailed to shortly. You should receive it in the next 10 to 18 days.”

The call ended. Roni caught his breath as he removed his head phones and then signed off. The telemarking manager, Tyronne, who listens in on the telemarketer’s phone conversations, gave a shout out to Roni. Roni learned from Tyronne that he would receive, at the beginning of his next shift, a certificate: Quality Award for Presentation Performance. He understood this to mean that he basically said every word of the legal contract and left nothing out. He also learned that this meant a small bump up in his next paycheck.

Roni grabbed his jacket and headed to the door and out to his car. Outside, he lit up a cigarette. He smoked it facing the call center and away from the glare of the white LED parking lot lighting, which bothered his eyes. After six hours staring at a computer screen his eyes were burning. He took several long draws from the cigarette and then flicked the remains to the curb. He wanted to get home and get to bed by 11. He had to get up at 6:00 am for his full-time job. The half-hour drive home would be under the same discomforting lighting. He knew that the glare and the high blue content of the lights would affect his sleep, making for another restless night.

The next morning Roni began his daily routine. He put on coffee and went out to the patio for a smoke. He scrambled some eggs and then got dressed. He needed to be at RRR at 7:30 am.

Roni and his two brothers had taken over the family business – Resolution, Reset & Recovery Corp. – when their father retired. The debt recovery service had its own automated call center. Roni supervised the ten employees who dealt with those who picked up. He listened in on the phone conversations just as Tyronne did on the calls of the employees at FirstOne Telemarketers.

Roni’s younger brother Ruben purchased bad debt at a discount from other collection companies who had no luck making a recovery. The third brother, Rohn, managed the business, making sure that payables and receivables were taken care of. The fourth brother, twelve years younger than Rohn, was told to stay away from the business. The three brothers were the owners and they didn’t want a young upstart around telling them what to do.

Though the three brothers had been handed a going concern, the brothers were jealous of Raphael. Their father had given him money for his education. He wanted Raphael to become an investment banker. The three older brothers were given no money by their father for an education. The early days of the business were a financial struggle. There was no extra money for education. Beyond this, Raphael seemed to cocky, too sure of himself, too privileged. So, they kept their distance, despite their mother and father’s desire for family unity. They voiced their concerns when the family gathered for the holidays.

That day at the office, a Friday, the hours dragged on for Roni. The lack of good sleep didn’t help. And out of the five hundred automated calls placed, only two debtors picked up the phone. These were offered payment plans and a chance to pay off their credit card debt over time. At three in the afternoon Roni received a text message: “Hey, want to come by for a beer after work?” Roni texted a reply to Marty, “Sure”.

Marty was Roni’s apartment neighbor. Marty liked to talk politics and Roni didn’t. Roni thought politics was boring. All that who’s the bigger hypocrite back and forth was irksome. Most of the politicians wanted to pick your pocket anyway. So ‘n So will save the planet if you vote for him or her and turn over your income to them. Who needed that? With having to pay alimony and child support and growing credit card debt, Roni wanted no more hands in his pocket. Making ends meet was the only politics he cared about. He would have a beer with Marty and turn in for the night.

At five pm Roni’s day was almost done. The automated calls would continue till 9 pm on the west coast. Those who picked up could leave a message where to contact them. Each response would be noted to show a debtor’s willingness to pay. Before the employees left for the evening, Roni checked with each one to fill out the schedule for the next week. The employees were part-timers. Some had classes to attend. He also praised Charisse for the way she handled her call and secured a payment plan for their client Parity Platinum Card.

Roni then checked in with his brothers. Rohn, looking depressed, said that they were about to lose their biggest client Parity Platinum. Roni told him that RRR had just secured a payment plan for Parity. “No matter,” Rohn responded. “They have contacted a bigger firm.” Ruben also looked depressed. “With the cash flow the way it is, it has been hard to buy bad debt. This will make things worse.” The three of them looked at each other and shook their heads. Roni finally spoke. “If dad finds out he will blow a gasket.” The two brothers nodded. “And, if that pip squeak brother of ours finds out he will have a good laugh at our expense.” After several silent minutes Rohn threw up his hands and said he would make calls on Monday. “There has to be more business out there …or, we will have to lay off some of these kids. We can’t keep taking out loans with no receivables.”

Roni left the office crestfallen. He didn’t want to lay off anyone but business is business – making ends meet. Now between the ends, things were becoming dire for Roni. He had used his credit cards to get by thinking that at the end of the year there would be some payout from the profits that he could use to pay them off. Now the chances of that looked slim to none. “Debt has no pity”, he thought. “I don’t think dad will either with the choices I have made.”

 

After changing clothes, Roni walked out his patio door and headed over to see Marty. Marty was on his patio drinking a beer.

“Well, look what the cat dragged over.” Marty chided Roni when he saw him. Roni gave a half-smile in return. Marty offered, “You look like you could use a beer.”

“I could use a beer and a chaser.” Roni plopped down on a patio chair and lit up a cigarette.

“Wow, a bad day?”

“You could say that “, Roni replied looking at his phone. Another call he didn’t want to take.

“Well, if we had the right people in power, then us working stiffs wouldn’t be so stressed out.”

Here we go again, Roni thought. The garbage man dishing out political garbage.

Marty handed Roni a beer and then went into his apartment for something stronger. He came out with a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. Marty poured whiskey into the glasses. He handed one to Roni and said “Cheers.” Roni clicked his glass with Marty’s, leaned his head back and downed the shot. Wiping his mouth and knowing that his reply would only prod Marty to continue the political mumbo-jumbo, but feeling irate about the day’s bad news he spoke anyway. “Even with the ‘right people’ in power there isn’t enough money in the world to pay to fix the bad choices people make. Besides, there is always cost incurred when you use other people’s money.”

“With money in the right hands we could put a dent in it. That’s why I am voting socialist this time.”

Roni cringed. He knew he shouldn’t have replied. He had other things on his mind. His phone buzzed again. The same caller he didn’t want to answer.

“Hey, how’s your business doing?” Roni was glad Marty changed the conversation but it led down an even less desirous path.

“We’ve hit some bumps in the road. Our biggest client is leaving us for a bigger collection agency, one with (quoting with his hands) a “better reputation”.

“I thought you guys had it made in the shade.”

Roni was quick to respond. “Someone moved the shade.” He gulped down some more beer and lit up another cigarette. Looking at it he thought, “If I kicked this habit, I could repay my body for the six years I’ve been smoking”. He took a long drag and thought ’but not today’.

“Hey, you know what I found on my route today? In the dumpster was a plaque with a gold crowbar stuck on it. The plaque said LEVERAGE EVERYTHING. Do you know what that means?”

“Yeah, it means you put yourself out on limb where someone can come along and cut off the limb.”

“That’s weird. Hey, how’s your other job going there, Shylock?” Marty goaded Roni. Roni smirked.

“Just swell, I make $12 per hour and talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise talk to. It’s a job, a part-time job that’s all.”

“You are offering credit cards at 23 to 36%? Yikes. How can anyone catch up?”

“I offer people a choice. They can choose to use it or not. They know the terms. I’m not a loan shark, if that’s what you are implying.”

“No. I’m just giving you a hard time. The rich will have a hard time, too. The rich will know ‘the terms’ when my candidate is elected.”

Roni’s phone buzzed again. He didn’t pick up. The caller left a message.

Roni lifted his glass. “I could use another shot.” Marty poured another for both of them. Roni knocked it back and thought of a reply for Marty.

“With socialism, the usury is your freedom. The percentage of the freedom taken from you keeps going up. And when your freedom is gone, they come for a pound of your flesh. That’s been recorded in history.”

“Yeah, but this time…”

Roni shifted in his chair and turned toward Marty. “I better be off. I’m seeing my kids tomorrow and I have to get the place cleaned up a bit.”

“You’ve been divorced for six years now. You need a woman. They say ‘Love conquers all.”

Looking at his hands, Roni scoffed, “Love conquered my checkbook.”

Marty looked over at Roni. “For the love of Pete, man, you look awful.”

“I have a lot on my mind right now. Thanks for the beer and the shots.”

With that Roni walked back to his apartment where he listened to the phone message. It was from Endal Debt Recovery. They were calling to set up a payment plan. Roni had missed several payments. He was out on a limb and the limb was being shaken. Now he faced a tough choice: he could go with Endal and their payment plan or he could call his younger brother Raphael, ask for loan and come up with a repayment plan. Either way, the minimum payment would be at the expense of his pride.

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Assignment

 

Minutes before the final bell, Miss Hailee handed out a sheet to her third-grade students. The wide-ruled copies held only the heading I am looking forward to summer vacation… She walked down the rows of desks and passed one to each student.

“Class, this year we have been learning to journal. On this sheet I want you to describe how you are feeling about your summer vacation and why you feel that way. Use the adjectives from the word search I am handing out to describe your thoughts. Use your best handwriting. Write complete sentences. Turn these papers in tomorrow, first thing. There will be no letter grade. I will be reading them to see how well you express your thoughts.”

The students stopped fidgeting and grabbed their backpacks. They stuffed the sheet into it along with their pencils and corrected papers. The dismissal bell rang. The third-graders scrambled for the door, talking to each other about their summer plans.

Miss Hailee watched them leave. She clearly enjoyed her assignment. She could tell that the eight and nine-year old children enjoyed being in school and that they loved their teacher. And she loved the untainted boyishness of the boys and the unsullied girlishness of the girls. These children expressed emotions openly and without guile. Their personalities hadn’t yet become compartmentalized. Their imaginations, like potter’s clay, could be easily shaped by careful hands. They are animated, responsive and for the most part, well-behaved. Apart from having to correct them for talking in class, passing notes, not raising their hand to answer and having to lecture the boys teasing the girl who said she was a horse and whinnied and ate the white pasty glue and having to lecture Laura about the glue, discipline was minimal. Teaching them was a joy, for they were teachable.

When the last student was out the door, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk. She gathered up her teaching plan and the student assessment sheets for the Check System. She placed them in a pouch and slung the pouch over her shoulder. She walked out of the classroom and headed to the parking lot and home.

At First Bell the next morning not one student was tardy. Their papers were in their hands being waved like flags. The chance to talk about their upcoming summer vacation had them wriggling in their chairs, one leg on and one leg off their chairs.

Miss Hailee brought the class to order. “Please sit straight ahead with both legs on your chairs. We only have a short day today so I need your full attention. I will now collect your papers.”

She walked down each row and each student handed her their paper. She looked at each to make sure it had the student’s name on it. The papers, backpack-crumpled and smeared with erasures, were filled out.

“Class, today we will talk about the math you will be doing in fourth grade. But first we will do language and reading. After lunch you will present your science project to the class. We will now have our morning meeting.”

Miss Hailee reminded the students of the class rules using a poster board created by the students. She then asked them “What did you do well as a researcher for your science project?” After hearing several responses, she asked, “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” Everyone answered that question at once. As things quieted down, she asked the students if they had good news or bad news to share with the class. Several said the good news was summer vacation. Another said they have a new dog. Another said his birthday was in July. A girl shared that she wrote the bad news in her paper. Miss Hailee told her she would read her paper in private and would talk to her about it with her in private tomorrow. Then came the Word of the Day: question.

After lunch the students shared their science projects with the class. Miss Hailee asked each presenter “What questions did you have during your preparation? When all was said and done Miss Hailee praised the class for their work.

At 12:50 the dismissal bell rang. “I will be reading your papers tonight. Tomorrow, your parents will be bringing in treats for our last day of school. I’m sure you will be on your best behavior.” The students filed out.

Again, Miss Hailee watched them leave. Again, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk and gathered up her teaching plan. On her way out the door she stopped at the school’s office and handed in the student assessment sheets she had completed. Putting her feet up and reading the student’s papers was on her agenda that night.

 

That evening Miss Hailee ate the chicken pot pie she had prepared the last weekend. She poured herself a glass of wine and sat down on the couch with her feet up and the student’s papers on her lap. She began, recalling the face of each student as she read. She expected positive happy thoughts in these papers. The first paper did not disappoint:

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I play baseball with my friends. Dad and mom said that me and Bill are going to a Cubs game. Yeah! Salty popcorn is the best. Summer is the best. Dad gives me purple popsicles. They make a big mess on my shirt. I play outside until mom calls me.

The happy life-affirming thoughts continued. The students wrote of Great America, playing soccer, trips to see relatives, trips to national parks, friends, fun in the sun, family plans, family picnics, church picnics, camp, fireworks, nature hikes, riding bikes, swimming… They had used the adjectives from the word search!

But there were several papers whose writers were not looking forward to summer. There was in their forward glance an admixture of disappointment and pain caused by things imposed on them and a faint tinge of hope in … the plans to make do?

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… me mom and my sister are going camping. Mom did not tell my dad. She said dad has to work. Mom says she has to get away. We will have smores and go swiming in the lake and have a fire at night. The fire makes me sleepy. I don’t like moskeetoos. They are nasty. I wish dad could come camping. Mom said it was better this way.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… mom said I will have a new baby sister. I am so excited. I told Elise. She said that her mom had a baby but her mom said no to the baby. I will let Elise play with my new sister this summer. Elise is my best friend. She is sad. I will make her happy.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… not much. me and Todd will be moving to a small house with mom. Dad has a boyfriend. His name is Phil. Mom and me and Todd is surprised. I will ride my red bike a lot with Todd.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… it is hot. The hot makes me sweaty. Dad said people make it so hot. This makes me angry. I play outside to it gets dark. When I come in I have chocolate ice cream. Mom says I am stinky. She gives me a cold shower before bed. I sleep with the windows open. My room is cool. Dad snores loud.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation…no I am not. Mom and dad said divorce. I know what that means. Mom and dad live in two places like Anns mom and dad. I have to visit dad now. My summer is ruined.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I am going to visit grandpa and grandma for summer. They have a farm in Iowa. Mom said that when we come back she will be a man. Me and dad question mom. Dad said mom is confused. Summer with grandpa and grandma will be fun. Grandpa will take me on his big green tractor. Grandma said she will make me a fruit pie. They have noisy dogs. I want to stay with them forever.

 

“Oh, lord,” Miss Hailee thought as she put her face in her hands. “How will these children cope? The assignment imposed on these kids by their broken families will break these kids. What can I say to the kids tomorrow?” She wept. “I have tried so hard to give these kids the best of me. To give them the means to take on life. After this summer some of them will return inhibited, anxious, hard, resistant, overwhelmed and, …unteachable.”

These were adjectives she never wanted to apply to her students. Outside the classroom all of the inherited forms and distinctions were being taken away from children. The child’s reference point – their family, the symbol of stability and sense – was being torn up and reassembled into nonsense. The traditional words and signs used to make up a child’s conceptual framework were being converted into gibberish. And teachers were forced to be enablers and accomplices and wardens of the claptrap.

In her imagination Miss Hailee prescribed an Emotional Bank Account poster for the parents. She would show them the deposits and withdrawals they make into their kid’s lives. She would make them read it out loud on the last day. And although she knew about the swift and exacting judgment of political correctness, she did not fear political correctness. But she did begin to imagine repercussions on her students if she held their parents publicly accountable. The reality was that she could do nothing outside the classroom door to affect change to the parent’s withdrawals and deposits into their child’s emotional bank account. Inside her classroom she could be to her students a symbol of continuity and of all that is good in the world.

With a yawn and a soul cried out, she retired. Day was gone. Night was upon her. In a matter of hours, she would be standing before them with words. But not with reassuring words that things will be all right this summer. She could only offer disconnected affirming teacher words.

The First Bell of the last day of school rang. The students found their seats but not their composure. They were ready-set-go for summer. Anticipation had their hands and feet constantly moving. Miss Hailee let them have space for the bubbling over excitement as long as they respected her and each other.

That final morning Miss Hailee talked about what they had learned during the school year. She went on to praise the students for their eagerness to learn and their hard work. She did this while walking along the counter where each student’s remaining graded papers and the posters and plaster of Paris bowls the kids had made during art time were neatly stacked. She reminded them to take these things when they leave.

The first mother arrived outside the door and peeked in. The girl in the third row squealed when she saw her mom. Soon there were three more moms at the door. Then ten, then twelve, then twenty moms and some dads waiting to come in. Miss Hailee opened the door and said “Welcome, come in. We are a full house today.”

Desk were arranged for the treats the moms had brought. The kids tried to show their moms their pile of school work as the mom tried to set out the treats they had brought. The hubbub was expected and relished by Miss Hailee. The school year was ending with merriment. The sugar in the treats made sure of that.

With the mom’s and dad’s and kid’s mouths full of cupcake, candy corn and cookies, Miss Hailee spoke.

“I am very proud of these students. They worked hard. They behaved well. They achieved much. I have high hopes for them going into fourth grade. Behind you are your child’s schoolwork and art projects for you to take home. I have included a list of books for summer reading.” Looking at each of the students Miss Hailee said, “Your parents can read these books to you and there are some you can read yourself with some help. Looking at the reading list she continued.

“On the list I have included an illustrated retelling of Treasure Island for children, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden. Each one is adapted for young readers. And I’ve included a story I have authored and had illustrated: Summer at Sad Shores, a Livingston Family Vacation Adventure.”

Miss Hailee looked around at the anchor charts the class had used during the year. With last words to present, she again looked at the faces of her third-graders. “The word for the summer is hope. I want you to look up the meaning of the word hope. I am hoping that you will find hope in your summer reading.”

With that she said, “Have a great summer everyone.” The parents and children were free to go.

Before Marta and her mother left, Miss Hailee pulled them aside and asked them if she could talk to them in private. Marta’s mother, a woman with dark bags under teary eyes, looked deeply troubled, as if more bad news would devastate her. She did break down in tears out in the school yard where the three of them talked.

Miss Hailee had learned from Marta’s paper that her father had been arrested and was in jail. Miss Hailee understood why Marta had become detached and listless the last two weeks of school. But what could she offer them? She wanted to deal with each student familiarly but the established protocol was to shunt any “issues” over to the school’s counselor.

“I can’t imagine the weight that has been placed on both of you.”

Seeing the crucifix Marta’s mother was wearing around her neck and looking around to make sure no one was around, Miss Hailee spoke. “Listen, what I am about to say has nothing to do with school or with me as Marta’s teacher. I say this as a friend. Sometimes …. (Miss Hailee took a deep breath) …Sometimes God allows a heavy burden to be placed on us so that we can feel his hand underneath.”

Marta’s mother, now barely able to speak, replied, “This burden is too much. Marta and me are alone.”

Miss Hailee hugged both of them. “You are not alone. I will be your friend. I will give you my phone number and my email address. Here … “

She wrote them on the back of one of Marta’s papers and handed them to Marta’s mother. “This is not a teacher-parent conference. This is me as your friend and I will help you two through this.” Marta gave Miss Hailee a long hug.

“Thank you, Miss Hailee,” Marta’s mother hugged the teacher.

“Call me Sandra, please.” Miss Hailee hugged her once more.

“Will Marta be able to see her dad often?”

Marta mother wiped her tears from her face. “Yes. “

“That is something you can look forward to this summer, Marta.”

Marta looked up at her teacher, her dark eyes glistening with tears for her mother.

“Has Marta ever ridden a horse?”

Marta looked at her mom who couldn’t speak. “No,” Marta replied.

“Then that is something we can look forward to this summer. My father has a farm with several horses.”

With that the three of them walked around the school building to the parking lot.

At the car Miss Hailee said, “How about a picnic this Saturday and we can talk more. Please call me anytime. You are not alone. Your assignment this summer Marta is to see your dad when you can, ride horses and have picnics.”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Legacy

The band concert on that airless July evening ended with Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. Everyone was on their feet. Moms and dads, grandparents and kids marched in place waving little flags and sparklers. As if on cue from the obligato of the piccolo, stars began popping out of the dark scroll above the ebbing twilight. As the march concluded the band stood up, bowed and received a rousing applause. The clapping and motion of the crowd picking up their lawn chairs created a momentary relief from the otherwise stagnant ether that evening in the park.

Andrey picked up his lawn chair and Laura’s. They headed to their car. Along the way kids were tugging on their father’s arm. There was an ice cream vendor parked on the street nearby. Moms were tugging along the little ones while talking to their neighbors. The concert in the park, a harmony of the past and present, so pleased Andrey that he told Laura as they got in the car that he gained a kick in his step. Laura looked over her glasses at him and then proceeded to talk about what they had to do the next day. Andrey was quiet and was not listening. He was tapping the steering wheel. The past was being drummed up …to a day in July fifty-five years ago…

 

Andrey had been told to clean his room. His uncle was coming over. After much balking and saying “Ahh mom” and mom’s cajoling and taking a circuitous route to each of his friend’s houses to see what they were doing – they were told to clean their room before going out – Andrey cleaned his room. After inspection by mom, Andrey was told to wait in his room. His uncle would be there any minute.

What was this all about anyway? The sun was shining and summer was just outside. Uncle Bill pulled into the driveway. Andrey’s dad, the older brother, came out the door and greeted him. Andrey took in as much as he could through the open bedroom window. Mom came out and greeted Bill. Then the three of them came into the house. After fifteen minutes Uncle Bill was standing at the bedroom door. Hanging from his hand was a strange case. It was brown with brass clasps and looked used.

Bill came into the room and placed the case on his bed. Dad and mom stood at the door. ‘What was this all about?’ Andrey wondered. Uncle Bill flipped open the two brass colored latches and opened the case. He pulled back a velvet cover and there it was – a brass, scratched up, bell-dented Conn b-flat trumpet.

Uncle Bill told Andrey that he played the horn when he was younger and that he no longer wanted to. He thought I could make better use of it. Andrey beamed. It wasn’t his birthday. It wasn’t Christmas. It was July …and it was brass …and it was his. Not yet having a vocabulary of appreciative words other than what he typically said at his birthday and Christmas after opening a present, he simply said, “Thank you, Uncle Bill.”

Mom, dad and Uncle Bill went into the front room to talk. On his bed the horn lay in its case. Its owner sat next to it looking at it as if it like a new kid on the block and not sure of the relationship. He made the first move. He picked up the horn and began looking at it from all angles. He pulsed the valves, pulled out the slides and pinched the spit valve. There was a deep gouge in the bell and dents and scratches all along the tubing. He explored the case. Inside he found valve oil, something called slide lube, a little music stand you hooked on the horn and a mouthpiece. He picked up the mouthpiece and looked at it. It was tarnished silver. It had a wide rim and a deep dark cup. At the other end, the horn end, the tube was no longer round. It looked like it had been dropped. He brought it to his lips and began blowing. Nothing but splurged air. He pursed his lips and blew again. This time a buzzing sound occurred. He put the mouthpiece in the end of the long tube and thought of the girl down the block who had to practice the violin every day and did so making a sound like sawing-a-cat-in-two. He blew into the horn to see what sound would come out.

The sound that came out of the trumpet with that first blow was a muffled sputter. So, Andrey took in a big gulp of air, puffed up his cheeks and blew harder. BlllllllllllOOAAAAARRRRRGH! Bobby, the family’s French Poodle, gave a howl and ran to hide behind dad’s legs. Boots the cat got up from Andrey’s pillow and plopped back down at the foot of his brother’s bed and closed his eyes again. Andrey, a freckled redhead, had a lobster-red face as he walked into the front room with a new kick in his step. His parents clapped. Uncle Bill kidded dad. “Are you ready for this?”

Now that he could produce a sound of his own Andrey felt that the world was handed to him. And then he had a thought. He would have to practice every day like the girl down the street. The world began to look different that day …

 

Andrey drove up to a diner. They went in for some pie and coffee. Andrey wanted to reminisce. And, unlike his first wife who thought his trumpet practicing was a racket and who was as indifferent as Boots the cat was to goings-on not its own, Laura listened to him rehearse his memories.

“I remember my grandfather giving my dad his own boxed set of classical music LPs. It was a set of “Living Stereo” recordings of 100 selections of 80 composers played by various orchestras. That was my first exposure to music other than the hymns at church. I would lay in the middle of the front room floor in front of the stereo console. I turned up the volume and listened to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and, Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. There was Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius…and Sostenuto!

My favorites were pieces that featured brass instruments like Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev and, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Procession of Nobles and …

The waitress, a tattooed young woman of about twenty-years-old, brought the pies and poured more coffee. Andrey continued.

“Up to that point in my life I had used my allowance to buy baseball cards, comic books and banana flavored Bonomo Turkish Taffy. Remember that? I soon learned to clean the taffy out of my mouth before playing the horn. My first trumpet teacher was a fifth-grade band director. He had a heavy accent. He would hold my mouthpiece up to the light and almost jump out of his chair when he said “Filty!, Filty!”…

Anyway, I began to do chores so I could buy classical records with trumpets playing in them. I listened to them and played my horn to them. Looking back, I learned a language that everyone understood.”

Andrey thought for a moment and then smiled.

“But my music professor at college couldn’t understand where my pitch was coming from. He had perfect pitch and mine was somewhere way south of his. The two of us would sit at his piano. He would place an interval exercise in front of me. When I sang it acapella, he would screw up his face as if in pain. He was charitable, though. I got a C+ in his class for “trying”. I was OK as long as there was pitch I could hone in on it.

“How about I buy a pitch pipe for your showers?” Laura teased. Andrey smiled and then his face contorted.

“Now listen to that… that hateful noise after all that good music we heard tonight.”

Laura looked around. “That is the background music. You can’t go anywhere in public these days without that annoying racket. It’s like someone or something is trying to own your space.”

“Exactly!” Andrey set his cup down and his eyes lit up. “Oh. I didn’t tell you about my dream last night. I just remembered it.

I was on a stage inside a band shell. White light was pouring down on me so I couldn’t see the audience. I was wearing a tuxedo and felt overheated. I was sitting in the trumpet section of the concert band. My C trumpet was on a vertical trumpet stand at my left knee and my b-flat trumpet was on a trumpet stand at my right knee.

There were two young men, one on each side of me in the trumpet section. During the third movement, the one marked Largo – Oh, I forgot to mention that the band was playing a transcription of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – anyway, the young man on my left took my C trumpet from the stand and began to walk away. I whispered ‘Where are you going with my horn?’ The young man said, “I am going solo.” He walked off stage with it. I could see him just outside the bandshell talking to friends and some women. The young man was showing them the horn. He let them hold it and play it. Then I saw the young man on my right pick up my b-flat trumpet. He began to play the solo trumpet passage in the fifth movement, the one with the Allegro non Troppo tempo. Tah tah tah taaaaah”

Laura put her coffee down. “My, you have vivid dreams.”

“Well, I might be embellishing this just a little.” Andrey winked. “You know. Old men have their stories to tell.”

“Uh-huh. Go on old man.”

“Well, the young man reappears and he comes back and sits down. He places the C trumpet back on the stand. The horn was badly dented and scratched. It looked like the horn my Uncle Bill had given me. I remember being happy to see the horn again but I became sad because I couldn’t use it in the concert. I handed that horn back to the guy on the left and said, “Here, make good use of this.” The guy on the right of me was not happy that I had gifted the other guy the C trumpet. I told him, “You can use my b-flat trumpet anytime you like.” He still wasn’t happy. End of dream.”

“Wow, quite a dream. Say, whatever happened to the old horn?” Laura queried.

“I donated it to the Salvation Army hoping some kid would learn to play. And now that I no longer playing my horns, I wanted to give them to my kids. But they have no interest in them. Here’s a thought. How about they are buried with me? In ancient times pharaohs and kings were buried with what they would use in the afterlife.”

Laura laughed. “You can’t take it with you, Andrey. And besides, I’m sure Gabriel has a horn for you to play.”

“I’ll end up donating them to the Salvation Army. And by the sound of things (Andrey pointed to the overhead speakers) this world needs all the help it can get.”

Laura nodded and said, “I wonder what that waitress will dream tonight after hearing this racket throughout her shift?”

“Maybe about nose rings, piercings, and more tattoos.”

Andrey went to the cash register and paid the bill. He came back to the table, left a tip and a scrawled note on the table: He who understands music understands the cosmos.

Andrey got up. “C’mon. Let’s go.” They went into the night, into the reverie of unbeguiled silence.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Dinner

 

The Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend Marvin was finalizing his response to the client. He sat before his two monitors. One monitor held the client comments regarding the marked-up drawings stacked neatly to his left. The monitor on the right held the recipe for beef bourguignon. He was making plans for a quiet dinner Saturday night and the start of a new book.

As a lead engineer Marvin’s desk was inside a cubicle configured with partitions on three sides. The opening in the cubicle faced a wall and an aisle. The cubicle was at the end of a long aisle that traversed the first floor of the engineering firm. His desk was secluded from all the other engineers. This was of no consequence to Marvin for he kept to himself. Detachment from others meant that he could concentrate on his work without being disturbed by any human drama. The only semblance of his life outside the cubicle was a calendar of military planes that reminded him of his time in the air force.

Before leaving for the weekend, Marvin walked over to confer with another engineer. Landry’s cubicle was at the other end of the first floor. As was his manner, Marvin walked with a deliberate military gait without looking at the other engineers along his path. Any engineer seeing him pass might think of Marvin as an animated stick figure. The pencil thin Marvin conserved his motion and his emotions for the necessary.

Any female engineer, and there was one on the first floor who did, would notice that Marvin wore the same grey twill pants, black shoes and a version of a plaid shirt that he wore every day. On his belt hung a TI-36X Pro engineering/scientific Calculator. If asked, he would tell you that it was the same one he had used for his FE/PE engineering exams years ago. He would also tell you that the calculator replaced the slide rule he had carried on is belt during his days at the university. The shirt pocket pen pouch remained from those days.

The same female engineer seeing Marvin walk by also noticed Marvin’s dispassionate single-minded gaze beneath his dark unkempt eyebrows. And, that his disheveled dark hair and a stout mustache that covered his pursed lips gave Marvin an austere manly look, a no-nonsense guise. It seemed to her that the university geek, now in his early sixties, had continued to live in cerebral austerity. The never-married Marvin appeared to be married to his thoughts. This, she supposed, figured in Marvin’s lack of human interface except as required to complete the challenges presented to him.

Marvin conferred with Landry, a mechanical engineer who was months from his retirement and who gave a glib reply when someone asked him how he was: “I’m here and I’m loving it!” At Landry’s cubicle drawings were spread out on two desk tops. There was talk of the reactor coolant pump the client wanted for the nuclear plant. There was talk of length of pipe and the location of the pump, of water head pressure, of horsepower, of vendor drawings, of the calcs required and of a redundant system. They both noted that there was a labyrinth of pipes and conduits to contend with.

Marvin Left Landry’s cubicle after responsibilities were delineated. He then returned to his own cubicle to respond to the client. He sent his client an email outlining the work to be done and stating the date for the sealed engineering drawings to be handed over. On the other screen he looked once more at the beef bourguignon recipe and decided beef stew would be a good choice for a quiet Saturday dinner. He printed out the recipe and shut his computer down. He was weekend ready.

On Saturday morning, as was his manner, Marvin got up at 3 AM. he took his usual two-mile walk. When the sunlight began festooning houses with gold overlays, he drove over to the market to purchase the ingredients for his beef stew. With recipe in hand Marvin then drove over to a nearby liquor store where he found a burgundy that the recipe called for. He also purchased a bottle of aged bourbon that he would later pour into his “U.S. Air Force” engraved decanter and rocks glass.

With a plan to eat at 5 PM sharp, Marvin gathered up the ingredients: chuck roast, carrots, pearl onions, garlic, bacon, beef broth, olive oil, tomato paste, mushrooms, seasonings and the burgundy. At 3 PM he placed the recipe on a book holder. He began the process, methodically and carefully. There could be no room for error. After following the recipe to the letter, he placed the Dutch oven in the oven at the called-for temperature. Dinner would be served at 5 PM.

Just before 5 PM Marvin took the stew out of the oven and let it rest. He set his place at the table and poured into a wine glass the balance of burgundy. He set bread on the table and some butter. The smell of the stew filled his apartment. At 5 PM sharp he placed the Dutch oven on hot pad just before his place at the table. A large spoon was put into service as he opened its lid. Just then there was feverish knock at the door. “Now who could that be?” Marvin growled. He got from the table and headed for the door.

Through the door’s peephole he saw a concave figure of a woman who was nervously knocking again. “All right! All right!” Marvin snapped. He opened the door and became dumbfounded at the surreal sight before him. Somewhere under woman’s clothes and a wig was his neighbor Arturo. Before Marvin could say anything, Arturo rushed in and said, “You gotta help me!” Marvin stood holding the door open hoping the illusion would leave the way it came in.

“What?! …What is all this about?” Marvin had no calculus for what he saw. And he had no patience for any of this nonsense, as his beef bourguignon and a quiet night were waiting for him.

“You see …,” Arturo, frantic, started but he broke off as if to find words that a military man would understand. “You see…” Arturo started again, pushing back a wig curl that kept covering his right eye. “I …I …well, you see, it’s like this.” Again, Arturo broke off as if his next words would seal his fate. “You see, my friend (as if to cushion Marvin’s response) I … I … well, I put on some of my wife’s clothes while she is out at a church gathering with her girlfriends.”

Marvin looked Arturo up and down and said, “I’ve heard it said that in marriage the two become one but I didn’t think…”

“No, No, it’s not like that. I mean it is like that, but not like that.” Arturo thought that by not making any sense that he could persuade the unmarried rational Marvin with some secret knowledge of marriage that he, married to Martha, must possess. But Marvin wasn’t buying it. The food was getting cold.

“What do you want from me? I just sat down to eat.”

“I … I … locked myself out of the apartment. I took the garbage out…”

“Wait! You took the garbage out dressed like that?”

“Ah …mmmmm … ah I did”, Arturo turned eyes away from Marvin as if to hide the truth.

“So,” Marvin responded impatiently, “what am I supposed to do? There’s a simple solution. Call your wife and tell her that you are locked out.”

“It’s not that simple, you see …, my wife has no idea and I don’t want her to know about this.” Arturo waved his hand from head to toe.

“I can see why.” Marvin said sternly. The smell of the beef stew was now making his stomach growl.

“You’ve got to help me. Can you check the windows of my apartment to see if any are unlocked?’ Arturo petitioned Marvin.

“You want me to sneak around outside your apartment and look in your windows? The people around here will think I am as batty as you? And worse! And, besides, you have already made yourself known to the neighbors.”

“I … I …I learned my lesson. I cannot go out again.” Arturo was pacing back and forth as he spoke. The look on his face was one of holy terror.

“My wife will be returning, she said around nine-o’clock. I don’t want her to see me like this.”

“So, I get the privilege?”

“I sorry, my friend, to bring this to you but I have no where else to go for help. You are a smart man. You can think of things.”

“Right now, I am thinking of my dinner which is getting cold.” Marvin folded his arms across his chest.

“Say. What is that marvelous smell?” Arturo turned his face towards the kitchen.

“It is beef bourguignon and I am hungry. You can join me so I can eat. If you remain quiet.”

“Maybe you can think of a plan while we eat,” Arturo continued to ply Marvin’s ego as he sat down. He figured Marvin might respond better to the situation than to his makeup varnished face.

Marvin brought out another place setting and a wine glass and an uncorked bottle of red wine. He never had a guest eat with him before. He hoped that he could eat in silence and gain some semblance of the quiet evening he had planned.

The two ate in silence and finished their meal. The silence was broken when Arturo, noticeably agitated throughout the meal, queried Marvin. “Any thoughts?”

Marvin looked up from his plate. As was his manner he spoke dispassionately to Arturo. “My new found ‘friend’, I have no flow chart that can show me the next step. If you were a deadheading pump, I would have options. I could put in a piloted relief valve or a bypass or an unloader valve downstream system of the pump to allow excess pressure to be relieved and flow to continue through the pump and back to the tank.”

Arturo thought for a moment and then said, waving his hand over his body from head to toe, “This must be my relief valve.”

The red wine Marvin was drinking came out through his nose. Little droplets of red wine now hung precariously from his mustache. He wiped his mouth and got up from the table. As he walked to the kitchen he said. “It looks more like a Catch 22 situation. No entrance without a key and no key without an entrance.”

Arturo winced when he heard those words. He knew his fate was sealed. He went to the window and peered through the slats of the blinds. His wife had not come home.

In the kitchen Arturo helped Marvin put the dishes in the dishwasher. As he did black jagged lines formed beneath his eyes. Mixed with tears his mascara had run, giving him the appearance of a freakish clown.

When Marvin had finished in the kitchen, he told Arturo that he was going out to the patio for some bourbon and a cigar. He told Arturo to grab a glass and join him if he wanted to. “You look like you could use a drink.”

Arturo followed Marvin onto the patio but only after he looked around to see if anyone was looking. Then he ventured out and sat down. There, much like the privacy of Marvin’s cubicle at work, two sides of his apartment and one side of high bushes enclosed the space. The open side was the lawn.

Marvin poured bourbon from the decanter into the “U.S. Air Force” engraved rocks glasses. He handed one to Arturo who then sniffed it. Speaking with a quaver in his voice Arturo said, “Thank you for my last supper,” “Cheers,” said Marvin and he clanked Arturo’s glass.

Marvin lit the cigar his colleague gave at the close of last ASME IMECE congress meeting. Taking a long draw on it and, as was his manner, he looked dispassionately at the open space making mental notes of what needed to be done on Tuesday. Arturo, on the other hand, crossed and uncrossed his legs in nervous rapidity. With each cross and uncross his dress hiked up to mid-thigh exposing more of his hairy legs.

Martha’s dress was a size 8 floral print. On six-foot two 220-pound Arturo, the dress looked ready to burst at the seams. The dress’s three-quarter sleeves came to just above his elbows. They had a solid grip on his upper arm as did the wig on his head. Rivulets of sweat ran down Arturo’s forehead; the wig was so full and so tight that the breeze Marvin enjoyed came nowhere near Arturo’s scalp. Unable to fit into his wife’s shoes with his size 12 feet, Arturo wore her flip flops. The only evidence of them being worn was the thong between the big toe and the rest of the toes.

After crossing and uncrossing his legs once more Arturo stood up and said, “Excuse me. I’m going to see if Martha came home.” Marvin continued his dispassionate gaze into Tuesday.

Arturo went into the living room and peered through the blinds. Martha’s car was in the parking lot. Arturo rushed back to the patio in panic mode and told Marvin. Marvin got up with the hope that he could find the reverie he had promised himself the week before. They both went to the window and saw Martha’s car. But then they saw her taking out the garbage to the dumpster at the end of the parking lot. Arturo rushed to the door, opened it and saw that the door to his apartment was ajar. He ran out yelling “Not a word! Not a word!” Marvin closed his door and then peered through the peephole. He wanted to see the return of Martha.

Martha returned. But instead of going to her door she knocked on Marvin’s’ door. Marvin waited a few seconds and then opened the door.

“Have you seen Arturo? Martha asked.

Marvin opened his mouth and hesitated. With a darting glance at Arturo’s and Martha’s front door he said, “I can’t say that I have.” Marvin stood there in a plaid shirt, grey slacks and black shoes with a dispassionate look.

Martha searched the curious look on Marvin’s face. She wondered if there was a smile underneath his mustache. She had never seen him smile. She then looked over at her front door. It was still ajar.

“OK. Sorry to bother you. Good night.” As Martha walked away Marvin shut his door and breathed a sigh of relief.

Back on the patio Marvin sat down and took a swig of bourbon from his engraved rocks glass. He relit the cigar a colleague gave him and took some puffs. He opened the book that he had been waiting to read: “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto”. After reading for several minutes he took a long draw on the cigar and held the smoke in his mouth. As he breathed out the smoky cloud, he had a thought: “It would be easier to explain the trajectory of a space probe traveling billions of miles from earth to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt than it would be for Arturo to explain his recent trajectory to Martha.”

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

What Mattered to Hannah

 

Hannah wanted to get away so she booked a week at a cottage on a lake, the deepest lake in Wisconsin. Hannah boarded her parrolet Henry and headed north. The drive up from Chicago was just a few hours. Off the main highways she followed a lattice of county roads with names like “A” and “T” past fields of corn and cows. God, country, family and, lost love was on the AM radio. Hannah lived alone and drove to the cottage alone.

Hannah’s vacation hours had so accumulated at work that if she didn’t take them before the end of the year, she would lose them. But leaving work to vacation was hard for Hannah. The only relationship she had was with her work. It was a relationship which made increasing demands on her while offering yearly increases in pay. As the years passed and promotions were awarded her work responsibilities ratcheted up. To keep the relationship going and to do what she wanted to do – producing and giving – Hannah did what she had to do.

Using up the accumulated vacation hours was not Hannah’s only reason for getting away from work and home and going to the cottage. Getting away from being lonely in one spot was what mattered. Getting away from work to matter somewhere else mattered. Especially as she turned sixty-seven and the downtime they called “retirement” loomed in front of her. Could she matter without work? Hannah loved to work, to make things happen, to produce what mattered to others. Being an engineer was a career that produced things that worked and things that mattered. Could she live just as an observer?

When Hannah told her two younger sisters about her trip to the cottage, the youngest sister, Anna, gave Hannah a book. Anna described it as a book about hunter-gather societies, the noble savage, Gaia, “rootedness” and a dark green religion of “compassion”. The middle sister, Savannah, gave Hannah a novel about the Rapture. Hannah, put both books in the trunk of her car where they banged around as she drove. Hannah brought Chekov along for the week.

When Hannah called her ninety-year old mom and told her about the trip, her mother said “Good for you” and “Make sure to behave yourself.” When Hannah told her mom about her concerns about the food available at the cottage, for she had drastically changed her way of eating, her mom said “Take what you can get.”

The first day at the cottage was a day of unloading the car, putting things away and finding out that “We have WiFi” meant we can provide no internet signal you can use. The cable TV offered local news and weather forecasts and “This channel should be with you shortly”. The program never arrived. So, the cottage meant the basics like the flip phone Hannah carried.

That evening Hannah drove into town and went into the first restaurant she came to. There were cars on the street in front of the place so she felt it might be worth a try. It wasn’t a supper club. It was a bar and restaurant with the look and smell of the fifties and something past its prime. The redolence of time past and the objects on the wall made Hannah feel like she had gotten away from the present. On the walls surrounding the well-used wooden tables and chairs were fishing maps of the lake, a framed type-written menu from 1955, and black and white photos of townsfolk in parades and holding large fish. The bar area had the same but was updated with a “It’s a Great Day to Be a Packers Fan” plaque hung over the bar. Hannah was in north heartland.

There were three tables near where they sat Hannah. Two grey-haired women of large size sat at each of two tables. It was Saturday night and the special, rib-eye steak, was set before each of them. One of the women at the far table started up and then asked the passing waitress to move the butter closer. “I don’t want to have to walk.” She buttered her roll with the now available butter and then sat eating it looking blankly out at the street. The woman next to her ate looking at the wall behind Hannah.

At the third table, the one closest to Hannah, an old man and his wife sat with a younger fiftyish man. The younger was doing all the talking. The older couple was doing all the eating. Hannah noted that the older two pushed the pinkish red color meat to the side of their plates. She continued to note that the younger man finished his dinner and took his credit card out to pay the bill. The older man took some cash out of his pocket beneath the table and said nothing. The dinner bill was paid with the card.

Hannah ordered some perch. The waitress supplied the fish and the sides and promptly brought the bill when Hannah had finished. The bill lifted her loneliness. “I matter” she thought.

Back at the cottage Hannah observed the couple in the next cottage return from town. The man got out of his 4X4 pickup truck and walked through the screened porch door. His dejected look seemed to Hannah to be saying “The fish weren’t biting that night”. The short bean pole of a woman had followed him to the door but the screen door had already closed behind the man. The man was already at the cottage door. The woman reopened the porch door and went in.

The next morning Hannah was sitting on the dock when she heard some clomping behind her. The man from the cottage was heading to his boat with some fishing gear. He saw Hannah and said “Good morning. How are you?” Fine, thanks” Hannah responded. “Another day of fishing?” Yes ma’am.” “Good Luck!” “Thanks.”

That night in order to dispel the indoors with the outdoors Hannah slept with the bedroom windows open to let the lake breeze in. The cottage, with pine wood paneling throughout and fusty furniture and bedding, had a dank feel and a musty smell. It was as if the inside of the cottage had been inverted to the outside and then inverted in again for Hannah’s arrival.

Dealing with the windows was no easy task for Hannah. The wooden windows in her bedroom resisted change. One window would not go up and the other would not stay up. Hannah would have the same bout trying to sleep in a new bed: one position on the mattress did not give and another gave too much.

The next morning technology greeted her: “Your brew is complete! Enjoy!” The Keurig Hannah brought with her offered the comforts of home. “Home is where the good coffee is” would be a good country lyric, Hannah thought. After a cup of coffee and some reading Hannah went to the local diner for breakfast.

There, old men sat around a table talking about their trucks and politics and baseball. A beaming grandma led her grandchild to a table. A weary baby-carrying mom followed. Does one miss the weariness born of attachment? At that moment Hannah did.

It seemed that most of the patrons of the diner were older early risers like Hannah. The crossword puzzle in the daily Sentinel was already filled out by the time she arrived at 7 am, Hannah observed.

The atmosphere of the diner and its food were comforting to Hannah. Unlike the Keurig, the waitresses brought her breakfast, more coffee, and the check with “Here you go my dear” and “More coffee sweetie?” and “Have a great day hun.”

The atmosphere of the diner lifted her loneliness but the diner’s food began laying her low. The third cup of coffee, the well-buttered toast and the oil-coagulated hash browns – the settling food made her uneasy. The heaviness in her stomach and her sinking mood reminded her of the deep well of grief and sorrow she carried inside. The sediment of losses, screwups and broken relationships had settled deep inside her after sixty-seven years of life. But if she sat at a breakfast table with friends she’d wouldn’t be talking about her subterranean sorrows. She’d be talking about the weather, her kids, her job, and asking “what’s new with you?”

The shop owners along the small town’s main street were very happy to see Hannah come in. “Take what you can get” Hannah remembered. She bought a top and a flouncy blue and white summer dress that she knew she would never wear. Owning the feminine charm of the dress gave her the feeling that she mattered as a woman.

In the evenings, after dinner in town, Hannah sat on the cottage’s screened-in porch. There, she smoked little Brazilian cigars, read Chekov and when it was too dark to read, she listened to the night. It seemed to Hannah that the incessant chirring of grasshoppers and ratcheting of crickets was like millions of prayers being offered for those who would soon fall asleep to the murmur of their unspoken supplications.

It was on one of these nights that Hannah had a dream. Or, was it a vision? A Winnebago Indian princess named Lily Thunder Boss stood on the porch. She spoke to Hannah: “Trace the fingers of God and you will see the hand of God. You have come this far, keep tracing.” Hannah immediately woke up. It was 2 AM and the grasshoppers, crickets …

On the third morning Hannah walked down to the docks at the end of the row of cottages. The sun had just come up over the silhouetted shoreline behind her. It began to flash gold in the eyes of the houses along the far shoreline. The lake, not flush yet with direct sunlight and now beneath Hannah’s bare feet, was like a dappled green and grey quilt that stirred as if the lake was about to wake beneath it. In the company of moored pontoons and motor boats and of ducks bobbing for food and loons beginning their conversations Hannah sensed something familiar.

That afternoon she went to the Crossroads Grocery. She bought the fixings for a salad and some Chardonnay. The automated voice of the grocery’s self-serve checkout scanner said “Thank you for shopping with us”. Hannah remembered “Take what you can get.”

On Thursday morning Hannah took a canoe out onto the lake, the deepest lake in Wisconsin. She paddled to the center of the lake where she could see the full extent of its water. The day before she had driven to the south end of the lake but couldn’t come near it. There were private roads with houses nestled along the shoreline. These were now at a great distance from the canoe. The houses and boats appeared as white flecks against a jagged dark green background. The lake, reflecting the cirrus clouds and the baby blue sky as with an ancient uneven mirror, gently swayed her canoe. Hannah sat thinking about her future over the deepest part of the lake. Above her, the wide-open sky. Below her, the bounded water. She sat at the boundary of rapture and watery earth surrounded by voices nowhere near.

Later, she ate lunch at one of the nearby golf clubs which had a WiFi connection. She checked her emails; there was nothing pressing, mostly ads. She ate watching the golfers, men in shorts with caps and sweaters, as they gathered their foursomes. She overhears them kid each other as they wait for beer and sandwiches to take with them on the course. And though the well-manicured course was everywhere verdant and serene, the game, played between tees and holes and beers, seemed to Hannah, to be disquieting for some of the red-faced golfers who came in for water after their round. Hannah thought they must have spent most of their time playing outside the lines.

That night, after a day of hiking and eating a late supper at the diner, Hannah went to bed and dreamed: She was the lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin. All around her were bass, trout, perch, walleye, white bass, trout, northern pike, muskies, catfish, crappie, sunfish and, schools of Walleyes and Large and Smallmouth Bass. They passed her with open mouths. She saw her four children swimming by her, each in different directions. They didn’t notice her. She was the lake. Her sisters swam by. They were talking as they passed each other. Air bubbles, not words, were coming out of their mouths. Deeper in her, her ninety-year old mother floated. She kept saying “I’m hanging in there” and asking me “What’s new with you?”. In the deepest part of her, the dark green part of her, was her dead father and a son who died in a car accident. They lay in repose. Hannah couldn’t say anything to any of them. She was the casket that held them.

At her surface were boats. Their arched outline appeared like dark mysterious icons. Above that was the sky. The sun cast shadows across her of transparent clouds and opaque birds coasting on thermals above. And then, at the surface, appeared an eel. It seemed friendly as it swam near the surface but then took on an impish smile and dove deeper. The creature then slithered and circled inside of her. It wanted to press her down to the bottom of herself. It was then that waking dream broke off. It was then Hannah understood its name to be TRAUMA.

The next morning, technology: “Your brew is complete! Enjoy!” As Hannah drank her coffee, she read and planned her last full day at the lake cottage. She would take the canoe out in the morning for her daily matins, then go for a walk and find lunch, then she would take a nap on the porch. In the evening she would go to a “Friday Night Fish Fry” which was the special on every restaurant’s menu that night. But she started off on the wrong foot.

At dawn Hannah pulled the canoe to shoreline and pushed it three-quarters of the way into the lake. She gathered a life-jacket and a paddle from the fish-cleaning shack and placed them into the canoe. With one hand on the aft of the canoe she placed her right foot in. The canoe rocked to the right and began to lurch forward into the water semi-sideways. Hannah quickly put her left foot in and began balancing the canoe with her hands and feet on each side of it. So far so good. She had done this before.

She was now hunched behind the seat so she moved her right foot forward past the seat while holding onto the canoe’s frame. Her legs were spread apart, one on each side of the bench – one leg forward and one leg behind. At this point nothing felt stable. The canoe began to rock back and forth with every shift of Hannah’s weight. With her hands on each side of the canoe frame she slid them forward hoping to steady the canoe and place her left leg over the bench. In that moment Hannah realized that the stiff lurching of a sixty-seven-year-old was exaggerated by the canoe. And then it happened. Hannah toppled over to her left and fell into the green wet murk. The canoe, on its side next to Hannah, lay beside her as if to comfort her after its practical joke.

Standing up in three feet of water and reeds, soaked, dripping and covered with algae and green mud, Hannah thought she looked like The Creature from the Deepest Natural Lake in Wisconsin. The words of an old song came to her as she walked to the shore: “Oh the old grey mare She ain’t what she used to be”. If her mother could have seen see her, she would have said “It happens to the best of us” and “You kids will be the death of me yet.” Like as with her mother, the days of her independence were becoming fewer. She would need a steadying hand going forward. Being mattered would matter more than ever.

Hannah returned to the cottage. Her flip-flops squished loudly as she walked past the other cottages. She hung her soggy underclothes on a clothes line. Her water-logged jeans and black sweater were laid on a picnic bench to dry in the sun. The pockets of her jeans were filled with algae and grit. Algae clung to the sweater as if it was a net. Her morning rituals on the lake now included baptism.

After seven days and nights at the cottage on a lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin, Hannah returned home. At the door to her apartment Hannah found a package from Amazon. It was something she ordered a week ago. It was a book, a friend, and what mattered to Hannah.

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

 

800 Ordinary Beliefs

a short story…

Tomas took a bus across town to see Dr. Mendoza. His sister had told him that Dr. M would know what to do. On the bus Tomas talked to a lady with a sleeping child. Tomas told her that he wished he could sleep at night like the boy. The lady, a native of Guatemala, gave her advice: “You want to sleep like a baby? Add some epazote and menudo to your diet.”

Tomas entered Dr. M’s office. He signed in at the desk and was handed five pages of empty lines and boxes to fill out and to check. The doctor wouldn’t see him until all of the paperwork was complete. The only line that mattered to Tomas: “What brings you in today?”

Tomas wrote his down complaint and handed the five pages over to the receptionist. She told Tomas to have a seat. The crowded waiting room offered only one chair. When he sat down the old man next to Tomas told Tomas that he had been waiting for 45 minutes. In their conversation the man said he had no trouble sleeping at night but that his joints ached in the morning.

The door opened and a blue outfitted nurse called for the old man. “Hi, Mr. Long, how are you today?” The man responded, “I’ve been better.” Fifteen minutes later the nurse called for Tomas. She showed him to an examination room and told him to have a seat. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

Twenty minutes later Dr. M entered the room. He looked at the chart. Not looking up he asked, “What brings you in today?”  Tomas described his lack of sleep as the doctor continued to look at the chart. Without looking up Dr. M said, “I see.” He put the chart down and began his examination.

Dr. M looked in eyes, his ears, his throat. He checked his blood pressure, his reflexes, his heart beat, his lungs and drew some blood. “About this condition of yours, tell me more.”

Tomas explained as best he could. But he couldn’t explain why he wasn’t sleeping. Dr. M tapped the chart with his pen and said, I may have something which can at least help you get to sleep at night. Dr. M prescribed a relaxant and said “Come back in two weeks and I will have your blood work results.” The nurse returned with the prescription and handed Tomas a business card. “Dr. M has a cousin who is an estate planner. He can help you get your house in order.”

“Am I going to die?”, Tomas searched Dr. M’s face.

“No. But you should always be prepared for the unexpected. His cousin should be able to ease your mind.”

Tomas left the room, his shoulders drooping. He didn’t think his condition was terminal but maybe the doctor knew something he didn’t. He decided to pay the cousin a visit that very morning. Preparing for the worst might relieve his condition.

After a phone call Tomas met with the cousin. The cousin said, “Fill out these forms so that I can see your personal financial profile. Include your beneficiaries and your assets.” Tomas spent the next twenty minutes filling out the forms. His only assets were his condo and some cash in the bank. His only beneficiary was his sister Marisa with five children. The cousin explained estate planning and his fee. Tomas accepted the cousin’s terms and signed on the bottom line. The cousin shook his hand and handed him a business card: “A. Mendoza, Funeral Director”.  Tomas searched the cousin’s face.

“My brother is a funeral director. He can take of your end of life needs.”

“But, I’m only 37 years old. I told your doctor cousin my condition. This …”

“You never know Tomas …there are things beyond our control. It’s best to be prepared for eventualities.” Tomas stuffed the card into his shirt pocket and left. He was hungry.

On his way back across town, Tomas came across a Chinese restaurant. He went in for some chop suey. When he had finished the waitress cleared the table and returned with a small plate holding a fortune cookie and an almond cookie. Tomas cracked open the fortune cookie. He read it out loud. “You never worry about the future.” Tomas took the business card out of his shirt pocket and held it next to the fortune cookie slip: Rest assured. When You Need Us, We’ll Be There.

The waitress, a slender young Indian woman, returned with the check. She noticed a look of anguish on Tomas’ face. “Is everything OK, sir?”

Tomas looked up. “Um, I have a lot on my mind these days.”

“I find that yoga helps me with stress. They say thatmuch of our stress comes from us being hard on ourselves. I internalize everything. My emotional brain takes over. Yoga helps me connect with my logical brain. Yoga helps me balance the connection between my body and mind. It helps me with depression and anxiety.”

Tomas searched her face. As he did, she wrote the name of her yoga studio, Yoga for Your Life, on the back of a check and handed it to Tomas. Tomas thanked her, paid his bill and left her a handsome tip.

Marisa had invited him to dinner that night. So Tomas decided to take a walk to the park to fill up the time. The midday sun was glaring and hot. The park’s trees would offer some cover.

Tomas crossed the street and walked past the bus stop. As he did he noticed an advert on the back of a bench:

Psychic Cruises. See your psychic landscape from a new perspective. Get on board with your future.

Tomas smiled. No medium would know what his sister knew. She seemed to know everybody’s business.

Tomas walked further and heard a boom box blaring. What he heard sounded like a three-year-old kicking the back of a booth at a restaurant and crying, “I want your bottle”.

Walking into the park he heard, “Till death do us part.” A wedding was taking place in the park’s gazebo.

Beyond, he paused to watch a father helping his son learn to ride a two-wheeler. The father, holding the bike and the boy in balance, said “You can do this.” The father gave a push and yelled, “Peddle, Peddle! You’ve got this!” until the bike wobbled out of control and the boy fell. The father rushed over and picked the boy up. The father searched the boy’s tearful eyes. Would he try again?

The path took him around a small lake. There he saw an old man fishing. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat. The man sat as still as the water. The scene reminded Tomas of a painting. As Tomas stood there a young girl skipped past him. Her parents followed behind. They smiled in the direction of the girl between words that seemed difficult for the other to hear.

Around another bend the path went along the great lawn of the Pavilion. The afternoon sun bore down on the field. The air was heavy and dense. Across the lawn a boy and girl were running as fast as they could with a kite in tow. As Tomas watched the kite fluttered and stiffened and jerked and snapped and then darted to the ground. They picked it up and ran again. Kites were meant to fly.

At the pavilion there was a rehearsal for the evening production: Shakespeare in the Park Tonight Macbeth.

Tomas sat down under a tree and listened.

Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

As he sat there, his eyes became heavy. Lunch was heavy in his stomach. The warm smothering air was like a blanket comforting him. He began to doze off. But reveille sounded. Protestors on the street were shouting. “If we don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace”. A voice through a loud speaker ask-demanded “What do we want? A fair contract!  When do we want it?  Now!”

A gaggle of protestors marched down the path near Tomas. They chanted their signs.

We’ve got the crisis fixed!  Tax, tax, tax the rich!

Education is a right, not just for the rich and white!

Hold the burgers, hold the fries, we want our wages super-sized!

Climate devastation will not be solved by corporations. That’s BS, get off it.  The enemy is profit!

Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate!

I’m a dreamer You can’t deport ideals!

The sinuous commixture of grievances walked through the park. Did they know? We would all share common ground someday.

Tomas could not see any counter-protestors, only the father and mother who went on quarreling and the little girl who went on skipping and the boy and girl who ran and tugged a kite in tow. Kites were meant to fly.

Tomas got up and looked for the park exit. The pharmacy should be right over there. Maybe I’ll dream tonight, after I take my prescription. That would be ideal!

At the pharmacy Tomas handed the script the doctor had given him over to the pharmacist. He told Tomas it would take fifteen minutes to fill. He could have a seat.

Tomas sat down next to a woman with a walker. She looked him over. “I’ve been here ten minutes already. But I don’t have anything I need to do anyway.”

Tomas nodded and picked up a magazine from the rack next to him. Go healthy and happy! You are what you eat. Fitter, healthier, happier.

Seeing the magazine Tomas was reading, the old woman leaned over. “I eat only organic. I don’t want all those chemicals in my food.”

Tomas nodded politely.

“Ma’am your prescription is ready.” The woman at the counter waved the bag of pills.

The woman got up and Tomas reached over to steady the walker. “Thank you. I wish my grandkids would eat better.”

Making every step count the old woman walked over to the counter. Tomas sat down again. He reached for another magazine on the rack. Achieve Financial Security. Sleep better at Night Knowing Your Financial House is in Order. Opportunity has its Own Door. Knock on it! Success has a price. What are you Willing to Exchange for it?

“Sir, your prescription is ready.” The woman at the counter held up the bag of pills.

Tomas replaced the magazine in the rack. He went over to the counter.

“Have you had these before?” The woman asked.

“No, I haven’t.”

The woman called the pharmacist over to explain their effect.

“These are to help you relax”, he said.

“I have had trouble sleeping at night.”

“Well, then these should take care of that.”

With that Tomas paid for the prescription. He left the counter and walked outside. He decided to call his sister to see if needed to bring anything for dinner that night.

Marisa gave him a list over the phone: avocado, Café Bustelo, and some diapers.

Tomas asked about having menudo. Marisa said it would take too long to make, besides, she said, “I have four children running around driving me crazy.”

Tomas asked a passerby where the nearest grocery was. “Mercado Fresco was two blocks down”, the man with the umbrella said. Rain water was pouring down off the pharmacy awning. Tomas returned into the pharmacy and bought an umbrella. The woman at the counter said, “Nice weather. For ducks that is!” Tomas agreed.

Tomas walked quickly, dodging from one store awnings to the next to escape the wind-driven rain. His shoes were soaked when he entered the grocery. They squeaked when he walked over to the tables of avocados. “Are these organic?” Tomas asked the produce stocker.

The stocker looked the avocados over and said, “They look natural to me.” Tomas picked one out and placed in a plastic bag. He found the Café Bustelo, and some diapers and placed them in his cart. He gathered the ingredients for flan. He headed to the checkout.

At the checkout Tomas there were signs advertising money transfers to Mexico and the Lottery. Standing in line he had time to look over the headlines of the tabloids racked next to him.

Aliens Break their Silence! The Earth Will be Destroyed in Twelve Years! (with photo)

Woman Loses 300 Pounds Eating Only Turnips! (with before and after photos)

Couple divorces and remarries 3X Finds Love! (with photo)

Bigfoot Sighted in Big Boy parking Lot! (with photo)

Doctors tell man wanting to transition a 6th time: Five is the Limit! (with photo)

“Anything else for you, sir?” The woman at the counter asked as she rang up the amount.

“No. Thank you,” Tomas replied. “Do people read those things?” Tomas pointed to the rack.

“Oh, yes! They have all the latest gossip and interesting news. Your sister buys them all the time.”

Taken back, Tomas queried,  “You know my sister Marisa?”

“Oh, yes! She called me and said you might come in to buy some things for her. She wanted me to remind you to get diapers. She said you have a mole on your right cheek. An astrologer told me that moles on the right cheek is a sign of a sensitive person who gives a lot of respect to his parents. But the left cheek, not so good for you.”

Tomas thanked the cashier and walked away wondering if she was going to call Marisa. She did!

Outside, the rain had stopped. But a bus drove by splashing him with rain water. Now his pants were soaked, too. He decided to walk the five blocks to Marisa’s. The intermittent sun might dry his clothes. Through the city buildings he could see a segment of a rainbow. Was this a promise of no more rain?

Another bus approached. Tomas ducked into a nearby store’s doorway. There was a sign on the bus: Vote Angel Rodriguez for Alderman He Knows Where You Live.

Tomas smiled. Angel Rodriguez may want to rethink that slogan.

Tomas continue to walk. He passed a book store. The door opened and there was a gust of Jasmine. In the window, next to hanging crystals, there was a poster in the window: Individual and world peace comes from having a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing.

Another store had a rainbow flag out front. House of Raven Love doesn’t have to be blind. What’s in store for you? Readings, Advice, Predictions, Fill Up Your Psychic Void Restore Your Aura.

A block further. Night & Day Spa & Salon Come as You Are Leave as you See Yourself Revitalize, Rethink, Relax Out with the Old In With the New.

Further down that same block, an army recruiting center. Be All You Can Be. Tee-shirted recruits stood in formation in the alley next to the store front. A Sargent paced and shouted.

The next three blocks were lined with bungalows. There were signs in many of the yards. Vote for so and so and so and so will bring change.

He arrived at Marisa’s bungalow. His nephews and niece greeted him.

Marisa called from the kitchen. “Did you get the diapers?”

“You know I did.” Thomas replied as he walked to the kitchen.

“Enrique, come here. I need to change you. Ahora!”

On the counter were several lottery tickets tucked under a Our Lady of Guadalupe figurine. And a tabloid with a photo of the face of Jesus in naan bread. Tomas set the bags down. Out the window he could see his brother-in-law Agustín in the garage. He was always working on cars. Los Tigres del Norte’s Historias Que Contar blared from the radio.

Marisa came back into the kitchen. “Did you see Dr. M?”

“You know I did.”

“C’mon Tomas. What did he tell you?”

“He said I checked out OK. But my blood pressure was a little high. He prescribed something to help me sleep at night.”

“When was the last time you went to confession Tomas?”

“You mean you didn’t call Father Sanchez to find out?”

“You are impossible.”

“This noise is impossible.” Marisa didn’t hear him.

“Can I turn this off?’ Una familia con suerte. Tomas turned the TV off.

After getting the kids to wash their hands and making Agustín wash his twice, Marisa bought the food to the table. Chicken Enchiladas, refried beans and ensalada. She asked Tomas to give the blessing.

“For this we are about to receive, we give Thee thanks. Amen”

“So, the doctor gave you something to sleep at night. I think a little …” “Agustín!” Marisa stopped him short.

“I brought some flan for dessert, instead.” Tomas replied darting his eyes from Agustín to Marisa and to the kids.

When the meal was over, Marisa made some coffee and brought out the flan. The kids were quiet the next thirty-seconds. Agustín ate and smiled a devilish smile. Marisa ate and stared at him. Tomas ate and avoided both sets of eyes.

The flan gone, the kids were excused from the table. Agustín got up and gave Marisa a kiss. “Sin tu amor

No se que valla a hacer conmigo…

“I know what will happen to you if you don’t get out of my hair.” Agustín winked at Tomas and returned to the garage singing.

Tomas offered to help with the dishes.

“I heard Father Sanchez is going to Lourdes. He can bring back some water for you, Tomas.”

“I have all the prescriptions I need, Marisa.”

“You need a wife and some kids. At least there will be a reason you won’t get a good night’s sleep.”

Marisa turned from the sink and put her hand on Tomas’ shoulder. “Are you depressed?”

“No. I don’t think so. It’s just that … It’s that there is so much to think about at night that I don’t sleep.”

“Maybe you should talk to a counselor. And look,” Marisa pointed to a flyer on the counter, “Adam Lock is coming to town. He’s a spiritual healer. You should …”

Dishes done, Tomas thanked Marisa for the dinner and said good night. A bus carried him a block from his condo.

At home Tomas clicked on the TV. Soccer. Commercials. News. Commercials. Talk shows. Commercials.

There was a commercial of the same prescription the doctor had given him. A man was tossing and turning in a bed. His wife woke up next to him looking irritated. Then came the benefits and contraindications of taking the prescription. And then the next night the man settles into bed next to his wife. And then, the next morning, he awakes stretching his arms out. He is fully rested. A new day. The sun is shining. The wife is beaming.

Tomas clicked the TV off. He went into the bedroom and put on his pajamas. He swallowed two of his prescribed pills and then settled into bed.

Now, he just had to wait for sleep. Kites were meant to fly. Nothing out of the ordinary.

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

This Form Should Follow Function Out of Town

Every Sunday these days, as I attend church, I drive past a growing monstrosity. The miscreation covers one whole square block in the midst of a neighborhood of older classic-looking homes, homes with character that befits each homeowner. Even the new homes, as you will see, are fashioned with classic motifs. Both old and new houses in this neighborhood offer warmth, charm and beauty. These houses are homes. You want to be in them. For homeowners, fitting in matters and fitting in with beauty matters more. But now, these homeowners must view this place-destroying doesn’t-belong-here structure under construction.

The disjointed amalgam of glass boxes (cubist in profile) is to be the new public library in what one visitor called a “charming and quaint” little town. Other reviewers on a travel site had this to say: “If you long to be in vibrant Currier and Ives atmosphere, then this town is for you.” and “Straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  People come to this town from miles around to journey back in time to when warmth, charm and beauty mattered. The town’s architecture dates from mid-1800s. The town’s website proclaims an historic shopping district.

Now what does a public library contain, other than videos? It contains a wealth of information from the past. It contains literature and records of what has worked and what hasn’t. Modernism wants nothing to do with the past nor the wealth of accumulated aesthetics. Modernism wants to be “iconic” on its own and stand outside of historical (and the neighboring human) context. Enter cold, ugly, and de-humanizing modernism into the “charming and quaint” little town to quash human sensibilities. Its Form Should Follow Function Out of Town. See for yourself.

These photos were taken on a grey overcast day, not unlike the dreary ominous subject.

This new public library adds insult to injury. Witness previous desecration of the townscape. This is the police station just off the historic shopping district and across the street from more of the homes described above.

About three blocks from the new public library and just off the historical shopping district is the historical (150 years old) church I attend.

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Modernist buildings exclude dialogue, and the void that they create around themselves is not a public space but a desertification

-Roger Scruton, philosopher