Six Other Degrees of Separation

 

Six blind men live in Metropolis, Illinois. They were born in the eighties and have been blind from birth.  

These six men consider the earth to be round. They came to this understanding during their grade school education which included handling of the classroom globe. Their day-to-day experience told them that the world was flat and with many sharp corners.

From Mrs. Foley, their high school physical science teacher, these six men learned about Ptolemy and Copernicus. They learned that the sun and not the earth is at the center of our universe. Their day-to-day experience taught them that their universe was a big as the darkness in which they lived.

One day in August, as they listened to the news on the radio, these six men heard about a total solar eclipse. To their delight the path of totality, the announcer said, would be through Carbondale, Illinois.

When the morning of the total eclipse came, the six men took a bus to Carbondale. When they arrived the men soon became separated by the rush and noise of the crowds. While sitting on the bus the men had agreed to return on the 6:30pm bus to Metropolis.

One blind man found his way to a corner where there was talk of a shuttle bus to the viewing site. He got on.

The second blind man asked for the directions to where everyone would be for the event. A young couple said, “Follow us”. The blind man held onto the woman’s arm.

The third blind man heard a man with a loud speaker say that people should park “over there and walk to the university.” So, he found his way to the university.

The fourth blind man was hungry. So, he asked anyone who could hear if there was food nearby. An old man stopped and said, “there’s a hot dog stand around the next corner”. The blind said, “Thank you” and found his way to the hot dog stand.

The fifth blind man was tired. The noise and confusion made him tired. He found a bench and sat down. Soon he fell asleep.

The sixth blind man heard some street vendors hawking tee shirts and eclipse glasses. He followed the footsteps.

 

By late afternoon the six men had arrived at the bus station. At 6:10 pm they boarded the bus. The bus headed back to Metropolis at 6:30 pm.

As they rode along the six blind men began to talk about the day’s event.

The first blind man spoke. “The eclipse is of great spiritual value. I heard street people everywhere as I walked. They were offering remembrances and spiritual items like incense candles, crystals, and, and, special glasses to see it with. One kind man told me that no one should look at the great phenomenon without special glasses. But since I am blind, I bought a tee shirt instead. They told me it says, “I survived the 2017 Total Eclipse”.

The second blind man spoke. “No. how can it have any spiritual meaning? It is just a novelty, something unique. It only happens once every so many years. People should go to the carnival, have some food and entertainment, enjoy themselves. The eclipse is good times.”

The third blind spoke. “The eclipse is inclusive. It brings people together. I heard a woman say that she heard that all her friends were coming to view the eclipse. So, she had to come to. ‘Everyone was doing it,’ she said.”

“What?” The fourth blind man jumped in. “Not everyone is doing it. Someone told me that the older Navajos will not look at it when it is happening. They fear bad things can happen if you look during the eclipse, like health issues. The eclipse is taboo.”

The fifth blind man spoke. “All I know is that the eclipse is eerie. When I heard the people around me say “It’s happening,” it was like the earth stood still. I suddenly felt a chill like the sun had been unplugged. And the birds even stopped tweeting. The eclipse is scary.”

The last blind man spoke. “It’s worse than you can imagine. Someone next to me said “This is super cool. I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life.” I looked up for a long time but of course I saw nothing. But now, my eyes burn so much I want to tear them out. The eclipse is a deep burning darkness.”

 

 

 

© J. Ann Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

 

~~~

 

August 21, 2017 – 1:21p.m. CDT

Try to Remember

 

The bumper sticker in front of Tom read, “Try to remember what you wanted to be.” Tom thought for a moment and then the light changed. He remembered that he didn’t want to be late for his date with Sherry. Pulling up to the next light Tom remembered that he wanted to be a missionary and a band conductor and a secret agent and a shortstop and an army guy and someone other-worldly, like a saint or an astrophysicist. At the next light he coughed as he said, “I never thought I’d end up as a welder.” 

Tom knocked and Sherry came to the door. “Dinner’s almost ready. C’mon in.”

“Wow what a day. How about that heat? I had to keep lifting my helmet to wipe the sweat off my face. I came home drenched.”

“You did take a shower, didn’t you?” Sherry joked.

“Yes, my dear. I see you did, too.”

“Yeah. I had the same problem you did. Welding that half-inch plate, I couldn’t see for all the sweat burning my eyes.”

“Maybe we should be welders in Alaska.”

“Yeah, and then could eat fresh wild-caught salmon and caribou.”

“You know the way to a man’s heart, don’t you kiddo?”

“As long as we are on the same path, I’ll know the way to your heart.” Sherry smiled.

Tom and Sherry sat down, gave thanks, and started eating the chicken tacos Sherry had prepared.

“I saw a bumper sticker on my way over here.”

“What did it say?”

“‘Try to remember what you wanted to be.’”

“I remember wanting to be Weather Woman on TV. I wanted to tell everyone what the weather would be while wearing nice clothes. I was ready. All my clothes were solids and not patterns.”

“You can tell me the weather forecast anytime you want Weather Woman. I hope I’m on your radar screen.”

“Yeah, you’re a blip.”

“Ahem. I remember wanting to be more than a blip. I wanted to save the world from the bad guys and run fast like Flash and play baseball like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Look at us now. We are both welders. You know, I read in Welder’s Weekly that…”

“Welder’s Weekly?” Sherry looked puzzled.

“Yeah, I am the only subscriber. Anyway, the Bead Column said that welders should date welders. “

“And why is that?”

“They’ll carry a torch for you.”

“I see why you are the only subscriber.”

“And there were bumper stickers for sale, too: “Be the Bead” and “If the Weld Smells Like Pork You’re on Fire.”

Sherry choked on her food. “That last one is hilarious.”

Sherry cleared her throat and said. “Well, you had me at first arc. C’mon. Help clean up. We have work to do.”

After putting the dishes in the sink, Tom and Sherry went to the garage. They set up the gas welders and the welding rods. They worked together creating a sculpture for a nearby church garden.

After a couple of hours, they came in for dessert – Key Lime pie. It was then that Tom gave Sherry the ring and said, “many are called, one is chosen.”

 

Later that night, while sitting together on the front porch, Sherry asked Tom a question.

“Tom, have you ever wondered why you and I were born in this time and place?

“I usually ask that in the middle of laying a bead and the temperature is ninety-degrees. But, what are you thinking?

“When I think of the millennia of time which has passed and the millions of people who have gone on before, I think we were born here and now to be a who we are-man and wife-to continue what God has begun, to continue creation.”

“Well, when you put it like that, welding makes sense in the cosmos. Joining two metals to become one creates something greater than the individual pieces.”

“You’re a philosopher now, Tom?”

“A stitch-er of thoughts, more likely. When I was on the road in New York and Indiana and Louisiana MIG welding together these towering static mixers I told you about I had time to think. There inside a hollow eighteen-foot diameter shell of twelve-gauge steel I realized that I am here for a purpose greater than me and greater than me welding together something that will benefit somebody today but will fall out of use some day. I saw that I am. Why that happened right then, I don’t know. But after what you just said, we make sense together. I better get home. I am exhausted.” 

Sherry looked at the ring on her finger and then looked over at Tom. Tom reached over and gave Sherry a kiss and asked, “Do you know how diamonds are created?”

“No, Tell me.”

Diamonds are made from the residual carbon of the earth’s first land plants. The carbon is exposed to extremely high temperature and pressure in the earth’s mantle. They are pushed up to the earth’s surface by volcanic activity.”

“Did you read this in Welder’s Weekly?”

“No. I read it in A Brief History of Welding.” Tom grinned like Alice’s Cheshire cat.

“So, to reach our Diamond Wedding Anniversary we will be subjected to high temperature and high pressure?”

“There’s only one way to find out and we’re going to go through it together.”

Tom gave Sherry another kiss and said, “See you in the morning. Don’t forget to wear cotton. It’ll be another hot day. Oh, I just thought of another bumper sticker: “Welders keep you in stitches.”

“You are exhausted. Good night.”

 

A year later, Tom and Sherry began marriage counseling with pastor Dave. The wedding date had been set.

During the first session with Pastor Dave, he asked them, “How did you two meet each other?”

Tom responded. “We met at Marsh Technology Center. We were both in a welding class. She flipped my lid.

Dave laughed. Now you have my interest. Explain.

“Yep. It was the first time I put on a welding helmet and I was trying to adjust the tension. Sherry flipped my helmet up and showed me how to adjust it. The tension has to be just right. When you are ready to weld you need to flip the helmet down to cover your eyes. Your hands are full so you flip the helmet down with a jerk of your head.” Tom showed Dave “the flip.”

During that first session pastor Dave asked about their family back grounds. As the session was wrapping up, Dave said, “Everyone who gets married comes to marriage with a lot of baggage. Each of you can share the load of the other but don’t think that the other will somehow resolves whatever issues you brought to the marriage. You own those issues like you own your credit report. It is yours to correct. Your spouse is there to support you but is not there to fix you.”

The second session was about finances. “You each come to your marriage with a certain way of dealing with money. Marriages break apart over how finances are handled. Marriage is a coming together-an intimacy-of finances where you must hold each other accountable. Set up a budget spreadsheet. Set up an accounting of debits and credits using available software. Set up financial goals for a home, for children, for retirement and most importantly-for giving. Remember. You cannot give what you do not have.

Look at each other’s credit report now before you get married. Look and see what each of you has done with their money. Love covers a multitude of sins, but a pile debt sticks out on credit reports. Stay away from consumer debt. It will eat you alive. Become financially savvy.”

During the third session Pastor Dave talked about in-laws–keeping one’s marriage separate, away from meddlesome in-laws. He said that becoming one takes focus. What Tom remembered was “Location, location, location.” What Sherry remembered was the ache in the pit of her stomach.

The fourth session: “long live intimacy.”

“Intimacy is the every-aspect-relationship that you have with your spouse. You have to work this out together day by day, minute by minute. And, don’t compare. Don’t ever read a couple or watch a TV show and say to your spouse, I wish we were like that couple.

Your marriage will face a test of wills. Your goal is to become one. That doesn’t mean the one is dissolved into the other. It means that the understanding, forgiveness and love you each bring to the other is forged-welded, is the better word for you two-to become one stronger whole.

Intimacy is broken when there is no forgiveness. Do not got to bed angry. A root of bitterness likes to grow in that kind of harsh unyielding soil. Do not apologize and say, “I’m sorry. I said it because of what you said.” You might get slapped. Holding grudges will quickly destroy your marriage. If you are angry, take some time to cool off and think about why you are angry. Are you angry because of what happened reminded you of something that happened earlier in your life that your spouse doesn’t know about and had no hand in? Beware. Unresolved anger is self-justifying as means of protection. Unresolved anger places others into exile. True forgiveness removes people from exile and embraces them. You may feel strongly about some wrong done to you. If so, tell your spouse that you are angry and why you are angry. Tell your spouse that you need some time to process your anger and that you do not want to reman angry with him or her. See what happens next. And, deal with your past baggage now so that the present and future are given to your spouse.

Intimacy is not sitting in front of a TV with your spouse. As it says, “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Find a church community which supports this truth. I recommend staying away from TV. Don’t make TV a third person in your marriage”

Tom interjected. “Neither of us own a TV and we don’t plan on having one after we are married. I think of the irony that so many people will go buy organic foods or be vegetarian or try to eat healthy and workout and yet they fill their minds with all kinds of trash from the TV. There is too much in this world to explore and to wonder about for us to sit in front of a box.”

“Good.” Pastor Dave replied. “Now let’s talk about sex.”

Both Tom and Sherry looked at each other and then rolled their eyes up to look at the ceiling.

“My wife Karen will talk to you, Sherry, and I will talk to you, Tom, alone. Let’s go.

Sherry met with Karen. Karen talked about sexual intimacy with a man and how to prolong a man’s excitement.

Pastor Dave talked to Tom. He began by drawing a picture of a vagina and then asking Tom to draw in where the clitoris was. Tom had no idea so, Dave drew it in and circled it. Dave then talked about how women are in no hurry to achieve orgasm but men are. He said that the two becoming one must find a happy oneness.

During the fifth session Pastor Dave talked about having a faith community that will support your marriage. He said to find a church where truth and beauty are combined into the daily life of the church. A church which is all preaching and teaching is missing the inexplicable and the transcendent. Find a church, he said, that loves mystery and encourages adventures of discovery. Find a church where art, music and drama play major roles in worship and teaching and are not considered asides to some pulpit ministry.

Pastor Dave’s sixth session: “When children come, life is turned upside down. Be prepared. Your marriage will be put to the test because everything you are came about during childhood. Having children is like attending a therapy session: the past is brought up and you are forced to confront it as little Tommy Jr. decides he will not obey, no way and no how. Rearing children requires patience you don’t think you’ll ever have enough of. Rearing children requires discipline for yourself and for your children, so know what and how that looks like. Listen to other parents. Learn to set and enforce proper boundaries for your children. Children feel secure when they bump up against sure and solid.

Their wedding day was a month away when Tom and Sherry came to Pastor Dave’s seventh and final marriage counseling session. Tom wondered why he was sweating sitting in Pastor Dave’s air-conditioned office. Pastor Dave surprised the couple by showing them the Princess Bride wedding scene. Tom was no longer sweating. Instead, his Cheshire cat grin reappeared.

“Alright then. You’ll need a sense of humor for your marriage to survive all the stuff thrown at it. Now, I want you two to focus on what I am about to say: Marriage is a rose that enfolds the mystery of truth and goodness and being within itself and then opens for the world to behold its beauty. A Kingdom marriage means taking vows-a sincere and binding promise made with full understanding. Together you will help each other to flourish. You will witness and worship together. Together you promote the glory of God. Together you will discover and uncover the mysteries of the universe.

And you should know that God created the gender identities of male and female not just for procreation of the human race. I believe that God’s creation of two distinct gender identities, both rooted and fixed in sexed bodies, was also for the creation of mystery.  You see, men and women who come into a marriage relationship begin a journey of discovery. Men discover and grow into their maleness and women discover and grow into their femaleness. Within the give and take of a marriage relationship the mystery of your gender identity and the other’s gender identity is explained and affirmed. The same thing also happens for a single person in a healthy Christian community. God created mystery for us to discover Him and each other and His whole creation over a course of a lifetime. We should never be bored.

God, in His infinite-personal love, created mystery and romance. Look at how much we do not know about the universe. Our God is surrounded in mystery.  Clouds and thick darkness surround him. God does not do boring, to put it another way. Reason alone cannot tell you all you need to know. Emotions and your senses cannot tell you all you need to know. No, we discover what we do not know when we are in relationship with Him and with others. Your marriage, the dancing embrace of male and female, will venture off into God’s uncharted universe to go where no man or woman has gone before.

“Bead me up,” Tom replied.

Pastor Dave looked over at Sherry. “Do you really want to marry this corny guy.”

Sherry looked over at Tom who was grinning his cat grin, “Well, he does keep me in stitches. That’s his welding joke.”

“You two were made for each other. Now for the welding. I mean the wedding.” Pastor Dave prayed a blessing on the couple and then dismissed them after discussing the wedding details.

 

At the wedding Pastor Dave again prayed a blessing on the couple. As Tom and Sherry drove away from the church Tom noticed the same bumper sticker that he saw before: “Try to remember what you wanted to be.”

“I remember what I wanted to be. It is what I am with you.” Tom leaned over and kissed Sherry.

Their car’s bumper sticker read: “With This Ring, I Thee Weld.”

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

Wonders Never Cease

 

Nora kept her glasses perched on the end of her nose. She made sure not to miss the annotations of life. And today, the annotation before her read, “Full sun. 77 days to maturity.”

The package of tomato seeds went into her cart. Nora didn’t know anything about patio gardening, but she wasn’t about accruing boredom with time on her hands. Aisle 8 had the 24“container and bag soil mix she needed. The internet had the video instructions to create a patio container garden:

“You need the right container: either 18” or 24”

“You need 6-8 hours of sun daily.”

“You must use the proper soil. Never use garden soil or landscape soil. Always use bag soil mix for vegetables.”

“You will need to fertilize every 10-14 days. The fertilizer must contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.”

“Start the seedlings 6-8 weeks before spring thaw, before transplanting outside.”

“After transplanting, stake the seedling plant.  There will be plenty of foliage and growing tomatoes will weigh things down.”

When spring thaw came to the earth around her patio, Nora planted her starter. The tomato seedling was 3 inches tall with what the video called “true leaves”. Nora stuck it in the center of the 24-inch container, then she staked it. She watered it. It looked dwarfed in the mass of black mud but green leaves always looked promising. Tired, she put away her trowel and sat down in her patio chair.

It was then that she could see a neighbor woman across the apartment complex driveway opening her patio door. The woman was wrapped in a floral housecoat. She crossed her arms to hold her housecoat closed in the breeze. Nora noticed that the woman was glaring at the seedling container. Nora stared back wondering what the woman was wondering. What was her neighbor’s fascination with her tomato plant? After a minute the neighbor went back inside. A TV could be heard when she opened the door.

“If you give me some tomatoes little one, I’ll give her some.” Nora coaxed the tomato plant.

Nora was a loner and she was OK with that after ten years. She began living more and more alone after being divorced. The divorce, she was told, was meant to achieve another’s happiness. Over time Nora’s older children moved out to begin their separate lives. She was happy for them.

Nora was used to ‘living in her head’. A former high school physics teacher, Nora now filled her days reading journals and doing projects that interested her. When Nora retired from her teaching position, her daily associations ended. Yet, ‘living in your head’ and talking to yourself came to a loner naturally. But finding close friends did not come naturally.

In that void, Nora filled her life with regimen. Nora attended church where she saw “the regulars” as she called them. She shopped at the same grocery store each week and saw the checkout “regulars”. On Saturday mornings, she attended Bismarck café and saw those “regulars”. Nora’s life was a routine of brief time-place associations and nothing more. She wondered what a 3-D association would look like, glasses or no glasses.

Nora knew that a close friendship would be a way to mitigate extreme loner-ness. She had an aunt that lived alone with cats and saw no one except for the Preachers on the TV. Nora wasn’t one to be detached from others. She knew she needed space to think and also close friends to share that space.

Never thinking of herself as lonely, Nora just felt the absence of interaction – opposite and equal interaction. She desired dialog where kidding each other and push back were OK. She wasn’t looking for a romantic relationship. Besides, she figured true friendship was a greater gift than romantic love. She saw herself spending time with male or female friends and then going home at night to her bed.

She remembered her childhood friendships. Feeling alive together was all that mattered. Nora and her friends would drive fast with the car windows open and the music loud and the feeling of life streaming through her car. Motion made her feel alive and the faster life came at her the better. Swimming laps at the health club now just wasn’t the same.

 

After 77 days, large red fruit was ready to be harvested from the container garden. Nora cut off one of the tomatoes to sample. She washed it and sliced it. She made a BLT sandwich and said, “Perfect!”

Now it was time to visit her neighbor and to bring her some tomatoes. Now, too, she would find out why this woman stared over at the plant all the time.

 

Nora approached the neighbor’s patio. The woman was in her housecoat and staring back in the direction of Nora’s patio. The woman ignored Nora completely.

“Hi,” Nora put one foot on the concrete patio.

“Oh, hi,” the woman said while her eyes outlined Nora’s form.

“I brought you some of my home-grown tomatoes. Would you like them?”

“Why, yes indeedy!” The woman, holding her housecoat closed, reached her left hand out.

Nora reached over and placed the bag’s handle around the woman’s hand.  The woman’s good-humored response gave Nora the feeling that maybe they could be friends.

“I’m Nora.” After Nora said this she watched the woman’s dark eyes roll back and forth in the top of their sockets.

“I’m May. Nice to meet you. Do you live nearby, Nora?”

“Yes, I live right over there in that apartment.” Nora began to point and then pulled her arm down.

“Can you take my hand and point it in that direction?” May asked. “Then I’ll get my bearings.”

“Sure.” Nora turned May’s arm in the direction of her apartment. Nora pointed her index finger and Nora directed the finger.

“Yes, over there, across the driveway.” Nora said.

“Thank you.” May brought her arm down. “I’m still getting my bearings. What do you do, Nora?”

“I am…I was a high school physics teacher. I am retired and live alone.”

“I never studied physics. I did have an English teacher who taught grammatical structure.” May chuckled. “She outlined it on the blackboard. I heard her pulling the chalk across the black board. It made my skin crawl. She had me sitting right at the front of the class so that I could hear everything. I just couldn’t picture in my mind, though, what it was she was trying to convey. Nouns and verbs…the whole shebang came together in my mouth when I needed them, though. And thankfully when the teacher had me recite poetry to the class.”

May’s black eyes rolled upward, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil’. I remember the rest of Hopkin’s poem to this day.

“What about you?” May looked over to Nora. ‘What have you been doing?’

“I am a retired but I don’t like the word ‘retired’. I’m not out to pasture, I’m out of students and out of kids, at least until my grandchildren come along. My four kids are all grown and moved out.  I turn 65 this year, but only on paper. “

May laughed. “OK, how did you get to liking physics?” May asked.

“I always liked knowing how things worked. I got this from my father. He was always amazed at how things worked, how they came together. He was a high school math teacher. He taught me trig and calc. And, he would always quote G.K. Chesterton, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders,” whenever I balked at my homework.

“My daddy was a mailman who read poetry to us kids, you know, like Langston Hughes: “Help me to shatter this darkness, To smash this night, To break this shadow, Into a thousand lights of sun, Into a thousand whirling dreams, Of sun!”

I’m not out to pasture either, Nora. I am out of place. I’m from Mississippi. I came up here to be with my daughter after her husband Roy died in a work accident. An I-beam fell came off a crane hook. It came right down on his head. His skull was crushed.

When it happened Roy and my daughter had just had a child.  You’ll have to meet my granddaughter, Magnolia. My daughter was so broken up that I just had to come up and be with her.”

“I am so sorry to hear about Roy. Why do things like this happen to good people?” Nora put her hand on May’s arm.”

May’s black eyes searched back and forth. “You just don’t see things like that coming at you.”

There was a long silence. Then, Nora spoke.

“May, these are fresh tomatoes from my container garden.”

“Container garden? I’ve heard of them. Thank you for these. Tell me about this container garden.”

Nora explained to May the details and the waiting and the wondering if the tomatoes were going to make it. And then Nora said, “If you like I can help you set one up on your patio.’

“I think that would be fine. I love fresh tomatoes. You know, I miss my home in Mississippi. I miss the garden. I miss the smell of the magnolias. I come outside when I can and face that away.” May pointed in the direction of Nora’s patio.

“From that direction comes the smell of earth being dug, of new construction and of flowers.”

May looked up to the sky and spoke in measured tones, ‘And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’.

May looked over to Nora. “If you would help me set up a container garden, with whatever will grow this time of year – vegetables, herbs, flowers – then, I must give you something in return. I’d ask you to teach me physics, too, but I have an aversion to the sound of chalkboards.” They both laughed.

“Well, I don’t hear much poetry these days.” Nora said. “In fact, I read technical journals on physics. Can you teach me some poetry?”

“I think we have a deal.”

From that day forward, Nora and May spent many hours together chatting on a patio. As they conversed they created a container garden together with Magnolia’s help. Over coffee May recited poetry. Life was coming back around and not just in the container garden.

On any given summer day, if one were riding along on highway 103, one would see Nora driving and May in the passenger seat speeding past you with their windows open and the music loud.

 

 

 

 

 

© J. Ann Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Dream Weaver

 

Jack opened the door and rolled his suitcase into his apartment. He put the bird cage down on its shelf by the window. He threw his keys onto the Feng Shui bowl of rocks.  There was no cat to greet him. He didn’t like cats. There was no dog to greet him because he traveled 90 percent of the time. There was no wife to greet him. His wife divorced him because she needed someone 200 percent of the time. There was Henry, the parrolet, and the recliner and the comforter his mother made.

Jack switched on the answering machine.  The last message: “Rid your lawn of weeds and brown spots. Have a thicker greener lawn today! This offer is for a limited time only. Act now!”

After apologizing to the cactus, Jack watered it. And then he remembered he hadn’t eaten since Atlanta.

The freezer held empty ice cube trays and a cheese pizza. Tomorrow he would buy some groceries for the weekend. He’d be on a plane again Monday morning. Pizza would do.

After setting the oven temp, Jack sat down and poked the remote. The same old nothing was on the TV: political back and forth that was going nowhere; commercials for drugs to put a smile on your face if you could stomach the side-effects; dramas of cops and robbers and adventure flicks about mayhem and superheroes to undo the mayhem. Jack settled on a baseball game, his version of Feng Shui.

“Order now.”

“What?” Jack looked over at Henry. “Does my sister must leave the TV on all day long, Buddy Bird?”

“Order now.”

“We’ve been apart too long.”

“Order now.”

“Ugh.”

 

Jack wasn’t about to watch Andy of Mayberry again. He watched Andy and Barney almost every night that he was on the road.

Jack found Andy of Mayberry on a channel in his Ramada Inn room in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. He found Andy and Barney on his room’s TV in Rio, Brazil. He found Andy on his TV in Bialystok, Poland, and in Seoul, South Korea and in Hermosillo, Mexico and in the rooms of the fifty states he traveled to for his job. The program was Jack’s version of a friend, as was Henry.

Now Henry stayed with Jack’s sister Linda when Jack traveled. Linda loved Henry’s tiny robot-sounding voice. Until tonight, “Like it?” was Henry’s standard answer to any verbal cue. He would bob his head up and down as he said it over and over. Linda would keep the conversation going for several minutes, bobbing her head up and down, parroting Henry. Jack figured they were both entertained while he was on the road. He had Andy of Mayberry and the endless commercials telling you to order now before it’s too late.

The oven was ready. Jack unwrapped the pizza and placed it on the oven rack. He set the timer and then sat back down.

“Order now.”

“I ordered my pizza, Buddy Bird.”

“Order now.’

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Order now.”

“I wish this catcher would order a fastball right now.”

When the oven timer went off Jack shut off the oven. He removed the pizza and sliced it into quarters. He plopped down two slices on a paper plate and sat back down.

“Oh, that was a beauty.”

The pizza filled him and made him tired. Jack’s eyes watered. His eyelids, heavy, closed. Then, a weird commercial played.

“If you order today, you will have a friend for life. But hurry, this is a limited time offer. Our inventory is going fast, but if you order now, you will have a much-needed friend.”

Jack roused when the game announcer yelled, “He got back to first, just in time”.

But his eye lids and now his stomach felt heavier. Jack laid his head back down on the recliner. He pulled the comforter up to his shoulders. He dozed off in the dimly lit room.

The room where he found himself was dark except for a vignette of kitchen table. Sitting across from him at the table was a familiar face. Ken spoke. “If I win this hand of poker I want you to put on this Speedo and be my houseboy, my amusement. I want you to clean up my house. This offer is for a limited time only. Act now!” Then Jack saw himself face down on a bed and Ken trying to rope him to a bed frame. Jack broke free. He began riding his bike as fast as he could, his heart pounding faster than his feet could pedal.

Jack lurched upright in the recliner. Then his legs kicked straight out. As they did they almost knocked over the TV tray. Jack shook his head as if to shake the dream out of his thoughts. “Man!”

A commercial for window cleaner was airing: “Your windows will be spotless, your view spectacular. This product has been specially formulated. Buy one bottle now and get the second one free. That’s right! Buy one bottle now and get the second one free. Shipping and handling will apply.”

The game was over. Jack got up and covered Henry’s cage. He sat back down and covered himself in the comforter. He watched the news.

“The Peruvian mudslide has left thousands homeless. Intense rains over the last several days have dislodged acres of soil swamping homes in mud. An eyewitness had this to say:”

“There’s a person there!”

The on-the-scene reporter walked over to the man and spoke to the camera: “She is referring to this man now completely covered in mud. We learned that he had just dropped his two daughters at school and was feeding his pigs with his wife when they were pulled into a landslide. The man’s wife told us that they had climbed a tree but the trunk broke.”

The news program broke to a commercial. Jack blinked his eyes several times hoping to stay awake. He just got home from a long road trip. He wanted to savor being home. He wanted to submerge himself in home.

As he let himself sink deep into that pleasure an image came up. He saw himself in his old dorm room lying on his bed. He turned over and saw his college roommate staring at him. Tim was sitting next to his bed watching him sleep. Tim climbed into his bed and threw his arm over Jack. Tim whispered, “I am in the business of love. This night has been specially formulated. Shipping and handling may apply.” Then Jack saw himself scurrying out of his 35th floor dorm window and climbing a tree. Then the tree broke and mud washed over him. “Help! There’s a person here!”

Jack awoke with a chill. The comforter was on the floor. “Man! What’s going on in the ether tonight?” He shook his head to discharge the dream. He shut everything off and went to bed.

 

On Saturday Jack finalized his travel plans. He’d get up early Monday morning and try to beat the snow storm out east. The weatherman was forecasting a winter storm. It would affect the northeast. Jack took note, as he would travel to Albany, New York on Monday. “Oh, great. More airport lounges,” he thought out loud.

 

Sunday evening Jack drove to his sister’s house. He was dropping off Henry.

“Hey. Here’s your favorite bird.” Jack lifted the cage and showed Melanie. “Go easy on her Henry. She can only handle a few words,” Jack teased his sister.

“Mel, no more commercials for this guy. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.”

“Shakespeare it is for you Mr. Henry.” Mel smiled. “To be or not to be.”

“Like it.” Henry chimed in.

“Are you asking or telling?” Jack queried the bird.

“Order now.”

“Ugh. See you next Friday kiddo.”

“Have a good trip.” Mel hugged Jack.

 

Once back home Jack packed his bag and set the alarm for 3:30 AM. He cooked himself a steak and settled down in front of the TV.

He laid back and began thinking of his travel plans. At one point he thought he should get up and check his flight online again. But gravity was holding him recliner bound. He fell asleep.

And that is when he saw himself standing in the hallway of his dorm. The RA asked him to come to the lounge to talk. The RA told him that Steven his new roommate had been killed in a car crash on the way to his wedding rehearsal. The RA said a snow storm caused the crash. Then Jack could see the snow. He could see the crash. And then he saw himself at the bottom of a deep well. Aunt Bee was there. She was showing Jack the comforter she had brought for him. On the comforter was a tag which said “I knit all things together for good.”

Jack then realized that he was holding a large bucket in his left hand. The overflowing bucket was sobbing. It occurred to Jack that the bucket contained loneliness, pain and suffering. Jack looked over at his right hand. A hand in his was pulling him up. Another hand placed the comforter on his head like a shawl. The weight of the bucket in his left hand was causing a terrible strain across his arms and shoulders. He cried out, “Help me dad!” Jack was in so much pain he couldn’t speak. But there were words without words. His speech had turned to loud groaning.

Then, out of his insides came a rush of anguish and sadness so great that he thought that he would be turned inside out. His legs were now being lifted off the ground. He stretched them down to touch the earth. As he did he felt a painful contraction in his left leg. Jack let go of everything and when he did he heard a warning sound. His eyes flashed open.

The alarm clock was beeping. Jack tapped the “Off” button. He noticed as he reached for the alarm clock that there was a severe cramp in his left leg. The stabbing pain made him cringe. He messaged his leg for a minute and then pulled himself out of bed. Other than the pain in his leg, he felt strangely warmed.

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

Don’t Go Changing

 

“Where have you been?” Jess opened the door for Chad.

“On my way home from work I stopped at Replete Christian Bookstore. I bought a bunch of books that are going to change everything.” Chad set the bag on the dining room table.

“Wow, a lot of books. I hope the change pays for everything.”

“Look at these titles.” Chad read them off: 

“Divine Masculinity on a Dime”

“Practicing the Presence of Masculinity”

“The Thrust of Biblical Manhood: a Guide for the Closet Masculine”

“Broken Manhood:  A Guide in Feminine Times”

“Not Content to Be Just a Man: One Man’s Struggle to be Masculine”

“Courage in the ManCave of Doubt”

“’Christianity Feels Masculine’ and other Manly Quotes”

“The Miracle of Masculinity”

“If Only: Thoughts on Ideal Manliness”

“The Ancient Art of Manliness and the Warrior Man: Losing is Not an Option”

“When the Church is Not Masculine Enough, Bring It!”

“If Grace Matters, So Does Larry.”

Chad pulled the last book out of the bag. “I got this one free because I spent $50.00 – “Shall we Gather at the Urinal?  A Comic Graphic Novel for the Seeker Church Male”.  You won’t recognize me after I read these books, Jess.”

“Truer words have never been spoken.”

 “I think I’ll buy a pickup truck this weekend.”

“No you won’t.”

“But how can I be seen as masculine if I don’t have a truck? They say women think men are masculine when they drive pickups”

“They also say that women don’t like men who drive them to distraction.” Jess countered.

“It is written… right here in this article.” Chad picked up a copy of Christian Men that Matter Magazine. “Women like a guy who has a job and who drives a pickup truck and who pees standing up and who eats meat and is willing to carry them out of a burning building.”

“Four out of five isn’t bad. I guess I’ll keep you.” Jess broke a wry smile.

“If I have a pickup you will think more highly of me, you’ll respect me. I just know it.”

“I know that I will think more highly of you because I will be sitting so high up in that cab.”

“Aw shucks, all the guys at church, …some of the guys at church, traded in their vans for a pickup.”

“I’m going to trade you in for a man who drives a family van and is content.”

“Look what I got in the mail.” Chad waved the envelope. “It is an invite to “Your Call to the Wild: Unleash Your Masculine Anima – a Week-Long Seminar to Reclaim Your Masculinity. It is only $300.00 for the entire week. We bring sleeping bags and shoot BB guns and stuff. Sounds like fun!”

“Let me see.” Jess looked at the invite. She handed it back to Chad, “Return to sender. There is no one by that need here.”

“Oh, Jess. You’re not pooh-poohing the seminar, too, are you? I need to find my belly fire, my inner noble savage. I need to map my masculinity.”

“I’ll trace out a map of your masculinity later. It’s time for the kids to go to bed. Chad, can you take care of that?”

“Sure, Jess.” Chad put the envelope down without opening it. “All right kids.” Chad looked at Kim and Kevin, “It’s time to brush and flush.”

But now, though, Chad could tell that the ice cream –infused kids were not ready for bed. So, that night, Chad’s stomp ritual began.  Chad stood at the end of dining room table and then stomped his right leg down onto the wood floor. The stomp vibrated the piano’s wires. A raucous dissonance followed.

The kids looked at dad wide-eyed. They saw the playfulness in his eyes. Kim and Kevin slowly got off their chairs. And when they did, Chad started stomping after them. The piano prattled and the china chattered as the three of them circled the table. Kim and Kevin squealed.  Maggie, the Sheltie, joined the pandemonium. She barked trying to herd Kim and Kevin. The bedlam went on for ten minutes until Chad was out of breath.

Dad looked at Kim and Kevin. He knew from their red cheeks and their glowing glee that his tour de force would become a nightly ritual. So be it.

One look from dad and the kids knew what was what. Still breathing hard, the kids bounded up the stairs to brush and flush and await their bedtime story from dad.

Jess came out of the kitchen and over to Chad. She put her arms around him and said, “My, how you’ve changed – your face is beet red.”

“I heard you’re a cartographer.” Chad lifted his right eyebrow as he said this.

“A good man is not hard to find.”

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

How Can I Be Sure?

 

Thomas found Harking Café and went in. He found Julia at a table eating a salad as big as her head. He sat down and, as usual, waited for her to begin the conversation. Two hours before Julia had called wanting to talk to her childhood friend Thomas about her Jeffery.

Julia, her mouth full, waved to Thomas with her fork. After several bites she started. “You know,”…,”Jeffery hasn’t said anything but I think he doesn’t love me.”

“And, what makes you think that?” Thomas asked.

“I have a feeling that he wants out of our relationship.”

“What gives you that impression?” Thomas looked puzzled.

“He’s avoiding me.” Julia tapped the air with her fork.

“Avoiding you as in not being with you? You two are married.”

“He’s avoiding me by not seeing what I need before I have to ask.”

“Mind reading is not easy. See.” Thomas cupped his hands around her salad bowl and closed his eyes. “I got nothing.”

“Jeffery should at least know how I feel. I don’t feel loved. Aren’t I supposed to feel loved in a marriage.” Julia took another bite.

“Maybe you have never been loved like this before.” Thomas put the menu in front of his face.

Julia stopped chewing, raised her brows and looked at Thomas.

“Oh, I know what love is and what I feel isn’t love. It is more like Jeffery puts up with me.”

When the waitress came, Thomas ordered a sandwich and then winced. High-pitched screams had come from across the room. Two young girls were fighting over the syrup bottle.

The waitress snarled, “Its Kids Eat Free day at Harking.” She put her hand on her hip and looked around. “We supply the food, you supply the environment. This is what I put up with every Tuesday.” She grabbed the menu from the table and was off.

“Have you talked to Jeffery about all this?” Thomas continued where Julia left off.

“Oh, yeah. He says he doesn’t understand what I am talking about. He says he loves me. He says he goes to work every day to provide for us and then comes home to me. It’s nice that he takes care of things but that isn’t what I mean by being loved. I need more.

And, when I ask Jeffery, he says he isn’t thinking of someone else when we make love. But, how can I be sure?”

Thomas looked out the window and thought. “I really don’t want to go there, do I?”  After some long slow chewing he looked at Julia and asked. “Do you think of someone else when you make love with Jeffery?”

“Sometimes. I mean, it’s just women’s fantasy stuff, you know? Paperback novel chick flick stuff, not real guys.”

Thomas pressed her.  “But, do you think of Jeffery when, you know…?”

After a long silence between bites, Julia said, “In a way I guess. It’s hard for me to visualize him when I’m not sure he’s thinking of me.

“You say that as if you know what Jeffery thinks.”

“Jeffery’s a guy. You know how guys are.”

“Tell me.

“Did I tell you that my father was never around because of his sales job?”

“Yes, the last time we talked.”

“Mom told me countless times that she couldn’t count on dad except for his paycheck.”

“Jeff is home for you at night. Do you take advantage of that?”

“I want him to sit with me and watch TV. He likes to go into the garage and work on his car.”

“Maybe, you two should find something you enjoy together. Take a mind reading class together.”

“Yeah, right. It wouldn’t take a mind reader to see that I like certain things a certain way. Isn’t that why he married me – to take care of me? In any case I don’t see him changing. Talking with him hasn’t changed anything. I don’t think he listens to me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He’s distant, like he doesn’t know how to respond. Maybe he just doesn’t want to be bothered.”

Julia grabbed her purse and got up from the table.

“I’m going to grab a smoke. I’ll be right back.”

Thomas looked down at his half-eaten sandwich. He wondered if this conversation would finish him off.

After several minutes, Julia returned.

“There’s this guy outside,…Bill. He is having the same thing going on in his marriage. He doesn’t feel loved by his wife. He says his wife doesn’t understand him. We have a lot in common.”

Thomas, hoping to change the subject, asked Julia how her telemarketing job was going.

Julia was quick to reply. “Try selling something that people don’t want over the phone. They don’t know you and you are trying to get them to take a credit card offer and one with a 26 percent finance charge. I don’t like manipulating people.”

Thomas choked on his ice tea and covered his mouth with his napkin. He set the glass down on the table.

Julia continued. “Maybe Jeffery thinks he is better than me. Maybe he is better than me. Maybe that is why he doesn’t love me. He must think that I am not worthy of his love.”

“Didn’t you say he brought you flowers the other day?”

“He did. The flowers…I need more than the thought behind it, you know? So, I have a weekend planned for us. I made a reservation at a resort for this weekend.”

“Jeff never mentioned that to me when I saw him yesterday.”

“Oh, he doesn’t know yet. I’ll tell him tonight and see how he responds. If he balks, well…that will tell me everything.”

The waitress came with the check.

“Here”, Thomas offered, “let me pay. I read your mind.” Thomas grabbed her check off the table.

“Thanks.”

Julia’s phone rang. “Hi Liz. Yeah, let’s get together and talk. See you at Lou’s in about an hour.” Julia ended the call.

“Oh, before I go Thomas, I have to tell you about my dream last night.”

“There’s no sense holding anything back at this point,” Thomas said with a wink.

“I was on the platform at the Metra station. There was a large clock above me. Jeffery was somewhere inside the station paying for our tickets. A conductor leaned out the door of the train and asked me, “How can you be sure?” I looked around for Jeffery and then saw my mother. She told me, “You can’t count on tickets, kiddo.

Then the train started moving, I looked backed for Jeffery and saw my dad. He was the conductor. Then I went through a turnstile and boarded the train alone. I sat down next to a fortune-teller and I asked, “Where are we going?”  She said, “If you don’t know where you are going any train will take you there.” And then I woke up.”

“Someone is reading your mind.” Thomas put his tongue in his cheek.

Julia pulled her compact from her purse and checked her look. She then got up from the table.

“Thanks Thomas for…” Julia pointed a swirling finger at the table. “Gotta go.”

Thomas stood up. “You know where I can be found.” But, Julia had already walked out the door.

“Or, maybe not.”

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

Never My Love

 

The first day of Junior High School Darren left his house and found the end of the “stand quietly” line waiting for him. That is where he put the French horn case down. On the walk to school the bell of the case had banged his left leg. The pain in his shin reminded him that his band director, who liked to tap out tempo on his head, had decided that Darren would play French horn and not his trumpet. “We need French horn players,” said Mr. Palmer, the Jr. High band director. And, when Darren sat second chair behind first chair Diane in the horn section he became aware of his loss.

As Darren walked from class to class that first day he looked around and began to wonder: “What am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to wear or even say? What are troll dolls?” Juan, who was in most of the same classes as Darren, would fill him.

“Look, if you are a greaser you wear all black.” Juan fell back into his chair so that Darren could see. Sure enough. Juan wore black pants, a black shirt, a black leather jacket that never came off, black pointed shoes and the telltale sign of all greaserhood – black socks.

“Look.” Juan pointed to Bill across the room. “That is a climber. He wears white socks and does sports. Sometimes climbers wear paisley shirts. They are freakin’ flowery.”

Darren now knew the social code but wasn’t sure what he was. With Juan being in most of the same classes he decided that day that he should be a greaser. So, that night he told his mom he needed lots of black socks and plain “No flowers” shirts. He wanted Juan and one teacher to like him.

Darren’s seventh-grade Spanish teacher was a larger than life blonde who, Darren thought, must have noticed that Darren was in her class. After all, someone with shocking red-orange hair stood out. Newly purchased hair goop would put in check his cowlick.

Darren learned his Spanish verbs and infinitives. He learned Spanish adjectives as fast as he could. He needed no incentive. To speak the Romance language in class invoked a passion he had never felt before. “Señorita, eres hermosa!” Darren would daydream his devotion to her.

Geography class offered a different topology. Mrs. Foley contained significant geography on her person. Unmercifully, the kids would snicker, “Fatty Foley,” under their breaths. Then uncontrollable giggling would ensue until the yard stick smacked the bulletin board.

In the halls, between periods, notes were passed and looks connected. If you received a note from a third party that meant that someone wanted to go steady with you. That is what Juan told Darren. So, when Darren received his first note he was at once terrified and curious. He did not know what “going steady” meant. He wasn’t going to ask Juan and look stupid. The black socks kept Darren from doing any such thing.

It wasn’t till lunch period that day that Darren unraveled the note and read it. Therein, he found out that Mary K liked him and wanted to go steady. Mary K played first chair flute in the band. Darren became filled with dread as he thought about going to band rehearsal after lunch. He had no response or “going steady” in him. When the bell rang he went to rehearsal pretending that he hadn’t gotten the note. But the pretense didn’t last long.

Mary stared at Darren from her chair. The girls around her were giggling. Darren felt his face become lobster red. He could do nothing about it except hide behind the music stand and empty the spit out of his horn tubes.

After practice Mary waited for Darren at the bottom of the risers. As she waited Darren took every single tube off his French horn and blew through each one slowly. Then he began to polish the horn never looking up. When the next period bell rang he looked up over the stand and there was Mary.

“Will you walk me home after school? Mary asked.

“Sure, I guess, sure.” Darren then rushed off to shop class leaving Mary and her gaggle of friends.

Later, not sure of what was coming next, Darren gathered up his homework, shut his locker and picked up his horn. He waited at the main entrance not knowing when Mary was done with her classes. She appeared twenty minutes later.

“Hey, I’m ready.” Mary looked at Darren and the two left the building.

Darren had no idea where Mary lived. He had no idea if this walk meant that he was “going steady.” He didn’t say anything in case her liking him would change. The walk took them across town.

“If you have a ring I will wear it,” Mary said as they neared her house. Darren had no ring. He had black socks.

“Yeah, OK, right,” Darren replied and said, “See you tomorrow.”

By now Darren’s arm shoulders and arms were aching. Carrying the horn across town had worn them out. He took his time getting home. At home, he reassured himself, no one was to know about this. He couldn’t explain it anyway. And, there was his hunger to take care of.

The next day, Darren found his way to his first period English class and to his seat. Juan was already there in the seat behind him.

“Hey, are you going steady with a climber girl?”

“What?”

“Mary is a cheerleader, man.”

“How would I know that?” With that Darren turned to the front of the class and hoped he never had to go steady again. But then again, he did like it, in a greaser kind of way.

 

Between second and third period class Darren received another note. This time it was a direct note from another Mary – Mary E.  Mary E was also in the band. She played clarinet.

Band rehearsal loomed on the horizon, 12:30 that day. There was no escaping this “going steady” business. And now there was a decision to be made – Mary or Mary or feign strep throat coming on.

At 12:30 Darren walked into the band room and over to his chair. There was another note. It was right on his stand. “Now what?”, he quietly muttered. When he did, Diane looked over at him. The note was from Diane. She wanted to go steady.

The “going steady” madness continued for Darren throughout seventh and eighth grade. His arms never stopped aching. It was no relief to learn that girls in Junior High School were fickle and flighty, especially if you didn’t give them a ring. No matter. The black socks remained a social staple for Darren.

During the summer after eighth grade graduation, Darren tried out for the High School Concert Band. He played all the major and minor scales so flawlessly on his new B Bach trumpet that Mr. Gies awarded him first chair. The trumpet had been a graduation gift from Darren’s father who must have known what “going steady” meant.

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Dreamer

 

Charles pulled open the door to the Gravity Pub and went in. The near campus bar was dark and full of conversation coming from TVs and crowded tables. Charles found Dimitri and sat down next to him at the bar. The bartender placed two beers and two shot glasses in front of Dmitri and Charles. The bartender returned to fill the shot glasses with vodka. Dimitri placed a twenty on the bar and the bartender made change. “To respect!” Charles toasted. The two drank down the shots.

“Congratulations Charles.” Dimitri gave Charles a slap on the back. “Now that you have a master’s degree in social justice, the world is your oyster, as they say.

“So far the world is my headache.  I have received no job offers since graduating.”

“Give it time.  Here, let’s have another shot”, Dimitri offered and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the bar.

After two beers and several shots of vodka, Charles stood up next to Dimitri and pointed a finger in the air above him.

“My friend, for too long the one perthent have exploited tax loopholes making them richer. The rich are taking their wealth and all of the income and moving their profits overseas making the poor pay the bills. Their gain is our sthruggle!”

Conversations in the room stopped.

“Sit down tiger”, Dimitri pulled on Charles jacket, “These jokers already heard all this stuff.”

“I’ll not sleep until income inequality is error…radicated.”

“Give it time.  Here, let’s have another shot”, Dimitri placed two twenty-dollar bills on the bar. He told the bartender that he was ready to settle their bill.

Charles sat down again. He looked despondent. After an hour he said goodnight to Dimitri.

Charles pushed open the door to the Gravity Pub and went out. The brisk night air in his lungs made him yawn. Looking up at a sodium streetlight he proclaimed, ” A mather’s dugree…now maybe I’ll get some re…thpect …Joe …he rethpects me… I gave him a two dollar thip!” Charles stood colorless under the yellow light proclaiming to passing cars his grand achievement.

After some time, Charles made his way home. He plunked down on the futon in the basement. He tried to remember how he got home. His thoughts were not working in any order. He lay down. His eyes, heavy with sleep, closed. The room settled down, became dark and then a large room opened before him. A room with chandeliers. A room with a large audience. The audience was looking at him. There were cries of “Speech! Speech!”

“Friends, today is a good day for the world. You have recognized my worth. I want to eradicate inequality…for too long the rich have stuffed their mattresses with wealth. The rich have the entire world’s money and their trickle down has never worked. When the rich get richer, the middle-class doesn’t benefit. No, the rich stash their cash. They buy trinkets. Their money was made on the backs of underpaid workers. Automation technology destroys the working class…Save the …”

In the next moment, a man in a tux looped a medal around Charles neck. It was the Nobel Prize. The audience stood to their feet applauding. And then a white figure with a halo came toward him. Inga was bringing him roses. As he reached for them he found himself in a ballroom dancing with Inga. She asked him, “What are you going to do with all that money?”

“I will buy a drum set. Yes, I will buy a drum set!”

“Charles, wake up.” Mick, Charles’ younger brother, thumped Charles on the head with his forefinger.

“Ow! Wh…what do you want?”

“You were talking in sleep. Hey, can I borrow a dollar?  I will pay you back with my allowance.

“Aw, go away. My head hurts. Bring me aspirin and some water.”

“Aw, go away.

 

A week later Charles met Dimitri at Gravity.

“We’ll have another beer, Joe.”

Joe the bartender set the beer in front of Charles and Dimitri. Charles looked at him and asked, “Joe, how much do you make?’

“I make enough to take care of my wife and two daughters.”

“I mean how much do you make?

“I make minimum wage plus tips. This is a second job.”

“See what I am saying Dmitri? The greedy one percent has drained this man of his humanity.”

Joe gave Charles a puzzled look and walked away.

“Those rich greedy bastards. Those fat cats hoard money in Swiss banks.  Wait till the world sees what I can do to make things right! I have no patience for the rich. Who are they to have so much when Joe has so little?

“See that framed dollar on the wall”. Leon pointed to a 4 x 6” frame above the liquor bottles, “I will frame the first dollar I take from a rich man.”

At that moment Charles phone rattled on the bar. He picked up the phone and saw that this mother had called. He pushed 1 and his mom’s number was dialed.

“Mom, what is it?”

“Several boxes arrived today for you. What are they?”

“It’s a drum set. I’m gonna play drums in a band.”

“You are also going to start paying rent to stay here.”

“Mom, not this again. I need to pay off my student loan. I have no job. The rich have made it almost impossible for people like me.  And why should I work for minimum wage when I have a Master’s Degree? Look how much I have invested in myself.”

“You have to start somewhere. Your dear departed father worked for fifty years so that you and I had a roof over our head. He wouldn’t want you to be a leech. Now, either you pay rent or you are out. Get home now and get these boxes out of the living room.”

“Mom, I’ll talk to you later.”  Charles ended the call.

“Dmitri, can you buy me one more beer and shot?’

“Sure. Trouble at home?”

“Ah, my mother wants me to pay rent. As if I was made of money.”

The bartender placed two beers and two shot glasses in front of Dmitri and Charles. He returned to fill the shot glasses with vodka. Dimitri placed a twenty on the bar and the bartender made change.

The two raised their shot glasses. Charles toasted to the end of the oppression and they drank. When the beer was gone Charles stood up.

“I better get going before my mother has a conniption fit. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Charles walked out. Pushing open the door to the Gravity Pub he went into the night air yawing.

At home Charles moved the boxes down to the basement. He opened them and checked the contents. When he couldn’t stop yawning he lay down on the futon and closed his eyes.

In the descending blackness he came upon daylight. He saw himself outside his mother’s car in front of a store.  The car was running and the car keys were locked inside. His Nobel medal hung around the rear view mirror. Frantic, he looked around for help. His professor came by and said, “You shouldn’t have done that”. A politician walked by and said “Someone will come along to help, trust me”. A man in a Mercedes pulled up and said. ”Hey I’ve got just the thing you need.” The man opened his trunk and pulled out a Slim Jim. The man proceeded to unlock the door through the car window’s weather stripping. When the door opened the radio blurted out, ”Mama may have, papa may have, But God bless the child that’s got his own, That’s got his own.”

Charles opened his eyes, winced and held his head. “Damn”, he moaned, his mother was playing her music again.

As years went by, Charles went on to become a respected professor of Social Justice at his alma mater. After tenure Charles received a six-figure salary. He summers in Costa Rica where he gives lectures about the one percent and income inequality. He went on to write “Structural Marginalization, Social Justice and Solidarity Action for the Education Challenged”. The book was well-received by his peers but did not sell in the open market. Soon after the book release Charles became the owner of Gravity Pub. Dimitri went on to start a hedge fund that gave away fifty percent of its profits. Charles’ mother died in her home with an unused drum set.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Origin of the Habitable Zone

 

The Origin of the Habitable Zone

 

the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b. Credit: ESO, M. KORNMESSER

the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b. Credit: ESO, M. KORNMESSER

Behold and look attentively upon…

 

Ten years. That is what it takes. It takes ten years to travel to Alpha Centauri’s Proxima b at 45% light speed in a Bema Nano StarCraft. Of course, one goes to an exoplanet to get away. And that is what my father did twenty years ago after my mother passed. For the last ten years Proxima b’s Decider Colony – the settlement was named Decider Colony by my dad after he declared, “Once you have decided to come you don’t look back” – has provided research data and food and shelter for those who are completing their “bucket list”.

Dad joined the first eXoCrew to Alpha Centauri AB as a researcher. The crew, deployed with detectors specifically tuned to wavelengths corresponding to molecules found in earth’s atmosphere such as water, methane, oxygen and ozone, found these elements in comparable amounts on Proxima b, a planet slightly larger than earth and which orbits in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri. When the crew also found nothing that would disrupt the equilibrium of the habitable zone they set about terraforming.

When dad said his goodbyes I asked him if he would be lonely on Proxima. He answered, “I have my research and my smokes. Maybe, when I am happy again, I’ll be lonely. Finish your doctorate, Penny, and then join me.” Dad hugged me, kissed my forehead and then drove off.

After submitting my dissertation, “The 21st Century Religion of Climate Change:  Oracles, Inquisition, Denier Extirpation and Crusades,” I needed to get away, far away, as I was no longer welcome at home. A tenure-track faculty position would not be in the offing and I could not see myself teaching anyway. So, I applied to the Interplanetary Research and Terraforming Inaugurating Consortium (IRTIC) for the position of Lead Argo-Chemist on the Centauri Project Team. My application was processed overnight.

I received my commission to go to Proxima b the next day. I was told that I would go as a settler-researcher, just as my father had done ten years earlier with IRTIC. I was glad. Now I could go where I would feel welcome. In Chicago, I was all alone. My mom died when I was six. Dad was the only family I had left. Friends, you ask? There is Ruth of Ruth’s Restaurant and Refinery. She knew my mother. Ruth met mom when Ruth came to Chicago on a business trip. So, my journey to Proxima will be a sort of coming home.

When you travel for ten years you have plenty of time to study. I studied Proxima b and found out that the exoplanet is about seven million kilometers from its star, Proxima Centauri. Its orbit is twenty-one times smaller than earth’s orbit. This has Proxima sitting on its star’s doorstep. Any solar hiccups, flares, or coronal mass ejections are likely to hit Proxima b head on. Settler beware!

I also exercised every day for ten years. Living in a micro-g environment impacts the body in three ways: loss of position-movement sensation – you don’t know what your limbs are up to, changes in fluid distribution, and deterioration of the musculoskeletal system. Space traveler beware!

On Proxima b one has to get used to the fact there is no night and day. Light and dark are locational. So, you must to travel back and forth, light side, dark side, light side, dark side… to simulate earth’s 24-hour cycle. And, get ready for this:  The planet is so close to its red dwarf host star that it is tidally locked into an orbital eccentricity of 0. This means that one side of Proxima constantly faces the host star, a red dwarf sun, a blazing orb that looks huge in the sky and is exceedingly hot. The other side – the star side – is dark and cold to the other extreme. Along the terminator line, between light and dark, hot and cold, lies a moderate zone where Decider Colony is. One good thing: under the zone’s constant cloud cover, Proxima b retains water. One bad thing: I do too.

 

Once on Alpha Centauri’s Proxima b I headed to my dad’s cabin near the Tuomi Ocean. Tuomi is just three clicks off of Limbo Line Highway and only 1.295762111 parsecs from my home on the west side of Chicago, in case you wanted to know. Not far from my dad’s cabin is Charis City the home of Ruth’s flagship restaurant.

The colony and the cabin are just over on the dark side of Proxima b since no one could handle the extreme light or heat on the star side. For our light and power, wind turbines provide electrical energy. Fierce stellar winds blowing across the ubiquitous mountain ranges propel the turbines.

Proxima is a jagged, rocky place.  The kind of place you read about in science fiction or see in space movies. I brought my repelling gear for climbing when I’m not walking on star dust at the beach.  The cabin is within a narrow cove surrounded by the Nearing Cliffs. It is protected from the ferocious winds, which howl across the tops of the cliffs a mile above sounding like a thousand wolves in chorus.

Dad, a hobby fisherman, uses VR goggles to go fishing on Tuomi Ocean. When he wrote to me years ago he told me that he has a hologram of a fish he caught in his library. He also told me that he had plenty cans of reconstituted fish in the kitchen. I made it clear to dad that I would prefer to eat at Ruth’s Restaurant and Refinery where the food is superb and fresh.

How is it possible on Proxima b to offer fresh meals? Only Ruth knows and she will only say that she is thankful that she can. And, another thing I wonder about.  Some say that Ruth has been here forever. When asked about this she tells them, “I’ve been here as long as I can remember.” All I know is that if her restaurant here on Proxima b is like the one at home in Chicago, then there will be a sign above her cash register which offers, “Ask about our daily special.”

 

When I arrived at the cabin Dad was very happy to see me but above his smile was a look of sadness in his eyes. A couple of nights later I looked out the front door and saw dad sitting on the front porch step. He was staring at the burning point of his cigarette.

“Penny, come out on the porch and join me.”

I sat down next to dad.

“Wow, look at those stars, dad. They talk about light pollution on earth.  Chicago has so many lights you can’t see stars.”

“Yeah, I remember.”  This”, dad pointed to the sky, “is one of eleven panoramas. One year on Proxima is eleven days, so the night sky changes every day.”

“Whoa, age before beauty, here.”

I could see dad smile.

“What were you thinking about just now, dad?”

Dad flicked his cigarette and took a deep breath, “Well, when I was younger I would look at the night sky just like tonight. I would imagine myself as a meteor, blazing across the sky, every atom in me a magnificent glow and that would someday I burn out in a ball of fire. I did not want to be snuffed out by dry-rot existence. I wanted my end to ashes and not accumulated dust. That’s one reason why I came to Proxima. But, there is something I haven’t told you that I’m not proud of.

Back home I was asked to change some data – climate data. I was told that I was a rising star in the scientific community and that I would receive tenure if I papers concurred with my university peers. I saw no harm in doing it. I figured the change would just make people concerned about the environment. And, with tenure I could afford your education at the university.

Well, about a six months later, I was asked again to change another set of numbers. I did and then I received tenure just like they said I would. I was young. My attitude was “Either you are virtuous or you enjoy yourself but you can’t be both.”

But then the bribes started coming. I said no and kept saying no but the pressure was incredible. They showed up at the house. They threatened to hurt your mother if I didn’t agree.  Then…I don’t if I should call it fate or bad luck or…It was during that time your mother came down with cancer.  So I saw my chance to leave the university and the whole mess. I stayed home with her till the end.  After that I joined IRTIC hoping for a chance to leave all this behind.”

“Wow. I don’t know what to say. I could have used your experience in my dissertation.  Anyway, I’m glad we are together and all that is behind you.

“When you get piled on, you just shrug it off and move on,” Dad put out his cigarette, thought for a second and then turned to Penny

“When I die, Penny, I hope to go to a better place–whatever that is–and I want to be able to afford the price of admission.”

“What you need right now, dad, is a piece of cherry pie.  C’mon dad, let’s go to Ruth’s for lunch.”

“No thanks. Not interested.”

“Why?  The food is good.”

“Meh. My parents took me to one of Ruth’s restaurants a long time ago. I didn’t like the food and the place gave me the creeps.  Later, your mother took me there once. I found out I couldn’t smoke inside – the manager told me to go outside. After that everything I tasted there was bland. And, what’s with that sign she has hanging everywhere –“Spreading life and beauty throughout the universe? There is no beauty ‘cept these stars and I see tooth and claw in them too.”

“I’ve wondered about that sign myself.  Let’s go ask about it.”

“No thanks. I’d rather eat my own food then go and pay for something I don’t like.”

“I’ll buy dad.”

“No thanks kid. I’m old and set in my ways. You go and have fun. I have some fish to catch.”

 

I poked my head inside the restaurant door. “Hi Ruth, how’s things at Ruth’s Restaurant?”

“Come in and see, Penny. Would you like some Black Tea?”

“Yes. And, I’ll have the salad with Green Pastures Dressing.”

“Coming right up.”

Ruth returned and placed the tea cup in front of me. She poured the fragrant tea.

I looked up, “I am still getting used to the idea that plant life on Proxima is black and not green.”

“All my customers say that but they come back for more. The dressing helps them get it down.”

“I’m going to bring some home to my father.”

“Do you think he’ll like it? I haven’t seen him around here.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve tried to get him to come. Oh, and he wanted to know what that meant.”  Penny pointed to the sign over the kitchen.

Spreading life and beauty throughout the universe? Why that means exactly what it says. You see, I am not only a chef and a restaurateur. I am an artist, too. I create collages out of things which had former value. I reclaim broken and discarded things, rework them and make them into works of art. And, I have my refinery. I refine rare precious metals found on the seven exoplanets. Those seven planet ores are not found on earth. When refined they make the most excellent necklaces, rings, bracelets and even crowns. “

“Crowns?”

“Why yes. I have seven planets and I have appointed seven kings. I made a crown for each one.”

I looked around. “I don’t see any collages or crowns.”

“Wait one second.” Ruth left and returned with a bottle of red wine and a glass. “Here, this is my house red. Take a sip.” Ruth poured the wine.

I held the wine glass up to the light. The dark ruby-red wine had a mineral aroma that reminded me not of a flavor but of a time. What was that memory? I drank it down. It was warm in my throat.

“What do you see now?”

“I…I see collages, of people… made of collages and their eyes are like jeweled sunlight!”

I saw that all the faces in the restaurant were turned towards Ruth.

I looked up at Ruth. “I need to sit down.”

“Penny, you are sitting. Now, I’ve also been known to refine people’s taste buds.” Ruth smiled. “So, eat up.”

 

I came home not sure what I had just seen and desperately wanting to tell my father about it. But dad was not around. His bedroom was empty. I checked the kitchen. Empty fish tins lay in the sink.  The fish smell was so pungent that I threw the tins in the garbage, put the lid on and lit a candle. It was confirmed. Dad doesn’t smell things anymore.

Dad’s library door was always closed. I had never been in there. I knocked and there was no answer. So I entered.  What I saw could be described as a “Hemmingway hangout.” On a credenza was a hologram of dad’s favorite fish – the walleye. On the lamp table next to his reading chair was a worn copy of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and an open copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. A half-gone bottle of thirty-year-old scotch was on a shelf behind the desk along with a framed picture of mom and a mug from Last Ounce Bar and Grill. On his desk were an ash tray, several photographs of Ana Nill, dad’ girlfriend on Proxima and his VR goggles. Dad wouldn’t have gone fishing without his VR goggles.

I turned around. On the wall above the shelf was a framed quote.

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.” ― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I left the library not sure what I had just seen and desperately wanting to ask my father about it.

The front door banged open. In stumbled Ana with dad under her arm. Dad was shivering uncontrollably.

“What happened?

“The boat capsized. It shouldn’t have happened.” Dad’s teeth chattered as he spoke.

“You could have gotten hypothermia, dad.”

“I’m good at this. It shouldn’t have happened.” Dad fell to the floor.

 

After dad’s accident, the day finally came, two weeks later in fact, when dad relented and agreed to come to Ruth’s restaurant.  Dad, angrier over the accident than concerned for his own safety came to see that something had to change…. with a lot of my pleading.

 

Ruth’s Restaurant and Refinery on Proxima b is unlike anything else in the universe. When you arrive the first thing you notice is a large cornerstone made of Substantium, an element found in only one place in the universe – you can guess where. It sits at the right hand corner foundation of the restaurant. Emitted out of its four sides and at right angles are red lasers – coherent light beams. The four perpendicular lasers provide direction plots of the universe like four surveyor’s transit theodolites. And when those on a space quest comes across one of the four laser beams he or she will know how to find the Origin of the Habitable Zone, so I’m told.

And I am also told that at the opposite corner of the square building are several more laser lights. Three beams are directed toward the night sky. The color of the three beams change within a visible spectrum as if in rhythm to some ancient song. The beams, though infinite in their trajectory, also appear to hover in an ever-widening circle. The corner’s other stream of monochromatic coherent light is directed toward Ruth’s metal working refinery directly behind the restaurant. There, the refocused light is used to work precious metals.

 

“Welcome. I have a booth for you over here.” Ruth led us over to a sky booth.

There are no windows in the walls of Ruth’s Restaurant but there is a vast skywindow above the booths and tables. The candlelit room feels like it is slowly moving but that feeling is due to Proxima’s eleven-day-year rotation of constellations.  Three lights, those three lights, dance in front of the stellar panorama. We are eating in an observatory.

I asked, for my dad, “Ruth, did you know my mom?’

“Yes. She came to my Chicago restaurant often. She spoke of both of you.” Ruth sat down across from dad and poured him some wine.

I was soon surprised. I heard dad tell Ruth what he had told me on the porch one night.

“I was wrong to fudge those numbers. I didn’t have 4.6 billion years of data to review. And I wasn’t sure where the supplied temperature data came from, if it was reliable. I was told to use the data and that it would likely fit the profile of adverse climate change due to CO2.”

“Then I’d come home every night feeling like more and more of me was being negated. I couldn’t tell your mother, Penny, out of fear of government reprisals. But later I had to.” Dad dropped his head. “Your mom, waiting for me to come home every night, watched TV. I would come in the door and find her very agitated and concerned about what she was seeing. I soon found why when I was forced to attend the Interfaith Theosophist Climate Conference in Paris.”

“There I learned that the state controlled Climate Channel ran ITCC approved videos of weather catastrophes in order to frighten people into embracing environmental justice. The conference speakers, of course, never used the words “frighten or alarm.” They used “motivate and encourage.” The 24/7 programming ran Viral Weather –special effects video of ice melting and seas rising, floods destroying homes, displaced-looking polar bears, erosion and mud slides, on and on. And all the disasters would be connected to anthropological causation. Viral Weather never showed pastoral scenes or farmland with crops or any of the life-sustaining effects of CO2. And Global Cable never showed on any channel the hellish wars on earth that were started over global climate control.”

Ruth lifted dad’s head. “Following the Time of Enlightenment men began to put function before form, utilitarianism over being. The objective “what” was given preeminence over the subjective “why.” Later, many people rejected life expressed without significance. Some looked to nature and the protection of the environment for the “why” of their lives, to fulfill their need for meaning. Soon, though, their well-intentioned drive to reclaim what was lost converted into a religion with a “save the planet” mission and a Malthusian dogma when impassioned demands for certain outcomes were met with resistance. In turn, any dis-belief in climate change was met with hostility by the environmentalists.”

“A coordinated global crusade was begun by the environmentalists, who became collectively known as New Age Dominionists. The Dominionists campaigned to have the environment legally protected from mankind. Under their influence nation states passed laws and the UN passed resolutions that made humans – their methods, their mechanisms and their manufacturing – subject to nature. Of course this meant that humans would become subject to data and again to the “what” in order to stop Global Climate Change.”

“The situation on earth is now dire. In the last ten years meaningless climate data had been fed into quantum computers. The quantum computers fed AI into Malthus Qubots and Malthus Qubot AI became a singularity. After that the Malthus Qubots unleashed themselves to destroy mankind in order to save the planet.”

Ruth put her hand on dad’s. “Now, my Proximinian ears perk up when I hear the truth and I heard you tell the truth just now. Yes, you were wrong. The people of Earth need truth.  Worthless data will always be behind man’s desire to reduce everything to an interplay of power and resources. When the Qubots with their AI singularity took over earth they only saw matter to be mastered. Man had relinquished everything of value to obtain control of air or vanity, as we say here on Proxima b. Nothingness will destroy everything in its path if you let it. And now, not for nothing, I forgive you.”

At that moment two guys from the next booth came over to our booth. They wore dark suits with cardinal red SSICCA insignias. They were from the Secular See Interstellar Climate Control Authority.

The taller man with a patch over one eye started. “We heard what you said. You are coming with us. You will face trial on your way back to earth. A special Qubot tribunal has been appointed to punish deniers and flagrant violators of Environmental Justice.”

“I…I left earth and came to Proxima b so that I wouldn’t li…so that I wouldn’t say what I couldn’t.”

The sweaty and squat bald agent pulled on dad’s arm.  “Get up. You have some papers we need you to write.”

Ruth placed herself head-on between the agents and dad.

“This is my place. You have no jurisdiction in here. You’ve had your meal now go.”

“We’ll be waiting right outside.” The two men sneered at dad and then walked out the door.

“I guess this is goodbye Penny.”

“Hold on.” Ruth turned and walked over to another table.

Dad turned to me. “Sorry kid. My past has caught up with me. It looks like the meteor has become a wad of paper.”

Ruth returned to the table. Dad looked up.

“Penny says that your food is the best. I should have come here sooner.”

“Well, come back tomorrow then.”

“You know I can’t. Those two goons are going to cart me off forever.”

“No they won’t. I talked to the seven princes of the seven planets.” Ruth pointed to a table where seven men were sitting. “They are the Society Against Nihilistic Causation Terrestrial Authority (SANCTA). They will escort those two to the East-West Mining Company’s automated starship, the Tierra del Fuego, where they will be put to work feeding coal into a blast furnace. The mining barge goes back and forth throughout an alternate universe smelting ore deposits it finds. They will be busy for a long time.”

“Oh, thank you Ruth.” My dad fell to his knees. He clung to Ruth crying.

Ruth lifted him up, gave him a hug and then handed him a signet ring. “Here is your new identity. Safeguard it.”

Dad looked at the ring. Engraved on its face was a name in Proximanian, one he couldn’t pronounce.

“And, I want you to join SANCTA. Here, you will need these goggles.”

“What is this? I have VR goggles.”

“These are UR goggles – Ultimate Reality goggles. You’ll see better when you go fishing.”

Dad fell back into the booth limp.

“You look exhausted.” Ruth motioned to a waiter, “Bring them some warm bread. I will bring the wine. It’s time to celebrate. You two won’t need these menus.” Ruth picked them up. “ You’d like the special of the day.”

“Ruth, what is the special of the day?” dad asked.

“I’ve already paid for your meal.”

 

 

 

 

 

©Sally Paradise, 2016, All Rights Reserved

The Walnut Tree

 

The Walnut Tree

walnut-tree-bark

 

“I’m sorry. I said what I said because of what you said.”

“What?”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have said what you said.”

“I apologized. I said I was wrong to say that. Your apology…”

“I apologized for what I said. Take it or leave it.”

“The apologies are not the same.”

“They aren’t because of what you said,” Leah countered.

Elliot stuck the key in the front door lock and asked, “Can we put this behind us?”

“If you do.”

 

Elliot unlocked the door and let Leah and the kids into the house that was once the home of a chicken farmer in 1898. The house had been built in West Linden Oaks, a town founded along the railroad expansion west of Chicago. Over the years the patchwork two-story house had gained additions that sellers would call “charming” and that contractors would call “nightmarish”. The last owners had neglected the backyard. A hodge-podge of prairie grass, crabgrass and bare soil framed by overgrown shrubs was the view from the kitchen sink window. The back third of the yard was dark as it was overshadowed by a 50-foot-tall walnut tree.

Surveying the yard the day after Elliot and Leah took possession of the house, Elliot imagined a garden and wondered about the walnut tree. The soil beneath its canopy was ink black and nothing was growing.

“Hi Neighbor.” The almost whispered greeting had come from the other side of the garage. Elliot looked around the corner of the garage. There at the fence he saw an old man with grey hair and a frame that was tilted forward.

“That tree has been here as long as I have. Hi neighbor, I’m Bud.”

“Hi, I’m Elliot.”

“I was born and raised and married and now retired in that house, “Bud pointed over his shoulder to his two-story white house. “I saw lightning hit your tree in ’63. Lightening must like those deep-rooted types.

“I wouldn’t plant cabbage, peppers, tomatoes or blueberries over there,” he said pointing to the shaded area under the walnut tree. “I’d move the garden to the middle of the yard past the tree’s root system. That tree’s fruit falls to the ground every year and the hulls poison the soil with juglone which is toxic to certain plants. Juglone protects the tree to assure its survival. So, you’ll want to plant away from the dripline which is from the trunk to the end of the branches. The soil will be toxic under the dripline. And if you want the nutmeat from the walnut for a walnut pie, then you had better wear gloves and protection to get it out its husk. The stain doesn’t come off. Time is the only thing that will wear the black pigment off of your hands. My stains are fading.” Bud showed Elliot his hands blotted hands. “My wife Gracie made some delicious walnut pies from those nutmeats.”

Looking over at Bud’s well-kept yard Elliot asked, “How do you know so much about all this?”

“I worked for the Department of Streets and Sanitation here in the village for forty-one years. My eyes began giving me a problem and my back, too. And then Gracie became ill. I planted a lot of trees over the years.”

 

When the first Sunday in their new home came around Elliot gave his son Ronny a shower and then got him dressed. He then helped his daughter Ribbon find some clean clothes at the bottom of her closet. “It’s almost time for church. You two finish up. I have to get dressed.” Elliot went to the master bedroom and found Leah dressing.

“I want to go to my grandmother’s next weekend,” Leah said.

“I…I have to play in the worship band next Sunday.”

“I knew you’d weasel out of it. I’ll take the kids. Grandma hasn’t seen them in months. She’s not happy that our kids aren’t raised Catholic.”

“My personal evangelism teacher Mr. Winslett back at the Midwest Institute of the Bible told me that Catholicism is a cult. They worship Mary he said. I believed it at the time. I was proud of being such a no-nonsense Protestant like Mr. W. But later, I thought it was better to have more Mary than less Mary in the church.”

“You haven’t heard anything yet. A priest came to my parent’s house one time to play cards. He left the game after gulping down his scotch to perform nine-o’clock Mass.”

“Do you think Mary would approve?”

“Well, she could count on him to show up.”

“Ah.”

“Grandma Dot says that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

“That may explain the hard-drinking priests. Your grandmother must have had a hard life. “

“Her husband had an affair with her sister after thirty-six years of marriage. Grandma would not forgive her sister. And then later my grandfather died from lung cancer.”

“Ouch. Hey. Look at the time. I have to set up the chairs before everyone gets there.”

“I have to get there early, too. I have to get things ready in the sacristy. What about the kids? They have to get ready, too.”

“I got them ready. They are downstairs chasing the dog around the dining room table.”

“Did you walk the dog?”

“Yes.”

“Did you feed the fish? Did you take the meat out of the freezer?”

“Yes.”

“Did you get them to brush their teeth?

“Yes.”

Five minutes later Leah and the kids were in the car. Leah blew the horn. Elliot was scrambling to find his blue tie. It had been moved. The car’s horn blew again. “We’re gonna be late,” Leah yelled from the front seat. “Leave it to your father to make us late.”

 

~~~

Dorothy Blacklock – Dot – lived in a house with bats on Hickory Boulevard. in Des Moines, Iowa. The rodents inhabited an upstairs bedroom behind a closed door. When Dot could no longer walk up the stairs she implored her family to remove the bats. The family felt she had enough money and time to deal with the matter. “Just call an exterminator,” they told her. “They’ll just take advantage of me and charge too much” Dot told them.

The first time Elliot met Dot he could see that was severely crippled with arthritis. Her spine had curled and become rigid over time. Her hands were gnarled, boney and stiff. The thumb and index finger of each hand acted like pincers. Elliot was struck by Dot’s yellow tinged leather-like face beneath a shock of white hair. A smoker for fifty years, deep furrowed lines, like gorges, flared from Dot’s tight pursed lips and from the corner of her watery eyes. She put away the oxygen tank when Elliot and Leah and the kids came over.

Day in and day out Dot occupied the coach in front of the TV set in the living room. She would eat breakfast – peanut butter on toast – watching the local news. She griped to her daughter on the phone when her neighbor down the street brought her the local paper after ten o’clock. She griped to her granddaughter on the phone about the erratic mail delivery times and “those Republicans.” After the evening news she slept on the couch.

On Saturdays Dot went to Mass with her neighbor Joyce. Joyce was an avid reader of Readers’ Digest. And that is where she found a quote from Hubert Humphrey that she shared with Dot one day on the way to Mass.

“It is not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.”

Dot snarled, “I can do nothing with a house full of bats.”

 

~~~

Later that Sunday afternoon there was a knock on the front door.

“Hi neighbor. Can you put these eye drops in for me? Gracie is not able to do it.” Bud stood at the door in bib overalls.”

“Sure. Sit on the bench.”

Bud ambled over to the porch bench and plopped down. Elliot walked over and stood in front of Bud. He carefully placed his hand on Bud’s forehead. As he did Bud leaned his head back. Elliot squeezed the dropper and a drop of glycerin fell onto Bud’s dilated pupil. Bud blinked several times. Elliot applied the drops to Bud’s left eye. Bud blinked and wiped the corners of his eyes. Bud looked around and said, “Thanks, neighbor. I need to do this once a week.”

“I’ll be here. Just knock.”

 

~~~

Leah’s mother and Dot’s daughter Scarlett Rand nee Scarlett Blacklock had married a Jesuit seminarian. This happened after Scarlett and Francis Rand had been seen together holding hands in their small town. Scarlett quickly divorced Leah’s father, considering him too plebeian for her purposes. Child support and the Church’s annulment of her marriage to Cliff would serve her higher calling.

Leah’s father never forgave Scarlett and Scarlett never seemed to give a damn about what anyone thought of her decision to defrock a seminarian and divorce her husband. When asked about the matter, Scarlett told seventeen-year-old Leah that she wasn’t committing adultery. “We’re just good friends. Francis is a spiritual man and your father doesn’t affirm me like Francis does.

 

~~~

Over the years the house would need many repairs. A new sewer drain pipe had to be laid out to the street. Tree roots had so choked the original line that sewage would backup and flood the basement with putrid black septic goo. A backhoe had to retrench and lay a new pipe. The marriage, too, needed a lot of work. At one point Leah demanded marriage counseling.

 

Psychologist Kasparov was a rotund man in his late fifties with large bags under his bloodshot eyes. He sat in a round chair in the middle of the room facing Elliot and Leah who sat on a love seat. “So, how can I help you two?’

“He doesn’t love me,” Leah shifted her legs and started the conversation.

“Elliot?”

“There is something going on that I don’t understand.”

“I see.”

“I can’t depend on him. I send him to the store to pick up eggs and milk and he comes back with eggs and cheese. And the other day he does the laundry without telling me. Now the kid’s clothes are gray. He shrunk them, too. I don’t feel listened to or valued when he screws up like this.”

“What do you want from Elliot?

“I want to depend on him. I should feel cherished and I don’t.”

“I see. Elliot, what do you want?”

“I want the confusion to end.”

 

Over the next several months when Elliot and Leah saw Kasparov Elliot had hoped that Leah would bring up her past. In the third year of their marriage Elliot learned from a drinking Leah that boyfriends and abortions were in her past and so were drugs and working for an escort service to pay for the drugs. Leah had never said a word about these things before their marriage. Leah never said a word about these things during the sessions with Kasparov. Elliot left those things for her to say. It was her responsibility. And, he didn’t want to divulge those things and make it look like he was blaming her for whatever the problem was.

“Do you love Leah, Elliot?

“I bring her chocolates and coffee to her bed in the morning before I go to work.”

“That is not enough. I don’t feel loved,” Leah interjected.

“I brought you to my church. You said you came to believe in Jesus one Sunday.”

“It was my decision. You had nothing to do with it.”

In a later session Elliot found out that Leah had called and talked at length to Kasparov. She had asked that he have a one on one session with Elliot to get the root of the problem.

 

Elliot met with Kasparov. Slumping down in the chair Elliot said that he was puzzled. “Leah isn’t happy and she is saying that I am the reason. I am just trying to maintain life as I know it for her and the kids. I don’t handle confusion well.” Kasparov suggested that Elliot see the clinic’s psychiatrist for an anti-depressant. Elliot made the appointment that day.

A week later Dr. Nutter greeted Elliot in the clinic’s waiting room. “C’mon in.” After twenty minutes of background talk Dr. Nutter wrote Elliot a script for Zollift. “Come back in a month let’s talk again.”

A month later and Elliot was sitting before Dr. Nutter with a look of resignation. “Leah is angry all the time. I don’t know why. Now she is telling our church friends that I am the problem in the marriage. I am at a loss. I don’t have the emotional resources to care anymore. Besides I am the only one working and paying for the counseling sessions. I have to go to work and think about work or else.”

 

Several months later Elliot sat down at his desk and tried to focus. The marriage counseling had ended when Leah demanded a separation. Elliot then found a two-bedroom apartment. Having to pay rent and the mortgage on the house was a weight on Elliot that crushed him. At his desk tears filled his eyes. Elliot went out to his car. He made a decision.

Elliot drove to the apartment and then called his boss. “I need some time off. I am dealing with some personal things.” His boss said “OK, how much time?” “A week, maybe two. I don’t know. I’ll call.” Elliot hung up the phone, his face wet with tears.

Six weeks ago Elliot had stopped taking the Zollift. It had made him feel lethargic and indifferent. Those feelings scared him. He wanted to care about his marriage and what was happening to his family. But he also knew that if he cared like he wanted to then he couldn’t do his work and if he didn’t do his work he couldn’t afford to take care of his family and pay for the mounting debt. He called Dr. Nutter’s emergency number.

“I want to go somewhere quiet. I am so depressed I can’t do anything. I feel paralyzed. I sit at my desk everyday crying. I want to care but I don’t want to care. I want to go somewhere where I’m not.”

“Do you think you will hurt yourself?”

“I don’t know. I have never been depressed before. It is getting worse every minute.”

“Go to Mercy Hospital emergency room. I will tell them you are coming. Is someone there who can drive you? “

“I am separated. I can drive.”

“When you get to the hospital you will be on suicide watch. I’ll sign the papers so you can be admitted to Three Oaks Mental Health Facility. The hospital will transport over you to Three Oaks.”

 

At Three Oaks Elliot received a physical. Then Dr. Val Camani interviewed Elliot. Elliot mentioned that he had stopped taking Zollift. “I didn’t like what it did to me. Now I’ve crashed.” Dr. Camani gave Elliot two Wellbuthen tablets and then sent Elliot off to bed.

The beds were like foamed slabs of concrete and Elliot couldn’t sleep. The patient in the next bed, Ivan Denisovich, snored and wheezed. A buzzing fluorescent light in the hallway emitted cold light into the door less room. Elliot talked to the night nurse and asked for a sleeping pill. Soon Elliot found his quiet place.

 

The patients in the mental health ward on the fifth floor were locked in. No one had a cell phone. On Tuesday night patients were allowed to use the hallway phone from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm. After waiting his turn Elliot called home. He wanted to make sure he kids were Ok and not worried about him.

“Where the hell are you?” Leah pounced.

“I’m at Three Oaks clinic. I needed to get away.”

“How are you going to pay for my cell phone bill in there? It is due Thursday.”

“I don’t know. Let me talk to Ribbon.”

“Dad?”

“Hi kiddo. I am OK. I just needed to get away to a quiet place. How are you doing?”

“OK.”

“Good is you brother there? I don’t have much time. I love you.

“Dad?”

“Hi buddy. I am OK. I just needed to get away to a quiet place. How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“Great. I’ll see you and Ribbon soon. Let me talk to mom. I love you.”

“Yes?”

“I am trying to get out of here as soon as I can. They gave me a different anti-depressant. The Zollift made me not care about anything. I hated it. I stopped taking it and I think that caused me to crash. I’m better now but I can’t leave until they say so.”

“You have some bills to pay. Why can’t I depend on you? I am going out with some friends on Friday night. You better get out and take the kids this weekend or I will be really pissed.”

“My time is up. I’ll see when I can get out of here. I’ll call Thursday night.”

 

Three Oaks released Elliot on Good Friday morning. He drove over to the house. Ronny and Ribbon were anxiously waiting for him. That night Elliot read Swiss Family Robinson to them before bed.

 

One day a year later Leah told Elliot, “I’ll give you one more chance.” So Elliot moved back into the house, not sure if anything had changed other than the amount of debt he owned.

 

On Elliot’s fiftieth birthday, Leah decided to give him sex. As they got themselves undressed Elliot asked, “Could you just wear that perfume I like.” Leah jumped out of bed, put on her robe and stormed out of the room.  “What was that about?” Elliot wondered, naked on the bed. From experience he knew that he would never get an answer, at least not the answer related to what just happened.

A few minutes later Ronny and Ribbon called for Elliot to come down for his birthday cake. He blew out the “50”candle while Ronny and Ribbon sang “Happy Birthday”. Leah just stood there holding a glass of wine in front of a stoic grimace. Under her arched eyebrows the pupil of each eye had constricted down to form a black bee bee. Elliot decided to clean up and put the kids to bed.

After Ronny and Ribbon were in bed and Leah had downed her fourth glass of wine, Elliot and Leah went to the garage to play darts. Going into the garage they noticed the wind. On the driveway fallen leaves were now churning in whirlwinds. There was a cold electric charge in the air. Elliot looked out around the garage door. “Look’s like we’re gonna have a doozy tonight. We better get started.”

Off to the west behind the Walnut tree lightening etched the night sky. Moments later a bombastic thunder boom shook the air. “Mom! Dad!” Ribbon called out from her upstairs bedroom. Leah ran to comfort her.

Leah sat down on the edge of Ribbon’s bed and looked out the window. It was then that she heard a loud “POP!” and saw what looked like sparks of a Roman candle in the corner of the backyard. The pole transformer had been hit by a lightning strike. Immediately the lights went out in the house and garage. Then she heard a long cracking sound and then a massive crunch. Lightening flashed again and Leah could see that a stout limb of the walnut tree had fallen through the roof of the garage. Leah got up and raced downstairs. She stopped in the kitchen to grab a flash light.

“Elliot? Elliot! Are you OK?” There was no answer. Shining the light inside Leah entered the garage. “Elliot? Elliot!” No answer.  A motionless foot appeared under a branch. From the bottom of the shoe Leah lifted the light along to where Elliot’s head would be. Moving a branch and then a pile of walnut husks Leah saw Elliot’s face under a laurel of leaves. She gasped. On his temple was a large bleeding gash. Beneath, his eyes were closed and there was a look of silken repose on his face – almost like the weight of the world had been lifted off of him. Leah drew back in disgust, her hands blackened by the broken walnut husks. “How could you do this to me, Elliot, leaving me and the kids like this? I could never count on you.”

 

 

 

©Sally Paradise, 2016, All Rights Reserved