The Homecoming

 

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

This person walked toward Alyona. “Hi mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I’ll be.”

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

“There’s something growing on your neck.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beautiful!” came Alyona’s response.

“Could you use some help?” grandma offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, where my granddaughter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it involve renewable energy?”

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

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

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

Aleksey stopped for a moment and finished his pie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Diner

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He pulled out a gun.

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

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

“What’s your name, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Legacy

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrey thought for a moment and then smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh. Go on old man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Dinner

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, I get the privilege?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you seen Arturo? Martha asked.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

800 Ordinary Beliefs

a short story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomas sat down under a tree and listened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomas nodded politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I haven’t.”

The woman called the pharmacist over to explain their effect.

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

“I have had trouble sleeping at night.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know I did.”

“C’mon Tomas. What did he tell you?”

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

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

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

“You are impossible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No se que valla a hacer conmigo…

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

Tomas offered to help with the dishes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Thicket

The boy ran as fast he could. The old man chasing him kept pace with longer strides. The boy ran down a gully and through a shallow creek. He soaked his feet. Running up the hill he saw a fence. Just a few more paces and he would be free. The old man won’t jump he fence, he thought.

Near the fence the boy took one last look and saw the old man standing on the other side of the stream. He was cursing with his fist in the air. The boy’s heart pounded faster. He ran toward the fence hoping to grab the post and throw himself over. He leapt and his leg was caught. Barbed wire. He held tightly to the cigar box and tried to pulled himself free. The barbed wire ripped into his leg. The slice of burning pain he felt in his leg turned to ice-cold fear in his face. The old man was now closing in.

“What possessed you boy to take my box? The old man came up and grabbed the boy’s leg. “I should whoop you to within an inch of your life.”

Taking his pocket knife, the old man cut the boy’s pants leg free from the barbed wire. He held the bleeding leg tightly and looked him in the eye. He remembered what his father had said as he lay dying, “They can’t take anything away from you Lloyd. I promised I would provide for you.”

The old man pulled the boy down from the fence. The boy wanted to run but the old man had a firm grasp on his neck. “You are coming with me.”

Back at the barn the old man let go of the boy in a stall. The boy, writhing in pain, fell back into the straw.

“You need to know somethings,” the old man spoke bent over, trying to catch his breath. After a minute he grabbed the cigar box off the straw and stood erect.

The old man opened the cigar box and looked through it. Everything was there including the farm’s deed at the bottom of the box. The old man pulled it out.

“I’m real sorry sir. That old box looked like it had old stuff in it and…”

“That ring was my wife’s wedding band and that piece of paper right thar is a promise from my father.”

The boy blinked away a gathering tear. He waved away a shock of hair from his eyes. “A promise?”

“Yes, a promise. My daddy promised to give me the farm when I was your age. This is a deed to the farm.“ The old man waved the deed in front of the boy’s wide eyes.

“I didn’t think an old piece of paper mattered to anyone.”

“Promises do, son. Promises do.”

“My daddy left me the land when he died. It was in his will, just like he said.  “Keep it in the family, he said. You take my promise away boy and I have nothing.”

The boy, recovered from running, looked outside where the moonlight offered passage to escape.

“I have a mind to talk to your parents,” the old man pointed his finger at the boy.

“That’s not possible, sir.”

“What do you mean, boy?”

“I mean that my parents are… they are dead, sir.”

“C’mon kid. Tell me their name.”

“There are Hawkins, sir. Tom and Betty Hawkins.”

“I know that name Hawkins. Your mom works at Mare’s Diner.”

“Yes, sir. She did.”

“Well, tell me what you mean that they are dead.”

“They were killed in a car accident on highway 27. A big ole truck hit their car.”

“Geez, son. I’m sorry.”

“It happened last Christmas Eve. They were driving home from… Geez, sir, I better git home. My aunt will be worried.”

The boy took off past the old man. Forgetting the pain in his leg he ran with all his might across the old man’s field toward the fence. The old man, still breathing heavy, didn’t give chase. He watched as the boy struggled to get over the barbed wire. The boy gave out yelp as he fell to the ground on the other side. He ran off to where no moonlight could trace him.

 

A month or so later the old man came to Mare’s Diner for his breakfast. Sally, the waitress, poured him a cup of coffee while taking in the old man.

“I don’t see you here much.” Sally wiped up split coffee with her apron.

“I’m not much to see,” the old man replied.

“C’mon now, you old geezer, you tryin’ to make me feel sorry for you?”

“No ma’am. Life does that all on its own without any help.”

Sally wiped more coffee from the table.

“Say, didn’t I see you here a while back with a young man.”

“That was my son Seth. He was saying goodbye. He was moving out to California to go live with his mom. I was with her years before I married Ruth.”

“He didn’t want to work the farm?”

“Hell no. He doesn’t care about soy beans and corn. He’s into data farming, whatever that is. Say, scramble me up some eggs with some dry wheat toast before I die of starvation.”

“I’ll go do that right now. I don’t want to anything to happen to that sunny disposition of yours.”

Sally headed off to the kitchen.

Five minutes later she returned with the old man’s breakfast.

“Do you know that boy?” The old man pointed out the window.

“Yeah, that’s Archie. His folks died a while back. Sad for a ten-year old boy to lose both parents. What’s he doin’?”

“He’s got his thumb out. O, my lord, he’s hitchhiking.” The old man got up and went outside.

“Hey boy! Hey Archie!” The boy turned and started running.

“Hey Archie! I’m not gonna chase you. C’mere and talk to me for a minute. The old man’s cracking voice carried out to the road.

The boy stopped. He turned and saw the old man standing at the door of the diner. The boy stood by the side of the road kicking gravel. A car passed and then a truck.

“What is it you want?”

“I’ll tell you over breakfast. C’mon my eggs are getting cold.”

The boy, hungry because he left home before his aunt woke, slowly walked toward the restaurant kicking stones as he walked.

“Where you off to boy? Sally says your name is Archie. Where you off to Archie?”

“Anywhere but here.” The boy brushed back a shock of brown hair from his face.

“I see. You better have some breakfast before you go. It’s on me.”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and followed the old man to the booth.

“Sally what have you got for this young man?”

“I’ve got eggs, hash browns, bacon, toast, flap jacks…”

“Go ahead and get what you want.” The old man nodded at the boy.

“I’ll have that.”

“OK. And some orange juice, too?” Sally added.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Morning sunlight coursed through the window making the boy squint. The old man pulled the shade down and the boy relaxed his face. His hands fiddled with the silverware.

“You don’t like here?”

“No, sir, I don’t like here. There’s nothing for me here… just like that field across the street. Ain’t nothing but dirt.”

“Son, you ain’t seen nothing yet. That field of dirt has got life in it…below the surface… you have to look longer than today.”

“I’ve seen all I want to see.”

Sally returned with the boy’s breakfast and placed several plates before him. She then leaned over to the old man and whispered, “I called the boy’s aunt so she ain’t worried. She’ll be comin’ for him.”

The boy heard. “Ah, noooo.” The boy started up from his seat but the old man grabbed his arm and held down.

“Sit down. Son, Archie, you’ve got man impulses but boy resources. You best stay with your aunt ‘til you grow you own.”

“My aunt knows nothing except yarn. She’s knitting all the time.”

“Some folks knit when they are lonely and bored and some hitchhike. I understand that your uncle passed away last year. Terrible sad time for your aunt and now for you with your parent’s gone.”

The boy didn’t look up. He kept eating, filling his cheeks like a squirrel’s.

“When my Ruth died, I was terrible sad and lonely. She …I ain’t gonna bother you with the details of my life.”

“You’ve bothered me already. But I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Ruth was good woman. I’d sit with her at night and we’d listen to our music on the radio. She’d knit and rock in her chair. And she made the best pies around. Even sold them here in the diner.”

“I could use some pie.” The boy spoke as he swallowed the last cheek-load. He wiped his face with his sleeve.

“Sally, what kind of pie you got today? This boy has another leg to fill.”

“Strawberry rhubarb and cinnamon apple.” Sally called out from behind the counter.

“Apple.” The boy had no doubt.

Sally returned with the boy’s pie. The boy started in on the pie.

“You ain’t havin’ any?” Sally set the pie before the old man.

“No. I’ll eat some after supper. It’ll slow me down. Pie has a way of catching up with you …”

The boy finished the pie and fell back against the booth cushion. He closed his eyes. “I’m full.”

As Sally cleared the plates the boy’s aunt, frantic, rushed into the diner and over to the booth.

“There you are! My lord, I thought I lost you!”

“He’s OK. He just had a silo-fill of breakfast. He ain’t goin’ nowhere.” The old man spoke as he stood.

“Thank you! I’ll take charge of him now. Land sakes, boys are…”

“Ma’am, he’s a boy lookin’ after himself. He just doesn’t know how to look ahead of himself.”

“Well, I sure don’t. I raised girls and they occupy themselves with books and flowers and…”

“Yes ma’am they do. Boys occupy themselves with a world of things like pocket knives and sling shots and chewing gum. And things that get them head-to-toe covered with the earth.

The boy’s aunt pulled the old man away from the table.

“Lord, I don’t know what to do with that boy. I was given charge over him when his folks died. I don’t know how to …I’m afraid he’ll run away again.” The old man looked out the window as if the past was passing by.

“Listen,” the old man stood between the aunt and the boy, “I’ll take him home with me. My farm’s over on Route 25. I have a bedroom where he can sleep. You can come over anytime to check on him. Would that work for you?”

“I…I guess, yes. You’re …you’re not a young man anymore to be chasing boys, Lloyd.”

“You are right about that. I’ll have him help me with the farm and see that he gets fed and man-folk things to do.”

“I guess it will be alright. I don’t know how to raise a boy without Howard around.”

“Then let’s do this and let’s see how it goes for the boy.”

“OK. Let’s. Call me if there is an ounce of trouble.”

“Oh, there will be plenty of trouble comin’ my way but that’s nothing compared to hitchhiking trouble the boy will encounter.”

“Yes, thank God you showed up at the right time.”

“I’ll take the boy with me, kicking and screaming if I have to. I’ll make sure he’s taken care of. How about you make a fresh pie for us every week and you bring it over on Sundays after church?”

“That works for me! OK Lloyd I’ll be by this Sunday.”

The boy’s aunt went over to the booth. She kissed the boy’s forehead and left a red lipstick smear. She told the boy, “Lloyd here is gonna take you to his home.”

“I don’t want to go to his home!”

“He’s taking you to his farm. You’ll stay with him.

“What?! Nooooo!”

The old man came back to the booth and sat down.

“Archie, I’ve talked with your aunt. She and I thought it would be a good idea for you to stay with me for a time, nothing permanent… just a spell, so you can do the things that guys like to do.” The old man winked at the aunt.

“Like what?”

“Well, I’ve got a fishing hole on my property. A boy could go swimming. I could show you how to shoot a .22 and how to forge your own knife.”

“Swimming?” The boy put his face into his hands. “I guess. Just for a short time until I get some money for a bus ticket.”

The old man offered his hand to the boy. After a minute the boy took his face out of his hands, reached across and shook the old man’s hand. The old man drove them to the farm.

 

A month had gone by. The boy settled into a routine. He followed the old man around as the old man did his daily routine on the farm. He watched the old man as he repaired broken equipment. And, he watched him as he made their meals. The whole time the boy stood at distance with his hands firmly shoved into his front pockets.

In the afternoon, after the chores had been done, the old man told the boy to go to the fishing hole for a swim to clean off the sweat and dirt. As the boy swam the old man sat on the porch smoking a cigar and reading the newspaper and ag reports.

The evenings were spent eating dinner, cleaning up dishes and then taking a long walk. The old man told the boy that he and Ruth had spent many twilights walking and just being quiet together. The boy had no problem being the old man’s quiet hands-in-pockets companion. The conversation of crickets sufficed for both of them.

Back at the house the old man would read to the boy. He read books borrowed from the library. The old man read from the newly published set of Master and Commander novels. He told the boy that ever since he was a kid and saw tall ships on his trip out east to see his dying aunt that he wanted to be on the open see. But, being raised a farmer and inheriting the farm kept him landlocked. The boy took it in as he lay on the floor with his head perched in his hands.

On Sundays the boy’s aunt came over with a fresh baked pie and a set of folded laundry. She had offered to do their laundry on her first visit. The boy would bury his face into his clean clothes. They smelled of summer and buttery pie crust.

It wasn’t long before the boy’s aunt noticed that the boy’s eyes had brightened from their once desperate and unanimated gaze. It was if sense had been poured into him. She noticed, too, that the boy loved to run. A mention of the swimming hole had him remove his hands from his pockets and take off his tee shirt. He would run out the door like he was shot from a gun. “My lord, that boy can run!”

The old man agreed. “I wonder if he’ll be another Jim Ryun the sub-four-minute miler. He’ll make the half-mile to the hole in no time flat. The aunt looked puzzled but nodded. The old man continued. “Nothing can catch him except barb-wire.” The aunt looked puzzled again. The old man smiled. “I’ll let him tell that story when he’s ready.”

On Sunday they attended church. The old man was not a spiritual man. He believed in the elements and what his hands worked and sometimes the Farmer’s Almanac. He had taken his son Seth to church to let him decide for himself. But Seth later declared himself an atheist and said that the good life and the good weather was to be found in California.

One Sunday the preacher gave a sermon on Abraham’s faith: God commanded the sacrifice of Abram’s son. Abram proceeded to offer his son as a offering. As Abram raised his dagger an angel stopped him from slaughtering his son. A lamb was provided to take the place of the boy.

That night, during their evening walk, the boy asked, “How can a father kill his own son?”

“I wonder that myself. I guess Abram decided that God knew what he was doing, with his promise and all – descendants as many as the stars.”

The boy flinched. “You don’t have descendants if you kill them. If I was Isaac I would have run.”

“I guess Isaac decided that his dad knew what he was doing.”

The old man looked up at the night sky. “I read something a while back. All the elements on earth were forged under great pressure in stars – I’ll show you some rocks when we get back to the house. What do you think about that?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “I think rocks make more sense than killing your kid.”

They walked on to their turnaround point and then headed back to the house. There the old man showed the rocks he had collected when he was a boy: copper ore, iron ore, jasper, cobalto calcite fushite, citrine and many more specimens that his father brought home to him from his travels. The old man told the boy he could keep them in his room. The boy kept them on the stand next to his bed.

 

The next summer the boy spent his time at the fishing hole after completing his chores. It was there that he met two boys – brothers – about his age. They came over from a neighboring farm. The boys spent their time in the water and building a fort in string of trees along the old man’s field. When they became bored they decided to steal cigarettes off of old man Jacobs dresser. They smoked them in their fort.

The brothers, Jake and Riley, later decided that they would have more fun. They would steal a transistor radio from old lady Miller. The boy came along. He didn’t want to be on the outside, except as a lookout. As it happened old lady Miller hung out the laundry on Mondays. As she did, she listened to the radio perched on a nearby chair. The boys moved in when she entered the house. They snatched the radio and took off back to their fort.

Days later the local paper reported things disappearing from local houses: a radio, a watch, a bicycle, and issues of National Geographic. Per the account, no suspects had been determined. So, the boys continued to steal. The impulse to steal even bigger things and make a getaway was behind Jake’s and Riley’s decision to steal old man Jenkins car. They reasoned: the old man rarely drove it anyway; it was just sitting in his yard waiting to be used; besides, they would only take it for a ride to the next town twenty miles away where the five and dime carried comic books. They told themselves that they would bring the car right back as if nothing happened.

“I don’t know.” The boy voiced his resistance to taking the car and went on to say that they should stick to little things. But he soon changed his mind, the lure of friendship had been cast and the bait taken.

With a stolen pack of cigarettes, the boys made their getaway. Jake, the oldest of the three, knew how to drive. They left the farm down a back road and zig-zagged over to Hastings in the next county. They left a cloud of dust hanging over the fields they raced passed. Cigarette smoke added to the plume.

The car’s radio played loud, so loud in fact, that they couldn’t hear the siren of the police car behind them. Jake slowed up to make a turn. As he did the dust trailed off on the road left behind. Looking right the boys could see the police car’s mars light flashing red. They shut off the radio and pulled to the side of the road. The cigarettes were tossed. In the seconds before the officer reached the car, they tried to devise a reason for being in old man Jenkins car. A medical prescription emergency? They were gonna buy it from old man Jenkins and they wanted to test drive it? It was just for an hour, that’s all?

The officer would have none of it. He placed the three boys into the back of his car and radioed the station. He told the dispatcher to call Mr. Jenkins and let him know his car was found.

Back at the station the officer put the boys in a cell and proceeded to call their parents. Jake and Riley’s parents came right over. They were visibly shaken. Lloyd walked in minutes later and together they asked, “What’s the charge?’

The officer told them that stealing a car is a felony. He also said that he had good reason to believe that the three boys were involved in other things being stolen incurring possible misdemeanor charges. After admitting what they had done the boys were released to the custody of their guardians. A hearing date was set.

The silent ride home with the old man didn’t improve the boy’s outlook. The old man looked heartbroken. At supper that night they ate in silence. The boy didn’t want to catch the man’s gaze. The boy ate with his left hand spanned across his brow. The old man chewed his food as if he was chewing his thoughts.

The boy offered to wash the dishes. He left the room and came back with a cigar box. The old man picked one out and went to the porch.

The boy went to bed early that night. There would be no walk with the old man. There would only be an overwhelming sadness that pervaded his being. Events of isolation converged as he lay in bed: the loss of his parents and the loss of the old man’s trust and losing himself to the law. Sleep came after the boy, crying and clenching his teeth, beat his pillow with his fist.

The next day was Sunday. The boy’s aunt would make her weekly visit. When she arrived, the old man greeted her and put the pie she made for them on the rail of the porch. “Let’s go for a walk.”

The two set down the road the boy and the old man walked. The old man told the boy’s aunt about the day before. The aunt nearly fainted. “My lord!” she kept saying after each of the old man’s disclosures.

When they returned the old man called for the boy to come out to the porch. The boy, pensive, obeyed.

“Your aunt and I have been talking. We both think it best that I adopt you. I don’t know if you’ll be entering junior high this fall but whatever happens we will go through it together.”

The boy tried to look accepting. Fear of the unknown was now taking over. He shuffled over to his aunt and offered her a hug. The aunt, who had been wringing her hands, opened her arms and smothered the boy in a hug. With that something stirred in the boy. His fear encountered embrace.

That night, the boy, at the insistence of the old man resumed their nightly walk. The old man again told the boy that he was adopting him.

“Adopting? What’s that mean exactly?”

“It means that I promise to take care of you as your father would if he were here.”

The boy looked up at the old man. “Does it mean I have to take care of you?”

“Only if you have a mind to.” The old man smiled.

The boy didn’t speak until the turnaround point.

“I guess you know what you are doing, with your promise and all.” As the boy spoke, he felt a rush of tears gush up and pool in his eyes. He turned toward home and began walking ahead of the old man, snapping his leg with a twig he found.

 

The day of the hearing arrived. The old man had the boy take a shower, clean his face and comb his har. He had bought a tie for the boy to wear before the judge. “The judge has to see that you are trying to clean up our act. This is a start.”

Jake, Riley and the boy stood before Judge Gibbons as the charge of felony was read. Jake and Riley’s parents had retained an attorney. The old man had asked for a public defender. The boys were asked how they pled. They each responded “Guilty”. The anvil word was met with a hammer rap.

Before setting a sentencing date, the judge asked the boy’s parents and their attorneys to come into his chamber.

“Between us folks, these boys were behaving like boys. Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, as Proverbs says. From experience I know that foolish pranks can turn into foul play. Your boys are on the cusp of that. Though I could send them to a juvenile home, this is their first offence. I would rather they learn from this experience here and now. I would rather their foolishness be put away forever. Any thoughts?

Jake and Riley’s attorney spoke first. “As you honor said, this is the boy’s first offense, first major offense, that is. I have had a talk with them about the possible consequences including what having a criminal record would do to their lives. I ask for leniency and probation for the boys so they can turn their lives around. Their parents will keep strict attention on their behavior.

“And you sir”, the judge turned to the old man.

The old man, agitated in his chair began to speak slowly, aware of his racing heartbeat:

“Your honor…” the old man told the judge how he came across the boy one night and how he learned of the boy’s parent’s death and about the boy’s hitchhiking. He told the judge about their walks and their time together. He told the judge that the farm takes a lot of work so he let the boy run free after his chores. And that he now has a hired hand to help him with the farm so that he could spend more time with the boy. Lastly, he told the judge that he was the adopting the boy as his own. He showed the judge the adoption papers.

The boy’s public defender also asked for leniency and for probation and for the means to have their record expunged at a later time.

The judge having heard their statements gave his ruling when they returned to the courtroom:

“I sentence you to three years of probation – you will report to a probation officer every week and give account of your yourselves. You must not drink or smoke. You must also return what you have stolen. You must do 90 hours of community service. Your probation officer will tell you what that is. And, you must wash Mr. Jenkins’ car every weekend for the next three years. Mr. Jenkins will report your efforts to your probation officer. You will work to build trust again with those you have acted against or I will see you back here and send you where you can be trusted to behave.” The gavel came down and sighs of relief filled the courtroom.

 

The boy’s summer ended not as it started: in a routine chosen for him. He reported to the probation officer every week. He washed Mr. Jenkins car every week. He picked up litter along the highways two days a week. And he attended Willmans Junior High School five days a week. His walks and the reading time with the old man continued as before. Though his chores increased, the boy added to his routine.

The boy’s natural inclination was to run. When he could he ran down the highways he picked clean. The junior high had no program for runners, but the old man set him distance goals. The old man knew the high school had a cross-country team.

The summer after his junior high graduation the boy ran with the high school’s summer cross-country squad. The coach noted the boy’s endurance and speed. That fall the boy joined the cross-country team- the Harris Harriers. With the training, his schedule was now so packed, that the old man lifted some of the farm chores from the boy’s to-do list. To fuel the carbs being burned off during the boy’s distance runs, the old man was now in the habit of feeding the boy spaghetti as a side dish at every meal. The boy didn’t see any problem with that.

As the season progressed the boy won most of his distance events. He placed his ribbons and trophies on a shelf in the living room, a shelf the old man set apart for the boy. The team entered sectionals in the next county. The boy had to get permission from his probation officer to travel there with his team.

Near the end of the boy’s freshman year the boy completed his probationary period. He stood once more before Judge Gibbons. The probation officer gave his report concluding that the boy had fulfilled the judge’s requirements. The officer read a letter from Mr. Jenkins, which stated that the boy had “cleaned his car faithfully. The boy redeemed himself in my eyes.”

Judge Gibbons was pleased to hear these reports. He discharged the boy saying that he could petition the court to expunge his record. He was free to go.

Outside the courtroom Mr. Jenkins took the boy and the old man aside. He spoke to the boy. “You cleaned that car like it was yours. You can have it. Here are the keys. I’m told I’m too old to be driving it anyway.” The boy was taken back. He apologized for the trouble he had caused him. And, he thanked him for such a gift. The old man pulled the boy close and whispered, “The sowing and reaping have come full circle. C’mon, let’s go the Mare’s diner. I’ll meet you there.”

 

Over time, freshman year through senior year, the boy became the fastest miler in six counties. Because of his time in the state trial meets, the boy was sent to the state meet. There, the boy ran his best mile time: 04: 10.08 to win the state meet. When it happened the old man came out of his stadium seat and ran out to the track where the boy, flushed red, was holding his side and taking in big gulps of air. The old man hugged the boy, sweat and all.

That night, during their walk in the state capital, the boy told the old man that he was enlisting in the Navy. The old man said, “You, you can’t run on a battleship.”

The boy replied, “You told me once that I should spend my life growing. That’s what I intend to do.”

The old man, not able to argue with his own words, began to walk a step ahead of the boy back to the hotel.

When the time came the old man drove the boy to the bus station. He sent him on his way with some stationery and his copper ore specimen to remind him of home.

After basic training the boy was assigned as a mechanic on the Seventh Fleet aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The Big “E” was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. “READY POWER FOR PEACE” was the motto on his arm patch. The carrier operated in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of northern Vietnam and southern China.

Early December 1966 the Big “E” tied up at U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay, Zambales, Philippines for supplies and repairs. It was then that the boy received two messages. The one from his aunt read, “Your father is dying. Come home.” The one from the preacher read, “You father asks for you.” The boy immediately took the message to his CO. The boy was granted two weeks leave.

It was two days travel to New Burrow. The boy’s aunt met him at the bus station. As they drove to the farm she told the boy about the old man’s condition: “The doctor says his heart is failing. His eyesight is almost gone. Your father doesn’t want to go to the hospital. He wants to die on his farm.”

The boy, dressed in his service uniform, entered the farmhouse and went straight to the old man’s room. He found him there asleep, his breathing heavy and rasping. The boy sat next to his bed and waited for him to stir.

Without opening his eyes the old man reached over and felt the arm of the boy. He spoke.

“Bless your aunt. She has cared for me. She read me your letters.” The old man stopped, taking in more air. After minute, his eyes still closed, he said, “The preacher was here. He told me to pray believing God knew what he was doing. I prayed and prayed and …his chest swelled and then he let out a choking cough. “And here you are.” The old man returned to sleep.

Two days later the boy entered the room with some water. The old man was awake. The boy could see that the old man’s eyes, struggling to stay open, did not respond to movement. Afternoon light coming through the window revealed the reddish-orange copper ore coloring and deep furrows the sun had worked into the old man’s face from years of working in the field.

“I’m glad you are here, Archie.” The old man made every effort to speak.

The boy leaned over to the man’s ear, “I’m here, dad. I’m not going anywhere.”

The old man gestured his withered hand over to the nightstand. “Don’t run off. That box is yours now and all it contains.”

“It is safe with me,” the boy replied putting his hand on its lid.

The old man, wheezing and gasping trying to respond, let out a long airy sigh and let go of the earth.

The boy sat with the old man. The aunt and the hired hand came by the old man’s bed. The aunt spoke wiping tears from her cheeks. “He made his peace with God when he prayed for you, Archie. He loved you. He made me promise that you would get that box. He said promises are only as good as those who hold on to them.”

After a time, the boy, now a young man, walked with the cigar box over to the fence where he first met the old man. He remembered the absolute terror he felt getting caught in the barbed wire and the old man freeing him and wondering what would happen next. And what happened next couldn’t be contained in the old man’s cigar box. The old man knew what he was doing.

After a time, he walked back to the house. He changed his clothes and went for a run down the road they walked together. At the turning point he wept.

Two days later the preacher gave the eulogy. He spoke of the resurrection of the dead. He spoke about a promise freed out of Egypt and out of a fiery furnace and out of the mouth of lions and finally out of the tomb.

By the graveside Archie read the 23rd Psalm. Seth, who arrived the day of the funeral, remained silent as the gathered sang “Amazing Grace”.

The boy, now a young man, laid the old man to rest. He read the words on the tombstone: “Lloyd Harold Long, June 7, 1880-December 14, 1966, Husband to Ruth, Father to Seth and Archie”.

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

AKA, Lena Lindberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Interpreters

A knock. Then two more. Peter opened his front door. There stood his neighbor Dimitri stomping the slush off of his Oxford shoes. Peter had invited his neighbor Dimitri over for Thanksgiving dinner.

“Come in”, Peter gestured. “Let me take your coat. Welcome. Make yourself comfortable.”

Dimitri eyes glanced around the room until he saw the bookcase. “Ah.” He walked over to the bookcase.

After a minute he muttered under his breath, “You might as well read coffee grounds, Peter.” Dimitri put the Bible back on the shelf and walked into the living room shaking his head.

“Is everything OK, Dimitri?” Peter queried.

“Ah, yes, ahem, yes. Have you read Voltaire’s Candide?…say, what is that wonderful smell?

“Roast carrots from our garden. Didn’t Candide say, “We must cultivate our garden.”?

“Ah. Ahem. Yes. My cultivated garden is right here.” Dimitri tapped his forehead with his index finger.

“Any head carrots ready to be pulled up?”

“Ah. You make fun. But I take my intellectual cultivation very seriously. Everyone must make rational and practical choices from a well-cultivated garden. You can’t rely on superstition and dubious dogmas.”

“Smell that. That’s the smell of the dubious dogma is in the air. Man cannot live by carrots alone. There is roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn and…”

“Ah. I discovered good food by the operation of my reason.”

“Was each mouth-watering experience an eye-opener?”

“It wasn’t a spiritual experience, if that’s what you are after. I tasted the food and found it to be reasonably good.”

“I see. You’ll get to operate your reason again when I cut into the turkey.”

“Is your mother-in-law joining us today?’ Dimitri asked.

“Yes. She is out on the patio smoking a cigar and reading Chekov.”

“Ah, Chekov, a doctor after my own heart. You said your mother-in-law is smoking a cigar?

“Yes. She likes Dominicans. She says it reminds her of her husband who passed away three years ago.”

“Ah, but smoking is bad for your health.”

“So is living with a woman who is miserable, my friend. Have a seat next to me.” Peter pointed to a chair at the dining room table.

Mary set the turkey in the center of the dining room table. The large bird was surrounded by hot dishes. Mouthwatering aromas spiraled upward. The kids were called from upstairs to “come and eat!” Mary knocked on the patio door and summoned Constance to the table.

When grandma entered the dining room, Todd, the family’s youngest exclaimed, “Grandma, whew! you smell like Grandpa!” Grandma smiled at Todd. “Grandpa liked his cigars. I miss grandpa.”

“And, I love my grandma!” Todd gave grandma a hug holding his nose.

When all were seated Peter gave the blessing over the food. Dimitri watched with arched brows and bared whited teeth as the family closed their eyes and bowed their heads. “Amen!”. Dimitri’s white brows recoiled.  Sounds of wine and water being poured. Clanking dishes being passed. Then the clash of forks and knives.

Peter set his napkin down on the table. He stood up with his wine glass.

“I want to toast another year of God’s blessings…

Everyone raised a glass. Dimitri lifted his glass just off the table.

“To the One Who holds all thing together and to my family – Mary, Todd, Charis, and my mother-in-law…

Constance looked up from her plate to see if Peter had winked at Mary. He hadn’t.

“…and to my neighbor Dimitri. Cheers!”

Dimitri bolted up. “I would like to make a toast, too.”

“To science and technology and reason that hold all things together and…to a well-cultivated garden. Cheers!”

Everyone gulped and then downed their drinks.

 

 

“I had a dream last night.” Peter passed the sweet potatoes to Dimitri. “I think it’s about being held back at my job. I want to do the project work the electrical engineers are doing.”

Dimitri put his forked carrots down, straightened up and arched his right eye brow. “Tell me about it.”

Peter proceeded to describe the dream:

“I entered a large mall-like area. It looked like my high school and the inside of a large mall at the same time. There were escalators and lots of people walking around in front of stores.

To my left I saw a stairway that went down to a lower level. I walked over to the stairs and went down.

The next moment I saw myself as a prisoner inside a prison. There were lockers like a locker room. And, prisoners walking around.

I looked up above me and saw a funnel-like duct work going up. I went up the ductwork thinking I was escaping.

The next moment there were guards catching escapees in the duct work. The escapees were forced to return. I was among them.

What do you think that means, Dimitri?”

“I think it means that you should have gotten your degrees like I did. Then you can show them you are like them – university educated. I have something to show for all of my time studying climate. If you had a degree then you would have status like I enjoy at the university. I am well regarded and have full tenure.”

Peter responded. “I can do the work. The thing is…I’ve been interested in so many things I could never settle on one course of study. I teach myself what I am interested in and in what I need to know. The way I figure it, if I can understand electrical theory and physics and economics and can paint and write stories, then all the better. When they said I couldn’t be given those projects I felt I was being pulled back down to my ‘place’.

“Ah. If you are looking for a way to be at their level. You need a degree to show that you have a background of knowledge equal to the status you’ll receive. One must become knowledgeable and proficient in one area and then… and then you can apply your well-cultivated mind to all areas of your life. They call me doctor at the university and for good reason. I am looked up to as someone who has achieved superior knowledge above theirs in a certain area. They respect my well-cultivated mind and seek my opinions in all areas of life.”

Dimitri went on.

“They know me as a man of science.  I see things as they are – objects, data – and not as I wish them to be. I write papers and they are peer reviewed and well-accepted. I am published in the Journal of Climate Consensus.”

The dinner progressed. Second helpings were passed

“I was sorry to hear about your father’s death this summer.” Peter looked over at Dimitri. Charis, Peter’s daughter, came and put her arms around her father’s shoulders.

“Ah. That. Yes. He took his own life by…”

“Little ears, Dimitri, little ears.”

“Ah, yes. I see…. My father decided that there was no reason to live after mom died. Sad business. I was never an optimist or a sentimentalist so I knew it was inevitable. He said he drank to deal with the loss. His drinking and thinking of her drove him to the loss of himself.” Dimitris gulped down his glass of wine.

Charis came over and rubbed Dimitri’s shoulder.

“May I offer you some more wine, Dimitri? Constance held the bottle of wine in the air. Dimitri accepted.

“So, you have never married, Dimitri?” Constance asked as she poured the wine.

“I don’t think any woman could live with me. My standards are very high.”

Looking back into the kitchen, Mary wondered if this man of letters would put two and two together and offer to wash dishes later.

“Constance, you read Chekov? And, you smoke cigars?” Dimitri looked over at Constance.

“Yes.”

“I find it surprising that a woman…”

“That a woman likes Chekov?”

“No, I mean…”

“That I read Chekov outside on the cold patio?”

“No, I mean…”

“That I like Dominicans?”

“Ah. Yes. Cigars?”

“My husband would read Chekov and smoke cigars. Memories, really. Both are a revelation about his life.”

Holding up a carrot with his fork, Dimitri looked over at Constance. “It was Chekov who said to his wife, ‘You ask what is life? This is the same as asking: What is a carrot? A carrot is a carrot and nothing more is known about it.’ Dispassionate and clinical observance is what I require for my life.” Dmitri ate the carrot.

Constance whispered to Mary, “I see the carrot served its purpose well.”

Dimitri wiped his white goatee with his napkin. “Mary, for all practical purposes, that meal was a gastronomic revelation!” Dried mashed potato flecks fell from his beard as he spoke.

Mary thanked Dimitri and offered him some pumpkin pie. Through an extended yawn, Dimitri said “Yes” to pie and coffee. After dessert, Dimitri fell back in his chair, yawned like a lion and looked at his watch.

“I must be going. Tomorrow is a long day for me. Computer models to program. Algorithms. Tomorrow night I am attending a cocktail party with my colleagues after an award ceremony.”

Mary handed Dimitri a bag with the dinner’s leftovers. Peter helped Dimitri on with his coat.

Peter opened the door. “It would have been unreasonable of me to let you spend Thanksgiving alone.”

Dimitri stepped across the threshold and paused.

“Ah. Damn! It is snowing again! Not the best of all possible days.”

As Dimitri headed down the sidewalk Peter warned, “Be careful my friend. There’s a layer of ice under that snow!”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, All Rights Reserved

 

Livin’ the Dream

 

Livin’ the Dream

 fruit_cocktail

Lew spooned out fruit cocktail from a can as he sat in front of the TV. The fruit squished in his gums. The sweet syrup dribbled down from the corners of mouth. A chunk of cherry flew into the air when he yelled “Those corporate fat cats! There’s nothing left for us!” The cat lapped up the sticky red dot and looked up.

“Scoot!”  Lew shoved a foot under the cat’s belly and picked it up. The cat yowled and leaped forward onto its front paws. The hind legs followed, scrambling for footing on the wet vinyl floor.

The can of hot plate-warmed chili and two cold beers for his dinner had made Lew drowsy. He struggled to keep his eyes open to watch the cable news program. He rubbed his eyes twice and yawned each time. As he put his head back on the chair his eyelids came down. Another program came on…

 

I was Lew’s armored car route partner before he retired ten years ago. Here is what Lew told me about his dream the night before:

“A big cat was sitting in my chair. The cat looked all pleased with itself. It was licking its fir and purring like our truck’s diesel engine. The cat took a bite of a cheese sandwich and mice ran up to eat the crumbs. I was looking up at the cat waiting for food to drop. When it did the mice ate it up before I could get any.

The cat then handed me a plaque. It said, “Thanks for piling on 40 Years with Us”. Then I saw the front door open and you poked your head in. You said, “You’ve always been in the driver’s seat, pal.”

Then, I saw my dad on TV. He was in a Stockpile Self-storage commercial. He was sitting in his recliner smoking a pipe inside a storage unit full of his stuff. There was an auction going on and he was in buying and storing mode, like when he was alive. He said to me, “As a man thinketh in his chair so he is. And I think it’s no crime to have more than you want.”

Then, a stray cat walked in and read a fortune cookie fortune: “If continually give, continually have.” And that’s when I woke up.”

Lew, speaking through his screen door as I stood on the “Welcome” mat, then asked me “What do make of that crazy dream?”hoarders

I told him “Pal, I was lucky to get into your dream since I can’t get into your house to check on you. There is so much stuff in there. You’ve kept everything and now everything is keeping you in that chair.” I told Lew to lay off the cans of chili and fruit cocktail which I saw strewn in the yard and to enjoy his big fat pension. “Get out of this house.” I told him. “C’mon, buy yourself and your old partner a good meal in town before there’s nothing left of you to hold on to.”

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2018, All Rights Reserved

You Keep the Stub

 

You Keep the Stub

a short story

The Anderson family decided to go to a movie after an early supper. Dad, mom, Katie and Kevin got into the family’s van and headed over to the Markhem multiplex on the other side of Markhem River. They hoped that a 6:30 showing they wanted to attend wouldn’t be too crowded. To their surprise, the parking lot was empty except for one car. They were even more surprised to be the only ones standing in line for tickets. They knew from the promos that the movie was “box-office smash hit”. Dad told mom that it was probably just a quirk that no one was there at that time.

At the concession counter each asked for a tub of popcorn, a soda and some candy.  The guy from the ticket booth was now behind the counter. Now Dad noticed that the guy’s arms were covered in black thorny vine tattoos. The jagged vines went up under his short sleeves and then appeared again on his neck and into his hairline.

“Wow, for such a big place I don’t see many employees.” Dad spoke trying not to stare at the guy’s arms.

The guy answered, “Many of my friends left to work somewhere else. Something about feeling claustrophobic.”

“I’m glad you’re here!” dad pointed at the concession guy and then opened his hand. “But where are all the customers?”

“You don’t see them?!”

Katie looked around and scrunched her nose. “Daaaad?”

“Don’t worry, Katie, he’s just joking. We’re in a movie theater. We’re here to be entertained.

When the concession guy heard that he broke a half smile. He then directed the family over to the velvet rope cordon. The Andersons followed.

“We meet again!” dad joked.

The concession guy now turned usher tore off the tickets and handed them the stubs. He told them to keep their stubs. He pointed them to theater 2 where the movie, A Future Worth Fighting For, was playing.

 

The movie was the topic of discussion the night before. As the Andersons sat around the dinner table, a promotional commercial came on TV. Kevin pointed to the screen. Katie left her chair, headed over by the TV and told her parents, “That’s the movie everyone in my class has seen. I have to see it.”

Dad and mom learned from the promo that the movie was another in the Clash of Eco-SuperBeings series. Kevin and Katie filled in the movie details after dad had them turn off the TV and come back to the dinner table.

Katie began by telling mom and dad about the main characters, Vinica Tru and Wither.

“They’re Eco-SuperBeings. Vinica Tru has the power to create beautiful gardens and forests with lots of color. She directs light to make things grow. Wither also uses her power to control the environment, but in a bad way. Wither hates color. Wither wants to control light. Whiter wants to control how people see things. The web site says she’s an anti-chromatic fiend, whatever that means.”

Kevin jumped in.

“I think anti-chromatic means that Wither absorbs light and won’t reflect it back. She wears all black and a black hood. Black absorbs light and becomes heat. I learned that in physics class.”

Now dad jumped in.

“That’s my boy! Go on Kevin.”

Kevin told his parents about the super powers of Vinica Tru and Wither.

“Vinica Tru has two green thumbs. She uses the power in her thumbs to cause things to grow, like fields of flowers and prairie grasses and crops. She has the power to create over a thousand shades of green. She can shoot emerald rainbows into the sky out from between her thumbs! The rainbow falls to earth and things grow!

When Vinica Tru and Wither are not fighting, they said Vinica Tru is a watercolorist. Bill’s mom told me that Vinica Tru is an artist who paints with watercolors.

Wither is the opposite of Vinica Tru. Wither has the power to suck color out of anything. After she sucks in color she can spray a hot black fog out of her mouth. She says that the world must be colorless, that nothing should have color. Nothing should stand out. It should all be black.

Wither can also cast weeds and thorns out from her black thumbs. She destroys beautiful things like flowers and sunsets and …”

Katie interrupted.

“Wither hates rainbows. A rainbow in the sky means that beautiful things can grow. Wither will spray her black fog at rainbows in the sky to stop things from growing. But Wither is OK with rainbows that are not in the sky or are like the ones I see in puddles. Wither is OK with rainbows that don’t make things grow. I don’t have to take biology to know all that. Katie stuck her tongue out at Kevin.

Mom jumped in.

“That’s my girl? Go on Katie.”

“Like I said. If Wither sees a sky rainbow she sucks in their colors and sprays out a black rainbow to replace it.”

Now Kevin spoke.

“Wither wants to control the environment. She calls herself an environmental activist.”

 

The movie was everything Kevin and Katie had said. And more. Dad and mom weren’t used to the earsplitting sound effects. Dad wondered why the only lights in the otherwise dark theater, the red “Exit” lights, would flash whenever Wither appeared on the screen. Mom wondered why Katie was fidgeting so much. Both mom and dad noticed that whenever Vinica Tru used her green thumbs the theater became cool and energized, like a breath of fresh air. And whenever Wither breathed out the black fog, the air in the room became stuffy, stale and suffocating, like they had been placed inside a tomb.

 

After about an hour into the movie, Katie could not sit still. Mom asked her if she had to go to the bathroom. Katie said no but then changed her mind ten minutes later. What felt like prickly heat on Katie’s arms had become unbearable. Both her arms now felt like they were sunburned. How could that be? She hadn’t been out in the sun much at all.

“Mom! I’m going to the bathroom.” Katie whispered as she headed for the aisle.

“OK, honey. Come right back.”

In the bathroom Katie looked in the mirror. Both of her arms were lobster red and they burned.

“Whaaa?! What is going on?!

Katie returned to her seat and quickly forgot about her arms. The movie had more effect on her.

 

When the movie ended they walked out of the movie theater into the main hallway. Dad and mom couldn’t account for why all four of them had the chills and why they all felt so exhausted. Mom said, “I hope there wasn’t something in the air.” The thought of that had them head straight for the parking lot. On their way out, they noticed that the theater hallways were empty again. Outside they looked at each other and saw what looked like sunburn on each of their arms. Dad said, Wow! That VirtualMax gets under your skin!” Mom didn’t smile.

Once in the car they headed home without talking. Their minds were in a fog. The hot glow on their arms was all that concerned them.

The next morning Katie was the first out of bed. She headed to the bathroom and turned on the light. She looked at her arms. What she saw made her jaw drop. Her arms were covered with jagged black vines!

“Mom! Daaaad!” Katie cried.

Mom and dad rushed into the bathroom. When they saw Katie they both jumped back. Then, they looked at their own arms and saw the same black jagged vines. Looking in the mirror, the vines appeared to be growing up into their hair.

After several minutes in front of a mirror where he was trying to rub off the black, dad tried to make light of what he couldn’t understand. He said, “Wow! That VirtualMax gets under your skin!” But nobody smiled.

Dad, ever the optimist, was now dealing with a situation of seeming Biblical proportions beyond his control. He began looking for a positive outcome.

“Remember last night? They showed the promo of the sequel, The Abiding Battle where Vinica Tru battles Wither to restore color once and for all? The promo said, ‘In the final showdown, Vinica Tru uncovers the source of Wither’s colorlessness. Wither was once green but will never be green again.”

Dad rubbed his arm again. This time with a rag soaked with rubbing alcohol.

“This is not coming off. I guess we’re going to have to wait for the sequel. I’ll buy the tickets as soon as they come on sale next year.

Mom, looking at her horrified self in the mirror said, “I’m not waiting! I am going to start a garden!”

The next morning the Anderson family began their garden. After digging up and turning the black soil they tossed their ticket stubs into a hole and buried them. What the Anderson’s later learned was that certain ticket stubs have a way of growing into thorn bushes. But, to their great relief, as those thorn bushes grew, the black jagged vines on their arms began to fade away. But the black jagged vines left their mark, as if a tattoo had been removed.

Seeing no further improvement in the coloring of their arms, Dad decided it was time to cut down the thorn bushes and dig up the thorn bush stubs and be done with them. As he did he placed the prickly branches and the jagged stubs in a pile. He then doused them with gasoline and stood back. The burning heap crackled and hissed and gave off Sulphur fumes. A gathering column of blackness billowed from the screeching blaze, its only course toward the blue sky to meet its eco-fate – Vinica Tru.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2018, All Rights Reserved

If You Call Now

 

Mack had no one to blame. He blamed himself. His dream, well, just listen…

The other night Mack dreamed of being in New York. He didn’t know how he got there. He did remember driving around the Great Lakes. In New York Mack stopped along a highway in town, got out of his rental car and started to look for a store which sells maps. He returned and found that his car was gone. Mack became distressed.

Then Mack saw his car return but it was not working. The battery was missing. Someone stole it. Then Mack’s brother showed up because Mack’s mother was concerned – about both of them.

Mack asked his brother, “Is there a place where I can get a big breakfast?” Mack was hungry. His brother did not know where to get food or a map. His brother stood there. He looked like he wanted to help, but he didn’t offer any.

Then, both Mack and his brother were in a garage where things are fixed, batteries replaced. Mack received his car back working. He is hungry. The dream ends in New York on a highway in town with an able car and not knowing where to go next.

 

When Mack, whose given name is Macauley Andrew Naughton, applied at Central Commercial Chillers he was told that the job required 15 percent travel. But after his hiring, the on-the-road service schedule grew to near 80 percent at times. The fact that Mack had devised such good software to run the chillers within less than one degree of set point now meant that he had to go to the field and install it into every chiller sold by Central Commercial Chillers. After downloading the software, he had to commission the chiller and make sure it did what was promised. So, Mack spent a lot of time on runways, in rental car lots and in hotel rooms. The desk job had become a suitcase job.

Last week Mack was in Kansas. This week Mack was in New England servicing chillers. Tonight, he ended up at a motel in Connecticut. Tomorrow he would service a chiller nearby.

Mack entered the motel room and switched on the TV. He liked the ‘company’. It was all he had.  His ex-wife also sent him packing, something to do with pornography. Being alone was nothing new for Mack. And, loneliness came with the service guy turf, Mack figured. Fill the void with work, food and TV and hit “Restart” every morning.

After a shower and a quick burger at Friendly’s Ice Cream Mack came back to his room and settled into bed with the remote. Flipping through the channels he came a cross a show he liked. The show soon went to commercial.

“…If you call now, you’ll receive one free WonderPan with every order. Only pay for shipping and handling… A surface that cannot be scratched or matched…Someone is standing by now to take your call. Call now.”

The program returned after two minutes of commercials. But by now Mack’s eyes were heavy. He fixed a pillow under his head and watched the TV through squinting eyes.

Another commercial break came. There was a commercial for a sex chat line. Call them, it said, and they will make you feel “spontaneous”. Mack thought about sex on the phone. It seemed to fit his isolated lifestyle. And, sex seemed to be going on everywhere but not with him. His phone sex ears were wide awake but his eyes were almost sleep. The voice in his head told him don’t deny yourself. “But, Tanya, I’m tired,” Mack said and fell asleep.

“…If you call now, you’ll receive one free sex chat with one of our beautiful and sensual ladies. With each sex chat that you purchase receive one free chat the next time you call…. Someone sexy is waiting to talk to you right now…”

 

The chiller service trips had taken Mack to Sonora County Mexico, to Saskatchewan, to Rio De Janiero, and to most of the fifty states – wherever plastic parts were being injection molded and thermoformed. The unique plastic parts he came across were matched by some interesting characters Mack met along the way.

There was New Jersey Rick. NJ Rick was an intense smoker-guy, a middleman who contracted guys like Mack to service his clients. At night Rick liked to go to the strip clubs until the wee hours of the morning. Mack went along once thinking he owed it to Rick for the business. Mack knew better. He would not get those images out of his head. And the next day was brutal.

In Tennessee, there was the Tony, a proud Italian who also did service work. Tony liked to pick up women at the bar and bring them back to his hotel room. Mack found this out one morning. Tony knocked on his motel door and said, “Hey, Mack, you gotta come see this.” So, Mack went and saw a naked woman passed out on the bed. Mack kept his distance from Tony after that. He couldn’t get that image out of his head.

In Terre Haute there was Javier, a six-foot five Mexican. He serviced equipment and women. Javy would go to the dance clubs at night after work. He’d dance, flirt in his muy macho style and then take someone back to his motel room. Mack went along some nights because he was lonely and he was tired of Andy of Mayberry reruns. Javy needed the shared rental car every night, so Mack was dropped off at his motel room before Javy drove his new catch to a nearby bar. Mack couldn’t rid himself of these images.

In De Ridder Louisiana, waking up to the paper mill stench was enough to turn Mack’s stomach. Along with the awful smell, the behavior of his friend Ron unsettled him. Ron was a co-service guy with Mack. There were sites that needed a lot of mechanical help besides software upgrades. Ron did the mechanical work which involved a lot of walking. But this seemed odd to Mack since Ron had a hard time walking. Ron’s permanent limp came about after he fell out of a tree during an acid trip.

Ron, despite his home-grown defect, liked to think of himself as a man’s man – he didn’t just fall out of a tree, he FELL out of a TREE and survived! He would boast about his manliness to Mack and to the women he tried to dance with night after night after work. Ron, like Javy and like Tony, was married when he was at home. All the other times he was in compensation mode – find someone quick or die from loss of reinforced manliness.

During one meal Ron told Mack about his disorder – Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder – so Mack decided that he would drive the rental car from that point on. This meant that Mack was the chauffer for Ron Casanova’s adventures night after night. Mack now had his own flashbacks.

 

The chiller at Automated Plastic Parts worked just as promised – within one degree of set point. Mack had the client sign the service report and then headed back to his hotel room for a shower. After the shower Mack went to Friendly’s for his supper. He didn’t want to have to think or make another decision. He was flat out hungry and all thought out.

Back at his room Mack undressed and got into bed. The TV sputtered light into the space before him. Images came and went. The drone of constant noise weakened his resistance. Mack fell asleep.

 

Mack looked up and saw a stairwell with service men walking up and down the stairs. The men going down the stairs were carrying framed pictures which they dumped in a garbage can at the bottom of the stairs. The men going up received new batteries. And then suddenly, next to Mack stood a man. The man said, “I making a service call. Remember, “If you call now, I will give you a free map. You’ll be driving within one degree of set point in no time.” 

 

Mack woke up with a crick in his neck and vowing to move on with God’s help.

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2018, All Rights Reserved