Insider Knowledge

Maybe you’ve encountered me. I like to be noticed. I am that passing shadow and that clipped voice in a box that spooks the ghost hunters on their TV programs. I’m the cold presence they encounter. What did they expect? I have no molecules to bounce around inside of me to keep me warm. I love absolute zero and the limelight doesn’t affect me as does, you know, the searing light. I dwell in the dark recesses of the universe and come around to revel in the revolting. And, more importantly, to tell people what they want to hear. That is my specialty.

I work with psychics and with those who presume to hear from the dead. And with philosophers. I am the lifeline for their game show. And, what a game it is: humans ante up their souls so they can win esoteric knowledge. What a piece of work is man! Little wonder that Hamlet is one of my favorite plays.

Who could ask for more? Murder, revenge, a ghost, hemming and hawing soliloquys, a disloyal mother, friends with secret motives, suicide, poison, madness, carnage, and a morose and grieving Prince. You know Act One. Prince Hamlet’s friend Horatio, along with two sentries, is visited by a specter that resembles the late King Hamlet. Learning of the visitation from Horatio, Hamlet resolves to see it for himself and make his own judgement. He knows that my Master likes to deceive the grieving with familiar forms. When the ghost appears to Hamlet, he tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius. Hamlet must avenge his death. In the moment, Hamlet agrees to avenge his father. After being sworn to secrecy about all he has witnessed, Horatio says the encounter is unbelievably strange. Hamlet tells Horatio to welcome the strange as he would a stranger. How inclusive!

Then, reminded of his time studying in Wittenberg with Horatio, Hamlet tells Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, my friend, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy”. That’s where I come in. The play ends as it should – bodies everywhere. Let the good times Roll! Left to his own devices, man is a piece of work!

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this. I communicate to the spiritualists and theorists what I know. It is easy. I’ve been around for a long time. I know things that have happened. I’ve heard what everyone else has heard. Someone dies and I can speak to medium about what I know about him or her. I can play dead. What fun! This knowledge works well with the ghost hunters. I toy with them. Ha-ha-ha! There have been many times when humans think that they have felt spiritual forces. But it is just a bunch of emf. But I’ll take credit for it. I like the attention.

Speaking of attention, I’m the one that pushes and scratches those who live with me. I infest house and lives …and ideologies. Some will sweep me out of their lives for a time but I come back with new tricks and new guises. I can take on many forms, or, I should say, personas. History has recorded my work.

Maybe you know me as “The end is what you want and the means is how you get it” Saul Alinsky or as “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime” Lavrenty Beria. Maybe you know me as the positive materialist who holds that all things, including consciousness and mental state, are the result of material interactions. I am quite involved in those material interactions. The pursuit of happiness, whether by idealism or material necessity, doesn’t happen without immaterial me.

Now, I don’t need to work with atheists. They are already on the right track. They have their reason and no need for the likes of meta-physical me. The conditions of their everyday existence are proof enough that there is no God. So, they resign themselves to the laws of nature and adapt to them and give way to those laws. They end up lonely and pounding their head against the wall. I don’t have to get physical with them. They do it to themselves.

The atheist cannot prove the beauty of a woman, yet, he will demand proof of the Antagonist’s existence from his minions and that is where I come in. How so, you ask? Alinsky said it best: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.” Seeing the Antagonist’s minions foul up with my help, the atheist becomes all the surer that his or her descent into pure reason is where he will find answers. And, once he or she dons implacable autonomous reason (I’m thinking in Halloween terms) they won’t need to get involved with the gooey and merciful Antagonist. I’ve already been there and done that. Things didn’t work out in my favor. But you Atheists, hang with me and before you can snap your fingers three times, you will put on the Imago de Diabolus, the likeness of my High Master. “Will you win his favor?” you ask.

I may be cold-hearted but my Master, his disposition colder than Absolute Zero, warmly welcomes the proud self-assured atheist.

My Master knows that atheists cannot accept mysteries unless they are solved in a movie or at the end of a book, or solved before their very eyes. My Master knows that they refuse to hold in tension any thought which presents itself outside of cold logic. Because of their wonderful quality of unending skepticism, they revere solipsism, science and reason, and the readily explainable. My Master is their lifeline in this game. He explains everything right when they need it. No waiting. The Antagonist draws things out into mystery and keeps you on hold indefinitely.

Some of my best work is done with humanists and social scientists. I use Progressive ideology along with consensus and sentimentality to persuade them into thinking that humans are perfectible, that one day man will reach the pinnacle of human perfection because of their exalted efforts (and if only they were in charge). Their motto: Fortschritt, Fortschritt über alles! (nb: I am working on the chosen people as I pen this.)

The young and inexperienced are the best targets for, ahem, smoke and mirrors. They dream of happiness, regeneration, of utopia. Like moths to a flame, they gather around the prophets of secular humanism. They did so for Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. These heroes of the religion of Revolution offered the utopia of uniformity and universality. They delivered on their promises. Humans were uniformly and universally dealt with, just as I had hoped. Healthcare is my newest moth-gathering flame. Control healthcare and you control people. Another Alinsky saying.

And that is how I work the old – with offers of healthcare. But some of the old are already set in their Antagonistic ways. If they refuse my offers of help then I say ‘He that is not with me is against me’. I walk away and shake the dust off of my Ways and Means Handbook.

The Antagonist has many followers in name only. I call them FINOs. They are fine with a religion without evil. Ha-ha-ha! They even believe in universal salvation! I love it! These FINOs love the amorphous and homogeneity above all else. They are not much different than the Progressive humanists and social scientists. And though they congregate differently from them, the FINOs also believe that there are no limits to human perfectibility. Therefore, they do not oppose the forms of culture I offer.

Kudos to the humanists, the social scientists, the FINOs and the central planners who work to fulfill the mission statement of My Master: reduce humanity to a state of uniformity and universality – the brotherhood of man and all that. And that is why I sow seeds of discontent. I stir up the pot, so to speak. How better to create a unity of the disgruntled than to divide humans into “me, good and you, bad” groups. Again, Alinsky best described my ways with the unwilling and obstinate: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. And of course, I get them to see that difference means hierarchy and all hierarchy is oppression, especially the hierarchy of that realm of hideous and cruel light.

Lawlessness is the only proper response to hierarchy. So, I want you to banish all law-enforcement, judges, priest and pastors, et al. from existence and to unleash the gates of …prisons. You shall know me and my ways and you shall be free.

Of course, I cannot recommend the Antagonist to you. As the Master’s muse I can only sing the Master’s praises. But I do commend the fact that humans have wills and make choices. This makes my job doable. For with the right choices, one can reach the perfection I have planned for them.

Caveat. I don’t deal in consequences. I don’t have to. Humans let the chips fall where they may. They are inclined to do what they feel and to not pay attention to consequences. I am good with that. In any case, they will end up blaming others or society or the Antagonist for their problems. Ha-ha-ha! What fun!

I’m in my element when I create dilemmas – no escape dilemmas. The only solution being to beat one’s head against the wall or the revolver. Either solution will have you blaming the Antagonist and asking “Why am I here?” I’ll tell you why once you stop beating your head against the wall.

You are here to know the power to control others that is available to you. And, I am not just talking witchcraft and magic arts. You’d be interested to know that I am also talking social-economic-political power. And if you are hungry, I will offer you socialism and the brotherhood of man to feed you. If you fall down and break something, I will offer you universal healthcare. It pleases my Master to give you good things and …to remove the confusing things from your sight.

As a non-binary values adjuster, I alter signs and symbols and any of the inherited forms and distinctions associated with the Antagonist. I offer a new sacred ordering of things. One recent example.

Just last week a transgender cyclist won a woman’s cycling championship. And this was not the first time. Ha! The other women in the race whined of unfairness, saying that science was on their side and that men have a physical advantage over women. But science and reason have nothing to do with it. The ends, a new sacred order of things, justify the means – out-cycling your opponents. And what right do they have in reproaching the champion? None! The champion was right to call them out: “You have an irrational fear of trans women.” Ontology trumps anatomy!

“Deal in lies?” you ask. Of course, one should deal in lies. With lies you don’t cross a line. You move the line that someone else put there. With a lie you create a safe space for yourself. Very utilitarian. You can now do this online.

Social media is a Master-send. So, I try to claim every square inch of screen I can. For one thing, I get women to expose themselves on social-media. And why not. Social mores are oppressive, created by dead white men. And by now you know that self-image is a very important part of being on social media. It is also in my line of work. When you are not showing pictures of the food you are eating or pictures of your bikini-self, you will want to portray your ever-day respectable self as you call out others for their evil ways. Be prepared, though. Some on social-media will want to tear down your self-image. Be in their face to protect your self-image. Demand affirmation of yourself against all hearsay.

Enough about you. It is Halloween. I have to diddle some Ouija Boards and knock on some wood at seances. You know. The usual tricks and treats. “Give the people what they want” my Master says. So, I’m off. I must pick up my costume. Nothing ghoulishness. I will be going door-to-door as an aborted fetus.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Homecoming

 

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

This person walked toward Alyona. “Hi mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I’ll be.”

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

“There’s something growing on your neck.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beautiful!” came Alyona’s response.

“Could you use some help?” grandma offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, where my granddaughter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it involve renewable energy?”

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

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

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

Aleksey stopped for a moment and finished his pie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Legacy

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrey thought for a moment and then smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh. Go on old man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Dinner

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, I get the privilege?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you seen Arturo? Martha asked.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

What Mattered to Hannah

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

 

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

A Local Sighting, Part Two

 

Part One: Local Sighting

Part Two

 

You’ve just left the pool of Siloam. Your face is washed. Your eyes sparkle. And this time you are leading you mother. You find your way back to your neighborhood with familiar sounds and smells and now with fresh sights connecting the dots through firing synapses. You are almost there and you detect hubbub at the corner of Market St. And Way St.

Your neighbors, gathered, buzzing, are waiting for you. They want to see if you can see. But, they can’t believe their own eyes when you approach leading your mother and you are not hesitating with each step.

There’s a shout. “Isn’t this the man who used to sit here and beg? This is the corner Market St. and Way St., isn’t it?”

“Yes, and yes, it’s sure looks like him,” someone shouts.

“No, it isn’t!” another man shouts back. It’s got to be somebody else. These kinds of things don’t happen, not where I’m from anyway.”

As you approach the crowd you motion with your hand and say, “Yes, it’s me. Here’s my cup.”

“Well, then,” the one from out of town asks you, “how did your eyes get opened?”

“Those around me told me it was the man called Jesus! He made some mud. Then he spread it on my eyes. Then he sent me off to the pool of Siloam to wash. So, I went, and washed, and now I can see! I can see you.”

“And, we see you, but where is Jesus?” several ask you.

“I don’t know. I don’t know where to look. I’m new at this.”

Some men, eyewitnesses in fact, who were scandalized by the fact that Jesus may have broken some particular law on the sabbath, took you to the Pharisees for some jot and tittle questioning. The Pharisees had you start again:

“He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I can see!” You looked at them and saw their disbelief. Under your breath you said, “Ignoring reality will not go well for you.”

But they did and it did not go well.

Some of the Pharisees could no longer keep silent. “This man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the sabbath!”

Others said, “Yes, but, how can a sinner do signs like these?”

And so, the fact that you could now see had partys of Pharisees seeing things differently.

So, they questioned you again. This time they questioned the genesis of your sight.

“What have you got to say about him? they asked. He opened your eyes after all.”

“He’s a prophet,” you replied. You say Jesus is a prophet because unquestionable good is sent from God.

Doubting Judeans in the kangaroo court didn’t believe that you really had been blind from birth and now could see. So, they called your parents and grilled them.

“Is this man really your son,” they asked, “the one you say was born blind? How is it that he now sees?”

“Well, “replied your parents, who were very concerned about their synagogue status, “we know this he is indeed our son, and that he was born blind, but we don’t know how it is that he can now see, and we don’t know who it was who opened his eyes. Ask him! He’s a grown up. He can speak for himself.”

You knew that your parents knew how you came to see. You knew why they were holding back. They were afraid of what the leaders of the community would think of this yet inexplicable event. You also knew that you were blind from birth and that you were no longer sightless and that someone sent from God applied mud to your utter darkness. Reality would have to be dealt with at some point.

So, perhaps hoping to trip you up, you were called in for a second time of questioning. Some said the sabbath had been broken by Jesus-he did the unthinkable!

“Give God the glory!” they said. “We know that this man is a sinner.”

“I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not,” you replied. (You never claimed to be able to see into a man’s motives.) “All I know is this: I used to be blind, and now I can see.”

Incredulous, they prodded you again, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

(At this point you recalled the story of Elisha’s servant: Elisha had prayed, “Open my servant’s eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” The LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and the servant looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. “Don’t be afraid,” Elisha told his servant. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”)

Unafraid, you respond, “I told you already and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” With a new-found gleam in your eye you decide to throw a hot coal into the inquiry. “You don’t want to become his disciples too, do you?”

“You’re his disciple,” they scoffed, “but we are Moses’s disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man comes from.”

“Well, here’s a fine thing!” you replied. “You don’t know where he’s from, and he opened my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners; but if anyone is devout, and does his will, he listens to them. It’s never, ever been heard of before that someone should open the eyes of a person born blind. If this man isn’t sent from God, he couldn’t do anything.”

Rattled to the core, the Pharisees denounced you: “You were born in sin from top to toe. You are going to start teaching us?” They threw you out so as to not to be defiled in the sight of God or man. Jesus did the opposite.

Jesus heard that you had been thrown out. He found you at the corner of Market and Way streets talking to your neighbors. He walked up to you and asked,” Do you believe in the son of man?”

Scanning the face of Jesus, you reply, “Who is he, sir, so that I can believe in him?”

 

“You have seen him. In fact, it is the person who is talking to you.”

Now it seemed that all of your brain synapses were firing at once. And this came out of your mouth, “Yes, sir, I do believe.”

You fall to your knees and give God the glory. No one demanded it from you, you wanted to worship the son of man, the one sent from God, the giver of light.

Jesus looked down at you and then around at your neighbors and spectators and said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who can’t see would see, and that those who can see would become blind.”

Some of the spectators were Pharisees, the self-styled purveyors of “a light to the Gentiles”. They heard what Jesus said to the crowd. Indignant, they retorted, “So! We’re blind too, are we?” They weren’t expecting a Kingdom of God inversion, one that would turn their world upside down.

“If you were blind,” replied Jesus, “you wouldn’t be guilty of sin. But now, because you say, ‘We can see,’ your sin remains.

The Pharisees walked off in a huff. The crowd, in wonder, remained around you until sunset.

 

The next morning your father wakes you up. “C’mon. Get up. Now that Jesus has put things right for you there is work to be done. But first, come and see the sunrise.”

 

~~~

The above account is found in the Gospel of John chapter nine. My retelling of the account has been embellished. The scripture passages are referenced from, “The Kingdom New Testament, A Contemporary Translation”, N.T. Wright (I highly recommend this NT translation over the NIV or any other translation.)

Unchocked

Unchocked

(…a short story)

The cabin reservation was made the year before when Heinz turned in his vacation notice to his boss. Another machinist would have to run the vertical mill for the week Heinz was gone. Now it was just a matter of gathering all of the supplies he needed for the week and then head north to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. He also had to make sure he left things in their proper order.

Heinz, a tool and die maker for a small CNC machine shop on the near west side of Chicago had worked as a machinist for over thirty years.  Apprenticed in Hamburg, Germany as a teenager he came to America at the age of twenty with his new wife Gertrude.  He hoped to start his own machine shop with her as office manager but Gertrude contracted Polio during their voyage to America. When Gertrude died Heinz went on alone.  His work became his closest partner. He accepted all the job orders given to him and often worked twelve to fourteen hours a day six days a week.  The precision of his craft was his sole interest.

Over time Heinz had become the shop’s top machinist. It was said that if Heinz couldn’t form the part, no one else could. He apprenticed the younger guys but in this he didn’t have much patience or pleasure. He didn’t appreciate their cavalier attitude toward working with precise tolerances.  If the drawing said + or – .001 mm then that is what was required. He didn’t accept anything less than the perfection of specific numbers measured with fine gauges. He frowned at sloppiness and shoddy workmanship.

Shaping a block of steel and the cinnamon smell of the Tap Magic lubricant were elemental to Heinz’s way of life as were exact order and a respect for the tools of his trade. So it was that every night before he locked his eight drawer wooden tool chest he wiped down each of his machinist’s tools. He carefully cleaned his micrometers, the digital veneer calipers, the inside calipers and the steel rules. He wire-brushed the metal files and zeroed the dial indicators and digital protractor.  He wiped and reset the mechanic’s square to a right angle and inspected the scribe and pick. He lined up the telescope gauges, precision level, thread gauges, surface gauges and reamers each into in their drawer, carefully placing each measuring instrument in its proper place on the green felt liner.

After cleaning and inspecting his tools Heinz would brush the metal filings off of his work bench.  He would then sweep up the curly cue metal shavings around his mill and beneath his work bench.  He dabbed up the gritty oil at the foot of his mill and would then throw Oil Dry over it to soak up the tooling oil over night. He did this routine every day and again today at 4:15.  At 4:30 pm he punched out and left for a week of vacation.

During the week prior to his vacation Heinz purchased cans of groceries enough to last him a week. He bought three bottles of Steinhäger and a bottle of Schnapps. He knew he could find some good German beer in Germantown, Wisconsin, a stop along the way.

Though he lived his life in solitude Heinz never partook of alcohol during the time he wasn’t on vacation. He never went to a tavern. Instead, he always sought to maintain the austerity and self-control he thought a man should have. Precision marked the beginning and end of each of his days.

Heinz packed his 1960 BMW 700 and left that Friday night for Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The drive north to Germantown took Heinz about two hours from his Chicago apartment. Once there he quickly found the store where he had purchased his beer last year.  He purchased four 12-packs of Warsteiner Premium Verum and a few cigars.  He placed six bottles of Warsteiner into a cooler along with the schnapps. The cigars were placed in the glove compartment.

Rice Lake was another six-hour drive north. Heinz didn’t stop for dinner at one of the many supper clubs advertised along the way. He chewed on some beef jerky purchased with the beer.  Driving at night was all the more difficult for Heinz because of Heinz’s night blindness. He gripped the wheel at ten and two and stared straight ahead.  The white lane lines were ever in his view like tolerances to be held.

He entered the city limits of Rice Lake and drove through the only intersection with a stop light. He proceeded past the town and turned onto a gravel road about four miles north. After winding along a deeply grooved dirt road through a dense opine forest he came to an opening revealed by the office’s front porch light. He pulled over and stopped the car. Virginia, the cottage owner, greeted Heinz from the enclosed porch. A remote TV weather report sounded a cold front coming out of Superior Wisconsin.

“Heinz, it’s good to see you again. I have your cabin ready.” She opened her guest register. “It’s gonna get chilly tonight. Down to 32 degrees.  You’d better get that fireplace going.  There’s some dry wood along…you know where it is.”

Heinz nodded with blood-shot eyes. He handed her a check for the week’s rent and looked around at the small office attached to the house. The same carved woodsman cuckoo clock hung on the wall over the same cluttered desk. Heinz looked at his digital watch. The wall clock was six minutes slow or stopped. He was too tired to care.

Above the office’s small whirring refrigerator hung the same 1975 Norman Rockwell calendar from Martin’s drugstore.  Nothing had changed. Nothing was out-of-place. He felt his jaw slacken and he let out a sigh of relief. The smell of cedar somewhere in the room replaced the Tap Magic smell of his hands.

“Are you still cooking, Virginia?” Heinz asked.

“Will sauerbraten, red cabbage and spaetzle do?

“Only if you join me for dinner tomorrow night. I will bring the beer”

“It’s been a year, Heinz.”

“Yes, it’s been a year to the day and …two hours. I better get going and get that fire started.”

Heinz drove his car around to the one room cabin a quarter of a mile from the office. It was too dark to see the lake but Heinz could feel the expanse before him. A patter of rain began to fall on the cabin roof. Pine boughs swooshed around him with each gust of wind coming off the lake. Heinz unloaded the cooler and some boxes from the trunk of his car.  He carried them into the cabin and set them on the floor.

Without turning a light on he found the bed where it had been the year before and lay down. The constant focus on the road and the oncoming strobes of light had given Heinz a fierce headache. His neck was stiff, his forearms were tight and his hands still seemed to be clutching the steering wheel. He closed his burning eyes.

The rain began to fall more evenly. The wind was howling plaintively outside the cabin windows as if nature was trying to get in the cabin.  But with his eyes closed the monotonous lane soon appeared again.  After a few minutes he let his hands release their hold on earth.

Through a part in the calico curtains, a ray of sun shot through the room, glinted off a copper spoon hanging on the wall and struck the corner of Heinz’s eye.  He jerked upright wondering if he had overslept.  He looked at his hands if they would tell him what he needed to do.  After a couple of minutes he stood up and set the coffeepot going. As he turned on the burner he wondered if Jason, his latest apprentice, had remembered to turn on the mill’s lube pump. He bit is lip and then released the thought. Heinz had trained him well.

While Heinz stood on the porch surveying the lake the percolating coffee pot boiled over, sputtering coffee and grounds out of the pot’s spout.  “Damn,” he thought. The red-hot burner below sizzled and hissed.  Heinz came in and set the coffee pot on another burner.  He dabbed up the watery coffee grounds with paper towels and then poured himself a cup of coffee. This action made him think of Gertrude. She would have fussed over the mess he’d made but only for a moment.  Then she’d take his hand and say “You’re not at work.  Go sit down. I’ll take care of it.”

He opened a can of deviled ham and spread it on a slice of pumpernickel bread.  From the cooler he took out a hard-boiled egg.  He ate thinking about work and the whir of the lathe.  His knee bounced up and down nervously until he heard footsteps on the porch. It was Virginia. She cracked the door open.

“Hi, just came to check on you. You find everything alright?”

“Yah, I’m good here.”

“I have row-boat if you are interested in some fishing.”

“I may go out this morning to look around. The fog is lifting.”

“You know where to find me.”

“Yah, I will be over soon.”

Virginia left and Heinz returned to his breakfast.  The size-on-size fit of everyday life was being replaced by nature’s uncontrolled bluntness.   When he had finished breakfast Heinz fell back into his chair and let his shoulders drop. He wasn’t going to roll up his sleeves this week. The memory of Gertrude and the presence of Virginia would see to that.

Stiff from sleeping most of the night with his feet off the side of the bed Heinz ambled up to the office.  He was hoping his back and legs would soon loosen up. When he got to the office Virginia handed him the key to unlock the row-boat. When she handed him the oars she joked, “OK, mate, here’s your gear.” She had packed him a lunch.

“I thank you ma’am. Have I been away a year?  Does time stand still here? You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Only that old cuckoo clock stands still. I have to keep moving so the wrinkles don’t catch up.”

“Hah, you’ve done that! I’ll be back after lunch.” He headed out the door and then turned back to poke his head inside the doorway.  “Virginia, tonight…?”

“Still on.  I’ll be cooking this afternoon.  Catch me a lake trout and I’ll cook it. You clean it and I’ll cook it.”

“It’s a deal except I already caught me a can of herring. It’s in my cabin already to go.”

“You know the way to a women’s heart ~ prepared food.  See you tonight.”

With that Heinz walked down to the reedy shoreline where the row-boat was beached.  He unchained the boat, grabbed the oars and his bag lunch and pushed off the shore.

Heinz rowed slowly measuring the strength in his arms against the return distance.  When he had reached the middle of the lake Heinz stopped rowing and took in the familiar surroundings:  a featureless grey sky domed the lake today. The water lapping around his boat rippled with each tickling of wind.  Along the shoreline shoulder to shoulder pines stood in a dense lattice-work of deep blue-green. It was to this spot that Heinz returned every year. There were no tools, no work orders – only time and space in the queue.  It was here that life came to him outside the defined tolerances he worked with every day. And it was here that he sat in nature’s unfinished place, a precious commodity not mined and milled into an end product.

Heinz opened his bag lunch and pulled out a slice of pumpernickel bread and some Edam cheese. He opened a beer. While he ate and drank the lake breeze blew across his unshaven face. Hah!

Late in the afternoon Heinz rowed back to the shore.  He grabbed his things and headed back to the cabin. Nearby a common bathroom offered a hot shower.  He decided not to shave giving his hands some freedom from their regular duties. He showered and dressed in a clean pair of slacks and pullover shirt. He grabbed the tin of herring from the box and a cold six-pack of beer and headed over to the office.

As he arrived Virginia was finishing up registering a couple for the night.  Heinz overheard them talking:  they were on their way home from a week canoe trip outside of Ely, Minnesota. They were hoping for a hot shower.  Heinz told them to wait a bit.  The hot water had been used up during his shower.  He offered them a couple of beers instead for their wait. They accepted and headed off to their cabin.

“Heinz, my dear, you know how to finesse the customers.”

“That hot shower finessed me.”

‘You didn’t shave.”

“A man has got to know his limits and mine is shaving while on vacation. When it gets to long I’ll mill it off.”

“Pour me a glass will you Heinz?”

Heinz poured Virginia a tall glass of beer and set it behind her on the kitchen table.

“Put on some music. I’ve got some old records next to the couch.”

Heinz sat on the edge of the couch and looked through the collection of LPs. He chose the Warsaw Concerto by Addisnsell. Rachmaninov would be for another night.

Heinz set two places at the kitchen table and lit the candle. The flame listed every time he came in and out of the room.

Virginia grabbed the plates and spooned on red cabbage and spätzle.  She added sauerbraten to the plates. Dinner was served.

Heinz sat directly across from Virginia. The familiar food, the halo of candle light and the rush of arpeggios weakened his knees.  He was glad to be sitting. Virginia’s face was radiant, awash with both red and gold. The hot stove had flushed Virginia’s cheeks and the candle light gilded her features. If angels cook then he must be in heaven.

Heinz and Virginia didn’t discuss Heinz’ work when they were together. Virginia understood Heinz’s passion for precision and his irritation with sloppy work.   Virginia’s husband had been a tool and die maker for many years before he died.  Like Heinz he had worked with tight tolerances each and every day.  Virginia knew that Heinz’s visit’s to Rice Lake became a reprieve of sorts from the exacting measures that so drove his personality.

Heinz and Virginia would dine the same way each night.  Heinz would spend the day alone and the night he spent with Virginia. There would share beer, schnapps, cigars, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Chopin and Brahms.  They would play cards and near the end of the night dance to polka music. A time of remembering and a time of letting go met together each night.

After those evenings Heinz would fall into a deep sleep.  In the early morning hours vivid dreams would animate his sleep. He would see himself talking to him Gertrude about their new home in America. He saw his childhood home and the curs that came to their door for biscuits. He saw his father playing the violin while his mother cooked the family dinner.  He saw his childhood school and saw himself in his short pants.  He saw the shop in Hamburg where he apprenticed.  He saw the trolley that he brought him to school. And his dreams always included a machine shop. 

He dreamt of a 5 axis vertical mill, of fixtures and of metal shavings peeling off a turning steel bar.  He could smell the cinnamon scent of Tap Magic and see his hands chocking a 4140 steel bar into the spindle of the lathe. He saw himself aligning-centering-cutting-drilling-boring – sculpting steel into precision gears.  He saw himself being measured by a micrometer and a dial indicator checking spindle runout – Virginia holding the gauge! He saw himself checking hardness with a Rockwell tester and then falling off into deeper asleep again

As a strobe of morning sun came through the curtains laser-like onto his closed eyes half-asleep he would imagine the stamp of a time clock and bolt upright in bed. He would then sit rubbing the sun’s imprint from his eyes.  In those waking moments each night’s quickly vanishing dream passed through his mind.  What appeared to him in the night seemed to enact some absurdist play where memories – real people, times and objects – donned the surreal and came together on stage to wait for someone to come along and give meaning and direction to it all.

The days Heinz spent fishing he didn’t fish at all.  He never brought fishing tackle or a rod with him to Rice Lake.  Both he and Virginia knew that when Heinz said that he was going “fishing” he really meant that he needed to be alone. So it was that he would take the row-boat out to the middle of the lake and sit there letting time pass over him. Time could come and go as it pleased without the date time stamp his everyday life..

In the afternoons, before Heinz made the short walk up the hill to have dinner with Virginia he would settle into his cabin for nap. From a collection of LPs leaning next to the bureau Heinz would select an album of classical music.  He would choose Frederick Delius’ tone poems:  Song of Summer and A Walk to Paradise Garden or Dvorak’s New World Symphony or Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Reverie or Bach’s violin concertos. Bach had a way of resetting things for Heinz, of resolving any stress he felt in his neck and his hands.

After putting the needle down on the first track he would pull Virginia’s homemade afghan off of the high back chair and bring it with him over to the rug.  Lying on the floor eyes closed and covered with the afghan, just as he had done so many times before listening to his father play the violin, the music coursed through him and down into his hands where it was released.

Heinz’s father was concertmaster of the Philharmoniker Hamburg. His mother played the organ in their Lutheran church. Heinz was taught the piano and was made to practice rigorously until he began his apprenticeship. The metronome which had kept the strictest of time was exchanged for a time clock.

On the last night before Heinz returned to Chicago Virginia cooked sauerbraten. Heinz placed birch wood and kindling into the fireplace and began a fire. He lit the all candles and chose Chopin’s nocturnes for the dinner music.  He set the table.

Once again there was music and laughter and the shuffling of cards. And once again when the hour grew late they sat on the porch swing. Virginia would take his hands and hold them.  As if blind she would trace their outline with her fingers, her eyes reading some unseen message. His hands were calloused and leathery from use.  As she looked at them tonight she saw that they were etched with fine lines of dark grease like a charcoal drawing she had seen once.  These hands, like her husband’s, had held steel stock to be turned and milled and chamfered, steel to be transformed from block to bolt, from stock to shaft.  On this night friendship’s annealing process, a slow working stress relieving process that had both softened and solidified his soul over time brought tears to his eyes. And when she took his hands into hers he could sense the weight of what felt like a massive headstone of grief being taken from him. The night came to an end when he kissed her deeply and held her tightly under the chromatic gauze of the northern lights.

On Sunday morning Heinz packed his car and drove up to the office.  Virginia was waiting at the desk preparing checkout bills for the guests. Heinz asked for the bill and she handed it to him.  Heinz paid the bill and then looking at Virginia he said, “They broke the mold when they made you.” 

With a smile she replied, “Well, then you old machinist, you’ll just have to come back and take some more measurements.”

Heinz smiled, “I’ll be back next year if you can stand it.”

“I’ll be right here with this old cuckoo clock ~ me and time standing still.

“Bye, kiddo.”  Heinz kissed Virginia and headed out the door.

The Sunday trip driving back top Chicago took him most of the day because all the weekenders were heading home. When he finally reached his apartment he unloaded the car and put away his things.  He set the alarm clock for 5:30 am.

 The next morning he clocked in at 5:52 am.  At 8:30, his break time, he had handed the shop manager his vacation request for the next year ~ two weeks off the clock for recalibration.

© Sally Paradise, 2012, All Rights Reserved

***** 

Work

WORK

(a short story)

So last night I watch this movie, “Into The Wild”, about this young guy who leaves everything behind and heads to Alaska. I sit back in my chair and I cry. I was headed in that same direction in 1972.

In those days, I left my dorm room at Moody Bible Institute one night and walked home. I just kept walking. I walked fifteen miles. I walked from the Des Plaines EL station to Addison, fifteen miles. My mother cried that night. The school called my father. He called his friends. I show up at the house at 10:30 pm. I hugged my mother and I went to bed.

So the next day, my father makes me scrambled eggs and then he drives me back to Moody. I talk to twenty people. I talk to the men’s assistant dean of students and he tells me that men have cycles like women do. I listen but my head is in Alaska. He asks me if I want a new roommate. I say, “Yes. I don’t want to room with someone named Tim.” I tell him that my first year roommate was Tim from Indianapolis. My second year roommate was Tim from Pennsylvania. The school gives me a new roommate. His name is Steve. We become good friends, in fact, great friends. One Friday night, in my dorm room, I get a call from the men’s assistant dean of students. He tells me that Steve was killed in a car accident on the way to his wedding rehearsal. He fell asleep behind the wheel of his car driving in Kansas. I stay at school to finish the semester and then I leave and I don’t come back.

Three months later my dad comes in my room and wakes me up. He says, “You gotta get up. You can’t sleep anymore. You gotta work. You gotta find a job.” So I get dressed, eat scrambled eggs and I walk to the industrial section of Addison. In the industrial park I look for signs in the front yards of factories. “Help Wanted. Machine Operator” the sign says. I apply.

Inside the factory a man tells me my job. “Take the plastic pieces that come out of here and then grind them over here.” So I take the plastic pieces and I grind them but my head is in Alaska. I walk away from the job during my coffee break. The man calls my dad and he tells him that I walked away. I go look for another job.

At another factory a man hires me. He tells me that I will operate a plastic extruder on the second shift. I say “OK” and I show up that night. Someone shows me the end of the extruder. There are strands of hot plastic coming out of the extruder’s die. The strands are pulled under water to cool and then a blower dries them off. Then, the strands are chopped into pellets. The man tells me to keep my hands out of the pelletizer. I remember this. My job is to keep the extruder hopper full of regrind, keep the plastic strands in their path and empty the pellets into a box. I do this until the third shift guy appears. He is a tall, lanky black man in a jumpsuit. He is carrying a Yankee Doodle Dandy Hamburger in his hand.

I process plastic for the next six years. I also get married to someone I meet at church. We have two sons. I tell my bride-to-be that I want to live in Alaska. I tell her that I have collected maps and books about how to live in the wild. She tells her mother. Her mother tells her that I am crazy. Her mother wants her grandchildren to be close. We divorce after five years and two sons.  Alaska is on hold until the majority age of minor children.

So I work and I work and I work. I become a designer of plastic machines. I become director of engineering. I become a partner in a manufacturing company and I get married again. I tell my bride-to-be that I want to go to Alaska. She tells her mother. Her mother says that I am crazy. Her mother wants her grandchildren to be close. So, I work and I work and I work. I work night and day as a partner. I make a six figure income. I get a Suburban. I get a company credit card. I have twenty-five people working under me. I work so much that when my wife takes the Suburban on camping trips with the kids she says that she doesn’t know if she wants to come back. I went to work and I came home to an empty house. When she was home and I was home, my wife and I would fight. The way I figured it, she wanted more of what my well-paying job offered her but she wouldn’t stand me at the same time. I worked and worked and I worked until one day I told my partners that I wanted to quit.

So, I left the company I helped to start fourteen years before. I left the partnership and the perks behind. I came home and looked in the paper in the help wanted section. I looked and I looked and I looked but there was nothing. I refinanced our home to pay the bills. After three months my wife tells me, “I want a separation.” I cry.

So, we go to marriage counselors. First we go to a male counselor and then we go to a female counselor and then we go to a male counselor. My wife is convinced that I have something on my mind, that I don’t love her. I don’t mention Alaska. After some counseling, we agree to live to together again. My wife says, “I’ll see how you do.”

So I find a job and I go to work. This time I build electrical control panels. I work and I work and I work but the money is not the same as the partnership money. One day the manager takes me in his office and tells me, “Things are slow. We are downsizing. We are closing this branch. We don’t have any openings in our home office in Janesville, Wisconsin.” I say, “Oh.” I call my wife and we meet at a restaurant because I want to tell her in person what happened. I drink two gin and tonics while I am waiting for her to show up. I look out the window and see her pull up in our rusty family van. She comes in and sees me drinking and she wonders what’s up and I tell her. She asks me what I am going to do and I tell her, “I will look for work.”

So I look in the Help Wanted Ads in the newspaper. No jobs. I file for unemployment. Three months later my wife says she wants a separation. I say, “No.” She says, “Get out or I will force you out.” I leave. I go to a hotel. I get a room and call my kids.

So that night I watch this movie, “Into The Wild”, about this young guy who leaves behind everything and heads to Alaska. I sit back in my hotel chair and I cry. I was headed in that same direction in 1972.

© Sally Paradise, 2010, All Rights Reserved

*****

Hard Sun – Eddie Vedder

Wild Horses

Wild Horses

(two guys take a road trip)

1971 and counting…

The journey of a lifetime was being nixed at the first intersection. Boyd pulled up to the red light in the middle of our town.  He braked and the Caddy stopped dead.  There was nothing lit up on the driver panel – no “BATT” light, no “CHECK ENGINE” light, nothing. The Marantz stereo we placed on the back seat hump coasted to a stop.  As it did the Lizard King’s voice churned down Riders On the Storm with a demonic basso profundo until the needle stopped sucking sound.  Could a journey of a thousand miles end with a single stoplight?

Before the trip my mom had said “Go.” Boyd’s mom handing Boyd the Amoco gas card said “Go,” They both said, “Be careful.” So we went. So we thought.

 Boyd and I sat in the Caddy facing a green light with dashed hope silence. There was no crank of the engine, no radio, no stereo rush, just a mortifying silence a half mile into our road trip. We looked at each other and then over at the Saint Jude medallion dangling from the rear view mirror.  The “Pray for us” entreaty quickly came out of limbo. A horn blast broke our abject reverie and we jumped out of the car.

 Boyd popped the hood and looked into the vast Caddy cavern. The engine gave no indication of changing its mind. The emergency light wasn’t working so I stood behind the car and waved folks around. Boyd ran over to the library and made a call home: “Mom we are stuck at the intersection of Kennedy Drive and Lake Street.  The car just stopped dead.”

The Caddy was Boyd’s dad’s idea.  He thought we would be safer driving the massive armored vehicle instead of Boyd’s sporty cruiser, a Chevy Caprice.  But the journey of a thousand miles would restart with the Caprice.

Boyd’s mom drove the Caprice over to where we were stranded.  We unloaded our gear from the Caddy into the Caprice.  Boyd reconnected the AC cord of the Marantz to the dc to ac converter plugged into the cigarette lighter.  We were good to go musically.  Hope started charging the moment the Caprice cranked over.  We thanked Boyd’s mom and drove off leaving her to wait for the tow truck.

After a couple of hours driving we had left Illinois behind.  Boyd drove the whole first day and night of the trip.  No-Doz, Dr. Pepper and a BTO album kept Boyd’s hand thumping the dashboard for hours on end. We puffed on Dutch Master Panetelas as he drove us through Wisconsin and through Minnesota and then into South Dakota, clicking off mile after mile, ash after ash. While he drove I lay back in my seat, eyes half-open, as the day turned to night before us.  When it became dark I wondered if Boyd could stay awake the whole night staring at the two-lane monotony always just headlights away.   As DJ Denny I was soon charged with changing the records and keeping him alert. Bumps in the road and lane changes kept me busy returning the wandering needle to its groove.

South Dakota:  grasslands, vast open landscape, not a building in sight. In the early morning hours back-lit by the sunrise, the tall wheat grass looked like golden blond hair as it was brushed by the wind.  After fourteen hours we let the turn table go silent.  When we did I heard other music playing outside the open car window – ancient music streaming in the wind.  The cessation of all that I knew from a life in Chicago and the revelation of sights and sounds I never knew somehow caused ancient memories to stir up in me, a mystical vision of a boy running free – no shirt, no shoes, just earth and boy and wind.  Snap! A Wall Drug billboard appeared and then another and another. Burma Shave Lives on:  GET A SODA…GET A ROOT BEER…TURN THE CORNER…JUST AS NEAR…TO HIGHWAY 16 AND 14
FREE ICE WATER…WALL DRUG.

What great wonder of the world awaited us?  Boyd drove us past the endless signs to that middle of nowhere – the town of Wall, South Dakota, home of Wall Drug.  The promise of free ice water noted on the drug store’s ubiquitous billboards along I- 90 had wetted our interest.

Wall Drug was just what my post card thought’s had pictured: Indian lore and artifacts packaged for tourists along with food, souvenirs, polished stones, rubber tomahawks, prescription drugs and the free bottle of ice cold water. When we got back to the Caprice a Wall Drug bumper sticker was affixed to the rear bumper – a billboard to go:

“WHERE THE HECK IS WALL DRUG?”

We set off with our free ice water and our newly labeled rear end and headed for the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands and the Corn Palace.  I queued up Paul and Linda McCarthy’s Ram album. Out came “Too Many People,” “Three Legs,” “Ram On.”   The Beatles were breaking up in our back seat.

“Looking for a home in the heart of the country….Heart of the country, where the holy people grow, Heart of the country, smell the grass in the meadow.”

We exited I-90 at Rapid City and drove south to Custer State Park.  After scratching our heads we left. We followed Iron Mountain road out of the eastern gate of Custer State Park.  The road’s corkscrewing “pigtail” bridges and three narrow honk-your-horn-through-the-rock tunnels wound us through the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore. As we drove out of one tunnel the chalk-white “Shrine of Democracy” appeared before us in the receding aperture.  We had come out of the rabbit-hole of the sixties and face to face with our forefathers. We sat up straight in our seats.

As we stood on Mt.Rushmore’s viewing terrace I was hoping to see Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint but not James Mason.  I was in a North by Northwest latitude of mind.  With some intrigue in mind I did put some tokens into a telescope. I was hoping to catch someone hanging from the nose of a president but all I saw was a few eroded pores. Stone faces don’t do anything for me.

That night we decided to camp at Mount Rushmore National Park. Red – eyed and saddle-sore, we had been driving since 2:00 in the afternoon the day before.  It was now 7:30 pm Saturday.  Fortunate for us the gods behind the stone faces smiled down upon us:  we were able to get the last open spot on the campground.  After pitching our two-man tent on a floor of pine needles we crawled into our sleeping bags.  We let sleep overcome us – screaming kids, barking dogs and banging pots not withstanding.

The next morning’s commotion gave us a start.  Folks were packing kids and camping gear into their cars and leaving the park. We didn’t start a fire or make coffee.  We pissed, packed the tent and drove back to Rapid City where there was a Waffle house and breakfast.

After some scrambled eggs and toast and plenty of coffee we pulled onto I-90 heading northwest.  I put the needle down on BTO’s groove “Taking Care of Business.” Boyd again thumped the dashboard as we drove past Sturgis into Wyoming.  We drove past Sundance and then Gillette.  We turned south and headed to Casper passing the Hole-In-The Wall hideout.  We had heard that Butch and Sundance were out of the country so we didn’t stop and say “Hi.”

After an early supper in Casper we made the Grand Teton National Forest by twilight.  On a bluff that overlooked Jackson Lake’s Spalding Bay we set up our tent. The once-in-a-lifetime view: the cerulean blue lady of Jackson Lake had put on a string of diamonds that sparkled as the sun set.

The air that night was crisp and clean, full of promise. We slept like two bears in hibernation.  I finally woke the next day when I stretched out my legs and my feet touched the cool damp edge of the tent.  I poked myself out of the tent and found the same morning dew had been soaking the bottoms of my shoes. “Hey, Boyd wake up.  Look at this.”

With one last snort Boyd roused and fumbled out the tent, one leg in his pant’s the other caught in the tent.  “What?”

“Look!” I pointed.

Boyd’s jaw dropped.

All around our tent there were huge paw prints in the damp earth.  A bear had been stalking our campsite during the night.  “Whew!” –  our collective thought blurt out from our ashen faces. We were relieved that we had not been mistaken for food and that the cache of food we had brought with was safely packed in the car’s trunk ~ a two-week supply of beef jerky, spam and bottles of Dr. Pepper. As far as I was concerned, though, the bear could have the jerky.  GIGO, as they say.

Now Boyd liked to keep moving. He was not ADD.  He was ASAP. His mom told me one day that “you never know with Boyd.  Boyd goes wherever the wind takes him at the moment.”  Boyd was my Dean Moriarty. So every day, On the Road, wind at our backs, we drove like the world was holding out on us.

For the both of us movement meant music.  Boyd brought his LP and eight track collection and I brought my LPs: Boyd’s road tunes: Bachman Turner Overdrive (BTO), the Beatle’s White Album, McCarthy’s Ram, The Bee Gees, Barry Manilow (yes, Barry Manilow), Jefferson Airplane. Mine:  Chicago Transit Authority, Blood Sweat and Tears, Bill Chase:  Chase, The Doors, Sargent Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the Woodstock soundtrack, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River, Moody Blues Every Good Boy Deserves Favour .  Mile markers, grooves, tracks and flashbacks – we let the RPMs take us.

Driving up to Yellowstone was a panoramic delight.  We “aw”-ed at the sight of Old Faithful, we laughed at the “blup blup” of the Mud Volcano erupting and pinched our noses at the rotten egg smell of the Sulphur Caldron – the bounty of good earth filled our senses.

From Yellowstone we headed south to Wind River Indian Reservation.  We set up our tent in the early evening in a nearby campsite and started a fire.  Boyd stirred up some Sanka. 

We sat by the crackling pine needle fire until the reflective light of the moon flooded directly down onto us through the towering jack pines.  Branches scratched each other in the night breeze. After a while we decided to hike over to a treeless area we could make out at the edge of our forest canopy. As we did we came upon a creek bed lay that lay at an opening in the side of a deep ravine. 

It appeared that a mighty river had once flowed through the rock, its torrent gouging a deep channel through the sandstone and later breaking out the gulch before us.  But now instead of a large swift river forcing it way upon the landscape, a shallow unhurried stream silently passed over a bed of smooth stones and sand. The desultory shimmer of wet stone offered teasing glimpses of the moon’s face from earth.  Boyd and I sat down near the stream on a fallen grey tree trunk. Our short shadows floating on the stream.

I saw her then, a silhouette of a young woman with waist length hair.  She was kneeling at a bend in the stream.  She looked to be a cutout of the Indian princess on the Land-O-Lakes butter package. (My fantasies always include food.)  Kneeling about twenty feet from where we sat she turned toward us.  I met her gaze.  The next thing I knew my legs were carrying me over to where she knelt.  Funny things, legs, but I guess when you are seventeen and having just graduated from high school the torrent of impulse is unleashed within you moving your legs before all else.  

The moon,” was all I got out and I sat down next to her feet.  The moon’s ethereal light dappled our faces with faint glow. We sat silently for a while, my fearlessness now speechlessness. And while I waited for my impulse to catch its breath I hoped that she would say something.

 “I’m Anna.”

“I’m Denny. Hi.”  I looked over at her hoping to see more of her face but it was in shadow.

“Hi.”

After a couple of awkward minutes she said, “My folks are taking us to California for vacation. I’m from Rapid City, South Dakota.”

“I’m from Chicago.”

“I can tell.”

“How’s that?”

“Guys from Chicago talk like Chicago. You know, like their chewing on meat and potatoes when their talking to you, like regular guys. That’s what my mom says about her dad.  He’s from Chicago.”

“I didn’t know I was regular until today. I do like my mom’s pot roast.”

“Regular is good.  It means you are who you are and not something else. I could sense it before I walked out here alone.”  She turned quickly toward the trees. “I am not alone.  My parents are right over there in the camper, so I am not alone. See?”

I looked where she looked and nodded.  “OH.  OK then. I am regular.” I said looking at her. “Regular is good. So be it.”

From behind me came the sound of a small rumble and then a loud splashing of hoofs followed by neighs and whinnies. A herd of wild horses ~ Mustangs ~ appeared out of the east ravine passage. They stopped right in front of Boyd to slurp up the clear water. 

It was midnight and a dreamscape: wild horses standing in a quick sliver stream, my hand now in hers, the moon’s pale illumination casting a black and white surrealism onto the ravine walls and Boyd, a shadow, sitting alone on a log.  I shook off my dream.

I said good night to Anna telling her that I hoped we’d meet again in another dream and walked over to where Boyd sat.  He had been whittling a pine branch into what looked like a spear.  I sat down and together we watched the horses until they chased each other down the stream and out of our view. We returned to our tent for the night. The Dream followed me there.

*****

One fine morning, girl, I’ll wake up
Wipe the sleep from my eyes
Go outside and feel the sunshine
Then I know I’ll realize
That as long as you love me, girl, we’ll fly

And on that mornin’ when I wake up
I’ll see your face inside a cloud
See your smile inside a window
Hear your voice inside a crowd
Calling, “Come with me baby and we’ll fly”

Yeah, we’ll fly-y-y, yeah, we’ll fly
We’ll fly-y-y, yeah, we’ll fly

*****

Later, Boyd said he didn’t mind about me and the girl.  But he did begin to mind when I met another girl on our trip to England and then another on a trip to Miami and then another on our trip around the Great Lakes. I was happy when began to talk about a girl he liked at church.  I hoped she liked him.

*****

Wyoming was a state of mind that I didn’t want to leave.  I vowed to return and make my home among the broncos.  Denver was next on our road trip.  Our former pastor lived in a suburb of Denver and Boyd decided that we should surprise him by showing up at his church office.  The pastor gulped when he saw us.

Pastor Renz greeted us and then invited us to his home for lunch. We ate PB & J sandwiches and drank lemonade.  His told us that his wife was out-of-town so we sat with him and his three sons on their patio. During lunch we chatted about our trip and about our home town and then we said goodbye.  This side trip was important for Boyd.  Years before I had brought Boyd to our church.  This pastor had led Boyd to the Lord.  Boyd wanted to see him one more time and thank him. As his mother said Boyd was impulsive in every way.  The high RPMs of his soul kept us moving quickly in some direction – a direction we’d figure out on the way.

After lunch Boyd’s compass pointed northeast and to Estes Park, Colorado.  We made our way to this mountain town where the bindle bums of the sixties had come to find a Rocky Mountain High – hippies and tie-dye shrines were everywhere among the polished stone and incense shops.  Guitars were being strummed by glazed eyed folk singers warning of the world’s destruction at the hands of the Man. We quickly left town after stocking up on a supply of beef jerky and Mountain Dew.  We soon found a campsite along Silver Creek.

Our rented patch of earth for that night was no more than six feet by five feet. It sat right on the edge of a small bubbling creek.  All the other campsites were taken for the night. With no space to build a fire and an itch to do something we left the tent and drove around until we found a sign for a drive-in movie theatre nestled within the steep mountain valley.  An hour before the movie began we bought our tickets. To pass the time we sat on the hood of the Caprice eating popcorn watching the sunset gild the mountain ridges.

By 9:30 the mountains had shuttered off light on all sides except for the corona of moonlight directly above us. The previews began to roll and then came the main feature:  Le Mans with Steve McQueen. There were Porsches and Ferraris burning up the track.  There were more wild horses, more RPMs. All good until the screen went blank after the credits.  Everyone had driven off except us.  The Caprice wouldn’t start. Then the drive-in manager shut off the food stand lights. Our race car wasn’t going anywhere.  Boyd wiggled the battery cable but the battery had been DOA.

After talking to the drive–in manager Boyd made a phone call, this time to AAA.  An hour later a tow truck chained our fate to its cantilever pulley and hauled us over to a darkened Amoco gas station.  The sign on the door told us the station opened at seven am.  We got back into the car and slept restlessly wondering if seven o’clock MST was ever going to show up like it did in CST.  I also began to realize that Beef jerky and popcorn don’t come together for your enjoyment.

At seven-o-five a mechanic pulled his pickup into the driveway of the gas station. He got out of the truck, dropped his mouth open at the sight of us and then spat some brown liquid twenty feet behind him.  He then walked over to front of the gas station and unlocked the garage door. He then set about brewing some coffee. When the muck he was brewing had finally stopped belching he offered it – an oily looking residue with islands of powdered cream floating on top – in a grimy Styrofoam cup. The lack of air at that altitude must have deprived my brain of needed oxygen. I drank the coffee.

While the mechanic installed a new battery we called home.  We wanted to let our parents know that we hadn’t fled the country to avoid the draft. We were “OK” we told them, “just more battery problems.”  We set out again confident that we were firing on all electrolyte cells.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet.” The drive through Rocky Mountain National Park lifted our spirits skyward but the dizzying drop offs and the struggling out-of-breath car are the things I remember. And the feeling of being at the top of the world with eagles, soaring.

After descending the mountains our trip began to take on a deliberate speed.  We had tired of sleeping on the hard ground and the endless ribbon of highway unreeling in our sleep. We drove across Colorado to a town on its western edge, the town of Dinosaur. This small town and its streets were so named because of their proximity to Dinosaur National Monument – the home of prehistoric fossil beds. The rocky ridges along the highway leading to Dinosaur gave the appearance of exposed dinosaur backbones.

After a brief glimpse in the direction of epochs and eras Boyd pushed the “Fast Forward” button on the floor of the Caprice.  From Dinosaur we drove into Utah so we could say that we had been to Utah. We found a campsite east of Vernal. In the morning we headed southeast to Grand Junction Colorado and then up and around Denver and straight for Kansas.  We camped that night outside Salina Kansas, under a large oak tree.  The next day I wondered if I would see Jim Ryan, the first high-school cross-country runner to break a four-minute mile, run past us as we drove through his home state.

Topeka came and went.  We drove into and across Missouri. We spent the night at a St. Louis West Route 66 KOA campsite.  After breakfast in St. Louis we sped a northeast diagonal across Illinois prairie up to our homes outside of Chicago. Even wild horses need their batteries recharged.

© Sally Paradise, 2012, All Rights Reserved

“One Fine Morning” lyrics by Lighthouse, © OLE MEDIA MANAGEMENT LP

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lighthouse_(band)