An uncertain future

viet-nam

Brian and Judy had a favorite spot to picnic, on a granite bluff overlooking the ocean. Warm summer updrafts carried the sound of waves up from below. The last time they visited what they called their “private place,” they made love. No one had noticed. Not a soul.

Disposable glasses of wine went deep ruby red in the mid-day sun. After lunch, they talked for a little while. Their conversation soon became hushed whispers of love lost in a seagull chorus.

Spent, they edged toward the edge of their cliff. Looking out from their special place, the sandy shoreline below went on forever.

Judy propped her chin on an elbow, “Isn’t this beautiful?”

A breath of salty sea air pushed Brian’s hair straight up, “Yes, honey. It is. I’ve dreamed of this place. A sad dream. One I can’t shake free. We’re in our private peace and I look down from the bluff. When the birds go quiet, the sound of an ocean wave crashing along the shoreline is like an oil painting on canvas being torn from corner to corner.

Fran touched his cheek and thought, “How can I not love this man?”

She wrote to him every Sunday, from that day forward. Willie came home from Viet Nam three years later. The loss of one his hands and a leg mattered not. They embraced tight for three full minutes. Tears of love and sweetest joy bathed each other’s shoulders.

The lovers never returned to their bluff overlooking the ocean. It wasn’t necessary. Their private place had become sacred in their hearts. And they kept the memory of it locked away forever.

 

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Sunday dinner

Max's Roasted Chicken

 

David noted the crocheted cloth that covered the dinner table. And he didn’t miss the fact that Liz had a new hairstyle. The aroma from the serving platter caressed his salivary glands. And when he pulled up a chair, passion or serendipity sat down once more.
Grandma Doyle, “Nana” to the seven others at the table, was in her favorite place, next to David, “Okay everybody quiet down. Liz, go ahead and say Grace today, I’m too tuckered out.”
The dining room hushed. Nana closed her hands, propped up her head, and shut her eyes in prayer.
“Heavenly Father,” Liz said softly, “We thank You for your everlasting love. Stop that Timmy, you wait for the meal with all of us.”
Timmy, seven years old, had a black eye. He squirmed, and bowed his head.
“Thank you Lord for helping David. He passed his bar exams. We also thank you f…”
“Crack!” Nana’s lower denture eased from her bottom jaw. It landed, dead center, on her dish.
Timmy leaned toward the old woman, “Go Nana! Spit out the other one!”
Nana sat motionless; head cradled between her fists. Her remaining denture sprang from her mouth, followed the same route as the former, and landed on her dinner plate. A tooth separated from its mount and spun like a piece of candy corn.
Liz looked hard at Grandma. “Nana, are you okay? You’re awfully pale.”
David leaned close to Nana and then turned to Liz. “I don’t think she’s breathing.”
“Do something!” Liz shouted, “Nana, Nana, wake up!”
David grasped Nana’s forearm, “You okay Nana?”
The old lady moaned. Her chin slid from her fists, and her head fell to her plate.
Little Timmy beamed, “If Nana ain’t gonna eat her pie today, can I have her slice?”

Sour Pickles

sour-pickle

My lips get all twitchy when I think about just how sour a sour pickle is. They always react like that.

I grew up close to a major thoroughfare that funneled traffic toward the center of the city. Buses stopped, on my side of an intersection, in front of Carbone’s store. This was the “go-to” place for pedestrians to buy newspapers, fresh fruit, magazines, candy bars, cherry Cokes, ice cream sundaes, and other treats. Bus riders bounced down the steps of the vehicle, and most filed directly into the store. The odor of diesel fumes hung around the outside of the shop, and the smells of fresh apples, oranges, and bananas greeted you the minute you stepped through the door.

Mr. Carbone lined up small sacks of peanuts in the shell, in a gleaming brass and copper peanut steamer, just outside the entrance to the shop. When the temperature inside the contraption rose to a certain point, pressurized steam carried the yeasty aroma of hot peanuts through a shiny brass whistle. Everyone within earshot of the screeching whistle knew that the peanuts were ready, and most of them bought a sack.

I really liked the store because of the sour pickles they sold from a huge barrel-shaped glass jar. The jar was located on a marble-topped counter in the rear of the store.

As soon as the heavy lid left its home on the pickle jar, everyone stepped back, away from the assault on their olfactory senses. Carbone’s sour pickles were no kin to the finger-sized pickles you buy at a supermarket. These babies were huge, fat, slippery, green bombs of whole, tartly embalmed cucumbers.

They stewed in pickle juice so tangy and sour that the clerk quit breathing as soon as he removed the lid. He’d ask, “Which one?” and then take a deep breath, and hold it, while he probed for your selection with long-handled tongs. He’d carefully raise my emerald beauty out of the jar, wrap it in waxed paper, and hand it to me. I’d thank him and, salivating nearly beyond control, pay for my purchase at the register by the front door.

Giant, old-fashioned, sour pickles magically lift your spirits, even if you’re feeling glum, sad, bereft, or just plain down in the dumps. When you bite down on one of these khaki-colored torpedoes, and the pickle-liquor squirts halfway down your throat, a bright flash of sour pickle reality suddenly imbues you with enlightenment, and the whole world comes into perspective.

I find it difficult to speak after I chomp the first few bites of a sour pickle. I don’t know why, but the pickle juice always starts a revolt in my mouth between my sense of taste and smell. It’s difficult to explain, but I can taste the smell of the pickle. The sourness of the fermented pickling liquid makes the inside of my jowls tingle. My lips get tight and tingly. They twist and contort into a great, tightly wound pucker. That’s a genuine conversation stopper. I’m always better off alone when I eat a sour pickle.

A sour pickle is a cooling treat during the heat of the summer. In the middle of winter, strangely, eating a sour pickle has a warming effect. A person can satisfy serious hunger pangs with a sour pickle and not yearn for food for at least four or five hours.

Sometimes, I laugh at how idiotic I must look when I eat a sour pickle. I wonder how anyone can possibly enjoy and savor anything so sour, not only once, but time after time. Sour pickle aficionados spend many years of their lives anxiously awaiting and preparing for the shock of their “first bite,” over and over again.

Carbone’s store is no longer there. I make my own sour pickles now, in a large earthenware crock, out back in the shed. I’m headed there now—for a pickle hit.

Note: The above is a short story taken from my book Sour Pickles, ANvils, and Union Suits.

Whisperin’ Jim

subway-station

I loved my life of an urban dweller. I embraced my neighborhood and those who called it home. I worked in an office building not far from where I lived.

 A small park was directly across the street from my office. On nice days, I’d spend my lunch break on a bench in the shade, or sun, depending on the time of the year. That’s where I first met James Beaufort Wellington. And with a name like his, I expected a Roman numeral to follow Wellington.

 I was sitting on a bench in the park, the first time we met.  He drove toward me on a motor scooter that made no noise. He and his little transport appeared to float along, with hardly a sound. He stopped at a bench that faced mine. A wide sidewalk between us.

 He flicked a switch on the bike’s handlebar, dismounted, leaned the machine against one end of the bench, removed a bright yellow helmet, plopped on the bench, and murmured “Ahhhhhh.”

 A big man. There was no room for anyone to sit next to him. He and his helmet took up the seating area. A light breeze ruffled shocks of his white hair, and he rummaged for something in a pocket of his army fatigue jacket.

 He pulled out a white plastic sack, the kind you get in that store that so famous across the country, and unwrapped what must have been a one pound slab of yellow cheese, still in its original sealed wrapper.  

 A pocket knife appeared in his hand, and he slit open the clear plastic and with his thumb and forefinger, lopped off a large corner of cheese. And with the yellow tidbit still on the blade, transferred it to his mouth.

 I heard “Ummmm” from where I sat.

 The cyclist reached into another pocket, and withdrew a stubby tube of summer sausage. He worked at the wrapper expertly with his knife. In a flash, he’d cut a disc of sausage and popped it into his mouth.

 Another, “Ummmmmm.”

 My mouth salivated and I couldn’t help it.

 His face shifted, and he looked directly at me. “Want summa this buddy? It’s damn tasty.”

 I couldn’t believe my response. “Sure. You bet. You make it look so good.”

 He waved me toward him with his pocket knife. I crossed the sidewalk as he expertly cut another hunk of cheese, and placed it on a thick round of sausage.

 “Here ya go. Enjoy.” He held his knife blade over my extended hand and flicked the food into my palm.

“Thank you” I said, and nibbled some cheese.

“You’re welcome, and my name’s Jimmy. A lot of folks around know me as Whisperin’ Jim. I’d ask you to sit down, but it’d be a tight squeeze.”

“Oh I’m fine Jimmy. I’ll stand and enjoy my food. It’s good by the way. Do you work near here? My building is across the street.”

 “I’m retired. I do some stuff in my home office, and I like to drive my bike around. I often take a break right here. I live on St. Stephen Street, about three blocks down, and to the right.”

 “You do? I live on St. Stephen Street too. Which building are you in?”

Whisperin’ Jim was an engineering scientist who’d retired a few years prior to our meeting. His area of expertise was automotive propulsion, and he invented a fuel that was easy to produce and practically less expensive than water. He demonstrated his invention at a meeting with members of the big five auto manufacturers, and representatives from the top three fuel companies. And it frightened them to death.

 They realized that if Jimmy patented and marketed his invention, they’d need to retool all their future vehicles, and even more catastrophic than that, the fuel producers would never recover from such a heavy financial hit,

Three months after their meeting, Jimmy accepted a check, drawn on a private account, for the purchase of all present and future rights to his invention. The amount was 55 million dollars.

 We were solid friends for the four years I knew him. I can see him still, in my mind, gliding up to “his” park bench on his machine.

 At least when he went, it was quick.

Jimmy didn’t wear a suit very often, but on the day he died, he wore a specially tailored three piece suit, a brand new pair of leather shoes, and a fedora hat.

Jimmy was waiting for a subway train. He stood at the lip of the platform, like we all do, to get a better look down the tracks. He was on his way to a bar mitzvah of a friend’s son, and just as the subway train began to slow he cut loose a tremendous sneeze, and his new shoes slipped on the concrete surface.

He fell over the platform’s edge, and under the wheels of the train.  I was there, holding his bike. After they carried him off in four baskets, I locked his bike in a garage in an alley behind his apartment building.

 Three years later after his death, to the date, a van driver rang my door bell. “I have a delivery for you, it’s a motorbike.”

A courier came by the same day, with a thick envelope from an attorney. I tore it open and found a handwritten note, “I don’t need the bike anymore, my friend. It’s yours, with a little something for fuel.”

 I donated the bike and the five-thousand dollars, in Jim’s name, to a neighborhood organization called KWP; kids without parents. I’ll never forget the big guy who liked cheese and sausage.

Note: The above is from a work in progress.

 

 

The spirit chaser

nseboston-home

Gabe Nash, a videographer, was late. The paranormal investigation was scheduled to begin a half hour before he made it to the address.  “Tough luck”, he thought, “I can’t control the gridlock. Saturday night congestion in any big city is chaos of the first degree.”

 The front door to the Victorian brownstone swung open before his finger hit the bell button. A man whose head nearly touched the top of the door frame looked down and said, “Gabe. Come in. Wait until You meet her; the paranormal expert. She’s fantastic, and she doesn’t charge much. C’mon in, her name is Shiloh…that’s it just Shiloh. Her last name is Banger and she prefers to not use it; says everybody simply calls her Shiloh. “

 The tall man shook Gabe’s hand in the front hall, and led him into a large walnut paneled parlor.  A grey haze of sage incense hung in the air. An assortment of urbanites  stood around a gal in  a green and red cape. She had flowing red hair and a hint of lip color produced an appropriate counterpoint.

 She noticed the two gentlemen standing in the hallway doorway, and smiled. “That’s her Gabe, that’s the investigator. Get your camera ready. She’s going to do her thing in about 15 minutes. We must get a video record of this. What a fabulous history we’ll put together for this old house. Big dollar signs here, you’ll see.”

 Gabe looked at the lady with red hair, and then at his friend. “Hoover, you certainly come up with some wild schemes. I don’t know how you do it.”

 Hoover adjusted his shawl-collared sweater and winked.  “Flattery will get your name in lights my friend. Come with me and I’ll introduce you.”

The paranormal investigator seemed genuinely pleased to meet Gabe, and when she said “It’s my pleasure to meet you Mr. Nash,” she stomped her right foot three times on the hardwood floor.

Gabe’s eyebrows arched at the visitor’s footwork. He extended his hand, “Good evening, Shiloh. The pleasure is all mine.”
From a work in progress…

 

 

Toote

Justice.jpg

Toote, ever the conscientious entrepreneur, rarely left anything to chance. And by golly, business was terrific. He’d never yet been accused of a criminal offense; he looked good in the eyes of John Q. Public.

He felt that his favorable public persona was helped in part by his friends at the law firm of Sesse, Poole, Fuller, Mucke and Mire. The periodic stipends he tossed their way, worked to his benefit.

Note: From a work in progress.

Equine anti-theft device

Saddle horn

Johnson paused for a minute and reached for the goblet on the table. He sipped the liquid slowly and smacked his lips. “That stuff is nectar, the elixir of life, a veritable dream in liquid form. This is special stuff. It’s made from pumpkins. A friend of mine has a place called Pumpkin Hollow, and he makes a living selling pumpkins and this pumpkin juice brew.”

He returned the glass to the table. “Anyway, on with the story. A fellow named Asa Bacon settled in Bailiwick after making his fortune in the lumber industry. Asa was not only a hard worker, but also an inventor. Although he made more money in his lumber business than he ever did from inventing.

“Asa built a commercial building in Bailiwick, and there it sits today. It’s occupied by a music store called Horns A’Plenty. They furnish all the musical instruments for Bowlegs’ high school band.

“Asa did much of his inventing in that building. And I’m going to discuss one of his inventions tonight. Asa created the first anti-theft device ever invented, to protect folks against horse thieves.”

Johnson paused and took a small sip of pumpkin juice. “Stealing horses in them days was big business. Heck, even if you caught somebody stealin’ your horse and tried to stop ’em, they’d probably shoot you dead in the process. So, Asa figured there’d be a good market for an automatic anti-theft device and felt he was just the man to invent one.

“He purchased several saddles to experiment on. Folks passing by his workshop heard tapping, sawing, banging, and hammering sounds, way into the night. This went on six days a week for almost a year and a half.

“One day, Asa felt that he had finally come upon his ah-hah day. He’d done it. He invented the first workable anti-theft device for a horse. On close inspection, no one would ever suspect that it was there.

“Asa had ingeniously installed a .44-caliber derringer in the saddle horn. It was spring-operated. If a person climbed into the saddle without disarming the mechanism, the cap on the saddle horn would flip open and the derringer would rise up on an expandable armature and shoot the thief in the face. Totally ingenious.”

Johnson took another short snort of pumpkin juice. “Horse thieves in them days were running rampant, and word of Asa’s automatic horse anti-theft device spread quick. When the sheriff heard about it, he was intrigued and rushed over to Asa’s shop. The inventor proudly displayed a model saddle, and the lawman studied the invention carefully. ‘It’s foolproof,’ the sheriff proclaimed. ‘My god, man, you’re a genius.’

“The sheriff insisted on being the very first person in the territory to own such a device and begged Asa to sell him the saddle. Asa quoted a price he never expected the sheriff to pay, and to his surprise the sheriff handed over the cash on the spot and carried the saddle to his stable.

“The sheriff was pleased with his new saddle and its anti-theft device. He patrolled his town more than ever for the next three weeks. He almost wished a thief would try to steal his mount. He wondered if news about the special saddle had spread so fast that no badman was brave enough to try to steal his horse.

“One day, while the lawman was getting a haircut, a cowboy burst into the barbershop and shouted, ‘Somebody just held up the General Mercantile, and he’s about to make his getaway!’

“The sheriff bounded from the barber chair, tore off his apron, ran for his horse, and leaped into the saddle…without disarming the anti-theft device.”

Johnson paused for a minute and took a sip from his glass. “And by golly if Asa’s invention didn’t work exactly as designed. When the sheriff’s behind hit the saddle, the cap on the saddle horn snapped open, the derringer rose up, and KA-BLAM…it blew the sheriff’s nose clean off.

“The robber got away, and the sheriff spent three weeks under Doc Ridley’s care. Asa felt terrible that his invention resulted in the lawman’s great physical loss. He hated the fact that what was once the sheriff’s nose was now two dark holes.

“He felt obligated to make it up to the sheriff and decided to do everything in his power to help him. Soon, he got another idea. He grabbed a few measuring tools, pencil, and paper, and went to visit the recuperating sheriff.

“He explained his plan, and after much discussion, measuring, more talk, and even more measuring, the sheriff agreed to let Asa build him a sterling silver nose. Free of charge.

“Asa felt elated and devoted all his inventiveness to fabricating the best-fitting, most naturally shaped nose he could envision. He threw himself into his new project, and surprisingly it too was a success. Completely.

“The sheriff was astounded. Once again he could go about town and do his job. He wouldn’t worry anymore about frightening women and little children, and dogs wouldn’t bark at him. Sure, his nose reflected the sun, and on some days he nearly blinded his own self, but who cared…he had a nose.”

Johnson paused for another jolt of pump juice. “And all went well until one gray day. It was about midmorning, and the sheriff was passing by a funeral wagon when an unexpected and totally uncontrollable sneeze came from the depths of his lungs and exited through his sterling silver nostrils.

“If you can imagine the highest clarinet note, amplified 25 times, blown almost into the ears of the two horses hitched to that hearse, you’ll understand why they took off running like hellfire was behind ’em.

“The animals made a panicky right turn down Second Street, and the wide hearse door swung open. The box holding the remains of the recently deceased ex-mayor slid out and sprang open when it hit the ground. Old Mayor Thimble sat propped up against the hitching post in front of the post office.

“The sheriff’s nose slipped and dangled from its thong under his right ear, but he didn’t try to adjust it. He was running too fast toward Asa’s workshop.

“All was not lost. Three days later, the sheriff sported an improved nose. Asa had melted the old one down, made a few adjustments, and fitted the sheriff with a redesigned nose.

“The sheriff needn’t worry about spooking any more horses. His nose had a satin finish now and played in a lower key.”

Johnson took one more hit from his glass and said, “That’s it, folks. The next time you find yourself in Bailiwick, look for a music store called Horns A’Plenty. That’s Asa Bacon’s old place.

“Oh, and the sheriff’s nose now resides in a glass box in the Territorial Museum on Main Street, across from a Wal Mart. If you go there, tell ’em W.P. Johnson Jr. sent you.”
Johnson rose, waved to the people in the dining room, and stepped off the dais amid soft applause.

Note: The above is a snippet from my book, Fiammetta’s Triumph. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Lulu, and from most of the other leading booksellers. Click here, for purchase information.