I Keep Holding On To Yesterday

The days of the old tramp steamers were almost at an end when I signed on as a seaman in the merchant marine.  Barely fifteen but able to pass for eighteen due to my height although I don’t think the agent was fooled.  The wharfs were a man’s business, not a romantic playground for trashy novel writers.  But I had some street smarts fueled by my hatred of my father, a harsh brute of a man who often laid my back with enough whelps and cuts that would shame a wash board.  Maybe the agent suspected that I needed that time aboard ship, months at sea in the company of older men to work off the piss of outrage I had stored most of my life.   Yeah, between my old man and reform school I needed a change of scenery in the worst way and working on an old tramp steamer just might do me some good.

I was lucky, the black gang was short an oiler.  It’s a rough life I started back then.  Cooped up in a noisy engine room with all the dirt and grime and oil awash on the deck and walls, my job was to constantly swash the two main shafts to the propellers and other machinery with oil to keep them lubricated.  All engine rooms are hot and dark and dank and foul smelling.  Even after a shower I could never get rid of the stench of oil, the feel of oil, and the sound of oil.  It’s tedious and grinding work, mind numbing with the constant hum and thrust of pistons, whirl of crankshafts turning almost without variation until we came to the canal.  The ship’s destination was Timor, we had a cargo of machinery below decks and no questions asked.  My pay was thirty eight a month seeing how I was a green recruit and no place to spend it aboard ship.

As an Able Bodied Seaman I would have been just another bum, most were.  A ship is a home for most.  Sure, they all talk about quitting once shore is sighted but none ever do, a ship is just a warm womb to them.  The black gang is different, they have skills to sell ashore except for me, I was too new to learn much, but the promise was there.  The engineer or the chief would take me aside from time to time and show me a trick or too.  Simple stuff, stuff to see if I could learn.  If I couldn’t then next port I might be sent topside to be a bum.  Funny thing about street smarts, they can kick in when you need them, even at sea.  Yeah, the black gang is a tight knit gang.  Let the bums scrape rust and paint, we kept the ship running in every way.  Gives a man, even if he is still a boy, a sense of pride.  More than that,it’s  a family.  Oh, at first I stood off, apart from them, didn’t let them get too close.  But one day I took off my shirt and they saw the scars.  I though I was alone and had kept my secret and my shame.  But they saw and they knew.  The engineer took me aside one day.  “Laddie” he said, “You don’t have to tell us about the scars, we can guess.  I’ve a few myself.  My Pa liked to flay the skin off me before I reach puberty.  You’re in good company.  Ain’t a man on this gang who hasn’t felt the lash form one hand or another.  Just do your job like you’ve been doing, we’ll look after you.”  I guess there is that common bond between men who have been beaten but never broken.

Well, from that day on I felt a bond with the men on that gang that could never be replaced in a lifetime.  We had some liberty in Colon and as a gang we took to a particular bar in hat city.  More like a sprawling slum with a few wealthy neighborhoods, but what did that matter.   While our topside brothers were busy getting drunk and starting fights that they usually couldn’t finish, we were fairly polite by seaman’s standards.  The engineer shepherd us through the town and into the quiet bars where we could drink without getting too drunk.  Hangovers and machinery don’t work well together.  The gang decided that I must have my virginity broken and even paid for that privilege.  Well, barely sixteen in 1960 and now a man of the world, I had arrived.  Early in the morning we were aboard ship and stoking to boilers to get ready for a noon transit of the canal.  I’s seems funny to speak of start and stop for a steamship.  The towing engines pulled up through the locks while between them we make no more that five of six naughts.  Then across the lake and through the final set of locks and out into the Pacific under a full head of steam.  As we left Panama I was encouraged to spend a few hours each day on deck with various members of the crew.  Philippe Hollande was one of the chiefs, just under the engineer.  “I think you should know that as out engineer, Mr Mcilroy gets closer to Timor he starts to become more remorse.  Most of us know the history of his stay on that island.  He was one of the engineering overseers for a large coffee plantation.  From what I know, he was involved with one of the local women.  When she died he signed on with this ship.  That was ten years ago if memory serves.”  I started to ask questions but I thought it best not to be too inquisitive.

The black gang always keeps their own coffee pot sitting on one of the many steam pipes, a convenience for the gang and usually the coffee is better than what is served in the crew’s mess.  Every one has his own mug sitting in the cabinet and at a glance anyone can tell who’s taking a break.  Topside, the bums had to pull their regular watch and the extra ones.  The Third Mate would kick their asses if any of them decided to take a coffee break.  For us it was natural to take five or ten minutes as the need arose, no questions asked.  There was plenty to do, most of it routine, but most of it wasn’t urgent or make work like scraping rust topside.  Stuff breaks every day, mostly the little stuff.  Might be a henge rusted out or a bolt sheared off.  I was learning metal working on small repairs that would train me for the larger repairs.  One day Matt, the engineer, came by and motioned to me.  “Tommy, grab a cup of coffee and follow me on deck.”  So I did and we went topside and stood by the starboard rail.  “You’re doing good, kid.  You got potential.  So how old are you, bout sixteen?”

Matt caught me by surprise with that question.  I hadn’t talked much about myself to anyone.  But now he was asking me to level with him and I felt compelled to do so.  “Yes sir, birthday was last Friday.  How did you know?”

“All you got on your face is fuzz.  We’re old hands at this, see lots of kids come and go, their habits never vary.  How far did you get in school?”

“Ninth grade, hated it most of the time.”

“Can you read and do math?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.  Kinda liked history and reading about science stuff.  You know, how somebody discovered something and became famous.”

“Coffee is good, Last time we were in Timor we bought a bag of it, still got enough left to make it to the island.  They grow some real good coffee there, perhaps the finest in the world.  After mess come up to my cabin, we’ve got to get you a GED before you get back to the states.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are going to spend some time reading about all those high school subjects and learning math so you can pass your equivalency test.  If you stay on board this ship by the time your are eighteen then you will have a few good skills and an education.  the gang and I won’t take no for an answer.  Finish your cup, almost time to get back to work.”

My education began that night and continued every day all day.  Each gang member would stop me from time to time and ask me a couple of questions.  This education thing became a group effort.  Sometimes one of them would take over my duties for an hour so I could read a chapter in a book or work out some math problems.

It wasn’t all work and education.  Sometimes we might sit around and talk about ourselves or some world situation.  I was opening up but more than that I was growing up.  By the time we docked in Kupang I was making great strides in my life, the world was starting to make some sense and I felt more confident.

After we docked and started to unload our cargo the gang spent most of the time shuting down the oil fed boilers and switching over to the diesel generators for the hoists and other equipment needs.  A couple hours later Matt sent for me and when I got to his cabin I found him dressed in civilian clothes.  He handed me a small gym type bag and said, “Go pack for a week’s worth of clothing and meet me on the deck by the gangway in ten minutes.”

“Yes sir, ten minutes.”  I didn’t have much in the way of clothing so I packed a couple of shirts and a pair of pants, some socks and hygiene kit.  I was waiting when he came over to the gangway while talking to the Captain.  I over heard some of the conversation.  Captain:”I expect to be loaded in a week if the cargo gets here by Tuesday.  Have a good visit, Matt.”  Matt: “Thanks, it’s been a couple of years since I was last there.  see you a week from today.”

Matt then turned to me, “Come on, you’re in for a treat.  Most western people never get to see the place I’m taking you to.  We’re headed to Ainaro, it’s a village nestled between two mountain ranges and grows some of the worlds finest coffee.”  We headed down the gangway and over to the customs shed.  We were waved through as though we had nothing to declare, just a nod from the customs officer to Matt and a smart click of his heels.  Outside on the street an old 1952 Oldsmobile waited at the curb.  We climbed in to the back seat and the driver put the Olds in gear.  The roads were rough, gravel and dirt for most of the ride.  I understood why we rode in the back, there was less shock to our bodies.  It was night, about eight when we reached our destination.  I could not see much of the outside of the house but it did seem dark and imposing.  In the front was a wide veranda that ran the length of the house.  Thick candles were lit in the holders and the shiny metal backs through light forward.  Our host rose from his cane chair and opened the screen door to the porch for us.  “Hello Matt, it’s been a few years.  How have you been?”

“Hello John.  Yes, it’s been a while.  Thanks for putting us up.  By the way, this is Tommy.  He’s one of the oilers on the gang.  I’m seeing to his education.”

John turned to me.  “Welcome to my factory.  I don’t know how much Mr English has told you about this place but this is a coffee plantation.  Please feel at home, Tommy.”

I shifted my stance and felt a bit awkward but I managed a simple greeting.  “Er, thanks.  It’s a nice place you have.”

“Sing will show you to your room, Tommy.  Freshen up and come down for a drink before dinner.  Don’t worry, we’re not very formal here.”  The Chinese servant took my bag and led the way to the room I was to use.  I swear the Chinaman looked like a fragile old man of maybe sixty.

“You want I draw bath?  You have plenty time.”  Then Sing disappeared into another room and I heard water running.  He came back out with a large towel in his hand and looked at me.  “You take off clothes, put on this.”  He handed the towel to me and waited.  I felt very awkward as I wrapped the large towel around my waist and took my pants and underclothes off.  Soon I was naked beneath the towel and he led me into the bathroom.  “Water cool, make you feel fresh.” as he indicated I should step into the wooden tub.  Sing smiled at me.  “It okay, I no look.”  I handed him the towel and stepped into the tub.  I think the water was about seventy five degrees and at first felt cold.  But then my body became use to its coolness and I started to soap myself and wash the days grime and odor from my body.  When I was ready to rinse off the soap Sing said. “You stand on grate, I pour water over you.”  Well, I couldn’t argue with that.  then he handed me another thick towel and I rubbed my body dry.  I followed sing to the bedroom and saw the clothes laid out for me.  I started to object but Sing held a finger to his lips.  “Master say you need new clothes, so here, for you.  Put on please.”  The fit was loose but in this place of tropical heat and humidity they felt comfortable.  I dressed and then went down stairs and into the salon.  Matt was the first to speak.  “Those clothes do you well.  there’s a whiskey and soda on the tray, help yourself.”

John spoke next (I later learned his name was John Wellesley Langston).  “This is Tommy Connors, Joan.  He is one of Matt’s men.  Tommy has come to learn a little of the coffee business.  Tommy, this is my wife, Mrs Joan DeWinter Langston.  You may call her Joan if you like.  As I said, we seldom stand on cerEmony here.”

“I hope Sing was of service to you this evening?”  Joan’s question took me a little off guard.  She smiled.  “You do feel refreshed, don’t you?”

Well yes, I am quite slow on the uptake when it comes to manners.  My parents seldom had use of them.  “Yes, ma’am.  Ah, it was a very nice bath.  thank you.”

The week went by very quickly.  I confided in Joan that I hoped I didn’t seem to crude for I was not use to such goodness.  “You mean curtesy.  Yes, we all understand.  An evil man can have the most impeccable set of manners and yet his intensions can still be determined.  But you are an honest man, Tommy.  Manners won’t change that honest.  They only add to it.  Remember that for me.  You will learn good manners, of that I am sure.  And we did enjoy having you in our company.”

The trip back to the ship was long but gave me time to think about what had occurred.  “What did you think of John and Joan?”  An hour into our trip back Matt had been very silent, now he was speaking to me in a new way, caring about my answer.

They have a nice place, a nice life, I guess.  I mean it looks interesting for him.  I guess she tolerates it well.  But I never noticed any children.  Do they have any?”

Time passed before Matt spoke again.  “They have a son and a daughter, both of whom live in England.  Neither of which has been to see them in four years so I’m told.  Oh, I don’t really blame the children, it’s a long and expensive trip to make and neither child is well established at the moment.  Still, it’s a shame, I suppose.”

“What about you, Matt.  I saw you at the cemetery standing in front of one of the grave stones.  Did you know that person in life?”

“Yes, Tommy, I knew her very well.  She was my wife.  Every time the ship docks in Timor I come to visit her grave.  I always come back, always.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to be.  Now let’s talk about you.  John tells me that his engineer will be retiring in two to three years.  Both John and Joan are impressed with you.  Now before you say anything just listen carefully.  I and the gang can teach you much of what you need to know about machinery, both service and repair.  That will take the next two years if you pay attention and learn quickly.  Depending on how well you do, John may take you one as a mechanic and let his engineer train you on the machinery there on the plantation.  Fair enough?”

I though about what he had said for a minute and replied.  “Fair enough.”

“Now one more thing to know.  There’s not much social life for whites on the island.  Most of the daughters leave by the age of coming out parties and seldom return.  So you may do what I did, marry a local, a native.  No shame in that but you’ll never take her back to America.  That much I can guarantee.  But you got two years to think it over, so no hurry.”

“Can’t say as I have anything to go back to.”  I was quite for a couple of hours.  I caught Matt’s eye and said.  “You know, I keep holding on to yesterday.  But I’m wrong, that yesterday doesn’t exist.  Tomorrow, huh.  In two years it’ll be tomorrow.  Looks better than yesterday.”

“We’ll see kid, we’ll see.”

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Writing Fiction: Part Three

We come to Part Three and a couple of questions that would normally be asked about short fiction, although one can say the same for longer works such novellas and novels.  How long should my story be?  Ah, the old Abe lincoln story who was once asked in jest just how long a man’s legs should be?  His answer, “Long enough to reach the ground.”  How long should a short story be?  Long enough to reach the end.  An example would be Poe’s “Telltale Heart”, a very short and tightly written story.  Some stories don’t need more than a thousand words.  On the other hand, Somerset Maugham  often wrote stories of forty pages.  I tend to like to keep my own stories to about 1200 to 1500 words but on occasion I have needed four to five thousand words to reach the end.  Theme plays a hand in length.  It’s all about flow.

Flow is not logic, by the way.  A story has a natural progression and a natural length.  Think back to times you have listened to various people tell an oral story, maybe something of their experiences.  A few people tend to be the straight through to the bitter end with no deviation.  Unless one is a master of drama, the straight line story is hard to maintain interest.  One of the things we learn while growing beyond the age of twelve is the appreciation of the twist in the story.  We like to be kept guessing what the ending will be.  Call it teasing, call it love of drama, but it is something that works when done well.  And if we are clever we might indulge in two twists.  More than that and the reader starts to lose interest.  Triple crosses work in suspense, detective, and science fiction but not in general fiction.  Too much complication makes the reader work too hard.  On the other hand, the writer of novels can have two major twists and several minor twists and still write a good novel.

Now we consider editing.  Yes, that is something many writers do not do well.  The first pass of editing is looking for all the grammatical and spelling errors.  Spell check works wonders but I would not use Word grammar checker, it has its problems.  After that first pass then we need to read for continuity or flow.  Does the story make sense?  Do not confuse logic with sense.  The fact is that real life is stranger than fiction.  They are events that occur that the best fiction writers could never make up.  But we need to understand that human behavior is at best semi rational.  Emotions, perceptions, culture, and a host of other influences make the individual do strange things.  On the other hand, individuals usually have a pattern of behavior.  Think about that for a minute.  We tend to be predictable, so when we act out of character we have entered into a “different story” of our lives.  We write about those exceptions because they illustrate life as we often experience it.  Just as old faithful George can be relied to act the same way every day for the past ten years, the one time he acs differently is called to our attention and often with humor.

Check for verb usage, never combine in the same sentence or paragraph past, present, or future verbs unless there is a strong reason to do so.  Look for alternative ways to describe actions, scenes, people, and the lack.  Look at how you have phrased the actions, descriptions, and so forth.  And eliminate unnecessary verbiage.  We want to keep it tight, make every word count, use just the right amount.  When we write the rough draft we often make a great many mistakes and the point is to take the story and polish it brightly so that it stands out, is memorable.  Lastly, have a couple of friends who are willing to read you work and give them explicit permission to trash it without mercy.  We writers are the worst judges of our own words.  We fall in love with them and want them to live forever.  Hence, never be afraid to kill words, phrases, paragraphs, and even a bad story.  This is the art of writing, the art of storytelling.

Writing Fiction: Part Two

Let us say that we have a story to tell, or at least some idea of a story.  Ah, you say, how do we come up with that idea?  Well, it is very simple and then again, it’s not.  One could use a song title, perhaps a romantic one.  What might we think of if the song was an old torch song liKe, “Someone To Watch Over Me”?  What story line would that suggest to you?  It might be a story about a woman, usually adult but of younger age feeling lonely or vulnerable.  Or perhaps looking to get married or at least have a relationship and feel wanted.  A short story needs but one to three elements, any more only confuses the reader and makes the story too tedious.  On the other hand, a novel needs more elements so as to provide a richer examination of the theme and the sub themes that support the reader’s interest.

So we start by trying to picture in our writer’s mind what this woman looks like, how she acts, what she feels.  Visualization is one of the greatest tools for writing both fiction and non fiction.  If I see a snake I may feel threatened.  If I hear the word I immediately form a picture of some snake, any snake, and the feelings aroused by that word.   We as writers must visualize the settings and the time frames.  We do this by drawing our frames of reference from our experiences and knowledge.  Maybe we want to set the scene in some particular past year like 1933.  Or we might want to give it a contemporary setting to now, 2016.  Shall the place be rural, small town, big city, or something foreign?  Again, what does the title or theme suggest to you?

Now, do you want to outline the story complete with ending or will we start with a beginning scene and let our imagination take its course.  How we open the scene sets the tone for the theme.  We want to have some description that draws the reader in as well as a little action.  Or we could start with action and dialogue.  ‘Ella slammed the telephone done in anger.  “Damn him, that cheap, disgusting man.  Must I always do everything in our relationship?” ‘  Now we, as the readers, start to ask ourselves several questions about Ella and her relationship and the man who is cheap and disgusting.  Or you could try something dreamy and romantic.  ‘Delia stood at the window of her third floor walk up, looking at the bright moon as it climbed to its zenith.  The returning light bathed her in a soft moonglow as she wistfully remembered the time George had held her on a night like this.  The war had taken her Geroge from her, taken him forever, and now only the empty feelings held her in their cold grip.  Delia was longing for another to take his place, George’s place.’

Two beginnings, at least two possible outcomes and perhaps ten more, depending on where the story takes us.  Remember, we become our characters and much of the story line is about our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.  Yes, It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Except it’s not.  Writing is a craft and to become a mere journeyman takes a  lot of practice.  I hope that for those who read this post and wish to write fiction will find something of usefulness.

Writing Fiction

The first dictum of writing fiction, any fiction, is getting the story down first.  the world of fiction writers is divided into two groups: the first love to outline a story from the introduction to the end; the second love to start with an idea and let it take them on an adventure.  The division is really about the writer’s personality.  I’ve read Stephen King tell us that he comes up with a what if scenario first, then writes down the various characters, and then creates a sort of outline for the narrative.  We can’t argue with that, it works for him.

But what of the second group, the writers who come up with a theme or general idea and let it flow without forcing the ending?  I would believe there is more creativity for this second method.  Why?  Because it is a journey that offers many possibilities for the writer to explore.  I believe it more true to life for most individuals for the simple reason that few of us are capable of planning our lives in such detail and with such purpose.  Yes, there are many people who do just that and chance is with them all the way.  And yet there are a great many more individuals whose planned life never lives up to the expectations that are expected.  So I must say that the second method, the “Shit Happens” is the better method.

Imagine then that you have spend all your time in school from kindergarten knowing exactly what you want to do with your life.  All the learning you do is geared to that end.  the friends you make, the possible partners you will consider for marriage, the possible employers for whom you will work.  Man, that takes a lot of planning, a lot of detail.  Sounds like the old War College dictum that with the first contact with the enemy your battle plans go out the window.  Life is really about exception handling.  That is, we are aware that the usual course of business policy is that nothing goes wrong.  When something does go wrong then we must have exception handling.  Few businesses are good at exception handling since the process is suppose to work all the time for everyone, except why it doesn’t and we need to figure out how to handle this exception.

In the same way, fiction is about exception handling.  One goes to work every day on time and puts in an honest eight hours work and then one day one is laid off or fired.  Exception, what do we do about this situation?  What possible complications can occur?  Ah, chance kicks into play and there is less certainty to life.  Call it playing god, if you like, but I would believe this is closed to real life.  You see, fiction wants to be as close to real life as it can without being boring.  Think about that for a minute.  How many of us lead lives of sheer boredom?  How we yearn for that variation in our lives, that break from the monotony of living that gives us a brief glimpse of being different.  How many of us get up at the same time every morning, go to work and at the end of the day come back home and have our meal and watch our television sets and then go to bed as if nothing extraordinary had happen?

This is why we get the story down first.  We want to tell of some event in life, some time when something happened and caused some outcome.  The story is raw, as all stories start.   Then we worry about the editing for mistakes such as misspellings and usage and syntax and so forth.  The creativity of writing is inventing the story, the craft is the perfection of that story through editing, rewriting, word changes, additions and subtractions, well it continues on.  One thing that the reader may have noticed is that my fiction is in raw form.  I hope to spend next summer going through the considerable number of stories and doing the rewriting, the refining if you will, so that there will be stories worthy of reading by the general public if they have such a desire.

A Most Gentle Death

Abigail kept watch from the large bow window that looked out upon the street.  The light of midday filtered through the avenue of Elms that lined both sides of the lane.  The lane was rather narrow, traffic could barely pass ft an automobile was parked on one side of the street or the other.  The neighborhood was an old one, first house built about 1909 on one of the many half acre lots.  The influence of brick Victorians was abundant but soon changed to the latest Praire style that came to dominate that neighborhood.  The last of the few lots left reflected the Craftsman style prior to the war, the last great one that has become almost a caricature for a great generation of personal sacrifice.  My how we glorify the past with such misadventure.  Here the sidewalks marked the mixture of style and age as cobblestone and concrete slab intermixed.

Hortense was in the kitchen starting the canning of damson preserves, her speciality, for nothing would best the taste of damson preserves on butter toast.  Calling to her sister, “Abigail, I need your help for the present.”  “I’m coming.” was the answer she received.

“What time is Grover due back from the bank?  Seems to me that he might have stopped off at that tavern on the corner of Seventh and Locust.  I do wish he would refrain from imbibing spirits in so common public place.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, drinking in public is a dreadful sin.”

Hortense answered her sister, “Now Abigail, Grover is a grown man and grown men often stop for a sip or two in a public place, it is expected.”

About that time Grover entered by the front door, he whistled a light air  from the opera Aida as was his want and called out to both sisters. “Hortense, Abigail, I’ve returned.”  The sound of a man’s voice immediately attracted their attention.  “I was just returning from the bank and I encountered a fellow down at Smiley’s Tavern who may need your assistance.  I took the liberty of inviting him for dinner.  He’ll be here shortly.”  Grover walked towards the kitchen fully expecting both sisters to be engaged in jam making.

“What’s the gentleman’s name, Grover.  Have you met him before?”  Abigail was always most the inquisitive of the family.

“Yes, what is his name and what is his story?”  Now Hortense had joined the curiosity shown by her sister.  “Does he have any family here?”

“Now just hold your horses, you two.  I didn’t have that much time to interview the man as we sat and had a pint together.  I do know that Mr Parsons, that’s the name by which he introduced himself, prefers a good beer and seldom drinks hard alcohol.  And no, I don’t think he is a local man.  Don’t recall seeing him at Smiley’s or even Charlies’ before today.  But we’ll have plenty of time to discuss his back ground at dinner tonight.  I told him dinner was at seven and we’d be very pleased to have him as our guest.”  The two women twittered a bit about the kitchen while preparing the night’s repast.  Grover retired to the library and preceded to check the telephone directory for the name of his guest.  “Well, no sign of him here, I suppose he rents a room,  Maybe he is just passing through.”  Grover glanced at the grandfather clock by the door and thought, “Time to prepare myself for our guest and dinner.”

Grover Marshall was a member of the old school generation.  An above average height and slight build his carriage would be described as dignified but not stiff.  He was the proud owner of a full head of white hair that gave him that almost Robert Frost look with the blue eyes to match.  As he changed into a dark blue suit he made sure to transfer his pocket watch and chain to his matching vest, a Phi Beta Kappa key was suspended from the middle of the chain.  Hortense was the oldest sibling and her maternal instincts were particularly strong.  Abigail was the baby of the trio and once considered the belle of the ball in her early years.  Only Grover had attended university, Yale by family tradition, and had achieved a certain distinction in literary circles with his poetry.  But it was Abigail who was the artist of the three for she had won recognition and prizes at juried competitions.  While the attainments of Hortense seemed to pale in comparison, it was she who exhibited the financial savvy needed to keep the estate in tact and bills paid, although that was becoming more problematic for the trio.  The death of both parents shortly after Grover’s graduation from Yale had left the three in a state of emotional chaos for a time for it had been the practice of both parents to keep the three in a rather sheltered childhood and out of public schools.

As he finished dressing for dinner Grover looked at his pocket watch and noticed the time.  “I should get down to the parlor, our guest will be arriving soon.”  As he reached the foot of the stairs he called out, “Abigail, is everything set for dinner?”

A cheerful voice answered, “Why yes, dear.  I do believe we are ready for our guest.”

“Thank you, Abigail.  I’ll wait for him in the parlor.  I was wondering, do you think we should offer him some sherry?  That’s always a proper ice breaker.  Besides, I think Hortense would appreciate a glass.  We do still have some sherry, don’t we Abigail?”

“Of course we do.  Don’t you remember, we still have three bottles left from the cellar stock.  Oh, isn’t that our guest now, ear?”

“Quite right, Abigail, I’ll let him in and bring him to the front parlor.”

Grover walked the few steps to the door and opened it.  “Ah, welcome Mr Parsons, do come in.  Here, let me take your coat.  I’ll just hang it up here on the hall tree.  My great grandfather once told me when I was a small child that this hall tree once belonged to JP Morgan.  Imagine that.  Why it’s little more than an odd branch of walnut but they say it was the old man’s favorite piece of furniture in his office.  Forgive me, I am forgetting my manners.  Please, come into the parlor.  Would you care for a glass of sherry?”

Mr Parsons walked as though he was a little unsteady and sat down in a wingback chair near the fireplace.  “Don’t mind if I do.”

“Here you are, Mr Parsons.  You don’t mind if I call you Stanley, do you?  No need to be so formal.  And please, call me Grover.  All my friends do.”  Grover turned as the two sisters entered the room.  “Good evening Hortense, may I introduce Mr Parsons to you.  His friends call him Stanley.  Mr Parsons, Stanley, this is my dear sister Hortense.”

“How do you do, ma’am.”  Stanley had barely been able to stand up before she was next to him.

“And this dear sweet woman is my other sister, Abigail.”

Abigail quickly stood on the other side of Stanley as if she were measuring him for a garment.  Abigail is the talented one in our family, those are a few of her water colors on the wall.  Really brightens the house up, don’t  you think Stanley?

“Oh, er, yes, very pretty.”

“Stanley and I were just having a glass of sherry, would you like one Hortense, Abigail?”  Grover took two more sherry glasses from the old Philadelphia desk and poured the exact amount of pale liquid into each glass.  As he handed the two glasses to his sister he started to speak.  “This is a very fine old dry sherry my grandfather had imported from Spain.  Three barrels I believe.  Grandfather had a merchant in New York bottle them and a private printed label applied.  I’m afraid its a bit pretentious on my grandfather’s part.”

Stanley simply grunted a “Huh”, and left it at that.

Approximately ten minutes of the urbane chatter Hortense announce that dinner would be served shortly.  “Come, Abigail, time to serve the meal.”  Grover rose as the two left the room, his manners impeccable as always.

“We have a minute of two before they require us at the table, Stanley, a drop more sherry?”

“Uh, yeah, sure, a drop more.”  The words seemed strangulated as they tumbled from his lips.  “Don’t mind if I do.”

Grover had been studying the man, trying to grasp the character and faults of his guest.  Yet Stanley remained something of a mystery.  Ah, dinner would loosen him up, get him to reveal more about himself.  “I shall be my disarming best.” thought Grover.  At the moment Abigail appeared and announced that dinner was served.

The meal was simplicity, roast chicken with new potatoes, cut green beans, a mushroom gravy, and a white chardonnay to accompany the fowl.  The Marshals were nothing if not circumspect of propriety and manners.  “Well Stanley, what do you think of our fair town?  Oh it has seen better days but I believe there exists a civic spirit that prides itself on accomplishment.”

Hortense was making the first attempt at discovery towards their intended guest and victim   “Have you lived here very long?”

“Oh no, ma’am,  been here only six weeks.  Haven’t decided if I want to settle down yet.”  Stanley hardly looked up from his plate as he ate with an appetite of someone unused to regular meals.

“Isn’t this a pretty town, Stanley?”  Abigail was attempting to elicit some emotional appreciation from her guest.

“It’s okay as towns go, I suppose.  Now you take Greenvale, that’s over near the border to the west.  It has a good many amenities, if you ask me.  But the people are stuck up, if you know what I mean.”

Stanley returned to his chicken breast and was sucking the meat off the bones.  “Pretty good chicken if you ask me.”

Hortense was aflutter with such a comment seeing that socially she had not received one in an exceptionally long time.  “Why Thank you Stanley, that is quite a complement.  Where is your family, do they live near here?”

“Oh no, they are several states over, Illinois near Joliette.    My sister lives there with her daughter.”

“Tell me, what is your line of work Stanley?  I don’t recall you have mentioned that before over at Smiley’s”  It was Gover’s turn to ask a seemingly innocent question.  “I am a poet myself,  there is little need of poetry in our current economy.”

“I am an entrepreneur if you must know.  Usually I size up a town, much like this one and determine what its prospects happen to be.  Then I make an investment if all looks well.   Any more potatoes, Ma’am?  Their good with the gravy.”

“Then you possess a fair amount of capital if you wish to invest in a town, as you have said.”  Grover became more animated with the possibility of money to be had.

“Well,” Stanley continued, “Capital is where you find it and I do a fair job of discovering its whereabouts.”

The evening wore on and finally Stanley, after a few polite but definite reminders that he was welcome and perhaps expected to call again.  And thus made his exit.

Hortense was the first to speak as the trio gathered in the parlor.  “That man offers possibilities.  A nameless derelict would be easy enough to take into our plan but this man is different.”

“He certainly sounds resourceful.  What do you think Grover?”  Abigail, as usual, had put her finger on the problem.  As Grover had opined frequently, a resourceful man was apt to be more trouble than he was worth.

“I think, Hortense and Abigail, that this man is not our ideal candidate for the plan we have in mind.  But I grant you, he may bear looking into.  He did appreciate your cooking and he wasn’t shy about asking for more.  Perhaps the way to his heart is through his stomach.  I shall wait a day before seeking him out.  That will give me time to make a few inquiries as to his business here in town.”

“I believe that would be wise, Grover.  I have some marketing to do tomorrow and perhaps I can pick up a bit of gossip about Stanley.”  Hortense was the one who kept tabs about town on the latest news, something of which women are generally superior to men.Women survey the emotional landscape while men only pay attention to action.

It must be said that there appeared to be, at least to the community at large, something of a whirlwind courtship between Stanley and Hortense.  The plan was the couple would supposedly elope and tragedy would occur on the honeymoon after suitable life insurance was engaged on the life of Stanley.  The honeymoon cottage was an old motel that should have been torn down years ago but had acquired a certain amount of rustic atmosphere.  It also had  a heater that could be altered slightly to produce carbon dioxide gas as the fuel burnt.  Of all three, Hortense was the most resourceful one and quite well read on the more practical arts of living.  The plan was simple.  They would get Stanley drunk and the three of the drive to the resort town where a Justice of the Peace resided.  Hortense and Grover would go before the Justice of the Peace with Grover pretending to be Stanley.  Then they would drive to the honeymoon cottage where Stanley would be put to be and the heater turned on.  A slight change in mixture would be made to the heater and Stanley would be asphyxiated.  Hortense would later claim that Stanley had behaved towards her in a drunken and hostile manner and had taken refuge in the locked car.  Grover would take the early morning bus back to the house and then wait for the telephone call.  The plan was simple enough and might have worked.

Stanley was a resourceful man.  He had taken out an insurance policy on Hortense, pretended to become sleep drunk, and waited for further developments.  Finding himself in a room with the heater on when the temperature was not close to being cool alerted him to some probability of foul play.  He left the room and waited for the plot to develop.  Brother and sister were fitfully sleeping in the car with one of the windows cracked open and the doors unlocked.  It was easy enough to use a sap to quiet both brother and sister.  Then on the drive back to town brother could be disposed somewhere far off the main road with little expectation of being found for a considerable time.  Sister would meet a different fate.  a high speed crash in which she was not wearing a seat belt would suffice.  Simply hit the overpass wall with the right side of the car and she would die almost instantly.  It might have worked but Stanley misjudged to concrete wall, he hit almost straight on.  Only Abigail was left to collect the insurance.  But with Hortense dead and Grover missing, well, she had not counted on that bargain.  It became a simple task of turning on the stove and waiting for the gas to overcome her senses.

 

Too Stubborn

Tommy Lee and Billy Jo were sitting in the tavern the other evening having a couple of long necks of Henry Weinhard, imported all the way from Oregon don’t you know.  Well these two racontours were regaling the rest of us with tales of that legendary good ole boy, Jimmie Raye and each man was doing his best to extract the very last bit of drama and appreciation from the assembled audience, namely Miss Ellie May, Junior Bohman (Sheriff Bohman’s oldest boy and most promising deputy), Joe Riggens, Miss Delia, owner of said tavern, and myself, plain Bill and better known as Texas, but lord I have never figured that one out.  Here in Walhalla we are deep in the land of the good ole boys.  Go north a few miles and one can step into the land of the Tar Heels and go west and one finds the Crackers and Georgia Peaches.  We are the Palmetto State buI i’ve never encountered anyone around for fifty to a hundred miles ever refer to themselves in that manner.  Must be an East Coast sort of thing.  No, we’s mountain folk, bottom of the Appalachian mountains and proud of having whooped the Red Coats on King’s Mountain.  course we had a had in the Cow Pens and further in North Carolina’s place at the court house.  Whoopass on Red Coats like Corn Wallace is our speciality, to put it colloquially.  Racing stock cars filled with white lightning is our other speciality.  Course it don’t need be said we make good white lightning, perhaps the best you can find anywhere.

Back to proper English, you hang around these parts too long and you forget what the English language actually sounds like.  I am an outsider but have become an honorary member of the local group, I am a mechanic by trade and retired, so I have a negotiable coin of the realm.  Fact of the matter is that I recently rebuilt Jimmie Raye’s latest stock car, the one he uses for moonshine transportation and he has been successful in out running the county mounties and the T-Men or revenuers.  The Federal government in its greed wants a four dollars a gallon in tax revenue on the local distilled spirits and a man just can’t make much of a living if he has to share what little he gets with the government.  Of course the county and the state wants its sales tax and other revenue as well.  So the feeling is around here that government of all kinds is just too greedy.  Of course here in the South we love our heros and the the villains who try to match up.  One of the villains would be Sheriff “Bull” Bohman.  Now that proper introductions have been afforded let’s get back to the grand drama.

“I tell ya, I knowed Jimmy Raye was gonna do it.  Any dang fool knows that.  I was up on the mountain highway with my two coon dogs and I saw the lights of Jimmy Raye’s car below.  I knowed it was him cause he always runs with those real bright high beams, you know, the ones that blind the feds real good.”  Tommy Lee paused to take a swig or two from his bottle and continued.  “Ya know, i think he must have been doing a hundred both then.  Say, Bill, you build a real good machine.  Ole Jimmy Raye was just sliding through those corners.”  “Thank you kindly for your admiration.”  Well, what else can one say to a very good compliment?

“Yeah, Tommy Lee, I saw you up thar on the ridge.  I was just two miles away when Junior’s daddy came barreling down the road just a sucking Jimmie Raye’s dust.  Junior, your daddy’s good but he ain’t that good.  No disrespect to Big Bull, hear?  No sir, Jimmy Raye is an uncommon driver.  Man’s gotta be riding a rocket to even catch up to him.  Say, Bill, you put in a stainless steel tank or a plastic one?”  “Now Billy Jo, you know i can’t reveal professional secrets.  Sides, Jimmy Raye wouldn’t like it, that’s all.”  There were a few chuckles at the lack of proper decorum from Billy Jo, but he wasn’t one to observe the strictest of protocols, social position not with standing.

“Say, just where was he bound for that night?  Daddy says he must have been headed for Georgia.”  Junior was trying his slyest to illicit intelligence from the crown of admirers.

“Why Junior, doesn’t your daddy tell you anything?  Good lord, boy.  Ole man Oglethorpe was in need of his monthly supply.  I hear tell he’s fix’en to hold his annual bar-be-que early this year on account of the revenuers want’n to get their hands on his supplies.  figure the man’s got at least half a dozen barrels of light’n he pours for his people the year long.  Say, was that Doc Blanchard’s brew Jimmie Raye delivered?”  It was a question of some debate between Tommy Lee and Billy Jo.  It was Billy Jo who tried to act the authority on the subject.  “No Tommy Lee, I bet it was Ole man Evans’ brew, you know he likes to add some herbs and flavorings.”

I stepped into the debate for the moment.  “No, wasn’t neither of those two.  Old man Oglethorpe doesn’t buy from either of those two individuals.”  Junior sensed an opportunity to help his daddy.  “Well then, just who was it, as if you would know.”  Clearly junior was disputing my knowledge and social status.

“Junior, you know I can’t reveal my sources.  It wouldn’t be ethical or moral and I must remain impartial on the subject.  Besides, I’d have to be as sober as a judge to spill those beans.”  Everyone except Junior erupted in laughter.  “Let’s just say your daddy has a better idea about the seller than the rest of us.”

As the evening wore on and the alcohol took its toll, we were interrupted by a state trooper who had just strode through the door.  “Junior, your pa wants you outside now.”  We were all a bit stunned but the damage was done to our sensibilities.  I turned to the state trooper and asked, “What’s happened.”  It was a simple request and it was answered simply without elaboration.  “Jimmy Raye is dead.  He pushed the limit at Red Gulch curve and never recovered.  The wreckers are pulling the remains of his car up the ravine now.  The man just wouldn’t let well enough alone.”

Time And Miles

Specialized hauling, that’s what I do.  Running an old Peterbilt with a Cummins and 18 gears pulling a gooseneck, haul mostly machinery, construction vehicles, and some military stuff.  It’s a life and I don’t get rich, that’s for sure.  An independent owner operator, means I have hustle my own loads and pay my own way.  I suppose if I pulled dry vans or even refrigerator on a dedicated route I could make a lot more money but then I’d have to work for an outfit that would try to cheat me and maybe move me to irregular routes.  It’s a chance you take.  One way or the other, that is.  I get paid by the mile and specialized is good money by the mile.  But I drive by the clock, only got eleven hours driving and thirteen hours a day to drive.  Time and miles, the eternal trucker’s dilemma.

So I pull out of Savanna with a military vehicle, a five ton straight truck with a communications load.  The five tons is what that truck can carry, not what it weights.  With the communications shack in its bed the load is pushing 43,000 pounds and my 13 feet, three inch height limit.  That’s why I have a goose neck, it skims the pavement at six inches, makes railroad tracks a challenge sometimes.  Been out a week already and only had two showers, the one luxury every trucker treasures.  So these Navy people are slow in getting me loaded.  I’m forth in line and they are eating up my thirteen hour day.  I’ll be lucky to get our before rush hour.  If I don’t than add an hour’s worth of travel time as I head up I-75.  My goal is to get north of Atlanta to a truck stop an hour out of Chattanooga where I can stop for the night and grab a shower in the morning.  I don’t relish standing in line for three hours tonight just for a shower.  Tonight’s mean will be dried soup with some canned chicken added, god knows I can’t afford to eat at the restaurant, both financially and calorie wise.  Besides, the meals are grossly over priced and pretty tasteless.  For get what they use to tell you about truck stop food, it’s garbage.  With some luck I’ll be able to head out by five in the morning if I get bed down soon enough.  Got to make it through Chattanooga before rush hour and then over to Knoxville.  I ought to get there about noon if I keep the hammer down.  Unlike most company rigs mine isn’t speed regulated, I can do the speed limit even if it’s 80.  Of course I pay a penalty going that fast.  Takes a lot of fuel to most that much air out of the way and my rig is not aerodynamic in any sense of the word.

Atlanta was a nightmare, it always is.  The only way to get through it is late at night, I mean after ten at night.  I’m not much for running at night, vision is cut to about a quarter and I don’t like those odds.  So now I am bed down on an off ramp, truck stop is full and I’m out of time.  Sometimes the troopers roust us and we have to find some other spot to park.  At least I’ve got a donkey engine to run the air in summer and heat in winter.  Cheaper than running the Cummings all night long.  But no shower in the morning.  Oh well, just have to heat some water for a sponge bath.  You learn to carry several items.  The first is water in two and a half gallon jugs.  The second is a camp propane burner to heat water and cook with.  Nothing like a hot cup of coffee or two in the morning.  The third is your own food, mostly dry and canned.  The forth is a set of tools.  Repair shops will rip you off.  so you carry extra light bulbs and fuses and and many other things.  It is a self contained life you lead.

So I’ve got eleven hours before I can move again.  I”ve got a weigh station ahead fifty miles from hear and If they pull me over and check my logs I better be right or I’m out a lot of money.  So I can move until nine tomorrow.  At least I’ll get through after the rush hour but that puts me into the afternoon at Fort Knox out side of Knoxville.  Searching for a load to pick up tomorrow, I may have to sit for a day before I find one.  Might find one before I move tomorrow morning.

Trooper woke me up at five this morning, said I had to move.  Told him I couldn’t before nine.  He said he understood, was nice about it.  Sometimes they’re real pricks.  Went back to sleep for another two hours then got up and did my sponge bath routine.  Feel a little better but a shower would have been nice.  Going on three days and expect it will be four before my next one.  Made some coffee and started scanning the load sites.  Yes, cell phone connections for your computer are nice but i’m paying a hundred or more for access to the internet each month.  Just another expense to take against income, assuming you have any income.  I’m lucky if I make fifty thou a year.  I swear, I’m barely making minimum wage.  Set a text to my girlfriend, at least I think shes still my girl friend.  Might be another five weeks before I see her again and then I’m almost a stranger to her.  And by the time we just start getting comfortable with each other I’m back on the road.  How can I miss you if you won’t go away?  Yeah, exactly.

Books on tape and CDs, about the limit of my entertainment.  It does while away the time, keeps boredom at bay for a while.  does nothing for loneliness.  Truck drivers aren’t socialized, they just blow their horns inappropriately.  Ain’t it the truth.   Well, I’m through Chattanooga and on my way to Knoxville, expect to be there about one pm.  Found another load for tomorrow morning.  Means I lose half a day since I have to drive to Huntsville and pick up a couple of Humvees for some national guard outfit in Pennsylvania.  That’s a lot of unpaid miles.  But Willow Grove Pennsylvania is a day and a half trip.,  Not bad.  could be worse.  I might be able to get an New Holland load to Nebraska or beyond.  Long hall pays better.  One can only hope.  Still, a lot of back roads to Blue Balls and Intersourse.  About half a day’s drive from Willow Glenn.  Diesel prices been going up on the east coast.  Well, always carry about ten extra gallons in jerry cans just for emergency.  It’s a love hate relationship, this trucker’s life.  Not sure what I have to look forward to.