Straighten Up And Fly Right

Stevie lit the last of her cigarettes and expelled a blue haze of smoke up towards the ceiling, watching the green, red, and blue lights mixing the colors of the hazy atmosphere that hovered over the bar. The thick smokey haze hadn’t dimmed to volume of noise from the Wiritzer in the corner as the contents from it’s bowels bellowed off the wooded walls and dance floor. She watched Ryan as he drained another bottle, he almost fell off his stool with the effort of a man one bottle short of a twelve pack.  “Hit me.” Stevie yelled to the the bartender as she placed a five on the counter.  A tumbler with gin, tonic and ice was pushed before her a minute later, the delay caused by last minute orders before closing time.

 

Dan was efficient behind the bar, doling out the drinks, collecting the cash and making change.  As the evening wore on he went from good listener to a mechanical ear that heard grunts and groans, responding in kind.  The patrons tipped, the boozers didn’t, he could live with that.  “Just another fact of life.” Dan would say to those who cared to listen.  “My feet ache, I think they’re swelling.”  the comment was said to no one in particular.

“Soak them in hot water for ten or twenty minutes.”  The voice came from the general direction of Stevie.  She was looking at him with that basic concern women tend to have in general.  The mother hen instinct.  Dan smiled and looked in her direction.

“Thanks for the tip, I was going to do that after I close up.  Got a new box of Epsom Salts.”  He never figured Stevie as one who might care if his feet hurt or not.  Delores, the redhead at the other end of the bar, was more worried who was buying the next round.  These thoughts were whirling around his head as he picked up the empty glasses and placed them in the sink.  He would wash them later.  The empties he threw in the trash, that would be emptied after he closed the doors.  Closing time was always a bigger chore as the bright lights he turned on hurt his eyes and his feet felt swollen, stretching his shoes to the straining point.  “God, I wish I had a woman to help close the place.”  His outburst had become part of his closing routine.

 

John, Dan’s partner, had opened the cafe at six for the breakfast crowd.  His wife, Jan, did the cooking and by the end of lunch retired to her home while John tended the early crowd.  Usually these were men stopping in for a beer after work before heading home to wife, family, and dinner, not necessarily in that order.  Sometimes Big Jim, the sheriff, would stop by with one of his deputies and sip a bottle of beer together while discussing the general social and criminal situation of the county.  This was a small town and off the main route, a man could have a sense of privacy here and Big Jim expected it so.  Dan came in at four.  Together him and john would check the stock and accounts although the formal accounting was reserved for Sunday when the cafe and bar was closed.  The two local ministers of the baptist and congregational churches would object to any extension of business hours into their day.  Parishioners were expected to refrain  from strong drink on the sabbath.

 

By seven that evening Delores had come in and perched on her stool.  Dan would have to listen to another variation on her problems and the husband who didn’t understand and the children who wouldn’t mind.  Come eight and most of the thirty or so regulars would be in residence as there was very little to do in town and any other form of entertainment was over two hours away.  Outside of religion there were only three forms of entertainment in the town.  Dancing, pool, and skee-ball, all held in the bar.  Dan never considered drinking a form of entertainment, at least not after his teenage days of obligatory beer guzzling and whisky foolishness.  Fact now was that Dan never touched a drop.  For ten years he had watched people pour alcohol of one kind or another down their throats and had seen the results first hand.  As he has said to one patron who asked why he never drank, “Serving drunks has taken all the enjoyment out of it.  It just don’t seem important anymore.  Hazard of being a barkeep, I guess.”

 

Meanwhile Dolores as drinking more heavily than usual.  She was also more animated and inclined to talk to herself, raising her voice with each drink she threw down.  Jeff came in and shouted, “Hey, whose suitcase it that outside?”  Delores raised her head and in slurred speech yelled back, “It’s mine, asshole.  You got a problem?”  The conversation stopped immediately.  If it weren’t for the jukebox the sound of silence would have been heard for the first time that day.  All eyes turned towards Delores.  “What are all you looking at?  Huh?  Why are you staring at me?  Why?”  Her defiant stare tried to shield her from the prying eyes of the crowd.  Then she nestled her head into her arms on the bar and started sobbing.  “Richard threw me out.  That pompous bastard!  He threw me out.  He said I had to straighten myself out.”  Delores was sobbing harder now.  The people in the crowd were looking away, embarrassed to watch a woman suffering in public.

 

Dan picked up the receiver from the cradle and dialed his partner’s number.  “Hello, John?  Would you call rev. Hightower?  Yeah, we got a problem with Delores.  I think she’s going to need some help.”  He put the receiver back on the cradle and looked over at Delores.  One of the woman, Janey, was trying to sooth her, whispering something into her ear.  Once you cross the line in a small town there is no where to go but the big city.  “Well, I won’t miss her.” Dan said quietly to himself.  He filled three orders, took the cash and gave back the change.  It was still early and his feet were starting to hurt.

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Like A Lover

Paul had his hopes set on Catherine. His desire for her love and affection was strong to the point of obsession. If he could be the wind nothing would have pleased him more than to run his wind breeze like fingers through her hair and caress her cheeks.  Not that Catherine really encouraged him affections.  I think the most dreaded curse I woman can utter to a man is “Let’s stay friends.”  In the beginning I tried to warn him but some people can’t take a hint even when it is delivered by a two by four.  This would be love affair began about ten years ago when we were out of college and living in the city.  Paul was a structural engineer working for an architectural firm and I was an electrical engineer working for one of the local television stations.  Neither one of us could afford a three bedroom apartment, not that we needed that many rooms for ourselves but single apartments were as scarce as hen’s teeth.  So Paul and I, along with an acquaintance from the television station (he was a copy writer) found a three bedroom walk-up in a not so fashionable section of the city.  Beggars and not very well to do young men must take what they can afford.

 

The social scene for us low men on the totem pole was limited.  Gala’s were for the more established men and women, those with more fashionable addresses and incomes to match.  Paul’s firm was having some sort of celebration, something to do with winning the contract for the new addition to one of the major Art Museums and for some reason I found myself with an invitation to the posh gathering.  I would believe that someone had confused my name with one of the “personalities” at the television station (our names were similar but not exact) and no I had a free “meal ticket”, all the champagne and scotch I could drink.  I rented a tux for the evening and since Paul was expected to be part of the “help”, we went together.  Like all young men we had our expectations of a grand and glorious evening.  There would be excitement and celebrities and music and booze and fun and gaiety.  Well, two out of six ain’t bad if you’re a baseball slugger, celebrities and booze, even if it was the cheap stuff, the booze I mean.  For Paul, it was like walking into Valhalla.  Catherine was a young assistant to the curator in charge of the eighteenth century period of fine arts.  If i recall correctly she was about two years our senior and cut an impressive figure.  That long black gown gave her that slimness that actuated her height like a tall willow reed next to a pond.  The long blonde mane she wore with that slight bit of fullness and touch of curl gave her appearance a most appetizing and elegant arrangement.  I had the distinct impression that she was use to driving men mad and Paul had that look.

 

Paul was pressed into service to explain the plans, entertain the wishes of the public, for this was a most civic affair, and generally station himself at the model.  For this service he was granted on glass of champagne and one orderve.  But I could tell that he was captivated by Catherine.  I mean, who wouldn’t.  On the other hand I was free to roan in search of future contacts.  The station personality with whom I was confused did not show, something about a live broadcast for some great news event of little consequence.  It was most embarassing to be led up to the dias and have to explain that I was not he, that bright shining personality, but an electrical engineer of no account.  After that I was shunned in general.  However, Catherine saw the humor in the situation and lent her beauty to the beast, as it was.  She asked me to escort her around so as to ward off the married wolves.  Thus I had the envy of almost all males including those whose wives had accompanied them.  The next morning’s papers were full of speculation as to who was this unworthy person.  And I had not forgotten Paul.  We drifted over to his station ans she engaged his services to explain the project.  Paul was practically beaming with pride as he explained the structural engineering of this modern embarrassment to architecture.  Well, yes, I have never liked the modernist or extreme modernist designs.  But that is neither here no there.

 

As we walked around the floor interacting with the myriad of public guests of various stripes Catherine and I talked a little about who we were and what brought us to the big city.  Her voice had that sultry quality, almost Lauren Bacall in register and phrasing.  “I come from a family that has always had an interest in the arts.  I double majored in art history and English literature,  that’s how I landed this job with the help of my father’s contacts.  Father teaches art history at Amherst and my mother is a writer for Reader’s Digest.  I write some of the literature for Dr Bigelow, the kind that goes to the museum’s patrons and the societies that sponsor exhibitions every year.  It’s really very dull work and even duller partons and social matrons.”  I told her that I write a little, mostly non fiction technical work, but every now and then I attempt a bit of short story fiction.  “Other than that, I’m a rather dull man.”  Catherine laughed at that expose.  Along about eleven I excused myself from her company citing the need to start work early.  “We’re installing new equipment for remote broadcasts.  I think the first one will be at the opera.”  She was impressed by that knowledge and smiled as I left.

 

Paul came in about one that morning and promptly woke me up. “I’m in love, I’m in love.  For the first time in my life, I’m in love.  And do you know who my object of affection happens to be?  That beautiful and gorgeous woman, Catherine!  Think of it!  I’m in love with a vision of loveliness, a goddess.”  My own opinion was that it was not love so much as another four letter word we used to use to apply to our affairs in college.  After half an hour of such declarations of madness I kicked him out of my room.  I needed my sleep, not his attempts to justify a little chit chat.  As I drifted off to sleep Paul was still dancing around like the proverbial schoolboy.  My alarm went off all too early that morning but I quickly got dressed.  Paul had dropped off to sleep on the couch, still dressed in his tux.  Oversleeping was his affair, perhaps his boss would take last night in consideration.

 

Being the junior engineer, I was given task for all the remote broadcasting set-ups and even became the impromptu sound engineer.  The only advantage was that I had one or two days off during the week.  The disadvantage was that being a “professional” I wasn’t paid the high union scale nor the overtime that went with it.  But there was the promise of advancement in the industry and even opportunities in other industries.  Thus began my weekly foray into the world of art.  The city had quite a few museums dedicated to art and science.  The Soho section was home to numerous galleries for art and antiques, a taste I had acquired from my mother.  Not that I could afford much in the way of objects d’art, but I could look.  One day in a small gallery I bumped into Catherine, literally.  I did not see her nor expected to see much of her in my limited social circle.  “Hello, Bill.  What brings you here?”

“It’s my day off and I usually spend my time visiting these galleries or museums.  Aren’t you working?”

“Actually, I am.  Dr Bigelow sends me out to scout the galleries for new talent.  This piece, for example, has promise.  What do you think?”

I replied, “I don’t think much of the more modern examples of art.  I think I’m stuck in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as far as style.  I suppose that makes me seem a bit stolid in your eyes.”

Catherine smiled, “No, not at all.  I’m a bit of a throwback in my field.  But I just can’t afford a few million for a good collection.  Why don’t you come to the museum next time and I’ll take you on a private tour and we can lunch with one of the patrons.  I’ll tell them you’re a critic and they’ll pick up the tab.”

“Sure, how about next Wednesday?”

“Fine, it’s a deal.”

“By the way”, I continued, “we’re broadcasting La Boheme next Saturday, the opera’s premier.  Care to sit in the booth with me?  All the tickets have been snapped up, not even standing room.”

“Why Bill, that’s a great idea.  I’ll be there.  Where shall I meet you?”

 

Saturday evening came and Paul was at home.  He had been moping around lately as if the world might come to an end.  I had not seen Paul look quite so dejected since the home coming queen rejected his offer of a date.  “What’s the matter Paul, why so glum tonight?”

“I tried to ask Catherine out tonight, you know, that real nice blonde who works for the art museum?  Well, she said she already had plans for the evening.  Bill, I’ve been trying to get her to go out with again for a month now.”

“Suppose I’m to blame for tonight, she’s going to the opera with me tonight.  I’ve got the broadcast to do tonight and I offered her a seat in my booth.  I am sorry to steal your date.”

Paul looked at me with questioning eyes.  I knew what he was thinking, how did I rate.  “Look, the premier is sold out.  You have to have money and connections for tonight or know the recording engineer.  That’s all.  It’s not like we’re sitting fifth row center.”  My explanation didn’t have quite the effect I expected.  He was downcast now as if I had punched him in the stomach.  “Hey, maybe next time.  Why not ask her to Sunday brunch?  Tell you what.  I’ll ask her to brunch tomorrow and you show up with me.  How’s that?”

“Yeah, ok…yeah, I’ll tag along.”  Paul sounded unconvinced and not particularly happy.

I had not told Paul much about my relationship with Catherine.  Just a friendship, nothing special.  We meshed well during the outings to galleries and antique stores.  She was a beautiful woman but she never evinced an interest in me as anything more than a friend and perhaps a convenient friend, at that.  I never took it for more than that.  she struck me as a woman who might marry one of those partons of the museum, perhaps as a trophy wife.  Not that Catherine was a shallow person but that she seemed to know her “worth” in the world.  So the opera passed in the usual way.  I was preoccupied more with the recordings and any possible problems, both visual and aural than I was with my companion.  Those close to the booth must have been smug with the knowledge that I had a beautiful woman dressed in a costly evening ground in my booth.  Most recognized her from all the other functions she attended for the museum.  I think I detected a touch of envy from a few of the men.  After the performance as I was gathering up the equipment with the help of one of the union people, I mentioned the possibility of having brunch the next forenoon.  “Why Bill, I’d love to.  Where shall we meet?  Wait a minute, I know.  There’s a little cafe on Third Avenue, Le Aurora Cafe.  It’s a marvelous place.”  I didn’t mention bring Paul along.

 

Paul and I found a nice table located outside.  The sun was warm and the light breeze brought the sent of jasmine from the tree next door.  I though I detected a bit of disappointment in the eyes of Catherine.  “I hope you don’t mind, Catherine, I invited Paul to brunch with us.”

“Oh no, not at all.”  Catherine was very good at not skipping a beat when faced with a change in plans.  I think she practiced that social manner.  Paul started to ask questions of her.  How did she enjoy the opera?  What did she think of the engineering booth?  And so forth.  I tried to quickly attract the waiter and get our orders started and have the coffee refilled.  Catherine was parrying his questions like a fencing master parrys with rapier.  I stepped into the conversation.

“Catherine, what new exhibits are coming up this month?  I was hoping for something from the French period, maybe Carrot, for example.”  She shifted the conversation into art and the doings at the museum.  I was surprised that she could hold forth so long and so well.  Then the food arrived and she could fein the need to occupy herself with eating.  After the meal she had another cup of coffee and then announced that she must go.  I got up and said something about needing to get myself a paper.  I met her at the corner briefly.

“Sorry about Paul, I didn’t know.  It won’t happen again.”

She simply said, “It’s all right.  I’ll see you Wednesday if you have the day off.”  I nodded in response.  Then I walked back to the table with the Sunday edition in my had.

“What we you and Catherine talking about?”

“Oh, that.  Nothing special, just a new gallery that opened last week.  She wanted to know If I had seen it.”

Paul looked at me suspiciously.  “Are you dating her?”

“No, just sometimes I run into her at one of the galleries or antique stores.  That’s all.  I’ve never asked her out, really, except for last night at the opera and that was hardly a date.  Just a professional courtesy.”  Paul turned and walked away, lost in his own thoughts.  I could have sworn I saw one or two tears in his eyes.

 

After that Sunday Paul never mentioned Catherine by name again.  About two weeks later Catherine told me that Paul had succeeded in getting her alone.  “It was such a terrible scene, really.  He was so insistent.  Kept saying how much he loved me and wanted to be with me.  Begging me to love him, be with him.  He wants me for his wife!  Imagine that!  What a contemptible fool!”  She calmed down after a few minutes.  “Bill, I hate to speak ill of your friend but he won’t let me alone.  Please don’t take this the wrong way but Adrian Bolton, that nice society lawyer, well, he talked to Judge Deavers and now there is a retraining order against Paul from bothering me.  Oh Bill, I just didn’t know what else to do.  Can you forgive me?”

“Catherine, it’s not my affair.  I don’t know what’s come over Paul.  You know, the first time he met you he said he was insanely in love with you.  What can I say?”

 

Two months later Paul moved out of the apartment.  He had found another job in a different city a thousand miles away.  That was the last I ever saw of him.  Like the wind, perhaps his love, as it might have been, moved on across the land.  Three months later Catherine had announced her engagement to that not so young social lawyer, Adrian Bolton.  She still works at the museum but I seldom run into her in the galleries or antique shops.  I did meet Catherine’s replacement as Dr Bigelow’s assistant.  I bumped into her in that same gallery, she was looking for the next artist for the museum’s modern wing.  Short and cute with medium brown hair and a pleasant face and sturdy body.  We had a cup of coffee together.  Irene doesn’t sparkle like Catherine does, but I prefer her down to earth style.

So Many Stars

Julia once told me, “Dreams are the stars and only come out at night.  There are so many stars from which to choose.  I wish I knew which one is right for me.  Just so many stars, so many stars.”  Wistful dreaming of a young woman, I suppose, but as good an analogy as any these days.  Our need for the ‘right’ dream is a part of human nature, the part that seeks hope in the futures.  I say futures because for the most part our lives intertwine with the lives of others.  When one is fourteen one rarely acknowledges such an occurrence.  Such is the twilight zone of youth.

 

I went off to war, such as it was then, while Julia went off to college.  Perhaps if I had actually liked school and bothered to study and obtain good grades that would be acceptable to a number of colleges and universities I would have had a different dream in life.  She was accepted to a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.  Her dreams were different.  “Jack, I want to study literature and art.  Maybe learn French and spend a year in Paris.  And maybe I’ll find a man I can love and who loves me.  I want to share his life, see him become successful.”  My dream was much simplier.  Get through my service commitment, find a job, and buy a decent used car.  I never could see as many stars in the heavens as Julia.  True, I had fantasies but I knew these were not common dreams that would ever come true.  And her dreams always left me feeling wistful and I envied her ability in school and her imagination.  “Jack, I know my dreams will come true, i feel it in my heart.”

 

That first summer I spent in boot camp and advanced training before I was posted to Ft Benning for three months.  Julia and I exchanged a few letters, about one a month.  Army life is a drag, dull and dreary for the private with little money and little time to spend it.  But she had her first full time summer job and was able to save a tidy sum for her first year at college.  Freshmen were put upon then, all the rules and the on campus dorms, each with its wicked witch guarding the door to paradise.  “Jack, the upperclassmen ignore us and the lowerclassmen are such immature jerks.  I thought it would be different when I came here.  Got a paper due, have to cut this short.”  I was looking forward to Christmas break and seeing her again but no such luck.  My dream just turned into a nightmare.  End of November we headed to the far east and jungle warfare school, often referred to as the course on how to survive K-rations.  Christmas I received a card from Julia with a few scrawls inside.  “Hi Jack, back here of break and so many parties to attend.  Hope you are well.”

 

Into the second half of her freshman year I was into my year of hell.  My dream was survival, count off each day on my reverse calendar and make it through the year.  Her letters were shorter and fewer during that time.  Towards the end of my tour she started writing about the new stars in the night sky, the new possible dreams.  “Dear Jack, I must tell you that I found out I have little talent for art.  I’m good at drawing but poor at composition.  It’s time for me to change my major.  Besides, all those old dead white men and their stories are boring me.  I want to read the exciting fiction of the future authors.  I want to see and feel the other cultures that our own culture has suppressed for so long.  I’m leaving at the end of my spring session.  I want to take the time off and find myself.”  I had about a month to go when I got hit.  It wasn’t a bad wound but it was inconvenient.

 

The question became, what was my next dream?  I was now a corporal recovering from my wound.  Another year to go before that my big decision.  Do I stay or do I go, and if I go, to what?  The only skill I had at the moment was carrying a rifle.  The captain said I should re-enlist.  He would promise to get me into some sort of job training.  What would I like to be?  Take a week or two and think about, go visit some of the specialist groups and talk to them.  “I’ll arrange it.” he said.  I became a heavy equipment operator in the Engineers, seemed safe enough.  One day I found a letter in my box.  “Dear Jack, I’ve been living in a commune.  Everyone is so understanding.  We spend our time growing our own food and sharing the chores.  Some of the men are jerks but the women are very supportive of one another.  We’re on our way to a peace rally, we are fighting to war in Vietnam.  Have you left yet?  You must get out and stop supporting the government’s war against women and children.  You could come and join us.”  There was more about a few of the people in her commune.  David was so brave because he opposed the war and wouldn’t register for the draft.  And Paul have been arrested for leading a sit-in held in the local draft office.  all these heroes were so brave, at least to her.  And she was going to have Paul’s child.  Meanwhile, Paul had been arrested for the arson of an Army recruiter station.  He would face ten years in the federal penitentiary.  But she would wait and they would then live their dream.

 

Finally the day came when I would have to pay for my training again.  We were shipped out to Vietnam where we were needed to do all manner of work.  I found myself being dropped onto small hill tops so I could grade landing strips for helicopters and observation planes.  A platoon of us would be ferried into the new area where firebases were to be established and an infantry company was assigned to protect us.  You’d think I’d be safe.  Four months later own hill top was over run.  Several companies came to our rescue, if you can call it that.  Half our engineer platoon were killed, most of the rest of us were wounded to one degree or another.  The original company assigned to us took very heavy casualties.  During the night I lay concealed in the brush i looked up.  Most of the stars were gone.  The next day they evacuated what was left of us.  The return to semi normal began but the road would be long.  Some officer decided that I deserved a couple of medals and I didn’t dispute that point.  I already had a new dream.  I dreamed that I would recover sufficiently to start civilian life.  I dreamed I could put these hard years past me.  I had not heard from Julia for over a year.  I figured she was busy raising a child and doing what she needed to wait for Paul.  Besides, I didn’t have her address and her father wasn’t speaking to her.  Her mother would have given it to me but I couldn’t see the need.

 

A year after I left the service my mother forwarded a letter from Julia.  She had addressed it to me at the base where I had last served and thanks to the slow efficiency of the service and post office it had been sent to my “official” address, my parents’ house.  I was working for the gas and electric company operating a backhoe and occasionally articulated loader.  The boom in housing tracks assured work for many of us returning veterans for the next decade or two.  Not exactly my dream job but it would do.   Julia wrote, “I’ve had a miscarriage and Paul was angry.  Said I wasn’t taking proper care of myself.  He will be released from prison but I really don’t want to be around him.  Paul has become bitter, he feels his sacrifice was in vain and no one really cares.  I left the commune, the once friendly and hopeful people have become selfish and greedy.  They are more worried about their future now.  I’m not sure what to do now.  All my dreams never turned out the way they should.  I can’t go home, Dad is still angry with me and Mom is of no help.  Oh sure, she manages to send me a little money now and again and I have a drudge of a job.  I get by but that is about all.  All those dreams, what happened?  The sky is black at night.  Maybe it’s just the big city lights that have killed all the stars, I don’t know.  Think of me sometime.”

 

I had a week of vacation left so I talked to my boss and the following Friday I was in my pickup heading for the city.  There wasn’t much to go on.  Not sure about the address, it was almost six months old.  But maybe I could find her.  Heavens knows what I could do for Julia.  We had never been sweethearts.  she was the dreamer and I was the realist, not much in common for more than a friendship.  Hell, I almost forgot what she looked like, funny how time does that to people.  But I tried to figure which neighborhood would fit her circumstances.  It was Wednesday the next week when I stopped in at a cafe for lunch near the local university.  Julia was waiting tables.  She looked at least five years older than her age.  I only recognized her because of the name tag she wore.  I asked for coffee and a a sandwich.  I don’t think she ever really looked at me.  The bright light in her eyes had gone out and she was going through the motions of taking orders and ferrying plates from the counter to the tables.  I asked her when her shift ended and she gave me that irritated look of don’t bother me, you jerk.  “Julia, it me. Jack.  Your old friend from the neighborhood.”  She stood quite still for several minutes looking at my face with that quizzical look of non belief and surprise.  I thought she was about to flood the room with tears.

“Jack.  Is it really you?  My god.  You look so different.”

“Yes, it’s me.  So when do you get off?”

We spent half the night catching up on old times and all the water over the dam.  Gradually I could detect the old light come back into her eyes, life started to blossom again.  “So what do you want, Julia?”

She turned her face away from mine and stared deeply into the wall.  Maybe five minutes passed before she turned to look directly into my eyes.  “I want to dream again.  Do you think there’s a chance?”

I wished I had an answer.

 

As Time Goes By

The world seemed more innocent then compared to today, even when it was on the brink of a great world war.  The difference between good and evil was less subtle, more black and white.  A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is still a sigh, the fundamentals of loving as time goes by.  We look back on the past we never knew with rose colored glasses.  The hopes of our future realities lie buried in the disappointments of our past.  Let the dreamer beware.  Preston Wallace traded in such stocks of the future, the market of hope, charity and change.  His religion was the church of the impossible dream, redemption through struggle, salvation through accomplishment.  His only mortal sin was that he never truly believed, that bit of Scottish ancestry held him back, made him doubt in the wee hours of his sleep.

 

I met Mr Wallace at a seminar he was giving.  The woman I was dating at the time and who shall remain anonymous to protect me, a woman scorned and that sort of thing, had dragged me to this circus of happy feelings.  It was a small group, perhaps twenty some odd individuals sitting on oversized pillows arranged in a circle with a small mat in its middle.  for a small introductory fee of ten dollars a piece and fifteen dollars a couple, we would be introduce into the world of the eternal sunshine mind of existence.  I must admit that his entrance was masterful.  Preston was one of those men who are blessed with that eternal thinness that accentuates their average height.  High cheekbones, not too broad forehead, and delicate chin gave him that aura of great intelligence and wisdom.  Dressed as he was in a thin cashmere turtleneck top with white flair legged trousers, might have been a silk blend, for the legs, when he walked gave a sense of animation to his bare feet.  One had the opinion that here was a man in tough with his feminine side and completely comfortable with such feelings.  But the image projects was more force of personality rather than charisma, although the rich baritone voice certainly suggested as much.

 

Preston entered the circle at the prescribed time, punctuality matters in this line of business, and facing the east, sat down in the most graceful manner into the infamous yoga pose of the lotus.  Arms best outward with hands outstretched and the first two fingers meeting the thumb gave testimony that a master was in our midst.  A minute of silence with his eyes closed brought a sense of peace to the group.  Without opening his eyes he began to speak. “I am Master Rumi.  Let peace enter into your mindfulness of the moment.  May the spirit of light enter your consciousness.  Allow tranquility to rule your soul.”  Master Rumi allowed us another minute to take it all in, then he rose as gracefully as he had sat.  He was now wearing the benign smile all mystics wear in public, beaming his spiritualness as rays of eternal sunshine.  In short, the man was good, he was very good.  Now some of you may be wondering why I have a sardonic tone to my writing in this piece.

 

When I was a young man seeking truth, as all good young men always do, I went through the years of encounter groups and personal routh groups, and ,well, you name it.  I came to know them very well.  They gladly took my money and time.  But that was it.  There was no exchange of goods or services of value.  I had to find my own way through this spiritual life and they merely impeded my progress.  But all that aside.  Personal growth comes from within, not from without and certainly not from some yogi or swami or other such teacher.  Back to our story.  Preston, pardon me, Master Rumi, had added a few new twists to the presentations and group exercises.  I was impressed for the man had a natural and intuitive feel for things of the spiritual world.  that aquiline nose gave sensuality to his spirituality while the long thin fingers punctuated the points made by the ease of his voice.  Words flowed as if from a spring, bubbly but never hurried and carried a sense of cosmic laughter.  I could have been converted on the spot.  Was he an Elmer Gantry reincarnated?

 

Marie, my companion, was lost to the experience.  Our initial meeting had seemed fortuitous at the time.  My acquaintance with John Allen had been the basis for an invitation to their dinner party in the city.  My role in these affairs is more that of the gadfly.  Every dinner party of any rank needs a gadfly or two, not too many or us ruffins will be fighting in the salon and upsetting the antique relics, both human and nonhuman.  Marie was a designer friend of Rose, our hostess, and in need of a male escort.  Back in my salad days we never worried about civilities, but since I was deemed interesting and available, well, I was elected.  And in this world of social progress we had gathered for the obligatory meeting that established our reason for existence on this planet.  John was a lawyer and a damn good one.  And honest, I might add.  For a very modest fee he would read over the contracts I had to sign as I made my living.  It is understandable that many of his guests were other men of the law as well as businessmen and a few other professions.  I had learned to carry my business cards as it was always good form to exchange them with strangers.  Mine read: International Spy and Assassin and had a 1-800 number, the White House, actually.  Either you got the joke or avoided me.

 

Back to the party.  I must say that Marie was not a great beauty.  Her figure was trim to the point if thinness but not quite the anorexic look.  The face was moon shaped and the eyes and nose and mouth were pleasantly arranged, the chin suggested some strength but not aggressiveness.  She claimed to be a natural blonde and her skin had a sort of natural tan, if you know what I mean.  One might call her pretty but never beautiful.  The other asset she displayed was the willing expression on her face that gave hope to batchelors such as I of enjoyable times.  For the most part, John told me later, by way of Rose, that Marie found me interesting.  Me?  Not intriguing, not endless fascinating, just interesting?  So much for my business card.  Still, I’ll settle for interesting and made the first of several dates.  So the mating dance begins, or at least the seduction phase.  I am not much of a seducer and perhaps that is why she was never too willing on our initial dates.  I was beginning to think I had failed at reading faces and body language.  Then the seminar, such as it was.  Willing was written all over her face but the message was not for me.  And I was not the only male or female to read her lips, so to speak.  Preston, I mean Master Rumi took a cordial interest in Marie.  His female assistant was, understandably less cordial.  Obviously Master Rumi could burn a candles at more than both ends, just don’t ask me how.

 

At the end of the session Master Rumi, now Preston, invited the two of us to stay for tea.  His assistant, Anne was her name if I recall, was not exactly the gracious hostess.  On the other hand, since I was among the chosen she made friendly gestures towards my welfare.  Like a good hostess she inquired: “What do you do for a living?”

“I am a writer by trade.”  I never know a professional writer, that is, one who hangs out a shingle and a sign that says open for business.  No editor or reader ever flocks to my door asking me to write a novel just for them.  Sometimes I get lucky and write something that actually sells and puts pennies in my grubby paws.”

Anne was amused at my forthrightness but not really by my humor.  I would have expected her to ask if Marie was my wife or at least my intended, but I sense that Anne had been through this kind of affair before.  “How long have you known each other?”  This woman could go for the jugular.

“Only a few weeks.  I met her at a dinner party given by the John Allen’s.”  Perhaps I could impress her with my social connections, such as they weren’t.  “Marie is a decorator to the social elite.”  Anne merely smiled and asked if I would like more tea.

I escorted Marie home that evening, she was floating like a wispy little cloud after her tete-a-tete with Preston.  Normally she is courteous to invite me up for coffee but tonight she was ‘too tired and worn out’.  She would take a bath and recover her spirits.

 

Three days later Marie called me.  “Bill, you can’t believe what has happened!”  Actually I could and in graphic detail but since children might be reading I will spare them my imagination.  Preston was so impressed with my aura and spirit that he has decided to offer me private training.  Of course he extends the offer to you as well.  He believes you could do with a bit of refreshing.  It might help your writing.”  Everyone’s a critic, even fake spiritualists.

“Yes, Marie, I will accompany you.  I think it absolutely amazing that this has happened to us.”  I made note of the date and time.  “Yes, I will pick up you in my car.”  I gathered that I was the sacrificial lamb for Anne.  Somehow she must be distracted while Master Rumi worked Maries spirits into a frenzy and I could imagine what those spirits would look like.  But again, children may be present so I must keep my imagination to myself.

 

After the third session Anne decided to confide in me.  “I’ve been through this before but Preston doesn’t keep these women this long.  I don’t know what hold Marie has over him.”

“Well, she’s not my Marie, never was.  And the hold is simple, it’s money.  She has a trust that assures her an ample living with many top notch amenities.  I suppose Preston is trying to convince her to part with some of it.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the checks, I’m his bookkeeper and office assistant, and chief cook and bottle washer.  Truth is, I think he’s in love with her.  I think he’s trying to get her to marry him.”

“Tell me more about your boss, and might I add love interest?”

“Ex love interest.” I detected a note of bitterness, the scorned woman.  “Preston used to be a used car salesman until they fired him.  The sales manager caught him with his wife.  He’s a very good salesman but he can’t keep a dime or his, ah…”

I interrupted, “Yes, I know the part of anatomy.  Continue.”

Anne blushed for a moment.  Well, while he was unemployed he attended a few free classes or seminars in spirituality.  That’s how I met him.  I was younger then, much thinner and far more pretty.”  Anne was a little taller than Marie and at five feet nine could hold a little more weight on her frame without showing it.  She had one of those rectangular faces, reminded me of that actress, Lee Remick.  Where Marie was late twenties – early thirties, Anne was middle forties.  Or so I would have guessed.  I think she would have been called cute until her mid thirties, judging from her features.  Her lips would have been thinner then and embossed with an infectious smile.  Her voice held charm, the real kind, not the affected typs so many try to project.  “So now what will you do?  Will you wait until he finds out that marriage to her would stop the trust money.”

Anne looked surprised for the moment, then the started to laugh and I saw traces of the infectious smile.  “How do you know her trust stops if she gets married.”

“John allen is her lawyer, knew the family.  He’s the one who drew it up.  When I started to take her out he cued me in.”

“Oh, that’s too precious for words.  In answer to your question, No, I’m not going to wait.  I saw the signs, I know we, Preston and me, can’t go on.  I’m tired of this spiritual thing, tired of the charade.  I’ve been out interviewing and think I found myself a bookkeeping job in the business district.”

“Do you have somewhere to stay?  Living in the city is a bit expensive.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  One of the pigeons from last week is going to rent me a room for a couple of months.  A real nice man.  If he’s a gentleman I just might stay longer.  Besides, thanks to your Marie I’ve got some money saved up.  Preston will never know what happened to it.  You know, Karma’s a bitch.”

 

 

An Ordinary Life

Small towns are populated by ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.  It is a plain truth.  Small towns rarely ever stay the same, most decay, their reason for existence forgotten.  Their populations drift away, the young looking for work, the old die off, petrified of change.  A few small towns grow a little, perhaps lay claim to having a Walmart in their midst, although Walmart build on the outskirts of these towns and collapses what had been a viable block or two or three of businesses.  Or perhaps the interstate came through, boosting business.  Of course that only works for a few small towns that grew a little larger.  These small towns may have been large enough to have their own high school, maybe a graduating class of fifty.  Local farms with local services for farmers.  Maybe five thousand inhabitants making a living, making a home, making a family.  Paul Johnson was one of those inhabitants.  He went to war an eager youth.  He came back a quiet man.  His father ran the local machine shop and repair business.  That’s where he went to work each day save Sunday.  Religion serves those who serve, or so it is said.  You could find Paul sitting with his mother and father four rows back on the north side of the aisle.  They were Lutherans as were there forefathers and foremothers.

 

In small towns most people rise early, there’s work to be done and best be about it, right Paul?  Right, he’d say, got to open early for the farmers, they get here round seven and don’t leave till six or sever, maybe.  “I got John Greyson coming in this morning with a mower blade that busted on his side mounted hay mower. Got to braise the two pieces together strong enough to get him through the haying season.  Them blades ain’t cheap, you know.  Yes sir, they ain’t cheap.”  He pushed the two sliding doors to each side opening the two story work shed for business.  Paul then drove the two ton truck with its welder and tool boxes on the sides into the parking lot.  Guess I’ll have some time later to go out to Frank Buck’s place later this morning.  He’s got a grain auger that needs welding.  I’ll collect those saw blades that need sharpening, he can collect them when he comes in to pay his bill.  Here comes Dad with the thermos now.

 

After fixing Greyson’s mower blade Paul will go on over to the high school.  Half a dozen boys, all farmer’s sons, want to learn how to weld.  They’ll learn on the Lincoln welder on his truck.  It may cut into his business but Paul doesn’t mind.  There will always be business, they say the town is growing.  Yes sir, that’s what they say.  Later Paul heads on over to the Buck farm.  Frank is waiting.  “Howdy Frank, got here as soon as I could.  that senior welding class took a little extra time this morning.  You know Duffy O’Malley boy, don’t you?  Well, dang fool touched one of the weld seams with his bare hands.  Burned it pretty good.  He’ll have a scar but he’ll live.”

“Them O’Malley boys always were fools.  Just like their father.  I don’t think he’s be right in the head since the war.  Do you?”

“Frank, I can speak ill of Duffy.  He saw some hard times in the Solomons.  I never speak ill of a man who did his duty.  So let’s drop it here.  Okay?”

“Sorry, Paul, I forgot.

 

Work done, Paul driving back to town with the half dozen saw blades to sharpen, Duffy didn’t have it any rougher than the rest of us on the island, he just took it worse.  Maybe if he could stop drinking.  Naw, I doubt it.  Hold on steady, Paul, ain’t nothing you can do about it.  Shame, really.  Drinkin just makes it worse.  I’ll stop by the shop and pick up Dad.  I’m getting hungry.  Wonder what’s for lunch.  As if I didn’t know.  Cold butter milk and sandwiches with the leftover beef roast.  I hope Mon doesn’t start trying to fix me up with girls again.  Just not ready for marriage, that’s all.  Just not ready.

 

Many years have passed.  The O’Malley boys had graduated and become roust-a-bouts in a Texas oil field.  Both have rebelled against their father.  Got married young, spawned a couple of children, and then divorced.  Both drink too much, fight too much, the excess of youth one might say.  Neither one has been back to see their mother.  Neither one came back for the funeral. Duffy’s old Hudson was found mangled beyond all comprehension, no real idea of what happened.  Paul stood by the widow at the grave yard.  The VA paid for the plot at the edge of the cemetery behind the church.  He was a Catholic but the Lutherans were tolerant.  Paul wondered at the service.  An honor guard from the VFW, a flag folded into a triangle, a small flat marker with the Marine Corps emblem carved in it.  A gift from Paul lest anyone in town forget.  Would it have made a difference in duffy’s life if he had been awarded one of the silver stars given to him?  Duffy was the one who dared to act and save three of his comrades.  The Captain said he had been the brave one.  Yes, he had gone out and dragged Duffy back to the aide station.  But that was after Duffy got the other’s back, when he dared a second time to save just one more.  Duffy didn’t know the man was dead, his wounds had been for nothing.  Maybe duffy felt cheated of his reward.  I don’t know.  Would a medal have made a difference?  Does a medal cover the scars a man gets in a war?  He pondered these thoughts until they men started shoveling dirt over the coffin.

 

It’s almost the turn of the century.  The town is down to a dozed families.  All the businesses have left.  Many of the houses are abandoned, sold by the children who will never visit again.  Only the main highway receives any maintenance, the side streets are reduced to patches of concrete and rubble.  Wooden buildings have borne the brunt of the weather, termites, and fire.  Most have collapsed into heaps of rotten board or piles of ashes.  the few brick buildings on main street sit with roofs collapsed.  Some have worn down brick standing, ready to burst apart.  Others suffer from the leaning tower of Pisa syndrome.  The church is boarded up, no services, not even a funeral, has been held there in twenty years.  The life of an ordinary town has been grown down by erosion and indifference.  Paul spends part of his day tending the graves in the cemetery.  To his knowledge none of Duffy’s children or grandchildren have been to visit the gravesites of him or his wife.  A traveling nurse comes to see him once a month and continues to urge him to seek a retirement home.  Doesn’t anyone look after him?  The daughter of an old friend, Frank Buck, brings him groceries every week.  But she is getting up in her years and may not be able to continue in the future.

 

So Paul waits, as he did on the island.  Waiting for death to advance, to charge his position.  Meanwhile there are graves to tend.  the dead can’t do it for themselves.  It is his last call to duty.  This is his command and he will defend it against all the weeds and developers.  Well, what developers?  The town is no more and it’s out in the middle of nowhere.  Just like the island.

Just Another Tequila Sunrise

I used to work graveyard in the switch deparment for the phone company. It was our job to monitor the equipment and do repairs when needed. Three of us were scheduled to be on duty one night and I knew Linda Grey would be reporting in from the switch in the south valley exchanges, she was our rover tonight. George was late and I was getting worried. It was the third time this week and I might have to call the supervisor.  Jim Zimmer was my boss, he covered the second and third shifts.  Jim was known as a straight shooter and good guy.  He never bought into the higher management bull shit and always gave you a straight and honest answer.  You got into trouble, he’d stand up for you in public and kick your ass in private.  Not many supervisors do that these days.  He wanted our best and was willing to cut us some slack when need be.  But George had gone beyond slack.

 

Just when I was about to pick up the phone and call Jim, George stumbled in, and I do mean stumbled.  He was drunk, unsteady on his feet, red in the eyes and looked ever so much the sloven boozer.  George tried to find his chair but it kept rolling away from him.  Finally it stopped against the wall and George flung himself at the seat.  He almost missed.  Now I was really worried.  This was a fireable offense and George was in his fifties, not likely to find employment, at least in the telecommunications field.  I sat at my desk and knew I should call Jim.  Perhaps ten minutes passed before I decided to rat George out.  Then Jim cam into the room.  He took one look at George, who by now was snoring loud enough to hide the noise of a freight train.  “We got trouble.  A couple of big wigs from the city are headed this way.  Word is they’re scalp hunting.  Take George to number twelve exchange, I’ll cover.  You got any work out there for the next couple of hours?”

 

I was stunned.  I’d never seen Jim this lenient.  I started to stammer, “Er, ah, yes, there are a few circuit packs the need replacement.  But what about George?”

“There’s a couch in the break room, put him to bed.  The do the work but stay close enough to the phone.  Got it?  I’ll send them out Linda’s way.”

 

So I, with Jim’s help, loaded George into the company car.  I made sure his seatbelt was fastened, didn’t want to get stopped by the cops.  And I drove out the exchange twelve.  I was going to try and walk him in but his body was just too loose for that.  So I parked as close to the door as I could get and found an armchair on rollers.  It was a struggle to place George on that chair but once there it was a breeze to get him over to the couch and sprawl him out on it.  Then I called reported in.  A strange voice answered, “Zimmer’s on another line, can you hold?”  Tell Mr Zimmer that Bill has found the problem and is working on it.”  Then I hung up.

 

About three hours later the phone rang.  I was surprised to hear linda’s voice.  “Bill, jim is on his way to see you.  What’s going on over there?”  My reply was simple but brief.  I didn’t know.  “Yeah, thanks a lot, asshole!”  She hung up quite hard.

 

A little while later Jim appeared.  “Get much work done?”

“Yeah, only one more circuit pack to go.  Whats going on with George”

Jim gave me a stern look.  “Look, this is very confidential, Bill.  I know I can trust you to keep quiet about tonight.”  I followed him to the office and we sat down as if in private conference.  “Bill, I don’t normally mix into my people’s lives, you know.  It’s not my business.  You know how I run things.  You got personal troubles, I’ll listen.  A good boss will do that unless it becomes too often.”

“Well, yeah, you’ve heard me out a couple of times.  Rescued me off that crew of Bob’s.  And I’m grateful.  I owe you.”

“George has marriage problems.  It’s no big secret.  He’s told you a few times abut his troubles, right?”

“Yeah, well, he has said a few things.  I don’t know for sure, but I get the feeling his wife is having an affair.  But it’s not my call.”

“Did he tell you directly?”  I saw the look of concern in Jim’s eyes.

“No, I just figured it that way.  Why, am I right?”

Jim just sighed.  He took his time in answering.  Yes, Bill, you’re right.  Just keep it to yourself, would you?  George needs some time right now and his drinking is not helping his case.  So keep it to yourself.  Why don’t you go and relieve Linda.  Just tell her there was problem finding the right circuit packs and George and I had to go find the right ones.”

 

The next night when I came to work Jim was there, waiting.  “George is taking a couple of days off.  He’s staying at my place so you will be by yourself most of the night.  Just hold down the fort for a few days and George will be back Monday.  Means you got a couple of days overtime for the weekend.”

“How is George?  You getting him sobered up?”

“Not quite but I did slow him down.  I hope to get him off the booze by Monday.”  Jim took a seat next to mine as a gesture of good will.  “You know, those brown shoes didn’t find anything to carp about.  Ms Jackson was pleased.  Of course she rarely comes down our way to do much of anything.  I swear, these regional managers are like tits on a bull, just as ugly as they are useless.”

We both had a good laugh at that thought.  Not since the old days of the ‘Billy Goat Gruff’, of which I was writer, editor, and publisher of the unofficial company news letter, the one that almost got me fired, had I had such a good laugh.  Jim would never make second level management but he would never have any real problems with his people.  George was the exception but that would not last.  Of course Linda made her inquires but I held my cards close to the vest.  I figured Jim might say something to her eventually.  She took the hint and waited.  At least we were back on good terms.

 

Monday I found George at his desk.  I think he had put in a few unofficial hours as partial payback to Jim.  Linda was still our rover, an assignment she liked.  And we had no major problems that would send one of us out to the switch offices.  George was a little nervous at first.  “I’m sorry I put you and jim in a difficult position.  Just things at home haven’t been going well, you know?”

“Hey, no problem, man.  You’d do it for me.”  That was true, George would help the people on Jim’s crews.  We passed the time as we usually did, surveillance of the switches, software upgrades, and routine filing.  In between those events I did my usual reading, usually on technical advancements in communications.  I had some idea that I could get into advance technological positions within the company.  George tried to keep his mind on anything but home.

 

About four AM george finally opened up a little.  He knew I’d listen without judgment.  I always did.  “Bill, Jim tells me you guessed my wife is having an affair.  Well, she is.  She want a divorce so bad that she started bring home younger men and having them stay all night.  You know me, I don’t believe in divorce but I think we are going to have to separate soon.  Looks like I’ll have to move out.  She wants the house.”

“Sounds bad, George.  Any help I can give?”

“Oh thanks, but no, I’ll manage.  Jim is helping me find a furnish studio, should have a place to go by next week.”  More silence.  “I owe you an explanation about my drinking.  the man my wife has been bringing home never leaves before nine AM.  So for the last few weeks I have sat in the bar over on Fifth Street.  did you know they open at six AM?”

“No, I had no idea.”

“Yeah, really.  I’ve been over there every day for the last three weeks.  I don’t want to sit at Denny’s stuffing my face to keep a booth.  So I was going there.  I sort of became fond of their Tequila Sunrises.  You know, sit and have a couple to kill the time while the sun comes up and I can go home again.”

 

Take Another Shot Of Courage

 

Chris stepped down onto the platform, the air parched and seared his skin, sweat dried before it had time to roll down his face.  Yuma is not a forgiving town, its geographical location known for its being inhospitable to the average American.  Not that any Mexican or Mexican American fared any better.  Here the climate made no distinctions among individuals.  A suitcase made of little more than laminated cardboard and cloth held what few personal items he owned.  Such was the physical history on our subject.  But as light holds promise, so too, does our young man.  For young men always hold promise until such time as all goodwill is forsaken.  The young man took a breath and started on his way to the bus counter inside.  Chris called to mind the need to call his uncle and let him know when the bus would arrive in Tacna.  After a few minutes walk he reached to ticket counter.  “Let me have a ticket to Tacna, please.”

“Round trip or one way?” came the voice on the man behind the counter.

“One way.”  Chris’s voice sounded non committal, almost passive.   “What time does the next bus leave?”

“Two thirty.  You should get to Tacna about four this afternoon.  You got a job there by any chance?”

Chris ignored the question and paid for the ticket.  Then he went to the bench by the bus gate to wait.  It won’t be long now.  Better call Uncle John as he noticed the  telephone in the nook by the exit.  Glad I don’t have to walk far as he approached the phone, put in the quarters, and dialed the number.  After the fifth ring he heard the receiver being picked up.  A woman’s voice, a bit on the old side, answered.

“Hello.” Was all he heard.  He felt slightly unnerved,”Aunt Martha, is that you?”  A woman responded, “Chris, is this Chris?  Your uncle was expecting your call earlier today.  Where are you?”

“Aunt Martha, I’m here in Yuma at the station.  The train had problems and they had to attach a new engine.  Would you tell Uncle John I’ll be in Tacna at four this afternoon?”

 

The ride to Tacna was dull, boring, uncomfortable.  The seats were confining and the landscape will filled with either empty cheap housing and RV parks for the snow birds or barren dessert with the occasional irrigation track among the ruins of bus stops decades older than the interstate.  Half lost in thought Chris was thinking as the bus rolled on, this is a lazy land, nothing to see or do and it’d be too hot anyway.  Can’t be any worse than juvie, maybe better.  I don’t know.  Can’t say as I care, really.  He looked at his watch.  Can’t remember if this place is in the same time zone.  I swear, this state is at least fifty years in the past.  The bus started to slow and the driver announced “Tacna”.  Chris sat up in his seat expecting something but didn’t know what.  Why is the bus stopping, there is no traffic.  Now he’s making a left turn.  guess we’re going into ‘town’.  The voice in his head was tired.  Tired of traveling, tired of waiting, just tired.Now the driver made another turn and stopped the vehicle in front of the post office.  Chris read the sign with a sigh of tired resignation.  Great, population 400.  Yeah, and I bet it’s all old people.  He picked up his suitcase and walked down the aisle to the door.  “Have a good day.” was the sound that came from the driver.  Startled, Chris turned around and just nodded.  Then he stepped off the bus and started to look around.  The door closed behind him and he heard the release of the air brakes as the bus started to pull away from the curb.  A horn sounded from the side parking lot and attracted his attention.  In a moment a tall heavy set man got out of the lone pickup and started to walk towards Chris.  Must be Uncle John he thought.

 

“Howdy Chris, you’re late.  What happened?”  Uncle John’s voice was direct and forceful but not loud.  He had a voice that was use command and respect.

Are you kidding me? Chris thought he was being targeted. Why’s he jumping on me for?  Suddenly the answer jumped up like a scared jackrabbit,”The engine broke down on the way and they had to get another one.  Don’t go blaming me for that.”

“Throw your bag in the bed and get in, I’m behind schedule.” was all Uncle John said as he and the boy started to the truck.  No sooner than Chris had placed himself in the seat and shut the door then the truck started and Uncle John quickly backed it up and sped out of the parking lot slinging a bit of gravel.    The irrigated fields went by counting the minutes of silence as the truck cruised down the county hardtop.  for chris the silence had almost become comfortable.  “Chris, I didn’t ask you for an excuse.  I asked what happened.  Let’s get one thing straight between you and me and Aunt Martha.  We aren’t here to blame you for anything.  Your aunt and I require two things from you.  The first is that level with us, be truthful.  Lies don’t build trust and respect in a man or woman.  The second is that you take responsibility for yourself.  That means when work needs doing, you do it whether we ask you or not.  This is a hard land.  You can’t afford to lay around and let it kill you.  What you make of yourself is how the people around here will treat you.  Do you understand me?”

Chris’s mind was alive with thought he was being disrespected, Wow, what’s this old man trying to shine on me.  He must think I’m an idiot.  Who is he to tell me how to live my life?  Finally he gave a simple “Yeah, ok” in a voice that sounded bored and almost disrespectful.

Uncle John hit the brakes real hard, almost throwing Chris into the windshield.  The big man place his right arm on the back of the seat and turned his body and head to fully face the boy.  Now his voice boomed out.  “Boy, your daddy skedaddled and left your mother when you were six.  She had a hard life doing right by you and it cost her.  Dying of cancer ain’t a whole lot of joy.  Particularly knowing that you were in juvenile hall because you didn’t want to grow up.  Now you hear me real good.  I aim to do right by my sister.  That’s the only reason you’re in this state and out here.  I ain’t shading the truth when I say this land can kill you.  Now maybe you can lit out for Yuma or Tuscon and any part of California you think you can make in a couple of days.  But you’re soft, boy.  You don’t have the skills you need to survive into your twenties.  I can teach you a lot of skills, ones that will see you make something of yourself.  And I don’t mean for me or your mother.  I mean for yourself.  But understand me real good, boy.  I won’t take attitude off you.  And you don’t want me all over you like shit on a stick.”  He paused for a few more minutes then turned back to face the steering wheel.  “We’ve got another half hour to go to the next job.  I gave my word that the job would be done before night fall, so you have plenty of time to think about what I said.”  With that Uncle John put the truck in gear and sped on down the road.

 

Chris was deep in though as Uncle John let the truck glide into the driveway and turned off the engine.  “You hungry?  Your aunt’s been keeping dinner warm of the stove.  I usually wash up out here before I go in.  Sort of an old habit I just can’t break.”  The two figures stood at the large wash basin soaping up their hands and arms and faces.  Each poured one of the two pitchers of water over the soapy areas and then over their heads.  Chris thought the water feels good, just cool enough to take the sting of sun and dirt out of my skin.  Air is still hot yet, wonder if it ever cools down at night.  Uncle John interrupted his concentration.  “Come on Chris, supper’s waiting.” Then he went through the door and stood by the table.  “I hope we’re not too late Marth.  I know you were inconvenienced.”

“John, it’s no bother at all.”  Her look of admiration was evident to Chris.  “Thank you, Chris, for helping John.  I can tell he’s pleased.”  This friendly acknowledgement caught him by surprise.  My god, he thought to himself, no one’s ever said that to me before.  Then he stammered a reply, “Uncle John did all the work, I just helped a little.”

“You did good, Chris.  I would have been out there another hour without your help.  We’ll go out tomorrow, I’ve got a couple of jobs lined up.”  And with that, Aunt Martha put supper on the table and grace was said.  As Chris lay in bed his mind gave way to the possibilities of living here.  I’ll give it a chance, see what comes.  Still, I rather be in LA.  This place looks desolate, man, not ever a backwater town.  I wonder if there are any girls here?  Probably real hicks with cow licks.  He chuckled at that thought.  Sleep crept in soon enough and eased the tiredness of body and mind.

 

He was rudely awaken the next morning by Uncle John.  The door opened and his uncle uttered, “Time to get up, we’re burning daylight.”  Burning daylight? Wasn’t than in a John Wayne movie?  Burning day light?  What the hell? as the sleep cleared out of his head.  He pulled back the curtains, the first light of day was upon the sky.  His aunt came in to advise him, “Dear, I washed you clothes last night so you’d have something clean to wear.  Breakfast’s on the table.  Better hurry, John tells me it’s going to be a busy day.”  As she closed the door Chris pulled back the covers and sat up.  Sure enough, clean clothes were on the chair.  So he pulled on his clothes and went into the kitchen.  John was sitting at the table drinking black coffee and spearing a piece of thick slab bacon with his fork.  “How many eggs do you want, Dear?” Aunt martha was poised with one in her hand ready to crack the shell and slip the raw egg into the skillet.  “I usually do them easy over but if you want them different…” her voice trailed off.  “Uh, sure, easy over’s good.  Uh, two thank you.” was his reply as he sat down.  Uncle John reached for the pot, “Want some coffee?  we have mild if you’d rather…”  “Sure, coffee’s fine.  I take it black, please.”  Chris was amazed how polite he was being.  Maybe they had more charm than he thought.

For several weeks this routine continued.  His uncle was teaching him simple repairs and would leave him unsupervised at times.  The effect on Chris was quite visible.  He went from a hostile young teen to a young man more sure of his capabilities.  By the end of the fourth week the transformation was almost complete.It is said that to change one’s habits requires a minimum of three weeks.  The same is true of living in a new place, after three weeks it starts to feel like “home”.  And Chris was starting to feel at home and comfortable with the new changes in his life.  But for ever three steps forward one must be prepared for that one step back, expect it in due course.

September was upon him and the need to complete his basic education.  Rather than send their school age children sixty miles to the nearest public school the local families had established a coop of home schooling.  Several of the the men and women were retired teachers and ready to donate a few hours each week to the education of the young.  At any one time there were no more than sixty to seventy primary and secondary school students.  Thus student to teacher ratios were often single digit.  Chris had not graduated from high school.  In fact, he was way behind due to the precarious family situation and run ins with police.  So Uncle John informed him that school would begin next Monday.  “Don’t worry about going.  I sometimes come and teach welding and machine repair to the boys and a couple of girls who want to learn.  Just remember, there are no secrets in this community.  Everyone knows why you are hear and a little of your background with the police.  But they don’t know all the details and that is as it should be.  So tell them as little as you can.  Just take it slow and after a while they’ll accept you.  You got to build trust with them, right?”

“But Uncle John, what do I need with high school?  You’re teaching me how to make a living, aren’t you?”

“Because it’s a big world out there and you need to know more about it.  Math and science and reading and writing.  These are the tools you always have with you.  No one can borrow them and no one can steal or take them from you.  You’ll see.  For me the work slows down as winter closed in.  That’s when I read and maybe write in my journal.  You need something like that.”

 

Well, the subject was closed as far as Uncle John was concerned and Chris knew it.  So he went to school dutifully and tried to fit into the school and social scene.  Aunt Martha was often at the school with a few of the other mothers.  It was agreed that she was one of the best cooks in the town and taught the girls and a few of the boys how to survive on bare necessities.  For those who wished more accomplishment in the art of cuisine.  Lunch was a combined effort of parents and students.  One learns well the art of patience when a first grader is given the task of placing peanut butter on one slice of bread and a second grader the task of placing the jelly.  Some of the fathers came by each week to spend a leisurely lunch with their children or teach on the topic of growing crops or how to build irrigations ditches or some other subject like accounting.  Fact was, Chris and the other boys were getting courses in practical education they could never have achieved in a regular public school.

 

Christmas in small communities can be a very joyous time of year.  The lack of commercialization and absence of heavy vehicle traffic patterns keep the peace and tranquility, if not the spirit, of the holiday.  But the ghost of Christmas Past visited Chris two days before school let out.  As Uncle John had point out several times the adults in the town knew about problems Chris had with the police but were not aware of the particulars.  He also warned that a few of the teenagers knew that same information.  So it came as no surprise that one of those teens, an older boy, managed to search the internet and find a couple of newspaper articles about the particulars of that involvement.  For the first time Chris was confronted with his past and was unprepared.  The teen’s name was Will Graves and regarded as something of a troublemaker.  “Hey Chris, look what I found!  You’re a jail bird, a thief.  You’ve spent time in juvenile prison.”  The words immediately froze Chris in his seat and filled him with fear.  Will continued, “Look everybody, I have copies, pass them around.  We got us a thief and jail bird in our school.  He’s a gang member.  Read it!”

Before he could think words of protest leaped out of his mouth, “No, that’s not me.  It’s a mistake.  You’re wrong…”  His voice trailed off as he started to remember Uncle John’s admonitions.

Will started in again, “Liar, your picture was in the paper.  Liar, liar, we got you dead to rights.  You’re just a filthy thief and a liar.”

Those words landed with heavy blows against his psyche.  All Chris could think to do was run, run out of the room, out of the school.  Just run, run as far as he could.  Down the road, under the interstate, past the auto repair shop, into the dessert.  The chill air cooled his burning cheeks as he traveled several miles toward the Mohawk mountains.  Finally he stopped and sat down, leaned back on a boulder and held his face to the sky.  Over and over he kept asking himself, why.  I was happy here.  Why did it have to end now?  Where will I go, what will I do?  Night fell and the air turned frigid.  Chris had no coat and felt chilled to the bone as the cold imposed a strong numbing sleep upon his brain.

 

One of the mothers called Aunt Martha, “Is it true?  Did you nephew spend time in jail?  How come you didn’t tell us he was a thief?  Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Hold on Judy.  Calm down.  Now tell me what has happened.”  Aunt Martha’s inner strength was her coolness under pressure.  She had a way of exerting calm in her presence.  Judy related part of the story.  “I’ll be down directly, Judy.  Wait for me.”  Then she put on her coat and hat, opened to door and left for a ten minute walk.  The incident weighted heavily on her mind.  I hope Chris didn’t try to lie his way out of it.  I’ll see what I can do.

When she entered the small school the three teachers and four of the mothers confronted her.  Generally the comments ran on about how could she and her husband do this to them and isn’t the boy dangerous and how they would have to start locking their doors at night.  But Aunt Martha’s unflinching warm smile and calming influence won out even when Will poked a copy of the newspaper story to her face.  “I’ve seen it dear, I know all about it.”  As if to further make her point, she tore up the papers and let them drop to the floor.  “Will, did you enjoy hurting Chris?  Wouldn’t kindness be a better way?  As my John always says, ‘No matter what you think of a man, never needlessly make him your enemy.’  Do you think that would be a wiser course of action?”  Will, gently chastised, retreated from the circle of women and sought his seat.  Aunt Martha continued,”Where is Chris now?”

One of the mothers said he has bolted out the door and was running towards the Interstate.  Aunt Martha looked around and saw the coat on one of the pegs.  “Oh my, he didn’t take his coat.  John won;t be home for another hour or so.  Well, I better go wait for him.”  As if to reassure them before she left she added.  “Now that you know more of my nephew’s past, please judge him by the progress he’s made since.  His life wasn’t easy.”

 

Uncle John drove up in that easy way of his and quickly washed up.  Martha had filled the basin with hot water only minutes before and the warmth felt good on his hands and face.  Martha’s face told him something was wrong.  “Chris was confronted with his past in school today.  Will Graves found the newspaper articles online.  Now Chris has run off.  No one knows where.”  Uncle John thought for a moment then dais, “I’ll call the garage, maybe they saw him.”  Yes, Don Woods remembered seeing the boy running.  “He was jogging, really.  Had his head down most of the time.  I thought is a little odd, myself.  He in any trouble?”  “No, no trouble, just doesn’t know what to do.” Uncle John left it at that.  The word would get around soon enough.  No, he had to find the boy.  It was dark now, and cold, suppose to hit freezing tonight, maybe lower.  “Martha, get me a couple of blankets and I’ll get a bottle of brandy out of the cupboard.

Uncle John spent the better part of the night looking for Chris.  That is often the way with lost sheep.  The sky was getting light when he stumbled upon the boy, the body tightly curled and looking like one of the boulders.  He picked Chris up and bundled the boy in the blankets.  Then as he held the boy in his arms walked the three miles back to the truck.  He placed Chris gently onto the seat then went round to the driver’s side and started the engine, mildly racing it to build up the heat and let if flood into the cab.  Then he took a shot glass and filled it with brandy, held it to the boy’s lips and got some of it into the boy’s mouth.  His skin had that bluish tone from the long night’s exposure to cold.  Chris started to stir.  “Chris, take a shot, you need the shock of alcohol to get your blood going.  Come on, now.  Drink it.  Good, okay now, one more, just one more.”  The cab was beginning to feel warm, the heater fan was on high, and the boy’s skin was losing its bluishness, turning more pale white.  Uncle John put the cap on the bottle and eased the truck into gear.  I’ll phone the doc when I get Chris to bed.  Have him come over and check him out.

 

Chris was well enough a few days later to get out of bed and into his clothes.  Aunt Martha was a very good nurse.  As she told Chris, that is how she met John.  “I’ll tell you that story another time, when you’ve got a sweetheart of your own.  John will be home in an hour and I’ll have supper on the table.  We’ve missed having you at the table.”  As if by some mysterious communication John was home to that very hour.  Supper was laid and they all sat and ate the leftover roast beef.  Uncle John didn’t like turkey, said it slowed him down, made him feel sleepy.  About half way through the meal Uncle John spoke directly to Chris.  “Well, son.  You learned a lesson the hard way.  Running away from your problems damn near killed you.  It’s always better to face a problem directly.  Be honest with about it.  Many years ago when I was a young man, a little old than you, I faced that situation.  And like you I faltered.  I tried to lie my way out of it, pretended it didn’t exist.  I came up shot in life and my running away almost killed me.  I had to go back and face the people I had lied to, had let down, had failed in their trust.  To me, I would rather have died that go hat in hand and beg their forgiveness.  Humbleness comes when you overcome the need for false pride.  Chris, that’s where you are now.  You’ve got to the make the decision.  Don’t do it for me or Martha.  You got to do it for yourself.  I’m going to suggest to you that you and I go round to groups of the families here and you make amends.  You apologize for lying and betraying their trust.  You ask for their forgiveness.  You tell them why you ran.  There’s no shame in honesty.  And by the way, Mr Graves dealt with Will.  Perhaps a little too harshly for my sense of justice.  But son, Will’s not your enemy.  Don’t treat him like one.  He, like you, has his faults.  You let me know tomorrow what your decision is.”  Then turning to Martha, “I’m ready for some pie.”

 

The next evening at supper Chris revealed his decision.  “I’m scared, Uncle John.  I’m really scared of what they think, what they might say.  I’ll try but I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Chris, it takes no courage to tell a lie, never did.  But it’s truth that gives us the courage to say what is true.  You’ve taken a shot of courage to get this far.  Martha and I will be with you.  We’ll stand behind you.  And when you’re ready to speak, just take another shot of courage.”