From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Precise Prognosis

LaPrell leaned forward to glance down the dim-lit hallway. She thought it unusual for this many people to show up at sickbay on a Saturday morning. Then a slight wince crossed her face as she reached up to gently stroke at her tender ear lobe. She sat back to wait, and she rested her head against the wall behind her.

Several benches placed along both walls of the corridor held other vague forms afflicted with differing ailments. Some of the infirmities appeared noticeable by a cast or an obvious bandage covering some hidden wound. LaPrell had no such evidence to show unless one peered close in the low light to see the right side of her young face.

The infection had started bothering her two days ago. Today the throbbing had awakened her before the sun arose. A dose of aspirin helped ease the pain at the time, but the inflamed area convinced her that she needed to go see a doctor right away. This was not going to get better on its own, she had decided.

A door opened up further down the hall. Several heads turned and watched as a matronly woman holding a clipboard stepped out. The heavy door then eased shut on its own, closing with a muffled thump. Some of the huddled figures sat unmoving as her shoes clacked smartly on the tiny green tiles of the floor, echoing as she made her way toward the benches. She stopped in front of one vague shape to murmur a question. While that person spoke a reply in hushed tones, she scribbled a brief notation on her board, and then she moved on to the next patient, gathering more information.

LaPrell took her eyes away from the distant and inquisitive nurse, and felt her brow for several seconds. Then tilting her head forward, she slowly allowed them to close and she waited.

“Now, what’s wrong with you today, honey?”

The voice startled LaPrell. Instantly alert, she jerked upright. The woman in the crisp white uniform stood before her, pen poised at the ready. LaPrell leaned toward her and confided,

“My earlobe became infected, and it seemes to have gotten worse. It’s this one.” And she turned facing left as she pointed.

“Oh, that looks pretty bad, dear. Do you know how that happened?”

LaPrell glanced at the person sitting next to her before looking back up at the nurse. And then she spoke low with one hand cupped near her mouth.

“It’s from my earring, I‘m almost positive. I just had it put in last week, but it’s been like this for a couple of days now.”

The nurse scribbled on her pad, abbreviating the symptoms in her usual manner as,

“infect. in r. ear”

“Okay then. The doctor will call you in shortly, sweetie.” She offered LaPrell her best comforting smile.

The nurse then moved on to collect other maladies from the rest of the waiting soldiers, leaving the girl with her anguish.

Her sufferings were nowhere near done however, for soon she was required to stand up and be identified by all present when, after a prolonged wait, a fresh young military doctor stepped out into the gloomy corridor, glanced at the clipboard his nurse had provided him, and asked the hall with professional concern,

“Now who here has the infected rear?”

Midnight in Midland

That blond kid has a smart-alecky attitude, so I never did cotton to him one bit. But the customer is always right, my manager keeps saying, so anytime he comes in here and sits down I’ll cook his eggs up however he damn well likes. I don’t care. As long as I don’t have to sit and listen to his stupid damn nonsense, it don‘t matter to me a hardly.

This place is always jumping. Who would think that so damn many people could get so damn hungry at three in the damn morning anyway? But somebody did and they though it was a good idea, that’s for sure, and so they built this place and all, but I really don’t care about that. At least I got me a job and I don’t have to sponge off Joe.

Joe pays the rent, but he won’t buy one damn speck of food. He don’t keep nothing around his place, I swear. Every cabinet in his kitchen is empty. I know ‘cause I went looking through all of them. What a prissy-assed cheapskate he is. I can’t say I blame him though. I’d probably get tired of feeding a bum like me too. What can I say but I flat don’t care.

Anyway, so he comes sashaying in here one Saturday night, this blond kid. I don’t know his damn name and I don’t care to know what it is either, but the joint is packed already, plus I got me over a dozen tickets hanging over my grill and it’s already hot as hell back here where I’m at, when that front door opens up and Mr. Smartass comes waltzing through.

Crap, half these hungry jerk oil-field roughnecks are crazy as bedbugs, if you ask me. Most of them work way out yonder in the boondocks for weeks at a time, and none of them never takes showers from what they look like. And you know the way they go about and carry on in here? Why, you’d think you was working in some low-class cathouse bar overseas. Good Lord have mercy, I talk rank but these goons would embarrass the whole fucking fleet over there. And some of them sitting up in here smelling up a booth with some of the ugliest damn women I ever saw in the entire state of Texas, too.

But me, I’m glad to be standing here at my grill with my back to the whole damn lot of them, so I really don’t give a shit. And if I could get that goofy-ass manager what hardly ever shows up to turn up the juke box so I didn’t have to listen to their garbage mouths, well, damn! I’d be son-of-a-bitching rapturous, if you know what I mean.

Crap, I don’t care. Flip my bacon over and time my waffles to come out like I like them. They don’t like that, then hell, send it back and I’ll damn sure make it crisp for you, honey. If that’s what you want then I’m happy. I don’t really care.

I must be still upset about that crazy puke-stain blond idiot, ’cause I can’t get him out my head Here’s what he did. I seen him because, well like I told you already, this place is crazy on weekends, so every time that door opens up I turn and look over my shoulder to see who comes and goes.

Trust me on this one…some of these clowns look desperate as shit, so you never know if one of them might be getting ready to stick up the joint and rob the damn place like a crazy fool. Not like it’s ever happened before, but you never know. Hell, I don’t care. Let them take the whole damn store. It ain’t my money no ways. Me, I’d grab a knife and sling it at the dude without thinking, most likely. It gets hectic here and I don’t got time for no bullshit.

But that kid strolled in so I seen him right off. You know I kept a close eye on that cocky little bastard too, you can damn well believe that's true. Yes sir.

Now you know what he done next?

Well the door closes shut right behind him, but then he decides to just stands there for a minute like he owns the place, and he don’t move or nothing. He’s just looking. There was some old couple paying their ticket up at the register, and Darlene, she had her cash drawer open trying her damndest to make correct change for this old man and his old lady, and all the while he’s just standing there by the door watching.

Now me, I’m thinking crazy shit like, naw, he ain’t going to do nothing that damn stupid, is he? But still you can’t never tell. The counter next to the register is slap-full with other loud mouths so he ain’t about to sit there, but personally I don’t care where that smart-ass sits as long as he don’t sit in that one booth behind me.

I got me four burgers in the middle of the grill that ain’t ready to flip yet, and I got maybe six over-easy eggs going over to the right, and somebody had ordered scrambled, so I got my spatula ready and waiting, and I’m leaning on the cool edge of the grill the whole time I’m watching that sneaky little buzzard. Then that old slow couple finally leaves, so Darlene turns around and takes off for the back room, most likely to have her a smoke and leave me up here to handle all this shit.

That blond kid, he steps aside to let them two old people get by, acting all polite. Then the door swings shut behind them soon as they go out. The diner, it keeps up a steady buzz when all of a sudden that stupid little blond-headed kid shouts out louder that any damn redneck I ever heard.

“You lousy son of a bitch!”

All the noise stopped right there. That diner got quieter than a graveyard for a second, and then the rest of what happened looked to me like it all took place in slow-motion.

He whips out a pistol and fires off three shots, Bam! Bam! Bam! at some guy sitting there at the counter.

Well, that ain’t exactly right, come to think about it.

For a split second right after he yelled out what he did, but just before he fires his gun, one customer sitting at the counter jumps up and goes flying out the front door, lickety-split. I guess he seen the gun before I did, to be honest.

So now here we are, ever damn one of us in that little diner not moving a muscle, and them three pop-shots is still playing in my ears, but none of us says a word. It was kind of like a dream , the way I remember it, what with him standing there holding that gun and blue smoke floating in the air and the door swinging closed behind his back. I remember next that Darlene stuck her head out through the back-room door, but she stopped right there.

I couldn’t see the guy that got shot but every head in the place were looking in the direction of the floor. Hell, I didn’t know who the dead guy was anyway. Just another roughneck, I figured. But I tell you what…after a few seconds of all that crap and then the quiet spell, that fucking idiot laying on the floor stands up and laughs, and then when that blond mother starts laughing his ass off too, like he was the funniest trick since Kennedy got put in the White House… well, the place comes unglued at all that.

Man, some other guy at the counter that wasn’t able to get up in time to run…or hell, maybe he never saw the gun to begin with, eating his damn hash browns -- I don’t know and I really don’t care…well, he decides to stand up then, and let me tell you what. He grabs that little blond fuck by his front shirt collar and picks him clean up off the floor, and then he says as loud as the kid had yelled in the first place just how he felt about the whole incident.

And I ain’t stretching the truth about none of this here crap, either. You don’t believe me, hell I don’t care.

But he hollers right in that kid’s face that it wasn’t a damn bit funny, that joke you pulled, and you know what he says back? That blond kid never said a damn word one, that‘s what. And I think the whole diner agreed with the other guy on that fact, buddy. I know I damn sure did, but crap, I don’t give a damn. I have to go back in tomorrow night and work because that dumb-ass manager switched me with another cook, that dumb fuck that up and quit without even a how-do-you-do, so now I don’t even get my damn day off this week.

Like I care. At least I get to eat.


David launches into his first day back at Timber Elementary by bringing his pocket knife along. He had concealed the Swiss-styled knife deep inside one of the pockets of his school backpack. But as soon as he enters class he marches boldly up to Miss Pluck where he voluntarily surrenders the thing.

“I forgot I had it,” Is his only excuse.

So begins David’s sixth year in Hoohooville’s public educational system.

This morning at 7:10 his mother walks him and his new haircut three blocks to the bus stop. Then as he and the other children clamber onto the bus, he pauses part-way up the steps where he turns to wave. Shortly after that both parents go to their respective jobs. Each parent half-expects to hear a report from school of some catastrophic event before the day ends.

But Bon Adventure’s phone stays silent and never rings once.

Some time after two in the afternoon David steps through the back door, still wearing the knapsack and his smile. Both pack and smile appear to be un-torn. He slam-slides the screen door shut before turning around to announce to dad that he is home. Bon Adventure greets him right off, and then asks him to sit down and tell him about his day.

“It was great, dad. I knew a lot of the kids from last year. That one girl that makes all the weird faces at me? She is there too. She hates me, I think. The teacher is really nice. I like her a lot. Her name is Miss Pluck and she‘s very pretty. I think she likes me too. We did lots of fun stuff today. I can’t wait to go back tomorrow.”

After hearing all of the details, the father relaxes. The eleven-year-old then slips away to complete his assigned chores. But the story of the knife goes untold.

In any case a vacuum cleaner soon begins roaring across the living room carpet as David bosses the blustery contraption into submission. Next he tackles the can-crusher that lives a simple life attached to a wall out in the garage. He hurriedly feeds the hungry beast a dozen or more empty aluminum soda cans. Each can gives a single metallic shriek as David yanks down on the handle of the masher.

That all done, David goes to his room where he takes Deja Vue from among a nest of cedar chips. The caged hamster greets the boy by sniffing the air first, and then stares at his master with two little bright eyes. After coaxing the pet from its cage, the two friends, one cupped in the hands of the other, head out the front door.

The storm door slams shut. The interior of the house becomes tranquil. Bon Adventure heads for the bathroom before going to the backyard to pull weeds.

A butterfly net is seen traveling past the bathroom window, being carted around outside like a flag in a parade. It tells the neighborhood that David is once more on the prowl. He and the hamster follow a winding but invisible path that eventually leads to the back yard. Bon Adventure has just found a seat in the shade as the pair approach.

“Hi, dad. Deja Vue wants to join you. Is that okay?”

“Why of course it is. And how about you?”

David plops down on the other side of a pile of weeds near his father where he lets the hamster go free. The creature takes a few small steps before it pauses. He raises up his tiny head high into the air and sniffs the air a few times.

“He’s taking a breather. Look, dad.”

The pet begins burrowing into the matted weeds while David watches over him. He strokes its long hair several times with one finger.

“He really likes it out here. And I think he likes your weeds too.”

“I think you’re right on both counts.”

The odors that drift from the piles of up-rooted vines mingle with sweet clover and fresh dirt. The animal noses part-way inside the heap before backing out to change directions.

Within moments the hamster scampers across the top and finds his way over to the crook of Bon Adventure’s knee. Everything Deja Vue comes close to gets investigated before he moves on to sniff the next curious thing.

“I’ll be right back, dad. Will you keep an eye on him?”

He returns carrying half a loaf of French bread. Bon Adventure declines to eat by showing David his dirty hands.

The child sits still while he picks at the loaf. He hollows out a section, and then holds it up to examine.

“I think he’d like this for his house, don’t you? Hey, where did he go, dad?”

“He was just tickling my feet a minute ago son, but he’s gone now. You better find that mouse before he goes down that hole over there.”

Near the junction where the den attaches to the rear of the house an opening leads underground to a drainage hose for the sump pump. The furry little traveler almost reaches the mouth of the tunnel. David runs to scoop him up and bring him back to the mountainous pile of weeds.

“You’re not supposed to go down there, Deja Vue. You have to stay here with us, you know. Dad said so, and so do I.”

He holds the pet up close to his face, chiding the hamster tenderly before loosing him to explore again.

Bon Adventure sits upright and leans back. His back pops once.

“I’m almost ready to go back in now. How about you two?”

“Deja Vue says he wants to stay longer.”

Bon Adventure readjusts his legs before continuing to search for more of the intertwined vines.

“Wow! I see a dragonfly, dad! Look up there quick!”


“Dad, look!”

“I saw it.”

The choking weeds grow all too well in the moist loam. They remind him of a thousand guitar strings strung every-which-way by some deranged musician. An earthworm writhes about on fresh soil as roots and vines come loose. A fat slug oozes out from beneath a disturbed trailing plant while a spider darts away, seeking a new place to hide.

Spending an hour or more a day for the past two weeks have produced a large area free from the creeping weed, along with a current backache. Nevertheless the sparse growth of exposed grass, along with an ever-growing roll of captured weeds now show proof of Bon Adventure’s slow but satisfying progress.

“There’s a mosquito buzzing by your head, dad. Want me to get him?”

“That does it. I’m done.”

Later that night the truth comes out. Trixie tells Way that she got an interesting phone call at work from Miss Pluck.

A Small Piece of Haiti

While I lack in formal education, I do believe that I have a distinct advantage over many of my fellow American brothers and sisters. For a short period of my life, I had good fortune to live in far-away lands beyond the borders of the continental United States of America. That is to say, I spent fourteen months in the Far East on a tour of duty with the U.S. Marines, and after that, several hours down in Old Mexico while stationed in California. While neither experience would produce framed documents worthy of display, both did offer an education not found in any textbooks on the planet. And then there is Haiti.

Now even though my encounters with the first two parts of the world mentioned occurred many years ago, I learned things in both places that should shortly tie in to this piece. But Haiti lays fresh and warm on my mind still, so as the climate where I presently sit has turned an offensive attitude toward my poor defenseless feet, I want nothing better now than to swoop us up in my keyboard arms and haul you and this journalist down there for a visit.

You aren’t required the hassle of getting a passport for this jaunt, and undoubtedly we shall both return unshot by either political insurgents or malaria-infected mosquitoes. You won’t need sunglasses to visit this sun-drenched Caribbean island, nor will you require lots of naps during our short stay.

Well, hopefully I say that concerning the naps. But if you doze on me, I may steal your watch, so be warned.

Haiti is located at approximately four o’clock on the map, if you will think of Cuba as the clock. The island is slightly smaller than Cuba. About one-third of the western side goes by the name of Haiti; the eastern two-thirds belongs to the Dominican Republic. The climate stays at a pretty even 85f. The terrain where I take you now is fairly rugged. Roads are almost nonexistent.

I mentioned passports. I had to show mine twice back in the summer of 2000; once upon arrival and again when leaving. Those two events caused some well-deserved apprehensions among my fellow travelers at the time, including myself , so feel lucky to go along with me now.

There are three things that stick out in my mind about Haiti and its peoples. The first one is roads. Oh, but I just said roads are “almost nonexistent”. My group did travel by bus on a road. It took us from the airport in the capitol city of Port Au Prince to an out-lying compound about one hundred miles to the west. That short distance we covered in less than nine hours. You would be amazed at how time flew during this ride, and had you been there, you would be even more amazed to find that you survived the trip.

That ride dashed many preconceived ideas I held upon arrival. I pictured a journey upon a romantically rough road that wound its way through thick lush vegetation. I imagined passing by friendly natives that traveled on foot, fresh fruit spilling from hand-woven baskets balanced atop heads, flashing brilliant white smiles from black faces, waving happily to us all as we bumped by, and us, the friendly Americans, kindly waving back or snapping pictures.

Actually, we saw all of that. Every bit, that is, except for the lush jungle growth I expected, and all that fruit contained in darling little cornucopias.

To say that the roads were rough misleads a body terribly. The jostling and teeth-shattering ordeal in fact turned out to be the entire groups favorite ride this side of Great America, after we returned to the States. And the only unfortunate reason, we later determined, that Great America won’t produce this ride in my land is because of lawsuit hazards.

During the eight-hour ride no one complained, however. That would not have been prudent. Not only were we the guests in this country, but our gracious host that had invited us along was himself kept too busy to speak by grasping onto whatever part of the bus he happened to land in next from moment to moment. Trying to keep yourself from being flung out an opened window simply causes a simpler man to reflect on his life and choose his words very carefully. The wiser ones save their strength, for in Haiti there is a saying of profound truth: Beyond the mountains are more mountains.

The second strong impression came from the Haitian people. After we arrived at the compound we were introduced to a man that would drive us more places. The group almost came to blows trying to be the first in the back of this smiling man’s pickup truck, but we managed to restrain ourselves -- again, due to the host being present, plus our intentions of at least pretending to be civilized. I can’t remember if we drew lots for this event, or if there were firearms involved. In any case, we quickly discovered that out current driver had learned his skills from our previous bus driver, and even though he had not completed the full course, he must have been a star pupil. His only flaw that I noticed was that he missed many of the potholes and gullies and ravines and narrow canyons that are a part of Haitian roads…Oh, wait…this section is about the Haitian people, not the roads.

Where was I? Oh, yes, of course! Hold on to something, for I am getting there. I have a point. I indeed have a point.

Because of this improperly trained driver and his major fault of driving carefully, we did manage to periodically focus on other things besides securing handholds and teeth. One was the walking Haitians.

A sharper-eyed gent among us noticed this particular response to our white-man-waving-at-the-native action. If we waved to a pedestrian by casually describing an arc in the air with five fingers fully extended, the native waved back at us in kind, accompanied by a huge grin or most-fetching smile. If one fluttered their fingers in their direction, as some of our distaff members might, the flutters got sent back, and again in a very positive way. A four-finger wave drew the same number of fingers returned, as did a three and even the peace symbol-two.

And the smiles. Oh, these people lead a grim life, yet even as most walk with their eyes fixed on the ground where they tread, when a person waves it is like Christmas, and to the Haitians, gifts are meant to be exchanged freely.

Then Mr. Smarty pants, the one standing up behind the cab of the truck, had to try one more thing; he held up his right hand and offered the next complete stranger he spied the famous Vulcan greeting. That poor man stopped dead in his tracks at this odd signal, and as we passed on by, he turned to glare at us all. We continued on, leaving him standing on the side of the road, mystified and thoroughly perplexed at the truck-load of whites he watched disappear through a cloud of choking Haitian dust.

My third reminiscence requires me to recount the dog. Our group got dressed as fancy as we could and went to church on a Sunday morning. As honored guests, we sat on a stage behind the pulpit and the preacher. Every pew was full.

The front row contained children. The children ranged from toddlers to teens, and they all had a peculiar thing in common that became most-obvious from where we sat. Twenty two children sat perfectly still during the sermon, and they each listened to every word said. This I saw evidenced by twenty-two pairs of eyes that never once faltered or looked away from the pastor’s face as he spoke. However astonishing that might sound to us familiar with our own children and their behavior in our American churches, what happened next overshadows it.

I looked up the aisle to a set of opened front doors, and there I saw an average-sized short-haired dog. He paused at the doorway, sniffed the June air, and then he walked inside the church, sniffing the floor. I could sense that several of my teammates saw the animal as well. I watched this tan hound work his way down the aisle toward the stage. At the same time I scanned the crowd to see what would happen next. Would some elder get up to chase the dog away?

But so far, no one had noticed. The dog kept his nose to the floor, sweeping his head side to side as he advanced slowly, taking his sweet time and not missing a spot. And still all eyes in the church stayed on pastor.

The dog came within two rows of the children, and I felt the twitter on-stage from our group. The dog ambled past the kids, and their eyes stayed on pastor. The dog stopped and looked up, and then headed to his right and left by an open side door, and yet not a one of those boys or girls gave him notice. As the mutt’s tail vanished out of sight, I had to sit there and wonder, did I just imagine that event, or did that really happen? And if so, then why did no one at least laugh?

But I see it’s time to head back now. We can ponder this and other mysteries on the way, as I promise the ride will feel as smooth as silk.

Monday, November 29, 2004

The Best Part of a Chicken

Little Orrin carefully slipped his pencil inside the coils of his opened sketchbook. Maw-maw was about to remove the fresh cracklings from the hot pan of grease, and for the moment, drawing would have to wait. His legs swung back and forth under the kitchen table, unceasing in their steady rhythm and unmindful of the child’s rapt attention to each detail of his grandmother’s every move.

He always preferred to ride home with his grandparents after Sunday service. He liked their calm and ordered manner. The atmosphere in the elder couple’s home offered more comfort to the boy than the boisterous house of his five older siblings, plus he felt more grown-up in their company. Maw-maw occasionally allowed him to help her with lighter chores, tenderly instructing him with each step along the way. His Paw-Paw always took time to thoughtfully answer any and all of the many questions the bright-eyed eight-year-old boy could think to ask.

But for now his mind was centered on the cracklings. The anticipation for this treat ranked higher to Orrin than the chicken frying on the stove top, or even the cloth-covered bowl of waiting biscuits on the table where he sat, or the well-seasoned cream gravy soon to come. The strain was now almost too much for him to bear. Both of his short legs stopped suddenly as he asked,

“How soon will they be done?”

The old woman tilted back her head to peer under her glasses while she gently turned each of the chicken pieces. The little cracklings danced among the legs and thighs and breasts as they all cooked together in the bubbly oil.

“If I had me a hard girl like las’summer, I’d almost be done ‘bout now, Orrin.”

Grease sizzled and popped loudly as the tidbit pieces floated to the top and jostled each other. The boy lifted himself up on stiffened arms for a better view of the action in the pan.

Most of the older people who lived in this part of Southern Illinois spoke with a twang, and Maw-maw was no different. But her soft southern accent puzzled him at times, so while she poked and rearranged the browning chicken parts, this mysterious phrase aroused more curiosity for the boy. He settled back down in the chair, and then he asked,

“What is a hard girl, Maw-maw?”

“You jump up from there quick-like and fetch me a clean plate from over yonder in that far cabinet , Orrin. That is, if your hands are warshed. But mind you, don’t run.”

He conscientiously delivered the serving dish to her side in good time, coming not too close to the stove, but standing back at a safer distance while holding the dish properly by its edges with his short out-stretched arms.

As she gingerly scooped each golden-brown portion of chicken from the pan into the large platter, along with the more-tasty bits of cracklings , she answered him thoughtfully.

“A hard girl is one that works for low wages, honey. Me and Paw-paw, we hard us one las’ year during the summer after thet tornader hit over at Simpsonville. You ‘member that hap’ning, don’t you?”

Orrin stood stock-still without speaking. Both of his eyes focused on the plate he held, and the crisp cracklings hiding among the growing pile of tender chicken.

“Hit weren’t no more than a shirttail of a tornader, neither , so you might have plumb forgot all about it.”

She put the last breast on top of the heap, and then she smiled down at Orrin.

“Now, take them and walk real slow-like to the table so you don’t tump it. Paw-paw would get awful sore at us both if you was to drop any of his lags. Oh, and here comes yore family now, right on time.”

Orrin cautiously placed the platter filled with chicken in the center of the oak table, and then he hurriedly gathered up his drawing pad and pencil. He moved the treasured items into the parlor where he hid them both safely away inside a desk drawer. As the boy slid the drawer closed, muffled yelps from two older brothers could be heard outside as car doors slammed shut. Orrin quickly returned to the kitchen table to claim his seat. Then a screen door out on the porch banged once, and within seconds the two boys burst through the back door and into the cozy kitchen.

“You little fellers git in there and warsh up fore ya’ll sit down now. Hello, Nadine.”

The two boys, eleven and twelve years-old, raced each other to the bathroom as soon as their mother stepped across the threshold. Nadine smiled a happy smile at the older woman at the stove and went directly to one of the crowded kitchen counters. She shoved aside some of the clutter with her elbows, making space for a large salad bowl she carried, and there she set it down.

“Ware’s the rest of them at, Nadine? Hit’s pert near done here ’ceptin for my gravy.”

“Oh, they are coming. Wilber wants to check the under the hood again real quick. ”

She removed a tinfoil covering from the bowl as her mother lifted the heavy cast-iron skillet. “He thinks he fixed that leaky radiator, since it didn’t heat up like the last time, but I’m not so sure.”

After draining off excess grease into a canister at the back of the stove top, Maw-maw set her fry pan back on the burner . She bent over to turn the flame down, and then began adding a small amount of flour to the drippings in the hot pan. She began blending the mixture with a fork while Nadine pulled opened one cabinet door over the counter to take out plates.

“Aw, he’ll figger it out, honey. Can you hand me that gravy bowl up there?.”

Other voices and footsteps on the porch announced the arrival of more visitors. An older boy and his sister trailed into the kitchen as Maw-maw poured milk into her pan, stirring as the mix heated. The young girl stayed to join the two older women while the taller son walked on passed and went into the parlor.

“Trixie, you set the rest of the table for us while I find some salad bowls, and boys, go wash up quickly. Who wants milk? Who wants tea? And where is Paw-paw, mother?”

Maw-maw lifted the heavy skillet with both hands and cautiously tilted the edge of the pan over a gravy boat, allowing the thick gravy to spill into the waiting bowl. She didn’t speak until the last of it was gone.

“Back in his study reading, I reckon. Send one of yore boys to fetch him, Nadine. And tell them other two to stop acting up in the sink back there. They gonna be the ruination of my septic yet, the way they carry on.”

The giggling coming from inside the bathroom ended after a male voice spoke a few words, and then Paw-paw came from the hall to join the now-crowded kitchen. He made his way unhurriedly over to the large round table while the two boys darted past to claim their seats. The patriarch then slowly settled his body in a chair by the window just as Wilber walked in from outside.

The father of the five children closed the outer door behind him. The thickset man then turned to survey the activity going on in the busy kitchen. As he calmly wiped his hands with a shop towel, Maw-maw turned and asked,

“Got that thang fixed yet, Wilber?”

Wilber leaned over a bit to stuff the rag into his back pocket. He shrugged his shoulders in reply before going over to slide one of the high-backed chairs away from the table. He shook his head at Paw-paw, and sat down with a weary sigh.

“That old heap is just about shot, Eugene. And from the sound of it, my water pump’s about to go next.”

Trixie filled the last three glasses with Maw-maw’s fresh-brewed tea as the other siblings gathered around the table. Then she took a seat next to her grandfather. Other chairs began scooting up to the table as Nadine placed the salad bowl down, while Maw-maw set the bowl of gravy next to Paw-paw’s plate. The old woman then stood back with her hands resting on her hips to see what else she might have missed before taking her own chair. Paw-paw then spoke to his son-in-law.

“The good Lord provides, Wilber. He always has, and He shore always will. Now ya’ll bow heads while I give some thanks.”

Orrin kept one worried eye fixed on the plate of fried chicken while everyone bowed and his grandfather prayed. The little eye noticed that the stack sat dangerously close to his oldest brother, Allan. And sure enough, as soon as the amen was said, Allan reached over and took the first breast from the top of the heap, which he plopped in the center of his empty plate. The eight-year-old watched anxiously amid all the chattering of the seated family as Allan forked out several of the crispy cracklings and laid them in the plate next to his piece of chicken.

Another hand shot forward after that and speared a piece of meat, and then it too collected bits of the crunchy chicken skins. Dishes of mashed potatoes and yellow creamed corn, along with the bowl of towel-wrapped biscuits were passed around the table in a blur as he watched hands going for the vanishing chicken. As fast as the pile of meat and the cracklings diminished, so did his concern grow, until at last he could not contain himself.

His little voice whined out above all the noise.


Nadine halted her busy conversation with her mother to give Orrin a puzzled look before realizing his predicament.

“Oh, for goodness sakes. Ya’ll have taken all of the cracklings before Orrin could get any.”

Paw-paw looked at the child’s still-empty plate and the boy on the verge of tears.

“Now, that’s a crying shame, ya’ll. You know that’s his fav’rit part of the whole chicken.”

Little Orrin sat with a fist clenched under his chin, looking glum while his grandfather spoke.

“But here, son, you take mine -- I reckon I got enough on my plate to feed an entire army.”

The boy’s mood began to improve as others at the table also volunteered a bit or two of the morsels for his plate, and before too long a heaping pile of the sweet and delicious bits of fried chicken skins sat before him, waiting to be devoured.

Nadine then smiled at the group.

“I’ve always liked the breast myself, but Orrin, he only likes cracklings. And I see Mommy has her favorite part too.”

Maw-maw studied the chicken back laying on her plate.

“Yes, I shore do. They ain’t nothing I like better than a chicken back."

Chicken backs are disappointingly troublesome, if one likes fried chicken. There is little meat there to chew on, and the thing is all but useless as food.

But Maw-maw was never one to complain about her food, or how it might taste. And as long as the family got fed, she was satisfied.

“Why, they hain’t no use of you ever complainin' 'bout thangs.” She might say.

I am wrestling with dialogue.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

One of Those Mysteries

Some folk keep spotless vehicles. You might never catch them in the act of working on their favorite transport, but they manage somehow without you or I seeming to notice the effort. But I admit that I do notice, and I think about it. It’s hard for me to not picture them sneaking out of the house at odd hours to wash off a tiny splatter of mud, or spend some secret times getting bug parts off of the headlights and windshield.

I envision a neighbor of mine carrying a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, contentedly slopping sudsy water on one side of his car while it sits shining in the moonlight, parked in his driveway at midnight. He whistles a tune noiselessly while he washes away the filth and grime as the rest of us sleep, unknowing of his nocturnal labor. And then before a rooster can stir, he has effortlessly dried and polished each surface, leaving the car in perfect condition.

While we slumber, the last traces of water disappear from his driveway as the sun comes up. It rises above the roofs of houses by the time the rest of us finally emerge from our collective front doors to greet the day, and while clueless eyes fall upon his gleaming car that sits in the dry driveway, only mine seem to squint in suspicion.

“How does he manage that?”

But I know better than to ask. He hails from England, this neighbor of mine, and in all likelihood will just shrug his shoulders in an off-handed manner, and then swear he never drove the darn thing, or that it came like that from the factory.

Now look at that rusty old van I drive, and you would think I might be jealous. But that is not the case at all. Just because I stand over here in my yard and admire his car? Just because I sometimes get up at four in the morning and run out and polish up the mirror on my vehicle that’s held in place with strapping tape? Taking a spray bottle of Windex and a handful of paper towels out there under the cover of darkness makes you think that?

Friend, I am obliged to shake my head and laugh if that is what you are thinking. Why, I was already this obsessed before the bloke moved in, I can tell you that with an absolute certainty. But I remain mystified as to how easy he makes the chore look.

(You can join with me as I take my daily look at what he has parked in his driveway by clicking on this site below)

Saturday, November 27, 2004


(I have a small tin-foil-covered bowl of this, and way in the back is something with a lid on it…might as well drag them out before they are forgotten. Sit down; I can handle this alright. Don’t we all like left-overs? I prefer them a day-old myself; after that I might forget all about them and the things just go to waste)

Thanksgiving starts off with a bang, but as the smoke began to clear I quickly started thinking that it had blown up the entire house. Roof, walls and charred clothes lay scattered everywhere around the block. So goes my imagination.

But then the shock of that hellish drive into and back from wondrous and mighty Chicago began to subside as the better van that my wife let me borrow steered us all safely off of the freeway, and then it eased us gently through the last toll booth that insisted (under penalty of something most horrific for failure to do so) we feed a yellow cage thirty cents before we could proceed to the Cracker Barrel that sat within view of the automatic tax device.

I never felt better for as far back as I can remember as I did crawling out from behind the steering wheel that cold and snowy night. Tired, hungry and relieved from duty at last, I followed behind our bundled passengers after I turned to press the button on my key chain, insuring the “thump!” of locks on the van set. Next I caught a ghost of an image of Joel dashing ahead, and confidently assumed Alma and Justin were with him somewhere, but the thick slush under my feet hid little treacherous pools of frigid water, so my steps that followed the group were each measured and taken with care. No sense in ruining a bad trip with cold wet feet while dining inside, even if there was a roaring fireplace waiting there.

As soon as I hop-skipped and jumped to the dry sidewalk leading to the double-hung doors of America’s finest kitchen (and where have I heard that complimentary phrase before?), I looked up to see Alma walking ahead of me and to my left. Beyond her I saw the still-familiar sight of my tall son Joel. My realization of both feet remaining warm inside my damp shoes as I hurried along took center stage at the moment, so I smiled automatically back at Alma as she put one arm around my waist.

For the last four hours, seat belts had restrained any show of affection among driver and passengers, so I let her support my final steps to the doors without any complaint. Then a kind old fellow stepped outside and held the first one open for us. She and I sailed right past this waiting gentleman, but I did think to turn my head to thank him. Things are looking brighter, I decided. It is so nice when folk are civil.

Then as I stopped to wipe my shoes on the floor mat in the foyer, the next door swung open, and it stayed that way. When I spied a younger man holding it steady for my little old sister and me, my heart took a huge turn for the better of humanity. But, I thought, it must be the holidays taking effect.

So I was forced to emit another “Thanks” over my right shoulder as well.

Now for those of you that have never had a Cracker Barrel experience, I should send you right off to read a properly-written account that will make your mouth water and cause you to start craving some of their food. But this narrative is almost done, so hold on; I can tell I am about to lose your interest of my warm shoes, and I can’t say I blame you.

Just let me move past the racks of this-is-how-they-get-you, and move right on inside to a table for four near that warmer stone fireplace. That’s where I want to be.

Joel has already went and claimed a seat facing away from the fireplace, and so after draping his large black trench coat neatly over the back of a chair, he sat down and put his elbows up on the table, just like dad does. I tried to avoid stepping on the excess of coat as I squeezed in the chair beside him, and succeeded. Next I scooted forward, and then I put my elbows on the table too.

And then I looked across the table and saw the polite and smiling young man who had stood and held the last door for us just minutes ago, and I sort of gasped in surprise at the sight of him sitting there smiling at me. What in the world is he doing sitting down with us? I felt my brain lurch and sputter, trying to keep up.

Then I realized it was Justin, the sixteen-year-old grand nephew that made his first trip from East Texas to Chicago by Greyhound bus, and then from Chicago to Elgin by van, and from the dark back seat of the van to a waiting table inside a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Traffic was murder, and I had never gotten a good look at the boy until now.

(Now, what is this that we have hiding beneath the tin-foil lid in the first bowl? Why, my goodness! It’s a little bit of an Alma story…please, keep your seat while I dish it out for you)

Years ago I went with her family of a husband and three children to spend a weekend at the beach near Galveston Island. That’s in the state of Texas, down on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s nice there and we all had a good time. But at one point she had taken her camera and went off by herself to find some interesting scenes to shoot when she came across a crusty old sea captain of an old fishing boat. She caught him busy coiling a line on the dock as she walked up, so brazen as could be, she pointed to his craft and piped up,

“That is such a beautiful old boat you have. I hope you don’t mind if I take some pictures of it.”

He barely glanced at the short woman holding the large camera and wearing her big friendly smile, but he never said a word. Taking that as permission granted, she began walking about the dock, clicking pictures. Then her enthusiasm got the better of her.

“Would it be alright if I went aboard for some close-up shots?”

The old salt glared at her for a moment, and then he spat.

“Lady, you need to go down to the Virgin Islands and get ya’self recycled.”

With that, he went back to methodically coiling rope, and Alma crept away in near-tears, wondering what in the world had she done to offend that fine old man.

(You still look under-nourished. Now it is not fattening, whatever this might be in the little Tupperware bowl, but it sure does taste that way, as I recall…here, go ahead. Have some)

Alma sure knows how to cook like my momma did, and one of her special treats is hot rolls. That name has always been a bit deceiving to me, for they resemble biscuits, and not rolls.

They have heft, these hot rolls, and far beyond that of a wimpy roll or even a well-made biscuit. And they have a taste that out-weighs their tantalizing smell. Made by hand, and more or less in the same manner as biscuits, they contain a generous amount of yeast. To breathe in the air while hot rolls bake is absolute torture to a hungry man.

Years ago she worked behind the service desk at a large department store in Arlington, Texas. During one holiday season, and after making a double-batch of these hot rolls at home, she took a large bowl, lined it with a clean towel, filled it up with hot rolls, and then drove to her work place to spread some cheer. As she passed the bowl around to her fellow employees, a much older gentleman about her same height walked by, so she stopped him.

“Would you care for a hot roll, Mr. Jenkins?”

Without slowing his shuffling gait, he waved her off.

“No thanks, dearie. I am way too old for that nonsense.”

(I see another small bowl toward the back, but you look satisfied for now. I’ll clean up here…why don’t you go lie down and take a nap, if you want)

Friday, November 26, 2004

Let us Pause

I would like to take up a bit of space here to offer a welcome to any that are new to my blog. Travel with me, if you are willing, to unknown places for an unspecified amount of time, and for no apparent reason other than the ride itself. However, I do appreciate the company.

This "forum" is still fresh to me, I should mention, so I don't quite understand all the workings of the system yet, and may never grasp the technical end of it at all. But that worries me no more than the mystery of how lead gets shoved up inside pencils...I'm only happy to have a suitable one in my hand.

I have already made what I have always considered a good friend an even better friend through this particular medium, so to Clive Allen I stand (or sit, should I say?) in deep debt and with much gratitude for his help and inspiration. The man has (possibly unknowingly) raised my own bar of expectations in this thing we call creatve writing, and I am tickled that he has thought to do so.

Ouch. Don't try reading the one parenthesis too fast...I just did, and I found it dangerous to do.

Now, what is to come next? I have some ideas.

What are the limitations? Those I set for each story, so I love to break rules and experiment. (that should warn you to never be surprised or too shocked at anything you might read) But then again, don't expect any great surprises or shocks.

And why do I tell the reader this? I dunno. I just think you should know so neither of us will be too disappointed.

And now, as I ramble off of the page...I have noticed that down at the bottom, way, way down there, my first postings are disappearing into some other "black hole". Might anyone have any plausible theories, or am I missing clues?

Oh, and don't pass up this site for some interesting and garden-fresh viewpoints on America from my generous friend Clive. I think he is on to something about us.


Tony and Carrie take the winding two-lane road that connects the community of Fob Town to Hoohooville.

“You better behave yourself this time, Tony. I’m warning you.”

She looks up at her rear-view mirror.

“Will you look at that asshole? Get off my tail, you dumb jerk wad!”

She thinks better of flipping off the impatient driver of the car behind her.

Tony glances back over his shoulder.

“And you best be careful you damn self, woman. You know we out in the middle of hang-me-high country here.”

Carrie’s eyes dart between the road in front of her and the mirror as she speaks prettily. “Yes I know, sweetie.”

She pets his knee as he raises a bottle to his lips and takes a long sip of beer.

“And crap, will you keep that beer down, you big goof? It’d be just my luck he’s some off-duty hick deputy-dog sheriff back there just looking for an excuse to try and get laid.”

The car riding their bumper suddenly zooms past as both cars hit a stretch of open road.

“And good riddance to you, butt head.”

Carrie turns her head sharply and stares as the car pulls up along side, and as the driver goes by she gives him a quick flip of her blonde hair, along with a gorgeous cross-eyed smile and a fluttery finger wave.


Tony sits at ease in the passenger seat next to his wife. He holds a handful of jewel cases in one hand and the half-empty Corona in his other. The bottle goes up in mock salute at the same time the other car speeds away.

“See you! But I wouldn’t want to be you.”

Carrie shakes her head while Tony again takes the beer to his mouth.

Some twenty minutes later the car pulls to a stop in front of the Bon Adventures’ home. Carrie reminds Tony one more time as they leave the car.

“I mean it. You behave tonight. And don’t be giving me grief when it’s time to go, because I had a long day at work and I’m beat.”

The pert blonde holds a flowering plant in one hand as she rings the doorbell. Tony lags behind in the yard.

“Hey, somebody come let us in!”

David nearly knocks Carrie over as he barges out the front door. He runs right past her holding a live frog tight in one of his hands, and he flies off the porch heading straight for Tony. Way steps out to hold the door, and he grins at Carrie as he accepts her house-warming gift.

Tony lurches backwards a step, raising both CDs and his beer high into the air as young David comes charging at him.

“Jezebel dying, boy! What do you got there?”

David chortles gleefully while he and the frog runs circles around the man.

Tony courageously holds his place without running away like the last time when the boy came at him holding a handful of plastic spiders, but the terrified expression on his face looks as if he might.

Tony has known David since the child was a toddler. He christened the boy Sampson the first time they met, for both his long curly locks and what Tony called his amazing super-strength. The name has continued to stick, and they both love nothing better than tormenting each other to a frazzle.

So as soon as the attempt of trying to frighten Tony to death fails, hugs get exchanged by the women and rowdy high-fives between the two men, and then Trixie takes Carrie inside on a quick tour of the house. Tony and Way amble along behind them, and they all go straight into the kitchen. David sticks close to Tony.

“Where’s you stereo, Way?”

He sets the empty Corona bottle on the kitchen table while Way fishes two more beers out of the fridge.

“Take that frog and go put it back in your room, son.”

The boy disappears. The two men go into the den where they get involved with music while the women examine the house.

“Oh, this is lovely, Trixie. And all these cabinets -- Oh my! Just look at all the space you have now.”

They head down the hall to see the bedrooms. Otis Redding wails out blues from the den.

“Hello, Eli. Say, your room looks really neat. Mind if I come in?”

Eli nods an affirmation. He sits at ease on a stool next to his desk, holding a cell phone to one ear.

“I got to go. Yeah. We have company. Okay. Yeah. Yeah, I know. Okay, bye.”

He follows the ladies out of his room but turns and heads for the den.

Carrie peeks into the other two bedrooms and then checks out the bathroom.

“Bad as Nick, I swear. He’s either on the phone every minute, or he’s begging me to take him over to one of his girl friends houses. I get them so mixed-up anymore. Oh, I just love your shower curtain. That is so nice.”

They return to the kitchen where serving dishes on the table are full with fresh-sliced tomatoes and onions, crisp leaves of lettuce and dill pickles. A covered bowl of potato salad waits beside a package of buns. Carrie steals a bite from a plate of sliced cantaloupe while Trixie removes a carton of hamburger patties from the freezer.

“Way needs to start the grill already. I reminded him to do that over thirty minutes ago.”

Carrie nods as she walks to the sink.

“Well as usual Tony had to comb his hair for an hour, or we’d have been here on time. But you know how we are.”

She rinse her hands while looking into the den through a window above the kitchen counter, and then she yells.

“Hey, you guys!”

Eli is keeping rhythm to the music on an African udu drum. Way leans back sitting on the floor while Tony spins and sways to the sounds blasting from the stereo, lost in his own world, so she raises her voice and barks loudly.

“Hey! Turn that down, will you? Crap, we can hardly hear ourselves think in here, much less talk.”

“Jezebel dying! Let’s go out on the deck and get away from them two. They a place out there to plug this thing in?”

David darts from the kitchen and into the den, holding a new Lego creation, and he trails after his pal.

“Check this out, Tony.”

“Go do the grill, Way! Everything‘s ready and Carrie and I are both starving.”

“Eli, go out to the garage and get that bag of charcoal, son. And find me the lighter fluid, too.”

Tony tangos through the opened patio doorway and dances onto the deck. Way follows behind, dragging an extension cord and the stereo.

Eight hamburgers later lay and sizzle outside on a hot barbque grill as Bon Adventure flips them one by one. Drops of grease begin falling and land on the glowing coals inches below. There they sputter while little flames begin to rise and dance. Thick smoke billows out from the fire. It floats above the fanning cook's head and across the yard where David is chasing madly after a grasshopper.

The butterfly net whacks the ground right after the insect springs away.

“Get him, Davy! You got to run faster to catch that sucker!”

The net misses twice again before the child captures the bug.

“Woo-wee! You got that sucker!”

That’s when Tony gets up from his seat on the step. He turns and goes higher to the deck where he can stand a safe distance away from the boy and his net. There he yells to David.

“You keep that thing away from me, Sampson. I mean it too, boy.”

But David never listens to Tony.

Tony then goes charging the other way, almost tripping over a flower pot and a coal bucket before he hurls himself down the steps on the opposite side of the deck. He lands to hit the grass running, with the out-stretched arm of David and the caught bug hot on his trail.

“Jezebel dying, boy!”

Whoops and hollers of both Tony and David can be heard mingling with the sounds of blues playing on the deck, along with traffic noise out beyond the tree line.

Tony darts by the grill. David and his grasshopper come by next.

“Go inside and get me a clean plate, David. These are done now, so hurry.”

The racket of the two runners fades as Tony sprints around the east side of the house to the front yard, both ignoring the anxious Way.

Moments later the deck screen door slides open. Trixie steps outside, carrying a package of hot dogs and an extra plate.

“Here, can you put some of these on for the boys? And where is David?”

“Let me have that plate here quick. And where’s Tony, you mean. The last I saw either one, they were both headed around to the front yard. David caught a big bug for Tony.”

They suddenly appear from between two garages, Tony first, and then David right behind him. Neither one has slowed their speed. Tony runs back up to the top step where he started from, and there he stops and turns around. He crouches down to stare directly at David and the grasshopper. A gold tooth sparkles as he holds up his bottle of beer and cries out while he gasps for air.

“Somebody stop me!”

David creeps up the four wooden stairs one delicious step at a time, holding the grasshopper firmly between his forefinger and thumb.

Trixie orders him to go wash his hands.

“And leave Tony alone too. You’re going to give him a heart attack one of these days.”

Tony stands up straight and proud. But he keeps one suspicious eye on David and wipes at his forehead as the boy scoots by.

Trixie grabs the boys arm just before he runs through the doorway.

“Uh uh, mister. You turn that thing loose before you go inside.”

Tony comes into the kitchen breathing hard. He balances a plate in his free hand that is piled high with hot-off-the-grill burgers and announces loudly.


“Mom, can I eat my hot dog outside? And can I have chili and cheese on it?”

“Yes and no, David. That’s called a chili dog, and I'm not making any chili right now. Do you want ketchup this time, or mustard?”

Tony takes two cold beers from the fridge. Chairs scoot up to the table. Way bows his head to say a brief blessing over food and friends. Then the four adults and Eli dig in to the meal.

“These baked beans smell delicious, Trixie. Tony, you want some?”

“I want some of everything! Man, I miss you guys.”

The hamburgers quickly all but disappear. Trixie moves the near-empty dish to the counter to make more room on the table.

“Say, I heard Jed finally moved. It must be a lot quieter in the old neighborhood now.”

Carrie shakes her head and glances toward the ceiling.

“It’s changed so much you’d never recognize the place anymore.”

Tony sets his beer down and picks up one of two burgers from his plate. He licks a few baked beans from one side of the bun while holding his sandwich with both hands. Then he looks at his friend Way and laughs.

“Carrie called the cops on those nut-nuts across the street last week.”

Carrie almost chokes on her dainty mouthful of beans.

“I did not!”

She lays her fork down by her plate and thumps her chest gently.

“I did have to call the Health Department on those jerks, though. And it was about time somebody did.”

“What in the world for?”

“You should see all the junk those nasty people left out at the curb. And not only that, they put it over in front of that vacant house next door. Right! Like they thought I wouldn’t know the difference.”

She picks up her fork back up and reaches over to stab a section of cantaloupe.

“I am getting so sick of living there. It’s really went downhill since you guys left.”

Trixie slides the bowl of baked beans towards Tony‘s plate.

“Tony, try some more. So why don’t you guys move out here? There’s a house right across the street that’s up for sale now.”

“Oh, I wish we could.”

“Yeah, hurry before Jed finds the place and moves in.”

Everyone laughs at Way's idea.

Trixie offers Tony another helping of potato salad.

“Let me finish what I got first. Man, this is really good, gal. Hey, Ya'll remember when he mooned those two girls up at the Seven Eleven that one night? Man, was he drunk out of his mind, or what?”

Carrie spat out a laugh.

“That ass never needed being drunk for an excuse to be crude.”

Trixie gets wound up over the old stories from the old neighborhood. So does everyone at the table. She takes a piece of ripe melon from the container. Then she lays it on her plate and begins cutting it into smaller bite sizes as she continuies, while her fork tap-taps against the dish.

“I still like the one about the bicycle wreck, and that whole episode. It was like anything that could possibly go wrong that day, did.”

“Was that when your nephew came up to visit?”

“Yes, him and my mom both. And then Ellie Mae came over from across the street to visit while they were gone.”

“Oh, his wife was a something else alright.”

Tony clears his place and picks up the bottle sitting near Way’s plate.

“You ready for another? Man, this is still half-full, dude.”

“Yeah, that was one crazy weekend. What, your nephew got lost or something, didn‘t he? He was like seven years old back then, I think.”

“Uhuh. His mom found out and drove all the way up from downstate to get him. Boy was she ever mad at the world. Especially my mom.”

“The whole thing was all Jed’s fault, though.”

Way takes a sip of his beer.

“Now if I’d known Jed wanted to ride his bicycle clear into Stinking Onion that day, I’d stayed home. He told me he just wanted to go across the river and pick up a check somebody owed him. That part sounded fine to me, so I went along with him.”

Tony grins but sits quiet.

“Now, you know that big hill on the other side the river? We get down it and cross over the bridge with no problem. In fact, that was the best part of the trip. But here we go up the other side when Jed cranks down hard on his pedal and jams up his chain somehow. I mean, it got jammed tight, too.

Next thing I know he’s cussing and swearing and kicking at the thing with his big foot, trying to get it back on the right gear. Course, that didn’t work.

So here comes a city dump truck with four men riding side-by-side in the front seat. They stop across the street from where we are standing, and they all get out. One goes to the back-end of the truck and takes out some shovels and rakes. Jed sees all this and hollers out if they have any kind of tools he can borrow.

Then he struts over to the truck just like he owns the thing. And then he comes right back swinging what looks like this huge pipe wrench. I just stood there next to my bike, and I’m not saying a damn word.

So he starts banging on his chain and that entangled back sprocket like he is some expert mechanic. Then the next thing I see is that Jed standing there on the sidewalk, his arms raised in the air and looking for all the damn world like he's Conan the Barbarian. He’s got half the frame of that tore-up bicycle in one hand, and he's got the rest of it in the other, waving it all at the heavens.”

The ladies both convulse with laughter at the image.

“And he roars out like a barbarian, too. So I turned my bike back around then, and told him I’m going back to the house to get my van. Stay here, and I’ll come back and get you and your bike.

Then I make it all the way up to the top of the hill across the river, and here I am huffing and puffing by the time I get to the light on Main. I cut across that intersection and head south on Main. Then the light behind me changes, so here comes a bunch of traffic. That’s when I decide it would be best to go up on the sidewalk. I didn't want to get run down, you know.

I look and up ahead is a good spot where the curb looks pretty low, so that’s where I aim for. I'm pedaling hard and moving pretty fast by the time I get there, too.

Now, jumping curbs is usually easy. Thing was, my back wheel must have caught or hit something -- I still don’t know what-- but next thing I do know, I am flying through the air just like Superman. I got no idea where the bike is at this point, but I know for damn sure I ain't on it.

All I can see below me is the grass going by. I fly above it for a ways thinking in slow-motion, ‘I am about to’ when I slam against the ground, chest-first.”

He picks up his beer for a sip, so Trixie takes up the story line from there.

“We are all sitting in the living room having a good conversation, my mom and Ellie Mae and me, when here comes Way, staggering up to the door by the front porch. He’s totally winded, plus blood is dripping from his elbows, and the poor thing, he can hardly talk. He looks in through the screen door before he says, ‘Jed. Me. Bike. Accident’.

And as soon as she hears, Ellie Mae springs up off the couch and shoots out the door right past Way, who’s now leaning up against the porch railing for support, still trying to catch his breath.”

Carrie giggles. Way just smiles and finishes his beer.

“So she runs out to the street and hops in her car and takes off without ever bothering to ask where in the world her husband is. All she can think about is that he’s laying out there somewhere looking worse than Way.

But then about a minute later, here she comes again, tearing around the corner on two wheels. Her car slids to a stop, and then she cranes her head out the window and yells, ‘Where is he at?’ before she peels out again. It was just insane.”

Carrie interjects.

“Isn’t that how the nephew got lost, following after her?”

“Well, sort of. All the bigger kids had left to go off for a bike ride somewhere. Who knows? But Blake decides during all this confusion to take off and follow after them. That poor kid. The big ones were already out of sight by this time, so after he gets three blocks away without finding any of them, he thinks for sure that he has become lost.

He stops out in front of some strange person’s house, and he starts wailing, so the people there felt sorry for him, and they take him inside so he can call up his mom on the phone. But they had no idea that she lived three hundred miles away.

Boy, his mom went nuts when she got that phone call. Drove up here in record time, chewed out my mom for not keeping a closer eye on him, and then she took the boy and drove right back home again. Mom was freaking out; Elly Mae was freaking out; Way had me freaked out -- and all over that freaking Jed -- what a day that was.”

Tony gets up and goes to the fridge again.

“Way! What about that night the three of us went out and played pool? And we suckered Jed into playing that old guy, the dude that won all those tournaments?”

Carrie looks at her watch.

“It’s time to go, Tony. I have to be up early.”

“Aw, man!”


David found the snow shovel which compelled him to clear off the patio deck. Now my picturesque scene out there is a mess. Oh, well. He had fun volunteering.

He and Justin got along fine after an initial confrontation. I had to instruct the teen to play rough if he wanted to survive the holiday with this eleven-year-old dynamo son of mine.

Justin went and found himself a quiet spot in the living room within minutes of their arrival here. I imagine he needed some solitude away from us noisier adults who sat gabbing around the kitchen table. Then David found him.

Here is somebody new, he must have thought.

At first he sat at the far end of the same couch, pitching a throw pillow up high into the air while sizing up the older boy resting at the other end. He wore a mischevious grin as he tossed and caught, and then he began taunting the poor child.

“You’re ugly.”

Well, Ali overheard that.

“David! That’s not nice.”

Justin sat there and grinned back at his second cousin, but he didn’t say anything.

Another toss into the air, and another assertion followed.

“You are UG-lee.”

“David! Stop saying that. Harry, tell David to stop saying that.”

So that’s how I got involved with my grand-nephew Justin's timely rescue.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

A Fast Entry

The two coal buckets have finally met their first snow. Both have been sitting out at the far side of the deck where they stood guard over the summer for a large planter containing various sorts of flowers, plus a single pot of mauve cone flowers and a few tiny yellow daisies. But the now-black stalks with their tangles of withered leaves now support crowning tufts of striking white.

From in the kitchen behind my back, Ali, her mother and my sister sit, all three engaged in early-morning holiday chatter and food preparations. My coffee cup and I may soon join them in the former, but first I want to contemplate nature’s more hushed scene.

About yesterday -- there is good news, and then there is some frightful and horrible news that I am compelled to relay immediately. Let me mention it quickly by saying how I hate and despise Chicago traffic with a fierce passion, and for sound reasons. Then maybe I can get beyond my frustration.

It seems as if three million reasons all decided to get on the road at the same time as I did. After first rolling my eyes at Alicia yesterday morning for her statement that what is normally a one hour and thirty-minute drive into the blustery city might take two because of the holiday, Joel and I decided to set out early for the bus terminal, keeping her warning in mind.

In short (for the gaggle behind me have turned up both volume and pace as I type, not to mention interrupting questions I am being assailed with which cause me to covet Walden’s little pond of solitude), we eventually found our bus-weary guests after a four-hour-plus ordeal. I may choose to rail on this topic later on, but for the present, allow me to mention the good news so I might depart the keyboard in haste and join the melee in the next room.

I am now the proud owner of a still-wrapped Whataburger that now sits (minus tomato slices to prevent sogginess -- why, thank you, Susan, you thoughtful child) in our refrigerator! Yes, success does feel wonderful.

Happy Thanksgiving, America.

(Alma has a great story to tell about a convict she met on her trip)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

My Good Pal Blake

Blake stood with both arms folded as he studied the foot traffic going by. He and I had both arrived early to claim this favored exhibition spot where two wings of the largest mall in the nation’s capitol intersected.

Setting up our displays of paintings and drawings (or drawerings, as Blake pronounced the word) took little time for either of us to do. the remainder of the day we stayed close by to answer questions from potential buyers. we also drank lots of coffee while we waited.

A never-ending parade of people flowed past us throughout the day. He stood next to me, watching the crowd with a mock look of arrogance, calculated to show himself as the consummate artiste.

Most all of the craftsmen present were members of our local art guild, and the majority of them had a fair amount of talent. All of us regularly entered art shows in and around the Washington, D.C. beltway, offering our recent works for sale.

Blake specialized in realistic Maine seascapes of fishing shacks and lobster pots, aging docks or sailing ships, all meticulously done in shades of blues and grays. His work had a photographic quality about it.

I leaned more toward the Chesapeake Bay area for my inspiration, depicting fishing villages, aging docks and working boats, which I rendered loosely in earth tones of browns and greens.

The two of us competed constantly with each other, both in our basement studios and at exhibitions.

We had met by chance a few years ago in this same spot.

I recall catching a glimpse of his artwork for the first time from a distance, and made a mental note then not to get too close with my meager entries. I didn’t need his level of competition, I decided, so I found a far-away place to hang my art at the opposite end of the concourse.

Sometime during that day, a stocky fellow stopped at my exhibit. He then stood and scowled at my largest painting hanging there, which depicted three men carrying rifles and cresting a hill.

At the bottom of the frame I had tacked a brass plate inscribed, “The Hunters”. Below the title was my name and the date.

The man leaned closer to read the words, and then he stood up straight and snorted once before sneering at me.

Then came the critique.

“That’s fine work you have there, but get rid of the brass plate. Leave that fancy crap to the museums, after you are dead and gone.”

His remarks stung. But I knew that he was right about that brass plate.

And when he held out his hand to introduce himself as the artist down the way who did the blue-gray seascapes, I knew I had met a trusted ally in the world of art I had recently entered into.

So here he and I now stood together, studying the movements of the crowd as they flowed past us.

An older couple with a young woman paused to view my display. Blake nudged me with his elbow and we quietly watched them.

My large framed canvas didn’t interest the younger lady at all, but four smaller paintings caught her attention. Each one portrayed a single row boat, tethered to a weathered stake. Faint reflections appeared to waver slightly below each craft.

These little paintings sold very well and for under a hundred dollars apiece.

The girl stood back and tilted her head slightly. Then she placed a hand upon her hip. With her other hand, she curled an index finger under her chin as she studied my work carefully.

Blake and I both read the outcome completely wrong; this woman was almost ready to buy something, we both thought.

The older gentleman and and his companion stayed close by while whispering comments to one another. My pal and I acted casual and uninterested. Let the customer come to you, we always said.

Without noticing either of us, the young lady spoke.

“Can you tell, mother, how this artist feels that he is going nowhere in life? That he is, in a sense, adrift and without purpose? See?"

And her hand swept the air, gesturing at the four paintings.

"Notice the absence of oars in any of these boats. It's so obvious.”

Blake already had his arms folded. Then he coughed loud enough to make the threesome’s heads turn our way.

“Lady,” he began loudly.

I took a sip of my coffee.

And then he sniffed derisively.

“You leave oars in your boat, people will steal it.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Trixie and her husband Way Bon Adventure decide to have a cookout by the end of the third week. Invited friends will come to visit the new place and enjoy themselves. Naturally the tub backs up the day before the planned event, so a local plumber gets a call.

Gene specializes in unclogging sewer lines for frantic homeowners in Hoohooville.

He shows up promptly in his white van. He parks the vehicle at the curb and walks to the front porch where he rings the door bell. The van sits parked where it idles roughly, loaded with all the latest technology for clearing sewage pipes or blockage problems wiser types like Mr. Bon Adventure refuse to touch.

He comes inside to see where the problem lies. Bon Adventure trails after him down the hall and into the bathroom. The two men then stand quietly as they stare into the tub filled to the rim with foul water.

“Well now, that is one inviting sight, Way. How long has it been like that?”

Way moans and regales Gene with a life history filled with assorted problems as the two men go down to the basement to inspect the chaotic water line system that runs through the ceiling. Mystified by all the visual detail, Gene only shakes his head. So he goes back upstairs and out the front door to his van. Bon Adventure tags along subdued but curious to see how the younger gentleman will find and correct his dilemma.

The tradesman reaches inside the truck and takes out a Y shaped coat hanger. Next he turns and begins to walk back and forth over the lawn, holding on deftly to the handles of his instrument.

He follows the gadget as he crosses over the sidewalk and into the street for some distance until the witching device decides to make a sudden sharp dive. At that point Gene stops.

He looks back at the roof of the house. From there his gaze travels down the front of the house and across the lawn where it comes to a stop out in the street next to his work van.

He gets a most-concerned and puzzled expression on his seasoned face. Next he cocks his head and stands still for a moment, listening. Then his eyes get big. “Do you hear that?”

Bon Adventure swivels his head back and forth to catch some unheard noise.

“Hear what, Gene? I can’t hear a blamed thing.”

Gene returns the dowser to the rear of the van and hastily removes a hooked metal pole. Then he turns around and inserts the hook into a manhole cover several feet away. He hauls on the lid until it flips over. The plate falls and slaps the pavement with a loud clang. As soon as the hole is exposed rushing water noises fills the air. Gene goes on his hands and knees to peers down into the round hole.

“Well, good grief! No wonder your tub is stopped up.”

Bon Adventure leans over next to Gene, and there he peers along side him into the hole. Several feet below the pavement frothing water shoots eastward at a high rate of speed. The end of a six-inch drain pipe sets directly in the path of the flow.

“Oh, man. Is that bad?”

But when he looks up, Gene has a cell phone to his ear and is walking away.

“You guys better get down here real fast. We got a huge problem.”

And he shuts the phone off and lays it on the dashboard of the running van.

He comes back over to the hole where Bon Adventure kneels.

“That’s the City boys I just called. They should be here pretty quick.”

While the two men observe the torrent of water beneath them, two Water Department trucks pull up to a stop. One man stays behind the wheel of a company pickup and shouts out the window.

“What’s going on down there, Gene?”

Two other uniformed men leave a larger truck and walk over to join the circular hole watchers. Everyone appears curious but calm. Only Gene seems concerned. Bon Adventure can only eavesdrop and wonder.

The plumber explains the situation. The man in the pickup listens and then puts the truck in gear as he turns to the two other workers.

“Y’all take care of this, will you? That old lady over on Adams is still waiting.”

As soon as the supervisor drives away the cascade of water down below comes to a sudden stop. Gene looks up and at one of the City workers. The man chuckles at Gene as he points down the street corner to where a cinder block box sets.

“Aw, it isn’t nothing but that lift station kicking on down there. There’s still a lot of ground water here after all that rain we got two weeks back. She‘s probably going to keep doing this for quite a while.”

This news causes Gene to slap his forehead. Everyone except the puzzled Bon Adventure gets a good laugh. But as the mystery of the rushing water is laid to rest among the three men, they next turn to catch up on the local gossip.

An uncle is laid up with a bad back after tripping over his Chihuahua. He should recover and has vowed to quit drinking again. A young and foolish sister left home and now lives with a musician in Stinking Onion. They reckon she will be back in less than a month. A woodstove caught a home on fire last winter. That story still rates a good review. The people all escaped the small blaze but managed to soak their insurance company good.

One of the workers has a fishing trip coming up, and invites Gene to come along. The other can’t come; his wife and he are going out of town to visit the in-laws, he says.

The men recall the last time they were working here, and one points out a fresh patch in the road farther down the street.

The weather gets gone over properly, and then while another lie or two is being told, one man kicks at the manhole cover and rattles it back into place. His co-worker stands close to insure it sets right.

“Can’t have a snow plow catch an edge on one of these bad boys, you know.”

Bon Adventure stands there listening and watching as the second man taps around the metal perimeter.

“Oh, no you can’t, that’s for sure. Why, one flew right through that guy’s picture window last February. Remember that?”

“Yep. About scared him to death, too. I’ll never forget that one.”

After a few more pleasantries the men drive off to leave Gene and the homeowner standing in the quiet street. Gene puts his hands on his hips and watches as they turn the corner. Then he laughs to himself.

“I guess I must have gone off half-cocked. Funny how I forgot all about which way the water flows here.”

“What do you mean?”

The man points to the box at the other end of the street.

“I was thinking backwards, I reckon. See, that lift station down there is the low spot in this area. All it is really is a big sump pump. After it collects water it sends it down to the west end of the street.”

He turns and nods to where the City truck just vanished around the bend.

“And from there it goes on to a water treatment facility before it gets dumped into the Kishawamuckie River.”

He laughs again.

“I guess we proved how fast them City boys respond though.”

His pride still intact, he eyes the roof again.

“I need to go get me a ladder and get up there to that one vent pipe sticking out above your bathroom.”

“You want you can use mine. I got it hanging up in the garage.”

“Sure, that would be great. It’ll save me an extra trip too.”

Way hauls the ladder out and sets it against the house while the plumber calls a helper on his cell phone. The man then takes a huge coiled metal apparatus from inside the van.

“Running this snake will probably cost you about a hundred bucks, if it does the trick.”

“Sounds fair to me, Gene. I need to go inside for a few minutes, so you do what you got to do.”

In the house Bon Adventure asks his wife to hurry down to Ace to pick up some replacement parts for the toilet. The thing has never flushed right since they moved in.

“I’ll see if I can get Gene to install the kit while he’s here.”

Buddy arrives shortly and the two men begin feeding the snake down inside the roof stack. In less than fifteen minutes the standing water in the bathtub drains, leaving behind a coat of discolored slime. Trixie returns from the hardware store as Gene rolls up the snake in the front yard. The smile on his face shows he succeeded. He soon follows her inside the house to catch Way rinsing out the tub. A new package containing the toilet innards lays on the sink.

“You did alright, Gene. How about that?”

Gene grins as clear water swirls down the drain.

“Say, can you do me a big favor while you guys are here?”

Way points to the sink where the unopened package sets.

“Can you install that thing for me? I know for sure that if I do it I am guaranteed to break something.”

Gene picks up the package and looks at it suspiciously.

“I got something even better out in the truck. Hang on to this and return it; I’ll be right back”

After several attempts and a few adjustments, the toilet for the first time flushes correctly. Then as he untangles his legs from around the base of the stool he offers some advice to Bon Adventure as to which brands of tissue are better than others to prevent future clogs. And then when he is done Gene looks up at the pleased Bon Adventure and confides to him.

“Now Way, I’m really not a licensed plumber.”

He stands up tall and stretches his back before he carefully puts the tank lid back in place.

“So if anyone asks, don't say I did it.”

The bill Gene presents later amounts to a little over a hundred dollars, and so far, Way has kept his word.

In Remembrance

Joel has kept himself and our family busy during his leave from military duties. My head spins from the steady stream of his friends that drop by the house. One lively mob rang the front doorbell yesterday around one in the afternoon, so I pulled myself away from the desk to go answer the thing. The one ringing the bell I mistook for another pal of Eli named Ned the Dread; the other three I didn’t recognize at all. But all four had friendly grins so I unlatched the storm door and let them all in. Andy, as I remembered his name much, much later, correctly introduced everyone to me. We all shook hands while I struggled to keep track of the new people, and then he (Ned who is really Andy) asked,

“Is Joel here?”

They all desired to know that information by the expressions they wore. I let the cat loose by admitting he lay asleep in his room still, but as soon as those words escaped the son appeared from around the corner. He looked as much surprised as much as he did pleased.

I have yet to decide what got him out of bed -- the doorbell, the loud laughter of the gang or the talk of pizza. But in less than five minutes the house quieted down after the Joel and his herd left in search of fun. It was about twenty minutes later when Mandy showed up.

“Is Joel here?”

I unlatched the door for the second time and let her come inside where I gave her the facts about Joel. She made a show of disappointment and then complained they had a date. Well, I didn’t know what to say at first. Then I recalled the cell phone and how most of these kids have one in their pockets nowadays, so I made a suggestion.

“Why don’t you call him on his cell phone?”

That is a common phrase around here, so I had no trouble saying it at all. Then the phone rang. The real phone, that is -- the one hanging on its base in the kitchen. Well, it isn’t as real as those old black rotary phones, nor as large or sturdy, but it is all we have at the present. So I go to answer that while Mandy leaves to go find her personal whatever-you-call-it phone she had left in her car.

“Is Joel there?”

No, I told my wife. The Joel is not here. He left with Ned and some other friends to go eat pizza. That gave her some immediate worries.

“Ned? Why is he not in school?”

I had no answer, which is fairly typical around here. So I told her exactly that, which is a fairly typical answer, too. But that answer didn’t satisfy her at all, which never surprises me either.

Anyway, she told me some other stuff which I don’t recall, and then she left me alone so she could go file books and tell students to keep the chatter down. Mandy greeted me again with a nod as I walked back in the living room. She had that “hold on -- I’m on the phone” look so I went searching for my coffee cup while she “accessed” my most-forgetful son. After that we sat and talked for a while.

Mandy is a great conversationalist. She told all about her college and how that goes. We shared dreams for the future and told each other stories of the past, and both of us had a thoroughly good time. At one point I recall exclaiming.

“Why, Becky, that is so true and blah-blah-blah (here my mind fixated on something amiss; what is wrong, I wondered?).

A half-hour later I realized it, so I apologized to her. Nice kid, Mandy. She acted like she didn’t remember me saying that.

Now I need to speak to Andy, who is most likely thinking,

“Is Harry there?”

Monday, November 22, 2004


Moving is a ghastly chore, but it passes sooner than expected. Lots of friends come to help load furniture and boxes onto a truck, only to turn right around and unload it a mile away. The Bon Adventure family is obliged to wave goodbye to the farmhouse, the emptied rooms and the piles of discarded trash they refuse to take with them. Several ground squirrels stand at attention out in the lush backyard, guarding individual holes, as a line of vehicles travel unhurriedly down the long gravel driveway for the final time.

After the truck is unloaded at the new place, several pizzas are ordered and delivered . And then as the day fades into evening, depleted energies and old friendships get properly fed.

“Either Guy lied about the size of this garage, or we have way too much stuff.”

Bon Adventure shakes his head at the stacks of boxes and assorted things that have piled up in the once empty room.

The next two weeks pass as a blur while rooms get arranged, beds are put together, cabinets stocked in both kitchen and bath, and clothes hung in closets. Bookcases become filled, furniture gets rearranged, and eventually artwork finds a proper place on the former blank walls. Slowly a likeness of order starts to become noticeable.

Outside, Eli climbs a ladder to remove tree seedlings growing from debris-filled rain gutters. The packed troughs have been ignored for much too long. He takes with him a pair of yellow rubber gloves to scoop out the wet rubble.

The finicky but able teen is also pressed into service to clear out dead growth from the backyard tree line, as is the smaller but clever David. For several days the two brothers work as a team to saw or crack countless tree limbs, which in turn get stacked in rows that soon cover most of the lawn behind the house.

An ailing mower is rushed to a nearby shop where a skilled wizard makes it run again. The lofty teen is neither impressed nor excited over this minor miracle, since he is assigned as primary mower. He is less than unhappy, however, as he learns he will earn money for keeping the yard neat.

David receives instructions to stop over-turning decorative stones embedded around the front lawn flower bed. Crickets living beneath these rocks are now allowed to continue their chirps, safe from the boy and his sharp ears.

The oldest son Joel left home months ago to become a spy for the Air Force, so Eli and his good pal Grim are used to manhandle two large air conditioner units the previous owner left stored in the basement. The pair are directed to relocate them to the burgeoning stack of items being housed in the garage.

“Where ever you can find room, boys. Over on that side is fine with me; that’s all garage sale stuff.”

Bon Adventure then slips both teens a five-dollar bill each for their labors. Eli pockets his and offers his dad a self-satisfied smile.

Grim reveals a fine row of rarely-seen teeth at the sight of money. He gives the impression of being obviously pleased.

“Why, thank you so much, Mr. Bon Adventure, sir.”

The basement floor later gets two coats of fresh paint, and then a portable dehumidifier is brought in and switched on. Eli humbly takes over another daily chore of emptying water from the running do-dad.

He is overheard one afternoon telling another of his friends that drops by to visit:

“I think our old house was seriously haunted.”

Easy Lee nods knowingly as the two teenagers drape themselves over living room furniture, but Bon Adventure is forced to ask.

“What do you mean by haunted?”

He offers his father both a mystified smile and a shrug.

“I really can’t explain, pop. It’s just that here everyone acts happier.”