From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Monday, February 28, 2005

Attack of the Poisonous Mongoose

Leaving the city at mid-morning, we headed east. I rested on my stomach facing to the front, sprawled contentedly on a pile of camping supplies our father had packed behind the rear seat. From my spot in back, the heads and shoulders of two younger sisters framed the three adults sitting abreast in front. Father drove while mother sat between him and her brother, Otho.

Inching forward slightly, I whispered,


Donna shot me a dark look before turning to huddle up against her window. She drew both knees to her chin, and a wordless scowl on her face told me the hateful taunt still worked well.

“Stop it, children!” Mother called from over her shoulder. I saw my dad’s eyes flash in his mirror, and I scooted back. Alma looked over at Donna and put on her feigned expression of shock, while Otho, with one arm draped across the top of his bench seat, attempted to talk seriously to my dad in his loud voice.

“I was just thinking, Allen, what you should do…”

Ever since my dad had hired him, my uncle felt a need to offer new plans and strategies for improving the family business. I knew my mother sat staring straight ahead with a pinch-lipped sneer on her face while listening to him drone on and on, for ever so often she would scoff and puncture one of his wild ideas with a sharp burst of air, and then slowly shake her head as he kept rambling.

Otho somehow managed to ignore this when he was sober. Father, however, always humored his brother-in-law. In fact, he seemed to encourage him good-naturedly. But around every third time she made one of her hissing sounds, he’d retort,

“Oh, Thelma, be quiet now.”

Like that was going to happen. Alma broke out her make-up case and I rolled over on my back and found a high place to rest my head. As the miles rolled by I poured over a new copy of Mad Magazine while the adults carried on with each other up front. The girls stayed silent for the first half of the trip.

The hour’s drive to reach the edge of the Texas caprock takes all the joy away from looking at passing scenery, comprised mainly of endless stretches of flat and bleak plains. Whatever catches the eyes lets them go in a hurry; distant trees, all greenish-gray, massed together in small groups and set on far horizons, and then mile after dulling mile of fast-passing rows of wheat or cotton. An irrigation pump close to the road might slide by quickly, but scattered farm buildings, set so far off the highway that they appear as lackluster specks, pass slowly from view.

Even signs are rare along this route, showing up more on the outskirts of far-apart settlements. Otho ran out of steam as we approached the first one, and I smelled the odor of pipe tobacco.

I stowed my magazine and scooted forward to stick my head over the seat back. Giving Donna a buck-toothed and cross-eyed look, I made the slightest of sounds.


The girl snorted, and then she snarled and jerked her legs down. Alma put her hands to her face and giggled while our dad pulled into a gas station.

She always reacted this way, our youngest sister. For some never-explained reason, she hated a particular song included among the many we played over and over as children. And when we discovered how much she hated it, we played it more.

I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea

Throughout the years we honed the sing-song phrase down to fish, and if we timed it right, only the first hissing sound of the word would bring us instant feedback.

She, in turn, eventually pared her angered response of “Leave me alone!” to an explosive guttural noise.

Father twisted and stretched, standing beside his opened driver’s door. “You kids want to get out for a minute?”

Otho and mother stayed behind, but we ran inside the front door to a waiting soda machine. After elbowing for first place, I turned around while chugging on my cold drink, and as the girls decided what flavor they wanted, I saw a long wooden crate setting on the counter near a cash register.

On one side, crude red letters spelled out Danger! Poisonous Mongoose!

I remembered reading stories about these strange snake killers from India, so taking another sip, I stepped up closer to see one first-hand.

A heavy mesh screen covered the top half. After peering down inside and shading my face with one hand, I could make out one small water bowl on the floor of the cage, along with a half-eaten corn cob, some scattered kernels and a gnawed chicken bone. No dangerous animal waited inside to growl up at me. But then I spied part of a furry tail.

“Hey, ya’ll come here quick and look.”

The three of us then leaned our heads close together.

“There’s nothing there,” Donna complained.

“Yeah there is. See? Look in that hole over at the one side.”

The second half of the crate was enclosed, but from a small opening leading out into the empty chamber, some coarse silver-and-gray hairs of a tail could be seen. Donna craned her neck and asked,

“What is it?”

“It’s a mongoose, and they are poisonous.”

“Ooo,” Alma said, and then she pointed out,

“But he’s not moving.”

“Is he dead?”

“No, he’s asleep, silly. Mongooses are mostly nocturnal.”

“I want to see. Move over some.”

A large shape then stepped inside the office.

“You kids better get away from that there box. Can’t ya’ll read none?”

A gruff gas attendant hovered behind us, wiping his hands on a shop towel, so we backed away quickly, fearful of his stern look. He stepped in between us three kids and up to the wooden crate, and then while stuffing the rag in a back pocket, he leaned over slightly and glanced down in the cage.

“I ‘spect ya’ll do want to see the little fellow, huh.”

We all three took a small step closer, nodding as one.

His face kept a somber expression as he placed one hand on one end of the crate and his other at the opposite side when he warned,

“All he does is sleep during the daytime, and these critters are hard to wake up. Ya’ll stand back some, ‘cause he gets awful moody after I rouse him.”

And then he began to shake the crate.

He jerked it once, sharp and hard, and then he shook it twice. By the third move I could smell the gasoline on his work shirt as we three crowded up closer to his side. We gave each other little expectant grins as he jostled and rattled the heavy box, and then at the very end, he brought the entire thing up off the counter a few inches, and then he slammed it down hard.

This mongoose is going to be mad as hell, I thought, but the man lifted the container even higher than before. The crate landed on the counter top again, making a loud thud when it landed, and in a flash, the top flew open with a bang.

In a split second, the wild mongoose leapt out and jumped so hard that he flew over my right shoulder, and both girls began screaming and started fast-dancing in place. My eyes could barely follow the gray blur through the air, but both of my thighs went weak at the sight.

While the two sisters cried and clung to the legs of the stranger, I gawked at a lifeless pile of fur laying on the other side of the room, and when I looked back up at the man, he had one hand on a shoulder of each of them, plus a huge gap-toothed grin had crawled on his face.

Father happened in through the doorway just then, holding his fat wallet. The gas attendant went over to the register, laughing hard as he rang open the drawer, and told him what just happened, so of course dad forced him to do the trick all over again. The ratty coon skin cap looked pretty tame during its second flight, but both of the men enjoyed it well.

Then dad’s eyes sparkled next when the man told a quick story about a burly truck driver who dashed through his plate glass window one time, knocking the big cash register off the counter in the moment of escape. They both acted amused over the fate of the poor man. Father then opened his wallet once again, and he handed the attendant one of his business cards before we left.

"If your machine there ever gives you any problems..."

Otho never mentioned anymore grand business improvement ideas for the rest of our trip, realizing dad had already thought of a few on his own.

Next, Otho attacks his trousers.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Georgia Crackers

Daddy come home and throwed me up in the air again. I wish he would do that more, like he used to.

“Up in the elements you go!”

It’s really scary when I go real high, but he always smiles big up at me.

He got me a slingshot from the store, not the wood kind but a plastic one. I took it outside to the cinder block wall right away where I sat and opened the package, but it fell down inside one of the holes and I can’t get it out. It’s stuck down there forever, now.

At school Mrs. Turner gave Todd a whipping. She made him lay across one of the long tables, and she whipped him with a leather belt while we watched. He’s bigger than all of us, but he bawled pretty good after his momma beat him like she did. We were all glad, too.

Some older kids used pocket knives to carve dirty pictures of a woman’s parts in some of the pine trees at the bottom of the hill next to the playground, and some of us sneaked down to look. And I got socked in the eye during recess with a chunk of coal. That new kid threw it at me after I hollered time-out and stepped out from behind my tree, and it bled really bad. Mrs. Turner got all scared when she saw me and the blood, so I cried while she cleaned me off.

Last Sunday in church it was hot. A lot of the ladies were using those cardboard fans while some man was up front yelling about hell fires and brimstones and Jesus. I kept looking out one of the opened windows, wishing I could be out there. Then I seen a woman taking the path to the outhouse. She had huge breasts, and I kept watching them bounce while she walked, and I got excited in a new kind of way. My brother Joe Allen is buried across the road from the church. We go and see his grave stone sometimes and listen to momma talk about him. Its got a stone lamb up on the very top.

I don’t like to have to take naps, but momma always makes us. Sometimes I lay real still with my eyes shut, but then we sneak outside to play after she falls asleep. Mostly I lay here staying quiet with my knees up, looking at the pictures sewed on my quilt. It’s all yellow except for them.

They are all of a little Dutch girl wearing a blue dress and a blue cap, and she has long blonde pigtails, and in this one, she’s standing up on her milk stool looking down at a mouse who is looking back up at her. In another one she’s sweeping with her broom.

Up here, she is sitting on the same stool, milking a cow. In that one she is setting a table. Can you see her tiny cups and dishes? Oh, and this one at the edge is funny; she is chasing the little brown mouse off with her broom, and he is running away with his tail curled high in the air.

I had a bad dream last night, and I woke up when I fell off the bed. I’m always afraid to hang my arm over the side for too long, because I get to thinking about that mouse, so when I woke up on the floor I was scared to move for a long time.

They had another big fight. Momma was screaming and daddy was yelling real loud like he was mad, and it was hard to go to sleep after they started throwing stuff. I heard some things break a couple of times, too.

None of us knows what blonde pussy hairs are, but momma was saying she found a bunch of them in his car, and he was telling her she is crazy. I wish they would both stop it.

I been saying my prayers like we learned to, but I been asking God to send us company, because they act nice then.

Friday, February 25, 2005

13 For a Moment

1.) What year was it when you turned 13 years old?

The year I turned thirteen was 19 and 56.

2.) What style of clothing did you wear?

Styles, as we know them now, were not something we followed, and my mother purchased all of our clothes. Mostly I wore a pair of blue jeans and a casual shirt to school, with tennis shoes or a nicer pair of penny loafers. On Sundays I wore slacks, a shirt and a clip-on tie.

3.) What kind of music did you listen to?

Most often we listened to music that came from either a small radio mother had setting in her kitchen, or a large record collection stored inside a console in our living room. She kept her radio tuned to a local station during the mornings, and they played a mix of big band and popular songs of the era. Some of the artists then were vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives, Johnny Mercer and Patti Page.

Frankie Laine, and others like Doris Day, Eddie Fisher or Teresa Brewer helped fill the house with music, along with Johnny Rae and Tony Bennett . Les Paul and Mary Ford, or even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir also each had their own brands of lively and different instrumental arrangements, and we liked those too.

In the afternoon, the record player was used a lot. Mom had a large collection, ranging from old-time country and folk music to jazz and classical pieces. By this age I stopped listening to my own collection of little kid records, although a few that I still liked from Peter and the Wolf, the insane Spike Jones, or the grand Nutcracker Suite got played frequently.

4.) What social groups did you belong to in school?

The only social groups I belonged to were Cub Scouts, the Sunday school class at our church, and a football team I joined at school for the first time. I got to make one play during our first time at practice, but after that I was told to go sit on the bench, and I did that for the rest of the season. Football was not a fun time at all.

5.) What snacks did you share at parties? What was your favorite meal?

I had a birthday party every year on the 6th of January. My friends, and my sisters and I ate cake my mom made, and sometimes we had ice cream to go with it, and punch.

My favorite meal was breakfast. Fried eggs, fried bananas, or fried squash and even fried green tomatoes were especial. Then there was bacon or ham, and sometimes a plate of sausage patties brought us to the table. Hot grits, oatmeal or a bowl of cream of wheat, plus a wide variety of cold cereals were also high on my list of favorites, along with a big glass of cold milk or fresh orange juice mom squeezed herself.

6.) What were the big trends?

The first fad that I remember becoming popular was Davy Crockett’s coon skin cap, but that would happen a year later. I did carry a lunch box to school, though.

7.) What did you do during free time? Where would you go?

For free time, I looked for tadpoles in a shallow pond near the house, or built model airplanes or read adventure stories. We put puzzles together as a family and played card games or dominoes. We also sat and watched our new black-and-white television every night until it signed off around ten.

And dad took our family places on the weekends. We visited Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands and Alamogordo Lake in New Mexico. Most of the time we camped out and slept in sleeping bags under the Milky Way, and ate hotdogs with mayonnaise.

Once a family of skunks paid us a visit right after we got snuggled in and the campfire had died down. We all laid still and watched as they pawed at their moon-lit reflections in the chrome hubcaps of dad’s station wagon, like it was another family of skunks living in there. They were fun to watch, too.

We also camped a lot down in the canyons at the edge of the Texas panhandle, and once got caught in a roaring flash flood in the middle of the night. We survived that ordeal, however.

A favorite spot to camp was Palo Duro canyon near Amarillo, which was close to where we lived. Mom broke her tailbone one time sliding down a steep hill, and we all thought it was pretty funny, except her.

8.) How did you earn and spend your money?

I got my first job at 13 caddying at a local golf club. It was hard carrying heavy leather bags from one place to another, and confusing too. I never did learn exactly which club was which, and I hated it. I found I could make more money stealing loose change from clothes left in the swimming pool locker room until I got caught. I got in a lot of trouble for doing that, so I stopped both things.

Mom gave us a small allowance, usually, and I’d always spend it on candy at a near-by market. She also had a big garden, and she let me pick all the cherry tomatoes and take them to the market to sell. I got to keep the money I made, so I just bought more candy. I began to like that more-honest job, too.

9.) What types of notes did you write?

I seldom wrote any notes unless it was stuff for homework. I kept a diary for three days. Mostly I drew things like army war scenes or underwater divers wearing big helmets, fighting off shark attacks and searching for treasure among wrecked ships, and naturally I added lots of bubbles and starfish and clams. Once I drew a picture of a black widow spider that looked pretty creepy, and I chased one of my sisters around the house with it.

10.) Discuss a typical day when you were 13.

During the summer when I was 13, I played outside with my Terrier a lot. Her name was Queenie, and she was a fun dog, except she liked people too much and she ran off one time. She followed after some other kids, and I never saw her again.

Mom had a big willow tree in the front yard. I liked to grab a handful of the branches and swing on it. We had neighbors that had little kids, and we all played together some. One cried one time after I gave him a hot pepper from mom’s garden, and told him it was really candy. He forgave me later though. At night I’d lay on my back in the yard, next to the willow, and watch for shooting stars and look for the Little Dipper.

Winter, when it snowed, we built igloos and had snowball fights, or jumped into huge drifts and tried to get out, which was hard to do. We could never sled at all, because the land was flat everywhere.

That’s me, at thirteen.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Bunk Cocaine

Horse gets these thoughts. He wants to write a book someday, he claims, and is creative in an eccentric sort of way, so I don’t fault him for that idea. But he goes over the top with his next scheme. He devises a plan that will make us beach bums a big pile of money.

He claims he has knowledge of how to concoct a mix that will pass for real cocaine, of which we can sell easily here to the tourists. It is simple, he tells us, so we listen to his proposal.

All he needs is enough cash to acquire some specific over-the-counter drugs, apply a little bit of his expertise, and we soon stand to make hundreds in return. We do have a gullible market here, he reminds us, so we all agree to pony up some cash.

He then borrows Frank’s old car, and heads for town.

After three days of silence, we get concerned about our money. Frank is more worried about his beater, but Horse finally shows up on the fourth day, empty handed and grinning all crazy-like, and after some waiting for him to relax a little, we get the lowdown.

It seems he succeeded in step one and two with no problem at all, but when it came time to sell the wares, he hit a slight snag. Outside a convenience store, he tells us, he encounters a decent sort who has an interest, but the man wants proof. They then retire to this fellow’s home nearby for a test of the goods.

It looks like cocaine, the man said.

It tastes like the real deal, they seemed to agree.

It even had the familiar burn that follows snorting it up one’s nose, Horse tells us.

Apparently, it was high quality coke too, but temptation set in, for then, over the course of the next few days, they both proceeded to enjoy the whole batch until it eventually disappeared.

Horse now proclaims to any that will listen that it was indeed the best damn cocaine he had ever had, but he now regrets that it is all gone.

Bunk cocaine he got; he just never seemed to get the irony.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Life at the Mill

All three of us learned how to swim before we learned to walk, or at least that’s what momma always told everybody. There were times when we might go visit someplace new, and we usually worried all of the grown-ups there half-to-death, the way we jumped out of the car and ran over to a swimming pool dressed only in our underwear, and then one, two, three, we each dove in head first.

After staying under water for awhile, we popped up to see nervous adults standing nearby, ready to dive in and save us.

Momma thought it was funny when people panicked like they did, and later, she would look around with a worried face and say things like,

“I’m not sure if all of my children are here; the gator might have got one of them.”

And people would laugh while daddy smiled at her. He usually always wore his hat and acted grand, like he knew everyone around.

They said they killed an alligator when we first moved here. Our grandma came to the big party they threw afterwards, and she even ate some of it, but she thought it was cow meat at the time. But when she asked for another piece, somebody told her what it was and she nearly got sick. Later on that same day, daddy told us she sneaked back and got some more.

Momma fixed the mill house up really nice. Most of the stuff came from the city, and sometimes we got to go with her. Her and Maria got mad when I made up a story about the ambulance picking up daddy one time.

She doesn’t live here much, being so smart and all, but I like my big sister most of the time. Some nights she plays on momma’s piano, and other nights she goes off with some people I don’t know. One time a bunch of them came and had a big party here in the house. I found a thing one man had been making music with later, laying back in her bedroom up on the bed. It had lots of strings on it, and it made nice sounds when I hit them, so I went to find a hammer, thinking it would be even louder. I had fun banging on it for awhile, but I took off and hid after I busted the wood parts, and I never saw it again after that.

Maria finished school two years ahead of the rest of her class, and now she’s off going to some music conservatory down in Glenville. I guess that’s why she plays the piano so good, but she can act mean as a snake sometimes, and she is always back-talking momma. She mostly treats daddy real nice and they talk together like she is all grown-up . I tried hiding in the back seat of Buck’s car last week, that time when he came by to get her, but she caught me just before they left and run me off. I really wanted to go with them, but she really didn’t want me to. Buck laughed at the both of us like he didn’t really mind.

Momma cries a lot and I don’t know why. Her and daddy are always fussing when he is home. I came in the other day from swimming, and there she was, sitting on the floor in front of our record player, listening and leaning against the cabinet while she sobbed her eyes out. I didn’t know what to say to her; I just got scared and went back outside.

I think momma is pretty brave from what happened in the woods last month. She takes the girls and me for walks a lot, and points out to us the names of things, like fairy castles and dogwood flowers. She tells us about the poisonous snakes and what birds are making what sounds, and where to find gooseberries, but the wild hog surprised us all that day.

It came out of nowhere, and the next thing I remember is being on the run to the mill, her leading and pulling us along like little rag dolls waving in the breeze. We managed to get inside behind the big front door, and there she was, trying to pull it shut while the hog tried his best to get his head inside and bite her legs. We stood behind her, screaming while he snorted and slashed and foamed from the mouth, but after momma broke a broom handle across his snout, he backed off just enough for her to slam the door tight.

It got real quiet in the dim foyer, but then when I heard her moaning, I saw a trickle of blood running down one of her legs. She was even braver to get those shots in her stomach after that, too.

Some boyfriend flew over the millpond this summer and dropped a long, bright orange thing in the middle of the lake. We stood out on the dam and watched as it sank out of sight, looking just like a dying, twisting sea serpent. Maria said it was an Army target made out of silk, and she acted impressed. I felt sorry to see the dragon go, so later, my other sisters and me took daddy’s boat and went searching for it, but we never found anything.

Most of the time we stay near the mill house with his boat, and slap the water with a paddle, just to get each other wet, or turn the boat upside-down and then get underneath it and yell a lot. We like the way our voices echo inside the dark space, but if momma is trying to take a nap she tells us to stop, so we kick our feet and move out to deeper water where the coon tail moss grows. We don’t know what kind of creature lives down in the moss, but whatever it is, it scares us, so we don’t stay out there too long. While momma hangs clothes out on the line after she gets up, we run from one end of the over-turned boat to the other, tilting the half-submerged vessel this way or that, screaming like drowning victims aboard their sinking ship.

Sometimes we paddle to the far end of the lake. It gets shallow where the dead trees are, and the girls don’t like it much back in there, but I do. There is little noise at all, except for the distant drumming of a woodpecker, or the splash of a turtle coming off a log as we pole our way slowly through the haunted parts. Most of the woods surrounding us are too full of thick brambles to go on foot, plus there are lots of snakes.

Once, up in the high woods near our big tree house, we went exploring up a shortcut that leads to Louie’s fields, and I stopped to climb a small tree. While I was up there hanging upside down from a branch, I saw a huge one crawling around the base, so I yelled at Alma and Donna to run. They took off scared and ran back to the house.

I hollered after them to go get momma quick, and then I unhooked myself and climbed higher to wait. It got real quiet, being all alone up in the tree, with the huge brown serpent resting at the bottom. I stared down and watched to see if he would either move away or try to climb up after me, and I looked for the longest time. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, and listened for any sounds of a rescue until I couldn’t stand it any longer.

But after inching my way down the trunk, I saw that the imagined serpent was simply a meandering fat root belonging to my tree. When I got home later, the two girls sat up under momma’s clothes line, playing contentedly with their dolls.

My big sister whipped me only once, and I hated her for it. She had took off out the door, complaining to momma that her body felt like she had fell off a roof, and was going up to Louie’s to see one of his daughters, just to get out of the house. I took off after her, and had caught up just before she turned the bend in the road. But when she saw me coming, she yelled at me to go back home, so I stopped but stood my ground.

I stayed there while I watched her disappear around the corner. My friend Geeter lived in the same house too, and since this was my place as well as hers, I began following again, but not so close this time. I found a long stick and picked it up, and then started dragging it in the sand to kill time. I could let Maria get way down the road before she had to made the next curve, and then I could run to catch up. But I got distracted with the stick and the wondrous marks it made. The way it wiggled as it trailed behind me gave me an idea.

Some time later I looked up and saw Maria headed my way. I could hardly wait to show her all of my beautiful snake tracks I had drawn across the lane, so I stood still while she came closer. I had managed to get maybe three words out when she grabbed the stick out of my hands, and she used it on me all the way home.

That night, as I lay in bed and listened to the frogs, I felt like I had fell off a roof, too.

Sunset Lake

For as long as I can remember, our lake has always been out there.

I go to sleep most nights tucked up under a heavy quilt, and what I hear, coming from out of the chilled darkness, are the rise and falling sounds of frogs singing. They get a whole chorus going after sundown, the little ones do, and then when the bull frogs start up later on, adding deep bass notes to the nonstop medley, and as I lastly warm to my bed, I drift off while listening to such soothing music.

A lot of times in the morning, I sit up in bed and look out far across the water, and there I can see a sheet of fog laying over the lake. Often the thin, gray cover rides just above the surface of deep water, with maybe a few thicker patches arching up in some places. Neither one hides from view the tops of spooky dead trees waiting at the distant back edge.

Or sometimes I see strange things out there that resemble angels rising up out of the water, and I get a chill watching the ghostly fingers of fog do their slow dances across the lake.

In the other bed, one of my little sisters stirs under her blanket. I hear momma and her pans in the kitchen, so I jump out and run to her bedroom to shiver and shake while standing on the little heater grate, getting warm while she cooks. I like it when she fixes breakfast, because that means her and daddy didn’t have a fight last night. I promised not to pee down the heater anymore. It stunk too bad last time, and my big sister got really mad.

My daddy got the lake before I came along, but before he had it, his daddy ran the place. Joe died a long time ago, and them two never got along, the way I heard it told. Daddy is dark and has green eyes and thick, black hair, and he never look a thing like his daddy.

Joe, they said, had blue eyes and blond hair, and he left grandma when daddy was first born. He stayed gone too, even after daddy and momma got married.

Then they had my brother, Joe Allen, and without waiting they drove him over to where Joe lived, to show him off.

Joe had took ill, momma told us, and was laid up on his death bed when he saw the baby that one time. She said he took one look, and then he started crying and carrying on, seeing that blue-eyed, little blond-haired baby boy, and then he asked daddy right away to forgive him for treating him so mean all his life. And then he died right after that.

I don’t think she ever liked Joe too much, but she loved the boy Joe Allen. So did daddy, but he hardly ever says much about him. Joe died when he was twelve years old, and I guess it makes him too sad to talk about it.

Momma is always telling us about him, though. I hear her stories told a lot about that day. He got sick one morning and died that same night, from something called infantile paralysis. It means you can’t breath too good. She said that at the end, he sat up in his bed all of a sudden-like, and then he pointed across the room and asked,

“Who is that lady over there, momma?”

She always told how the hairs stood up on the back of her neck at that point, because there was nobody else in the room except them two, but she turned around to look anyway. Of course, she didn’t see anyone, even when Joe Allen insisted some lady, all dressed up in a white gown, had come to stand at the foot of his bed to look at him.

After that, they sold the house and Daddy moved out here to live in Joe’s grits mill with momma, Maria and me.

My two younger sisters were both born here, and we three love this place.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Rescue Me

The telephone rang mid-afternoon. Outside, strong gusts of wind blew, causing the bare limbs of a willow in the front yard to whip and sway southward. Alone in the house, I picked up before the second ring. A chill coming from the north cast shades of light and dark along the inner wall of our living room, and a cold voice on the line spoke,

“This is Billy’s Tavern. Anyone there know Otho?”

I laid my magazine among the clutter on top of the television cabinet.

“Otho is my uncle.”

Subtle shadows of winter danced about the room, marking the beat of tinny music coming from the receiver while the gruff tone of voice continued.

“Can you come down here and get him?”

Mother had gone shopping. Both girls were off somewhere, and since dad had his door shut for a nap, I took his car and drove downtown to the far end of Broadway.

Trash blew in swirls along the curbed brick street. Faded storefronts lined both sides of the north end, indifferent to the bright sun, staring blankly at one another as I cruised by. Most sat closed, emptied of trade during weekends. A small neon sign arched across a single plate glass window of the one and only lively spot.

From where I parked at the curb, I could sense the smell of apathy. The wind sang an unfeeling song as I pushed my door hard against it, and I got out as if to challenge some nameless enemy. Leaning into his assault and crossing the sidewalk, with the black stain of a doorway in sight, I could taste bitterness and the frustrations that waited inside. It rode out on the wavering strains of a jukebox to greet me as a hardhearted friend, uncaring and callous and as cold as the day.

The click of a cue ball sounded above the loud music as I stepped inside the place. In dim shadows near a back wall, shapes sat huddled at scattered tables. A glow of half-lit glasses shined above a dark wood bar to my right. Behind it, an unworried man busied himself as I approached. On the floor in front of the bar, curled around the base of a barstool, lay the lonely form of Otho, quieted and resting for a change.

No one cared as I shook him. I felt the unconcern of the whole room as I roused this broken man, while unemotional life continued to flow around the two of us. A man three stools down looked straight as he tilted back his head to take a drink.

Otho mumbled something when I shook his shoulder.

No one said hello. No one said goodbye as he and I staggered across the floor. No one offered a hand when I almost lost him, bending under his weight. The wind didn’t mind that he stumbled, nor did the brilliant sun outside. The cold red bricks of Broadway turned from us unsympathetically as I heaved him into the back seat of dad’s car, and the trash blowing down the avenue had not a care, but his own frail mother, living out her final years in the little trailer behind our house did.

I managed to take him there, somehow, but I don’t recall the last fifty feet of our journey together.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Daily Beat

There has been a good amount of discussion going on over at another writer-friend’s cavern on the subject of getting published. This friend* of mine entertains dreams of such worthy aspirations, as do many of us that huddle around the home fire he keeps going there. The ambiance he provides is warm and friendly, and interspersed among the sharp wit and humorous banter that often occurs after any one of his articles or stories hits the airways of Blogdom*, one is left with some serious points to consider, well after departing. He is an intelligent man, and for many years has given this notion lots of thought.

It is a perplexing and elusive journey to be on, getting published, and I know this after spending a few days browsing through a 2005 copy of Writers Market, a thick and comprehensive tome that claims to be “The #1 resource for writers since 1921”. My volume now sits and gathers dust on a bookshelf in the communal area of my own cave.

But I learned of this informative book years ago (working as a paste-up monkey in another crazed field of magazine layout, infested with ego-driven editors and prima donna art directors). The new copy, along with its wise advice, has in its current version some personal interviews with noted journalists, among them the humorist, Dave Barry. For his part, he offers some thoughtful and sobering insights into the puzzle of how to succeed in this confusing market. In other areas, the news can be almost disheartening with its harsh realities of the publishing world exposed. The field is not for the faint-hearted, nor the thin-skinned.

The business is strictly dollar-oriented, and cares little for the artist or feelings or beliefs held dear. This is where the balance is set, and with the torrential amount of books that hit the stands every month, this is a good and sensible thing to be so harsh. We will never agree that all books that do get published are worthy, but who has time to read every new offering to begin with?

So here I sit in my cave, pecking out letters one at a time, stringing words together into some sort of order, fancying this one or disdaining that one, and where does it get me in the final end?

All I can say is that the challenge of making the white screen go grayer with some amount of electronic ink is something else to behold, and it sure beats watching pixels dance on the other light box, the television. At least the fun I am having gets a few responses from others whom must certainly feel the same way.

*You will be able to identify him by the comments he leaves here.

*Appropriate Word substitute for hopeful writers: Bludgeon

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Whisper Me a Secret

Cesar Millan rings the doorbell and stands waiting, his head bowed, and with both hands resting firmly on his hips. His nice smile beams toward a young and bewildered couple when they first open their front door, and then they hastily usher him inside. Cesar is the dog whisperer, and he has arrived just in time.

“How can I help you folks today?”

The pair without delay introduce the man to their active and friendly beagle. The woman takes out a small flashlight, points it to the floor, and then the trio observe as the dog chases the circle around the room. A comical sight unfolds as the dog, in hot pursuit of the spot, slips and slides across a hardwood floor, scampering after the elusive light.

She then clicks the light off, and the three stand and discuss some issues this dog begins to demonstrate next. The small spotlight has vanished from the floor, but the animal continues to search and sniff, constantly on the move. Several minutes go by as several flashback scenes are played; the dog outside, franticly going after a nonexistent light on the ground; video recordings caught on tape of the hound on the hunt throughout the house, determined to find its prey. The flustered wife and her gentle husband, himself anxious too, appeal to Cesar.

“What can we do? Is there any hope of correcting this insane obsession he has?”

Cesar smiles and slips on a collar and a leash. The dog looks up happily and complies. Next, and with the pooch down at his left side, and the couple standing a few feet away, he motions to the lady to use her flashlight again. She aims it at the floor in front of their honored dog psychologist. The little spot of light begins to dance in erratic circles, and the dog sees and leaps forward suddenly.

In a split-second Cesar has the animal cured and under control.

Holding the leash comfortably taut, he gives a firm tug. The beagle immediately sits back down, and then looks up over his left shoulder. He rolls his big brown eyes and stares up at the woman’s husband, and the expression on his canine face seems to say, “Now what, boss?” The lady continues to shine the light here and there, but the dog has his mind made up, and refuses to look away from the man.

I watch this unfold, and then I turn off the television. And then I wonder, would Cesar come over and slip a collar on my kids and spend some time showing me just how to jerk on that leash and keep smiling like he does?

Friday, February 18, 2005


Have you ever-followed
Cloud or ant
And spent time wondering?

I have.

Did you ever-stop
To kneel next to a small child
Just to listen and learn?

I did.

Have you ever-encountered
A joyous surprise
And discovered a smile you lost?

I do.

Haiku, for Ken

I am found out now
Weak of leg, desiring more
A pecan praline for me?

A Hidden Cove

There are magical phrases in life that conjure up imaginative and picturesque images for some of us, like home-style cooking and road-house. The first one has been severely beaten to death by diners across this nation who seem to think placing it under their signs makes the food taste better, somehow.

The second one, to me, says pirates, so you know where my heart lays with these two.

Steak never impressed me much until after I married. My mother’s version of home-style cooking could have, for certain entrees of hers, gotten the woman flogged and thrown in a dungeon had she decided to go public with her stove. This was a person who bragged that when she backed her car, she hit the brakes only at the sound of breaking glass, and when standing in front of her hot stove, she cooked about the same way.

Pork chops came to our table as thin, golden-brown and shoe-leather-tough curls of meat. She alone invented deep-dish pizza, to my way of thinking, but till this day I have never tasted, nor has anyone outside the borders of my immediate family, anything to match it, nor do I ever want to, nor should anyone else; friends or even foes.

She made a version of chop suey that was literally to die from.

I always cringe now in supermarkets when I pass by today’s modern selection of bottled juices, especially if I see colors like light green or pale orange, because the woman bought herself a juicer one year, and for one longest, hottest summer, her children were subjected to a gastronomical form of child abuse that has still not come to light on today’s tell-all talk-shows. I don’t think we are ready for that much transparency yet.

But steaks -- I later joined the Marines where I learned they had the best food in the world, until the cooks got hold of it. One of their steaks would cover an entire metal serving tray. You had to hold the edges just so to keep your hands from getting burned or greasy as you walked over to a table to sit down. I ate one steak there and gave up. The world must be crazy, I thought, with all this hoo-ha about steaks, and I guessed maybe mom wasn’t that bad after all when it came to this one particular cut of meat.

But then I got married, and then I ate a steak my bride cooked. And then I fell madly in love.

Not far from the cave here at the edge of the swamp is a road house. The place sets on a small rise out in the middle of the woods. The road curves sharply as you approach the crest, and because of the lay of the land and the thick forest on either side, a driver is apt to miss the small, Tudor-style building.

It’s also a geographically unappealing spot for another reason, for the large population of our native deer chose this stretch of road as their favorite place to cross, and signs of failures can be seen along the wayside much too often.

But the man or woman who decides to stop here is in for a treat. Inside the road house is a well-stocked bar. The old couple that run the place have managed to survive a long marriage by him sitting on a barstool and entertaining guest with ribald stories, and her either waiting tables or broiling the steaks. In between her double duties, she stands and snarls in his direction a lot.

A proper road house requires only a few heavy, dark-stained wooden booths, separated by similar partitions. It needs to serve basic foods, such as meat and potatoes, and of course it must have a well-stocked bar. The old pirate and his first mate have supplied them all, and I would be willing to give out the most accurate directions to this tucked-away spot if I were not afraid of being turned away someday by a long wait outside their door, so I won’t disturb either my reader with such boring details, or the crusty owners.

So what does any of this have to do with anything?

I wanted to take the wife out Monday to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, so I said let’s go get a steak. Her eyes lit up at the idea. But who would think that the road house in the forest paid attention to customs around here? Truth being a strange one, the place is always shut on Mondays, so we waited until tonight to have our fun.

I managed to drive there without hitting anything, and I also was able to pull off the road at the juncture of hill-and-curve without being struck myself, but only then did we discover a dark building and an empty lot. The old buccaneer had left a note saying he took his booty to Florida for a month, and so there we sat, hungry and forlorn.

What to do, what to do?

How about the place over by (and here I whispered the name), I asked her. My sweet lovely agreed, so we drove a few more miles to a modern version of a steak house.

It turned out okay, although I missed the bawdy stories terribly.

But as the wife mentioned later, “At least your mom wasn’t cooking.”

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Wild Hand

Otho had his demons, alright. Maybe being born attracted the lot. Maybe he befriended a few more during the war; who knows? They lived in the bottle mostly, but the ghosts came out in droves when the lid came off.

His mother enrolled him at a very early age in a West Texas convent. She placed his older sister there too, and then took off to dance her way across the plains. He never saw her again until the age of eleven, but by then his path had been paved with the uneven stone.

Memories of nuns went unspoken during his lifetime, perhaps forgotten. Recollections, those of deeds done and punishments received, stopped.

He never mentioned the times spent in Guadalcanal. He didn’t have to. The look of that unspoken horror lay concealed behind a thick pair of glasses, veiled by a thunderous voice wanting to chide and belittle any and all that wandered across his path. Only those bearing the means to loose the demons gained Otho’s respect.

This is Not a Test

Riley sat leaning forward on the edge of his bunk bed. The bowed arch of his back, the slope of his shoulders, and even the expression on his face all spoke of ease; together they gave the impression of a healthy young man from southern California in his natural state of being.

But the facial look didn‘t fool Aubrey for a second.

“What’s up, man?”

Aubrey knew Riley all too well. The blond-haired youngster was an unusual bird; the other observing odd traits shown from the first moment they met, but a deep reflective attitude plus his mild personality set him far apart from the others in the squad bay. The pair, after sharing their two-man cubicle for over a month now, had since become good friends.

He was, by Aubrey’s estimation, an electronic genius. This was no idle accolade; he once sat and watched Riley as he fashion a working amplifier for electric guitar, using a pocket-sized transistor radio and basic tools, just to prove it could be done. That feat impressed Aubrey; the jam session that followed earned him respect from the entire barracks.

But he also had a quirky and deceptive ability of assuming the role of an absolute liar when speaking simple truths, and yet the most boyish and beguiling facade would appear during the course of some outrageous falsehood. It was a strange but endearing sight for Aubrey to witness.

A taxi ride had demonstrated to him the amazing effect of this strange gift. The two hailed a cab one evening, and after settling in, Riley taking the rear seat while Aubrey sat up front, they discussed who would pay their fare as the car sped down the highway. Aubrey turned and asked over his shoulder,

“You want to get him?”

It was their habit to share travel expenses, so Riley replied,

“No, you get him this time; you’re closer.” He somehow made his answer sound not so innocent.

This brief dialog ended at that point, followed by a long period of silence. The hack, who spoke only basic English, began looking back and forth between the road and his rearview mirror, and then casting quick sidelong glances at Aubrey.

Thinking simple thoughts of an exciting Okinawan night out, both marines had forgotten about another cabbie who was robbed and viciously murdered weeks before, but not this fellow; he kept both eyes opened wide and darting from place to place, and before long the nervous man had sat half-turned in his driver’s seat, with one knee facing to the right.

Only Aubrey noticed this unusual behavior. He looked back once to see Riley who stared out the side window, gazing off into the evening.

The driver suddenly slammed on the brakes. Pulling off to the side of the road, he stopped the cab and began waving his arms, remembering someplace else he needed to be.

“You two, get out! Me go back Naha now. Go, go!”

Riley stood on the side of the road afterwards, hurt and offended, but Aubrey could only shake his head and laugh as they hailed another cab.

And now he asked as he looked at his serene friend,

“So what are you up to?”

A portable radio on a bedside table between the two bunks played the one American station available in this part of the world. Riley reached over to tune the volume knob slightly, but he kept the innocent act going with a slight shrug of his shoulders while a voice droned about the local weather.

“Steady temperatures for this afternoon throughout the island, folks, and lots of sun, but you might want to carry an umbrella if you plan on being out after midnight.”

He then bent over and pulled a foot locker from its place under his bunk. Aubrey slid one of his own out and plopped down on the box lid.

“You not going to chow?”

The blond acted unconcerned as he shook his head. He reached inside the chest to get a shoe brush just as a popular song began playing, and after closing the top, he picked up a combat boot set near his socked feet.

“Hit the Road Jack and don’t you come back no more no more”

Aubrey began fiddling with the combination lock at his knees as the singers sang, and Riley, with one hand jammed inside the boot, began buffing the boot to the catchy beat.

“What’d you say?”

Riley stopped and held up the brush in midair, and he turned to stare at the radio as the singer began the second verse. Aubrey had just unlatched his lock, but he too stopped. Riley is up to something, he thought, so he waited.

“Old woman old woman, oh you treat me so mean”

But what, he wondered?

“You're the meanest old woman that I ever have seen”

A faint grin showed up on Riley’s face.

“Well I guess if you say so” And with that, the song abruptly quit.

He held up his bristle brush, gripping it with one finger extended, and signaled a pause. And then the announcer broke in.

“Folks, we interrupt this broadcast to bring you some breaking news. Los Angeles was just hit with a devastating nuclear explosion.”

Aubrey sat up straight. Riley kept his face turned toward the radio, listening with his brush still held in midair. But he had that odd peaceful look on his face as the broadcaster delivered the news.

“The blast occurred just moments ago, and details are still sketchy at the moment, but reports are coming in as I speak. However, we do know all communications from the surrounding areas have ceased.”

Riley slowly began buffing the boot again while the man continued with his descriptions.

“Fires are raging everywhere…”

“Man, what the fuck? You rigged that somehow, didn’t you!”

The blond grinned slyly at Aubrey. “Want to have some fun?”

He got down on his hands and knees and pulled out a tape recorder from under his bunk, stored near the head of his rack. Several wires from the tape deck ran along the wall and up behind the table, and they ended at the back of the radio. He punched one of the buttons on the recorder, and then another to rewind the tape, and in a moment he stopped the machine. Then he pushed the start button down, slid the unit back into place and quickly took his seat again on the edge of the bunk, just as the front door to the barracks opened.

He glanced at his watch and said,

“Right on time.”

Loud voices announced the arrival of several soldiers returning from work. He smiled at Aubrey as they tromped by, and he said,

“Get them to come in.”

“Hey, guys. You got to see this.” Aubrey reached inside his locker and took out a magazine. In seconds a group of gawking men stood beside him in the enclosed area, all remarking on the latest naked women. The announcer in the background droned,

“Steady temperatures for this afternoon throughout the island, folks, and lots of sun, but you might want to carry an umbrella if you plan on being out after midnight.”

The fresh-faced Clark blushed at the photographs, and as the one excited gang taunted him, the other vibrant group began singing,

“Hit the Road Jack and don’t you come back no more no more”

The teasing continued as Riley sat quietly and buffed his boot.

“Folks, we interrupt this broadcast…”

Aubrey, right on cue, hushed the men and lowered the magazine. Riley leaned over and turned up the volume as they quieted down and listened. The pictures were forgotten. Jaws began to drop. People stepped in closer as the newscaster stated how fires were now raging out of control. Looks were exchanged as he told of Oceanside gone, Long Beach destroyed, and of how Hollywood had vanished.

Riley began shaking his head as he stared down at the floor. He held the boot limply with one hand and the brush with the other, and he looked sad. The announcer next returned his listeners to the regularly scheduled broadcast, and the song resumed playing, so he reached for the knob and lowered the up-beat music. The room stayed hushed. And then Riley informed no one in particular.

“My sister lives in Long Beach.”

Clark had a look of terror on his face.

“Your…sister?” Everyone in the tiny cubicle looked at each other.

“Yes, my younger sister.”

“Man.” Clark looked lost for words. “I’m…I’m sorry,” He said finally, almost in tears.

“Yeah. My sister, she has cats.”

Aubrey could no longer hold it in. He tried to suppress a snicker, but the sound came out in a short burst. Clark shot him a look, but turned back to Riley, who kept staring with unfocused eyes while steadily shaking his head.

“Lot’s of cats. Seven, I think. Maybe she had eight.”

Aubrey snorted again. The kid looked from one to the other, frantic and puzzled.

“And all of her cats…everyone of them…are now dead.”

“Well I guess if you say so I'll have to pack my things and go (that's right)”

That did it for Aubrey. And it didn’t help that Clark got enraged then.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Higher Expectations

Eli, not yet eighteen, and being at that age when removal of delicate facial hair is still a fun project, has undertaken a wild scheme to capture for himself the fairer half of the human race by playing around with deadly chemical warfare. His own mother, a grown woman, chokes and wheezes when she passes by the man-boy’s lair located at the back of the cave. I have even caught myself holding on to walls for support while wandering about the place, being unable to breath properly from the toxic cloud that, although invisible to any eye, will reach out to suck the life from a fit set of lungs. His less-inexperienced and shorter sibling David watches these things from a safe distance, and has been discovered taking personal notes of several on-going experiments using cologne.

Yesterday, Miss Bliss called me after school. She, a most-caring and gracious sort, began telling of our wonderful David and his class, and their current reading project, the great tale of Moby Dick. She went on to recount how an exciting discussion came up afterwards, concerning the various uses of whale oil.

By the tone in her voice I realized both she and her students warmed up to this historic subject, and we talked at length before her voiced began to falter by a few degrees. Not wanting to alarm anyone, she mentioned at the end how David had politely raised his hand, and then while she and the surrounding children listened attentively, he volunteered that his older brother also lit an unusual substance at home, and that he had witnessed this event himself. The impetuous boy recalled the name wrong, however, and spilled the beans about Eli burning cocaine in his room.

I expect we shall talk again soon, his teacher and I.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The New Hire

Noraziriah arrived at precisely fifteen minutes before eight o‘clock. Wainwright made a mental note of the time as she sailed with good cheer past his station, and they both smiled; he staying put, and she, wordlessly and trim, aiming directly for the stockroom toward the rear. As he replaced the money tray back into the register drawer, he watched her walk away, and he silently congratulated himself for hiring this attractive and energetic young girl, while at once, speculating how he might meet payroll demands by the end of the month.

Sales had been sporadic and hard to evaluate for the past quarter, and this fundamental mystery, albeit a minor one, had caused him to rashly move to add to his small staff of employees, for the sole purpose of satisfying his peace of mind.

This tradesman Wainwright had been established here for several years now. He owed no huge sums; only his monthly rent gave him any concern at all, but growth, his singular and immediate goal, had either stagnated or leveled out or simply declined, according to his ill-kept receipts. This was part of the trouble.

The petite child was not exactly necessary, Wainwright thought, but her services might provide some insight for future ideas to increase the flow of business. If she didn’t work out, he could always let her go, but her resume had shown to him that the girl possessed extraordinary talents when it came to math, and here he lacked.

He considered his good fortune as he broke open rolls of coins, and he took a moment to gaze out through one of the plate glass windows facing the street, after first dumping pennies into one of the bins. The neighborhood, an established section of the city, still witnessed new construction underway. His own building, small yet ample in size, appeared as modern but not so ostentatious as several down the block. He had good lighting installed inside, and his wares he kept well-stocked and fresh. He had, after some experimenting with layout and design, things neatly arranged in what he considered a pleasing and accessible manner.

Still, what with all of the chores that it took to keep things running smoothly during the course of a normal day, he felt ignorant of some basic facts. This underlying missing detail had him vexed.

Traffic flowed steadily by his storefront. Parking was available to all. A large exterior sign announced his presence. He knew from manning a broom after closing, and from the amount of trash he had to scoop up at the end of a day, that many potential customers came inside, and that some at least stayed to browse. But the real proof lay in the till, to his way of thinking. The money wasn’t such a necessity really, but it was certainly an indicator, a measure of some meager profit.

The only other concern that ran through his mind as thoughts focused on this new young woman was this: if she only spoke better English. He was unable, he felt with some tiny degree of remorse, to convey to her in detail how to separate the buyers from these browsers. Ah, well, he mused; nothing ventured, nothing gained. And, she showed up for work on time.

The girl soon left the stockroom, and with one hand, self-consciously smoothed the coat Wainwright had supplied as her official working uniform. Adding the last roll of quarters to their rightful place, he closed the register drawer, and then reaching under the counter, he removed a silver object, and he held it as he turned to study his approaching new hireling.

The jacket caused her to stand out, and it made her easy to identify. Her long black hair she had arranged and wound neatly at the top of her head, with only a wisp or two hanging loose about her ears. It seemed as if she wore no makeup at all. He approved of this presentation; her tanned features were enriched enough by a nice smile and her sparkling dark eyes. He felt the slightest tinge of envy whenever she showed two rows of brilliant and healthy teeth, but at his present age, that was fair and permissible. Of all the candidates he had interviewed, Wainwright decided he had made the proper choice by taking on Noraziriah in service.

She saw the device he held in his hand, and then she smiled that gorgeous islander smile. Without a word, she took the chrome counter and walked to the front entry where a stool had been placed, close to the main door. Noraziriah adjusted her skirt primly after taking a seat, and she crossed one leg over the other while Wainwright watched.

Let the recording begin, he thought to himself, and so he returned to his pen and his opened ledger, and his writings.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Thing on Post Nine

When Aubrey noticed the new list that morning, he made sure to stop by and study it. But when he saw the line where his name was written, his heart sank. His eyes shot across the page twice to make sure he got it right, but both times he saw his own name, the midnight hour, and the number nine printed plainly in ink.

Of all the assigned patrols, post nine had the reputation of being the worst of the lot.

A polite houseboy padded behind where Aubrey stood, a steam iron in one hand; a spray bottle in the other. He called out a cheerful greeting to the younger man.

“O hayou gozaimasu.”

The boy responded, saying over his shoulder.

“Kon-nichiwa, papa-san.”

The smaller of the two men bobbed his head with respect and gave the marine a smile before darting into a storage room. There, two other black-haired workers squatted on the floor, attending to uniforms laid out on folded blankets. Surrounded by rows of fresh-ironed and neatly piled shirts and trousers, they chattered to each other in a foreign tongue as Aubrey came and stood in the hatch way. His glum face caused the elder Kim to look up and inquire.

“What a-matter you?” The man asked, taking a favored spot near a wall.

“I get bad duty post tonight, Kim-san. Very yokunai post.”

“Okasomio!” The man nodded an understanding. He then untied a knotted blue cloth bundle next to his side, and fresh laundry spilled out.

“So you no like?” He smoothed out one of the crumpled utility shirts and began to lightly mist it.

“Yokunai tomodachi stay,” The youngster explained, holding up hands to describe some fiendish monster.

The three men laughed at the misuse of the word for friend, but then exchanged concerned looks as they continued their chores, and began speaking among themselves in their rapid Ryukyuan dialect.

Aubrey left them and took his worries to the lounge at the back of the barracks. The sensible thing to do would be to find someone new; someone inexperienced with all of the frightening rumors; someone dumb enough to exchange places with him. Maybe Clark was around.

The new kid had walked in the guard barracks three days after Aubrey first arrived, and had been confronted from the start by an unusual commotion. He had stood frozen, framed by the doorway, and he balanced a duffle bag on one shoulder while he watched the two rowdy marines that tussled and rolled around in the middle of the center aisle. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the pair, and as one burly contestant grabbed the other in a sensitive spot, the lesser man screamed out in terrible pain.

Horrified at this, Clark’s jaw dropped as the crew began to shout encouragements. At some point he asked the on-lookers what was the problem.

The two on the floor kept at it as another marine spoke up.

“The poor guy has VD, and the only know cure is to grab his nuts and squeeze.”

A few other heads nodded in agreement, and since no one laughed or broke a smile, naive Clark, staring wide-eyed at the on-going fracas, bought the story. Then, over the course of the next two weeks, he refused to leave the base, vowing he would never take the chance of getting such a horrible disease.

Aubrey caught him coming out of the shower, wearing a towel and his ever-present half-grin.

“Say, Clark. How about trading me posts for tonight?”

The grin widened across the kid’s face.

“Not tonight, man. Can’t do it, sorry.”

“How come? Listen, I might do you a huge favor some day.”

He followed the sounds of Clark’s flip-flops back to his bunk. The kid pitched his shaving kit on the top berth, and then reached for a clean civilian shirt.

“Cause I’m going on liberty tonight and I plan on getting shit-faced drunk, that’s why.”

You can’t argue with a man that smells liberty, so Aubrey bowed to his ill-fated destiny. Post nine had him where it hurt, and he knew it.

No one liked post nine. Dreadful things had occurred there; inexplicable things went on there at night that sent shivers up a man’s spine afterwards; things that were told in the light of day that made others laugh and wonder.

Did the teller exaggerate his facts? Or were those outright lies, meant to entertain or impress others with their bravery? No one could ever know for certain when young marines told tales.

Did a mama-san actually lift a fifty-five gallon drum of some value, and then hoist the load upon her frail shoulders, and then run away as a frightened sentinel yelled for her to stop? Did some unseen hand really throw a knife at another guard during his watch, and narrowly miss? He never produced any evidence to prove this data, although his own eyes seemed to believe in the story.

Was there any truth about secret military things hidden behind painted windows inside the tin-roofed Butler hut on forlorn post nine?

Aubrey had finally caught the dread post on his fourteenth day of guard duty. Clark, or no other man could save him. Given a pre-dawn four-hour slot, he collected one of the paper bags containing a thin sandwich, an orange and a small carton of milk, provided as rations by a night crew at the mess hall. Then riding along with a group of replacements for several other posts, he was next dropped off beside the gloomy building at the far end of a deserted runway.

Only a single bulb flooded the front side of the long metal shed, while the surrounding horizons loomed as black and irregular shapes. Over a near-by hill, the glow from a small settlement illumed low-hanging clouds.

1. To take charge of this post and all government property in view.

Aubrey eyed the place while thoughts of the barrel-toting woman ran, and he sat his sack down on a stack of empty pallets while the relieved guard handed over his weapon. As the pair stood in the bright beams of the jeep’s headlights, and as the soldier cleared the pistol, he heard a scurrying sound coming from the shadows, and he turned to see.

The bag had vanished.

“It must have been that rat,” The guard said, and he laughed. He was going back to the barracks, and would be asleep before zero four-thirty rolled around; so what did he care?

Aubrey swallowed as he inserted the .45 sidearm into its holster.

2. To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert.

I’m putting a clip in later; I don’t care what the rules say.

The jeep left. Aubrey walked along side the building, staying in the moonlight. He turned the corner and stopped, watching the taillights as they disappeared over a rise. He stayed there without moving, letting his eyes adjust before continuing.

3. To report all violations of orders I am instructed to enforce.

Growing up as a boy, Aubrey had often copied the actions of Indians he read about, and walking softly was one trick he thought he had mastered. But here in the obscurity of this dreadful place, each careful footstep caused his heart to race. The grass under his feet crunched loudly as he approached the second corner. No matter how cautiously he stepped, he knew the sounds carried way beyond the hill across the road. He paused next to a utility pole, and the boy’s imagination soared.

This is where the knife landed. This is where he said the knife landed that barely missed his head.

He stayed still, and he listened. What was that popping noise? It came from over there -- oh, the tin on the building -- it expands or contracts with heat or cold.

11. To be especially watchful at night and, during the time for challenging, to challenge all persons on or near my post, and to allow no one to pass without proper authority.

Aubrey shivered once, and was about to take a step when he saw it. He froze, and he stared into the void as a pin-prick of light, a small glowing object, a reddish jot that looked like a lit cigarette, moved.

He saw the shape of a man, an unknown intruder walking on his post; a form that was, right this moment, moving stealthily along the moonless side of the Butler hut. His fear drowned out the loud pounding in his chest as he stood mesmerized and helpless to move.

To talk to no one except in the line of duty, or to call the corporal of the guard in any case not covered by instructions did not seem to fit this event. To give the alarm in case of fire or disorder did.

Aubrey yelled.

Or rather, he tried to yell out what the eleven general orders did not bother to cover in this situation, but earlier instructions given by the corporal-of-the-guard outlined with such simplicity.

He tried to yell, but the word halt stuck in his throat as the approaching man, swinging his arms, bearing his glowing cigarette, paced himself steadily towards Aubrey. The distance between them closed, and the panicked boy reached for his weapon.

Shoot him shoot him shoot him shoot him

The regulations, given during short classes over the preceding two weeks, made clear his required response. He was to shout out a loud and commanding Halt! three times before he could legally discharge his firearm, and that, only to protect life or property. But here he had no time; the man was almost upon him, yet fear for his life he surely had.

In a predicament such as this, one thinks one will do certain things, and if these things are practiced often, they will come natural and instinctive to a man, and things will go smoothly.

Aubrey struggled with the pistol. The weapon, for some unexplainable reason, refused to budge from its pocket. It remained lodged inside its leather holster, and the intrusive man and the cigarette were both closing fast.

The boy’s hands and knees trembled violently as he tugged and pulled against the handle, and he caught his breath as the cigarette slowly bobbed and floated by his head.

He stood in the exact same spot, locked and frozen as when he first spied the thing, and it was with great effort that he turned his head to watch as a firefly blinked several more times, and then it was with little effort that he began to breathe once again.

For You

Lovely flower
Held out to hold
Take and inhale
Its fragrance

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Trampoline fingers
Hot desires
Do numbers matter?

He Could Be

Miss Sweetly pointed to a stack of loose prints.

“Each of you choose one of the pictures laying on the table, and then write me a story about it.”

David took his time as he sorted through the pile, and considered the challenge.

The forth-grader then picked out a black-and-white illustration depicting a small boy asleep in bed. The child’s head nestled on his pillow, while next to an open window, five circles of light hovered in the air. Two glowing orbs softly lit up the inside of the child’s bedroom, while three outside seemed to float in a mysterious darkened sky.

Printed at the bottom of the page, a question asked, “Is he the one?”

It took the young student longer than most to finish his chosen essay, but in the end, Miss Sweetly beamed at the boy’s imagination. David wrote,

“Once upon a time, there was a mystical forest filled with fairies, butterflies, elves, flowers, and dreams. The water was completely pure. The air smelled like roses, dandelions, tulips, and morning glories. The colors on the butterflies’ wings changed all the time, and they were born from cocoons of the flowers.

But there was only one problem: demons! Hundreds of them, making trouble everywhere. The fairies, being the guardians of the sacred forest, had to fight them off! The demons didn’t attack for fun, joy, or no reason at all, but to destroy the source that kept the fairies (only the newborn, weak, unprotected, and old) alive, and kept the demons from growing, escaping the forest, and/or releasing the greater demons.

One day, one of the elder fairies died. This meant a lot to the other fairies, and since there was no one to guard the crystal, the demons thought they could get the crystal. But when any one of them touched the crystal, the demons had a feeling of a sting, cut, shot, burn, shock, bite, and a sick-to-your-stomach feeling, all mixed together. But when they all tried together, they lifted it and took it to Shadow Forest. Then they brought it to the evil village sorcerer.

The sorcerer infected it so it would keep the demons alive and imprison the fairies, and weaken them too! Senji-make-o, the fairy village magician, used her last magic to bring Navi and Gavi, the 50% immortal, 50% mage, fairies to the mortal world to save the fairies and defeat the demons. Unfortunately, the demons had enough power to summon the most powerful demon in the universe: Omega, destruction itself!

The battle between the two was sad and obvious: Omega would win.

But very weakened (and cut in the wing), the fairies luckily knew a secret: Omega can only be beaten by the one with a pure heart.

And so their search began.

Their search took them everywhere; the Mystic Mountain, the Bottomless Sea, Moonshine Palace, and even the Never Ending Tunnels! Finally, when they thought there was nowhere else to look, they realized: We haven’t looked in the village!

But when they got there, they were too late; the village was destroyed! They searched and searched, but there was only one house standing and unharmed.

“This must be it,” Navi and Gavi agreed, entering the house.

Navi searching the right of the house, found only one bedroom. Gavi, searching the left of the house, just began his search when he heard Navi calling him.

“Gavi! Gavi! Come quick!” Navi called.

Gavi came.

Both fairies paused, making a blank silence.

Then Navi asked Gavi,

“Is he the one?”

To see the drawing that inspired young David, click on the following URL

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

A Nasty, Spiteful Dog

Jack could snore something fierce. Allen hated being disturbed while he slept, and so would shout at Jack several times until the old yellow cur settled down.

“Shut up that racket, Jack!”

Thelma liked to host weekend parties that lasted long into the summer night. Soft music, punctuated with loud bursts of gay laughter, floated out across a moon-lit millpond, where it kept not only the small creatures of the dark amused, but also little children who nestled under warm covers out on the screened-in porch.

A young man, also named Jack, drank too much one night, and passed out on a sofa. Thelma tidied up her kitchen after the last of the other guests left, while Allen tended to doors and lights. Soon the house lay dark and stilled, and distant frogs began their own chants.

Hours later the aged hound took to his snoring and fitful snorting.

Allen awoke in a rage.

“Shut up that damn racket, Jack! Right this minute!”

A muffled voice slurred from the next room,

“Shut up yourself, you son of a bitch.”

The husband bolted upright and shook his wife hard.

“Thelma! Did you just hear that dog talk back to me?”

Friday, February 11, 2005

How to be Hoisted by Your Own Petard

Any infraction defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice is punishable by court-martial. The UCMJ, the bedrock of military justice, requires every marine to wear a hat. One is further required to wear said hat outdoors only, except when bearing arms. In a more cozy manner of speaking, you keep the hat on your head when entering a building only if you are carrying a weapon.

Throughout a dozen years of service, I managed to stay out of court, although there were several close calls.

For a while I had a great job that required me to enter and leave buildings often, and in those days, mailmen went about their duties unarmed. I liked the outdoors and the fresh air. Like anyone, I enjoyed the feeling of being needed; mail from home is greatly appreciated by all ranks, both high and low, and I was always offered at least a smile for my efforts.

But one day I forgot. I had forgot where I put my hat after toting one particular heavily-laden leather bag through the set of front doors, delivering mail to an out-lying aircraft hanger. Singular of purpose, I marched through the doorway and…Actually, I know where the hat was; it’s location at the time just slipped my mind later on.

Only office pouges wore the khaki uniform, along with tightly tied ties and collar stays, ribbons and medals pinned over the left breast pocket, spit-shined shoes on their feet and their nicely manicured fingernails placed at their individual typewriters. Pogues, understand, were the owlish sorts that wore pink-framed glasses and acted goofier than most, and their paler skin and pimply faces somehow reflected a total lack of whatever it took to be a mean-assed marine. If one resembled a sissy, he got assigned as an office pogue.

Being half-blind myself, I too wore the pink-framed glasses, but I tanned easily, plus I purposely snarled a lot. I hated the idea of typing on typewriters all day, so I escaped being that sort of a pogue by my act. I also wore green utilities with its matching cotton hat.

In keeping with the law, I removed the hat when I entered, and then slipped the bill inside my pants at the small of my back. I turned right after clearing the foyer. Down a long hallway I marched, dropping off letters to each office on one side. Coming back, I gave mail to the other half. At the opposite end of the hall, a door led out to the hangar bay. Mechanics busied themselves there with helicopters as I strode around the cavernous area, leaving longed-for envelopes in the greasy hands of men anxious of news from home. Satisfied with my duties, I stopped by the head for another pressing delivery.

Inside a stall, and after some relief, I stood up and realized what I had forgotten. The wet hat now lay in a bowl, and to put it delicately, both hat and bowl were now filled.

Marines aren’t your normal sorts. The average Joe might have retreated from and left the scene as it lay. One of those office pouges might have even had the foresight to keep an extra hat in his desk. But I had no choice in this matter before me. And like I said, I have never, ever been to court.

Waterfall Leaves

Breakfast nook near window bright a couple sits in shaded light As sun begins to warm their day, they rest.

First ray upon the maple’s crown to loosen leaf and tumble down The two, dressed up in nightclothes, they yet wait.

Then butter spreads on toasted breads; they sit together, sleepyheads As golden leaves beyond sheer curtains rain.

A trickle catches first the eye as sun beams wash the maple high
Then flutters from from fresh morning sun

Turns to flashing gush of gold releasing aged stems of old Toast held up in midair, they pause to look.

Cascades soon appear torrential; warm rays come forth so sequential Up-high limbs go bare-fingered in the blue.

For near a silent half-an-hour they observe this rare-seen shower That builds down near the base a golden mass.

This maple in its greatest glory sheds to them a secret story Youth flies fast, but these pictures you shall keep.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

More than Five Questions


Who are you?

I sit in a chair in a sweltering room. Looking down, I see the restraints.

Next to my head, a bright light shines. Across a table, five shapes, one with a giant bulbous head, patiently wait their turn. One is dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt. He leans forward, his head cocked to one side, and he loosens his tie.

“Who are you?”

“I’m innocent. You got the wrong man.”

He places his fingers under his jaw, and he gets a troubled look.

“But please answer my question.”

“Look, I didn’t do anything, detective.”

At first he sneers, but it seems that the expression is meant for himself. He leans the other way and lifts his eyes upward as he thinks. His head then comes to rest at an exaggerated angle, tilted back on a relaxed hand as he smiles and looks back into my face.

“But who are you?”

“Who am I? I am nobody, I swear.”

“You aren’t carrying any identification with you. Isn’t that odd?”

“It’s still a free country, you know.”

He sighs but smiles wanly, and then leans back in his seat.

The second dark form stirs. Around his neck I see a white collar. He acts calm, and his eyes look warm when he asks with a smile,

“Who are you, my son?”

“Father, I am a child of God.”

He withdraws and makes a sign.

The third man takes a turn. He clears his throat, and he appears deeply concerned.

“How are you feeling today?”

“Me?” A short laugh escapes my lips.

He scribbles something on a pad, and then looks back up.

“Right now I feel a bit restrained. How about you, doc?”

He studies me carefully while several of the shaded forms behind the table shift in their seats.

“Do you want to talk about it? It might help us to understand you better.”

I glance down, looking from one rope-bound arm to the other, and then stare back into his uneasy eyes. I hear someone cough.

He slowly fades, taking his notes.

The big head turns slowly to the others. No one speaks, so he leans forward into the circle of light. His eyes are immense, cat-shaped and glowing. He has no ears, and his mouth is severely pinched. A tinny voice, unreal and mechanical, probes into my mind, yet his lips never part. He sways like a chameleon as the question swirls in my brain.

“Who are you?”

“I’ve been waiting a long time to ask you the same th…”

A searing pain shoots immediately through my entire body. This is no one to toy with, I can tell.

“I am one of 6.5 billion humans.” A whirring sound is followed by two clicks and a chirp. The giant head retreats into the dim shadows. The room stills.

A weasel of a man in an expensive suit rubs his hands next.

“We are very interested in you. Won’t you tell us who you are?”

“I am no one, like I told that cop. Didn’t you hear?”

He laughs nervously as he taps a thick sheath of documents on the table.

“Yes. Yes. Of course. But there is so much more to cover, you see, and we’d really like to -- you know, flesh this out further.”

“It’s all there in my file. Take your time and read it.”

“Ha-ha. That’s a good one. Yes, it is. But if I could get you to sign several of these forms…”

He slides the papers across the desk, and while adjusting the silk knot on his tie, he glances down at his gold watch.

“I don’t think so.”

His beady eyes dart from side to side.

“I am sure we can work with you here. We have all the latest…”

“Look. I am tied up right now.”

The man in the nice suit tugs at his cuffs and nods a comprehension.

“Sir, we can get you out of that. Piece of cake.” He pulls out a cell phone.

“You don’t understand, do you.”

“Um...” He holds the phone in midair.

“These are my bonds. I put myself in this chair, and I volunteered to be here. Anymore questions?”


What are you? I am a thinking, eating, napping, loving, hating, hoping, praying, waiting, playing, writing, throwing, catching, knowing, wondering, energetic and lazy sinful human being. Where Where are you? I am ensconced in my cave at the edge of the swamp. Further than that, I cannot say with certainty. I have studied this side of the puzzle from an early age, and I asked myself the same question. My nose, it lays in front of me. My feet are down there. The top of my head is above me, and the back is in back. Where am I, indeed. When When are you? When? What kind of question is that? Why Why are you? Well, why not, I say. But you should really ask the One who knows, for only He will give you the right answer.

A Short Stir

‘Tis a lone road to travel, this dirt path that meanders about God’s green Earth. Yet there is the call of crows nearby, or the repetitious cry of a mourning dove, coming from some hidden spot among the wood, or up ahead, a place where the whippoorwill sings. The fearsome swamp-wampus is held at bay with a few stones secreted away in one pocket, while in the other is kept a small knife for sharpening sticks, in case two show up. But without the trees and the birds and the beasts, this trail would be abandoned in favor of another, for I desire to wander.

I am fond of that wistful paragraph. So fond, that at one point way back when, I thought to include the descriptive piece in my header permanently. I tried to do so several times, but forces far beyond my meager understanding of computer-minded directions denied it staying put.

I moved on, but last night I remembered it again, and I wailed. The poor child I created with such love cannot be paraded out for the world to constantly see and admire, so I let sleep come in fitfull waves.

"Give it up," I told tortured self.

"Shut up and leave me to my damned grief," I responded. We knew it would be a long night, and it was. I awoke with nothing. No answer, no solution, no way to address this bothersome dilemma greeted our dawn. That's typical here in the cave, so coffee seemed the only reasonable solution left, and true to form, a fresh pot waited the muses and me.

There is nothing like coffee to take us away.

Now, to write.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Hummingbird Tree

During winter, it wraps the house like a mean death. A twisting shape trapped, frozen arms tossed upwards to the skies, brittle fingers reaching, clinging to hang on, caught frozen in its final desperate moment of agonies. During spring, it can surprise you.

I hurried from the kitchen to fetch young Eli. The house lay stilled at this early hour, with both shades drawn in the front room, so I walked softly to where the staircase lay, cupping hot mocha with both of my hands. I tiptoed slowly up the steep incline, inching my way cautiously, careful to avoid the two steps that creaked loudest. Then after nudging his door open with a shoulder, I entered the boy’s room without spilling a drop of this elixir. Tiny bright pinpricks of light dotted the yellowed blinds, while dark shapes of unkempt things lay about the floor.

Only the boy’s arm stuck out from under the heaped covers. I stopped and stood next to his upper bunk bed, and I waited, holding the brew. I never spoke.

One eye fluttered, and then another peered out from under a tightly furrowed brow. A silent question formed in both eyes, and the boy stirred slightly. His head, first raising an inch, came a little higher. The cup in my hand followed along in his line of sight, matching his movement. He propped himself up on an elbow, and he spoke his mind.

“What’s this?”

I held it close, and he peered in.

“What is it, dad?”

I set the cup, with its two sugars and a third cream, on his night stand as I explained.

“The hummingbirds have returned.”

Up until now, this thirteen-year old child had never once tasted coffee. I then turned and left my middle son, leaving him to dress and join me outside near the evergreen bush, where white plastic chairs and a round table awaited the two of us. Stopping in the kitchen first to refill my own cup, I rushed out to take a seat in one facing an ancient storage shed behind our house.

Giant fragrant blossoms, shaded from the morning rays of the sun, floated among the leafy bush that, over many years of time, grew to its present impressive stature close to our back door. These flowers of this monster of a plant attracted a pair of feeding hummingbirds, and according to my watch, they were due here any minute.

The trunk of this pervasive encroacher, gnarled and feathery, came up out of the ground like a mythical bean stalk, and had long claimed its rightful place by entwining fast-growing tendrils up and under and around the gutters, even taking the shingled roof over as its own. The storm door squeaked. Eli, shirt untucked, and in the process of learning not to spill, edged his way out slow.

Saturday morning, and traffic is sparse; almost nonexistent. He takes a seat beside me, and the warmth of this fresh new day is shared. He stares vacantly at the grass between us and the shed as he takes his first sip. He sets the cup gently in his lap and looks down at it. Then he looks up at me and smiles his first of the day.

“I like it.”

And then a sudden silent and a flitting, and one appears. It darts from over the ridge of the roof, and its incandescence hovers briefly at one of the brilliant orange blooms living up high. I quietly point to the blurry silhouette outlined against the blue backdrop, and Eli, his broadening shoulders back, looks to see.

He takes another slow sip, his eyes focused hard on the tiny creature, and we both sit and enjoy the life.

This was his time, as I had intended it to be, but we, my young son and I both, will cherish this moment forever.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Strong Language

Of all my sons, Elisha with the dark brown eyes is, without a doubt, our strangest of ducks. From an early age, his actions confirmed our suspicions that the boy has talent for the peculiar.

At three, his mother caught him sitting on the floor near her bed, occupying himself among a pile of scattered pearls. He had found the tempting costume jewelry laying on a dresser in her room, and naturally took to disassembling the entire string. She, herself busy with loads of waiting laundry, interrupted his game fast by a curt order to stop destroying things. Hauling her basket of dirty clothes out of the bedroom, she left him sitting there.

Later, she found him still unmoved, but snapping the last one of the scores of plastic pearls back in place. This child, showing a sort of patience we had never seen registered by his older brother, then and there made a favorable impression on us both.

The combination of the crab apple tree out back and its rope swing, the large yard with its low tool shed and flat roof to climb and jump off, and the fort on stilts where spies gathered and plotted horrendous things all appealed to kids from our neighborhood, so loud noise became the backyard rule. Most often, Eli would be found sitting alone under a row of bushes, quietly following ants.

Any bug and all small creatures fascinated my son. If it crawled, hopped or flew, it qualified as a friend. A boy at church intentionally broke his heart once when, after opening a fist to share the joys of a common box elder, the other child slapped it from his hand. Eli began to bawl after the manly boy stomped the insect to death.

During Thanksgiving, deacons in our church took microphones out into the audience. Handing it to a person who signaled for a chance to speak, the congregation then sat and listened as dozens of parishioners told things they were most thankful for. Eli, five at one such event, shot his small hand into the air and held it there patiently while the first volunteer droned on. One deacon smiled heartily as he hurried over to our brave son.

From the overhead speakers, his sure and small voice boomed out, with a lengthy moment of silence following the lad’s brief statement.

“I am thankful for spiders, bats and cockroaches.”

After church, we usually spent up to an hour trying to locate him. The large modern building had many deep window wells out side where amphibians lived, so there the search began. No frog or toad or salamander felt safe with Eli around.

The wife and I sat in the living room one evening, watching television while Joel and Eli played in their room. Then Eli came and stood in the doorway to give a serious report.

“Joel said pee.”

From his room Joel yelled out,

“I meant the letter P!”

Before the next commercial Joel wandered in with his facts.

“Eli said poop.”

A tiny defensive voice loudly proclaimed,

“I meant the letter Poop!”

Life will never be dull with my children around.

One hot summer afternoon, I stood outside near the back door, watering a thirsty patch of wild flowers in bloom. Eli, six, wandered over and stood next to me, watching the rainbow dancing in the spray. He stood quiet for several minutes, and we seemed to be enjoying the moment when he asked me,

“What in the hell are you doing?”

It’s a reflex of mine. I asked him,

What did you say?”

He never skipped a beat, but his emphasis changed slightly.

What in the hell are you doing?”

All I could think to say then was,


He interpreted my parental tone correctly, so he rephrased his inquiry differently.

“What in the heck are you doing?”

Later, Ali told me she overheard the boy schooling his elder brother on proper language usage.

“ ‘What the heck’ is a bad word.”

Eli now towers over me. The 17-year-old currently dates girls, carries a cell phone and fills the air with vibrations from a violin. He wears a bowler hat everywhere, and some nights I worry for the world .