Nothing Is The Same

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My 4-lb. book arrived today: “The Stand,” by Stephen King, the uncut edition. I’ve read it before, although the last time was many years ago. Given the backdrop of the lunacy of the superflu in the book, this book seems both macabre and appropriate.

It’s fitting on several levels. Most importantly, there’s a minor character in the book who shares my birth name. The Walking Dude kills him. After 53 years and 5 days, my footprint on this world isn’t much more lasting. My greatest achievement has been to avoid the certain path that my upbringing imprinted on me.

When I opened the packaging imprisoning the book, I handed it to my wife, saying, “It might be the last book I ever read.”

“Don’t say that!” she chided, even as the weight of it surprised her.

Like everyone else, we both knew that it could indeed be the last book I buy. I said it in humor, an absent-minded quip, motivated mostly by its length.

We may have all passed innumerable and unseen last experiences.

It’s always been this way.

The difference today is that few of us can keep the curtain closed  – or our furrowed brow of concern camouflaged behind busy lives. It’s the pace of our previous lives that kept us from sitting in silent concern.

For many, the whirlwind is subsiding, leaving the evidence of unexamined lives and unappreciated pleasures.

The Stand ended with victory for the world,  as it continued on.

Nothing was the same.

And so it will be for us, if we are lucky.

 

Dear Darla

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Dear Darla:
I’m glad you’ve moved to Springdale. Other than being able to see me more frequently, which is always a treat for everyone, you’ll be able to see Springdale from the window without being able to go outside until 2025.

Years ago, I scanned a couple of thousand of pictures from your life. It was something that I enjoyed tremendously. It was a lot of work, too, in part because I had to pull each photo separately and clean it before scanning.

When I saw that you had a box of pictures I’d never seen before yesterday, I almost fainted. We thought I’d had a pass of all the pictures chronicling your life, not to mention Dawn & Julia.

When I came home today, I sat down and began to scan yesterday’s ‘find’ of pictures without knowing what each group, envelope, or stack might hold. Some of the pictures are simply amazing. As you know, Dawn and I often wonder if a picture exists of us back in the 80s when we dated the first time. Sadly, there wasn’t one in this discovered treasure of pictures, either.

I can’t thank you enough for the prolonged joy I’ve already experienced sitting at my desk, and placing three or four pictures at a time on the scanner, assembling a timeline and history in my head.

A lot of people don’t understand me when I try to explain the discovery and wonder I feel when I get to live in reverse through other people’s pictures. I’ve probably scanned 50,000 pictures manually in my lifetime; I’ve never done a project that didn’t enrich me in some way.

These pictures were hidden from me for an extra decade. I hope we find more – and more memories to share.

“A picture in a box is worthless without human eyes and emotion to experience it.” – X

Thank you, Darla.

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Lucille And The Witness Tree

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It was July 1976. Much of the country feverishly celebrated the bicentennial. In the small town of Pleasure Heights, Arkansas, Thomas Deerfield was anything but happy. He wasn’t unhappy because of the near-100 temperature or the fact that his neighbor’s dog stole one of his boots off the porch again. His Lucille died in February of an exotic cancer that erupted from nothing the week after Xmas. They were married for forty years, the day she died. Lucille expected 1976 to be a great year. She’d made plans to drag Thomas to see the American Freedom Train at least once. Thomas had no interest in seeing the train. He’d rather have put his feet up under the shade at his brother’s cabin by the pond a few miles east of town. Lucille loved fireworks, parades, rodeos, and the sing-alongs by the creek near downtown.

“It’s time to see the world, Thomas. We’re retired and the world ain’t coming to us.” Lucille had a way of telling her husband nicely what he was going to do.

“I can see  my entire world right here,” Thomas told Lucille as he grabbed her hand and winked provocatively at her across the table. “If I want to see the world, I’ll climb the Elm tree by the square,” he said, using one of his favorite and tired jokes. Lucille laughed and pretended to do a fake shot of whiskey as she rolled her eyes at him.

On July 4th, most of the town’s seven hundred and forty-one inhabitants stood on the square silently watching in awe as 72-year-old Thomas climbed one of the oldest elm trees in the state. It was a witness tree, and fifty-five feet tall. Unlike some other largest trees in the state, its circumference was twenty feet. Like so many other people in Pleasure Heights, Thomas had proposed to Lucille under the huge canopy of the elm tree. It had witnessed over two hundred years of different names and faces marching past it and sitting under its majestic foliage.

Most of the townspeople came to the square to eat hot dogs, watch the small parade featuring a mix of children and adults as they played their musical instruments and strode awkwardly around the expansive square. Afterward, the person voted “Most Civic-Minded” would take his or her place on the base of the absent Robert E. Lee statue. In 1958, someone had stolen the entire statue, a theft that everyone within a hundred miles still discusses heatedly. Some theories were wild, such as the one that Postmaster Evans often told. It involved both aliens and communists. No one could figure out how he’d combined those two unlikely groups. It was impossible to go to the diner for lunch without hearing the Postmaster Evans bring up his theory.

No one noticed anything unusual about Thomas as he walked across Main Street and toward the giant elm. I saw him as he walked, but thought nothing of his arrival. Everyone knew him, and many offered their hellos as he walked past them. Fire Chief Raymond used a ladder to stand on as he addressed the commencement of the parade. Thankfully, he didn’t sing his announcement this year. The Chief was one of the immensely likeable people who loved singing, but was tone deaf. He seldom noticed the pained expressions on people’s faces as he treated them to his latest rendition from the radio.

Thomas picked up the ladder, folded it, and continued walking until he was under the tree and about one third of the width of the overhead canopy away from the massive trunk. He propped the ladder and sat on the second rung. He removed his work boots and socks and laid them neatly at the bottom of the ladder. He removed his hat and stuck it on top of his boots.

Without fanfare, he grabbed the ladder and climbed it. As I watched from the edge of the street, his head disappeared into the leaves above him. I watched as one leg went up and then the other. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching. Most people were eating and talking a mile a minute as the kids of the town ran amok, filled with soda, hot dogs, and popcorn. Thomas slowly moved his way back and forth across the horizontal limbs. As he found a spot that supported his weight and allowed him to boost himself up, he climbed to the next limb up. As he climbed, he moved closer and closer to the middle of the tree. At that juncture, the largest limb went slightly to my left and became precarious.

As Thomas reached about halfway, Jim Peters saw me craning my neck and asked me, “Watcha’ watching? A movie?” I shook my head ‘no,’ and pointed. After a few seconds of staring up where my finger pointed, Jim excitedly said, “Who is that?” He said it loud enough for several people to take notice. Within a minute, about a quarter of everyone in that large cluster of people were looking up into the elm tree.

There was a collective chorus of “Who is it?” from multiple angles.

“It’s Thomas Deerfield,” I said, loudly.

“Bull! He’s at least 70,” argued Phillip Douglas. Phillip owned the tire shop and loved saying ‘bull’ or its more vulgar counterpart at least once a minute. “Yes, he’s 72,” I told him. I could hear the name Thomas being echoed across the growing crowd. There were a few gasps from the older ladies as they tried to imagine someone that age climbing a tree. They’d never be able to scold another rambunctious boy for climbing again, not after that day.

I gave up my vantage point and moved back. Instinctively, so did a lot of others observing the tree climb.

“We love you, Thomas!” someone half-jokingly shouted from behind me.

In a testament to the town’s spirit, it didn’t occur to a single resident that Thomas might be on a quest to hurt himself – or that he might fall, even though the likelihood of that outcome was obvious to anyone who’d dare climb any tree taller than thirty feet high.

Like a wave, the chant started from nowhere and subtly grew. “Thomas! Thomas! Thomas!” In a few moments, even the smaller children were chanting.

We all stood in awe as Thomas continued to climb the branch he chose to get as close to the sky as possible. When he could go no further, he stopped and braced himself against the bark of the elm tree.

“I can see the whole world from up here, Lucille,” Thomas shouted over and over. “I can see it! And ain’t none of it got you in it!”

It was a moment of pure collective joy, and most of us laughed.

We stood, watching, holding our breaths for something we couldn’t identify.

“I’m coming down!” Thomas shouted.

To my surprise, most of us below applauded, our hands thunderously giving our approval to the spectacle. It took Thomas thirty minutes to get down low enough to find footing on the ladder again. Several male townspeople were there to help him the last few inches. When Thomas stepped off the ladder, we all applauded again.

Pleasure Heights didn’t just celebrate the bicentennial of the country. It celebrated a life on that 4th of July. Even though we didn’t vote on it, we all started calling the elm tree “Lucille,” a name it still carries today, even in the book someone wrote describing all the old trees in the state.

Thomas lived to be 92. He spent the 20 years after Lucille died immersed in the social life of the small town his wife had loved. He sang, led the town’s parade a few times, and often sat outside the diner saying hello to everyone who passed. He died on Independence Day in 1996. My son June found him sitting under the Elm tree near the square, his hat pulled under his eyes, his back against the tree he stood under as he proposed to the love of his life all those decades ago.

I got a call from the new Chief of Police around 9 a.m. He told me June was at the square with his bicycle and needed me to come as soon as possible.

An hour later, after they’d taken Thomas’ body to the funeral home off Highway 37, June asked me what happened to Thomas. Since June was old enough to know the story, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “June, love finally caught up to him. He went to the see the world.” Although June didn’t understand what I meant, he hugged me. We both smiled as we walked to stand a moment under the witness tree’s canopy. The heat was almost unbearable without a breeze. I looked up, and told June, “You wouldn’t believe it, but I was here when Thomas climbed almost to the top of this elm tree…”

For Lucille.

For love.

Opal

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1960

Opal was doing as she always did during the early hours of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. She was walking up and down the rows of uneven headstones in Piney Cemetery. From time to time she’d encounter a snake slithering about, but she never got startled when one got under her feet. Most creatures, animal and human alike, seldom bother you if you allow them to do whatever it is they do.

She and her husband of forty years lived in a small house off Rich Road, near where it intersected with Mopac Road and 39. The roof was tin and most of the sides of the house were covered in tar paper disguised as bricks. Opal kept a line of rose bushes across the back of the house. She insisted that Earl let them grow wild, a demand that often caused Opal to laugh as she heard her husband cursing at the thorns as he got too close. She often reminded him that her garden’s size more than compensated for the hassle of dealing with the roses.

After her husband Earl retired from police work, they moved from Little Rock back to Monroe County. They got the place Earl’s brother Frank inherited from their eccentric parents. Frank took off for Mississippi when he found out Earl and Opal wanted the old place. He claimed it was because the mosquitoes were so bad here. “Like birds,” Frank would say, over and over. It made little sense, either, because the mosquitoes on that side of the Mississippi were worse. Earl opined that perhaps the generous availability of good barbeque and moonshine might have contributed to his brother’s enthusiasm for a move. Frank liked to associate with people who might otherwise catch his brother’s attention. He loved saying things like, “Bad apples still make good wine.”

Earl had donated most of the extra land around the house for the farmers who owned property nearby. Not only did it save him having to pretend to keep it presentable, but the farmer would drop by and give him beans or corn from another crop in repayment. When the crops were in full bloom, their house would be rimmed by cotton or beans. Earl swore he’d never farm, unlike many of his family. Earl didn’t ask for signatures or handshakes; he expected people to honor their word.

As for the Rich community of Monroe County, it was mostly a place of good souls. There were a couple of mean drunks and a pair of men who enjoying hitting their wives. Most of the angry drunks learned their lesson a few years ago while Opal lived in Little Rock. Melvina Mull came home one night after church to find her husband sitting on the porch with a shotgun and drinking whiskey. Though the details are still argued about, the little community woke up Thursday morning to the news that Melvina had enough beatings and opted to put an ax in the forehead of her husband. She was arrested and charged. The trial was held a week later. The jury acquitted her after 2 minutes of deliberation. Judge Bryant just shook his head and said, “Justice is swift in these parts.” The judge did take a moment and recommend that Melvina might reconsider getting remarried if the urge to do so arose.

Many people in the Rich community lived such private lives that they didn’t see how oddly they often behaved. As for loyal neighbors to be counted on, all of them were fiercely willing to lend a hand to anyone, anytime. The austere farm life often demanded precisely that. Many of the locals had no indoor bathrooms. Almost all used wood heat and left their screened-in windows open day and night.

Away from the prying eyes of her infernal husband, Opal could partake of a bit of dry snuff. She could spit wherever she wanted to that way. Her neighbors snickered behind her back. The idea of walking sounded bonkers to everyone she knew, especially once she turned sixty. Opal walked to Brinkley more than once, which was eleven miles. Monroe was closer, but the mercantile wasn’t always open. Opal was in great shape despite her taste for both snuff and alcohol. She kept a big garden and built chicken coops or a storm shelter for anyone who needed one. While living in Little Rock, she had challenged several men to arm wrestling. All but one left with a new outlook on feminine toughness.

She skipped her walk on Wednesdays because her Wednesday night gospel duties included providing at least one dish and one dessert. She took great pride in preparing for the church meals, much to the chagrin of her husband, Earl. He’d sit on the porch and complain about starving away to skin and bones. As far as Opal could tell, it would take a grand bout of going without a bite to eat to starve him out. Anyway, Earl thought she’d given up her snuff. He hadn’t found the supply of strawberry liquor, either. Opal kept it in a bleach jug, one she’d washed until it had no bleach smell. She carefully drank a cup of it each night after supper. That liquor had saved her marriage frequently. It also helped her to sleep during the nightly ritual of Earl snoring so loudly that even the dogs would howl for a few minutes. The mutts weren’t hers, though. They belonged to that no-account neighbor about a half-mile down the road. They spent more time under her porch and in the shade at her house than they ever did at Cousin Spendly’s tin-roofed house. Everyone called him Cousin, which was odd because as far as she could tell, no one much claimed to be his kin.

Some mornings, Opal would see Old Lady Elvertie riding her three-wheeled contraption down the road, her long skirt making it look like she was moving along by magic. Opal had encountered a drunk or two sleeping it off in the cemetery over the years. They’d mostly been coming back from Monroe or Blackton after drinking too much. Ever since the railroad spur from the lumber mill had been closed, the drunks were becoming less frequent. The spur line was falling out of repair; in some places, bushes and grass were growing wild. Sometimes a tractor would go by a little too fast, creating a dust storm that left nonsense in her teeth for an hour after it had passed. Opal would make a note of it was and make sure to get on the party line and mention it, so word would get out that someone’s husband was speeding and causing a commotion.

After so many years of marriage, Earl didn’t require much maintenance. He’d drink at least 6 cups of coffee and eat toast. Sometimes he’d eat biscuits from the day before. He’d eat bacon, eggs, and sausage too, like any good Southerner, but he preferred to wait until lunch to un-notch his belt and stuff himself senseless. Opal would always make a tin of biscuits.

Last night’s church service had been particularly lively. Reverend Samuel pounded the pulpit as if he were calling Satan himself to come to have a word with him. The congregation had been worked to a frenzy, resulting in them drinking a record number of glasses of iced tea after the service.

Most Wednesday night services in the summer were sparsely attended due to the crops but last night was a surprise. Even Jasper, the area’s only known atheist, showed up at the service. He told everyone that it was his job to keep the pastor honest. Everyone loved Jasper and his dry sense of humor. Jasper also had almost all of the New Testament of the King James Bible memorized, and on a couple of occasions had been used as a Bible when one wasn’t available. Jasper’s wife Emelda was a devout Methodist, which was strange, as she’s been attending the Baptist Church around the bend for twenty years. “I’m Methodist,” she’d say, almost without thinking. She was just about the most Baptist Methodist anyone could ever meet.

As Opal neared the eastern end of the cemetery, she shielded her eyes against the sun, which had been up for about forty-five minutes. With no warning, she fell into an open grave without realizing she was approaching a hole in the ground. There was no mound of dirt piled carelessly to one side to draw attention. Her straw hat tumbled to the side while she tumbled headfirst into the freshly dug grave.

On the way down, she thought it would be the death of her. As she braced herself to hit the soil on the bottom of the pit, she found herself instead falling on top of a body.

The person under her didn’t jump or push away, which she found to be strange. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like icicles as she realized that the person under her was dead.

Being practical, Opal stood up in the grave. Opal had seen many bodies during her husband’s career. Truth be told, she was less skittish about it than he was. Her head was still a foot under the rim of soil. Most graves weren’t dug six feet under. This one seemed to be deeper. Since the person was dead, it wasn’t going to do her any harm. Not unless she couldn’t get herself out of the grave. Likely, no one would visit the back of the cemetery for a full day. Shouting like she’d chopped a finger off wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention either unless someone was going by slowly. No one on a tractor would be able to hear her. She resisted the urge to look down at her companion in the grave.

She stood on top of the body and jumped with as much force as she could muster. Her arms cleared the edge of the grave, and she pulled and scratched at the grass to get leverage and crawl out. Just as she was beginning to slide back down in the grave, a pair of hands grabbed hers. Opal screamed like a squirrel had jumped from her drawer of unmentionables.

She felt herself being dragged from the grave. She fell face-first in the grass and then rolled over to see who had helped her out of the grave. The sun was behind her rescuer, and all she could see was a blinding silhouette without much form.

“Mrs. Opal, what are you doing in the bottom of a grave?” Pastor Samuel asked. His voice was unmistakable. For a pastor, his voice sounded like that of someone who’d spent a lifetime in the coal mines. To the horror of more than one of his church members, the Pastor loved smoking. He preached many sermons about the benefits of the vice. Opal wouldn’t be surprised if Lucky Strikes didn’t pay to have their logo placed on the steeple of the church.

“I ain’t practicing, if that’s what you’re getting at, Reverend.” Opal continued to lay in the grass, shielding her eyes.

“I came by to put flowers on Ivey George’s grave for his wife. She was feeling poorly last night and asked me for the favor. I’m on my way to Henderson’s Corner to see Emma Lou.” As Pastor Samuel talked, he leaned down to offer a hand to Opal. She grabbed his hand and yanked herself up much more quickly than the Reverend expected. For a moment, he wondered if he might topple over into the grave.

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear my old Ford as I pulled in over there,” the Reverend said as he waved vaguely toward the entrance marked by an overhead arch. “I saw you dive into the hole just as I pulled in.”

As Opal looked over toward the Reverend’s ugly old car, she stopped. Pastor Samuel noticed that her eyes went a little wide and looked around too. “I didn’t dive in there…” she started to say, her voice trailing off. Opal curiously looked around the grave and wondered where all the excavated dirt from the hole went.

On the edge of the road, Old Lady Elvertie stood, both feet planted on either side of her three-wheel bicycle. She had her hand over her mouth and looked like she was in shock.

Opal waved toward her.  The Reverend took a couple of steps toward her to give her a shout to let her know that all was well.

No sooner than he had moved toward her that Old Lady Elvertie jumped up on her pedals and began to madly push up and down on them. She was fleeing the scene like she’d seen a familiar ghost.

Opal and the Reverend laughed as they watched her scramble away from them. They stood by the grave trying to decipher where all the dirt from the grave had gone.

“It just beats all,” the Reverend decided. Opal declined the Reverend’s offer to drive her back to the house as he walked back to his ugly Ford to get the flowers.

Thirty minutes later, Opal walked back up the dirt and gravel driveway in front of her house. It didn’t occur to her that she hadn’t mentioned the dead body in the grave to Reverend Samuel. It seemed to be relevant now that it crossed her mind again, especially since he hadn’t mentioned one, either.

Earl was waiting, his legs hanging off the closest end of the wooden plank porch. Two of Cousin Spendly’s mutts were underneath him, beneath the porch, both lazily watching Opal approach.

“Did you have a commotion, Opal?” Earl was grinning and full of himself.

“Whatever on Earth do you mean? Have you gone soft in the head?” Opal was a little sore from doing gymnastics into the boneyard.

“Mildred called in a tizzy. She said Old Lady Elvertie stopped in at her house, babbling about seeing Pastor Samuel bring someone back from the dead, straight from the grave. Mildred couldn’t get much sense out of her. She said Old Lady Elvertie drank a hot cup of coffee in one swallow and took off again.” For Earl, that was a speech.

“Like all rumors, part of that’s true. I ain’t dead yet, but the Reverend did yank me out of a peculiar grave. And there was a dead body in it.” Opal was flustered. Earl was going to pick and poke at her for forgetting to mention that the grave had a body in it.

At the mention of the dead body, Earl’s right eyebrow shot up like a startled bird. Opal could see ten years of wrinkles disappear from her husband’s face. His day would be filled with questions as his old skills and days investigating people doing stupid things came flooding back.

Expecting Earl’s attempt at humor, Opal scolded him. “Yes, I know graves are supposed to have bodies in them!”

“I’ll give Sheriff Bryant a call, if Mildred will get off the line. He might be interested in a body.” Earl stood up and started stamping his feet. The edge of the porch had put the back of his legs to sleep. His nimble mind was already racing though.

 

*

Sheriff Bryant stood near the grave that Opal discovered earlier. As always, he was dressed in overalls and a cowboy hat. His star was pinned on the shoulder of his overalls. He didn’t wear a uniform. “I’m one of y’all,” he was fond of saying. If he carried a gun, it was often shoved into one of his pockets as an afterthought.  Earl stood next to him, shaking his head in disbelief. “Where did the dirt go?” had been uttered at least a dozen times. The dirt’s disappearance seemed more perplexing than the body at the bottom of the grave.

“I called Deputy Win to bring a ladder and his sons over here. There’s no use in one of us jumping down there and getting stuck until they get here.” Sheriff Bryant never hurried. His dad was the same way. People joked that the old Sheriff Bryant took a week just to get to his own retirement and would be late arriving at his own death.

*

I’m seventy years old now. I can’t believe sixty years have passed since Opal found the unidentified body of a woman in that grave. Her husband Earl got deputized to investigate the alleged murders. After he decided that Pastor Samuel had killed the woman, the quiet community almost erupted in a civil war. Although I was just ten when it happened, I can still smell Opal’s roses blooming behind her house, even though those roses were plowed under in 1993 when the farmer who owned the land grew tired of renting the house to a series of poor occupants.

That time and place has vanished, but not a day passes that I don’t wish I could go back and relive 1960 in Rich. I could have saved Opal and her retired husband from the disruption in their lives.

If you’ll give me a few minutes to consider how I can tell this story and do it justice, I’ll collect my thoughts and get back to you…

I’ll leave with a picture I have of Opal and Earl. I can look at this picture and feel the excitement for life that Opal radiated. She wasn’t my kin, but she was my kind of person. I’d love to live in her world again. I’d trade all the money I’ve made to walk in that world and sit on her porch.

Ransom’s World

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Ransom stood at the kitchen sink, the book folded open in front of him, the fingers of his tired right hand forcefully holding the pages down so he could see them. Minutes before, he casually opened the book and skimmed the first paragraph. Minutes later, he was on page six and his mind was in the new world created by the book he underestimated.

He briefly looked up, across the wide living room, and out into the rainy street, trying to extricate himself from the clutches of the book. He failed to note it wasn’t raining when he started the book or that the cup of coffee next to him on the counter by the coffeepot had long cooled. He began devouring the thickly layered plot. Each word seemed interminable as his eyes flashed across them, vivisecting the complexities of language and people inhabiting the pages. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the words were somehow written in a foreign language.
*

Last Saturday afternoon, Ransom went to Birdsong Books in a town over from him. It was his little secret place, one filled with books of both beauty and content. Minutes seeped past him at an alarming rate while he walked the shelves inside. It was the embodiment of how he felt while discovering new worlds inside of books.

“What are you looking for?” a small voice asked him. Ransom looked up from his shelf to see a young girl standing about five feet away from him. In her hands, she held a sloppily bound book.

“Everything,” he replied, with a smile and mischievous wink. He could already tell that the girl was interesting. Her hair was pulled away from her face and the ponytail was stuck haphazardly along the right side of her head.

“It’s a good thing I found you here. I’ve been waiting to give you this.” Upon pronouncing the words in her little musical voice, she stepped forward and extended the book toward Ransom. Without thinking, Ransom reached out and accepted it. It weighed much more than he expected. His hands cradled the sides of the book as he took it, as the pages seemed slightly loose inside it. It reminded him of the sensation of being handed a cage with a restless animal inside it.

Behind him, a book fell from a shelf. Ransom momentarily turned to see what had fallen. When he turned back toward the girl, she was gone.

“Hey!” Ransom weakly shouted. He quickly went around the shelves, only to see the owner looking at him with an odd glance.

“Yes?” asked the owner.

“Oh. Did you see the girl who went by? She handed me this book by mistake.” Ransom was certain he was being pranked. The girl certainly seemed capable of such an endeavor. The owner, although witty and personable, wasn’t the type to participate in shenanigans, however.

“If she handed it to you, it was no mistake.” The owner peered at Ransom knowingly over the rim of his glasses. The edges of his eyes belied a slight smile forming on his face.

Ransom handed him the book, and the owner skimmed through it. “It’s not mine. That much I can tell you for sure.”

The girl was nowhere to be found inside the bookstore.

After a few minutes, Ransom took the book home with him. He placed it absentmindedly on the table adjacent to the front door and forgot he had done so. Until this morning, when he awoke, certain that he had been dreaming about the girl he’d met at Birdsong Books.

In the dream, the ponytail girl sat on a bench next to him, pronouncing each word as she lovingly read a page from the book open in her lap. Ransom heard himself say in the dream that the girl sounded like she was reading out loud in italics.

The girl turned to lock eyes with Ransom. “You must finish the book! Time is escaping.” She grabbed his arm with her small fingers. In the distance, someone played a xylophone with keys tuned to be slightly off.

Ransom woke up fully energized as he started his morning routine. While starting coffee, he looked across the kitchen bar counter and to the front door. Next to the door sat the book. As the coffee brewed, he could hear xylophones, ones which sounded familiar and provocative. Without realizing he’d done so, Ransom went to the book, picked it up, and returned to the kitchen. He poured a cup of coffee and flipped open the cover of the odd book.

As he began to read, the xylophones filled his ears, and the world slipped away.

A Gargle of Lemon Juice, A Poof of Tang

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My cousin Jimmy had everything good to eat. No matter what he wanted to eat, his mom bought it for him. His cereal cabinet might as well have been made of gold. At home, I was lucky to avoid eating a can of hominy instead of cereal. He had Pop-Tarts, Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula, Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms, and anything else he requested. While I loved corn flakes, I’ll admit the exotic flavors of Jimmy’s cereal cabinet were a sight to behold. He also had really good milk, the kind I’ve despised most of my life since. I’d rather drink the urine of an infected goat than finish a glass of milk – especially whole milk. When I worked in a dairy in high school, my distaste intensified.

Jimmy was three years younger than me. He loved challenging me to exotic dares. I had two things working in my favor: I didn’t expect to live long and I was an idiot. Jimmy maximized his arguments to appeal to those attributes. He seldom had to fear any repercussions for his antics, even if arson or dismemberment were involved. For my Aunt and Uncle, they were mainly only interested if it was their son’s arm or leg which had been detached; beyond that, they growled and barked but otherwise gave him carte blanche to do as he wished.

As was the case with cereal, Jimmy also had the awesome drinks of childhood: clean water devoid of sewage residue, unlimited whole milk, orange juice, chocolate milk, hot cocoa with real marshmallows, and the entire range of available sodas. He also had Tang.

Because of my aberrant taste in food, I loved stealing or a spoonful of Tang powder and eating it. It was luxurious and overwhelming. At times, I’d up-end the jar and pour it into my mouth directly. I had been unknowingly training for years to ingest a large amount of Tang on a dare.

One Sunday morning, Jimmy ate two different kinds of sugary cereal. Afterward, he jokingly challenged me to drink a big spoon of lemon juice. My Aunt Ardith always had a large jar of it in her cabinet near the stove. I don’t remember what we bet. Jimmy went first. He poured the spoonful in his mouth. Immediately, he spewed it back out. It splattered across the counter and in the direction of the sink. “Yuk!” His eyes turned red. I took a spoonful of lemon juice and poured it into my mouth. Just to rub it in, I gargled it and then swallowed it. It was beyond sour, of course, but tasted good to me. Lemon juice was an exotic food in my house. Mom would no more buy lemon juice than cut off an ear lobe with a steak knife. I took another spoonful and swallowed it. “Yum!” I said, just to irritate Jimmy.

“You bastard! How’d you do that,” he demanded. I laughed at him as he got a glass of water and swished his mouth out.

I said, “How about a REAL challenge, Jimmy?” I turned and took out the bottle of Tang powder.

“Yeah, okay, but you’re going to go first. NO tricks.” Jimmy watched me carefully as I got out the biggest spoon that would fit into the jar.

I dumped it into my mouth and held it, letting it dissolve and mix in my mouth. As I mentioned, it was sublime and delicious. After a moment, I showed Jimmy the inside of my mouth.

Keep in mind, this was in the 70s, long before the cinnamon challenge. We were just two idiots trying to outdo each other.

Jimmy took another spoon out and took a smaller lump of powder from the jar. Luckily, he put the jar back on the counter next to the stove.

He put the spoon into his mouth between his teeth and spilled it into his mouth.

While I’m not sure, I think he must have inhaled a good portion of the Tang dust as it dispersed into his mouth – and throat.

He gagged. A big plume of orange dust billowed out of his mouth as he turned to gag and retch into the sink. He used one hand to cup water into his mouth, even as he tried to get the powder out of his mouth and lungs. This continued for at least a minute.

“What in the hell are you two doing in here?” Aunt Ardith had walked up to the counter between the table and the kitchen, one hand holding her Tareyton cigarette and the other pointing at us. She looked at us like we’d been setting her curtains on fire with a cigarette lighter.

Jimmy and I froze like statues momentarily.

Even though Jimmy was stuttering and coughing, he managed to say, “Having breakfast, what does it look like?”
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*P.S. The picture is of my cousin Jimmy. I loved this picture because I used it to tease him that he was too dumb to use his grill outdoors. In reality, he had just bought a house and was assembling the grill. Whether he actually used it in the living room depends on whether he overcame our genetic predisposition to outright stupidity that day.

 

From Quinine To Asinine

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Unrelated to anything current, I recently did a double-take when I looked closely at my 1-liter bottle of Canada Dry diet Tonic Water. Recently, I began to crave this stuff again. I’ve periodically binged on it through the years.

Before you come away with the mistaken idea I mix this with anything, I don’t. I drink it unmixed and straight. If you’ve ever accidentally bitten into a AA battery, you’re on track to getting a good idea of how pungent this is.

Really poor quality tonic water tastes very similar to sewage. If you’ve been an avid reader of my anecdotes, you know that “Yes,” I do in fact know what sewage water might taste like. (And not just because I’ve eaten at Buffalo Wild Wings, either.) A couple of weeks ago, I bought another brand of said tonic water at Harps Foods. When I tried it, I told my wife it was one of the worst things I’d ever tasted. Naturally, I loved it and drank the entire bottle, even as my contorted looked like someone shoved an ice pick into my kidneys by way of my urethra.

This week, I happened to note that my bottle of Canada Dry diet tonic water had real quinine in it. I noted it after I drank the whole liter. Quinine gives a good tonic water its bitter taste. It’s also a significantly powerful medicine. Even though modern tonic waters don’t usually contain a great deal of quinine, it’s inadvisable to drink much of it at a time, unless you’re bored with Russian Roulette or skydiving.

Did I mention I’d been drinking a liter of this stuff at a time?

It reminds of the time I’d eaten 60+ pieces of exotic real black licorice. I turned the package over to find the following health warning: due to cardiac issues, please enjoy no more than 6 pieces of our delicious and authentic black licorice at a time.

Obviously, I didn’t suffer serious effects from my ignorance.

But I did pick a bad week to stop sniffing glue.

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In the midst of this torrent of surprise and unforeseen circumstance, some of us have found means to engage our sense of morbidness and humor simultaneously.

I’ve always been more extroverted and loud as a Spanish speaker. One of my catchphrases is catching on. No one means any disrespect.

In fact, because we are in the barrel of this thing together, we’ve earned a bit of leeway from outsiders.

I created a shorthand way to say, “Hey, we’re above ground and working when a steadily increasing number of people aren’t.”

In Spanish, it’s “Los muertos no caminan.”

It literally means, “the dead don’t walk.”

I use it as a greeting, as a reminder – and honestly, almost as a tentative prayer.

Not all of us are going to see the end of this spectacle. None of us will be unscathed.

But we’re still walking with a bit of either optimism or denial.

Above it all, we nod and smile as we say, “Los muertos no caminan.”

I hope to see us all on the other side of this.

I Could (Run) My Mouth With The Fastest of Them

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I had a story published in “Young Author” magazine while in high school. It was titled “The Race,” and I based it on a run on a Wednesday afternoon at Southwest Junior High. When I wrote it, it was too short and I thought nothing of it. Surprisingly, the teacher told me to submit it.

The premise? It’s the finish that matters, not how you got there.

This isn’t the story that was published. This is what gave me the idea. I apologize if it sounds like I’m bragging about anything. I didn’t have a clue about what the heck I was doing in life. It was at times unbearable for me to be around some of the great people I went to school with. They might as well have been aliens. Mouthy, as I call him in this story, probably would have run faster than I had he took me seriously.
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After I started running each day in 9th grade, I learned that I enjoyed running barefoot, like a savage. I looked like a savage sometimes; running in cutoff shorts or jeans, barely able to breathe as I struggled to run. It cost me more than one puncture. My feet, already accustomed to hard running and walking on all manner of surfaces, acquired yet another layer of almost impenetrable thickness. The first few years I ran, I was capable of running fast. In my later years, I just couldn’t do it, even when I still ran often. Every once and a while, I made my way over to Southwest Junior high. It still had an older surface. I loved the feel of the grit on my feet. My problem was that after running, I would have to walk from the track over to my cousin Jimmy’s house.

In my sophomore year, one of the runners for track tried to intimidate me. He overheard me telling someone in the band that I loved running. He told me I was full of it and if I could run so well, I would be in track with him. I didn’t have the energy to tell him that my home life wouldn’t have permitted my participation or that I would have caught hell from the coaches on staff.

“Yeah, right. You’re full of it.” He insisted I couldn’t run a mile.

“Just a mile?” I asked him, which made him irritated. “Any idiot can run a mile, whether it’s through soft grass or on a nice track.” I figured I’d turn the argument around on him.

“I can run a mile faster than you!” he said.

“Oh, it is the speed that matters? I normally only run fast when chased, so I’m not fast.” I was certain he could outrun me, but probably not outdistance me.

In short, I was demonstrably stupid.

And that’s the conversation that led me to be at the track at Southwest on a Wednesday. I had to walk there from the high school.

The track runner, who I’ll call Mouthy, met me there. Someone drove him over to the track. We went in through the narrow gate. Mouthy was looking at me strangely. I was wearing the same shoes I wore to school. I only owned one pair.

“You’re going to outrun me in those?” Mouthy asked.

Partly from bravado and in part from defiance, I said, “No, I’m going to run barefoot.” I sat on the edge of the bleachers near the track and began taking my Kmart shoes and socks off.

“There’s no way, man. It’s going to kill your feet.”

I took my pants off. I was wearing my one pair of shorts I could run in. My other running shorts were cutoffs that were too big around the waist. I ignored him and walked barefoot out to the marker. Mouthy had a stopwatch. “For real?” he asked me, still not sure I was going to try to outrun him.

He shrugged. “I’m going to start this and put it down. I’ll yell ‘go’ when ready, okay?” I nodded.

Mouthy pressed the stopwatch button and then set it on the edge of the track. He stood up, leaned over and then yelled “Go.”

He ran away from me. I felt like the Wile E. Coyote in the cartoons. I ran, letting Mouthy pull away. I knew I couldn’t beat him. A weird thing happened, though. I watched him as he arced away from me. His expensive shoes were simply mesmerizing to watch as he ran. I got angry. Not at Mouthy, but at my Dad. I thought of all the evenings in the last year when I went out to Piazza Road in Tontitown to run. My Dad ridiculed me. I know I looked strange: a fat, wobbly kid running in the middle of nowhere. As the weight fell off me that summer, I could see that my Dad hated it. He needed me to be fat. A lot of dads are that way, to the detriment of their sons. Little did he know that “The Eye of The Tiger” played in my head like a prayer on most of those runs.

Not many people know that the only reason I believe I made All-State band in the 10th grade was because I had started running unimaginable distances. (That, and the band director Pat Ellison told me I was going to do it. Whether she believed it or not was irrelevant. When she said I would, I believed it, because she seemed genuine in her belief. I always envy kids who had parents who emulated her example.)

I put my Dad out of my mind and instead imagined I was doing the last mile on Piazza Road in Tontitown. The last 100 yards near home were on a slightly sloping downward hill. There were times I ran the last half-mile with such intensity that I would see stars. The pavement ended past the hill. If I felt exuberant after the mad dash, I’d run to the end of the dirt road where the 4K dairy barn was. It didn’t take me long to realize that the best way to run longer distances was to fail to turn around where Fletcher intersected with Barrington.

By the first lap, Mouthy was far ahead of me. He seemed to be slowing though. I think he overestimated his ability to run at that pace. My bare feet began to feel like they were connected to the sky as I ran deliberately as fast as I could. By the end of the second lap, I was ten yards behind Mouthy. He kept looking back more and more often. By the end of lap 3, I was about 10 feet in front of him. “I’m going to catch you,” Mouthy shouted. He should have saved his breath. I decided that I was going to beat him so badly he’d never doubt me. I said it in my head as much to him as the idea of my Dad. Despite my bad form, I grunted and ran with everything I had. I sensed that Mouthy had noticed I was giving the race every iota of effort I had. I could hear him grunt. As I finished my fourth lap, I was only 5 feet ahead of Mouthy. I beat him, though.

I slowed to a walk and went into the grass. The grass felt like a luxurious carpet to my toes.

“Well, you won! I wouldn’t have believed it! What do your feet look like?” Mouthy seemed like he’d already accepted that I beat him. He was being a good loser.

I showed him the bottom of my left foot. It was a bit red from one of the inside curves, but not scatched or cut. “I think I only beat you because you started off too fast, didn’t you? Also, I was really, really mad. I felt like Clubber Lane on that last stretch.” Mouthy laughed. “Yeah, I was overconfident. I know better than that.”

We ran two more miles together that afternoon, both considerably slower. Mouthy told me I needed to consider track. So I told him an abridged version of what my home life was like. “Keep running, either way.” He didn’t know what to say when I told him I only had one pair of shoes, not counting my band shoes. His mom drove me to my cousin Jimmy’s house.

Later, my friend Mike invited me to run with him. I’ll share that story another time. I ended up eating a bit of dirt and mud on that run, vainly trying to keep pace with him. It was that day I discovered that he was not human. It’s likely that the terminator in the sequel to the original movie was based on Mike.

When I worked at the nursing home on Gutensohn, I worked at night. There were several times I went and ran barefoot on the junior high track. Some of my best runs happened under the stars. I can’t imagine the youth I possessed to allow me to work, run, and take advantage of such a simple pleasure.

All of us, if we’re lucky, have the joy of looking back on our own surprises.
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P.S. That road in Tontitown looks almost the same as it did when I ran on it in 1983.

Etch A Surprise

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Noted Etch-A-Sketch artist Beth (a notorious yet talented cousin) conspired with my other favorite cousin Lynette, aka ‘Operative Cheetah.’ Beth, using Lynette’s meticulous input, created and designed a permanent Etch-A-Sketch of one of my favorite places in the world: the plank porch at my grandparents’ house on the hill in Rich, a tiny place located in Monroe County. She then installed it in a shadow box stolen from the attic of a noted philanthropist who curated at the Smithsonian. Somehow, despite the current apocalypse, it arrived at my house without damage.

For those who didn’t know that Etch-A-Sketch artists exist – or that they can be rendered permanent by those with the knowledge to do so. Beth’s Etch A Sketch Facebook Page

can before trash

Although unintentional, Beth provided my cat Güino with an immediate resting place. He pawed and clawed until he separated the 14 meters of wrap and created a nesting spot for himself.

cat after trash

This picture is of Güino later, after I pushed trash in around him to determine how long his planned residency in the box might be.

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This was one of the apologetic notes written on the packing box: “I only had gift tape and this is the apocalypse.”

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