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Published!

Well I finally published my first short story on Smashwords. It’s called Life and Death with Larry and you can check it out by clicking here.
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/252982

Of course I’m very excited by this even though it’s a relatively small accomplishment. This is not the Great American Novel published by HarperCollins or one of the other big publishing houses. But it’s mine, all MINE! (Sound of maniacal laughter in the background.)

Thank you for all of your encouragement (you know who you are.)

For those who have been paying attention from the beginning, there are two other short stories (already written) that should go up soon. And as you’ll remember, the Snowden Smith novelette remains unfinished. I promise to resume work on it as soon as Baldies, my current work in progress for NaNoWriMo, is finished.

If you’re feeling generous, take a moment to write a review of Life and Death with Larry on the Smashwords site. Anything from “I liked it” to “A six year old could have done better” is fine. Honesty counts. Writing is my hobby, and candid feedback is always more valuable than the happy talk that many reviewers like to pander.

As for pricing, $0.99 is the minimum fee allowed by Smashwords. (There’s also free, but I decided to set a price for my work.) I plan that my standard rates will be $0.99 for short stories, and $2.99 for longer pieces. I expect that most of what I write in the future will be in short story format. If you really need free, send me a note and I’ll email a copy of the story to you.

Thanks for reading,

Mike

An Update

Lots of things are happening, so let me bring you up to date.

I had plans to retire next spring and write full time. Alas, the numbers just don’t support that grand scheme. Plan B is the lottery. [Note to self: buy lottery tickets. Another note to self: start carrying cash around to buy lottery tickets.]

No, wait, that’s Plan C. Plan B is to keep working and write in my “spare” time, just as I’ve been doing all along (only more). [Note to self: create more time. Borrow from parallel universe, maybe?]

After years of writing on the sly, I’ve decided to start publishing my work. You will soon see short stories on Smashwords and all of the usual ebook sites under the nom de plume of Michael Nothguoh. I’ll ket you know when to start the buying and downloading frenzy. Right now, in my spare time (see note about spare time above) I am working on cover art for the first three stories. This is a lot harder than I realized it would be, but I’m too cheap to pay someone else to do it.

Novermber is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo to those who like my youngest daughter, are In The Know. NaNoWriMo is a writing marathon open to anyone crazy enough to try to write a novel in 30 days. Anyone who enters and successfully submits a 50,000 word manuscript within that time frame is declared a WINNER, with full bragging rights and the opportunity to purchase some cool NaNoWriMo swag from the website at http://www.nanowrimo.org. No publishing is involved, not even for winners. In fact December is sometimes known as national novel EDITING month as would-be novelists attempt to make literary sense of what they wrote in November.

So WHY am I doing this? Right now, I’m not sure because the whole thing is a little daunting. For Pete’s sake it starts tomorrow! [Note to self: stock up on the anti-anxiety meds.] My original reason for participating was to force myself to write “in the flow” without editing “on the fly”. For example, I could have written these few paragraphs in less than 10 minutes if I were just typing away. Unfortunately, I’m constantly going back and fixing little errors or rewriting a sentence or looking up the web address for NaNoWriMo. So this process took closer to 40 minutes. As you can imagine, this is not very conducive to the “free flow of creativity”. Also, it makes writing somewhat of a chore.

With only 15 hours left until November, I STILL don’t know what my novel is going to be about. I have several different story lines in mind, but which one, which one… It often happens that the story I start to write morphs into something entirely different as I’m writing it. Characters evolve and settings change to meet the plot, and the plot itself twists into something a little different. I’m often as surprised by the ending as someone who is reading it for the first time. But that’s what makes writing fun. Otherwise, it would only be work.

I know this much. The setting will be contemporary and the main characters will be tragically, but lovably flawed. Stay tuned.

Halloween, 2012

Petey’s Story

Author’s Note: I wasn’t going to write this story because there are other things I wanted to write about first, and besides, my last post was a nostalgia piece and isn’t variety good? But it seems that Petey won’t leave me alone. So bear with me on this. I’ll make it quick.

I’ve always blamed myself for what happened, but recently decided that the whole thing was Petey’s fault in the first place. Time doesn’t usually do a lot for me, but it does give perspective. And now, with more than forty years of perspective, it’s pretty clear that none of it was my fault after all.

In the summer of 1969 Petey and I were still best friends and life was still pretty simple. A great day meant you’d had the sun on your back and the wind in your face and that your bike was still the fastest way to get around town. Fast. Every day, the sky was a deep cornflower blue with puffy white clouds, just like the ones that little kids draw in crayon over a box house with a chimney curling smoke while a round yellow sun shines above.

That’s what kind of day it was the last time I saw Petey. We were tanned and innocent and ready for adventure. The riots in Detroit were last year’s news. This year it was all about the moon landing scheduled for the following month. Men on the moon! It seemed that anything was possible and that mankind (Americans) could accomplish any goal. For the two of us, it was a time before girls and junior high and before the outside world stepped in to complicate life, before the first hint that there were limits and that everything wasn’t possible after all. The Sunday Evening News that weekend would include a dramatic story about how the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire, but I wouldn’t see that broadcast.

Petey and I both rode old hand-me-down 3-speed “English racers” that had seen better days. But to us they were everything that a car would be four years later. Petey’s bike was a faded navy blue and he called it The Streak. Mine was a cloudy dark green (“British racing green”, I would say) and I had named it The Flash. Dumb now, maybe, but at the time it was cool. We rode those bikes everywhere, and in our small town I’m sure we were a familiar sight, though no one ever told us so.

We met up that Saturday morning around 11:00 like we always did, at the old elementary school. The air was still cool, but except for a few clouds the sky was clear and the morning sun promised a hot afternoon and maybe some swimming at Sunset Lake. We both grinned when we saw each other. At that age, you don’t have to be self-conscious about your friendships. Between us, Petey was the adventurous one and the things we ended up doing usually started with a gleam of his eye and a grin. This time was no different.

“Come on! Let’s ride down to the railroad bridge!” And just like that, he was off, leaving me peddling as hard and as fast as I could to catch up. The wind felt good and with the chill still in the air, raised goose bumps on my arms, making the fine little hairs standing up. We were like twins, zipping down Kalamazoo Street, wearing crew cuts and cutoffs and old t-shirts and the blue-tipped sneakers that were still popular then.

The railroad bridge was on a spur that ran from the old Grand Trunk line and curved around the south edge of town from Silver Street to the paper mill that dominated the west end of town. It was common to see a freight train at the siding, the engineer and brakemen unhitching the engine and switching onto the spur, delivvering empty rail cars to the mill and returning with cars full of huge rolls of paper. The rail spur was private property, owned by the mill, and was supposed to be off-limits to us kids. But a worn path at the end of Davis Street proved that a lot of us played back there anyway.

Petey sailed down Davis Street and hit the path at full speed, recklessly tearing though the high grass and weeds that grew at each side and disappearing around the first curve. I could hear the rustle and break of his passage as I slowed to roll cautiously onto the path myself. It was always that way with us, Petey crashing ahead, taking chances while I followed, a shadow horse following his wild palomino.

I came out into the clearing to find him sprawled in the dirt, his bike on its side ten feet further on. Worried, I rolled to a careful stop. He started laughing.

“You all right?” But I knew he was. He rolled over and examined his right knee (skinned) and both palms (scraped with little bit of embedded dirt and gravel), then stood up and brushed himself off.

“Yeah. I’m OK.” Then he grinned at me. “Did you see me hit that rock? Boy, did I go flying!”

“You’re crazy, Petey, You could have got killed!”

He stopped laughing and walked over to pick up The Streak. Then picking at some of the dirt in his left palm, he said “Yeah I could’ve, I guess.”

But then he looked up and flashed that quick grin that I loved. “But didja see me fly?”

“Crazy!” I could hardly ever get mad at him in the first place and could never stay mad for long. That’s just how it was with him.

We walked our bikes through the last break to the next clearing and stopped, looking. It was one of those perfect places  to go to on a summer day. Huge old trees grew together throwing shade into the clearing and over edges of Mill Creek, while saplings crowded closer to the bank and reeds lined the edge of the water. On the opposite bank where the sun found more time to play, cattails grew, their pods still green and hard. The creek burbled, harmonizing with the lonely hum-buzz of a dragonfly. It was deeper here and not as wide compared to a short ways downstream where it shallowed out some, bumping over a wider, rocky area as it stole beneath the wooden trestle of the rail spur.

When I remember this place and this day, I always wonder why we were the only ones there. There should have been dozens of us town kids there, hanging out and throwing rocks in the water and catching frogs, or fishing. But it was just the two of us, and that’s important to remember. It was just us.

There’s something else you have to know, There wasn’t any trash. No empty pop cans, no broken beer bottles, no empty cigarette packages, nothing like that. A circle of blackened stones marked out an old fire pit, but that was the only sign of people. That and the path and the clearing down to the creek. I’d like to think that folks were just neater then, more respectful. And that might be a part of it. But also it was the place itself which just kind of demanded that you keep it clean, the same way you didn’t mess up the doilies on the back of your grandma’s sofa.

We had fun. There were rocks to throw of course. And we tested each other to see who could heave the biggest rock and make the biggest splash. There were frogs to catch. Or at least there would have been had the rock throwing not sent them jumping for safety. Crayfish and salamanders and grasshoppers all caught our attention as we made our way to the trestle bridge. We were careful not to get in the water much. The water was clear on that Saturday morning, but during the week it ran brown or green or sometimes pink, polluted by effluent from the paper mill. It was something that everyone in town just knew. Mill Creek is polluted. Stay out of there.

Climbing up the bank next to the trestle took fierce determination. It was steep and gravelly and there were no weeds to hold onto to pull yourself up. The cinder stone used to line the rail bed slid out from under our sneakers. The timbers of the trestle smelled of creosote and the chemical spray the railroad used to keep the weeds at bay. But scrambling is something boys excel at and we reached the top of the embankment a little breathless, but triumphant and laughing with success. Petey jumped and jabbed a fist into the air in excitement and shouted. “Come on!”

He hopped out onto the bridge, from one rail tie to the next.

“I don’t know, Petey. What if a train comes?” The truth was, it was one thing to be down here when we weren’t supposed to be, but walking out on the bridge was a whole new kind of trouble if Dad ever found out. I was always careful not to get him mad.

Petey kept walking, stretching out his stride to hit each tie. “It’s Saturday” he said. “No trains on Saturday.”

I frowned. Was that true? My house was in the south end of town and you could easily hear the trains when they traveled the spur down to the paper mill. I couldn’t remember if they ever did it on Saturdays, but it did seem that it was mostly after dark that I heard them, when sound traveled clear and farther in the cooler night air.

I listened and all I could hear was the water running below. No other sounds. I looked down. The creek, maybe 15 feet below, looked more like a hundred and I felt a little dizzy. The bridge was maybe 30 or 40 feet from bank to bank but it seemed much bigger then to me then.

But I shrugged and gave up worrying and followed my best friend out to the middle of the bridge. We sat side-by side on adjacent rail ties watching the water run below, our feet dangling and shoes off as though the water were actually in toe dipping reach instead of way below. We talked about space and rockets and landing on the moon and would the Detroit Tigers have another winning season like the year before (they would not). And after a while, the sun hot on our backs, we laid back and just enjoyed the warmth of a perfect day, our heads resting against socks and sneakers and the hot rail. And of course we fell asleep. I guess you know what happened next.

It was the vibration, not the sound so much, that woke me up. And I looked, terrified, to see the rail cars coming around the curve of track, being pushed by the engine, still out of sight. I think I screamed “Petey! Wake up!”, my heart thudding and filling my ears. The train wasn’t to the bridge yet but it seemed to move unnaturally fast and there was no time. No time.

I turned to run the other way and ran full-on into Petey. I remember his eyes, wide and stretching and his mouth stretching too but I couldn’t hear anything except my own fear. He grabbed at me, catching my arm and stumbling backwards from me running into him. His bare foot skittered off the side of the railroad tie and he fell, pulling me down hard onto the tracks next to the rail, my arm stretching out full and I could feel my shoulder pop and I screamed again.

“Petey!” He dangled below me, swinging a little but mostly dead weight pulling my right arm hard and making my shoulder burn. The outer edge of the railroad tie dug into my chest and I couldn’t get enough air to breathe. Petey’s voice was hoarse and breathy too like he couldn’t breathe either, as he stared at me. “Please. Don’t let go.”

Behind me the train got closer, on the bridge now and just feet away, going slower than I had thought it was but almost there and huge, huge. There was some kind of lever or crank hanging down from the underside of the second freight car and though I thought the cars might miss me, I knew right away that the crank handle would catch me. I knew I was going to die right there unless… Well, the only thing I had left to do was fall.

It wasn’t really a decision. I rolled to my right and fell (so fast) to the creek and rocks below. I lost track of Petey on the way down. The last thing I heard was the train’s whistle, a wild-animal sort of shriek, and the rumble of the big engine above.

I woke up in the hospital several days later. Concussion, broken ribs, dislocated shoulder. Lots of bruises. Mom was there, trembly looking and with her blue eyes all teared up. I could tell she’d been crying. And a nurse, wearing one of those funny looking folded hats they used to wear, was at the other side of the bed writing on a clipboard.

“Hi Mom.” I was all croaky, my throat dry.

She smiled. “Hi.” Then she just held my hand while I fell back to sleep.

The next time I woke up she was still there, sitting in this huge old chair by the bed and snoring. (Mom snores.) The room was darkened a little and smelled of pine and ammonia that burned my nose and made my throat scratchy.

“Mom?”

She woke up slowly. “Mom? Is Petey OK?” She just stared at my, a little scared looking and I knew right away. I knew. And I thought Oh No! And then I was crying, hard shaking sobs that hurt my broken ribs and made me ache up into my neck. Someone came running into the room and there was a needle and in a few moments I was drifting, still aching, aching but no longer crying.

In the hallway, whispered voices, the doctor and a nurse and my mother. And I heard the words heart broken, and imaginary friend and years before I drifted away completely.

I missed Petey’s funeral. They said it was private, for family only. And I was in the hopsital anyway. Slowly, the ache in my chest eased and by the time my ribs had healed (a different kind of ache) I had let him go. Mostly. After that summer Petey’s name wasn’t mentioned at my house again.

And yeah, I know now that he wasn’t a real person. But you know what? He was my friend.

I miss Petey.

 

Late September, 1974
Some memories just stick with you forever, as fresh and clear as yesterday, and this is one of them for me. It was a Friday after school and I was feeling pretty good because it was my senior year in high school, I had the weekend to look forward to, the top was down on my old MGB and the weather in southern Michigan was nearly end of summer perfect. For a poor kid from almost the wrong side of the railroad tracks, I almost felt like I had the world in my grasp.

Pulling into the yard of our old house near the edge of town, I could see my Dad sitting at his desk in the window of the machine shop next door. I waved and he gave me a come here wave back, so I headed on over. The family business was a cornerstone of our small town life. Started by my Grandpa as a small machine shop in his barn, it had grown over the years into a thriving business employing 30 or more people and giving an aunt and two uncles and Dad a place to spend their working lives running it. The business is still there, hanging on while other 1000’s of other machine shops in the Midwest disappeared with the fading fortunes of the auto-industry.

Dad’s job in the business was inventor. He designed and built the prototypes for various machines and components, some of which are still in production today.  Once built, someone else (my cousin Larry, for a while) would draw up the blueprints, and then the thing he designed would go into production. The last I heard, Larry is running the place now. Anyway, Dad’s job required that he know how to operate all sorts of machinery and be able to weld and do lots of other things. The smell of cutting oil and hot metal was a part of my everyday life and I took it for granted that he could make anything. Little did I know…

On this particular day, the familiar sounds of machinery and a forklift sang counterpoint to Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle on the radio. Fluorescent lights cast whitely against the lathe and milling machine of Dad’s area of the shop. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from coming in out of the sun, but I could have taken the 8 steps and left turn into his office area with my eyes closed.

“Hi Dad. What’s going on?” I remember saying those exact words. But, I don’t really remember much of the next bits of the conversation. It was the awkward sort of small talk that happens between father and son. But, usually, when I asked what he was doing or thinking about, he would say things like “Oh, contemplating the infinite” or “Considering the great void” as easily as just saying “Nothing much”. Dad went both shallow and deep at times and it was hard to know if he was really, really smart and held back by the tides of life, or just a 10th grade dropout who was quick with a clever line or two. Anyway, it was a little awkward between us sometimes.

But I know I asked him what he was working on and he asked me what I learned in school and that’s how the perpetual motion machine came up. In my physics class, Mr. Peach was teaching us about Newton’s laws of motion. And so I told Dad all about them. How objects in motion stay in motion, how actions produce equal and opposite reactions, and how energy is conserved. And I went on to assert that none of that stuff held true in the real world because of losses due to friction and gravity and other real world interactions. I concluded, “and that’s why there can never be a perpetual motion machine”. You see, I could really get going sometimes explaining how the world worked, and I especially liked explaining math and science because everything math and science-ish was so cut and dried. Not complicated like people were.

I must have wound down or had to stop for air or something because when I looked up Dad had that sort of disgusted look on his face that always warned to me “shut up and be careful”. Something must have ticked him off and although he hadn’t punished me in years, I didn’t want to make him mad. This time, though, his disgust was directed to the school system. Apparently they were guilty of teaching me a bunch of nonsense and “of course perpetual motion machines are possible because I’ve been designing one for years…”

Whoa. Everything kind of stopped for a minute. I was a pretty good know-it-all by then with years of practice under my belt, and while I hate to admit it now, I was kind of conceited. I mean, really, I knew a lot of stuff! But, Dad. Well he knew how to make things and I’d never seen him fail to do something he set out to do. Was it possible… ?

“Can I see it?” I asked.

Dad looked a little furtive. He actually looked left and right, even though we were obviously alone in the room. Then he admitted, “I don’t have a working one yet. There are still some problems with the design, and I need a set of frictionless bearings.”

I was intrigued. “Do they make those?”

“Not yet. But they will. And I’ll be ready.” He tapped his right temple. “Until then, it’s all up here.”

Well there didn’t seem to be anything to say to that. He lit another cigarette and our conversation turned to other things less weird before I broke away. And to be honest, I pretty much forgot all about it after that. If anything, the whole episode became part of my mental picture of him, a frustrated tinkerer chasing a perpetual motion dream, just like thousands of other backyard inventors before him. I might even have thought it sad that he’d missed out on a modern education.

~ ~ ~

Years later.

I spent a couple of weeks with him before he died. The cancer had left his mind intact, but had stolen his vitality and his voice. Somewhere, I have a picture of him sitting on the couch between my brother and sister and I. In it he is impossibly thin. I keep it hidden in my desk drawer.

In one of those weird coincidences that life throws at us, both Dad and his wife Tibby were terminally ill with cancer. He had throat cancer and she had lung cancer. They were living proof that smoking is bad for you, and oddly, both continued to smoke through their final days. Do Not Resuscitate notices hung prominently on the wall just inside their front door.

It was all kind of depressing.

When I arrived at their house in south Florida, my first impression was of the smell. The house stunk of dog pee and garbage and cigarette smoke. The air conditioning did a poor job of dispersing the smoke and it hung in a layer, chest high so that the best air in the house was actually closer to the floor than to the ceiling. At 11:00 in the morning, the sun was already high and shone too hot against the pale whitish blue sky. Outside, you could almost hear the grass crinkle as it browned and died in the heat. So, despite the ever-present haze, being inside was LOTS better than being outside. Early August is a bad time to visit Florida.

The three of us talked for a while. But then Tibby fell asleep in her chair and Dad was looking pretty tired in his chair, so I got up and went into the kitchen to clean up after the two dogs. (I ended up with custody of the two dogs, by the way, and they never did learn not to pee in the house.) I did up the dishes, cleaned out the refrigerator and generally picked up and took out the trash and that’s how the two weeks kind of went. We would spend some time talking, then they would nap and I would putter about. At the end of the day, I would leave and head off to stay the night at Mom’s house or with my brother Mark. Once, I took Dad to a doctor’s appointment, and once I drove Tibby to what would be her last trip to the beauty parlor. I met the hospice nurse during one of her home visits and as she was leaving, she said “You know, he’s still a remarkably handsome man.” I saw him differently after that.

You have to understand that in south Florida, there aren’t really any basements. Instead, most houses are built on stilts to protect them from hurricane induced flooding. The living area, then, is always on the second floor, leaving the ground floor as garage, shop, laundry, or carport. A long set of stairs ran up the side of Dad’s house to the kitchen, and that was the normal entrance to the home. But as Tibby got older, the stairs got to be too hard to climb, so Dad built an elevator in the kitchen closet (pantry) to connect the ground floor to the house. Although perfectly functional, the elevator was home-made and not up to code. So he was always careful that nobody could use it without training.

One unbearably hot afternoon, after washing the two dogs in the big deep sink, I spent a couple of hours poking around Dad’s shop down below. He had always had machine tools and parts and junk laying around, and it was usually interesting to look through some of his junk. There were a lot of things in piles on the cement floor and stacked in corners or jumbled onto shelves. The heavily crudded windows let in murky sunlight and the dust I disturbed swirled tightly in the its beams. Sadly, a lot of things were starting to rust, something he would never have allowed before he got sick. The machinery in particular, looked sad, streaked with rusty tears. I was kind of sad myself.

From one shelf near the back, I pulled out a glass tube sealed at both ends by corroded green brass end caps. By this time I was sweating pretty heavily. I do that. The tube was about 3 inches in diameter and maybe 10 inches long and so thickly coated in a greasy, dusty film that I almost threw it back on the shelf. And I was just about out of interest in pawing through Dad’s old stuff anyway. But a faint movement through the dirty glass caught my eye. I rubbed away a smudge of dirt and through the smear I could see a brass colored gear rotating slowly inside. Thinking that I must have disturbed some mechanism when I picked it up, I almost put it down again. But a stab of curiosity made me hold onto it as I headed back to the elevator and the coolness of the kitchen.

Back upstairs, a glance in the living room showed that Dad and Tibby were both still sleeping. They snored slightly, softly, and I remember wondering if that was because people who were dying didn’t have the energy to snore loudly. I certainly remember Dad having a real loud SNORK when I was a kid.

The first thing I did was wash my hands in the kitchen sink and then rinse cold water over my face and hair. That felt so good. A huge wad of paper towel dried most of the rest of me, and I felt a lot better. Then my attention returned to the glass tube. A 3 inch tube fits nicely in your hand and is easy to grip (think Campbell’s Tomato soup can). Nevertheless, I held it tightly while scrubbing it down with a dishrag and a healthy squirt of Dawn dishwashing soap. As it the glass came clean, the verdigris on the brass caps at each end stood out and I resolved to polish them up with the can of brass polish I’d seen downstairs. But I could do that later.

It’s hard to explain exactly what I saw in that tube because it just defies all reason. The tube was mostly empty. A thin wire ran the length of the tube from one brass endplate to the other. And in the middle, apparently suspended on the wire, was a brass gear about a quarter of an inch thick and maybe a little over 2 inches in diameter. It was finely machined and shiny like only fresh metal can be, before it starts to tarnish or rust (both terms for oxidation). This brass gear looked as though it had never been exposed to oxygen at all. Round holes of different sizes were patterned around the wheel of the gear making a filigreed latticework between the hub and the rim that made it appear to be impossibly light and insubstantial. Sunlight through the kitchen window bounced from turning to turning, making the gear sparkle like the inside of a diamond. Honestly it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in a long time.

Carefully, I set it down on the counter and watched it, afraid it would roll off. And it did take a short roll, seemingly on its own, but away from the edge. It was then that I noticed two tiny brass rivets set into the side of the brass at each end, just far enough apart to allow the tube to stand on its own tiny feet. I rolled it up onto the feet and it sat there winking in the sun, turning. Still turning.

I couldn’t figure it out. Sure, it was pretty to look at and that could be distracting by itself. But it seemed to me that since I wasn’t moving the tube around anymore, the gear should eventually come to a stop. And it didn’t. Pretty good trick, I thought, figuring I’d found a novelty item that they’d picked up somewhere. So I continued to watch it. It was rotating at about one turn every two seconds, or about 30 rpm. And a half hour later, it was still turning at the same speed. I remember thinking that it must be solar powered or battery driven or something. But I knew right away that I wanted it.

A while later Dad woke up and the two of us helped Tibby to the bathroom and back and then he asked me to run to the store to pick up some oranges. “Naval oranges only” he said. “Naval oranges are the only good ones.” Neither one of them ate much at that point and to ask for something specific was a big deal. By the time I got back from the supermarket, I’d almost forgotten about the gear and tube assembly.

Taking the elevator up from the carport to the kitchen, I put the oranges in the refrigerator and the other things away then walked into the living room to hand Dad his change and wallet. Then I flopped into the wicker chair that had become “my chair” during my stay. While I was gone, Dad had found the tube in the kitchen and it now sat on the table next to his recliner. The gear was still turning.

I felt a frisson of guilt and had to clear my throat before I could speak. “Yeah, that. I hope you don’t mind that I cleaned it up.” He shook his head and lit another cigarette. Laying a finger over the hole left after surgery took away his larynx, he rasped “You can have it if you want it.”

Hell yes I want it, I thought. Out loud, I said “Thanks! But, what is it?”

He shrugged. The next words croaked out like a bad imitation of the Budweiser frogs: “It’s a fucking failure! That’s what it is.”

I’ll save you from the rest of the conversation, which was tedious and tiring for both of us. As I said, it was hard for Dad to talk and it was hard to understand him. But you’ve probably guessed that the tube was his attempt to build a perpetual motion machine. After years of one design change after another, of machining parts, and of trying different solutions, the closest he had come was this vacuum sealed glass and brass tube. He hated it, he said. He could make it turn, but what good was it if he couldn’t make it do something?

He explained some of the design elements: the vacuum, the fusing of glass to brass, the wire axle that didn’t actually pass through the hub of the gear but rather held it between two points, the lubricant at the rotating point that wouldn’t boil off in the vacuum, the brass gear that was machined from a single piece of solid brass that had been x-rayed and determined to be flawless. I understood most of it, in theory if not in practice. But of course, I could never build it myself. It was the product of a lifetime of skill and an obsession and frustrated genius.

“Does it ever stop?” I asked. But he just looked at me and refused to answer, and after that day wouldn’t talk about it again. As I said, It was hard for him to talk.

I packed it up carefully and shipped it home and a few days later, went home myself. Oregon was, literally, a breath of fresh air and I was so glad to get back to Lisa, and to dwell on life instead of death. A week later, Tibby died, quietly. They did not resuscitate. And about two weeks after that, Dad decided to follow her, at a time of his own choosing. They could not resuscitate him. He left behind a small whirlwind of scandal and unfinished business and lots of questions. Not everyone misses him. But I do.

Today all these years later, the tube sits on my closet shelf, resting undisturbed in relative darkness. Sometimes, when getting out a shirt or hunting for something forgotten, I’ll see it there. The gear still turns and I’ve never figured out why. I got curious as I wrote this and measured its turning again.

It’s going faster.

Sigh. I seem to go through one of these things every now and then. You would think once is enough! But I guess I’m “special”. I’ve decided to blame Dad for this one. It’s tough growing up in an alcoholic home. You learn certain coping behaviors to get through adolescence and the horrors of high school. But though useful at the time, they let you down later in life. Before you realize quite what has happened, you’re in a low place struggling to make sense of it all. Luckily, I’m out the other side now, a bit battered and wounded. But better, thank you.

In the midst of my confusion, I lost track of Maundering Way, my place of refuge. It’s good to be back. The grasses have browned and the singing brook is low and the whole place has taken on a languid, late summer feel that suits my mellow mood.

I recently read a nice novel (Veiled Eyes by Caren L. Bevill). http://tinyurl.com/9r8bj5q

The plot was built around a golden-eyed, slightly telepathic clan located in the lake and bayou country north of Baton Rouge. The author captured the culture of the region and the people of this area, quoting superstitious sayings at the start of each chapter. The characters were both believable and lovable, although the hero and heroine were both a little too good looking, perhaps, and predictably flawed. But I cared about them anyway. I could vividly picture the scenery. The white trunks of the cypress trees towering in stark contrast to the black waters of the lake. Anyway, I liked the story well enough to write to the author. And though I teased her a little about a “groaner” near the end of the story, I told her that I wished I could write as well… Surprise! She promptly wrote back. Very nice!

The groaner? You had to ask? Well, I’m kind of reluctant to go into it. Criticism isn’t really my bag…

On the other hand, I guess this could be a teachable moment…

As a writer, it’s really hard to prevent clichés from creeping into the things that you write. Most of the time, writers try to avoid using them, unless for comedic effect. But they still creep in because none of us writes perfectly every day all the time. And if we find out later and it’s too late to fix the goof, we shrug and take the resulting criticism in good humor. In this case, Caren was describing that first shuddering, panicky gasp for air that a person takes upon breaking the surface after having been under water far too long. To describe that feeling, she wrote that it was “like manna from heaven”. Now, nearly every reader with a Judeo-Christian background is probably going to “get” this, so her meaning isn’t lost.

But besides being an overused simile, there are a couple of problems with it. We writers use metaphors and similes to help the reader experience the action or feeling. So it’s important to use ones that let the reader draw upon their own experiences. Unfortunately, few people have any direct experience with manna (food) coming from heaven. Secondly, manna is food and her character is gasping for air, making this a mixed figure of speech, which is an awkward thing to experience.

What? Could I do better? Maybe. But it doesn’t take any skill to be a back seat driver and I don’t want to be an armchair quarterback. After all, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

But if it were me? I guess I would try to describe how it feels to suck in that first breath of air, how your lungs painfully expand and stretch, or how the back of your throat feels suddenly cold from the rush of air; or how your vision contracts and goes dark around the edges as oxygen rushes back to your brain; or how the tips of your fingers tingle as air seems to explode through your mouth and fills you tightly but you want more, so you blow it out and take another gasp.

See? You’re not really happy with this, are you? You wanted some bit of word magic, perhaps, or just another simple metaphor to replace “manna from heaven”. Maybe you were hoping for something like the breath of God, a sort of divine form of CPR. Well, don’t feel too let down. You readers are a demanding lot, never fully happy, and always wanting more. Fill in your own figure of speech and if you can do better, write to me and let me know what you come up with. But leave Caren alone. She’s busy on her next novel and I want to read it.

A Parting

From her position behind the yellow crime scene tape, Gina couldn’t hear Snowden’s cry of distress but his torment was obvious. Her heart sank as she saw him drop to his knees, holding his head in his hands. She wanted to run to him to protect him from… well, everything. In the back of her mind she wondered at the intensity of her feelings. She had only known him for a few hours.

Jimmy’s shout from the news van distracted her.

“Becky! Our guy out there says they shot the hostage taker. We should get ready to go live with an update.”

Becky turned to Gina and gave her a quick hug. “Don’t worry. I think everything’s going to be all right. Remember, I want to ask you some more questions about this new boyfriend of yours and maybe even interview him.”

Gina started to protest that Snowden wasn’t her boyfriend, but Becky was already running over to join Jimmy at the van. So she turned her attention back to the command post. Snowden was still kneeling and bent over as though the weight of the morning had finally overwhelmed him.

The Chief looked around and then pointed to an officer standing inside the perimeter about 10 feet from Gina. “Davison! Over here!”

Gina watched as the Chief gave orders, gesturing at Snowden and then waving toward a patrol car parked at the curb. Officer Davison helped Snowden stand up and walked him over to the car. He sat him down in the back seat with the door open and got him a bottle of water. Then, taking a notepad from his pocket, he began asking questions.

Hoping to talk to Snowden, Gina tried to make her way around the perimeter to get closer to the patrol car. It was slow going. The crowd was thick and unwilling to move aside to let her through. Intent on her goal, she failed to notice when Jerry, apparently unharmed, was led from the building in handcuffs to a waiting police van and taken from the scene.

As it turned out, she couldn’t get close enough to talk to Snowden or even catch his eye. The patrol car was parked too far inside the crime scene line. She called his name several times, but he never looked up. He seemed to be completely closed in on himself and isolated from the world. She watched helplessly while Officer Davison asked a lot of questions and took notes on his pad. After about 10 minutes, he closed the rear door, got in the driver’s seat and pulled slowly away.

As the car disappeared around the corner, Gina felt as though something important was slipping away from her, and she felt lost and empty. It had been such a strange and difficult morning; bad from the beginning and full of trials and disappointments. And now, it seemed that she was losing track of the only bright spot of the day. How would she ever find him again?

~ ~ ~

Snowden sat in the back of the patrol car and stared out the window. He felt numb and empty, but also jittery and on edge and there was a buzzing sound in his ears. Officer Davison had been kind and gentle and Snowden had willingly answered all of his questions, agreeing to sign a statement later. Davison had informed him that Jerry was uninjured and in custody, and that was an enormous relief. He wondered what had happened to Gina, but the events of the morning left him unable to cope with any more problems. He promised himself that he would find her later and apologize for leaving the coffee shop parking lot. Mostly, though, he was simply grateful that Officer Davison had offered him a ride home.

The patrol car pulled into his driveway and Davison let him out.

“I’ll be back later, Mr. Smith, with that statement for you to sign.”

Eyes down, Snowden whispered a quiet “Thank you”. He slowly made his way to the back of his house. Climbing the steps to the little porch, he noticed that the red dish was empty and licked clean. That made him feel a little better. He retrieved his spare house key from its hiding place in the old bird’s nest and let himself into his kitchen.

The first thing he did was check the time on the Felix the Cat clock that hung above the window over the kitchen sink. It was exactly 12:10 PM. Simply knowing the exact time brought him some relief and he felt his shoulders ease just a little. He wondered again what had happened to his watch. He fed a flake of food to Copper the goldfish and thought briefly about making some lunch. He knew he should be really hungry, but felt a little queasy at the thought of eating.

Snowden knew of only one thing that could help ease the enormous stress he was feeling. So he went into his bedroom and changed into a pair of sweatpants and a loose fitting (and very faded) Superman t-shirt. Then he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and went out into the back yard. He took off his shoes and socks, and set them neatly side-by-side and placed the bottle of water beside them, then stepped into the middle of a circle of hard-packed sand that dominated the sunniest part of the yard.

He straightened his posture, and closing his eyes, began to empty his mind, imagining that every thought and every feeling was slowly draining out of his head and down his back, running out through his fingertips and his feet and washing away every tension and pain. Aunt Min had started teaching him this exercise and stretching routine when he was 4 years old, and they had practiced every day until she passed away. Then, without her beside him, he had simply stopped doing it.

But the motions came back easily, his body remembering every gesture and turn. As he focused his mind and body on the perfect execution of each movement and its associated thought pattern, the tension slowly left his body and, moment by moment, the incredible stress of the morning drained away, leaving him feeling warm and relaxed and clean again. Following the routine took about one hour from start to finish and each movement had a different name and purpose. It was part exercise, part martial art, and part meditation. He didn’t know it, but he was practicing a form of Tai Chi.

Two sets of eyes watched him from opposite vantage points. From behind the back corner of the garage, a man wearing a pair of inexpensive Dockers’ pants and a polo shirt, watched and waited for an opportunity to take control of the situation. A small handgun rested heavily in his jacket pocket and, incongruously, an expensive leather briefcase leaned against the garage wall at his feet. His graying hair was trimmed in a meticulous business cut. Snowden would have recognized him immediately as Jack Muncy, the missing owner of Pacific Cascade Insurance.

The other set of eyes belonged to a medium sized dog with a tawny yellow coat. She lay belly down with her head and ears up, staring alertly though a break in the foliage of the empty lot next door. Behind her, her two surviving pups quietly played the stalking game against each other. Although she would always have a slight limp, her right front leg was almost completely healed after a car had clipped her 2 months ago. She’d survived the injury largely because of the twice-daily hamburger patty the man left in the red dish. She watched him with utter devotion, her fear of people nearly conquered by his gentle manner and the gift of food. She also kept a wary eye on the other man. He smelled wrong and she did not trust him. Feeling uneasily that something bad was about to happen, she intently watched the both men.

He floated, weightless and timeless, in a pool of peace and quiet that was a welcome relief from the chaos of the morning. His memories floated with him, separate and unconnected, easy to avoid. All, that is, but one. Aunt Min’s voice whispered through the void, calling him. Snowden. Unwillingly, he focused on the sound of her until her thought-voice rang clear and true. Snowden, shame on you!

What? What did I do? He felt uneasy and his pulse quickened. What did I do?

Snowden, you gave your word. And then you broke it. Remember! The pieces of a broken promise are like pieces of broken glass. They will cut you.

I remember Aunt Min, but what… who?

The girl, Snowden. You promised to stay until she returned.

With that, memory and consciousness came rushing back. Gina!

His eyes flew open and he sat up, crying out “Gina!”.

A small group had gathered around him, all faces and feet, showing a mixture of concern and curiosity. He could see that a few were pointing their cell phones at him, and he supposed they were taking his picture and he was disgusted. But that was quickly swept away by myriad voices, blending together. Through the muddled murmur he heard:

“I called 911.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t get up.”
“Might have a concussion.”
“Who’s Gina?” and,
“What’s going on over here?”

The last question, authoritative, came from a very young looking policeman walking toward the little group. Now that someone had arrived to take responsibility, they turned away, directing their attention back to the bigger action in front of the Pacific Cascade Building. One elderly woman in large glasses stayed behind to explain that “the man” had suddenly passed out and had been unconscious for several minutes and that 911 had been called. Then she, too, turned away.

The officer, whose name tag read “Davison” knelt down beside Snowden. It took just moments for the him to learn Snowden’s name and to determine that, all things considered, he was quite all right.

“Would you please follow me, Mr. Smith. The Chief wants to talk to you.”

~ ~ ~

Gina stood next to Snow’s car in the little lot behind Beans Coffeeshop, trying to decide what to do. Snowden had promised to wait for her while she went to borrow a car, but instead he had left. She felt terribly guilty, blaming herself for causing him to get beat up earlier that morning. Plus, she had promised to make sure he got safely home. He must have given up on me, she thought. And who can blame him? It had been a terrible morning so far.

The distant sound of a megaphone and the whoop of a siren brought her attention back to the street in front of the coffeeshop, and she remembered that Snow had seemed intensely interested in whatever was happening out there. Maybe he went to find out what’s going on. With that thought, she walked quickly up the alley to the street and turned right toward the growing crowd and flashing lights.

~ ~ ~

Michael (Mickey) Dahlgren had been Chief of Police for almost 10 years, and aside from gang activities and a few murders and endless drug trafficking along the nearby I-5 corridor, his tenure had been quiet. Until now, that is. He scowled. This hostage situation was threatening to turn into a pile of horse-hooey. If they could just get the perpetrator to talk, he might avoid a dangerous assault on the building. Luckily, the Smith guy showed up at just the right time. His eyes narrowed. He didn’t like coincidences.

He looked Snowden up and down again and wasn’t any more impressed than when he first saw him.

“Look Smith, what do you know about this Assad guy? What’s his background? What does he want? And why is he asking for you?”

Snowden glanced up at the Chief and frowned, looking quickly back down toward his shoes. Chief Dahlgren’s eyes were mean and dark, and his narrow features, lean frame, and hunched shoulders gave him the predatory look of a vulture. Snow shivered involuntarily while sweat broke out on his forehead.

“Really, Chief Dahlgren, I don’t know anything. I just want to go home.” He looked up hopefully, and then wished he hadn’t. The Chief’s face was turning a mottled red and the lines around his eyes had hardened into deep wrinkles. When he spoke, his voice was flat and even and cold.

“Answer. My. Questions. Now.”

Snow felt another chill run down his back and his palms were sweaty. He didn’t know where to start. “Um. OK. Jerry and I play chess. At my house. On Wednesday nights.” The words came faster as he went on. “We really don’t talk much. Chess isn’t a talking kind of game, you know. We don’t talk much at work, either because he’s on the 2nd floor, you know. I know that he grew up in Topeka, Kansas and he doesn’t talk to his family much because he’s gay and all and they don’t like that and I guess I’m pretty much his only friend even though were not close, you know, not like that anyway, and I don’t know what he wants is it true that he’s holding a hostage?” He stopped abruptly as Chief Dahlgren held up his hand. His face was still red but now he looked less mad and more as though he had a toothache or something.

“Hold on kid. You’re talking so fast that I can barely understand you. It’s obvious that you either don’t know anything or you’re the best con-artist I’ve ever met. And to be honest, you don’t look smart enough to pull off a con. Or play chess.” He paused, thinking.

“All right. Here’s what I want you to do. This Assad guy is asking for you and refuses to talk to anyone else. I’m going to put you on the phone with him and I’ll have one of our crisis response analysts listening in on the call. I just want you to talk to him long enough to find out what he wants. If you can, find out where he is and find out where the hostage is. Can you do that?”

Snow nodded. He refused to look directly at the Chief, afraid that he would get mad again. The sun was getting higher and brighter and it was starting to get hot, the morning fog gone. He took off his jacket, and not knowing where to put it, draped it neatly over his left arm. He had a terrible headache and somewhere along the way, he had lost his watch. Not knowing the time made him vaguely uncomfortable and he had to keep shoving away the urge to look again at his empty wrist or to ask somebody for the time. He wanted to run away, but he felt trapped standing behind the Crisis Response van with the Chief. It seemed like the best way out of this situation was to just get through it. Aunt Min always said that if you find yourself going through hell, keep going! Now after all these years, he thought he might know what she meant by that. He decided it was best to keep the Chief happy, if he could. Then he remembered something.

“Chief, I just remembered something else about Jerry. He likes to use the devil’s gambit in chess. It’s a weakness of his.” Chief Dahlgren scowled at him over his shoulder and turned back to the tech, who was hooking up a second line to the phone system. Disturbed by the Chief’s unpredictable mood, Snowden shut up, and staring at the ground, waited.

~ ~ ~

Not far away, at the Channel 7 News van, Jimmy adjusted the parabolic microphone and made sure the recording equipment was capturing everything from the command post. Becky stood behind him taking scribbled notes. She grinned. “A gay devil worshipper. This story is getting better by the minute.” Her phone rang. “Jimmy, let me know if anything good happens.” She walked several feet away to take the call.

~ ~ ~

Gina joined the crowd standing behind the line of crime scene tape. She scanned the faces around her, searching for Snowden without luck, until finally her eyes were drawn to the makeshift command post. Her jaw dropped when she recognized him standing next a tall, thin guy in a bad suit. What was he doing out there?

A happy shriek nearby drew her attention away from Snowden and she recognized her roommate, Becky, about twenty feet away and jumping up and down as though she had just won the lottery. She should have known that Becky would be here. The downtown area was her beat for the local news station. Of course she would be in the thick of things.

She waved. “Becky, over here.”

Becky ran over. “Gina, guess what? I got it! I got the job in Seattle!”

“Oh, Becky, that’s wonderful! When did you find out?”

“They just called me. One of the executives caught the live broadcast that I did a few minutes ago and called me with the job offer.” Her face fell a little. “I have to report next week which means I’ll be moving out of the apartment almost right away.” She paused. “I guess you’ll have to get a new roommate.”

Especially now that I don’t have a job, Gina thought ruefully. But she kept a smile on for her friend. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll be fine. Becky, I’m so happy for you. This is the break you’ve been waiting for!”

Her attention turned back to the crowd and the scene playing out before them. “Becky, what’s happening here? And why is Snowden standing out there with the Chief of Police?”

“Snowden? You know him? Wait a minute. That’s your white knight isn’t it. The guy who saved you from Dickie?”

“That’s him. I’m supposed to make sure he gets home. What’s he doing here?”

“I’m not sure, Gina, but I think the Chief is going to use him as a hostage negotiator.” An idea came to her and she wrote another note on her pad.

~ ~ ~

Snowden looked at the handset the technician was holding out to him. His head hurt. He still felt a little woozy after being unconscious. And his vision was a little fuzzy around the edges. Everything seemed so unreal, and he longed for the quiet and safety of his own home. At the back of his mind two worries circled like moths buzzing a street lamp. What time is it? Where’s Gina? He took the handset.

“Now listen, kid. Here’s what I want you to do.” Snowden listened to Chief Dahlgren’s instructions again and nodded. Then, when the technician pointed a finger toward him, he slowly raised the handset to his ear. “Jerry?”

~ ~ ~

Jerry Assad paced frantically up and down the aisle between two long rows of cubicles. Where’s Snowden? What’s taking so long? The two had known each other for a little over ten years, having both started with Pacific Cascade at the same time. Even so, they had little in common beyond their weekly chess matches. But at this point in his life, Jerry didn’t have anyone else that he could call his friend. And he desperately needed a friend right now.

How had he gotten into this mess? Fired! And the company closing. It just wasn’t fair! He had been so shocked by the enormity and the suddenness of the closing announcement that he had been unable to move from his desk. As everyone packed their belongings and left the building amid quick goodbyes and promises to stay in touch, he refused to move. Finally, Betty had come around with Curt, the old security guard, to force him to leave and he had lashed out in anger. Crying and hysterical, he had thrown things at them: a stapler, a hole punch, a keyboard, even a chair, until they finally retreated and left him alone.

And now the building was surrounded by the police and he was accused of holding a hostage. It didn’t make sense!

The phone rang and he grabbed it. “Snow! Where have you been? Do you know what they did?” Distraught, he couldn’t help but start crying again. “We’re all fired! The company is closed! And I lost everything! Everything I had was wrapped up in this company, Snow. My income, my savings, my 401K. Everything! Like an idiot. I let the company handle my investments and now there’s nothing!” He took a deep, shaky breath. “I lost my house, Snow.”

Snow was confused. Obviously, Jerry was very upset. And he should be. But what was that part about his house? “What do you mean you lost your house, Jerry?”

“The bank took it! I bought more house than I could afford five years ago, and then took out a home equity loan to make improvements. And then I couldn’t make the payments and I kept getting farther and farther behind. I was too ashamed to tell anyone and I didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anything I could do! The evicted me on Saturday. Snow, I’m homeless!” He dissolved into tears again.

Snow held the handset tightly to his right ear and listened to Jerry’s anguished sobs. He had to do something! “Jerry? It’s OK. You can stay with me if you want to. I have an extra room.” He was uncomfortably aware of Chief Dahlgren glaring at him. Swallowing, he cleared his throat.”Um, Jerry? Where’s the hostage? Jerry!”

After a moment, Jerry pulled himself together. “I don’t have a hostage, Snow. It’s just me up here on the fourth floor. The only other person in the building is Amelia, and trust me, she’s not a hostage. She’s in the employee lounge on the second floor with her arm stuck in a vending machine.” He laughed. “Apparently, the Nutty Bar didn’t fall.” He laughed again, the sound harsh and shrill. “Can you believe it? I couldn’t get her arm out and she was making such a racket that I had to come all the way up to the fourth floor to get away from her.”

Snow was speechless. Something was always happening to poor Amelia. Dimly, he heard Chief Dahlgren giving terse orders. He saw a team of police officers clad in black body armor storming the building and disappearing inside. A sudden sense of foreboding overwhelmed him and his mouth went dry. Desperately, he swallowed, trying to force words out. “Jerry!” His voice came out hoarse and strained.

Chief Dahlgren whirled, cutting him off. “Shut up kid!”

Through the phone, Snowden could hear muffled shouts. “Freeze! Get down on the floor! Get down!” Then shots rang out.

He dropped the phone and sank to his knees. “Oh God. They shot Jerry!”

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