STONE TALK

It is a glorious spring morning in one of the Travis Country greenbelts. Sunlight dapples the ground under oaks and cedar. A man and his wife move through the underbrush, their objective is to reach the dry detention pond behind their home. They make slow progress as he keeps stopping to break off dead branches which he considers a hazard to his eyes. She is more interested in the flora and fauna and often pauses to watch forest deer or to stare up into the overhead canopy to catch glimpses of the various birds who serenade them.  She, joyful but unsuccessful, tries to interpret their song,  – “peeeek-a-boo”, “tweet -tweet’. They are both acutely aware of the union of life; and the song of the universe for even the limestone rocks in a dry stream bed communicates with them. At each turn,, they head toward the brighter patches of sunlit greenery where there is less undergrowth.

At one small open area they encounter a pile of limestone masonry blocks. She comments that they must have been dumped by one of the home builders twenty years ago. He smiles,

“They are glad that we found them. I hear their talk.”

“You hear their talk? So, what do they say?”

“They commiserate about their expectation of twenty years ago. Harry reminds Heloise of their high expectations.’

“Harry and Heloise?”

Yes, Harry and Heloise, like in a children’s story. Anyway, they reminisce about how they had hoped to be selected for the fireplace façade. Back then they speculated that it would always be comfortable, warm in winter and air conditioned in summer. Now, Heloise reminds Harry how they had rationalized that the exterior façade would be better, less likely to be renovated in the years ahead, more interesting commanding a good view of exterior activities.”

“You hear all that?”

“Yes, and there is more, right now they are miserable. They are still horrified to be dumped here to be overgrown by grasses and dirt. They beg us, me, to rescue them.”

“But they are here in the middle of the greenbelt, and we must be at least half a mile from home.”

They walk on, the man is quiet. His wife is silent to let him think. They are thankful for this small distraction from the seemingly never-ending dialogue about the ongoing corona virus pandemic. They emerge from the undergrowth into full sun-light and climb through the long grass to the top of the dirt dam surrounding their local storm water management ponds, from there they head to a man-made swale with a two-foot-wide concrete bed nestled in four-foot-tall grass. They follow the swale careful to avoid ant hills. A bird flies up out of the grass. The wife looks for its nest, but he is impatient and urges her on.

At the end of the swale they take an artificial path mown by their neighboring teenage boy. She thinks of it as a boredom path.  The previous day she watched their next-door neighbor’s son, a blond-headed high-schooler, make it with his lawnmower. When he finished his parent’s lawn, he opened their back gate and struck out. He appeared to be equipped with the attitude of an ancient Roman road builder, for his mown swathe ignored the terrain and took a straight line struck out of his yard, across a flat area, up and over the earth dam, across the dry detention pond and up the other side. At this point he had turned to take the same path back.

When the man and wife are close to their back yard, they leave the boy’s path and walk across an area of long thin grass waving seductively over an undercover of brilliant yellow wildflowers. They pause and look at each other at their gate.

“I’m going to rescue them!”

“You are what?”

“I’m going to rescue them and build a flower bed outside our dining-room window.”

“But how, they are half a mile away in an inaccessible place in the greenbelt?”

“I’ll use the red wheelbarrow.”

Over the next two days the man and red wheelbarrow make twelve miles of round trips to transport the limestone blocks to his garden. He reports to his wife on Harry and Heloise’s happiness at their rescue. He tells her,

“During the trip they ruminated about their destination. They agreed that nothing could be worse than twenty years of unfunctional abandon in the woods. They whispered, but I could still hear, when they prayed that they are not about to be taken to the City dump. They agreed with each other, the dump would be worse than green-belt abandon.”

“You heard all that?”

“Yes, it unfolds like a children’s story. They were relieved and happy when we reached the garden, and quite ecstatic when I stacked them in a neat pile next to my construction site.”

“So, they are happy?”

“Oh yes, very happy. Their voices inspire me to keep going.”

Construction goes slowly. The man is deliberate as he builds foundations and arranges the stones out to make sure that their idiosyncrasies are properly accounted for. At last reports to his wife.

“No rain is forecast. Everything is ready, construction starts tomorrow.”

It takes two days to build the wall, another two to fill the resultant bed with a proper mix of dirt, and compost, and yet another to plant and water. The man listens more to the faint gasps of the plants as he carefully places them. He is content, but when he turns to go inside to look at his accomplishment from indoors, he loses his ear. It is now that Harry and Heloise sing. Their voices join the song of the universe.

An inside Job

Allen drives his Advanced Plumbing Services van up to an attractive suburban house. He is relaxed and happy; this is his last house call of the day; and it is Friday, his Bowling League night. He is greeted by the Mrs. Fry, the home owner, a sour-faced middle-aged woman. She scowls at him with the words,“You guys took your time.” She goes on to complain that she has guests and the sink in their bathroom is clogged. “Now, I ask you,’ she continues, “how could a sink which is hardly ever used get clogged?” She concludes “My guest bathroom, how embarrassing, how could you, plumbers, create such a stupid design with a sink that clogs itself?”

It annoys Allen that she should be blaming him for her problems, after all this is the first time that he has ever been to this house. He mumbles, “There could be a number of reasons. Let me see. Then, I’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong.”

She escorts hm through her home, past expensive furnishings. Allen spots an elegant gun display case. He thinks how interesting this would be to his bowling partner Tommy. They reach the guest bathroom and Allen looks under the vanity. He immediately has an answer to her question. He explains that the air conditioning overflow drains to this sink. He tells her that it is a common problem. Over time the slow drip pan overflow blocks the drain with small scales of dirt and drip pan residue.

“Hmm, crazy design!” she comments, “I suppose, you’d better fix it.”

It seems to Allen that this grumpy Mrs. Fry is blaming him for the blockage, but he ignores the implication and gets to work. Generally home owners help empty cabinets to create a workspace but this woman stands and watches with a look of distain. Allen is annoyed by her lack of assistance, but he still takes care as he places extra toilet rolls, hair dryer, soap and towels on top of the granite vanity. Soon he is on his back, with his head thrust into the cabinet. He turns his wrench slowly as he tries to coax a particularly tight P trap into coming loose. He has a bowl ready to catch the black junk which he expects to gush out when the pipes come apart. This job is so routine that he lets his mind drift. He thinks about home, and his two children who always give him a hug when he arrives home. He thinks pleasurably about his bowling night with the boys. He wonders if he will tell Tommy about this job, but thinks not. He feels content, he tells himself that “Life is good”.

The P trap comes loose and suddenly Allen’s routine task becomes more complex. Along with the offending black gunk something heavy falls into his waiting catch-all. It hits the bowl with a clink. Allen pokes the object with his wrench. He expects a child’s small toy or a toothpaste cap but, instead he sees a woman’s ring. It catches the light and shines as it nestles in the dark slime. He glances toward the door. He is alone, the watching home owner has stepped away for a moment. Allen scoops up the ring. He stands and rinses it in the second vanity sink.

Allen knows little about women’s jewelry but the ring looks like a bigger, nicer, version of the diamond and gold engagement ring that he gave his wife years ago when he proposed. He suspects that it is valuable. He doesn’t know what to do. His conscience tells him to give it to the homeowner; such an action would confirm the position of trust expected of all APS employees who make house calls. On the other hand, he tells himself, Mrs. Fry is wealthy, and treats him like the scum in her clogged drain. He thinks that no-one would know and she doesn’t merit a surprise gift. He stands reminding himself that he has been honest his whole life so he ought to do the right thing.  On the other hand, he knows that his bowling buddy, Thomas, would be able to find a fence and sell it. He smiles as he thinks about what he could do with a little extra cash. While he is hesitating Mrs. Fry returns and stands, arms akimbo, in the bathroom door. Her critical stance puts Allen on the defensive.

“Well?” she demands “Why are you dawdling? Have you forgotten where you are?”  Allen Looks at her angry face and slips the ring into his pocket.

“I was right. It is the P-trap” he tells her, “I’ll have it all cleaned up and reassembled in a jiffy.”

Normally Allen is helpful and, after his cleanup, helps put anything disturbed back in their place. Today, his disgust at Mrs. Fry is magnified by his own guilt and he leaves the vanity strewn with the lower cabinet’s contents. He remains perturbed while he drives home and thinks about what he should do about the ring. He decides that he will mention it to Tommy. He suspects that Tommy lives slightly outside the law because every week he surreptitiously presses Allen to become a look-out and to tell him about his house calls and in particular which houses have valuable contents.

“Did a strange job today.” He tells Tommy while they watch a gutter ball swirl toward the pins.

It is Tommy’s turn, “What do you mean?” he asks as he lifts his ball from the carousel and prepares to throw. Later, when they are sitting side by side Allen elaborates, “A ring fell out of a P-trap that I was unclogging. Never happened before.”

“So, what did you do?”

“Kept it. That’s the weird part.”

“How come?”

“You see the house was affluent, full of antiques and gun cabinet collections and things. Even then I’d have told the owner, Mrs. Fry, except she was so snooty and condescending, I just couldn’t.” Allen says this in the hope that Tommy understands and to exonerate his action. It almost makes him feel justified.

Tommy is already ahead of Allen, “Yes, yes, I’ll fence your ring, no problem. What are friends for anyway?” He pats Allen’s knee and goes on, ‘But the house, you say that it is full of guns – now that is interesting. You can do me a return favor and give me the address. After all she is an affluent undeserving bitch isn’t, she?” Allen, flushed because he just threw a strike, tells himself that it is OK to share this one address and gives Tommy what he wants.

That night Allen hardly sleeps. He keeps going over the events of the day. His inner voice tells him that, unpleasant as Mrs. Fry was, it was as wrong of him to give Tommy the address, as it was to have kept the ring. He decides that he can’t have Tommy fence the ring and he can’t throw it away any more than he can return it to Mrs. Fry. He tosses and turns and finally gets up and hides the ring in an old prescription bottle in his bathroom medicine cabinet. He feels better with it hidden and hopes that in time he will know what to do with it.  Only a few weeks later this decision is taken away when one of the guns missing from Mrs. Fry’s house turns out to be a gang related murder weapon. The police call on Allen with a search warrant. They look everywhere including the medicine cabinet. They find the ring. It doesn’t take long for Mrs. Fry to identify it as her daughter’s lost engagement ring.

Cathedral View Tea Party

Clara stood at the end of the driveway up to the Boy’s School dormitory. She chatted casually with the other mothers who waited with her. It was a fresh spring day, and she felt happily at ease. She looked forward with pleasure at the thought that today, she and her two girls, were to go to Mrs. Hughes’ home for tea. She had invested the preceding week in coaching the girls in tea-time proper etiquette. They were ready.

Presently, the waiting parents heard the distinct sound of children’s chatter, with their high-pitched voices blending peacefully with the normal urban backdrop. Clara smiled for she enjoyed this noise, which always preceded the emergence of her children. When they appeared, walking calmly in a neat two by two crocodile, she was happy to see that her oldest seven-year-old daughter, and her best friend led the group. The others, in descending ages, followed behind; their teacher, Miss Derry came last. She leased one room of the boy’s dormitory to house her school. In its confines, she miraculously managed to take fourteen children of varying ages and turn each out at age eight with a sound knowledge of reading, writing, and fundamental arithmatics, including multiple tables up to twelve, all based on a foundation of Christianity, world history and geography.

When they arrived at the bottom of the drive Miss Derry gave a signal, and the children dispersed to their parents in an orderly manner. Clara took her two’s hands and began to walk toward the Cathedral and River Banks. As this was in the opposite direction from home Mary, her eldest, pulled at her hand.

“Mama where are we going?”

“You remember, dear,” Her mother stopped, and turned to look at her daughter in the face “I told you at lunchtime. We are having a special treat. We are going to have tea with Mrs. Hughes.”

“But I’m hungry”

“Mrs. Hughes will have food for you.”

“Yes, but” Mary looked at her younger sister for moral support, “but Mrs. Hughes’ food is yucky!”

“You are going to be good girls. I know that you don’t like her dry sandwiches and fluffy store-bought whipped cream cakes, but you have to pretend. We talked about this at lunch-time. I want you to think of it as a game. Remember that you will be able to eat all your home-cooked, tea-time favorites when we get home”

“But Mama?”

“Yes, you are to take one sandwich and, then if you wish, you can say that you aren’t very hungry when she offers the cakes.”

“But Mama,” her younger daughter interrupted, “we’re really hungry.”

“Don’t worry. Be good, polite little ladies, and earn a reward. Forget the store-bought whipped cream cakes, when we get home we will have another tea with of all your home cooked tea-time favorites.”

Clara took her girl’s hands and walked briskly to the end of the road where they paused at a low wall overlooking the wooded ravine of the River Weir, locally referred to as The River Banks. They turned left down South Street with its magnificent views across the river to the west end of Durham cathedral. Its grey stones were high lit with a warm pink glow. Half-way down the street they stopped at the Hughes residence with its huge bay window facing across the narrow street. It commanded a view of the West End Galilee Chapel flanked by the west end towers with the central tower further behind completing the classic image of this magnificent structure.

Mrs. Hughes ushered them inside to her tea-table which was tastefully set in front of the bay-window commanding the cathedral view. Clara glowed with pride as she watched her daughters daintily handle their bone china teacups with their wood violet decoration. She watched each of them take, and slowly eat, a sandwich gently pushing it a round on their violet-decorated tea plates. Things were going well.

Mrs. Hughes took the cake plate off its pedestal and offered it to Mary. Clara watched Mary’s face and gave an inner groan when she saw that Mary was about to speak. She caught Mary’s eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head.

“No!”

Mary responded, in a confident voice, “Don’t worry Mama. I was only going to say a polite ‘no thank you,’ to the store bought, whipped-cream cakes.”

Clara smiled and was about to turn away when Mary took a breath and forged on:

“Anyway, I know that you promised that when we get home we will have a real tea with of all our home-cooked tea-time favorites.”

Tartans – a short story

By tradition most of the tartans which you see today are registered as being specific to one particular “clan” or family. The best known red tartan is that of the Stewart tartan while the equally common darker blue/ green one is known as the Black Watch tartan. Black Watch is generally associated with the Royal Regiment of Scotland and may be worn by ‘anyone’ however, it is often associated with the Campbells. I won’t bore you with a prolonged history of Scottish tartans as this has no relevance to the story, which I share.

My story relates to the love between Angus Campbell and the beautiful Bonnie Stewart. Angus did everything right and before he proposed to Bonnie, he visited father Stewart in his Georgian town house, in an exclusive residential section of the early 1800’s portion of Edinburgh’s “new town,” to seek parental assent. When Father Stewart appeared reluctant, Angus quoted the Robert Burn’s poem “A Red, Red Rose”

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

After the first verse father Stewart raised his hand, “I know the poem laddie; it concludes:”

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Though it were ten thousand mile.

The shared poem brought the two men closer even as father Stewart reminded himself that Robert Burns was an accomplished romantic and  renowned womanizer.. He scrutinized Angus, attempting to see into his soul, and then, gave begrudging approval contingent on a long engagement during which time he intended to monitor Angus’s behavior. Everything went well until the night before the wedding bans were to be announced in the Kirk. That is when Angus received an email requesting his immediate presence at the Stewart residence.  He drove over, parked in the street, and bounded up the steps to the regal Stewart front door. He rang the bell.

The door was opened by Caitlin, Bonnie’s younger sister. Caitlin wore an astonishingly short skirt and sheer top with plunging V-neck. She invited Angus in and served him a tumbler of scotch. She told him that the family were all out, and that she had sent the e-mail. She told him that, from the first time that she met him, she had felt a compelling physical attraction for him.  She suggested that there would be no harm in their ‘spending’ time together on this last day of Angus’s freedom.

“I don’t want to sabotage Bonnie’s marriage so this will be a one-night stand and no-one will ever know” she said, “It will be our little secret.” Angus’ eyes glowed at her suggestion for she was very seductive. She concluded her invitation. “I’m going upstairs now to get into something more comfortable. You finish your scotch. My room is the first door on the left at the top of the stairs.”

Angus finished his drink, set the glass on the coffee table and glanced up the stairs. Then he turned and went out the front door to vault the steps to his car. Imagine his surprise to be greeted at his car by father Stewart.

“Congratulations my boy” he said as he gave Angus an unexpected bear hug of an embrace, “you passed our test. You are, indeed, a man of principle and worthy of our Bonnie’s hand.”

Angus accepted the embrace and then, pleading fatigue, got into his car and drove off. When he turned out of view, he reached over and patted the car’s glove compartment. That is because there is a moral to this story. It is a moral which Robert Burns with his 12 or more children might have heeded. “Always keep a spare packet of condoms in your car!”

Confumbulum – a short story

The little girl, Terry, looked up as her mother lent over to serve scrambled eggs onto her plate. Although she was seven-years-old she was a skinny little thing who looked more like a five-year-old. She wore dirty green corduroy play shorts topped by a green sweater. Her clothing was dirty. She sat next to her nine-year-old sister who was clad in identical, equally dirty clothing. They had spent a joyful day playing outside in a wild garden making dens from branches, cut grass and leaves.  Both girls sat on newspaper covered chairs, so arranged by their mother to protect the chair seats.

Just as the scrambled egg was about to be served onto her plate Terry made her proclamation;

“Mummy, I don’t like scrambled eggs.”

“Nonsense” responded her mother “you have always loved scrambled eggs. I’ll give you one spoonful. You can taste and remember that you love them.”

“No Mummy, I don’t like scrambled eggs!” Terry was emphatic. She looked at her sister who was about to proclaim that she, also, didn’t like scrambled eggs. Their mother intervened and glared at the older girl mouthing the words.

“No, you don’t.”

The older girl kept quiet.

Their mother rasped to the older girl, “You eat your eggs and show Terry how good they are. I’ll also put some on my plate.”

“As for you,” she glared at Terry, “eat your toast while I go to the kitchen to see if there is anything else for you to eat.”

She returned with a look on finality on her face and announced with a flourish,

“Confumbulum, especially for Terry.”

Terry looked at the pink food, with the consistency of scrambled eggs. She stared while it was being served onto her plate.  If her mother hadn’t looked so stern she might have declared another dislike. Instead she accepted the honor of a special food and  murmured “Confumbulum” as she ate.

 

 

 

Long Time Dead – a short story

Iris opened her front door to a crack and peeped outside. A bright sun shone through the trees, throwing dappled shadows on the ground. She shielded her aching eyes accustomed as they were to the closed-in-gloom of her copious home. She wished that she hadn’t accepted the Shaw’s invitation for this meant that tonight she would have to make herself presentable and emerge from the safety of familiar furniture and food. She shut her eyes, and continued her attempt to come up with a plausible excuse which would allow her to cancel. As she stood there, riveted in thought, a shaft of sunlight fell upon her upturned face. It felt warm, possibly even reassuring. It softened her mood. In the far distance, she could hear the Cathedral bells announcing evensong. Brief moments like this afforded her some satisfaction for her choice to live in Durham so far north from her son’s residence in Cambridge. Her wildest dream was that her husband would return to her and take up his position at Durham University.

At 6:45 pm Iris emerged to take the short walk up the road to the Shaw’ home. Their invitation was for 6:30 pm, but although Iris had spent the best part of the last three days preparing for this outing, she was incapable of being on time. Even as she shuffled along the street, she continued to go through the litany of excuses that she had reviewed to enable her to skip the dinner. When she arrived at the house she stopped and let the aroma of stocks planted in the front garden wash over her. She turned, although the stocks smelt pungently sweet, she thought that she could hurry home and call Mrs. Shaw to claim an acute allergic reaction. She stood and rummaged in her purse in search of a handkerchief with which to authenticate her excuse; a tall thin sickly-looking woman, casting a long shadow across the blue and white flowers. Before she found a suitable handkerchief, the front door opened and Mrs. Shaw, an apron around her waist came out. She grabbed Iris’ hand and offered warm words of welcome. Iris followed her inside.

Inside, Dr. Shaw greeted her with a “gin-and-It.” She accepted the drink and exchanged small talk with him and the Evans, who were neighbors from further up the road. At 7:00 pm a bell rang, and they adjourned to the dining room where they were joined by the Shaw’s two teenage children. The dining table, with a highly polished mahogany finish was elaborately set with silver, crystal, and china. It glowed invitingly. Someone had prepared name tags in rich black calligraphy. Iris wondered whether these were the same ones that had been used the last time that she had had dinner with them.

Iris groaned inwardly when she saw the dinner service, how she hated those plates! She assumed that they were used to stimulate conversation. After all who could resist a dinner plate carrying a pungent Scottish proverb such as:

“There is no greater fraud than a promise not kept.”

Wasn’t this a proverb that could steer conversation into a lengthy analysis of the current political debacle?

As she walked around the table, Iris quickly read each plate’s message. She wondered whether the placement was random, or whether some were placed to aptly describe the person who was to use it. For example, could;

“It’s a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock.”

refer to the Shaw’s marriage in which Mrs. Shaw was clearly the dominating spouse?

Or could,

Bees that have honey in their mouths have stings in their tails.”

refer to Mr. Evans, who spoke so kindly, yet in Iris’ experience, had never performed a single neighborly act?

Or could,

“Alcohol does not solve any problem, but then neither does milk.”

define why Mrs. Evans, married to that bastard, drank so heavily?   if so, then the explanation and confirmation came with her possible retort?

“You speak of my drinking, yet you don’t know my thirst.”

Maybe, Iris thought,

“Many people are alive only because it is illegal to shoot them.”

aptly described the Shaw’s delinquent teenage son who was excessively rude to his parents? Then again, perhaps he was better than he seemed. Certainly, his mother doted on him. So, could,

“Do not judge by appearances; a rich heart may be under a poor coat.”

describe him better?

All these questions mellowed iris’ mood, but when the saw her place setting, she hesitated with an inner anguished palpitation. This did not alter her Parkinsonism frozen face. “Why, oh why” she thought, am I given the same plate every time, clearly it isn’t random. Why do they always give me the one engraved?

“Be happy while you are living, you’re a long time dead.”

THE CANDY – a short story

Please forgive my posting this Halloween story way after October 31st. My excuse is the prolonged and enjoyable visit by my daughter and family. They live in Honduras, so we don’t get to see them very often. The grandchildren 2, 5 and 7 are a handful of restless motion. Image grandparents run ragged!.  Apart from the tardiness of this post the following story has no relevance to the Honduras invasion, – I mean visit.

“It is a pity, Joe thought, “she’s a such a sweet child.”

He stood in the hall that Halloween night watching the family’s preparations. He was fully prepared in a sinister black Frankenstein costume. His new wife Susan, handed him three Halloween-wrapped orange bags filled with mini Snicker Bars. He tore them open and poured their contents into a wicker basket. They looked decorative with their brown wrapping and bold blue letters announcing “SNICKER”. He placed the basket in the hall close to the front door in readiness to hand out to ‘Trick or Treaters. He watched and waited while his wife, Susan, and his step-daughter daughter, Lisa, changed into their Halloween costumes. He paused to listen to the child’s happy voice, and slipped his hand into his pocket to touch the three laced mini Snicker’s bars which he had prepared, in secret, shortly after their marriage. “Yep,” he thought, “it is a pity but can’t be helped.”

When Lisa bounded downstairs in her fairy costume she ran up to Joe and gave him a loving hug. He lifted her up and swung her around, “Fly fairy, fly” he said. Their contact further eroded his resolve for her bubbling nature touched him. Momentarily he rationalized that perhaps the insurance money wasn’t worth it, but he quickly dismissed the thought. Everything was ready, and he had the insurance documentation hidden in the bottom of his desk drawer ready for him to “find” at the appropriate time. He told himself that “This is no time for sentimentality”.

They ate pizza for a hurried dinner and then took to the streets. It was a balmy evening full of fellowship and neighborliness. The one time in the year when everyone took to the streets and greeted each other with comradery. Joe was glad to see that several houses gave out mini Snickers bars. He managed to slip two of the bars from his pocket into unsuspecting children’s pumpkin tote baskets. He hated to do it but this had to look like the random work of a malignant terrorist / mass murderer without any specific target.

When they returned to the house Lisa poured her spoils including Joe’s contribution onto the coffee table. While she negotiated with her mother on what she could eat immediately several groups of boisterous groups of teens with their pillowcase totes rang their doorbell “Trick or Treat”. Joe and Susan took turns answering their calls and proffered their basket of candy. Joe was getting anxious as he endeavored to keep track of the doctored bar. Lisa sorted the candy into four piles, one for her mother, one for her new step-father, one for herself, and one as a tithe for the church. Joe nudged the laced bar into Lisa’s pile. “May we eat one now?” asked Lisa. Her mother nodded and all three tore open a Snicker’s bar. The doorbell rang to the sound of “Trick or Treat” from yet another boisterous group of teens. “Can you get it?” Susan asked Joe, “and then, let’s turn off the porchlight, no more trick-or-treat tonight.”

Joe was reluctant to leave the table at this critical moment but did so. When he stood up, somehow Susan’s foot got in the way and he tripped, knocking the coffee table sending some of the candy onto the floor. By the time that he got back to the table Lisa had retrieved the items and the coffee table looked rearranged as it had been before the interruption. They ate their snickers bars. Joe thought his candy to be rather bitter but put this down to his anxiousness, he smiled at Susan and Lisa and ate.

Joe wasn’t sure how quickly the poison would work. He sat watching for Lisa to show signs of distress. He was annoyed at himself when he began to sweat hoping that this didn’t give him away. But, when he felt a wave of nausea, he realized that he must have ingested the laced bar. He threw up and shouted to Susan, “Call 91, I need an ambulance.” Susan called. She sent Lisa outside to hail the ambulance down. Then, she gently wiped his brow. As he passed into oblivion, he heard her whisper in his ear, “Sorry, dear, I also have a hidden insurance policy!”

THE MIND-BODY EXCHANGE

This story uses the premise of a mind  / body exchange as used in my last post.

For over thirty years I, at present a very wealthy man, was a lowly security guard serving the once billionaire, George X. I remember that I hired on the same day in June 2020 that Oxford University announced their breakthrough development of a mind-reading machine which could facilitate memory downloads similar to the Vulcan mind reads made by Dr. Spock on Star Trek. I hoped that a position on George’s staff, would enable me to read George’s mind and find and imitate the means of his success. I envied him as a strapping thirty-year-old self-made man who had just turned his first billion. I thought how good it would be if I could do likewise. However, over the years, the closest that I came to mind reading was what I heard as I stood at the back of his lavish office. I was the suited. silent one, ever alert, ever watching, witnessing his many suspect dealings. They were always astute, always unyielding, and always to his betterment. Regrettably, all my attempts to mimic George’s transactions back fired. My only consolation was to observe the inverse relationship between George’s personal life and the size of his fortune. Year after year, the richer he became, the more his personal life suffered until, over time, he degenerated into a very wealthy, lonely recluse.

I couldn’t understand George’s one odd, seemingly out of character, business transaction. It was the way that he poured cash into the Oxford University research. Following a scary bout with prostate cancer he increased his funding and took to calling Oxford every Friday morning. At last, almost thirty years to the day I had to admit that George had the Midas touch for Oxford announced, with a few reservations and caveats, that they had constructed a machine which could accomplish  the complete exchange of bodies between two willing persons. It was one of those “ah ha” moments for me – I was sure that my sixty-year-old employer, now cancer free, but forever complaining about his physical aches and pains, wanted a new body. I was right and watched him set aside funding and begin his search for the ‘perfect’ match.

It didn’t take long for Nations around the world to respond to Oxford’s discovery by declaring all mind / body exchanges as illegal and defining the individual as a sacred, inviolate combination, of mind and body. George was, as usual, unphased by legalities. He called in his representatives, increased their remuneration and bound them to secrecy. The search was to continue. I am proud to tell you that it was I, the silent security guard, who found their man. I had Nathaniel, or Nate, the son of one of my drinking buddies, to introduce himself to the search committee. George’s specification called for a healthy thirty-year-old so that he could pass off the exchange as his prolonged youth. I must say that Nate looked remarkably like the George I met when I was hired. Nate said that he was willing to undergo the exchange for the hefty fee of one million per year differential, or thirty million. He said that he intended to use the money to pay off his debts and establish leisured affluence for himself and his relatives.

I stood, silent as ever, as I listened to George making his plans. He arranged for the clandestine exchange to take place in Oxford. Immediately thereafter, he planned to go to Switzerland to spend a month in a Sanitorium so that he could return to his life with an explanation for his renewed vigor and youthful looks. The thirty million was transferred to a Swiss Bank account set up in Nate’s name. When asked about his plans, Nate said that he intended to go to Nepal to join an Everest expedition so that he could answer inquiries about his rapid aging by blaming the conditions of the climb.

Before the exchange took place, I was dismissed back to George’s New York penthouse. I was instructed to await his return. Imagine my surprise when, less than a week after the exchange, who should I see but George entering the granite and glass lobby. I was perplexed; if the exchange had been aborted or gone wrong, this was, indeed, George in his own body. However, if it had gone ahead, this couldn’t be George in Nate’s body, it would have to be Nate in George’s body. I stood transfixed wondering how I ought to respond to this unexpected anomaly. The man I saw came up to me and shook my hand. He inquired about my family and invited me to dine with him. This confirmed my suspicions as over all our years together George had never asked about my well-being, or invited me to dine with him.

Nate was miserable. He told me that he had come to the building because this is where his body wanted to come. His explanation seemed odd, but I am a good listener and let him talk about his issues. His unhappiness was on three scores. First, George’s body was far more decrepit than he had been told. He said that he was finding it difficult to adjust to the reality of a sixty-plus year-old body. Second, George’s body had a mind of its own; keeping doing things that it wanted, such as returning to George’s penthouse, rather than doing as Nate wanted. He said, even over the short span of less than a week the body’s desires were becoming increasingly persuasive. Nate’s saddest woe was that when he went to withdraw from his newly set up Swiss bank account, he found that it had been emptied of all but thirty thousand. We went to George’s penthouse and called Switzerland and received confirmation. “Yes,” they said, “Nate himself came in and drained the account.” So, the thief was George who now looked like Nate. I didn’t put it past George to  do this as I  knew him to be a despicable, greedy, double crosser! Over our dinner wine we commiserated together and thought about George’s meanness. We asked ourselves how could George, one of the richest men in the world, steal like that? We speculated on the lost thirty million. We went on to commiserate on all the philanthropic things that George could be doing with his fortune if only he were a better person. In fact, we spoke as though the fortune was ours, and we were sharing it for the good of others. Out of pity for Nate I paid for the meal.

As I went home, I pondered on our talk with the Swiss bank. That is when, it hit me, if George, in Nate’s body could pass as Nate and be able to transfer money out of the account into another account under George X’s name then why couldn’t Nate, in George’s body, claim to be George, and move it anywhere he wanted? I found Nate early the next morning. I shared my thoughts with him. He laughed so hard that I feared that his old heart might give up. But no, laughter proved therapeutic. We began with the millions stolen from Nate’s account. The transfer went so smoothly that we decided to reach deeper into George’s horde. We knew that we only had a month. We worked hard combining Nate’s computer and interpersonal skills with my knowledge of the intricacies of George’s business gained during my decades of silently standing on guard in the back of that sumptuous room. By the time that we expected George to leave the sanitarium we had everything wrapped up. There was so much money that we split it 50/50. In the span of a month we had both become billionaires.

We wished that we could have seen the face of George, in Nate’s body, when he left the sanitorium, and discovered that he could no longer access his property. We speculated on how long it would take for him to realize, that the world now saw him as Nate, with two assets; his young body and the thirty thousand that he had, so “generously,” left in Nate’s account. We gave each other hi fives and placed bets on how long it would be before George, in Nate’s body came crawling back with an offer of a reverse exchange accompanied by a payment. My friend,Nate in George’s body, said, when the time came, he’d gladly do it for twenty-nine million, nine-hundred and seventy-thousand. I told him that he was being unnecessarily generous.

THE EXCHANGE SUMMER CAMP

Sandi always remembered date of the day that the Vulcan technology was announced because it was on the same day that her daughter, Grace, was born. It was June 2030, and the news was that scientists at Oxford University in the United Kingdom had managed to perfect a process whereby a trained person, assisted by drugs and a “Vulcan” machine, could tap into the brain of another. Oxford named the process the “Vulcan” in honor of Star Trek’s Dr. Spock. They suggested that within a decade, the breakthrough technology would be as universally available as the mobile phone. Speculation ran wild globally. Everywhere people tried to imagine how their lives might change without lies, even white ones. The legal profession launched a smear campaign to save itself for they realized that if one could tap into the brain of an accused or accuser and obtain accurate information, then lengthy trials would no longer be necessary.

Sandi was so focused on the joys of motherhood and her intimacy with her baby, that she paid little attention to the Vulcan whirlwind. Soon a year had passed, and she had to return to work. She had difficulty with the transition for, up to that time, she and Grace had been inseparable. They had been together twenty-four / seven. Sandi had so morphed her life to revolve around Grace that she had no need of the theoretical Vulcan machine to know exactly what Grace wanted before she expressed herself. They had done everything together, swum at the Y, played in the playground, had extensive “play dates” and gone for daily walks. Sandi knew everything Grace ate, every dirty diaper, every minute of sleep, every tiny whimper. She felt herself bursting with love for her child. Consequently, the drive to her mother-in-law’s house where Grace was to stay while she was at work was agony. Sandi attempted to calm herself and address her feeling of guilt by talking to Grace. She told the child how much she adored her and how she knew that nothing could ever displace that love. Grace responded with happy gurgles and by kicking her legs. Despite the fact that the drive took less than ten minutes by the time that they arrived Grace had managed to remove her shoes and socks and dispatch any toys within reach to the floor. Sandi merely smiled as she retrieved the lost items and lifted Grace and diaper bag tenderly out of the car.

By the time that Grace was in Middle School the Vulcan technology was reported to be advancing, but the promised “universal truth machine” had not gone into production. This may have been because nobody wanted to be fully exposed and all agreed that some subterfuge is necessary in most people’s lives. Alternatively, it could be that the scientists involved were too caught up in developing Vulcan to its logical conclusion. Grace meanwhile matured into a precocious, attractive child. She excelled in school and won a number of local and State academic competitions. One science competition offered a prize of place in their month of June “Exchange Summer Camp.” The school told Sandi that this was a great honor, and that she ought to allow Grace to go. Sandi felt cheated for she saw her life as one continual process of letting go of the person who she loved most in the world. Sandi deemed a month too long, but at the school’s urging and Grace’s enthusiasm, she admitted to herself that she could best manifest her love by letting Grace go. The Camp sent a list of needed clothing and supplies and Sandi and Grace had fun shopping and checking items off the list. Sandi helped Grace pack and surreptitiously slipped mementos and love notes in among the new clothes.

It was a glorious June morning, the air crisp and fresh, when a small crowd of parents and children gathered in a downtown parking lot. Two dark windowed tour busses stood waiting. Sandi wanted to hold Grace as long as possible but Grace began talking to another little girl the same height as herself. This girl introduced herself as Amie. The two children chatted with animation. Sandi saw similarities between the two, but also noted their differences; Grace, blond with fat braids; Amie, brunette with a head of short curls. They each turned and briefly waved as they climbed into the bus. Sandi returned their waves and when the bus pulled out ran to her car to hide her tears. She returned home and wrote a letter every day.

The month of the camp was the longest month of Sandi’s life. She admitted to herself that it was even longer than the ninth month of her pregnancy. She was the first parent to arrive at the parking lot where the bus was to deliver the children back to their families. It was a warm evening. She stood under a giant oak and waited. The crowd was large when the buses finally arrived and opened their         doors to discharge the children. Each jumped or bounced down the bus steps, then hesitated to scan the crowd before a dash when they recognized their families.

Grace was one of the last to descend. She walked slowly toward Sandi and said,

“Hi Sandi.” Then she paused, and looking awkward, continued her greeting with the words, “You love Grace, don’t you?”

Sandi flinched; Grace had always called her Mama not Sandi, and she never referred to herself in the third person. This reunion felt awkward. Sandi began to feel annoyed. After another pause, she responded:

“What has this Exchange Camp done to you? You don’t seem yourself.” She felt guilty for letting her feelings show. She added, ‘yes, dear, of course I love you. How could you have ever doubted?”

“No, Sandi, Grace never doubted your love, but now you have to tell me, which part of Grace do you love?”

There it is again thought Sandi she refers to herself in the third person. This is very odd. She responded, “why? I have loved all of you from the day that you were born; no I loved you from the day that you were conceived! I loved your first cry, the day that you walked, your first word. I love brushing your hair, our cuddles at night, the lovely person you are becoming. Everything.”

“OK Sandi, but say The Exchange Camp had some advanced Vulcan technology, so amazing, so progressive, that Amie and I could exchange bodies.”

“What on earth are you talking about? What are you saying? Why are you hypothesizing about this ‘advanced’ Vulcan nonsense? If you are, please don’t because it worries me. I don’t like it. If it is a joke, please stop, this isn’t the time for jokes.” Sandi paused as she watched Grace’s face take on a blank look. She breathed in and said, “All right, start again and tell me what you are trying to say.”

“Well, Sandi, Vulcan is not nonsense it is real. So, I, who am now talking to you, am not 100% Grace. I am only part Grace! The reality is that I am Amie inside Grace’s body.”

“Come on, that’s impossible… isn’t it? Silly girl, stop this nonsense. If you are Amie in Grace’s body,” Sandi was panicking, “then what have you done with Grace?”

“Simple she is in Amie’s body talking to Amie’s parents. She is asking them the same questions that I’m asking you.”

“Darling, I just don’t get it.” Sandi stopped looking at the girl in front of her and turned her tear-filled eyes toward the Amie group. Amie was stamping her right foot just as Grace did when she was frustrated. The girl in front of Sandi put her hand on Sandi’s arm,

“We shall probably change back next year at Camp, but right now you have to choose. Do you want me, Amie, in Grace’s body, or her, over there, Grace in Amie’s body, to go home with you? Do you want the persona or the body?”

Sandi gulped; she knew that she loved her daughter with all her heart. If this girl who looked like Grace but didn’t talk like her went home with her might she, Sandi, be able to overlook the inconsistencies and love this new person? Another advantage would be that the rest of the world would never know. But then she thought about all the things she and Grace had shared and instantly knew that she wanted the persona that she loved not the temporal body. Sandi reached out and hugged the girl before her.

“Dear child,” she said, “I accept, go back to your parents and send my daughter, Grace, to me!”

 

 

JURASSIC REVISITED a short story

Susan unlocked the door and stooped as she entered to avoid hitting her head. At seven feet, she was nick-named “shorty” for she was the shortest person in her group. She felt secure here and was glad that they had chosen this house with its high ceilings and robust construction. She placed her basket on the floor and called, “I’m home” as she removed her hat and outer clothing, which completely cocooned her and shielded her from the sun’s UV rays. Then she took up her basket and made her way to the kitchen where she placed the basket containing three large eggs that she had found on the counter. She thought that they were chicken eggs, but it was hard to tell as chickens were now the size of ostriches, and their large eggs could be confused with those of the larger reptiles roaming the land. Her spoils unloaded; Susan hurried into the main room to join the other five residents of the house sitting in a circle before a crackling radio.

“Did I miss anything?” she asked.

“They just announced that this is to be the last transmission.”

“So why the silence, surely there is no-one to put on commercials?”

“Something happened!”

Susan reached over and gently twiddled the knob. The radio emitted static and then they heard a voice,

“Today is momentous because it is the fiftieth anniversary of the first sun spot emitting X2X as observed by University of Texas astrology student Tony Clearwell. It is also to be the day of our last transmission. We ask that you copy and save this record for the future. We hope that one such copy will be found, possibly even a million years henceforth, a mere ripple in the 4.5 million years of the earth’s existence. It will help to explain the demise of our failed humanoid culture.”

While the transmission droned on with statistics, facts and figures to be saved for the future, Susan let her mind wander. She remembered her grandmother reminiscing, about Tony Clearwell, in her faint old voice. The matriarch told about the ridicule that his first observations had received. She spoke of the acceleration of global warming and the rising of the seas. She ridiculed the 2019 prediction by some of the collapse of humanity within a decade. She always concluded with a comment that farmers were the first to observe the curiosity that all living things were getting bigger. Susan remembered her happiness in the thought, which she took to her grave, that global warming was a blessing.

Susan remembered that her mother shared this belief until it became obvious that things were not OK. She told her daughter,

“At first scientists explained the unnatural growth as being a positive result of   global warming with its prolonged warmer growing seasons and increased rainfall. The unprecedented growth of all living things, exposed to sunlight, including humans, quickly became problematic and stimulated scientists to look twice. We now know that Tony Clearwell’s X2X, a previously undiscovered UV ray, promotes rapid, almost uncontrolled growth in both flora and fauna. Scientists suggest that this X2X UV light is what created the Jurassic age, and killed the dinosaur age when transmission ceased.”

Susan sighed as she thought about the accelerated Darwinian way that dramatically enlarged reptiles, insects and the general spectrum of fauna were adapting to their enlarged bodies and the rapidly growing flora. No one had yet seen a facsimile of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but she imagined that it was just a question of time.