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The Old Boar

11 Nov

 

The Old Boar

By L. Stewart Marsden

The old boar padded his way slowly down the thin rivulet that had served as his pathway for decades. Younger, he was more energetic, huffing and snorting along the trail, sending out audible warnings to trespassers on what he considered his domain. His self-coronation was the result of many battles with would-be contenders, and back then he was sinewy and strong. Now, more massive, he carried a repute that served him well, as many younger bears were simply too in awe of his renown to challenge his rule.

From the top of Beech Mountain, down into the valley, coursing up and over Sugar Mountain, and along the ridge of Grandfather, he knew the way by rote. That inner map served him well in dark moonless night, or when pursued during season by hunters.

As more humans invaded and built homes and stores and complexes, he tried to block out the inevitable from his mind. Now his great head was misted over white along his brow and under his chin. Like hoar-frost in early winter. Now his massive shoulders felt each plod more sharply, as years of winter sleep and foraging from spring through fall caused bone to grate upon great bone.

The sun poured over the ridge to the east, and the old boar squinted to see — but to no avail. He stumbled in his blindness, and slowly righted himself. Squatting, he lifted his head to the air, sniffing for any scent of danger, but his old cracked nose failed to discern anything that mattered. He headed for his rubbing tree, and shoved his back along its now barkless trunk, scratching the one place under his brittle fur that chronically itched. He let out a sigh of relief and pleasure. 

For the old boar, pleasures were fewer now. He was disinterested in mating as he had enough progeny to push the resources of the area beyond capacity. Plus, they tended to be ungrateful heirs and were obviously merely biding time.

He dined on tiny voles he scratched from the earth near the humans’ homes. The creeks were virtually troutless, and offered up the occasional crayfish or newt. The wild blackberry bushes were normally stripped by the oddly-skinned humans before he could lumber up the slopes for a meal. Roots and fungi had grown tasteless to him.

Sometimes, although not often, he considered what one of those humans might taste like, and imagined hiding in the brush near the blackberries and picking one off. A human, that is. But his great uncle warned him. “There will be dire retribution dealt by the humans.” He should know. He went a bit crazy one spring and ravaged one of the humans on a trail at Roan Mountain. He was never seen again.

The trail forked. The old boar couldn’t remember which way to go for a moment. He tried to remember his mother’s words. Was it “In the spring, right is wrong; in the fall, take either or all.” Or was it the other way around? His stomach growled loudly. Was it spring? Had he just aroused himself from his leaf-bedded burrow? Or was if fall, and he was headed to that sanctuary? A sudden panic gripped him as he tried to remember. He finally chose to go right, and leave the other path for another day.

The trail descended down and across a small creek, where he refreshed himself. Then back up and over a knoll. The trees thinned out, and the old boar could see an open area of tall, dry grass ahead. The sun warmed the colors of the opening. He stopped at the edge of the clearing and sniffed and looked and listened, as his mother always told him to do before entering a clearing. “Stop. Sniff. Look and listen,” he heard her gruff but kind grunt.

A choke cherry, bare of its leaves, leaned precariously in the line of trees across the field, its limbs filled with large black crows. Suddenly the murder took flight, cawing and winging in a uniform arch across the deep blue sky. 

The old boar peered more intensely about.

Nothing. 

He heard a strange click off to the right as he stretched out his front leg and entered the clearing. Turning his great head toward the noise, he knew instantly — he should have gone left at the fork. He sighed. He was too tired, too old, to run.

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Winnowing Time

23 Sep

 

The Winnowing Time

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

 A wise king winnows out the wicked;

he drives the threshing wheel over them.

— Proverbs 20:26, NIV

 

 The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch,—that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.

— The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

___________________

 

No other event in the storied history of the country had ever signaled such an abrupt turn from its previous momentum.

The President strode confidently to the podium, situated below the Lincoln Monument facing the Washington Mall. The reflecting pool, which ordinarily would have mirrored an upturned Washington Monument, had been drained and scrubbed clean so that spectators could gather in the area.

Throngs were lined and packed together like chattel. It was, at long-last, one of the greatest gatherings of humanity ever assembled to hear a Presidential Address.

The President tapped the mic — more out of nervousness than the need to check it. His lithe index finger produced several rapid “boofs” on impact.

He stared out before him, and turned to survey those to either side and behind him. Among the sunglassed Secret Agents were a plethora of other armed and battle-prepared law officers and military personnel.

He cleared his throat, and began.

“Jesus said in the Book of Matthew, ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’

Looking up, his audience was a study of stern and knowing expressions, stone faced and somber. Many nodded slowly. Some murmured “Amen” under their breaths. Others braced themselves with anticipation. Husbands reached for the hands of their wives. Mothers pulled their babies in close against the brisk October air. Children fidgeted arms and other body parts, and were nudged to keep still by parents, grandparents, or even complete strangers.

In a raspy voice, the President continued.

“Today is the most auspicious day in this great country’s history. It marks a time for direction that has never, ever, been embarked upon before. We have come to a precipice, and the world demands we make this leap of faith.

“The psalmist said, ‘Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’

He looked up again at the sea of faces around him. There was not a cloud in the sky … nothing to deter him from continuing, no rabble nor protests. Everything, every one, was focused — at long last — on him. The clicks of cell phones sounded like insects: chit, chit, chit, chit, chit. Hundreds of news video cameras whirred nearly noiselessly. The battery of media mics on the podium seemed to stand at attention, hungry for his next words.

“We are the chosen. We are the answer to the confusion and horror that proliferates throughout this incredible world. We are the truth against the lies that seek to destroy us, the only hope for the world. But like that simple child’s song, I will not let our light be extinguished! I’m gonna let it shine! Will you let your light shine, too?”

The first eruption of enthusiasm split the silence like a sudden storm, and rolled around the podium and to the sides and down the drained reflecting pond to the outer trees and streets until Washington sounded like an old lion, lifting its head against the dark, roaring with unequaled strength and might.

He lifted his small hands above his head, quieting the tide of cheers. His eyes were bright, and he licked his lips repeatedly, as if savoring what had long been denied him most his life.

“This — this will not be an easy task. We know God is our protector, and is pointing us toward the desert. I will lead you to and through that desolate desert to the Promised Land to the very best of my ability. And, with the Lord’s strong arm, we will prevail!

An eruption of ecstasy swarmed over the Capitol.

As on cue, a battery of drones silently appeared over the throngs and hovered. No one noticed.

“In any righteous endeavor, there will be naysayers, and those who will work from within and without to try to delay our mission and cause us to stumble.”

Hints of boos rifled through the air.

“But!” he said several, hands again in the air until the seething ended, “but — my fellow Americans — we have the promise the Lord will command his angels to protect us, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.”

It was as if a Hail Mary pass had been caught in the end zone in the waning seconds of the Super Bowl, propelling the Redskins to victory over the Patriots. Confetti dropped from the bays of the drones hovering overhead. Near pandemonium threatened to disrupt the event until the President raised one arm and hand over his head, calling for calm and quiet. It had the opposite effect, and nearly every person in the area raised an arm in response.

“Please! Please — thank you … thank you. Let’s continue, please!” 

Those in uniform began to mill about, ordering spectators to be quiet. Finally the chaos settled, and the President glanced at his watch and tapped the mic again.

“Thank you! Thank you all! But — but there is much work to be done. 

“Our country is called the United States of America. United. Think of that for a minute. Not divided, not of separate mind or philosophy — but united. And the only way this country will bring our world out of bedlam will be if we present a clear and united front.

“That’s what we did during the greatest war of all times, World War II. Some of you still remember, right?”

A trickle of laughter.

“Let me tell you, America is going to once again reach the greatest and most epic level of leadership this world has ever seen or known before, and we are going to do that because we … are … UNITED!

Again, pandemonium. Again, the President’s arm extended. Again, the crowds responding with uplifted arms. Again, armed uniforms controlling the respondees.

“So, how do we become united? This country of different races and backgrounds and heritages and religious beliefs? How does this great nation of differences make it through to our greatest calling?

“By concentrating on one goal. By not letting those differences deter us. By uniting whole-heartedly, and remaining steadfast — despite the odds.

“You, my fellow Americans, my friends, my neighbors — are the ones who will make that happen. Put aside your differences. Put aside what you thought was so important and take up the flag and carry it forward into battle! And this IS a battle, make no mistake about that! Not just against the enemies of our great country, but those who refuse to join the cause as well! Yes! You know them: neighbors, people you work with. Even family. And that is very sad. Very sad indeed.

“We can contend with the threat of arms and weapons. We can overrun military obstacles. But — we cannot — I repeat, can NOT survive those pockets of cancer that spread doubt from within. Those cancers must be surgically removed!

“So I am asking each of you, as your Leader, to help us separate the wheat from the chaff. The good from the evil. That which is healthy from that which is useless. You are the grain — the great potential for making this planet great for the first time ever. America — the United States — will lead that effort through the desert and into the Promised Land!

“You are a light — one of many, many lights. So many lights. And you must not let your light be put out! EVER!

The Marine Band, positioned on the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, began playing. The tune was familiar, and people began to hum along as the band leader directed the musicians, then turned toward the Mall to synchronize the response.

The President began to hum as well, and as he did, paper messages began to drop from the drones, fluttering to reaching arms below.

“This little light of mine,” he sang, “I’m gonna let it shine …” 

The crowd joined in, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! Let it Shine, let it Shine, let it Shine!”

A child picked up one of the pieces of paper and read its message:

Do you know a doubter? A friend, a fellow worker, a teacher, or even someone in your family who will keep America from being United? Call this number. We won’t ask your name. Tell us who that person is, and we will take care of it from here. Again, you won’t be involved. Help us Keep America United, and help your Leader Make the World Strong! Your Leader and your God are counting on you! Call 1-800-468-2837 (DOUBTER) today!

She pressed the paper to her heart and began to sing loudly, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”

Kicking the Tires

15 Jun

 

Kicking the Tires

By L. Stewart Marsden

My dad was an auto mechanic for years. On the weekends he and me used to work on an old jalopy he bought for practically nothing. Said it was his therapy. Well he musta had a severe case of the crazies on account he worked on that car till the day he died.

Sally, he called her. And she was the jumpin’ off point for many a life lesson I never forgot.

“Sally is just like a woman,” he said a lot. “She may be old, and may not work the way she did when she rolled off the assembly line, but she’s reliable and fixable. Not like the shiny new cars you see in the dealerships. No. And she wasn’t made for the smooth life of the highway, but the bumpy backroads.

“Once she’s back in shape, she’ll purr like a kitten and be the envy of every guy within three counties.

“Not like those fancy-finned gals with all kinds of gadgets. The ones what seems great the first time you take ‘em on the road, only to fall apart after not too long. The ones with built-in ob-so-lescence. Cosmetic crates, I call ‘em. Lemons with a fancy paint job.”

My dad’s ability to hone in on Sally as a universal roadmap to life was better than a lecture from a triple-PhD at some high-powered college or university. According to my dad, those guys had nothing but wind chimes for brains, which tinkled loudly whenever a fresh wind blew.

But Sally was the real thing. The true compass. From sex to marriage to being dependable and trustworthy as a worker. She was the rusted splotch-polished real McCoy example of how life should be, and once was.

“The thing about marriage is you are drawn by the sleek sexiness of a sedan or a convertible under the lights on the car lot. Never buy a new car at night, by the way.

“Oh, the shine and the new vinyl smell and the reflections of city lights as you cruise the boulevard make you think you’re in heaven! The AM/FM works just fine, and the steering is tight. The big rubber whitewalls grip the road on every turn, and you only have to tap your breaks to slow or stop on a dime. The clutch is taut, and the gears slide like butter from first to third.

“And there ain’t no crusted-over milkshake spills on the floorboard. The cigarette lighter is virginal, and the ashtray slick and clean. The visors hold where you place them, and the rear view mirror ain’t spotted.

“And it’s just fine as it can be, you say to yourself.

“But you worry. About the first bug marks on the silver bumper that won’t scrub off. Or a ding on the side where some jack-ass parked too close and swung open his door. Or the temperature gauge light popping on suddenly when you are miles from a filling station.

“That first slow leak from a nail in the road. Is that person going to stop at the light or not?

“It’s all a worrisome time.

“Plus your car needs the high-priced gas, not the cheapest leaded fuel, although you are tempted to ask the attendant to use regular instead, knowing your baby will eventually chug and shudder on the road –– right when you’re trying to pass a semi on a two-lane county back road with oncoming traffic.

“And you begin to try to save in other ways, avoiding the manufacturer plugs and points and air filters for the cheaper no-name brands. Less expensive motor oil. Maybe you don’t change the radiator fluid for a while. You quit hand-washing and waxing and zip through the new automats.

“Then it’s not too long before you hear the door hinges and springs creak loudly, and there is a crusted-over milkshake spill or two on the floorboard. The vinyl smell is gone. The cigarette lighter has turned gray-white on the coils, and the ashtray is dusted over and no longer shiny. Rust spots dot the bumpers and other chrome trim. And when you idle at a light, blue-gray puffs of lead-filled exhaust spew from your loud muffler.

“And you think to yourself, ‘It’s time for a trade in.’”

Don’t get me wrong. Dad loved Mom. And he always treated her like the fine Cadillac convertible he saw her to be.

But he was at his happiest when he worked on Sally. And he whistled. And he compared life to his life-long restoration project.

He and Mom stayed married sixty-seven years.

“Don’t ever forget, Son. You gotta kick a few tires to find the right one. And never –– ever –– buy a new car at night.”

Words to live by.

The Fiftieth

25 Feb

 

 

The Fiftieth

L. Stewart Marsden

Barton Chandler looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and was not pleased. He pulled the bags under his eyes down with his index fingers, widening the spider-veined eyeballs until he began to tear.

There was no doubt about it –– the old man staring back at him was nothing like the taut-skinned pimply face of the 18-year-old he once was fifty years ago. He wondered if any of his classmates would even recognize him, and was a little fearful they might.

Taking the bar of soap and wetting it, he worked up soft white suds, which he gently massaged onto his cheeks and forehead. It was Dove. His mother swore by it, telling him it hid a thousands faults that had lined her face. He hoped she was right. It smelled good, anyway.

Rinsing and toweling off, he began to comb his hair. In his effort to distract from numerous bald spots, he had let it grow. He had never done the “old man thing” –– that of growing out the hair on one side of his head and combing it over his pasty dome. He had seen many of his father’s friends do that. Or pull it forward from the back in a quasi-Italian mafia style. He cringed at the thought. No, he preferred what he called the George Carlin look, and let his now fine and brittle hair grow long, into which he rubbed a special holding cream that cost far too much. He then combed everything back and into the nub of a ponytail, which he held in place with a tiny black rubber band. With his trimmed snowy beard and mustache, he fancied he did indeed look like the comedian. It was his homage to Carlin.

This, he thought, was the best of two worlds. He wasn’t hiding his hair loss, and he was making connection with the 60s and the hippy movement when he had been a fringe member in college –– until his dad sat him down and read him the riot act.

“I don’t spend good money on your education so you can traipse around looking like a long-haired freak, pretending to hate everything I’ve worked and stand for! Get it together, or get off the family dole!”

So he got it together. His dad was right on the money. The fling with the protest movements and anti-establishment was more or less a facade. Deep down he no more wanted to live in a commune with drug-heads than any other person. And while he shook his fist in rallies protesting the war, he was more afraid of being shot or blown apart than upset with the ethics of American presence in Vietnam. Plus, he had become used to the fineries his social and economic status afforded him.

He continued to primp, taking a small electric nose hair clipper to each nostril, and carefully plucking long eyebrows gone amok. Then he examined his ears, where to his horror tufts had appeared in recent years in the canals, but worse –– single hairs from his earlobes.

This was the first night of three at Caulden Academy for Boys. It was the must-do anniversary. The Fiftieth. After his graduation in ‘68, Chandler had been sporadic in his attendances, hitting the one-year and the five-year events. The first gathering was special because he knew many of the students and faculty still at the school. It was his opportunity to strut about on campus as a College Man; to flaunt the fact he could smoke there with impunity, and drink sherry with a faculty member without fear of being expelled. His second gathering he had graduated college, and was in his first year as an underling in the Chandler Corporation –– his gateway to ancestral sameness. His classmates were like him, many starting career paths. Still others were toe-deep in their post-grad pursuits of the law or medicine or some other impressive occupation. Fewer attended that reunion, although none had died yet.

Until tonight, there had been a drought lasting years where he had been too busy, too far away, too fearful to make an appearance. He had kept abreast of classmates who were featured by graduation class in the school’s annual report. It was how he found out the first death in his class was due to suicide. Other news items storied a variety of impressive and ho-hum feats, from world travel to partnerships in medical practices or prestigious law firms to various honors and accolades.

Chandler never sent in news items to the school about himself. Asked by his starter wife (he had gone through two wives) why that was, he couldn’t answer.

“You’re embarrassed, that’s why,” she said dryly.

He fell off the map where Caulden and his classmates were concerned, despite the regular requests for money, or invitations to attend school soirées held in local communities. Even his best friends at school grew distant, and he was totally out of touch with guys who helped him endure the prep school and its idiosyncrasies.

Satisfied he had soaped, cut, rubbed and covered enough to look presentable, Chandler reached for the starched dress shirt hanging from a hook on the hotel bathroom door. As he buttoned, he practiced smiles and looks of glad surprise. “Oh, you haven’t changed a bit!” he said mentally.

He opted to button his monogrammed sleeve cuffs, and not to insert the gold cuff links he brought. He preferred the toned down look. Tie, or no tie? Should he go casual, like a jet-setter? He chose a tie. It was a good juxtaposition to his ponytail, he thought. Go with who you are, his dad had told him. This is who I am, he thought.

As he measured the tie around his neck for a Windsor knot, he remembered Timbo Matthews. Timbo had taught him how to tie it. Previous to that he had always used the sloppy overhand knot he had learned when he was a Boy Scout.

“You can’t use that knot!” Timbo critiqued, then showed Chandler the only knot permissible if you wanted to prove you had class. For the school prom, Timbo tried to show Chandler how to tie a bow tie, but Chandler opted for the clip-on instead. Less frustrating. At least he still used the Windsor after all these years. When his dad retired from the family corporation, he took to wearing bolo ties, much to Chandler’s disdain.

“I can wear whatever the hell I like!” his dad said.

Chandler registered with the school for the reunion at the first email alert he received from the Caulden School for Boys Director of Development. He signed up for all the events, and made sure his room was booked in the only hotel in nearby Statler. That was months ahead of time. He even promptly filled out a questionnaire about himself that was to be reproduced in a yearbook format –– only paperback because of the cost. It was the first time Chandler could remember being put on an honor list of any kind having to do with Caulden.

Still, as the weekend neared, he found himself weighing whether or not to go. The class of 100 graduates had been whittled down to eighty or so due to a variety of illnesses and tragedies . His roommate during his Fifth Form year had just died. He had to find out via the annual report. It hammered home how out-of-touch he really was. Which led to him thinking about his starter wife’s comment. Was he embarrassed? He thought at age sixty-eight of what could or should he be embarrassed? Perhaps the greatest thing any of his classmates could boast about was that they lived long enough to attend the fiftieth.

He knew that wasn’t true. But embarrassed of what? Mediocrity? He was surprised to see one of his classmates referred to as The Honorable Terrence DuPree. A judge, for chrissakes! One day Terry bounded into his room during his Fourth Form year and dived onto Chandler’s bed as if to make a watermelon splash. The only problem was Chandler’s classical guitar was on the bed at the time!

When he was a student, comparisons were of a lesser, albeit more evil sort. Things like intelligence, looks, physique, athletics. Chandler fell into the midrange of each. He was smart, but not brilliant; okay-looking, but a bit dorky; never six feet tall; and though he reached varsity levels in sports his Six Form year, he mostly rode the bench. In college his greatest success was Shot-A-Minute Champ at his fraternity, and driving around campus in the ‘63 Chevrolet Corvette his dad gave him. Nothing stellar. And the guy who sat on his guitar at Caulden became a friggin’ judge!

Those thoughts gave him reason to reconsider attending the reunion. His was a hand-me-down career. The right of primogeniture and nothing more. Even his derelict brother –– the one everybody knew would end up to no good –– had created a business from the ground up that was now listed on the DOW.

Chandler pulled on stylish socks, then his pants, and slipped into his shoes. One last glimpse into the mirror. Oh, and a splash of Bay Rum cologne.

His hotel room phone jingled.

“Hello?” he said.

“Bart! Where the hell are you? The van is here to take us to school, man! Get your butt down here!”

Chandler felt a twinge of nausea and thought quickly about saying he was coming down with something.

“Yeah. Thanks. I’ll be right down.”

The Fourth Wall

15 Sep

The Fourth Wall*

 

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Charlie Dipple walks into the modest living room from his bedroom and stands in the middle of the space, just behind the large couch that forms the anchor for a seating area. Two comfy chairs are on either side of the couch and are perpendicular to it, framing three sides of the area. End tables with Tiffany lamps help define the seating area. An oval oriental rug with an ornately carved round coffee table forms the focus of the furniture.

Doors leading to his bedroom, a bathroom, the kitchen and a second bedroom are located on three of the four walls. The apartment door is on the far right wall, and has a peep-hole as well as several locks fastened to it. The fourth wall is comprised of two glass panels separated by a two-panel sliding glass door. The sitting area is oriented so that it faces that wall.

Dipple looks out the glassed wall at the skyline of Manhattan. He walks around the couch and one of the chairs and sits in that chair. He plucks a newspaper from the coffee table, switches on the lamp next to him, pulls out his black-frame half-lensed reading glasses and opens the newspaper with both hands, spreading it before him above his lap.

Then he hears it.

A cough.

Putting the newspaper down on his lap, his head cocked to one side, he says, “Miriam? Are you home from work?”

No answer. He shrugs and resumes reading the newspaper.

Again, a cough.

“Miriam? Sounds like you’re coming down with something, Dear,” he says, assuming Miriam has not heard him call to her, and that she is busy in the kitchen.

“Shall we have the leftover veal, or do you want to try the new French restaurant on West 64th, or would you rather go to Buvette? I don’t really have a preference. The veal would be fine, but I am in a bit of a French mood.”

No answer.

“Can you not hear me talking, Miriam?”

No answer. He puts the paper back on the table and gets up to walk into the kitchen, disappearing behind the mahogany swing door.

“Miriam?” His voice is muffled behind the door.

Dipple re enters the living room, a look of consternation on his face.

“That’s odd! I could have sworn Miriam coughed from one of the rooms!”

Cough.

“The bathroom!” He hurries to the bathroom door and knocks gently. “Miriam, are you in there? Is everything okay?”

No answer.

“Maybe the guest room,” he says, and crosses up to the guest bedroom door and exits, closing the door behind him.

He re enters and stands perplexed, scratching his head.

“You are losing it, Charlie Dipple!” He crosses to a wet bar buffet against the wall and pours himself a drink from a crystal decanter. “Bottoms up!” he toasts himself, and swigs the drink.

“Ahhh! Nothing like a smooth bourbon to calm my nerves. Really, everyone hears things that aren’t. And everyone talks to themselves, which is also normal and you don’t have to worry,” he said, crossing back to his chair. “Unless – unless you begin to talk to yourself in the process – which is EXACTLY WHAT I”M DOING!”

A wave of laughter.

He stands abruptly, and walks to the glass wall, looking out.

“Okay! THAT was NOT my imagination! THAT was someone laughing! Not just someone, but a whole shitload of someones laughing!”

More laughter. And a cough.

Dipple puts his nose against the glass wall, staring intently, his hands cupped on either side of his face in attempt to ward off the fading sunlight. His liquored breath steams the glass in a roundish pattern. Then he stands back, and moves upstage to his chair. He grabs the newspaper angrily, shaking it open, and begins to read.

Another cough. And a laugh.

He continues to read, gripping the newspaper tightly.

Silence.

A titter.

“I’m ignoring you,” he says through clenched teeth, still obscured behind the newspaper. Then, very slowly, he drops the newspaper on the fourth wall side, peering around the paper.

A low wave of laughter.

He jumps to his feet and storms back downstage to the window, crumpled newspaper in one hand.

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?”

More laughter.

“Are you SPYING on me? Are you the government, for God’s sake – ‘cause I pay my goddam taxes. Reluctantly, I will admit.”

More laughter.

“Who and where ARE you? You can’t be out in the air! We’re thirty-eight stories up!”

Titter.

He begins to feel the glass surface with his hands, rubbing as though cleaning it.

“No microphones. I don’t see any drones outside. What the effing-hell is going on here?”

Laughter.

“I’m warning you! Shut the eff up or I’m gonna do something really drastic – I mean it!”

More laughter.

He exits upstage to his bedroom and comes back in a moment with a handgun, which he frantically loads with a bullets.

“I am NOT kidding! I don’t know what the eff is going on, but it is NOT funny!”

More laughter.

He takes the gun with both hands, walks down to the glass wall, and draws the gun up level to his eyes, pointed at the window.

Laughter

“PLEASE! PLEASE STOP LAUGHING! DON’T MAKE ME DO THIS!”

Hysterical laughter.

He shoots six times until the revolver is spent, and only the click of the hammer is heard.

Silence.

Dipple drops his arms to his side, gun in one hand, and begins to sob.

Slow, crescendoing clapping.

Dipple looks up, and realizes the clapping is for him. He stands straight and tall, arms to the side, and bows deeply from the waist, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Bravo! Bravo! BRAVO!

He exits into the bedroom and shuts the door.

All the lights in the apartment dim to black.

A few moments later a loud bang is heard from the bedroom.

Silence.

A key rattles in the lock of the door to the apartment, and the door cracks open. A woman’s hand slips in through the crack and flicks the light switch on the wall next to the door.

The lights come up.

A dapper woman, attractive, enters, laden with several shopping bags.

She crosses toward the kitchen door.

“Charlie, I’m home! I’ve got some things to go with the leftover veal, but if you’d rather, we can go out. I’m kinda in the mood for Italian.” And exits into the kitchen, the swinging door flapping to a close behind her.

Laughter.

†††††

 

*All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players
;

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii

The Projects: Updated 09/14/2017

14 Sep

 

The Projects

Updated 09/14/2017

 

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The Projects – Updated 09/13/2017

13 Sep

 

The Projects

Updated 09/13/17

Click here.

 

 

 

2nd Edition, Through the Glass Darkly

19 Aug

 

Ray Ferrer’s cover illustration for Through the Glass Darkly

I’m making the manuscript of my second edition of Through the Glass Darkly available –after many attempts to figure out how to do it – for a limited time.

You are free to download and read the manuscript, as well as share it with others if you so care.

As I do plan to publish it, I hope you will benefit me with your comments, including which stories you liked and why, as well as those you didn’t care for. I will leave this page posted for your comments, but will dismantle the link to the file eventually.

Comments on plots, characters, dialogue, flow, etc., are all important to me. Not so much, “I liked this story” (which I used to say when I wrote book reports as a kid), but, “I liked this story because …”

I post to and maintain my online writing studio on WordPress because I seek feedback, as I imagine you do also. Whether positive or negative feedback, it is all beneficial to me in terms of my growth as a writer and poet.

Thank you in advance for those thoughtful comments.

LSM, 19 August 2017

Click the following link for the manuscript. Please alert me if you have any difficulty opening this file.

ThroughtheGlassDarkly_2ndEdition11-26-2015-TEST

The Projects

16 Aug

  

The Projects

By L. Stewart Marsden

Forward

Sometimes, just before waking, in that twilight of dream-sleep and consciousness, a thought or image or story or scenario will flit through my mind. Like a glint of light reflected off some shiny object. It’s there, and it’s gone.

Two thoughts – spawned perhaps by subconscious mulling over Charlottesville and the last several years of police action.

What if a person convicted of a hate crime – who had served the time – was paroled with the stipulation that he/she (mostly he, is my guess) served lots of hours working in the neighborhoods of the very people the hate crime was committed against? Impossible? I say this because on CBS evening news, a former member of a hate group was interviewed. This person, Christian Pitulini (sp?) joined a hate group at the age of 14, and quit a few years later to form an organization that actively works against hate groups. 

Second, below is another whimsical thought – the beginning of a story that addresses one possible way to span the chasm that exists between minority communities and the police officers who are charged with serving them.

– LSM

†††††

The Projects

Pastor Jeremy Tolbert rapped the table with his coffee mug amid the sudden outbreak of arguing.

“Folks, please! Just give me a moment to clarify things!”

The chaos continued.

“FOR THE LOVE OF JE-SUS!” he blasted, slamming his cup down, freezing the moment as if he had sprayed everyone with ice-cold water. “Please! Sit down!”

One by one his parishioners sat, still somewhat shocked by Tolbert’s anger.

“This is not the same old same old. It’s a new idea on a very old problem, and the Lord knows we need to try something new. Amen?”

Amen, came the reply in unison.

“Keydets are key people of all ages who live in each block. Young, old, men or women. Black, Latino, mix. Straight, gay. Liberal or conservative.”

“We got any conservatives in the hood?” piped up Simeon Crouch, and the room relaxed in laughter.

“We got one or two, Simeon. They just don’t want you to know it!” said Tolbert. “Here’s how it is different: we are the ones who choose our neighborhood block Keydets. Not the police department. Us. And there won’t be no uniforms or badges or guns or billy clubs issued.”

“How anyone gonna know who a Keydet is, then? And how they gonna enforce the law?”

“They won’t enforce anything. That’s not their job.”

“What they gonna do, then?”

“They will play a key role in communicating between the neighborhoods and the police department. We will know who they are because they will be trained to go into their blocks and areas and organize. In a few weeks, a Keydet is going to knock on each of your doors to sit down with you.”

“Organize what?”

“Well, help the neighborhoods know how to protect itself, and to know what to do to identify crime and criminals, and what to do about that kind of thing.”

“So they snitches.”

“Yeah, undercover cops!”

“NO!” Tolbert leaned forward on the table, his arms stretched out in front of him, palms down on the battered wood surface. “No.”

He surveyed the group. They comprised the leadership of Seventh Avenue AME Zion Methodist Church, where he had served going on two decades. He knew and loved each individual. He could talk spiritually to each person, and knew their stories intimately. How they struggled to make it in a world that seemed to keep them down and “in their place.” How they feared for their children, worrying that the streets would eventually drag them down into lives of crime – or worse. For many of them, that had already happened.

“They are not going to be snitches. They will be – for lack of a better word – Aarons. They will interpret our people and our ways of struggle to those who are charged with our protection.”

“Preacher, why you say Aarons?”

“You know, great as Moses was, he had one major problem. He told God he was slow of speech and tongue.”

“He had a speech impediment,” said Mabel Howard, fanning herself with the flat of her hand.

“Yes. So God appointed Aaron to speak to Pharaoh for Moses. And that’s what our Keydets will do for the community. They will interpret to their partners from the police department how we feel, what we need and what we want as a community from them.

“Our job is to identify these people.”

“You said they will interpret to their partners from the police department.”

“I did.”

“Who they?”

“Like our Keydets, they will be police officers of different ages and races and backgrounds. But a key part of the program, is these officers will have a history of misunderstanding our community.”

“What? Like they’s the ones that beats us up?”

“Not that extreme, Buck. But officers who have something in their history that lets their superiors know they will profit from being involved in the program. It will help to change their attitudes.”

“And how’s that gonna happen, Preacher?”

“In addition to choosing our Keydets, we are also responsible to train the officers.”

Once again the room exploded into vocal chaos. This time Rev. Tolbert waited, drumming his fingers slowly on the table. Gradually the storm passed, and the room quieted.

“The police department will train our Keydets. Observation and questioning skills. Recording skills. And some personal defense. The only equipment the Keydets will have will be an inexpensive cellphone they can use to contact their partner.

“We will train the officers. That curriculum will include a variety of things: our ways and how we view police; our hopes for the neighborhood – such as crime-free; and some basic language skills.”

A laugh rippled through the group.

“The only snitching to be done will be on each other. The Keydet will report to us, and let us know what his or her partner needs to work on. Same thing for the officer, who will report to the police trainer about what the Keydet needs training in.

“The goal, at the very least, is that these two people from two very different backgrounds and experiences, will come to understand and trust each other. They are our Adam and Eve project, in a way. And the hope is that a new and positive relationship between our neighborhood and those sworn to protect us will be the result.”

THAT IS HOW sixteen-year-old Jehwan Tyree Johnson and forty-two-year-old Officer Gabriel Sean O’Hare came to be partners in the southeast Mulholland District of the city.

†††††

“So, we gonna get paid to do this?” asked one of the potential Keydets. “I mean, seems if we gonna do all this work, we should get something for it.”

Heads nodded in the room and a low murmur ensued as those gathered whispered agreement.

“The grant does provide funds to compensate you. Not a lot. You won’t get rich if you choose to become a Keydet.”

“Then why should we care?”

Captain Irene Daniels resisted the urge to roll her eyes. All eyes in the room scrutinized her every move, word and voice inflection. Anything that detracted from “the sell” could mean potential failure. And, as the Chief of Police as well as the Mayor and District Attorney had carefully explained to her weeks earlier, there was no room for failure. The violence in Mulholland last spring could not be repeated. Nor the ambushing of police officers. Nor the display of brutal or fatal force against citizens on the part of her officers.

“Maybe you shouldn’t care. That’s for you to decide. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the anger and rage continues.”

“No, Ma’am – it matter,” said an elderly black man as he rose to his feet in the back of the room. “We have come too far since Dr. King was kilt. Now, maybe that’s not far enough for everyone, and you angry on a cause of that. But now? Seems we be slippin’ backwards towards those days don’t none of us want to ever see again. My boy couldn’t see straight ‘cause of he was mad! It got inside his head to where he couldn’t do nothin’ but hate and fight. Now he’s dead. No, Ma’am – it definitely matter.”

“Thank you, Mr. Terrell. I hope that this program will end the “we” and the “they” mindset we’ve all fallen into. So, yeah, the pay is not great. But you will be doing something positive to change this neighborhood and yourselves – plus the police force – for the good.

“Sergeant O’Hare is going to pass out your cell phones. These will be used for you to contact your police department partner, or they you. Don’t lose these, please. If something goes wrong with them, bring them back in and we will either repair or replace them.”

A large bear-like officer cradled a cardboard box, and began handing out cellphones.

“Hey, Chief!”

“Captain,” Daniels corrected.

“Oh yeah – Captain. Can you text with these?”

“You can text. But you cannot get on the internet. They are not smart phones.”

“They dummies!” a voice blurted out, and the room tittered.

“Make sure the phones are charged, and that you can bring up the phone number for your phone.”

“How you do that?” said an older woman.

“I’ll show you how, Miz Cruise.”

“Thank you, Jehwan. It is Jehwan, right?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Sergeant O’Hare is your police department partner, Jehwan.”

“No shit? Uh – sorry, Ma’am. Really?”

“Really.”

†††††

“And how old are you, Juwan?”

“Jehwan. Like a J with a wan. You know, Obi Wan? But it’s J-wan.”

“You’ve seen the movie?”

“Who ain’t?”

“So, J-wan … how old are you?”

“Sixteen. I’ll be seventeen next October.”

“Ah! Me too!”

“Damn! For a seventeen-year-old, you musta had a really hard life!”

“Smart ass! I meant I was born in October! You a Libra, then?”

“Nah. Scorpio.”

“A leader!”

“And a lover! Least that’s what the ladies tell me.”

“I’m a Libra. Intellectual, we are,” he said, trying to mimic Yoda.

“Didn’t know – ah, no – never mind.”

“Never mind what? You can tell me. We’re partners, right? Partners can tell each other anything.”

“I don’t know …”

“Go ahead. I’m a thick-skinned Irishman.”

“I thought the Irish were a little sensitive. Quick to get mad.”

“That’s a myth. Now, what were you gonna say?”

“What I was gonna say was I didn’t know cops were intellectuals – per se.”

O’Hare stopped in the middle of a spoonful of his ice cream soda. Jehwan could tell he was thinkin’ fast.

“How’s your Sundae?” he finally said.

“Oh, it’s fine! Very fine.”

They continued to eat their desserts silently.

“So, tell me: what are your superiors concerned about you?” Jehwan asked.

“What concerns? What’re you talking about?”

“Preacher Tolbert said, when we was recruited, that the police partners was chose based on – you know – some problem they has with people like me.”

“People like you?”

“Black people. People who live in Mulholland. You hit somebody?”

O’Hare put his spoon down. He was slowly turning red in the face. Jehwan wasn’t sure if the color change was anger or not.

“It was nothing. I made a mistake. I said something to somebody that I shouldn’t have said.”

“Yeah? What was it?” Jehwan’s eyes were wide with interest, and he leaned forward over the small table toward the officer. O’Hare said something – but it was garbled, and Jehwan didn’t understand.

“Say again?”

“You know. The N-word.”

“Wha?! You called somebody Nigger!”

“Shhh! Not so loud! I was angry, okay? The guy was a junkie. He was a worthless piece of shit!”

“Oh, my!”

“Let me ask you – why is it okay for a black person to use the N-word but not a person of another color? I don’t call all blacks the N-word. Just the scum-buckets. And don’t you call white people Honkies? Should I be upset about that? I mean, I’m not.”

Jehwan laughed out loud.

“That funny to you, is it?”

“Nah, man. Either way, nigger or honkie ain’t right. But that word you used. Scum-buckets!” He laughed again.

“That’s what they are! And so I called one black scum-bucket the N-word. What the hell is so wrong with that? Tell me, please!”

“It remind me of this YouTube video I seen where Eddie Murphy was like this old man in a sweater in some kind of kid show.”

“Mr. Rogers? Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a great TV show!”

“That’s it! Yeah, but Eddie was the black version, and he’s talkin’ ‘bout his landlord, and he looks into the camera and says all nice and all, ‘Can you say scum-bucket, boys and girls?’”

“Ha! Yes! I remember that one, too!”

They laughed. Then Jehwan drew himself as tall and as straight in his chair, trying to neutralize O’Hare’s size.

“So here the thing: it ain’t cool for a non-black person to use the word ‘nigger.’ That’s our word. We own it. Least that’s what Chance said when Bill Maher said it on his show. And besides, mostly we use ‘nigga’ – not the other one. So I ‘preciate that you do not use the words around me or my kind.”

“And I appreciate you not calling me honkie – or worse: carrot top, or spudfucker.”

Spudfucker!? Agreed.” They fist bumped to seal the vows.

“Well, that’s what got me into trouble. And that’s why the Captain assigned me to the program. And that’s why you and me are partners.”

“Not like you beat somebody up or shot them – like what’s been happening.”

“Just so you know, cop lives matter, too.”

“Shit! I don’t even want to get into this!”

“If we don’t, we won’t make any progress.”

“Progress. You don’t even know, man!”

Silence.

“So how’s your Sundae?”

“It’s okay.”

†††††

The police cruiser slowly passed Jehwan, who was walking quickly on the other side of the street. The interior light cast from the computer on the dashboard illumined the two officers, and he could see the one in the passenger seat was eyeing him carefully. Jehwan’s heartbeat stepped up several notches, and he slowed his pace to see if the cruiser would also slow. He put his hand in his pocket and clinched the cellphone given to him for the neighborhood/cop program. It was cool to the touch.

The cruiser did slow, and pulled over to the opposite side of the street and stopped. Of a sudden, the blue lights on its roof began to flash, and he saw the driver lean forward and a siren began to wail, as the car pulled out quickly, its howl subsiding as it sped down the street into the night and disappeared.

As on cue, the phone in Jehwan’s pocket vibrated in his hand, and he pulled it to his ear.

“‘Lo?”

“I’m running late, Jehwan. Go ahead and get started without me and I’ll be there shortly. Have to do something quick.”

“Yeah? Well get me one of the jelly-filled ones.”

“Jelly-filled what?”

Do-nuts! That’s where you’re going, right? To get coffee and doughnuts?”

“Ha! Only in the morning, my man. See you in a bit.”

Jehwan grinned, and stored the phone back in his pocket. He was glad to hear O’Hare’s voice, especially when he figured he was going to get waylaid by the city’s finest on a dark street.

He picked his pace up and turned the corner onto Seventh Avenue toward Seventh Avenue AME Zion Methodist Church, located across the street in the middle of the block. The only working street lamp on the avenue rose from the sidewalk at the foot of the church’s concrete steps, a wide swath that invited passers by to stop and climb them. During the day, the steps served as bleachers for spectators of pickup basketball games in the street.

The Reverend Tolbert had bought a portable basketball goal from Movement God and placed it across the street from the church steps. He had also put out a rubber garbage can full of street-ready basketballs. Jehwan always wondered why the balls were never stolen. Not one. One of his friends said if somebody ever did, they might end up in the river.

During summertime and on weekends, neighborhood kids swarmed the street to play three-on-three, and the goal had seen better days. Originally, Pastor Tolbert had leaned a piece of plywood against the wrought iron handrails of the steps. On it he painted “You must be this height or smaller to play basketball,” indicating a horizontal line drawn at about the five-foot level.

That didn’t go over well, and the bigger kids eventually started dominating the “court.” Of course he had to replace the metal rim and the backboard a few times due to kids dunking and hanging off the rim. And he went through a dozen or more nets. Someone told him he should put up chain nets like those used on the public playgrounds, but he refused to listen, remembering how he hated the metal sound of a swish compared to nylon.

“Only the best for my kids,” he said.

Parishioners laid out lane markings for the court, and spray-painted the lines with white paint. Then someone came up with the idea for an ongoing three-man basketball league, which Tolbert christened “Seventh Avenue AME Zion Methodist Church Trinity Basketball League,” a mouthful. Everyone called it The Trinity League, which suited Tolbert just fine. The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost basketball. The league grew, and so did Tolbert’s reputation as a voice of reason in the community.

Jehwan crossed the street under the basketball goal, flicking the bottom of the net as he passed. He thumped the garbage can full of balls and leapt up the steps to the church’s arched double doors. The doors were unlocked, as they always were, and he swung one open and entered the church.

The vestibule was small and covered in red carpet, which continued into the sanctuary and ran down the middle of rows of wooden pews. At the far end of the nave the chancel was elevated above the floor level. A baptismal font stood on one side of the chancel, and a dais on the other.

Seated on the edge of the chancel floor, feet dangling, Pastor Tolbert faced a small group of people seated haphazardly in the front pews. Only the chancel lights were on, the rest of the sanctuary shadowed in night tones. One one side of the aisle were people from the community, and on the other side, a variety of people from the police department, some in plain clothes, and others in uniform.

Tolbert looked up as Jehwan entered.

“Hey, here comes the last of our community Keydets! Everyone, this is Jehwan Johnson for those of you who don’t know him.”

Faces turned and people grunted various greetings as Jehwan eased into one of the pews toward the back of the group. Jehwan raised his hand and waved briefly.

“Where is your counterpart, Jehwan? Sergeant O’Hare?”

“Oh, he be here directly. He said go one with the meeting.”

“Okay, that’s a good idea. I know everyone wants to get started on time. All of your time is valuable, and I so appreciate your willingness to be here. May we begin tonight’s meeting with a prayer? Good!

“Dear precious Lord, we are set with a task that is bigger than any one of us. The wounds of this community gape open, and we seek your healing touch.”

Various impromptu responses of “Amen” sprinkled from the group.

“So we ask humbly, dear Heavenly Father, that you unite us as one body, with one accord and resolution to do whatever is necessary for this healing to take place. We know it will not be either a quick or an easy task …”

“Yes, Lord!”

“… as the gulf that separates us has slowly widened over the years and decades …”

“Uh-huh!”

“… and the distance between us is steeped with stubbornness …”

“That’s right!”

“… and ignorance …”

“Oh, my!”

“… and preconceived notions and falsehoods …”

“Je-sus!”

“… on all – I said ALL sides …”

Clapping, and arms raised, heads nodding and shaking back and forth.

“… There is no one but You, Father God, who can provide what we need today and evermore …”

“All right!”

“… which is the miracle of your healing hand …”

“Yes!”

“So use us, Lord, as you used Moses – use our mouths and our hands and our feet to lead this community out of its attitude of slavery …”

“Oh, Lord, do!”

“… into one of servitude to one another, that we may do unto others – NOT before they do unto us – but that we may do unto others as we would have them to do unto us. Amen.”

“Amen!”

†††††

The keydette training and officer training was difficult. Not physically arduous – but strenuous on a mental and psychological level. For Jehwan, the process of realizing that not all cops were racist or bullies or imbued with a disposition to prejudge anyone of color, or from another country, or who worshipped anybody other than Jesus – was, as he told the police instructor, “Tough as shit.”

On the other hand, Sargent O’Hare strained against second nature that had been ingrained through three generations of police officers in his family. He was used to throwing back a couple of beers at O’Malley’s On The River, and trading jokes with his fellow officers.

“A Jew, a Wop and a Wetback walked into a bar …” kind of joke.

Racist, he was told.

“By God and by Jesus! Them’s ninety percent of my joke repertoire!” he said, smiling in anguish. It was anguish over the loss of his favorite jokes, not that he was racist.

“You tell me the definition of racist!” he challenged Rev. Tolbert.

“Racism, in a nutshell, is the belief, however conscious or unconscious, that you are better than someone else because of the color of your skin. And in the case of your jokes, that extends to national origin, religion, and other things – like gender preferences.”

“Oh, well! Are you telling me we aren’t different? Are you telling me some people aren’t better than others? That a law-abiding citizen isn’t better than a low-life drugged-up gang-banger?”

“If you can, Sargent, try to strip away how one behaves from those attributes that define who one is.”

It baffled O’Hare that anyone could separate what someone does from what someone is.

“A junkie is a junkie. A liar is a liar. A thief is a thief. And so forth, Pastor. Is it my fault the majority of these criminals are from a certain class or race or religion? Look – my ancestors came over to America from Ireland. The way they were treated when they got here was a crime. But did the Irish give in to that crap? Hell, no! We persevered and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. There wasn’t no handouts for us. We had to succeed on our own! We are fighters! And that’s the only way you’re gonna make it in this world. You claw and scrap at anything and anybody who is in the way and you will eventually climb to the top of the heap! Period!”

“But you were never bought and sold, or separated from you wife or children, or hung because you tried to escape being a slave – all because you were Irish.”

IT WAS NO BETTER for Jehwan.

“So, the Man has always been there to keep us in our place – whether it was on the plantation or in the ghetto.”

“And by ‘the Man,’ you mean?” asked Captain Daniels.

“By ‘the Man’ I mean the ones who is in power. And mostly that’s white people.”

“Well, I have the power to keep the peace, and I’m not white.”

“You an outlier.”

“Nice word, and correctly used. But blacks have made great advancements since the time of slavery, or the time of Jim Crow.”

“Jim Crow’s coming back.”

“Why do you think so?”

“It’s so obvious! The most of us is still struggling to get somewhere and be somebody. We are a threat! I mean, what would happen if the black man was to somehow become top dog? All across the nation people – most particularly the Man – is gettin’ nervous and all about that very prospect. So he be cracking down by crackin’ us in the head. Or worse. And, by the way, the Man is using you, Brother. You think you have improved your situation, but have you really? I mean, you’re becoming just like him! The power has gone to your head! And to your billy club. And to your gun.”

“So what’s the answer, Jehwan?”

“I don’t really know. I mean you pull out these programs – like this one – and I don’t know if it’s to keep us quiet or to help. We are so far apart – I mean I not gonna hold my breath or nuthin’. It’s like Dr. King’s dream is just that – a crazy, unrealistic dream that not nobody gonna ever wake up to for real. That’s all it is, seems to me. A dream.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“Being sorry ain’t gonna change nuthin. Sir.”

Thus the Keydet program got off to a dubious, if not extremely shaky, start.

†††††

The phone call awoke O’Hare from a vivid dream. He reached over on the nightstand for his cellphone and turned on the lamp. His wife, in a harrumph, turned her back to him and pulled the bed covers over her head.

It was Jehwan. And it was two am.

“Jehwan? I know we’re supposed to be bonding, and all – but …”

“You got to come get me – now!” The urgency in his voice was enough. O’Hare threw his clothes on, grabbed his keys, gun and badge, then fairly leaped down the stairs and out the side door to where he kept his old Fiat.

The weather was cold and damp, and it took several tries to get the engine revving. He swung out of the drive and gunned down the dark streets. He had enough time to get a location from Jehwan before the boy hung up: Tyrone’s Bar-B-Que.

Jehwan was huddled in the small alcove of the front door of the restaurant. He wore a thick dark hoodie to protect him from the wet cold – or to keep him from being identified on the streets, though the Sargent . O’Hare stopped and unlocked the passenger door, and Jehwan jumped into the car. He was shivering – his eyes wide with fright.

“Let’s get the hell outta here!”

Before O’Hare could respond, the rear window on his side of the car shattered.

“What the hell – !?”

“GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!”

O’Hare floored the gas peddle. The Fiat sputtered, then shot forward, leaving a thick trail of smokey exhaust in its wake.

“What the hell is going on?”

“I’m in trouble.”

“No shit, Tonto! What kind of trouble?”

“I don’t think I can be a Keydet anymore.”

O’Hare slowed the Fiat and pulled to the side of the street under a street light.

Jehwan looked about nervously, casing the area carefully as he spoke.

“I got a visit tonight.”

“From who?”

“Let’s just say it was peoples that is not too excited about having somebody spy on them in the streets.”

“Spy? You’re not a goddam spy, for Chrissakes!”

“Yeah? That’s not what’s goin’ ‘round. Two other Keydets got visits earlier this week. A message is being sent – just like that bullet through your window.”

“For me, it’s nothing new. Don’t get me wrong – I might have pissed my pants. But cops get shot at all the time.”

“You not in your cop car, Sargent. You in this – this – what the hell kind of car is this?”

“Fiat. 1998. 250,000 miles and runs like a dream if you’re not awake.”

“They don’t pay you shit, do they?”

“My wife has the good car. Dodge Stratus.”

“Damn! Look – you can see they mean business.”

“And who is ‘they?’”

“The Cyclops.”

“A bunch of punks, Jehwan. Real fine citizens of your community!”

“The brothers got guns – big, bad-ass guns. And they ain’t afraid to use them.”

“Yeah? Well they ain’t very good shots,” O’Hare said, nodding toward the shattered window.

“If they had wanted, your head be busted open like a watermelon.”

“And their message to you?”

“Get out of this program. Or worse.”

“What could be worse?”

“Be dead. Or do like they want, and be a snitch on the inside.”

“What?”

“Keep them posted on you guys – the cops.”

“We got no secrets. Unless maybe a planned bust.”

“Exactly my point. You and I is a threat to their business. And they don’t tolerate threats, if you know what I mean. The next shot won’t miss, in other words.”

“I don’t want you to quit the program, Jehwan. These guys need to be kicked out of the neighborhood. They are the reason things are the way they are.”

“You may think that, but the way things are? It’s a lot more complicated than a bunch of gang members sellin’ dope. And everybody lives here knows that.”

“Well, we gotta start somewhere. You should stay in the program. Help turn things around. Get the gangs out of here.”

“How we do that? You think this is gonna do anything more than make things worse you are dreamin’, Man.”

“Like Dr. King said, ‘I have a dream …’”

“This is not a dream. This be a nightmare! And as far as they concerned? You and I are the Bogeyman.”

“So you’re gonna quit.”

“Man, this is my life we’re talkin’ about! They will kill me! Or, if not me, my baby sister, or my aunt, or my damn dog! And they wouldn’t blink twice about it. They been three drive-bys in the last six months!”

“I know. And we’re working on that.”

“Well, whatever you doin’ ain’t done shit!”

“That’s why this program –– ”

Fuck this program! Already things has not gotten better, but worse! You think the Cyclops gonna be rehabilitated? What they gonna be rehabilitated to? Shit, man, they wearing gold bling and got real diamond ear studs – real diamonds, I said! Got more weapons and ammo than the National Guard! Drivin’ fine cars! They own the neighborhood. They not lookin’ for more power ‘cause they is the power! Now you tell me –– they gonna give that up for a minimum wage job at Mickey Dee’s?”

“They’re a bunch of dumb thugs. There are at least ten ODs here every month, and out of those, six don’t make it. They are killing off the very customers they live off! You okay with that staying the way it is?”

“First, they ain’t dumb. They smart enough to not get caught up in the dope theyselves. And, ain’t but a few ever see jail –– but even so, they know they can catch up when they out. And they know they kids is protected and has food and rent money.

“Second, they don’t give a flyin’ fuck if somebody ODs and croaks. They’s always somebody lookin’ for a fix. And schoolyards of future customers.”

“Wow! I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you.”

“Why? You don’t think I understand where they coming from? Get a education, they say. That’ll give you a future! It ain’t no future possible if all the rest of the cards is stacked up against you. It don’t matter you can read or spell or do algebra if the door is always closed. Sure, they’s one in a million gets a chance to break out and make it. What they do then? Why, they move out of here and live in some exclusive neighborhood. Like they’s white, or something. How does that help me?”

“Yeah, but Obama ––”

“Don’t do that. He the outlier. He the exception. The man don’t even talk black. Now, if Jesse Jackson had become President? He a black man’s black man. He knows. He identifies. Where Obama now, ask me? He not down here with me. He busy sticking up for DACA. Am I glad he was President? Damn straight! It was about time that happened! But what happenin’ now? Cops beating up and shooting blacks every other day …”

“So what do you want me to do?” O’Hare had heard the rhetoric seemingly endlessly. It was a dead end street to him.

“I don’t want nuthin’ from you! Not no handout. Not no special consideration.”

“But what do you want?”

Jehwan leaned his head back, cradling it with both hands, arms raised.

“Opportunity. That’s all. Same considerations for me and my eventual children, based on my ability and my willingness. I want to work hard and earn respect for what I do and who I am –– not be seen or not seen because of the color of my skin. You ever look at a black person’s hand?”

“What?”

“My hand.” He reached out to O’Hare, palm up. “Look at it. See, the inside of my hand is the same as yours. Got the same kind of lines. Not too far from the same color, either. My hand is lighter on the inside than the backside.”

“So?”

“It ain’t no gorilla’s paw. They’s black on the back and the palm. I am not a ape.”

“I know that.”

“Do you? Really?”

“Look, Jehwan –– I am not your prejudiced person. I got plenty of black friends. Hell, I work for a black woman who gets paid more than me and can order me about. She’s more educated than me, and lives in a better neighborhood –– which, by the way, is mostly black.”

“That’s supposed to mean something to me?”

“I don’t know –– but it’s a start.”

“We been hearing ‘it’s a start’ since the Civil War! That’s like sayin’ ‘Well, you should be satisfied with the progress you’ve made and what you have, not with what you don’t have.’” He trumped up his voice to sound white.

“So you’re saying progress hasn’t been made?”

“Sure it has. But on a superficial level. And now, they’s whites that has put up with it and now are afraid and want to go back to the dark days.”

“C’mon –– you don’t believe that’s gonna happen.”

“I honestly can’t say it won’t. Especially given all of the evidence to the contrary.”

“So you’re gonna quit, and just let everything go the way it will. Not try to make a difference. Because, frankly, I kinda had this feeling this program was gonna collapse. Not because of the cops, either. I became a cop to make a difference. I want to be a peace officer, not an armed thug looking for somebody to pick on. Not all cops are in it to beat up and shoot people. We just want to get the bad guys off the streets so the good guys can live their lives with what you said –– equal opportunity.”

They both sensed it. Stalemate. Like a game of tic-tack-toe. No winner. No loser. The silence was thick, like the cold pouring through the shattered window.

“So, you gonna report this?”

“Report what?”

“The window.”

“Won’t do any good. I’ll tell the insurance company somebody tried to break into my car and they’ll cover the window replacement. Actually, that’ll probably cost less than my deductible, so I’m screwed because it means they won’t pay for any of it. Maybe I should drive back through here every night and get all my windows shot out. Then, at least, I’ll get something for all the premiums I pay. I mean, why even have insurance, right?”

“Well, least you got a car. Two, if I remember. And a police cruiser.”

A bit more silence.

“So, are you gonna quit or not?”

“And miss these philosophical interchanges wid you?”

“But what about the Cyclops?”

“What about them? They a problem no matter if I am a Keydet or not. Who knows? If we made it to the moon and back, maybe there’s hope.”

“Want a ride back to your apartment building?”

“Please.”

†††††

Frank Garver had a lot to live up to, and a lot to live down. Like most cops in the precinct he came from a long line of law enforcement, as in four generations long. “It’s in my DNA,” he often said.

Frank’s Uncle Stew Garver had forever set the bar for those Garvers that followed. Uncle Stew was hustling groups of people down the inside stairwell of the South Tower of the World Trade Center at around 10 am, September 11, 2001. Frank Garver was 17 at the time, just beginning his senior year at Queens Academy in Flushing. He could see the large plumes of black smoke rising in the distance through the classroom windows, and watched the television monitor as the tower began its slow, surrealistic implosion.

He was his uncle’s favorite nephew, and a member of the American Legion baseball team his uncle coached.

After graduating from the police academy, Garver pursued the most rigorous assignments, and never complained about the hours or the pay or the disrespect he was subject to on his various beats. That dedication paid off, in his estimation, when he was appointed to the undercover division of his precinct. It’s also when his anger and guilt began to eat away at his soul. That erosion took the form of risky behavior, initially, and led to alcohol and drug abuse later.

The department moved mountains to help him rehab, which he did. Several times. But the hook was in, and Frank Garver struggled like a snagged bass, doing everything he could to free himself.

Finally he had what he called a cathartic experience, when he was put back on the beat and his partner, John Llewelyn was killed in the cross-fire of rival street gangs. He had gone to church in the early morning after drinking away his partner’s wake, and, kneeling at the altar in St. Patrick’s, broke down. After three years sobriety, he was reinstated to the undercover division.

Most of the other cops gave Garver a wide berth, and figured he was destined for some catastrophic end. He didn’t care. Camaraderie was overrated in his book.

Garver sat bent over on the bench in front of his locker, going through his Rosary, when O’Hare entered the locker room and began to dress for the day, hanging his starched uniform on a hook in his locker.

“So how’s it goin’, Frankie?”

Garver looked up from his beads and smiled.

“Couldn’t be better, Sarg.”

“That’s good.” O’Hare began to undress to his skivvies, then don his uniform.

“How’s the Musketeer thing goin’, Sarg?”

“Musketeer? Oh. The Keydet Program. Actually, I think it might make a difference. I wasn’t sold on it at the start – but now, I don’t know.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath if I was you.”

“Why’s that?”

Garver turned on the bench and propped his feet up, facing O’Hare.

“Word on the street.”

“Which is?”

“I understand the Cyclops are not too happy about having cops and people in the neighborhood gettin’ all chummy. And, I heard you got a new rear car door window.”

“How’d you know about that?”

“Like I said, word on the street.”

“I figured there’d be some kickback on the part of the thugs. But when the fumigation is complete, them cockroaches will scatter like the pussies they are.”

“Maybe. But cockroaches have a way of coming back, no matter what kind of poison is used on them. Oldest animal on the planet, I heard.”

“Then why are you still a cop if you feel that way? If what we do doesn’t do anything, why the hell do it?”

“I owe people. The fucking terrorists and the fucking gang-bangers. Anything I can do to shorten the life of one of them, I figure it’s the least I can do.”

O’Hare nodded toward the Rosary beads in Garver’s hands.

“So, are those beads – or notches?”

Garver grinned, and slipped the beads into his jeans pocket. “Hard to say. So I guess the world has been turned upside down for you now.”

“How so?”

“You’re seeing Mulholland with new eyes, right? I mean, what has been the festering hole for some of the worst shit for human beings suddenly now has raised your expectations! Hope!”

“What’s your beef, Garver? I thought you had an ‘experience’ with God! What the hell is wrong with developing a new attitude, for chrissakes?”

“Nothing at all, my man! But be a cop, first. Everything isn’t always the way it seems. That’s the first rule of stayin’ alive.”

“What the hell do you mean by that?”

“Your Keydet. Jehwan, is it?”

“How – ?!”

“Leopards don’t change their spots, Sarg. Just remember that.” Garver slipped a hoodie over his head, closed his locker door, and walked out of the locker room.

“Asshole!” O’Hare said.

†††††

A gloved hand, finger covers missing, gripped the door to the Captain’s office and gave a gentle turn. Locked. A second gloved hand inserted a straightened paper clip into the keyhole, and wriggled the piece of metal until the lock yielded, and the door opened with a soft click.

The Intruder slipped into the office, leaving the lights turned off. A small flashlight helped navigate chairs and tables to the large desk dominating the floor space. The paper clip and a few seconds was all that was necessary to open a large file drawer in the desk. The Intruder sat in the Captain’s chair, wary of the sluggish night activity in the precinct room outside the glass walls of the office.

Fingers quickly rifled through the hanging file folders until a specific folder was discovered. Typed neatly on a label was O’Hare/Johnson: Keydet Program. The Intruder slowly pulled a manilla folder out, and slipped it under a worn wool sweater, tucking the bottom of the folder under the top of his jeans. He closed the drawer, and stood to leave.

“Hey! What the hell are you doing in the Captain’s office?” The ceiling light suddenly flickered on as an officer stood in the doorway of the office.

“I had a meeting with Daniels this afternoon and left my cellphone in here.” The Intruder raised his gloved hand that held his cellphone. “See? I came in to find it.”

“In the dark?”

“First rule of investigative search, my man: turn the lights off and use a flashlight. You see things easier that way.” The Intruder flicked the small flashlight on and off to demonstrate.

“You are such a case,” the officer said.

“Fuck you,” replied the Intruder, shoving past his discoverer. “I got duty tonight. Have a pleasant evening.”

†††††

 

O’Hare burped loudly, and pushed away from the table.

“Sean!” his wife responded.

“What can I say? It’s a compliment in some cultures,” he grinned.

His son laughed out loud, and forced his own burp.

“See what you’re teaching him?”

O’Hare patted his son on the shoulder as he walked into the living room.

“The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, my Dear.”

He sat in his favorite lumpy chair and grabbed the remote, flicking on the flatscreen. He knew the UFC channel by heart, and turned to a bout between two rugged and muscular fighters. As he leaned back to fall into his customary after-dinner snooze, his phone vibrated.

“Damn!”

It was Jehwan. A text.

I need your help! Can you meet me at the church by the basketball goal?

WHAT’S GOING ON?

I don’t have time

ON MY WAY

“Marie, I gotta go.”

“What this time?” She said it as though she had said it a thousand times before, with a tired, defeated tone.

“Hey! Sorry, Hon. It’s Jehwan.”

“That boy will be the reason I divorce you.”

“I know,” he replied gently, and kissed her on the forehead. He grabbed his coat and waved at his son as he opened the door to leave.

“Bye, Dad!”

And was gone.

†††††

The Fiat literally smoked through the night streets. O’Hare was a bit miffed, like his wife. But he understood. He decided to talk to Jehwan and stress how little time he spent with his family. How police work wasn’t a 9 to 5 job. How his wife always worried if he would return home, whether or not she said it.

“This’d better be something,” he grumbled to himself as he turned down Seventh Avenue. He could see someone who looked like Jehwan sitting on the church steps in the light of the street lamp. He pulled over and parked and got out.

“What’s the problem?” he said in a loud voice.

“What? What’re you talking about? I was going to ask you the same thing!” Jehwan said, walking toward O’Hare in a huff.

Then it dawned on the cop.

Damn! We’ve been set up! Get into the church – quick!”

But it was too late.

†††††

The decision to hold services for both Sargent Gabriel Sean O’Hare and Jehwan Tyree Johnson met resistance from no one. Not O’Hare’s wife and son; not Jehwan’s mother or sister or other family members. And to hold it at Seventh Avenue AME Zion Methodist Church in the Mulholland projects was also a unanimous choice.

The day was not gray with clouds, nor maudlin with dreary rain, but the contrary. A beautiful blue sky looked down two communities gathered to morn and celebrate their lives and contributions.

Along Seventh Avenue officers of the Twenty-first Precinct lined the street on one side, dressed immaculately in their formal blues. On the opposite side of the avenue gathered those who knew, as well as those who did not know, Jehwan and his family.

Two shiny black funeral limousines turned down the street, headed for the church. Flags and flowers decorated every foot of the short drive from the corner. A line of six police officers, dressed in Scottish garb, marched slowly down the street in a wide line, bagpipes to shoulders, regimented in every movement. The lonely shrill of the pipes echoed Amazing Grace in the canyon of the avenue, the pipers turning at the steps of the church and splitting evenly on either side of the stairway.

The first limousine held Jehwan’s coffin. Eight pallbearers stepped forward as the coffin was rolled from the rear of the car. Four of the pallbearers were police officers, and included Captain Irene Daniels. The four other pallbearers were family members of Jehwan.

The second limousine held Sargent O’Hare, and again, eight pallbearers stepped forward. Four officers, and four from the community – including Pastor Jeremy Tolbert.

As the two coffins were lifted and carried up the stairs and into the church, the bagpipers fell into double lines behind the procession. The coffins were placed at the front of the church on either side of the midline.

Pastor Tolbert climbed to the pulpit and held onto either side of the wooden structure, gazing into the faces and eyes of those gathered. He nodded, and the piped song ended at the next refrain, the pipers slowly splitting to either side of the sanctuary where they stood at attention.

“What a beautiful day to honor two beautiful people: Sargent Gabriel Sean O’Hare and Jehwan Tyree Johnson.

“As they have become a part of us over the months, as they have struggled and succeeded – yes, succeeded in helping to bring us all together – we have much to be thankful for.”

Scattered amens echoed in the sanctuary.

“Sargent O’Hare and Jehwan came together as a part of The Keydet Project. Many of you know about it, and many of you are participating in it.

“And just as this program was indeed a project here in what many call the projects, so were Sargent O’Hare and young Jehwan.

“As are we all. Projects.

“We come together today as unfinished projects; as projects that are in some way crude, with a long way to go before we are finished products.

“But, rest assured, we are in the Master’s hands, and he will see each of us through to the end.”

Amens and hallelujahs.

“I know this is a hard time for the family and friends of these two. My heart aches, and I would like more than anything we were not gathered here for this occasion, God knows.”

Well!

“But this I know: that in that day I will stand in the presence of God Almighty, when I hope, through his Grace and Forgiveness, that he will say to me, “Well done!”

Tolbert turned and nodded at a young black woman off to the side who was dressed in a deep red choir robe. She stepped forward and began to sing.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll …

Her voice started out light and soulful, the notes filling the sanctuary with reverence and pain. Then she stood straight and resolute, arms to her side, hands balled into fists, her eyes looking up into the great arch of the sanctuary.

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say …

She became more than a conqueror on the last line, raising both arms and hands high above her head, her voice trembling with emotion.

It is well, it is well, with my soul!

Tolbert stepped to the side of the podium, and motioned to the congregation to rise and join in the chorus, well-known by some, awkwardly unfamiliar by most.

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul!

The grand blend of voices crescendoed and hung in the air, as the drifting sound of bells knelling on a distant hill.

Tears flowed freely, and handkerchiefs flapped like flags throughout the congregation. Tolbert returned to the podium, and raised his hands for silence and attention.

“I do not think it inappropriate to ask the members of my community, and the members of the police community, to move from where you currently stand and to integrate – if I may use that word – into one united body.”

Then he nodded and directed with his arms as the attendees slowly realized what he meant, and began to mill and mix with each other, shaking hands, hugging, and exchanging quiet and brief words to each other.

As family, friends and neighbors and police officers became indistinct from each other and melded, Tolbert began to sing.

A-a-ma-zing Grace, how sweet the sound

And as others joined in, the bagpipers began to play. The pallbearers resumed their positions, bearing both coffins back down the center aisle and down the steps to the awaiting limousines, followed by the bagpipers and the congregation.

At the end of the street, parked off to one side inconspicuously, was a sleek Ford Mustang. Its passengers were shaved bald, with greenish-black tattoos running up their necks, and covering each arm with sleeves of diabolical renderings.

The driver put on dark sun glasses, and lit a cigarette, then reached down and patted the handgun resting on the console. He looked around and grinned at his passengers, who took the safety locks off their guns. Then the driver reached to turn the key in the ignition.

The End

Note: This is the germ of a story on a contemporary problem. The central idea is two persons of different backgrounds are thrust together, not necessarily in accordance with their will, to try to work towards some semblance of understanding and cooperation for the good of all. Kind of like Congress, too. If you would like to see more of the story unfold, please say so. If you have any contribution or ideas as to how the story should/could progress, comment on that also. Thanks for the “likes,” but it is your comments I’m more interested in. LSM.

Expectations of the Anticipatory Kind

2 Nov

Expectations of the Anticipatory Kind

By L. Stewart Marsden

He stood in an awkward way,
Fidgeting with the watch in his pocket,
Rubbing his thumb over the smooth glass face and the protruding stem,
And remembering the words to the telegram,
Now indelibly etched in his memory:

Coming.
Stop.
Taking the 511 out of Philly 3 Oct.
Stop.
One trunk of clothing.
Stop.
Three day trip unless delays.
Stop.
There is no turning back now.
Stop.
Jane.

He leaned back and closed his eyes.
The late afternoon sun warmed his lids red from the inside.
He was reminded of a trip to a beach when he was young back East.
He lay on the sand, bathed in radiant heat from the sun.
Nearby waves crumbled onto the shore, creeping ever closer.

Notice:
Retired school teacher looking to relocate to the midwest.
Single, unmarried.
No children.
No emotional baggage.
Reasonably attractive.
Hard worker.
Marriage or companionship, preferably the former.
Respond to Box 14-U, …

And over the year, a conversation by mail.

I don’t know your name …
Jane
But if you don’t mind a small and simple house
Small and simple is fine
And a man who is straight-forward
I prefer an honest man
Who is sober
I do not drink whiskey
And is content to live within his means
I own two dresses and a ring my mother gave me, that is all
Then perhaps you will consider my proposal
Without a doubt!
To continue writing in order to know one another better
As you wish.
I was married before
I am fine with that. I have never been married.
But she died during the birth of our son
How heart-breaking!
And I have been making the best of life since
Perhaps a good woman might help fill that empty place?
As you can tell, I am not a man of letters
I prefer a simple man
And I am not inclined to attend church on Sundays
I understand. I can read my Bible by the fire.
But do, on occasion, go into town for levity and square dancing,
I have been known to dance on occasion myself.
I have 16 acres of land adjacent to a creek, which provides water
It sounds delightful
And I raise 20 or so head of cattle which I calf and keep along with the milk cows
Very pastoral! You could teach me to milk the cows?
Other than my best bull, the rest are sold and I make out okay
Again, I am not a presumptuous woman
I keep chickens and a few hogs, and have a small garden
You are a self-sufficient man, indeed!

The iron steam engine hissed into the station, coming to a gradual stop.
Porters and baggage men hopped into action, aiding and unloading passengers and luggage.
He stood straight up, pulled off his best hat, and spit-smoothed his hair along the sides of his head.
He yanked his britches up, and tightened his belt.
The end tip of a laced parasol appeared from the steps of one of the passenger cars, and a porter reached up from the platform.
A gloved hand next extended to take the offered help.
He stared, and held his breath.