The Womanless Man, Continued, 4

6 Feb

The Womanless Man

Continued, 4

L. Stewart Marsden

Go to previous installment

Go to story beginning . . . 

 

* * * * *

“How is it?”

Stew couldn’t tell any difference between regular chili and deer chili, so he chose the diplomatic response.

“Best chili I’ve ever had!”

“And no fat! Actually good for you. I don’t know what all the ruckus about hunting is about. See, you get exercise tramping about in the woods trying to find a deer, and most the time you don’t. Every part of the deer is used. The wild animals get a free meal without having to do much — kinda like wild welfare. You think that’s where we came up with the idea for the government dole?”

“Don’t know. I doubt it. You and I don’t know what it was like during the depression.”

“That’s true. You want a swig?” Brent offered his silver flask to Stew. Stew immediately thought to say “no,” not knowing where Brent’s mouth had been lately, but reconsidered. The alcohol probably killed anything growing in his killing partner. And he was still shaken over shooting the deer, and wanted to dull his thinking. He could hear the tinnitus beginning to kick in.

“So Brent … how do you deal with taking a life?”

“Shit, it’s hunting — that’s what you do. You didn’t grow up hunting, right?”

“No.”

“I did. The family owned a plantation in Florida that went back for generations. We’d go out hunting all the time. Didn’t bother with seasons or licenses back then. Shot what was on our property. Quail, deer, bear.”

“There are bears in Florida?”

“Oh yeah. And you have to be real careful with your aim with those fuckers. Miss like you did today and they might run away, or, they might charge you. And those rascals can move. You get a wounded three hundred pound black bear coming after you and there’s no where to hide. Forget climbing a tree.”

“So you are used to killing animals.”

“You have led one sheltered life, my friend — that’s obvious. But I’m not like some hunters, who use spotlights and thermal scopes. I give my game a fair chance.”

“Fair?”

“Look, conservationists will tell you thinning a deer population protects them. We’ve turned the land into highways and malls and parking lots and cities and all. We’ve destroyed their natural habitat; have reduced their food sources to practically nothing. So hunters are kinda humanitarians in a way. But with animals. So we’re animaltarians, right? Besides, being a hunter is a billion year old drive in men. We were born to hunt and bring home the bacon, among other things.”

“Man, or men? What about women?”

“Men. You and me. Of the male persuasion. Women are there to stand alongside us. Or sit on top of us,” he chuckled salaciously. “So, switching the subject, you out there again?”

“Out there?”

“Sniffing the wind. Prowling the bars. You know — dating!”

“Why do you ask?”

“‘Cause it’s not good for a man not to have a source of relief.”

“Relief for what?”

“Sexual tension,” he hissed with a snakelike hiss. “That’s just basic. Man, when my wife died it wasn’t two weeks before I had several women. At our age we owe it to the world of women! Of course, thank God for Viagra!”

Stew laughed. He was so different from Brent — but found him to be unabashed and refreshing. More like a pimply teenager who can’t concentrate on anything other than women for more than a few seconds.

“You have a one-track mind, Brent.”

“At my age, I’m lucky to still have my mind! So, are you out there?” Brent persisted.

“No.”

“Your tried these online dating sites?”

“Several. I hate them.”

“I had a romp or two with girls I met online.”

“Girls?”

“Women. God, that makes me sound like a pedophile!”

“That wouldn’t surprise me. What’s the youngest you would date?”

“Well, let’s see … she would have to be at least old enough to carry across state lines!” A big guffaw. 

“Seriously!”

“Okay. So here I am — seventy-two. Got cancer. Take heart medication along with six other prescriptions. Gonna get my knee replaced soon. But I’m sure as hell not in the ground — yet. And as far as I’m concerned, a girl is a woman when she’s making a living and no longer living with her parents. So … what, 19? That’s what Steely Dan, said. Good god, Groucho Marx had a kid when he was in his 70s. At least I got the sense to keep my baby maker wrapped up! And then there was Rockefeller, right? Banging a twenty-five year old when he went out! Now, that’s the way I want to go out!”

“So being fifty years older doesn’t bother you?”

“Well, I’ve got grandchildren that age — so, yeah. But not so much as to keep me awake at night worrying about it. Besides, these are not my grandchildren! C’mon, Stew, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t like to have a young nubile go down on you!”

Stew sighed. 

“I was ten years older than my Ender Wife. I was 42 and she was 32. It didn’t make any difference back then, and, yeah — there was a bit of the forbidden about it that was exciting. But I didn’t marry her for the sex, Brent.”

“Right.”

“No, it’s true. I never stopped to think what it was going to be like when I was 50, or 60. I was in love, which my Starter Wife said would never happen again for me. But those ten years did make a difference. She started suggesting I darken my hair to look younger. Maybe some Botox, or even a tummy tuck. Things like that. She said I needed to stay competitive in my work, you know. But I finally figured out it was because she was becoming more aware of me getting older. I was a reflection on her, and if I was getting older, she was getting older. Age and women are not a good mix — at least in a woman’s mind.”

“Well, I don’t think a man has to shut down because of age. I might be in my seventies, but I always figure the best part of me is still to come — and the pun is intended,” he laughed.

“You want more chili?” Brent stood and stretched, illumined by the campfire.

“No, thanks.”

“Well, you hardly ate any!”

“Not that hungry.”

Brent took Stew’s paper bowl and put it in a garbage bag hanging from a limb.

“So I met this incredibly good-looking gal online, okay? She wasn’t young — but she wasn’t old, either. Helluva stack! And we hit it off from the get-go. God! After a week I was so worn out I musta looked like a sailor — bowlegged and all. Anyways, everything is going fine when she suddenly asks for directions!”

“What?”

“You know, where is this relationship going?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“So I tell her ‘Look, Babe, I been married twice — and each one ended not so great. I’m in this for the fun, not the commitment.’ Wrong thing to say. Or at least the wrong time. Now I say it up front. I think women appreciate that, not confusing double-talk.”

“I take it you no longer see her?”

“Oh, not at all! We hook up from time to time.”

“While you’re with someone else?”

“Long as they know, they’re mostly okay with that.”

“Aren’t you afraid of …”

“Afraid of what? A jealous boyfriend or husband? Hell no! I got guns to take care of them.”

“No. I mean aren’t you afraid of disease?”

“The clap? Crabs? That’s why God made penicillin! And why we have Medicare! It’s a one-two punch! You afraid of getting some kind of disease?”

“It has crossed my mind to ask for a notarized medical history whenever I date someone. You know, kind of a prerequisite to sex.”

Brent laughed and took a long swig from his flask.

“You kill me, Stew! I have never met a guy so opposite of me — and still I like the hell out of you!”

“Nice to know.”

* * *

The fire and the talk finally died down. Stew pulled himself into his cocoon-like sleeping bag and rested his head on a rolled up wool sweater. Brent lay on the other side of the fire, his back to Stew, small puffs of steam rising above his head in the dim light of the embers.

Stew could not sleep for thinking about the day. Especially the shot. Each time he closed his eyes his mind drove him back to that moment where his and the buck’s eyes locked. And then the round eyes of the deer became the black eyes of the robin. A puff of smoke from the end of the rifles, and the bullet or BB emerging so slowly, arching through the air, striking the hide of the deer or the wing of the robin. 

His tinnitus kicked in — like the scratchy screaming music of the bathroom scene in Psycho; only he held the knife and approached the shower, ripping back the curtain to reveal his first wife, or second wife, or the robin, or the deer — all startled and flashing back with wide,  panicked eyes. 

He sat up and looked at his watch. Three in the morning. It was cold, and he stirred the blue-red coals with a stick, sending showers of flickering sparks up into the night air. He threw another wooden limb on the fire, and watched as it took light, and crackled. Brent was like a corpse, motionless, and if it weren’t for the low tremolo of his nasal snoring, Stew would have taken him for dead.

Every now and then the fire flared with a hiss, and he could see the carcass of the buck hanging a few yards away — like some kind of rustler who had been caught, sentenced, and executed. Stew wondered if some small herd was carefully moving through the woods in search of their father or brother. 

Then he heard a noise — a branch breaking under foot of something. He peered into the dark while he fumbled for his flashlight.

Another crack!

He looked over at Brent, who was on some far away island with naked women. Stew avoided saying anything. His tinnitus had stopped completely as he strained to pick up the slightest sound.

A rustle of leaves and a heavy plod from the direction of the hung carcass.

He took his flashlight and placed the bulb end into his hand, and turned it on carefully. His hand glowed red from the light. Holding the flashlight against his hand, he slowly lifted and pointed the flashlight in the direction of the noises. He turned the light off, removed his hand from the bulb end, then quickly turned the flashlight on again, sending a beam of light piercing the dark toward the sounds.

“Shit!”

* * *

Continued …

The Womanless Man, Continued, 3

1 Feb

The Womanless Man

L. Stewart Marsden

Continued, 3

 

Go to previous installment

Go to story beginning . . .

* * *

The rifle kicked back into his shoulder and interrupted the silence with a crack that echoed about the woods. As with the Daisy shot, Stew watched the bullet emerge from the smoking end of his gun, and saw it speed in slow motion toward the buck, who had lifted and turned his head toward the sound, the deer’s eyes meeting Stew’s.

Before it could turn and leap out of the path of the missile, it hit him. Not an immediate kill shot to the heart, but higher into its neck, knocking the stag briefly to the ground. It stumbled back on it’s legs and bound away into the thick trees and brush.

“Goddamit, Stew! He’s fucking wounded! Now we gotta go chase after him!” Brent angrily grabbed a canvas bag out of his back pack and dashed out of the blind, making a beeline to the spot where the buck had been shot.

“Well … c’mon!” he turned back and called to Stew, who was more than disoriented. Stew shook himself and grabbed his rifle, and stepped out of the blind to follow his leader.

“Leave the gun!” Stew carefully lay the gun down next to the blind, then ran to catch up.

The two swiftly navigated the trail, which Stew could not discern. 

“I got him,” Brent called, pointing ahead. Stew could see nothing but brown leaves and cold gray oaks and pines and saplings.

Heaving great clouds of breath the two staggered up an incline, and Stew finally saw the buck down on its knees, panting for life. Brent reached into the canvas bag and pulled out a handgun. Arming and readying the gun to shoot, he placed the barrel next to the deer’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun gave a slight kick, and the deer collapsed onto the ground, eyes rolling back and tongue protruding from its black lipsticked mouth.

“I use a .22 to finish them off when I have to, just in case you want to mount the head. Less damage for the taxidermist.”

“I don’t care to have the head.”

“See, this is why you want a clean kill. Boom … in the heart and the buck is dead. Doesn’t feel a thing.”

Stew wondered how Brent knew that.

“ Keeps him from running away, too. We’re lucky he went uphill ‘cause he could have gone down into a ravine or something. We’d have a helluva time pulling him out and down to the blind. Help me hang him up.”

Brent then grabbed a coil of rope from the bag and looked around for a strong branch.

“Hang him up?”

“Gotta drain him and skin him quickly. It’s cold enough, but if we don’t skin him, the meat could go bad. His skin keeps the meat warm, and you don’t want that. Ah, there’s a perfect one!”

Brent held on the end of the rope and threw the rope coil up and over a thick tree branch. He tied one end around the buck’s neck.

“Don’t just stand there, help me pull him up!”

Stew and Brent pulled the lifeless dear up until its feet were off the ground. Stew held on while Brent tied the rope off around the tree, then returned to his bag to retrieve a knife. Stew couldn’t take his eyes off the beast, swaying slightly, the rope taut and creaking against the tree limb. He thought of Clint Eastwood, hanging in the breeze.

“You can let go of the rope now, Stubie.”

Brent turned the deer to face him, then slit open its abdomen between its hind legs. Bright red blood poured out onto the ground, running in rivulets down the slope and pooling in various places.

“Takes about ten minutes for the blood to drain, then we’ll skin him and clean out the offal. I like to bring ‘em down to the carcass. Some people eat the offal — intestines and stuff — but I leave that to the critters out here. Kind of a mystical dust to dust thing.”

Brent began skinning the deer while Stew watched. It seemed like an autopsy to him, and he was the squeamish sort. Amazingly, as Brent skillfully worked, Stew didn’t gag or have to turn his head.

“I feel like we ought to say a prayer or something,” Stew offered.

“You can if you like. Won’t bother me. The Indians would do that sort of thing, I guess. You know, offer up the deer’s spirit to the Great Spirit. And the Jews do that to. Didja know they got special rabbis who work in the slaughter houses? That’s so the meat is kosher. Wonder if they do that for pickles and hot dogs?”

It seemed the deer was skinned in no time, it’s muscles and tendons bared to show how strong and lean the buck was — like in biology class, where textbooks illustrated the human body with overlays of the muscular system down to the skeletal system.

Brent then cut up the belly to the breast bone, then retrieved a small hack saw to cut through the rib cage. He pried the chest open and held it with a piece of wood, then scraped the chest cavity clean of the innards, lungs, and heart.

The bowels and innards steamed in the cold. Stew thought how surreal the process was. Just an hour ago this buck had stumbled onto the deer corn in the clearing. Now, he was denuded of his skin and fur, and gutted. Only he hooves and head remained to tell what this carcass had been. He thought of the robin, slipping down the sewer drain, perhaps dying from the BB wound, or drowning in the sludge of the sewer. 

Both fell at the twitch of his index finger. Were their deaths arbitrary? Or was it part of some universal and cosmic intent that they suffer at his whim. Did that make him a god or an executioner? Or perhaps, a murderer.

What else had he intentionally killed or brought to an end? His marriages? His relationships?

Finally, Brent pulled a reinforced blue plastic tarp and roll of duct tape from his bag. He draped the hanging carcass with the tarp and crisscrossed the outside with duct tape to hold it in place.

“Pull up on the rope a bit, will ya?” Stew pulled the rope, giving Brent enough slack to untie the rope from the tree.

“Okay, let it go.”

The once-beautiful and graceful buck collapsed to the ground in the blue body bag.

Packing and handing his bag to Stew, Brent grabbed the rope and began to drag it.

“Need help?”

“Naw, I got it. You know, I was hunting with another guy and after I got through preparing the kill, he asked if I used my tools on humans?”

“He did? And do you?”

“Only the ones that deserve it,” and laughed.

* * *

To be continued …

The Womanless Man, Continued, 2

31 Jan

 

The Womanless Man

L. Stewart Marsden

Continued, 2

Go to previous installment

Go to story beginning . . . 

* * * * *

The blind had obviously been there for years. Brent found it one day on another hunting trip, and took some time to make small repairs. 

“Now you take the fox pee and spread it around the place — sparingly though — it doesn’t take much.” Brent talked in a loud whisper.

Stew obeyed. As he circled the blind, he noticed deer corn strewn about in the woods. 

The two sat with their backs against one of the rickety walls of the blind, their breaths steaming from their noses and mouths. Brent’s fu Manchu had already begun to ice up, as had his eyebrows. His head was well insulated with a wool toboggan and fleece hood, both a bright orange.

Brent showed Stew how to load his rifle and site through the scope. He pointed out a feature than enabled low-light vision.

“God, man, with all this high-powered technology, it’s a wonder there are any deer anywhere.”

“No shit. But if you follow the rules, like hunting in season, and hunting fairly …”

“Which is an oxymoron,” Stew chided.

“… hunting fairly,” Brent repeated, “the deer population is actually on the increase. Hell, I saw one eating my hostas the other day and thought ‘Damn! If I’d only had my gun or my bow!’”

The day passed quietly. Every so often Brent would chuckle to himself, then tell Stew an off-colored joke. Stew wondered if Brent ever had anything on his mind other than boobs and pussy.

“So the guy my first wife left me for, after about a year — we become buddies. And he says to me, he says ‘You never told me she was like this!’ And I say, ‘You never asked!’

Brent wore everything on his sleeve, and especially after a couple of swigs from his silver flask. Stew was more circumspect, but gradually, between the boredom, the cold, and the bourbon, began to open up. He told him about his Starter Wife’s indiscretions.

“Shit, man! I’da got my gun and blown the nuts off those guys.”

“Good for them it was me and not you, then. Plus we wouldn’t be out here in the freezing cold if you had cause you’d be serving three life sentences.”

“Well, once you’ve got your first kill, it begins to run in your veins.”

“You talking about men or deers?”

“Deer, dammit! Get your fucking hearing checked! Anyway, I swear to god, there’s no meat like deer meat, Stubie. Pure lean. Very little fat at all. And … no additives! I brought along some deer chili for supper and you will think you’ve died and gone to heaven!”

“I ate deer once on a camping trip with my Scout troop. Some guy fried up chunks of deer in butter. It was really good!”

“You wait. You fire off a round and get a buck or doe, and all this misery will be worth it, I swear.”

Then, as if on cue, Brent thumped Stew’s chest with his gloved hand and gave a loud “Shhhhh!”, then pointed out to a small clearing they’d been watching. Stew’s heart began to beat rapidly as a large amber-colored deer nosed cautiously through the trees and into the clearing. 

“A buck!” Brent whispered excitedly.

The male stepped with practiced motion, as though choreographed, toward deer corn piled high by Brent earlier. Sniffing the air, looking about nervously, the animal seemed to check off a mental list of precautions before exposing his full body in the clearing. He shivered along his flank against the cold, and dipped his nose toward the corn.

While Stew watched, mesmerized, Brent had carefully picked up a rifle and checked to see it was ready to fire. He nudged Stew out of his daze, and slowly handed him the weapon, nodding toward the buck. Brent’s face was aglow with excitement, his eyes wide, as he kept nodding and grinning at Stew. 

Slowly, Stew lay down on his stomach, and put the rifle stock against his shoulder, his cheek feeling the cold wood. Clicking the safety off, he leaned into the gun and positioned his eye against the scope, then moved the barrel until the crosshairs found the spot on the deer, just behind the front shoulder, that Brent had instructed him to aim at.

The buck dipped to nibble at the corn, bobbing his head back up and rechecking his surroundings. Stew slowly, carefully found the trigger with his right index finger, which he initially stroked up and down along its curve.

He remembered Brent’s instructions: deep breath, hold, and slowly exhale while squeezing the trigger.

In a flash he was a kid with the Daisy air rifle, sighting down a much cruder barrel at a robin in the snow. As if that child, he suddenly aimed higher and fired.

And like that childhood day, he watched the slug erupt from the barrel straight toward the buck, striking it just between the shoulder and the neck.

* * *

Continued . . .

 

 

The Womanless Man, continued, 1

30 Jan

Continued

Go back to previous section

ƒƒƒƒƒ

There were two things Stewart Walker had never before done. Deer hunting was one, and living without a female companion was the other. The abhorrence for the first and the need for the other were both part of his childhood, and ran deep in his veins.

As to deer hunting, or any kind of hunting at all, his anti mindset was the result of an accident that happened on purpose. One Christmas his younger brother (whose name was not Ralphie) got a Daisy air rifle as a present. Stew’s parents knew better than to ever give him one, as he was definitely the most reckless and careless of the two brothers. A few days after Christmas, the first snow of the year fell, blanketing everything in white. Early in the morning, Stew dressed quickly, and while his brother and the rest of the household slept, “borrowed” the Daisy, and stepped out into his backyard. The hunter eyed about for something to shoot, but there was nothing of any challenged. Until the robin. Several dozens of yards away, just over the crest of a hill that sloped to the street, a lone robin pecked at the snow, desperately trying to find something to eat. Stew crouched, then lay prone in the snow, the cold numbing his legs and chest. He aimed the Daisy, peering down its shiny barrel, and positioned the pecking robin at the top of the site. Just before he squeezed, he thought better, and decided to aim higher and miss the bird rather than risk actually hitting it. Up went the barrel to the point Stew was sure of the miss, and then he squeezed the trigger, poof! To his horror he was able to see the BB leave the barrel of the Daisy and arch up and then back down to hit the bird! 

“My God!”

He struggled up from his sniper position and clumsily ran through the snow to where the bird had been. It was gone. Then he spotted movement down by the street, and saw the wounded robin struggling in the snow, trying to fly off, but to no avail. He slid down the hill to the street, thinking to somehow catch the robin and find a way to undo what he had done, but the bird was hysterical with fear, and kept a distance from Stew. He followed the bird until it slipped through a metal grate into the sewer and was gone.

“Hey!” complained his brother when Stew came back into the house with the Daisy. “Who said you could use my rifle?”

Stew shoved the cold weapon into his brothers hands.

“You can take your stupid gun!”

* * *

The need for female companionship was, in his way of thinking, a genetic trait generously passed down by his father, who had always been greatly appreciative of the opposite sex. His father loved his mother deeply, and their’s was a love story for the ages. But it was not without its dips. A photographer by hobby, his father was what the family called a “fanny man,” focusing on the derrieres of any comely women at any time — but mostly at the beach. Stew’s mother and sisters were objets d’arte for his camera lenses, which Stew never dwelt upon. Dad was Dad. Perhaps his father’s great love for women had to do with how he was raised by his mother and great-aunt. His father had died in the Great Swine Flu epidemic when his mother was pregnant with him. Stew’s father grew up without male influences, and was also an only child.

Stew gravitated toward females at an early age, which his father encouraged. He had an old black and white photo his father took of him hugging and kissing one of the girls who lived in the neighborhood, and throughout the years other photos mapped his maturation as well as his long line of girlfriends.

There was a time when Stew was just entering puberty (which he did at a very early age) his father returned home from a business trip to New York with a “house girl.” She was Chinese and beautiful, and Stew was instantly smitten. Mom was not.

While he explained through hems and haws how he came to agree to bring Kim Lee back  home, the tension in the house grew at an exponential rate. Stew’s own tension was of a different nature. Kim Lee quickly ended up being moved to live as a companion to his father’s mother, who was somewhat infirm. Stew found a thousand reasons to go over to “Bapa’s” during the stint of Kim Lee’s stay. It was not long before Kim Lee packed her bags and returned to New York, driven to the train station by Stew’s mother. He always wondered what the conversation was about on that drive to the station. The next weekend his mother and father flew to St. Thomas for a week. Kim Lee’s name never again came up in conversation. 

Nearly every relationship he fell into was fatal, in that he was more than willing to deepen each, while his girlfriends tended to be more laissez-faire. Rarely did the return match his emotional investment. He could not help investing hours on the phone, or money on plush gifts or silver charms, or even dinners at the best steakhouses followed by a movie. 

His first wife suggested perhaps he was denied breast-feeding too soon. Instead of the life-long commitment his mother and father had, it turned out she was far more generous and nonexclusive with her affections. Though Stew tried to make a go of it, he finally accepted the inevitable.

“I never liked that girl,” his mother later confessed to him. 

His second wife, whom he referred to as his “Ender Wife,” was a decade younger than he. She was careful and very circumspect about marrying anyone who had been previously married.

“The odds are against you,” said she.

Pre-existing children (of which he had sired two) were also a no-no. 

“You end up loving children who aren’t your own, and hating their biological mother,” she said, which turned out to be prophetic.

But she was in her early thirties, and her biological clock was ticking, and Stew came across as supportive and loving.

“You’ll be wonderful during my labors and deliveries!” She anticipated giving birth to at least two children. “And you will be a wonderful father.”

What seemed idyllic was to a point, then, as reality sets in over the years, and each realized the distance in age was problematic, among other things, the two parted.

At that point in his life, Stew had been married most of his adult life. And what he initially viewed as a new freedom, gradually became old and tired. There were no breakfast table conversations now. No haggling over a new lamp or piece of furniture. No shared concerns over the children, of which he was now father of four.

He tried the online dating and match-making services, which all turned out disastrous. So, licking his wounds, he moved to the mountains, and resolved never again to inflict himself upon another woman. 

Which is how he had come to be in the middle of nowhere, hiking in the bitter cold with a heavy backpack and another geezer like himself, prepared to blow the hell out of Bambi.

* * *

Continued . . .

The Womanless Man

29 Jan


The Womanless Man

L. Stewart Marsden

The alarm clock pierced his early-morning dreams. It was four AM. The nagging beep-beep-beep continued until he swung his arm over to fumble with the various buttons and press the alarm stop. The alarm died in mid-beep, and it was silent. The morning air was crisp and clear. His tinnitus hadn’t kicked in — yet. It was normally worse in the quiet of the mornings, and at night, when he lay down on his bed. As aggravating as it was at times, at least it made it difficult for his mind to begin the uncontrolled whirring and spinning, bouncing around his memories haphazardly, like one of those robot vacuums advertised on television in late-night infomercials. Thank God for small miracles.

He willed himself into an upright sitting position on the edge of his bed. His calves burned slightly as his blood coursed through them. Each leg was marked with scratches and thin lines of clotted blood from scratching madly at his eczema. The itching was particularly bad last night, and he had dug into his skin several times on the edge of rage. The plight was sporadic, but tended to flare up badly during the winter months due to the dry heat of his fireplace. He had resolved to pick up a cheap humidifier for his bedroom, thinking that might help, but always forgot whenever he happened to be in the RiteAid.

He stood slowly, and lumbered to his bathroom, where he methodically repeated his morning toilet rituals: brush teeth; trim beard; urinate; shower; towel dry; pull hair back into the nub of a ponytail and tie it with a hair band. He shuffled back into the bedroom to re-don the clothing he shed the night before, smelling each article first to determine whether he needed something cleaner.

Dressed, he descended the stairway to the main floor of his condo. It was pitch dark, but the sky behind the mountains was dimly illumined by the nearby town of Boone. Years ago, his morning skyline was comprised of shafts of skyscrapers, and the ants of the world were already busy dashing for cabs or buses or subways — even at 4. Noisy and confusing there and then, quiet and serene here and now.

He flipped on the coffeemaker, prepared the night before to brew his necessary morning tonic. Years earlier he would have grabbed the newspaper from in front of his apartment door, poured his coffee, and sauntered into the living room while scanning the headlines. Then he would flick on the early morning news and sit in his favorite chair, awaiting a call from the doorman that the office limousine had arrived. Now, he lightened his coffee with half and half and sat down on his favorite recliner and quickly scanned through email and messages on his phone, deftly marking and deleting most. Now he avoided the news. It was always the same, and had long ago ceased to be of any significant relevance in his daily life. Here in the mountains, the only impactful bit of information was whether a winter snow was going to come through the area, and did he need to go stock up on anything before potentially being stranded for a day or so. Not a prepper, he nonetheless kept his condo storage room well supplied with jugs of water and cans of soup — as well as toilet paper, of course.

He flicked the gas log remote and the flames popped up with a slight whoosh, the blower fan kicking on automatically. The heat radiated throughout the room, and he glanced out the large two-floor windows as the sun crested. 

His phone vibrated.

“Hello?” he said, even though the caller’s name popped up on his phone screen.

“Stewbie!” crackled the voice. “We still on for today?”

He feigned ignorance.

”On for what?”

”Goddammit, you forget we’re going hunting?”

“Oh, yeah Brent. I didn’t forget. Just messing with you. What do I need to bring?”

“I got everything. You got warm clothing? ‘Cause it’s gonna be colder than a witch’s titty!”

“I guess. Jeans and flannel shirt. An old wool sweater and corduroy jacket.”

“Layers are good. Boots?”

“I got boots.”

“Not new ones, I hope. Cause you’ll get all blistered up if they’re new and I sure as hell don’t want to carry you back to the Jeep.”

“No, they’re not new. And I have those socks that wick up the moisture.”

“Perfect!”

“When?”

“Be by in about 40 minutes.”

“Do I need to bring bottled water?”

“I got all that, don’t worry. Plus I have camo overalls I’ll lend you. And urine.”

“Urine?”

“Fox and deer urine. Gotta have the right smells for those does. Oh, I made a rhyme!” he laughed. “See you soon!” 

Stew clicked the disconnect call button. He liked Brent. The two were not at all alike. Oil and vinegar, he often described their friendship.

Brent was a man’s man — in his own mind. In his seventies, his second wife died of cancer several years earlier. He had recently been diagnosed himself — with leukemia — which Stew knew enough about to cause worry about his friend.

But Brent could care less. “Carpe diem” was his mantra. And seize it he did. Hunting, skiing, weight-lifting, and women … He had made his fortune installing and maintaining swimming pools and hot tubs in central Florida — just at the early edge of the trend. He sold it a decade ago and still reaped profits as a silent partner. 

“I’m telling you, the babes I met putting in pools and hot tubs would blow your mind! And everything else, too!”

Brent looked like a combination of Mr. Clean, Charlie Chan, and Buddy Hackett.  Bald, he had let his Fu Manchu grow long, and his girlfriend wove several colorful beads into it. All he needed was a peg leg to complete the pirate look.

“Arghhh! Look alive, me matey!” he growled at the condo front door, his Jeep puffing white clouds of exhaust in the dark cold air.

They drove more than an hour into what Brent called dueling banjo territory. Stew was already lost after the first five minutes, and Brent turned onto backroad after backroad, finally veering down what looked like little more than a rutted path, causing the Jeep to toss and bounce. Stew was glad he had skipped breakfast.

“I figure these little roads are what the bootleggers use,” said Brent.

“Don’t you mean marijuana growers?”

“Nah. I think they still make hooch around here. You ever try it?”

“Uh, no. You go blind drinking that stuff.”

They slowed to a crawl, and Brent rolled down his window, peering off into the thick underbrush, then suddenly swung his wheel left and motored down what was little more than a creek bed. The bed finally emptied into a clearing, where grasses were waist-high. He stopped the Jeep and cut off the engine.

“We’re here! Well, almost. A few miles walking yet.”

“Define ‘few miles’,” said Stew.

“Six … more or less. We’re gonna hike in with our gear.”

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Continued …

Brush Up Your Vampyre

25 Jan

 

 

Brush Up Your Vampyre

By L. Stewart Marsden

“First of all, the real vampyres — the epitome of bloodsuckers — are conclaved in Washington, and have been on the seat of government for years. Not even a notch below are the Religionists, who have throughout all time preyed on the innocent.

“But you already know this. They don’t hide in coffins, or lurk in dark castles. What is the saying? Ah, yes … they are hidden in plain sight. They campaign from their soap boxes and pulpits, and spread the fabrications that if elected, or in the case of the priest, obeyed, all will come to see the light.

“You know Jesus was a sanguisugent? That’s the preferable term for us. It’s so much more palatable than vampyre, which is archaic and not at all modern or correct in its connotations. And, yes, I know it’s an adjective — but we use it as a noun. 

“You are surprised about Jesus? I don’t know why. Do you know your scriptures? Let me refer you to the upper room the day before he was to meet his fate by crucifixion. He and his disciples were at table. What a stupid lot they were! Oblivious of the schedule, save one. Poor Judas. Talk about your holy scapegoat!

“In my own inadequate translation, Jesus took the bread and broke it, and told his disciples to take and eat. This is my body, he said, to a pack of twelve pathetic wolves, one whose ambitions were to overthrow the Roman government at this man’s behest. Eat me, he basically said. Was that anything like today’s use of the terms, Eat me? Wouldn’t that be ironic! The Lord of the Universe telling his hairy dim-witted companions to go bugger themselves! Ha! 

“And, to top it all off, he poured out the wine. I happen to know on good authority where that chalice is, and guess what? It contains no more magical powers than a plastic sippy-cup a toddler uses to learn how to drink.

“This is my blood! You could say that Jesus was the very first sanguisugent. The first vampyre. Imagine the Holy One embracing the horrific. Like eating pork if you’re a Jew. And so they drink. They all drink. I can hear Jesus encouraging them: that’s it … drink it all up like a good boy! You dripped some on your chin!

“Then he said out of the blue, one of you will betray me. First, if Jesus already knew that, and if Judas was the designated betrayer, how exactly is that betrayal? He nods at Judas, while all the other dupes are protesting Is it me? He says, go do what you must, and Judas slinks off. He had no choice. Which kind of fits into Calvin’s philosophy of predestination. So years earlier, when Judas is suckling from his mother’s teat as a baby, she gently rocks him and coos, ‘My little tee-nok! One day you’re going to be so effing famous!

“Each was infected by the blood of Jesus. No, you say! It’s wine. It’s symbolic. Tell that to the Pope. We make sanguisugents the same way. They drink our blood. Like a transfusion. So Jesus was a vampyre, plain and simple!

“Given your knowledge of us is based on so many misconceptions, I feel the obligation to correct you on the matters of sanguisugents. In this day of false news, it goes without saying a great deal of harm has been propagated over the centuries. The correct information is out there for all to see. We hide nothing — and operate in the open like the politicians and religionists. But’s it’s deteriorated into so much Hollywood crap that I and my colleagues are quite embarrassed. 

“So I offer you this oral primer in order that the record be set straight. I mean, sanguisugents matter, too! By the way, quite a bit of information can be found on Twitter and other social media. You have only to know where to look, and how to validate its veracity. I don’t think snopes.com is particularly helpful in that regard, but you can type in #sanguisugents when you have the time. Makes for excellent bedtime reading, by the way.

“Shall we begin, then?”

The Origins and Characteristics of Sanguisugents

“Shall we begin, then?”

“It’s not known how long sanguisugents have roamed the earth. I believe since the beginning. As with Man, who began either millions or thousands of years ago, depending on your science or religion, he and she were very primitive compared to us today. Their baser instincts of survival kept them busy. Included in survival was the necessity not to draw attention to themselves. Hence they were loners, and did not travel in hoardes. 

“How we were introduced onto this earth again remains speculation. Oh, there are a few sanguisugents who are practicing anthropologists, but their research has so far yielded nothing in that area. Plus they have to be very circumspect about their work. What university, pray tell, would fund a project on the Origins of Sanguisugents? Too bad Darwin wasn’t one of us. None of us wanted to volunteer for the crews of his ships going to the Galápagos Islands. 

“Some speculate that we are aliens, planted here as an experiment. Well, that’s just crazy, if you ask me. I have yet to see a UFO, by the way. Is there life out there beyond our galaxy? Not sure. Don’t care. Until ET smacks me in the face and garbles out “phone home,” I’m satisfied with the status quo. I mean, can you believe the things people get into?

“What is true is there was a spate of time when things that go bump in the night became the trend. Mary Shelley’s monster. Stoker’s Dracula. And who the hell knows where the werewolf thing developed? Somehow I can’t see the connection between shape-shifting and Riding Hood’s grandmother. But it was excellent fodder for stories that amused and thrilled. We do so love our hair-raising moments, don’t we?

“Like the population of the earth, one would expect sanguisugents to be everywhere after all this time. Especially if we resembled at all how we are portrayed. But there are only so many castles. Eventually, we would have gone through our supply of lifeblood and everyone would be a Sanguisugent. Then what?

“The truth is we maintain a reasonable and constant percentage of sanguisugents in proportion to the total world population. And we never grandstand. No Tee shirts, no parades, no National Sanguisugent’s Day, no protests, no political movements. Really … when you have a good thing, why upset it?

“We are in every nation on all continents and you rub shoulders or bump into us everyday. Why, you might even have friends who are sanguisugents, or you might work with a sanguisugent! We are of every color of the human spectrum, and are common, everyday people as well as accomplished scientists and artists. Some of your favorite movie stars or entertainment celebrities are sanguisugents. How have we accomplished being so much part of the fabric of civilization? How have we blended in so well? How have we mastered hiding in plain sight?

“There are so many things sanguisugents are and are not. Over the centuries quite a list of attributes has grown involving their nature, mostly due to the hysterical reactions of the clergy, and the lack of true understanding of medicine and biology. 

“For example, we do not sleep during the day in the dirt of our graves. Frankly, I find the graveyard a bit creepy to my liking. I’ve owned several Sealy Perfect mattresses, and one memory foam mattress (for which I am most disappointed). Sleep technology has come a long way since corn shuck mattresses and plank bed platforms. And I like pillows, and sheets and blankets — especially if they are color-coordinated. 

“I love to snuggle! I sleep best on my right side, and am pretty sure I have a deviated septum — but seeing as how I am perceived to be a deviant, I suppose that comes with the territory. As a result, I’m told I snore.

“Oh, by the way — I sleep at night, like everyone else, save those who work third shift. I pity them.

“We do not burn up in the sunlight and crumble into a pile of burnt ashes. I go to Cancún during the winter to tan and rest. The Carpathian Mountains are not — I repeat — not a vacation destination for us! Look at my skin — it’s not pale at all! I’m hardly anemic! On the contrary, my red count is just fine, thank you. It baffles me how these myths come to be! 

“Oh, and this — this is my pocket mirror which I use to see myself to comb my hair. See my reflection? Also fake crap.

“I don’t need you to invite me into your home in order to cross the threshold, and you can put out as many garlic wreaths as you like. I love garlic — especially in Italian dishes! Roasted garlic is the best.

“One more … there are so many of them proliferated in novels and on TV these days … make the sign of the cross all you like; throw holy water on me; say the typical exorcism commands in a loud and forceful voice — it doesn’t make any difference to me. Personally I’m tolerant of the beliefs of others. I respect your right to have archaic and senseless beliefs despite the results of making you a pawn to organized religion. Or disorganized religion. Either way, that’s your right. But your beliefs do not constitute truth to me. And if that’s the case, those efforts at warding me off with your spiritual blathering are wasted energy. Whatever makes you happy, I say.

“I don’t die. So you can’t kill me with stakes or lopping off my head or any of the countless ways the “good guys” dispatch us “bad guys.” That’s because I’m not alive — not in the sense you are. 

“That’s why the blood thing. My bone marrow doesn’t make blood cells. And since I have to have blood flowing to bring both oxygen and nutrients to my body so that I can move and think and speak — just like you in that regard — I must transfuse. I don’t even know what my blood type is anymore, and forget donating to the Red Cross Blood Drive! Now, I won’t say I haven’t made the occasional withdrawal from the blood bank — but that’s really frowned upon by sanguisugents. 

“Yes, it’s a bitch, but the payback is unbelievable! I mean, there were times I’d look around and have a BA-SINGAS! moment. I’d tell myself, YES! H.G. Wells got that right! And when I look at those silly memes on Facebook — the ones that tout people born in a certain year? Who have lived through so many times and technological advancements! I laugh out loud! Actually, that’s one way to tell if someone is a sanguisugent. They burst out laughing almost spontaneously after reading one of these ridiculous statements! YOU think YOU’VE lived through a lot!? I lived through the War of 1812. I was at Dunkirk. I jumped headlong into a VC burrow in Cambodia. Those historic events still reside in some part or parts of my body.

“I could have my PhD in World History and teach at Cornell or Harvard if I so chose. But that would be dangerous. Somewhere along the way I’d probably slip up and start talking about The Battle of the Bulge as if I were there. Which I was.

“But I digress …”

My Rite of Passage

“But I digress …”

“I became a sanguisugent in the year 1725. As we say, I “passed over.” Not exactly dead. Not exactly alive.

“I was a third-generation cobbler in the small village of Kisilova, which lay at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and east of what is now Belgrade in Serbia. I know … Stoker’s stomping grounds. What can I say?

“At the time I was considered old at fifty-six. Humans did not have the modern day advantages of the medicines and science of today. A simple cold or infection of a small wound could result in death. And as a poor man, there was no consolation of inheritance, nor absolution by the Church. The rich, as with today, prevailed; the poor, died and were forgotten.

“So it was that I had no grand expectations beyond my skills and meager ability to provide for my family. I benefitted from no family name nor inheritance. There was no lottery. There was no Silicon Valley. There was no promise of anything more than what a man could scratch out with hard work and honesty. At least in that regard, I was proud. 

“Then a man came to me from Belgrade — someone who was well above my state in class and education — with a strange request. I had made him several pairs of boots over the years. He wanted me to cobble more than a dozen pairs more for him, and made this proposition:

“‘I would like to invest in your company.’”

“‘But I have no company, Sir.’”

“‘At the moment, that is true. However, in the New World, there is a great need for your skills. And I propose to move you and your family to a place called Boston, and there finance your industry, and help you grow it.’

“‘You will apprentice other cobblers — as many as you need in order to supply that new land with good footwear. I will be your benefactor, and will extract a small portion of your proceeds as my part of the arrangement.’

“‘I don’t understand why you would do this, good Sir.’

“‘It is to my advantage. You have a very practical and unique skill. I can’t even buckle my own belt without someone else to help me!’

“We laughed, I shook his hand, and the deal was struck. Within weeks all that I owned of value was packed into shipping barrels, and I and my family began the long trek and sail to America, and the town called Boston.”

“We arrived in the spring of the year. Boston was the center of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, overruled by a governor appointed by King George, and who had the remotest senses of empathy toward its inhabitants.

“In an instant I understood what my benefactor had envisioned, as all about the port and as far as the eye could see, building and industry was loud and robust.

“He had the good sense to send an advanced emissary, who not only procured housing for my family, but also bought a sizable warehouse. A large sign adorned the two-door opening, which read  Blagojevich & Company, Ltd. I remember standing and staring at the sign, as if in a trance. 

“‘In this location you will employ and train a dozen apprenticeships in the arts of cobbling,’ my benefactor told me. ‘Instead of shoes and boots customed to the fit of each wearer, we will develop a scale of measurements that will fit the majority of feet. The unusual foot will not be within our parameters. That way, we can sell a range of shoes and boots throughout the colonies.’

“This was a marvel to me. Who thinks of things such as these but the man with unrestrained imagination? And I was instantly under his spell and vision.

“We began, and had to turn away applicants. Mere boys were our choice, as suggested by my benefactor. Not one person with any experience, he had directed. That way, there were to be no preconceived notions of how things must be done. I was to be the master, and they, the disciples of a new approach.

“The apprentices slept, ate, and worked in that warehouse. The unwilling were let go. The slackers met with the same fate. Only those who were able to catch the fire of what we were attempting made it. Eighteen and twenty-hour days were standard. And soon the warehouse bins were crowded with shoes and boots of many styles, from dress to work.

“My benefactor toured many potential customers through the establishment. Not those of ordinary ambition. These were primarily men, with an occasional widow of means, who looked to the inevitable westward expansion of the colonies. Shoes and boots fit a necessary niche. Most of the prevailing business was in trade of cotton and tar, tobacco and lavender. 

“I never questioned his reasons for anything. My part of the pact was to produce, and to produce en masse. The future, as far as I could tell, seemed very bright.

“Until the day I fell ill, that is. The new climate, the long hours, my age … all began to work to the detriment of my health. Congestion, fever, lack of balance all combined to confine me to bed. 

“A barber was called in, who consulted the Saints’ days and determined the best times for bloodletting, which was common in the day. I smile today because of what I now know, that the best of physicians is only as successful as his knowledge is broad. Daily I weakened, growing more and more feint and anemic. While the business continued in my absence, my benefactor realized all was in jeopardy as my condition worsened.

“One night, when I was nearly delirious, passing from a state of consciousness to delusion, my benefactor came to my bedside, after shooing out my wife and closing the door. He drew a candle to my face and sat, smoothing my sweated brow with his warm hand.

“‘My friend, you are not well.

“‘No,’ I replied. His face was lit by the flickering candlelight, and his shadow was cast on the wall and ceiling.

“‘I have something that will give you both strength and longevity. But it comes with a price that I cannot explain at this moment. I ask that you trust me — as you did when I first came to you with my business proposal.

“I didn’t care about either strength or longevity at that moment. I was sick, and perhaps with an illness unto death. I only wanted to return to my work and my family. There was too much at stake for me to consider any long-term prices — or consequences. Who worries about consequences when the only way out of a burning building is to jump from a third-story window?

“As for trusting my benefactor — well that was of no consideration at all. Of course I trusted him! And if this was a life-death situation, which I believed to be true, there could be no hesitation on my part.

“He took from his vest a barber’s razor ornately fashioned of silver. He then unbuttoned the sleeve of his shirt, and rolled the cloth back to reveal his arm. I could see the deep blue-green of his veins coursing his forearm. He took his ascot, and tied the arm tightly near his underarm, then tapped his veins. They pulsed and engorged with each touch, the blood underneath nearly visible to my eye. 

“I was mesmerized. I could hear the tell tale thump-thump as the rich liquid pumped methodically. The tips of his fingers reddened and swelled, as though they would spew forth fountains of red. 

“‘Tip your head back, and arch your neck,’ he commanded. I obeyed, feeling the strain from muscles connecting my chin to either side of my neck, and running down to my sternum.

“‘Open your mouth.”

“I did. He lifted and turned his arm over, making a quick slice with the razor with a horizontal stroke. He untied the tourniquet from his arm and his blood immediately spilled into my open mouth. At first, I gagged.

“‘Swallow quickly! Do not spit it out!’

“I did as he ordered. I fought my reflex and swallowed, as though fighting to ingest something foul and putrid. His blood continued to flow into my mouth, and slowly its metallic taste changed into a flavor I cannot begin to describe. It was an elixir — an exotic aphrodisiac — a rare red wine from the finest vineyard — and it warmed my throat and whole chest area, then seeped down to my loins. Whatever wonderfully surprising taste you’ve ever experienced can only pale in comparison.

“As the fountainhead flowed into me, all of my senses awakened to incredible levels. Smell, touch, sight. I heard him repeating, as if a mantra, ‘For this is my blood of the new covenant …’ He spoke it in Slovakian, ‘Toto je moja krv novej zmluvy.’ Slowly he repeated the phrase, and with each repetition, began to slump as I gained more and more strength. It was his strength I gained. His lifeblood. It was … his life.”

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“My metamorphosis occurred over a time span similar to that of a newborn. Feedings were more frequently needed, and for shorter bursts of time. Also, since my teeth had not yet come in, I lapped — decidedly more messy than later on when I could siphon. Hence the sources of my early diet were from the freshest and most undiluted. Later I was better able to appreciate more aged supplies. I am trying to be mindful of your possible revulsion in these descriptions. 

“My benefactor was obliged to ‘shop’ for me and provide the nourishment I craved. Luckily — or maybe etiologically-speaking — there is no such malady as colic among sanguisugents. I never experienced stomach cramps. I would get hungry, yes — but that was normal. And, believe it or not, I could supplement my diet with regular food such as I would have eaten before my transformation. In fact, those foods were necessary to keep my teeth clean. I’ve known many sanguisugents who were on a strict blood diet, and their teeth began to turn slightly pink over the years. Today those purists have new dental products, like teeth whiteners, to do the work. Frankly, I prefer the broader food spectrum, which also has the benefit of keeping my breath as well as — well, how shall I say this? — my expellations a bit sweeter than if I dined only on blood.

“To those on the outside, there was no indication anything had taken place — that I was different from anyone else. At least at the start. Later, over the years, family and friends would marvel at my continued youthful appearance, and my lack of wrinkles or age spots or hair color changes. Throughout the years there have been instances when people suspected something about me was not right — when I had to be especially on guard. 

“Hence the energies expended to stay out of the limelight. Do you know where that term developed, by the way? Before modern theatrical lighting, stages were lit using cylinders of heated lime. These cylinders were placed at the apron of the stage, and produced an intense white light. I have a thousand tidbits of information like this learnt throughout the centuries.

“But, I have wandered afield once again.

“Now I was in debt to my benefactor on two counts: my growing business in Boston, and my very life. While he continually poo-poohed any intent to reap from what he had sown in me, the thought nevertheless lodged in the back of my mind that something never comes without expectation.

“From my growing shoe concern, my benefactor was able to explore offshoot industries, and, as he had with me, invested in other businesses, such as mercantilism. He would help help his mentees set up stores, where customers could find all manner of supplies for their homes and industries. He bought en masse from blacksmiths items such as nails and cookware; from weavers various cloths (and he also imported cloth as well); from farmers, grain; from importers, sugar and the dreaded teas (he found no way to avoid the tariffs, and grumbled loudly and often of the insult to injury heaped upon his enterprises as its results).

“As civilization slowly edged westward, so did his mercantile investments. Again, it was a niche that he predicted would help usher in the total colonization of America. Even local Indians came to trade at his mercantile stores.

“I remember he and I had a long conversation about the future one night beside the hearth in my home where he was a frequent and welcomed visitor.

“‘Peter, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I feel the restless spirit of this people straining to be loosed. It is not only the potential of this Promised Land they smell and taste, but the desire to be ahead of what will become hoards from now until whatever end God has planned. Being first means being in control. It means power and wealth. And these are folk who, in their original lands, had no access to either. It was all a matter of birthright — and that stream of selectivity did not produce the very best results. Now, common and plain men such as yourself — and I mean this in only the most positive way — have every opportunity at success. Only they themselves can impede their ascension.

“It finally became clear to me as we talked, what my benefactor had done for me by plucking me from my homeland, where generations of my ancestors had toiled in the same mud, along the same streams and fields, and answering to the same power mongers. 

“‘I owe you everything I am and shall become,’ I told him.

“‘And I tell you that nothing is owed me. You are the right person at the right time in the right place. That you realize that, and that you pledge to yourself to always be at the fore of this vanguard is all the gratitude I need.’

“Yet that still small voice in me spoke clearly, ‘For the moment.’”

ƒƒƒƒƒ

“Over the next few years, it was clear my benefactor had more than retail in mind. That trade was strong, but with the growing tension between the colonies and England, another form of commerce began to appear; another niche. He encouraged me to branch out into other related products made of leathers, such as belts and straps and horsewear items such as bridals and reins — even saddles. 

“I have met many of the men of history you have only read about. I knew Paul Revere, for example. And there were others. John Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson. And most importantly, I met George Washington.

“I rose economically and socially, and took every opportunity to invite whomever to tour my warehouse at their convenience. I also travelled extensively to New Amsterdam before it became New York. I went often to Philadelphia, where my friend Ben Franklin and I broke bread and drank many a stein of lager together. I knew Aaron Burr, but at a distance. My benefactor warned me that Burr seemed more calculating than sincere, which proved to be the case later when he shot and killed Hamilton. 

“Philadelphia was also the site of my second shoe-making warehouse, albeit there the concentration was on the other leather products. While I understood the reason for product expansion and diversity, I didn’t understand the timing, and asked my benefactor during one of our fireside chats.

“‘You are like a turtle with your head inside your little world! Look about you and sense what is coming.’

“‘And what is coming?’

“‘War. As surely as the rings about the full moon warn sailors of an impending storm. It will be hastened by that urge you and I have discussed. King George is the only barrier to these colonies completely breaking from the stockade, and like wild horses escaping, we will run amok. But first, the war.’

“‘That will be disastrous!’ I said.

“‘Only to those who are not prepared to ride the current. Do not be swept aside, Peter. All we are doing is to advance not only our prospects for wealth and power, but the country’s as well.’

“‘Country?’”

“‘America, my friend! We have only begun to tap into what this land has to offer. It can be fallow field no longer. It must be cleared and plowed and planted and worked! The leaders of the colonies are no fools! They see this, and gnash at their overlord. The wealth they have come to know is only the gleanings as far as they are concerned. They itch to possess it all, and no king across the ocean can, or has the right to deny them! You cannot be satisfied, Peter! As you now know the exhilarating power and sensations of blood, as you begin to realize you are no longer a pinpoint in history and have no limits, you, too, must not be satisfied. I am not satisfied! I will drink of this country to my fill, and then drink and drink again!’

“‘In this unequaled Paradise, you and I are gods! Remember what the Christ said, In my Father’s house are many mansions …’

“‘So we will prepare for war, you and I. We will supply all and whatever is necessary for the conflict, however long it will be, and for the ultimate victory!’

“‘The idea of war is foreign to me.’

“‘It cannot be. You cannot stand on the bank of a great river and expect to go anywhere. You have to jump into its midstream and be carried off.’

“‘Off to where?’

“‘To eternity, Peter. That is our destiny. Eternity.’”

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“At the time I wasn’t sure if my benefactor meant we would be on the fields fighting or not. It was only later, when the conflict began, I knew we would be suppliers of war. That our main course of action, aside from the actual products of boots and backpacks and other supplies essential to victory, was to propagate the rumors of war. We were to remain inconspicuous to the efforts of freedom, and hence, to becoming a highlighted part of that history.

“We were also able to dismiss ourselves — for the moment — from the direct link to death by “keeping our hands clean” of armaments. I thought it was a conscious separation from the blood of battle by not investing into tooling and forging of muskets and cannon, gunpowder and bayonets.

“But my benefactor had deceived me on that count, and was studying more efficient ways of mining the ores essential to foundries and their product. Like the manufacture of shoes, he had envisioned mass production of many components for both westward progress as well as war.

“‘Imagine,’ he proposed at dinner one evening, “How quickly the world would have been tamed into a progressive culture had Gengis Khan or Atilla the Hun — even the Romans — only had possession of gunpowder during their reigns! For centuries the bow and the arrow was the only way to avoid the far riskier tactics of hand-to-hand combat. 

“‘Even with muskets and canon, one soldier can only carry so much gunpowder and musket balls. Plus shooting and reloading is multi-stepped and time-consuming. It’s one thing for hunting, but quite another for facing a battalion of the enemy marching straight at you.

“‘And as far as canon? A horse is necessary, and there must be roads to avoid harsh terrain. And that doesn’t count the cannonballs and the difficulty of transporting them!’”

“While he fixed his attention on more mundane items such as wagon rims, I could tell he had set one portion of his thoughts aside to develop concepts of war machinery. 

“The majority of his efforts were dedicated to production and assembly methods. For example, he developed the idea of round casting wheels for items like screws and triggers guards and stock butts. He envisioned long lines of quickly-produced parts, at the end of which another conveyor belt took the parts to lines of assemblers.

“‘It is possible, in my mind, to have a fully-functioning long rifle assembled from start to finish in less than a day, and at least 30 to 50 rifles total from each production line!’”

“So while his plants and warehouses produced primarily non-lethal items, his mind whirred continuously on what he called The War Machine.”

“And among those people of influence with whom he mingled, it was not a difficult task to stretch both their imaginations as well as their pocketbooks to invest in his dreams.

“As uncomfortable as I was over this ominous trend of thought, I comforted my conscience with the thinly veiled thought nothing I produced actually killed anyone.

“Which may come as a surprise to you, given what I am. How could a sanguisugent be so ruled by conscience when his very life and continuation depends on the death of another?”

ƒƒƒƒƒ

“I would ask that you please remember the power of eternal life is such that certain types of reason are rendered useless. I know it sounds little more than an excuse to say it, but it is far more complicated to the one who struggles with such a dilemma than to those on the outside who have not one iota of understanding.

“I suppose I could actually blame the Church, because without it and its myriad of rules and boundaries, of exacting perfection to become perfect, I would have never agreed to the transformation in the first place.

“No priest, no pastor, no evangelist would ever dare diminish the power of the blood. That would be sacrilege — and a one-way ticket to eternal hell. At least among the Christian believers. Purgatory is one of those Catholic beliefs — which the ‘true’ believers discount (depending on who is calling themself a true believer) — and involves more purification. In a way, it discounts the power of Christ’s blood and introduced a reason for the money generator of the Catholic hierarchy — indulgences.

“Anyway, I digress again. For the sanguisugents, to appease our human sense of on-going and religiously-produced guilt, we have come to adopt a fairly common mentality about our sources of blood. No, we don’t rob the blood banks (unless in absolute desperation); nor do we drain vermin or other animals of their blood. That’s almost too horrible to think about.

“Our practice is to help not only ourselves, but society, in selecting sources who — if left unchecked — would either do or continue to do evil and harm. We refer to them as The Dregs. Fortunately for us, and perhaps unfortunately for humanity, there is an endless supply of The Dregs in life.

“These are those who are mean-spirited, self-absorbed, chronically bad people. They are recognized in all walks of life, although they tend to dominate in certain areas. Politicians come to mind right away. As do others. 

“Luckily our feeding, as I mentioned earlier, is not constant. We have a healthy diet of various foods. And our need for fresh blood is not spontaneous. We maintain control and can choose the when and where. I am not, for example, overwhelmed by temptation at the sight of a pulsing carotid artery in an exposed neck. As a rule, in fact, the neck is not the location we use — but rather the femoral artery along the inside of the leg. Less likely to be detected, and certainly doesn’t splatter the provider’s blood all over their shirt or blouse for the world to see and panic over. 

“Perhaps you would entertain an account of one of my sources?”

ƒƒƒƒƒ

“Once my teeth came in I was on my own in terms of sustenance. Of course they were sore for a bit (no pun intended), and not exactly how I had imagined, which was big fangs growing where my incisors were. Nope. My fangs, and those of other sanguisugents are more like the hollow fangs of a rattlesnake. They lay flat in the ridges of the roof of my mouth. When I am ready to feed, the tissue surrounding the fangs engorges in anticipation, and the fangs basically pop out. I inject into the wound saliva from a cavity in my sinuses that thins the blood, making it much easier to flow into the teeth. I use my tongue to lap up any spillage during the process.

“My fangs are replaced often — especially whenever I eat roast corn — and they snap off. I have to be careful not to swallow them, and normally discretely pull them out and cover them either in a napkin or under some other food item on my plate.

“There is nothing quick about feeding. Even though I bite the femoral artery, I have to linger down there for quite some time. Depending on the cleanliness of my donor, it can range from a very pleasant time to something more like a ‘hold your nose and bite’ experience. Like voting.

“The duration of what we now refer to as the ‘transfusion time’ is several hours. Many considerations come into play, such as where can I take my donor so that we will not be interrupted or discovered? Also, there is a fine balance of keeping my donor alive, should I choose, and them expiring during the meal. That was definitely a learning process. 

“Thankfully, if I am able to keep my donor alive, the fang wounds heal quickly — within an hour. And the donor has no recollection of anything. They awake in the morning with a pretty severe headache and feeling drained of energy. Within a day or two, all returns to normal. I don’t make it a habit to revisit a donor continually. Plus I like to spice things up with a variety of bloods. For example, it is quite true that the Italians are hot-blooded — spicey-hot, that is. Norwegians have a slight fishy taste, but if you are into sardines, it’s rather good. 

“Another consideration is that whenever I dine on blood, I tend to puff up to the point it’s noticeable, as I’m normally lean-faced and on the trim side of body size. Sometimes I take to bed after supping, complaining to those who know me that I am suffering from a bit of indigestion — which is not far from the truth. My father used to lecture me, ‘moderation in all things,’ but that would be like telling a child in a candy shop to restrain himself. Alas, I’m afraid I lack the self-discipline to restrain my appetite when I feed. As, I imagine, is the difficulty with those unable to take small portions and not overdo it at dinner. 

“That is the process normally. While there is some selectivity involved, targeting a donor is normally a passionless rote. Except where the goal is to rid the neighborhood, or town, or country of a person who needs to be removed. In other words, the process is predetermined unto death, and the donor is someone either the individual sanguisugent (or a group of sanguisugents) has targeted. These targets are not only hated by my kind, but generally by the majority who are aware of their true natures.

“As I’ve said earlier, while the gamut is wide, these people are tainted by similar traits. Power, greed, lust — perhaps the seven deadly sins best describes these abhorrent excuses for humanity. They tend to be hypocrites at every turn. They prey on the lowly and the poor. They take advantage to profit themselves whenever opportunity arises. They are rude and uncaring people. Literature abounds with these characters, as does real life.

“So it came to happen, shortly after I had passed over and adjusted to my new life, that I came across one of these odious and foul fiends. He was my very first ‘kill,’ and I shall always remember not only how he came to cross my path, but how I initially struggled to come to plan and carry out his demise.” 

* * * * *

“He was the father of one of my apprentices, Jacob, who was a hard-working, intelligent and enthusiastic lad of twelve. Jacob’s father brought his son to me as a result of an advertisement in the Boston Gazette. The man told me his wife had recently died, and that he was the sole caretaker of five children, Jacob being the eldest.

“This was before I fell ill and went through the passage. When I first met the man, I sensed there was something amiss with him, but passed it off. Over the months, however, I became increasingly worried about Jacob, who seldom expressed a desire to go home to visit his family. The boy was thoroughly caught up in learning his trade, which I had assumed was due to his enthusiasm. 

“I sent all apprentices home for Christmas Eve and Day as a rule. Jacob was reluctant to leave. 

“‘I’d as soon stay here, if you don’t mind. There’s not much room for me at home anymore.’

“‘I insist, Jacob. I planned to let the hearths die out, and it will be too cold for you here.’ So he obeyed me. When he returned, his head was wrapped in muslin, and his left eye blackened. He moved slowly, and winced as in pain. I called him aside at midday.

“‘Tell me about your eye and head, Jacob.’

“‘I fell cutting firewood. It’s nothing.’

“‘Pull your shirt up, son.’ He revealed a torso bruised black and blue. I reached out to touch his side and he dropped his shirt and put up his arms defensively, ‘NO!’

“I was beat at the hands of my father when I was young — but I early on decided the beatings were justified, and even the result of something I did or didn’t do. But the memories of both the physical and emotional hurt had lingered, and I knew what was going on.

“Consequently I did a little sleuthing of Jacob’s father. I found he was poorer than I had first imagined, and there were more than the four of Jacob’s siblings crammed into a dilapidated wooden shack of a home. He had also taken in a woman — not older than a mere girl — to watch his children and provide for some of his baser needs, which included more than cooking or keeping his house tidy. The woman also provided services to others, bringing in barely enough money to survive, which her keeper took half and spent at the local pub for drink and other favors.

“He himself did odd jobs — when he was sober — which meant he worked very little. His demeanor was dark and brooding, and he complained of ‘God’s curse’ on his life, and was in the verbal habit of shifting blame from himself to whomever for his condition. He treated his children with the same disdain, shouting, shoving, and threatening when he came home after long spells of drunkenness. 

“I wondered how such a man could not end up in jail, or at least in the public stockades on a regular basis, but most chose to ignore him and leave him to his own designs.

“I knew what I must do, which I had never done before. A semblance of acknowledgment regarding ‘Thou shalt not kill’ remained after my rite of passage. I know people who mince words on ending someone’s life to fit their particular point of view. I’ve heard the term “consistent view of the sanctity of life. These days, a woman who is impregnated ‘by accident,’ — though for the life of me I don’t know how the term ‘accident’ is reconciled — sees ending the pregnancy by abortion as nothing more than terminating a fetus. The soldier who peers down his rifle scope at his enemy, is vanquishing a foe. The executioner is ‘carrying out justice.’ 

“I am no more for the wages of war being killing, to the wages of sin being execution. But I am convinced there is a time and a place and a reason to intervene on the behalf of the innocent — which is how I came to justify my actions then, and how I now justify my actions. Ecclesiastes says as much — a time to kill. It doesn’t address the whys nor the wherefores. It doesn’t differentiate as far as motive, or justice, or revenge or self-defense. It simply says there is a time to kill. There was really no considering to be done, other than when and where. Since the man was a constant threat to his children — who were helpless against him — so, I reasoned, it must be soon.

“One night I followed him to his favorite pub, where I awaited him in the shadows of the night. At last he emerged, waving his arms for balance, and staggered into the streets. I approached him face on.

“‘Well, if it’s not my Jacob’s benefactor, Mr. Whoever-you-are …’ he slurred with barely recognizable diction.

“‘I wonder if I might have a word with you Sir,’ and pointed to the muddy alley bordering the ale house, ‘… in private.’

“‘For you, my most illustrious acquaintance, anything!’

“The timing and location were perfect. As I fed, I held his wrist to monitor his heartbeat. Instead of concluding before the pulse stopped, I held fast, my head and heart beating and swimming in rage. It was as if I were a conquering lion, tearing open his prey, stopping to roar with victorious might and finality.

“The Gazette ran a small item on him that was buried deep within it’s pages.” 

The body of Jonathan Hooker was discovered in an alley adjacent to The Flying Boarhead early Tuesday. Hooker apparently died of exposure, having passed out sometime during the night.

“No one ever claimed the body, and his remains were interred in the paupers’ cemetery down near the harbor. He was not missed, and I noticed a decidedly happier and content aura around Jacob from that point on. I also regularly visited Jacob’s home where I donated both items as well as currency for the subsistence of his siblings.

“We are not so black-hearted and evil as we have been made out to be.”

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“Fear and ambition. Two marked traits of the colonists, and not at opposite poles from each other. One motivates the other, as I have observed. During those last few years before war with King George finally broke out, each was in a race to dominate the minds and souls of we who had left everything behind to stake out our futures in the Americas.

“Once established and, having conquered the basic necessities, each man realized that the constraints of position, wealth and power that had once ruled over destiny were no longer as oppressive and limiting as in the various fatherlands. To some extent, of course, it existed in the colonies, but we soon drew strength from a common cause and purpose: to be finally unshackled from Britain, and to turn our eyes to beyond the Appalachians. I believe someone called it our manifest destiny some years later.

“But that ambition was tempered by the presence of the native Indians, who had been slowly routed from their homelands on the eastern seaboard to areas west. Initially, they were at a disadvantage with their spears and clubs and arrows, which were no match against the long rifle and cannon. Perhaps it was that frustration that stirred the innate savagery they displayed in war and in defense of further migration of the White Man. 

“The French were more than delighted to arm the Huron nation in helping claim territory along the Ohio. As to that, the British were similarly inclined to supply the Iroquois and seek them as allies. This war with the French and the Indians ultimately pushed our adversaries across into Canada, but with much bloodshed. Despite the losses, the gain was more than worth it: access to the Ohio and the rich lands beyond.

“For me, with my business growing faster than either my mentor or I could have believed, the opening of the west was opportune for two very important reasons: enlarging our mercantile influence, and providing us a chance to relocate — very important when you do not age, and those around you do.

“Tragically, my wife died in giving birth, as did the child. I put my heirs in charge of the business concerns once I knew them to be competent. And then I left under the excuse of seeking continued growth. It also removed me from the distinct possibility that as matters with the Crown worsened, I would be expected to provide leadership on the field. That was something I did not want, not only because I detest war in all of its fashion, but the fact I could be wounded, or worse. How embarrassing to be carried into the surgical tents with a mortal wound and the doctor not find any trace of a musket ball in my body! It might arouse more than a little curiosity, which I knew would not be good — for me, but especially my family. We were not long past that era during which suspicion and fear of was considered sorcery caused the deaths of many, many mortals. That would put in jeopardy those I love, and was unacceptable.

“And so, buckskinned and supplied with items to use for trade and purchase, I employed the services of an older Cherokee named Kanuna, which means “bullfrog.” While thin and creased with age, Kanuna’s deep voice was marked with confidence. He was a loner, and made his way through the years avoiding antagonizing others. He was also a bachelor, and told me once he had no time for wives or children. 

“‘They are like carrying a heavy load of brush up a steep slope.’”

“While I didn’t entirely agree, I knew that my future would eventually become a life like Kanuna’s, where love and commitment to another person would always end the same way — with the death of that loved one. Unfortunately, love doesn’t care for one’s philosophy, and finds a way. The same with friendships.

“Kanuna was to be my very first fast friend, and someone who would know everything about me. He was also the first I chose to transform.”

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“I’m far more discriminating when it comes to transforming someone who will face an unimaginable future. The vast majority cannot handle such a change. My peers are not so — how shall I say? Intuitive nor demanding. They are those who give the vampyre a very bad name. Ask anyone about vampires, or rather, sanguisugents — and they will recite nearly chapter and verse on traits and behaviors of my kind without so much as an iota of real and practical knowledge. Like witches. So misunderstood! So wrongfully mistreated. As was my friend Kanuna and his people.

“In conversations about the Cherokee and the Pawnee and other tribes, we danced about truth and fiction late into the evenings, huddled around our dying campfires as we travelled. 

“‘The White Man has only one image of us, and he sees us as savages who stand in the way. He does not value nor respect us as hosts, who allow him to enter our lands and cut our forests and deplete our deer and beaver and buffalo. We are like the grizzly to him — to be feared and overcome — not valued for our knowledge of the ways of the Great Spirit, or the other spirits he has peopled this land with.

“‘A man can stand but so much disregard for himself and for his land. Then a man must respond.’

“‘Yet the White Man sees that response as savagery,’ I would comment. 

“‘We are men of peace. We are not those who foul the land or steal from it. You White Men take and use as you see fit. Yes, even you, although you are not as bad as your brothers. And you are distinguished among men as well. You cannot die. Your prey are deserving of your hunt — they are the sick of heart and mind. I know you practice a code of honor that I admire. You do not take for the taking. 

“‘I am an old man. My warrior days have ended, and I chew on berries and leaves because my teeth cannot tear meat. My bones whisper to me, the trail soon ends, and it is time for me to lie down with my father and his father. And though I understand death is a part of all men’s destiny — at least until I met you — I would rather walk on and hunt and thrive once again. You have the power to help me through that gate, do you not?’

“‘I do.’”

“‘What I fear is the wisdom of the ages slips away. Great men die with their treasures of knowledge before they can pass it on. Though I am leathery and feint of breath, I am a great man, too.’

“‘Yes, you are.’”

“Shall I join my father and his father and not share what I have learned? Shall I turn my back on my brothers and bid them good fortune on their journey without showing them the path?’”

“‘Kanuna, as much as I love you, as much as you are my brother, you don’t know what you are asking. You will not return to the young man you once were. Yes, you will have new strength and new teeth, and no longer pay attention to Death’s shadow. But there is a curse to my life as well. I outlive everyone I care about. I hide who I am from nearly everyone — not in fear for myself, not for my kind, and not because we would be killed. But because I cannot imagine anyone not wanting eternal life. Not the eternal life bespoken of in the Christian Bible — so remote and veiled. But one of this world, of flesh and blood and feeling and experience. This wisdom is not for everyone.’

“‘And yet you told me.’

“‘And yet I told you.’

“‘Will you allow me to be haunted and teased by this? Do you not find me deserving?’

“‘It isn’t that. You, of all I know — even of my mentor — are the most deserving of all.’

“‘But?’

“‘I want to know you have measured your desires against the truth. I cannot abide the guilt I would have to endure if you have the slightest doubt, and if you regret your decision later.’

“‘For me it is like climbing a hill at sunset. Perhaps like your Christian Bible suggests. The light is fading and darkness grows about me. The path is more difficult as night falls. Yet I know that as I crest the hill, I will see the sun and feels its warmth on my face and my breast. I will breathe and my lungs will glow. I will raise my arms to the West, and make my chant, and smoke my pipe. I know it is a selfish thing I ask, and as you warned me to be unerring in my choice, I would too ask you to deny me this if you are in any doubt. Either way is fine with me. Search your heart, too, my brother.’

“I did not transform him at that time. I took his words as truth and intent sincere. I also took his advice to search my own soul deeply. You thought Sanguisugents had no soul? Think again. Some of us would rather not have one. They turn, and then realize in horror what they had begged for; what they had against what they wanted, was forever more, lost in the transaction. I cannot tell you how many Sanguisugents I know who mourn their decision. But, too late. Too late. Too late!

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“Kanuna was adept at reading trail signs — the minutia I could never detect, such as a strand of hair, or a broken twig or an impression in the mud. He knew the tracks of bear and deer and raccoons and rabbits and more, and could tell how many and which way or even how fast the animals traveled. He was serenely connected with all around him, and he mystified me. 

“‘How did you learn all of this, Kanuna? You look at the sky and predict the weather. You smell the air and know a certain animal is lurking about, tracking us. How?’

“‘At the beginning, The Old Man made all from the same dirt, and fashioned us in the same way. He gave us eyes to see — but then with a sight that went beyond what you and I see now. We once saw into the hearts of all his creation, from the bear to the brook. Each then had a purpose and a place, which was to be a part of his perfect will.

“‘The Old Man gave all ears, to hear our brothers and to soar with the music of the land — the whistling grasslands, or the strong voice of the river. The last thing he gave us was our mouth, so that we would see and hear first, and only then speak. Then, his wisdom was in everything, and no one spoke before carefully considering his words. Of all the weapons I carry, from the long stick to my knife, my mouth and the words I choose are the most dangerous.’

“As I listened to him, I marveled at his wisdom and understanding. I compared this simple man’s outlook to the vast majority of people I knew and had known. None matched his eloquence at explaining how the world was once fitted together, with each piece dependent on and in harmony with the other. I vaguely knew of various religions whose practitioners were of similar disposition. I had once met a man from China when I lived in the old country, who talked to me of a philosopher whose sayings directed life with simplistic sayings. But Kanuna didn’t talk philosophy. He talked of what he believed as real and tangible elements. Of spirits, and of a universal brotherhood with all the living. For example, before he took the life of a deer or other animal necessary to feed us, he would thank that beast for its sacrifice. It’s flesh and blood were to be our communion. Much in the same way I came to know of and appreciate the power of the blood I drank to empower me. It was his respect and care for the donor that astounded me.

“I could only liken it remotely to the Jews, who slaughter their animals with a holy prayer performed by a rabbi.

“May it be your will,
Jehovah my elo’ah and elo’ah of my ancestors,
the most Merciful of all,
the One who desires the repair of every being that has transgressed without exception,
even those who have angered you many times —
If she is delivered for slaughter trapped as a gilgul being,
Caught within the body of a domesticated animal, wild animal, or bird I am slaughtering,
Then may her spirit be repaired by the blessing that I have said over her slaughter
and over the kashrut of the knife
as you have commanded it.

“So sacred is the life — of man or beast — . Since that time with Kanuna, learning about his beliefs and becoming convinced in the purpose of life, that I began to revere and respect each and every sacrifice I administered. And while not Jewish, nor adherent to any particular religion, I began uttering that Jewish prayer each time, which I began at the transferring of Kanuna.”

“Not exactly your image of the scary, evil vampyre, eh?”

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To be continued …

 

 

 

 

Binge

24 Jan

Binge

L. Stewart Marsden

An Opinion

 

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of the word “binge” is an unrestrained and often excessive indulgence.

One can binge on food or drink, for example. A favorite dessert (Rocky Road ice cream comes to mind), or to catch up on a made-for-TV series. I binged on Sons of Anarchy to my regret. Twelve billion people were shot, stabbed, blown up or otherwise massacred on that bit of “entertainment.”

Binge is also a party. It’s possible to have a binge binge, where everyone binges on something at a party. Like Rocky Road ice cream, or Sons of Anarchy.  This “party” is not necessarily to be understood as a political one –– but if the shoe fits …

As an eating disorder, binging often morphs into bulimia nervosa  — not considered normal. In point of fact, I’m not sure the word binge is ever considered normal. Not binge-drinking, not binge-eating, not binge-watching. 

Yet it seems to me America is binging, and has been for some time. We binge on the news, and on information gleaned from social media and other bingey sources. It has become the bane of technology — again in my opinion.

We binge on whatever news slant brings us that temporary euphoria and escape from reality. Feed Me! we cry out to the blurred entities behind the supply of information. 

“And how would you like your eggs this morning?” 

“Over-easy with a slab of country ham and grits ‘n red-eye gravy with a mug of hot coffee. Pile them up and keep them coming, ‘cause I’m famished!”

“A slice of melon with a pirouette of dark chocolate swirled onto the plate, plus a croissant with a dab of blackberry preserves.”

“Tofu,” if you are vegan.

Like the Belushi food fight in Animal House, or, just maybe, like the caged chimpanzees at the cheap zoo, we fling our food and more at each other, emboldened by the anonymity of not really being anywhere close by as we spar and attack and dodge and dig in. As I’ve said before, the beaches are filled with lines drawn in the sand that wash away with the tide of opinion.

Most of the other types of binges come with hard and fast consequences –– as well as regret. This kind of binging is nefarious. None of us sees the widening gap or the hardening of resolve that separates us. Don’t get me wrong, we need resolve for many situations. But not the immutable stances that are really more like quicksand than not.

Binge. An unrestrained and often excessive indulgence.

The Protectorate

23 Jan

The Protectorate

Chapter One

 

Jon-Su’s printer pinged loudly, alerting him to an incoming file. The boxlike machine whirred to life, clicking and zipping as it followed the dictates of the Wi-Fi-received instructions. He smelled the slight acrid odor of burnt plastic towards the end of the process. A second ding and zip indicated the task was complete as a brightly-colored credit card-sized object slowly emerged from one of the slots in the printer to rest in a small wire basket.

Jon-Su allowed the card to cool before he scooped it up and examined it.

It was his ticket to the Survive-a-Bowl! He was going!

He tried to contain himself, but found it impossible not to jump about in his compartment, springing from the couch to a chair and finally out onto his porch.

“YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, not caring who he awoke or disturbed or bothered. A few lights came on in other compartments, and one or two “Shaddups!” and “F—K You’s” filtered out into the night air.

It was raining and cold, but Jon-Su held in his hand the dream of his young lifetime.

He came back into his compartment and sat down, examining the card more closely.

On one side was the red, white and blue insignia of the National Survive-a-Ball League in the background, with a collage of team logos in the foreground. 2045 Survive-a-Bowl ran across the width in large black block letters, with February 25, 8:00 PM in parentheses underneath.

Jon-Su’s name was printed across the bottom starting from the
left corner, followed by a long 12-digit number. On the reverse side was a small square gold chip embedded in a white background. Along the right was a rectangular area bordered with a thin black line.

The words “Not valid without finger impression” were printed underneath the box.

Jon-Su quickly placed the card on his coffee table with the white side up. He carefully lined up his right thumb in the rectangle, and rolled it from left to right. Within seconds his thumbprint appeared in light gray lines.

In tiny, illegible type were instructions and rules plus a scan bar at the very bottom. He scanned the bar with his Palmtone, and the text appeared on the screen. He rarely read through stuff like this, but where the Protectorate was involved, it was a wise move. Satisfied he understood all of the legal ins and outs, he tapped the edge of the card twice on the coffee table, and the front side glowed momentarily before returning to its regular color. His identification was verified, and his card was now active.

What were the odds? A million — no! — a billion to one, he bet. He could look up the exact number, of course, but he was too excited.
Almost like the odds of his state’s Survive-a-Ball team making it to the championship! What a year! What an incredible year!

Jon-Su added his winning a ticket to growing evidence he was being groomed and separated out by the Protectorate. Or so others had tried to tell him so, but he abashedly denied the chances.

“They’ve got their eye on you!” his friends would say.

“Why me? Why would the Protectorate cull me out among the billions?”

The ticket was proof his stock with the Protectorate had undoubtedly increased. No one could steal the ticket, given the thumbprint identification, although he had heard of people severing the thumbs of winners in the early bowl years. The fix was heat sensors, which had to register between a narrow range of 96.9 and 99.2 degrees. A severed thumb, even if you pack it in one of those pocket hand warmers, would not likely alight within the 2.3 degree variance.

It was too much to ponder. And entertaining the thought merely caused him to lose much-needed sleep. He couldn’t afford that.

The Bowl was three weeks away. Everything was included: travel, accommodations, and meals. Even getting to meet the team and the coaches were part of the deal! A special jersey and a ball cap. And a date with one of the team’s cheerleaders! Since Jon-Su had not opted to transgender yet and was still male, he relished the thought of an intimate evening with one of the girls. He hoped it would be with Chloe, on whom he had fixated when he first saw her online video.

“Hi! I’m Chloe! When I auditioned to be a Crushers Girl. I thought, ‘I have to win!’ Perhaps, if the Crushers go all the way to the Survive-a-Bowl this season, you and I will get to go all the way, too!”

Everything she said was bright and perky, yet laced with a come hither look, just like the girls in online porn.

“God! It’s ALL GOOD!” he shouted in his head.

During the next few days he received dozens of communiques covering everything about the event. He drove down to The Men’s Den to pick up travel clothing preselected and already paid for. He interviewed with local and regional media shortly after, his outfits dictated for each interview, as would be everything he wore throughout the event. The Protectorate left no detail to chance.
Jon-Su’s friends messaged him continuously.

“Saw you on the six o’clock news! Wow! Can I touch you? Who is your private dresser?” He delighted in all the attention. “I could get used to this!”

He left for New Orleans from Charlotte a week prior to the championship, a two-day slow and easy ride on the Southern Air Rail luxury train. He had his own sleeping berth, his own valet — food, drink, and any and all distractions one could wish for. The train could actually travel at above 250 mph, but The Protectorate obviously wanted to milk the occasion as much as possible. It stopped at various places along the way to pick up more winners, to the accompaniment of fanfare and much ado at every station.

Once arrived, he joined ninety-nine other winners in a flurry of bowl events, including riding on one of two winner floats in the Survive-a-Bowl Parade. One float featured the Carolina fans, and the other the Boston fans. He toured the Survive-a-Dome and was shown the luxury suite where he and the other would watch the game, over 1700 feet from the field. It was equipped with surround-sound and twenty-five huge flat screens so finely pixelated you swore you were inches from the action.

For added peace of mind, the suite was accessible through security-guarded elevators. Passageways tunneled under the parking flats led to awaiting armored transports. There was no chance any of these one hundred winners was going to be exposed to the post-game melee.

Two months earlier Jon-Su bought two scalped tickets in the cheap seats for the last game of the season, immediately behind his Carolina team. The Crushers cut through the opposing team, slicing through defensive players to score multiple times, killing the opponent offensive line — stopping any scoring opportunity dead in its tracks.

When the melee began at game’s end, Jon-Su and his date scrambled through the panicked throngs and barely managed to get to the parking flats unscathed. Many were not so lucky.

Even though being picked was reported to be pure chance, everyone knew those lucky few culled out of millions had more than luck going for them. Why else would they later be elevated in terms of work and living status? Why would they be more equal than others? How that designation came about was still not known, although much speculation quietly passed between bar-goers and in coffee clutches.

First, the obvious: Caucasian Christians had a distinct advantage. While there were the “token” winners from various ethnic groups and religions, they never resurfaced with improved status. Nor did their families.

It was also thought that heritage was part and parcel to Protectorate preference, as winners who with Germanic or Scandinavian roots appeared to comprise nearly all the group. Blue eyes, blonde hair and fair skin was all but the rule of the day. Nothing could be substantiated, since all family trees and ancestral documentation had been outlawed twenty-five years ago. Not that it would make a difference. No one dared or cared enough to challenge the hierarchy by snooping or blowing whistles. Especially not the media, which
had long ago lost its journalistic integrity for a more entertaining and positive-slanted presentation of “news.”

In his New Orleans hotel garden suite, high atop the Orleans Auberge, Jon-Su grew increasingly excited. Below the slick wet streets of the famous French Quarter sparkled in the night, brightly peopled by hordes of costumed vacationers awaiting the opening kick-off of the Survive-a-Bowl. It was a festival he would never forget.

The bell to his suite rang and drew him from his reverie. A bellhop rolled a cart filled with French delicacies and aperitifs. The bellhop quickly and expertly parked the cart next to a small table and two chairs preset with fine linen and china and crystal next to the large bay door that presented the city view. Jon-Su handed his bowl card to the bellhop, who swiped it through a reader he kept in his pocket, said Merci, then quickly exited, pulling the door closed gently.

Any ambivalence about the symbolism and reality of the games gave way to his anticipation. How many others were so very lucky in that regard? Nothing is for free, he argued mentally. But why shouldn’t he enjoy the moment?

The room bell rang again, and Jon-Su opened the door. Standing in the hallway was a beautiful woman, cloaked in a full-length white ermine stole and looking incredibly stunning.

“Chloe!” he whispered.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

Camden Newsome sank back into the stainless steel tub, adjusting his ear pommes so that he was in the veritable middle of the orchestra as it played. It was his favorite piece: Adagio for Strings. When he was younger and less jaded, his choice of music was more current, filled with beat and syncopation and moog-created sounds. Now, the slow, sad strains of music played on traditional instruments reminded him of the field of play, where teammate after teammate, friend after friend, had fallen. Over the five years of his career, he had changed from the cocky and brash new hero to the wise protective leader of his team.

His body looked and felt older as well. Now there was little distinction between the dark tattoos that covered most of his shoulders and arms and torso from the various scars of the games. Multiple surgical tracks crossed each of this knees — permanent remnants of repaired ligaments, menisci and shattered bones. The transition from his own skin to the synthetic covering of the prosthetic left forearm — an injury that threatened his continued career in survive-a-ball, and the future of his family.

But Newsome knew how to persevere and survive. He had known hard times from childhood. Nothing came easy. His mother implored him to take another pathway, but he saw survive-a-ball as his ticket out. Not that he wasn’t bright. No quarterback in this game is stupid. None that are alive, that is.

“You play smart and you live to play another day!” his high school coach preached to his team what seemed a hundred years before.

Three factors combined in the typical survive-a-bowl player: Physical ability, skill, and intelligence. He remembered a teacher in high school trying to answer such a question a student posed.

“Ms. McGivens, why doesn’t everyone become a survive-a-ball player? There’s so much money!”

McGivens drew a Venn diagram on the white board comprised of three large oval petals which overlappedand converged in the middle — like the center of a flower. She labeled the petals talent, ability, and intelligence. Then she drew a wobbly circle around the petals, and wrote, LUCK.

“Most of us have some of these parts in varying degrees — physical ability, special skills, and intelligence. I’m not so endowed in the physical ability area, but I make up for it in the skills and intelligence areas. Those people who play survive-a-ball have a lot of physical ability and skill, but perhaps not-so-much intelligence. After all, why would you willingly play survive-a-ball if you are smart?”

The class laughed.

“But, Ms. McGivens, are you saying that if you play survive-a-ball you are not intelligent?” Newsome asked, clearly endowed at an early age with physical ability and skills.

“Of course not. See, Camden, you are one of the exceptional athletes that combines better-than-average portions of each of these.”

“So, would it be a smart thing for me to think about a career in survive-a-ball? Or would you consider me stupid to have that as a goal?”

“First, the odds of someone making it to the professional levels are not in anyone’s favor. Only a few high school survive-a-ball players make it to the college level. Only a handful of them go on to the professional ranks. That’s true in basketball, tennis, golf as well.”
“Yeah, but at least in survive-a-ball you have a lot of turnover that you don’t in the other sports. Your competition becomes the next guy down.”

“Turnover is a risk in everything,” she returned matter-of-factly. “But frankly speaking, I would definitely advise you to have a goal other than survive-a-ball as a career. The reality is …” and she tapped the word LUCK, “…This is the most important and determining factor in survive-a-ball.”

Newsome slid in the tub so that the iced water was chin-level. He thought often about what his teacher had said, “Luck.” And, as everyone knows, even the most skilled and intelligent run out of luck in the end.

He wondered if he should have tried something else. What about business? What about a normal nine-to-five occupation where he clocked in and out with regularity; where he and his family were more concerned about mowing the lawn or washing the car or planning a trip to the beach? But he knew his chances of that were slim to none. He didn’t have the right attributes. He wasn’t light-skinned enough. His ancestors weren’t Europeans. Everyone he knew of his ilk managed to reach only so far in business, despite their abilities and intelligence. He was better off on the physical field of competition, regardless. Plus, despite the probable consequences, he loved the game.

He dipped his head under the cold water, feeling its iciness numb his skin and brain. Maybe he could induce a stroke and he wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore. Breaking the surface and gasping, he knew that somehow the game was worth it. To his mother and wife and children. They would not have to worry when he finally fell from the ranks of elite survive-a-ball athletes and was inevitably a turnover casualty.

One more game. The penultimate challenge. The goal of every survive-a-ball player. That was something. How many others could say they made it to the Survive-a-Bowl? Perhaps he could retire. As long as the Crushers won, that is. Still, even if they lost, there would be compensation for his wife and family. The irony was retirement was never encouraged, and as players aged, if injury didn’t do them in, their ability to survive exponentially decreased after the age of 28. And Newsome was 26. The statistical clock ticked for everybody.
He learned in history class that the old government once provided the elderly with something called social security. Which, so he understood, was a monthly stipend to help with living expenses. Throughout their working lives, people paid into a fund supposedly untouchable that paid out to seniors age 70 and up — at least in the beginning. The problem was the government couldn’t help dipping into that cookie jar over and over. Then rules changed so workers had to be older to receive what they considered an entitlement. By the time the fund was completely drained, workers had to be age 80 to receive anything. Most died before reaching the mark.

Now there were no stipends. No guarantees. Other than through the National Survive-a-Ball League. Of course, you had to play ball to get the money. Hence the reason no one retired from the game. Who could afford to? While not at a level with those favored by the Protectorate, at least his family was spared a life in the compartments, and they enjoyed some of the amenities of a higher level of living. There were no other common professional sports athletes who fared better than survive-a-ball athletes. Period. The league was a multi-trillion dollar enterprise, and called the shots where the other common sports were concerned as well. The lines were definitely blurred.

Of course, the above-common professional athletes fared incredibly well. Those sports were individual sports — golf, tennis, swimming and skiing. Injuries were limited to sprains and pulled muscles. Except skiing. They were sports the financially elite had access to as kids.

In the latter part of the 20th century, and into the early 2000s, some of those barriers separating common athletes from elite sports were breached. But only occasionally, and while those who managed to cross the barriers were heroes to their own kind, their success threated the status quo.

The old National Football League was an example how things changed when a sport caved to the demands and pressures of its athletes. Concerns over head trauma crippled the NFL. Players grew more concerned and outspoken over safety and longevity than they were satisfying the league and the fans with the kind of brutal play that ignored personal injury. It diluted play to the extent spectators no longer wanted to go to an arena and pay hundreds of dollars for what came to be considered little more than powder-puff football.

If he survived to retirement, Newsome decided he would write the penultimate exposé of the demise of the NFL, and the subsequent rise of survive-a-ball. The Rise and Fall of the NFL, he would title it. He knew it would never be published. The Protectorate guarded closely anything in print or digital format. Still, it offered him mental  escape to think about its contents. The technical science of invading and monitoring thought was still a decade away, according to the science prognosticators. Rumor was it was currently in use. “Invading” and “monitoring” were his choice of words for what was to come. The Protectorate claimed the developing technology was part of the country’s national security defense. It would be used to make sure the country never feared the infiltration of extremist groups and the devastation that fear wrought decades earlier.

Newsome planned to spend his last day before the next two days isolated and protected from the hub-bub. Tomorrow was the last day of team prep for the game, and would flash by quickly, like every other day before Game Day. The only difference was this was The Game game day. He would attempt to bury that fact under music, reading and rest. He knew that would not be easy.

“Know how to turn water into gold?” his dad asked him once before a game.

“How?”

“Take a round wooden bowl and fill it halfway with water. Then take a wooden spoon, and stir the water counter-clockwise.”

“That’s it?”

“One more thing.”

“What?”

“Do NOT think about pink elephants.”

Ah! There’s a catch to everything, he thought. Although once he did try the experiment, and, as his father predicted, Newsome knew he could not NOT think about pink elephants.

Newsome pulled himself slowly out of the tub of water and stepped gingerly onto the rubber-matted floor. He grabbed a folded towel with his synthetic hand and marveled at the technology which allowed him to feel the texture and softness of the towel as he wiped his brown body dry.

The Adagio faded, and the theme music from Glory began, the haunting voices of the Harlem Boys Choir moving and merging and filling Newsome’s head as he dressed quietly in the locker room. There were a few other teammates preparing themselves mentally as well. No one looked at the other. All had sucked themselves into tiny beings, hoping their springing to life would coincide with the battle on Sunday. Till then, no thinking allowed. Till then, no emotions other than rage and determination could be evidenced.

Newsome increased the volume of the music on his ear pomme, walked out of the locker room and stepped onto the rail cart that would shuttle him to his hotel. Only one more interruptive event on his schedule before all-out focus on the game — meeting the ticket winners.

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Red Carne sat back in his large leather chair. His office was walled on three sides with white boards covered in multi-colored diagrams, words, players’ names and more. He noticed in the corner of one of the boards the doodle drawing of a nose, eyes, and fingers, as if a person was peeking around the edge of the board.

“Kilroy was here!” was written in a bubble above the drawing.

Carne smiled. He remembered simpler times when coaching was a matter of X’s and O’s, meeting with his offensive and defensive staff, finding out who was able to play and who was not, and finalizing a game plan.

That was when it was football. Now it was survive-a-ball. The not-so-logical “progression to the next level of professional sports” that The Protectorate made it out to be.

Next level of brutality one notch below war. But he had to admit the changes in the game and its rules had certainly pumped new life into a dying sport.

Dying sport. Ironic, that.

The National Survive-a-Ball League eclipsed the revenues of the defunct NFL by trillions. It was the sport that generated so much in the way of income that its CEO held a seat as a member of the President’s cabinet. So influential was his voice that no other cabinet member dared to contradict the NSBL. Nor did the President, for that matter.

Here he sat on the verge of his first Survive-a-Bowl. Carne looked about the room and wondered at it all. Were he a man of integrity and principle, he would have long ago quit. He constantly questioned whether he had ever had integrity or principles. He wife whispered to him in bed he was the most principled man she knew whenever he started to beat himself up over the matter.

“Just shows the kind of men you must run around with.” And she would punch him in the arm.

Once Jennifer and he had taken a trip to Mexico after the football season. He was exhausted from the long, nerve-fraying nine months, and was glad to go where the only references to sport would be fùtbol, not football. They decided to tour the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, a three-hour drive from their hotel on the Mexican Riviera.

“Three hours — no, six hours away from the pool and relaxation!” He was not happy. He was content to sit in the shade of one of the many poolside bars, sipping Margaritas and Mai Tais and listening to Mariachi. But he owed Jennifer time and consolation for her patience over the years. He had grown gray and paunchy along the sidelines of whatever team he was currently coaching as she dutifully stood by. In the past 30 years they had moved sixteen times for his profession.

“You’ll love it. I promise,” she said of the day trip.

Not only did he not like the drive, which was hot and bumpy and dusty, he also did not like the blistering heat when they reached their destinations. If he was going to go look at crumbling stone buildings, why couldn’t it be in Athens or Rome? Why out in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula, for God’s sake?

As much as he was prepared to hate everything about the outing, at least the Dos Equis was plentiful and cold. And, he had to admit, some of the ancient architecture was impressive, having been constructed nearly two thousand years earlier.

And then the ball field.

“What the hell is that?” Jennifer was embarrassed by how loud he was, and how the others in their small tour group turned to look at Carne.

“That, Señor, is the Mayan equivalent of a football stadium.”

“Fùtbol? Is that what you mean? Soccer?”

“No, Señor. Your American football. Except in this game you do not use your hands.”

“That’s soccer, not football.”

“I beg to differ. In its brutality. The game is today called ōllamaliztli.”

Carne tried to repeat the word, but tres Dos Equis got in the way, and he could only blather something that sounded close to what the guide said.

“Yes. We know by the artwork and hieroglyphics this sport was very deadly. The ball itself could injure or kill a player. And guess what?”

The group leaned in and said, in unison, “What?”

“The winning captain cut out the heart of the losing captain,” he said, and everyone grimaced. Except Carne, who offered up “So I guess these guys really had their hearts in the game!”

Groan.

Going back Jennifer drove the rental. Carne cracked open two more beers along the way. The windows were rolled down because the air conditioning didn’t work. He hung his arm out the window holding his beer, swooping up and down with the force of the wind.

“And I thought I was going to get away from football on this trip.”

“I suppose we’d have to go somewhere like Antarctica for that.”

“Naw. We’d run into little penguins playing their version of football. We’re cursed.”

And so it seemed. Now here he was, two days before the game of a lifetime — if you could call it that. Not the same game he started out to coach. The NFL had folded, to be replaced by the NSBL. Remnants of the old game, sure — but drastically different. Boldly and blatantly brutal. Just the medicine the doctor ordered for turnaround success. And there was no doubt the new version had stimulated incredible interest. After all, who goes to a hockey game for anything but the fights? And why the skyrocketing popularity of MMA fighting except for the gashed noses and swelled eye sockets? Like the draw of the bull fights in Spain? Or the gladiator competitions in the Colosseum in Ancient Rome?

Unlike the Mayan warriors of old, Carne’s heart was no longer in the game. It took more from him than he could give. It depleted him and left him emotionally and spiritually exhausted — not to mention physically spent. He was frankly amazed he hadn’t keeled over on the sidelines years ago, frothing at the mouth and jerking spasmodically until his heart stopped. Like how the legendary Ben Beaufort died when still coaching in the NFL. That’s the way to go out! Sudden. Quick. Clean.

He looked out the large glass wall of his office and noted Camden Newsome, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, leaving the locker room. He hoped his quarterback would turn to look his way so he could motion him to chat a while. What they would talk about, Carne had no idea. Maybe just sit and look at each other and nod understandingly. Like two football bobble heads. Maybe break out his bottle of unopened Evan Williams bourbon — a Christmas gift from Elton Charles, his stalwart offensive center.

But then Camden was pretty much a teetotaler. And a stickler for the rules, even though this game could be Newsome’s last. Since he was team captain, he had to set an example, he would probably say. Everything the young man did, even down to stepping forward and taking the mantel of Captain, was how he led the team. In spite of the possible end, he chose to stand out front.

Pity. Carne thought the warm burn of the shared precious bourbon would knit the two for all time. Perhaps bridge the color gap between them.

Newsome didn’t turn, however, and continued out of the building, pulling his hood up over his head.

Nice kid. Wish things had been different for him — and for all the guys for that matter. And for me. And for Jennifer.

He cracked open the bottle of Evan Williams and pulled a shot glass from the desk, pouring it nearly full with the rich amber liquid. He could smell it three feet away. Carefully he drew the glass to his lips, trembling a bit at the very last and spilling a few drops into his lap.

He sipped. It burned and warmed.

Ah! So that’s what the top-shelf stuff tastes like. Only you couldn’t get Evan Williams bourbon at retail. You had to buy it at the distillery. You had to go there.

Then he remembered: the gathering of the ticket winners. A command performance.

Damn!

Instead of draining the remaining bourbon from his glass, Carne carefully poured the small amount back into the bottle. At $2700 a bottle, it was liquid gold.

He put the bottle and the glass back into a desk drawer and stood, grabbing his car coat and fedora from the coatrack as he left the office, switching off the lights. As he shut the door, he purposefully resisted turning back to look at the now-empty office, and continued out of the locker room and building where his stretch limo and driver awaited.

Two more days, he thought to himself.

* * * * *

Chapter Four

It didn’t matter what the weather was like. Over 150 thousand spectators filtered into the New Orleans Survive-a-Dome during the last six-hours before kickoff. The venue was the largest of its kind in North America. Its narrow sliding roof opening was agap, in spite of the cold and the rain. Gigantic blowers attached to the opening kept even torrential rain from entering the stadium, providing perfect humidity, temperatures and other conditions. No team, no player, no coach, no fan could ever suggest had the weather only been different, so would have been the game outcome.

Jon-Su initially toyed with the idea of waiting until the last half-hour before going to the stadium. For him there were no lines, no delays, no security checks, no body scans — nothing to impede him gliding from his hotel to the luxury suite. But he wanted the full sensational array of the event. He had already recorded so much by device and with his mind — why waste one iota of the pre-game pageantry and anticipation?

He also wanted to claim his seat, and ply himself with shrimp, escargot, Foie gras, Baluga caviar and Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1998 champagne. He didn’t particularly like the taste of the hors d’oeuvres, but he figured what the heck? When in Rome. Who else did he know that had dined on such delicacies? What friend or coworker had sipped nearly 50- year-old champagne worth $8,000 a bottle? Regardless of his anticipated status with The Protectorate, he wanted every taste, scent, sound and touch of this to embed into his very soul. You really never know, after all. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jon-Su flitted about the large suite, introducing himself to other winners for the umpteenth time and getting their contact information. Chatter was filled with where one lived and what one did for a living. His answers were slyly evasive.

“Oh, you know I can’t tell you that! Suffice it to say it’s for one of the hierarchical departments.” Over the last three days he had become quite adept at parsing out his own interpretations of a variety of subjects. After all, the water department was critical to the city’s operation and function; and being a line inspector was integral to the success of that system.

“Income? I’m in line now for a significant wealth-infusion as well as a new post that recognizes and rewards my contributions. Sky’s the limit, you know!”

None of what he said was exactly false. And after a couple of Tulip glasses of champagne, he was less cautious of what others might think of his responses. He esteemed himself and his answers to be curiously enigmatic. And in the week since he landed in New Orleans, he had met no one from his home town, nor anyone he even vaguely knew, or vice versa. So who really cared what he said or implied?

A sleek woman of around Jon-Su’s age approached him and smiled. She was dressed in a satin dress that clung to her breasts and hips, and she was obviously attracted to him.

“Jon-Su, do you think we could watch the game together?”

Her name was Mar-Lance, and he had met her on the float during the parade where they cuddled together against the cold night air and talked. That had led to nothing, but this was the last night. Their swan song, so to speak. Who knew the possibilities? And, thanks to Chloe, he was no longer a virgin, and longed to share what he learned from her that incredible night.

“Yes, sure!”

He led her to the seat he had reserved for himself, and indicated she sit in the next seat. A small oval table top, large enough for two, separated the two. The suite was filling up with winners, and the large screens depicted what was happening on the field below. Jon- Su and Mar-Lance chatted mindlessly, picking at their hors d’ oeuvres.

——

Camden Newsome looked at himself in his locker mirror, adjusting parts of his clean, colorful uniform. He looked nice. In a few hours he would not look so nice. Nor would his uniform. The crisp teal and white fabric would be stained green from the grass, and splotched red from blood — either his own or from a teammate, or the opposition.

He had changed the music on his ear pommes to the classical We Will Rock You by Abba. His head bobbed and he twisted and turned to the bam-bam-bam beat. Other team members were tuned in to the same song, and mouthed out the lyrics to themselves, bobbing and twisting to the music as well.

A slap on his right shoulder pad swung Newsome around to face his favorite receiver, Jericho Olsten, a huge tight end with big hands and a bigger heart.

“Let’s do this, Camden!”

The two warriors wrapped each other in their long arms, broke apart, and began waving and clapping their hands above their heads to the beat of the song. They were joined by other team members who were ready to do battle. Arms hooked arms, and a wide circle of uniformed soldiers swayed to Abba’s call to duty.

A digital clock on the wall counted down the time remaining before the kick-off of the ultimate game of survival.

“Seventy-five minutes and counting!” Newsome shouted, taking off his ear pommes and standing straight. His team members followed suite.

“Everything we have done this year has led us to this moment! We have lost many along the way, and God how I wish they were here with us to experience this.”

“Amen!”

“Every man here knows his job and what must be done to come away with this victory.”

“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

The transformation from man to beast had begun.

“This game is ours to win, and ours to lose — and we will not — will NOT lose!”

“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

The thoughts and fears of each man faded as the team collectively reached deeply into its primordial and ancestral pool. Any semblance of civilized thought was buried in anger and a welling sense of self-preservation.

“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!”

Muscles and jaws tensed. Eyes narrowed.

“There IS no choice BUT VICTORY! We will secure our place in HISTORY tonight by WHATEVER means need be! We are no longer individual players! We are a team!”

Newsome raised his right hand above his head, and the team crowded close together, each man stretching to touch their captain.

“We are . . .”

“THE CRUSHERS!”

Like bellowing apes, the armored soldiers pounded their chests and each other, chest- slamming and jumping into a frenzied vanguard.
“Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! UH! UH! UH! UH! ” The wild beast had replaced the man of reason.

——-

Red Carne and his coaching staff watched as the beast blew open the double doors of the locker room and poured down the large tunnel that led to the field. On either side were members of the media, filming the eruption, camera flashes exploding in the faces of the unperturbable athletes. An ocean-like sound grew louder and louder as the mob approached the final opening, slowing and bunching together.

Carne walked briskly, as did his crew.

“Damn! This would be an ideal spot for a coronary!”

Finally the players erupted from the tunnel onto the field. The expanse of the filled stadium was mind-boggling. Overhead, lights everywhere. The bright green of the field. The colorful thousands upon thousands in the stands, waving banners and flags; blowing plastic horns; shouting and screaming to the tops of their lungs. Cameras, cameras and more cameras.

It was something to behold. In spite of what was coming, the NSBL knew how to put on a show, he had to give them that.
The field was lined with military soldiers who had stretched a huge American flag that covered the entire field. An announcer blasted over the stadium PA:

“Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and girls! And all those viewing from around the world … Welcome to the twenty-fifth Survive-a-Bowl from New Orleans, Louisiana, pitting the Survive-a-Ball champions of the National League — from Charlotte, North Carolina — the Carolina Ca-rush-ers —!”

The announcer paused for the anticipated responses to die down throughout the stadium. All the while, the Crushers raced onto the field, soaking everything in.

“— and the American League champs — from Foxboro, Massachusetts, the New England Co-man-dos!”

Confetti burst from pouches preset over the stands while fireworks on either end of the field arced into the air and exploded in dozens of colors and design.

From a giant glistening bulb suspended from the very center of the roof, a beam of light streaked to the surface of the American flag as all other stadium lights went dim.

“And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, I proudly introduce the 48th President of the United States, Barton Double-yew Trum-pet —!”

Within the beam colors and shapes began to swirl and take shape until the hologram of President Trumpet finally focused. Dapper, well-dressed and coiffed, the ultimate politician held out his hands to quiet the noise of the crowd, except there was no noise to quiet. The entire stadium barely buzzed.

“My dear fellow Americans, tonight’s survive-a-ball contest represents how far our country has advanced since the decades of confusion, and is now the ultimate symbol of the greatness and the power of the United States to the rest of the world!

“Each one of you has played an integral role in reestablishing the US to its rightful position of world leader! We are the richest, the most influential and powerful country of all time! And the safest!

“Please join me in celebration of this hallmark moment by singing our National Anthem.”

Trumpet cleared his throat, and began to sing. The stadium obediently, yet quietly, followed along.

“Oh-ho say can you see …”

At the song’s end, fireworks spewed again at either end of the field. The holograph beamed back up into the silver ball, which rose high into the darkness behind the stadium lights.

As the epic atmosphere washed over him, Carne began to think of “Alice and Wonderland,” and the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the inevitable demise of the oysters.

Yes, the time has come. The time has finally, truly come.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Dodge Dempsey adjusted his bright red necktie, and smoothed his well-oiled hair toward the back of his head with his hands. After decades of calling the play-by-play for the Survive-a-Bowls, he still had it. At least in his own mind. His co-anchor primped as well, dabbing last-minute splotches of make-up, and batting her long lashes into a small mirror she held in her hand. While extravagantly beautiful, Marla Mintz was a consummate sports caster. She had risen through the ranks the old-fashioned way: starting at the bottom and diligently working her way up, breaking through the glass ceiling three years earlier. This was her first Survive-a-Bowl, but there was no lack of confidence in her demeanor or performance.

“Five seconds!” called someone behind the cameras and bright lights shining onto the duo.

The PBS sports anthem swelled and a finger pointed at Mintz as the light on the camera directly in front of her turned a bright red. Mintz looked into the camera.

“Welcome everyone to the 29th Survive-a-Bowl here in New Orleans! I’m Marla Mintz with my co-anchor Dodge Dempsey. For the next five hours the sports team at PBS will bring you not only the game of games, but everything you wanted to know about the coaches, players, and, yes, the fans!”

Camera 2 picked up on Dempsey from his left, with Mintz in the background. He flashed his famous Dempsey grin.

“That’s right, Marla. As our viewers have come to expect from the Protectorate Broadcast System, you’ll see all the gory glory up-close and personal. The game will kick off shortly, but first let’s see how these two Survive-a-Ball organizations managed to make their way through the season to tonight’s event!”

Canned stories cued up about the Carolina Crushers and their team abridged their season in filmed and reported highlights.

Camera 1 on Mintz.

“Tonight we have the brash youth of Carolina quarterback Camden Newsome pitted against the very successful New England leader, Thorn Brandon, who is vying for his fifth Survive-a-Bowl championship ring!”

Break to Dempsey.

“That’s right, Marla! This is the first year of the rule change giving the captain of the winning team the choice of the melee. Unlike years past when the mandatory game end ceremony was conducted, this year the victorious captain can choose.”

Marla broke in.

“And it’s a very controversial rule change, Dodge.”

“Yes it is. And reminiscent of the various rules against hits in the head and blind-siding that — let’s face it — were the demise of the old NFL.”

“Well, it may actually add a bit more tension at game’s end, don’t you think?”

“What I think is that Commissioner Rob Godwell is going to steer this ship onto the reef, metaphorically. The last really outstanding rule change was the added scoring at the end of the game. That’s nail-biting! When the game ends, and the score is 17 to 24, that additional scoring can completely reverse the outcome!”

“Let’s run down what the added scoring entails, Dodge.

“A point for holding the offensive team to three plays and out goes to the defense.

“A point for any play over 20 yards goes to the offense.

“A point each for a recovered turnover, which includes fumbles and interceptions.

“A point over and above the regular points scored for a TD run-back on a kickoff or punt.

“A point for blocked punts, field goals or extra points.
Camera on Dempsey.

“Two weeks ago the Carolina Crushers trailed the Arizona Rattlers in the final score, and ended up winning the game with eight more points added. Such excitement!

Back to Mintz.

“Then, of course, the team with the ball can, at any time, invoke the pendulum throw, and the game ends immediately regardless of the score. Obviously it can only be called once, because either way, the result is final. A win if the throw is good, or a loss if the throw misses. No Survive-a-Bowl championship has ever been decided by a pendulum throw.”

“We are ready for the coin toss, as the twenty-fifth Survive-a-Bowl is about to get underway!”

The game see-sawed back and forth in the first half, both offenses stymied by strong defenses. Players were taken off the field with injuries ranging from minor to critical. Replay on those injury-resulting plays were close and detailed, utilizing slow-motion to its maximum value. Where bones were revealed or blood spewed effusively, there was no editing out of the gore. It was, after all, why people wanted to see the sport, and the pundits who thirty-five years ago introduced the sport were absolutely correct.

Only two scores occurred in the first half: field goals for both teams. The score was knotted at 3 to 3.

As with the old NFL, every aspect of the Survive-a-Bowl was geared for entertainment. The half-time spectacle was no different. It took three minutes for the field in the huge bowl arena to morph into a huge ocean scene. Mateena, the dominant female entertainer of the day, rode down a single elevator-like platform as her band members did the same from other areas above the water.

She wore black patent leather skin that revealed her ample breasts, hips and long legs. Against her dark face her long, thick hair was dyed electric white, and flowed wildly about her head in wind produced all about her. Her large cape, black on the outside and crimson on the reverse, flashed violently in the wind.

Her platform stopped above the waves of the arena ocean. Bolts of lightning, billows of steam, and loud cracks of thunder ripped through the air to the delight of everyone.

She sang her hit, “I Am the Man-killer,” the lyrics scrambling across the huge scoreboard.

I am the man-killer!
And I’ve come from my den to kill me a man!
I’m the man-killer!
I’ll tear into his flesh till he no longer stands!
Woo-woo!

Every spectator in the stadium, every viewer of the broadcast around the world sang along.

As she sang, two Viking warships entered the arena from its two opposite ends. Loud beats on huge drums were hammered on each vessel. A dozen men sat six to a side manning long oars extended out from the boats. Each large man was overly muscled, and stripped to the waste, body greased shiny. Each was shackled to his oar with thick iron cuffs.

Mateena worked her song sexually, tossing her arms wildly about as the warships approached each other. The beat of the ships matched the song. It rose and rose and rose, sweeping everyone into its vortex of rhythm and lust and devastation.

As the ships were about to touch, archers sprang up in each, aiming and loosing flaming arrows into the air towards their foes.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! blasted through the arena as rowers were struck the arrows, as archers fell into the water, and as each ship caught fire and burned quickly and hotly. Both ships sank quickly into the waters, trapped men screaming and disappearing with the crafts.

I AM A MAN-KIL-LER! Mateena belted out and held, the music frenzied and loud. And then a total blackout in the arena.

“Ladies and gentlemen . . . a warm hand for … Ma-teeee-na!”

The arena erupted in uncontrolled applause and screams. Tens of thousands of lighters were lit and waved about in the dark din. The NSBL had done their best. The halftime show was a heart-stopper in the best and worst sense of the word.

When the lights came back, there was no evidence of the ocean, the Viking ships, nor the carnage that had taken place. The only remnants were small clouds of smoke, still floating about above the field, and the acrid smell of burnt flesh.

——-

The second half started with double the scoring and more than the first. The New England Commandos took the kick-off and worked their way down the field for the first touchdown of the game. It took Thorn Brandon little time to pick apart the Carolina defense and score on a seven-yard touchdown toss to his favorite tight end, Bonner Bratkowski.

With the point-after-touchdown, the score was 10 to 3, New England.

Conner Dent pulled in the ensuing kickoff and wormed his way close to midfield, where Camden Newsome took over. Two running plays took the Crushers to the New England 30 yard line. On the next play, Newsome faked a handoff and rolled out to his right. Every receiver down field was covered, and a New England lineman was barreling toward him, fire in his eyes.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Newsome saw Jericho Olsten break the other way toward the end zone. Newsome planted his feet and turned Olsten’s direction, hurling the ball in a perfect spiral to the big hands of his teammate just before being slammed to the ground. He felt a rib crack under the weight of the lineman.

Touchdown!

So the game went. New England and then Carolina. Carolina and then New England. There was no lull in the cheers from the 150,000 spectators, especially not in the Red Zone, where the curve of the arena created a perfect amplifier of the noise.

Barked signals.

Grunts from the impact of bodies crashing into bodies.

The smell of grass and earth.

The shrill whistles bleating throughout the game.

Scantily clad cheerleaders.

Lights.

Lights.

Lights.

One minute, thirty-seconds remaining in the game.
Carolina down by 28 to 27, with New England on the Carolina thirty-five. The Crusher defense dugs in. Bloodied and bandaged fists stabbed into the field, readied for the next snap.

Hut!

The snap.

Brandon faked a handoff into the line and dropped back. The front lines grappled for position, clenching sleeves and arms and anything else to get an advantage. The defensive backfield shadowed the New England receivers, each knowing their man must not shake free.
Bratkowski slipped out into the flat, uncovered. Brandon threw. A defensive hand stabbed the night air and tipped the ball, altering its flight, sending it forward like a tumbling space capsule. Bratkowski reached back and scooped the ball, then turned down field.

A linebacker barely missed him. A cornerback spun him in another vein attempt, yet Bratkowski somehow stayed on his feet. The clock ticked down to 1:10 as he lunged — two defensive backs clinging to him. He stretched the ball out in mid-air, and floated over the goal line.

The score was 34 to 27, with 1:08 remaining in the game.

Amazingly, the New England kicker missed the extra point, which sailed right and just struck the upright.

The kickoff was unreturnable. It sailed into and out of the end zone.

Newsome and the offense took the field with 59 seconds to go 80 yards.

“Time out!” Newsome called, stepping back from underneath his center. He walked slowly to the sideline to Coach Carne.

“I want to invoke the Pendulum Throw, Coach.”

“Are you kidding? We’ve done this before, Cam! We’ve come back in the last minute to win a game. You have the ability to do it!”

“Not with the stakes so high.”

“The stakes are always high!”

“I make the throw, it’s a done deal. For another year, anyway. Sounds easy to me.”

But that was Camden talking. He and his coach knew better. If they lost the game in regulation, both he and Carne would face turnover. Plus his teammates could also suffer. If the pendulum throw was missed, he was the only player liable, and Coach Carne would not be in jeopardy. There was also the chance New England would be merciful. It was part of a very strange rule.

Carne stepped to the head referee and spoke to him. The referee looked up, surprised, said something, and Carne nodded.
The referee walked to the middle of the field, and threw a red flag to the ground. He turned on his mic and spoke hesitantly.

“The quarterback of the Carolina Panthers has invoked the Pendulum Throw. The game time is thus expired, and the scoreboard is nullified. All other scoring is also nullified. We will have a five-minute official time out while the pendulum is set up.” He blew his whistle, and trotted off to the group of officials now gathered at the side of the field.

There was understandable confusion. A loud buzz ensued in the stands, with boos and one or two shouts of “Coward!” tossed out. Teammates tried to argue sense to Newsome, who shook his head and smiled broadly.

Invoking of the Pendulum Throw had never occurred in a Survive-a-bowl, and only three times during games over the past twenty-five years. Still, it had never been taken out of the rule book.

The sports anchors quickly backpedaled in their game coverage, trying to find highlights of past Pendulum Throws.

Mintz addressed the camera.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, this obscure rule has been used three times. Twice the throw was bad and missed. The captain of the team that invoked the throw had to shoulder the loss and was turned over. One throw was successful, and the opposition captain fell under the mercy of the winning captain. He could have chosen to allow the captain and coach to go free, and for the melee to be cancelled.

“He chose the no mercy.”

Very short videos and photos flashed onscreen quickly.
As the commentators continued, a large equilateral metal triangle descended slowly from above the field. Handlers positioned the triangle, which was then stabilized along the fifty yard line.

Camera on Dempsey.

“The triangle that supports the pendulum is exactly 160 feet long on each side. The pendulum, which swings from the topmost angle of the triangle, is 130 feet long. For all you math buffs out there, that’s 80 feet times the square root of three, right Marla?”

Cut to Marla.

“Not exactly, Dodge. You got the 80 correct and the square root of 3 is also right. The pendulum, however, is shorter than the triangle’s height. It swings on an arc where the lowest point is around 6 feet off the ground. The target at the end of the pendulum is six feet in diameter, and is made of polished brass.”

“Like a grandfather clock!”

“Yes, Dodge, like a grandfather clock.” Mintz was visibly irked at Dempsey’s interruption. “And a cutout in the center of the target is four feet in diameter.”

“That’s really not a big target, Marla.”

“No. It’s not, Dodge! Anyway, the pendulum moves at about fifteen miles an hour, and Newsome must stand with one foot touching the 25 yard line.”

“Wow! A 25 yard throw!”

“He can, Dodge, allow the pendulum to swing up to five times without making his throw. Once that has happened, he must throw the football. If he does not, he forfeits and loses the game. If he misses, he loses the game. If he manages to throw the ball through the opening, he wins.”

“Looks like the pendulum is just about ready, Marla. Let’s go down on the field with Terry Brandshaw.”

Cut to a smiling commentator who holds a mic in front of his face.

“Yes, Marla and Dodge, according to the head ref the pendulum is ready. Camden has been on the sidelines throwing. While the accuracy needed to throw a ball twenty-five yards would be next to impossible for most quarterbacks in the National Survive-a-Ball League, Newsome certainly has the equipment for success. Over the last six games of the season, Newsome has threaded the needle for 9 touchdowns and no interceptions. The man is very accurate!”

Cut back to Mintz.

“As well he will need to be. There’s Newsome coming out onto the field, football in hand. A referee is standing at the 25 yard line in the middle of the field. He shakes Newsome’s hand, and blows his whistle to start the pendulum swinging.”

A whirring sound from the drive motor attached to the pendulum axle increased in volume. The game clock ticked down from one minute. At zero, the pendulum was released from one side of the pyramid and began its arc. Its speed was controlled by the drive motor.

Woosh!

The pendulum made its first pass. Newsome studied its movement, trying to gage how much energy to put on his pass, when to let the ball go, and where to aim it. For the first time the entire night, the stadium was hushed.

Woosh!

The second pass of the pendulum along its arc. Newsome tilted his head back and looked into the bright lights above, then bowed as the pendulum made its third pass.

Woosh!

He dug his right foot into the lime of the 25 yard line. He could do this. The whole stadium hoped and believed the same — even the New England players.

You can do it! thought Red Carne.

Woosh!

You can do it! through Jon-Su from the luxury box, gripping his hands together tightly.

Woosh!

The last swing. The pendulum moved from Newsome’s right to the left. A more natural throw for him in leading the target. The pendulum arm hung on the last swing forever. Newsome’s thoughts raced, and slowed time and motion down. When the pendulum hit the vertical position, his arm was cocked, the football squeezed in his big hand. He stepped forward into the throw, tagged to the yard line with his other foot. He leaned forward will all his strength, and his arm catapulted the ball into a perfect spiral that arced toward an empty spot to the right where he judged ball and pendulum target would collide.

Epilogue

It was so close.

That’s what the commentators and teammates and Coach Carne and Jon-Su and everyone in the stadium said.

So very, very close. But close doesn’t count except in horseshoes and handgrenades, Dodge blurted out in the stunned silence.

The ball hit the inside edge of the cutout. It could as easily bounced through the hole. It could easily have been a spectacular finish.
Similarly, Thorn Brandon could have easily offered mercy, and spared Newsome turnover. But that would also have cancelled the melee. And if anything, Brandon was a company man, and knew a melee would compensate for New England winning the Survive- a-Bowl outright, and he his fifth ring in this fashion. The win was tainted. He and everyone else knew it. Also, he knew he would never have to face Camden Newsome again on the field of play. Being able to reduce the viable competition was, in survive-a-ball, part of the accepted strategy. Part of the game. The way the ball bounces.

Jon-Su turned to his new-found friend and extended his hand, which she took. The frenzy of the melee had begun, and there was nothing more to watch. If you’ve seen one melee, you’ve seen them all. She had agreed to stay over one more night. With him. So all was not a total loss.

Red Carne sat on the sideline bench, his head buried in his hands. Jericho Olsten tapped Carne on the shoulder

“C’mon, Coach — we gotta get outta here, and quick!”

Police in riot gear streamed onto the field where the fans had gathered around Newsome’s body. Everyone wanted a souvenir. A piece of his uniform. A lock of his hair. A fingernail.

Carne stood slowly, avoiding to look at the pandemonium taking place where Newsome had offered himself up. He trotted alongside Olsten and into the sanctuary of the dressing room.

THE END

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.

–––––––––––

 

 

 

 

Bass-Ackwards

24 Sep

Bass-Ackwards

By Homer P. Nogginfogger

Dear Mr. Marsidoo (I hope I spelt it right),

Please publish the following essay of my opinion of what is bass-ackwards in this great nation of ours. I’ve limited it to three or four, but believe me when I say I coulda gone on and on. Nevertheless, every journey begins with a step, and this is my first step at being vocal, seeing as how every other jack-ass is allowed to scream and shout what they think. I’m gonna use that little comment you use so often to apply to this here below: my opinion and 75 cents will get you a cup of coffee anywheres. That excludes Starbuck’s, of course. Which I also exclude on a regular basis, if you know what I mean.

Thank you, Kind Sir,

Homer

_______________________________________

Bass-akwards. One of the best words to de-scribe most of what ails this country and me.

Once notions was based on simple and plain logic: what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours; and don’t do or say nothin’ to nobody you wouldn’t want done or said to you. You know, the Golden Rule thing.

Seems to me, though, as this nation has got older and sophisticateder — “wiser” some folks might say — we ain’t done more’n get things so turned around we don’t know which way is up anymore. We got things bass-ackwards, in other words.

Like marriage. Used to be a guy and a gal honeyed up to one another on the porch and listened to the radio and sipped lemonade. Then the guy would go ask her papa could they marry (her and the guy, that is — you have to be so clear about that these days), and the wedding would be planned down to the First Baptist Church. Wasn’t no super expensive deal. Friends and family brought a cover dish and the Oak Holler Boys would show up with the music, and there’d be a barn dance afterward.

Then the new couple would sneak off to the cabin he had built during their courtship and consummate the vows. Later that night, some of the wedding guests would show up a bit tipsy and proceed with a shivaree, banging pots and pans and sometimes firing a pistol or shotgun in the air.

And they’d have kids — enough to work the land and help bring in the harvest — and that would be that. 

Today you got to sign a prenuptial agreement, where nobody much makes out but the lawyers. It is a contract that says who gets what if who does what to whom. Kind of an albatross that hangs out, waitin’ for what has come to be very common in most marriages: divorce.

I ain’t sayin’ divorce didn’t happen way back when — it was just that it was more uncommon than common — and for a lot better reasoning than in-com-pati-bility! That’s a big way of sayin’ “we don’t get along anymore.”

My parents was married more than fifty years — and to each other! I know people these days been married nearly that long, but to two or three different spouses. So it don’t really count.

These days people go into marriage kinda with the attitude if they stay hitched for five or more years, they done good! But with that prenuptial in place, they figure they done even better! Seems these days people go into a marriage for what they can come out from it with, not with the mind of what can I put into it. Used to be “for better or worse” meant the good and the bad times, period. Today, it’s better until I figure I’m worse off. That’s bass-ackwards, I think.

Then the divorce, and the only ones benefitting are the lawyers — onct again! Everyone else is miserable and angry!

And insurance. Again, bass-ackwards! I pay money to a company that is betting I’m not gonna get sick, crash my car, say something horribly bad about someone else, or any number of really bad things — while I’m betting I am! Then, when something bad does happen, the insurance company — who has already invested my money in land and bonuses and paying off the politicians — says to me, “You can’t have your money less you can prove the bad thing meets our guidelines! What guidelines! I never saw no guidelines! Well, it’s in the fine print. And I get a letter back from the insurance company saying my claim is denied. Or, if I do get any money — say for a car accident — they begin deducting. Depreciation. Mileage. Wear and tear. More if it’s my fault, yet still some even if it’s not my fault. And then they do what? They raise the amount I have to pay them! Bass-ackwards!

And, finally, taxes. I know. Ain’t nobody likes them. But some of us get the tax-shaft. You know, good, honest workin’ folk. We grind and we sweat, and we pay out to our country, state, county, city, and through sales taxes on just about anything and everything until there’s barely enough to squeeze out for the rent and the water and the lights and a trip to the grocery store. That don’t include what I call the luxuries: clothing, gas, and going to the doctor (by God, the government has got us by the scrotum on that one, too). 

So I wear my jeans and shirts until they’re so thin they don’t even make good rags. And by the time I give up on a pair of shoes, I can scoop up a dime off the street with the leather that flaps as I walk.

Even if I get a raise from where I work on account of inflation, it is eat up with higher taxes! Social Security. Medicare (do I care?). And other stuff I never see. But I hear Congress has a fine time with those dollars!

And the rich? Hell, I personally know a rich man brags every April about the amount of taxes he pays: nuthin! So many loop-holes and what-not, that only the rich understand and can take advantage of. Plus their high-paid tax accountants. Me? I go down to the Y and some volunteer helps me file my taxes for free. But even that might go away, the way the Infernal Revenuers are headed. Even the E-Z tax form takes a PhD to figure out. No matter what, I always pay more.

Bass-ackwards! The rich need to pay their fair share. Make it across the board fair — like five percent or so. Way it is, them that’s got, gets. Like at the bank, where when you apply for a loan ‘cause you need the money, but you get refused on account you need the money. Whereas the rich get all they want, and they don’t need it! I seen a skit on that on TV one night, where a poor man trying to keep his house is rejected. Then a rich man comes in and the banker keeps shoveling money to him by the handful. I laughed and cried at the same time. Even if it’s funny, the truth hurts.

Bass-ackwards. 

I know. Lynn Anderson made a record, “I beg your pardon,” and truly I don’t expect a rose garden. Pretty as those flowers are, they can still stick you with their thorns. And I know that the Almighty Grave is the great equalizer. But none of that makes me feel better at the present. Maybe in the Hereafter I’ll feel better. Sure hope so.

And even if these bass-ackwards things didn’t exist, we’d still have a time of it. I know that. But I’m not asking much. Just the three. Get ‘em right, for God’s sake. Then I can turn my mind to more important matters.

Yours truly,

Homer P. Nogginfogger

__________________________________

 

We focus so much on our differences, and that is creating, I think, a lot of chaos and negativity and bullying in the world. And I think if everybody focused on what we all have in common – which is – we all want to be happy. [No, really … the quote actually ends this way]

— Ellen DeGeneres
(https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/ellen_degeneres_600300)