Tag Archives: fiction

The Blink, Chapter Two, continued further

31 May

The Blink

Chapter Two, continued further

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Three things happened in that instant: a tomahawk, thrown by one of the men who were chasing them, stuck with a loud thud into the trunk of a white birch tree just to the right of Adams head; he grabbed Sequoia’s hand and they were transported immediately to the top of a rock outcrop; and, he understood her.

They stood amazed. She, that they had suddenly escaped to the mountain top, as if by magic. He, that he could understand her.

“You are a god!” she declared in awe, dropping to her knees and bowing low to the ground.

“No! I’m no god!” He touched her on her shoulders and urged her to stand, but she remained trembling at his feet.

“I saw you come to earth yesterday! You were like a burning star, and came down near the mountain of the old man. In the sudden storm you came.”

“Sequoia — I promise you — I am just like you. I am flesh and blood. No god!”

“How is it you speak Cherokee?” She looked up, but averted her eyes from his.

“How is it you speak English?”

“English?”

“You’re speaking it now. It’s my native language. My tongue.”

“Cherokee. You are speaking it now. It’s my native language. It’s my tongue.”

Adams crouched down to her level and took her face in his hands.

“I don’t know how to explain this. Whether I’m speaking Cherokee, or you’re speaking English? I guess it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that we understand each other.”

She nodded. “You made this happen. You are a god!”

He pulled her up to stand.

“Okay. I can understand why you think that. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure if I don’t have some special powers. I don’t know how to explain it, though. Honest, I’m just your ordinary old guy, who is as confused as you are.”

“You are not old. You are a young man.”

“Thanks, Dear — but I’m sixty-six.”

She laughed. She took his hand and held it palm up.

“That is not the hand of an old man.”

He looked. It was true! Somehow his hands weren’t covered in loose skin, or overly wrinkled. He drew his hands to his face, and felt smooth, taut skin.

“Here!” She pointed at a small rock indentation that held water. He looked into the mirror-like water, and saw not the old Kyle Adams — but a young man, instead.

“Je-sus! What the hell is going on here?”

“Who is Jesus? What is ‘hell’?” Sequoia asked innocently.

Adams laughed, “Honey, I don’t have the time nor the inclination!”

He walked out to the edge of a rock ledge and swept his arm broadly.

“You see all of this? All these mountains and trees?”

She nodded.

“Yesterday — which, come to think of it, is really probably many tomorrows away — there were roads winding through the forests and up and down the mountains. There were houses and buildings and farmlands cut out of everything you see! The sky was hazy and not nearly as blue! There were many, many, many people and buildings and cars and airplanes as far as you looked.”

“I don’t understand,” she said somewhat fearfully. “None of that was here yesterday. It’s been like this since I can remember. It’s always been like this. It will always be like this. And what is a car and an airplane?”

“You have no idea! No, it won’t always be like this! It will be different, I promise you! And all of this,” he gestured again, “will no longer be. It will be gone. There will not even be a memory of it.”

“You speak crazy.”

“I guess it seems like that.”

“If you are not a god, how did we get away from the men of my tribe? How did we suddenly appear up here? Where did you come from? You were nearly naked when I found you. Why is your skin so very pale? What tribe are you from?”

“I can’t answer all your questions, and the ones I can answer, you won’t believe me. Hell, I don’t even believe it! Here is what I know — somehow I came to be here in your time. I — I blinked. And it all happened in the blink of an eye!” He laughed at himself. “So, for some reason I don’t understand, I was taken out of my world and my time and place here — in your world and in your time. Let me ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“Why are you out here alone? Why are you not with your tribe? Why were those men after us? Are they from your tribe?”

She turned her face from him and looked out over the sea of hills and mountains, fading like waves into the distance.

“I was banished from my tribe,” she said in a low voice.

“Banished? Why?”

“I cannot tell you.”

“Sure you can. I just told you about me. You at least owe it to me.”

“Yes, I owe you much. You saved my life.”

“What? You think those guys were going to kill you? I thought they were after me!”

“Yes, they were going to kill me.”

“What about me?”

“And you, as well.”

“Why?”

“Because you are with me.”

“Sequoia, why were they going to kill you? Tell me!”

“They believe I am an a-tsa-s-gi-li.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know that word. What is an a-tsa-s-gi-li, please?”

Before she could answer, several men emerged from the brush surrounding the summit and encircled the pair. They bore spears, which they held at the ready, the stone tips pointed at Sequoia and Adams. This time, there was no urge to blink.

“An a-tsa-s-gi-li is a witch,” she finally said.

§ § §

Napoleon, Brutus, and me … con’t

11 Jan

image

Napoleon, Brutus, and me

By L. Stewart Marsden

It will come as no surprise to me if you find my tale a little on the tall side. As a storyteller, I am prone to exaggerate for effect. Maybe that’s affect. I get the two confused.

It began at the end of a long descending staircase of failures on my part. Never mind the particulars. It’s sufficient to say I had come to the end of my rope quite legitimately, if not literally.

I had no money. In fact, I owed money to everybody I knew, and some I didn’t.

I had swung twice at marriage without a hit. I did manage some offspring, which added fatherhood to my list of failures.

In addition to no money and no wife and no children, I had no friends. Plus my parents and siblings disowned me. I gave the term “black sheep” a bad name.

Pretty much all I put my hand to ended in — well, you know what. Many would say I was the personification of bad luck.

It was early one Wednesday — or perhaps a Tuesday — no matter. It was a week day. Or perhaps the weekend. I can’t remember. Another failing.  Anyway, I awoke, and three days from eviction came to the conclusion I should do something. I called the local Goodwill and told them I had furniture, clothing and more to donate, and would they come pick it all up? The next day they did.

I saved a small duffel bag into which I packed two pairs of underwear; two pairs of regular athletic socks; one pair of size 38/30 jeans; one black T-shirt with white lettering that read “Irony — the opposite of Wrinkly,” from Café Press online; two sweatshirts; and some toiletries, although I didn’t think I would use them. Something to stay connected to civilization, I suppose.

Once the guys from Goodwill left I checked out with my apartment manager, who asked my forwarding address.

“Don’t know where I’ll be. Why?”

“Refund on your deposit.”

“You keep it.”

“I can’t.”

“Send it to my sister,” whose name and address were on my original application.

Besides my wallet with three crumpled dollar bills, a twenty, and my driver’s license, I had a quarter. I got into my car and flipped the coin. I had decided that heads would be right, and tails would be left, and that every intersection I came to I would flip the coin and go in whatever direction came up. If I ended up going in circles, I gave myself permission to override the toss, which was one of the few good decisions of my life.

At the end of a day-and-a-half, after starting in Hickory, North Carolina, I ran out of gas on Bob Hollow Road, north of Wentz, Kentucky. I pulled off the road and wrote on a Burger King bag the following:

“Don’t need my car anymore. You are welcome to it. The title is in the glove compartment.”

I signed the title so anyone could legally take the car, left the keys in the ignition, grabbed my duffel bag and started walking north.

That’s when I met Napoleon.

Napoleon was a mix. And small. Tiny, really. He was a bit scruffy and a little too wiry around the eyebrows and his muzzle. I had decided to take a rest along the road when Napoleon trotted up to me from somewhere I hadn’t seen. As he closed in he lowered his chin almost to the ground, slowed and widened the spread of his back legs, as though he was going to squat and make a pee like a female.

I knew the posture, having owned one or two dogs in my time. It was a combination of things. Napoleon wanted me to know I was the Alpha. He also wanted me to know he was fiercely hungry, and could I help him out?

I stretched my hand out to him, which he sniffed and then licked. Then he plopped down next to me at the side of the road as if we had been long-time companions. Perhaps we had.

An old beat-up Ford pulled up in the road and stopped, and a squirrely-looking guy leaned toward the passenger window and rolled it down.

“Need a lift?”

“Not sure.”

“Well, where you headed?”

“Again, not sure.”

“Hungry?”

“Sure.”

“Get in.” And he opened the door from the inside and swung it wide. Napoleon hopped up into the cab as if second-nature, and I climbed in and shut the door.”

“There’s a café about a few miles down the road. Best hamburgers in the county.”

“Sounds good.”

Napoleon sat erect on the seat looking straight forward.

“Nice dog.”

“I guess.”

“Had him long?”

“Not really. A little bit.”

“What’s his name?”

“Napoleon.” The name popped into my head, and Napoleon opened his mouth and let his tongue hang out. He seemed to smile at my answer, then licked my hand.

“Like the French guy.”

“I guess.”

Our chauffeur was in his fifties or so, and wore bib overalls with a dirty T-shirt underneath. His big boots were caked with mud, and were very worn.

“You smoke?” He reached into his bib pocket and pulled out a deflated package of Camels, offering the smokes to me.

“No, thanks. I got too many things on my list to add cigarettes at this point.”

“List?”

“My list of failures.”

“Oh. And smoking would be a failure, then?”

“For me it would. But you go ahead. I don’t begrudge you at all. I mean, you’re the one giving me a ride.”

“Right.” He pushed in the dashboard lighter and shook out a cigarette, grabbing it with his lips. “You passing through, then? I mean, not a whole lot of people come to Daisy.”

He seemed to be fishing — asking a lot of questions for someone who ought to know privacy is sacred to most people. Napoleon, as though he heard my thoughts, looked at me with the darnedest mug.

“I’m headed west,” I answered finally. He lit his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke from his nose out the open driver’s side window.

“To see family?”

“Right. They’re expecting me in a couple of days.”

Napoleon looked at me again.

“He’s not to be trusted.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Didn’t say nothin’,” the chauffeur answered. Napoleon stared straight into my eyes. “Where did you say this family of yours lives?” He pulled deeply on his cigarette, an ash beginning to form at its tip.

“I didn’t.”

“So, where is it, then?”

“West.”

He pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Then turned and smiled at me. He was muscular, and had toned arms and shoulders. Powerfully built.

“So they live somewhere west, which you won’t tell me. And here you are out in the middle of the sticks with your dog, hitchhiking.”

“Yep. That’s about the size of it.” I felt my heart begin to pound, and a tightness constrict across my chest. A bead of sweat formed at my hairline and trickled down my cheek.

“Know what I think?”

“Can’t imagine.”

“I think you don’t have family west of here. When I first asked, you said you weren’t sure where you were headed.”

I didn’t answer. He smiled and put his hand on my leg.

“I think you are homeless  — a drifter. Am I right?” He squeezed my leg gently.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble . . .”

“Neither do I, brother. I just thought we might be able to help each other out. Come to an understanding. I know you got needs. Gotta need money and food and shelter. Am I right? Plus, it’s getting late and it’s not safe to be out alone. Perhaps I can help you out if you can see fit to help me out.” He squeezed my leg again.

At that point Napoleon began to growl deeply, and backed close to me, his muzzle not far from the man’s hand. He removed it cautiously.

“Guard dog, huh?”

“His bite is worse than his bark,” I said, narrowing my eyes at the man. “It’s why I call him Napoleon.”

Napoleon continued to growl.

“Tell you what, I think I’ll pass on the hamburger, friend. Me and Napoleon are used to the road, and while I appreciate your offer, I think I’ll pass on it, too.” I opened the door and the dog and I got out quickly.

The man smiled and tilted his head. “Suit yourself. The money’s good.”

“There are more things than money,” I said. He reached over and closed the door, then sped off ahead, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.

I shook my head and sat down. Napoleon sat next to me. I patted him on the head and scratched behind his ears.

“Thanks. I owe you. I do believe we just avoided something bad.”

“Don’t mention it,” Napoleon said, his face stretched into a grin, saliva dripping from one corner of his mouth. “He wasn’t going to do anything with me around.”

I let the comment go. Obviously I was hearing voices.

◊◊◊

My grandmother was schizophrenic. She lived with us in the back bedroom of our home when I was growing up. She used to read Uncle Wiggily stories to me from a big picture book. As she got older, she got vague. I remember once she pulled me aside and told me that the Communists were after her. It was only a few months after when she died. She had gone to the hospital with what my parents called “complications,” but I was never allowed to go visit. She died late one night, and Mom and Dad had her cremated within a day. Then they flew up to Luverne, Minnesota with her ashes to put her to rest.

Later I learned she heard voices, and that she was paranoid. That was where the comments about the Communists came — from her illness.

When I first heard Napoleon talk I immediately figured I was schizophrenic like my grandmother. Truth is, I think Napoleon had second thoughts about speaking to me, figuring it freaked me out, which it sure as hell did.

Then I figured maybe I was wrong about the guy in the truck as well. Maybe he was like a Samaritan, and was going to set me up a bit. Maybe all of my misgivings, which had definitely been knocked askew by thinking Napoleon say the man wasn’t to be trusted merely denied me of some great opportunity.

I spent the last of my money at a country package store. I bought a can of Spam and one of those Jiffy Pop aluminum popcorn pans. I also bought a can of Sterno.

Napoleon and I shared the Spam, and I used the can as a makeshift stove, putting the Sterno in it and lighting the blue jelly fuel. Soon the corn popped, puffing the aluminum cover into a silver dome. Most of it was burnt. The dog and I shared that, too.

“Well, I guess you can take off now, Napoleon. I’ve spent all my money, and we’ve eaten all there is. Nothing left but for me to curl up and die.”

Again, Napoleon looked at me, his eyes aglow from the blue Sterno flame.

“That’s a crock.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I’m calling you on this.”

“Ah, my schizophrenia is kicking in again!”

“No. Your dog is talking sense to you.”

“Wait! Several things wrong with this scenario. First, you’re not my dog. And second, dogs don’t talk! And why the hell am I talking to you?”

“And pigs don’t fly and the moon is made of green cheese and on and on and on. As far as your first premise, whether a human adopts a dog or a dog adopts a human, the result is the same — they own each other. Ergo, you are mine, and I am yours.

“And as to the second premise, guess what?”

“You — you’re talking to me!?”

“Ding! Ding! Ding! Give that man a cookie!”

◊◊◊

I’m fond of saying “Think outside the box.” And, I’d like to think I’m fairly open to what I might not understand or even believe in. After all, my world is a microcosm of me, myself and I. Stretching that small universe would not be a bad thing, right?

“Please, give me a moment to digest everything.”

“My observation of the world of humans is anything that challenges the norm is a threat.”

“Well, you’re a dog, and you are entitled to your opinion. What am I doing!?”

“You are trying to adjust to a challenge of the world as you know it. In your world, I can’t talk. And if I am talking, it’s not really me, but either a figment of your imagination, or some psychotic breakdown.”

“I have been under a lot of stress lately.”

“I’m neither a figment nor a breakdown. I’m a dog.”

“How is it you speak English?”

“Well, considering I was born in this country, what language should I speak?”

“Good point.”

Napoleon tilted his head to the side and was quiet, as if in deep thought.

“What?”

“We have more important issues than whether or not I can speak.”

“Such as?”

“Such as we need money. We need supplies and food and a game plan.”

“Other than rob a convenience store, I’m not sure what we can do about money. We could shoplift for the supplies and food, I suppose.”

“You are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. God didn’t give you a brain for nothing!”

“You believe in God?”

“Well, it is dog spelled backwards. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, yes, all dogs do go to Heaven.”

“Pardon me if I still seem a skeptic. Talking animals are best left to fairy tales and cartoons.”

“Can we move past this? Okay, pretend you’re dreaming. I just said we need money, supplies and food. And, no, we are not going to get those things illegally. Last place I want to end up is the dog shelter. Prison is not a safe place for a cute little dog.”

“Spare me the thought.”

“I do have an idea, if you’d like to hear it. A way to get some money fast. And legally.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Okay, we find a shopping mall, or some downtown shopping area. You take me on your lap, and you pretend to be a ventriloquist. You ask me questions and I answer.”

“That’s your idea?”

“We find a hat or a tin can to collect spare change. We do a show.”

“In the middle of Kentucky.”

“Maybe not here. Maybe we hitch a ride to a bigger town.”

◊◊◊

We hitchhiked, Napoleon and I. From the backwoods of Perry County to Lexington. It took six rides. Thankfully none of the other drivers were like our first experience.

Once there we headed to the Fayette Mall, the largest around. The weather was reasonably nice, and since I couldn’t take Napoleon inside the mall, we set up near one of the entrances. Napoleon hopped into my lap, and I started to ask him questions in a loud voice as people passed. We had worked on the questions before we performed.

“So, Napoleon?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a small dog.”

“I am.”

“How’s your life, being so small?”

“Ruff! Really ruff!”

“Napoleon?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you a good dancer?”

“Not at all.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have two left feet!”

“Napoleon?”

“Yeah?”

“What kind of dog does Dracula have?”

“A bloodhound!”

It’s true the jokes were groaners, but Napoleon took everything over the top. He tilted his head. He paused (no pun intended). He varied the tenor of his voice. People on the sidewalk began to slow down and stop and listen. Soon we had a small audience that laughed and groaned along with us. Then people began to drop coins into a cup I had placed in front of us. Then dollar bills.

We were on a roll when a security guard strolled up and watched from the edge of our audience. He grinned and laughed a few times, then finally stepped forward when the crowd thinned out at one point.

“That’s amazing! You are a really talented ventriloquist! Unfortunately, you can’t do your act here, and you’re going to have to move along.”

Timing is everything, right? Here Napoleon and me got things rolling a bit. We weren’t bothering anybody, and some money was starting to fill the cup. Then this jerk has to go and spoil everything.

Napoleon looked at the would-be cop.

“So, you couldn’t make it as a regular cop, eh?”

“Napoleon! You shouldn’t say that! It doesn’t help.”

He’s the one not helping! So, Mister Security Guard — you have nothing better to do than chase off a couple of guys trying to earn an honest living?”

“Look, it’s not up to me. I don’t make the rules here.”

“Right. What a cop-out! No pun intended.”

Napoleon jumped off my lap and stepped up to the guard and sat at his feet.

“Betcha if I were a talking cat you wouldn’t have a problem with our working the sidewalk.”

“What?”

He sniffed at the guard’s pant leg.

“As I thought. You’re a cat owner.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“The smell of cat is all over your pants. Probably one of those ugly long-haired, pug-nosed, stuck-up pussies.”

“Hey!”

“See, that’s discrimination. That’s profiling. That’s the same-old-same-old we dogs have had to endure forever.”

“Wait! Am I having this conversation with a dog?” And the guard side-stepped Napoleon and walked to where I sat enjoying the scene.

“Amazing as your talent is, mister, you gotta go. We can do this peacefully, or the hard way. It’s your choice.”

Ain’t technology grand? Unawares to us, while the security guard, Napoleon and I were having our confrontation, some mall customers were taking videos of everything on their cell phones, and uploading to Facebook and Twitter. Rather than risk a night in jail, I picked up the can of money and motioned to Napoleon we should go.

“What are you in the mood to eat?” I asked my friend.

“How about a hot dog?” he grinned at me.

By the time we crossed the parking lot and found a fast food place where we could sit outside and eat, those digital videos of us had been shared and re-shared to the point half of Lexington had viewed them. One of those was a local reporter for Fox 56 television, who was in the area when she saw the tweeted video.

Kimberly Dawn drove by in a Fox 56-decorated van and saw us, screamed to her driver to stop, and hopped out.

“Are you the guys in this video?” she asked, shoving her iPhone close to my face while the confrontation with the mall security guard played. I watched, turned to her at its finish, and smiled broadly.

“Yep. That’s us.”

“Well guys, this is your lucky day!”

◊◊◊

 

Napoleon and I ended up on the Fox 56 six o’clock and 11 o’clock news that night. The interview was a mixture of our “story” — travelling through with nowhere to stay — and Napoleon answering questions posed by Kimberly Dawn.

“So, Napoleon, tell our viewers what breed of dog you are?”

“Mix. Part terrier, part Pomeranian. I just say I’m a Sooner.”

“Sooner? As an Oklahoma U fan?”

“Naw. Sooner one than the other.”

“How did you meet your owner?”

“I’m not a slave. He doesn’t own me. We are a cooperative with equally important yet differing responsibilities.”

“And what are your responsibilities in this cooperative?”

“I’m the brains of the outfit.”

I was in the background of the shot, nodding and smiling and moving my jaw a bit as though projecting my voice to Napoleon.

At the end of the interview, Dawn and her cameraman/driver gave us a lift to a homeless shelter. She knew the director, who okayed us to stay for a couple of days. It was in his best interest, as the shelter became a small part of the story. Publicity like that is hard to find.

That news spot didn’t just air on Fox 56. Oh no. It was picked up by the national Fox News people, which was picked up and re-aired by ABC, NBC and CBS national news departments. When Dawn said “This is your lucky day,” she wasn’t kidding! For the next week replays of that little news encounter filtered through nearly every local TV station across America. Everyone likes a feel-good-story, don’t you know?

Five people saw it who responded in very different, unexpected ways. Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, and three others.

One was a muscular man, who had toned arms and shoulders. Powerfully built. He sat quietly nursing a Budweiser, seated at the counter of a country bar on Hollow Road, a bit north of Wentz, Kentucky. He reached into his bib pocket and pulled out a deflated package of Camels, grabbing one of the smokes with his lips, and lighting it with his Zippo. A large flat screen TV was hung at the back of the bar, and the news item about Napoleon and me was on.

“I’ll be damned!” he muttered. He threw back the remaining beer and placed a fiver on the counter, then left the bar and climbed into his beat-up truck and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.

A man and his wife were in the living room of their farmhouse, eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans from plates on TV dinner trays, watching Fox 56 evening news.

“I’ll be damned!” he muttered when the piece on us aired. “That’s where that damned dog got to!” He stood up and took his tray to the kitchen, then swung the back door open angrily and hopped into his truck and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.

A lean, prim-looking woman sat in a large easy chair, reading the newspaper, the TV blaring in the background. The news item caught her attention, as she was a dog-person at heart. Then she noticed the man in the background of the shot of the talking dog, nodding and smiling and moving his jaw a bit, projecting his voice to Napoleon.

“I’ll be damned!” she muttered, then grabbed her cellphone and dialed a number. The ringing was interrupted by a man’s voice.

“Cuthbert? This is Sally. I just found out where that deadbeat of an ex of mine has gone to. I want you to have him arrested.”

◊◊◊

It’s truly nice to be wanted. And in my case, or I should say, our case, Napoleon and I were definitely wanted by two huge television personalities. We were at the right place at the right time. Kismet, some would say. Pure luck, to which I was totally unaccustomed. Whichever, the fact remained that Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres wanted us on their shows.

I like Jimmy Fallon. Not that I ever watched him before. I quit watching The Tonight Show when Johnny retired. It wasn’t the same anymore. I mean, when Ed McMahon belted out “Heeeere’s Johnny!” the world seemed ordered and right. But without them? Plus, it got harder and harder to stay up to watch the show. Jay didn’t do it for me.

Jimmy’s a real nice kid. Still wet behind the ears, but genuine as can be, near as I can tell. He had Napoleon and me flown up first-class to New York. Even though it was a short flight, Napoleon kept everyone in stitches with his dog’s perspective on life. Of course I was the one that got the credit, though.

“You are amaaaaa—zing!” the other passengers complimented me.

I told Napoleon in private our secret was bound to get out if he wasn’t more careful.

“You’re nuts! Who in their right mind would believe that a dog can talk? Don’t worry so much!”

We were picked up at the airport by an NBC limousine and whisked away to a midtown hotel near 30 Rockefeller Square, where the show is taped.

Two hours before the taping Napoleon and I were driven to the towering building, and made our way to Studio 6B, where we were ushered to the Green Room. Our guide directed us to the hair and make-up room where I was powdered and rouged a bit. Napoleon refused the make-up.

“There’s something more than weird about a dog that wears lipstick and eye shadow,” he yipped at the make-up artist. But he was into the hair bit, getting a quick style-and-snip wet cut and blow-dry.

“So, what’s your favorite dog breed, Honey,” he asked during the process. “I’m a great lap-dog. Wanna meet after the show so I can prove it?”

“I’ll bet you are!” she laughed. “Thanks, but I’m more of a cat-person.”

When I walked out onto the stage with Napoleon tucked onto one arm, the brightness of the lights almost overpowered us. I sat in the chair directly beside Jimmy’s big desk, and he reached over and patted me on the arm.

“So, you and Napoleon were wandering the streets of Lexington, Kentucky, and started a street show for money, I understand.”

“Yeah.” I was so nervous I could only muster short one or two word answers. Then Napoleon took over, which was why we were there anyway. I let him have his day, and mocked moving my mouth a bit. Mostly nodded and grinned while he did all the talking.

“What’s it like to be a dog, Napoleon?” Fallon asked finally.

“Rough.”

Laughter.

“Actually, a dog’s life, depending on if you have a kind owner, is the best. Humans are great pets and wonderful to have around.”

Laughter.

“You don’t really get to experience family, though. I never knew my dad. My brothers and sisters are scattered all over the place, and my mom was a real bitch.”

Laughter.

“So I have a question for you, Napoleon. Why is it that dogs go around smelling other dogs’ butts? I keep thinking what if humans did that?”

Laughter.

“Actually it’s a great question, Jimmy. You probably know my sense of smell is probably ten thousand times better than yours.”

“I heard that. If that’s true, why would you have to stick your nose up in there? I mean, crap is crap, right? You should be able to smell it a mile away.”

Laughter.

“The fact is there are glands around a dog’s butt that can tell me a lot about that dog.”

“Really? Like what?”

“If they are ill, for example. What their gender is. I can tell if that dog is somehow related to me, or to another dog I know. Whether or not they are going to be a friend or a foe.”

“Well, if you smell my butt, we’re friends for life as far as I’m concerned.”

Laughter.

“You know that dogs have been known to detect cancer in their humans. And are used these days to alert humans about impending stroke or heart attack.”

“So, tell me about alpha dogs and pecking orders.”

“I’m an alpha dog. We’re on your show because of me, not him.” I was glad to get at least an acknowledgment.

“So size does not matter, then?”

“Most alpha dogs I know are as small as me. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. You’ve heard that, of course.”

“Sure.”

“And it’s brains, not brawn.”

“Where do you guys go from here?”

I spoke.

“We’re off to California tomorrow to be on the Ellen show.”

“That’s great! You’ll love her!”

And so it was over almost as soon as it started.

The next day we flew to California, again First-Class. I discovered that Napoleon, talking aside, is unlike any other dog I’ve known before. Most are content to lay down and nap the day away. Not him. He’s’ always got his nose into something — well, that’s normal for a dog now that I think of it — and is jabbering with someone about some thing. Me? I leaned my leather seat back and tried to sleep. That really impressed everyone!

“How do you do that?” one fellow passenger demanded, jabbing me in the arm.

“Do what?”

“Ventriloquize while you’re asleep? Obviously you’re awake, right?”

“Trade secret.”

“Well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say your dog actually does talk, and you’re the dummy!”

“You got me.” And I turned away to resume sleeping. And the other passengers kept talking to Napoleon, asking him all sorts of things.

“Who’s your favorite rock group?”

Three Dog Night.

“Your favorite song?”

Pressley’s Hound Dog.

And he, in turn, would ask them questions.

What do you get when you combine a peeping Tom with a junk-yard dog?

“I don’t know . . . what?”

An I-like-to-watch-dog.

Groan.

That went on until our first connection in the gate seating area, and again on board. It became more than tiresome. Oh, sure — everyone else liked the performance. It dawned on me how this same frustration had shown its ugly face in my two marriages. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. But not nearly as quickly as it does when you have a talking dog.

◊◊◊

Now the Ellen studio in Malibu was nothing like Jimmy Fallon’s, other than the bright lights. It was large and airy. The set for Ellen was colorful and glitzy, with mirrored floors and palm fronds everywhere. Very California, I guess you’d say.

Ellen was like Jimmy in her effusive energy. I wasn’t a fan, hadn’t seen her before, and really missed her rise to celebrity. She was really funny! The whole time we were on the show I kept thinking, “I know that voice!” But I couldn’t make the connection. Later Napoleon told me she was the voice of a fish in a movie. How he ever got into a movie theater beats me.

Napoleon and I did our shtick, and the audience howled (no pun) with laughter at all the bits between Ellen and him.

After the show and back on the street, Napoleon and I decided to explore the area. I commented to him after a few blocks, “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” to which he agreed.

The sidewalks were peopled with a variety. Most appeared very wealthy, and were dressed expensively. Some of the women walked with purebred dogs on bejeweled leashes attached to diamond-studded collars. Each dog was coiffed to the nines, and mimicked its owner’s pompous air. It reminded me of a Disney cartoon movie.

Napoleon and me stopped at a small sidewalk bistro that had a sign, “Dogs welcome on patio.” The patio was off to one side through a wrought iron gate, shaded by the building. There were several outdoors patio tables, with brightly colored umbrellas. Napoleon and me sat at an empty table. He jumped up into one of the chairs beside me.

Soon a perky brunette dressed in a rather short toga came up to the table.

“Welcome to Bistro Brutus! Is this your first time dining with us?”

Dining, she said. Translation: expensive. Or as the Latinos say, muy caro!

Our waitress had a retro look. Her dark hair was piled up on her head, and she was overly made up, especially her eyes. She was deep tanned and looked to be in her forties, but it was hard to tell. All the things women do these days, you know. She was on the zaftig side of physicality. Her name tag read, “Brutus, II.”

“That’s clever,” I said, pointing to her tag. “Like et tu, Brutus!”

“Actually, my name is Brutus, as is my dad’s. He owns the bistro? It’s been a part of Malibu for going on 40 years?”

Ah. Valley girl speak. Everything ended with a question mark? You know?

“So he named you after himself? That’s really odd,” remarked Napoleon.

“Not in Malibu. Say — did you just talk to me?”

“Yep.”

“Wait a minute! Are you guys the ones all over the news?”

I spoke up, not wanting a dog to preempt me any longer.

“That’s us. So you know about us, then? About my ventriloquist talents?”

“Sure. But to tell you the truth, you are so good at what you do? I find it difficult to believe you are like throwing your voice? I mean, when the dog speaks —“

“Napoleon is my name, Sweetheart.”

“Whatever! And I’m not your sweetheart? So I can’t hardly believe you,” looking at me, “are throwing your voice at him,” looking at Napoleon.

Napoleon and I exchanged quick glances.

“So, anyway — yeah — like I know an awful lot of bigwigs in the business? The thought struck me when I saw you on Fallon, like these guys need an agent? You don’t have one already, right?”

“No,” I said. “We do not have an agent.”

“Well, I’m your girl!”

This came so out of the blue both Napoleon and I didn’t know what to say.

“You’re kind of stunned, right?”

How could she tell? Both our mouths were agape.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Old enough. I’m like way older than 18, if that’s what you’re worried about?”

“Well, I figured that.”

“So how old do you think I look?”

No-win question.

“You look — old enough to be an agent, I’d say. What do you think, Napoleon?”

“Without a doubt. But I have a couple of questions for you. Why do we need an agent and what makes you think you should be that person?”

She grinned broadly, and stooped over, her arms on the table. There was no doubt as to her intent, and her cleavage loomed like a fleshly abyss.

“Well, I think you’ve played out your fifteen minutes of fame, guys. Seven minutes on Fallon’s show, and seven where else?”

“Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres.”

“So, Oprah’s not going to play third fiddle to them, and you’ve already been on national news. Unless you win America’s Got Talent, which you won’t, you’re gonna tuck your tails behind your legs and run home to wherever you came from.”

Suddenly she didn’t sound so Valley Girlish.

“Am I right?”

Both of us shrugged sheepishly.

“AND, I know just about everybody here, LA, and even in New York. EVERYBODY comes to the Bistro Brutus in Malibu. And EVERYBODY knows Brutus, and his daughter, Brutus II. Need I say more?”

We were suddenly backed into the proverbial corner, Napoleon and me. What more could we say? It appeared as though this feisty brunette had somehow edged her way into our mutual admiration society, and we were about to become Napoleon, Brutus, and me!

◊◊◊

Brutus near about killed me and Napoleon with her energy. She hadn’t lied to us. She truly knew everyone in LA and New York, and within a week or two had us doing our shtick for TV commercials, print ads — you name it.

“We don’t want you to be overexposed, you know. You’re a flash-in-the-pan and then what? We need to develop your longevity.”

Well, if this was an attempt on her part to limit our exposure, we wondered what the other extreme would look and feel like.

“This is all your fault,” I told Napoleon.

But he lapped it up. To him, it was like someone scratching him behind the ears, or rubbing his belly at that point where his hind legs has involuntary spasms. It was dog heaven.

So, Alpo was part of that plan. So was the National Dog Rescue Foundation. That was fun! We got to meet all kind of celebrities and Hollywood stars!

So, it really looked to Napoleon and me that only good things were headed our way.

Except we didn’t know about the two pickup trucks trailing dust behind them while crossing the USA towards us. Or the high-profile LA lawyer who had been contacted by his law school buddy back in North Carolina for a “could you do me a favor” request.

No, we were experiencing the lap of luxury, unawares of the storm headed our way.

Brutus, in the meantime, was finally in her element, and no longer hidden in the shadows of her father.

“You know, one thing I’ll give the old man,” she said, sipping a Manhattan at a bar that allowed celebrity dogs inside.

“What’s that,” asked Napoleon, lapping water from a bowl on the table.

“He recognized opportunity, and he opened the door when it knocked.”

“Cliché,” tisked Napoleon.

“That was really good,” she said, looking at me.

“What was good?”

“Throwing your voice when the dog was drinking.”

“A practiced skill. Watch this …” and I winked at Napoleon, and took a big drink from my tall glass of beer. Napoleon began to prattle.

“If you consider that the dog was once kept as an emergency source of food in the event of lack of game, it is a wonder we haven’t all arisen in protest and torn you humans to bits!”

“Damn! That was really good! How the hell do you do that?”

“Like magicians,” I responded smugly, “we ventriloquists never reveal trade secrets!” and smiled.

I then excused myself to head for the loo, which was located in the far back of the bar. When I disappeared from view, Brutus and Napoleon looked at each other, neither speaking. Until, that is, the dog broke the silence.

“So, have you lived here long?”

“Pretty much all my life. Mom died when I was a teenager, and since I was the only child, I had to help Dad.”

“Ah.”

It took Brutus a few seconds to realize what was going on. She looked at Napoleon, than back down the narrow aisle that led to the men’s room. When I reappeared and began to walk back to the table, her jaw dropped big enough to catch one of the flies buzzing around in the bar.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“Shut up!”

She looked at Napoleon, then at me, and then back at Napoleon.

“Say what you said before.”

“Before what?”

“Before Mister Throws-his-voice came back to the table. No, wait!” And she turned to me. “You tell me — and you?—” she looked back at Napoleon “— you shut up!”

“Um — I said — I said ‘California is a lot different from where I’m from?’”

Brutus slammed her hand face down on the table, and nearby bar patrons looked over from their drinks. She stood up — her face red as an angry beat.

“NO, GODDAM YOU! GODDAM YOU BOTH!” And with that she stormed out of the bar.

Napoleon and I stared sheepishly at each other.

“I guess the jig is up!” he said.

“I guess you’re right.”

◊◊◊

We still had the return tickets to the east coast provided by The Ellen Show, but we were going to have to pay extra because we stayed in California too long. Still, everything Brutus had done resulted in enough funds to make that happen without any strain.

On the way to the airport, Napoleon told the cab driver to pull into a convenience store.

“Why are we doing this?”

“You don’t get out much, do you?” he snarked at me. “You know there’s a lottery purse worth more than a billion dollars, right?”

“So?”

“So I’m going to invest a little cash for a big return?”

“You’re gonna buy lottery tickets?

“Tick-et. One is all I need. A $2 purchase. And since everything we’ve earned is really due to me — I think it’s the least consideration you can give me. Coming?”

“Me? Why should I go in?”

“Because I don’t think they will sell a lottery ticket to a dog, do you?”

“Right.”

So I joined him. When we entered the guy behind the counter had a hissy fit.

“No dog! No dog! Dog stay outside! Out! Out!”

I took Napoleon out and told him to “sit,” and if looks could kill — So I bought the ticket.

Back in the cab Napoleon rolled down the back window and stuck his head out into the flow of air, his lips and ears flapping, and saliva spinning back inside.

“You know what the odds of winning are, right?”

“What?” he pulled his head back inside. “Couldn’t hear you. Whad-ya say?”

“The odds. Of winning the lottery. They’re stacked against you. The lottery is a regressive tax on the poor, that’s all.”

“We’re not poor. And when we win, we will really not be poor!”

“We? You’re gonna share it with me?”

“Who signed for the ticket?”

“Me.”

“So it’s we. You and me.”

“What about Brutus?”

“I’m sorry — I thought Brutus walked out on us.”

“Doesn’t really matter. We’re not going to win.”

“I guess you never heard the expression.”

“Which one is that?”

“You lucky dog, you!”

Somewhere between the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and Charlotte, at 35,000 feet in the air, in the First Class section, the news media went amok with the news that the largest sum in lottery history — 1.3 billion — had been won by three ticket buyers. It was on the drop-down screen in our aisle.

“Those winning tickets were purchased in Florida, Tennessee, and California,” the anchorwoman announced.

“Waitress! A bottle of your finest champagne!” howled Napoleon, setting the entire First Class laughing.

“So you think we won?”

As if on cue, the report focused on the counter man in front of a California convenience store. He had sold one of the winning tickets, the reporter said.

“It was that guy who has been on the news!” he excitedly spewed through grinning teeth. “You know — the ventriloquist? He had his dog with him, but I shooed the dog outside!”

The report cut away to tape of me and Napoleon when we were first on TV, and then on Fallon’s show and again on DeGeneres’ show.

Napoleon turned to me and gave me his broadest dog grin and quietly responded,

“You lucky dog, you!”

Also watching the very same news report were Brutus, knocking down tequilas at the Bistro Brutus; a muscular man, who had toned arms and shoulders, dressed in bib overalls with a half-empty pack of Camels in his pocket, now in Tucson; a farmer from eastern Kentucky, now in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and my ex-wife in North Carolina.

Each one of the four said, in four different places in the country, at the exact same time,

“I’ll be damned!”

◊◊◊

 

The first of the four pursuers to actually find Napoleon and me was my ex-wife. She was the closest, and it wasn’t as though the dog and I could go lose ourselves. We had ascended to the level of celebrity even without the news of our winning the lottery. But, of course, it was the lottery and not-so-much our TV celebrity everyone was after. Especially the Ex.

You see, I had little to nothing when we split. I think I already told you that. So there was no incentive on her part to go to court over anything like alimony or child support. My how things change when you win the lottery!

True, it could be argued by a competent lawyer my Ex was not privileged to any wealth I acquired after our divorce.  But my Ex had never been swayed before by competency, so why start now? One of our first visitors at the Ritz-Carlton where Napoleon and I holed up was a Mecklenburg Deputy Sheriff, with a summons to appear in court. The writ cited a dispute over non-support and alimony by the Ex.

Another truth was that neither Napoleon nor I actually had any money — except for the dwindling cash we received through Brutus’ efforts. We had not identified ourselves as winners, even though the rest of the country seems to have. Once we paid the cab driver who took us to the hotel from the airport, we really didn’t need any money.

“This is all I got,” I told the hotel clerk at check in, flashing the innards of my near-empty wallet. “And I don’t carry credit cards.”

Unfazed, the clerk rang for the hotel manager, who bubbled excitedly when he recognized us, “Oh, you’re good for it!”

Because of the deluge of reporters and attorneys and paparazzi and more, we barred ourselves in our ten-floor suite and ordered room service three times a day.

At first I answered the phone every time it rang. That got old real quick. Like I said, every ambulance chaser on the East Coast wanted to meet with me.

“I can take care of the lottery registration for you, and handle your court case (everything about me seemed to find its way onto the news at six, seven, and eleven o’clock) as well as help you protect and grow your winnings.”

For the nominal charge of forty-percent, of course. A retaining percentage. Lawyers, politicians, and other career criminals.

Speaking of career criminals, I even received a phone call from Bernie Madoff from a federal prison in Butner.

“I got a sweet deal for you. Increase your money twenty-percent each year.”

Once an addict, always an addict.

“When are you going to stop answering the damn phone?” Napoleon’s nerves were on edge from the constant ring-ring-ring!

We had been in our hotel room for three days. A bell hop walked Napoleon several times a day in a nearby park for needed relief. They would take the freight elevator to avoid the hoards now encamped in the streets around the hotel. The City of Charlotte notified me I would receive a bill for the added police presence.

“But I didn’t ask for it! How the hell am I going to pay for that?”

“Oh, you’re good for it.”

“And don’t say anything to anybody!” I ordered Napoleon whenever he went out. He merely exposed his teeth with a cheesy grin. He had ordered a diamond-studded dog leash and a collar with blue sapphires over the phone. He said he was me, and that he didn’t have a credit card.

“Oh, you’re good for it.”

It reminded me of a TV series I used to watch as a kid. The Millionaire. It was about a very rich person with an evil disposition, I thought. He would select people to give a check for a million bucks. The stories always followed how the person changed because of the money. How people around them changed. How friends and family changed. Mostly the changes were bad. I’m not sure what the purpose of the show was. Maybe to reveal just how much the love of money is not a good thing.

Every day someone on the hotel staff slipped a bill under the room door which itemized the growing expenses we were racking up. The Ritz-Carlton Suite ain’t Red Roof rates, let me tell you! So with the room, the room service plus mandatory gratuity, we were popping along at a $1,200 a day clip! Add another $300 to have Napoleon walked, plus mandatory tip, plus the additional $100/day we-don’t-allow-dogs-but-in-your-case-we’ll-make-an-exception, we were bumping up into $1,800 a day.

And all I ever heard was, “Oh, you’re good for it.”

On the fifth day of our stay, with the bill somewhere close to nine grand, there came a knock at the door. So much for security.

“Who is it?”

“Brutus!” came the muffled reply from the other side of the thick mahogany door.

Napoleon and I looked at each other. Another knock.

“C’mon, guys. Let me in!”

Reluctantly, I opened the door, and there she stood in all her glory. I couldn’t help the comment.

“Et, tu, Brute?”

She shoved her way in and nearly feinted at the room.

“My God! Well I guess, when in Rome —”

Napoleon jumped off the sunlight chaise he was resting on and trotted up to her, his tail wagging like a metronome at full tilt.

“Brutus! It is so good to see you!”

“Spare me the canine chicanery, you two-faced mutt!”

She swung on her heels and stomped up to me, her airplane peanut breath huffing in my face.

“You! I trusted you? I thought this whole gig was an honest talent? And, all the while Napoleon here is a talking dog?”

“Wait. You are angry with us because Napoleon is actually a talking dog?”

“YES! That, plus neither of you trusted me enough to TELL ME?”

Napoleon sat at her feet and panted, his head askew.

“Honey, we had no idea how you would take the truth! It’s oh so much more difficult to convince people I really can talk.”

“Yeah, and it’s very easy for me to play the dumb guy,” I added, not sure that was what I wanted to say.

“You both lied to me! You thought I couldn’t handle the truth!”

“I’ve always liked that line,” Napoleon quipped. “Fact is, Brutus, you kind of forced your way onto us.”

“Not that we don’t like what you did for us,” I said.

“You sure as hell better like it! If you hadn’t won the lottery, where would you be without me?”

“Um, Darling, it was you left us, remember? You stormed out of the bar.”

“You’re a smart-ass dog. So, have you turned in your ticket?”

“Not yet,” I answered. “With everything going on — I haven’t had the chance to do anything about it.”

“They don’t give you forever to produce the ticket, you know. You do still have the ticket, right?”

I pulled it from my duffel bag and waved it.

“I guess we need you to handle that for us. Look — it’s been complete bedlam. I almost wish we hadn’t won the money. Now my ex-wife wants a cut, and everybody everywhere wants something.”

“How’d you pay for all this? Last time I saw you in LA, you were just about broke.”

“Everyone tells me I’m good for it. Other than the cab from the airport, I don’t pay anything. Everyone runs a tab for me.”

“And how much is the tab now?”

“You don’t want to know,” growled Napoleon.

“Okay, then. Grab your stuff. We can’t stay here. We gotta go somewhere else.”

“What about my court date?”

“What court date?”

“Three days from now. To settle with my wife.”

“Settle what?”

“She wants part of the lottery winnings for alimony and child support.”

“Screw that! You got enough money to keep delaying court for years! Get your stuff, I said!”

And, like Pavlovian-trained beasts, I grabbed fruit and cheese and a bottle of wine from the suite bar and stuffed them into my duffel.

“What about the bill?”

“Sign your name on it with I.O.U.”

Which I did.

“How are we going to get out of here? I have no idea, do you, Napoleon?”

“Well, we can take the freight elevator like I do when I go out to pee.”

“And I’ve got a rental car parked on the street a few blocks away,” Brutus added.

We skulked out of the hotel suite and down the carpeted hallway, edging past the various cleaning carts parked against the walls.

“This way!” Napoleon whispered, and turned down an ell into a dead end hallway. On either side were elevator doors. A big sign read “Employees Only.”

Brutus punched a button and within moments the doors gaped open to reveal a large elevator with cloth pads hung up on the walls.

“Quick!”

No one said anything on the way down. I could hear the swoosh of the elevator cab pushing down the shaft. Any moment I expected the cab to suddenly stop, the doors to open to reveal a legion of cops with guns and tasers drawn.

At the basement level the doors opened. The air was cool and smelled of car exhaust.

Brutus hooked Napoleon to his leash, and grabbed my arm.

“Look normal,” she ordered.

We zig-zagged our way out of the basement area, through the hotel garage, and finally out onto the downtown street. We were far from the entrance of the Ritz-Carlton, where the TV vans had parked, awaiting the opportunity to grab the first footage of the newest multi-millionaire and his mutt.

Brutus led us several blocks away to where her rental car was parked.

“You guys get in the back seat and lie down till we get out of the city and on the highway. They aren’t looking for a single girl and aren’t counting on that.”

What we weren’t counting on were the two pickup trucks parked on either side of the street. As we pulled into traffic and sped away, each of the trucks pulled out as well and began to follow at a distance. Both had Kentucky license plates.

 

◊◊◊

I knew of an out-of-the-way motel south of Blowing Rock where we stayed. It looked like the Bates Motel from Psycho.

“No dogs,” the clerk said blandly. He looked like Norman Bates. Brutus peeled two Jackson bills off a wad of money and handed them to the bespeckled man, who held them up to the light.

“They’re real and they’re yours if the dog can stay.”

He tucked the bills into his shirt pocket and grabbed a room key, handing it to Brutus.

The room was dark and stuffy, and smelled of years of cigarettes. The TV was an old box that didn’t work well. There were rust stains in the bathroom sink and in the toilet bowl. Or, maybe blood stains?

“A veritable palace!” complained Napoleon.

The room had only one queen-sized bed. A framed Norman Rockwell hung above the bed. The one where the kid is pulling down his underwear and the doctor is preparing a shot. Seemed awfully out-of-place.

“Well, I’ll take the emperor out for a walk, and you can grab a snooze,” Brutus announced.

I plopped onto the bed and sank several inches. It gave me the heebie-jeebies thinking of the billions of bed bugs that were probably crawling in the mattress and among the sheets. Still, who would think to look for a multi-millionaire in a dive like this?

Brutus and Napoleon went outside for that walk and I messed with the rabbit-ear antennae on the TV trying to get some reception. I was able to get a channel, fuzzy as it was, and the early evening news was on.

“The suspected winner of the lottery jackpot has disappeared from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Charlotte. He and his dog somehow slipped out of the hotel and by the gathering news trucks, reporters and paparazzi, and nobody knows where they are. When they left, they left without paying a rather sizeable bill from the hotel.”

The hotel manager was on camera, more than a bit distraught.

“Oh yes! It’s well into the thousands of dollars. I told him he was good for it, but I never suspected he would leave without paying!”

“What are you doing about it?”

“I’ve contacted the police.”

My picture with Napoleon was flashed up on the screen.

“If anyone has seen this man and his dog, you are asked to contact the Charlotte Police Department immediately!” A telephone number scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

Great! I tried to think if the desk clerk had a TV at his station.

I turned the set off, then lay back down into the quicksand of a bed, sinking lower and lower, and finally fell asleep. I dreamed I was Clyde and Brutus was Bonnie. Napoleon sat in the rear seat of our old Ford sedan and sported a machine gun. He munched on the stub of a cigar. We were being chased by the Keystone Cops.

***

When I awoke it was dark. Only the light from the bathroom illumined the motel room. Brutus and Napoleon were still not back from their walk. I turned the TV back on and Hawaii Five-O was on. Where the hell were they? Had they left me? Then I thought about the lottery ticket, and checked my duffel. It was still there!

Where were Napoleon and Brutus? I began to worry.

◊◊◊

How I came to be out on a precipice on a promontory at Grandfather Mountain facing two men with long guns pointed at Napoleon, Brutus, and me is the rest of my story.

When I awoke in that sleaze-bag of a motel room and found Brutus and the dog still not back from their walk, I got worried. Brutus had left her cellphone on the dresser, so I couldn’t call her. Well, I didn’t have a cellphone anyway. She left the car keys as well, and I grabbed them and left the room.

The front desk clerk scratched his furry chin and looked up through his thick glasses.

“Well, yes. I did see the girl and the dog walking off. There’s a trail down behind the motel that leads to a nice view of the valley. But that’s the last I seen of them.”

“Anything else unusual?”

He looked up casually and smiled.

“She has the money, not me,” I said, remembering Brutus roll the two twenties off for the man earlier.

“Ah, right. Well, after she and the dog left, two pickups pulled in the parking lot. A man got out of one of them and came in, and started asking did I know where the owners of your car were?”

“What did you say?”

“I said that information was private. You know, kinda like attorney-client privilege?”

“You remember what he looked like? The guy who came in?”

“He was in his forties, I guess. Stocky. Had some muscle to him.”

“How was he dressed?”

“Bib overalls. T-shirt on the dirty side. And he smoked Camels. I remember that cause he came in here with a smoke stuck between his lips and I pointed to my No Smoking sign. He crushed it out in the palm of his hand and stuffed it back into the pack.”

“Anything else?”

“No. He went back and spoke a while to the man in the other truck, then climbed into his and lit a cigarette and just sat.”

“Sat?”

“Like they was on a stake-out. You know, cops. I began to think maybe they was cops. I was gonna go out there and say something, but thought better of it. Then my TV show came on. I love Hawaii Five-O. Plus it’s the only station I can get here. Next I knew the two trucks spun out of here.”

“Which way?”

“North on 221. Back toward Blowin’ Rock.”

As on cue, Brutus’ cell phone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me — Brutus!”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Not sure. They’ve got me blindfolded!”

“Who’s they?

There was a crackling sound on the other end, and a different voice began to speak.

“Why hello, there, good Buddy!”

“Who is this? Where’s Brutus?”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head over your — what? Girlfriend?”

“She’s not my girlfriend!”

“Whatever she is to you, she will be a whole lot happier and healthier if you shut up and listen.”

“I — okay. I’m listening.”

“Good. Still got the ticket with you?”

“I don’t know what you’re —”

“THE GODDAM LOTTERY TICKET!”

“Oh, that. Yes, I still have it.”

“Bring it to me, and the girl and the dog will be yours again. Safe and sound.”

“I don’t know where you are?”

“Grandfather Mountain. At the bridge. Ten tonight.”

“It’ll be closed then!”

“The better for privacy.”

“How do I —?”

“You’ll find a way. Oh, one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“No cops.”

The phone went dead on the other end.

I must have looked like a ghost.

“You okay, fella?” the desk clerk asked.

“Do you have a safe here?”

“Sure. Nobody has ever used it. But it’s fireproof, and safe as anything, I guess.”

“I want you to keep something for me.”

◊◊◊

As luck would have it, a full moon bathed the mountains, and particularly Grandfather Mountain, in bluish light. I parked the rental where the annual Highland Games are held, and hiked up through the grounds area to the road and to the top of the mountain. It was a long hike! I started out with plenty of time to make the top of the road. The brick souvenir building was dark, and loomed like a squarish castle turret against the moon. There were no other cars parked in the lot, and I figured the captors, Brutus and Napoleon had also walked. Not a problem for the dog. The others were probably as exhausted as I, and that might have its advantages.

I climbed the stone staircase to the top where the cable bridge hung in the dark like a monstrous contraption. Strong night wind whistled about the bridge structure, resulting in an eerie metallic sound — like cacophonous pipes.

No one was there.

I crossed the bridge, my blue shadow leaping about as clouds rushed over the face of the moon.

It was suddenly cold. I was beginning to shiver from the chill as well as my nerves.

“That’s far enough!” a voice shouted from the dark rocks. A trio of figures, silhouetted against the outcropping of rock, stood slowly. Brutus was hemmed in between two male figures. I couldn’t see Napoleon. He was probably sitting in the dark.

“Did you bring the ticket?”

“Yes! I’ve got it here,” and I raised my hand with a piece of cardboard gripped in it.

“Careful not to drop it!” the same voice said. “Bring it closer.”

I began to make my way forward, tipping and righting myself against the wind and the difficult footing.

“Close enough.”

Napoleon barked and dashed to me, throwing his front paws on my legs. I bent and picked him up. He was shivering.

“I want the girl, too — like you promised.”

“Not so fast, Sport. First the ticket.”

“First the girl.” I raised my fist with the ticket. “I’ll let it go if you don’t.”

“And we’ll shoot the girl.”

Brutus got angry.

“Will one of you make up your mind? Either let me go or shoot me. Either give them the damn ticket, or let it go, for Chrissakes? You men are so melodramatic!?”

Licking my face, Napoleon whispered something to me, and I let him go. He disappeared in the rocks behind me.

“We’ll shoot the girl, then,” resolved the voice, and one of the men stepped back and pointed the barrel of his rifle at Brutus.

“I’ll drop the ticket, then,” holding it above my head. “It’ll fly into the valley and be lost. Nearly $300 million gone! You’ll have nothing! Plus you’ll have a murder on your hands!”

“No,” said the other man, pointing his rifle at me, “we’ll have two murders on our hands!”

From behind me in the rocks somewhere, a loud voice broke in:

“POLICE! EVERYBODY DROP YOUR GUNS AND PUT YOUR HANDS UP WHERE WE CAN SEE THEM!”

As if caught in a spotlight, the two men ducked and let go of Brutus, who dashed over to me. To add to the confusion, the sounds of multiple sirens floated up from the base of Grandfather.

“The police are coming!” Brutus said. “Who the hell — Napoleon!”

Napoleon stepped out of his hiding place, tail wagging a mile a minutes.

“POLICE!” he grinned. “Never hurts to have a talking dog, eh?”

And while we laughed and hugged, the bibbed Camel-smoking creep crept up on us, his rifle at waist level, aimed toward us.

“Helluva dog ya got there! Now, if you don’t mind, step over to that ledge carefully with your hands up. Dog, too.”

“I don’t have hands.”

“PAWS then! Just DO IT!”

We obeyed. The sirens were getting louder, and we could see intermittent headlights flashing on the cut-backs below.

“Now, my ven-trillo-quist — I believe I’ll have that ticket, if you don’t mind.” He held out his hand and approached carefully over the dark rocks. I held the ticket in my hand above my head.

“And what becomes of us? Look, the cops are almost here. You won’t get away.”

“A chance I’m willing to take. The ticket? Please? NOW?”

I opened my fist. The moonlight illumined the ticket as a gust of wind caught it and at first blew it high above our heads. It was like slow-motion.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” the bibbed Camel-smoking man screamed, and lunged forward after the ticket, dropping his rifle. He managed to almost grab it, but missed, and fell over the edge of the outcropping and disappeared into the dark shadow of the mountain.

The farmer, realizing the jig was up, lowered his rifle and shook his head incredulously.

Both Brutus and Napoleon could only look at me, their jaws agape.

“I can’t believe you let that ticket go,” she said.

“So I was supposed to let him kill you?”

“This has been a really rough couple of days, you guys,” said Napoleon.

“Can the jokes. It’s not funny.”

As the cops finally reached the summit and swarmed up the steps to the mile-high bridge, I grabbed the farmer’s rifle and we all made our way back down to the bridge. We and the cops met at the middle of the bridge, which swung ever-so-much from the weight and the wind.

◊◊◊

Epilogue

The cops were actually after Brutus. Enterprise wanted their rental back and it had been spotted by a local when I turned off 105 and headed for Grandfather. A stolen rental is apparently big stuff in Avery County, although I’m told hooch and weed are big there as well.

I didn’t lose the lottery ticket, after all. What I dropped was a piece of cardboard I found on my hike up the road. I had to have something to bargain with.

The real ticket was in the safe at the sleazy motel. And while I didn’t get all of the $300 million due to taxes and paying my bill at the Ritz-Carlton, it was enough to buy the sleazy motel and completely remodel it into a 3-star hotel, complete with restaurant (run by Brutus, of course, called Bistro Brutus, II – East), live entertainment, provided my Napoleon and me. The manager of the hotel was the old sleazy motel guy. Why not?

Me and Brutus hit it up, eventually. And we picked up another stray as a companion for Napoleon — a female, who, we found out too late, had not been spayed. Why Napoleon didn’t mention that was the cause for a little strife in the otherwise perfect hotel setting.

By the way, we’re 11.3 miles south of Blowing Rock on 221. You can’t miss us. Every room has a spectacular view of the mountains at sunset. And the name of the hotel?

The Napoleon, Brutus, and me

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, February, 2016

Napoleon, Brutus, and me

10 Jan

Napoleon, Brutus, and me

 

It will come as no surprise to me if you find my tale a little on the tall side. As a storyteller, I am prone to exaggerate for effect. Maybe that’s affect. I get the two confused.

This story begins at the end of a long descending staircase of failures on my part. Never mind the particulars. It’s sufficient to say I had come to the end of my rope quite legitimately, if not literally.

I had no money. In fact, I owed money to everybody I knew, and some I didn’t.

I had swung twice at marriage without a hit. I did manage some offspring, which added fatherhood to my list of failures.

In addition to no money and no wife and no children, I had no friends. Plus my parents and siblings disowned me. I gave the term “black sheep” a bad name.

Pretty much all I put my hand to ended in — well, you know what. Many would say I was the personification of bad luck.

It was early one Wednesday — or perhaps a Tuesday — no matter. It was a week day. Or perhaps the weekend. I can’t remember. Another failing.  Anyway, I awoke, and three days from eviction came to the conclusion I should do something. I called the local Goodwill and told them I had furniture, clothing and more to donate, and would they come pick it all up? The next day they did.

I saved a small duffel bag into which I packed two pairs of underwear; two pairs of regular athletic socks; one pair of size 38/30 jeans; one black T-shirt with white lettering that read “Irony — the opposite of Wrinkly,” from Café Press online; two sweatshirts; and some toiletries, although I didn’t I would use them. Something to stay connected to civilization, I suppose.

Once the guys from Goodwill left I checked out with my apartment manager, who asked my forwarding address.

“Don’t know where I’ll be. Why?”

“Refund on your deposit.”

“You keep it.”

“I can’t.”

“Send it to my sister,” whose name and address were on my original application.

Besides my wallet with three crumpled dollar bills and my driver’s license, I had a quarter. I got into my car and flipped the coin. I had decided that heads would be right, and tails would be left, and that every intersection I came to I would flip the coin and go in whatever direction came up. If I ended up going in circles, I gave myself permission to override the toss, which was one of the few good decisions of my life.

At the end of a day-and-a-half, after starting in Hickory, North Carolina, I ran out of gas on Bob Hollow Road, north of Wentz, Kentucky. I pulled off the road and wrote on a Burger King bag the following:

“Don’t need my car anymore. You are welcome to it. The title is in the glove compartment.”

I signed the title so anyone could legally take the car, left the keys in the ignition, grabbed my duffel bag and started walking north.

That’s when I met Napoleon.

◊◊◊

Napoleon was a mix. And small. Tiny, really. He was a bit scruffy and a little too wiry around the eyebrows and his muzzle. I had decided to take a rest along the road when Napoleon trotted up to me from somewhere I hadn’t seen. As he closed in he lowered his chin almost to the ground, slowed and widened the spread of his back legs, as though he was going to squat and make a pee like a female.

I knew the posture, having owned one or two dogs in my time. It was a combination of things. Napoleon wanted me to know I was the Alpha. He also wanted me to know he was fiercely hungry, and could I help him out?

I stretched my hand out to him, which he sniffed and then licked. Then he plopped down next to me at the side of the road as if we had been long-time companions. Perhaps we had.

An old beat-up Ford pulled up in the road and stopped, and a geezer leaned toward the passenger window and rolled it down.

“Need a lift?”

“Not sure.”

“Well, where you headed?”

“Again, not sure.”

“Hungry?”

“Sure.”

“Get in.” And he opened the door from the inside swung it wide. Napoleon hopped up into the cab as if second-nature, and I climbed in and shut the door.”

“There’s a café about a few miles down the road. Best hamburgers in the county.”

“Sounds good.”

Napoleon sat erect on the seat looking straight forward.

“Nice dog.”

“I guess.”

“Had him long?”

“Not really. A little bit.”

“What’s his name?”

“Napoleon.” The name popped into my head, and Napoleon opened his mouth and let his tongue hang out. He seemed to smile at my answer, then licked my hand.

“Like the French guy.”

“I guess.”

Our chauffer was in his fifties or so, and wore bib overalls with a dirty T-shirt underneath. His big boots were caked with mud, and were very worn.

“You smoke?” He reached into his bib pocket and pulled out a deflated package of Camels, offering the smokes to me.

“No, thanks. I got too many things on my list to add cigarettes at this point.”

“List?”

“My list of failures.”

“Oh. And smoking would be a failure, then?”

“For me it would. But you go ahead. I don’t begrudge you at all. I mean, you’re the one giving me a ride.”

“Right.” He pushed in the dashboard lighter and shook out a cigarette, grabbing it with his lips. “You passing through, then? I mean, not a whole lot of people come to Daisy.”

He seemed to be fishing — asking a lot of questions for someone who ought to know privacy is sacred to most people. Napoleon, as though he heard my thoughts, looked at me with the darnedest mug.

“I’m headed west,” I answered finally. He lit his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke from his nose out the open driver’s side window.

“To see family?”

“Right. They’re expecting me in a couple of days.”

Napoleon looked at me again.

“He’s not to be trusted.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Didn’t say nothin’,” the chauffer answered. Napoleon stared straight into my eyes. “Where did you say this family of yours lives?” He pulled deeply on his cigarette, an ash beginning to form at its tip.

“I didn’t.”

“So, where is it, then?”

“West.”

He pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. Then turned and smiled at me. He was muscular, and had toned arms and shoulders. Powerfully built.

“So they live somewhere west, which you won’t tell me. And here you are out in the middle of the sticks with your dog, hitchhiking.”

“Yep. That’s about the size of it.” I felt my heart begin to pound, and a tightness constrict across my chest. A bead of sweat formed at my hairline and trickled down my cheek.

“Know what I think?”

“Can’t imagine.”

“I think you don’t have family west of here. When I first asked, you said you weren’t sure where you were headed.”

I didn’t answer. He smiled and put his hand on my leg.

“I think you are homeless  — a drifter. Am I right?” He squeezed my leg gently.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble . . .”

“Neither do I, brother. I just thought we might be able to help each other out. Come to an understanding. I know you got needs. Gotta need money and food and shelter. Am I right? Plus, it’s getting late and it’s not safe to be out alone. Perhaps I can help you out if you can see fit to help me out.” He squeezed my leg again.

At that point Napoleon began to growl deeply, and backed close to me, his muzzle not far from the man’s hand. He removed it cautiously.

“Guard dog, huh?”

“His bite is worse than his bark,” I said, narrowing my eyes at the man. “It’s why I call him Napoleon.”

Napoleon continued to growl.

“Tell you what, friend — me and Napoleon are used to the road, and while I appreciate your offer, I’ll pass on it.” I opened the door and the dog and I got out quickly.

The man smiled and tilted his head. “Suit yourself. The money’s good.”

“There are more things than money,” I said. He reached over and closed the door, then sped off ahead, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.

I shook my head and sat down. Napoleon sat next to me. I patted him on the head and scratched behind his ears.

“Thanks. I owe you. I do believe we just avoided something bad.”

“Don’t mention it,” Napoleon said, his face stretched into a grin, saliva dripping from one corner of his mouth. “He wasn’t going to do anything with me around.”

I let the comment pass. Obviously I was hearing voices.

◊◊◊

My grandmother was schizophrenic. She lived with us in the back bedroom of our home when I was growing up. She used to read Uncle Wiggily stories to me from a big picture book. As she got older, she got vague. I remember once she pulled me aside and told me the Communists were after her. It was only a few months later when she died. She had gone to the hospital with what my parents called “complications,” but I was never allowed to go visit. She died late one night, and Mom and Dad had her cremated within a day. They flew up to Luverne, Minnesota with her ashes to put her to rest in the family plot.

Later I learned she heard voices, and that she was paranoid. That was where the comments about the Communists came — from her illness.

When I first heard Napoleon talk I immediately figured I was schizophrenic like my grandmother. Truth is, I think Napoleon had second thoughts about speaking to me, figuring it freaked me out, which it sure as hell did.

Then I figured maybe I was wrong about the guy in the truck as well. Maybe he was like a Samaritan, and was going to set me up a bit. Maybe all of my misgivings, which had definitely been knocked askew by thinking Napoleon said the man wasn’t to be trusted merely denied me of some great opportunity.

I spent the last of my money at a country package store. I bought a can of Spam and one of those Jiffy Pop aluminum popcorn pans. I also bought a can of Sterno.

Napoleon and I shared the Spam, and I used the can as a makeshift stove, putting the Sterno in it and lighting the blue jelly fuel. Soon the corn popped, puffing the aluminum cover into a silver dome. Most of it was burnt. The dog and I shared that, too.

“Well, I guess you can take off now, Napoleon. I’ve spent all my money, and we’ve eaten all there is. Nothing left but for me to curl up and die.”

Again, Napoleon looked at me, his eyes aglow from the blue Sterno flame.

“That’s a crock.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I’m calling you on this.”

“Ah, my schizophrenia is kicking in again!”

“No. Your dog is talking sense to you.”

“Wait! Several things wrong with this scenario. First, you’re not my dog. And second, dogs don’t talk! And why the hell am I talking to you?”

“And pigs don’t fly and the moon is made of green cheese and on and on and on. As far as your first premise, whether a human adopts a dog or a dog adopts a human, the result is the same — they own each other. Ergo, you are mine, and I am yours.

“And as to the second premise, guess what?”

“You — you’re talking to me!?”

“Ding! Ding! Ding! Give that man a cookie!”

◊◊◊

I’m fond of saying “Think outside the box.” And, I’d like to think I’m fairly open to what I might not understand or even believe in. After all, my world is a microcosm of me, myself and I. Stretching that small universe would not be a bad thing, right?

“Please, give me a moment to digest everything.”

“My observation of the world of humans is anything that challenges the norm is a threat.”

“Well, you’re a dog, and you are entitled to your opinion. What am I doing!?”

“You are trying to adjust to a challenge of the world as you know it. In your world, I can’t talk. And if I am talking, it’s not really me, but either a figment of your imagination, or some psychotic breakdown.”

“I have been under a lot of stress lately.”

“I’m neither a figment nor a breakdown. I’m a dog.”

“How is it you speak English?”

“Well, considering I was born in this country, what language should I speak?”

“Good point.”

Napoleon tilted his head to the side and was quiet, as if in deep thought.

“What?”

“We have more important issues than whether or not I can speak.”

“Such as?”

“Such as we need money. We need supplies and food and a game plan.”

“Other than rob a convenience store, I’m not sure what we can do about money. We could shoplift for the supplies and food, I suppose.”

“You are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. God didn’t give you a brain for nothing!”

“You believe in God?”

“Well, it is dog spelled backwards. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, yes, all dogs do go to Heaven.”

“Pardon me if I still seem a skeptic. Talking animals are best left to fairy tales and cartoons.”

“Can we move pass this? Okay, pretend you’re dreaming. I just said we need money, supplies and food. And, no, we are not going to get those things illegally. Last place I want to end up is the dog shelter. You prison’s not a safe place for a cute little dog.”

“Spare me the thought.”

“I do have an idea, if you’d like to hear it. A way to get some money fast. And legally.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Okay, we find a shopping mall, or some downtown shopping area. You take me on your lap, and you pretend to be a ventriloquist. You ask me questions and I answer.”

“That’s your idea?”

“We find a hat or a tin can to collect spare change. We do a show.”

“In the middle of Kentucky.”

“Maybe not here. Maybe we hitch a ride to a bigger town.”

◊◊◊

We hitchhiked, Napoleon and I. From the backwoods of Perry County to Lexington. It took six rides. Thankfully none of the other drivers were like our first experience.

Once there we headed to the Fayette Mall, the largest around. The weather was reasonably nice, and since I couldn’t take Napoleon inside the mall, we set up near one of the entrances. Napoleon hopped onto my lap, and I started to ask him questions in a loud voice as people passed. We had worked on the questions before we performed.

“So, Napoleon?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re a small dog.”

“I am.”

“How’s your life, being so small?”

“Ruff! Really ruff!”

“Napoleon?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you a good dancer?”

“Not at all.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have two left feet!”

“Napoleon?”

“Yeah?”

“What kind of dog does Dracula have?”

“A bloodhound!”

It’s true that the jokes were groaners. But Napoleon took everything over the top. He tilted his head. He paused (no pun intended). He varied the tenor of his voice. People on the sidewalk began to slow down and stop and listen. Soon we had a small audience that laughed and groaned along with us. Then people began to drop coins into a cup I had placed in front of us. Then dollar bills.

We were on a roll when a security guard strolled up and watched from the edge of our audience. He grinned and laughed a few times, then finally stepped forward when the crowd thinned out at one point.

“That’s amazing! You are a really talented ventriloquist! Unfortunately, you can’t do your act here, and you’re going to have to move along.”

Timing is everything, right? Here Napoleon and me got things rolling a bit, and we weren’t bothering anybody, and some money was starting to fill the cup, and this jerk has to go and spoil everything.

Napoleon looked at the would-be cop.

“So, you couldn’t make it as a regular cop, eh?”

“Napoleon! You shouldn’t say something like that! It doesn’t help.”

“Well he’s the one not helping! So, Mister Security Guard — you have nothing better to do than chase off a couple of honest guys trying to earn a living?”

“Look, it’s not up to me. I don’t make the rules here.”

“Right. What a cop out! No pun intended.”

Napoleon jumped off my lap and stepped up to the guard and sat at his feet.

“Betcha if I were a talking cat you wouldn’t have a problem with our working the sidewalk.”

“What?”

He sniffed at the guard’s pant leg.

“As I thought. You’re a cat owner.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“The smell of cat is all over your pants. Probably one of those ugly long-haired, pug-nosed, stuck-up pussies.”

“Hey!”

“See, that’s discrimination. That’s profiling. That’s the same-old same-old we dogs have had to endure forever.”

“Wait! Am I having this conversation with a dog?” And the guard side-stepped Napoleon and walked over to where I sat enjoying the scene.

“Amazing as your talent is, mister, you gotta go. We can do this peacefully, or the hard way. It’s your choice.”

Ain’t technology grand? Unawares to us, while the security guard, Napoleon and I were having our confrontation, some mall customers were taking videos of everything on their cell phones, and uploading to Facebook and Twitter. Rather than risk a night in jail, I picked up the can of money and motioned to Napoleon we should go.

“What are you in the mood to eat?” I asked my friend.

“How about a hot dog?” he grinned at me.

By the time we crossed the parking lot and found a fast food place where we could sit outside and eat, those digital videos of us had been shared and re-shared to the point half of Lexington had viewed them. One of those was a local reporter for Fox 56 television, who was in the area when she saw the tweeted video.

Kimberly Dawn drove by in a Fox 56-decorated van and saw us, screamed to her driver to stop, and hopped out.

“Are you the guys in this video?” she asked, shoving her iPhone close to my face while the confrontation with the mall security guard played. I watched, turned to her at its finish, and smiled broadly.

“Yep. That’s us.”

“Well guys, this must be your lucky day!”

 

◊◊◊

 

Napoleon and I ended up on the Fox 56 six o’clock and 11 o’clock news that night. The interview was a mixture of our “story” — travelling through with nowhere to stay — and Napoleon answering questions posed by Kimberly Dawn.

“So, Napoleon, tell our viewers what breed of dog you are?”

“Mix. Part terrier, part Pomeranian. I just say I’m a Sooner.”

“Sooner? As an Oklahoma U fan?”

“Naw. Sooner one than the other.”

“How did you meet your owner?”

“I’m not a slave. He doesn’t own me. We are a cooperative with equally important yet differing responsibilities.”

“And what are your responsibilities in this cooperative?”

“I’m the brains of the outfit.”

I was in the background of the shot, nodding and smiling and moving my jaw a bit as though projecting my voice to Napoleon.

At the end of the interview, Dawn and her cameraman/driver gave us a lift to a homeless shelter, and she apparently knew the director, who okayed it for us to stay for a couple of days. It was to his interest, as the shelter became a small part of the story.

That news spot didn’t just air on Fox 56. Oh no. It was picked up by the national Fox News people, which was picked up and re-aired by ABC, NBC and CBS national news departments. When Dawn said “This must be your lucky day,” she wasn’t kidding! For the next week replays of that little news encounter filtered through nearly every local TV station across America. Everyone likes a feel-good-story, don’t you know?

Five people saw it who responded in very different, unexpected ways. Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, and three others.

One was a muscular man, who had toned arms and shoulders. Powerfully built. He sat quietly nursing a Budweiser, seated at the counter of a country bar on Bob Hollow Road, a bit north of Wentz, Kentucky. He reached into his bib pocket and pulled out a deflated package of Camels, grabbing one of the smokes with his lips, and lighting it with his Zippo. A large flat screen TV was hung at the back of the bar, and the news item about Napoleon and me was on.

“I’ll be damned!” he muttered. He threw back the remaining beer and placed a five on the counter, then left the bar and climbed into his beat-up truck and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.

A man and his wife were in the living room of their farmhouse, eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans from plates on TV dinner trays, watching Fox 56 evening news.

“I’ll be damned!” he muttered when the piece on us aired. “That’s where that damned dog got to!” He stood up and took his tray to the kitchen, then swung the back door open angrily and hopped into his truck and sped away, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake.

A lean, prim-looking woman sat in a large easy chair, reading the newspaper, the TV blaring in the background. The news item caught her attention, as she was a dog-person at heart. Then she noticed the man in the background of the shot of the talking dog, nodding and smiling and moving his jaw a bit, projecting his voice to Napoleon.

“I’ll be damned!” she muttered, then grabbed her cellphone and dialed a number. The ringing was interrupted by a man’s voice.

“Cuthbert? This is Sally. I just found out where that deadbeat of an ex of mine has gone to. I want you to have him arrested.”

◊◊◊

It’s truly nice to be wanted. And in my case, or I should say, our case, Napoleon and I were definitely wanted by two huge television personalities. We were at the right place at the right time. Kismet, some would say. Pure luck, according to others. Whichever, the fact remained that Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres wanted us on their shows.

I like Jimmy Fallon. Not that I ever watched him before. I quit watching The Tonight Show when Johnny retired. It wasn’t the same anymore. I mean, when Ed McMahon belted out “Heeeere’s Johnny!” the world seemed ordered and right. But without them? Plus, it got harder and harder to stay up to watch the show. Jay didn’t do it for me.

Jimmy’s a real nice kid. Still wet behind the ears, but genuine as can be, near as I can tell. He had Napoleon and me flown up first-class to New York. Even though it was a short flight, Napoleon kept everyone in stitches with his dog’s perspective. Of course I was the one that got the credit, though.

“You are amaaaaa—zing!” the other passengers complimented me.

I told Napoleon in private our secret was bound to get out.

“You’re nuts! Who in their right mind would believe that a dog can talk? Don’t worry so much!”

We were picked up at the airport by an NBC limousine and whisked away to a midtown hotel near 30 Rockefeller Square, where the show is taped.

Two hours before the taping Napoleon and I were driven to the towering building, and made our way to Studio 6B, where we were ushered to the Green Room. Our guide directed us to the hair and make-up room where I was powdered and rouged a bit. Napoleon refused the make-up.

“There’s something more than weird about a dog that wears lipstick and eye shadow,” he yipped at the make-up artist. But he was into the hair bit, getting a quick style-and-snip wet cut and blow-dry.

“So, what’s your favorite dog breed, Honey,” he asked during the process. “I’m a great lap-man. Wanna meet after the show so I can prove it?”

“I’ll bet you are!” she laughed. “Thanks, but I’m more of a cat-person.”

When I walked out onto the stage with Napoleon tucked onto one arm, the brightness of the lights almost overpowered us. I sat in the chair directly beside Jimmy’s big desk, and he reached over and patted me on the arm.

“So, you and Napoleon were wandering the streets of Lexington, Kentucky, and started a street show for money, I understand.”

“Yeah.” I was so nervous I could only muster short one or two word answers. Then Napoleon took over, which was why we were there anyway. I let him have his day, and mocked moving my mouth a bit. Mostly nodded and grinned while he did all the talking.

“What’s it like to be a dog, Napoleon?” Fallon asked finally.

“Rough.”

Laughter.

“Actually, a dog’s life, depending on if you have a kind owner, is the best. Humans are great pets and wonderful to have around.”

Laughter.

“You don’t really get to experience family, though. I never knew my dad. My brothers and sisters are scattered all over the place, and my mom was a real bitch.”

Laughter.

“So I have a question for you, Napoleon. Why is it that dogs go around smelling other dogs’ butts? I keep thinking what if humans did that?”

Laughter.

“Actually it’s a great question, Jimmy. You probably know my sense of smell is probably ten thousand times better than yours.”

“I heard that. If that’s true, why would you have to stick your nose up in there? I mean, crap is crap, right? You should be able to smell it a mile away.”

Laughter.

“The fact is there are glands around a dog’s butt that can tell me a lot about that dog.”

“Really? Like what?”

“If they are ill, for example. What their gender is. I can tell if that dog is somehow related to me, or to another dog I know. Whether or not they are going to be a friend or a foe.”

“Well, if you smell my butt, we’re friends for life as far as I’m concerned.”

Laughter.

“You know that dogs have been known to detect cancer in their humans. And are used these days to alert humans about impending stroke or heart attack.”

“So, tell me about alpha dogs and pecking orders.”

“I’m an alpha dog. We’re on your show because of me, not him.” I was glad to get at least an acknowledgment.

“So size does not matter, then?”

“Most alpha dogs I know are as small as me. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. You’ve heard that, of course.”

“Sure.”

“And it’s brains, not brawn.”

“Where do you guys go from here?”

I spoke.

“We’re off to California tomorrow to be on the Ellen show.”

“That’s great! You’ll love her!”

And so it was over almost as soon as it started.

The next day we flew to California, again First-Class. I discovered that Napoleon, talking aside, is unlike any other dog I’ve known before. Most are content to lay down and nap the day away. Not him. He’s’ always got his nose into something — well, that’s normal for a dog now that I think of it — and is jabbering with someone about some thing. Me? I leaned my leather seat back and tried to sleep. That really impressed everyone!

“How do you do that?” one fellow passenger demanded, jabbing me in the arm.

“Do what?”

“Ventriloquize while you’re asleep? Obviously you’re awake, right?”

“Trade secret.”

“Well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say your dog actually does talk, and you’re the dummy!”

“You got me.” And I turned away to resume sleeping. And the other passengers kept talking to Napoleon, asking him all sorts of things.

“Who’s your favorite rock group?”

Three Dog Night.

“Your favorite song?”

Pressley’s Hound Dog.

And he, in turn, would ask them questions.

What do you get when you combine a peeping Tom with a junk-yard dog?

“I don’t know . . . what?”

An I-like-to-watch-dog.

Groan.

That went on through our first connection in the gate seating area, and again on board. It was becoming more than tiresome. Oh, sure — everyone else liked the performance. It dawned on me how this same frustration had shown its ugly face in my two marriages. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. But not nearly as quickly as it does when you have a talking dog.

◊◊◊

Copyright © Lawrence S. Marsden, 22 January, 2016

 

 

 

Zoid Man: Chapter Five

18 Dec

Chapter Five

 

The older boy’s name was Harland Gillette, like the razor. Jack and Benny identified him from his yearbook picture in the Frankton Junior High yearbook. The picture was two years old, and Harland looked nothing like he did now. He was much younger and smaller in the picture. Not too different from Jack, for that matter.

Jack’s brother said Harland had been a couple of grades behind him.

“He played on the 7th and 8th grade football team and started his very first year. He was okay. And fast. Running back, I think. I was in high school, and his name got talked about in the locker room as someone to watch. Then he kind of disappeared all of a sudden. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Kind of bumped into him a few days ago, you know.”

Over the next few days Jack and Benny worked on catching Harland as the mysterious neighborhood thief. Things started to go missing once again. A lawn mower from the Sizemore’s shed. One of the Rankin girl’s bicycles — and brand new, too! Axes, shovels, basketballs — a wide sundry of things.

In Mr. Nickers’ science class, the teacher somehow got off track of his lecture and rambled. Jack took advantage of the moment to shoot up his hand to ask a question.

“Doctor Nickers, if you wanted to catch somebody stealing something, how would you do it?”

He wasn’t a real doctor. But everyone called him doctor. Doc Nick behind his back. He was rumored to have a fondness for his female students.

“Actually, I heard of a case in another school where someone was going around stealing loose change from the teachers’ desks. We all keep a little spare change for emergencies, like a student who forgets to bring lunch, or can’t pay a fee or something.

“Anyway, John Howard, a science teacher like me whom I knew at the school came up with the idea of treating coins with silver nitrate.”

“What’s that, Doctor Nickers?” The other students figured out early in the year if you kept Doc Nick off the day’s lesson, you could avoid all kinds of work.

“Yes, well it’s a chemical that used to be dropped into the eyes of newborns to prevent blindness. And for other things as well. Some people think it’s a cure for warts. Anyway, Mr. Howard rinsed a lot of change in silver nitrate and left it on his desk for all to see. He figured that sometime during the day the change would be stolen.”

“Was it?”

“It sure was. So here’s the catch: when the thief took the money, she got it on her hands.  A chemical reaction took place, turning her skin dark black where she touched the money. So chemistry,” he said, tapping the rolled down periodic chart with his wooden pointer, “can be used in many useful ways.”

“You said ‘she.’ A girl?”

“Not all the bad people in the world are boys.” He grinned and winked at a very attractive female student seated at the front of one row of desks.

Jack continued.

“Where do you get silver nitrate?”

“I suppose at the drug store. I might actually have some.”

“Would you show us how it works?” The class seemed to perk up at what would definitely detour Doc Nick for another twenty minutes.

“Everyone turn to page 68 in your science book and read the section written on the board. I’ll go see if we can do the experiment.”

Books flopped open and the entire class breathed a sigh of relief as the teacher opened a closet door at the front of the class and switched on a light.

Rumblings of whispers and titters of laughter rippled throughout the classroom. Nickers called from within the closet,

“Quiet down, class!” and continued to rummage through his shelves, until at last, he found the silver nitrate.

“Aha!” He came out of the closet with a triumphant look, holding a small amber bottle in his hand. On the top of the bottle was a rubber squeeze-top dropper. Opening a drawer in his desk, he scrounged for change.

“Jack? You asked to see how this works — so come be my Guinea pig.”

Jack walked to the front of the classroom. Nickers had spread nickels and dimes into a small tray. He put on his thick, elbow-length gloves, and strapped on a pair of safety goggles. He carefully unscrewed the bottle and pinched the rubber squeeze top to draw up some of the silver nitrate.

The rest of the class stood up and craned their necks to see.

“Not sure how much to use. Heck, may as well get ‘em soaked.”

He pinched several droplets of silver nitrate onto the change in the tray with the dropper. Then he plucked a wooden tongue depressor from a glass jar on the desk and stirred the coins, making sure each was coated with the chemical.

“Okay, Jack … your turn. Reach down in the tray and pick up some of the change I’ve coated with silver nitrate.”

“Should I put on gloves?”

“Oh no! Then it wouldn’t work!”

“Is this dangerous to do? Is it poisonous?”

Nickers stopped to think a moment, then quickly said, “Heavens, no! Not a bit of danger. Of course, I wouldn’t put my hands in my mouth until you scrub the silver nitrate off them. Don’t worry about a thing!

“Now, quickly — grab some coins with your bare hands and rub them about. That’s it. Keep rubbing them. Now, put the coins back into the tray, and hold out your hands, palms up, so that everyone can see.”

Jack obeyed, and turned toward his classmates, extending his palms out and up. As he and others watched, his skin began to discolor. First to a chocolaty-brown, then dark brown, and finally to black.

The class gasped at the transformation.

“And that’s how the thief was found out! She didn’t know any better than to wash her hands — although plain soap and water wouldn’t do the trick had she tried. And when the money was discovered missing, all the teachers in the school had their students stand, hands out like Jack here, and the culprit was caught!”

“Uh, Doctor Nickers?”

“Yes, Jack?”

“Just how do I get this stain off my hands?”

“It should eventually wear off.”

“How long for that to happen?”

“Two … three days, I imagine.”

The class period bell rang out loud, and the students in Doc Nick’s class shoved and milled their way out into the hallways while Jack stood behind, looking at his stained hands.

The Test … further continued

6 Jun

Continued from last post

◊◊◊

The noise of the life-support machinery bothered Dawn the most. Not how her dad looked prone on the  ICU hospital bed. Contrary to her expectation, his skin tone looked good — nearly normal. A crinkled plastic tube extended from his mouth to a ventilator next to the bed. A thin, clear tube ran from one nostril to a bag of liquid hanging among many. His hair was combed neatly. His eyes peacefully shut, flickering back and forth under the lids in REM sleep. Reading a book, she thought.

The ventilator — ka-puff … wheeze … ka-puff – wheeze — combined with the beep-beep-beep of the heart monitor that graphed his heartbeats in jagged green mountains against a black background — reminded her of the Stomp concert she and Jared saw on their last anniversary. Dad gave them the tickets. It was loud. Not her cup of tea. Just like the noisy hospital room.

“He’s stabilized,” said the cardiology. Dawn was reminded of a pet peeve of her dad’s.

“Stable is not a goddamn condition!” he would rail at the TV or radio whenever the term was used. He hated those who should know better continued to abuse the terminology. “Even the network anchors — and PBS!”

“Critical condition,” the cardiologist had correctly said.

It was a wait-and-see situation.

With all of the hook-ups, all the indicators were slightly south of normal. Blood pressure on the low side. A slight recurring arrhythmia blipping on the heart monitor. Elevated temp, just under 100.5 degrees. Even respiration with regular, sonorous breaths, his chest rising and falling.

IV fluids and meds. Hanging to the side of the bed, a flat vinyl pouch with some yellow liquid — a tube running from it under the covers. Catheter, thought Dawn. She had been hospitalized as a child and had one. It embarrassed her when visitors noticed it and asked her, “What’s that?” “Pee,” she would answer, blushing.

“He’s on pain meds and others that will help him sleep. I don’t imagine he will come out of it for another eighteen hours or so,” the doc explained.

“Is he comatose, then?”

“No. Not at this point.”

“What would bring that on?” she asked.

“We are hopeful stroke won’t be a problem. Or another myocardial infarction — heart attack,” she explained.

“Is that a likelihood?”

“Well, in the way that after-shocks can be expected after an earthquake — sure. You will probably want someone with him twenty-four seven.”

“I’ll stay tonight, and I’m sure one of my other siblings will spell me. Both are on their way and should arrive tomorrow sometime.”

“And you have medical power of attorney?”

“Yeah. Are we at that point?”

“No. But I’m glad you’re local. I’ve looked his Advanced Directives over. He’s not keen on vegetating on life support.”

“Not him. He hates hospitals. His mom lingered on life support for more than seven months before she went.”

“God.”

“Yeah. So it’s not the way he wants to go.”

“Are you prepared, then?”

“Who can ever be prepared?”

“Right.”

“I’m gonna have to rely heavily on your medical opinion.”

“I understand. Well, we’re not there yet. But that could change — actually either way — in the snap of a finger,” and he snapped his fingers.

“Sounds awfully iffy . . .”

“Nothing is a sure bet, Ms. …”

“Ellington. Dawn Ellington. I’m the eldest daughter. I have an older brother and younger sister. Like I said, they’re on their way.”

“I’ll try to give you enough information in a timely fashion for you and your siblings to make an informed decision.”

“Appreciate that. Problem is it’s me who has the final say. According to the POA.”

“Yeah, but you know that’s not legally binding.”

“Oh?”

“Sure. Plenty of time next of kin have influenced medical decisions contrary to the patient’s desires. Probably more likely where there is no Advanced Directive or POA. But even when those are in place, things change.”

“Great! And if I don’t agree with my siblings?”

“I’d advise consensus.”

“Even if it goes contrary to my dad’s wishes?”

“The survivors are the people you have to live with when and if your father goes.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not an enviable position to occupy.”

“Tell me about it.”

◊◊◊

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 6 June, 2015

The Test … continued

6 Jun

Continued from yesterday

◊◊◊

The night was cool for mid-June, chilled by three days of slow, misty rain with persistent clouds that blocked the near-summer sun. As the ambulance sped down the slick street, its emergency lights struck out like bolts of lightning. The wail of the siren echoed along empty side streets and caught the dimming attention of sleepers on soft pillows.

The ambulance turned down one of the side streets and the driveway of the emergency department drive, its howl dying and the jabs of white, red and blue bolts of light suddenly extinguished. Attendants at the ready rushed to the back of the ambulance, and a human-laden gurney snapped to out its doors, one EMT holding a saline bag aloft. The small group disappeared into the maw of the ED, and through a swivel doored corridor to disappear into another room. The doors snapped shut behind, and the patient was swallowed up.

Dawn Cardish Ellington’s deep sleep was aborted at the ring of her cell phone on the night stand. Her husband Jared rolled over and pulled the covers over her head as she switched on the bedside lamp and felt for her phone.

“Hello? . . . What? . . . When? . . . Oh, God! How is he? . . . Is anyone down there? . . . I mean from the rest of the family?

. . . Yes, I’m coming! Yes, I understand!”

She clicked off the call and buried her face in her hands.

“Dammit! Dammitdammitdammit!”

Jared uncovered his head and rolled over.

“Your dad?”

“He’s had another heart attack!”

“Is he okay?”

“I don’t know, dammit! I just got the friggin’ call, Jared!”

“Okay! I’m sorry! We should go down there. Frye?”

She was already up and changing.

“Yeah. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It’s Father’s Day, and the kids wanted to take you out.”

“No, of course not! It’s your dad … I’ll go with you.”

“Then hurry up.”

◊◊◊

He drove. She sat quietly in the passenger seat, rocking slightly back and forth. He reached out and touched her hand. She instinctively withdrew her hand. Things were not right between them.

“He’s going to be okay, Honey,” Jared said in what he thought was a reassuring tone.

“Maybe … maybe not … I’m medical power of attorney,” she said slowly, as if half-thinking it aloud.

“When did that happen?” Jared asked, surprised.

“Two weeks ago. Dad asked me to keep it quiet. It was Mom, but when she passed … Well, he only just now got around to fixing it.”

“Jeesh.”

“Yeah. Jeesh. So what do I do if he’s like in a coma or something? Or brain dead and unconscious?”

“Wow … yeah. Well, you follow his wishes.”

“Follow his wishes. Sounds simple.”

“What else can you do? You do what he wants you to do. God knows he’s always done what others want. Lousy time to finally doing something for him that he wants.”

“See? That’s why he loved you more than his own kids.”

“I doubt that’s true. Anyway, he isn’t dead yet. So correct what you said.”

“What’d I say?”

“You said he loved me. Past tense. Like he’s already gone. Look, he’s survived a lot … Vietnam, two business failures … the man has chutzpah. Take more than a heart attack to do him in. Besides, all the medical technology today? He’ll probably be sitting up in his hospital room cracking jokes and trying to pinch the nurses’ butts.”

“The doctor said it’s serious.”

“What doctor?”

“Cardiologist. They had to call him in. He told me not to expect too much.”

They pulled into the emergency department parking area and hurried in. The receptionist directed them to a waiting area and said she would call back.

Jared grabbed an old Sports Illustrated magazine while Dawn started texting on her cell phone. It was late. Two in the morning. Rain drizzled down, shrouding the outdoor streetlights in grays, blues which diffused into the dark night.

Dawn’s phone soon came alive with calls and vibrations.

“Yes, we’re at the hospital. About an hour and a half ago. No, we haven’t seen the cardiologist. I talked on the phone with one of the emergency docs. No, not good. He said not to have raised expectations. No, Dad was not conscious when he came in. Well I assumed Diane called it in. I don’t know anything for sure. Yes. I’ll keep you posted. Just check my Facebook page for updates. Right. Thanks, we can use them right now. Yes, I will.”

The conversation repeated in various fashion for the next hour. Frustrated, Dawn put her phone away and walked back to the reception window.

“Is there not any news on my father?”

“Honey, I let the doctors know. When they can, someone will come get you. It is a Saturday night, you know.”

For the first time Dawn became aware of others in the waiting room, and that the emergency department seemed to be very busy.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I’m just worried.”

“I know you are, Sweetie,” the receptionist nodded in sympathy.

◊◊◊

Want to see more …?

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 6 June, 2015

The Test

5 Jun

The Test

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Sheila Dumphreys leaned back in her leather-bound Victorian chair and looked at her client with incredulity.

“Timothy, you’re nuts!”

“Yeah, well I’ve been told that before.”

“Why would you do something like that?”

“Sheila,” — he pronounced it Shei-ler — “I’ve always lived my life doing for others. My wife, my kids, my neighbors, my employees — so, by God, one time I want things done for me. Now tell me the fault in that, will you?”

“I don’t fault you anything, Timothy. Your advanced directives are pretty clear. All that has to happen is that they are followed.”

“Ex-actly! And that’s the sticker, isn’t it? I’ve no way of knowing if they in fact will be followed. I mean, when my father was unconscious and on all sorts of breathing apparatus and tubes and things, I knew what his wishes were. So did we all! But the conversation with the doc really could have gone the other way. If we wanted, we could have left him connected. Which was the very thing he didn’t want.”

“Well, when you are in that situation — in the moment — it’s very difficult to be the one to say pull the plug …”

“Again, exactly right! So that’s why I want to do the test.”

Sheila let his words hang in the air. The late-afternoon conversation was the last appointment on her calendar on a very busy Friday of a very busy week. All hell had broken out, and the newly divorced attorney had been busy putting out a multitude of fires. The worst of which was her ex-husband Roland, who was in trouble with the police.

“Okay. But I want you to know I’m agreeing to this idea with utmost reluctance. I’ll help you.”

Timothy Cardish jumped up from his chair before her large maple desk.

“THAT’s the spirit! Walk on the wild side! Think and behave out of the box!” he grinned, his large Irish face flushed with excitement and his enthusiasm untenable.

“When are you going to do this?”

“Immediately! Well, actually probably Sunday. It will take me that long to confirm with my other conspirators. Yes, Sunday will be the perfect day to begin the test!”

“But that’s —“

“— Father’s Day! Ironic, yes? The day a man’s children are supposed to shower him will love and appreciation — and, respect for what he wants!”

Timothy rubbed his hands together eagerly, then reached his right out to Sheila.

“Thank you, Sheila! You won’t regret this!”

She shook his hand. “Yeah, I keep hearing that lately. So far the jury is still out.”

“Ha, ha! Jury! Good one!” he chuckled as he turned for the door to leave. “I’ll keep you in the loop. Honest, Sheila, this is going to be one helluva test for my kids.”

“I don’t doubt that. I just hope nothing goes wrong.”

“Wrong? What could go wrong?” he threw back as he closed the door.

That’s what’s bothering me, she said to herself.

(… want to read more?)

◊◊◊◊◊

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 5 June, 2015

The Typewriter: Beta readers wanted

24 May

I’ve completed the 2nd rewrite of The Typewriter, a novella mystery involving the mysterious. Comment that you’d like to read it before publishing in order to give your input, and I’ll give you the particulars. “Likes” don’t count on this.

 

Cover_art_w_title_blood

The Old Wives Tale

9 Apr

 

The Old Wives Tale

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

The story goes two old wives — biological sisters who were both widowed — lived up on a southern slope just east of Table Rock in Linville Gorge. It also goes the two were distant relatives of the Linvil family who had settled in the area sometime in the 1700s. The two were seldom seen away from their cabin which overlooked the gorge from its perch. Therefore they were seldom seen at all.

An approach road snaked back and forth along the northern face of the Flat Rock ridge and ended in a dirt turnaround where few visitors parked. The last mile had to be made by foot.

Pastor Handley of Three Forks Baptist Church made the trek twice a year — in the fall to make sure the old women had enough provisions to carry them through the winter, and to split cord wood for their cast-iron stove — and again in the spring to make sure they were still alive.

He would stay several days splitting the wood, which had been hauled up earlier by locals who used rickety flat wagons and mules. The sisters always paid in cash. Rumor was they were fabulously wealthy despite their choice to live modestly.

The sisters had bequeathed a tin metal box with unknown contents to the church and it was generally accepted that Pastor Handley’s trips were to ensure that happened when the two finally died. Old as they were it could be anytime.

That metal box was also the source of much speculation amongst the area mountain folk. Only Handley and his predecessors had seen it. And the wood haulers on one occasion. It was where the sisters kept a lot of cash, and was stored under one of their beds. Did it contain anything other than cash?  Lumps of gold? A rare coin? Or perhaps a stamp from the 1800s? Un-muttered were opinions why should the church get the tin box and its contents. Some thought they were as worthy as the church of the box contents.

Two who held the opinion were Caleb Hilliard and his friend Dwayne Settles. Both hapless ne’er-do-wells always complained about their strings of bad luck. Each had pretty well determined their nonfortuitous futures through a series of bad choices fueled by hooch and weed.

It was during one of these inspirational meetings at the Dog Skin Café the two landed a scheme to find out just what was in that tin box of the old wives. And if the contents was valuable, how they might relieve the women of its possession.

“All alone! Them biddies is all alone up there, Dwight!” Caleb slammed his mug of beer on the table, slopping some onto the table. “It would be so easy! I wonder it ain’t been done before this?”

Dwight picked carefully though a plate of fried pickles on the table between the men.

“How you know there’s a tin box at all? Or if it has anything of value in it?” asked Dwayne wearily, grabbing a fried pickle slice and crunching down on it. “They could be just a couple old white chicks with nuthin’ to their name!” He dragged on the nearly smoked Camel pinched between his fingers, blowing a cloud of death to the side.

“Dude — I personally know someone whose cousin knew someone who was once a member of the church the old bats used to go to. She told me that person knew a guy who helped the previous pastor go up and chop wood for them. Now, if a pastor goes to all that trouble to help somebody, there’s got to be somethin’ in it for him!”

“Yeah,” agreed Dwayne. “God do help them what helps themselves.”

He took the salt shaker and generously sprinkled the platter of fried pickles, spilling some on the table.

“Don’t spill the salt, dude!” Caleb spurted, pinching the salt and tossing it over his left shoulder.

“God, man! You a trip! Talk about superstitious!”

“Yeah? Well the other day you walked completely the other way when you saw that black cat coming out of the alley.”

“That’s different. Cats are evil. Black cats? Of the devil!

“Hmmm. Okay — we’ll hike up this Friday night. I got a pop-up tent we’ll pitch for the night and catch them by surprise in the morning.”

“Why not go ahead and do it at night?”

“You crazy? No telling what they got up there — could have guns, even. Daylight. When we can see ever-thang proper.”

“So we gonna pop ‘em?”

“What —? Naw, man! Finding the tin box is plenty enough. They don’t know us, anyhow — and it’ll be months before anyone finds out about it.”

“Won’t they call the law?”

“Doubt if they have a phone. We’ll cut the line if they do.”

“Will we tie them up? Gag ‘em?”

“They’re so old I don’t think we’ll need to do that. And besides if we did that and they didn’t get loose, they’d probably die. I don’t want murder on my conscience.”

“But won’t they go for help?”

“Last I heard they are in their eighties — maybe nineties. They go for help it’ll take ‘em two days just to get down the trail to the road, and another day to the nearest house!”

The men laughed together, and Dwayne rose from the table and drunkenly mimicked a decrepitly old person walking. He sat, and they clinked beer mugs to seal the deal.

Caleb reached in his pocket and pulled out two acorns. He slid one on the table to Dwight.

“Put this in your pocket.”

“Why?”

“Good luck. Not that we’ll need it — but why risk it?”

Dwight grabbed the acorn and rolled it between his fingers. He grinned broadly at his friend.

***

Which is how Caleb and Dwayne ended up trudging to the old wives’ house on a moonlit Friday in August. The moon had a waxy pallor and was not robustly yellow or reddish as with a harvest moon.

“Hope you brought your rain gear,” said Caleb, nodding toward the orb. “It’s gonna rain tomorrow. Pale moon.”

The two traveled in silence most the way. The area was a popular hiking spot, and Table Rock a great vantage point from which to view the Linville Gorge. They had to be careful on account with the full moon they could run into several hikers. A moonlit gorge was a great temptation to photographers, and Caleb did not want to show up in the background of a picture in a magazine.

Half-way up the trail the two began to relax. Caleb pulled a silver flask from his pocket and took a long swig when they stopped to rest. He pointed at the moon above them.

“Ya know a full moon’ll cause a man to go crazy.”

“Not to mention bring out the werewolves,” responded Dwayne, taking the offered flask from Caleb and tilting it back for a drink. At that moment a distant dog howled. “That’s bad luck, right? Someone’ll die before morning?”

Caleb snickered. “Pure superstition, Bud.”

“My dad said if you plant your high crops during a full moon, it’ll pull ‘em out rich and full. And if you plant your taters and carrots during the new moon? It pushes them deeper and they grow bigger,” said Dwayne, wiping his lips.

“And your dad was crazy,” laughed Caleb.

“Maybe he went crazy during a full moon,” returned Dwayne, adding and eerie sounding oooh-weeeee-ooooh.

“More’n likely from the moonshine.”

They climbed until they could see the top of the ridge. A thin ribbony strand of smoke wisped up from the other side of the mountain, illumined by the moonlight. Caleb searched and found a cleared area off the trail large enough for their tent. In a few minutes the nylon tent popped up like a half bubble, and the two threw their backpacks inside.

“I’ll build a fire,” offered Dwayne, bending to find twigs and brush to burn.

“No fire,” snapped Caleb. He pulled a decaying log from the underbrush and sat down, pulling out a bag of weed, and rolled a joint.

“Ahhhh!” he said with a satisfied puff. “Tomorrow our luck is going to change!”

“Definitely,” agreed Dwayne, taking the smoke from his friend and sucking on it. “Definitely.”

***

As Caleb predicted, the morning was misty and cool because the prevailing winds were from the north and west. The morning light, the hard ground and a nearby murder of crows interrupted their deep sleep. Hungry, they cracked open packages of beef jerky and gnawed the tough meat in silence, then repacked their gear. The summit of the ridge was only yards away, and the trail led back down the southern slope a few hundred yards before the cabin came into view.

To say the cabin was old was an understatement. It seemed rooted into the side of the steep drop, with just barely enough leveled earth cut from the ridge. The logs the cabin was built of were dark with splotches of green moss and lichen tucked down into the rolled niches. No window was cut on the north side facing them, but a galvanized pipe protruded from the tin roof just above the wall. It was the source of the trickle of smoke they had seen during the night’s ascent.

As they made their way carefully down the muddy and rutted pathway, a shape jumped from the near gable of the cabin with a loud “screeeeeee!”

“Owl,” Caleb whispered. “Not a good sign, owl in the morning.”

Dwight reached in his pocket to withdraw his acorn. “Not to worry.”

A porch extended out from the front of the cabin, which looked south toward the gorge. The edge of the porch extended nearly a foot out over the edge of the hill. Years of wind and rain had eroded the earth supporting the porch underneath. The gorge itself was masked in thick fog, and the rising sun struggled just above the rise of the eastward ridge, dulling it to a feint roundish glow.

Caleb stepped up on the porch cautiously, as though his weight might send the entire cabin down into the gorge. He motioned to Dwight, who followed at warily.

The front of the cabin was long, and a single door with a battered screened door was its only entrance. Dirty multi-paned double-sashed windows bordered the door on either side. Two granny rockers, long since washed of their original coats of paints, graying on the far side of the porch. One of the chairs rocked gently with the wind.

“Hope no one was sitting there just now,” Caleb murmured.

“Why?”

“Evil spirits will sit in a chair if you leave it rocking,” he said, one eyebrow raised.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhht!”

Caleb opened the rickety screen door, then knocked on the door.

Nothing.

He knocked again little louder.

“Patience is a virtue!” came a response from within. “I’m a comin’.”

The door opened back toward the inside of the cabin, and a very old and feeble-looking woman peeked around its backside.

“Whatcha want?”

“Mrs. Childress? Emma Childress?”

“That’s my sister. Didn’tcha see the sign?”

She pointed to the outside wall next to the door. A seran-wrapped note card was tacked to one of the front logs with a rusted and bent thumbtack.

“No Solicitation!” was scrawled in faded red marker.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Caleb as politely as he could muster. “I truly did not see that sign. So you are Mrs. Johnson, then?”

“Don’t matter who I am. I live here, and you don’t. Read the damn sign agin!” she ordered and began to close the door. Caleb nudged his foot forward to stop the door from shutting.

“Yes, you are absolutely right, ma’am. I do not live here. But I am not here to solicit you or your sister.”

“Then what are you here for?” she cracked back.

“Nothing much, Miss Nadine.”

“How is it you know my and sister’s name?”

“If you let me in, I’ll be glad to tell you.”

“That’ll happen when pigs fly!” she sneered, and opened the door wider and slammed it shut, the heavy door crushing Caleb’s tennis-shoed foot.

“Ow! Goddamn it!” he shouted, pulling his wounded foot out and hopping on the other. Dwight burst out laughing. “What the hell are you laughing at?”

“Let me do this,” he grinned, pushing Caleb aside. He knocked as politely as he could.

“Go away!” came the response from inside.

“Ma’am,” said Dwight sweetly, “I’m from Three Forks Baptist Church. I’m one of the deacons, and I have some bad news about Pastor Handley. I’d have called you before we came up, but I did not have your telephone number.”

“Ain’t got a telephone,” came the muffled reply. “What about Pastor?”

“Could you just open the door, please ma’am? It’s not the kind of thing I want to shout about.”

A bolt drew back from inside, and the door latch clicked and the door opened, this time with a short chain restraint evident at the old woman’s eye level.

“So?” she eyed Dwight. “You a black man?”

“Um — well, uh, yes I am, Ma’am.”

“They let a black man be deacon at the church now?”

“Well, yes Ma’am. They do,” he continued to lie. Certainly not at Three Forks Baptist, that is.

“That other man a deacon? ‘Cause ifn’ he is, he just took the Lord’s name in vain,” she said sharply.

“No, ma’am. He is actually a new convert. So he slips into the old ways a little. You know how that is. The New Man struggles with the Old Man.”

“Amen to that.”

“May I come in? Please?”

She hesitated, then unlatched the door chain and opened the door wide. Dwight looked back at Caleb and winked.

Dwight and Caleb eased carefully into the dark front room. Beside the two windows on the front, a side window on the east wall allowed the hazy morning light into the space. A flower pattern linoleum floor covered the entire front room, with a green shag throw rug under a shaker style coffee table that fronted two high-back Victorian chairs. It was a mish-mash assemblage of design and color, not indicative of taste nor affluence.

The bent lady shuffled and motioned for the two to sit down. She pulled a rocker from the wall up to the other chairs and carefully, slowly sat, the rocker dipping back with her slight weight, then settling. Dwight and Caleb sat in the two Victorian chairs.

“Well?” she asked pointedly of Dwight.

“Oh, yes. Pastor Handley died unexpectedly during the night.”

“Oh. Well, I did hear a dog barking in the full moon last night. I guess it was to be expected somebody was going to pass over. I’m glad the Pastor was a God-fearing man, at least.”

“Amen to that, Mrs. Johnson.”

“Now my Henry died on Christmas Eve right at midnight, so I know I’ll see him in heaven.”

“How’s that?”

“Gates of heaven are wide open on Christmas Eve at that time. Anyone that dies then goes straight through the pearly gates.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Now Emma’s man was a gambler and chewed tobacky. He went straight to hell.”

“Ah.”

Caleb shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He felt something crawling on the back of his neck, and reached back and pinched a bug between his thumb and forefinger. It was a ladybug. He crushed it.

“That’s bad luck, you know,” said the woman, watching him with the bug.

“Superstition,” he remarked.

“Is it? So, I am awfully sorry to hear about Pastor Handley,” she said, turning her attention back to Dwight.

“Like I said, we would have called. But really? It’s more appropriate to come in person.”

“Nice of you. But you coulda waited. He died last night? Why the rush?”

“Mrs. Johnson …”

“Call me Nadine.”

“Nadine … I don’t know how to go about this other that straight out. Pastor Handley left a wife and six children behind.”

“Do tell!”

“Yes, ma’am. And you might know that the church is small, as is the budget. Why Pastor Handley was practically giving his service to the Lord for free.”

“I did not know . . .”

“Yes ma’am. He worked part-time at the hardware store down to Valle Crucis to help make ends meet. And his wife, Lord bless her, knits and sells hand-made wool sweaters to help feed those children.”

“I didn’t have children.”

“No ma’am. Well, here’s the thing . . . the congregation has got together to see what we can do for the survivin’ family — you know. But none of us is exactly flush with money ourselves. Times is hard.”

“And what do you do, Mister …”

“Settles. Dwayne Settles — I’m sorry Ma’am. I should have introduced myself at the start.”

She was not listening. She was busy counting on her fingers after he announced his name. At the finish, she looked up at Dwayne with a worried expression.

“Your name has thirteen letters,” she said.

“Does it? I never knew.”

“So does mine,” she said with a smile.

“Okay. Um —“

“You want me to help out. Me and my sister. You want us to pitch in for the Handley family.”

“To put it bluntly, yes. I know that the church is in your will when you die …”

“It is.”

“But sometimes the needs of the church — of its flock — aren’t so timely, if you know what I mean.”

“We knowed visitors were coming. So I suspect this is all part of the Lord’s timing — which is always perfect.”

“How did you know we were coming, Nadine?”

“Two bees got into the house yesterday.”

“Oh”

“Unfortunately, Emma swatted them. But you two don’t appear to be evil.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Superstition,” broke in Caleb.

“Maybe so,” smiled the woman. “I would expect you would like us to step up our gift to the church, and maybe not wait until after we are dead, then.”

“We’re just here to see however you can or might want to help out the pastor’s wife and children. That’s all. If you can, great. If you can’t, we understand.”

The old wife stood and steadied her rocker with her hand so it wouldn’t move.

“Let me go speak to Emma and see what she thinks. She’s abed with the ague. Been trying to get her fever down for the past couple of days. Normally sliced potatoes work pretty fast. But then I seed a white moth in the cabin last night, so I’m more’n a bit worried you know.”

She walked unsteadily down a hallway to the back of the cabin and disappeared.

“White moth?” Dwight asked Caleb.

“Sign of death to come,” Caleb grimaced, raising his eyebrows.

As they waited they heard the women talking in low indistinguishable murmurs. A cricket began to sound from somewhere near the pot-bellied stove. Caleb also noticed a small toad hop in the direction of the cricket noise. All signs of good luck.

“You notice the ivy on the cabin wall outside?” he asked Dwight.

“Not really.”

“Well it’s all for good luck. The ivy, the cricket and the frog.”

“It’s a toad.”

“Same difference.”

“Get warts from toads.”

“Superstition. I’ll bet the beds run from east to west. North to south is bad luck.”

The old wife toddled back into the front room holding a metal box about the size of a large cigar box. It was obviously old, with black paint flaking along its edges, and a few dents here and there.

Both men stared at the old box wide-eyed.

“Emma and me were gonna give this to the church when we died. Pastor Handley knew that, as did those pastors before him. I think we’ve outlasted more than a few. Emma thinks it’s five, but I’m not so sure.”

She set the box down on the coffee table. Caleb leaned in as to take the box but Dwight shook his head slightly, indicating not to. Caleb sat back.

“I have been the absolute worst as a host,” clucked the woman somewhat perturbed at herself. “I have some molasses cookies Emma and I keep for guests. I’ll bring out a plate.”

“No need for that,” Dwight perked up.

“I insist.”

And she scuttled about the small kitchenette near the wood stove, and reached into a large clay jar for cookies she set on a platter. Pumping the handle of the water pump, she quickly filled a tin coffee pot and placed the pot on the wood stove.

“Now it’ll take just a little bit for the water to heat enough for tea,” she said cheerily as she carried the plate of cookies and placed them on the table next to the metal box. “Please!” she said, motioning to the cookies.

Both Dwight and Caleb leaned forward to pick a cookie from the pile. The cookies were hard to the touch. Dwight tried to bite his cookie.

“Ow!” he said.

“Oh dear! The cookies aren’t stale, are they?” she asked sweetly.

“No. I bit my tongue, is all.”

She smiled. “You know what that means, right?”

“I guess not,” Dwight answered.

“It means you’ve told a lie recently,” she laughed. “Aren’t superstitions funny that way?”

Dwight and Caleb laughed uncomfortably.

“You never told me what it is you do, Mr. Settles.”

“Right. Well, I am a mortician. That’s one of the reason I knew about Pastor Hendley’s death. I’m also the local coroner.” He bit into the cookie again, and again bit his tongue. But this time he winced, and avoided saying anything. When he looked up, the old wife was staring at him, a slight smile spreading.

The coffee pot began to steam and she noticed it and got up, again steadying her rocker.

“I’ve some wonderful raw honey I can add to your tea, gentlemen,” she said over her shoulder as she poured out the hot water into teacups and sank teabags into the cups.

“That’s fine,” said Dwight.

“Me, too,” said Caleb with some difficulty, having bit his tongue as well.

She carried the cups in on a tray, on which was a small oriental bowl with a top. A porcelain spoon protruded through a space in the bowl’s top. She spooned heaping globs of the thick honey into the cups, and handed each man their drink, and then a spoon.

Outside the cabin a sudden downpour ran through the gorge, and wind whipped the side of the cabin, whistling about its eaves and corners. Loose panes in the windows rattled.

“Oh, my! Quite a storm!” she said, smiling.

“You’re not having tea?”

“I’m not a morning tea drinker,” she smiled again. “Please … drink up!”

The men tested the drinks with sips, then drank them fairly quickly in the pervading silence of the room. The storm continued to ravage outside.

“Well, Mrs. Johnson,” Dwight announced as he carefully placed his teacup back on the tray, “may I assume this metal box is your gift towards the Handley family need?”

“You may.”

Dwight picked the box up.

“Do you mind if I open it?”

“Um — I’d prefer you didn’t, Mr. Settles. It should be opened with the leadership of the church. Don’t you think?”

“Yes, Ma’am. That’s perfectly fine.” Caleb smiled broadly from his seat and nodded in agreement.

The wind and rain whipped and howled outside.

“Mr. Settles, I’m going to insist you take my umbrella with you to protect you from the rain when you go. It’s really large enough for the two of you.”

“Oh no — we’re fine!”

“I won’t take no for an answer,” and she carefully crossed to the front door where an umbrella was propped up against the wall.

“All right, thank you Mrs. Johnson, we’ll take it. God bless you, Ma’am.” He stood along with Caleb, and picked up the metal box. The two followed the old wife to the door.

“Are you both okay?” she seemed concerned. “You seem a bit wobbly.”

“Wow, I am a little woozy,” Dwight admitted. “But I’m all right. Don’t worry.”

She opened the door and a gust of wind blew through the crack, knocking the umbrella to the floor.

“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “Do you know what that means?”

“No idea,” said Dwight groggily.

“Nope. I do not know,” added Caleb, weaving a bit back and forth and picking the umbrella up.

“It means that someone is about to be murdered!” she said as the men sidled past her onto the front porch.

“Ah! Superstition!” returned Caleb turning to her on the porch, and opening the umbrella. Both he and Dwight grabbed the umbrella shaft, the metal box tucked under Dwight’s arm.

The wind blustered and the rain scattered across the tin roof loudly. The men turned one last time to the old wife, who was peeking out a small opening of the front door, about to close it.

“Thank you again, Mrs. Johnson,” Dwight spoke in a loud voice against the wind and rain. “You’ll never know what this means to us! God bless!”

At that moment, the wind, which had been blowing from the north, suddenly reversed its direction. The two men were holding the umbrella bent low into the face of the wind. A huge gust shot into the open umbrella, which caught the wind like a sail, pulling the two men, the umbrella and the metal box over the front edge of the porch and up into the wind whipped sky over the gorge. Up they sailed for nearly a hundred yards. Out over the rocky gorge below. Then as suddenly, the wind stopped, and the two ne’er-do-wells plummeted down like a wounded crow.

The old wife shook her head slowly and regretfully and closed and latched the door.

“Is it done?” came a voice from the back of the cabin.

“It’s done. That’s another metal box we’ve lost,” she said, turning back to the table to pick up the tray and its contents. “I think the mandrake honey is losing its potency, by the way.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. If it hadn’t been for the wind catching the umbrella, who knows?”

“I’ll work on it in the meantime.”

“You do that, Dear.”

 Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 9 April, 2015

 

Writing coterie participants wanted

25 Feb

penandink

Writing coterie participants

I’ve been uploading to WordPress for going on four years by the fall of 2015.

In the beginning, I was a helicopter blogger/writer/uploader. I would upload something and then ping back and forth from my WordPress site and the rest of my life. My great hope was that I would be discovered in a matter of days and that would be it.

I know no one else does this. Just me.

So my stats, owing more to longevity than anything else, continue to grow. For the first-time blogger, they must appear somewhat intimidating. Believe me, it’s all appearance.

Another hope of mine was to receive helpful critique of my work. The wonder of most people who write, especially at the beginning, is whether or not their writing is at all good. I imagined my website would net a vast wealth of criticisms that would help me improve as a writer. A continued frustration of mine is that lack of written, critical commentary of my work.

I’ve wondered why that is. I’ve come to some conclusions over time, however right or wrong:

  1. Visitors to my site are also bloggers/writers/uploaders. Some or most are new at it, even if they are at an advanced age (sounds so much more intriguing and genteel than elderly, don’t you think?). As such, they are prone to gentleness and niceness. The fear of those may well be that you get what you give. Maybe a kind of “writer’s karma” which behooves them to take the edge off their analytic observances of the writing of others so that their writing is not battered by scathing remarks. Vocabulary that these visitors resort to mostly are words like nice!, like, really, incredible, great! The intent is that their writing receive the same type of commentary;
  2. That when a visitor clicks on the “Like” option in response to a work, it is a passive acknowledgment of the piece. Very much like when you were a kid and had to give a book report. “I like this book very much and think everyone should read it.” Not really a report that is worth much. An easy out. And for those serious writers, kind of disappointing when one puts so much effort and energy into whatever is their creation. After all, putting something online for the world to see is a vulnerability worth more than a mere clicking of the “like” option.
  3. Many are actually afraid to leave a comment because of their inability to put a finger on what it is that they like. “This is really good! I don’t know why, and can’t tell you why − but I do.” Again, it’s indicative that we don’t want to self-explore why something gets to us; why a poem or a story or a song resonates with us. Too much work, maybe? Or, I’m a smartphone, Facebook, iPad, whatever kind of person and getting too close to anyone − specially when that person is me, I am taken out of my comfort zone. And we all know our primary goal in life is to be comfortable.

As a result of this ongoing purturbation (look it up), I’ve decided to challenge five readers of this post to make a commitment. First, if you can’t identify with any of the above, move on to something else to read, and please don’t do anything to let me know you dropped by — please DON’T click on the “like” button. I already know that request is futile, and some of you will.

The challenge is this:

Join me in a group of five who are willing to enter into a reciprocal writing relationship, that being to read and critique work from the members, and to submit work for members to read and critique. As there are so many poet groups out there (and I have nothing against poets — I are one on occasion), I’d like to keep the writing within the framework of fiction, and of prose. So, no playwrights, no screenwriters, no biographers or memoir writers (unless it’s fiction, of course). Short stories, novellas, novels, epics are fair game. Genre is whatever you are comfortable writing (although I will stipulate no pornography).

The critical elements of plot, characters, dialogue, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, exposition, setting, etc. are the pivotal parts of scrutiny.

I’ll set the time of your commitment to be at least six months, with the hope the time will continue as the group gels.

The written and understood agreement of each member is to respect the legal ownership of the works discussed.

 

How to participate

I will cap the group at five members, including myself. If your interest is piqued, then email me at skiipwrite at g mail dot com. When the coterie of five is complete, I’ll take this post down. I’ll leave the post up until that occurs.

I’m going to ignore replies and “likes” on this post, satisfied you will email me if you have any interest in participating.