Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Listen to the Beat of the Doldrums

At first Dave thought he was sick, or something. For going on two weeks, he felt listless, always tired, and noticeably irritable. Normally very active, Dave was content to lie on the couch, for hours on end. His life ground to a virtual halt, with the annoying exception of his job.

“I don’t know what it is, man. Don’t feel like doing anything,” Dave confided to Marv, the man in the next cubicle. “Maybe I’m coming down with something....”

Marv stood up so he could look over the partition that separated his desk from Dave’s.

“Dude! You’re not sick; if anything, you’re completely normal,” Marv said. “Look around this you see anyone jumping for joy?”

Dave shoved a foot against his desk, causing his desk chair to glide into the aisle. He looked around, listened. A low mumbling seemed to emanate from every cubicle, an almost mournful sound that would have screamed “blah” if only it could muster the energy.

“It happens like this every year, at the end of the summer,” Marv said. “This is your first year here, so you haven’t been able to adapt completely.”

Dave scooted back into his cubicle, and sighed as he stared at his computer monitor.

“So ennui is contagious around here?” he said, mustering a dry chuckle.

Marv stood up again.

“If you can muster the strength to make a joke, then you’re not as far gone as the rest of us,” Marv said. “Seriously, you’re wearing me out.”
“So when does everyone snap out of it?” Dave asked. He knew he was about to lose Marv’s attention, and the closest thing to an interesting conversation he’d had in a week.

“What? Who says we ever do?” Marv forced out a sigh of his own, popped in his ear buds, and melted into the background.

Dave sat for a while, pondering Marv’s words, thinking about the lethargic environment that threatened to trap him, like an insect in amber.

I probably could own this place, this whole town, Dave thought. All I have to do is fight off the creeping torpor...stand out in the crowd...make a name for myself. He stood, stretched, enticed by the opportunity that awaited him.

Eh, he thought. Maybe later.

Dave slumped back into his chair.


Postscript: This was another exercise in Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Funeral for a Bastard

“My friends, we come together today to bid farewell to Bob, who I think we can all agree lived a long, long life. In fact, I thought this day might not come at all. It would not have surprised me in the least if the old bastard outlived every single one of us.

“Now, I can hear you gasp, out there in the audience. But let’s be honest - Bob was a bastard. He was...and I can see that more than a few of you are nodding your heads in agreement. I think we do him a disservice if we don’t talk about Bob the way he really was.

“Joe, you grew up with Bob, which means you knew him the longest. No, don’t get up...the ushers stashed your walker back in the back. I remember Joe telling the story of how, when he and Bob were six years old, they accidentally broke a neighbor’s window while they were playing baseball. Bob ran and hid, and Joe, you took the rap for it and had to pay for the window.

“Friends, that is just one early example. Bob did a lot worse over the years. Right, Mary Jo? Don’t worry, I won’t tell that story, because I’m sure you never told your husband.

“I met Bob twenty-five years ago, when I interviewed for a position at his firm. He gave me the creeps at first, but I had no viable alternative, so I took the job. Old Bob, maybe he sensed that I was naive, or maybe he thought I was stupid. I don’t think it really matters either way, though I’ve thought about that a lot over the years - especially during my unfortunate incarceration. There is a fine line between protege and fall guy....

“We’ve all heard the stories of Bob’s generosity, but we also know the stories of his cruelty, his selfishness. Those stories didn’t make the papers, but there’s no question that they were true. Anybody here from the Kiwanis Club? You guys know what I’m talking about.

“In the end, I think we all bear responsibility for Bob’s bastard-hood. After all, we were witnesses to his behavior...but we were mute witnesses. Maybe we were afraid of Bob. Maybe we thought our silence would be rewarded. I don’t know. What I do know is, Bob is dead, and I, for one, am not sad about that. I’m sad I never stood up to him, and I’m sad none of you did either.

“Now, let’s go bury Bob. Then, drinks are on me.”


Postscript: This was another exercise in Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Good Soaking

It was raining. For the first time in months, dark clouds rolled in and expelled fat raindrops, the kind that drench anyone standing outside in the time it takes to say, “Uh oh, where’s my umbrella.”

The heat wave, and drought, had sucked the life out of everything in town. No one, nothing, was immune from it. People walked quickly, heads down, tolerating the hellish summer only as long as it took to get from one cool place to another. Despair seemed to radiate from every surface.

All around me on the sidewalk, people stood, smiling in the deluge. Prayer worked.

Postscript: This was another exercise in Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Eerie Arrow

Back in my newspaper days I was always on the lookout for good subjects for photographs. As a reporter, I had a beat to cover (city hall), and there was always plenty of small town news to write. But good photos, or front-page "art" as we called it, could be hard to find (which is one reason why so many pictures of my cats made it into the paper).

I experimented with night-time photography occasionally, which was hard because other than my old Minolta, a tripod and some high-speed film, I had no special equipment.

One night as I hung out with some friends at a local tavern I heard a story that I thought might make an interesting picture. By this time I had learned to take with a grain of salt these "local legend" stories, many of them conceived by drunken teenagers years before and handed down to successive generations of drunken teenagers as fact.

Seems there was a "Devil Worshipers' Road" somewhere in central Canadian County, Oklahoma. And on this road, a monument had been erected at the scene of the devil worshipers' atrocities. Something like that.

But unlike many of these local legends, one of my friends claimed to have seen it himself, and he offered to take me there.

Good deal, I said. Let me go home and get my camera first.

We drove around for more than an hour on dusty, unpaved backroads halfway between El Reno and Yukon, looking for this thing. Evidently, the County Commissioners hadn't gotten around to erecting a "Devil Worshipers' Road" street sign.

I was ready to give up and go home, sometime after 1 a.m., when we spotted a glow on the horizon ahead. That's it, the driver shouted. As the car slowed we moved past a clump of trees, and a field revealed itself on the right side of the road.

The field was the size of two football fields laid side-by-side, bounded by the road (and a barbed wire fence) on one side and trees on the other three. In the center of the field stood an enormous arrow, pointing straight up. An old street light, mounted on a nearby utility pole, bathed the scene in a soft glow. 

I have to admit, it creeped me out a little bit.

We climbed through the fence and quietly crept around the arrow. Once we were standing in the field, we could see a gravel driveway leading to a house at the opposite end of the field. The arrow had a metal framework that was covered by fiberglass sheets. Four guy wires held the arrow in place.

Whatever this thing was, it lacked context. Had the owner built it and erected it here? What was its purpose? There was no evidence of "devil worship" around it - no dead goats, no pentagrams. But it was weird as hell.

I set up my tripod, screwed a cable-release into the camera's shutter button, and tried a series of shots with different f stops and apertures. We left for home without being detected, or sacrificed.

When I developed the film and printed a few of the shots, my editor was not impressed. Did I have the owner's name? No. Did I have an address? No. Did I have the story behind the arrow? Well, no. 

I tried to drive back there the next week, and could not find it in the light (and sobriety) of day. So I forgot about the pictures.

Years later, I found out that the arrow had once stood atop the Space Needle tower at the State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City. Some guy bought it when they replaced it with a newer one, and he took the arrow home and set it up in his yard.

This is the first time this photo has appeared anywhere. If you click on it and look at it full sized, the creepiness factor increases. Besides the dust particles and scratches on the print, you can see a weird light effect in the upper left corner that I like to tell  people is a UFO.


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Rebirth of a Salesman

Pierce nodded as the telephone voice droned on and on in his right ear. It didn’t occur to him that the woman on the line could not see him nodding, and, in truth, it didn’t matter anyway. She hadn’t taken a breath for what seemed like an hour. By nodding, he knew that it would appear as if he was paying attention to the caller.

He was not. Today was the last day of Pierce’s career as a telephone salesman. Telemarketer was the term the firm preferred, he knew, but there was a powerful, negative association with the word in the minds of most decent people. He was a salesman, and it just so happened that his medium was the telephone.

Pierce could not remember when he began hating his job. It had been a gradual erosion of satisfaction, but the ruts in his psyche now were very deep. For the past month, he hadn’t made any sales, and increasingly his time was spent silently nodding as the people he had auto-dialed rambled on about...well, who knew?  

It was time, he decided, for a little dose of reality.

As he walked through the door for the last time, Pierce smiled. There was an entire world out there, and no call waiting.


Postscript: What the hell was that? Excellent question. The text above is an attempt at Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.

Remembering My Dad on His Birthday

 My dad was a shutterbug. He loved cameras, he loved film, and he loved taking pictures of family activities - holidays, birthdays, vacations.
He took some great photos, and our family is very lucky that he was so diligent in recording so many great memories. But, as with any shutterbug, Dad was hardly ever in any of the photos himself.

Except at Christmas.

Every year, without fail, Dad got out his tripod, screwed on the Minolta and flash, and directed us to stand in front of the fireplace for the annual Family Photo. This was usually on Christmas Day afternoon, after we'd had a big dinner. For many years, there were grandparents there, sitting on the couch, watching the photo shoot.

It seemed, to my young mind, like taking this photo lasted for hours. We never got it in one "take." And it was tricky, because Dad would set the timer on his camera, press the shutter, then run over and get in position. It must have been funny to watch.

We always took multiple shots, because in those pre-digital days, you didn't know what you had until the pictures (or slides, in our case) came back from the Foto-Mat.

At one point we began including the family pets in the photo, which got more challenging as a cat, and then a hamster, joined the family dog. In the photo above, you can see that Tiger the cat is keeping a sharp eye on my sister Lisa's hamster (Freddy?). Sandy, the dog, had too much hair to be able to see either the cat or the hamster.

I'm glad Dad took these pictures, and I'm glad my Mom has begun scanning all the old 35mm slides my Dad took back then.

Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you.

Postscript: My dad would have been 69 today; he died in 2006. Here are two previous remembrances:

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Day in the Country!

The Adventures of Schuyler Colfax: Vice President!
Based on recently discovered diaries penned by the 17th Vice President of the United States (1869-1873). Said diaries were discovered in a storage closet at the Odd Fellows Hall in South Bend, Indiana.

Our story so far (Part 1)...

April 28, 1870: A Day in the Country!

Schuyler Colfax tilted his head back, carefully, so as to not skew his hat atop his head, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply of the warmish spring air. The vice president's carriage was drawn by two magnificent horses, their brown coats glistening as they trotted steadily down the rutted country road. Jenkins, Colfax's aide-de-camp, held the reins.

"Sir, I must again protest," Jenkins began, his voice unsteady as he bounced in the seat next to his employer.  "Amos is a much better driver than I -"

"Balderdash!" Colfax shouted. "You're doing fine, Jenkins. While Amos is most accomplished at the rein, we have matters to discuss that need not trouble his unsophisticated ears. Now, keep your eyes on the road, my boy, and deliver us into the country!"

As Jenkins dutifully complied, Colfax again breathed deeply of the untainted air of the Virginia countryside. He smiled widely. We spend so much time in the District, contemplating the business of the Union, Colfax thought, that we fall victim to that realm's natural swampiness and staleness.

"It is only here, and, of course, in my native Indiana, that I can truly clear my head and think, Jenkins," Colfax sighed. There was much to think about.

The news that President Grant fell victim to the demons of liquor took a backseat to the news that Schuyler Colfax, Vice President of the United States, had been denied invitation to the old general's birthday celebration.

"What am I to make of this, Jenkins? Has the President lost faith in me, heaven forbid? How can one so close to the ministrations of governance, such as myself, still be so far from the issuance of that power?

"Am I not an able solon? Have I not served well as Speaker? Indeed, I can boast of a powerful friendship with martyred Lincoln himself! And yet Grant would seem to deny my very existence? What am I to think, Jenkins?"

Jenkins cast a quick sideways glance at the vice president. Prudence required that he keep his own counsel. Besides, Colfax was speaking again.

"Did I not invite Grant to the most recent celebration of my own birth?" He turned in his seat to face Jenkins. "Did I not?"

Jenkins could keep silent no longer.

"You did, sir. But President Grant sent his regrets -"

"That's not the point, confound it! Jenkins, I have made every effort to reach out to the be a part of his team...and this is the payment I am to receive? Oh, it is bitter indeed, Jenkins!" Colfax shook his head slowly and began wringing his hands. Jenkins, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, wisely kept his eyes focused on the road ahead.

The pair rode in silence for a long time. Colfax rode much of the way with his eyes closed, seemingly deep in thought. Jenkins brooded silently beside him, the tightness of his grip on the reins threatening to send cramps cascading down his forearms.

"I stood for him and ensured his acceptance in the Lodge, for mercy's sake!"

"I know, sir. I know."

The pair rode on, as the sun ascended the morning sky. Jenkins noticed that the terrain had flattened, and more trees lined the road. As the vice president wished, they were truly in the country now.

"Jenkins! Stop! Stop immediately!" The aide nearly jumped out of his seat; the silence had lulled Jenkins, and, he had been almost certain, Colfax had been asleep. Clearly, that was not the case. Jenkins pulled on the reins and yelled "Whoa!" at the horses, who grudgingly slowed to a halt. Colfax barely waited for the carriage to stop before he jumped to the ground.

The vice president walked quickly along the road, one hand holding onto his hat. He retraced the carriage's route for 50 yards before stopping.

"Jenkins! Come this instant!"

Colfax removed his hat and bent down to study an object lying by the side of the road.  As Jenkins approached warily, he could see that the vice president had found a leather satchel.

"Did that fall from our carriage, sir?" Jenkins did not recall the vice president carrying any baggage when their impromptu journey began. Colfax shook his head slowly.

"No, Jenkins. This did not issue from our carriage," Colfax said. He reached down, picked up the satchel by its leather strap, and ran his fingers over the bag. Brown leather...supple...cow hide, clearly. His suspicion mounting, he turned over the satchel to view the opposite side.

"Great blessings, Jenkins! I knew it!" He turned to his assistant and held the satchel so that the brand of the United States Post Office was clearly visible.

“A postman’s satchel? I don’t understand, sir,” Jenkins said.

“Aye, lad, ‘tis the sacred vessel of one of our nation’s finest - a postman! And it is heavily laden with correspondence,” Colfax said, hefting the satchel with both hands. A troubled look crossed the vice president’s brow.

“Surely a postman would not part with his civic burden, though Death himself may block his route,” Colfax said. “Foul play has made its mark on this scene, I am sure of it.”

Jenkins thought for a moment and turned on his heel to survey the treeline alongside the road. He spied nothing amiss.

“Sir, perhaps the postman left the satchel in order to lighten his load...perhaps to venture into the forest for a brief respite.”

Colfax turned his gaze upon his young aide. A look of compassionate pity came over his bearded face.

“Jenkins, my boy, I will excuse your foul utterance in deference to your relative youth and naivete,” Colfax began. “As a man of the world, and as the former chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, I consider myself something of an expert in matters such as these.

“A postman would no sooner cut off his own arm than would he abandon his dutiful burden. A postman takes an oath, Jenkins!” Colfax paused, looked back at the road they had already trod, then ahead.

“This is most definitely NOT a Postal Road. By my recollection, the nearest settlement with a post office is Fort Buffalo, which lies on the road ahead. Come, Jenkins. We shall continue on to Fort Buffalo, in search of answers.”

Jenkins reached for the satchel. “Allow me, sir, to carry this back to the carriage for you.”

Colfax recoiled as if Jenkins were a serpent.

“Heaven forbid! A civilian may NOT handle the U.S. Mail, Jenkins,” Colfax shouted. “No. This satchel shall not leave my side until its rightful carrier is found, or I’ll take it to the Postmaster General himself!”

Next week: The Plot Thickens!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Pig vs. Pig: The Standoff

It's no secret that I liked taking pictures of animals back in my newspaper days (see here and here, for starters). For one thing, they never called to complain if you spelled their names wrong in the captions....

The call came in on the police scanner next to my desk in the newsroom of the El Reno Daily Tribune: a large pig was loose on Foreman Road. I don't remember if they called it a 10-54. That would be livestock on the highway; this was more residential.

I grabbed my camera, got in my car and raced to the scene (this is the very definition of a "slow news day"). Foreman Road was on the north side of town, kind of on the edge, but dotted with small houses.

And, suddenly, there was the porcine assailant:

My city-boy analysis told me that it was, indeed, a pig. Fairly large. Covered with mud.

It must have escaped from a nearby farm, and was making its way down the road, stopping occasionally to scratch an ear on a nearby telephone pole.

I hopped out of the car and started snapping pictures, hopeful that something weird might happen. Maybe someone would come running out of their front door and chase the pig with a frying pan. Maybe a dog would chase the pig. Any of those things would be good.

What I got was (almost) pure gold.

As I followed the pig down Foreman Road, an El Reno Police cruiser rolled up and stopped just ahead of me. The officer was the one who had been called to respond to the 10-54 (or whatever). I could see that he was preparing to get out of the car, when he looked in his side mirror and saw me - and my camera.

I could see the indecision. He knew that if he got out of the car anywhere near that pig, I would take dozens of pictures. He knew there was a great chance that the caption (or headline!) in the paper might say something like "Pig vs. Pig." Maybe even a bacon reference. And you know what: he was not wrong. That's exactly what I was thinking at the time.

So the officer did the only thing he could do. He slowly drove away.

The pig was last seen headed west on Foreman Road. He remained "at-large."

Postscript: You're darn right we ran those photos...but my eminently wise editor resisted the temptation of the "Pig vs. Pig" headline.