STORY SIXTEEN: 4-8-14
by Tom Gnagey © 2014
Growing up without a father and mother could have been worse. Todd’s grandmother was a wise and compassionate woman who provided the young man with enough rules to live by safely and enough latitude to enjoy and explore the many facets of life available to young people in the fledgling twenty-first century.
There were others in his life that also added both flavor and stability for him. It all could have been different. His father was a smart business man and made lots of money. His father was an average father – when he was sober. It was the ‘ when not sober’ thing that brought near devastation to the boy.
When Todd knew he had been drinking he just left the big house with all the fancy gadgetry and expensive trappings and took temporary refuge with a friend. He wished his mother had been able to do the same, in fact, on numerous occasions he pleaded with her to do that. Had she, his life would have been quite different.
One night in a drunken rage his father killed his mother. It had probably not been intentional but it had been and that was all that mattered under the law. He went to prison for life. Todd went to live with his grandparents. Soon after he arrived at their place his grandfather went to live with the angles. It became just Todd, a soon to be brand new teenager, and Grandma, a brand new social security collector. The money from his father’s estate was tied up in legal doings at least until Todd turned thirty – not much help to get him through his teen years and college. Still, the two of them did just fine. Todd immediately realized that poor, secure, and happy trumped rich, afraid and sad hands down. He also took some pleasure in the thought that his father had moved from one ‘big house’ to another.
Somewhere along the way Todd became obsessed with becoming a psychiatrist. It meant ten years of college and probably four more as an intern and resident. There was no money for any of that. The problem did not dissuade him. He worked hard to keep up his grades so scholarships might come his way. More than that, he worked hard because he just loved to learn new things.
At dinner every evening Todd regaled his grandmother with all the wonderful things he had learned that day. She was proud of him in many ways – for his academic achievements for sure, but mainly because he was becoming such a fine person. He did his chores and more, usually without too much grousing – he was a teenager, after all. He volunteered at an old folk’s home and was a teen counselor in an addiction program at school.
At Green Meadows he developed a relationship with an older gentleman who had been a high school teacher. He lived in what was known only in whispers as the ‘poor wing’. One thing led to another and soon Todd had convinced his grandmother the man would make a perfect tutor.
“Why on earth do you need a tutor? You already make the best grades in your class.”
“But on tests I still miss some of the questions. If I’m going to learn everything I possibly can, I have to be able to get all the questions right.”
She knew that when the boy got something like that in his head there was no stopping it. She agreed to once a week at ten dollars a session. It soon grew to three a week. It had to come from her savings but she was pleased to use her money in that way. Todd was the most important thing in the world to her. She had plenty of clothes and could learn to fix her own hair.
“Can I ask you something?” Todd asked Mort as he entered his room and deposited his backpack on a chair.
“And good afternoon to you, too,” came the old man’s response, eyes twinkling.
Todd shrugged and smiled, acknowledging the unfulfilled social expectation. Mort continued.
“Since when have you felt it necessary to ask me if you can ask me something?”
“Another shrug and another smile. Todd took his usual place at the small table. Mort remained in his recliner wondering what was on the boy’s mind. It was usually something wonderful.
“I’ve decided you and grandma and I are like a whole different species.”
“Perhaps I need to review with you what constitutes a question,” Mort said, chuckling.
They shared a quick smile.
“Point is, we don’t have much of anything. Grandma and I have a four room house – old and in need of repair. We can pay the bills, buy my school supplies and eat pretty well. You live here in one room. You have to share a bathroom down the hall. You haven’t bought a new shirt in the four years I’ve known you. And despite all that, we are the three happiest people I know. If the ads on TV reflect what is supposed to be important to us, we certainly fail with flying colors.”
“Still, I detect no question, son.”
“How is it we are so happy without all the stuff that’s supposedly necessary to make people happy?”
“There it is. I just knew you had it in you.”
Todd grinned. He loved the old man and wouldn’t let himself contemplate the day they would no longer be able to spend their time together.
“I suppose you have a thought or two on the matter,” Mort said, tossing it back on Todd’s shoulders the way he (and Socrates) so often did.
Todd understood and sat in silent contemplation for several moments before offering a response.
“I think it’s our love of people and ideas against their needs for stuff, money and power.”
“Question answered, I think. You happy with that?”
Again a few moments of silence.
“Yeah. Mostly, I suppose. The larger questions remain, however. Which approach to life is better and how do people come by which orientation they develop and follow?”
Tutoring at Mort’s was often less about book learning and more about the contemplation of the big questions that intelligent and caring men and women had been probing for centuries. It was what Todd was thirsty for and what Mort enjoyed best.
Life continued pretty much in that fashion until Todd graduated from high school – well, there were his developing romantic inclinations, but he made room for all of it, both in life and in his discussions with Mort. They agreed that the female of the species added an absolutely remarkable side to life.
Todd received a full tuition scholarship to a local college. It left the other expenses up to him. He took a job and eked out enough to get by. He continued to live with his grandmother and helped as he could, time being such a hard commodity to come by. He also continued to visit Mort and see that he got to the grocery once a week and kept his doctor’s appointments.
At the end of his first month in college he was exhausted and displeased at the little amount of time he had to apply to his school work. He would have to rely on very good scholarships for his graduate study so had to maintain a four point academic average.
He slumped onto the couch in Mort’s room.
“Something has to change and I can’t figure what.”
“I’ll need more information if I am to listen intelligently,” Mort said.
Todd outlined what he called his double crunches – time and money.
“Two weeks into my first semester of college and I’m exhausted. I missed three questions on Dr. Meyers World History test. I’m still borrowing that text book from a friend until I can buy my own copy.”
There was more. It had been a convincing litany of hitches and complications. Before either could say more, there was a knock at the door. Todd answered it. It was the Activities Director at the Home.
“Todd, my man. Somehow you slipped in under my radar today. Someone left an envelope for you at the receptionist’s desk yesterday. Just addressed to Todd but since you’re the only Todd known to us here, we assume it is for you.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
The woman tuned and left after addressing a playful finger wave toward Mort. He acknowledged it with a smile and raised hand.
“Why would anybody be leaving me a note here?”
“Well, you have been a fixture around here for the past, what, nine or ten years?”
“I guess. Time flies when you’re invading other people’s territory.”
Todd worked to open it – both sealed and taped as it was.
“I don’t get this. Do you get this?”
He removed four, one hundred dollar bills and waved them in his old friend’s direction.
“Is there a note?” Mort asked.
Todd revisited the envelope.
“Some special arrangement from your father, perhaps?”
“I doubt that. He went to great lengths to keep his money out of my hands until I’m middle aged.”
“Thirty is hardly middle aged.”
“I don’t intend to take any of it anyway. Decided that many years ago.”
“Do you ever hear from him? Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked. You’ve never really spoken about him.”
“Never. Not even sure where they have him chained to the wall.”
Mort raised his eyebrows assuming he had just learned more about the boy’s thoughts regarding his father in that one sentence than he had in the past decade.
“I know grandma has some income from grandpa’s estate but why would she try to disguise a gift in this way?”
“Any distant relatives, friends of the family, booty taking pirates you have befriended along the way?”
“Nothing like that that I know about. Should I ask Grandma? If it’s from her it might put her on the spot to have to lie and I wouldn’t want to do that.”
“Perhaps you can inform her of the good fortune without asking any questions. She probably needs to know where this extra money came from. Four hundred dollars won’t change your life but still.”
“You know this will drive me bonkers until I figure it out.”
“Or, you can decide the gift giver deserves his or her anonymity because that’s what he or she clearly wants. That might make it easier to let it go.”
Todd took Mort’s suggestions and told his grandmother and did his best to allow the right to privacy from the donor.
That had all begun on the first Tuesday of the month. When he arrived at the Home on the first Tuesday of the following month, he was handed another envelope on his way in. It was a duplicate of the first one.
“Can you describe the person who left this for me?” he asked, immediately thinking he should have just let it alone.
“A man in a dark suit and tie. I don’t know him. When I asked if I needed to tell you who had left it, he just said that wouldn’t be necessary. I figured that meant you’d know.”
Not much help, he thought although dark suit and tie did add some class to the affair – or whatever it was. He told Mort, acknowledging that he shouldn’t have asked.
Mort made no judgment about it. Mort never passed judgment on others. Sometimes Todd wished he would. He figured he could use a good dressing down on occasion.
Mort had no more suggestions, having exhausted his ideas the month before.
The envelopes kept coming every first Tuesday, always waiting for him there at the Home and always just addressed to Todd in handwritten capital letters. He didn’t recognize the writing and he was very good about such things. It was clearly not somebody regularly in his life. He was able to quit his job, cut back on what his grandma had been giving him and really concentrate on his studies. Life moved along very well.
Eventually, he was a month away from graduation. The phone call at the end of July was devastating. Mort had passed away.
Well over two hundred people attended his funeral – past students, friends and many Todd could not pinpoint. As funerals went it had been fine, he supposed.
Some, out of habit, some of need, he stopped at the Home on the first Tuesday of August. He had made many other friends there down through the years. He knew many would be in need of consoling over the loss of their friend. He moved right on past the receptionist’s desk.
“Don’t forget your envelope, Todd,” came her cheery greeting.
He turned and accepted it, slipping it into his shirt pocket.
“Will it be okay to go visit Mort’s room?”
“Sure. If there are things there you want, Mort specifically requested you have first choice.”
He hadn’t come to go scavenging through his old friend’s belongings, but he did understand why Mort would have set that stipulation. He’d try to find something that he felt would have made Mort feel good about it. Once in the room, the choice was really quite simple. He went right to the bookshelf. He removed a volume that had been Mort’s favorite – the life and thoughts of Socrates. He would take that. He took a seat at the table – his seat at the table – and looked around the room experiencing a rush of wonder-filled memories. He remembered the envelope and removed it from his pocket. The tradition had been that he’d take out the bills, wave them at Mort, the way he did the very first time, and slip them into his wallet. He was prepared to do the same that day.
However, the contents were different. There was a folded sheet of paper along with the bills. He opened it up, puzzled at the change in routine. His eyes immediately moved to the signature at the bottom. It was Mort’s. He began reading.
“Todd. Sorry about the subterfuge all these years but figured once I was gone you deserved the answer to the question that has been eating at you these past four years. Let’s just agree it has been a lesson in patience. Having no need for the money your grandmother paid me for your tutoring, I set up a savings account to hold it for you. Between the thirty dollars a week and the interest it has earned, there was the amount of six hundred dollars a month available for the four years of undergraduate school. Listening to you recount your financial needs I decided on four hundred each month so you didn’t have to work. I kept the rest as a nest egg for graduate school – that should be nearly ten thousand dollars, not a whole lot these days where education is concerned but I and going to believe it will help. Also, whatever money I may have left is to be yours. The man in the dark suit and tie is my lawyer – James Holden. He will be in contact with you once things are settled.
Know how much I have loved you and my appreciation for your good humor and many kindnesses down through the year. Having you in my life has been my greatest joy in my waning years. Keep to your course and life will be good for you and for all those whose lives you touch."
STORY FIFTEEN: 1-7-14
A SAMPLING FROM THE GRAMPA GRAY BOOKS
by TOM GNAGEY
I'm probably best described as a rather easy going, bespectacled, white-haired old ham, who truly enjoys life. Early on, I discovered that for life to really be enjoyable, one must be willing to work at it. And so I do! I search out the wonderful, the beautiful, the mysteries of life. I treasure love, caring, joy, compassion, and delight in my own foibles and blunders. I respect and stand in awe of nature. Through my homespun, folk poetry, I try, with humor and good intentions, to share my zest for life, and to sing the praises of the commonplace. It pleases me that my work, in addition to having been reviewed as "enjoyable" by most, has also been variously referred to as "unique," "cockeyed," "wonderfully weird," and "addlepated."
This first poem, I wrote many years ago just for fun. You may recognize its message, if not its original form.
Over the Hill?
When folks mature to my age,
We're o're the hill, they say.
I'd rather think it's just a stage
When calmer games, I play.
I really don't feel old, but still,
I hasten to admit,
It's better to be o'er the hill,
Than to be under it !!!
Seeing the World through the eyes of children presents, perhaps, the only truly unclouded view. I enjoy tying my childhood memories to my present - helps keep things in perspective.
Boy! How I used to love to spit,
When five or six or so,
And I must say, 'twas good at it -
As little spitters go!
I spat again, the other day.
'Twas great! It really flew!
I hit that target straight away.
My dentures hit it, too!
"True" poets find the beauty in already beautiful things, and write about it with elegant words, painting splendid mental pictures that flow as if from golden tongue. I admire them for their precision and metaphoric skill. "Folk" poets, like I, find the beauty in the mundane - the common place - and praise its, to oft, hidden beauty, in more rustic beat and time-worn rhyme.
Welcome to the realm of the common place.
ON GROWING OLDER
If you are past fifty (pardon the expression!) I suppose you've noticed how much easier it was to be dead certain about things back when you were young. I wonder when that change occurs - we're young; then we're old. Perhaps we're just too busy in-between to notice the change. I guess I'm lucky. I remember that exact moment when I realized I was no longer a spring chicken.
My radio gave me the clue.
I'm old, I must admit!
Their Golden Oldie was so new
I'd never heard of it!!
Only As Old As You Feel!
When I awake each morning, I
Am age eighteen once more!
What happens as the day goes by?
By night, I'm ninety-four!!!
Some folks say I look eighty-eight.
Some say, "No, fifty-five."
I say that either age is great,
'Cause both mean I'm alive!!
A Potpourri of Shorties
Just for Fun
Some folks seem far too serious.
Each game played must be won.
That leads to lives most drear-ious -
Try playing just for fun
When smiling, you're impervious
To losses, every one.
Can lose those games continuous -
Who cares, when just for fun!
If find you're still "must-win-ious"
Aft' giving fun a run,
Examine your ego-ious.
YOU may just BE NO FUN !!!
A proud new Cub Scout told me his
Good deeds were done each day!
With puzzled look, he asked, "What is
A good deed, by the way?"
The aardvark never tops our list
As cutest, cuddly, pet.
But Mother Aardvark thinks we’ve missed
The best SHE’S ever met!
TOO BAD TO NAME # 3
(This one works best when someone reads it to you.)
I know a cat that is replete
With odd genetic flaws.
Monthly, sprouts new hands and feet –
I’ll bet that gives him pause.
TOO BAD TO NAME # 4
The stone-age bench thought life quite bland.
Such boredom couldn’t bear.
Took up guitar and joined a band.
Became first “Rockin’ Chair.”
For years, "Be nice," our kids we hound,
So's great to hear folks say,
That when we parents aren't around
They really are that way!!!
TOO BAD TO NAME # 131
The 2 x 4 was happier
When he had been a tree.
Once sawed, this little piece of fir,
Became `board', don't you see!
My Trusty Hammer
I love my hammer - weight and grip-
Just right for me to use.
Been with me life's entire trip.
None other would I choose!
Has had three handles (would not joke!),
And two new heads, you hear!
Who knew that same old hammer, folks,
Would last me all these years!!!
The goose down, bedtime, head support
Was missing from its place.
So, Perry Mason went to court.
‘Twas called, “The Pillow Case.”
When teacher asked ‘bout Kipling, got
Not one young hand to stir.
At last, one boy said, “We do not
Know how to kipple, Sir.”
TOO BAD TO NAME #105
The dancer's buns were flat, not round.
No plight could be more drearier!
Her doctor's diagnosis found,
Who Would I Be?
Pretend I could be anyone.
Let's see, who would I be?
I truly think it is quite won-
derful to just be me!!!
Sometimes I Feel S-o-o-o Dumb!
I took new VCR from box.
It sat and flashed at me.
So had a friend come set the clock.
Embarrassed!! He's just three!!!!!
(Well, sometimes I do exaggerate just a bit, but the more accurate, "He's just five,"
didn't rhyme with "me." Either way, it makes me feel s-o-o-o dumb!)
It’s FOUR a.m. Alarm goes off!
Another day is mine!
I wheeze a bit and then I cough.
On toast and fruit, I dine.
I’m always eager to arise!
My day, with care, I map!
By FIVE a.m. I realize
I’m ready for a nap!!
TOO BAD TO NAME # 123
The Hangman didn't have a dime -
Must get his ropes for less.
So braided strips from New York Times -
T'was `noose paper', I guess.
Sometimes I find myself uncontrollably serious.
Though sunset's beauty, won't deny,
I highly recommend
You start each day with eyes raised high -
Let sunrise greet you, friend.
At first, horizon's distant glow,
With random rays of light
That chase the shadows down below
As if to tease the night.
Soft bands of hues across the sky -
So tentative, at first –
And then explode, as if the dye
From painter's pots had burst!
I've found one never can be sure
When sunrise, dim, gives way,
But soon, that wondrous heav'nly blur
Submits to light of day.
Each sunrise promises, anew,
Another day is mine
In which to work and play and do
Those things that make life shine.
So, hope you'll take the time to view
The sunrise serenade.
I wish just splendid ones for you,
And pray they never fade!
* From the Grampa Gray series,
In Praise of the Commonplace, and
In Praise of Simple Pleasures
On Nook, Kindle, and Kobo search Grampa Gray or the titles
STORY FOURTEEN: 10-25-13
The Incredible Mien of Old Mr. Bertrand Barns
By Tom Gnagey
Happy Halloween !
To say that old Mr. Bertrand Barns was eccentric would fall far short of the truth. To say that old Mr. Bertrand Barns was bizarre would also fall short. To say that old Mr. Bertrand Barns was creepy, eerie, and spooky, in absolutely every sense of the words would come closer to characterizing him.
Younger children ran from him. Teen boys taunted him – from a safe distance. Mothers moved with their offspring to the other side of the street when he approached them on the sidewalk. For old Mr. Bertrand Barns everyday was – well, I’m just going to say it – Halloween.
The man dressed in shiny, black, leather boots and a long, bulky, black wool coat. Hot or cold, sunny or rainy he dressed in shiny, black leather boots and a long, bulky, black wool coat. His high, crisply starched white collar sat atop his coat. That was all that sat atop his coat. Mr. Bertrand Barns carried his head under his left arm.
Many speculated about how he did it but nobody knew for sure. The eyes moved and blinked and the mouth and tongue appeared lifelike in every way. The face smiled and frowned and on occasion had been reported to shed what, to all intents and purposes, seemed to be real tears. Strangest of all, of course, the head talked. If you wanted – scratch that – if you needed to speak with him you looked down and spoke to his head. His hair was long and white – always combed, clean, and neat. His eyebrows were bushy and had clearly been left to their own devices. His cheeks were ruddy like those of a stereotypical Irishman too long at the pub. His voice was low and gravely – not really unpleasant, even, although the circumstances from which it originated rendered it unnerving if not outright frightening. There were no verifiable reports that he had ever accosted, threatened, or even intentionally startled anybody but his essence made those possibilities seem persistently imminent.
Small children just accepted as fact that old Mr. Bertrand Barns carried his head under his arm and considered it no further. Teens figured he was a master ventriloquist and the lifelike, artificial head was fitted out with strings to move its various parts. Many of the townsfolk agreed with that take on it. Fathers weren’t sure but warned their families to keep their distance. Any man who would go to such extremes to appear offensively unnatural was certainly not sane and not to be trusted. Mothers reserved opinion, but were happy to heed the obvious wisdom of their husband’s advice.
Mr. Bertrand Barns stood right at six feet tall – without the head on his shoulders. It was understood that some paraphernalia under his jacket provided artificial shoulders, all of which was concealed under the long black wool coat
Mr. Bertrand Barns was the last in the line of a very wealthy family known for its reclusive tendencies, generation after generation. In fact, Bertrand was the first of the clan that any of the oldest old timers in the little town could remember ever appeared in public. The newspaper archives carried no articles about them and had published no pictures of his predecessors. The massive, brown stone, family home sat atop a hill at the north edge of town. The base of the hill was ringed by a high stone wall. The bravest of the teen boys ventured no closer to the house than sitting atop that wall, legs dangling inside, as they looked to determine what they might see or learn.
No one could ever remember him having had a visitor – they would have had to have passed through the front gate, which was in clear view down the entire length of Main Street. Examination of the hinges on the huge wrought iron gate that spanned the driveway suggested it had been rusted shut for decades.
There was a rumor – generally believed although not necessarily verified – that Mr. Bertrand Barns had, as a young man, determined that he would be the last of the line, so he never married. The reason for his decision was not clear and, interestingly, very little speculation had been offered about it. Whether or not that contributed to his need to approach the world in such an unconventional manner was, of course, not known.
He walked wherever he went – the grocery store, his attorney’s office, the bank – that was about all. The head never left its place at his side, cradled there in his left arm. He made no Halloween appearances, although the young people wished he had, after all it was about the only thing he really seemed to be cut out for. Why would he waste such a wonderful opportunity when it appeared it was just such an occasion for which he had prepared himself?
One morning, while approaching the checkout counter at the small grocery, Mr. Bertrand Barns clutched his chest with his right hand and fell to the floor, dead.
The coroner issued his findings: “Mr. Bertrand Barns died of a heart attack at the age of 89. He is survived by no relatives.”
But, there was something else he decided to never reveal. The coroner believed it explained the reclusive tendencies of the Barns family, generation after generation. There was no shoulder ‘paraphernalia’ and atop Mr. Bertrand Barns’ shoulders, there was no head.
STORY THIRTEEN: 10-5-13
By Tom Gnagey
Caleb Covington was a very rich old man. Caleb Covington was a very sick old man. Caleb Covington was not a very nice old man. Caleb Covington had a secret.
“Good morning Mr. C.”
It had been the cheery greeting offered by 19 year old Johnny Smith as he adjusted the curtains in Caleb’s bedroom to let in the morning sun.
Johnny had – how shall it be put – been associated with Caleb since he was twelve. He was a live-in associate who ran errands, kept Caleb on schedule, readied his clothes, fluffed his pillows, drew his bath, and so on. The role of a valet might best describe the services he performed even though he was still a relative youngster.
Johnny Smith was a very nice young man. Johnny Smith was a very poor young man. Johnny Smith shared Caleb’s secret.
Johnny Smith was born Juan Herrera. He lived with his family in central Mexico until his twelfth birthday. On that day he was kidnapped by human traffickers. There were seven boys taken from the area that month. Some were older. Some were younger. None had agreed to the long, hot, terrifying, trip north of the border.
At some point after entering the United States they were sold individually at very private auctions. Caleb purchased Juan – Johnny. He brought him to his isolated villa among the mesas and canyons in the Southwest. His thinking was that a boy, lifted from poverty, educated, and given a good life, would be appreciative and could be counted on to take good care of his benefactor – his only source of support in the world. It was their secret. It seemed to have worked well.
Johnny learned to tolerate Caleb’s erratic temper and acerbic personality. He was appreciative of what Caleb had offered him – a luxurious place to live, an education, and a generous allowance of $100 a month. He felt lucky. He felt rich. His father had never earned that much money in one month during his entire life.
On Johnny’s thirteenth birthday, Caleb received a letter. It stated that the sender knew of the abduction, of the boy’s illegal status, and of Caleb’s fully illegal role in it all. It could have been from the trafficker himself. It had been known to happen. He said he could offer irrefutable proof of Caleb’s involvement. The author of the letter demanded a hefty twenty thousand dollars a month for his silence. For a man of Caleb’s great wealth the amount was rather insignificant. He agreed – the money for silence.
The first Monday morning of every month, Johnny delivered the money on foot in a back pack filled with a random selection of various sized bills. No one knew where the delivery was to be made until Johnny was well away from the villa. The instructions were that he would receive a call on his cell phone. The route and destination would be different each time. It was all well designed to keep him out of sight in case Caleb tried to have the boy followed in an attempt to nab the blackmailer. The backpack would be placed as directed and Johnny would return home. It typically took most of the day. It had been going on that way for years.
Johnny often wished for friends. He was tutored alone at the villa. He often wished for time off. When Caleb was awake, Johnny was expected to be at his side. He often wished for someone with whom he could speak again in Spanish. Only English was allowed at the villa.
What had seemed like a generally good life as a boy gradually became like a prison. The secret maintained his silence, his presence, and his obligatory devotion to the old man. Despite his circumstances, Johnny never forgot about his family in Mexico. During the first few years he often cried himself to sleep thinking about them, wondering about them, and wanting to share the important moments of his life with them. He had considered running back to them but Caleb had made it clear that if he went missing even over night his family would be harmed. Between that threat and the secret, Johnny felt he had no alternative but to stay. Surely the sick old man would soon die. Then he would be free. Every night as he lay in bed he delighted in his plans for that day. He hated Caleb but knew better than to show it.
And so it was that every morning he dispatched his cheery greeting and got on with the unchanging routine of the day. Johnny had seen Caleb’s will. His name appeared nowhere in it. Although he couldn’t understand that, he was not really surprised. Johnny was like a piece of livestock to the old man. That was made plain every day of his life. It had never entered the old man’s thinking that Johnny might deserve some portion of what he would leave behind, and because of Johnny’s illegal status the young man would never be able to pursue it through the courts.
Fortunately, the young man’s early years had been spent within the embrace of his loving family who taught him his true value as a human being. It was a lesson well learned and Caleb had not broken his spirit. The boy could often even smile to himself as he kowtowed to the man’s angry demands and cutting remarks.
Johnny repeated his greeting once more after the curtains were pulled back and tied in place.
“Good morning Mr. C!”
Mr. C. did not respond. Mr. C. did not draw a breath. Mr. C. was dead.
* * *
There was a mariachi band from Los Rios and wonderful, long unsampled food Juan’s mother and sisters had prepared. They danced. They sang. They talked until the first rays of morning appeared over the mountains. His brothers and sisters marveled at the fine clothes he wore and at the lavish gifts he brought to them. Clearly his life north of the border had been grand.
Juan smiled, nodded, and left it at that.
“Si, mucho grande!”
Juan had a secret. He would only ever share it with his father. A bank book.
“But how did you earn so much money in so few years, my son?”
“Figure it out, papa. Six years, times twelve months a year, times twenty thousand dollars a month!”
STORY TWELVE: 9-25-13
They were such thoughtful old ladies
By Tom Gnagey © 2013
Abby hated Betty but loved Betty’s apartment. Betty hated Darlene but loved Darlene’s apartment. Darlene neither loved nor hated either Abby or Betty or their apartments. She was, in fact, quite satisfied with the apartment where she had lived there in the Atherton Arms for the past forty five years.
The Arms was populated by a dozen ‘mature girls’ as they preferred to call themselves – mature apparently defined as any age past seventy five, and girls as – well. Each of the rental apartments had three rooms: a bedroom, a sitting room and a kitchen. Abby coveted the easy first floor access of Betty’s place. Being the busy body that she was, Betty had, for years, felt she had to have the second floor, sitting room view down onto the bustling street below Darlene’s place. Darlene loved the rear view from her kitchen window that looked out onto the grassy back yard, the tall, seasonally hue changing oak trees, and the squirrels and birds that made that area their home.
Years before, Betty had made an inquiry of Darlene about a trade. As time passed, the inquiry was supplemented by offers of money – those offers increasing from year to year. Neither Abby nor Betty had kept their wishes to themselves. Both Abby and Betty had a good deal more money than either would ever need – that they had kept to themselves. Both Abby and Betty had disagreeable, if not spiteful, personalities – facts so obvious they could not be kept to themselves.
Far and away the nicest and largest apartment belonged to Phyllis – the sister of the owner. It occupied half the third floor with three bedrooms and large windows front, back, and along the north side of the old, white brick building. Its six rooms were more than she needed – even Phyllis understood that – but older brothers, even those you didn’t like very well, would do what older brothers would do. Phyllis and Darlene had been good friends for decades and frequented each other’s places for morning coffee, afternoon tea, and evening brandy. Everybody understood that Phyllis and Darlene were gentle, kind and trusting – perhaps easily taken advantage of if anyone were of a mind to do that.
Somewhere along the way, Phyllis had made a suggestion to Abby; if she wanted Betty’s apartment, and if Betty wanted Darlene’s, but Darlene was unwilling to budge on the matter, it seemed logical for Abby to pay Darlene to make the trade. Then, the game of musical abodes could get under way.
Abby approached Darlene on the sly with an offer. Darlene refused. Abby upped the ante considerably. Darlene went to Betty and told her somebody else was willing to pay an exorbitant sum for her to give up her apartment. Betty sweetened her offer. Darlene went back to Abby relating the new offer. The game continued in that manner for some months. Darlene understood that when egos become involved, common sense often goes out the window.
Since offers of money were clearly not working, Betty began a rumor campaign against Darlene, hoping to get her kicked out of the building. Seeing the potential in such a move, Abby followed suit. Soon they had Darlene painted as a despicable woman who had poisoned her husband with tainted food so she could get his money. Darlene made it obvious that none of that upset her. The rumors escalated and soon she was being accused of the killing of a taxi driver and a bank teller by providing them both with e-coli infested banana bread some years before – two still unsolved crimes perpetrated in there in the neighborhood. Both men’s life savings had disappeared – cash withdrawals the day before their deaths.
Darlene met with each of the women separately, unbeknownst to the other. The message was identical. Pay her two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, detail in a notarized document the data that supported the accusations they had each made against her, and within the month the apartment Betty wanted would be made available to her provided she still wanted it
With copies of the accusations in hand, Darlene consulted Phyllis’ lawyer and had the other two women brought up on charges of slander, libel, and defamation of character. None of the allegations could be substantiated. The lawyer also made the two women aware of a city ordinance that made it illegal to pay a current resident to release his or her apartment. It effectively kept both of them from speaking of the money they had given Darlene – in cash, of course.
Abby and Betty went to jail. Darlene moved upstairs with Phyllis, something they had been planning for a long time. The older brother died from food poisoning. Phyllis inherited the apartment building and doubled the rent on the three recently vacated apartments.
“I suppose our old, iron, safe, here, must contain well over a million dollars in cash, don’t you suppose, Darlene,” Phyllis said wondering out loud.
“Yes. Well over a million, I’d say,” Darlene answered. “I do believe I prefer sending folks to prison over sending them to their graves," she added, thoughtfully
“I’m wondering if we have enough now,” Phyllis said, really asking.
“Probably, although old Mr. Davis who owns the Blue and White Grocery down the street does love my banana bread.”
“He does love it.”
“And he is very old . . .”
“. . . and very rich!”
They snickered and went into the kitchen. Phyllis got out the flour, sugar and bananas. Darlene adjusted the oven to 400 degrees and measured out the milk, shortening and eggs. Mr. Davis would be so appreciative. Everybody for blocks around knew they were such thoughtful old ladies.
STORY ELEVEN: 9-10-13
Dr. Potter’s Elixir of Life
A short story
By Tom Gnagey
Willie Thompson had loved life – all seventy two years. Willie Thompson was dead. Joseph Anslow had hated life – all seventeen years. Joseph Anslow was not dead. Willie had been his only real friend. The young man had no family, having just shown up dragging his stiff left leg behind him on the dusty main street of Branch Meeting, Nevada well before he was old enough to speak. His left arm curled up against his chest and was fully useless. He was not dumb but due to his deformities and awkward speech pattern he had not been allowed to go to school. He had stayed in the loft at Willie’s cabin on the north edge of town. Willie had taught him lots of things. Willie had lots of books. Adults generally disregarded him and the kids made fun of him, taunting him with names such as ‘Slow Boy’ taken from his last name – a name having been pinned to the long, white, shirt he was wearing when he was found.
As frontier towns went, Branch, as the little community was called locally, had few unique or even pleasant features. The unpainted business buildings faced each other across one, wide, unpaved block of Main Street, also the stage route with once a week service in both directions – west to California and east to St. Louis. There were, perhaps, a dozen other streets – all residential, all dirt, none leading to anywhere of significance.
The one room school, the church and the cemetery were strung out along on the east edge of town. The north and west branches of Canyon Creek met east of town and formed the main stream of the creek, which headed east. Hence the town’s name, Branch Meeting. It was too shallow to be navigable but it never ran dry and was the sole source of water for the residents who filled barrels and carted them home, mostly on hand-pulled wagons.
Joseph survived by helping out around town; he swept out several stores evenings, he delivered telegrams from Annie’s stage office, and assisted the stage drivers, feeding and watering the horses. He had also kept the cabin presentable for Willie. His living situation was now up in the air although until told differently he planned to stay right there in the loft. It was his feeling that aside from Annie, nobody probably knew where he lived, anyway.
The people of Branch were generally unfriendly even to each other. Other than Annie, one would be hard put to find anybody who wanted to live in Branch but none but the young people had the motivation to move on. Families pretty much stayed to themselves. It was basically a classless society – everybody was dirt poor. Most eked out a living working the mostly spent mines in the butte north of town. Neither success nor failure at work would be shared with anyone at the end of the day.
That morning, however, his attention was on other things. Earlier in the week the brightly painted wagon of an Elixir Salesman had parked in the grove just across the creek and well out of sight of the townspeople. Joseph noticed such things. If something was going on in or about Branch, Joseph knew about it.
He was puzzled on several fronts. First, that a snake oil man – as Willie had termed him – would not immediately enter the community and begin his spiel. And second, what he had been doing sneaking around the cabin the night before Willie had died. Joseph was returning from his weekly bath in the creek – done at midnight to avoid the mindless, clothes stealing, pranks of the other boys. A man in a long coat and top hat was skulking around behind the cabin, in the vicinity of the water barrel. Joseph had waited until the man left, then followed him back across the creek to his big wagon. He went directly into the wagon without speaking to the tall thin man asleep in his long johns on a bed roll a few yards away.
Now that Willie had been laid to rest, Joseph was determined to find out what he could about the SOS – snake oil salesman. Something seemed wrong. He wouldn’t have to wait long to get the picture. At noon, the big wagon, painted in red, orange and green, and sporting the man’s full length picture on the side arrived on Main Street behind two large, prancing, white horses. It made quite the spectacle. The business emptied and women and children left their homes to see what was going on.
The driver’s seat was soon transformed into a small stage, of sorts. A colorful curtain was raised behind it. The man – Doctor T S Potter according to the large black lettering on the wagon – took his place in his fancy outfit and began to speak in flowery phrases, which suggested – right or wrong – a clearly educated tongue.
Joseph was taken with the unusual description of the man’s duel services as depicted on the wagon. “Scientific water evaluation and the Elixir of Life.”
“I have been summoned here, having heard of your possible, deadly, water crisis.”
The men looked at each other, puzzled expressions developing on their faces. The women gasped and pulled their children close.
“What do you mean, deadly water crisis. We have no deadly water crises here in branch,” called one man.
A murmur of ran its course through the gathering crowd.
“I understand an elderly man recently died of apparently no reasonable cause.”
It was the first anyone had even considered there was anything to question about old Willie’s death. He was old. Old men die. He died. Period!
Dr. Potter continued.
“I have seen it happening all over the area – contaminated water killing off the population in great numbers. Fortunately, I seem to have arrived in time to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring here.”
He went on to explain how he could test the water and if it were found to be contaminated he could offer an antidote – the Elixir of Life – specially formulated to prevent any and all related problems.
A sample of water was brought to him in a pint jar. He held it high so everyone could see it.
“I will now add two drops of my special, scientifically formulated, testing liquid to the water. If it turns blue your water is safe. If it turns red, the water is deadly.”
With great dramatic flair Dr. Potter held up the jar in front of him and squeezed one drop of his solution into the water, showing it left and right. The audience leaned forward. Nothing happened. He squeezed out a second drop. The jar’s contents immediately turned crimson. Dr. Potter acted startled and moved the water away to arm’s length as if it might jump from the jar and attack him.
The gathered town’s folks followed his lead and stepped back talking among themselves, some shaking their heads, others growing furrowed brows. One man approached the wagon and spoke.
“That water came from my barrel. It was fresh three days ago. My family and I have been drinking from it ever since and none of us are sick.”
“And how fortunate for you that I arrived in your fair community today because it takes four days for the contamination to become deadly.”
“But we all use water from the creek,” another man said. “Are you saying the whole creek is contaminated?”
“That is what I must believe, kind Sir.”
Another man stepped forward.
“But I was fishing there this morning and none of the fish are dead. None of the coyotes that drink there have been found dead.”
“Yes, well, you must understand this contamination only affects human beings.”
Again there was an extended discussion among those gathered. Finally, the first man spoke again.
“What do you suggest? What about that elixir?”
“The elixir of life will protect you until the contamination in your creek passes downstream.”
“Passes?” a woman asked.
“It is an airborne contaminant that is invading the area. Once washed on downstream your water will return to normal.”
“How long will that take?”
“To be completely safe, I’d suggest you use the Elixir of Life for at least ten days.”
“How much does it cost?”
“Ten dollars for a ten day supply will keep your families safe.”
“But why has only Willie been effected. We’ve all been drinking the water.”
“The elderly are often affected days before the younger people.”
“How we know your elixir will save us?” one woman asked.
“I will return to this very spot at this very time on the morrow and if but one person has been effected by the water after taking my elixir I will return all the money the entire town has paid to me.”
Joseph, who had taken a seat on the rail in front of the Stage Office, from where he could easily view the show, had questions but would not ask them. He never asked questions. They had long been the source for evil looks and a shooing away. He wondered if ‘Slow Boy’ was the only one in town who could see through the slick patter of SOS.
As if out of nowhere, a stranger, a tall, thin man of some sixty years, clad only in long johns, came staggering down the street toward the wagon.
“Dr. Potter, Sir,” He gasped. “I have been told your Elixir can save my life. I drank contaminated water a day’s travel up the river from here. People are dropping like flies up there.”
Dr. Potter helped the man up onto the wagon. With his usual flair, he took a bottle of the Elixir from his coat pocket, opened it and offered it to the man. He drank. He stopped shaking. His eyes stopped rolling. He stood up straight.
“I’m cured. I’m cured! Thank you Dr. Potter. Can I purchase a supply?”
“Just ten dollars, my good man. Just ten dollars. I must hurry on north and save as many folks as I can.
He moved as if to draw back the curtain and return the stage to the driver’s seat.
“Wait! Wait!” came the cry from the gathering as purses and wallets came out. “Sell to us first.”
They pushed and shoved trying to be the first to get close to the man. Many sales were made. Many doses were taken. Many ten dollar bills found their ways into Dr. Potter’s money box. His mission accomplished for the day, Dr. Potter’s colorful wagon turned in the street and headed back across the ford toward the grove.
Joseph realized the wrong question had been asked: ‘How do we know your elixir will save us?’ It should have been: ‘How do we know there is actually such a contaminant?’ He set as his task the investigation of the whole unlikely situation. He didn’t need to disguise what he was doing. He didn’t need to in any way be secretive about it. Joseph had long believed that he could stroll down Main Street at noon, stark naked, and nobody would acknowledge his presence.
By noon the following day, he had completed his investigation and had formulated a plan to upstage Dr. Potter and show him up for what he was – a sham of a SOS. He sat, waiting on the plank step in front of the stage office. Along with other things, he had brought several buckets and Willie’s water barrel with him in their wagon. Everybody in town knew that barrel, painted bright red as it was – Willie’s attempt to bring some cheer to cheerless Branch Meeting, Nevada.
At exactly noon, the magnificent prancing horses, the garishly painted wagon, and the loquacious Dr. TS Potter arrived center stage on Main Street. Before he could transform the seat into a stage and arrange the curtained backdrop, Joseph, with his wagon, approached him while the townspeople gathered.
“Dr. Potter, Sir,” Joseph called up, louder than necessary but designed to garner everybody’s attention.
Potter looked down at him.
“Yes, young man. I’m afraid no elixir on earth can fix your terrible disfigurement.”
“I learned to live with what you call my terrible disfigurement long ago. I am here to challenge your several spurious contentions.”
The townspeople looked at Joseph. They looked at each other. It couldn’t be that Slow Boy knew and could use such words. He hadn’t gone to school. Everybody knew he was slow of mind. But, for perhaps the first time ever, they had turned in his direction and opened themselves to what he was saying.
“I don’t understand,” came Potter’s response. “I assure you that none of my contentions are in any way spurious.”
He turned to the gathering.
“Has anyone in Branch Meeting died since yesterday?”
As one, they responded, “No.”
He turned back to Joseph.
“See. I promised my elixir would protect the good citizens here and it has.”
“What you promised, sir, was to protect our good citizens from nothing. There is no contamination and your elixir has no power, whatsoever.”
“And you can prove your assertions?”
“I can. And, since I’m sure you want me proven wrong about all this, I assume you will assist me in a short demonstration.”
“I suppose so, although I am a busy man and must soon be on the road to save the folks in Silver Basin.”
Joseph opened the lid of the water barrel and reminded the town’s people it had belonged to Willie. They nodded as if the point had been unnecessary. Joseph dipped an empty bucket into the water and set it on the ground. He took the other bucket from the wagon and showed it around. It contained a small fish. He transferred the fish into the bucket of Willie’s water. Within a minute the fish was belly up, dead. The women gasped. The children wanted to get a closer look at the dead animal. The men looked puzzled.
Joseph spoke again to the crowd.
“Dr. Potter claims his elixir will protect people from the deadly effects of the contaminant that he says killed old Willie; is that what you heard him say?”
Everybody nodded, clearly having been drawn into the demonstration. Joseph turned back to Dr. Potter.
“You can prove your claim immediately and be on your way, Sir.”
He scooped a cup of water from the red barrel and handed it up to Dr. Potter.
“If you will, please, drink your elixir and then drink this cup of contaminated water.”
“I will not be party to such a tawdry demonstration. What you ask is preposterous. You are challenging the integrity of Dr. TS Potter, famous from coast to coast for his many scientific achievements.”
“Okay, then, since you are clearly afraid to drink this water even after taking your elixir, let me change the proposition. Let me drink your elixir and then I will drink the water from the cup. If I live, you will have proved your point. If I die, you will have been proved a fraud.”
Potter looked out over the gathering. Several of the men had loosened the six-shooters in their holsters. The women shooed the children ahead of them, moving away from the scene.
“The elixir, please, Dr. Potter,” Joseph said reaching toward him with his good arm.”
Potter moved to the seat, grasped the reins in both hands and shouted at his horses, whipping them into a sudden frenzy. He turned in the street and high tailed it toward the ford in the creek. The men drew their guns and started after the wagon.
Joseph raised his arm in the air.
“Let the phony go. We can send word throughout the area to be on the lookout for him. We will see that he is arrested and stands trial for murdering Willie – my dearest friend in the world – the man who took me in when everybody else shunned me. Potter’s days off taking advantage of people in these parts if over.”
Joseph’s comment s had quieted the gathering as they considered their shame. One man finally spoke what was on everybody’s mind.
“What about all the money he conned us out of? We need to go after him and get it back.”
“Already done, sir. I visited his trailer last night and pilfered his money box. I will leave it open on the step in front of the stage office and trust that each of you will only take from it what is rightfully yours.”
Another man had a question.
“You believe he poisoned Willie’s water barrel. You’ll have to prove that, you know.”
“Oh, I can do that.”
He slid an elixir bottle from his front pocket. He held it high so everybody could see the skull and crossbones that had been painted across its label.
“I also found this in his wagon. Just a drop in a bucket containing a fish killed it immediately.”
* * *
Life became immediately better there in Branch Meeting, Nevada. Joseph continued to live at Willie’s cabin. A crate of groceries arrived for him every Monday morning. Folks waved and stopped to chat with him on the street. The number of stores needing to be swept out each day increased from three to a dozen, virtually overnight.
Initially all of that bothered Joseph – he had never been one to accept that which he had not rightfully earned. Reflecting on the transformation that was taking place there, he concluded he could desire no greater legacy than having helped move the cheerless, heartless, ill-disposed people of Branch Meeting toward the caring, considerate, friendly community he saw developing. He figured once well-practiced on him, it would surely spread out among the rest.
STORY TEN: 8-29-13
Upon My Passing
Tom Gnagey (C) 2013
[THIS ONE IS FROM MY NEW BOOK, Twists and Turns, available on Kindle and NOOK}
From what I know of such things – and even at my age, who among us really knows – I believe my imminent passing will take but moments. The thought of having to leave the familiar, comfortable, and secure confines I have known all my life is intimidating to be sure. I have told myself that it is something that comes to all of us so should be anticipated not with fear and apprehension but with inquisitive resignation.
I will be remembered as Thaddeus Winston Wentworth the third, an impressive name, I suppose, for someone who has really accomplished very little in life. I have done my best to grow in body and mind according to the best laid plans of natural happenings. At this point I feel unqualified to judge if I have truly done my best in those areas. Time will write that chapter.
I follow my brother in this experience by three years – Jerry by name. Thankfully, so far I have not been degraded with diapers the way he was. Our parents – Jake and Thelma – often tended to get upset with him and took most unappealing corrective measures. I can proudly say that has never been the case between them and me. From early on I heard words like precious, beloved, and miracle tossed in my direction.
I have to wonder, though, how they will react to my departure from this place. Recently, mother has become quite emotional. I have heard her sobbing; no, that is not the proper word. I am not good with words. Crying or calling out, perhaps, or even screaming. Here in my carefully and lovingly prepared sanctuary I have been all quite purposefully shielded from the intensity of sound and emotion. I do believe that just outside I have heard the reassuring tones of my father and others whose voices I do not even recognize. During the past hour, murmur seems to have escalated into hubbub – would that be the right word? They must believe my moment is near. Fully unanticipated, I do believe my own mindset is that of excitement – the expectation that something wonderful lies beyond this final event.
There has always been music in my presence and they have played it often for me during these final days. It plays now. Throughout my life I have come to love music. In fact, I believe it has surely been the basis for nurturing my synapses and coaxing my mind to develop far beyond what it would have otherwise achieved. There is a structure to music that foreordains a logical progression of mental development and sets a dependable rhythm necessary for a successful life. I thank my parents for having provided that from my earliest days. And just now it provides solace, comfort, and reassurance as I anticipate my trek into the unknown.
Upheaval! My world suddenly seems to be changing – shifting – rapidly. This must, indeed, be my time. I feel queasy. I sense my family’s presence. I feel the need to say something profound – memorable – but words fail me as things are progressing too rapidly. I feel adrift in a sea of ever-rising, powerful, surging, waves. Oh, Yes! My being is most certainly on the move to somewhere. I want to open my eyes and check things out but there seems to be some heaviness preventing it.
What is that? Light? Yes, at long last the promised light – blinding light, and bone-chilling cold like I could never have imagined. There is pressure as if my access into the beyond must be forced – labored. I never considered that this process might be an ordeal – that it might be anything but a gentle, easy-flowing, pleasant, evolution. In truth it is difficult. It is hurtful, even. Clearly I can’t stay, and yet I don’t see how I can find the strength to navigate this grueling transition by myself. What am I to do? The child in me cries out. Help me! Mama. Please, help me!
The doctor smiled down at Thelma as he laid her newborn son in her arms.
“Thaddeus, meet your mother. May you have a long and wonder-filled life with your family – mother Thelma, father Jake, and big brother Jerry – may he seldom lead you astray.”
STORY NINE: 8-21-13
A short, short, story
Tom Gnagey © 2013
Adam was the good nephew. Blake was the bad nephew. David was the uncle – good or bad depending on which boy you spoke to. The boys had gone to live with their uncle when they were ten and eleven after their parents died in a light plane crash.
Adam loved the old man, despite his several shortcomings. The old man loved Adam because – well, Adam was simply loveable. Blake hated the old man because of his shortcoming – short temper, overly severe punishment, continual put downs. The old man – well, just say he wasn’t very fond of Blake, but then nobody was. Adam tried, but even for dear sweet Adam it was a chore.
The boys grew up and moved away from Uncle David’s, going their separate ways. Adam became an artist of some local renown, which translated into personal happiness and satisfaction, but it often became a meal to meal existence. Uncle David only ever saw a content young man and assumed the best was happening for him. Blake went into banking and did very well financially, ruthlessly clawing his way up the corporate ladder. He led the other two to believe he was poor and ill and miserable so they would not come looking for handouts.
Uncle David was riddled with guilt over the harsh way he had treated Blake as a boy. Believing he was going through a very bad time, David began sending him $500 the first of every month in a plain envelope with no return address. He used a re-mailing service in a distant city to disguise his identity – to keep Blake from knowing the source of the money.
Blake became riddled with guilt over how badly he had treated his younger brother during the years after they lost their parents. All quite irrationally, he had blamed Adam for their deaths. Assuming a struggling artist would be in need of money, Blake began sending Adam $500 in cash in a plain envelope the first of every month utilizing a re-mailing service in a distant city to remain anonymous.
Adam, understanding that he and his brother had been a significant burden on their uncle during the time they lived with him, began sending him $500 in cash the first of every month even if it meant he had to miss the occasional meal. He used a re-mailing service in a distant city to remain anonymous.
Let’s see, 500 dollars, times three recipients, times twelve months would appear to be $18,000 in combined additional income a year from the three sets of contributions. In reality it was the same $500 being recirculated among the three of them over and over - $500 that was free and clear of taxes and such at the outset. However, had they each paid 20% in taxes on their $6,000 in apparent yearly income ($500 times 12 months = $6,000), that would have amounted to $1,200. Does that mean that by accepting the charity they were each actually loosing $1,200 dollars a year?
STORY EIGHT: 8-12-13
The Stuff of Legend
By Tom Gnagey © 2013
When his eightieth birthday arrived, Johnny’s family placed him in the City Rest Home, a tax supported facility for those unable to afford something better. He would have preferred the country if it had really been necessary to uproot him. He didn’t want to rest. And the place most certainly was not his home. ‘Three strikes and you’re out,’ he said to himself. All that had been twenty years earlier. He was still not one to rest. He still craved the countryside and the only part of the place that faintly resembled home was that the people around him kept dying.
The family had felt there had been good reasons to provide Johnny with more care and supervision than his family could – or was willing to – provide. He was becoming forgetful (Gee. Really? At eighty!). His family believed he needed to use a walker – something he refused to do for them. He had been told by the administrator that whenever he was out of his room he was required to have his walker with him so, he drug it along behind him as he made his rounds standing erect as a young marine. Nobody had the guts to complain to him about it and it became his symbol of independence – insufferable pigheadedness, as his family termed it. (Let’s see. He had never fallen or been unable to get to his destination and back. Hmm?)
Johnny did, however, have a vivid fantasy life. He came to depend on it to deliver him from the distasteful surroundings there at the ‘warehouse for the dead and dying’ as he thought of it. Back in his neighborhood the younger children had flocked to his porch after school to hear his wonderful tales about the olden times – most of them containing some kernel of truth. At the home, neither the other residents wanted to hear them nor did Johnny want to relate them. He had been a somebody back there. He immediately became a nobody at the home. As will happen with age, sometimes he miscalled words – substituting terms on some willy-nilly basis only understood by his old brain, if even by it.
Soon after his arrival one such slip seemed to have occurred. He was apparently trying to explain that his son had been a high school teammate of Lieutenant Grovnor – top man in the local Salvation Army, an organization that regularly provided goodie packages for the residents and the person who often delivered them. What he said, however, was that his son had been a high school teammate of the Lieutenant Governor of the state. He had gone on to say that he knew the man well – the Lt. Governor.
It was jumped on immediately by several of the less compassionate residents who established their worth in life by ridiculing others. Rather than working to resolve it, Johnny retreated to his room intending to live out his days as a hermit. Ten years later – realizing he was still alive – it dawned on him that approach had probably not been the best plan, so he returned to mingling with the others at meals and such. By then, the only way anyone really knew about him was through gossip and unfounded rumor handed down from now mostly deceased former residents (well, there was probably no ‘mostly’ about those who were, in fact, deceased). He had become, through all of that, a legend of sorts there at the City Rest Home. The remark about his son had lived on and marked him as a died in the wool prevaricator whose tales were not to be believed.
Although his family never visited, he had one friend – Rosalina, a nurse’s assistant. He asked her to help him with a refresher course of his high school Spanish. She fussed over him in two languages. He loved when her little boys came to visit him, and, unbeknownst to anybody but the family lawyer, had changed his will in her favor. The boy’s accepted his stories at face value and happily repeated them to their friends. Unlike the residents, they never made fun of him or expressed any doubt about the truthfulness of what he had to say.
His 100th birthday was just two days away. Years before, he had, in a weak moment while trying to recover from the early remark suggesting the Lt. Governor’s friendship, announced that his good friend – by then the governor – would be coming to help celebrate the century mark with him. It never entered his head that he’d live long enough to have to deal with the situation.
As the hours counted down to the celebration – it had been worked into something of a major event at the ‘home’ – the snippiest of the residents began pouring it on the old man. They effectively set the stage for months of relentless mocking once the occasion had passed and the old man’s reputation had been fully destroyed. (Happy birthday, Johnny!)
Good hearted Rosalina had taken the problem into her own hands. She had sent a letter of explanation to the governor and plead with him to attend the celebration in order to save face for the dear old man. That had been months before. She had received no reply. Her sadness and compassion for her old friend grew. She had baked a special cake and her boys would be there with gifts they had made for him. She hoped those things would help offset the unpleasantness that was sure to follow for him
The party was scheduled for 10a.m. in the dining room. The residents and several members of the community had gathered. Having left his walker behind, Johnny made his way to the seat of honor at the head table.
It was at that moment the unexpected occurrences began. The double doors from the lobby were flung open and a local high school band paraded into the room, belting out a lively rendition of Sousa favorite. The band was followed by the Mayor and several other distinguished looking folks few in the room recognized. The Mayor raised his arms for quiet, cued the band, and directed the attention of those gathered back to the doors. The band did its best to provide a reasonable rendition of Ruffles and Flourishes. The Governor, his wife, and son stepped through the door. The initial quiet smattering of applause gradually grew to an enthusiastic welcome. Johnny stood. The Governor moved to his side, shook his hand, and offered a lingering embrace.
He had words to say to the group but no one really listened, needing to deal with their own stunned amazement. He apparently could spin a good yarn, and lauded the old man as having been a fine parent who always welcomed his son’s friends into the home and was good for a short term loan for those big dates that arrived out of nowhere. He apologized about not having visited him before and announced a number of new additions the state would soon bring to the ‘home’ – an exercise room, a library, new kitchen equipment, several computers, and things such as that.
The Governor’s schedule only allowed a half hour stop but it provided time for hushed conversation and to enjoy a slice of cake together. Once he had left, once the band had filed out, once the boys had delivered their presents and Johnny had expressed to them his appreciation for the finest gifts he had ever received, the least unpleasant of the residents began approaching to shake the birthday boy’s hand. Each was accepted in kindness with a broad smile and never a hint of the fully deserved serving of ‘I told you so’ that could have been all quite legitimately delivered.
Rosalina had been waiting for the Governor just outside the front door and she approached him, introducing herself as the letter writer.
“Rosalina. I can’t tell you how pleased my family and I are that you wrote to remind us about this wonderful day in our dear old friend’s life. He was always there for me as I was growing up. If there is ever anything we can do for him, call me at this private number.”
He handed her a card, ducked into the back of his limo, and sped off onto the rest of his busy day.
STORY SEVEN: 8-5-13
By Tom Gnagey © 2013
“Leave me alone, old man.”
“You’re shivering, kid.”
“So. Ain’t you ever shivered?”
The old man ignored the question, which had clearly been formulated by the kid to get the stranger out of his hair.
“You live on the street, kid?”
“You put your nose into everybody’s business or just kids who ain’t hurtin’ nobody?”
“I’m not your enemy, you know?”
“And how am I supposed to know that, old man?”
The old man grew silent sensing the truth in the kid’s question. He looked up and down the alley. The rear of two dozen old brick buildings adorned with rusting fire escapes met across the ancient, cobblestone pavement – as if in a century old standoff – looking somehow ashamed of the disagreeable scene over which they presided. Most of the old, grime covered, wood-frame windows had never been graced by a ray of sunshine – narrow as the alley was.
The old man pulled the collar of his long, dark coat tightly around his neck and took a seat, sliding his back down the dumpster which, sometime before, had become the kid’s back rest. He opened the shiny new suitcase he had been carrying and removed a dark blue, knee length, kid sized, wool coat – probably overly large for that winter but perhaps a good fit for the next. He laid it across the kid’s extended legs and closed the suitcase, setting it aside. The kid’s jeans were ripped and soiled and damp from the clammy surroundings.
“You some kind of do-gooder?” the kid asked, briefly surveying the old man’s face for the first time.
“Would it matter if I was?”
The kid moved his legs as if he had been made uncomfortable by the unexpected question. He shrugged his scrawny, narrow shoulders, covered as they were by a flimsy, fall jacket, its collar secured tightly around his chin and pulled high against the back of his neck.
“I suppose you’d help out somebody who seemed to be in need if you could, right, kid?”
There was another quick glance up at the old man. His slight head movement suggested something akin to a nod. For whatever reason, it seemed to give him leave to slip into the heavy garment. It was quickly arranged beneath him and buttoned top to bottom up the front. He managed another nod. It meant thanks, words for some reason the kid couldn’t or wouldn’t bring himself to say.
“So, back to my original question – you live on the street?”
“If you gotta ask you’re dumber than most old men I’ve met.”
The old man stifled a smile. The lad had an intelligent way about him – evasive and cautious, but intelligent. Maybe street smarts. Maybe something more.
“A point well taken. Sorry. I didn’t mean my question as any sort of put down.”
There was a third glance – that time held for several moments. The kid was thinking but nothing spilled out across his tongue to indicate just what it might be. The old man was patient. He reached into his coat pocket and removed a small parcel wrapped in foil. He sat it in his lap but said nothing. Clearly it had caught the kid’s attention.
“Smells like chicken – KFC maybe – from up on Jackson.”
“Good nose,” the old man said reaching down and pealing back the covering.
He slid his hand under the foil and lifted it in the kid’s direction.
“I share – if that’s not a put down or meddling.”
There may have been the slightest break of a quick smile along one side of the kid’s mouth. He reached out and took a wing.
The old man acted uncomfortable.
“Wings are my favorite. Would you mind taking the breast instead?”
The exchange was made.
“I don’t get you, old man.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody in God’s whole universe prefers wings to breasts.”
It was the old man’s turn to shrug and ignore the comment. The kid thought he might have caught a brief twinkle in his eyes and allowed a legitimate smile about it – if only for a few seconds. Halfway through the piece of extra crispy, the kid was moved to initiate a piece of conversation.
“So, you live on the street, Old Man?”
The kid had skillfully turned the tables and his smirk suggested he knew it.
“Touché!” the old man offered. “You know the term – touché.”
“Just ‘cause I’m sittin’ in a alley shiverin’ don’t mean I’m stupid, old man.”
“It seems I am unable to say anything that meets with your approval, young man. Let me try again. What if I was living on the street?”
“I might know a place – a shelter that just had a opening – a druggie died in his sleep last night.”
“Oh,my! How terrible. I’m sorry.”
“No need to tell me you’re sorry. Didn’t know the guy. Just tellin’ you what’s what. I know how hard it is to get into a place outta the cold come winter.”
“I wouldn’t feel right taking the place if you need it.”
’ for it would just stir up a whole hive of Social Welfare workers swarming all over him. No thanks to that!”
“I might be interested, then. Who runs the place?”
“Persnickety, are you?”
“Persnickety? That’s a word out of my generation.
“I know other old men. But, to answer your question, it’s run by Reverend Jimmy – the church on fifteenth and Adams.”
“Unitarian, I believe.”
“You know stuff.”
“I certainly hope so. I’ve been walking this earth for seventy years.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a put down – as somebody I recently met might say.”
The smile was clearly directed into the old man’s face. It was returned in kind.
“So, you want me to introduce you. I’ll vouch for you. You seem to be harmless and I see no evidence of drugs or booze – eyes clear and breath fresh. The city’s coming into a really cold spell during the next few weeks. Saw it on the weather channel – in the window at the TV repair shop down on fifteenth.”
“Your ‘vouch’ carries weight there, does it?”
The kid rolled his eyes at the old man as if to say, ‘Here we go again. Do you also carry seventy years’ worth of dumb questions with you?’
Words were not working very well for the old man so he stood and gave the kid a hand up. He noticed he had no supplies – not even a gunny sack. He had it stashed some place safe, no doubt. He was clearly a savvy youngster.
They were soon headed down Adams. The shelter was in a once abandoned store front. Over the door it said, ‘Happiness Lives Within’. The kid noted that the old man nodded his approval upon reading it.
“Reverend Jimmy. This is my new friend. Goes by O. M.”
The old man understood – O. M. for Old Man. It brought a smile and he placed his hand on the kid’s shoulder.
“O. M.’s a good guy. If you got work, he could sure use it. He’ll do right by you – no drugs, no booze, and a generous outlook on life.”
A look passed between the two men, sealed by a mutual nod.
Reverend Jimmy offered his hand.
“We actually have a new opening as of a few hours ago. No waiting list here – strictly first come, first served. If the kid vouches for you, you’re in. Follow the rules for a week and I think there may be a job if you’re interested.”
“Oh, yes sir, I’m interested.”
During their conversation, the kid disappeared. Upon realizing it, the old man looked around and frowned. Reverend Jimmy noted his puzzlement.
“This was your very fortunate day, O. M. The kid – Jeffery Allen Wentworth the fourth, more officially – is always very careful about who he selects to bring us. You must have demonstrated some clearly sincere and compassionate gesture toward him. That’s how he works. Been doing it ever since his mother died about a year ago. Several dozen have passed through our door due to his efforts.
He urged the old man toward the front window. The kid was ducking into the back of the longest limousine O. M. had ever seen. The dark blue, knee length, wool coat hung on a parking meter. Clearly it would need to find a new young occupant.
STORY SIX: 8-1-13
Randy and Wrong Way
By Tom Gnagey ©
Some stories remain timeless regardless of their incarnation.
Randy stretched himself awake there in the loft – his loft – of his grandfather’s remote cabin where he lived. He looked around at his world – his heaven as he called it, being well above the others in the house and being absolutely perfect as far as he was concerned. There was the goose feather bed that snugged up around him, keeping him snug and warm on cold winter nights. There was the futon that allowed great, more or less cool sleeping in the hot summer. He had his chest of special things, lots of books and the other typical trappings of a ten year old boy.
It was just he and his mom and gramps. The two adults home schooled him utilizing the vast resources available through the World Wide Web and the wonder-filled sources that nature provided there in the woods, the creek, and the small lake.
The cooler nights and the splashes of color emerging on the trees signaled that fall was on its way. That meant several things for Randy: Macintosh apples, leaf raking, bonfires with hot dogs and toasted marshmallows, and gramps’ special recipe, apple cider. It was also the time to again be amazed as the animals seemed to know it was time to prepare for the cold weather to come. The squirrels were stowing nuts, the brown bear growing fat in preparation for hibernation, and birds leaving for warmer places.
There were lots of things in Randy’s life he considered special, but near the top of that list was laying on his back down by the lake, watching the remarkable spectacle in the sky as the huge V-shaped flocks of geese migrated – south in the fall and north in the spring. How in the world could they know to do that? Sometimes flocks would overnight on their lake but that was an infrequent event – perhaps it was too small or maybe they were put off by the greenish-blue tint caused by the high copper content of the water.
As he laid there that afternoon, he felt some qualms of guilt over the goose down bed he so enjoyed on cold nights. He put it out of mind. He had counted six flocks pointing south in just that past hour. They all flew at the same altitude – another mystery for him to contemplate. A rabbit hopped close and stopped, standing up on its hind legs sniffing the air.
“Hey, Socrates. How’s things shakin’ man?”
Randy had names for all the familiar wild animals that happened by on a regular basis. Socrates was special because Randy had cared for him as a baby when a fox made a meal of its mother and siblings. It often stopped by hoping for a handout – or perhaps hopping for a handout. It had become the boy’s private joke and sent him into roll on the ground, hold his belly, rails of laughter. Randy pulled a carrot from the rear pocket of his cutoffs and gently slipped it toward him through the grass. With no hesitation, Socrates moved in to enjoy his treat no more than three feet from his young benefactor. Any pauses to consider possible dangers had nothing to do with Randy.
He returned his attention to the sky where the sun had begun its final descent toward the tree laden horizon across the lake. It was the time when most of the flocks began settling in on a body of water for the night. A flock, flying a perfect V, appeared from the north.
“Please, please, please land on my lake,” he said, offering the plea as if the lead gander was capable of both receiving and understanding his request. He figured he’d never know for sure unless he kept trying.
The formation moved on south apparently not interested in what his lake had to offer. It was then that it happened. Randy sat up and took notice. The last member of the V-leg nearest him peeled off from the rest and settled, without even circling, onto the lake near the shore a mere five yards away from him. Uncharacteristically, it swam toward the shore and waddled a few feet up onto the grass where it crouched, chest heaving, and eyes closed. Something was wrong.
In the first place it was very small – perhaps too young and weak to be able to keep up with the others. Randy felt the need to engage the advice of the expert in all things nature. He stood and ran back to the cabin where Gramps was rocking on the porch.
“Gramps! There’s a goose – a young one I think – down on the shore. I think something is wrong with it. Come and take a look.”
They were both soon on the scene. They kept their distance so as to not to frighten it though it gave no indication it even sensed they were there. Gramps took his time in assessing the situation.
“It’s far too small to be flying with the flock.”
“How can that be? Don’t all geese in a flock hatch at about the same time?”
“That’s how Mother Nature plans it, but once in a while things occur that even she has no control over. I’ve seen it before – an egg laid and a chick hatching way later than the others. It puts the young bird in no man’s land, so to speak. It can’t stay up north or it’ll freeze and it can’t effectively move on south because it’s too immature. In this case its instinct to stay with the flock caused what we see here – an exhausted young bird, unable to keep up. Our lake must have seemed friendly.
“So, what do I do?”
“I suppose you have a choice. Leave it alone and let nature take its course or attempt to intervene and nurse it back to health. You’ve had some success in that department as I recall.”
“Socrates, you mean.”
“Well, it seems like so far nature’s course has only caused hardship for the bird. They eat what? Grass and grain and bugs – stuff like that?”
“You are correct. This little fellow needs a ready supply if he’s going to pull through. Tame geese also like shredded carrots and bread pulled into small sections. I imagine wild ones wouldn’t object to such things either.”
“You call it a fellow – you mean it’s a boy?”
“Yes. A male’s markings are very different from a female. See the white areas on both sides of its head – male. There is something odd, however. The white streak on the top of its head runs side to side. It should run back to front. It’s running the wrong way.”
“I’m going to think that makes him special. I think that should be his name.”
“Wrong Way. It seems to fit him in lots of ways.”
Gramps agreed and walked back to the cabin leaving the other two to work something out.
Well, Randy thought, he is sitting in a grassy lawn so he won’t starve if he has the strength to eat. He watched him for some time. It made no effort to eat. From past experience watching the geese that had landed on the lake, Randy knew that one of the first things they did was search for food. One more indication something was really wrong. How do you force feed a goose?
He ran to the garden and pulled a late season carrot and then stopped at the shed and got an ear of dried calico corn. Back at the lake he washed off the carrot and wet the corn before he sat and began shucking it. He dropped a hand full on the ground in front of the bird. Then, with his pocket knife he carefully cut paper thin slices from the carrot. Since it had made no effort to notice the corn, Randy thought a different strategy seemed indicated. He put several slices in the palm of his hand and placed it right up against its beak.
He doubted if geese actually sniffed the air although that’s how it seemed. The bird opened its eyes and moved its beak back and forth ever so slightly. Randy moved his palm to follow it. Presently, the beak opened and was thrust onto Randy’s hand. It wasn’t an altogether pleasant feeling. He had not been prepared for the power and sharpness of the beak.
Wrong Way settled back down and closed his eyes. Having had some success with the hand feeding Randy tried again with the corn. Wrong Way offered a similar response. It was clear the animal was nearly helpless. It was a wonder it hadn’t just taken a nose dive out of the air and fallen to the ground.
“Now, don’t you go worrying, Wrong Way. Doctor Randy is here. If you need references, Socrates should be back presently. I’ll take good care of you.”
And he did. During the rest of the fall and winter he kept a ready supply of goodies on hand. As Wrong Way gained strength he took up residence under the front porch so Randy arranged a food bowl beside the step. It soon became evident that the goose liked the whole wheat bread best. Randy used that as part of what he called Wrong Way’s physical therapy. He would show the bread in his palm but before the goose could grab it, Randy would run off some distance. Wrong Way would run after him. Eventually he came to fly after him in a series of starts and stops. He was clearly growing stronger.
After a few minutes in ‘rehab’, Randy would stoop over and offer the handful of bread. When Wrong Way had finished each morsel, Randy would lean down and plant a kiss firmly on the top of his head – the head with the wrong way stripe.
Wrong Way almost doubled in size over the winter. He would take off and fly several circles over the lake and then return ready for a handout. When ignored, he would nudge any part of Randy that was within nudging distance until goodies were made available. He often followed Randy as the boy hiked the woods and would accompany him into the lake when he went for a swim once the air and water became warm enough. He spent more and more time on the water and discovered the apparently tasty algae, water plants and water bugs. He became less and less dependent on Randy’s handouts and seemed to prefer what he could forage for himself.
That made Randy both happy and sad – happy that he had not lost the survival ways of the wild but sad that they seemed to be growing apart. He knew the best possible outcome would be for Wrong Way to make it on his back out in his world. Still, it was always hard to give up a good friend.
Spring was in full swing with wild flowers, flowering trees and shrubs, and half dazed squirrels peeking out of holes in the tree trunks as if everything in the world was brand new to them. With all of that came the predictable Vs in the sky heading north toward the Great Lakes and Canada. Randy grew anxious hoping Wrong Way would answer his deepest instincts and join them, even knowing how sad he would be.
The time came. It was early morning. The geese could be heard even before they came into view. Wrong Way offered a few tentative ‘honks’ of his own, something he had really seldom done before. He ran toward the lake and was immediately airborne. He circled the lake once and then fell into line at the end of an especially large flock. Randy smiled as he waved. Randy shed a tear as he watched the big V shrink into the sky to the north.
Spring and summer were busy times there around the cabin. There was a garden to spade and plant and weed. There were a half dozen dips in the lake most days. There were fish to catch – some off the bank and some from the row boat. It had been the summer for a new shake shingle roof for the cabin and Randy was pleased at how many different aspects of the project he was allowed to work on. Eleven seemed to have its privileges.
Fall came in with its usual blaze of reds, oranges and gold spread among the green of the pines. The geese began their trek south. Randy enjoyed his spot on the ground by the lake watching, some hoping that another young goose would stop by to winter there with him, and some wondering which of the thousands of geese was Wrong Way. If only he could see the tops of their heads.
A mid-sized V came into view – perfectly symmetrical and flying lower than as the norm. The next few minutes were not at all what he had expected. The lead drake peeled off from his place. He was followed by a second. They landed side by side on the lake near the edge of the shore. The larger of the two – the male – made his way up into the grass and headed directly for Randy. It was Wrong Way, by then a large, strong, handsome drake. Randy was seldom taken aback for long. He took Socretes’ carrot from his pocket and peeled off several slices. Wrong Way made short work of them. As was their tradition, Randy stooped down and kissed him on the top of his head – his head with the wrong way stripe.
Wrong Way turned and reentered the water swimming to his mate. Randy envisioned he was telling her, “That’s Randy. He’s my friend. He saved my life.”
They spread their wings and performed the specie’s familiar water walk until they were in the air. Wrong Way assumed his place again at the head of the flock, his mate right behind him, and they disappeared into the southern sky.
It would be a story for his grandchildren. Or, perhaps not. Some things are best kept just between friends.
STORY FIVE: 7-26-13
© 2013 Tom Gnagey
The building was fully engulfed in flames and the Captain had ordered all of his men out since the collapse of the roof and at least some of the six floors appeared to be imminent. A firefighter emerged from a sunken stairwell on the north side.
“Look! There! Captain. It’s Rick. He’s the only man that’s been unaccounted for.”
“Looks like he’s got somebody on his back,” the Captain said.
“A kid, maybe. He’s protecting him under his coat so it’s hard to tell. Who but Rick would risk staying in there if he thought there was one more person to rescue?”
“Probably be a commendation in it for him,” the Captain said.
They rushed toward the man, by then able to see the whole picture. A boy – ten or so – was clinging around Rick’s neck and was, indeed, protected under the fire-resistant coat. That made sense. What didn’t was that Rick was walking with canes – no, crutches – short crutches that he was using as if they were canes. They reached him shortly after he topped the steps.
“A little help here fellas. Take the boy and help us to the EMTs. He has burns and I have some leg problems – most likely a broken femur.”
* * *
By the time that had that taken place, the firefighters had been battling the blaze in the old apartment house for two hours. Rick had been searching the sixth floor for folks who might not have been able to escape on their own – there were lots of retirees who resided there. He opened a door to take a look and a burst of flames rushed out at him. The door frame collapsed and ceiling beams fell across his legs. He was unable to move either himself or the two huge beams. He reached for his radio. It had been smashed. He was on his own without the slightest indication anything good could come of his situation.
“Hey. Fireman. Let me help you.”
It had come from a scrawny kid on crutches, standing there assessing the scene.
“You get out of here, now!” Rich said.
It had been an emphatic order by any interpretation. The boy acted as if it hadn’t been said.
“I think we can pry those beams off if I can just find a nice long lever.”
“Get out! Scram! Now! The whole ceiling is going to collapse on us at any minute. Get to safety.”
“I saw a long four by four back around the corner. I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later he returned dragging, with great difficulty, the well charred piece of wood.
“Now, we just need something to rest it on – a fulcrum, I think is the term. I’ll be right back.”
In another few minutes he returned, dragging a small chest. He positioned it a few feet away from where Rick lay, as the man continuing to issue evacuation orders.
“I’m gonna need your help here,” the boy said. “You grab that end of the four by four and together we need to force it in under the top beam that’s layin’ across your legs. It should slide right in between them.”
Rick became quiet and did what the boy had suggested. With some difficulty and several adjustments and readjustments it was forced into place.
“Now, when I hang on this top end it ought to lift that beam up just a little. You’ll have to shove it down toward your feet. Ready?”
The boy reached up and took hold of the far end of the thick piece of wood as he released his crutches to the floor. Clearly his fourth grade science had been of value to him. The beam lifted – not much but enough that Rick could push it to a spot down below his knees
“So, I guess we work on the other one next. Then they should both be down there where it shouldn’t take much more to move them off your legs.”
They repeated the process several times. It took more attempts than the boy had figured. Another beam fell, virtually blocking the hall to their south. Flames continued to creep down the hall toward them from the north. Neither of them let those things distract them. They were clearly of one mind: free Rick first then figure the escape plan.
As the boy affixed himself to his end of the four by four, ready to move the last beam, the chest caved in leaving no fulcrum and the boy spread eagle on the floor. Undeterred, the boy scooted into a position where he could force both his crutches under the beam. Between what effort he could exert and what Rich could manage they slowly inched it down his leg and finally off his foot. The process had bent the boy’s aluminum crutches well beyond usefulness to him.
“Can you stand?” he asked Rick scooting in his sitting position close beside the big man. “Use my shoulders for support. I’m sure you can do it.”
The boy had been right. After several attempts and great pain, which Rick rather unsuccessfully tried to hide, he was standing. He removed his coat, arranged the boy piggy back style and put the coat back on covering them both.
“Keep your head down inside the coat, kid. Now, we just have to find a way out of here.”
“Go south around that fallen beam and take a left at the corner. It leads to firewall protected set of cement stairs that runs down to the basement. I’ll give you more directions when we get down there.”
Rick, having no better plan, did as the boy had suggested. Every step sent excruciating pain through both of Rick’s legs. He used the misshapen crutches like weight bearing canes and that eased the pain enough to continue. The stairway was just where the boy said it would be. They were much more difficult to navigate than had been the flat surface of the hallways.
The boy had another suggestion.
“Back down. That will be easier. It’s how I always do stairs.”
Again, Rick took the suggestion. Clearly the boy both new the ins and outs of the building and a thing or two about how to survive. They reached the basement. It was a parking garage populated by concrete pillars supporting a concrete ceiling. It appeared to be the safest place in the burning building.
“There on the south side is a set of cement steps that empty out onto the parking lot outside.”
Rick took time to note and briefly smile at the boys wording. He only hoped he had the strength to cover those last thirty yards.
“The steps? Frontwards or backwards?” came Rick’s question.
“Front’s best for me, but I’m bettin’ backin’ will be better so you can use your arms on the two railings to help raise us up from step to step.”
“Back it will be, then.”
At the top of the eighteen steps, Rick turned and looked toward the front corner of the building.
“We gotta talk before we go any further,” the boy said.
“This is not a good time, kid. The wall there can collapse any time.”
“Just take a minute. I’m not supposed to be in this building. I’m a street kid and any publicity is gonna get me into deep do-do. Child services will swoop down and hand me off to a foster home and I can’t take them foster homes.
Way too many rules, the way I hear it.”
“You have no parents?”
“Had a mom. She was drivin’ drunk and had a accident – the one that crippled me. I guess she couldn’t handle what she’d done so after I got out of the hospital she dropped me off at the mall just down the street and never come back.
I been livin’ up on the roof in a tent since then – goin’ on a year, now. Doin’ real good if you ask me.”
“I’ll handle it,” Rick said, “but then we have a major, guy to guy, discussion coming up. You understand that, kid?”
The kid didn’t respond but tightened his grip around the man’s neck.
The captain and another firefighter spotted them and rushed toward them
“A little help here fellas. Take the boy and help us to the EMTs. He has burns and I have some leg problems – most likely a broken femur.”
“What’s your name,” the Captain asked the boy as they worked to remove him from Rick’s back.
“He’s actually a family friend, if you can believe that?”
The kid did his part.
“Yeah. What’s the odds a that?”
“When we get fixed up he’s coming home with me.”
Experiencing a glimmer of hope for the first time in a year the kid allowed an ear to ear grin. Experiencing a rush indicating way more responsibility than confirmed bachelor, Firefighter Rick, had ever dreamed he’d want to take on, he returned the grin and nodded. Things change.
STORY FOUR: (7-21-13)
A short, short story
© By Tom Gnagey
Alfred and Winston had once been friends, at least that was the lingering rumor there at the Green Hills Home for the Aged – that’s ag-ed fulfilling two syllables of pronunciation. It was a source of immense, ongoing, irritation among the residents – the ag-ed residents – when outsiders insisted on collapsing it into one syllable. It was the kind of thing the residents fumed about, there being nothing more important to maintain their attention – well, nothing until the outlandish competition began.
Alfred and Winston had not been friends for many years. The problem grew up around caskets, but the story will get to that. They lived directly across the hall from each other and each time they met in the hall the bickering continued. Alfred had always had a competitive bent. As boys, when he would beat Winston in a race or get a better grade, or later on, date the prettiest girls, he would relentlessly rub it in to Winston. Alfred was handsome and Winston plain. Alfred was rich and Winston was poor. Alfred was athletic and academically gifted and Winston was not.
On the other side of the coin, however, Winston was kind and gentle and caring and helpful. Alfred was not. Alfred had to win or be the best or what have you. Winston was satisfied with doing as well as he could do. He was brighter than many gave him credit for, but he had found that demonstrating that too often meant there were uncomfortably high expectations from his parents and teachers. He happily restrained from excelling at anything.
Although there had always been that one-sided competitive element in their relationship, Winston and Alfred considered each other friends. During their adult years they followed different paths and only reunited a few years before when, in their late eighties, they checked into the Green Hills Home for the Aged. At first there was some amount of civility between them but then there came the casket thing.
Winston had brought up the topic of caskets in an offhand way. Alfred, for some reason took it as a challenge and purchased a casket and set it up in his room. He bragged about how expensive it was and how he was going into eternity in style, the way a man of his distinction deserved. Winston then purchased one for himself – a cut above the one his former friend had selected. It was time, he believed, to do some ‘even getting’ with the less than likeable, Alfred.
“Mine has chrome hand rails,” Winston said. “Yours only has aluminum.”
“Did it come that way?”
“No. I had them exchanged for the chrome.”
“Where did you get the chrome?”
“Eternal Sleep Casket Company, on Second Avenue.”
Several days later workman arrived to install new hand rails for Alfred. They were silver plated.
“I paid fifteen thousand dollars for them. Try and beat that,” Alfred said pointing through the open door at his trophy.
A week passed and Winston had a delivery. He was mechanically inclined and seemed to know how to do such things. He installed the gold plated hand rails himself. Alfred launched a pout and made another call. Soon his handles were platinum plated.
There being no style of rails that could outdo platinum, Winston ordered silver hinges for his casket. That was met by gold hinges for Alfred, again, the best that were available.
Winston replaced the standard white lining with genuine silk.
Joseph had a special lining created out of spun silver.
Winston replaced the bronze feet on his casket with solid brass
Joseph topped that with special order platinum plated feet to match the rails. By that time, Joseph had spent nearly $250,000 on replacement parts at the casket company – Winston far less.
One morning Joseph woke up dead – well, you understand.
He looked quite nice at the visitation surrounded as he was by what had become, perhaps, the finest casket since the Egyptian Pharaohs. There may have even been the slightest hint of a smile lingering on his face.
Winston moved to extend his condolences to Alfred’s daughter. They hadn’t seen each other for more than fifty years.
“And what line of work have you been in all your life?” she asked.
“I own the Eternal Sleep Casket Company down on Second Avenue.”
STORY THREE: (7-15-13)
Long Suffering Paul
A short, story by
One would not guess that young men named Paul and Zach would be twins. Nor would Paul’s blond hair and blue eyes and Zach’s black hair and brown eyes suggest a twinship. They were male. They were twenty seven. They had the same set of parents. It was there the resemblance stopped. They didn’t even share the same birth date, Zach having arrived at 11:49 pm on the fifth and Paul at 12:01 am on the sixth.
Well before they started preschool it was obvious how different they were. Paul was quiet, contemplative, compassionate, and timid. Zach was rambunctious, apathetic, unpleasant, and mean spirited. Paul was eager to work for what he got and was proud of his achievements. Zach connived, deceived and even stole to get what he wanted. Paul was generous – perhaps to a fault. Zach was selfish and greedy and covetous.
Earlier that year when their parents met an untimely, early, death in an automobile accident the boys found the inheritance was substantial. There was a sizable outright amount plus a large yearly stipend from a trust fund. Paul was pleased he would receive half. Zach could only think about how to get his hands on all of it. The Will contained an unusual executor clause: The eldest surviving child had the right to apportion the inheritance among the surviving offspring according to their needs. It had been added to give Richard, the level headed, first born by ten years, the right to protect any other children from Zach’s predictable, unscrupulous disposition.
Unfortunately for Paul, Richard had died along with the parents leaving Zach as the eldest by twelve minutes. In the end, the rights to ninety-five percent of the money and holdings were gathered in by Zach. Paul contested, in court, how the matter had been handled, but the Judge said, that although it had been a despicable act, it had been Zach’s legal right.
It was to have been expected, actually. As children, Zach would take what he wanted of Paul’s possessions. When Paul would complain to his parents, the item, whatever it had been, would be found destroyed. Paul soon gave up on the little things, believing someday his time would come.
Paul was an Emergency Medical Technician and volunteered for ambulance runs into the most unsavory parts of the city – no one else would go, and he believed everybody deserved the best possible service in time of need. It was on one of those dangerous runs that his fortunes seemed to begin changing.
His team came up shorthanded one night, so Paul was obliged to handle the ‘back’ – the patient area behind the driver – by himself. It was the responsibility of those in the back to keep the patients stable, take vitals, and alert the emergency room about what to expect when they arrived.
His team was one of three that had responded to the bloody scene characterized by a series of shootings – perhaps gang related, although that information had not been available at the outset. The policeman on site directed Paul and his driver to the most seriously wounded – late thirties, several slugs to his upper abdomen, lots of blood loss.
Immediately upon securing the rear door the driver assumed his place and sped toward the hospital, siren screaming into the night. Clearly the man in Paul’s care was near death. Paul arranged the IV and applied pressure bandages to slow the bleeding. He knew it would all be in vain, but made every possible effort to do what needed to be done.
The man opened his eyes and spoke in slow labored phrases.
“My jacket. Lining. Cloth bag. Must get to Denzel Jackson. 2247 Sixth.”
He closed his eyes and died.
Paul wrestled with whether or not he should hand over the bag to the authorities or take care of the matter himself. By not refusing to help, he had, he figured, at least tacitly agreed to do what had been asked of him by the man who clearly knew he was dying.
On his next day off, Paul ventured back into the area of the gun battle – it had taken place in the 2000 block of Sixth Street. The short version of the search was that Denzel had also died in the shootout. Further information suggested that neither the man who died in the ambulance nor Denzel had any family. That posed a new quandary.
Back in his apartment, Paul placed the cloth bag in front of him on the kitchen table. He had not yet looked inside. Should he? After weighing the pros and cons he untied the drawstring and dumped the contents onto the table. It was, as he had suspected from the feel of the bag, jewelry. It appeared to be a matching set – diamond necklace, diamond earrings, diamond broach, and diamond ring. They could not be described as skimpy and, in fact, looked huge to Paul who, admittedly, was not really familiar with such things.
He returned them to the bag and placed the bag back under his mattress where it had resided since it had come into his protection the week before. They weren’t his, of course. They had clearly been designated as belonging to Denzel. Denzel was dead. The diamonds were in Paul’s possession. He had been designated as the rightful intermediary. Were they actually his, perhaps? It became his question with which to struggle.
He decided to research the possibility – likelihood – they had been stolen, so stopped by the precinct to talk with the desk Sergeant – the older brother of a friend from high school. It was a touchy subject to broach – so to speak – without spilling the beans. Paul had always been good with words and when younger had finessed himself out of many unpleasant situations into which Zach had mired them. Perhaps it was the one good thing that had come from his relationship with his brother – developing that skill.
He had soon ascertained that the jewels in his possession had indeed been stolen, taken from an elderly woman on the Upper East Side. The description of the set left absolutely no doubt. On the way home a plan began coming together in his mind. It gave him great joy and produced days of smiles and chuckles and even rose to the level of euphoria on occasions.
Paul invited Zach to his apartment on the pretense of needing to discuss family financial business. Chances were he would not have come had it been announced as merely family business but add the ‘financial’ and it was a lock big bro would show. Once Zach arrived, Paul laid out the quandary about the jewels that were in his possession. He didn’t show them or speak of how they had come into his possession – just asked for advice about how to proceed. Zach offered to take them to a fence he knew who would give them a fair price. Paul made it clear that was not the road he wanted to follow. His line was that he just wanted to make sure if he turned them into the police he wouldn’t be considered a suspect in their theft. Since Zach had far more experience dealing with the authorities, it should seem to be a legitimate inquiry. Zach left in a snit.
* * *
Paul parked his brand new BMW in the private garage and rode the private elevator to his penthouse on the very private top floor. Several things had recently changed for the better in his life. Predictably, Zach had come back and taken the jewels from Paul’s apartment. Less predictably, perhaps, Paul had made an anonymous call to the police telling them where they could find the stolen merchandise if they acted quickly. Zach was found guilty and went to prison. That, according to another clause in the Will, made him forever ineligible to receive or control the inheritance. After a time, which Paul would eventually determine was sufficient to teach his brother a lesson – by any stretch of the imagination a doubtful outcome, of course – he would anonymously provide the real scoop on the theft to the police, Zach would be released and have to live on the pittance Paul, the new executor of the estate, would dole out.
Life was suddenly good – euphoric, even – for the newly independently wealthy EMT, permanently assigned, by choice, to the most unsavory portion of the city.
STORY TWO: (7-8-13)
THE PATH OF LOST PLOTS
A short, short story
By Tom Gnagey
(It just might be true!)
I’m an old guy. I’m a writer guy. I’m a walker guy. I’ve made my way along essentially the same route every morning for the past twenty years. I think as I walk. I devise plots as I walk. I develop characters as I walk. There is a particularly pretty area along the path – bushes a yard or so back, with trees behind and low wild flowers up close. A scene as magnificent as that should present no problems, but, in fact, it does.
Frequently, my old gray head has some wonderful new story brewing as I approach that area, but the beauty of the foliage and the wonder at the tiny creatures scampering here and there beneath my feet work to clear my mind of such less important things as plots. For a man my age, Nature’s plan seems to be, ‘once gone, gone forever’. Sometimes, when I have something remarkable brewing inside my head I will pause before entering that little stretch of Eden and jot down the essentials on a small spiral pad I always carry. When I don’t, well as I stated, once gone . . . It amuses me more than irritates me, I suppose – that not only do I forget the story ideas but that I, also, often forget to jot them down.
I have lovingly, and somewhat humorously, come to think of the area as, The Path of Lost Plots. In my own warped way that situation seems to provide a feeling of kinship – investment – between me and the path, me and the Earth. I figure the ether there is well populated by ideas I have unwittingly let slip from my memory. I actually believe I can feel the considerable bulk they add to the very air as I pass through it. I invite them to return to me but they never seem to. I do hope it is not possible to overload the firmament, there.
Recently, that stretch has begun forcing a fully unfamiliar feeling of tension – anxiety even – as I pass along the path. It is as if some conflict has arisen – a conflict just out of my reach, out of sight and sound and full recognition. This morning – how can I describe the experience – it broke through, I suppose. At first, I figured the sound had its source in the breeze – it often plays among the branches and moans or cries or laughs as I pass that way. This, however, was different. It had a human-like quality – an intense, human-like quality as might accompany a crucial, earnest, life or death plea.
“Find me. Accept me. Take me. Save me. Help me. Complete me. Retrieve me.”
It was as if my own mind were running through – trying out – a litany of possibilities on its way to finding the perfect phrase for some specific spot in a sentence or paragraph or story. I felt more intrigued than frightened – perhaps not the most reasonable reaction when the air itself begins reaching out to you in words and emotions.
Presently, the spoken words were joined by images – just flashes, too rapid at first to be clear or complete. The first to come into focus and remain long enough for me to comprehend was a book cover – one I remembered envisioning there years before. It had several advantages over the one I had come to use. That original design had escaped my memory. There was also a sequence of pictures representing the bare bones of a children’s story I had contemplated but long forgotten. There was a vivid image of an injured old man and a boy, perhaps ten, bending over him in an isolated forest setting. I had, in fact, begun that book and as I recall it started with a well-crafted bang, but was soon going nowhere so I sat it aside. It clearly offered the most intense impact of all the images, that morning, in terms of attached emotions – unreasonable, uncertainty, and hurtful; there may even have been some inkling of revenge that transcended its essence.
I couldn’t put out of mind the distress on the old man’s face and the terror in the eyes of the boy. It was as if I had set some terrifying event in motion but had failed to move it on to some positive resolution. The characters were stuck there with nowhere to go and no next step to take. All they could do was remain there, experiencing the worst sort of fear and pain – forever.
And, there was the boy in the hospital bed, strung with tubes and supported by oxygen, a respirator strapped across his chest. His parents stood by his bed, tears streaming down their faces, watching the monitors and the doctor as he shook his head. Had I condemned them to eternal anguish because I had shirked my duty and left the situation incomplete?
There were more – lots more. Some that I had apparently thought through rather completely were happy, like the little girl leaving her wheelchair and joining the other young ballerinas on stage, and the father who, after weeks of searching, found his son and daughter safe and sound in the wilds of a National Park. But most were just languishing there in eternity something short of resolution.
What had I done? What could I do? And if there were something I could do for them, what about those I was still unable to recall? My creative bent clearly came with responsibilities that went far beyond anything I had ever imagined. It suddenly seemed incontrovertible that incomplete ideas, once spun, take on lives of their own. I had to wonder if I were the first to understand that. Surely, if others had discovered it they would have alerted the rest of us. Or would they? Perhaps there would develop inescapable, debilitating guilt. Perhaps it explained why writers as a group take their own lives more often than other professionals.
Only one, clearly irrational, solution came to mind. I must finish those stories that I had abandoned either through choice or forgetfulness. I imagined I had left hundreds and hundreds of stories in the land of limbo along that path. I was old. Would I even have time to right my many misdeeds?
I hurried home and took what had usually been a very comfortable seat in front of my keyboard. There was no comfort that day – only anguish and an unquenchable urgency to right the wrongs I had unintentionally inflicted. Would I live long enough? Where to begin?
One of the unfinished story ideas that immediately came to mind was about a teenage writer, with great skill and motivation but the plot had gone nowhere after establishing the personal characteristics and hopes and dreams of the young lady. I often began work on a story with a good deal less than that. I would define a character and place it in a setting, provide a problem to resolve and just let the story write itself. It is likely the manner in which that story had developed, such as it had or hadn’t.
I wrote well into the night. The teen in that story emerged as a fine writer who very much enjoyed helping others complete stories that needed some expert assistance (I never interject my own needs, desires or imperatives into my pieces, you see!). She became very good at it. The process became her passion – all that mattered to her. When she found herself without a project she was bored, and sad, and life became unpleasant.
As I neared the end of the story, it hit me. I believed I had discovered the solution to all the horrific problems my inconsideration had caused for those characters and plots that now found themselves wandering aimlessly through a timeless – if confined – eternity. Before I created the final scene, before I formed the final, story sealing sentence, before I resolved the crucial issue, I printed out what I had and set it aside to await my ingenious follow-up the next morning.
At sunup, I left for my walk with the manuscript, such as it was, in a large, brown, envelope. Halfway through the most beautiful section of my path I stopped, placed the manuscript on the dew dampened grass, doused it with lighter fluid, and lit it on fire. I watched it into ashes and continued on my way.
The following morning I returned to the spot. Even before I reached it I sensed the difference – no more tension, no more anxiety, no more fear in the air. I was met by a chorus of joyful voices soaring on the breeze and a collage of smiling faces looking down on me from every leaf and every cloud. I could clearly see the teen writing. In a line, which extended for blocks behind her, were hundreds of my undeveloped characters and unfinished plots waiting patiently for her to finish them. Life was suddenly good again on both sides of the veil, there on The Path of Lost Plots.
STORY ONE: (7-3-13)
Don’t Waste Funerals on the Dead
By Tom Gnagey
Richard was a writer. He wrote short stories and essays on a variety of topics that seemed to impress him more than publishers. That didn’t matter to Richard because he wrote mostly for his own edification and amusement. He also wrote a popular weekly column of home spun philosophy and humor that appeared in a local paper of significant circulation.
He had sold one piece to an online magazine – e-zine – which had received a huge number of reads and had been recirculated across a dozen or more outlets. Its title was, Don’t Waste Funerals on the Dead. His premise was that if you had wonderful memories about somebody and nice things to say about him, make all that known while the person was still alive. Dead was too late! The essay went on to postulate the kinds of positive changes that approach might make in the basic fabric of society.
A second piece had done nearly as well, Attendance is Required. It probed and analyzed those social and cultural conditions that required attendance if one were to appropriately demonstrate his role as a ‘good’ citizen, friend or family member – baptisms, graduations, elections, marriages, and funerals. They were often less than personally interesting or mentally enlightening activities that a person would certainly skip if it weren’t for the fact that – by custom and social expectation – attendance was required.
As a young man he had fully believed that the power of his pen would someday change the world. As he entered the eighth decade of his life he was often known to write a story or passage tailor-made for just one person who he thought would benefit from what it had to say.
Richard was well known, at least locally. He believed he had positively affected many lives with things he had written. That was what he hoped, at least. Those acquaintances were not given to open reflection about his work but were more likely to give him silent thumbs up as they passed on the street when something in his column had tickled their fancy.
* * *
The paper went all out with Richard’s obituary – a full color picture, excerpts from his most popular columns and stories, as well as an extensive recounting of his life and achievements. It occupied six column widths and extended half way down page four. It also contained information not generally known about him.
The funeral was held at a large non-denominational church Richard had attended on occasion. He considered himself a religious man but not a spiritual man. Few had ever asked him to explain the difference. The closed casket sat at the front of the large, high arched, room. The half-lid which had covered his head and torso was opened as the service began. The sanctuary overflowed with people who apparently wanted to pay their last respects. A dozen of his closest acquaintances were scheduled to say words. In the end, it was more nearly three dozen who would relate wonderful stories and happy memories.
At the conclusion, the minister addressed the assemblage saying Richard had left a short piece behind, which he specifically requested be read at that time.
“Life is often punctuated by smoke and mirrors. Our beliefs change. Our passions modify, reflecting social conditions and movements and personal needs and desires. What seems unmistakably real at one point is seen to be blatantly absurd at another. Truths that we find difficult to express face to face in the light of day we often proclaim to others or to ourselves in the shadows of the night. I have selected four dozen people who have made significant positive contributions to my life and have extolled my appreciation in a story, essay, or poem prepared just for them. They will arrive by mail tomorrow. I hope you will each do the same for those you have come to appreciate or love.”
There was head turning and eye contact over knowing nods. A hushed murmur rippled across the large room. Old Richard had found a way to have the last say. No one was surprised; everyone was pleased; most were amused.
The minister raised his arms indicating all rise. A funeral director approached the casket, to close and lock the lid for eternity, everybody thought. Instead he opened the half lid that covered the lower part of the body. Richard sat up.
“Like I’ve been known to say, friends, Don’t Waste Funerals on the Dead. I am going to assume what you expressed here today was sincere. Thank you. No need to come back for the real thing whenever that may be. Coffee and lemon cake in the Community Room in the basement – attendance is required.”
A SECTION OF ESSAYS ON VARIOUS SOCIAL RELATED TOPICS FOLLOWS.
Where Do You Stand on the Age Old Battle Between Greed and Altruism?
(C) 2013 By Tom Gnagey
GREEDY PEOPLE UNITE! Within this generation, and with very little effort, together we can surely destroy every last vestige of mankind on this planet. Or . . .
To be conceived naturally, a human baby must have a mother and a father. Conception – the continuation of the human species at the biological level – depends on cooperative effort – the most primitive form of social interaction. The parents must place the welfare of the baby first – above their own. That defines the natural paradigm of nature's requirements for the continuation of humankind. It also defines the natural paradigm known as altruism.
Altruism is the antithesis of greed. Humankind is innately set up in a lose/lose situation. Just as without altruism humanity perishes, with greed, humanity also perishes. Greed is a natural, inborn, human characteristic that resides in the most powerful part of the mind. Our 'prime directive' is to stay alive and that means having everything we need. The Deep Mind makes no differentiation between 'enough' and 'everything'. Its motto seems to be, “If a little is good, a lot is bound to be better.” In its overriding quest to preserve the individual, the human mind seems to be oblivious to the necessary social milieu in which it has to live and function. It literally can't see beyond the end of its nose.
Altruism is a learned characteristic* which is best acquired by consistently experiencing altruistic models (parents, siblings, teachers, acquaintances, role models, etc.). Altruism restricts and controls greed. Without the ability to appropriately temper and rein in the human’s innate drive to base ones existence on greed, greed runs rampant – carelessly and illogically ignoring the necessity for social cooperation. (The Deep Mind does not – cannot – act according to logic.) Greed feeds the natural competitive spirit which, when taken to an extreme, will destroy the human species. (There can only ever be one who is best. Everybody else is to a greater or lesser extent a loser. On the other hand, everybody can shine as a cooperator.)
Punishment for (of) greedy acts can suppress them (so long as the likelihood of being caught remains high) but punishment can never replace greed with altruism – the essential trait being posited here.
Man's only hope for survival in a happy, productive, logical, and fear-free fashion depends solely on thoughtful cooperation, the basic element of which is altruism. In a society which, through its unrelenting media barrage of violence, the revenge mentality, and the ubiquitous worship of competition, man's primal (and essential) greed is not only allowed to freely run its calamitous natural coarse but it is mindlessly encouraged.
Greed is a natural human function – that merely makes it essential not innately good in an unbridled sense. Join me in making it our primary daily goal to model an altruistic approach for living – do so at least a half dozen times every single day. You WILL change the part of the world you touch and contribute to the survival of the human species.
* * *
A true story from the year1944. Phillip was eight years old. His sister Amy was five. They lived on a farm in the Midwest. Amy was severely injured in a tractor accident. When the doctor arrived he asked Phillip to lay next to his sister on the kitchen table so he could transfer his blood into his sister. Without hesitation Phillip took his place on his back beside his sister. He reached out and held her hand.
An hour later the deed was done. Amy would recover. Doc removed the rubber tube that had joined them, and applied gauze and tape to cover the punctures. Amy's mother carried her to her bedroom. As the doctor cleaned up and put his equipment into his black leather bag he noticed that Phillip had not moved from the table.
“Are you alright?” he inquired of the boy.
“I'm fine, doc. I was just wondering how many minutes until I'll be dead.”
If mankind is to survive and have its chance at becoming everything positive it has the potential to become, we must, today, begin taking our lead from young Phillip – unquestionably altruism's quintessential poster boy for the ages.
* Man does have what might be referred to as a 'mothering instinct' which amounts to a very focused, altruistic-like trait, aimed specifically at protecting our offspring – probably little more than an extension of our own prime directive to survive at all costs. It is a brain function shared with other mammals. It does not automatically transfer or expand to our human interaction as a whole and, in general, it emerges far too late in life to help preserve our species. (Without specific social requirements and training related to cooperation and altruism, adolescent males would have surely killed off the human species thousands of years ago!)